To most of us political junkies, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Brookings Institution represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. I won’t say extreme-opposite ends. Academics are less polarized than politicians these days.
It wasn’t always so. Think tanks were instrumental in laying the groundwork for our globalist economy. Neoconservatives hewed to the AEI line. Free enterprise and global free trade were almost synonymous. You can’t have one without the other, right?
Left-leaning think tanks like Brookings for the most part agreed. They tended to be liberal in the old-fashioned sense. They still do focus more on social than economic problems, as if the two were not inextricable.
My chief complaint about the Hillary Clinton campaign was the way her party stubbornly refused to address the economic underpinnings of race and gender inequality. It’s the wealth gap, stupid.
To me, the subordination of the common good in America to the interests of the common people of China (i.e., to the corporate bottom line) was a kind of betrayal of what America is all about. To me, America stands for freedom and democracy, not free trade with totalitarian nations that weakens the power and degrades the quality of life of our own working people (check out what happened to unions, pensions, benefits and wages in the last 40 years).
Donald Trump capitalized on popular sentiments that converged with mine. Academics, for the most part, remained aloof. There has always been an Ivory Tower mentality among intellectuals, stemming from the fact that, simply put, academicians don’t sweat for a living; they think, write, observe and teach.
It’s all too tempting to conflate ignorance and evil. The “other” among liberal Democrats wasn’t an undocumented immigrant but a white working man. He was deplorable and demonized, to the Democratic Party’s everlasting shame and regret.
The scholars who populate think tanks in D.C. had no choice but to look at the numbers. Clinton lost the election. A reality-TV host and former Democrat won. Who were these “deplorables” who deserted the people’s party, and what exactly is their beef?
Somebody say something intelligent, please! Someone on either side of the political divide. I no longer care which one.
So it was with great joy that I happened upon a (potentially) paradigm-shifting report on agriculture released by none other than the AEI, whose scholars have tended to regard free enterprise as the solution to all problems, social and global and economic, and social Darwinism as the holy grail. Collective action (government) was code for communism.
The author of “The Farm Bill, Conservation and the Environment,” Erik Lichtenberg, is a highly respected professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of Maryland. He participated in the decades-long reclamation of his state’s Chesapeake Bay from the ravages of pollution, much of it farm pollution, an endeavor that was funded mostly at the local level by a mix of public and private money.
While this effort was largely successful, Lichtenberg does not recommend it be replicated for the entire country. For one thing, he writes, our problems are too big and complex for local and state initiatives to tackle. Only the federal government can fix this.
Wow, and this guy is not only as wonkish as they get, but his report is backed by the full faith and credit of the American Enterprise Institute.
Reading the report, I felt like a college sophomore struggling through French lit class, her French-English dictionary at her elbow as she wades through “Madame Bovary” at one chapter a week. Lichtenberg’s report is packed with terms inscrutable to the non-economist, which made it also inscrutable perhaps to AEI’s higher-ups and more ideologue-ish financial donors and therefore more acceptable.
“Slippage” refers not to an elderly person’s tendency to fall on the ice but to the recent tendency of marginal farmland to go under the plow in response to growing demand for U.S. corn and soy. Under current Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation policy, land “on the margins” ideally would not be farmed; to that end, its owners would be compensated for the loss of potential revenue by crop subsidies. In other words, they are incentivized to let the land lie fallow.
“Erodable” is the term Lichtenberg uses. It means the same thing as marginal except that it’s more specific to what’s making the land marginal — the process of depletion of soil quality (and water and air quality along with it) caused by erosion.
“Market failure” shows up frequently in this report. It is Econ 101 for any pressure on the laws of supply and demand that causes those laws to go out of whack. A “distortionary” pressure is one that comes from something other than tax policy, such as a weather event or a war — I think. Don’t hold me to that. It could be the other way around.
What makes Lichtenberg’s report a page-turner for me (and a potential game-changer for American politics) is that it is above politics. That the AEI apparently financed it tells me that smart people see elephants when they enter a room, eventually, and especially if the elephant has its trunk in their wallet.
The whole point of this report is to warn Congress, the president, the people and especially the USDA that we’re living on borrowed time when it comes to conservation.
Conservation is the polite term, favored by peace-loving people over charged terms like “environmental protection,” for healing the land by protecting it from free enterprise. In this report “conservation” has broad sweep and carries a big stick.
Lichtenberg goes way beyond the Teddy Rooseveltian idea of conserving wide-open spaces just because they’re there. His is a call for action in a time of crisis — now, before it’s too late and our entire farm ecosystem goes down.
