Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
Missouri farmer Blake Hurst takes on the anti-corn zealots.
First Lady Michelle Obama has refused to plant corn in her famous White House organic garden. That’s a direct result of the attack on corn and modern agriculture, led by local and sustainable food advocates, small farm groups, food writers, and the producers of film documentaries. The only kind of corn that would be grown in any garden, organic or not, is sweet corn, and sweet corn is the only thing that makes July survivable in hot Midwestern summers, but never mind. The organic garden is a political exercise, and corn is in bad odor with environmentalists, the New York Times, and Michael Pollan.
According to the narrative, we farmers plant far too much corn; in particular, too much of the kind of corn livestock eat. And we do this even though corn is really cheap.
What’s more, corn has become an industrial product like polypropylene or stainless steel; it’s no longer really food for any creature, great or small. Corn sweetener receives more bad press than methamphetamine, so the Obamas will eat no fresh sweet corn dripping with butter and sprinkled with salt. (President Obama can seem peevish at times; I’d prescribe sweet corn, twice a day, for the week or so that corn from the garden is at its peak.)
The fact that the Obamas are denying themselves a summer treat would be of little concern, except there are other problems with this story. The first is that it doesn’t reflect well on farmers. If we keep planting corn every year even though it never reaches profitable prices, then we farmers are stupid. Even at the risk of appearing irrational, farmers rarely challenge the story. It serves us well to argue from poverty when farm bills are written and subsidy levels decided, when stories appear about the subsidies received by farmers, and when we negotiate with the guy down at John Deere or with the landowner whose farm we want to rent.
Because the agenda of corn’s critics is advanced if farmers buy into the story, it doesn’t serve their ends to paint farmers as idiots. A scapegoat is needed. Hence, farmers plant too much corn because… because… because Earl Butz told us to!
Children of the Corn
Butz, for those who don’t remember, was Secretary of Agriculture for Presidents Nixon and Ford. He famously told farmers to plant “fence row to fence row.” He was no fan of acreage retirement programs: these programs were the main tool in the farm policy toolbox for 60 years, designed to control crop supply to keep prices stable, thus helping us farmers. And he was an ardent advocate for farm exports. He lost his job in 1976 after telling a racial joke.
In the 2007 documentary “King Corn,” Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis interview an aged Butz, and describe how, in their view, Nixon-era farm policies led directly to overproduction of corn and a subsequent rise of obesity in the United States. On camera, Butz is unrepentant, still convinced that paying farmers not to plant was “the stupidest thing we ever did.” The former secretary is proud of the fact that food costs have plummeted as a percentage of the average American’s budget, and reminds Cheney and Ellis that Americans are wealthier today because food costs have declined.
Greg Critser, in his book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, blames Butz for the use of high fructose corn sweetener, which, according to Critser, has made Americans obese. Richard Manning, in his 2004 screed Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, claims Butz is responsible for large corn crops and low corn prices.
Farmer Tom Philpott, writing on the occasion of Butz’s death, perhaps best describes the conventional wisdom. According to Philpott, Butz presided over massive cuts in farm subsidies, and more importantly the end of land retirement schemes used to control supply. Philpott describes farm policy from the 1930s until Butz as a sort of Nirvana for both farmers and consumers, as it paid farmers not to farm and kept corn prices high. Butz attempted to end land retirement programs and worked to increase farm exports. This, according to the narrative, was done at the behest of large agribusiness, and led to cheap corn fed to cattle, confined animal operations, corn sweetener in soda pop, and the decline of the small family farmer.
Obviously, farmers produce less when the government pays them not to produce. But most of the criticism of Butz centers on that famous bit of cheerleading. Farmers some 40 years later are producing too much corn, leaving corn prices too cheap and Americans too fat, because Butz urged us to plant fence row to fence row, and told us to “get big or get out.” Butz proclaimed as oracle, and farmers as easily led.
In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, Pollan credits Butz with single-handedly increasing corn yields:
Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz shifted the historical focus of federal farm policy from supporting prices for farmers to boosting yields of a small handful of commodity crops (corn and soy especially) at any cost. The administration’s cheap food policy worked almost too well: crop prices fell, forcing farmers to produce still more simply to break even.
Pollan is describing a backward-bending supply curve; Butz, a Purdue University-trained economist, is rolling over in his grave.
Read it all.
With midterm elections approaching, President Barack Obama has gone on the charm offensive, claiming Republicans are demonstrating a “lack of faith in the American people.”
