2014 resolution: Let’s work seriously on erasing the divide

As we move into another year of organizing around regional food and public health in the US, we are facing opposition that has become stronger and more agile at pointing out our weaknesses and adding barriers to those that we already have to erase. That opposition can be found in our towns, at the state legislature, in Congress and even among our fellow citizens who haven’t seen the benefits of healthy local food for themselves yet.

That opposition uses arguments of affordability without measuring that fairly against seasonality or production costs, adds up the energy to get food to local markets while ignoring the huge benefits of farming small plots sustainably, shrugs its shoulders at stories of small victories, pointing past them to large stores taking up space next to off ramps and asks isn’t bigger better for everyone?
Why the opposition to local producers offering their goods to their neighbors, their schools and stores? What would happen to the society as a whole if our projects were allowed to exist and to flourish alongside of the larger industrial system?
I would suggest that very little would change, at least at first. Later on-if we continue to grow our work-it may be another matter and this fear of later is at the core of the opposition. That fear has to do with the day that democratic systems become the norm and necessary information is in the hands of eaters, farmers and organizers. And so we need to address and keep on addressing the divide that keeps that from happening.

The truth that we all know is that there is already two systems-one for the top percent and another for the rest. Writer George Packer gave his framework for this very argument in an eloquent essay written in 2011 called “The Broken Contract.” Packer argues that the divide in America began to take hold in 1978 with the passage of new laws that allowed organized money to influence elected officials in ways not seen before.
Packer points out that the access to Congress meant that labor and owners were not sitting down and working together any longer. That large corporations stopped caring about being good citizens and of supporting the social institutions and turned their entire attention to buying access in Congress and growing their profits and systems beyond any normal levels.

“The surface of life has greatly improved, at least for educated, reasonably comfortable people—say, the top 20 percent, socioeconomically. Yet the deeper structures, the institutions that underpin a healthy democratic society, have fallen into a state of decadence. We have all the information in the universe at our fingertips, while our most basic problems go unsolved year after year: climate change, income inequality, wage stagnation, national debt, immigration, falling educational achievement, deteriorating infrastructure, declining news standards. All around, we see dazzling technological change, but no progress…
…We can upgrade our iPhones, but we can’t fix our roads and bridges. We invented broadband, but we can’t extend it to 35 percent of the public. We can get 300 television channels on the iPad, but in the past decade 20 newspapers closed down all their foreign bureaus. We have touch-screen voting machines, but last year just 40 percent of registered voters turned out, and our political system is more polarized, more choked with its own bile, than at any time since the Civil War.
…when did this start to happen? Any time frame has an element of arbitrariness, and also contains the beginning of a theory. Mine goes back to that shabby, forgettable year of 1978. It is surprising to say that in or around 1978, American life changed—and changed dramatically. It was, like this moment, a time of widespread pessimism—high inflation, high unemployment, high gas prices. And the country reacted to its sense of decline by moving away from the social arrangement that had been in place since the 1930s and 1940s.
What was that arrangement? It is sometimes called “the mixed economy”; the term I prefer is “middle-class democracy.” It was an unwritten social contract among labor, business, and government— between the elites and the masses. It guaranteed that the benefits of the economic growth following World War II were distributed more widely, and with more shared prosperity, than at any time in human history…

…The persistence of this trend toward greater inequality over the past 30 years suggests a kind of feedback loop that cannot be broken by the usual political means. The more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the well-connected rich acquire, which makes it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price. That, in turn, frees them up to amass more money, until cause and effect become impossible to distinguish. Nothing seems to slow this process down—not wars, not technology, not a recession, not a historic election.

The economic divide and the lack of information about it hurts our movement since many still see us as either too small or too elitist and so delays our work getting to more people that need it. I urge everyone to find a copy of this entire essay and share it and discuss it widely.