Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a Name?

In a column last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed that Barak Obama should consider re-naming the Department of Agriculture to "The Department of Food." This change would signal a fundamental commitment to altering the course of agricultural policy in the United States, away from destructive forms of industrial farming in which a few centralized industrial players are given substantial advantages and smaller farmers either "get big or get out," and toward sustainable practices that emphasize more local crops, smaller producers and fewer petroleum inputs. Now that's change I could believe in.

In particular, Kristof calls for reduction of subsidies on "unhealthy calories" like high-fructose corn syrup, more and decent space for farm animals, and in general an overall reduction in the amount of costs being "externalized" by reducing the amount of costs like sewage and soil runoff being shifted to the public. In effect, the proposed name-change - emphasizing "food" - is to call for policies that would assuredly increase the cost of basic foodstuffs (almost all of which is derived from subsidized corn or soy), and thus result in a shift in the American diet and even a reduction of the overall calories being eaten. If we were to name things properly, we would be shifting from the Department of Gluttony to the Department of Temperance.

Yet it's odd to propose this one example of an encouragement to governance of appetite while on a far greater scale we promote the re-inflation of the great American consumption machine, witnessing a deep and fundamental agreement by Republicans and Democrats alike that massive amounts of money must be printed or borrowed in order to allow the "consumer" again to employ credit for the purchase of disposable non-necessities. Having bailed out banks, insurers, mortgage underwriters and investment firms, now we are about to underwrite failed automobile companies whose product lines were designed to appeal to American vanity and wastefulness.

What's more, the taxpayer will be asked to subsidize a company - General Motors - which turned the business of "externalizing costs" into a billion dollar industry, reaping wildly enormous profits while taxpayers paid not only for roads, automobile pollution, inadequate disposal of countless amounts of tires, oil, batteries and automobile hulks, a blighted landscape that sprung up to service the automobile industry, the destruction of existing neighborhoods to accommodate America's passion for the open road (see The Power Broker, about the life of Robert Moses and his profound altering of the neighborhoods of New York), but in fact assisted in undermining viable mass transportation systems. Forgotten is that GM was responsible for destroying a number of urban mass transit systems - especially the great competitor to the automobile, the street car (a form of transportation that is still used in urban centers around the world, and which was an encouragement to greater population density). GM purchased a number of mass transit systems over time through front companies and proceeded to dismantle mass transit in order to force upon people the option of choosing one of a variety of automobiles - while eliminating the choice not to drive. In this way they succeeded in promoting the illusion of choice while in fact eliminating certain choices. This is the company that now comes to the representatives of the citizenry in order to demand that they dig deeper to bail out a company that is too big to fail. How they became too big is conveniently forgotten, induced by a collective amnesia that a culture based upon instant gratification was designed to induce.

So, while we are at the business of renaming various entities of the Federal Government, let's consider a few other candidates. Starting with the Department of the Treasury let's call it by its proper name - the Department of Greed - or consider reforming it by renaming it the Department of Thrift. Rather than the Department of Defense (a wild misnomer - the Department of War at least had the virtue of honesty), let's either consider calling it what it is - the Department of Wrath, or perhaps Pride - or eliminate it in favor of a citizen militia run by the States. It's hard to run an empire with State militias, a major reason the Anti-Federalists opposed the existence of a standing army.

A few other suggestions. The Department of Education (or, sloth?) - let's call that the Department of Pointless and Endless Standardized Tests. The Department of Interior? The Department of Commerce? The Department of Transportation? The Department of Energy? Perhaps these can all be folded generally into a Department of Lust (luxuria), given their collective and shared aim is the increase of our material comfort by means of exploitation of the earth's resources and destruction of our human habitat in the pursuit of comfort and cheap plenty (whose costs are externalized to future generations).

Looked at in this light, what is evident is that the main organizations of our Government are designed to encourage, promote, and foster widespread lack of self-governance. The government governs an ungoverned populace - people who are consumers - driven by appetite - not citizens who govern themselves and in concert govern together. While we are in the business of renaming, perhaps we should stop calling that entity "Government" and instead call it "Appetite." This would have the virtue of honesty, and allow us more clearly to understand the basic aims and functions of the vast and powerful entity that - in deep concert with massive private firms - seeks to encourage the ongoing delusional belief that consumption is the aim and end of human life.

No, I don't expect Obama to change the name of the Department of Agriculture anytime soon. That would open a can of worms no President of the American Appetite would want to unleash. Best to allow the current abuse of language to continue, a fact that Orwell would appreciate, even if we largely cannot.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Well, we got some empty rhetoric today at least.