Monday, September 16, 2013

...plus c'est la même chose


I'm reading Jan Poppendeik's book, Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat and, early on in the book, she looks at the early days of the US' Great Depression. In 1930-31, the breadlines had formed in almost every city, town, and village in America. 1931 saw the first great drought—though not yet the extended “Dustbowl” drought—of the depression. As Amartya Sen has written, when a famine occurs, there are three alternatives for people: First, get a new, or additional, job. As this was the Great Depression, this wasn't possible. Second, rely on extended family. By 1931, this option was pretty much exhausted. And third, rely on charity.
This was the position of most of the jobless in the US. When the drought hit, it was also the position of a great many farmers. Charity was being administered by local governments (primarily at the municipal level) and the Red Cross. There were a patchwork collection of programmes and initiatives across the country; some, like the relief gardens which were planted (and the surplus canned by civic, fraternal, and religious organizations), encouraged by members of the federal government. But most programmes were only local and, under Hoover, the US federal government wanted nothing to do with relief programmes.
Except, of course, when they did. By 1931, there was two billion dollars (that's two billion depression-era dollars) budgeted for business and financial sector relief. And a couple of years earlier, farm price supports had been instituted, with the US government buying up wheat and slowly releasing it into the international market, to slow price fluctuations, and try to ensure that the American farmers got a livable price for the grain they were growing. Which makes sense; if your crop all comes in at once, prices tend to tumble around harvest. Farmers able to store large volumes of grain can take advantage of the price differential between fall and spring, but most people needed money by the end of the growing season. Mostly because that's when the operating loans are due.
The problem in the US was that the government had accumulated a very large storehouse of wheat; by 1931, a hundred and sixty million bushels. Which cost money to store—about $0.18/bu/year.  The US also had a significant population reliant on charity—in particular, reliant on charity for food. To various politicians and reformers, it seemed like a no-brainer to release a portion of the wheat stores held by the federal government for relief.
The Hoover administration was never too open about it's opposition to releasing the wheat. But they certainly encouraged opposition. The big roadblocks were two: concern about the release of "free" wheat on the US market, and the belief, at least among the more conservative members of Congress and the Senate, that reports of hunger in the US were overblown.

The first concern, that a release of wheat would adversely affect the market, was both sensible and well-founded. After all, since at least the 1950s, food aid has been used during famines to destroy local farmers and force open local markets in the developing world to excess American agricultural production. Local farmers, after all, have a difficult time competing with free.  At the same time, the purchase of the excess wheat production had already affected the market—by offering price supports, the government had helped farmers to one of their best years ever.
Concern about the effect that a release of wheat would have on local merchants around the country was also on the minds of legislators. But local producers had already been finding ways to offer help to their fellow citizens. As Jan Poppendeik notes:
A more ambitious approach developed by a group of California fruit growers involved canning surplus fruits in a commercial cannery and distributing them on a nonprofit basis to charitable agencies across the nation. The first project of the Economic Conservation Committee of America resulted in the distribution of nearly thirty-six thousand gallons of peach butter that reached every state and the territory of Alaska. The committee acknowledged that it had made only a small dent in the aggregate peach surplus but expressed hope that the idea would spread. "As long as there is want in the world," read the conservation committee's brochure, "waste of food crops is wrong both from an economic and a humanitarian standpoint." The brochure explained the logic of surplus distribution, anticipating almost all of the arguments eventually offered for New Deal surplus commodity donation and subsequent food assistance programs.
page 36 Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat


So the "market objection" to the release of surplus wheat was one that could be answered and dealt with. The second objection, that reports of hunger in America were overblown, unsupported, or just untrue, were more difficult to answer.
The Hoover administration did not ascribe to Keynesian principles. Their concerns were to minimize the deficit and debt. And while they were willing to offer two billion dollars in support for the financial and business sector, they wanted nothing to do with offering relief to individual citizens.
The administration took the tack that the only Americans suffering were those who had already been poor. Secretary of the National Drought Relief Committee Clyde Warburton said "There are always poor people, but usually poor people are poorer under these conditions that exist this year than usual."  Those advocating for federal relief spending, however, were convinced that things were worse than the Warburtons thought, that members of what we now call the middle class were falling into poverty (and not just poverty, but extreme poverty).
The debate, as Poppendeik points out "lack[ed] reliable and complete information, permit[ting] the substitution of opinions for facts." There was no solid information on the number of farmers affected by drought or how badly they were affected. The same was true of the unemployed. There were no national statistics, and again as Poppendeik points out "the Hoover administration, ideologically committed to local and voluntary relief and fearful that any national emphasis upon unemployment would shake confidence and worsen the Depression, was resisting efforts to acquire comprehensive national information." (p. 41-2)
The lesson that seems to have been learned from the Depression is just that; if you would rather rely on opinion than fact, make sure there are no facts to get in your way. Here in Canada, as we make our way through the slow motion famine, we see similar thinking. As Graham Riches has detailed in Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis, the facts are pretty simple. When you cut welfare rates, food bank use increases. We have almost thirty-five years of experience with the whole laissez-fair neo-conservative economic theory and every word of it is a lie. Benefits have not “trickled down” to the working poor in the developed world. Food bank use and homelessness have kept increasing. But even though the facts exist, the ruling class keep talking as if the facts aren't in, as if we can't see what's going on around us. The disconnect is so extreme that you see people actually forming political groups dedicated to the destruction of their own best interests (hello Canadian Conservatives and American Tea Partiers!). The Harper government has even taken down the Wheat Board, a Canadian institution that quite successfully maximized the price of grain for all farmers since the Depression.  When anti-board members were elected to the management and oversight of the Wheat Board, they very quickly came to understand the value of the Board, and became strong supporters. This meant that the Harper government had to get rid of the Board by fiat, rather than allowing a vote of the membership as the Board's bylaws required.
What Poppendeik's book makes clear is that we've learned nothing from the experience of famine in North America. There are still breadlines even while we're knee-deep in wheat.  And agricultural reforms enacted in the 1930s did not serve to strengthen and support a resilient food system, but quite the reverse.  As Poppendeik says;
[...] the U.S. Department of Agriculture had, from its inception,  been concerned primarily with the welfare of farmers, and, as agriculture became commercialized, with the profitability of the larger farms producing for the commercial market. [....] The overall effect of the 1933 act and its successors on income distribution within agriculture was to increase inequality. As acreage under the control of large landlords was taken out of production in return for benefit payments, many tenant farmers and sharecroppers were reduced to the status of day laborers of forced off the land altogether. On the other hand, the benefit payments were based on the amount of land owned or the amount of a given commodity produced. Thus, the largest benefits went to the largest, wealthiest farmers, including not only those who actually worked the land, but also the insurance companies and farming corporations who owned so much of it. Writing in 1965, agricultural economist Varden Fuller summarized the outcome succinctly: “The bulk of the program benefits for more than thirty years have been distributed in disproportion to need and...have been rewarding to the owners of land and unrewarding to the owners of labor.”
pages 92, 98 Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat

The process by which the Roosevelt administration undertook reforms also institutionalized a flaw in the way we think about the food system;  when calling for consultation, labour, consumers and the public interest were left out. Only the major national farm groups were invited.
While it makes sense to invite input from farmers on agricultural policy, agricultural policy has much broader implications than just for farmers. As we are experiencing today, farm policy impacts what we eat. Did we, the consuming public, stand up and request Pop-Tarts or Alpha-bits? Not so much. As Melanie Warner detailed so well in her recent book Pandora's Lunchbox, there was a confluence of trends that led to the modern diet—but consumer choice and demand weren't among them.
And one of the reasons for this is that we have institutionalized the thinking that agricultural policy is only about farmers. Institutionalized the thinking that food isn't a complex web of requirement, desire, and responsibility. Everybody who eats has a stake in the food system (well, vegetarians don't have a steak in the food system, but you know what I mean).
Some of the best practical thinking on this is coming from the front lines of the food bank movement. In The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis describe how the Stop in Toronto has expanded its mandate from simple food-banking into a more integrated response to the slow-motion famine. The Stop has linked up with farmers, farmer's markets, community gardens and community kitchens, and other participants in the food system to form a more integrated approach to ensuring food security.
Food banks, breadlines, release of grain stores, these are all historically common responses to famine from Babylon to the present. We saw it in the thirties and again in the eighties. The problem is, these last famines have taken place in the midst of plenty. They are economically based rather than production based famines. And this time, we're not even pretending to try and alleviate the suffering. In the early eighties, choices were made that we knew would increase unemployment, add to the homeless population, expand food and financial insecurity. From the pursuit of free-trade agreements and the subsequent off-shoring of jobs, to emptying out public run group homes and care facilities, and to the deregulation of the financial services industry and (in the US) the repeal of Glass-Steagal, arriving here was not an accident. It was a carefully thought out plan.
You can tell it was a plan by applying  Johanson's Law ("When a system achieves the same outcome regardless of stated goals and altered tactics, then the outcome is the goal"): regardless of the changes made to the welfare system, employment assistance, and the whole “trickle down” concept, the poor have become poorer, homelessness has increased, and food banks and soup kitchens are “celebrating” twenty and thirty year anniversaries.

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