Of 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 power.

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 of politics.
  • 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 fallen.

  • 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 spooks.

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 make.
–CR Lawn