Sam Burnham, Curator
In my previous article I mentioned the 1859 speech that Augustus Wright gave on the floor of the US House of Representatives. His idea, if taken only in summary, comes across as radical, leftist, perhaps even communist. But just as news headlines today don’t explain the details that are unearthed while actually reading the story, a summary of this speech cannot relay the brilliance of his idea.
His speech opens with the observation that the federal government owned “a thousand million acres” (a billion acres) of land. Presently that number is around 640 million acres. That sounds like there has been a huge sell off but keep in mind entire states have been carved out of that 1859 estimate. The current total puts roughly 28% of all US land under the ownership of the federal government. Add land owned by state and local governments and that’s a sizable chunk of land that is in the public trust.
He progresses into the idea he is presenting by laying out the importance of land ownership, not by the government and not by large planters but by the people at large. He advocated selling off, perhaps even ceding, arable tracts of public land to common people with the stipulation that they use the land to make their living. He described the power that self determination and independence can give to people. A man who owns his own land and can grow his own food has power. If he grows food for others he has income. This is the original American Dream.
Wright further explains his position by pointing out the benefits for the government and the nation at large. He speaks of the economic benefits of having large swaths of the population become independent and prosperous. He explains that land ownership by those who want to work it benefits everyone.
He describes his lack of sympathy for the rich who don’t need it “capital never fails to take care of itself.” He has similar feelings about willful vagrancy, “if a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” Then he explains that his sympathies lie with those who work and those who would work if they could. He asked his colleagues to consider the number of people who tilled the soil for others “obtaining a bare subsistence for themselves.”
This concept brings us back to the Oglethorpe model, to unleash the power of small landowners and empower them to defend themselves against exploitation. He further argued that this would build a nation of true citizens. No threat to the United States could overcome such a mass of citizenry who had a vested interest in this country. He argued that men would fight to defend their property and livelihood far more readily than they would for an abstract idea.
Today the public holdings are fewer but still vast. Granted much of the land is in use as military bases, national parks, utilities, etc, but much of it just sits there.
But there is also a new detail: corporate ownership. Big business has long been an issue but recently that threat has increased. If we only consider the Mississippi Delta, hedge funds own hundreds of thousands of acres. Large cotton plantations are owned by Wall Street investors who have likely never seen them. The people who live in the Delta, once described as “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” work the land to make rent payments to TIAA, Hancock, or UBS. There can be no self determination in such situations. This region has the largest per capita population of African Americans in the country. Much of this land was once owned by their ancestors and the way they lost it wasn’t pretty.
So we see those two heads of the same monster- big government and big business - tightly grasping large landholdings that could otherwise be providing opportunity to a truly empowered working class - motivated, diverse, independent, hopeful.
Wright’s sentiment on this situation? “Any contrivance of men, by governments or corporations, whereby those who would labor are prevented from laboring, is, to that extent, a mischievous contrivance.” Regardless of the economic benefits of the current situation, it amounts only to damage in comparison to a model that unleashes the productivity of citizens achieving independence.
Wright’s plan lays out an agricultural solution. In 1859, particularly in the South, agriculture was the reality. Atlanta was a dusty crossroads on a rail line. Birmingham, Orlando, and Miami didn’t exist. Commerce and industry were almost nonexistent across the South. In 2020 we can make adjustments to the plan. This is where we look at the percentages of the market controlled by Walmart, Wells Fargo, Home Depot, and other household names. The ability for local banks, local grocery stores, and local mercantile businesses to gain a foothold in the market is hindered by policies made by governments and choices made by customers.
In this model, wages, benefit packages, leave policies, and other human resource practices are developed by people who never meet the employees they manage. Employees become a number rather than a person and humanity is lost in the shuffle. Small businesses have a better chance of preserving humanity and also offer independence to more people than huge corporations. More people running smaller businesses build a larger economic base than fewer people running large businesses.
So we see, once again, an old idea that is wiser than current practices. Wright’s spin on Oglethorpe’s model is an option we can update easily and put into practice.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The Corona Virus (COVID-19) is the new panic that is sweeping the planet. While narratives range from this being the common cold to it becoming a global pandemic causing the end of all life on Earth. The important story is not really about the disease itself. The important story is going to be buried because it doesn't fit nicely into the modern narrative. The important lesson here is about globalism and the dangerous place it has carried us.
Let me start by saying that trade is not our enemy. Pure isolationism is not the answer to all of our problems, including the Corona Virus. Trade, when engaged properly, is a good thing. It adds variety to our economy and opens new markets for our products as well as provides us with products we might otherwise never see. Healthy trade benefits the economies and citizens of all the nations involved.
But an honest glimpse at Southern history gives us a story of mismanaged trade. In the antebellum South almost all manufactured goods were foreign-made or at least made outside the South. As late as 1889, when Henry Grady addressed the Bay State Club of Boston, the situation had not changed much. His comments about attending a funeral in Pickens County related the fact that Georgia had plentiful resources but very few manufactured goods. Items needed for the funeral were all brought in from the cities of the North. "The South didn't furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground." Grady's point showed a hole in the Southern economy. Something was seriously missing.
