Thursday, August 30, 2012

When the GI Bill Ended

            This week, as political rhetoric, misinformation, and political cowardice climb to previously unimagined heights, it might be useful to step back and inspect the cowardice of an earlier, simpler era.   In the mid-fifties, with Eisenhower in the White House and Republicans in Congress, they ended the GI Bill.  It expired on Jun 30, 1956. 
            A few of you may be old enough to remember this program from personal experience, and most of you will have read about it.   This is the bill which allowed millions of working class veterans to obtain a college education.  This one government program doubled the percent of the population with college degrees, and the engineers, scientists, and teachers produced by this bill helped fuel the post war boom of the 50s and 60s.  We beat the Soviets in the space race with GI bill engineers.   The sheer economic benefit of this program per tax dollar spent far exceeded anyone’s expectations.  It was the most efficient investment of tax dollars in our history.  Yet in 1956, they quickly and quietly ended it. 
            For me, this was particularly disastrous.  All through high school, I had expected to go into the service for two years and then spend four years in college, just as my brother had done.  But the program ended in June of ’56, and I did not graduate till June of ’57.  Deprived of this chance at an education, I really had no “plan B.”  My father was a packing house worker with four children, and we were a one income family, as my mother stayed at home caring for my youngest brother, who was totally disabled from polio.   Though we never lacked the necessities, there was no money whatsoever for higher education.
            I began working my way through college by working a semester, then attending school for a semester. I was physics major with a minor in economics, and my goal was to become a high school science teacher or an engineer.    By the time I had two years of college, I was twenty-two, the age at which people were then being drafted.  So when I quit school to take another job, I got a letter from my draft board.  My country’s government not only failed to assist me in obtaining an education, but by ending the GI Bill without ending the draft, they actively prevented me from doing it on my own.
            I enlisted for three years to avoid being drafted for two years, because by serving an extra year, I qualified to attend a better school and serve in some kind of technical capacity. I felt it was better to be a technician for three years than a ground-pounder for two.   When I got out of the Army, I was an electronics technician, and was about 26 years old.  There was still no GI Bill, and I had no more money than when I enlisted.  To re-enter college would mean going back to working every other semester, meaning it would take till I was 30 just to get a BA, which was a little absurd.   I took the training which the Army had given me and became an industrial electrician. Mainly because of my Army experience, I was able to become an IBEW journeyman without serving an apprenticeship.   They finally re-instituted the GI Bill in 1968, and made it retroactive to August ’64, so I would have been covered. But by that time, the life choices I had made in another direction were pretty irrevocable.
            I made a better wage as a skilled building tradesman than I would have ever made as a high school science teacher.  And I was treated with more respect, and had a more interesting and creative job than I would have had as an engineer. (I draw these comparisons advisedly—I worked with engineers for forty years, and have spent forty years married to a teacher.)  But the abrupt ending of the GI Bill still pulled the rug out from under me, and I have always resented it bitterly, even though this action did not deprive me of a remunerative, rewarding, and socially useful career.  I resented it because I understood why they did it.
            By the mid-fifties, the more affluent middle classes figured out that if the GI Bill were to continue indefinitely, we would reach a point where having a BA or BS did not automatically guarantee a comfortable white collar job.  Families who had always been able to afford college realized that, at some point, their kids would have to compete with college educated blue-collar kids.  As my daughter once remarked, “No one so distrusts meritocracy as the affluent parent of a mediocre child.”  So these privileged families, mostly a Republican constituency, began writing to their congressmen, demanding that we stop educating “those factory workers’ kids.” And Congress obliged. It’s easy to see why the Republicans in Congress would do such a thing.  Screwing the working class is their “raison d’être”.   But why would the Democrats quietly go along with it?  Even with a Republican majority in both houses (and I don’t remember for certain if there was), there would surely have been enough Democrats in the Senate to mount a filibuster, at least for long enough to make the public aware of what was happening.  While the majority of Republicans may have approved of this change, the majority of American workers did not.  If you were a blue collar parent then, the GI Bill was your only hope that any of your children would ever see the inside of a college classroom.  The Democrats could have easily stopped this, but they let it quietly slip through.  Why?   Probably because these congressional Democrats knew that their own kids would be in college with or without government help—and they weren’t very happy to see their kids competing with factory workers’ kids either.  It was the most outrageous sellout of the working class in my lifetime—and it was a bi-partisan sellout.
            I have been bitter about this for 50 years, but no more.  After five decades of re-evaluation, I have decided that although the decision to end the GI Bill was undertaken for the most base and cowardly of reasons, the result may have been less disastrous than the alternative.  Untill now, I had assumed that the result of continuing the GI Bill education benefit would merely be a little increased competition for the good jobs that would accrue to those with college degrees.   But I now believe that this is a little naïve.  What would really have happened is that there would have been no good jobs—none whatsoever.  With an extreme oversupply of baccalaureate applicants for every professional position, wages for teachers would have declined to the minimum wage, and the same would have been true for engineers, scientists, and white collar professionals of all sorts.  We can be sure that this would have been the outcome, because that is precisely what is starting to happen right now.  According to an online article by Debra Leigh Scott, How the American University Was Killed, in Five Easy Steps, two thirds of all college classes are now taught by adjunct instructors, mostly PhDs, who work full time, often 80 hours a week, for wages as low as $20,000 a year.  The PhD job market has become a train wreck.  And a large and growing percentage of those with baccalaureate degrees now accept low wage jobs that could easily be done by high school graduates, yet they have a $50,000 student loan debt.  But the train wreck which we are now having would have begun 50 years ago if they had continued the GI bill.  Although it may have been necessary to artificially restrict access to higher education, I still think that the way they went about it was a bit tacky.  It was as though we were trying to get seats aboard a lifeboat.  For ten years, they let anyone on board who was a veteran.  But when the supply of lifeboats started to run out, they said, “Hold it.  First class passengers only—steerage to the rear.”   As a member of the steerage class who spent a few years clinging to a piece of flotsam, I have spent my life thinking how comfortable it might have been to be in the life boat. I now know that if they had let me on board—they would also have let millions of others on board—and the damn boat would have sunk.  It’s stupid to regret having missed a chance to drown.
            Is it preferable to be having this train wreck in the professional market happen now, instead of 50 years ago? I believe that it is.  Because, although the percentage of jobs which actually require a college education is less than the percentage of people we now send to college, it is still about twice the percentage that required these skills in 1962.  So while there are millions who do not ever use their college specific skills on the job, there are millions more who do. 
            The real problem is that we still sell higher education as job training.  One of my last electrical apprentices was a philosophy graduate.  He did not regret having spent four years as a philosophy major.  He explained that a real education must teach you how to make a living—and also how to make a life.  His college studies had taught him how to make a life, and now his apprenticeship would teach him how to make a living.    That was 15 years ago.  Since then, he has made a pretty good living—and a very good life.  And at no point have I ever regretted any of the time I spent in college, even though none of it was really a requirement for the electrical trade.  (In fact, when I applied for membership to an IBEW local union, I deliberately neglected to mention that I had ever attended college, for fear that there might be, in the minds of some members, an active discrimination against college trained people.)  But while the physics was obviously useful to me in the trade, what I valued most was the humanities, the macro-economics, and the sociology.
During the 1980s, Iowa was hit by a severe depression that lasted the whole decade. This was called The Farm Crisis of the 80s, and it wrecked all sectors of the regional economy. The number of IBEW electricians with full time jobs in Waterloo went from 300 to half a dozen.   And since the rest of the country was having a recession, although much less severe, there was really no place to go where an out of town job seeker would have a chance at a job.  Nearly half the marriages among local union members ended in divorce, and two members committed suicide.  The stress on families was severe, both financially, and emotionally.  At that time, the Reagan administration was claiming that if you did not have a job, it was your own fault—you just weren’t trying hard enough.   This was, of course, a cruel hoax, but many believed it—which only increased their suffering and desperation.  We all were destroyed financially—but not all of us were destroyed emotionally.  The handful of us who had been exposed, even briefly, to a college liberal arts curriculum rejected the Reagan hoax for the nonsense that it was.  We understood enough macro-economics enough to see that our plight was due entirely to a regional depression which we did not cause and could not cure.  We knew that our only option was to be patient, hunker down, and wait it out--and above all, not to begin blaming ourselves.  We lost ten of what should have been the most productive years of our lives—but we never lost our self respect. No matter what you do for a living, a liberal arts experience broadens your perspective in ways that can give you a better life. I have written more in these pages on this subject.  You may wish to read, Should Education be Sold as Job Training?
             I have never been to a dog track, but I have been told that the pack of dogs runs in pursuit of a mechanical rabbit which runs along a track and which is operated to stay just ahead of the dogs—close enough so that the dogs think they are going to catch it—but not close enough so that there is any chance that they actually do.  I have also been told, by a friend who raised racing dogs, that is very important that the dogs never catch the phony rabbit.  Because if any of them ever do, and they find out that the “rabbit” is just a bunch of gears and springs covered with a little rabbit fur, they won’t ever chase it again.  For four generations, Americans have been struggling to get as much education as possible, in the belief that if they could ever get the right amount, the elusive rabbit of a higher socio-economic status would be theirs.  And until now, enough have actually achieved this goal to keep the others interested.  But the pack of hounds is closing in on the phony rabbit quickly, and if they catch it, the racetrack of higher education will be deserted for a generation.   I think it’s time people be given a better rabbit to chase—a better reason to run round the track of higher education.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

How Ancient Builders Moved Things

               On the cover of the July 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine is a drawing of one of the Easter Island statues being moved.  There are ropes attached to the top of the head, being tugged at by gangs of brightly painted natives.  The caption reads:  The Riddle of the Moving Statues.   In the article, they explain that the statues might have been moved without recourse to rollers, or wheels, or draft animals.  If ropes attached to the top were used to rock the statue from side to side, and if with each stroke, the side which was momentarily off the ground were pried forward an inch or two, then over time, the statue could be moved for miles.   Well Duh!  The only riddle is why anyone would imagine that this is a riddle.  On any industrial construction job, this is precisely how a lot of heavy objects are moved today.   Barrels, transformers, tall narrow switchgear cabinets, crates--anything that is significantly taller than it is wide can be “walked” in this way.  But this article is just the last in an endless series of articles which ask, “Gosh, how could those primitive people have moved such big things without modern equipment?”  Some fools have even adduced this as evidence of assistance from space aliens.    Whether its stones from the pyramids, from Stonehenge, or Mayan temples, we seem puzzled that pre-industrial peoples could move them.
            But having spent forty years on heavy construction jobs, I can tell you that large and heavy objects can be easily moved, and still are often moved, using no technology that would be unfamiliar to any Egyptian construction worker. With levers, rollers, ropes, and a little muscle, you can move almost anything.  And once you understand how to use leverage, the amount of muscle required is trivial.
            Whenever I have tried to explain this to those outside the skilled trades, they usually protest, “But don’t you guys use cranes, and forklifts, and other heavy equipment?”   Well, of course we do--when we have that option.  We’re not insane, you know.   But such machines usually won’t fit inside a building.  And even if we are working in the open, there might not be such machines on the job site—and even if such equipment is present, it might not belong to the sub-contractor who needs to have the stuff moved.  But when all else fails, we just go back to bars and rollers and ropes, or some other late Neolithic strategy, and it works just fine.  And if these methods work for us today, I’m sure they worked equally well 5,000 years ago.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

What They Won't Tell You About Farm Bills

        On August 1, Froma Harrop, in her syndicated column, discussed the Farm Bill.  I usually read her column, recommend it, and frequently agree with it. I agreed with the Aug 1 piece, and am sending her a fan letter, which is something I very, very rarely do.   And I will also provide a link to her piece.  We have had a farm program since the 30s, but at no point has your gov't  disclosed its real purpose.  I hope to remedy that oversight.
        This is a long post.  But if you don't know what the real purpose of the farm program is,  (and you probably don't, because both parties have spared no expense to conceal it from you) then it's about time you found out.
An open letter to Froma Harrop:

Dear Ms. Harrop,
                  This is a fan letter.  I rarely write fan letters, but if we are to complain about those things we object to, then it’s only fair that we should occasionally communicate our approval to those voices with which we agree.  I have read your column for years and usually agree with it. I hope that you have time to read this letter, and perhaps respond to it.  But if not, no matter.  Since I would like to encourage more people to read your column, I will post this opus as an “open letter to Froma Harrop” on my blog, along with a link to your original article.  The number of people who read it there may be far fewer than originally read your article, but it’ll be a bunch. Today you wrote about the farm program, and I agree with most of what you say—but there is so much more you could have said that I would have agreed with even more strongly.
                  I live in rural Iowa, I am a 73 year old liberal Democrat, and I’m not a farmer. (My branch of the family got squeezed out of farming even before the great Depression.) But my uncles farmed till they died twenty years ago, my wife was raised on a farm, and many of my friends and neighbors farm.  Living in Iowa, everyone I know is in some way dependent on agriculture, whether they farm or not. You mentioned that you are not happy with the farm program. You are in good company.  I have never met a person who liked the farm program. Some of my friends are Democrats, and some are Republicans. Some are liberals, and some are conservatives, some are old, and some are young.  Some farm, some work in the city.  Some are uneducated, and some have PhDs.  But none of them like the farm program.  In fact, none of them have particularly liked any farm program we have ever had since 1936.  Which is amazing, because since then, we have tried almost every possible permutation of farm policy.  And no American, rural or urban, has ever approved of any of it, except as a temporary stop-gap measure till something better could be devised.  Yet no American, if old enough to remember the Great Depression and the farm crisis which caused it, wants to go back to the totally chaotic farm markets of the Coolidge years. Contrary to myth, the depression did not begin in 1929—that was merely the year that a severe depression of the farm sector which had been growing since 1924 finally spilled over into the wider economy.  Roosevelt fully understood this, and his first project was to try to put a floor under farm prices.
                  Also amazing is the fact that the very programs which our own agriculture department has felt required to apologize for would have been judged a resounding success by the agriculture ministers in any other country. This is a long letter, but if you will bear with me, I will explain why almost every farm program we have ever had has actually achieved the objectives of experts who designed it.  The trouble is that our agricultural bureaucrats have never disclosed to the public just what our objectives actually were.  In order to gain political support, both from farmers and city dwellers alike, we have had to pretend that the farm bill had something to do with “saving small family farms.” This was never the real intent—such an outcome was never a serious possibility, nor would it have been desirable.
                  There are three things about farm policy that no one will ever tell you:
1.      1. What the real objectives of all farm programs were and why most of them were a brilliant success, but a success that we can never publically acknowledge.
2.     2.      Why the production of corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton does not respond to free market forces, even though production of fruits and vegetables does, (and even though the families involved in grain production still have more faith in free markets and less faith in government than you do.)
3.    3. Who the intended beneficiaries of farm programs were.  (It wasn’t the farmers.)
                  First:  The original objective of the first farm program was to help end the depression by reducing the oversupply of food that had caused the collapse of farm prices and the tragic bankruptcy of farmers. This was done not just out of compassion for farmers, but because about one fourth of all goods produced in the country were produced for the farm population, because a quarter of us still lived on farms. If all farm income stopped, then all these goods would go unsold.  This fact alone could be expected to produce 25% unemployment—which it did.  And this disaster would be compounded by the legions of destitute ex-farmers flooding into cities and swamping the labor market.
                  Roosevelt understood that unless farming could be made at least minimally profitable, there would be no hope in fixing the depression.  At first the government bought up commodities and stored them.  It set up a program for limiting the number of acres planted in certain commodities. And it also tried to reduce production of pork by buying baby pigs and selling them for slaughter, thereby insuring that next year’s crop of hogs would be smaller.  (I remember a story told by my mother, of hauling the last hog to market, a 300 pound sow, and receiving only three dollars for it.)   Another central part of the New Deal farm program was the establishment of a commodity loan program.  The problem was that no matter how low the price of grain went, the farmer had to sell his crop immediately to pay his debts, and to have money to live on. But the commodity loan program worked like a big pawn shop.  The farmer, instead of selling his grain, could simply surrender possession of it, just put it in a bin with a government lock on it,  and borrow money against it at a rate set by Congress.  If, later in the year, the price climbed higher than what he owed against it, he could pay back the loan, redeem his grain, and sell it on the market.  If the price did not recover, he could just let the government keep the grain. 
                  But just as a pawn shop owner eventually ends up owning a lot of guitars, the government began to amass a lot of grain.  At first, this was not seen as a problem.  The country had just seen the dust bowl, and the idea of a general crop failure did not seem farfetched.  And going into WWII with a little stored grain was not all bad.  But by the late 1950s, it had been many years since the last really disastrous crop failure, and we had so much stored grain that we could have endured a multi-year crop failure with no ill effect. Any other country would have seen this situation as the crowning achievement of a perfect farm program. But Americans, rural and urban alike, saw it as a problem and began complaining about it.  They asked, “If we already have more grain than we could ever eat, why do we keep spending taxpayers’ money to buy more of it?” Mostly, people complained because it appeared that production and distribution of grain had become totally detached from the market.
                  Second:  Why is it that the production of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton, has not, since WWI, responded to normal market forces of supply and demand?  When I was at University of Northern Iowa  in the late 50s, any professor in the economics department could have answered this question.  But these people were all old leftists who had gotten their degrees during the depression and did not feel obligated to prove that free markets always worked. But in the late 60s, conservative politicians who control funding for public colleges and conservative donors who control funding for private collages all felt that colleges had come under the influence of communists, and they demanded that no professor of economics ever be hired or given tenure except those who were ideologically pure, free-market conservatives.  Since then, economics, as taught in our major universities, has become more of a religion than a science. Asking a professor why the free market has not successfully controlled corn price is like asking a bishop why God has not answered your prayer. In both cases, you’ll get an answer, but it comes more from the realm of faith than science.  But I left college before this change occurred, so I can tell you the answer.
                  If you were growing lettuce, or strawberries, or celery, or any other table vegetable,  and if the price of what you were growing dropped too low, you could simply switch to growing less of that item, and more of something else.  If the price of Romaine lettuce gets too low, some of the producers switch to something else and there is less production, and the shortage forces the price up a bit. But if the price gets too high, this attracts others producers into the market--and the price goes down a bit.  This is what we think of as a normal free market process.  The market is “dynamically stable.”  Every time the price gets too high, the market itself causes more production to occur, which lowers the price. And every time the price gets too low, the market itself causes less to be produced, which raises the price.  But the market for major grains is different.
                  What makes the vegetable market stable is that producers have a choice. Anyone who can grow romaine lettuce can grow at least 50 other things instead.   But a wheat producer can grow only wheat.  In wheat country, no other useful plant can be grown, except perhaps grain sorghum.    And if you have acres that can grow corn and soybeans, that’s really about all you can grow.  Oh, it’s true that corn/soybean acres can also grow oats or hay, but these crops do not yield the massive return per acre needed to pay the interest on the bank loan that bought these acres, or pay the rent on any acres you may be renting.  Yet growing corn on top of corn, year after year is not very good for the soil.  This increases the rootworm problem, so that more pesticide is required.  And it also requires more nitrogen than if the corn crop were rotated with a legume.   So any responsible farmer (and most of them are)  will try to rotate away from corn once every few years, if he can afford the short term loss that growing an unprofitable crop entails.  Also, most farms include some marginal land that shouldn’t be in corn at all, but could be pressed into service growing corn occasionally, if that corn were badly needed. Farmers do switch between corn and soybeans in response to market price, but for that reason, the price of these two commodities usually moves in tandem, so from a financial standpoint, it doesn’t really help much.
                  But a farmer has fixed costs.  Few large farmers own their land free and clear. Generally, a farmer has a large bank loan.  His wealth is measured in terms of equity position—the present market value of the land minus what is owed against it.  In good years, the principle is paid down a bit. In bad years, more is borrowed.  It goes on like that for generations.  But the interest must be paid every year.  Since he has a specific number of dollars he must generate every year, if the price per bushel of grain drops, a farmer must then produce more bushels to generate that same number of dollars.  But if the  price of grain rises, he can then slack off and take some of his more fragile land out of corn and put it into hay, and he can rotate from corn to beans for much of his land. In short, instead of maximizing short term grain production, he can concentrate on trying to preserve the long term health of the land.   But then if the price of grain drops again, then the only way he can make the interest payment is to plow up every acre, clear up to his screen door, and put it all in corn, regardless of the consequences.  So we have the absurd situation of a higher price not causing an increase in production, but actually causing a  decrease—and a lower price causing an increase in production.  The grain market is dynamically unstable, in that the market not only fails to correct price problems, it immediately makes them worse.
                  In most businesses, when prices fall below the cost of production, some producers go bankrupt and are forced out of business.  This lowers production, which improves prices for those producers still left.  But this does not occur with grain producers.  When times are tough, farmers do indeed go bankrupt.  So many have been forced out of business that I now have a neighbor who farms 6,000 acres. But these bankruptcies did not in any way reduce the supply of grain.  Why?  Because farmers don’t produce corn—acres of dirt produce corn!  Farmers go broke and go out of business, but the acres of dirt do not.  At a farm bankruptcy sale, one of the neighbors buys the land and all the equipment, and continues planting the same amount of corn, often with the same equipment.   So if grain markets cannot ever be self stabilizing, then some kind of a scheme will always be needed to stabilize them. But what kind?  The kind of scheme you would choose will depend of what your objectives are.  Let’s look at the structure of some of the programs we tried to use—and see if that sheds any light on what we really wanted to accomplish.
                  When we set up the acreage allotment program, each participating farm reported how many acres of each commodity they grew. Then each farm agreed to plant only a specific percentage of that base in any year, with the Dept of Agriculture determining what percentage would be allotted in any given year. If you are going to have a commodity loan program, then you have to have some control on production, because once you guarantee that the government will buy grain at a set price, then there will be a natural tendency for all producers to maximize production and exacerbate the glut which the farm program was supposed to eliminate. Yet without such a guarantee, farmers would continue to go bankrupt.  The answer they chose was to say, “Yes, we will be the buyer of last resort and buy your grain at a price above your cost of production—and, no, you cannot produce all you want.”  Therein lies the reason farmers always complained about the farm bill.  The farmers wanted it both ways.  They demanded a price floor, but chafed under production controls, even though one necessitates the other.  But every snide remark you have ever read about the government “paying farmers not to grow food” comes from one fact:  There is no way the government can simultaneously guarantee a fair price for every ton produced without placing some kind of limit on the number of tons.   By limiting production, the government could usually force the price high enough that the cost of maintaining the commodity loan program was not really excessive.   But the devil is in the details.  Let’s look at exactly how they curtailed excess production.  There was no limit on the total amount of grain any one individual could market.  If a farm could squeeze more bushels per acre out the acres which that farm was allotted, that was allowed.  The government went out of their way to avoid retarding the annual increases in yield per acre that were then occurring, and still occur today. By using hybrid seed corn, farmers had already increased their yield from 25 to 40 bushels per acre, and that was one of the causes of the problem. Today, yields of over 200 are not uncommon.   By limiting acres but not limiting total production, you actually encourage investments that will increase yield per acre. Also, there was no limit on the number of farms one individual could own.  If you owned 160 corn acres and  were allowed to plant 140 acres of it,  and if you bought out your neighbor who had a similar acreage, then you could plant not 140 but 280 acres of corn.  So the farm bill went out of its way to avoid interfering with the consolidation of small units into large units.
                    The farmer today whose grandfather tilled 80 acres with horses may be using a tractor the size of a locomotive to till 8,000 acres.  With a labor saving advantage of 100:1, it is conceivable that 99% of the families still farming in the1930s will ultimately become redundant.  Yet, at the time the first farm bill was drafted, our planners fully understood that this change would eventually happen.   And they made no attempt to stop it, nor were they convinced that stopping it was a benefit to the broad national interest, nor did they believe it was even possible to stop it.   What they did attempt to do is ensure that this transition occurred in a gradual, controlled manner.  It is one thing for a family farm to be sold at a sheriff sale and its family reduced to instant poverty.  It is quite another for that family to voluntarily sell out and use the money to put all the kids through college and pay for ma and pa’s retirement. 
                  Third:  Who were the intended beneficiaries?  If the objective is to stimulate an increase in production per acre, and also stimulate consolidation that will result in more production per hour of human labor (more production from fewer farmers), then who is the intended beneficiary?  It is you, dear consumer.    If there is one word that describes our farm policy goals, consistently for 75 years, it is a “cheap food policy.”  Today, a median income American family spends less than 15 % of its gross income on food.  That’s a third of what our grandparents spent, and half of what any European would expect to pay. Even when the taxes paid to support our farm program are factored in, we buy the cheapest food of any industrialized country on earth.   In the post WWII years, this excess spending power, the money not needed for food, paid for much of the post war boom—for the cars, washing machines, TV sets, tract houses, and eventually higher education.  The one group that gained nothing from the increase in food production efficiency was the farm sector itself.   (Unless being herded off the farm and into a better life in town is in itself an improvement.)  But if you are a typical non-farm taxpayer-consumer, you have probably spent your entire adult life complaining about every farm bill you’ve ever heard of, because your government has never chosen to explain any of this to you, nor are they likely to in the future.
                   Are there things you really should complain about?  Should you complain about the fact that the government crop insurance payouts may exceed 30 billion bucks this year?  No, not really.   That’s a lot of money, but we are now in the middle of the worst drought since 1936. Over half the counties in the U.S. have been declared disaster areas.  Natural disasters are usually expensive, and compared to the 900 billion spent to save the banks, 30 billion spent on saving the food sector is chump change. If you really want to complain, you might complain about the amount of surplus food commodities which the government now hoards. So how much is that?   None!  Not one kernel of corn, grain of wheat, or ounce of cheese.  In the fifties, we had bulging grain bins from coast to coast, enough to weather any catastrophe.  But the taxpaying public bitched about it incessantly, and eventually Congress got tired of listening to it. So they gradually sold it all off, and never bought any more.  Could we ever get these grain reserves back?   Could we ever rebuild this stockpile?   Not at $8.00 a bushel.   It may take another generation before we have another chance to rebuild these stocks. Of course, part of our surplus strategy is the ethanol program.  If you wish to support the price of grain without the expense of government grain-buying programs, you do it by encouraging people to burn off 40% of our corn in their engines.  This has the effect of creating a surplus.  How so? Well, if we ever have a really severe grain shortfall, we can just shut down the production and use of ethanol.  Then the corn that had been planted and intended for ethanol, and is under contract to be delivered to ethanol plants, can simply be diverted to other uses.  This would, under most circumstances, have the same effect as a surplus.  (And under other circumstances, it would not.) 
                  But much has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap food.  If you want to complain about food policy, complain about the hundreds of chemicals that can be legally added to our food.  None of this stuff has ever been tested for long term health effects,  and a lot of it probably isn’t very good for you. Yet we gobble it down every day and feed it to our children.  Is it a coincidence that the point where the curve of American obesity really takes off, the mid 80s, is exactly the time they began adding significant amounts of high fructose corn syrup to our food supply?  And that’s just one substance.  Read the label on any package of processed food.  You’ll find a long paragraph of chemical terms you can’t even pronounce unless you have a PhD in chemistry.  My rule is: “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t eat it.”  Forget about the GMOs; if you want to complain, complain about the chemicals.  And then there is the issue of stewardship of the land.  Many of the farm programs in recent years have contained conservation requirements that worked, and the Conservation Reserve Program was an excellent program.  But Tea Party Republicans in the U.S. House would prefer a bill stripped of any conservation elements whatsoever.  If you want to get involved, here’s a good place to start.