Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Iceberg Democracy

By Gary Berg-Cross

A recent article in The Washington Post (Tuesday, April 2, 2013) was called “Meat Inspectors Beat Sequestration.”  It described how behind the scenes to get Congress to give back money for people who “inspect animal carcasses” to
replace what the sequester took. This was contrasted to the frustration of seemingly powerful groups such as defense and transportation.  The trick was pulled off, somehow, with a smart, logistical campaign begun in early February, before sequester started. Cabinet secretary Vilsack began describing in detail how badly his department would be hit.

“In our food safety area ... we will have to furlough workers for a period of a couple of weeks,” Vilsack said, speaking to an agriculture industry conference in Las Vegas. “The problem is, as soon as you take an inspector off the floor, that plant shuts down.”

The firm and unyielding threat of entire plan shut down, backed by the right forces (inspectors &  the powerful meat lobby), seems to have won the day. The final winning part was described this way:

The effort was joined by the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the American Meat Institute, heavyweights of one of Washington’s powerful agriculture lobbies. In the Senate, their cause was picked up by two influential senators from strongly agricultural states: Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Those two found a solution: $55 million in new money that had been meant for other Agriculture Department programs. Blunt and Pryor wrote an amendment that would give it, instead, to the meat inspection program. This was sequester-proofing. After the sequester took its cut, the meat-inspection program would be left with almost as much money as it had before.

It’s a bit of a peak into the hidden world of how things get done in what Alexis de Tocqueville called  Democracy in America.”  When aristocrat de Tocqueville arrived in the US he was hoping to see how the US managed to pull off a functioning democracy when France had not. What he saw at first seemed like a dysfunctional mess.  Things just didn’t seem to work smoothly or as he expected, He saw problems including:

  • Institutional problems - too much power in the legislative branch (with “mediocre” representatives) blocking executive action,
  •  abuses of freedom,
  • Individual problems - an excessive drive for individualism, and materialism
    • ‘Materialism results from a passion for equality because people think that they ought to be able to have as much wealth as everyone else.
    • Indirectly, materialism also comes from the philosophical tendency fostered by democracies to disdain lofty ideas or thoughts of eternity.
    • The effect of materialism is that people may be so absorbed in their personal pursuit of wealth that they neglect to use their political freedom.’
But as he traveled around he saw that somehow, behind the scenes, problems got solved.  American Democracy was a bit like an iceberg in that a huge part of how it worked was under the water and invisible to the eye. And part of the reason de Tocqueville thought it worked was a form of faith people had in the idea of Democracy itself. This was a fused religious and progressive belief that things were destined to head in a better direction.  Things may look bad, but there are hidden solutions, we are good people in a Democracy and we will find a way.
Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t find this type of faith in other places since there was less of an under the water iceberg to how societies run.  How dictatorships are run is painfully obvious.  The same might be said of long standing aristocratic oligarchies.  But America was mysterious and worked solutions in wondrous ways. 
It’s a feeling that there is probably a bit less of now abroad in the country as problems are not being solved at an adequate rate – elected politicians can’t decide on how to handle gun safety, solve unemployment or avoid climate change. 

For every wondrous solution like that pulled off by Cabinet secretary Vilsack there seems to be a multitude that are not. And for every good thing going on below the water level there seem more troubling things. This perhaps better fits the feeling of danger by under the water icebergs heading for our solution ships. For example, President Obama recently signed into law H.R. 933, a sweeping and seemingly OK piece of legislative that ostensibly keeps the government from shutting down by explaining where funds will be allocated for the rest of the fiscal year.. But iceberg-like hidden in the bill's  100,000+  words was a very small, viral piece that changes how our country's legal system polices biotech giants like Monsanto

Slipped into the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, which passed through Congress last week, was a small provision that's a big deal for Monsanto and its opponents. Anger is growing over this “industry ploy to continue to sell genetically engineered seeds even when a court of law has found they were approved by USDA illegally,”

It’s another blow in faith in a system that remains opaque but less subterraneanly, wondrously so.



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