Archive for the ‘Trade Policy’ Category

Taking The Offensive At The Edge of the Fiscal Cliff: Demand MORE, Not Less, Social Security and Medicare!

November 24, 2012

As the federal government approaches the “fiscal cliff,” a package of tax increases and spending cuts that would further undermine an already anemic economic recovery, the likely hazards of a bipartisan effort to reduce so-called “entitlements” like Medicare and Social Security have been covered extensively here.  And the smiling faces that emerged from first discussions between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are not reassuring.  But most opposition to such a Great Betrayal is geared to merely preserving what is left of the safety net.

It’s time to go on the offensive!

The neoliberals Obama appointed as a majority on the Simpson-Bowles Commission claim the government must balance the budget by slashing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, instead of restoring progressive taxation. Bill Black, author of The Best Way To Rob A Bank Is To Own One,[1] calling this the Great Betrayal, points out that only a Democrat can make it politically safe for Republicans who hate the safety net to unravel it, by legitimizing the claim that it must be cut.  And if Obama weakens the safety net, ostensibly to save it, the effect would be to legitimize future Republican assaults on the safety net.

The really illegitimate “entitlements” are all but beyond criticism.  Yet Stage One of the negotiations should rightfully be the end of subsidies to which recipients and constituencies who tend to feel entitled but really are not:  to agribusiness, Big Oil, businesses that ship jobs overseas, and all those hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world.  Yet they all belong in the “canceled” column, along with most of the unconscionably gigantic budget for “defense” (sic: war).  We could make an all but immediate down payment on the deficit by stopping the cash flow of $2 Billion a week to the war in Afghanistan.  And the bulk of “defense” spending, our 5,000 nuclear warheads and our ongoing wars do not enhance our security, but instead undermine it by bankrupting our government and helping recruit new generations of terrorists.[2]  Cutting these could save hundreds of billions easily.

Progressive taxation, based on ability to pay, and a financial transactions tax could raise billions more.

Having saved all that money in Stage One, we could deal in Stage Two with the genuine entitlements by increasing, not cutting, Social Security benefits and Medicare payments; lowering, not raising, the retirement age for Social Security, and extending Medicare coverage, for starters, to all those age 55 or over.  These simple steps would provide real stimulus to the economy and by enabling and hastening retirements, produce millions of job openings for younger people who need work.

Still think we can’t afford it?  Then perhaps you didn’t notice that, as economist Michael Hudson observes, “After the 2007 crash the Fed printed $13 trillion on its computers to give to bankers. It can do the same for Social Security….It can [also] pay state and local pension obligations in the same way it has paid Wall Street’s 1%. The problem is that the Fed is only willing … to save bondholders and the banks’ high-flying counterparties, not the 99%.”

Handling the deficit by attacking the social safety net connects with the effort to undermine and privatize another collective enterprise, the U.S. Postal Service.  As others have pointed out, the USPS is doing fine financially in its operations but is being forced by legislation Congress enacted in 2006 to funds its retirement program for the next 75 years.  And now we have efforts to diminish service, as by closing a local mail processing center here in Springfield, Oregon and stopping Saturday delivery.  That’s how privatizers work:  First undermine the effectiveness of the program, then claim it can be done better by “private industry.”

The safety net and the Postal Service are under attack for the same reasons:  Each promotes the common good and stands for the proposition that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization.  Each exemplifies and implements the notion that we should care about and for one another, and need not engage in a perpetual war of each against all. These core ideas, along with the living standards of the 99% (more precisely, the 99.9%), have been under relentless attack for decades.  It began with deregulation of key industries and an ongoing effort to crush unions and the working class, and is now moving on to programs that promote the general welfare, not only Medicare and Social Security but Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, college loans, unemployment benefits, and others.

