Sunday, March 31, 2013

Waste Lands

The darker side of the trip to LunaCon:

'Twas late at night on my second day of travel, after we'd finally gotten out of Texas and were rolling north through Arkansas, and only a few of us in the last car -- and the lounge car -- were awake.

The first thing we noticed was a slight thump under the wheels.  Then the train put its brakes on and stopped.  Then we noticed train attendants getting off and hurrying toward the back of the train with flashlights.  One man who got up to look out the rear window saw "lights, and chunks of meat between the tracks".  Then more train attendants came up into the main passenger section and taped paper over that rear window, with stern warnings not to remove it.  The train stayed parked where it was for three hours, and the only answer we could get out of train attendants was: "There was a slight collision".  Only later, at the stop in Little Rock where the train changed crews and the outgoing crew was willing to talk, did we find out what had really happened.

A man had deliberately run onto the tracks as the train was coming, committing suicide by train.  Of course the engineer had to stop the train and call the nearest sheriff as soon as he saw what had happened, and the sheriff showed up with a sizable posse and the coroner to pick up the "chunks of meat", and the forensics team (I got an image of CSI techs swapping blood off the engine's drive-wheels), and the train was understandably delayed.  One of the attendants added: "Dammit, this is the third time in the last month."

Third suicide-by-train in a month?  Ye gods, what's in the water in Arkansas, anyway?!

I pondered that question while we rolled on through the night, and the only answer I could think of was -- economics.  Arkansas never was one of the richest states in the US, depending mostly on farming and its support industries;  certainly the current Depression must have hit it hard, destroying thousands of jobs and making it hard for businesses to survive.  The state welfare system, never very well-funded, would have broken down early, and stopped taking on any new clients.  Even the soup-kitchens wouldn't be enough to feed all the jobless. It's understandable that jobless people, especially if they couldn't even raise the money to get out of state and job-hunt elsewhere, might get desperate enough to choose a fast death over slow starvation.  ...But then, why should anyone starve in a farming state?  Farmers would be all too willing to swap food for work.

Then the sun came up, and I saw at least part of the answer.  As far as the eye could see from the train were empty fields, fallow land: not planted, not grazed, not even managed as timber-land -- or even wilderness park.  The trees I could see were all second-growth, none more than 20 years old, and mostly leafy softwoods: worthless for anything but making charcoal, or cheap paper at best.  Everything else was weeds and brush.  Yet the soil was good;  it was all dark brown crumbly loam, and well-watered, with small streams everywhere.  As we drew closer to towns I saw some fields that were worked -- planted with pasture-grass and grazed by fat cattle -- but also abandoned urban lots, all too often strewn with trash.  I asked my fellow passengers, and the only answer I got was that the soil wasn't really as fertile as all that;  it had been overworked and couldn't grow much of anything.  I privately questioned that;  as an Arizonian, I'd seen plenty of land -- hardpan clay, with never enough water -- that had been made fertile by determined farmers, or at least grazed by sturdy ranchers.  Hell, give me topsoil like that (even a city lot-full), and I could make it yield.  I'm planning to reconstitute the soil in my back yard and grow fruit trees in it.  Why was that land really lying fallow, left to trash and weeds, that could have been growing crops or at least livestock, and providing jobs or at least food for all those desperately unemployed people?

I got another answer when I reached the convention and asked various fans.  "It's the soil bank," one local fan said.  "The government pays the farmers not to grow food."  Why, I wondered;  just to keep food prices high?  "To save for planting in case of emergency," he said.  Well, gee, what would you call our current economic mess?  Food prices are too high already, which doesn't do us or even the farmers any good, and too many of our own people are jobless and desperate.  "Those unemployed are city people," another fan argued;  "They won't take farm-work jobs."  What, they'd rather throw themselves in front of trains?!  From what I've seen, and I've lived all over the US, there is no such thing as a job that Americans won't take;  there are only wages that Americans won't take, and there are rather few of those these days.  So, for me, the mystery still remains.

I have a dark suspicion that maybe those lands are kept fallow for another reason;  the federal government and the banksters are planning to use them to pay off the US' monstrous debts.  It wouldn't bother them at all to sell big chunks of our land to China, regardless of what that would mean for the rest of the country, or the people in it.

Can anybody come up with a more likely reason?

--Leslie <;)))><   )O( 



Paradoctor said...

The soil bank could I suppose be a back-up if there is war or plague; in practice it's price support for large farms.

