Who Owns America?

“When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism,” Agar writes, “the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues.”

Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, and Robert Weissman, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor in 2000 wrote the following about the 1936 published book Who Owns America?

The other day, at our local bookstore, we passed a book. And then doubled back.The book is titled Who Owns America?: A Declaration of Independence. Sounded like it was written by people we should know. But on further investigation, we recognized none of the names on the cover.Who Owns America? was written by 21 “conservative” decentralists. And it was first published in 1936.Re-released this year, with a new introduction by Seton Hall University History Professor Edward S. Shapiro, Who Owns America? (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 1999), is highly critical of large corporate institutions that controlled the political economy in 1930s America. Its publisher believes the book is as relevant today as the day it was published.Edited by Pulitizer Prize winning Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Herbert Agar and southern poet Allen Tate, Who Owns America? puts forth the type of scathing critique that you just can’t find in today’s political debates.Like today’s corporatist conservatives — George Will, James Glassman and Charles Krauthammer — the conservatives who wrote Who Owns America? believed that the specter of big government threatened individual freedom and the ideal America.But unlike the corporatists of today, Agar, Tate and their colleagues understood that public authority was the only antidote to the excesses of big corporate power.Agar, Tate and their colleagues argued that to attain the conservative goal of less government, you’d first have to limit the size and power of the large corporate institutions that were roaming the land. Typical of the 1930s conservatives writing in this volume is the pro-decentralist economist Richard Ransom.”The permanent lease on life which corporations possess tends more and more to concentrate within a few hands the ownership and control of general property,” wrote Ransom in a chapter titled Corporate and Individual Persons. “The disproportionate distribution of the national wealth is very evidently due in large part to the corporate tendency to mass larger and larger aggregates of ownership which are held together by corporate permanence and corporate inertia. …”Ransom’s solution to the problem of corporate control of the national wealth? Federal chartering of corporations doing interstate business.And what should the states do about excessive corporate power? The states should limit the “profitable business life of the corporations which they charter.”And how could the states accomplish this end?”This could perhaps be done by means of heavy selective inheritance taxation on the transfer of corporate shares or assets,” Ransom answers. And what would this achieve?”Such a shorter term of corporate life, either accomplished indirectly as suggested here or accomplished by more immediate means, will produce a more direct personal responsibility in corporate managements,” Ransom says. Once interstate corporations are federally chartered, Ransom proposes that the personal liability of stockholders should be extended to an amount at least equal to twice the proportionate investment of each stockholder (currently, you can only lose what you put in.)  Can you imagine Will or Krauthammer contemplating these thoughts? Lyle Lanier, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, wrote a chapter titled “Big Business in the Property State,” in which he observed that “the American people have long recognized the danger to democracy of economic power concentrated in the hands of big corporations.”Lawmakers passed the antitrust laws at the turn of the century, “but these laws have been impotent to stem the rising tide of big business organization,” Lanier wrote. Industrial capitalism, Lanier wrote, “has followed a course of development which is both self-destructive and dangerous to democratic institutions.”Lanier, like his co-authors, finds hope in a Jeffersonian ideal of small business and small farmers. The publication of this volume today makes George Will, James Glassman and their conservative contemporaries look like empty suits compared those who wrote Who Owns America?. Big corporations still roam the land and still threaten a fragile democracy. But there is no Agar on the right to challenge them. Needless to say, we cannot and do not agree with everything written by these 21 self-proclaimed “conservatives” of the 1930s. We do agree with the conservative sentiment put forth in the book, as summarized by Agar, that corporate concentration and democracy are at odds.”When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism,” Agar writes, “the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues.”

This is remarkable, very relevant to our current economy/society.

I also find their notion of limiting the lifespan of corporations extremely insightful (and, by the way, a very Christ-like perspective on society).

Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation

A video from December 2016:

Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation

Some phrases:

With regard to our traditional energy economy…The party is over! (Wes)

With regard to our economy…we accept no limits…an economy built on explosives and toxins. (Wendell)

With regard to the local food movement…it has been going on for 40 years and the divide between urban and rural has grown greater. (Mary)

With regard to a future economy…Developing an economy as a way of taking proper care. (Wendell)

Lastly, Wendell had a very nice thought on ‘natural integrity’.

