A few days ago, I watched a genuinely atrocious 1958 movie adaptation of William Faulkner's The Hamlet. It's called "The Long Hot Summer", and the filmmakers took a great Faulkner story about White Trash Meanness and ran it through the Tennessee Williams / Big Daddy / Delta Plantation mold to achieve.....well, not much.
Flem Snopes, the anti-hero of the book, is described by Faulkner as "a froglike little man with eyes the color of stagnant pond water". Hollywood, of course, put Paul Newman in the role.
Then they changed one of the great names in Southern literature (Flem Snopes) to the more generic and less repulsive "Ben Quick". Paul Newman couldn't play someone named Flem. For the sake of this post, and to eliminate confusion, I'm going to call his character "Flem".
Flem Snopes had a bad reputation. Whenever he got shafted in a job or a business deal, his employers' barns tended to burn down. Flem appears at a new town and approaches one of the landowners for a sharecropping arrangement. Jody Varner, the landowners son, tells Flem about a piece of land with a small house that Flem can farm. In exchange, the Varner family gets half the crop. This was called farming on "the halves". And Flem will have to "furnish" - i.e., purchase seed, fertilizer, groceries, and equipment - from the plantation's store.
Most of the big plantations had one of these stores. The prices were inflated on most items, but through the formal sharecropping agreement, tenants were required to purchase certain items only from "The Company Store". If you didn't have an arrangement like that of Flem Snopes, who farmed on the halves, you worked for pay in the form of company store vouchers = aka "scrip". It was a modified form of slavery. If your compensation could only be used in one place, you could never leave. And you sure couldn't make the plantation stores compete against each other, since your scrip was only good at one location.
If you're of a certain age, you probably remember Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "I Owe My Soul To The Company Store".
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
One of my grandfathers worked as the bookkeeper on a large Mississippi plantation and my mother can remember him coming home complaining about how the sharecroppers got shafted. His job probably involved keeping track of the shafting.
Is there anyone in his right mind who would now be willing to sign up for one of these sharecropping arrangements where you are obliged to spend your money at the company store?
Well, halfway through "The Long Hot Summer", it occurred to me that we're all headed further and further down that road. Some of our political leaders want to require us to spend our money with their contributors. They've taken the idea of the company store, wrapped it in the flag, sprinkled it with patriotism, and put a banner out front that says "Protect American Jobs".
Here's a good example.
Sugar from overseas is much more reasonably priced than sugar grown in Florida. Unfortunately, Florida is a large swing state. So not only can you not buy sugar from overseas without paying a big fat tariff to bring the cost up to Florida prices, but you have to pay a subsidy to Florida's sugar producers every time you send a check to the IRS.
A lot of this money goes to Florida's Fanjul family, a group that makes Faulkner's plantation owners look like Cesar Chavez. According to one estimate, if the year 2000's total subsidy paid to sugar farmers was $560,000,000.00, the Fanjul's took home $65,000,000.00 of it. They hang out with royalty, ski in Switzerland, and they helped inspire the failed TV series "Cane".
Not a bad day's work. Or not work, depending on how you look at driving to the bank to cash a check.
By the way, what is your cost per job saved by sugar tariffs and subsidies? Per year? $826,000.00 (Here's one way to do the math.)
So as we get closer to the November elections, you're going to hear more and more politicians slamming Free Trade, NAFTA, and the idea of open markets.
Try to remember.... the Fanjul's give these politicians obscene amounts of money. So do the ethanol producers. So does every other lobbying group.
And you'll have a choice: get off the plantation, or owe your soul to the company store.