Balance is important and I certainly am not calling for Grady's New South or suggesting that the South look to heavy industry to solve its problems. Trade helps create a balance. Industrial centers can trade with resource centers and both can benefit. But balance is key.With too much reliance on industry we risk damaging the very resources we rely on and even altering our culture. With too little industry we become dependent on other locations to provide us with manufactured goods.
This very morning (2/28/20) I heard from a health specialist appearing on the radio program 1A that between 80-90% of the ingredients for American generic pharmaceuticals are produced in China. So when there is an upheaval in China such as the Corona Virus or, God forbid, they go to war with us, our ability to produce medicine screeches to a halt. Keep an eye on the news, not for the stories designed to stir fear to drive ratings, but for the side effects. Notice all the products that are affected by the slowing of economic productivity in China. Well-balanced, healthy trade does not do this. Too many eggs in one basket does. Too few eggs in our own basket does. Again, balance.
While we cannot possibly produce everything we need locally, the more we do produce locally, the more balanced our economy will be. There is certainly no excuse for any foreign nation to be producing 90% of anything as vital as medication. We have to produce more of this in our own country. Entrusting entire segments of the economy to other nations while merely assuming they will stay productive, stable, and solvent is a recipe for disaster. As China remains in quarantine and their productivity continues to drop, domestic businesses reliant on that productivity continue to suffer and our stock markets will continue to drop as a result. It is ridiculous that nations with smaller economies than ours drag our markets over their epidemics. We've benefited from cheap Chinese production but now we're paying the price for that. We'll survive this and they will to. But if we don't change the way we do things the next pandemic will just put us back in this same spot.
Anything we do produce locally - food, clothing, furniture, electricity, you name it - will be independent of the downturns elsewhere. This is economic strength that we can build ourselves. We can build our local economies, improving the loves of our friends and neighbors, insuring economic security in hard times, and keeping our needs from being capsized in ships on our shores. A productive local economy is good for us, our neighbors, future generations, our local environment, and our planet.
When you are in the market to purchase something, put a higher value on things that are produced locally, in your state, or in your region. Value should matter more than cost. Local products may cost more but they will usually be of a higher quality and will have a give more economic benefit to your local economy. Reward makers who are working to provide us with these options. Like I said, it won't always work. There are things we must import but you might be surprised at how much you can find that was made just down the street.
Sam Burnham, Curator
By now I’m sure you’ve heard this term being slung around. The mystical, magical plan in which all proven sources of energy and economy are discarded for unicorns and glitter and the Federal Government saves the world from menacing onslaught of “cow farts.” Leave it to a New Yorker to blame cows for climate change.
This proposal is the handiwork of the freshman member of Congress from New York City, the amazing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She argues that the deal will reverse climate change while revolutionizing the economy and creating mind blowing prosperity.
But, as is to be expected, the plan is as silly as it is ignorant. For one thing, she cuts out air travel. Then she tweets advice to kids on how to reduce their carbon footprint. One of her points is to give up eating meat and dairy, recommending instead her go-to breakfast of banana and peanut butter. At home in NYC that means opting for peanut butter trucked in from Alabama or Georgia and a banana flown in from South America or maybe even Indonesia instead of a dairy product produced within 100 miles of her home. According to the EPA, ranchers and dairy farmers account for about 2% of all greenhouse gases while transportation accounts for about 28%. So a relatively short truck or train trip could bring her dairy produced in state but she opts for a banana flown in from the other side of the planet and some peanut butter from over 1000 miles away.
The trick to a greener, more sustainable, more ecologically friendly future is with local and regional sources for food, energy, water, goods, services, etc. The more products we use that are locally sourced or at least regionally sourced, the less transportation is required and we cut into the 28% and never mind the 2%. Quit straining at gnats.
As the South continues to develop cleaner, more sustainable energy solutions, and broadband internet services connect our region better, options will arise that will cut those transportation and energy emissions more and the bovine emissions will matter even less.
If Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is really interested in fixing emissions, she should find sustainable methods to heat homes in and travel through that wretched city she lives in. She should deal with the Sasquatch sized carbon footprint of New York before pointing at the ant sized one in rural areas. As the flora in rural areas, especially trees in forests and farms, continues to consume the infinitesimal greenhouse gas emissions from rural sources, the cities continue to make far more than their flora can contain. If greenhouse gas emissions is the conversation she wants to have, then her town needs some greenhouse Beano first.
Regardless of any legislation or action in Washington, a localized grass roots economy will always be the greenest option. The closer we are to the goods and services we use, the more our sources of energy match our climate and topography, and the more walkable sour communities, then the greener our environment, the more prosperous our towns, and the healthier our people will be. We can never have a green economy so long as our small towns are cluttered with shuttered workplaces. We need Washington to step out of the way so we can rebuild this nation on our Main Streets.That would be a Green New Deal.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire