Inequality, Decline and Recovery
In this catalog we honor the late Russell Libby,
MOFGA’s beloved Executive Director from 1995-2012. Libby,
a pastoral poet in the tradition of Virgil and Wendell Berry (see
our 2013 catalog), was trained at Bowdoin College as an economist.
He understood that the pastoral is political and that our economic
relationships determine our social possibilities. In his inimitably
polite and persistent way, he never shrank from speaking truth to
In that spirit I dedicate this essay. If you think
economic considerations don’t belong in a seed catalog, think
again. I don’t go to national parks, didn’t need a passport
or need to apply for disaster aid, so the recent shutdown seemed
remote to me. Until my partner Eli tried to access the GRIN database
and found it shuttered. GRIN is our national genebank, one of those
little-known services the federal government provides for us, an
unrivalled tool for plant breeders, preservationists and guardians
of crop diversity. Eli uses it a lot.
The shutdown was a tactic instigated by the Tea
Party and enabled by the GOP and other interests of the 1% to try
to discredit government. Their modus operandi is: starve it, then
argue that it doesn’t work, therefore shrink it further with
the ultimate aim of disabling it. It is pure self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the absence of government, corporations run amok with no checks
on their power (see my essay “On Life and Taxes” in
the 2013 catalog).
I recently saw Robert Reich’s new movie
Inequality for All. I recommend it even though its analysis and
calls to action aren’t sufficiently deep. Reich documents
our extreme inequality of wealth, the highest of any industrial
nation, and points out that:
• Both in 1928 and 2007 when inequality maxed out, an economic
collapse followed. Hardly a mere coincidence.
• Since the late ’70s, while corporate earnings have
skyrocketed and worker productivity has increased, real wages have
stagnated or dropped. Meanwhile, costs have gone way up.
• The middle class responded to this squeeze progressively:
First women joined the work force. Then people worked longer hours,
moonlighting. Finally, they went into debt, borrowing against their
houses. When that speculative bubble collapsed in 2007, no slack
remained in the system.
Reich’s prescriptions include:
• Reversing the decline of labor unions by raising the minimum
wage and instituting fairer workplace rules.
• Re-committing to public support for educating our work force.
• Repealing the Citizens United decision to chase wealth out
• Restoring fairness to our tax policies.
• Recreating a wall of separation between traditional banks
and risky financial services.
Why is our economic recovery, now supposedly in
its fourth year, so tepid and shallow? Reich shows how our Great
Recession was only the climactic act of a Great Regression that
had been ongoing since Ronald Reagan or even before. While full
recovery requires a widespread restoration of confidence among those
who’ve been hurt, that cannot happen until we address the
full extent and root causes of our long decline and invest, not
in the NSA, but in the WPA.
As a society, we are still in denial. A look at
some key quality-of-life indices can help us grasp how far we have
• Life expectancy. Ours is five years shorter
than Japan’s. 16th in 1960, we’ve fallen to 51st out
of 222 nations in a recent British study.
• Infant mortality rate. 12th out of 29 in 1960 OECD rankings,
27th out of 30 in 2008. Singapore, Sweden, Japan, each have less
than half our rate.
• Military expenditures. Our rank? 1st, of course, but the
killer is we spend more than four times #2 China, and almost as
much as #2–15 combined. Those nations highest in the life-quality
indices spend much less on weapons and war than we: Switzerland
(37th in military spending), Sweden (33rd), Singapore (22nd), Canada
(14th), Italy (10th). Even Japan (5th) spends only 1.0% of its GDP
compared our 4.7% and is in the top 3 in life quality.
Reich completely ignored the elephant in our economic
room, our bloated military/homeland security apparatus that has
grown with complete impunity for nearly a generation. We needed
whistle-blower Edward Snowden to show us just how far off track
we’ve strayed as we lost the War on Terror.
Through our self-imposed overreaction we have permitted
fear of terrorists to subvert our fundamental civil liberties. Our
own government has secretly violated our basic freedom as law-abiding
citizens from unchecked unauthorized universal spying. Johns Hopkins
Professor of Applied Economics Steve Hanke asserts these spying
programs are costing each taxpayer $574 per year. For those of us
who grew up in the Cold War with the indelible imprint of Khruschev
pounding his shoe at the United Nations, it was the ultimate irony
when Snowden, pursued by our authorities, found sanctuary in Russia,
our erstwhile ideological enemy.
For this we can blame our Culture of War that
has led us into foreign military adventures for 23 of the past 30
years. The trillions of dollars we squandered would have been more
than enough to meet all our social needs, to invest in education
and infrastructure, to maintain our economy and safety nets and
to halt our decline. To make a lasting recovery we must curb our
military appetite and rededicate resources to our domestic needs.
Undeclared wars of unlimited duration with unclear
objectives against undefined enemies are incompatible with economic
democracy. It is past time for us to declare war on the War on Terror,
war on the War on Drugs, war on our ill-defined foreign military
adventures, war on these unwinnable wars, war on war itself as an
instrument of public policy. The awakening that averted President
Obama’s proposed military strike in Syria is unprecedented
in my lifetime, the most hopeful sign in many years that we as a
nation are coming to our senses again. Let us build on that.
If you get a chance, go see the documentary The
House I Live In. That house is prison. Ours is the highest incarceration
rate in the world, nearly 10 times Sweden’s and more than
12 times Japan’s. In addition to incurring the incalculable
costs of lost productivity, families sundered and whole communities
rent apart, we have wasted more than $1 trillion, and arrested 45
million people in 40 futile years of the War on Drugs, and we continue
to blow $60 billion per year in this hapless pursuit. The quadrupling
of our prison population since 1980 parallels our economic decline.
I have strayed from pastoral fields to prison
walls, from agriculture to espionage and war. To bring us all back
home, for 17 years I sat with Russell Libby at MOFGA meetings. What
we shared most was a propensity to count, to compare, to find patterns
in the relationships of things, to seek the building blocks of good
social and economic policy.
As I write, the Farm Bill is again on the Congressional
agenda and in contention is the National Organic Cost Share Certification
Program which House Republicans have excised from the bill. The
cost to fund this program at 2008-2013 levels is 3¢ per taxpayer.
Are you willing to ante up your 3¢ to support organic farmers?
Or maybe you’d prefer to support them without a tax increase?
We can do so by freeing just 208 of our 2.3 million prisoners, each
of whom costs $24,000 per year to keep jailed. Or we could withhold
one quarter of one per cent from the annual budget of NSA’s
A companion House bill proposes to remove 3.8
million people from the SNAP program depriving each of $1.40 per
meal in assistance ($1.40 per meal? That buys about three organic
beets!) For less than 4¢ per meal per taxpayer we can keep
these folks in SNAP. Each dollar spent on SNAP benefits generates
around $1.70 in local economic activity. We can free 10% of our
prisoners or cut 57% from NSA’s budget and realize the same
savings as cutting SNAP. Russell Libby would have appreciated these
comparisons because they are the stuff of the choices we must all