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Change is constant; Uncertainty is certain

By Ken Root

Several years ago, I was in Argentina, reporting on the travels of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, John Block. Buenos Aires appeared to be a prosperous city, with wide thoroughfares, well lit streets and well- dressed people. We had some time for shopping and I noticed that the currency, the Argentine peso, came in a wide range of paper notes, designated from one to one million. The country was facing a period of rapid inflation, to the point that the government had devalued the peso: ten thousand to one. This meant that there were two sets of currency circulating at the same time. The largest old bill was one million (1,000,000) and the largest new bill was one hundred (100). They had cut four zeros off the bill so that ten thousand pesos would equal one.

Commerce was brisk and the shopkeepers were careful to count the change back to you in the new denomination. I would stuff a handful of old bills in my pants pocket or a few new ones in my shirt. I never felt I had been cheated. The thing that amazed me the most was the calm way in which the country had accepted the change. Banks had to keep up with inflation but they also had to do business. They reset the value each month and charged interest rates that were so high it seemed ridiculous but people needed the money to operate so they paid it.

In the early 1980s I watched the winter Olympics, that were held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The city was beautiful and the culture was charming. Less than a decade later, the country was at war with itself. News reports showed those same streets exposed to sniper fire. The buildings were decimated and vacant but the next street over (where the bullets couldn't reach) had business as usual. Ethnic cleansing was underway but people had to shop and buy groceries, so they led their lives like nothing was wrong.

Our uncertainty of government spending policy and legislative "can kicking" can't compare to these illustrations but the ability to maintain orderly conduct during chaos appears to be a strong human trait. Predictions that current events will bring a complete breakdown of society, may be wishful thoughts to survivalists, but I don't see it as reality. The cultural desire to maintain order will prevail in the collective and those who attempt to disrupt it will be isolated very quickly.

Farmers are facing a great deal of uncertainty this year. If you made a list of the things that are unknown or unpredictable, it would reach all the way down the page: weather, program payments, prices for inputs, world markets. But a column on certainties would also emerge: the sun will come up. The cows will calve, the seeds will sprout and the consumer will need my goods. Have you ever heard of anyone dying because a bridge washed out between their house and town? We adapt and we realign because it is in our nature.

This doesn't mean there won't be businesses and individuals who will make bad decisions that cost them dearly in the long run. A farmer, who anticipates chaos and fears government takeover, may take extreme action by spending all of his resources to buy food, guns and survivalist shelter. He may defend his position for the rest of his life but for what purpose?

My hope is that there isn't a situation that frightens people to do irrational things. As they say: "The challenge is to keep your head while all others around you are losing theirs." Chaos thinking is infectious and I recall feeling it when we had "duck and cover" assemblies at school in the 1960s. We scared ourselves and many people built bomb shelters to counteract the Soviet threat of nuclear war. Looking back, our family never constructed anything. We had an old cellar that was our hiding place when tornadoes threatened. It was already full of canned goods so they wouldn't freeze and that appeared to be all my parents needed. We would talk about staying down there in a nuclear attack but we lived about twenty miles from a military base so dad figured we'd get hit hard and our efforts would be futile, so we did nothing. Turns out, we were right.

Today, our society goes one step farther in keeping order: we feed those who cannot feed themselves. Food riots are the greatest fear of governments but in the United States, we designate eighty billion dollars per year to subsidize those who don't make enough to feed themselves or their families. If you have a drug problem that keeps you from working, no problem, you can get enough to eat from free kitchens and supplemental nutrition. If your drug habit or psychosis becomes a threat to others, we will lock you up, treat you, and give you one hundred percent of what you need to survive. It is expensive and uncomfortable but society has a net under just about everyone.

The USDA just announced reopening of sign-up for programs under the farm bill extension. Congress took no action on behalf of farmers until the last day of the last session. In order to head off the embarrassment of high priced milk, they took minimal action. There were many predictions of doom but a known piece of legislation has been put back into effect. You have to show up and sign up, to participate, but in the truest of human terms: Life goes on.

Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 1/28/2013

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