Current Opinion: The Federal Government and People’s Needs

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Current Opinion: The Federal Government and People’s Needs

by George Salzman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 2, March/April 1979, p. 30–31

As food and energy prices soar, they pose an immediate problem for the poor, who must worry about keeping warm and feeding themselves. As food products become more processed, synthetic and chemicalized, they pose a longer-term threat to the health of all economic classes. The less poor, those not immediately threatened by price inflation, have the relative luxury of seeking remedies for the longer-term problems, and are attracted to such alternatives as organically grown produce, solar heating, and other forms of appropriate technology (AT). By AT is meant small scale, relatively inexpensive technology, suitable for community use, based on local resources, ecologically sound, and geared towards local community self-reliance. 

Many people realize the government is not meeting its responsibility to assure adequate supplies of reasonably priced food and energy, and to assure the quality of food products. But the government is intrinsically unable to serve our food and energy needs because 1) these needs are in direct conflict with the competitive drive for higher profits by the large corporations which dominate these industries, and 2) the government’s first priority is to serve large corporate interests, i.e. to maintain the viability of corporate capitalism. 

Therefore we should be highly skeptical of government programs ostensibly designed to help us and should seek, instead of so-called federal funding, large-scale systemic changes which will prevent the federal government from taxing a large share of community wealth. Food and energy activists will become ineffective, in my opinion, if enticed to switch efforts from locally independent grass-roots community work to government organized or sponsored projects. I will show by one example, that of AT, what I believe to be generally true, namely that even when the government appears to be deliberately helping us, it is in fact really serving corporate interests and harming us in the process. These issues came to mind through my involvement recently in various federally funded public meetings on food and energy, meetings which I believe were largely a waste of time and energy for the many activists who participated. 

Since August the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission have held hearings in each of five major geographical areas to obtain public input on food-product labels. Since October at least five federally supported public meetings have been held in Boston, Worcester, and Amherst on energy alternatives and/or AT. I believe it is important to ask why the government is sponsoring so many public hearings and meetings. I believe the explanation is as follows. 

In recent years there has been a rapidly growing awareness of the many ways in which our health is damaged by the air we breathe, the water we drink, the toxic chemicals we consume in commercial food-products, and the noise and other physical and psychological stresses we must endure. With this awareness has come a corresponding rapid growth of efforts by ordinary people and activist groups to reduce or stop the damages. Not infrequently, these efforts offer challenges, at least in principle, to the capitalist system of production for profit, which people are coming more and more to identify as the basic cause of the problems. For example, international agribusiness, the energy industry oligopoly, and the automotive industry with its stranglehold on transportation (which accounts for 25% of U.S. energy use) are now widely seen as operating not to meet people’s needs for food, energy, and transportation but rather to exploit our basic requirements for survival in America today in order to amass endlessly huge corporate profits, and to do so at the expense of our pocketbooks, our environment, and our health. 

Naturally the corporations and the government are trying to stem this popular activism and to reestablish in people’s minds the idea that we can count on their efforts to solve the problems. The larger part of the government’s effort remains where it has always been, on the propaganda front. The many public meetings of course add to the desired image of a concerned government, but their primary aim, I believe, is at the activists. Since practically everything activists try to do is legal, the avenues of lawful repression by the government are limited to either 1) rewriting or reinterpreting the law, e.g. defining childbirth at home as being not a natural process but a medical procedure, and thus subjecting it to legally defined medical supervision, or 2) pretending that the government shares our goals, and needs our help to decide how best to achieve them, thereby diverting our energy from effective grassroots work into the labyrinth of federal bureaucracy, where it can be safely dissipated (from the government’s and the large corporations’ point of view). 

The second approach, cooptation, is of course more ‘positive’. The food-product labeling hearings are, in my opinion, one example, Another is the government’s sudden interest in and (pseudo) commitment to AT. Last summer the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a nation-wide program in AT, which is now being implemented through establishment of its AT Small Grants Program. The average grant is expected to be about $12,000. However, the significant fact is not this figure, but rather the total allocation of the DOE for this program compared to others. 

An article appropriately titled “Run For the Money” (in the Sept-Oct issue of New Roots) reports that $1.2 million will be granted in the fiscal year 1979 (FY79) for the entire region consisting of the six New England states, New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. It is estimated that only about five per cent of the several thousand proposals anticipated will actually be funded. Since the allocations are to be proportional to the populations of the individual states, the total national figure should be just about $6 million. 

Small is in this case not only not beautiful, but parsimonious in the extreme. The Research and Development (R & D) part of the DOE FY 79 (this is turning into alphabet soup!) budget is $5.4 billion. Thus the DOE is spending just a bit over one-thousandth of its R & D pie for AT. When one keeps in mind that this is the only technology which would not promote continued corporate control of energy supply and distribution, then it is manifest that the DOE expends nearly all the resources at its disposal to maintain corporate capitalism. Let’s see how the R&D pie goes. 

The part of the DOE R & D budget for all aspects of nuclear power1 amounts to $3.2 billion, just over 59%. Then, in descending order, fossil fuels energy takes $6.7 hundred million, 12.4%; solar $4.4 hundred million, 8%; conservation $3.9 hundred million, 7%; geothermal $1.6 hundred million, 3%; biomass $42 million, 0.8%; hydroelectric $28 million, 0.5%; and finally, last and least, AT $6 million, 0.1 %. Although it is true that some of the other R & D categories may have limited spin-off contributions to AT, it is clear that the intent of the funding allocations is to support large corporate interests. 

In order to distribute the AT small grants the DOE is establishing a sizeable bureaucratic grant review procedure involving active participation by AT activists. The overall picture which emerges is that of the federal government taking, through taxes, at least $1,150 per person, most of which will come directly from us, and then, to signify its desire to help us achieve local community self-reliance through the development of AT, “giving” us 3¢ per person of “federal money” through a highly competitive process that itself will consume much time and energy of AT activists. 

Some activists would see the DOE budget as another example of misdirected government priorities and would think we need to strive for more effective government efforts to limit the damaging effects of corporate greed. I believe this view to be in error, and that the DOE budget is but one more clear expression of the government’s genuine priorities. As long as we do not adequately recognize that the government and the large corporations are acting in concert to meet their priorities, then it is likely that our priorities for how we expend our efforts will be misdirected, and we will actually be coopted into helping the government and the corporations to achieve their ends.

References and note. New Roots, c/o Rm A25, Grad Research Center, Univ of Mass, Amherst MA 01003; Science, Vol 202, p 1064 (Dec 8 ’78): “Congressional Action on R&D in the FY 79 Budget,” AAAS Office of Public Sector Programs, 1776 Mass Ave NW, Wash DC 20036; Dollars & Sense, Oct ’78; Seven Days, Nov 10 ’78; Unpublished item of author, Nov 26, ’78. I want to thank Steve Karian for a very helpful critical reading of an earlier draft of this article and for a useful discussion.

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  1. Includes basic nuclear science research, nuclear and high-energy physics research, and “Atomic Energy Defense R&D,” which presumably means the necessary security against theft, terrorism, etc. involving nuclear materials.