Columns » Gene Lyons

Tom Cotton wouldn't be anywhere without government dollars

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When we moved to our Arkansas cattle farm, a friend lent us a book titled "A Straw in the Sun." Published in 1945, Charlie May Simon's beautifully written memoir of homesteading here in Perry County, Arkansas during the 1930s was long out of print — partly because the hardscrabble existence it describes is too recent for nostalgia.

Like much of the rural South before World War II, Perry County was essentially the Third World. So was Yell County, immediately to the west, home of U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton. Except for a lot of wasteful government spending he affects to deplore, it would still be. Cotton's campaign against the Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor reflects everything upside-down and cartoonish about Tea Party dogma and the tycoons who fund it.

It's a local story with national implications.

Originally featured as New Yorker essays, Simon's book wasn't intended as social protest. Even so, many forget that millions of Americans lived as subsistence-level peasant farmers within living memory.

Simon and her neighbors not only grew their own food and slaughtered their own hogs; they cut firewood, dug wells, built outhouses, made candles and fermented corn liquor. Electricity and telephones weren't available; cash commerce was all but impossible. To file her essays, Simon had to walk hours to the post office, or hitch a ride on a mule-drawn wagon along dirt roads that became impassible in wet weather.

The simple life proved terribly complicated. Even the author's husband, whom she wrote out of the story, found it too difficult — returning to his home in Paris (France, not Arkansas).

During the same period, writes historian S. Charles Bolton in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, roughly one-third of black and one-fifth of rural white Arkansans emigrated to places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Others found work in town. Today, large parts of Perry and Yell counties are in the Ouachita National Forest. They had more residents then than now.

But here's the thing: Contrary to Tea Party fantasies, it wasn't plucky private entrepreneurs who paved the roads, strung the wire, saved grandpa from penury and made organized commerce across the rural South possible. It was federal and state investment.

Even today, such prosperity as Yell County now enjoys — it's the 64th wealthiest of Arkansas's 75 counties — derives from timber cutting in the forest and the proximity of three scenic lakes built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Not to mention, of course, agricultural price supports from the 2014 Farm Bill that Cotton voted against.

In TV commercials and public statements, Cotton depicts himself as the dutiful son of a "cattle rancher" who taught him farmers can't spend money they don't have.

It's true that Cotton's father ran cattle on his place near Dardanelle. However, it's also a fact that Len Cotton retired as district supervisor of the Arkansas Health Department after a 37-year career. A public-spirited citizen, the senior Cotton also served on the Arkansas Veterans Commission, the Tri-County Regional Water Board, etc.

The candidate's mother Avis taught in Dardanelle public schools for 40 years, retiring in 2012 as principal of the district's middle school. Career government bureaucrats, both. And more power to them.

So I'm guessing Len Cotton raises cattle for the same reasons I do: because it's an absorbing hobby with considerable tax advantages.  

Meanwhile, the thing about the Farm Bill that urban liberals like Jonathan Chait don't get, and that a poser like Cotton's being disingenuous about, is this that it's damn near impossible to farm without risking money you don't have.

Farmers who have to pay for seeds, fertilizer, diesel fuel to pump water, to buy and maintain tractors and combines often more costly than the land. Farmers who borrow every spring in the hope of turning a profit in the fall. They also risk losing the entire crop to pests, floods, drought, tornadoes, cheap soybeans from Brazil, etc. If there's fraud and waste, cut it out. But it's in the national interest to keep agriculture strong.

But let's head back to town, shall we? One of the fastest growing GOP strongholds in Arkansas is the college town of Conway, just across the Arkansas River from here. Tom Cotton's sure to do well there.

Why does Conway prosper? Basically, government funding. Located along Interstate 40, it's the home of the University of Central Arkansas, a growing state school. It's got a brand-new, federally funded airport, two private colleges supported by state scholarships funded by the Arkansas Lottery, an excellent hospital (Medicare, Medicaid), etc.

The city's biggest private employers are Internet-oriented Acxiom and Hewlett Packard. (Pentagon researchers, of course, created the Internet.) Furthermore, everybody Conway receives electricity, water, sewage, cable TV, Internet and telephone service from the Conway Corporation — a city-owned co-op begun in the 1920s. It's as efficient an example of municipal socialism as you'll find this side of Copenhagen, Denmark.

All successful modern economies are mixed economies.

Any politician who tells you differently is not your friend.

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