RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

No Strings

Wearing tux and tails, white gloves, top hat, the performer enters stage right. With his actions he makes us understand that what he is going to do is very hard -- very tricky. We must be silent. He's going to take this long pole -- see it -- very long and spindly -- and on the tip he will balance this ordinary dinner plate -- see it -- white china, very fragile. We must hold our breath.

And we do, gasping when the plate spins crazy and falls, but when he catches it mid-air with his gloved hand, we burst into applause, then hush.

We are barely aware of a low hiss from a snare drum, which becomes louder as the performer almost succeeds, then finally succeeds, and when the plate is spinning above his head the bass drum signals with a boom that we finally are free to applaud. The noise bursts out of us, and the juggler carries his spectacular spinning plate from stage right to stage left, bowing and spinning, pausing occasionally to re-power the spin, and then, in an instant we can hardly believe he trips on his own feet.

Down he falls, down comes the pole but the plate -- miraculously -- stays in mid-air.

Somebody in the audience laughs. This isn't a juggler we're watching, but a clown. And we're in the palm of his hand. We're laughing til we cry -- we've been completely taken in. We can't even catch our breath.

Welcome to the arena of big business in the 21st century. A place where the consumer, who once held the business up, hardly matters. Big corporations make so much money on side deals that their products are almost inconsequential. And we can't even see the strings attached.

GE and GMAC make enough on financing refrigerators and cars that they can play games like selling for no-money-down, then gouge the buyer with interest. Or, they can offer free financing for a few months, then gouge the buyer. Or offer such low trade-ins that we end up owning two cars, gouging the buyer.

In the food business, food processors like ConAgra, Cargill, Tyson are subsidized by taxpayers. These guys -- feeding grain to animals that will be slaughtered and sold to consumers -- make the most money when grain is cheap. To keep it cheap, they offer grain farmers less than the amount it takes to grow the grain.

But nobody would raise grain for less than it costs to plant it. So the grain growers lobby for agricultural subsidies. In fact, the subsidies bring in more money than the grain sales. One Iowan named Sir Childs breaks the National Corn Growers yield record every year. "These days," says Progressive Farmer Magazine (February 2002), "the corn barrier is set up and knocked down by Childs alone." The record was 300 bushels just a few years ago, but Childs plans to reach 500 bushels by 2006.

Dan Miller, writing for Progressive Farmer, observes that if all farmers jump on that bandwagon, we'll raise so much grain that it will be worth about 7 cents a bushel "and some pretty darned big government checks." The government checks are holding up the system, in other words. Incidentally, the subsidies keep land prices high. Young farmers without capital can't get in the game.

For more about the strings attached to the dinner plate, take a look at the web site of the Environmental Working Group. Click on a county where you know the names of the big players, and see who's getting the USDA dollars. This excellent website is confusing if you don't know the names, because subsidy checks are made out to individuals, and there's no way to follow the strings to the corporate beneficiaries, but it is a very useful guide for those who know who's who in our areas.

In my county, according to the EWG website, the corporate guys got almost $25 million between 1996 and 2000. The top beneficiary is named for two brothers. Sounds like a family concern, but around here we call it "The Merck Farm" because its main business is animal research for Merck pharmaceuticals. They got $624,900 plus in farm subsidies.

The rest of our county's list is made up by the guys who raise hundreds of acres of corn, oats and soybeans using big machinery and chemically-intensive methods. So it turns out that the subsidies are good for John Deere and Monsanto.

Next on the subsidized list come the corporate animal contractors who signed agreements with the meat-selling corporations to raise their animals in Confined Animals Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These maximum-pollution methods are creating the taxpayer-financed Superfund sites of 2020s.

According to the Rural Coalition, the corporate operators get 86% of farm subsidies, even though they're only 24% of the operations. 76% of farmers -- smaller operations -- share the remaining 14%. If you want to get up close and personal on this, ask your favorite farmer how much they get. Those selling directly to the public at farmers' markets probably get nothing, because honey, fruits, vegetables, and pasture-raised livestock aren't subsidized. So when you buy from your local producers, you're supporting them -- no strings attached.

Enron -- the poster child for strings-attached business -- was supposed to be an energy trader. They were supposed to take electricity from places where it was plentiful and move it to places where there was urgent need. Buying energy was supposed to save utility companies the money of building new plants. This would also save consumers the nuisance of conserving.

When Enron couldn't keep the plates spinning, it created shill businesses that bought Enron's money-losing assets. Enron executives created, according to the Wall Street Journal of Jan. 21, "about 3,500 subsidiaries and affiliates." The transactions took debt off the Enron balance sheet.

Because tax laws say that a side business can be classified as independent if it has 3% or more investment from outside the corporation, the "subsidiaries and affiliates" actually appeared as independent entities. But many were headed by Enron execs. Andrew Fastow, once Enron CFO, made $30 million from two that he ran.

The Enron lessons: Law-bending is OK, as long as you don't get caught. If things begin to spin out of control, sell, then call a lawyer. Shred. Ask your friends in government to get a law passed to disappear the law.

With friends in high places, in the Enron case, don't be surprised if some fine points of the existing law are settled by the Supreme Court.

This is a poor way to run a society, and we don't have to participate. We can disentangle ourselves from the strings by buying most of what we need from local producers. It may take some research to find food from local farmers, but your farmer's market is the place to start. Then visit other local marketplaces to find art from local artists, music from local musicians.

We can see where our money goes, no strings attached. We can support the kids who stay in the community and we can minimize the use of things we don't produce locally -- cars, gasoline, electricity, clothing.

Let the show go on. We're leaving the building.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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