Following Christ as a Lunatic Grass Farmer: An Interview with Joel Salatin

jamie calloway-hanauer

Joel Salatin is a grass-farmer in Swoope, Virginia, where he and his family own and operate Polyface Farms, a multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm. Joel is the author of nine books and has been featured in Michael Pollan’s award-winning book Ominvore’s Dilemma as well as the movie Food, Inc. Often cited in conversations about and with Joel is that he describes himself as a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic-farmer.” He’s here with us today to talk about how his work as a “lunatic grass farmer” embodies the teachings of Christ.

So, Joel, how does your work as a lunatic grass farmer embody the red letters?

Christ as Creator established numerous principles for how this grand scheme would work. He established herbivores, for example, as pruners to make sure biomass did not go into senescence, but rather stay fresh and growthy, aggressively metabolizing solar energy into decomposable plant material that breathes in carbon dioxide…

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Supreme Court’s inaction signals bad news for heavily indebted poor countries

CNS Blog

A man walks next to his makeshift home in 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by Argentina in a case in which a hedge fund has sued the country for $1 billion, meaning the country will be forced to turn over information about financial assets in New York banks and face the possibility of not providing development aid for the country's poorest residents. (CNS/Cezaro De Luca, EPA) A man walks next to his makeshift home in 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  (CNS/Cezaro De Luca, EPA)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision yesterday not to hear an appeal from Argentina after being sued by a hedge fund for $1 billion has upset advocates for debt relief.

The inaction by the Supreme Court lets two lower federal court rulings stand and Argentina now must turn over information about its U.S. bank holdings to the hedge fund.

Catholic News Service recently reported on the case and the work of Jubilee USA to advocate for debt relief for poor countries.

Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, told CNS this morning that the case means it is open season on the assets of other heavily indebted poor countries.

“It has incredible impacts in terms of how the financial system operates, how poor countries have the ability to become middle income…

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A Greed to Shame the Greedy

Once in a while, a phenomenon will come along that is so egregious that it elicits near-universal condemnation.  A terrorist act, for instance, that even many terrorists find appalling.  An abuse of power that shocks even the most hardened and corrupt politician.  A military excursion that makes the most dedicated patriot blush.

Vulture Funds are just such a phenomenon.  The idea that a billionaire hedge fund manager would make a strategy out of buying up the distressed debt of poor countries and attempting to squeeze hundreds of millions of dollars out of those countries regardless of the social cost is a testament to the power of greed.  That there is virtual unanimity in opposition to that strategy even when the victim is not a poor country but rather a well-established economic power like Argentina is a testament to the degree to which Vulture Funds offend our basic sense of human decency.

But it’s also a testament to the fact that Vulture Fund Elliot Capital Management is attacking more than just Argentina; it is striking at the foundation of sovereign debt restructuring agreements and at the international system of global finance that lies beneath.  By asserting that it has the right to be paid in full for debt that it bought cheaply on the secondary market, and to be paid in full immediately, billionaire Vulture Fund manager Paul Singer is undercutting the ability of countries to restructure their debt with the thousands of creditors (including governments and multi-lateral banks) who were willing to work with the debtor collaboratively to ensure repayment.  After all, why would anyone wait in line and accept 20% payment of their loan when they could push to the front of the line and be paid in full plus interest by using the types of aggressive tactics Vulture Funds have become known for?

And so as the Argentina Vulture Fund case heads to the Supreme Court, civil society groups like Jubilee are joined by powerful western governments and even the IMF in supporting Argentina.

Vulture Funds, it would seem, embody a greed that shames even the greedy.

Because make no mistake, the system of global finance that the IMF and US (and now France as well) are so keen to maintain is not one that benefits the global poor.  Deals that restructure debt are usually laden with economic policy conditions that hypocritically demand austerity from the countries least able to afford it.  They assume irresponsibility on the part of the borrower, even though the government that borrowed the money is often long gone, but ignore completely irresponsibility on the part of the creditor, who usually loaned the funds to corrupt and repressive governments knowing full well that they would be spent on weapons and champagne.

What Argentina did was forcibly wrest control of its own economy from the clutches of its creditors.  From the time of its debt default until 2007, Argentina did this:

More than 11 million people, or 28% of the population, were pulled above the poverty line as Argentina’s economy grew by more than 50%. Its 8.2% annual economic growth was more than twice the average for Latin America. Unemployment has dropped from 21.5% to 8.5%, and real (inflation-adjusted) wages have grown by more than 40%. (LA Times, 2007)

As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) notes, Argentina was successful largely because it took basic, sound macroeconomic steps to improve its economy, steps that are often precluded by IMF policies.  And countries in the developing world are often subject to IMF dictates only because they are in debt, even though they are in debt in many cases largely because of irresponsible lending by the IMF and World Bank.  (LA Times, 2007)  The only way for those countries to break free of this system is complete debt cancellation, not conditional partial debt relief.

