Midnight Thought on the Coalition Change Strategy

Excerpted from Burning the Midnight Oil for the Coalition Change Strategy (24 March), in the Burning the Midnight Oil blog-within-a-blog, hosted by kos, though to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t know it.

What about the farmers, you ask?

Doesn’t seem like a big deal, if you look at the occupations by share of the population.

However, appearances can be deceiving, that way. The thing is, when you look at employment in any local area, you can put the employment into two mental boxes … export base employment, and local multiplier employment. The export base employment brings money into the local area, and the local multiplier employment spreads it around … one time around providing services to the export base employees, two times around providing services to the local multiplier employees employed by the first round … and so on.

Of course, at every go-round, some money leaks out of the local area, so this process is no perpetual motion machine … just extra leverage to the income that flows into a local area.

(Sometimes a set of jobs get some demand from one box and some from another, but we’re people, not robots, so we can are able to see a fuzzy borderline as a normal part of the real world and move on.)

And so that means that when that export base employment leaves an area, it takes additional local multiplier employment with it … which is something people up here in Northeast Ohio feel in their bones, and can explain in very clear language, even if it is language you will not normally here used in Church on Easter Morning.

Now, go out into a rural area, and they know, equally clearly even if not in these exact terms, that farmers are a big part of their export base employment. So leaving farmers out of the coalition leaves a lot of rural areas out of the coalition.

Even that may not be so impressive if someone is looking at national shares of urban, inner suburban, outer suburban, and rural population. However, shift attention from national averages to national politics, and suddenly one thing jumps out. The killing ground for more progressive populist reforms than any other institution in our political landscape … even more than the Supreme Court.

The Senate.

We have, after all, a Federal system, so when particular types of communities are important in the politics of a particular set of states, that is reflected in national politics. In other words, while in a unitary parliamentary system urban populations would be free to exercise a tyranny of a majority over rural populations and ride roughshod over the concerns of rural communities, in a Federal system like ours, there are safeguards put in place against tyrannies … even majoritarian tyrannies.

So, yes, the farmers.

Where do farmers fit into the Coalition Change Strategy?

One thing jumps out immediately from the above analysis. Our concern is to earn the support of family farmers. Whether small or medium size … and, indeed, whether formally organized as a freehold or as a corporation … they are the farmers who will be recirculating demand through a local community. A big corporate farming operation is, after all, devoted to the principle of funneling as much money as possible through the local area while leaving as little as possible behind … because the big corporation “lives” outside the local community (metaphorically, that is … in reality it is simply a pile of money to which people pledge allegience).

However, that is a natural fit to the Coalition Change Strategy, because what the Green part of the strategy needs is people who live in the countryside who are permitted to look at the countryside in terms of what will be there for their children and their grandchildren. And a board of directors for a publicly traded corporation who looks at things that way is most likely betraying their fiduciary responsibilities and therefore breaking the law.

It is, in other words, only the real people in charge of their operations as real people where we have an opportunity to make a case … and, at the same time, they are exactly the ones we most want to have in the Coalition.

Sustainable Plus Unsustainable Equals Unsustainable

Remember the basic equation of ecological economics:

  • Sustainable + Unsustainable = Unsustainable

You can no more be “partway sustainable” than you can be “partway pregnant”. You either leave the world in as good or better shape for the next generation, or you leave it in worse shape. And you cannot substitute the bedrock basics for each other … we need to have breathable air and drinkable water and edible food and livable shelter and protection from predation by our fellow humans and so, therefore, having extra of one does not make up for not enough of another.

For a lot of that, as a necessity … not sufficient, but necessary … we need farmers to be taking care of our ecosystem. And we can say, “you need to do it for your children”, but we also need farmers to do it for our children, whether we live next door or in an inner urban area.

So, here’s a strange thought: we need them to provide an essential service for us. Why in the hell don’t we pay them to do it?

I’ve already proposed a small start on that particular line. A big controversy in Energy Independence is whether biofuels are sustainable. People do the sums and say, “wait a minute, we can’t grow sustainable energy crops with our agricultural system, because our agricultural system is not sustainable”.

However, do we “solve the problem” by refraining from producing biomass for Energy? Of course not. Because if our agricultural system is not sustainable, then there goes the edible food and to a substantial extent as well much of the drinkable water … and then where are we?

So my proposal for slowly backing away from the gross subsidy for ADM and Monsanto that is provided in the disguise of greenwashing ethanol is to shift the focus to cellulosic feedstocks … switchgrass and elephant grass and coppiced wood and a range of other feedstocks (including of course simple cutting unplowed rangeland as hay … there’s no need to break the ground to get biomass) … and to change the rules of the subsidy.

Rather than subsidizing the output, subsidize the input, by identifying cellulosic feedstock production methods that aid in soil conservation and rehabilitation, and qualify as a sustainably produced feedstock, and make an ecosystem husbandry payment for the production of that feedstock.

There are five advantages to this approach.

First, if the biomass feedstock is more valuable as animal feed, it can be used as animal feed. The feedstock will be more plentiful and, everything else equal, less expensive, but if the biofuel cannot afford to bid it away from other uses even after it has been made more readily available … well, then, that biofuel process is not really ready for prime time.

Second, it does not discriminate between different uses of the cellulose as biomass. If bio-coal(1) bids the cellulose feedstock away from liquid biofuel, well, then, so be it.

Third, this is the kind of program that can easily be made heavily biased toward family farmers. It is, at the outset, biased toward family farms, because it is paying farmers to take actions that will have more benefit to the farm fifty years from now than it will next year … so it is providing more benefit to a family farmer, who can think in terms of generations, than to a large corporation, who is forced to filter all values through the reverse telescope of compound interest.

Then, on top of that, establish a definition of a farm ownership unit where if one corporation owns a controlling interest in multiple operations, the whole thing is a single farm for official purposes. And then limit how many much total subsidy a single farm operation can receive for the sale of their qualifying cellulosic feedstock (to whichever buyer).

Fourth, it helps good drive out bad. There will be more feedstock, but the increase in feedstock will not equal the gross amount brought into the market by the subsidy. At the margin, some unsubsidized production will be driven out of the market.

And, well, good. That is either going to be more ecologically sound husbandry driving out less sound husbandry … because if farmers can qualify their production under the program, almost all of them will … or production by small and medium locally-based farmers driving out production by big corporate farms, regarding which I propose to shed no tears.

Fifth, putting the income in at the farm gate ensures that as large a share of the subsidy as possible is available to circulate in the local rural community. By contrast, channeling money into the ethanol producer means a lot of the subsidy goes to paying for the fossil fuel that is being green-washed, with something marketed as “clean biofuel” coming out the front gate as some form of fossil fuel is delivered to the side to run the process.

So, who does that make so far?

OK, so that is the Blue-Green Coalition, bringing also onboard the Genuine Nationalists for Energy Independence, and Small Business, and now Family Farmers. There’s one or two more to go, I suspect, but now I think we are getting somewhere.



(1. I used to write this “biocoal”, but now I see that “biocoal” has been trademarked by one of the technology companies with one technique for producing bio-coal, so now I write it bio-coal.)

Midnight Oil – Dreamworld (Live: 1987)

Take me to a place they say

  the dreaming never ends

Open wide drive that mystery road

Walk through Eden’s Garden and then

  wonder as you go


    • BruceMcF on March 24, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Woot! Look at me! There is one comment next to me essay! Its this one! It has no content! Look at me!

    And the wheel runs backwards, but only a short ways …

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