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Less farming, less poverty?

Marketplace Staff Sep 24, 2007

Less farming, less poverty?

Marketplace Staff Sep 24, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: The acting secretary of agriculture made his first public remarks today since he got the job. Chuck Connor was promoted when Mike Johanns resigned last week, perhaps to run for the Senate from Nebraska.

Today, Mr. Connor called on Congress to pass the huge farm bill that’s been tied up in negotiations for months. Crop subsidies are the big issue — how much government support farmers and growers ought to get.

Commentator and business historian John Steele Gordon says getting more people off the land would be the best sign of progress.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Just last year, a bit more than a third of the world’s workers were in farming, while fully 42 percent were in services, and the rest in industry. If history is any guide, that’s good news.

Once upon a time, everyone lived at roughly the same economic level, as hunter-gatherers. People moved to follow game and didn’t own much. Life was hard.

The invention of agriculture greatly increased the food supply — so people settled down and did things other than forage.

But until the Industrial Revolution, few could be kings, priests, artisans, and merchants. Eighty-five percent of the human race tilled the fields and lived in wretched poverty, while the aristocracy had all the fun, and all the power.

The Industrial Revolution enabled a massive increase in wealth over two centuries. Mechanization allowed more and more people to leave the fields for better-paying jobs in industry and, increasingly, services. A dominant middle class emerged.

Today, in the United States and Europe, less than 2 percent of all workers are in agriculture — more than enough to provide abundant exports. Food is cheap relative to income.

In the developing world, things are brighter. The number of “working poor” in East Asia has been cut in half just in the last 10 years. Indeed, every region of the world except sub-Saharan Africa is growing economically, often quickly.

This could transform the human situation in a historical flash.

South Korea was among the poorest nations in 1960. Today, less than 50 years later, South Korea is a rich and overwhelmingly middle-class, first-world country. Its people buy flat-screen TVs and send their kids to college.

If what happened in South Korea continues to spread to other countries, in 50 years the grinding poverty that was for so long the lot of most people might become just a fading memory.

Now wouldn’t that be something?

RYSSDAL: Business historian John Steele Gordon is the author the book An Empire of Wealth.

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