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Thursday, October 20, 2016

When we moved to our Arkansas cattle farm, a friend lent us a book titled A Straw in the Sun. Published in 1945, Charlie Mae Simon’s beautifully written memoir of homesteading here in Perry County, Arkansas during the 1930s was long out of print—maybe because the hardscrabble life it depicts is too recent for nostalgia.

Like much of the rural South before World War II, Perry County was essentially the Third World. So was Yell County, immediately to the west, home of U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton. Except for a lot of wasteful government spending he affects to deplore, it would still be.

Cotton’s campaign against Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor reflects everything upside-down about Tea Party dogma and the tycoons who fund it—a local story with national implications.

Originally featured as New Yorker essays, Simon’s book wasn’t intended as social protest. Even so, many forget that millions of Americans lived as subsistence-level peasant farmers within living memory.

Simon and her neighbors grew their own food and slaughtered their own hogs; they cut firewood, dug wells, built outhouses, made candles and fermented corn liquor. Electricity and telephones weren’t available; cash commerce all but non-existent. To file her essays, Simon walked hours to the general store or hitched rides on mule-drawn wagons along dirt roads that became impassible in wet weather. The simple life proved terribly complicated.

During the same period, writes historian S. Charles Bolton in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, roughly 1/3 of black and 1/5 of rural white Arkansans emigrated to places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Others found work in town. Today, large parts of Perry and Yell counties are in the Ouachita National Forest. They had more residents then than now.

But here’s the thing: Contrary to Tea Party fantasies, it wasn’t plucky private entrepreneurs that paved the roads, strung the wire, saved grandpa from penury and made organized commerce across the rural South possible. It was federal and state investment.

Even today, such prosperity as Yell County enjoys—it’s the 64th wealthiest of Arkansas’s 75 counties—derives from timber cutting and the proximity of three scenic lakes built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not to mention, of course, agricultural price supports from the 2014 Farm Bill that Rep. Cotton voted against.

But enough history. There’s plenty of strictly contemporary reality that self-styled “conservatives” also ignore. In TV commercials, Cotton depicts himself as the dutiful son of a “cattle rancher” who taught him farmers can’t spend money they don’t have.

Cotton’s father does run a small cattle farm near Dardanelle. However, it’s also a fact that Len Cotton retired as District Supervisor of the Arkansas Health Department after a 37-year career. The senior Cotton has also served on the Arkansas Veterans Commission, the Tri-County Regional Water Board, etc.

The candidate’s mother Avis taught in public schools for 40 years. She retired in 2012 as principal of the Dardanelle middle school. Career government bureaucrats, both, bless their public-spirited hearts.

So I’m guessing Len Cotton raises cattle for the same reasons I do: because it’s an absorbing hobby with considerable tax advantages.

Meanwhile, the thing about the Farm Bill that urban liberals often don’t get, and that a poser like Tom Cotton’s being disingenuous about, is this that it’s damn near impossible to farm without risking money you don’t have.

The largest recipient of agricultural subsidies in Arkansas is Riceland Rice—a member-owned co-op representing 5,800 farmers.

Farmers who have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, and diesel fuel to pump water; also to finance tractors and combines more costly than the land. Farmers who borrow every spring in the hope of turning a profit in the fall. And who risk losing the entire crop to pests, floods, drought, tornadoes, to cheap soybeans from Brazil, etc. If there’s fraud and waste, cut it out. However, it’s in the national interest to keep agriculture strong.

But let’s head back to town, shall we? One of the fastest growing GOP strongholds in Arkansas is the college town of Conway, just across the Arkansas River. Tom Cotton’s sure to do well there.

And why does Conway prosper? Basically, government largesse. Located along Interstate 40, it’s the home of the University of Central Arkansas, a growing state school. It’s got a brand-new, federally-funded airport, two private colleges supported by state scholarships funded by the Arkansas Lottery, and an excellent non-profit hospital (Medicare, Medicaid), etc.

The city’s biggest private employers are Internet-oriented Acxiom and Hewlett Packard. (Pentagon researchers created the Internet.) Furthermore, everybody in Conway receives electricity, water, sewage, cable TV, Internet and telephone service from the Conway Corporation—a city-owned co-op begun in the 1920s, as efficient an example of municipal socialism as you’ll find this side of Stockholm, Sweden.

Dogma notwithstanding, all successful modern economies are mixed economies.

No politician who tells you differently is your friend.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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  • Dominick Vila

    What this article described highlights the positive effects of government assistance had, not only in Arkansas, but throughout the nation. From investment in infrastructure to farm subsidies, to public education, the Federal government managed to transform parts of the country that, in some ways, resembled life in some Third World countries, into modern and prosperous states, and dramatic improvements in quality of life.
    As critical as the government help was 6 or 7 decades ago, the role it continues to play in some parts of the country, especially in the South, cannot be ignored. The irony of what we hear from the Tea Party and the far right in general, is that the people that live in most Red states are the most dependent on government assistance in the nation, and the ones that could not overcome the challenged they face without government help.
    As for people like Cotton, I suspect that he, and others, depend on romanticism, distortion of reality, hyperbole…and ignorance, to succeed politically. They highlight what they know will resonate among their constituents, and conveniently ignore anything that would undermine their message. With nothing positive to offer, and well aware of the circumstances in the states or districts they live in, the only choice is to blame someone else for their shortcomings and misery, ignoring that the solution has nothing to do with self pity, but with the determination to better ourselves and do something positive to overcome our problems.

  • Joe Richardson

    Great article thank you. I’m an expatriate of Arkansas, my father took us from the cotton fields in Blytheville to the factories of Chicago in the early fifties and I am very grateful he did. We always understood that unless we worked hard and never stopped trying we would not survive. We also understood that those in my family that remained in the cotton fields were doomed to an existence almost completely dependent on the help and support the federal government provided. And that help and support that kept so many alive seems to be something individuals like Mr. Cotton have forgotten.

    • Allan Richardson

      I agree with you, my long lost cousin (?); the economy is like the Jordan River upside down (because money flows UP hill, of course): Intelligently managed like the Sea of Galilee, wealth circulates and makes the entire land prosperous; but this requires intervention by government accountable to voters to make it happen. When NOT managed, it is like the Dead Sea: wealth flows to the top and very little of it circulates back down, primarily because the wealthy spend a much smaller percentage of their income on consumer goods, which create demand for other businesses, than struggling poor and middle class people do.

      And as for waste in the government’s agricultural spending, much of it goes to the “phony farmers” who are already wealthy. As one very BAD example, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a Republican of course, HIMSELF receives farm subsidies for land he owns and “agrees” not to plant. And last year, he made sure that HIS SHARE got bigger at the expense of food stamps for the hungry. A DECENT politician would have either sold his “farm” or recused himself from the legislative process.

      • Joe Richardson

        Hey come on now cousin are you saying you don’t care for, or subscribe to Ronnie Reagans trickle down economics? Ronnie is the Republicans hero and the fact that the great middle class decline and vast income inequality all started with his presidency is all just a coincidence. Just ask this Tom Cotton clown, he’ll tell you Reagan is his hero and he too worships at the Ronnie alter, just like all good lapdog Republicans..

  • howa4x

    If the middle class woke up and decided not to vote against their family interests there would be no republican party in it’s current form. Republicans exist in the south where their strength is because of the lower educational rankings of the population. Democrats in the south are clustered in cities and around universities and college towns. Rural America is fat, dumb and unhappy, and where the republicans are strongest. The south receives the most federal government aid, more than the rest of the country. It is because of the anti union policies that are prevalent there. The people don’t make enough money to pay for all the roads. bridges, schools and other government functions, so uncle sugar as Huckabee calls the federal government has to step in. So in the upsidedown world of republican politics, the party wants to cut aid to the states that need it the most which are the ones they represent. Some say this is illogical and some say can’t make this shit up

    • Joe Richardson

      Republicans never supported public education and took steps to destroy it through things like controlling the text book content, packing local school boards with religious whack jobs who’s dogma bears an eerie resemblance to such groups as the John Birch society, Taliban and the Baptists, and deliberately killing public schools funding. All of this was to keep the population ignorant and under the thumb of whoever they, the Republicans decide to empower to suck money out of the pockets of the poor and ignorant.

  • ps0rjl

    That is one thing the TP people and their politicians tend to forget. Cutting taxes doesn’t lead to prosperity. By the government using the tax money to fund our infrastructure we all prosper. Look at what Eisenhower did for us by creating the interstate highway system. Look what Johnson did with Medicare. Instead of cutting taxes we need to make sure that our tax system is overworked to make sure everyone and every corporation pays their fair share. We need to go after offshore accounts of the rich and corporations. We need to set up special taxes for those corporations that do inversions to avoid paying taxes they owe on monies they earned here using our infrastructure. To look at what cutting taxes does one need only look at what Sam Brownback has done to Kansas. He is driving it into the ditch. The only bright spot in Kansas is Johnson County in southern KC metro. They are prospering because the people are continually voting to raise county taxes to get them the amenities they want. Cutting taxes has never led to anything but a temporary influx of cash in your pocket. It has never led to prosperity in the long run.

    • hicusdicus

      When it comes to story telling you can easily compete with the tea party.

  • pmbalele

    Are there TPs still living out there? I thought TP is dead. TEA Party is a group of liars, racists, bigots and hypocrites. And in fact I am surprised people still listen to TPs after being exposed as impostors in 2011. That is why TPs were quiet in 2012 to fight Democrats. TPs had lost its luster and American people found TPs were actually phony people.

  • Pamby50

    I listened to one of his ads. It was filled with lies. He has been called on it and yet he still keeps spewing that nonsense. He just doesn’t care. I am so glad they created a mute button on remote controls.