Sunday, July 28, 2013

In them old cotton fields back home

A week or so ago, my favorite wife mentioned that she didn’t like to wear cotton tops because they didn’t “breathe” as well as the “wicking” shirts that keep her cooler in the Arizona summers.

The way that my head works caused me to do a little more research on the cotton plant, and here’s what I found:

No one knows for sure when cotton first came into being, but cotton seeds dating back to 4500 B.C. have been found in both South America and India. It was first planted in America shortly after our independence from England, but it wasn’t until the invention of the cotton gin (in 1793) that cotton production accelerated in the United States. By 1830, the United States was the largest cotton producer in the world, and cotton exports exceeded the value of all other exports combined.

Cotton is now grown in 17 states. Surprisingly, Texas is the biggest cotton producer in the country, and the state of Mississippi is a DISTANT second. Cotton's business revenue to the U.S. economy is estimated to be $100 billion a year, nearly as much as the PROFIT that the Big Oil companies made in 2012. (As you’re probably aware, us taxpayers are STILL paying subsidies to the oil companies, to the tune of AT LEAST $2 billion a year.

Most of our cotton output (75%) is used to make apparel, although a LOT of it isn’t made here. Out of curiosity, I inventoried my closet earlier today to see how many of my shirts (or sweaters) were made in America. Out of 62 garments, only 3 were made in America. The balance were made in 24 different countries around the globe. Bangladesh and Mexico tied for top honors, at 7 garments apiece.

Today, the world’s leading producer of cotton is China, and India is not far behind. The United States is still in third place, largely due to the fact that the subsidies the cotton industry receives from the Farm Bill (officially known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) allows them to sell cotton cheaper than they would be able to do so otherwise. Since 1991, the Federal government has paid $50 billion to cotton growers, and the subsidies have averaged $3 billion a year for the last decade.

The country that’s in 5th place in cotton production is Brazil, which has produced an interesting dilemma. If you’ve done any research on the disastrous Smoot-Hawley bill of 1930, you’ll recall that the tariffs that our government imposed to help domestic farmers set off retaliatory tariffs by other countries, and worsened the effects of the Great Depression. Due to the fact that Brazil feels we are “dumping” our cotton in overseas markets, the World Trade Organization has given Brazil the right to charge tariffs of $150,000,000 a year on products exported from America. In order to protect software producers, wheat producers, and other producers who would be hurt by the Brazilian tariffs, our government simply sends a check to the Brazilian government in that amount each year, which we started doing in May of 2010.

The original purpose of the Farm Bill in the 1930’s was to help out small farmers. Unfortunately, the current farm bill largely benefits large, politically-connected farms instead. As a matter of fact, fifteen member of Congress receive subsidies PERSONALLY from the government. One of the chief beneficiaries of the program is Tennessee Representative Stephen Fincher, who received $3.48 million between 1995 and 2012. The family business itself (Fincher Farms) received $8.9 million in subsidies in the last decade, and most of those subsidies are from the cotton program.

In a classic case of Tea Party hypocrisy, Fincher doesn’t believe in the food stamp program (SNAP), which is an opinion shared by Representative Doug LaMalfa of California. LaMalfa’s family owns a rice farm, and it has received $4.7 million in federal subsidies in the last 15 years.

Both Fincher and LaMalfa are on the House agriculture committee, which allows them to “grease their own palm”. Both of them cite Biblical references to justify cuts to the food stamp program. Like most selective readers of the Bible, they ignore passages that are far more applicable. In this case, a careful reading of Matthew 25:31-46 will reinforce the fact that these two individuals are dead wrong in their position on the food stamp program, which currently provides assistance to more than 47,000,000 Americans. In view of the fact that the average net worth of the Senators in Congress is $11,000,000, and the average net worth of the House of Representatives is $6,000,000, our elected officials REALLY need to pay a lot more attention to the words found in Matthew 19:24.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have loudly proclaimed that the Farm Bill "needs reform". Surprisingly, they're actually correct. Between 2008 and 2012, the Agriculture Department's conservation program sent $10.6 million to more than 1000 people who had been dead for more than a year. In addition, the agency that administers the crop insurance program sent $22,000,000 to 3400 policyholders who had been dead for at least two years.

Their idea of reform, though, isn't the same as the one held by the rest of us. On July 11, 2013, the House of Representatives passed an agricultural bill that ELIMINATED food stamps from the Farm Bill, which marks the first time that food stamps have not been part of the bill since 1973 (when a REPUBLICAN named Richard Nixon got them put in). When asked about the food stamp program, House Speaker John Boehner said, “we’ll get to those other issues later”.

In contrast, this is what Nixon had to say about the issue when he addressed Congress in the late 1960’s:

"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.... More is at stake here than the health and well-being of 16 million American citizens.... Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue."

Cotton has had a long and storied history in our country, which inspired a musician named Huddie Ledbetter (whose stage name is Lead Belly) to compose a song called “Cotton Fields” in 1940. Since that time, NUMEROUS artists have recorded the same song. Although the version by Johnny Cash is pretty good, my favorite is the one done by Credence Clearwater Revival (the guys who brought us “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son”):

In them old cotton fields back home.

After you’ve had a chance to enjoy the music, take a little advice from the 1976 film, Network. Get mad as hell about the Farm Bill, and write to your Congressman in order to achieve the FULL RESTORATION of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program in the Farm Bill.

In closing, here’s the updated version of “American Gothic”, courtesy of Stephen Fincher:

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