Homelessness and suicide are on the rise.  But these are symptoms of much larger problems.  The basic story is that for about the last 30 years, incomes of everyone but the very rich stagnated.  People compensated by working two jobs, longer hours, and then, by borrowing on the value of their homes, which was rising with the bubble that popped a few years ago.  Now the middle class has lost trillions in what people thought was their net worth, and our politics have been so structured that the very rich continue to get richer while millions are impoverished, unemployed, underemployed, and ultimately homeless.  We’re becoming a Third World country.[3]

But I say Yes, We Can! afford a humane society.  All we have to do to build upon the framework we now have for one is to de-fund programs that undermine our security and humanity, and tax citizens who can best afford it and processes, like financial transactions, that are most entitled to taxation.  We could also use the $40 billion a month the Fed is currently spending on, as Mike Whitney has noted in detail, what amounts to garbage.  And the first beneficiaries should be the core elements of the safety net:  Social Security and Medicare.

A movement that united and mobilized to achieve such demands would be better informed and empowered and in a better position to achieve more fundamental change, while people who are struggling for the means of sustenance can’t even think about such things.  And if we add Jobs For All to the existing and expanded safety net, we’re on the way  a comprehensive program with enormous appeal to the entire 99%.  But we have to begin by climbing out of the trenches and taking the offensive.

This essay appeared in slightly different form at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/23/taking-the-offensive-in-defense-of-the-safety-net/

[1] See Bill Black’s essay at http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2012/11/wall-street-uses-the-third-way-to-lead-its-assault-on-social-security.html  and buy a copy of his book at http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?keyword=The+Best+Way+To+Rob+A+Bank+Is+To+Own+One&mtype=B&hs.x=17&hs.y=12

[2] And by the way, military Keynesianism doesn’t work:  Military spending is not an effective general economic stimulus or job creator.  There is research suggesting military spending is one of the least effective ways to create jobs via the “Keynesian multipliers” flowing out of government expenditures.  See Franklin C. Spinney, “Will Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Heave the Middle Class Off the Fiscal Cliff?  America’s Defense Dependency,” at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/16/americas-defense-dependency.

[3] More details are in Bill Moyers’ January 13, 2012 interview, “Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality,” vimeo and transcript both available at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jacob-hacker-paul-pierson-on-engineered-inequality/.  See also “America the Third-World Nation in Just 4 Easy Steps,” 10 November 2012 By Thom Hartmann and Sam Sacks, The Daily Take | at http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/12664-america-the-third-world-nation-in-just-4-easy-steps.

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Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?

December 18, 2011

As I was writing Christmas and Hanukkah cards this evening, I began thinking about Jesus of Nazareth, whose birthday is celebrated at Christmas, and who is said to have been a Jewish carpenter.  Nowadays carpenters are skilled workers who may be reasonably well off, at least when the economy is doing its job.  But in Jesus’ day, artisans like carpenters, along with prostitutes, beggars, and bandits, were among the destitute who had been driven off the land by confiscatory taxation and the commercializing Roman Empire, as practices like the forgiveness of debt were replaced by exploitation and foreclosure.

Perhaps someone has already done this, but in case not, I think it’s time to ask:  If Jesus were with us bodily today and living in the United States, is there any serious question where he would stand on the Occupy Wall Street movement?  And if he were living in your community, what would he say (or do) about Occupy Portland, or Boston, or Chicago, or Eugene, or New York, or any of the scores (hundreds?) of other places people have gathered to protest the obscene maldistribution of wealth, income and political power in our society?  After all, wasn’t Jesus, during his public ministry, among the homeless of his time?  The Son of Man had no place to lay his head.

It might be said that bringing Jesus’ name to bear on contemporary politics trivializes his life and teachings, which are concerned with a “higher” plane of existence.  But having spent much of my spare time for twenty years reading dozens of books about the historical Jesus, I agree with those scholars who say his primary concern was with systemic injustice, with which our economy and political system are rife, and that he stood with the destitute against the empire of his time.  It even appears that he was a (the first?) community organizer.  There is more, of course, but I develop these and related themes in the essay below, first published on the CounterPunch site last Xmas Eve, and invite you to consider these things this Season.

It may be useful first to clarify what I mean by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those who have participated in the many occupations through the US have been accused of not having expressed a clear set of goals.  It’s true they have spoken with many voices, but the insistence on a set of specific demands is misplaced, if not disingenuous.   Still, I’d like to be clear about what I have in mind as the meaning of OWS.

