[FoRK] Re: An armed society... (freakin' Canada.)

zuzu <sean.zuzu at gmail.com> on Thu Sep 20 08:58:43 PDT 2007

On 9/20/07, Ian Andrew Bell <hello at ianbell.com> wrote:
> The economic advantages of using robots don't play out when your
> labour cost is $100/mo.  I would suggest that the US is sliding
> towards China (amnesty for underpaid lower-caste immigrants from
> Mehico to fuel the U.S. stubbornly clinging to the notion it's a
> manufacturing nation) rather than the other way around.  Japan only
> got into robotics when their labour costs climbed as the economy
> prospered.
> "Harness Natural Resources" is an oxymoron.  We must learn to live
> within ecosystems, rather than attempting to control or replace
> them.  And if American society is our shining beacon of the benefits
> of human intelligence then we're all in trouble.
> ~165,000 people die EVERY DAY of hunger on this planet.  How can
> anyone describe it as a land of plenty?

farmers in agriculturally socialized nations (including the USA) are
paid by the government to let their food rot in an attempt to keep
food prices artificially high.

people are still starving on this planet largely to preserve the
mythos of "the family farm" in modern nation-states.

I found this a rather interesting read:

October 12, 2003
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 10-12-03; The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions Of

Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler
than they look. Take America's ''obesity epidemic,'' arguably the
most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every
five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that
today's children will be the first generation of Americans whose life
expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The
culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.

You hear several explanations. Big food companies are pushing
supersize portions of unhealthful foods on us and our children. We
have devolved into a torpid nation of couch potatoes. The family
dinner has succumbed to the fast-food outlet. All these explanations
are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to
look for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this:
when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get
fat. Since 1977, an American's average daily intake of calories has
jumped by more than 10 percent. Those 200 or so extra calories have
to go somewhere. But the interesting question is, Where, exactly, did
all those extra calories come from in the first place? And the answer
takes us back to the source of all calories: the farm.

It turns out that we have been here before, sort of, though the last
great American binge involved not food, but alcohol. It came during
the first decades of the 19th century, when Americans suddenly began
drinking more than they ever had before or have since, going on a
collective bender that confronted the young republic with its first
major public-health crisis -- the obesity epidemic of its day. Corn
whiskey, suddenly superabundant and cheap, was the drink of choice,
and in the 1820's the typical American man was putting away half a
pint of the stuff every day. That works out to more than five gallons
of spirits a year for every American. The figure today is less than a

As W.J. Rorabaugh tells the story in ''The Alcoholic Republic,'' we
drank the hard stuff at breakfast, lunch and dinner, before work and
after and very often during. Employers were expected to supply
spirits over the course of the workday; in fact, the modern coffee
break began as a late-morning whiskey break called ''the
elevenses.'' (Just to pronounce it makes you sound tipsy.) Except for
a brief respite Sunday mornings in church, Americans simply did not
gather -- whether for a barn raising or quilting bee, corn husking or
political campaign -- without passing the jug. Visitors from Europe
-- hardly models of sobriety themselves -- marveled at the free flow
of American spirits. ''Come on then, if you love toping,'' the
journalist William Cobbett wrote his fellow Englishmen in a dispatch
from America. ''For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of

The results of all this toping were entirely predictable: a rising
tide of public drunkenness, violence and family abandonment and a
spike in alcohol-related diseases. Several of the founding fathers --
including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams --
denounced the excesses of the ''alcoholic republic,'' inaugurating
the American quarrel over drinking that would culminate a century
later in Prohibition.

But the outcome of our national drinking binge is not nearly as
relevant to our present predicament as its underlying cause. Which,
put simply, was this: American farmers were producing way too much
corn, especially in the newly settled areas west of the Appalachians,
where fertile soil yielded one bumper crop after another. Much as it
has today, the astounding productivity of American farmers proved to
be their own worst enemy, as well as a threat to the public health.
For when yields rise, the market is flooded with grain, and its price
collapses. As a result, there is a surfeit of cheap calories that
clever marketers sooner or later will figure out a way to induce us
to consume.

In those days, the easiest thing to do with all that grain was to
distill it. The Appalachian range made it difficult and expensive to
transport surplus corn from the lightly settled Ohio River Valley to
the more populous markets of the East, so farmers turned their corn
into whiskey -- a more compact and portable ''value-added
commodity.'' In time, the price of whiskey plummeted, to the point
that people could afford to drink it by the pint, which is precisely
what they did.