Solving for Pattern in Agriculture

  • A good solution accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand. The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted. Granted that a farm can be too small, it is nevertheless true that enlarging scale is a deceptive solution; it solves one problem by acquiring another or several others.
  • A good solution accepts the limitation of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.
  • A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern – it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
  • A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation. The return of organic waste to the soil may, at first glance, appear to be a good solution per se. But that is not invariably or necessarily true. It is true only if the wastes are returned to the right place at the right time in the pattern of the farm, if the waste does not contain toxic material, if the quantity is not too great, and if not too much energy or money is expended in transporting it.
  • A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects. A farm that has found correct agricultural solutions to its problems will be fertile, productive, healthful, conservative, beautiful, pleasant to live on.
  • A good solution embodies a clear distinction between biological order and mechanical order, between farming and industry. Farmers who fail to make this distinction are ideal customers of the equipment companies, but they often fail to understand that the real strength of a farm is in the soil.
  • Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put all its eggs in fewer and fewer baskets, and to make ‘going for broke’ its only way of going. But to grow grain should not make it impossible to pasture livestock, and to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use a little.
  • A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. But that destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of the farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariable implied by any pattern….a healthy farm incorporates a pattern that a single human mind can comprehend, make, maintain, vary in response to circumstances, and pay steady attention to. That this limit is obviously variable from one farmer and farm to another does not mean that it does not exist.
  • A good solution should be cheap, and it should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In agriculture, so called ‘inputs’ are, from a different point of view, outputs – expenses. In all things, I think, but especially in an agriculture struggling to survive in an industrial economy, any solution that calls for an expenditure to a manufacturer should be held in suspicion – not rejected necessarily, but as a rule mistrusted.
  • Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited. The division of capital, management, and labor, characteristic of an industrial system, are therefore utterly alien to the health of farming – as they probably also are to the health of manufacturing. The good health of a farm depends on the farmer’s mind; the good health of the mind has its dependence, and its proof, in physical work. The good farmer’s mind and his body – his management and his labor – work together as intimately as his heart and lungs. And the capital of a well-farmed farm by definition includes the farmer, mind and body both. Farm and farmer are one thing, an organism.
  • Once the farmer’s mind, his body, and his farm are understood as a single organism, and once it is understood that the question of endurance of this organism is a question about the sufficiency and integrity of a pattern, then the word organic can be usefully admitted into this series of standards. It is a word that I have been defining all along, though I have not used it. An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of natural systems; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism. Sir Albert Howard said that a good farm is an analogue of the forest that ‘manures itself.’ A farm that imports too much fertility, even as feed or manure, is in this sense as inorganic as a farm that exports too much or that imports chemical fertilizer.
  • …In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body, what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm but sacrifice your life. Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people.
  • It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for the animals, what is good for the animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.
  • But we must not forget that those human solutions that we may call organic are not natural. We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint –for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits, to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to ‘solve’ problems by ignoring them, accepting them as ‘tradeoffs,’ or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.

 

Source: Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981, pp. 134-145)

Note: This list – directed at the farm – has much broader cultural meaning given the state of our current American economy and government.Movie All Is Lost (2013)

The Latest on the Collapse of Human Civilization

Rapid population growth — combined with our highly unbalanced distribution of wealth — and its obvious need for more resources (water, energy, food) may lead to a breaking point beyond which civilization becomes unsustainable.

Simply put, if you don’t have any water to drink or food to eat but your neighbors do and won’t share, you and your buddies are going to yank it away from them. Social unrest is not a joke.

The NPR Report with links to the Study

EVERYTHING around me indicates humanity needs to make rapid changes in their cultural and economic values.

A Changing Agricultural Land Economy

An estimated 400 million acres of farmland in the United States will likely change hands over the coming two decades as older farmers retire, even as new evidence indicates this land is being strongly pursued by private equity investors.

Mirroring a trend being experienced across the globe, this strengthening focus on agriculture-related investment by the private sector is already leading to a spike in U.S. farmland prices. Coupled with relatively weak federal policies, these rising prices are barring many young farmers from continuing or starting up small-scale agricultural operations of their own.

In the long term, critics say, this dynamic could speed up the already fast-consolidating U.S. food industry, with broad ramifications for both human and environmental health.

“When non-operators own farms, they tend to source out the oversight to management companies, leading in part to horrific conditions around labor and how we treat the land,” Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. watchdog group focusing on global large-scale land acquisitions, told IPS.

Chick-fil-A

There are, apparently, a number of ways to make breaded chicken sandwiches healthier. To this end, Chick-fil-A has been quietly switching out ingredients over the past decade. According to Nation’s Restaurant News it eliminated heart-disease-promoting trans fats in 2006, removed high-fructose corn syrup from its bagels and golden wheat bread, and gradually reduced sodium in some products. Now the 1,700-store chain is working to remove preservatives from its breads and oil.

What’s unusual about the efforts is that Chick-fil-A has largely refrained from publicizing them until now, hoping to avoid ire about any perceived change in flavor. Fast-food companies have had to balance customer loyalty to well-known menu items with growing pressure to offer healthier options. “We didn’t necessarily want the customer to know we’ve tweaked their favorite product,” Jodie Worrell, the chain’s senior nutrition consultant, told NRN.

The Bloomberg News Article

The Most Important Economic Stories of 2013 – in 43 Graphs

Maybe it’s just me, but the last few years are getting tough to tell apart. Imagine a quiz question:

Name that year where we threw obstacles in the recovery’s way, but kept growing slowly; where Europe avoided both a disaster and a solution to its mess; and where China kept growing over 7 percent, but didn’t rebalance its economy like it said it wants.

You’d be right to guess 2013. You’d also be right to guess 2012, 2011, or 2010.

So, to remind ourselves what did change in the last 12 months, we asked our favorite economists, journalists, and think-tankers for their favorite charts of the year. The stock market went on a tear, the labor market didn’t, and Wall Street and Main Street came to terms with a New Normal. Without further ado, here are 37,000 words worth of charts to tell the most important stories of 2013.

The Atlantic Report

This is wonderous economic analysis!

The Philippines Disaster and Food Aid

An NPR Report that tries to relate the Philippines Disaster, Food Aid, and the U.S. Farm Bill.

I say ‘tries to relate’ because the underlying political economy of U.S. food aid appears irrational and driven by commodity politics.

Sadly, once American government went down this path it became extremely difficult to make decisions that are ethically sound for needy local communities around the world.

Food Sovereignty

“I don’t think we can call ourselves sovereign if we can’t feed ourselves.” This is what Paul “Sugarbear” Smith told me a few years ago when I went to visit him in Oneida Territory, Wisconsin. I think he’s got something here and it’s worth looking into.

What is food sovereignty? The ability to feed your people. Let’s say that. This could be through your own growing and harvesting, or this could be through trade, if you’re happy with it and it’s working out for you. This is where we need to be, but certainly aren’t there now.

A very interesting two part essay by Winona LaDuke