239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

October 2, 1912
En Route to California
Storify Feature

Economics Begins with the Farmer

IN 1912 AMERICA, the long process of twentieth-century urbanization was just beginning. In spite of the rapid growth of urban industries — the garment factories of the East Coast, the automobile manufacturing plants in Detroit, the steelworks of Pennsylvania and Indiana — most Americans still lived and worked on farms. Such rural vitality was on dazzling display during the National Irrigation Congress in Salt Lake City.


After spending the day on September 30, 1912, attending the opening convention at the Mormon Tabernacle in Temple Square, visiting the State Fair, and watching the bright lights of the electrical parade that evening, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá departed Salt Lake City on October 1 at 2:50 p.m. for the final leg of his long train journey to San Francisco. The train steamed forty miles north to stop in Ogden, Utah, then headed due west over the briny waters of Great Salt Lake on the Lucin Cutoff Railroad Trestle, a fifty-one mile long shortcut built across the middle of the lake in 1904.

Throughout his trip in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spoken in general terms about the economic issues that plagued the nation’s growing industrial society: widespread poverty, industrial slavery, the need to avoid coerced equality, and the missing moral principles — such as generosity and service — that were required to balance competing interests. But in Montreal on September 3, to a meeting of Socialists, he had laid out economic prescriptions in more detail. As the train sped toward San Francisco on October 2 and 3, he wrote to clarify his position to Agnes Parsons. “My explanation,” he told her, “has been mis-reported in the papers.”

Unlike the presidential candidates, whose arguments began with the macro-economic debates of national industrial growth and international trade, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá placed farming at the center of the discussion. “The question of economics must commence with the farmer,” he wrote, “and therefrom reach and end with the other classes . . . for the farmer is the first active agent in the body politic.” A self-sustaining rural economy, he seemed to say, must underlie a sound national one.

In 1912 the primary source of government revenue was the protective tariff: a tax levied on foreign goods at the national level in order to protect American industries. What to do with the tariff was the most important issue in the presidential election. But at the local level ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identified seven sources of income for the local treasury, perhaps the largest of which was a set percentage of the harvest and one-third of the value of all mining activities, presumably including oil. He also proposed a tax on personal net income after necessary living expenses were deducted.

Out of this balanced income, the local treasury would be responsible for funding education, the infirm, and the department of public health. It would also use its funds to supplement the incomes of the poor. Anyone whose income could not meet “his absolute needs essentially necessary for his liv[e]lihood . . . provided he has not failed in effort and exertion,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “must be helped from the General Storehouse that he may not remain in need and may live in ease.” Any excess revenues remaining locally after these expenditures were made, would be forwarded to the national treasury.

“When such a system is established,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told Mrs. Parsons, “each individual member of the body politic will live in the utmost comfort and happiness.” And, as he had explained to the Socialists in Montreal, such a mechanism on the local level would retain differing levels of wealth in each community. Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá opposed legislated equality, the Montreal Daily Star reported on September 4, “all had the right to share in the general well-being.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s bottom-up approach to a self-sustaining rural economy, and his emphasis on its priority in each nation’s economic health, counters much of twentieth-century development thought. It was only in 2007 that the urban population of the planet surpassed the rural. The urban bias of development thinking around the world over the past half-century has impoverished rural communities, drained resources from agriculture, reduced the status of farmers and their political power, and driven the destruction of the global environment.


  • valar12

    How can we base an economy on such a small percentage of an overall industry? Farmers, in America, account for less that 3% of all occupations. Technologically, we’ve moved past the need for farmers in the traditional sense. Modern day farmers are a far cry from the past. The people that leave agrarian employment move on and create value elsewhere. It’s been called creative destruction. The best value is in our people, our education.

    • Loie Mead

      Valar12, I appreciate your assessment and I am puzzled at your view: “Technologically, we’ve moved past the need for farmers in the traditional sense.” Would you agree that as a nation, we are often easily so fascinated by new innovations that we literally dismiss what is basic and essential to humanity? It is admirable that people have developed flexibility and recognize the freedom to leave farming and gain different employment, but does this mean that the flow of the nation’s workforce cannot replace the men and women who leave agrarian employment? (What could have sparked such notions?) Might we not correct mis- steps of the past and retain sustainability through ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s proposed pattern? Would it not be purposeful to do some rethinking and honestly consider implementation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s proposal that was distorted by the “Montreal Star’s” reporting? We have had 100 years in a kind of “pilot project”. Have we now learned something that we are more willing to accept and carry out?

      • valar12

        The moral arguments about what is basic or essential to humanity are debatable. People value marginal utility differently than other individuals so I consider it not easily quantified. People also naturally gravitate towards what is most beneficial to themselves. In a farm, the plow that moves twice is fast reduces the “cost” of the farmer’s time. He’s able to enjoy the same crop with less resources involved. Fast forward to a society that has become so efficient because of agrarian education and technology(i.e. tractors that drive themselves) we’ve no longer needed the same number of works to reap the same rewards. Human capital is best spent elsewhere such as urban areas where they can create value for themselves and their family. I see no problem with economy that reallocates scarce resources appropriately.