As for suicide by train; suicide is a matter of impulse. Sure someone could jump off a bridge, but that takes planning and effort and time; time enough to think again. Whereas jumping in front of a train is a split-second irrevocable bad decision.

It's for this reason that firearms dominate suicide statistics.

Leslie Fish said...

Hmmm, if suicide is a matter of impulse, how do you explain the career of Dr. Kevorkian?

Actually, firearms don't really dominate suicide statistics -- unless you include suicide-by-cop. An awful lot of desperate people throw themselves into traffic, without leaving a note, because they hope their families can then collect the insurance. It's only the odd similarities in these "accidents" that have revealed the truth to the police.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I don't think your theory about paying back the Chinese with land works. It fails the "you and what army" test. It is much easier for China to take possession of real estate in Africa, which is a lot less likely to organize against them. Paradoctor's theory of price support (or subsidies, for those who own the land) for agribusinesses with lobbying dollars makes more sense.

Considering the damage that high food prices cause (think "Arab Spring"), this is depraved indifference level waste. But politicians seem to be exempt.

Joel C. Salomon said...

My uncle's a chaplain for the MTA here in New York. About three times a week he gets the call to drop what he's doing and talk to some horrified train operator who's just run over an attempted suicide. (One attempt in three succeeds.)

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Ori. 'Tis true that while the US population includes more than 60 million gun-owners, the Chinese will have the sense to heed the warning of that Japanese general in WWII who claimed he'd never invade the US because "there would be a gun behind every blade of grass". However, China has a cultural history of playing long-term waiting games, and its various agents have been trying to encourage gun control in the US for a long time, so the possibility of land-grabbing in the US isn't entirely out of the question. I can think of two reasons why China might hesitate to grab land in Africa: 1) Africa has been the source of too many viral plagues in recent decades, which China has reason to worry about, and 2) 'tis the Arabs who are currently trying to expand in Africa, and China doesn't want to lock horns with them just yet.

Yes, agribusiness price supports are the likelier scenario, but it's hard to imagine Captains Of Industry smart enough to pull this off and simultaneously so stupid as not to see what the other results would be, especially now with public distrust and resentment of both govt. and big-biz at such levels.

...Then again, in a culture where "The Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God" it would be easy to lose all track of what the peasants are thinking, let alone any fear of a peasant uprising. Was it Carnegie or Morgan who sneered that he didn't fear the resentment of the working class because he could "hire half the working class to kill the other half"? So I dunno which is the likelier scenario.

Hi, Joel. Ye gods, *three times a week*? And those are only a third of the ones who try?! Well, that certainly outdoes firearms for dominating suicide statistics! ...In New York, anyway. I suppose 'twould be different in areas where trains aren't as accessible. Hmmm, car traffic is always accessible, even where trains and guns aren't.

The real question if the number of suicides, and the reason for them.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Ori Pomerantz said...

I am pretty sure that the Chinese debt is not a long term thing. One way or another, I expect my children's generation to renounce it. So long term games using it are unlikely to work.

Paradoctor said...

To be precise; suicide is _usually_ a matter of impulse. Minor inconveniences (barriers on bridges, gun waiting periods) are proven to reduce suicide rates. But, yes, there are exceptions; therefore Dr. Kevorkian.

I take back saying that firearm deaths dominate suicides; but I hear that suicides do dominate firearm deaths; 2/3 of the cases. Alas, my source for this statistic is! So does anyone here know the exact statistics?

Re the soil bank; it was started as price support for small farmers; the program has evolved, predictably, towards supporting big farms. As for the Chinese, I figure that they'll buy Taiwan from us before they buy Tennessee

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nat. Okay, the one source I'd even halfway trust on gun deaths is the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics Reports, which take about a year to compile. According to those, in 2011, the number of American (remember, there are more than 311 million of us) homicides:

by "assault rifles": 18
" hunting rifles: 453
" blunt objects (primarily baseball bats): 674
" hands, fists and feet: 869
" knives: 1,817
" handguns: 6,009
" drunk drivers: 10,839
" sober auto accidents: 32,885

The Center for Disease Control reports that for 2010 (latest year I could find) there were 38,364 suicides and 19,392 were by firearm, which is roughly half of them. That's also about 3 times the number of firearms homicides. In any case, neither of them match vehicle homicides -- which didn't include trains.

What this shows is that people with guns are 3 times as likely to kill themselves as other people! It also suggests that suicides can be imaginative and determined, and we need car control more than gun control.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(