Finding Social Justice in Farming: The Importance of Local Ownership


DSC01993Being that we’re in election season, there’s quite a bit of discussion over social justice issues, namely food stamps, “welfare programs,” and an increased minimum wage. People on both sides will argue back and forth with some stating we need to decrease aid to encourage people to find better jobs, with others arguing we need to increase aid because better jobs aren’t available. What is often ignored in such discussions is that no matter what, the system is established in such a way as to fail the poor, but there is a solution: Farming.

We’ve fought to make ourselves an industrialized nation, to move beyond an agricultural nation, and for the most part we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. Even our farming is done via factory methods, attempting to achieve “efficiency.” We’ve reduced our farming populace to less than 1% of the US population. We’re told that our industrialized farming has done many things to end world hunger, that we’re just a few years away from ending it completely.

Of course, the reality is vastly different from what we’re told. Worldwide, the number of those hungry has remained relatively the same for 50 years. What is worse, according to the same source (the UN Food and Agricultural Organization) is that about 3 billion, or a little under half the world’s population, do not eat well.

Even within the United States, 14% of our population is food insecure, and that number is up since 2000 (when it was around 10%). Of course poverty is directly linked to food insecurity, especially in the United States. According to the same government study, 61% of those who are food insecure partook in the SNAP program or some other food stamp program the previous year. On a greater level, Americans are among the most malnourished people in the “rich” world, despite the average American consuming 2700 calories a day, we consume pointless calories, or food devoid of the needed nutrients to aid the body in growth and maintenance. While the United States has one of the worst hunger rates among rich countries, ironically we’re also one of the fattest; both stem from incredibly poor food practices.

All the problems we’ve had forces us to ask exactly how factory farms are efficient. They certainly aren’t efficient in protecting the environment or the soil. They’re not efficient in feeding the world or even the United States. They’re not efficient at providing healthier food. They’re not efficient at providing jobs as they’ve basically taken all the jobs in rural America, forcing farmers to move to the city to find work. The only thing factory farms seem to be efficient in is in making money. We’re told that factory farms are “efficient” simply because they’re efficient at making money; but by using an adjective to describe factory farms, we falsely imply that they’re efficient, at least more efficient than local farms, at producing food for the community or feeding the world. The truth is the only thing a factory farm can accomplish better than a local farm is it can make a bigger profit.

But what this entire conversation betrays is that we look at economics in terms of being “economical,” or “efficient,” which are all words for “Do the costs justify the results.” The better results at the lowest possible cost, the more “efficient” a system is. The question no one asks, the question it seems economists always fail to ask, is, “But is it right and good for society?” Is it good that we’re making a huge profit if such a profit comes with other costs?

The problem with economists – who are worse than weathermen for predicting the future in their respective field – is they tend to think along linear and isolated lines when it comes to the economy, especially farming. A (the producer) begins the line and B (the consumer) ends the line; in-between are costs. So long as A is cheaper than when B purchases it, the system is “efficient.” But such a system, when taken holistically and when asked, “But is it good for society?” becomes absurdly inefficient. After all, the producer could use slave labor to make a trinket, meaning the consumer purchases the trinket at a market-driven rate that is almost guaranteed to achieve a profit; but the end result (a profit) is gained through horrible means (slavery). Likewise, with factory farming, while a profit is gained in the end, the means and costs associated are actually quite horrible.

There are many reasons we ought to prefer local farms over factory farms, and here are a few:

  1. Property Ownership: A factory farm is, by default, a monopoly over capital producing property. A healthy society is one in which the majority of workers own and control (or at the very least hold heavy influence over) the means of their labor. Put another way, to quote from G.K. Chesterton, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” If three companies ultimately control 99% of the food production for a nation, it’s safe to say that their wishes hold more influence than 3 million people. A truly free society is one in which the majority of people own capital producing property (property that can make money). A prevalence of locally grown farms where 20-30% of the population owns a farm would create a society where land use is diversified and decentralized.
  2. Low Skill Labor: Farming jobs require hard work, but very low skill labor. For anyone who’s grown up in a rural area in the past 70 years, they can tell you that their first job was on a far. That’s because much of farming is so simple that a 13 year old can do it. But in factory farms such jobs just aren’t available. This means that people who would live in a rural town and contribute to the economy there must now travel into the cities and look for low-wage jobs in the city, living hand to mouth, and praying to God that the next paycheck will feed them. Of course, if they owned their own parcel of land and knew how to grow things on that land, they would be in a position to not only feed themselves, but then sell their produce for a profit. While they would by no means lead extravagant lives, they’d be in a better position. They’d live in a rural area instead of a cramped city, work on their terms, and if all else failed they’d at least have their own food to eat rather than praying for the first of the month to hurry and arrive.
  3. Meaningful Work: Along the same lines of providing jobs for low skill labor, farming labor is work. A factory farm does all it can to reduce the cost, which means they hire only what is needed and mechanize the rest of the labor. Those who work for the factory farm often do so under horrible conditions, conditions that dehumanize them and make them focus on one aspect of the job. Local farms, however, require farm hands to understand multiple aspects about the farm. A local farm would provide meaningful work for someone with low skills in other jobs. A kid or (as is more often the case today) adult down on his luck finds no meaning in flipping a burger or tossing french fries into a cardboard canister. They do find meaning, however, in growing things, in creating things, in seeing and reaping the fruits of their labor. There’s no utilitarian reason to it, no other explanation than that’s just how humans are; we’re typically okay working when we can see that our work has meaning.
  4. Reduced cost to the tax-payer: Factory farms are cheap and efficient in cost only because the government subsidizes them; remove those subsidies (especially for gas prices) and you’ll watch the cost of factory-produced food leap higher than locally grown food (even organic food).  Why? Because Farmer Fred down the road lives in the community, can deliver his goods to the community, and therefore doesn’t have a high overhead cost. Of the nearly $100 billion in subsidies we give out, 74% go to the top 10% of farms. While farm subsidies are necessary for smaller farmers, the cost drops due to the lower overhead cost of a smaller farm.
  5. Viability: Most factory farms also use GMOs, which isn’t bad in and of itself. The problem is that if the patented crop isn’t immune to a certain fungus or insect, an entire field could die instead of a percentage of that field. Under a local farmer – who lacks the equipment to engineer his food – his field holds diversity, allowing for at least some of his crop to survive. Even if a farmer loses his entire crop, the amount of diversity among the crops from all the farmers would be enough to ensure that an entire crop isn’t lost for the local community.
  6. A local economy: Local farms keep money within a community, allowing the community to grow. A local farm also needs a hardware store, a mechanic, and the list goes on and on. Some mega-factory receives all the repairs and keeps all the money. There’s a reason that as the farmable land has been eaten up by corporations people from small towns have moved into the city. Not everyone leaving a rural area is a farmer, but simply lose business because an “efficient” agribusiness has come into town. Whereas a local farm doesn’t have such a luxury due to financial constraints. Thus, they place their money in the local economy. They’re more likely to have the mechanic come out to the farm and work on the equipment, to hire local teenagers to work the fields during harvest time, to sell to the local grocer, and so on.
  7. Ecological sustainability: The hustle and bustle of modern life that we seem content to thrust humans into destroys our spirit and our connection with nature. Notice how most factory farms are also some of the biggest polluters out there, but local farmers tend to be quite the environmentalists. The reason is simple: The CEO and executive board sitting in New York and Chicago only sees numbers and profit; they don’t care one bit for the ecological consequences. Yes, the whole, “But they rely on the land for profit, so why ruin it?” might be logical, but such an argument assumes that greed allows men to be logical. There are thousands of instances where it was in a company’s best interest to be environmentally conscience, but they chose not to because it could save them a few bucks. The local farmer, however, is more connected to nature because he’s surrounded by it and works it everyday. Where a factory farm might not care if it ruins the soil – it has other soil it can plow – the local farmer deeply cares for his land because it’s all he has. He doesn’t see numbers first; he sees his livelihood first.

