DOWN AND DIRTY
Some years ago, a bumper sticker became popular: If you ate today, thank a farmer. In a fashion similar to another common bumper billboard of the time, If you can read this, thank a teacher the message was designed to elicit support for a political position; in the farmers case, organized resistance to the gobbling up of family farms by Evil Agribusiness, a trend that threatened the bucolic way of life rural families had enjoyed for generations.
When I read an article about a bill to aid struggling tobacco farmers (The Wall Street Journal
, August 31, 2004), I reacted the same way I had about those Family Farmers: why is this the business of the rest of us? What inherent rights should those who work the land have over those of us who worry that our jobs will go the way of the iceman? Forget about the point of the article, which was to expose the fact that wealthy citizens who do not even farm the land anymore could get $90,000 a year for ten years because they own an allotment handed down from their ancestors. My longstanding antipathy for farm subsidies applies to rich and poor alike: why should the occupation of farming garner more emotion and sympathy (and a bail-out by the government) than say, manufacturing?
To be specific, why should the manufacturing company I work for, not be eligible for the same kind of government assistance as farmers? Just a few feet from my air-conditioned office, labor a couple of dozen guys who have been forming and joining and punching and painting metal since they graduated from high school--some of them for the last forty years. Their families and perhaps their grandparents, once enjoyed a measure of job security because they had a skill--a skill that is no longer in such demand because Americas manufacturing sector is in decline. They sweat and get their hands dirty every day, and they are exposed to welding fumes and repetitive motion that can make them old before their time. And should they end up with an occupational-related chronic disease, any savings they may have accumulated on their once decent, but now meager wages, could vanish in the treatment of that disease. And every day, management here struggles, with not an iota of effort from Uncle Sam, to make certain the company will be around another fifty seven years.
Where are their protections? Is what they do somehow less noble than turning up dirt in which to plant seeds? Is their way of life not worth preserving? Are guarantees of a way of life only for those who had the good fortune of being around in the time of Thomas Jefferson, who waxed romantic about the yeoman farmer, while occupations borne of the Industrial Revolution are on their own? And why should a bunch of legislators add their names to a full page ad in the same newspaper, an ad placed by Philip Morris urging relief for tobacco farmers? And how can Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole be among these petitioners, herself a member of the party that claims to love the free market and hates government meddling?
And why arent they meddling on behalf of hard-working men and women in all the other occupations that are perched precariously on the edge of economic extinction? Apparently the welding lobby hasnt coughed up enough do-re-mi to influence the influence peddlers.