Compared to the U.S. Senate’s recent refusal to approve a mere $60 billion in new infrastructure spending when we really need to spend an estimated $2 trillion just to make up for all the years of neglect of our country’s roads and bridges, the recent report in the New York Times that the U.S. Agriculture Department will stop collecting and reporting data on a wide range of agricultural commodities, including catfish, sheep, goats, hops, honey, and mink, is no big deal. But it is just one more bit of evidence that the U.S. is on its way to becoming a third-world country. Compared to the revelation that the U.S. now ranks 25th in the world in Internet connection speed, behind both Greece and Romania, the future lack of production data from the country’s 389 catfish farms and 265 mink farms is hardly a calamity. All joking aside, however, one of the many things that distinguish developed countries from less developed ones is the extent and reliability of the economic and business information they provide.
True, there are outliers. India, which remains a poor country despite its pockets of advanced technology, has always compiled voluminous data on every conceivable economic activity. Data from some wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, on the other hand, tend to be unreliable and out of date. For the most part, though, the richer and more developed a country, the better the information. To some degree, the two go hand in hand. Companies use these data to make investment, recruitment, sourcing, and marketing decisions. Potential investors could, it is true, rely on figures from the Catfish Farmers of America – www.uscatfish.com – or the Fur Commission USA – “Representing U.S. Mink Farmers Since 1994” (www.furcommission.com) instead of Agriculture Department census data, but these associations are hardly disinterested parties, and might present a rosier picture of their respective industries than the facts would warrant.
According to the Department of Agriculture, eliminating the monthly reports on catfish and trout will save $480,000 a year. Getting rid of the mink report will save another $130,000; cutting out reports on hops production will save $40,000 (the annual cost of the hops reports is $55,000, but the Hop Growers of America – www.usahops.org – has been kicking in $15,000 of its own money to help support the activity). The association could possibly come up with another 40 grand a year, but this might come at the expense of the annual “Hoptoberfest” celebration at the American Hop Museum in Yakima, Washington. I don’t have precise figures on the savings from axing the sheep and goat census.
It’s hard to escape the sense that eliminating these activities has less to do with the actual savings than with the pursuit of a more radical vision to shrink government, a vision that has little or no place for public broadcasting, public libraries, or public education, not to mention publicly-funded roads and bridges. It’s a vision that would make it impossible to undertake public projects like the Interstate Highway System, the Internet (created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA), or grand public structures like the pavilions at Saratoga Springs and Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, constructed by the WPA in an earlier time of both greater deprivation and a greater sense of public spirit.
Voltaire, in his poem Le Mondain, refers to “the superfluous, a very necessary thing.” What he means is that if we, in our private or public lives, devote ourselves only to the material necessities, we sacrifice much that is equally, or even more, important. It is possible to make a utilitarian argument for almost anything – the space program, it is said, gave us Tang, the powdered orange drink – but some things are worth doing just because they are worth doing, even if the immediate payoff is hard to identify. Maybe the annual mink ranching census is not one of those things, but a vision of government that refuses to countenance the possibility that it might be worth doing and that it might be worth spending public funds to do it, offers us a cramped view of human possibility and leaves us all poorer in the end.