By Dave Carter
The post-election confusion in November left ranchers and farmers scratching their heads over the future of federal agricultural policies. Agricultural leaders keep searching the shifting election results for hints about the future of a farm bill, international trade, concentration and rural economic development. But at least the election night fiasco in Florida should have taught politicians of every political stripe an important lesson in the fundamental flaw of corporate concentration.
Think about it. Like millions of Americans, the Carter family watched election night returns with remote control in hand. Sometime around 8 p.m., the dominoes began to fall. First Dan Rather on CBS, then Tom Brokaw on NBC, then ABC all called the election for Gore based on each network’s exit poll information.
“Well, honey,” I told my wife, “all three networks just called Florida for Gore.”
The networks all got it wrong. They all got it wrong because of corporate concentration.
Stay with me on this one. In years past, each network independently conducted its polling information, hiring a slew of statisticians to develop individual models and to conduct selective surveys. There was genuine competition to develop the best statistical models, and to gather the most accurate information. Lately, the networks discovered a more “efficient” method.
They consolidated their individual operations into a single, centralized survey firm called Voter News Service. This new consolidated company captures all of the “economies of scale” necessary to harness the “efficiencies” of a large company.
Election night demonstrated just how “efficient” consolidation can be. It didn’t matter if you tuned to NBC or CNN. It didn’t matter if you listened to Peter Jennings or Dan Rather. Their lips were all moving independently, but the information all came from the same source. And when that source screwed up, it became a national doozy.
Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his grave right now.
Two centuries ago, Jefferson argued passionately for a free press. He reasoned that an independent media would create a “marketplace of ideas,” where free citizens could make informed decisions based upon a wealth of information and opinion.
Jefferson was the same person that championed the ideal of an agrarian society, in which a quiltwork of dispersed, diversified, independent farms would prevent economic and political power from consolidating into too few hands.
Perhaps we ought to have listened to this guy. The failure of the consolidated market structure is becoming more evident each day.
People in Omaha and Oakland get sick from eating hamburgers because the tainted beef all came through a single slaughter plant. One downed power line in California can create brownouts for half of the country. Flight slowdowns by one airline throw the entire air transpiration system into chaos. The release of StarLink corn into the food pipeline now threatens U.S. exports around the world.
Against this backdrop, the nation’s largest pork processor, Smithfield Foods, wants to buy the nation’s largest beef processor, IBP. The argument being made to convince the federal regulators to approve this merger: increased efficiency because of economies of scale.
That argument is wearing mighty thin. Even agricultural groups that have sat on the sidelines through past waves of consolidation are expressing concern over this one. Perhaps we ought to conduct a poll to determine the level of opposition to this merger in the countryside. But….given the status of the polling industry these days, perhaps not.