Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hoggers of the Harvest

For Stephanie

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission to purge us of our seven deadly sins, should first sort out the basic food positions…" (Bertolt Brecht)

For at least 10,000 years, famine has been a local and temporary problem. Since the invention of agriculture, there has always been enough food to go around. The world population is the only evidence of this that we need. Even in the face of plague and war, the human species has grown. And we cannot grow without nutrients, calories. Calories, on this planet, have never been a problem in an economic sense: they have never been scarce. Not everywhere, not for long. They have, however, constituted a political problem.

Let us imagine an early agricultural community. Recognizing that 99% of the "labor" of food production happens naturally—the sun shines, the rain falls, the crops grow—the community attributes no particular value to the labor that the farmers put into putting food on the table. After all, the other members of the community are working too. They are raising children and playing music. They are cooking food and they are building homes. They are making the tools the farmers use. If the farmers, at the end of the harvest, were to suddenly demand some particular compensation from the community before handing over its bounty, there would, quite rightly, be outrage.

But a more moderate question can be considered. Should the other labors of the community, from childbirth to philosophy, be somehow measured against the labor of the farmer to determine what share of the bounty each member of the community should get? I want to stress again that much of this question is ridiculously ungrateful to "nature's increase". As Barack Obama might have said to the farmer while pointing at the sun, "You didn't build that!" So let's say that at least half (I'd say 99% percent) of the harvest should simply be split evenly. On what principle should the remainder be divided?

Here we can easily imagine a system of tokens (money) by which members of the community, through their daily labors (not in the field) keep track of what they have done for each other. The farmer, too, needs to participate in this economy, and therefore, after the harvest, collects these tokens in exchange for excess crops (the portion that is not automatically split evenly among all members of the community.) These are also the tokens paid to the day laborers on the farm, etc.

Since everyone also has a little stash of their share of the harvest, some of which they may not want, a portion of the economic activity after the harvest has been distributed would go auctioning off excess foodstuffs, so that those who like corn get more corn, those who like wheat get more wheat. Of course, someone immediately hits on the idea of distributing tokens instead of corn and wheat to everyone, so that they don't have to redistribute their initial share, but can simply buy what they want directly from the farmer.

This, of course, is the root idea of the basic income. Obviously, it has to come from somewhere, and it seems reasonable to let it come from a tax on the farmer. The farmer distributes a certain amount of tokens for use in the general economy, and collects them when the harvest comes in.

I believe that at some point in our history, someone turned this system of pre-distributed credit into a debt-based economy, where the community ended up owing someone (and I doubt it was the farmer) in order to be able to eat. The injustice, like I say, of this arrangement lies in having someone "take credit" for the labor of the sun and rain and seed. I believe the injustice is 10,000 years deep. The hogging of the harvest is the crime of the millennia.

But it can be corrected, literally, overnight. All it would take is the implementation of universal basic income funded by a single tax on land. All sovereign nations have this within the power to accomplish. That it does not happen actually, in my mind, puts their sovereignty into question.

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