Bogarting the Market

The local paper’s page one story this Earth Day (4/22/23) announced “Legislators eye limits for crowded cannabis market.” There are reportedly several bills in Maine’s legislative hopper that seek to prevent a “collapse” of the “market” for MaryJane, or limit the size of “grow operations” to prevent smaller growers from “being pushed out of the market.”

While nobody spoke against the proposals at the bills’ public hearing, the paper faithfully printed the reservations of those reflexively skeptical about cuffing the “invisible hand” of the unerring “market.” Maybe you’ve noticed how well market forces are serving the population in the spheres of healthcare, prescription drugs, “affordable” housing, energy costs, planetary stewardship, domestic educational attainment, cultural pursuits, media, and a grid-locked political system populated by what they used to call “low-information voters.” That is to say—— by any First World standard our institutions no longer measure up——— even as we are robotically urged to pursue yet greater market fundamentalism. This, while US life-expectancy declines, people sleep on heating grates or under bridges and the Dynamic Bezos/Musk Duo take rocket-ship joy-rides—— just because they can.

Back in the mid-20th century when about half the US population lived on farms or depended on farmer income, New Deal farm policy aimed to keep rural America prospering and allowing farmers to feed themselves and the nation. Through various price “stabilization” programs, the Ever-Normal Granary, and other democratic means, American farmers could buy new machinery, repair the barn roof, and send the kids to college on the milk or grain check. It sounds like a fantasy today, but it happened and I was alive to see how those policies played out around here.

But starting in 1945 and through the 1960s, the rich, acting through their corporate force-multipliers, set about the project of undermining those ruralist democratic gains and eliminating the “family farm.” It wasn’t a secret. They wrote it all down. One of the main roll-back outfits called itself the Committee for Economic Development. The CED Reportswere issued from 1945 to 1974.

“CED believes that by enabling businessmen to demonstrate constructively their concern for the general welfare, it is helping  business to earn and maintain the national and community respect essential to the successful functioning of the free enterprise capitalistic system.” So they said.

The main focus was to get farmers off the land and into cities where they could provide relatively low-wage labor for business owners. The aim was to reduce farm “resources” / “farm labor force” by the millions, mainly by cutting crop prices.

One of the CED’s economists, Kenneth Boulding  observed, “The only way I know to get toothpaste out of a tube is to squeeze, and the only way to get people out of agriculture is to squeeze agriculture. …. If you can’t get people out of agriculture easily, you are going to have to do farmers severe injustice in order to solve the problem of (labor/resource) allocation.”

The relative independence of a sometimes uppity farm population was thus broken, transformed into atomized wage-slaves herded into urban centers where they would compete against each other for “jobs” in a boss-centric “labor market.”

Years later……How’s that working?

Reading the Earth Day “grower” story I was reminded of a hearing I attended decades ago before the Maine legislature’s Agriculture Committee. (Yes, years ago Maine had an actual Department of Agriculture, and a standing agriculture committee.) A bill had been  presented to allow the state experiment station to conduct trials studying the cultivation of hemp. The proponents went to great lengths to assure the committee that, if someone smoked or ingested the stuff they wouldn’t achieve “elevation”, crave a high volume aural infusion of “Are You Experienced?”,  or get the munchies.

I remember the presentation of one well-scrubbed advocate. He pointed out the long tradition of hemp cultivation by the Framers, its multiple virtues as fiber and food-stock. He pointed out that most of his clothing was made from hemp fibers and mentioned its productivity for paper-making. The idea was that this would be a great new crop for Maine’s farmers.

I rose to offer testimony “Neither-for-nor-against” merely suggesting that unless companion legislation followed that allowed Maine farmers to make a profit from growing the plant, it wouldn’t be a boon to Maine’s clod-hopper community. “Maine farmers don’t need yet another crop they can lose money on,” I said.

Now that recreational reefer is legal here, and for a brief moment modest-scale “growers” apparently have the idea that ——at last— there might be a crop capable of returning a profit, the legislature should engage in a thought experiment involving commodity production and whether “market forces” can tolerate a decentralized system of independent producers.

History proves it’s possible if the market/political power of the business class can be overcome. But apparently few even remember that history or are inclined to buck prevailing numbskull market orthodoxy.

WalWeed anyone?

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: