Elizabeth Warren’s Farm Plan

ScottyElizabeth Warren has a solid plan to help the US farming industry. But before I get to that, let’s talk about Star Trek.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scotty meets with a material scientist to barter some knowledge in exchange for a whale container. Scotty, being from the future, talks to the Mac, which doesn’t respond. The scientist says, “Just use the keyboard.” Scotty then begins typing at an amazing speed and before long, the formula for transparent aluminum is displayed on the screen. It’s a fun scene in a fun movie. But it isn’t the way the world is.

If a modern American were sent back to a neolithic city, they wouldn’t know anything. In my experience, most people don’t even know what causes the phases of the Moon — or why the seasons change.

We Need a Diverse Farming Industry

It’s because of this that I think any group of people needs to hang on to their most fundamental skills. A society of only genius computer programmers would be one economic shock away from disaster.

We need a strong farming industry. And that means a diverse farming industry. The history of farming over the last century has been one of consolidation and increased homogeneity. And this is not the result of mysterious global economic forces that no one can do anything about. Instead, it’s the result of government policy — specifically the encouragement of mergers.

The Problem With Modern Farming

Warren lays out the problem, which is mostly consolidation (as it is in so many other industries). For example, a handful of companies control the most important aspects of food production:

Sector Companies Market Share
Meat Processing 4 53%
Chicken Distribution 3 90%
Corn Seeds 2 71%

As a country, we’ve gotten way too focused on the strict definition of “monopoly.” The main reason anyone cares about a monopoly is that it leads to uncompetitive markets. It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand companies in a market; if the market doesn’t work, we need to do something about it.

That’s what Warren proposes to do.

Plan to Save Farm Diversity

There are a number of parts to Warren’s plan, but attacking consolidation is the most important.

As discussed before, this is the key problem. Companies do not merge so that they can provide cheaper products to consumers. They merge because they can increase profits. Even if this does result in cheaper products (and that is hardly assured), it has negative effects on the country. We see it in the overuse of corn. But more to the point, we see it in the elimination of small farms.

Warren notes:

Mergers mean that farmers have fewer and fewer choices for buying and selling, while vertical integration has meant that big agribusinesses face less competition throughout the chain and thus capture more and more of the profits.”

Other Ways to Help Farmers

The rest of Warren’s plan discusses some examples of things she’d like to change. One is an issue that is coming for all of us but which has greatly affected farmers: technology that users can’t repair. This is all part of our out-of-control intellectual property laws. It’s like with DVDs. You may think you own them but you are actually just licensing them.

So farmers can’t fix or upgrade their own machinery. That would be violating the manufacturer’s intellectual property. It’s an outrage and it is great to see Elizabeth Warren acknowledging it.

There’s one part of her plan that I’m less sanguine about. Warren wants to limit foreign ownership of active farmland. I’m an internationalist and I don’t like this idea on that level. On the other hand, the world is the way it is. And just as we shouldn’t allow multinational corporations to control our access to food, we should be concerned about foreign interests doing it.

Ultimately, I don’t think we need to worry about this if we can reverse the consolidation in the farming industry. Foreigners are interested in farming for the same reasons that these corporations are. If we limit the size of farming concerns, we will automatically limit foreign interests.

Good Politics

This is yet another important policy proposal from Elizabeth Warren. It is also great politics. This issue is important in Iowa. It could well be the difference between Warren winning and losing the state.

Coming from many politicians, this wouldn’t matter so much to me. But Warren has shown herself to be far more interested in policy than politics. And her spat with Trump over her Native American blood didn’t speak well of her political sense either. But this is smart. And it’s good to see.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

23 thoughts on “Elizabeth Warren’s Farm Plan

  1. Two things I like about her policy-first approach.

    First, you get no sense it’s an approach chosen by campaign consultants. I’m sure she has some, but she’s directing them, not the other way ‘round. Warren was a bankruptcy law specialist. This stuff is “in her wheelhouse,” as baseball fans say. It’s what she’s an expert on, why not go with it.

    Second, Warren’s liberal proposals, while politically “unrealistic” (AKA anathema to most corporate interests) are fairly easy to grasp. Doesn’t that make them more likely for people to rally behind, if she were to become President? Bill Clinton sold his crime bill and NAFTA very simply (druggy blacks bad, free trade good) and got those passed. He sold his liberal proposals as realist “policy wonk” stuff, and none of them came close to being law. I’m doubting any of them were meant to.

    • One thing I hate is that a lot of socialists dismiss her because she called herself a “capitalist to my bones.” But pretty much everyone on the right calls her a socialist as a reason to not engage with her ideas at all. I fully admit that she isn’t a socialist — just like every other national politician in this country.

      I have had a theory for a couple of months: Warren doesn’t want to be president — she just wants to push policies she agrees with. That seemed to have been undercut by her recent embrace of impeachment (something I’m pretty much on board with now). It may be that her recent jump in the polls is due to that and not her policies. That’s sad. And, of course, the worst thing that can happen is that once the campaign is in full gear, Warren and Sanders split the leftist vote. I’m hoping that one of them pulls ahead and the other drops out. It should be a good campaign though! I just hope it doesn’t end up in another Clinton-Sanders pissing match.

      • I read this amusing thing the other day where Bill Gates, correctly, said US politicians called “socialist” are no such thing: https://gizmodo.com/bill-gates-actually-made-a-good-point-about-the-sociali-1834549235

        But Gates thinks socialism means “the state controlled the means of production.” No, it doesn’t! It means employees do! And can decide whether or not to pay the head honcho enough to buy his own private island in Puget Sound.

        This makes a sort of sense, though. Guys like Gates can grasp the concept of Soviet-style communism. Would probably like it, so long as they’re among the powerful. The idea that their employees would be in charge… it’s inconceivable!

        As the “Princess Bride” line goes, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

        • It’s interesting that there are plenty of authoritarian capitalist nations yet I don’t hear people ranting about how “capitalism can’t work!” And capitalist countries don’t have to deal with powerful socialist countries doing everything they can to destroy them. Even slightly leftist countries become official enemies of the US. It’s disgraceful.

  2. I haven’t seen any concern about monopolies since the breakup of AT&T. As a society of greed we are performing way above our expectations. Firstly, I love baseball and the statistics it provides. This is in my WHEELHOUSE and yet I am more than this. Secondly, most corporate interests don’t give a fucking shit about YOU. Why the fuck do you care about them except to promote and enhance your own personal greed. I am amazed by the intellectual momentum the “middle class” decries as they fall further and further into debt (the overarching problem of our day). We haven’t truly had a barely good president since Lincoln.

    • I think it is the American mythology. The Soviet Union never got its people to buy into their myths. But they are so strong in this country that even the “free” press doesn’t question them. I love the idea that our country just wants peace and only goes to war with the best of intentions. This is a myth Sam Harris is all-in on without realizing that it is a major assumption. And it is the same with the middle class in general who can’t even imagine that our society isn’t meritocratic.

      The problem with the discussion of monopolies is that our governing philosophy is that as long as a monopoly isn’t harming consumers, it’s all good. And it’s not. Just like corporations should not only look at profits, we must look at monopolistic behavior in a broader context.

  3. This article also got me off my butt on a thing I wanted to write, about how even simple gardening makes you more aware that plants come from, you know, the ground, conditions have to be just right, and so on. Nothing profound, but fun to type (except the sad part about climate catastrophe, but you kinda gotta include that stuff these days).

    It’s in the “for review” box. Check it out if and when you like. Not time-sensitive, although spring is best. I’m happy with it, which is rare, but appropriate for spring.

    • I think this is why we saw egalitarian paleolithic cultures which became more hierarchical in the Neolithic and beyond. The earliest cultures understood how important the group was because they were constantly under threat. But if you live in a town that has existed for as long as anyone can remember and you start to think that it is reality. And that means, for example, a priest can be seen as the most important member of society even though that nonsense would never fly in a paleolithic tribe.

  4. I tried to grow corn a few years ago. It was ridiculous. The instructions on the seed packet told me to put the plants too far apart. So they didn’t pollinate much. The stalks turned purple, which means they are consuming all the sugar that’s supposed to go into the cobs. The few tiny ears of corn were bare. One corn kernel in a 15′ x 15′ plot. It was sweet, though. And corn is farmed here in Phoenix. Not as much as cotton, but you see fields around the edges of town. Same year I put in beans that were doing well until the first hot, high UV day blasted the leaves. I put some burlap shading over them but it was too late. And the peas I put in got a blight. Some kind of thing in the soil that’s difficult to get rid of. Currently all my plants are dead. I think I did in the rosemary by over watering it. The basil is gone. Monica pruned it too much. Not for eating. It wasn’t making many leaves, just lots of flowers. Bees liked it, and I’m sure basil honey is delightful. But they weren’t sharing. It is nice having fresh herbs right outside the kitchen. I just have to get over to Lowe’s and get new plants.