“Faith” often is defined as “having confidence or trust in a person or thing.” In this case, though, faith means adding another $35 billion in unemployment benefits to the infinite intergenerational tab—sometimes referred to as the budget—and mailing out as many checks as possible before Election Day.
Yet the jab is revealing in other ways. To begin with, what mysterious brand of public policy has Obama employed that exemplifies this sacred trust between public officials and the common citizen?
Was it the administration’s faith in the wisdom of the American parent that persuaded it to shut down the voucher program in Washington, D.C., and continue the left’s decades-long campaign denying school choice for kids and parents? Or was that just faith in public-sector unions?
Was faith in American industry behind the Democrats’ support of a stimulus bill that was predicated almost entirely on preserving swollen government spending at the expense of private-sector growth?
Is this hallowed faith in the citizenry also what compels the administration to dictate what kind of car we will be driving in the future, what kind of energy we will be filling these “cars” with, and what amounts of that energy will be acceptable?
Is faith in American know-how why Washington funnels billions of tax dollars each year to its hand-picked industry favorites rather than allow the best and brightest to—please pardon the pun—organically figure out what the most sensible energy policy is, as we have in every other sector?
It must be that deep confidence in conscientious Americans that persuades the left to fight against the rights of gun owners who want nothing more than to defend life and property…
Richard Branson to launch iPad only publication.
While some publishers eye the Apple iPad hopefully as way of migrating the print experience into a rich, multimedia domain as never before, others are already leaping over paper entirely to reach new readers with original digital publications.
In one of the latest direct-to-iPad initiatives, Richard Branson’s Virgin empire announced plans to launch its first consumer magazine on the Apple tablet without a companion print edition. Virgin claims Maverick magazine will be consistent with Virgin’s overall brand, says AdAge, but will include actual articles rather than promotions other Virgin properties.
Branson’s daughter Holly Branson is reportedly leading Virgin’s charge into iPad territory. If she succeeds in signing on premium advertisers and “exploit[ing] the creative potential of the medium without the costs of an existing print title to maintain,” Maverick will launch in the beginning of October, as an iPhone app only — no Kindle, web or paper version.
The citizens of Bell (pop. 36,000) near downtown Los Angeles, are in a fury over their city manager’s $800,000 salary.
The Bell City Council has announced an emergency closed-session meeting for Thursday afternoon in which officials could decide the fate of three top administrators who are among the highest paid in the nation.
The city council members pay themselves $100,000 per year for a part-time job. Anyone see the problem?
Attorneys for the city have been negotiating with the three officials for several days, hoping to reach deals in which the city manager, assistant city manager and police chief would step down, sources told The Times.
Resigning would make City Manager Robert Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia eligible for lucrative pensions. But the three also have contracts that protect them from being fired without cause.
As a result, unless they agree to resign, the city would face the prospect of buying out their contracts, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional payments.
Rizzo earns nearly $800,000 a year, making him the highest-paid city manager in California and possibly the nation. Adams makes $457,000 — 50% more the Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck — and Spaccia makes $376,288, more than the top administrator for Los Angeles County.
The salaries, revealed by The Times last week, sparked protests in the small, predominantly working-class town southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Should Rizzo be forced from his job, he would immediately gain a new title: highest-paid retiree in the state’s CalPERS retirement system.
Rizzo, 55, would be entitled to a $659,252-a-year pension for the rest of his life, according to retirement calculations made by The Times that were reviewed by pensions experts.
A Placer County man has been arrested after he broke into a shuttered bar, reopened the business and started selling drinks to unwitting customers, according to the Placer County Sheriff’s department.
The Placer County Sheriff’s department arrested 29-year-old Travis Kevie of Newcastle after his 4-day stint as the barkeep of the historic Valencia Club in Penryn which had been shutdown for more than a year.
Detective Jim Hudson became suspicious after reading about the Valencia Club’s re-opening in an Auburn Journal newspaper article that featured a picture of Kevie and identified him as the club’s new “owner/operator”. Not only had Detective Hudson had previous run-ins with Kevie, he knew the Valencia Club’s liquor license had been surrendered.
When Detective Hudson went to the bar to investigate, he found it open for business and customers at the bar. Kevie quickly went from behind the bar to behind bars.
Doing some browser tab cleanup. This column is a week old, but still important.
