Thursday, August 6, 2009

For God, Family, Country, and the Global Economy.

N.Y. Times, January 12, 1892, Wednesday

2008 saw the Great Hop Panic--a warehouse fire, increased demand in China, a poor European crop all led to speculation in hops futures.

While I still brew my own ale on occasion, I stopped harvesting my hops a couple of years ago--my plants had fallen to downy mildew, and I often forgot about the flower heads while drying in the attic.

Despite my neglect, the bines thrive today:

They grow even though I no longer use them for my ale. Hops do not grow for me, or for my ale, or for any particular reason at all beyond life, which seems reason enough.

Whatever their open market value, the monetary value of my hops this year, should I choose to harvest them, is an artificial conceit.

You can make money buying low and selling high--but you're kidding yourself if you think you've done anything productive by doing that.


I read the Business Section of the Times, particularly the agricultural futures, not because I invest but because I am fascinated by the disconnect. Capitalism as practiced here requires expanding markets; agriculture is ultimately limited by the energy given to us freely by the sun. (Nitrogen used to be the limiting factor, but Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare, took over where the bacteria left off.)

A bushel of wheat settled at about $5.70 in the futures yesterday. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds.

That's less than a dime a pound.

Wheat is dirt cheap because petroleum is dirt cheap, because we are graced with decent land and sun and water, because it's easy to store, and (mostly) because there's enough for all of us.

While we bandy about economic acronyms--LIBOR, GATT, DJIA--and while many people get paid handsomely to juggle jiggle numbers, all economics eventually gets down to grace--what the Earth provides.

My hops may or may not end up in my overly hopped IPA this fall, but they remind me of grace daily.

(If you look carefully, there's a green bottle fly clinging to the flower, Lucilia sericata. They, too, have economic value--their larva are used in maggot therapy to clean festering wounds.)

Arne Duncan seems sincere, and maybe he is. He's earnest, but I suspect not too bright. He made a lot of money playing basketball, and he has a lot of power as Secretary of Education, but a few of my students will quietly produce far more in their lifetimes than Arne will in his.

Being productive and contributing to the GDP are not synonymous. If a child does not understand your job title, you're likely more useful to the GDP than you are to the child (unless that child happens to be from your loins--blood buys privilege).


I started under the trinity of God, family, and country. Captain C.W. Doyle resigned from Marines because of Viet Nam, the family exploded, and now I find God nursing flies on a hops flower.

He grew up in a time,
When a third-grade education,
Was all the school you needed,
To work the family farm.
He'd take time off on Sunday,
Him and all his family,
warm a pew,
And give thanks to the Lord.

--Craig Morgan

Go ahead, wipe away the tear--*

Arne's trumped all three:
[T]here's a fund that we're calling a "Race to the Top" fund, which is really trying to encourage states and school districts to think about how we compete, not just with students down the block, but how we better compete with children in India and China, 'cause we're really in a global economy today.

Do it for the economy.

"The economy," like the word "God," is too nebulous to be useful anymore. Do I believe in God? In capitalism? In country? Tell me what you mean by each of those words, and I will tell you what I think.

I did not raise my kids to fix the global economy, and do not plan on sacrificing any child on the altar of the WTO. Yes, those are emotionally laden words and, yes, not terribly useful in a debate, and that's the point.

Ask Arne and President Obama why education matters, and they tell you it's to save our economic soul.

What does "global economy" mean, Arne?

I've got a friend nurturing a few hundred apple trees, and every morning when he gets up, he's surrounded by an orchard now 5 or 6 generations old. A lot of his apples are old school--Jonathans and Northern Spies, Idareds and Spigolds---but they cannot compete globally with the shiny, sexy, easy to transport Red Delicious (which only holds up to half of its name).

So why do his apples still sell? Because they are delicious and complex, and because there are enough people within driving distance that come to his farms to buy what they cannot get in the supermarket.

My local school district is mostly funded by my neighbors. Each home contributes thousands of dollars yearly to our efforts to educate our children.

Arne, what about the "local economy"?

Should Arne ever come knocking on my door, I'll share a bottle of home-made ale and a loaf of fresh baked bread from freshly ground flour, made from wheat grown in Montana. We'll order a pizza from Jerry down the street, and if it's fall, maybe I'll even bake him an apple pie using Northern Spies.

Once we're sated (if a man like Arne can be sated), I'll introduce him to James, a sophomore who lives just up the street, who runs an informal (and very local) lawn care business, a child who may well lack the ability to grasp calculus.

Then I will show him the hops flowers thriving in the backyard, and ask him what he thinks they're worth.

*Um, about the video--no, I do not think we should limit ourselves to a 3rd grade education and idealize a time that never existed, when everything was black and white. I do think, though, that we ought to examine the value of what we do. Doing something for the great Global Economy is like doing something for any other ill-defined concept--the heart flutters while the brain goes blank.

I'm a science teacher--it's in my best interests to keep brains alive.

The newspaper column is from the NY Times archives,
the hops flower from our garden,
and the video from YouTube.


Charlie Roy said...

A post that captures almost all my interests: futures trading, education, agriculture, sustainable economies. I think you might have leafed through a copy of Pollan's "An Omnivore's Dilemma" for this post's inspiration.

I liked Bill Farren's post last week over at that perhaps the true 21st century skill is not competition but cooperation.

I think you'd really enjoy the latest papal encyclical "Caritas in Veritate". It's an interesting take on globalization and its discontents. It has not been received well in the West but then again the empire never likes dissent.

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

I love Pollan, but I've yet to read An Omnivore's Dilemma--it's kicking around the home, and I'll get to it soon. (I've peeked, but someone else was reading it at the time, and we have a house rule about diving into others' books.)

I will confess, however, to being influenced by Wendell Berry, a modern day prophet (if we're allowed to believe such exist anymore).

I will find a copy of "Caritas in Veritate"--I had feared that the Pope may have become part of the empire. I'm in an odd position--I am a fallen Catholic, yet vigorously defend the faith when it is attacked by others who misunderstand huge patches of it.

(My wife's father's family was from the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and they're Jewish, the ones left anyway. WWII still rests in our memories, and some distrust remains. It's complicated, of course, as these things tend to be, but your words go a long way in my skull.)

Charlie Roy said...

Pollan is great. Finished up Botany of Desire the other night and am reading his "A Place of My Own" but it is in a holding pattern as Galeano's"Open Veins of Latin America" has now consumed my time. I had never heard of Wendell Berry until reading Pollan but I would concur with the modern day profit take. John Seymour seems to have be in the same vein and one of his addresses on human progress and industrialization on youtube is fabulous.

You can find "Caritas in Veritate" on the Vatican's website in a number of different languages. I stick to English although the thought of reading it in Latin would make my former professors proud.

The Western response has gone as far as to accuse leftist Latin American Cardinals of inserting leftist text into the encyclical. Always interesting how when the Gospel message challenges a comfortable lifestyle the conspiracy theories come full force.

One of the most compelling arguments for me is the fact that the Church has existed for so long in spite of the utter stupidity and moral weakness of so many of its members (sometimes high ranking ones). This latest encyclical gives me hope that it will call the West to a deeper reflection about the nature of the economy, the dignity of the person, and the solidarity of humanity.

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

Few things opened my eyes as much as actually reading the Gospels--folks can dance like angels on pins trying to twist the words, but the meaning (assuming the translation from Aramaic to English works) is easy to grasp, if not easy to follow.

I miss Catholicism; I do not miss dogma. I may have left too young to know the difference.