Ultimately, factory farms are only “efficient” if one considers profit, which is a very linear A to B way of thinking. Of course, such a type of thinking doesn’t function well in the real world where everything is connected. If we want to achieve true social justice, part of what we must do is begin returning a larger portion of our population back to farms that they own and control.

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The Acton Institute: At the Intersection of Christianity, Capitalism, and Nihilism


Source: Pakistan Today

Source: Pakistan Today

The Acton Institute is a Christian organization that seeks to promote individual liberty based upon religious principles. Put another way, it’s a Christian organization that attempts to uphold individualism, so you can probably see where this is going.

While they do have many good things to say, overall – especially when it comes to their economic views – they tend to let conservative (Austrian) economics walk ahead of their Christian beliefs. While they do attempt to tie their beliefs back to Christianity, it’s often filtered heavily through a dedicated philosophical viewpoint; the end product is something that would appear foreign to the early Christians. Of course, the same can be said of Christian Marxists or Christian Communists who look at the book of Acts and go, “See, Communism!” But just as we think it silly to justify Communism via Scripture, it’s equally absurd to justify individualism (or laissez-faire capitalism) via Scripture.

Enter Joe Carter’s latest article, making an argument in defense of sweatshops. To give some background onto why he would do this, let me just quote him:

Liberal and conservative, right and left, red state and blue state—there are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to divide political and economic lines. But one of the most helpful ways of understanding such differences is recognizing the divide between advocates of proximate justice and absolute justice…

The primary appeal of absolute justice is its purity. Why align with compromisers and those who are satisfied with “good enough” when you can fight for full justice? Being satisfied with proximate justice sounds more like an excuse to do less rather than a principled position.

The primary appeal of proximate justice is its realism. Since absolute justice is not attainable this side of the new heaven and new earth, settling for less is the best we can ever expect. When absolute justice is our standard we can even end up allowing injustice to continue and flourish.

 

With that understanding, he goes on to write:

But first I want introduce one of the most paradigmatic, and controversial, of proximate justice positions: the defense of sweatshops.

A sweatshop is the pejorative term for a workplace that has working conditions those of us in the West deem socially unacceptable. Because of Western laws and norms, sweatshops are now found mostly in developing countries…

The absolute justice advocate would say that the working conditions in sweatshops are unacceptable—and the proximate justice advocate would agree. But the proximate justice advocate would ask, “What are the alternatives?” Invariably, the absolute justice advocate’s preference is either unworkable, unrealistic, or would lead to worse living conditions for the sweatshop worker.

Proximate justice requires that we don’t improve people’s lives or bring them justice by making their lives worse. As Benjamin Powell says, “Because sweatshops are better than the available alternatives, any reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers in sweatshops must not jeopardize the jobs that they already have.”

To summarize Carter’s own words, the argument is essentially, “Yeah, sweatshops aren’t ideal, but they’re better than nothing, so it is what it is.” He points out that in places such as China, while we might find the conditions deplorable, the Chinese factory workers like it because it’s better than the alternative:

What Chang is saying is that whether we understand or agree, the Chinese workers believe accepting their current working conditions is better for them than their realistic alternatives and that the work will help them to life a better life. Many of us intuitively understand this point because it has to with meeting material needs (e.g., without the factory job the workers might not be able to feed their families). What we have a harder time understanding is when people endure less-than-optimal working conditions for other needs, such as self-actualization.

