RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Uphill Climb in a Flat World

“I don’t know how you can read that book without burning it,” Rhonda said to me.

The book was free-trader Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. Flat world is Friedman’s metaphor to sum up how fast information transmission has changed the world. The book is full of examples of how the Internet has made it easier for business to find low-cost workers in places like India, cut costs and turn profits.

Profit, in Friedman’s language, is the highest good. So free trade, following his logic, is a good thing.

Wait. No. There’s another good. It is that free trade has made it possible for consumers to get exactly the right jacket, with or without the fringe or beads, in exactly the color they want, because, using the information highway, stores can track demand and have the jacket on the hanger at our store when we want it.

Fair enough, and you might wonder why Rhonda wanted to burn the book.

Let me set the stage: Rhonda and I, along with 20-some of our closest farmer friends, were in the back seats of a commercial jet, on the ground at O’Hare. We had been there for more than an hour, and it was getting hard to breathe. Every time someone from the front seats entered the toilets just behind us, a cloud of nasty air billowed out.

To a bunch of farmers on our way to FarmAid, the situation seemed like a metaphor for what free trade has done. Put a few jabbermouths on the front half of the plane, put the workers, including the farmers, back by the toilets.

I have nothing against Thomas Friedman, but I’d love to know why free traders insist that things are good. We have so much evidence to the contrary. And this is important because presidential candidates, including both R’s and D’s, have refused to back off this point. Hillary, for example, says she will vote to expand NAFTA.

Our communities are falling apart over the loss of jobs that have been leaving the nation. To make up for the loss of jobs, the real estate and banking industries have been profiting from ripping people off with predatory loans.

And, to top it off, the export-import style of our current businesses have made us dependent on transportation. And, besides being at war for oil, if the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is causing climate change, we can credit free trade with the environmental degradation that includes a melting north pole, sinking islands in the Pacific Ocean, and increasingly violent storm patterns.

But free traders don’t care what free trade does to the planet or to people. If Friedman has any worries on behalf of humans at all, it’s that Americans should become more educated to get jobs that will help us catch the information boom. Even though, those of us in the back of the plane will point out, the only vacant jobs are like those of the potty pumper whom we desperately needed at O’Hare field.

For example, take the food industry. Please.

On Oct. 19, Iowa State University’s Jan Flora released a study about the pork industry that confirms that giant hog facilities don’t produce high-quality jobs. In counties that have a lot of corporate facilities, there’s an increase in adults that lack a high school education.

These corporate facilities are the giant hog factories, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where thousands of hogs are raised for pork. The hogs aren’t owned by a farmer, even though he pays for the buildings and provides the land. Instead, the fellow once known as a farmer now has a contract to be a hog-house janitor (HHJ) on behalf of the corporate owners.

The HHJ receives truckloads of hogs and feed, pumps water to the hogs and pumps the waste to a cesspool, opens the buildings in nice weather and closes them up when it’s cold. Unlike real farmers, the HHJ doesn’t make any decisions as to land use, animal health or feed. He can’t benefit from reduced costs, although he pays when costs go up. If you had an education and your community was becoming more about CAFOs and less about decision-making, would you stick around?

More corporate concentration, less need for education.

The same day that Flora’s study was released, presidential hopeful John Edwards was campaigning in Iowa. As he has promised before, as president he would seek a moratorium on hog confinements and push for tighter environmental regulations. North Carolina, where the industry started, has had a moratorium for nearly 10 years.

“There are parts of North Carolina where if you drove through them, the smell was overwhelming,” Edwards said. “And we’ve had huge problems with the water and water supply because of it ... A lot of these corporate farming operations just come in and suck out the resources and send them somewhere else.”

Edwards makes sense. In just that way, in our jet plane on the ground at O’Hare, the attendant found a potty pumper, and things improved. She apologized for taking so long to help, said she had worked too many hours and was looking for another job.

Maybe with Air India.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

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