The King Midas Monoculture

We have a fixation on money. Now we call it by a fancy word: financialization. But the problem that fiscal fixation creates was captured centuries ago in an ancient myth, the myth of King Midas. As the story goes. Midas wanted gold, lots and lots of gold. He never had enough, and wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. And he got his wish – only to find out that the touch came with its own curse, its own pathology. First, it made all his food inedible metal; then it turned his daughter into a lifeless statue.

Like Midas, we are driven and controlled by the need for money. In this money centered world, dialogs with government and foundation officials, with investors, businesses and non-profits, with communities and families are relentlessly framed in monetary terms: cost-benefit, return on investment, risk assessment, deficit reduction, opportunity costs and Gross Domestic Product. Our world is a world of numbers defined by the flow of money. Value is defined by price; present value is derived by discounting the future, and future value is projected from our assumptions about interest rates. We translate the value of things and people into the language of costs, price and economic exchange. And we are monolingual- we only speak money.

To understand why and how a fixation on money foreseeably produces unwanted outcomes, we can look to lessons the Irish learned from farming just one crop – potatoes – centuries ago. Potatoes were what everyone ate. They became the crop on which the Irish farming economy depended. One particular type of potato, the Irish lumper, became the sole subsistence food for one third of the country. The potato had three times the caloric value of grain, was cheap and easy to grow and slow to spoil. In addition, potatoes also provided the food for livestock, Ireland’s primary export to Britain. It was easy to overlook one flaw in that seamless cycle. There was a certain fungus, Phytophthora infestans, to which that specific type of potato was distinctively vulnerable. It came to be known as the “potato blight.”

In 1845 between one-third and half of Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed by this fungus It is estimated that at the eve of the famine 30% of Irish people were largely or wholly dependent on potatoes for their food. By 1846, the entire crop had been wiped out. A recurrence in 1848 and 1849 wiped out subsequent crops. By 1851, 1 million Irish – nearly one-eighth of the population — were dead from starvation, cholera and nutrition-related disease. By 1855, 2 million people had fled to Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

The story of the Irish potato famine may not be exactly parallel to the tale of King Midas – but Midas presumably would have starved to death just as surely as the impoverished Irish. His obsession with a narrow form of wealth dehumanised everything and everyone around him. He could only see their value using one narrow yardstick.

When the great economist John Maynard Keynes accused human societies of being capable of shutting down the sun and the stars “because they pay no dividends”, he was speaking at least in the tradition of an enlightened Midas.But the potato famine suggests a secondary implication for the ancient story – that, if transforming everything into precious metal paradoxically impoverishes, so does the kind of monoculture that emerges as a result of this kind of myopia. Monoculture, because of its reliance on a faulty and narrow fixation on desired outcome, is what this paper is about.

Our learning from what dependence on potatoes meant can be summed up in general principles that characterize what risks associated with any monocultures. Plant just one crop – and three consequences follow: (1) The entire economy depends on that crop. (2) The soil on which that crop relies is depleted and so future plantings require purchases of fertilizer and pesticide (3) That crop becomes vulnerable to viruses and pests which adapt to extracting nutrients from that crop.

Reliance on one Crop We can analogize Ireland’s exclusive reliance on potatoes for food and cattle feed to our peculiar and growing reliance on the finance industry. In 2008, the finance industry underwent a failure analogous to the Irish Potato famine. The crisis took the form of a liquidity crisis triggered by bursting of the U.S. housing bubble which caused the values of securities tied to real estate pricing to plummet. One third of the value of the world’s companies was wiped out by this crisis. Bank failures, fiscal crises, budget deficits and a deep recession have all provided a continuing reminder of the fragility of our underlying financial system. That’s what happens when a monocrop fails.

When a monocrop goes down, the poor and most vulnerable are hit hardest. That happened in Ireland. Likewise, in the USA, the greatest impact of the 2008 recession was felt by minorities. Various studies report that between 2005 and 2009, Hispanic households lost 66 percent of their wealth and black households lost 53%; white households lost only 16%. By 2010, when the overall unemployment rate was approximately 10 percent, it was 16 percent for blacks and 13 percent for Latinos. In the richest nation in the world, 45% of African American children, 39% of Hispanic children and 51% of the children in public schools lived in poverty.

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 3:32-38

Edgar S. Cahn is a distinguished professor at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia and author of No More Throwaway People: The Co-Production Imperative.
 
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