Thus, the argument boils down to that while things might not be ideal, they’re better than an alternative, or, it’s better to be a slave than to starve. Now Carter would certainly object to such a summary, but his objection would be without merit as it’s almost word-for-word what he says, only without the round-about way of saying it.  Continue reading

A Pro-Family Economy? On the Importance of Family Values over Market Values


DSC02081A 40 hour work week is considered normal and desirable within the United States. While other nations might laugh at so few hours, most industrialized nations work less (in some cases far less) than the average American. Of course, while 40 hours might be the expectation, it’s not abnormal for Americans to work upwards of 70-80 hours a week (either in one job or with two jobs); the reasons could be an ambitious young person trying to advance in a career, a lawyer running up against deadlines, or a single mother just trying to put food on the table. While Eastern Europe – known for its economic struggles – posts higher working hours on average than the US, Western Europe – known for a stronger economy – posts lower working hours.

In the United States, of course, we value hard work. We think of early in our foundation of farmers, cobblers, shop owners, and the like working long hours in order to support the family. Even today there are small business owners who dedicate almost every waking hour to keeping their company going. Yes, a typical 40 hour work week leaves a person tired at the end of the day and distant from the family, but that’s the price to pay for progress, correct?

The problem with such thoughts is they ignore that the typical job in the modern age takes a person away from the family. Yes, farmers, cobblers, shop owners, and others might have worked longer hours, but they did so mostly from home and with their family. The “job” they worked was a family job, putting the husband in contact with the wife and his children. Rarely did anyone have need of leaving the home for work. At one point in our history the economy centered around the family, not the consumer, and that made all the difference in both the work week and the type of work accomplished.

Post-Civil War America saw a change in the goal of the economy; rather than existing ultimately for the benefit of the family (in most cases), it began to exist for the benefit of the individual, namely the wealthy individual. The husband ceased to be a person, but rather a “good,” something in order to help wealthy men grow in their wealth. Men began to leave the family farm, the family shop, and the family itself in order to put food on the table; the cold irony of the new Capitalistic endeavor is that in order to sustain their families, men had to abandon their families. Since that time, men fought for worker’s rights, sometimes winning but mostly losing. Women, in turn, began to question why they had to stay at home while men “fulfilled” their lives. The individualistic approach drove a spike between husband and wife and rather than becoming one in all things – including economic gains for the family – they became economic partners attempting to bring in a fair share. To this day feminist fight for equal pay for women and equal placement within the corporate world, and if this is the system we are to have then women ought to be equal, but how come no one has stopped to ask if we should truly have this system? If the system is unjust, why do we seek to increase the influence of the system?

Some might ask, “So you think women should stay at home for work?” To which I respond, yes, I believe that the human ideal is for women to work from the home. Yet, I would say the same for the men. Both are to work from the home and sustain the family. Of course, that is the ideal and in an industrialized society not completely attainable, but certainly we can do better than what we have. Currently people spend more time at work than they do with their families, at least if we discuss quality time. Most families are involved in so many after school/work activities, or go and do their separate things when getting home (watching tv, playing video games, and so on), that the modern family is nothing more than strangers sharing the same space and DNA. In the pursuit of fulfillment in a job we no longer find fulfillment in having a family; indeed, having a family is not a very Capitalistic thing to do as it can take away from one’s personal goals. This is why so many complain about having children, complain about a wife, a husband, and so on. We speak of family values, but we abandoned our family values long ago when we decided that the dollar was more valuable than the home.

From a Christian perspective the family functions as the beginning of everything on this earth. While we are made in the image of God and therefore he directs our purpose, that purpose is first acted out within the family. Both father and mother work in their own ways to raise the children properly. Children learn how to function as good human beings within the family setting. The family itself is, in many ways, the “first church,” where true spiritual discipline takes place. Only when different families come together do they begin to form a community; a small secular gathering, a church, a school, or anything along those lines. Those communities eventually form societies, which form cultures. If, therefore, our own economic system functions in a way that it destroys or makes impossible the idea of a nuclear family then it follows that eventually communities will collapse, and soon after societies and cultures.

What, then, is the solution? I’m not sure on a pragmatic area (though I’d argue that Distributism is our best bet to get close to the ideal of a family-centered economy), but I do know it’s time Christians divorced themselves from Capitalism. Capitalism relies on and focuses on the individual, not on the family. Christians must support family values over market values, they must support what is best for the family and not a system that promotes low wages and high hours. We can’t support a system that intentionally keeps people in poverty and puts power in the hands of the wealthy over the hands of the family (or community). If Christians truly wish to follow through on a pro-family worldview, they must extend this view to the economy, otherwise the family will continue to waste away within the American experience.

I Dream of a Reality to Escape Reality or, The Futility of Consumption


DSC02097Tumbling down the hole of existence

What is the point of it all

Information overload and told a purpose

Still I stumble, tumble, and fall

 

Do I exist simply to exist

Is there a point beyond pleasure

Oh for simpler times I long

To return to a life without measure

 

The simple summer days of youth

Innocence uncorrupted by life

Free from the struggles of today

Free from an adulthood of strife

 

A gilded view of my past I see

A utopia that never was

Life is a fight against the absurd

Perhaps we exist just because

 

“Hear me!” my generation cries with a roar

And yet we have nothing to say

To live is our dream, our goal

But we are afraid to seize the day

 

We are educated for jobs and not callings

To become better consumers and not humans

The life of consumption is not worth living

Personal peace and affluence but a numen

 

I set off into the unknown

I reject your world of consumption

I cannot spend my life spending

I must look past corporate assumption

 

A rebellion of peaceful creativity

Against it all my soul remains

But I awake and look around

I am still in my cultural chains

 

Into the woods I wish I could go

To offer up a greater resistance

Yet, I find myself consumed by the machine

Tumbling down the hole of existence

The Regress of Progress or, The Poverty of Wealth (A Poem)


DSC01993Hope springs forth or so I’m told
From joy and love a bountiful well
The pessimist to the optimist scold
Reminding them of this world, this hell

What is our purpose in this busy life
We fight traffic to a job we hate
And fight traffic back to a home of strife
Awake, for this night you cannot overtake

To run away to something meaningful
To run across the fields and hills
To discover in this world something beautiful
And cease relying on our cures and our pills

A man used to plow a field that was his own
As his family was with him in his vocation
We once understood the meaning of home
It was more than an address, a location

The world has itself in a damn hurry
We are only racing to our graves
Impossible to leave all the bustle and scurry
We are all fools and knaves

Buy the farm, build a skyscraper, and call it progress
Put the children in school and the parents at work
Our advanced civilization is a facade and a mess
Suppressed are our dreams, deep down they lurk

Created free, to progress we are now enslaved
We make great paper money and wage
But our master’s name upon us we engrave
And have traded nature’s freedom for a corporate cage

We are rational animals, soulful beasts
But we seek to deny both in the pursuit of wealth
Frozen dinners and fast food replace feasts
The beauty of this world is now hidden, it is stealth

Rise up above the skyscrapers and corporate chain
Reclaim your rationally savage essence
Pursue a life of living, one not in vain
And be happy as you grow in senescence

Virtue Capitalism: The Current Problem of Profit Motive or, Using Vice to Make Money


VIRTUE CAPITALISM

The Current Problem of Profit Motive | The Problem of Socialism | The Problem of Capitalism | The Good Life or, The Chief End of Man | Business as a Tool | Virtue Capitalism or, An Economy of the Kingdom

___________________________________________________________________________________

DSC02087As American corporations continue to get bigger and bigger and obtain more power, there is a recalcitrant truth that continues to plague these companies. That truth is that businesses motivated solely by profit tend to fail in one way or another. Paul wasn’t lying in 1 Timothy 6:10 when he stated that the love of money is the root of all evil; when a company enacts policies solely for profit gain they are betraying a love for money that ultimately makes the company’s practices evil.

Now, do not think I am condemning an attempt to earn a profit. After all, everyone is in it for the profit somewhere along the way. No one would work just to get by or to just pay the bills – ideally everyone wants enough money to take care of the necessities of life and then have some left over for liesure spending and/or savings. Companies should be no different, they should seek to make a profit because that profit can help advance the local economy. Profit in and of itself is not a bad thing, but seeking profit with no ethical parameters is dangerous.

