As First Published in the September,
Austin Fitts - Contributing Editor
Crying in the Kitchen with Jane
I went out to Tennessee's Hickory
Valley today to show my cousin Jane how to get on the Internet.
She had never done it before and I told her that we might
be able to use it to figure out how to finance small farmers.
Jane and most of my family in Tennessee are all small farmers.
Like all small farmers they are facing extinction.
Jane and I wanted to look for a way to reengineer their
farming business so that there might be more profit and
less risk for families who were struggling so hard to stay
afloat and to keep their homes and their land.
While we were setting up we caught up on Tennessee family.
My stepmother Stella is in pain and feels blue. Jane's mother,
Mildred, is dying it looks like. Willa Louise, our cousin,
is real upset about it. Her cousin died last week. Lots
of folk are sick. The drought and the market have folks
worried. We went to Amazon (www.amazon.com) and e-bayŐs
(www.ebay.com) web sites. We talked about the gap between
the price of wheat and the price of Wheaties. A few big
corporations and government are getting everything in between.
We talked about how small farmers and small business people
could use networks and the Internet and electronic commerce
like we were seeing to vertically integrate and produce
a better product at a more competitive price on a sustainable
We went to Thomas, The Library of Congress web site (http://thomas.loc.gov).
We looked at upcoming legislation and hearings. Then we
went to the web sites for the congressman who represents
Hardeman County and the two senators who represent Tennessee.
They had carefully listed their important issues and legislation
on the web site but, we noticed there was nothing on agriculture.
Nothing at all. Meanwhile the drought is putting many
people in Hardeman County out of business. It has gotten
so bad that some people no longer have any way to meet their
every day expenses.
Jane and her husband Billy have about 1,000 acres in cotton
this year, and some corn and soybeans. I don't know exactly
how bad it will be for them, but I know that Stella (my
Step mom) and her sister Marion will not get enough from
their cotton to pay their taxes. Other neighbors will lose
land or their farms to the bank this year. After the farmers
lose their land and livelihood, the banks, the insurance
companies, the merchants and the county will all be hit
The congressional representatives have been busy telling
folks how much they care. But then Jane had found out that
a local meeting her congressional representatives had scheduled
with constituents was "by invitation only."
As Jane described the invitees it sounded to me like only
campaign donors were invited. Jane asked me what was going
on. I tried to tell her how things really work in Washington
with campaign donations and organized crime. I told her
a story from when I had been the Assistant Secretary of
Housing. A large group of black ministers came to HUD and
Jack Kemp, then Secretary of HUD, promised them a whole
bunch of neat things. The ministers left ecstatic and one
of Jack's staff said to the HUD senior staffers, "Can
you believe those guys really believe that we are going
to do that stuff?!"
Jane burst into tears. Then I burst into tears. So we sat
in the kitchen crying because it hurt so much. Jane said
to me "I know that nothing that is not decent can last."
She is right. It is why I am buying a house next to hers.
It is why I want Solari to be rooted here. It is why I dream
of a neighborhood stock corporation and community databank
here. It is why I have a red, white and blue sticker on
my sports utility van and on my laptop that says, "I love
cotton." It is why I feel so safe and giggle so much more
For all the times I tried to get people in Washington to
understand that every penny was real, that decent men and
women like Billy and Jane Powell cannot carry this kind
of tax and regulatory overhead for decades straight, I felt,
and still feel, the full pain of my failure. As I go to
Joe's Cafe, and Haven of Flowers and Boliver Printing and
I see how hard everyone works, and how frugal they are and
how they never give up, the meaning of Mena and Waco and
what is happening in our government is that much more painful
I think about the comment a court-appointed trustee (a highly
reputable Washington lawyer) made about costs related to
a three-year investigative witch hunt conducted by the HUD
Office of Inspector General against my former firm - Hamilton
Securities. Hamilton had been teaching regular people to
understand how money works and they had found it necessary
to destroy us. To date, we estimate the cost to the federal
government and you and me and Jane is $35 million and rising.
[See Edgewood Part I in the August issue and Edgewood, Part
II in the October issue]. Our crimes? Under an advisory
contract with HUD, we had been instrumental in saving the
taxpayers over $2 billion by introducing disclosure and
competition into the resolution of defaulted HUD loans through
loan sales. Canceling the sales caused HUD to forgo many
hundreds of millions in additional savings. One thing it
did do was to guarantee that below market negotiations remained
available to HUD-savvy real estate developers and landlords
with strong political ties to Washington (i.e. campaign
donors). When I expressed my concern about the costs to
the government and HUD's insurance company, the court-appointed
trustee asked, "What do you care, it is not your money?"
It is my money. It is all of our money. If no one watches
the money then the covenant that holds us together in trust
will break. Rule number one in Hickory Valley is that the
circle go unbroken. The average person in Hardeman County,
Tennessee will probably work his or her entire life to pay
up to $100,000 in federal taxes. How many people will work
their whole lives to pay for HUDŐs mess? More than 350 people
will work their entire lives just to pay for Hamilton to
be investigated. I have lost over $100 million that would
now be financing small businesses in Hardeman County and
places like it. When I see how hard everyone here works
to make and save a penny, I still want to cry. Spit, is
more like it. I know where Congress can get $15 million
to fund Hardeman County's drought disaster relief payments.
I say, just take it right out of the HUD pork filled budget
and the behind the scenes sweetheart, workout deals that
they fought so hard to protect.
When I left JaneŐs home, I drove back from Hickory Valley
to Boliver. Each stretch of road has a volunteer who helps
maintain it. The volunteer sign said that the stretch of
road was maintained by the management company of Corrections
Corporation of America (CCA.) The corn I passed was dead.
The cotton was dying. Because of the drought I could see
that there had been at least one flash fire burning up a
cornfield. We are worried about more fires. I headed home
to read the file that Peg, Stella's cousin, gave me on CCA's
two prison operations down the road in Whiteville.
Two CCA prisons hold 2,400 men behind concrete walls with
tiny window slits. If the General Accounting Office 1996
report is right, taxpayers are paying approximately $154,000
for each prisoner. The state and county got the prisons
approved through highly dubious methods. The rumors are
that some of the government officials involved had stock
options. The politicians said that the prisons would create
jobs and income for the county. It seems to me that learning
how to incarcerate people is not a skill set that generates
sustainable exports or communities the same way that agribusiness
If you look at the costs and the infrastructure under construction
and the impact on real estate values, you wonder what is
coming next. There may have been an illegal environmental
"clean up" behind the land deal. Peg says that CCA bought
250 acres and it looks from the roads the state is putting
in that they are planning on many more prisons. CCA has
an office in town on Market Street. I have thought more
than once about seeing if I could get a part time job at
the prisons. Infiltration is one way to learn about how
to undo this.
But the only thing I really know to do is to bring back
to the family and friends who are rooted to the land and
to decency the story of how I failed in Washington in the
hopes that we can solve the jigsaw puzzle together this
time. Tomorrow afternoon, a group of farmerŐs wives are
going to meet at the Farm Credit Bureau to talk about what
we can do. Jane says I can come.
We decided that, just like Joyce Meyer says, we are going
to "faith it." I do not know what I can
do, but one thing I am going to do every day is to pray
for emergency drought relief payments by Thanksgiving. And
I am going to pray for an agribusiness plan so that Jane
and I never have to go to the federal government for one
single penny ever again.
If you want to
know MORE about this subject,
may we recommend the following:
- The Salon at Fraser Court
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