So saving the current system of debt restructuring agreements is not in the interest of the global poor.  But Vulture Funds blow up that system much in the same way that a tsunami disrupted Japan’s nuclear power industry.  In the short-term, they must be stopped.

In the long-term, the entire system must be changed.


Want to help Jubilee USA fight Vulture Funds?

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Friday Quick Hits From Around the Globe

North America / Caribbean

A factory in the Dominican Republic is paying a living wage to garment workers making American collegiate apparel.  What a great opportunity for Americans to help support economic justice and worker safety simply by choosing a label when we shop for clothes.

South America

The massive protests in Brazil highlight what might be the only positive attribute of global sporting events for the world’s poor: more media attention.  While the world focuses on Brazil as it deals with its citizens’ demands for better government services, an end to corruption, and indigenous rights, the World Cup and the Olympics loom in the background.  Such events are often touted as opportunities for economic development that might lift the poor out of poverty, but the reality is not so rosy.  In his fantastic book Planet of Slums, author Mike Davis details how major international events like the Olympics often lead to “beautification” efforts that include razing slums and pushing the poor farther out into the periphery of the city, away from the cameras and festivities.  For now, the events pose an opportunity for protesters to garner attention that might not otherwise be so intense.  But that opportunity is closing and once the games begin, it’s likely to be too late.

Middle East

Obama’s decision to arm the rebels was accurately described by New York Times Columnist David Brooks as being enough to make us responsible while not enough to actually make a difference.  Advocates of intervention point out how blatantly hideous the Assad regime is and of course they are right.  But as one Syrian commentator put it this past week, the only thing worse than a brutal dictatorship might be a civil war.  Here’s another excellent take on why arming the rebels is, to put it mildly, a horrible idea.


Sadly, our final bit of news is fairly tragic.  Edward Chindori-Chininga, a member of the Zimbabwe parliament who had done an incredibly brave job of exposing the manner in which members of President Robert Mugabe’s inner circle were profiting from diamond mining in the country in corrupt and illegal ways, died in a car crash in his home district.  The timing of his death is more than a little suspicious, to say the least.

Here in America, we don’t kill our brave whistle-blowers, we just send them to federal prison to serve sentences longer than those served by some violent criminals.  To paraphrase Gandhi, western civilization: it would be a good idea.Image

(The late Edward Chindori-Chininga)

Friday Very Quick Hits

Iran’s moderate presidential candidate is winning, and winning big.  The world will be better off as a result, particularly if his election contributes to the further isolation of Israeli hawks determined to bomb Tehran.

From fantastic journalist Glenn Greenwald:


The Robin Hood Tax

First published at:

By: Andrew Hanauer

If you are familiar with British actor Bill Nighy, it is most likely through his role in the popular film Love Actually, in which Nighy plays an aging rock star who grudgingly but shamelessly turns his hit song into a Christmas jingle.  In a movie starring Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightly and Hugh Grant, Nighy stands out thanks to his quirky mannerisms and comedic timing.

This year, Nighy is using his talents for a less glamorous but far more meaningful role: that of “the Banker” in a YouTube video aimed at advocating for a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT).  The FTT is also known as a Robin Hood tax because it would charge banks and other financial institutions a tiny tax for each financial transaction they make and use the money to fund initiatives aimed at helping the poor.  In “the Banker,” Nighy plays a banker who is not entirely enthusiastic about this idea:

The Robin Hood tax scored a major victory in late January when eleven EU countries, including France and Germany, voted to approve an FTT for the Eurozone.  Countries that are not participating in the FTT, most notably Great Britain, do not have to implement a Robin Hood tax, but transactions made on the London Stock Exchange by institutions based in those eleven countries will still be subjected to the FTT, thus further undermining the spurious claim that an FTT will simply drive financial institutions to move off-short or to non-participatory countries.  The fact that Europe is moving ahead with the Robin Hood tax also undercuts that claim as it applies to American banks.  If the UK passes an FTT, pressure will increase on Congress and the White House to do the same.

The FTT is a relatively simple concept.  Every time a financial institution makes a transaction involving stocks, bonds, derivatives or foreign currency exchange, a tiny tax is attached to it, ranging from .5% of the transaction value all the way down to .005%.  It does not apply to ordinary consumers (a person selling or buying a stock) and smaller investors can be exempted legislatively.  Many of the transactions being taxed by an FTT are speculative in nature: investors buying and selling derivatives or bonds in seconds in the hopes of making quick money without producing anything of value for the economy as a whole.

But put aside that last critique of the global financial system and the FTT still makes sense.  After all, such speculative investments are simply another form of product purchasing, the same way we go to the store and buy any number of things.  The average consumer is asked to pay about $9 in sales taxes on $100 worth of goods; a Robin Hood tax would charge financial institutions somewhere between half of one cent and 50 cents on $100 worth of “goods.”  Why is buying gas subject to taxation but buying bonds (and then reselling them thirty seconds later) a tax-free activity?

The main arguments against the tax are fairly easy to rebut intellectually, but more importantly they have been easily rebutted by extensive research, both on the economics of the tax and on its impact in countries where it has already been implemented.  No, the tax will not simply cause banks to pass on the added costs to the rest of us.  No, the tax will not encourage banks to move elsewhere.  No, the tax will not cause havoc to global markets.

What the tax will do is free up billions of dollars to be spent on…well…where to begin?  Avoid austerity?  Fund education?  Fund health care?  Relieve foreign debt?  Prevent children in developing countries from dying of preventable diseases?  The fact that governments do not always spend money in such altruistic ways misses the point: it is our job to push for Robin Hood legislation that earmarks the funds raised for specific purposes.  Congress, like any other political institution, will only pass legislation as good as the pressure mounted to support it.

Fans of Bill Nighy might know that he also starred in a little-known film called “The Girl in the Café,” in which he plays a British bureaucrat who takes a date to the G8 conference in Iceland only to watch in horror as she accosts powerful people with the imperative of devoting funds to combating poverty in the developing world.  When those powerful people finally decide they’ve had enough and have their security team kindly escort her to the airport, Nighy follows her there and confronts her with the revelation that she has a criminal past.

Nighy demands to know what crime she committed.

“I hurt somebody who hurt a child,” she responds.

“Was it your child?” he asks.

“It was a child,” she responds.  “Does it matter whose child?”

There needs to be the creation of a global system of finance that supports the well-being of children everywhere.  A Financial Transaction Tax is another step in that direction.  There is already legislation introduced in the House and Senate this year.  It’s time for Congress to act.

Apple’s Tax Evasion: Mr. Cook Goes to Washington

Apple CEO Tim Cook testified in front of a very self-righteous Senate committee today, where he was asked to account for the hundreds of billions of tax-free revenues Apple has made since 2009.  During this time, Apple has shifted portions of its operation to shell-company subsidiaries in Ireland, creating a situation in which, on a large portion of its revenues, the company could not only avoid paying taxes in the United States, but could avoid paying taxes at all, to anyone, anywhere.  The details are complicated, but the end result is clear: without breaking any laws, Apple saved itself billions of dollars that could have been spent avoiding some of the harsher elements of sequestration.  While food pantries, public elementary schools, and medical clinics are stripped of funding, Apple rolls in the dough.

This is a fitting contrast for a company that has somehow convinced us all that it is something that it is not.  Buoyed by the cult of personality surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Apple has never taken the public relations hit it deserves for its overseas labor practices.  This says a lot more the global financial system as a whole than it does about Apple.  As the company’s defenders are quick to point out, if Mr. Cook did not maximize shareholder value within the law, the company would replace him and find somebody who could.  This simple trait of global capitalism is exactly why the world needs financial regulations that protect society as a whole, and the poor in particular.

This brings us back to Mr. Cook’s visit to Capitol Hill.  While the criticism of Apple is understandable, of course, it is obviously hypocritical of Congress to sit in judgment of a company that has utilized the very tax loopholes those same lawmakers are so hesitant to shut down.  The case was made by a number of senators that Apple went beyond the norm of tax evasion, and that’s true.  But it doesn’t change the fact that the problem is the law, not one profit-seeking corporation’s decision to profit from it.

The solution is simple.  Close loopholes that allow companies to stash profits off-shore.  End tax breaks for companies that ship jobs or profits overseas, including in cases such as Apple’s.  This is about a much bigger problem than just Apple; while Tim Cook and Company may have shirked paying roughly $8 billion in taxes over the past few years, a report released by Senator Bernie Sanders indicates that American companies have used loopholes to avoid over $120 billion in taxes. Meanwhile, American companies continue to suck dollars out of a strapped treasury through dubious tax deductions, including a manufacturing tax credit that was stretched to include Starbucks at the behest of lobbyists, who argued that Starbucks manufactures coffee.

Imagine what $100 billion or more could do for a country that ranks second-to-last in child poverty among industrialized nations (defeating only Romania).  Thanks to the sequester, unemployment benefits could drop 9%, 100,000 formerly homeless men and women could lose their new housing, 70,000 kids could be dropped from head start, and several hundred thousand mentally ill individuals could lose care.[1]  Tim Cook may not have much to be proud of, but today, in that Senate hearing room, he was not the one with the most to answer for.  That would be the folks pointing the fingers.