To me, the most profound gift and achievement of Occupy Wall Street thus far is that it has catalyzed organizing for a better world.  Organizing is, after all, most fundamentally the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that enable people to act collectively to further their common interests.  From this perspective, OWS is already a success (if still only a beginning), in that it has changed the terms of popular discourse, and developed common understandings and relationships of trust, both by its actions and by the success of those actions in shining a spotlight that couldn’t be ignored on the maldistribution of wealth, income and power in our country.  And I think such organizing is not only critically important but perhaps the only possible answer to the seemingly intractable problems of our time.  We apparently face simultaneous climate change, resource depletion, and economic collapse, together with elites of wealth and power in control of a political and propaganda apparatus that makes addressing any of these problems, or even recognizing them, even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  I have worried that the situation could degenerate into chaos, a war of each against all.  The Occupy movement(s) can’t solve all of these problems, but perhaps by bringing back an emphasis and focus on the common good, they can contribute very substantially to easing the transition out of the world we know to the one that is emerging.  Maybe we can face the future helping one another, and producing and sharing the means of survival and community, in the spirit of the Occupations, rather than fighting over scraps that are inadequate, in any event, to go around.

I’ve written extensively on the financial and economic crisis — and proposed solutions, none of which have been implemented — in previous entries in this blog.  But at times I’ve wondered whether some of my concerns were not a bit overdone, with respect to the possible political consequences of the continuation or worsening of current economic conditions.  Thanks to OWS, some of the most prominent and thoughtful voices in the mainstream media (yes, I think there are a few such) have expressed similar concerns.  For example, Martin Wolf, economics commentator for The Financial Times (London), the world’s premier financial newspaper, wrote recently:  “Darker forms of politics are waiting in the wings:  nationalism, racism.  We do not need to watch this tragedy again.”  (“The big questions raised by anti-capitalist protests,” FT, October 27, 2011).  Paraphrasing Wolf and seconding these concerns, William Pfaff, editorial page columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, wrote a few weeks later that “it was not the hyperinflation Germany experienced after the First World War, but rather the brutal and seemingly interminable Depression and unemployment that followed the crash, that created the conditions in which German democracy collapsed.”  As Pfaff continued, “Its successor, National Socialism, ended the Depression and put the German economy back on its feet.  In case anyone has forgotten.”  And in the same piece, Pfaff observes, “The Occupiers dismiss [the] demand for a program as contrary to the spirit of the Occupation.  There is not and cannot be an agreed-upon program because that is not the nature of the movement, which is against ‘the system.’…How, after all, can ‘the system’ be changed?  Well first, justice could be done.  That is what people want:  justice.”  (“What Occupiers Should Ask For but What They Won’t Get,” November 16, 2011, http://www.williampfaff.com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=547.)

For more elaborate statements on the meaning and import of OWS and our current situation, I’d also suggest to your attention these further commentaries:  “Belittling the Occupy Movement – By Eugene [Oregon] Occupier Samuel Rutledge (November 20, 2011), http://occupyeugenemedia.org/2011/11/20/belittling-the-occupy-movement-by-eugen-occupier-samuel-rutledge/; Mike King, “Occupations and the Fulfillment of Human Need:  The Vacancies of Capitalism” (November 30, 2011), http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/30/the-vacancies-of-capitalism/; and incidentally, as a little encouragement for those of us who still hope there might still be hope and that thinking things through might help to produce it, historian Gabriel Kolko’s “Menu for Today’s Tricky Planet:  Use Your Head” (November 17, 2011), http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/17/menu-for-today%E2%80%99s-tricky-planet-use-your-head/.

But now on to the main event, my portrait (gleaned almost entirely from the work of others, as cited) of Jesus of Nazareth as a community organizer, whose teachings and values were substantially commensurate with those of Occupy Wall Street:

Up Against the Empire:  Celebrating the Rebel Jesus

Tell me say, What kind of man this Jesus is, my lord?/ He come to my heart, and my heart opened up.

— Buffy Ste.-Marie, “Ananais”

The media distorted parts of Jesus’ message right from the start. The Gospels, and the first generation of Jesus’ followers, effectively altered or hid his more radical teachings, and what has been preached from a million pulpits and that we still get from many today is a gross distortion. Jesus was not preoccupied with individual “sin” but with systemic injustice, in opposition to the commercializing empire of his time. The historical Jesus disclosed by contemporary scholarship appears to be fundamentally the same as the Jesus who is preached and practiced in the Catholic Worker movement, for example. And the parallels between his conflict with Rome and our own with imperial America are striking indeed.