The author puts not too fine a point on it: The long-term quality of our air, soil and water is being sacrificed for short-term gain, he writes. We will be sorry if we don’t apply collective action to turn this around.
Yes, this from a conservative think tank.
Lichtenberg’s report carefully outlines first the history and then the current landscape. Conservation in agriculture (as opposed to the TR type) began in 1936 as a result of the Dust Bowl and under a different Roosevelt. FDR’s visionary secretary of agriculture and later commerce (he also served as vice president), Henry Wallace, proposed government intervention to protect farmland from all forms of degradation, as insurance against the Dust Bowl happening again, erosion being the evil of the era.
The U.S. Supreme Court deemed his proposals unconstitutional. Wallace switched course but not intention. For most of the ensuing years, farmland has been protected by a combination of incentives but very few mandates. The system is, by and large, voluntary. A farmer can choose to take taxpayer dollars in exchange for the money he’d lose by letting some of his land lie fallow for a while, or by planting cover crops. These programs have changed over the years depending on what the immediate market pressures have been — global food shortages vs. surpluses, for instance. Environmental destruction, whether resulting in habitat loss or dangerous air or the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, has never been considered “pressure.”
Until now. All are mentioned in Lichtenberg’s report. He addresses head-on the ill effects, long-term, that are looking to be more and more short-term all the time, of fertilizer runoff, overuse of pesticides, pollinator extinction, particulate emissions from large animal confinements and all manner of water pollution that threaten to turn our current industrial farm model into a monster. What is sold as the key to solving our trade imbalance and feeding the world, in Lichtenberg’s view, is itself an endangered species, unless it is drastically reformed, and from the top down.
Lichtenberg points out that, contrary to the current orthodoxy, “[i]ncome support has never been the sole motivating force for conservation programs. The 1936 act built on the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935, which established an administrative structure for helping farmers control and prevent soil erosion, to ‘preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of reservoirs, and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors, protect public health, public lands and relieve unemployment.’ ”
From that perspective, Lichtenberg’s proposals are right in line with old-school conservation policy.
Another hopeful development along these lines was a recent study of climate change that found, not shockingly, that only collective action will fix our weather and that, moreover, individual efforts — such as voluntary recycling, turning off the hot tub, lowering the thermostat, etc. — are, if anything, unhelpful because they give individuals the idea that their sacrifice will make a difference. It won’t.
“Good Intents, but Low Impacts” was published in the June 2017 edition of the journal “Environment and Behavior.” The difference will be made with legislation, the authors concluded, and that legislation will involve mandatory rationing of fossil fuels (among other mandates) through an effort coordinated at the national level.
So, too, does Lichtenberg declare that not just government but the federal government must act on “conservation.” As a start, he proposes that farmers be ordered to keep certain fields out of production (or better still to plant cover crops) — and not those marginal fields only, the ones in sparsely populated places like North Dakota, but in populous regions like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa where a critical mass of humans are put at risk just by living there.
This would have been regarded as heresy just a decade ago. But the American Enterprise Institute is signing on.
The new system would still be run by the USDA, an agency that will have to change its pro-Big Ag culture first, in Lichtenberg’s opinion. The USDA’s conservation programs would be monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with maintaining clean air and water. The USDA’s job is to keep farmers producing food and profiting from it, so as to allow the giant companies who service these farmers to keep exporting their products, as well as the food itself, overseas.
All this profiting in the short term will be curbed somewhat, Lichtenberg acknowledges, but will it be enough? Any economist worth his or her salt will tell you that balance is always key to sound policy. In this case, that balance is between short-term gain and long-term viability of the means of production. The means in the case of agriculture are living creatures, not chemicals and not machines but people, earthworms, birds and bees and all the rest of what we call nature.
Nature, too, requires balance to maintain itself. Artificial inputs have little place in it, and now their presence is so powerful that it causes more death than life. This is not sustainable.
Our president and his USDA director are too busy bickering over price supports to give a glance at the AEI report. (How many of the same old voluntary incentives, that are inarguably not working, shall we put in the farm bill?) And over at the EPA, the latest bright idea is that the agency get rid of protections for farmworkers who handle pesticides because enforcement of such protections is just too costly and burdensome to … yup, industry. And industry says these costs get passed on to the consumer (as opposed to the shareholder) so … no more worker protections, OK?
But just the fact that a right-wing think tank put it out there gives me hope. Bold ideas trickle down. In this and every other issue that divides the country needlessly right now, compromise can only come about if one side is willing to think outside the box. I am cheered that this report was written and published. And I hope it will spark a conversation that’s long overdue.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, is a writer who specializes in environmental topics (firstname.lastname@example.org).