Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sabotaging U.S.D.A.

Michael Lewis covers the Trump Administration's (and overall GOP's) hostile takeover of the federal government by focusing on the Cabinet Department that has the largest impact on the rural voters who foisted these clowns on the rest of the country.  One of the main points of the article is that most people don't have any idea what U.S.D.A. does:
One day in his new job he was handed the budget for the Department of Agriculture. “I was like, Oh yeah, the U.S.D.A.—they give money to farmers to grow stuff.” For the first time he looked closely at what this arm of the United States government actually does. Its very name is seriously misleading—most of what it does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals people eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program; a bank with $220 billion in assets; plus a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting. It monitors catfish farms. It maintains a shooting range inside its D.C. headquarters. It keeps an apiary on its roof, to study bee-colony collapse.
A small fraction of its massive annual budget ($164 billion in 2016) was actually spent on farmers, but it financed and managed all these programs in rural America—including the free school lunch for kids living near the poverty line. “I’m sitting there looking at this,” said Ali. “The U.S.D.A. had subsidized the apartment my family had lived in. The hospital we used. The fire department. The town’s water. The electricity. It had paid for the food I had eaten.
 And a little more along that thread:
There’s a drinking game played by people who have worked at the Department of Agriculture: Does the U.S.D.A. do it? Someone names an odd function of government (say, shooting fireworks at Canada geese that flock too near airport runways) and someone else has to guess if the U.S.D.A. does it. (In this case, it does.) Even people who have worked at U.S.D.A. for years wind up having to chug. So it’s no use pretending that I can actually explain to you everything the place does.
Lewis ends up focusing on several areas where Trump will likely do the most damage.  The folks who used to be at U.S.D.A he talks to come up with food aid for the poor, scientific research (especially related to climate change), food safety and rural development.  I think they are correct in that assessment.  Here are a couple of the most enlightening quotes from these sections:
“The food-stamps program,” he says, instantly, when I ask him for his biggest concern. The Trump budget had proposed cutting food stamps by more than 25 percent over the next 10 years and more or less abandoning the notion that the country should provide some minimum level of nutrition to its citizens. The Trump budget was just an opening bid and unlikely to become policy, at least not right away, because Congress could always fight it. But it signaled an intention and, perhaps, a shift in public attitudes. “Why is it that people channel so many of their hang-ups about people who are poor or unsuccessful into the food-stamps program?” asks Concannon as we settle into our chairs, then answers his own question. “No one really knows when you go to the doctor and the government is paying. But people see you with this card or coupon and react. People would say to me, ‘I saw someone buying butter with food stamps.’ And I would say, ‘Well, yes.’”...As the head of Oregon’s nutrition programs he learned that the country’s willingness to feed people who are hungry does not mean that hungry people are always fed. The federal government makes the benefits available, but then leaves it to states to administer them. “Where you live in this country makes a huge difference if you are poor,” says Concannon. “And it’s not just the weather. You have states with these 60- or 70-page documents people have to fill out to get benefits. Poor people are easy to wear down.” Georgia was usually a problem. Texas too. “If they ran any of their football teams the way they ran their food program, they’d fire the coach,” said Concannon. A Wyoming legislator, proud of how badly he had gummed up the state’s nutrition programs, told him, “We pride ourselves on doing the minimum required by the federal government.” An Arizona congressman proposed that the card used by people receiving food-stamp benefits be made prison orange, conferring not just nutrition but shame. In 2016, after several counties in North Carolina suffered severe flooding, the state tried to distribute federal disaster-relief food-benefit cards on the day of the presidential election, to give poor people a choice between eating and voting. In Kansas, Concannon had explained to an executive who oversaw the state’s food-stamp program how he had made it easier for people in Oregon who were going hungry to access their program. “He said, ‘Jeez, if we did that we’d have more people coming in the door.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but isn’t that the idea?’”
This gets at the heart of the crazy experiment that is federal government in these United States.  Just like with the Affordable Care Act, and throughout our history with slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the New Deal and environmental and safety regulations, state and local governments can actively oppose and intentionally undermine the best efforts of the federal government  to achieve the lofty goals set by the founding documents of the nation.  Promoting the general welfare is often not what states, especially in the American South are trying to do.  Do you know which states are seeing some of the worst financial strains on rural hospitals?  Well, Georgia and Texas are two of them.  And this article gets at one of the strangest divides in American politics-that rural voters whose communities and infrastructure are most dependent on federal spending are most hostile to that federal government.  To that point:
By the time she left the little box marked “Rural Development,” Lillian Salerno had spent the better part of five years inside it. The box’s function was simple: to channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than 50,000 people in them. Her department ran the $220 billion bank that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America: in the Deep South, and in the tribal lands, and in the communities, called colonias, along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Some of the communities in the South, the only checks going in are government checks,” she said. And yet, amazingly, they nearly always repaid their loans....
As the U.S.D.A.’s loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News-watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He’s telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The U.S.D.A. person goes to introduce herself, and he says, ‘So who are you?’ She says, ‘I’m the U.S.D.A. person.’ He asks, ‘What are you doing here?’ She says, ‘Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.’ He was white as a sheet.”
Salerno saw this sort of thing all the time. “We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said, UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, it remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”
I enjoy listening patiently to farmers bitch about how much money poor people are given by the government and then asking them how many poor people they think have been given more money by the government than they themselves have been given.  Surprisingly, they often think most poor people do, which is laughable.  However important all the economic damage the Trump and GOP clowns can do to poor people and rural areas, the threat to important scientific research is the most dangerous, because it is the hardest to recognize by everyday people.  When the funding for the water system doesn't come through or when the folks you go to church with are having to get food from the church food pantry, you tend to notice, and changes can be made.  But when research into climate change or contagious disease isn't getting done, we won't find out until it is too late:
We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame. But if anyone ever paid attention they would note that Woteki’s department, among other achievements, had suppressed the potentially catastrophic 2015 outbreak of bird flu. They’d created, very quickly, a fast new test for the disease that enabled them to cull the sick chickens from the healthy ones. Because of their work the poultry industry was forced to kill only tens of millions of birds, instead of hundreds of millions. In the early 1990s, the U.S.D.A. had also dealt with the outbreak of ring-spot virus in papaya trees, when the papaya industry in Hawaii faced ruin and extinction. Inside the little box marked “Science,” the U.S.D.A. helped genetically engineer a papaya tree that was resistant to ring-spot virus....
His (Sam Clovis, who has since withdrawn from consideration) appointment as the U.S.D.A.’s chief scientist felt like a practical joke to those who had worked there: this was the place that, back in the early 1940s, had taken Alexander Fleming’s findings and effectively invented penicillin. It had triggered the antibiotics revolution. It had coped with endless blights and outbreaks. The consequences of the science it funded—or did not fund—was mind-boggling. The person Clovis was replacing had taught at universities, worked in the White House, and, along the way, been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences....
 In recent years, much of the department’s research has dealt with the effects of climate change. The head of science directs nearly $3 billion in grants each year. Woteki directed the science that leads to nutritional standards for schoolchildren. She set research priorities. Hers had been food security; domestic and global nutrition; safety of the food supply; and figuring out how best to convert plants into fuel. “All of that has to be done in the face of a changing climate,” said Woteki. “It’s all climate change.” It might sound silly that the U.S.D.A. funds a project that seeks to improve the ability of sheep to graze at high altitudes—until you realize that this may one day be the only place sheep will be able to graze. “We’re going to become even more reliant on the efficiencies that come from the investment in science,” she said. One-quarter of the arable land in the world is already degraded, either by overfarming or overgrazing. “Changing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will force changes in the way crops are grown and livestock are raised,” she said. “The changing climate brings new risks of food-borne disease. Even the pathogens are influenced by temperature and humidity.”
If the Trump administration were to pollute the scientific inquiry at the U.S.D.A. with politics, scientific inquiry would effectively cease.
The Trump Administration and Republican control of the federal government is going to do a lot of damage to the United States, and rural areas, while most responsible for putting them in charge, are going to be hurt the worst.  Unfortunately, the damage done to scientific research, both at U.S.D.A. and in other areas of the federal government, are going to negatively impact all of humanity.  This should be the first thing you should complain to your Congressperson about.