Archive for October 5th, 2008

The Great Depression, the Credit Crisis and the Future of your Food

Sharon October 5th, 2008

One of the most chilling things I’ve ever read was a description of the dual crisis that farmers and the urban poor faced during the Great Depression.  During the period, the ability of the poor to pay for food dropped like a stone.  At the same time, farmers couldn’t afford to transport food to markets.  While there was more than enough food produced in the US during the whole of the Depression millions went hungry, and a surprisingly large number actually starved.  Consider this testimony given by Oscar Ameringer before Congress in 1932.

“During the last three months I have visited…some 20 states….In the state of Washington I was told that the forest fires raging in that region all summer and fall were caused by unemployed timber workers and bankrupt vfarmers in an endeavor to earn a few honest dollars as firefighters. The last thing I saw on the night I left Seattle was number sof women searching for scraps of food in the refuse piles of the principal markets of that scity.  A number of Montana citizens told me of thousands of bushels of wheat left in the fields uncut on account of its low price that hardly paid for the harvesting.  In Oregon I saw thousands of bushels of apples rotting in the orchards because of the cost of transporting them to market. …At the same time there are millions of children who, on account of the poverty of their parents, will not eat one apple this winter.

While I was in Oregon, the Portland Oregonian bemoaned the fact that thousands of ewes were killed by sheep raisers because they did not bring enough in the market to pay the freight on them.  And while Oregon sheep raisers fed mutton to the buzzards, I saw men picking for meat scraps in the garbage cans of New York and Chicago.  I talked to one man in a restaurant in Chicago. He told me of his experience in raising sheep.  He said he had killed 3,000 sheep this fall and thrown them down the canyon, because ti cost $1.10 to ship a sheep to market and then he would get less than a dollar for it.  He said he could not afford to feed the sheep and he would not let them starve, so he just cut their throats and threw them in the canyon.

The roads of the West and Southwest teem with hungry hitchhikers.  The camp fires of the homeless are seen along every railroad track.  I saw men, women and children walking voer the hard roads.  Most of them were tenant farmers who had lost their land and been foreclosed.  Between Clarksville and Russellville, Ark., I picked up a family.  The woman was hugging a dead chicken under her ragged coat.  When I asked her where she had procured the fowl, first she told me she had found it dead in the road, and then added in grim humor, ‘They promised me a chicken in every pot, and now I got mine.’

In Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas I saw untold bales of cotton rotting in the fields because the cotton pickers could not keep body and soul together on 35 cents for picking 100lbs.  The farmers cooperatives who loaned the money to make the crop require $5 a bale in payment. That means 70 cents a day for a picker who can pick 200lbs, and that doesn’t provide enough pork and beans to keep the picker alive in the field, so that there is fine staple cotton rotting down there by the hundreds and thousands of tons.

AS a result of this appalling overproduction on one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side, 70 percent of the farmesr of Oklahoma were unable to pay the itnerests on their mortgages.  Last week one of the largest and oldest mortgage companies in that state went into the hands of the reciever.  In that and other stateswe have now the interesting spectacle of farmers losing their farms by foreclosure and mortgage companies losing thier recouped holdings by tax sales that could never meet the value of the land.

The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of the industrial population and the industrial population is being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.  Neither has the money to buy the product of the other.” (David Shannon, _The Great Depression_ 26-28)

One of my greatest fears is that the story is about to be repeated.  Right now, farmers are struggling to get credit just like all small business owners.  The wheat crop is being planted right now - and next year’s food depends on this year’s credit.  High energy and fertilizer prices have already eaten up much of farmer’s profit for this year - the point at which it is no longer feasible for farmers to grow our food is not so very far away, nor is it really so alien to imagine that again we might see the failure of the linkage between city and country, the poor digging in the garbage, the farmer unable to plant, unable to keep their land, or throwing food out to rot.

What’s the answer?  Food has to enter the center of our discourse in a meaningful way - we cannot allow wall street to starve main street.  More of us need to grow food, but more importantly, we will need to create direct ties between country and city, so that farmers and urban dwellers can skip middlemen who add costs and lower payments, and get what they really need.


Ok, Now What?

Sharon October 5th, 2008

There are certain things in my life that fall in the category of “hideously unpleasant things I am pretty certain I can’t do jack about.”  Among them are drilling in ANWR and the fact that everyone on earth wants to talk about the unbelievably boring Sarah Palin.  I know many of you devote a lot of passion to protesting these things, and I’m sorry I just can’t do it - that is, I don’t think that people who are cold and without energy are ever going to turn down oil from environmentally sensitive places - in fact, I think they’d be willing to power their cars with baby harp seals (and not in a nice way) if that would work.  I recognize that most people simply have to say what they think about Sarah Palin, and her hominess/titillating family gossip/experience holding off Russia with her bare hands and I might as well just listen to the 9,000 description of Tina Fay’s impression.  And I knew we were going to pass a bailout bill, no matter how much it made my stomach clench up with horror.  All of these things are bad, bad things that it is good to protest - but protest so that you can say you tried, not with the expectation that the laws of nature will somehow be refuted.

Why was the bailout destined to pass?  Well, the most obvious reason is this - shockingly (and apparently a lot of very dim people in Washington did find this shocking), the stock market reacted to the news that they weren’t getting 700+billion dollars worth of free money pretty much like toddlers not getting lollipops.  From what I’ve heard of the reaction on the House floor on Monday, the fact that the markets had their heart set on their lollipops was news.  Meanwhile, it seems like foreign governments were also unhappy at the lack of lollipops, and exerted some pressure. Apparently that was pretty shocking too.  And like the absentee upper class parents most congresspeople probably were, they gave in to pressure.  We do not elect our government for their courage, but for their willingness to dance to the flutes of power - we want them to reflect the will of the people.  And they do - the will of the people with the power to undercut their wealth and power.  Unfortunately, neither you nor I are one of them.