Then as now, the maldistribution of wealth was quite severe, with peasants comprising the bulk of the population. “The term peasant … denotes a relationship of exploitation in which the vast majority who produce the food on which everyone and everything depends are consistently relieved of their surplus, so that a small minority have a huge surplus while most remain at a subsistence level. Simply: a peasant is a systematically exploited farmer.” John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus 4 (1995). Being a Jewish peasant had its saving moments, however, because of “a traditional ideology of land … enshrined in the ancient Pentateuchal laws.” Just as the people were to rest on the seventh or Sabbath Day, so God’s land was to rest on the seventh or Sabbath Year, when Jewish debts were to be remitted and Jewish slaves released. Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 12-14,” Id. 5-6. And in the “Jubilee Year, the year after seven sets of Sabbath Years, all expropriated lands and even village houses, though not city ones, were to revert to their original or traditional owners. Leviticus 25:10, 18. “While the Jubilee Year was most likely no longer implemented at all by the first century, the Sabbath Year was probably still more or less enforced.” Id. 6. Those ancient laws “refuse to see debt, slavery, or land expropriation simply as business transactions. The land is a divine possession not a negotiable commodity[:] … ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.'” Leviticus 25:23.

By Jesus’ day, however, the Roman Empire was no longer a traditional but a commercialized agrarian empire. To the Roman imperialist, land accumulation was a sensible business practice and debt foreclosure the best and quickest way to accomplish it. Crossan, The Essential Jesus 6. In first century Palestine, the Jewish peasantry was being pushed into debt and displaced from its holdings at unusually high rates, since land became, under the commercialized Roman economy, less an ancestral inheritance never to be abandoned and more an entrepreneurial commodity rapidly to be exploited. As higher rates of imperial and Herodian taxation forced increasing numbers of peasants from their land, there developed a growing class of destitute people with few options. One could become an artisan, a prostitute, a beggar, or a bandit. In this context Jesus of Nazareth appeared, the son of an artisan.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.” But “repentance” is not about a feeling of penitance for individual sins. It means a turning, at a more fundamental level, of the heart and soul to God. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision 122 n. 74, and 163-164 (1987). “The prophets called Israel to repent, which meant to turn or return, and which referred primarily to a change in Israel’s collective life, and not simply to a change in individual lives.” Id., 153 text and n. 13. Belief in the gospel does not mean merely to believe, as a condition of salvation, in certain doctrines or teachings, but to “give one’s heart to” the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. See Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time 137 (1995). And the Kingdom entails both religious and political meanings, in a situation of imperial domination and colonial exploitation. “The phrase evokes an ideal vision of political and religious power, of how this world here below would be run if God, not Caesar, sat on the imperial throne.” John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus 7-8.

In the Kingdom of God, it is not the rich who are favored, but the destitute. As destitute people flocked to Jesus to hear his teaching and to see or be cured by his mighty works, he taught them by the example of his life, as well. Be compassionate as God is compassionate. (Luke 6:36; see Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again 46, text and fn. 1.) Judge not, lest you be judged. If you have two coats and your brother has none, give one to your brother. Never refuse alms to one who asks for them. What you do for the least of these, you do for me. Love your neighbor as yourself. And who is my neighbor? A broken stranger lying by the side of the road. Eating and drinking, Jesus practiced open commensality, shared table fellowship, that mirrored many of his stories in their radical egalitarianism. He practiced free healing, declining to set up a brokered healing business that would stay in one place and let his disciples mediate access to him for a fee. Instead, he was always on the move for the next town, personally and directly accessible, and always performed, as it were, free of charge. He didn’t make people dependent on his power: he empowered them.

The stories of Jesus’ interactions with women are remarkable. First century Judaism was deeply patriarchal. Women had few rights; they could not be witnesses in a court of law, or initiate a divorce. They were not to be taught the Torah and were to be separated from men in public life. Respectable women did not go out of the house unescorted by a family member; adult women were to be veiled in public. But Jesus defended the woman who entered an all-male banquet, unveiled and with her hair unbraided, and washed his feet with her hair. While being hosted by Mary and Martha, he affirmed Mary’s choice of the role of disciple. And of course, he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. Women were apparently part of the itinerant group traveling with Jesus; the movement itself was financially supported by some wealthy women. And the evidence is compelling that women played leadership roles in the early post-Easter community. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time 57 (1995).

