Honesty in Short Supply in Washington

By Jim van der Pol

Honesty is multifaceted. There is the Sunday School version. “Do not lie.” There is the George Washington and his hatchet and cherry tree version, which has George suffering from a guilty conscience and needing to tell his father the truth about the tree.

Here the lie would be in not admitting the truth: lying by not telling, so to speak. There are the personal lies, in which we deceive ourselves, sometimes about how honest we are.

Then there are the corporate lies, the ones that we all share, those that are told in the form of stories over and over and believed by the majority of the population, both tellers and hearers. The idea of Manifest Destiny and the essential goodness of some wars fall into this category.

Well, I recently was involved in a farm policy discussion which involved all of these facets. Quite breathtaking. The occasion was Minnesota’s Farmers Union convention which quite accidentally coincided with the blowing up of Congress’s so-called “super committee,” that anti-constitutional monument to political corruption.

We had a presentation by our National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson about the goings on surrounding that committee and a “gang of four” (remember when it was only the Russians and the Chinese that governed themselves by means of gangs?) made up of the chairs of House agriculture and Senate agriculture and their ranking minority members. This includes my own representative, Democrat Collin Peterson. These heavy hitters for big agribusiness got together and recommended to the super committee massive cuts in both food stamps and conservation programs. They also wanted to decrease the amount of money paid out in what used to be called “freedom to farm” payments in favor of putting the money into crop insurance so that crop insurance would pay out for shallow losses, those amounting to not more than the simple small annual variation in yield. Since the “super committee” dodge has now failed, time will tell if the same ideas show up in the regular farm bill deliberations, and if they do, how much impact non-commodity and non-agribusiness groups will have.

But the first thing that can be said about the idea is that a farm that cannot tolerate a 10% reduction in yield due to adverse weather without government relief is not financially stable. In a start-up farm, that would be understandable, but for a big long term operation it is not, and the farm should be allowed to fail. An agriculture that runs that close to the red should certainly not be carelessly counted upon to feed the nation. But perhaps the real explanation is the desire for easy government money rather than living with the risk that capitalists claim to love.

I questioned Mr. Johnson on the convention floor about the extent of government involvement in the crop insurance program. Unable to give me an answer in the matter of losses paid out, he did say that 60% of the crop insurance premium is paid by the government presently. This means that a majority of losses paid out is straight from the treasury, since we know that the considerable operating and top salary costs of the insurance company will reduce considerably the availability of the 40% of the premium paid by the farmer to pay losses.

It was also mentioned several times that House and Senate agriculture should be admired for going forward to the super committee with recommended cuts to their programs. The cuts amounted to a major hit for conservation, which is always getting in the way of commodity production and an attempt to further disguise handouts by putting a cloak of “insurance” over them. As Mr. Johnson assured me in conversation later, a good part of the reason for wanting to move payments to the crop insurance was to blunt some of the criticism mounted against USDA for the “freedom to farm” payments due to the publicity generated about these by the Environmental Working Group. Crop insurance is less public.

The food stamp cuts can be explained easily just by noting how popular it is to kick the poor around in today’s Washington. So what about honesty, or the absence of it? Where to begin?

Well, the assumption by the gang of four of the mantle of statesmanship is a good start. They came forward carrying not the concern of citizens for their country and its government, or even the desire of their constituents for some economic justice or simple fair play, but rather the desire of their agribusiness owners for more of the same. A quick look at what they asked for, laid out above, demonstrates that case pretty well.

No operating small farmer that I know wants conservation cut and crop insurance beefed up. But the sellers of inputs do. These four representatives and senators may well believe they are speaking for their constituents though there is no real evidence of that.

One of the reasons they may believe themselves honest in their representation of the citizens in their districts is that those citizens, along with most of the rest of the country, have been indulging in a corporate lie, to wit, that large farms are more efficient and more productive than small ones. Large farms are, of course, more efficient at gathering wealth into fewer hands. But they are not, in any sense, better at producing more value per acre.

The majority of citizens in every one of these districts are not farmers at all, though they may well work in related businesses. Their interests in good housing, roads, public facilities, public education and decent health care is not being addressed at all by politicians that continue to rely on the tired old business about how government largesse, thrown in at the top, trickles down. Many of the farmers who will benefit from this government program as they have from all the rest will be heard loudly asserting that it is welfare mothers and recent immigrants that are bleeding the country; that they themselves earned every dollar they ever had and owe no thanks to the government or their fellow taxpayers.

These attitudes are easier, of course when the government’s contribution is well hidden. The home mortgage deduction is the shining example of this. No one who benefits from it credits the government for deductions on interest paid, which are otherwise connected with businesses only. The crop insurance is the same logic applied to farmers.

It is easier for the recipient of government payout if no one believes that is what it is. It can just be accepted then and no one has to make the argument with himself that he is getting the money because he deserves it, or because what he does is sufficiently important that it deserves support, while what these other folks do does not. But the practice leads to mental laziness and confusion as witness the signs at the Tea Party anti health care meetings instructing the politicians to keep their government hands “off my Medicare.”

A person who knows not or prefers not to know who is paying for his health care has also never thought about how the road he drives on came to be, where he learned to read and calculate, who is caring for his incapacitated mother, who made and is enforcing some very elementary rules about how his employer treats employees and so on.

This “not knowing” or perhaps “not caring to think about it” balks honesty.

It is probably necessary for citizens to learn to think carefully about what they can and cannot do alone, admit the help they are getting and seriously question themselves about their taste for foreign made trinkets and what that does to the nation’s balance of payments deficit if they expect politicians to tell the truth, to handle the public purse responsibly, and to quit hiding behind “super committees” and “Presidential privilege”.

Politicians won’t take responsibility for the country if we don’t.

Jim van der Pol writes and farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2012


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