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Mark: My Words

August 5, 2011
By Mark Putnam
Introduction: It’s been more than 55 years since my late grandfather, and now father, began living in the newspaper industry. I’ve developed a tremendous amount of respect for the profession who work tirelessly to keep communities informed, strong and together.

In my latest role I’ve found a way to help hometown newspapers entertain and challenge readers and bring our communities together in an environment supporting civil discourse.

I recently attended a luncheon with business leaders in Des Moines. The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa and current United States Secretary of Agriculture, was our featured speaker. His remarks were particularly interesting to me since I am in the process of learning more about farming. While I think I understand the basics, I have been trying to appreciate the societal patterns and economic dynamics that accompany a region so influenced by agriculture. I have a long way to go, but Secretary Vilsack offered some helpful insights. His remarks focused largely on global economic trends and U.S. policy as it relates to issues of commerce, trade and energy. It was in the question and answer period, however, that I learned the most. One of our colleagues asked what we might anticipate in the development of the next “Farm Bill.”

As he formulated a response, Secretary Vilsack took a step back to describe for us the complexity of farming in the U.S. He told us there are approximately 2.1 million farms in our nation. That’s more than I ever imagined. About 1.3 million of these farms are quite small. They produce no real net revenue for the farmers, who all rely on income from other sources. The best description would be those who provide produce for local farmers markets, restaurants and farm stands that serve community interests. The next category of farming represents those who attempt to derive some income from farming, but on average yield about $10,000 per year. Most are earning a living through other career activities. There are about 600,000 of these farmers in the U.S. today. The remaining group of about 200,000 farms is by far the largest and produces the most income for those with a vested interest. These farms yield most of what we consume in the U.S. The challenge he described is that any Farm Bill enacted by Congress must address the needs and interests of all these types of farms and farmers. What an enormous challenge! Can one size really fit all? Is it possible to create a single piece of legislation for all farms and farmers across the country?

The concept of the “rule of law” can be traced back to ancient civilizations. For Americans, however, we find this idea firmly established in American political thought in the writings of John Adams under the pseudonym “Novanglus” (translated: “The New Englander”). In his “Novanglus” Essay No. 7, one in a series of letters published in the Boston Gazette just prior to the beginning of the Revolution, Adams argues for the natural rights of individuals. His essay includes one of the most fundamental principles in our political system.

If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic, than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.

Today we often hear the phase, “we are a nation of laws” uttered in American political discourse. This, more than any other phrase, calls us to the doctrine that the collective wisdom of the people as expressed in our laws makes the system of government more important than the power of any single individual. The other phrase we often hear is that “no one is above the law.” I stand with the people of our great nation in supporting this concept as an ideal rooted in individual liberty and affirmed by the will of the governed as laws are created through our political process.

Living this ideal out in contemporary American society, however, is becoming a great test of this important principle. Secretary Vilsack’s observations are an interesting example of one simple challenge that is born of complexity. In order to manage a nation as vast as the U.S. with all its overlapping systems of government at the local, state and federal levels, we find we are quite willing to be governed as a nation of laws, but we are quickly becoming a people of rules. Every individual and entity in the U.S. has points of intersection with the rules. In the case of federal law, once legislation is passed by the Congress and signed by the President, the agency rule makers go to work. The process is commonly referred to as the NPRM, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The independent agencies of the federal government are charged with the responsibility of developing administrative law that interprets and applies the laws created for implementation in the wider society. The great thing about America is we have the privilege and responsibility to comment and argue over these rules. The challenge is that the complexity of our lives in this society means the rules are often the greater problem for our citizens than the underlying laws. As Secretary Vilsack and his colleagues at the USDA undertake the enormous task of supporting the development of the next Farm Bill, they bring with them volumes of rules that are intended to scale appropriately to all sizes and shapes of farms.

The net result is that a nation of laws is being implemented by a people of rules in a society where one size does not fit all. It’s easy to take a swipe at our government when we witness the contortions of rulemaking, yet we too often remain blind to our role as citizens in this very complex task. We like rules. We just don’t like it when the rules apply to us.

I remember our daughters reaching the age when a simple game of catch became a platform for rulemaking. We would throw the ball back and forth, having fun, when suddenly boundary conditions began to form without any prompting. I suppose we learn the rules early in family life and the school yard. In an attempt to make the game more fair, our childhood impulse is to set the conditions for play. So we hear the words, “OK. From now on the rule is…” This is usually followed by the response, “You’re not the boss of me.” Maybe we are a people of rules.

I’ve been thinking about rules a lot recently. I’m in a position now where I can set a few and that can be fun. But I more often find that I am inclined to break them. Rules grow up around us as a means of social control at all levels, whether in the household, the school, the workplace or in our government. The question for me is, “Are all these rules necessary?” If so, how do we know when the demands of leadership and responsibility call us to bend, break or dissolve the rules in service of the greater good? When are the rules necessary and appropriate, and when are they an impediment to progress?

Mark Putnam is beginning his second year as the president of Central College at Pella.

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