Nowadays, for somewhat different reasons, corn (along with most other
agricultural commodities) is again abundant and cheap, and once again
the easiest thing to do with the surplus is to turn it into more
compact and portable value-added commodities: corn sweeteners,
cornfed meat and chicken and highly processed foods of every
description. The Alcoholic Republic has given way to the Republic of
Fat, but in both cases, before the clever marketing, before the
change in lifestyle, stands a veritable mountain of cheap grain.
Until we somehow deal with this surfeit of calories coming off the
farm, it is unlikely that even the most well-intentioned food
companies or public-health campaigns will have much success changing
the way we eat.

The underlying problem is agricultural overproduction, and that
problem (while it understandably never receives quite as much
attention as underproduction) is almost as old as agriculture itself.
Even in the Old Testament, there's talk about how to deal not only
with the lean times but also with the fat: the Bible advises creation
of a grain reserve to smooth out the swings of the market in food.
The nature of farming has always made it difficult to synchronize
supply and demand. For one thing, there are the vagaries of nature:
farmers may decide how many acres they will plant, but precisely how
much food they produce in any year is beyond their control.

The rules of classical economics just don't seem to operate very well
on the farm. When prices fall, for example, it would make sense for
farmers to cut back on production, shrinking the supply of food to
drive up its price. But in reality, farmers do precisely the
opposite, planting and harvesting more food to keep their total
income from falling, a practice that of course depresses prices even
further. What's rational for the individual farmer is disastrous for
farmers as a group. Add to this logic the constant stream of
improvements in agricultural technology (mechanization, hybrid seed,
agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops -- innovations all
eagerly seized on by farmers hoping to stay one step ahead of falling
prices by boosting yield), and you have a sure-fire recipe for
overproduction -- another word for way too much food.

All this would be bad enough if the government weren't doing its best
to make matters even worse, by recklessly encouraging farmers to
produce even more unneeded food. Absurdly, while one hand of the
federal government is campaigning against the epidemic of obesity,
the other hand is actually subsidizing it, by writing farmers a check
for every bushel of corn they can grow. We have been hearing a lot
lately about how our agricultural policy is undermining our foreign-
policy goals, forcing third-world farmers to compete against a flood
tide of cheap American grain. Well, those same policies are also
undermining our public-health goals by loosing a tide of cheap
calories at home.

While it is true that our farm policies are making a bad situation
worse, adding mightily to the great mountain of grain, this hasn't
always been the case with government support of farmers, and needn't
be the case even now. For not all support programs are created equal,
a fact that has been conveniently overlooked in the new free-market
campaign to eliminate them.

In fact, farm programs in America were originally created as a way to
shrink the great mountain of grain, and for many years they helped to
do just that. The Roosevelt administration established the nation's
first program of farm support during the Depression, though not, as
many people seem to think, to feed a hungry nation. Then, as now, the
problem was too much food, not too little; New Deal farm policy was
designed to help farmers reeling from a farm depression caused by
what usually causes a farm depression: collapsing prices due to
overproduction. In Churdan, Iowa, recently, a corn farmer named
George Naylor told me about the winter day in 1933 his father brought
a load of corn to the grain elevator, where ''the price had been 10
cents a bushel the day before,'' and was told that suddenly, ''the
elevator wasn't buying at any price.'' The price of corn had fallen
to zero.

New Deal farm policy, quite unlike our own, set out to solve the
problem of overproduction. It established a system of price supports,
backed by a grain reserve, that worked to keep surplus grain off the
market, thereby breaking the vicious cycle in which farmers have to
produce more every year to stay even.

It is worth recalling how this system worked, since it suggests one
possible path out of the current subsidy morass. Basically, the
federal government set and supported a target price (based on the
actual cost of production) for storable commodities like corn. When
the market price dropped below the target, a farmer was given an
option: rather than sell his harvest at the low price, he could take
out what was called a ''nonrecourse loan,'' using his corn as
collateral, for the full value of his crop. The farmer then stored
his corn until the market improved, at which point he sold it and
used the proceeds to repay the loan. If the market failed to improve
that year, the farmer could discharge his debt simply by handing his
corn over to the government, which would add it to something called,
rather quaintly, the ''ever-normal granary.'' This was a grain
reserve managed by the U.S.D.A., which would sell from it whenever
prices spiked (during a bad harvest, say), thereby smoothing out the
vicissitudes of the market and keeping the cost of food more or less
steady -- or ''ever normal.''

