Friday, January 11, 2008

Crucifying Mankind on a Cross of Corn

This is William Jennings Bryan, the 1890s Democratic Party presidential candidate who might be most famous for his populist rant against the gold monetary standard, the "Cross of Gold" speech.

In Bryan's day, the "gold standard" meant that anyone could trade in a dollar for a specific amount of gold at the national treasury. Since the amount of gold in the world was fixed, there wasn't any inflation to speak of: a dollar was always worth the same amount of gold, no matter what. Meanwhile, America's farmers were struggling with debt as they bought new industrial-age farm equipment.

Bryan and his fellow populists understood that by getting rid of the gold standard and printing more money, inflation would rise and the costs of farmers' loans would be reduced significantly. If you've got a 5% bank loan, but inflation is also 5%, then the real interest rate is zero. Better still, if the inflation rate rises up to 10%, then the bank is effectively paying you a 5% rate of return - which would really screw those fat cat industrialists. Here's the last line from Bryan's famous speech, which he delivered hundreds of times across the nation:
"Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
And the toilers and the producing masses in the crowd went wild.

The United States wouldn't officially abandon the gold standard in 1971, although expanding government indebtedness during the world wars and an emerging global economy had made the gold standard all but meaningless, and inflation more and more common, long before then.

But now we have a new problem: agribusinesses (the big conglomerates that bought out Bryan's farmers when they succumbed to bankruptcy) are making money hand over fist while the rest of us pay for $5 gallons of milk. The rising prices of groceries have led some journalists to coin the term "agflation." : inflation in agricultural commodities. As many have noted, a major factor in "agflation" has been increasing demand for corn thanks to rising fuel prices and ethanol subsidies.

Ethanol refineries now consume 1/5th of our corn. Since corn also feeds livestock, sweetens your Fruit Loops, and greases your fries, the hundreds of groceries that contain corn or animal products are getting more expensive as a direct result of ethanol production. At the same time, farmers eager to profit from expensive corn are planting less of other crops, which means that everything else is more expensive as a result of diminished supply.

Now that people are beginning to think of corn not only as a staple source of food energy, but also as an alternative source of transportation energy, this old-fashioned commodity is taking on a big role in our global economy. The gold standard may be long gone, but now we've got something like a corn standard.

The United States doesn't usually include food or fuel prices in its inflation measures, so "agflation" hasn't translated into the more usual "inflation" quite yet. But it is putting the screws to low-income households that spend a higher percentage of their incomes on food and gasoline. What would William Jennings Bryan make of our the twenty-first century toiling masses being crucified on this new Cross of Corn?

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Christian, this is a really great post that makes some things clear to me that I always found a little hard to understand. The "Cross of Corn" challenges the Exxon Disaster Refuge for insightful metaphor of the year. Unfortunately, due to the writer's strike, they've condensed the awards ceremony to a mere press release, and rolled up the red carpet. And what do you think of ethanol made from saw grass?