The Ergosphere
Monday, October 24, 2005

Republicans to lose Red America?

I thought that the Republicans might be unassailable in the heartland, until I read this (h/t:  The Watt):

For farmers, a Katrina-like disaster is building. It will soon swamp many family farming operations. Astronomical fuel prices, fertilizer and chemical costs have reached the point that even a modest profit is impossible.

Farmers are receiving the lowest price for commodities that myself or most farmers can remember. Farmers are a proud group, usually not willing to protest. This time, I hope someone is listening. We are literally at the end of the turn row. That's a metaphor for desperation. Agriculture is in serious trouble.

A friend of mine and long-time Central Texas farmer sums up the current crisis in a unique way: "It's a lot easier to do nothin' for nothin' than somethin' for nothin'." Why invest huge amounts, work from daylight to dark and struggle for a profit when you know you have no chance?

Meanwhile, farm programs (which are only required because we've subsidized overproduction) are being cut:
Three billion dollars over the next five years. That's the amount of the cut to the 2006 Agriculture Budget the Ag Committee is required to report under a new Congressional budget resolution approved today by an 11-9 vote. During a mark-up today, voting came down in favor of the plan, proposed by Ag Committee chairman Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). $196 million in savings would be realized in fiscal year 2006.

At its core, agriculture's problem is an energy problem.  From North American gas depletion to the vulnerability of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, every bit of it was not just foreseeable, but projected and warned of years in advance.  Yet from the House and Senate authors of our current energy non-policy to the Oval Office, nothing was done to deal with this or offset its impacts.  They painted themselves as the experts, and yet this trend moving at a snail's pace over a period of years seems to have been caught them completely by surprise.  (When they do act, they violate trade treaties and hurt the economy in cynical attempts to buy votes with e.g. steel import quotas.)

This has not gone unnoticed, and cannot go unremarked for long.  A 21st century flight of neo-Okies from barren farms is going to uncover a great deal of misfeasance on the part of the powers that be in Washington, and particularly the party responsible for our policies since their electoral victory in 1994.  Trade policy has kept the dollar high and exported jobs, while encouraging US consumption of imported goods (oil being just one).  Programs aimed at developing domestic resources have been eliminated.  Now the bill for this is coming due.

While oil prices soar and profits sour, viable alternatives go begging.  I've noted that the surplus corn stover (beyond what's needed for erosion control) left to rot in fields is more than enough to power a year's operation of farm equipment.  If farmers grew next year's fuel along with this year's crop, petroleum prices would scarcely matter to them; if the surplus of crop byproducts fetched a per-BTU price similar to coal (perhaps with an adjustment for low sulfur and near-zero mercury content) they might be sufficient to keep farmers in the black.

Yet programs to encourage this are small.  We spend billions of dollars each year to subsidize the wasteful conversion of maize to ethanol (390,000 BTU per bushel plus distillation fuel goes in, 220,000 BTU per bushel comes out), but almost nothing to promote the conversion of crop wastes to profitable products.  Almost all of this is due to the fossil-centric policies of the Republicans in Congress.  (Speaking of fossil-centrism, have you noticed the urgent push to get corn stoves into American homes so that desperate farmers can sell their crops to families who can't afford expensive natural gas this winter?  Neither have I.)

Sooner or later, someone is going to start making hay out of this (pardon the pun).  It may come as primary challenges from the fiscal responsibility wing of the Republicans (not the neocons or believers in the "end times"); failing that, there may be a resurgence of populist Democratic candidates.  And maybe someone will start making the case to American farmers and everyone who supports them that sustainability is more than just a leftist buzzword off in the cold, that it belongs huddled up tight with hallowed American values like thrift and self-reliance.

Where would this matter?  Unless I've missed my mark, pretty much the entire Red-state Midwest.

Sustainability is security.  A farmer who needs no diesel can't be forced out by rising fuel prices.  The Republican Congress has sacrificed all of the programs which might have led to that security; now the farmer is paying the price.  How soon before the cause of this problem is named out loud, and the political pendulum swings?

Not soon enough for me, but 2006 would be encouraging.

It's astonishing how strong yet weak both the Republican and Democrat parties are at the national level. Neither is trying very hard to maintain its constituencies. Yet at the same time, there is no substantial third party to compete with these two.

I wonder if the divisiveness of current politics actually helps these parties maintain power. After all, if a group is going to vote for you no matter what, then you don't need to do anything in return.
karl, just remember the last election. without a doubt many "republicans" showed up at the booths just to oppose gay marriage completely ignoring the other issues. we have a president in power now who may 'cause the fall of a great nation because people were concerned about gay marriage.

people get bent out of shape about one particular issue and then they vote for the party which may very well have other views that they don't agree with...

this is frightening and why for many years now i've been vehemently opposed to the two party system. there is just not enough variance.

unfortunately, i have no idea how we can introduce a strong third or fourth party, because people who are confused will continue to cling to one of the two dogmas.

it's the greatest failure of american "democracy". how can we have true democracy is everything comes down to two choices.
"it's the greatest failure of american "democracy". how can we have true democracy is everything comes down to two choices"

Nader was demonized by the Kerry camp. I'm not talking about the official party line, I'm talking about dozens of folks I knew who weren't even on the level of campaigning for Kerry, but bashed Nader for "taking votes". As if the natural way of the world is that lefties vote Kerry.

Badnarik, the Libertarian candidate, was anti-Iraq-war, so the republicans didn't need to discredit him.

The post should try to avoid the "what's the matter with Kansas?" mentality. I generally don't think it is a worthy effort to question why people vote a certain way.

There is also a strong emotional argument for the poor farmer. A farm is a business, and there are few individual businesses important enough to warrent government intervention.

Farm subsidies should be eliminated, as should some of the market warping actions involved in the energy industry and excessive (or lacking) environmental regulation.
I'm a native of Central IL, home of generations of prosperous farms. And I can tell you that no one poormouths like a farmer.

Example: some years ago a farmer told me that John Deere had started selling a tractor with no seat and no steering wheel. It was for farmers who had lost their asses and didn't know which way to turn.

Another one was my landlord once. I visited his home once. From his large modern comfortable paid-off house with two new expensive vehicles in the garage he proceeded to tell tales of woe to make Saddam weep.

One of the problems with energy discussions is that somebody insists on dragging partisan politics in. If you think the Dems will do any better wrt energy or agriculture, think Jimmy Carter. Remember the "tractorcades"? And just what did Clinton and Gore do about energy that improved on Republican policies?
Clinton/Gore did take global warming seriously enough to propose a system of carbon taxes.  Unfortunately, they were so enamored of complexity that their unwieldy proposal was dead on arrival at Congress.

The executive does not write legislation, Congress does.  What the executive can do is sign or veto.  With a Democrat in office we would have a chance of enacting something more or less effective; this is impossible with Bush.
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