fresh voices from the front lines of change







I always liked those scenes in old Westerns where the ranchers get together to face a common threat to their livelihood, usually some greedy family dynasty that’s scheming with a big bank, railroad, or mining operation. The scene always starts the same way:

“Boys, we’ve got ourselves a problem!”

Organizations like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are supposed to help their members by making sure people can and do buy their products.  That’s why the NCBA created its famous ad campaign: “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

So why aren’t they fighting the pro-rich-people austerity policies that are killing the market for beef?

Not-so-prime cuts.

Austerity economics – an ongoing wave of government spending cuts and a refusal to invest in jobs and growth – is leaving most people with less money in their pockets. That means less to spend on steaks, hamburgers, and other beef products.

The “chained CPI” Social Security cut, proposed by the President and backed by Republicans, is specifically designed to provide ever-lower benefits as cash-strapped seniors and disabled people are forced to give up higher-cost foodstuffs like beef and use cheaper substitutes like spam or cereal.

You’d expect an organization that represents cattle producers to fight these cuts, demand tax revenues for jobs, and defend programs like Social Security. That should be the position of the National Cattlemen’s Association.

The group seems to have explicitly rejected more politically correct gender-neutral names, like the National Cattle Person’s Association – even though, to its credit, its leadership is 50 percent female. So it is strictly in a vernacular sense that we say this, but you’d expect them to respond to austerity budgets by calling their constituents together and saying:

“Boys, we’ve got a problem!”

Nope. They’re fighting for billionaire rich kids instead.

The “Bamboozle Farmers to Coddle Rich Kids Act of 2013”

Farmers and ranchers are usually pretty shrewd people, whatever their politics, so it’s hard to believe that the constituents of Texas Congressman Kevin Brady and South Dakota Senator John Thune are going to be taken in by their “Bamboozle Farmers to Coddle Rich Kids Act.”

The bill’s official name is the “Death Tax Repeal Act of 2013,” and therein lies the first bamboozlement:  There is no such thing as a “death tax.”  A tax on the act of dying would, by definition, be imposed on the dead person. This is a tax which must be paid by the person who receives an inheritance, not the deceased person who gave it.  You and I have to pay taxes on the wages we earn, after all; our employers don’t.

Once again Republicans have shown that they want to tax the dollars a working person earns, but the millions or billions a rich kid inherits.  Even as they’re saying we “can’t afford” to provide medical care or financial security to older people or poor people, they’re trying to make sure that children who inherit billions – yes, billions – pay nothing in taxes.

Yes, that’s right: Nothing.  Bear in mind, Republicans have already partially eliminated the inheritance tax.  Inheritances below $5 million ($10 million for a couple) are already exempt from taxation.  Now they want to eliminate it altogether.

BS. It’s what’s for dinner.

Needless to say, it’s not politically popular to stand up and declare “I want to give billionaire kids a huge tax break for money they didn’t earn, while at the same time stiffing you on your Social Security.” That’s where the attempted bamboozlement of farmers and ranchers comes in.

As reported by Farm Futures magazine, Thune and Brady were joined by an Illinois rancher and the former head of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association when they announced their bill this week. The Association has consistently opposed taxing inheritances at reasonable levels.

Speakers at the Thune/Brady press conference misleadingly blamed the estate tax for the decline of family farms and ranches, citing cited the Beef Association’s claim that the estate tax is “one of the leading causes of the breakup of multi-generation family farms and ranches.”

Farmers and ranchers understand math – you can’t take your goods to market if you don’t – and the math shows just how phony that claim is.  It’s not complicated: USDA data shows the average value of an acre of farmland is $2,500, and that the average size of an American farm is 449 acres.  That means the average American farm is worth $1,122,500, well below the minimum estate tax level of $5 million.

What’s more, American agriculture is increasingly dominated by corporate farms, whose massive size skews these figures upward. Take them out of the numbers and the estate tax has even less impact on American farmers and ranchers.

Tax-and-spend cattlemen.

There’s no room here to discuss the massive damage factory farms inflict on the environment and public health.  What is clear is that the Beef Association’s anti-tax stance is a huge boon for these mega-monsters – one which stiffs the majority of family farmers and ranchers in the United States.

The ironic thing about all of this is that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is always anti-tax. In fact, it’s a creature of taxation whose sister organization is funded by an act of Congress.  Most Americans have never heard of the “beef checkoff,” an assessment of $1 per head on all beef produced or imported into this country. This tax funds the National Beef Board and its state affiliates.

The Beef Association is a sister organization which conducts the activities the Boards are forbidden to do, including lobbying. (The site explains the relationship from their perspective.)

The Association’s organizational power flows indirectly from the enormous funds which flow through the Boards – an indirect tax on the American beef consumer. You’d expect them to use that money on behalf of those consumers, and for the great majority of beef producers. But they’re helping billionaires and mega-farms instead.

They, along with the American Farm Bureau Association, are on the wrong side of this fight.

“Pipe down, boys, and let the strangers have a say!”

As long as the Cattlemen’s Association remains silent about the real threats facing their members – government cuts that will only be made worse by their proposed new tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy – they’ll be failing in their mission to represent the men and women who raise cattle.

If they’re willing to discuss this issue with an open mind, on the other hand, some of us who would be happy to meet with them to explain how these pro-wealthy austerity policies are hurting their members. We’d be happy to form an alliance against these economically harmful moves.

We don’t represent any political party – and besides, those old Westerns always included some unlikely alliance against the bad guys. Whatever our differences, we could make this work. And I, for one, have always wanted to say these words:

“Boys, we’ve got a problem!”


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