    • @Lawrence — yeah, growing veg is trickier than the seed packets say! And depending on where you live, some plants are more susceptible to weird diseases than others.

      If you have the right windows, some herbs can be grown indoors. We had good luck with parsley. Chives, not so much…

        • I’m phobic about bees. Have been since childhood. It’s amazing how quickly one gets over this when one’s unemployed, and messing with plants is the best way one can contribute to the family well-being. Now I just wave them away.

          Not wasps, though. Wasps are evil little flying engines of Pure Hate.

          • A condo I used to have got invaded by bees three times. It happens in the spring, this time of year. Always in the exhaust pipe for an HVAC vent. One of the exterminators told me there must be a honeycomb up there. That’s why they kept coming back. Last time I thought they had left. Only a couple buzzing around the entrance. So I hit the pipe with Raid. They went berzerk. They had got out of the HVAC ducting and into the ceiling of my kitchen. It sounded like hail pounding. When the exterminator put the poison in, a powder that sticks to them like pollen, they were chewing at the drywall around the HVAC vents trying to escape. I’ve read they will chew through sealing foam. If you want to keep them out you have to pack cracks with steel wool and then seal them. I like bees just fine in the wild. But in my house they are frightening. It remionds me of the deleted scene from Aliens with the robot sentry guns.

            • Oh, damn! That’s hilarious and also completely terrifying. I can just picture it — hmm, only a few, that’s what Raid is for. Then the unholy wrath of full Beedom is unleashed. I think you just gave me my phobia back…

              Last year, at one point, Mrs. James came home from work and said “Jesus! Why does the entire house smell like Raid?”

              “Because there was a scary grey wasp. And I killed it.”

              She examines the carnage. “Dude, you killed a piece of lint.” Which I had. And had to re-wash everything in the dish drainer because it was positively covered in Death Poison mist.

            • As I read that I was thinking it sounded like the best horror film ever. I’ve had a couple of experiences with bees. But they were pretty much out in the open so we just had beekeepers come out and get them. Individual bees are good examples of irrationality — something we share with them. Like when a bee becomes fascinated with you for no obvious reason. “I am not a flower! I am a human being!”

            • Yep, doing some backyard gardening. I put an article about it in the “for review” box here, so that’s available.

              The plan this year is to expand into every inch of available space, 2’ by 6’ here, 4 by 4 there, and so on. Some we did last year, others are new, so we’ll see how it goes!

              Really, the worst part about gardening is weeding. So I’m trying to stay on top of it as the weeds appear this year. Plus having limited garden space = fewer weeds.

              A lot of Minnesotans do home gardening, and a crazy number plant the things then don’t harvest them all. Drives me nuts…

              If wasps do half the horrid Nature shit, I suppose we humans do the other half. Maybe we deserve each other.

              • My father’s late girlfriend was way into gardening and I was shocked at how much food she produced in a tiny space. I was watching One Planet and it made me so depressed. We are doomed. I figure we will go back into a dark age. And all the people will ask, “The solutions were so simple; why didn’t they do something?” The idea that people with more money than God needed to make even more money just won’t grok.

                I’ll look for the article.

    • I got some popcorn seeds and I wanted to plant them. But I kept remembering my friend Will’s experience where the corn grew well but was all eaten by aphids. Not that I have a problem feeding other creatures. But it’s indicative of how hard the whole process is — especially if you don’t want to use chemicals.

    • A year or two ago, NASA had to put out a call for older computer programmers. Because the Voyager probes are still working. Years and years after they were expected to die, still working. That’s some dang good design redundancy!

      Anyhoo, the last of their old programmers was retiring, and they needed somebody who could speak late-70s computer language to Voyager. Or, given this article’s photo, V-Ger…

      • The probe that landed on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014 was coded in Forth. So even recent missions still use older languages. NASA only uses hardware that has been thoroughly tested so they generally only use long out of date hardware. So obviously, they can’t use the newest fade languages. And the truth is, assembly language isn’t hard; it’s just slow to code. And most modern languages create surprisingly clean machine code. It’s usually a question of control. That’s certainly the case with Forth, which is a hardware control language.

    • Excellent example. Or even assembly language. Most programmers I talk to don’t know anything about digital electronics, which is the basis of all computer programs. That is, of course, the difference between a hacker and a programmer. Hackers know what’s really going on and programmers just know rules.

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