Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Forgotten Bastard Blogging: Earl Butz

The unfortunately but perhaps appropriately named Earl "Rusty" Butz was a true American bastard. Not only was he a complete asshole and racist, but he has contributed more than any single person in American history to the obesity epidemic in the United States today.

Butz was the Secretary of Agriculture under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. I know you are surprised that an appointee of Nixon would make Bastard Blogging, but sometimes shocking things take place. Butz was born in beautiful Albion, Indiana in 1909. In 1932, Butz graduated from Purdue University, which by chance will be losing to the University of Oregon in a football game this fall. In 1935, he received a Ph.D. from the same institution in Agricultural Economics.

He quickly rose in the farm world. By 1948, Butz became vice-president of the American Agricultural Economics association and in 1954, President Eisenhower named him Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He served there until 1957. He resigned that year and went back to Purdue, becoming a member of the school's administration. Occupying high posts in a university administration is a pretty good reason to make Bastard Blogging but that is not the reason we are discussing Butz today. He also served on the board of directors of several food companies, including Ralston Purina.

In 1971, Butz became Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, a position he served in until 1976. This is where he really earned his bastard stripes. First, he was an incorrigible racist. He made fun of Pope Paul VI's Italian accent publicly, which was bad enough. But in 1976, he was on a flight to the Republican National Convention with Pat Boone and John Dean. Boone asked why black people didn't vote Republican (um, perhaps because the Republican party of 2008, er, 1976 was openly racist). Butz responded:

"the only thing coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."

John Dean leaked this to Time magazine, which jumped on the story. Perhaps they also explained the loose shoes reference, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Anyway, Butz was forced to resign.

Classy, eh? I'll bet Nixon and Butz had a good ol'time telling racist jokes in the Oval Office.

Butz also served time for tax evasion in 1981, though all but 30 days of his 5 year sentence was suspended. Typical. You know, if we threw wealthy tax evading criminals into real prison for their offenses and made them serve their sentences, I bet we'd see a lot less tax evasion.

What I really hate Butz for is his role in spurring unregulated corn production. You might ask how corn production is worse than a racist joke. Certainly his racist joke is reprehensible, but it doesn't make him any different than just about anyone else in the Nixon administration. But his corn policies are a major reason for the food problems we have today.

In 1972, the Soviets were suffering from bad harvests. The US offered to sell the Soviets all the grain they needed. From a geopolitical perspective, this was a sensible move. It was a nice peace gesture to the Soviets and saved people from dying. It was also intended to undermine support for George McGovern in farm states that fall. This turned out to be an unnecessary worry.

According to the environmental writer Michael Pollan, the problem with the grain sell off is that it took place at the same time that bad weather undermined the nation's grain crops, sending food prices spiraling up and leading directly to the big inflation problems that began in 1973. Butz, a free market fanatic, responded by encouraging farmers to grow all the grain they could. He dismantled the New Deal program of price supports for farm goods and replaced them with direct payments to farmers. Butz believed that the New Deal was nothing more than socialism that hurt American farmers because its programs didn't allow them to grow all the crops they wanted. Nevermind that the New Deal agricultural programs worked pretty well before Butz' time and had helped end the continual farm crises that plagued the nation throughout its history. Butz was a true believer in the free market. Reality be damned.

The transition from ending price supports to paying farmers directly sounds minor, but as Pollan explains, what this did was end the price floor for corn. When corn prices got low, the government subsidized farmers to ensure they still would keep growing up. The American taxpayer picked up this cost. American consumers would have cheap food. Agribusiness could handle the cost of low-priced corn. Small farmers got squeezed pretty hard by this and were forced to keep growing corn (and then soybeans for the same reason) because it became the only cash crop to sell, despite the abysmal prices.

The effect of Butz's policy was to make it in farmers' interests to grow as much corn as possible. This led to an immense amoutn of corn. The food industry began inventing ways to use that corn. The most profitable and widespread was high fructose corn syrup. This was invented in 1980 and today makes up an enormous part of our diet. Corn syrup replaced sugar in many products, most notably soda. And when just changing from sugar to corn syrup wasn't enough to consume all that corn, the soda companies just made their products bigger. Americans liked that a lot. High fructose corn syrup found its way into many other foods as well, from hot dogs to ketchup to chips to bread. All of this corn-based sugar that Butz and his agribusiness friends forced us to eat has led to not only high levels of obseity but also the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes that we are now only coming to terms with.

Perhaps Earl Butz doesn't deserve all the blame for this transformation. Agribusiness would have found some other tool to make massive crop production and low prices happen anyway. But Butz did start the process, changing the way Americans farm, eat, and live. And all for the worse. Combine this with his racism, tax evasion, and just general bad nature, and you have yourself one fine example of an American bastard.

I consulted Michael Pollan's The Omnivore Dilemma and this Tom Philpott post from Grist, which goes into more detail on the changes to farming.