        One point that could be gleaned from this is that we don’t fully take the costs of this production model of food beyond our own lifespan. The materials and resources needed to maintain this benefit could run out or just become to expensive to justify. Pivoting the economic life on the farmer could be a call to be mindful of our planet and to always factor our earth in the equation. This is where, I believe, many people call for sustainability actions. I do agree 100 years is not a long time in the course of human history. Our recent technological achievements may come at the cost of benefit in the future. There is some evidence, but what is the action? Until people are given an incentive or moral renaissance then I don’t believe human actions will change.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.kinzinger Bruce Kinzinger

          Indeed. As families, we often choose according to what seems affordable/ enjoyable/ important to us. Supporting sustainability is becoming a more important decision point for many families.
          As a country, it is fascinating to reflect on 1912, when our federal government collected import taxes, and there was NO federal income tax. Imagine that!
          Today, our farmers and manufacturers are trying to compete against overseas counterparts that operate under the working conditions that Abdul-Baha spoke out against. Do we see low prices in the store as so sacred, that we can’t set up selective import taxes again, when the product’s source is so deplorable? Those in our country with good physical/ manual skills could be more competitively employable again.
          The free market probably drove many of our decisions today — how do I make the best of my time, to the greatest benefit? It speaks to our daily reality. Yet, you are right. The broader, longitudinal, intergenerational issues sometimes require regulatory intervention to guide our behaviors. If our fresh water aquafers are being depleted, and we have techniques that prevent/ reverse this, making changes is an issue of intergenerational justice.
          Thanks for introducing the paradoxical term “creative destruction.” I learned something. Indeed, in this new era of abundant creativity and change, a strong sector in today’s economy gives way to another in tomorrow’s. That is a reality. Thank you.

      • Tony Michel

        I stumbled across this discussion a few weeks after the fact, but just for the record, the Montreal Star article did in fact say that Abdul Baha placed farmers at the centre. And while we know he felt that some of the press had been misreporting him, we can ever know exactly what details were misreported when. What is clear is that many of the concrete suggestions in that Star piece also appear in talks published after his visit under the title “Promulgations of Universal Peace.” The Montreal article, about his talk to an association of Socialists, was too long to squeeze into the blog here, but it is interesting that in an address about economics, the emphasis on the farmer was clearly there too, even to a largely urban, working-class crowd.

    • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

      With industrial agriculture has come the rise of “Frankenfood” and all the disease and environmental destruction that comes with it. I think that’s a pretty compelling reason to reconsider the importance traditional farming. There’s also a strong need for locally grown food in urban areas, which can be provided by small farming projects, as demonstrated by organizations like Growing Power.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.kinzinger Bruce Kinzinger

    I am concerned about how sustainable current farming is. What is happening to topsoil? http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/soil/ What about the midwest water table? http://hrd.apec.org/index.php/The_Ogallala_Aquifer_and_Its_Role_as_a_Threatened_American_Resource
    I am not an expert on these issues, but while 3% is the current statistic, I’m not sure we are on a sustainable path. We all NEED food. Healthy food. Are the other 97% performing essential tasks? How are the next few generations going to do, if the current approach is NOT sustainable?

  • nine

    Herein lies the solution to several of the most divisive issues the USA is facing today.

  • shahla

    Modern agriculture has come at great cost in human health and environmental destruction. Use of toxins, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, etc.. are hazardous to humans and to our precious waters. Even though the volume of food produced has increased, we continue to lose millions of children (and adults) to malnutrition each year. Fortunately, organic farming is becoming more popular; locally grown produce is being promoted by environmental and other socially responsible organizations. Organic farming, which will hopefully be most prominent in the near future, is more labor intensive, but it doesn’t require costly and toxic chemicals. Let’s pray we rapidly become wiser and more mature (moral renaissance?) in order to seek and find ways to produce healthy foods for all humanity.

  • Charles

    Consumptive greed and pre-occupied by perfection, we could feed the entire planet with the amount of food we throw away.

    Agriculture is on the threshold of collapse in many places in combination of:
    Too many mouths to feed
    Loss of agricultural land to urban development
    Soils losing productivity through over-use
    Impacts of industrial fertilisers on soils
    Broader environmental impacts from over-consumption and climate change

    Not without good reason does Baha’u’llah exhort us to “Be anxiously concerned for the needs and exigencies of the age in which ye live.”

    When was the last time you encouraged your children to become farmers, or at least agricultural scientists?

    Don’t let our children and youth select their education, career and work paths on the basis of something trivial, but get them interested in the REAL challenges of the planet.

  • Paul Vaughn

    The last paragraph of day 175, “Abdu’l-Bahá’s bottom-up approach” should be removed. It is not a summation of His presentation but your opinion, particularly the last sentence, no matter how true it may be. Please, for the sake of honest reporting, remove it. Thank you. Paul Vaughn

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. The articles we write are feature stories, rather than eyewitness reporting. With 100 years intervening between now and 1912 we occasionally reflect back and draw some conclusions, or look at how the century unfolded after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit.

      We feel that it’s clear in the last paragraph that this is an author’s interjection rather than a conclusion that would be attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/1203381202 Pascal Molineaux

    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly and strongly emphasized, on several occasions that agriculture was all-important and rightly recognized – at least until fairly recently – as the first sector of the economy. The industrial and technological revolutions changed all this and we tend to forget, today, how absolutely important is the agricultural sector – not only as the producer of all food and raw materials we all need on a daily basis, but more importantly maybe, as the caretaker of the world’s natural resouces and vital ecosysytems, landscapes and natural beauty. Agriculture should thus be recognized as life-sustaining in more than one way, but an agriculte that truly respects and takes care of three vital resources: the soil, water and biodiversity. Without these three as healthy as ever, life on this earth cannot be sustained. An agricultural system that systematically contaminates the water systems, erodes the soils and diminishes animal and plant biodiversity, even if it is highly productive in the short term, is ESSENTIALLY unsustainable.