Both the American farmer and the countries of the Third World remind me strongly of my own entry into the marketplace some years ago when I was offered $10 for a load of superb holly and mistletoe that would retail at $750.
Again, I was offered a price for my premium daffodils vastly below the cost of producing them, even though the day I took samples to the market people almost mobbed me to buy them.
I was realistic enough to notice that unless I had a say in the outlet doing the selling I was accomplishing nothing except windfalls for the man who bought them from me at a great loss to me, to sell them at a remarkable profit to himself. Since I could not devise a way around this, and since I had entered cautiously, I promptly backed out.
At school I found economics a tiresome subject taught by a tiresome man, but though I am not a scholar in this field something told me it is a mistake to sell things at a third the price of producing them. In this, I am perhaps a step ahead of a lot of farmers.
In my case it did the nation no great harm for me to withdraw my superior holly and daffodils and turn elsewhere to make a living. It is not so simple, however, if the growers of grain stop taking losses and turn elsewhere. And it is not so agreeable if some of the Third World countries conclude that no matter what they do they are not going to get ahead.
The economists of the world did not reckon with the fabulous price rises in crude oil, and while the world at large fumed and roared at the unconscionable sudden rocketing of oil costs, the truth is that the world accepted it. The world would accept paying more for corn and rice, too, but why pay more as long as farmers cannot control their market and as long as so many of them are willing to produce at a loss? I think they will find the world exactly as I found the market that wished to pay me less than it cost to produce my holly and daffodils. I could not control the marketing machinery, either, but I knew enough to refuse continued production at a loss, whereas farmers think they have no choice but to keep on raising crops until the time comes they cannot even afford to put a crop in the ground.
An undeveloped country like Iran, say, can nevertheless make quite a nuisance of itself. So can minor places like Vietnam, Nicaragua and so on. So the Great World (America, Japan, Germany) needs to pay at least enough attention to the poor to keep things from getting out of hand.
It worked well enough for the world for me to fail with the load of holly. It does not work so well to let the producers of food fail, or to let nations of restless millions fail. I recall the sense of outrage, the sense of disbelief at first, and the feeling of being royally had, at the last. This feeling, when widely held, is not conducive to good manners or harmony.
Which brings us to Lal Jayawardena, the Sri Lankan economist who will head the new World Institute for Development Economics Research at Helsinki, an arm of the United Nations University established in Tokyo.
He will form a staff of 15 or 20 bright, preferably brilliant, economists to research and recommend action in developmental economics. A Third World country is like me and my load of holly. Maybe holly is the wrong product. Or maybe international mechanisms can be devised to get the holly to market at a fair price for a change.
In Sri Lanka, to mention a very small (to us) matter, they used to import their rice. Now they produce their rice. They made it attractive for the farmer to grow rice.
Very simple. But it does not happen merely because a few farmers are unhappy. It happens when the power of the state concerns itself with a situation (as in Sri Lanka) in which food is imported that could readily be raised at home. An endless series of policy decisions must be made. Budgets have to be rethought. Much else has to happen. The culture of the place must be consulted. When things are said abstractly, they mean nothing, really. If instead you say there is no great future for hamburger in India or pork chops in Israel, you see the point of considering the local culture.
I remember in France after the war there was an influx of American corn. The French bitched all day every day about corn, which they made into baguettes, those long thin loaves of bread. If they had been sensible and if they were as good at cooking as they pretend, they would have made corn bread. But even in so elegant a nation as France it was more than they could conceive. They knew what bread was, it was long thin baguettes, and if they didn't have wheat (they had no wheat) then by God they'd make it with ground corn, moaning pitifully day by day at the horrors of it all.
This is the minutest example of the sort of thing you run into when you try to change anything at all in any country. Jayawardena and the new institute will have far grander horrors to deal with than a cultural resistance to cornmeal or pork or beef, but in thinking how to develop an economy such things must eventually be considered.
The plight of nations racked by inflation and deflation occurring at irregular times with the shock of tornadoes is something to be thought of. So is the little matter of debt -- a thing that does not bother us in the least in rich America, of course.
Jayawardena, in case I have made him sound too simple-minded with my talk of holly and anger at being ripped off, took a double first in economics at King's College (Cambridge) and has been his country's ambassador to several European nations. In Sri Lanka he was secretary of the treasury, and represented his country at the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. His mind is not limited to the imagery of a load of holly at a fair price; it's just that that still gnaws at me after all these years as an example of unfairness (I have never had the feeling since).
Just as American agriculture has got to work in the long run, no matter what it costs and no matter what changes have to be made, so the world has got to work in the long run also. Digging the facts and weighing the realities of the world economics, to see what can realistically be recommended to buffer the present shocks so strongly felt in the world by so many, is a task of the institute. As in all worthwhile analysis, much juggling must be done. Paradise throughout the planet may not be expected by July 1. But perhaps something will be accomplished to lessen the misery of men.
Ethiopia and the famine may lightly be blamed on the weather, if one is a fool, and trouble in Nicaragua can be blamed on the Somozas, if one is still a fool, but you can change the Somozas and you can have an end to drought and (surprise, surprise) the day of rainbows does not arrive.
Jayawardena is a man of great courtesy, even to writers utterly ignorant of his subjects. In this he is not a man of our time. In other ways he may be very much of our time. I didn't mention it to him, but he would have understood the load of holly in a flash. Ten bucks for a $750 product. Knows all about that, I suspect.