9, 2003 -- A brand new Ford Galaxie 500, a burnt
peanut and cream two-tone, became part of the scenery on the
street running along the north side of the barbershop in Westhope,
North Dakota, in 1962. The car’s owner, a bartender
at a joint a few doors south from the barbershop, parked it
there with a frequency that implied a reserved space. During
the summer months of that year whenever rain storms would
halt farm chores and Dad and I would find ourselves at the
barbershop "loafing," I would sit in one of the
salmon-colored hard plastic chairs and gaze distractedly out
the picture window at that Ford, its styling boxy, but its
large bull’s-eye taillights possessing an optimistic
flair bringing to mind newspaper photographs of Seattle’s
The images and fantasies I associated with the Space Needle
came as easily as if I were peering into my Viewmaster. But
what my mind couldn’t picture in 1962 was the reality
of rural America today, a scene plunderously Teutonic, in
no way resembling the iconic visage represented by Grant Wood
’s American Gothic. Today, a painter might best capture
the essence of rural America by depicting not the handful
of people remaining in the countryside, but rather, the corporate
directors in their boardrooms.
Today’s rural realism perhaps was not even conceived
of by the Research and Policy Committee of the Committee for
Economic Development (CED), which first published in July
of 1962 a booklet titled "An Adaptive Program for Agriculture"
(Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 62-19145). What that
subcommittee was attempting to do through its publication,
apparently, was focus some of the nation’s best industrial
minds on the problem of agriculture.
Why? Because the CED believed "that by enabling businessmen
to demonstrate constructively their concern for the general
welfare, it [was] helping business to earn and maintain the
national and community respect essential to the successful
functioning of the free enterprise capitalist system"
(back cover). A benevolent corporation? A quaint idea to people
like my dad, a prairie populist through firsthand experience
who in 1962 still could recollect economic and social injustices
from the 1920s and early 1930s as quickly as I could conjure
mental facsimiles of the Space Needle.
Today, the CED proclaims itself to be a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization of more than 200 business leaders and university
presidents. Since 1942, its research and policy programs have
addressed many of the nation’s most pressing economic
and social issues; its founding mission was to prepare the
U.S. economy for a smooth transition from a wartime to a peacetime
environment without experiencing a major depression or recession.
The CED says it promotes policies that enhance productivity
and living standards, that provide greater and more equal
opportunity for every citizen, and that promise an improved
quality of life for all.
Back in 1962 the CED subcommittee said, "The problem
of agriculture is not unique. It is the leading case in a
large class of problems. Other problems in this class include
the industry in which workers are being rapidly displaced
by technological changes; the industry experiencing increased
competition from imports; and the area depressed by the exhaustion
of some natural resource. The common characteristic shared
by these problems is that, as a result of changes in the economy,
the labor and capital employed in the industry cannot all
continue to earn, by producing goods for sale in a free market,
as much income as they formerly earned, or as much as they
could earn if employed in some other use; that is —
the industry is using too many resources*" (p. 9). Within
that quote is an asterisk of note. But first, what solution
did the subcommittee propose for this technology-driven displacement,
for this competition from imports, for this exhaustion of
natural resources, for this overuse of resources?
Enter the so-called adaptive approach to agricultural problem-solving,
which the subcommittee defined as "positive government
action to facilitate and promote the movement of labor and
capital where they will be most productive and will earn the
most income." Today, a politician such as President Bush
might compare the adaptive approach to a compassionate laissez-faire
model, one that, as the subcommittee stressed, "seeks
to achieve adjustment to economic reality without imposing
hardships …" (p. 11). But that statement begs a
double-edged question: What is economic reality and who defines
Clearly, the type of economic reality those CED subcommittee
members were hoping to adjust in 1962 was the egalitarian
method of wealth distribution introduced by the New Deal programs.
The subcommittee’s implication was that the free market,
like an unstoppable train, would more efficiently transport
Americans to a future complete with an economic system fundamentally
rational in how it distributed wealth.
On that point, the subcommittee already had allies: Earl
Butz, for one, an outspoken champion of free-market policies,
an assistant ag secretary in the Eisenhower Administration,
and Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon Administration.
Butz is most often linked with the admonition to "get
big or get out," and it was Butz who in the 1970s advised
farmers, including Dad (who didn’t listen), to plant
fencerow to fencerow. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) May 1974 biographical summary, Butz worked tirelessly
"… to strengthen rural America, to minimize Federal
encroachment into farming, and to expand and keep open farm
export markets. He [sought] to convey to farmer and consumer
alike the wisdom of the market system …"
But it was not until the 1980s and the advent of the Reagan
Administration ’s "trickle down" economics
that wholesale capitulation to "market forces" began.
The boxy styling of an activist-government model promoting
egalitarianism got scrapped for the magic carpet of unfettered
capitalism, which by the 1990s had transformed itself into
agricultural policies and precepts demanding "decoupling"
of payments—precisely what the CED subcommittee had
been calling for three decades earlier.
Who is commandeering this mystical ride? Recall the CED criterion
of "concern for the general welfare," and then consider
businessmen such as Charles Keating, whose infamy links with
the Savings and Loan scandal, Michael Milken, former junk
bond king (now barred from the securities business for life),
and the co-chairs of corporate malfeasance: Ken Lay, former
Enron head, and Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive of
Tyco. Not merely commandeers, businessmen of this type are
consummate camel jockeys, arrogant enough to believe they
can maneuver through the eye of a needle. And that variety
of arrogance continues to flourish: Monsanto Co. now has filed
a petition with the USDA to allow the commercialization of
Roundup Ready wheat, a genetically modified organism (GMO)
because it contains a gene biologically unrelated to wheat.
Unlike GMO cotton, GMO canola, GMO corn, and GMO soybeans,
wheat is a human staple, and the introduction of GMO wheat
will have much broader implications than the previous introductions
of these other GMO crops.
The key selling point of Roundup Ready wheat is that it is
unaffected by Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers
can spray Roundup and kill weeds but not wheat, and so, their
herbicide costs should decrease, or so the claim goes. If
the USDA approves Monsanto’s petition, the corporation
will be able to sell Roundup Ready wheat seed under contract,
the terms of which prohibit farmers from using any of the
harvested grain for seed in subsequent crop years. Not only
does taking away ownership of planted seed from the planter
go against a tradition as old as agriculture itself, Monsanto’s
manipulation includes a type of theft heretofore inconceivable:
the contamination, over time, of all non-GMO wheat seedstocks.
Genetic pollution, the outcrossing of GMOs—scientific
inventions—with natural creations (non-GMOs), is a 21st
century problem complete with externalities: hidden legal,
economic, and/or environmental costs. The contamination of
publicly owned wheat seedstocks is just one example of an
externality, but perhaps the most egregious.
The megalomania of multinational corporations today seems
perfectly matched to the hubris of economists and scientists
whose reductionist thinking has them believing that human
commerce can be understood linearly and that nature can be
comprehended mechanistically. Our society and our ecology
are cast from holistic molds, and any economic system or scientific
endeavor that attempts to externalize costs doesn’t
seem all that realistic, or rational, or moral, to me.
Furthermore, disallowing the accrual of these costs to the
originator of the obligation fosters corporate welfare as
it courts environmental catastrophe, and it’s up to
state and federal lawmakers to end it. Doing anything less
simply won’t suffice.
That last thought I’ve borrowed from the subcommittee,
which in 1962 said: "Small adjustments in the farm labor
force will not suffice. What we have in mind in our program
is a reduction of the farm labor force on the order of one
third in a period of not more than five years [emphasis mine]
…Our program is based on the conviction that it is possible
to have satisfactory incomes in agriculture without extensive
government controls over farm management and output, if the
resources engaged in farming are reduced, and those remaining
consolidated into production units of adequate size …"
(p. 59, 60).
"Production units of adequate size"? Under globalization
would even ONE remaining U.S. farm be of adequate size to
deal with the purchasing power created by corporate hegemony?
Now back to that fortysomething asterisk, the need for which
was prompted by the dissent (footnoted) of Fred C. Foy, who,
during his career, headed Koppers Company, Inc. and Pitney-Bowes,
Inc: *" … who is CED to say that in this situation
‘too many resources’ are being used. In a free
economy the owner of the labor or capital must be free to
decide how he wishes to use them. It will always be true that
some capital will earn less than others in the market place,
but their earning less does not necessarily mean that they
are being wasted or should be withdrawn" (p. 9). Precisely,
Mr. Foy. Free people have the right to choose, but the course
of events leading away from 1962 clearly demonstrates that
a free economy doesn’t exist. And so, government’s
intervening against single-minded business interests is as
necessary as rainfall and the seasons of the year if an agriculture-based
rural America is to survive in any form whatsoever.
The authors of that smallish 1962 booklet could not possibly
have envisioned the level of technology-driven displacement
that today’s machines, chemical "crop protectants,"
and patented plants would wreak. Nor could the subcommittee
have understood how early adoption of GMO wheat may intensify
competition from imports if U.S. consumers begin viewing foods
composed of unnatural recombinant DNA with the same skepticism
that their European and Asian counterparts currently do.
As for the exhaustion of natural resources, mixing genes
from unrelated biological families threatens biodiversity,
a consideration not ingrained into U.S. policy until 1970
with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—an
agency whose existence many credit to Rachael Carson’s
Silent Spring, first published in 1962, in which the author
writes about chemicals such as Monsanto’s DDT, now banned.
And predictably, the overuse of resources that the commercialization
of Roundup Ready wheat portends will perhaps be most apparent
in more, not fewer, herbicide applications: first, due to
GMO wheat volunteers (weeds) and the need for herbicides with
chemistry different from Roundup, and second, due to potential
resistance to Roundup herbicide from naturally occurring weeds
such as Canada thistle.
Four decades have passed since I was a seven-year-old farm
boy daydreaming about new cars and futuristic structures.
What I desire today is not a frame-off restoration of that
Ford Galaxie 500 and the stellar optimism it inspired, but
rather, a more hopeful future for those still residing in
rural America—a future, for example, absent the ghettoizing
effects represented by fewer people and more methamphetamine
labs. Existing only in memory is the barbershop of my youth.
Also gone are two of the three grocery stores, the hardware
store, a repair shop, the machinist, the lumber yard, the
drug store, the car and machinery dealerships, rail service,
and nearly half the people, including me.
The remaining fraction of small town bartenders and farmers
who run family operations may own their labor, but the only
commodity many can hope to buy with their capital is time.
The free-market juggernaut has yielded not a reasonable reality
for rural America, but instead, an ages-old cruelty rooted
in arrogance and greed and guaranteeing prosperity for a predetermined
few. The commercialization of Roundup Ready wheat will only
accelerate the trend that monopolizing economic policies and
technology uncoupled from responsibility have begun. Forty
years hence, CED-type solutions to the problem of agriculture
and the hollow promises therein might just as well be blowing
along with the tumbleweeds.