By way of preamble, let me remind you where I stand on climate change. I think climate science points to a risk that the world needs to take seriously. I think energy policy should be intelligently directed towards mitigating this risk. I am for a carbon tax. I also believe that the Climategate emails revealed, to an extent that surprised even me (and I am difficult to surprise), an ethos of suffocating groupthink and intellectual corruption. The scandal attracted enormous attention in the US, and support for a new energy policy has fallen. In sum, the scientists concerned brought their own discipline into disrepute, and set back the prospects for a better energy policy.
I had hoped, not very confidently, that the various Climategate inquiries would be severe. This would have been a first step towards restoring confidence in the scientific consensus. But no, the reports make things worse. At best they are mealy-mouthed apologies; at worst they are patently incompetent and even wilfully wrong. The climate-science establishment, of which these inquiries have chosen to make themselves a part, seems entirely incapable of understanding, let alone repairing, the harm it has done to its own cause.
The Penn State inquiry exonerating Michael Mann — the paleoclimatologist who came up with “the hockey stick” — would be difficult to parody. Three of four allegations are dismissed out of hand at the outset: the inquiry announces that, for “lack of credible evidence”, it will not even investigate them. (At this, MIT’s Richard Lindzen tells the committee, “It’s thoroughly amazing. I mean these issues are explicitly stated in the emails. I’m wondering what’s going on?” The report continues: “The Investigatory Committee did not respond to Dr Lindzen’s statement. Instead, [his] attention was directed to the fourth allegation.”) Moving on, the report then says, in effect, that Mann is a distinguished scholar, a successful raiser of research funding, a man admired by his peers — so any allegation of academic impropriety must be false.
You think I exaggerate?
This level of success in proposing research, and obtaining funding to conduct it, clearly places Dr. Mann among the most respected scientists in his field. Such success would not have been possible had he not met or exceeded the highest standards of his profession for proposing research…
Had Dr. Mann’s conduct of his research been outside the range of accepted practices, it would have been impossible for him to receive so many awards and recognitions, which typically involve intense scrutiny from scientists who may or may not agree with his scientific conclusions…
Clearly, Dr. Mann’s reporting of his research has been successful and judged to be outstanding by his peers. This would have been impossible had his activities in reporting his work been outside of accepted practices in his field.
In short, the case for the prosecution is never heard. Mann is asked if the allegations (well, one of them) are true, and says no. His record is swooned over. Verdict: case dismissed, with apologies that Mann has been put to such trouble.
Further “vindication” of the Climategate emailers was to follow, of course, in Muir Russell’s equally probing investigation. To be fair, Russell manages to issue a criticism or two. He says the scientists were sometimes “misleading” — but without meaning to be (a plea which, in the case of the “trick to hide the decline”, is an insult to one’s intelligence). On the apparent conspiracy to subvert peer review, it found that the “allegations cannot be upheld” — but, as the impressively even-handed Fred Pearce of the Guardian notes, this was partly on the grounds that “the roles of CRU scientists and others could not be distinguished from those of colleagues. There was ‘team responsibility’.” Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the university which houses CRU, calls this “exoneration”.
The 2010 World Cup, recently concluded with Spain’s victory, is the greatest sporting event in the world. Even deniers of American exceptionalism must admit that longstanding American indifference is quite exceptional. (And given this indifference, I’ll use the proper term for the sport, not soccer but football.)
For me, the competition’s main interest was sociological. For example, I was in France when the French team lost. The manner in which it lost was more traumatic than the fact that it lost. The team, mainly of African and Arab origin, refused to sing the national anthem. Though all its members were multimillionaires, it went on strike (that is, the players refused to attend a training session) when the manager dismissed a player who insulted him in the most vulgar possible way after he upbraided the team for its poor performance—as objective a fact as possible. There were even rumors of racial conflict on the team.
All of this was traumatic because the French team’s victory in the 1998 World Cup had provoked euphoria over the success of France’s multiculturalism.
The English lost, too. The English crowd has a way of dealing with opponents. When England plays France, they shout “If it weren’t for us, you’d all be speaking Kraut.” When England plays Germany, they shout “Two world wars, one World Cup [in 1966 England beat Germany in the final], so f. . . off!” Truly, sport is the promoter of international brotherhood and understanding.
This year, Germany beat England. Though the Germans cheated, pretending that a goal scored by England was not a goal, even the most xenophobic Englishman had to admit that the Germans were miles better than the English, who were no good at all.
For me, the most intriguing comparison between the two teams was in the way that they spoke English. It goes without saying that the Germans spoke it much better, though none had ever lived in an English-speaking country. This, of course, is a commentary upon cultural conditions in the social stratum from which English football players are mostly drawn…