The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, December 9, 2010
Economics/Business ... Society ...

The US unemployment rate has gone up to 9.8%, and many economists admit that when you count everyone who needs a full time job but can’t find one, the rate is around 20%. Even worse, the slow rate of growth anticipated over the next few years will not bring this rate down significantly, not any time soon. So, it looks as if the USA is going to have a lot of excess workforce for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps it’s time to think outside of the box as to what to do about all those people. Maybe we need a major shift, an inspiring plan that the government can set into motion but will sustain itself with unleashed private energy and attention. We need something that will give all these idle people a means to make a living and have a decent life, and at the same time help solve some other problems, such as rising oil prices and global warming. We need to look around and ask, what is going unused that could be put to work in a way that can address these problems?

OK, I have a modest suggestion, even though it’s still pretty hazy. How about a government sponsored back-to-the-farm movement? Yea, that flies in the face of decades of government policies and economic factors that have driven families off of small farms, in favor of mid-western super-farms run by corporations (which in turn battle for survival with the huge mega-corporate distributors like ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, Sunkist, etc.). There are plenty of vested corporate and political interests that would line up against such a plan. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bogus, especially from the perspective of the long-term well being of the USA. Rising oil and fuel prices are going to make transportation and refrigeration of crops over long distances more and more prohibitive. Food prices are already going up rapidly. So why not go back to farming close to population centers, in a labor-intensive and less energy dependent context? Given that we have plenty of unused labor and untapped determination to build a life around something good and true.

So why not offer permanently unemployed families in the dying factory towns (and the marginalized workers pushed out of the finance-insurance-real estate sector) the option of making a living on their own farms? The hours would be long, the work would be strenuous (but that helps address the obesity crisis!), and the lifestyle would be extremely modest by today’s standards. Many people in the past wanted to leave farm life behind. But unless you have a college degree in a relevant field (computers, engineering, finance) today, your life prospects are not very good in the current economy. Farm livin’ starts looking better and better compared with the WalMart cash register or the McDonald’s fry station. Further, with the internet and cheap electronics, farm life need not be as socially and culturally isolated as in the past.

Could it all make sense economically, without requiring permanent government subsidies? Could technology be utilized to allow farms near places like Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Denver to provide a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and specialty crops (herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, flavorings) at prices that match what farms in Mexico or California now provide? I don’t know, I don’t have the numbers available to crunch. But even if the numbers didn’t exactly work right now, the creation of a technology market supported by temporary government subsidy could spur developments that might eventually justify it (e.g., watermelon that could grow in upstate New York). That’s the theory right now behind corn ethanol, which gets plenty of government support in hope that the technology will eventually make the industry self-sustaining.

That’s the kind of creative, integrated social and economic thinking I’d like to see from the Obama administration. So far, though, I’ve been rather disappointed. Maybe bringing back the old dream of a simple life close to nature would give the Prez some much-needed spark, and restore some of the idealism that inspired young voters to turn out in 2008 (then take a pass on the voting booths in 2010).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:40 pm      

  1. Jim, I certainly can see your argument that work done well is a work of art. And you are so correct that in today’s world it seems that most of that attitude or concept toward life has been long forgotten.

    But I have to say that there is also a good argument made for “art” as a separate category in itself. This kind of art has more to do with emotion and the expression of emotion. Work as art has an intellectual component that I think, if not absent from art, is more background to the emotion expressed.

    There is also the component in art as art in itself that has to do with the “how” of what is done. That is, “how” does one use the paints, “how” does one learn to play a musical instrument, etc. But I have often thought that for those who become simply very skillful at learning the “how” of producing a piece of art (painting, music, etc.) their work is easily distinguished from the artist (of whatever category) who uses the skill learned to produce a work that conveys an emotion to others in such a way that they are able to feel the emotion themselves.

    Thus, while certainly the art of doing work beautifully and well is certainly true and there isn’t enough of it in the world today or it may have been entirely lost in the younger generation(s), there certainly is a case to be made for art that conveys to others an emotion and does that “conveying” well. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 10, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  2. Jim, Sorry, seems I wrote my previous comment in the wrong blog. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 10, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

  3. Jim, I think I’ve got my comments in the right place now. I like your idea of family farms growing food for nearby cities, etc. What an excellent idea. Places like Illinois which is full of farms downstate (at least so think I a city girl from Chicago)and places like upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, etc., would certainly be good spots for such farms. The West seems more “ranch-like” instead of farm like. But, of course, the central part of the country–Nebraska, Kansas, etc., would have plenty of place for crops.

    Reminds me of my father (who married and started a family in the deepest part of the 1930s depression). He always said he wanted to be a farmer because he would always have food to eat if he lived on a farm. Maybe not 100% precise in the idea, but he was generally on the mark.

    I also wonder what has happened to the plans for repairs to the infrastructure of our country. Lately, we have had explosions of whole entire houses (some with people in them) due to faults in underground gas lines. Then there is the entire infrastructure of our electrical system. One also thinks of the bridges in the country that are very bad; and roads in general that could use some repair. All these things need upkeep.

    But with your farm idea you’ve really hit the nail on the head. A return to family farming just might be the solution to a whole bunch of problems. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 10, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

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