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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

I have one bone to pick with Tony Badger's "FDR: A Model for Obama?" He characterizes FDR's administration and New Deal agencies as staffed by public servants "who provided a model of disinterested public service that was socially concerned and competent." Among the usual partisan appointments to his first cabinet, one "strikingly unconventional" appointment was Henry Wallace as secretary of agriculture. Although not all of FDR's initial economic interventions were successful, the farm program was a success. "In the long run it may have inhibited the necessary structural rationalization of American agriculture, but at the time it enabled desperate farmers to stay on the land until they could leave for jobs in the military industries during World War II." This statement is what stuck in my craw.

Here is another take. Farmers did well throughout the war under FDR programs and were not desperate to leave the land for jobs. It was well after the war that they were pushed off the land by a "structural rationalization" that was not driven by agricultural necessity. Rather, this "rationalization" was driven by financial interests. Common Dreams [Sept. 24] recently republished a speech given by farm activist and film actor Eddie Albert (yes, of Green Acres TV fame) at the 1983 National Farmers Union convention, a time of farm crisis. He spoke of the 1942 Steagall amendment to the defense act of World War II, which adopted the concept of price "parity" for the raw materials produced by agriculture and resulted in ten years of stability in the agricultural sector lasting well after the war. Albert told how vested interests were meanwhile becoming alarmed at the growing political power of farmers and allied labor. The Committee for Economic Development was born. The stated benefits of CED policy recommendations? (1.) Increase return on corporate investment in agriculture. (2.) Over two million farmers and families entering the urban labor pool, which would tend to depress wages. (3.) Lower prices of agricultural products, which would both increase foreign trade and provide cheaper raw materials for domestic food and fiber processors. (4.) "invest in projects that break up village life by drawing people to centers of employment away from the village...because the village life is a major source of opposition to change." The Steagall amendment was allowed to expire in 1952, and the Farm Act took its place in 1953.

The "rationalized" American agriculture that resulted survives today on Farm Program subsidies, regulatory indulgence and a costly regime of fossil energy infrastructure spanning the globe. Wendell Berry has called this a policy of "cheapness at any price." As Michael Pollan has written to the current Farmer in Chief (New York Times, Oct. 12), "Cheap food is food dishonestly priced--it is in fact unconscionably expensive." In a recent op-ed piece by the president of the National Family Farm Coalition (Common Dreams, Jan. 9), Ben Burkett remarks, moreover, that "just as deregulation of our financial markets has been a disaster for our economy, so has the deregulation of our food supply imperiled seriously our ability to address food shortages in case of weather or other catastrophes."

The "structural rationalization of American agriculture" of which Badger writes was not only not necessary then, it now leaves us, and the world, increasingly vulnerable to global market speculation and the looming decline of cheap fossil energy upon which it depends. Behind Badger's remark is an unconscious anti-agrarian sentiment, which has sadly now become common currency for both political parties. It relegates agriculture to a mere business interest and stands in the way of food and farm policy reform. We can only hope that the new Farmer in Chief will make the necessary unconventional appointments to his administration that might once again bring us a successful farm program--truly sound economically, socially progressive and ecologically sustainable into the future. We have a long row to hoe.

Barry Lia

Seattle, WA

Feb 10 2009 - 2:54am

Web Letter

You cannot argue with good scholarship! The author might want to take a look at Republican progressives, who, at that time, had not been run out of the Republican Party. Here in California, we had a string of Republican progressive governors who built this state. Senator Hiram Johnson from California was in the Senate and barely outlived Roosevelt, but he was a founder of the Progressive Party and Teddy Roosevelt's vice-presidential candidate for the Progressive Party. FDR, in many ways, modeled himself after Teddy Roosevelt. It would be interesting to see, how and if, these Progressives influenced the domestic side of the New Deal. Johnson was an isolationist. As to the first comment to this article, America cannot help anyone if it is economically weak itself. If we are successful as a nation in all respects, we can lead by example and not by force.

Pervis James Casey

Riverside, CA

Jan 9 2009 - 4:24pm

Web Letter

There are many internal problems that the US is facing right now, the most obvious one being the financial crisis. Obama has a lot on his plate, figuring out how to get us out of the mess. However, I feel like we need to step up as a nation and focus on issues that reach beyond our borders and affect the global community.

How will Obama address the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut world hunger in half by 2015 and eliminating it completely by 2025? An estimated $19 billion would eliminate malnutrition and starvation around the world. Our current defense budget is $522 billion, in comparison. We have the potential to make a big difference; the question is whether or not our president-elect is willing to do so.

The Borgen Project (www.borgenproject.org) provides lots of information about this issue.

Yelena Sidorko

Seattle , WA

Jan 8 2009 - 3:47pm