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.
Feb 10 2009 - 2:54am