Sam Burnham, Curator
So I had this dream the other night. I’m not sure which part is the weirdest but I think I found a message in it. Let me tell the story, don’t try to get too partisan in the analysis until we get to the message part. Just enjoy the weird story.
I’m sitting in an airport terminal. I’m pretty sure it was in Atlanta but I’m not sure. It was far nicer than Philadelphia but not as cool as Denver. It could have been anywhere else, I guess. Let’s just say Atlanta. Don’t get distracted.
Anyway, I’m sitting there with one of my sons. I’m not sure why it was just the two of us waiting to board a plane for Hawaii. There’s really no reason for the two of us to be going to Hawaii without any other family members. Hey, you’re getting distracted again. Pay attention here because it’s about to get weirder.
So I’m looking out the window at the vacant jetway waiting for the plane to arrive. Of all people, Barrack Obama walks up and sits down next to me. We just start talking. No introductions, no greetings. We’ve known each other for years, so it seems. In reality I don’t know him from Adam and he sure doesn’t know me. We agree on almost nothing politically but he’s a cool enough guy and were just shooting the breeze. We’re talking about simple stuff, regular people conversation stuff, common ground stuff. Don’t get distracted by specifics.
Then it hits me. My old pal Barry here grew up in Hawaii. It’s like home to him. He’s not going to Hawaii. He’s just sitting here hanging out with my son and I while we wait on our plane. He’s got nothing better to do and his Secret Service detail can get him through the TSA checkpoint. So I ask if he wants me to bring him something back. Yes, I know he’s got a lot more money than me and if he wants something from Hawaii he can jump on a plane and go get it. That’s not the point. I’m going. He ain’t. If he wants a fresh pineapple or one of those dancing hula girls that you sit on your dashboard, I’ll bring him one.
The dream trailed off as he chuckled humbly the way you do when you’re declining an offer to bring back a gift that you really want. I’ll find him something. It’ll be nice but it won’t be Hula Bowl tickets. Maybe a tiki head penny bank.
Anyway, that’s the story. So here’s the message. The outcome of this election is political. Our everyday lives shouldn’t be. If we can’t carry on conversations and even friendships with people we disagree with politically, then we need to take some emotional and intellectual inventory. We need to think about the weight we put on things. Politics should absolutely divide us ideologically. Politics should never divide us personally. If I can bring Barrack Obama back an ashtray shaped like Diamond Head, you can be civil to folks across the aisle from you.
Take the election outcomes for what they are. Live your life regardless of them. It’s ok to be a decent human if your candidate loses. This is my 7th presidential election. The candidate I voted for has won twice so far. I have yet to resort to violence over it. It’s not the end of the world. We don’t have to become savages. We can watch Magnum P.I. Reruns and pretend we’re in Hawaii souvenir shopping. We can talk to old friends. We can make new friends. They can disagree with us. We can disagree with them.
Oh, and Aloha, y’all.
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.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire