Beaten Into a Hasty Retreat

On a slow (meaningful) news day like this one, it’s the perfect time to sample some long-form journalism, as is provided by the new November-January issue of the Monthly, which went up online in its entirety today.

In a nod to election-exhausted readers, this issue has nothing to do with polls, campaigns, or candidates. Instead, it examines some little-discussed issues with big ramifications. Paul did a post this morning on Lina Khan’s piece on the once-promising, eventually-abandoned Obama administration drive to help independent farmers and ranchers cope with abuses associated with a increasingly-concentrated marketplace controlled by powerful processing firms. Food advocate Michael Pollan tweeted today that Khan had written “the best piece of ag journalism in years.”

To make the long story short, the Obama administration, partly in response to a mandate in the 2008 farm bill, launched a multi-agency effort (mainly involving the Justice and Agriculture Departments) to identify and publicize the arbitrary and destructive treatment of many farmers and ranchers by the big, quasi-monopolistic (at least in particular regions) meat-packing and processing companies that act as both suppliers and sole purchasers for producers of beef, pork, poultry and other food commodities. The administration also promulgated new rules to change the power equation between processers and producers, and exhibited a new willingness to use antitrust laws to curb the big companies. In a shockingly short period of time, however, pro-agribusiness elements in Congress–strengthened by the 2010 elections–beat the administration into submission, watered down the new rules, and generally made a hash of the entire exercise.

While Khan has told a story of real, recent political drama that few Americans outside farm communities have heard about, her account ends with questions as much as accusations, identifying the power of the agribusiness interests in Congress (not just with Republicans, but with many Democrats) and the weakness of existing antitrust laws as problems that no degree of aggressiveness by a relatively progressive administration could overcome. The article is a reminder of how many decisions of great if unappreciated importance to the daily lives of most Americans are made in a bureaucratic and legal shadow-land where fights are never fair and the accumulated efforts of lobbyists past and present make progress difficult if not impossible.

So read Khan’s fine piece with sympathy and anger, and with the understanding that it takes far more than good intentions to accomplish real change in Washington.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.