The Myth of Profit as Success Continue reading

Consumer Eve’s Sermon


Photo: Sean D. Elliot, AP

The crowds had gathered to hear his oration

They turned on their TVs across the nation

The Prophet of Profit was about to speak

Words of despair not meant for the weak

The season of consumption was about to arrive

And the reason for it he was about to contrive

The season lost meaning from a greedy lesion

The reason was against Love we committed treason

_________________

“The November chill cuts through the air

A consumer’s holiday forgoes the share

Work minions and be happy for your toil

Lest in your angst the work shall spoil

Away to your big boxes where the economy thrives

You are free so long as you give us your lives

Ignore disparity in the name of charity

Economic clarity is such a rarity

_________________

Forgo your family and celebrate material

Ignore the spiritual for you are corporeal

Buy the love of your beloved ones

Things for your daughters and things for your sons

Come to the cathedrals of corporate gain and fraud

Pay your tithes and bow before your new god

A god who is not flawed

We laud him and he is worshiped abroad

_________________

Carry on you multitude of wage-slaves

Our lord requires you slog to your graves

The masses demand things to consume

If you cease working it shall be our doom

Work your hours and happily take your low pay

Protest us not, your overlords, for what can you say?

Ignore disparity in the name of charity

Economic clarity is such a rarity

_________________

Worship your material father you consumed consumers

Show us paper or plastic and ignore all the rumors

That this season used to celebrate Love come to our domain

And on our behalf this Love suffered pain

This is the ancient belief of a false God, a knave

To our new god we worship, all of us, even the slave

A god who is not flawed

We laud him and he is worshiped abroad

_________________

O you humble workers why do you look so sad

You do the work of Economy, should you not be glad

We give you meager wages while we make millions

Because we consume what you sell, you lowly peons

How gracious we are to just give you a job

How ungrateful you are that you just sob

Ignore disparity in the name of charity

Economic clarity is such a rarity

_________________

Buy, buy, buy whatever you can afford

Use your credit and the more you can hoard

Don’t let the crowds get a better deal

Shop early and stay late and take home a steal

Ignore your family and buy their affection

For the god of stuff will guide you from the poor’s affliction

A god who is not flawed

We laud him and he is worshiped abroad

_________________

Stop complaining about what you are paid

Be happy that you’re servants in our god’s trade

What better gift than to be sacrificed to him

So work harder, work happier, and for us please be prim

You need us to give you jobs and income

We need you to sacrifice to our god and then some

Ignore the disparity in the name of charity

Economic clarity is such a rarity

_________________

Bow before our omnipotent and all-holy mammon

Give him your heart and ignore the filthy gamin

For the poor are cursed by our god and are lazy

Show them not love or care for this is crazy

It encourages them to stay poor and not to thrive

St. Darwin was right that only the fittest survive

A god who is not flawed

We laud him and he is worshiped abroad

_________________

Give up hope that the season is about Love incarnate

It is about trinkets, toys, tools, and a beautiful garnet

It is not about a warm fire burning for the poor

Nor about redemption for the drunkard or the whore

Nor about hope for the hopeless coming from above

It is about getting stuff and buying love

Ignore disparity in the name of charity

Economic clarity is such a rarity

_________________

Serve our superior deity and ignore the oppressed

Exploit their work so you may consume at our god’s behest

This is not the season for charity or helping the meek

It is not about a greater reality that we supposedly seek

Reality is what you can touch, feel, see, smell, and buy

It is material and wealth, not some fairy in the sky

A god who is not flawed

We laud him and he is worshiped abroad”

_________________

His sermon over the masses returned to work

As they walked away he could not contain his smirk

He laughed at the supposed ignorance of a few fools

But in his wickedness he did not see the true jewels

That Love conquers and gives meaning to material

And Love’s mission that we celebrate was meant for all

The season lost meaning from a greedy lesion

The reason was against Love we committed treason