This wasn't a perfect system by any means, but it did keep cheap
grain from flooding the market and by doing so supported the prices
farmers received. And it did this at a remarkably small cost to the
government, since most of the loans were repaid. Even when they
weren't, and the government was left holding the bag (i.e., all those
bushels of collateral grain), the U.S.D.A. was eventually able to
unload it, and often did so at a profit. The program actually made
money in good years. Compare that with the current subsidy regime,
which costs American taxpayers about $19 billion a year and does
virtually nothing to control production.

So why did we ever abandon this comparatively sane sort of farm
policy? Politics, in a word. The shift from an agricultural-support
system designed to discourage overproduction to one that encourages
it dates to the early 1970's -- to the last time food prices in
America climbed high enough to generate significant political heat.
That happened after news of Nixon's 1972 grain deal with the Soviet
Union broke, a disclosure that coincided with a spell of bad weather
in the farm belt. Commodity prices soared, and before long so did
supermarket prices for meat, milk, bread and other staple foods tied
to the cost of grain. Angry consumers took to the streets to protest
food prices and staged a nationwide meat boycott to protest the high
cost of hamburger, that American birthright. Recognizing the
political peril, Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl
(Rusty) Butz, to do whatever was necessary to drive down the price of

Butz implored America's farmers to plant their fields ''fence row to
fence row'' and set about dismantling 40 years of farm policy
designed to prevent overproduction. He shuttered the ever-normal
granary, dropped the target price for grain and inaugurated a new
subsidy system, which eventually replaced nonrecourse loans with
direct payments to farmers. The distinction may sound technical, but
in effect it was revolutionary. For instead of lending farmers money
so they could keep their grain off the market, the government offered
to simply cut them a check, freeing them to dump their harvests on
the market no matter what the price.

The new system achieved exactly what it was intended to: the price of
food hasn't been a political problem for the government since the
Nixon era. Commodity prices have steadily declined, and in the
perverse logic of agricultural economics, production has increased,
as farmers struggle to stay solvent. As you can imagine, the shift
from supporting agricultural prices to subsidizing much lower prices
has been a boon to agribusiness companies because it slashes the cost
of their raw materials. That's why Big Food, working with the farm-
state Congressional delegations it lavishly supports, consistently
lobbies to maintain a farm policy geared to high production and cheap
grain. (It doesn't hurt that those lightly populated farm states
exert a disproportionate influence in Washington, since it takes far
fewer votes to elect a senator in Kansas than in California. That
means agribusiness can presumably ''buy'' a senator from one of these
underpopulated states for a fraction of what a big-state senator costs.)

But as we're beginning to recognize, our cheap-food farm policy comes
at a high price: first there's the $19 billion a year the government
pays to keep the whole system afloat; then there's the economic
misery that the dumping of cheap American grain inflicts on farmers
in the developing world; and finally there's the obesity epidemic at
home -- which most researchers date to the mid-70's, just when we
switched to a farm policy consecrated to the overproduction of grain.
Since that time, farmers in the United States have managed to produce
500 additional calories per person every day; each of us is,
heroically, managing to pack away about 200 of those extra calories
per day. Presumably the other 300 -- most of them in the form of
surplus corn -- get dumped on overseas markets or turned into ethanol.

Cheap corn, the dubious legacy of Earl Butz, is truly the building
block of the ''fast-food nation.'' Cheap corn, transformed into high-
fructose corn syrup, is what allowed Coca-Cola to move from the
svelte 8-ounce bottle of soda ubiquitous in the 70's to the chubby 20-
ounce bottle of today. Cheap corn, transformed into cheap beef, is
what allowed McDonald's to supersize its burgers and still sell many
of them for no more than a dollar. Cheap corn gave us a whole raft of
new highly processed foods, including the world-beating chicken
nugget, which, if you study its ingredients, you discover is really a
most ingenious transubstantiation of corn, from the cornfed chicken
it contains to the bulking and binding agents that hold it together.

You would have thought that lower commodity prices would represent a
boon to consumers, but it doesn't work out that way, not unless you
believe a 32-ounce Big Gulp is a great deal. When the raw materials
for food become so abundant and cheap, the clever strategy for a food
company is not necessarily to lower prices -- to do that would only
lower its revenues. It makes much more sense to compete for the
consumer's dollar by increasing portion sizes -- and as Greg Critser
points out in his recent book ''Fat Land,'' the bigger the portion,
the more food people will eat. So McDonald's tempts us by taking a
600-calorie meal and jacking it up to 1,550 calories. Compared with
that of the marketing, packaging and labor, the cost of the added
ingredients is trivial.