 More importantly, we’re having an election.  Now the US has been afflicted with the current campaign season since, if I recall correctly, 1066, when the Normans invaded England and Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy.  But pretty soon we’re actually going to have an election.  And even though the bailout is not going to do jack to spare us economic disaster, if they hadn’t passed one, it would have been far to easy to hold those who did not pass it responsible for whatever comes down the pike.  Now everyone gets to hold up their hands and say they tried their very hardest, really truly they did, but they just couldn’t save everyone.   Central among the people who they couldn’t save (because they tried so hard) will be widows and orphans, single parents and kids, and you and me.  It turns out they were so busy rescuing the rich that the fact that they let the much larger group of poor drown was just an accident.

Oh, and raping and pillaging is fun.  One doesn’t just quit a hobby like that cold turkey.  Shock doctrine capitalism is the name of the game, and the perpetrators aren’t ready to admit that the game is over - and of course, with Congress in their pockets, it isn’t.

There are other reasons, of course, and you can read more about them in lots of the usual spots.  But the truth is that despite the mass outpouring of anger at the bailout, despite the fact that the people spoke, not because they were too stupid to understand that the economy was tanking, but because they didn’t want to throw good money after bad - despite all that, the bailout was inevitable and it happened.  And the only good thing I can say about this is that when the economy tanks anyway, that anger may actually be a useful tool in making some change.  I hope everyone out there will remember this week not only when it comes time to vote this round, but the next and the next.  Some things you may not be able to stop, but that doesn’t mean you have to forgive.

So now what?  What comes next in ordinary people’s lives?  Well, what comes next is another series of crises.  The stock market didn’t even get a bounce out of the bailout package.  Sure, some things will do a little better for a short while, maybe even enough to get through the election.  But don’t count on it - things are falling apart faster than anyone can glue them back together.  Which means that Paulson and Bernanke are going to be back again and again and again - next to prop up the FDIC or bail out some other organization that they swear is too big to fail.  And then, when the money runs out and there’s no more on offer, they will explain to us that if we’d just authorized that last print run of cash, or if we had just been better people, or hadn’t taken so much debt, or had listened to them sooner, it would all be alright, but now, well, the money’s all gone, so no point in trying to relieve the plight of ordinary people who didn’t want to give them money anyway. You can bet that the cause of the problem will be you - your failures, your credit card debt, your wanting a house, as though you (collectively, in the millions) all acted alone to take down the economy on our own private grassy knolls.

What can we do about it?  Protest - because it came closer to working here than I think anyone expected it to, and it may well work sooner or later.  Call and fight and be angry - don’t let them wear your anger out.  Clarify - make sure that the message gets out whose fault this really is.  Vote, of course, because even the lesser of two evils can be quite lesser. 

 But more importantly, to the extent it is possible, we need to build redundancies into the systems we depend on that don’t depend on wall street, or the stuff we shortly won’t have any money for anyway.  That means everyone out there needs to look around them and ask what small piece of the infrastructure of their lives (and the lives of their community members) they can take some responsibility for.  We need to all look and ask “what is my job in this new world we’re awakening to?”  What the heck can I do to help mitigate this disaster?

Maybe you already know your job - it is the thing you care about, the work you do already for free or for money, in every second of spare time or 10 hours a day.  You do something that matters - you provide health care, grow food, teach, mend what’s broken,  feed the hungry, fight for justice - you do good work, and now you have to figure out a way to keep the work going without as much money or energy. 

Or maybe you are head down in a health care crisis, a new baby, a family shift - and all you can do is prepare and protect yourselves and your families as best you can.  You haven’t the time and energy to do much more than that - and your job is to get through this, so that later, you can do the work that needs doing.  That’s ok - but as soon as you can, make a little time, even if it is just to check in on your neighbors or start carpooling to the grocery store. 

Maybe you don’t know what your role is. Maybe you do have a little time or energy that could be used to build community, fix things, help others, but you are shy, and you don’t know what to do.  And I can’t tell you exactly what you should do - you know your talents and skills best.  Maybe you are a natural organizer and leader, and you should get started with your community’s victory garden movement, building the community health center or getting neighbors to pool their resources to get a shared transport network up.  Maybe you are more comfortable following, in some already existing role - and it is time to get out to the local food pantry and start figuring out where they are going to get enough food to help all the hungry.  Maybe you care most about kids, or elders or women or the hispanic or black or asian community, and that’s where you should concentrate your energies.  Maybe you want to work with members of your faith, your family or your friends.  Great - do it.  But do it now.

We’re all going to need reliable sources of food.  We’re all going to need some transportation.  We’re going to need health care, and emergency services.  We’re all going to need good work - even if it is only for food.  We’re going to need ways to keep people housed, to connect folks who need homes with those who can’t keep them unless they rent some space.  A lot of people are going to need warm clothes and blankets.   A lot of people are going to need a meal, a helping hand, help with disabled family members and elders. And folks, when the formal economy falls away, when we cannot trust our government to act in our interests, all of us have to get acting to compensate, to keep the wolf from the door.  The truth is that the bailout, on one level, was the final reminder of what Hurricane Katrina taught us,  that no one is coming with a helicopter to rescue us.  Fortunately, some of us have boats, and the rest of us can build life rafts, and there’s a lot we can do to rescue ourselves.

 What now?  It is all hands on deck, folks.