Tuesday, December 30, 2008

19th Century Land Policy and the Fed

The Land Act of 1796 allowed purchasers of public land a minimum of 640 acres, one square mile at $2 per acre with one half of the purchase price being able to be deferred for a year. The large size of the plots prohibited most Americans from purchasing public land. These minimums were reduced over the ensuing 66 years, resulting in an increase in agricultural output.

Under federal land policy, the minimum was reduced to 320 acres payable over four years in 1800. In 1820 80 acres could be purchased at $1.25 per acre, and in 1832 parcels of 40 acres could be sold. Especially after 1830 squatters were granted rights and in 1841 the "Log Cabin Bill" allowed squatters preemption rights of up to 160 acres. The Graduation Act put up land unsold for 30 years for sale at 12.5 cents an acre. During the Civil War, in 1862, the Homestead Act granted 160 acres and 320 per married couple as long as they lived on the land or cultivated it for five years. Thus, the population of the western states grew from about one million in 1810to about 14.8 million in 1869, or from 15% of the US population to 47.1%.*

From 1870 to 1890, corn output increased from 1.125 billion bushels to 1.650 billion bushels, an increase of 46.7%. Land used for corn increased from 38.4 million acres to 74.8 million acres, an increase of 94.8%. Because the newly granted land was less fertile than the land that settlers purchased first (since settlers chose the best land first) productivity fell from 29.3 bushels per acre to 22.1 bushels per acre. A slightly different pattern applied to wheat, whose output increased 76.8% between 1870 and 1890 and whose land increased by 75.5%. Because of expanding output, real farm income per capita rose by only .8% from 1869 to 1879 and .7% from 1879 to 1889.**

According to Walton and Rockoff***, "it is alleged that the rapid distribution of the public domain laid the groundwork for modern agricultural problems by inducing too much capital and labor into agriculture, thereby impeding the process of industrialization."

"...Partially as a result of this rapid addition of resources, the new West produced crops at such a rate that consumers of foodstuffs and raw materials enjoyed 30 years of falling prices. Furthermore, according to Robert Fogel and Jack Rutner, average rates of return on investments in land improvements, livestock, farm buildings and machinery equaled or exceeded returns on other contemporary investments, and real incomes in the new agricultural areas outside the South grew at rates comparable with those in manufacturing."

Nevertheless, despite the Fogel and Rutner findings, it would seem that Populism was related to falling agricultural prices. Moreover, the culture of farming was likely one that included an element of speculation. As Richard Hofstadter points out in Age of Reform****

"Frequent and sensational rises in land values bred a boom psychology in the American farmer and caused him to rely for his margin of profit more on the process of appreciation than on the sale of crops. It took a strong man to resist the temptation to ride skyward on lands that might easily triple or quadruple their value in one decade and then double again in the next...The penchant for speculation and the lure of new and different lands bred in the American farmer a tremendous passion for moving--and not merely, as one common view would have it, on the part of those who had failed, but also on the part of those who had succeeded...Mobility among farmers had serious effects upon an agricultural tradition never noted for careful cultivation: in a nation whose soil is notoriously heterogeneous, farmers too often had little chance to get to know the quality of their land; they failed to plan and manure and replenish; they neglected diversification for the one-crop system and ready cash...In a very real and profound sense, then, the United States failed to develop (except in some localities, chiefly in the east) a distinctively rural culture...What differentiated the agricultural life of these regions...was that it was so speculative, so mobile, so mechanized, so 'progressive', so thoroughly imbued with the commercial spirit."

Moreover, increasing agricultural productivity put additional pressure on commodity prices. Walton and Rockoff point out that+

"Thanks to the research of Olmstead and Rhode we have a greater appreciation of changes in plant varieties, irrigation systems, fertilizers and other biological inventions that greatly impacted the use of land for planting. These changes worked along two lines: (1) the discovery of new wheat varieties (and hybrids) that allowed the North American wheat belt to push hundreds of miles northward and westward and (2) researchers and farmers who found new methods of combating insects and diseases, some of which came from experimentation with new varieties (seeds) from Europe and elsewhere..labor productivity grew dramatically in wheat and corn over these decades. According to Robert Gallman, labor productivity in these two crops grew at a rate of 2.6 percent annually between 1850 and 1900."

As well, point out Walton and Rockoff, mechanization due to McCormick's reaper as well as thresher, mowers, horse rakes, seed planters, grain cleaners, portable grist mills, corn-shellers and similar devices enhanced labor productivity on farm.

The result was of course increasing competition and economic stress on farmers, who had to adapt, "to run faster just to hold ground". Such rapid change creates anxiety, which in turn leads to the demand for political fixes. For farmers, this was Populism. Of course the alternative, retaining primitive agricultural methods, would have prohibited industrialization. "In 1870 Americans spent one third of their current per capita income on farm products. By 1890, they were spending a much smaller fraction, just over one-fifth...Thus, although the real incomes of the American population rose during the period, and although Americans did not spend less on food absolutely, the proportion of those incomes earned by farmers declined." On the other hand "the value of agricultural exports rose from $297 million in 1870 to more than $840 million in 1900.++

Added to this mix was the "rapid increase in the supply of agricultural products. All over the world, new areas were entering the competitive fray. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina as well as in the United states, fertile new lands were becoming agriculturally productive."+++

The Fed was not established purely because of Populism, but Populism was certainly a contributing factor. Fed apologists like William Greider in his Secrets of the Temple emphasize agitation among farmers because of falling commodity prices. Greider neglects to mention that falling commodity prices were great for workers. But they were bad for farmers, including moderate-to-poor income ones, who were landholders or speculators. In his book, Greider does not mention the relationship of federal land policy to falling agricultural prices. He merely paints falling agricultural prices as a monetary issue--in other words he takes the Populists' economic reasoning at face value. Nor does he raise the question as to whether farmers-as-speculators or farmers-as-workers dominated the Populist movement.

As Walton and Rockoff point out:

"Farmers were not inclined to see their difficulties as the result of impersonal market forces. Instead, they traced their problems to monopolies and conspiracies: bankers (some thought that Jewish bankers were particularly to blame) who raised interest rates, manipulated the currency, and then foreclosed on farm mortgages; grain elevator operators who charged rates farmers could not afford; industrialists who charged high prices for farm machinery and consumer goods; railroads that charged monopoly rates on freight; and so on."++++

Greider's book provides an excellent example of the inability of the public to debate questions concerning money dispassionately. A good example is his discussion of the Populist movement.

*Gary M. Walton and Hugh Rockoff, History of the American Economy Tenth Edition. South-Western-Cengage Learning, 2005, pp. 145-148
**Ibid, p. 288
****Richard Hofstadter, Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR. New York: Vintage Books, 1955
+Op. cit., pp. 290-1
++Op. cit., p. 294
+++Op. cit., p. 293
++++Op. cit., p. 294


lukemcgook said...

What, are you spending the holiday break at the library?

Mitchell Langbert said...

You betcha! Actually, I'm in my studio with a double martini. Much better than the library!