Such cheap raw materials also argue for devising more and more highly
processed food, because the real money will never be in selling cheap
corn (or soybeans or rice) but in ''adding value'' to that commodity.
Which is one reason that in the years since the nation moved to a
cheap-food farm policy, the number and variety of new snack foods in
the supermarket have ballooned. The game is in figuring out how to
transform a penny's worth of corn and additives into a $3 bag of
ginkgo biloba-fortified brain-function-enhancing puffs, or a dime's
worth of milk and sweeteners into Swerve, a sugary new ''milk based''
soft drink to be sold in schools. It's no coincidence that Big Food
has suddenly ''discovered'' how to turn milk into junk food: the
government recently made deep cuts in the dairy-farm program, and as
a result milk is nearly as cheap a raw material as water.

As public concern over obesity mounts, the focus of political
pressure has settled on the food industry and its marketing
strategies -- supersizing portions, selling junk food to children,
lacing products with transfats and sugars. Certainly Big Food bears
some measure of responsibility for our national eating disorder -- a
reality that a growing number of food companies have publicly
accepted. In recent months, Kraft, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have
vowed to change marketing strategies and even recipes in an effort to
help combat obesity and, no doubt, ward off the coming tide of

There is an understandable reluctance to let Big Food off the hook.
Yet by devising ever more ingenious ways to induce us to consume the
surplus calories our farmers are producing, the food industry is only
playing by a set of rules written by our government. (And maintained,
it is true, with the industry's political muscle.) The political
challenge now is to rewrite those rules, to develop a new set of
agricultural policies that don't subsidize overproduction -- and
overeating. For unless we somehow deal with the mountain of cheap
grain that makes the Happy Meal and the Double Stuf Oreo such
''bargains,'' the calories are guaranteed to keep coming.

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the magazine, teaches at
the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at

> -Ian.
> On 19-Sep-07, at 8:07 PM, Stephen D. Williams wrote:
> > And we aren't even in the "robotic age" yet.  You all realize I
> > think that whoever wins the AI/robotic technology race will not
> > only have unlimited power in general but also dominate all
> > manufacturing, agriculture, and at least some kinds of services.
> > Hopefully that will be the US+EU+friendlies.  It's certainly not
> > going to be backwater religious Luddites.  If they think they've
> > been sidetracked, outpaced, and left in the stone age now, just wait.
> >
> > China had better make a play to get modern quickly because it may
> > or may not make sense to put those robotic factories there when
> > they could just as well be in the American Rockies or desert or
> > North Dakota or whatever.  Once you subtract labor, even nearly
> > free labor, the equation changes completely, again.
> >
> > World of Plenty indeed.  We're only limited now by the manual
> > effort and human intelligence needed to harness natural resources.
> > That's a temporary issue.
> >
> > sdw
> >
> > Tom Higgins wrote:
> >> On 9/19/07, Kevin Elliott <k-elliott at wiu.edu> wrote:
> >>
> >>> I think "World of Plenty" is a much better description of our world
> >>> today than "World of Scarcity".
> >>>
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >> It is an amazing thought to ponder that a few hundred years ago
> >> most of us
> >> would be serfs sucking up to the local masa and bowing knee to god
> >> and king
> >> while only a percentage of the populace got educated.
> >>
> >> Oh wait..isnt that now as well?
> >>
> >> I keed I keed, well almost.
> >>
> >> It is a Land Of Plenty when a good chunk of one nation's kids (I
> >> speak of
> >> the US since thats the one I know best) are given the opportunity
> >> to an
> >> education many would have killed for 100 years ago but instead opt
> >> to "ya
> >> know just hang and stuff, don't be such a downer about homework
> >> and stuff"
> >>
> >> We have passed Plenty here and are well into the Land Of
> >> Squanderous Plenty
> >>
> >> -tom
> >> _______________________________________________
> >> FoRK mailing list
> >> http://xent.com/mailman/listinfo/fork
> >>
> >
> > --
> > swilliams at hpti.com http://www.hpti.com Per: sdw at lig.net http://sdw.st
> > Stephen D. Williams 703-371-9362C 703-995-0407Fax 20147 AIM: sdw
> >
> > _______________________________________________
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