I hate change. It’s in my genes. My family has been farming for a very long time. I guess there are other jobs we could do. Never really occurred to most of us to do anything else, although our son was in the army and is now a lawyer. He’s not afraid of change. He’s still young, and I hope I live long enough to see how he reacts to change in the decades to come.
I thought of this while I was cleaning out my pickup this weekend. Yep, I’m getting ready to change pickups. It’s probably time, as the truck is 15 years old and has 300,000 miles. My gosh, a lot of life has occurred in that truck. There were artifacts ossified under the seats because I think George W. Bush was president the last time the truck was cleaned. Toys from my grandchildren. CD’s of Jerry Jeff Walker and Clint Black. Two rolls of toilet paper. Hmm. There’s probably a story there I don’t want to remember.
The left front fender is bent from the time our son was practicing shifting gears and left it in neutral. We couldn’t find the truck the next morning because it had rolled down the hill, stopping only when it hit a 1000 gallon propane tank. The left rear fender was destroyed by a blown tire somewhere in Nebraska. The right front fender won its collision with an 8 point buck, but the scars are still there. The pickup still gets me where I want to go, so I’ve been slow to change. The proximate cause of my decision to try a slightly newer truck is the front end, which has gone from slightly loose to sort of a delayed reaction scare-you-to-death refusal to go the direction I want to go. The repair bill will be more than the truck is worth, and it’s time to change.
At least I have the option to decide when to change. Usually, change is forced on us, coming without warning, leaving us struggling to catch up. Consumers are demanding more accountability, and farmers are being forced to change. Livestock demand and marketing channels are changing, and we’re learning new ways of doing things. The ability to capture billions of bytes of data about our farms is forcing all of us to change, and that change will be hard. Herbicides lose their effectiveness, weather deals new challenges, hybrids are improved, and markets arise and disappear.
Clichés become clichés because they capture a truth. We’re all sick of having people tell us that change is a constant, but language that is overused and boring is still capable of capturing the way things are. We’re always dealing with change.
Just north of where I live, the Eaton Corporation has closed down most of a truck transmission plant. A couple of hundred people lost well-paying jobs. That’s a change that will cause lots of pain, and it was a very sad day for our part of the world.
Most of you are no doubt wondering if that change came about because of international trade. Yes, foreign competition did play a part because some of the production from the plant will be moved to Mexico, while the remaining transmissions will be built in North Carolina. But that wasn’t the main reason the plant closed. You see, our local plant only made manual transmissions, and most fleet buyers of tractors are buying automatic transmissions these days. Our local plant was not so much a victim of trade as it was of technological progress.
All of the major candidates for President have been critical of international trade, but strangely enough, none of them have criticized progress. Well, Bernie Sanders hates modern seeds and fracking, but then Bernie is selling an economic program that had its high point sometime in the middle of the 19th century, when Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital.
Public policy has a role in softening the effects of change, in helping folks deal with an economy that is always heading toward some unknown future. In large part the crop insurance programs that are so important to farmers are a means of softening the damage that changes in the weather and markets can bring.
But it’s a misguided government that believes we can ever stop the clock. We have to compete, we have to live in the world, and while we don’t have to embrace change, we’d better be able to adapt, learn, and anticipate the future. That’s little solace to my friends who were left behind by computer guided automatic shifting in big trucks, but it’s part of the price we all pay for the improvements in living standards that our economy has delivered for generations.
For every job that is saved by trade protection, there is a struggling family that will pay more for consumer goods. For every plastic sandal manufacturer in Malaysia that benefits when we slap a big tariff on Chinese imports, there’s a soybean farmer in Missouri who will take it in the shorts.
While in Washington with a group of Missouri farmers a few weeks ago, we listened to a presentation from the French agricultural attaché. She laid out the French position on trade, which essentially is that international trade policy should have as its major goal the protection of small French farmers. Now, that’s perfectly defensible from the position of a small French farmer and not good for U.S. farmers who are more efficient, but it does help to explain why trade deals are so hard to negotiate, and when they are successful, why they can cause pain as well as benefits to the countries involved. To argue that the only thing standing between better trade deals and our present imperfect world is tough negotiating is to ignore several centuries of international relations.
When one person buys something from another person, both benefit. Now, that seems like a very silly thing to say. Of course they do, or why would they agree to the transaction! We’d all agree that some things are more fun to buy than others. Nobody wants to buy medicine, but sometimes we have to. Everybody loves to buy Royals tickets, or to eat at a favorite restaurant, or go to a concert. None of us really like to pay for insurance against fires or floods. But none of us buy or sell unless we think we will be better off than we were before. That’s obvious, but it is also very powerful.
When politicians promise to stick it to foreigners, they’re also promising that we won’t have the freedom to buy the things we want. That the transactions we made yesterday will no longer be available today. That we’ll pay more, get lower quality, or just go without. Maybe we’re all willing to do those things, but we’ll lose the freedom to make our own decisions.