Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Heads They Win; Farming

I left a comment at echidne of the snakes:

from What’s $34 Billion on Wall Street? [NYT, Jan 27 '08]

In any other industry, Mr. Kim and Mr. Maheras would be pariahs. But in the looking-glass world of Wall Street, they — and others like them — are hot properties. The two executives are well on their way to reviving their careers, even as global markets shudder at the prospect that Merrill and Citigroup may report further subprime losses in the coming months.

... The quick comebacks of these executives stand in stark contrast to the plight of the hundreds of investment bankers who have received pink slips in the last two weeks. They also illuminate a peculiar aspect of Wall Street’s own version of a class divide.

... To some extent, it is personal: Mr. Kim and Mr. Maheras have a web of relationships with Wall Street’s top executives.

I don't see anything "peculiar" about this class divide at all. This is what a ruling class looks like: if you're on the inside, your friends help each other loot & pillage when times are good -- and cut back to just looting when times are bad.

also posted at Making Light, Heads they win, tails we lose. With much other discussion:

It looks like one of the oldest games of all: It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know. The complete decoupling of risk and reward is not a bug in this game, it's a *feature*. For the winners, at least.

I'm not sure what kind of -cracy this is. Plutocracy? Aristocracy? BigGuycracy? In any event, it's not "a peculiar version of a class divide", it's the same old class divide made especially stark.

albatross @ 215:
I think you'd find it hard to make an argument for subsidizing small farmers (being pushed out of the market by economic forces) that didn't also apply to all kinds of other businesses

The traditional argument is that food is special because everyone needs food to *live*, so (a) monopolies are especially dangerous, and (b) letting the supply be controlled by other countries is especially dangerous.

In the case of France, at least, one can see an additional consequence of small-farm supports: French food. Most food ingredients just aren't as tasty when they've been mass-produced and travelled hundreds or thousands of miles. To get French food, you need local ingredients, and that's part of what French agricultural policy has gotten them.

Of course, this is doubly untrue in the US, where (a) people historically don't care how the food tastes, and (b) ag policy supports the food that travels best (grains, sugar, butter). But the local harvest idea really does mean something.

PJ Evans @219:

One of the great benefits of Community Supported Agriculture is that the farmer gets the money in the spring, when ze needs it, and then the risk that a particular crop will fail gets spread across all the members, not just dumped on the farmer. I've been a CSA member for about 15 years, and you really get an old-fashioned attitude toward the weather -- it's *personal* when an early frost means no more basil, or too much rain at the wrong time means no carrots this year.

I strongly recommend this directory to find a CSA near you -- though shares are mostly gone for the 2008 season as the popularity of "eating locally" increases.

Greg @ 234:

It really, really depends on what they're farming and where. I'm not far from Princeton, NJ, and I know a number of people who have successfully gone into "boutique" farming from a non-farm background. The CSA has interns and apprentices every year. A bunch of my middle-schoolers friends are in 4H, just like the farm kids were when I was growing up -- but these aren't farm kids, they're not born into farming -- they're learning it just as the kids on the robotics team are learning engineering, or the kids in woodworking classes are learning that trade.

It's definitely the organic farmers who are the real cutting edge, here: they're developing a model of farming as a *career*, not a birth right (or curse).

As PJ says, it works for unprocessed fruits & veg, and for high-value items like organic dairy products and wine. And it also works here because the land is so valuable that farming *has* to concentrate on high-value items -- though there's some talk about people experimenting with field corn this year.

Koske @ 261:

My thinking is that many of these O/N/L businesses and products come closer to reflecting the actual costs of the food

That is certainly my observation. The organic vegetables I get from my CSA actually cost no more in $$ than buying the same thing in "non-organic" form at the grocery store, and are *much* cheaper than buying the organic equivalent at the natural food store.

Basically, I do not spend more money by getting food from the CSA, but the quality is enormously higher. They're not just tomatoes, they're a religious experience.

albatross @260:
As I said above, farming is not-just-a-business because we need food to *live*, in way that we don't need hardware stores.

I live literally next door to the CSA where I get my food. It is enormously easier for me to put up with the local externalities -- tractor noise at odd hours, some pretty organic smells from time to time -- because I know that I'm not living next to a mere business of which I happen to be a customer, but a source of my physical existence. Even so, I wouldn't be nearly as tolerant of a non-organic farm, because the externality of breathing pesticides & herbicides would be too high.

Greg @236:

One thing about "boutique" farms is that, to be viable, they need to grow an enormously greater range of crops than the farms you grew up with probably did. The CSA farm (less than 100 acres) where I get my veg grows 40 different crops, each in multiple varieties (there must be 30+ different kinds each of tomatoes and peppers). The orchard (200 acres) where I get most of my fruit grows 30 varieties each of apples and peaches, along with 20 other crops.

This is clearly enormously inefficient by agribusiness standards -- but it buffers the farmers against the random factors that always make agriculture precarious. That buffering is what agricultural subsidies are supposed to be *for*, so in many ways I'm paying the subsidies for my food upfront -- by getting only what they are able to grow despite their inefficiency.

The way I get my food has an "anti-capitalist" feel, because it involves actual human relationships, not just the exchange of money. But this discussion has made me see that a lot of what we see as part of capitalism is passing the buck on externalities. What I'm experiencing is not really romanticism, it's "not escaping the externalities".

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