E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Haircuts and hindsight

By Dean Hulse

(Wednesday, July 9, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- 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 Space Needle.

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 it?

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.

This essay was previously published by Rural Life Studies, a joint effort between North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota.