Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Leading with contempt...

A couple of incidents recently make me question if the ag community is paying attention to anything other than their own backyard.

First, the great cow tax hoax.  Livestock producers couldn't get in print or on the air fast enough to denounce what our own Steve Cornett grudgingly admits was essentially a red herring thrown out to fire up waves of righteous indignation among farm folk.
"You can't believe this, but it's happening in Washington," Schumer said. "It effectively amounts to a tax on cows when they belch."
His comments left EPA officials bewildered.
The EPA denied it has any such tax plan for regulating farm animals. "EPA is not proposing a cow tax," the agency said in a statement. Moreover, the agency may not even have the authority to impose such fees.
So where did Schumer get his information? It seems the only mention of possibly regulating farm animals as a source of greenhouse gases came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in comments to the EPA.
The USDA recommended against such a move as the EPA begins exploring how it might regulate all greenhouse gases as pollution - complying with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2007.
Once USDA made its comments, several advocacy groups for farmers figured it was time to take action - before anyone got any ideas of an animal tax. Schumer was quick to support their effort.
When Schumer was told that EPA officials said their early planning had been distorted, and that the agency has no intention of suggesting such a tax, New York's senior senator said he knows better. [More] [My emphasis]
Steve joins in the we-don't need-no-stinkin'-proof crowd with uncharacteristic gracelessness.
It looks like the “cow tax” brouhaha was a bit premature, but don’t think there may not be some fire where the smoke seems to have cleared. [More]
Ok, let's assume Steve and Sen. Schumer are right and the EPA is a collective of lying weasels. They could be for all I know, but that's not the real point here.

Preemptive contempt and self-righteous condescension are poor choices in the current political atmosphere, I would suggest. Especially since ag really doesn't know how much oomph it packs right now. Opening the dialogue by calling the EPA liars is not just remarkably inflammatory, but it could be based on pretty shaky political presumptions.  Do we really want these people to automatically categorize us as unreasoning idealogues?

I suppose until we've been hammered in Congress a few times, agriculture may not be willing to accept that business may not be as usual. The incredible aspect of this for me is how short our memories seem to be.

The tone of the "cow-tax" hoax matches exactly the tone of the political rhetoric aimed at our new president-elect a few months ago.  Hoots of derision and howls of disdain resounded over his middle name, his pastor's excesses, his lightweight resume, his leftist stances, etc.  Obama's every word was prejudged a lie, his elevating rhetoric a shallow gimmick, his unflappable demeanor a PR ploy.

Yeah - that turned out to be an effective political strategy. 

This juvenile attitude sprang from a conviction among detractors they would handle the interloper just like they did in earlier elections.  Ag may be making the same fatal error. I'm not so sure where agriculture is assuming their political strength is coming from, but it won't be from many of the sources it used to count on.  And there are some powerful new forces to be taken into consideration, I believe, like the Food Movement.

While I have outlined my own differences with voices like Michael Pollan, I think the sneering contempt filling the ag press for the food movement and its unofficial spokesman is unwise, to say the least. In an environment of pandemic distrust and full-time scapegoat searches, going out of our way to make enemies or ammunition for them is foolish.

Industrial agriculture does not need a war with agrarian agriculture, and we would likely fare poorly if it did break out.  After all, they don't need to pose as us to get subsidies.

I realize self-control and temperate speech are for sissies.  But we seem determined to learn the hard way a lesson too many on the right are just beginning to grasp:  things have changed, and not for the better for their side.

But the greater reason is while livestock operators are inventing regulatory threats to attack, they risk ignoring the threat that really rocked their world in the first place.

Hartwig said RFA has suggested a number of steps including setting up a $1 billion short-term credit facility so ethanol producers could finance current operations; a $50 billion federal loan guarantee program to finance investment in new renewable fuel production capacity and supporting infrastructure; and a requirement that any auto maker receiving federal aid only produce new vehicles that can run on any blend up to 85% ethanol, beginning with the 2010 model season.
The price of ethanol has dropped with the price of oil, squeezing producers’ profit margins. Critics note that the U.S. ethanol industry already benefits from a number of fairly generous federal subsidies, including a tax credit paid to gasoline producers for blending gasoline with ethanol; a federal renewable-fuel standard that sets a minimum amount of ethanol to be blended into gasoline; and a 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol.
The RFA is one of many business groups looking for help in the financial stimulus legislation expected to move through Congress early next year. It’s not clear how much support RFA has for its proposals; calls to several senior lawmakers close to the industry weren’t immediately returned. [More]
From my perspective, this is a problem an order of magnitude greater than the imaginary cow-tax. You open up the Treasury to ethanol manufacturers and plant construction will take off again, followed shortly by rising corn prices.

But hurling invective at the ethanol lobby takes a little more cajones than picking on bureaucrats, I guess. And granting even grudging respect for the possible capability of the new adminstration to reshape ag's political playground may be more than we can rise to.


Anonymous said...


If one wants to call others out over the "hurling" of "invective," it would be wise not to do so by hurling invective. That was a cheap shot at Steve Cornett. His was a reasonable point, and I've never seen him publish anything as "sneering" as what you have just written here.

With affection.

John Phipps said...


I noted Steve's comment was uncharacteristic. And the "sneering" remark was linked to Chris Clayton's description of Pollan's writing (which has sold a few books, I might add) - not Steve.