“When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them.” Gospel of Thomas 14:2. See also Luke 10:4-11 = Matt 10:8-14 and Mark 6:8-13 = Matt 10:8-10a, 11 = Luke 9:2-6. John Dominic Crossan in a study based in part on the Didache argues persuasively that the itinerants who went out preaching the gospel in the century or so following Jesus’ ministry offered free healing in exchange for a meal, carrying on the practice mentioned, briefly, in the Gospels. Crossan, The Essential Jesus 9-10, and The Birth of Christianity, passim. Crossan speculates that the disciples were sent out two by two because one of them was likely female in many cases, and the two would travel as a couple for the woman’s protection.

The Kingdom movement was thus a form of community organizing, Jesus’ program of empowerment for a peasantry becoming steadily more hard-pressed through insistent taxation, indebtedness, and eventual loss of land, within the commercialized Roman Empire under Augustan peace and a Lower Galilee under Herodian urbanization. “Jesus lived, against the systemic injustice and structural evil of that situation, an alternative open to all who would accept it: a life of [free] healing and shared eating, of radical itinerancy, programmatic homelessness, and fundamental egalitarianism, of human contact without discrimination, and of divine contact without hierarchy. He also died for that alternative.” Crossan, The Essential Jesus 12.

The parallels with contemporary events could scarcely be more clear, or more striking. The form of globalization promoted by the elites of the rich countries and their instruments such as the IMF and the World Bank have driven peasants the world over off their land and into lives and early deaths of destitution. For example, “[p]rior to the 1910 revolution, wealthy landowners had confiscated most of indigenous Mexico’s communal farmland, reducing the campesinos to a state of serfdom. … [L]argely through the struggle of Zapata and his followers … the Mexican constitution of 1917, [in] Article 27, guaranteed the return and protection of communal land to farmers. … [A]lthough land reform [thus] became law in Mexico, it was only partially carried out. However, on January 1, 1994, as a condition of Mexico’s joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Article 27 of the Mexican constitution was abolished. An organization of Mayan Indians from the state of Chiapas, calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), recognized this abolition as a death sentence for Mexico’s rural indigenous population. NAFTA would force farmers who could not compete with foreign investors’ technology and equipment off the land, thus opening up a wealth of cheap land and labor for exploitation by international corporations.” Donald Nollar, “Fighting For Our Lives,” Catholic Agitator (May, 2001), p. 1.

The rest has become part of our recent history, and is still going on. Similar scenarios have played out all across the globe. The rich countries continue to enforce protectionist policies and provide subsidies for their own basic industries, while demanding access to the markets of developing countries. “Free trade” is a euphemism for unfair trade. Protectionism is the only way any country has ever developed a domestic industrial base. The destruction of trade barriers and other mechanisms have, however, opened up many Third World countries to imports from the rich countries, resulting in the devastation of Third World industries, agriculture, and entire economies. Haiti is one of the more heart-rending examples.

And the commercializing empires of the industrialized world seek to reduce everything that was once regarded as personal or unique or holy to the status of interchangeable, salable commodities, demanding that all resources, including human beings, be accessible for exploitation, ostensibly to maximize production and thus promote the common good. But we all know what a rising tide does to those who have no boats, and it’s happening every minute of every day to people throughout the world.

At this point, the very idea of the common good is under relentless attack. That’s what is so evil about the current attacks on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the safety net generally, such as it still is. The real animus behind these attacks is hostility to the idea of the common good, the notion that we should care about and for one another, the very idea that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization. But caring for one another is our natural state, so a sustained program of propaganda is in place to persuade us to think only of wealth, forgetting all but self.

And what I think we need not only to counter these forces but to build community for its own sake is organizing: the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that will enable enough of us to act collectively, constructively, in coordination, to redeem the commons and serve the common good. Given that the airwaves are saturated with lies, the truth needs to be shared through other means: mind-to-mind, hand-to-hand, person-to-person, sometimes but not necessarily face-to-face and one-on-one. That’s what organizing ultimately is, and it can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including by the written as well as the spoken word.

We are called upon, in the present age, to oppose the forces of injustice and oppression, and to defend the commons, our common humanity, and the common good, and with them our neighbors, including and especially the most vulnerable among us. We are called by our very nature, our needs as human beings for fulfillment through relationship and community. This Season, we also hear the call from the movement to Occupy Wall Street.  And in answering that call, we have the powerful and heroic example of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth – as Jackson Browne has aptly called him, the rebel Jesus.

Restoring Food and Trade Sovereignty at Home and Abroad

March 5, 2011

Restoring Food and Trade Sovereignty at Home and Abroad (Organized by Samantha Chirillo) (LAW 142). Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, March 3-6, 2011. U.S. farm and trade policies have caused the loss of food security at home and abroad. Although the problem started during the Great Depression, U.S. farm policy since the 1950s and more recent ‘free trade’ agreements have subsidized petrochemical-intensive agribusiness, reduced the demand for and price of local food, and forced many family farmers out of business while disempowering communities. Grassroots efforts to rebuild community food systems and pass comprehensive trade reform (the TRADE Act) are making headway.

Panelists: Sarah Kleeger, Open Oak Farm, Adaptive Seeds, Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project; Mary Ann Jasper, Sales and Distribution Coordinator, Stalford Farms; Willamette Seed & Grain, LLC, Corvallis Sustainability Coalition’s Local 6 Food Action team; Robert Roth, Founding Member, Lane County Fair Trade Campaign.

A Statement of the Problem
By Robert Roth – March 6, 2011

  • What I have to say today is at the edge of my own understanding.  I’ve been paying attention to trade policy for years, but only recently made the connection with domestic US farm policy.  This talk is not a definitive analysis, but a starting point.  I will post my notes for this talk and a brief list of references and resource on my blog.
  • I enforced what has been called the law of deception, prosecuted fraud, for about 20 years.  Forest is this:  Both “farm policy” and “trade policy” are marketing terms, and forms of deception – real purpose & effect is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible for people who already have too much.  As collateral damage, industrial agriculture and unfair trade policies are destroying the biosphere.
  • The food-related problems we have, both in agriculture & trade, are a direct result of government policy essentially dictated by agribusiness and multinational corporations.  So we need to pay attention to the US Farm Bill and to trade policy, if we’re to repair the world, continue to eat, and perhaps, avoid the civil unrest and violence that can occur when too many people find themselves unemployed and without access to food.
  • About a billion people are chronically hungry.  It’s been suggested the blow-ups in the Middle East, although they have many causes, were triggered by high unemployment and new food price hikes.  And people have spoken of those blow-ups as conceivably triggering WW III.  Resource wars at any rate appear increasingly likely.
  • How did we get here?  US farm policy since roughly end of WWII has not only ravaged the soil and water but driven millions of small & mid-sized farms out of business, concentrating control in the hands of agribusiness corporations.
  • Beginning late 20th century, trade agreements globalized this process, decimating the farming sectors of poorer countries & forcing newly impoverished farmers & farm workers to migrate for survival.  Globally, 17 corporations now control the bulk of food production.
  • We face resource depletion, climate change, & economic collapse, all pretty much at once.  Policy-makers are doing everything possible to avoid or slow down the economic collapse (“massive campaign to sustain the unsustainable” – Jim K.) & these measures are accelerating resource depletion and climate change.  But part of the problem they’re not addressing is that in the US, there are no longer enough living-wage jobs to sustain the economy.
  • It seems possible we face a comprehensive system breakdown.  But if so, I have no sense of how long that might take, and suspect that if it does occur, it will take longer than some of us expect.  In the meantime, we can help the economic situation and create sustainable jobs, while at the same time addressing some of the threats to the biosphere, by addressing the problems of industrial agriculture.
  • [When I was in grammar school – 1950s – current events newsletter said we could feed 25 billion people with the new chemical farming methods.  Hasn’t worked out that way.  (Where did that newsletter come from?  System for the indoctrination of the young. – Dewey)]
  • So, restoring food security & trade sovereignty requires that we address the farm Bill – next one is due in 2012 – & stand current trade policy on its head.
  • Real beginning of the problem, per Bob Jensen interview with Wes Jackson, “Future Farming”:

About 10,000 years ago humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon — the soil. … Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil, and natural gas. But through all that, we’ve continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That’s the basic problem of agriculture.

