Wednesday, May 03, 2017

a poet’s economics

John Crowe Ransom’s long-lost book, Land!, was written in the early 1930s, when fifteen million people, almost a quarter of the nation's working population, were unemployed, the dust bowl was still a reality, and the New Deal not even an inkling (hint: Herbert Hoover was still President.)

At the time, this poet’s prose-work on economics must have seemed oddly conservative and paltry. The book, a plea for a return to the family-based economy that had fueled Southern agricultural traditions for decades, was rejected by several of Ransom’s publishers, and, seeing no possibility of shepherding it to print, the author ultimately jettisoned it as well. He threatened to burn the typescript, and most scholars assumed he had followed through on his promise.

Now, Ransom’s 85-year-old cri de coeur has been found in the archives and released to the world by the University of Notre Dame Press and Front Porch Republic. Despite its age, you might say that Land! has landed at just the right time. This three-generation-old work is exceedingly present tense. What Ransom articulates seems less a retreat to Eden than a critique of capitalism that would appeal to the inner anti-Davos protester in all of us: an indictment of a system that values accumulation, shareholder profit, and the pursuit of maximum gain over autonomy, self-sufficiency, and solidarity.

“Nobody at this moment will deny that our capitalistic economy suffers from an organic defect,” Ransom writes. While “capitalism is an economy of investments measurable by money, and of returns also measurable by money,” he calls for a rival system – “an economy in which money plays a subordinate and occasional part, or into which it even fails to enter.” Ransom calls this system agrarianism, but it could also stand for the future envisioned by many who think globally and act locally – fair trade rather than free trade.

Ransom comes at economics from the bottom up. For him, what people feel is more important than what shareholders earn: “Surplus of production, fierce competition, crowded occupations: the condition is so prevalent that it forms for a sort of economic atmosphere; we feel it and breathe it everywhere we go.”

He honors the free market’s achievements, but chafes at the inequities built into the system: “Capitalism has performed wonderful feats in the production of useful commodities, which is good; but it has conferred the ownership and direction of the producing tools upon a comparative few, which is bad,” he writes. The conundrum, he adds, is that “the thing which is bad has been the precise means of obtaining the thing which is good.”

Ransom points out that entrepreneurs continually fail to invest in growth at times when nations need it most. Big businesses, he notes, “never work so hard to cut down labor requirements as during hard times. And this reduction is in each case permanent. Labor is forever dispossessed of that much of its specific occupation, and can only live in hope that some other need for it will turn up.”

He sends up the god of efficiency with a farmhouse adage: “If you try to make money on the farm, you will go broke; but if you try to make a good living on the farm, you will make money.” You can automatically update this mantra for the gig economy by noting just how many start-ups have gone bust because they sought to scale before they knew exactly what their business was and how to sustain it.

Ransom also implicitly challenges Schumpeter's notion of “creative destruction” (though the phrase was coined ten years after he quit work on Land!) by asking just what makes the destruction creative. “For what purpose is the new capital entering the new industry?” Ransom queries, and offers a devastating answer: “To reproduce itself, of course.” Creative destruction may create more capital – but it doesn’t necessarily yield more jobs, higher wages, better possibilities, improved lives. Uber may have upended the taxi biz by reducing the friction in all the transactional aspects of hailing a ride. And it may have made some early investors a trunk-full of cash. But has it helped society in any meaningful way?

Though it was written just a decade and a half after the Russian Revolution, Land! offers a refreshingly non-ideological impression of Marxism. “Karl Marx was evidently a man sensitive to the iniquities of the industrial-capitalistic revolution, Ransom writes, but at the same time sensitive to the technical superiority of its processes and its products, else he would not have tried to conserve them.” Marxists, Ransom continues “do not propose sabotage and destruction, they want to preserve the whole magnificent productive plant that constitutes our national wealth, modifying only the distribution of its ownership, responsibility, and income.” While this might seem a revolutionary act, Ransom suggests that it’s primarily a “moral or psychic” subversion rather than an economic upheaval. “There is no great surface difference between what we call our capitalism and what they call their socialism,” he writes, adding that if the communist revolution would come to pass, “we shall not be exchanging capitalism for socialism, but individualism for socialism.”

Ransom is not a policy wonk, and this leads to some serious lapses in his treatise. For instance, it seems odd that a book called Land! would ignore the one federal law that actually promoted Ransom's favored agrarian republic -- the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered every American the chance to purchase 160 acres of the public domain at a reasonable price. Further, I would have liked to have seen some concrete proposals about redress for the millions of farmers who had been turned into tenants or sharecroppers through foreclosure or bankruptcy (at the height of the Depression, more than half of all American farmers no longer held title to the land they tilled.) And Land! also fails to reckon with the manner in which the self-reliant Southern plantation culture in which Ransom clearly feels at home (he was born and raised in Tennessee) skews right wing and racist (see Nixon's Southern Strategy). Indeed, in this slightly more self-aware time, Land! might be read – unfairly – as a veiled justification for Southern complacency in the face of rural poverty and an argument for land remaining in the hands of the select few who have always had it—namely, white people. Finally, Ransom's analysis of the sins of the market centers on overproduction – hardly a key concern these days.

Despite these shortcomings, in its central tenet, Land! remains remarkably au courant. As I was starting in on this essay, a colleague tweeted about an article on efforts to increase the food supply in Africa. Despite the undeniable importance of smallholder farms economically and for food production on the continent, the economists interviewed trashed Ransom’s agrarian ideal. A program that invested in small farmers, they insisted, would be doomed to failure. Rather, they advocated consolidation to achieve economies of scale. Or, as the reporters summarized it, “a virtuous cycle in which better-equipped, better-capitalized farmers buy out their neighbors, some of whom become laborers and some of whom find jobs in cities.”

It's astounding that, in 2017, economists (and reporters) are still trying to convince us that it's virtuous to force the global majority to give up autonomy and self-sufficiency for a life of low pay and a home in a shantytown.

Ransom freely admits his book goes against the grain. “I am justifying a movement that does not yet exist on any conscious or concerted scale,” he writes early in Land!. And with Donald Trump and his fellow faux-populist oligarchs ensconced in Washington, Ransom's vision of striving smallholders – stable, self-sufficient and sometimes even making a profit – may seem further off than ever. But Ransom says he’s not waging war against the obscene excesses of commercial culture but fighting for individual hearts and minds. “The villain is generally called ‘capitalism,’” he asserts, but “the piece is not a tragedy. I would not want to put my villain to death if I knew how. I propose to rescue some unfortunate people from his clutches and then leave him to his own devices.

Most activists would shout him down on this, arguing that it's naïve and even dangerous to believe that you can change the system by leaving it to its own devices. The empire, they know, always strikes back.

Still, one of the key takeaways from reading Land! is how much better off we'd be if more poets wrote economics (though please, let's not talk about the opposite externality--if the economists applied their invisible hand to free verse.) With poets in charge of finance departments and treasuries, I can begin to imagine a joyous noise as millions of acts of rural and urban resistance collide to form a global sound cannon that could blow the sagging system away.