[In addition to] soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now … present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil, and it is more degraded. We’ve masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals … . But that “solution” is … in fact part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need to move past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.

  • We need a whole new system of food production, with less chemically dependent agribusiness and much more locally based, smaller-scale, more labor-intensive, and sustainable farming.  Jackson & Wendell Berry call for a “50-year farm bill” – op ed in NYT Jan. 2009.
  • BTW, agriculture also led to a further set of problems: it made possible cities, with centralized, hierarchical control by power elites and the concentration & maldistribution of wealth.  These problems have characterized much of human history and are still with us.  Useful to note the continuity.
  • Fast forward to European colonization of the Americas (as described by Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, “Crisis By Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy” (1987):

From the earliest days of European colonization, America’s commercial agriculture … was dominated by large-scale [operations, including] the slave plantations of the South, huge Spanish haciendas in the Southwest, and the bonanza wheat and cattle farms of the West….[most] in the hands of wealthy individuals or foreign investors.  By the mid-1800s…the federal government [had established] policies putting family farmers on much of the land….But…farm families…[immediately] found themselves caught in a classic cost/price squeeze.  Skyrocketing prices for [items such as] seeds, credit, and transportation could not be covered by the prices the grain monopolies were willing to pay for their crops.  Freight rates were controlled by the railroads, while interest rates were set by the big city banks.  [There was a] series of rural depressions and panics in the late 1800s and early 1900s….[F]amily farmers organized political movements…[and federal legislation to fix their problems] was passed by Congress three times, but vetoed twice by Pres. Coolidge and once by Pres. Hoover.

  • Then came the New Deal.  Production controls, price supports, farm credit.  A national grain reserve.  “Public utility” model.
  • But stabilizing prices hurt grain speculators, who thrive on price volatility, and supply management reduced farm acreage, cutting sales of pesticides and fertilizers sold by farm chemical & oil companies.
  • Grain corporations thrive on high volume, low-prices, as they can store food, buy low & sell high, which smaller farmers don’t have the resources to do.  1940s-50s – powerful interests manipulated policy, set prices below cost of production.
  • Total # of farms in the US: 6.5 m./1935→2.05 m. 1997, with most of the decline among family farms.
  • Big corporations also manipulate subsidies: under “Freedom to Farm” Act, 1996-98, top 1% of subsidy recipients got avg. $249,000; top 10% got 61% of $$.
  • Oregon received over $1.5bn. in federal farm subsidies 1995-2009; but it all went to 13% of the state’s farms.  87% got nothing.
  • Policy also favors agricultural products geared for export.  Willamette Valley went from relative food sufficiency 50 years ago, when it was a major canning center, to specializing in grass seed production & importing 95% of our food.
  • So-called “free trade” agreements globalized this process, as big subsidized operations drove smaller local farms out of business throughout the world.
  • E.g., Mexico used to subsidize small farmers.  NAFTA required that Mexico stop those subsidies and credit programs.  But under US farm policy, the federal government here still gives billions in subsidies to big agribusinesses, which can thus sell corn in Mexico for less than it costs to grow.
  • This arrangement drove over one million small Mexican farmers out of business.  Nearly seven million farm workers became unemployed.  Many came here.
  • At the same time, trade agreements cause job losses among the people already living here.  At least ten thousand Oregon jobs were lost in 2009 due to trade agreements.  This causes tension between current residents and newly arriving immigrants.
  • Part of a solution:  reorient US farm policy toward support for smaller farms.
  • As James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, wrote in May 2009:  There’s no way we can continue the petro-agriculture system of farming. … President Obama and Ag Secretary Vilsack have not given a hint that they understand the gravity of the situation. … [But it] happens to be one of the few problems we face that public policy could affect sharply and broadly — if we underwrote the reactivation of smaller, local farm operations instead of shoveling money to giant “agribusiness” (or Citibank, or Goldman Sachs, or AIG…).
  • Wes Jackson interviewed by Bob Jensen:  [P]rotecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we’re discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture — sustainable farming will require more “eyes per acre,” and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy and ecological knowledge makes good economic sense.
  • [Right now, globally, 70 percent of food is grown on farms less than 2 hectares (4 acres) in size, tended in large part by women.]
  • 2008 Farm Bill perpetuated market deregulation and volatility.  But the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found small gains for local food system support (Farmers Market Promotion Program), support for beginning farms & ranchers, and for organic agriculture.  But the Institute concluded, the bill did nothing to address the larger problems.  For starters, we should re-establish a publicly-held grain reserve and stronger antitrust enforcement.

On trade policy, the TRADE Act would have existing trade deals renegotiated, and require consideration of consumer, environmental, labor and other protections in future pacts.  But Obama is instead pushing a NAFTA-style deal with Korea.  So the next step for us is to defeat the Korea Free Trade Agreement.  Ron Wyden chairs a Senate subcommittee that could help a lot to achieve that result.  Call and ask him to do so, and to sponsor comprehensive trade reform like the TRADE Act from the last Congress.   If you live outside of Oregon, please contact your own Senators and Congressional Representative with that message.

Selected Bibliography & Resources

Allen, Will, Kate Duesterberg and Ronnie Cummins, “The Real Gold Standard: Local and Organic Food and Farming,” www.counterpunch.org/allen02252011.html.

Anderson, Cassandra, “Monsanto Shifts ALL Liability to Farmers,” February 21, 2011, http://www.morphcity.com/home/94-monsanto-shifts-all-liability-to-farmers.

Astyk, Sharon, “Are We Seeing the Early Signs of a Seed Availability Crisis?”, Casaubon’s Book website, December 11, 2008.

CounterPunch website, www.counterpunch.org; on the economic and financial crises, articles by Mike Whitney, Pam Martens, Michael Hudson and others; and anything by James K. Galbraith, Simon Johnson, Robert Pollin, Robert Reich.

Cummings, Ronnie, “How Industry Giants Are Undermining the Organic Movement: The Organic Monopoly and the Myth of ‘Natural’ Foods,” www.counterpunch.org/cummings07092010.html.

Devinder Sharma’s ZSpace Page, “Caught In The Food Pirates’ Trap,” March 1, 2011.

Gray, Heather, and K. Rashid Nuri, “Witnessing a Shift in the Worldview of Agriculture: How Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World,” www.counterpunch.org/gray03102010.html.

Hansen-Kuhn, Karen, “Making US Trade Policy Serve Global Food Security Goals,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, January 2011.

Harkness, Jim, “Is Famine the New Normal,” Policy Innovations, a publication of the Carnegie Council, February 17, 2011.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, www.iatp.org; Communications, Ben Lilliston, (612) 870-3416, BLilliston@iatp.org; see esp., “Farm Bill Perpetuates Market Deregulation and Volatility” (press release), May 13, 2008; see also, January 07, 2011 press release, “Health leaders call for healthy Farm Bill,” and www.HealthyFoodAction.org.

Jensen, Robert, “An Interview with Wes Jackson: Future Farming,” www.counterpunch.org/jenssen01302009.

Mazzei, Umberto, “International Speculation and Rising Food Prices,” www.counterpunch.org/mazzei02142011.html.

Murphy, Sophia, “Concentrated Market Power and Agricultural Trade,” Ecofair Trade Dialogue Discussion Papers, No. 1/August 2006/English Version.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, http://www.citizen.org/trade/, Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, http://www.citizenstrade.org/orftc.php, and Alliance for Global Justice, http://afgj.org/?p=878#more-878, on trade policy and issues.

Ritchie, Mark, & Kevin Ristau, “Crisis By Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” League of Rural Voters Education Project (1987).

Roth, Robert, “The Financial and Economic Crisis: An Assessment and Action Plan,” May 18, 2009, accessible at www.healingjustice.wordpress.com (see Pages).

Seattle Farm Bill Principles, Supporting Healthy Farms, Food and People, Guidance for the 2012 Farm Bill, www.SeattleFarmBillPrinciples.org.

Willoughby, Robin, “Good for Farmers? The World Seed Conference,” www.counterpunch.org/willoughby09162009.html.