Back in 1983, when I was trying to salvage a career in academic science, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, regarded as the premier forum for cutting edge science in the United States. Having delivered my own panel presentation, I attended many diverse panels and presentations, including one on the abysmal job prospects in many scientific disciplines. A young woman lamented that America was “eating its seed corn” by failing to provide entry level jobs for new PhDs, while continuing to recruit graduate students in the sciences at a rapid clip. I recall an older man, presumably more securely employed, taking her to task and basically saying there was nothing to worry about because scientifically trained people were in demand in private employment not obviously related to their specialization. I heard something similar from established researchers in 1997, when Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet, tried to use his fame to publicize the plight of academically-trained scientists. It was at least as bad as in 1983 – overproduction having continued unabated, with the products of our academies being treated as a disposable resource. If there was a lesson to be learned in either 1993 or 1997 we have not learned it, for the overproduction and squandering of human resources continues unabated.
“Eating your seed corn” is a metaphor for consuming the means of future production for the purpose of present gain. It has been used to describe supposedly crippling taxation, siphoning off too large a share of profits into dividends, lack of investment in education, Ponzi schemes, failure to fund and encourage basic research in government laboratories, and strategies which discourage retention of experienced personnel. It refers to agricultural practices in place not a few generations back even in the USA, and still, albeit decreasingly, practiced in other parts of the world, where farmers relied on saved seed to plant the next year’s crop and eating that seed meant disaster. Before efficient transportation, eating seed corn created a snowballing famine effect. Once it was possible to replace consumed seed, but at much higher cost than saved seed, the consequences tended to be economic. Few people actually starved in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, but many people lost their land, and borrowing to replant after one bad crop year was a cause of this. Still, eating seed corn, whether literal or metaphorical, was regarded as at best a last ditch strategy, not a viable business plan under average conditions.
All the sources I consulted list this as a traditional American farmer’s adage, and none cites a source earlier than the 19th century. Possibly this is because the wisdom is so deeply ingrained in traditional societies that it was taken for granted. The only directly relevant Biblical source I could find was in the Deuterocanonical Book of Judith, were Judith gains the trust of the Assyrian general Holofernes by saying:
“When the Israelites sin and make their God angry, they will die. 12 Their food supply has already run out, and the water shortage has become serious, so they have decided to kill their livestock and eat foods that God’s Law clearly forbids them to eat. 13 They have decided to eat the wheat set aside from the early harvest and the tithes of wine and oil, which are holy and are reserved for the priests who serve God in Jerusalem. The rest of us are forbidden even to touch this sacred food, 14 but since the people in Jerusalem have already broken this law, the people of our town have sent messengers to the Council there requesting permission to do the same. 15 On the day that they receive permission and actually eat the food, you will be able to destroy them.”
This seems to refer to a custom of setting aside a portion of the harvest for the temple storehouse and keeping it reserve for planting and other purposes regarded as vital to the continuation of the community in the event of crop failure. The temple grain storehouse and its sanctity are a common theme in ancient civilizations.
The adage, whatever its origins, seems to be enshrined in the parables that are told to schoolchildren about early America, along with George Washington and the cherry tree and Columbus sailing the Ocean blue in 1492 in defiance of a general belief that the world was flat. The story that the Mayflower pilgrims endured great hardships rather than eat their seed corn has a better claim to authenticity than either of the aforementioned fables, but claiming that this represents extraordinary foresight on the part of our ancestors, contributing to present entitlement, is probably a distortion.
Whatever the history, eating seed corn in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense has now become business as usual, as we consume the means of generating future sustenance in the name of present advantage. The explosion of credit boosts the phenomenon exponentially. A farmer who routinely and increasingly mortgages his land to buy seed and fertilizer, or a homeowner who runs up a credit card secured by his house to meet present living expenses, is eating seed corn. In an era when people do not literally stockpile seed, he is not only consuming the tangible means of future production, but even the intangible means of securing access to future production.
There is a great deal of lip service paid to sustainability these days, but too often that is used as a rallying cry toward consuming decisions that are anything but sustainable. As an example, the oversupply of workers in certain academic fields and the consequent dismal job prospects for individuals who are treated as a disposable commodity is being used as an argument for throwing more public resources into training programs of doubtful utility. Much of the public investment in renewable energy falls into the same category: borrowed money has been diverted into the hands of rapidly growing companies and their investors, without a corresponding net increase in sustainable energy production. The billions in borrowed money diverted into the effort, meanwhile, becomes a millstone around the neck of the public, bleeding off interest and compromising the ability to borrow “seed money” on reasonable terms if a true emergency does arise.
Once again, the Emperor has no clothes.
Source of Image
The Wonderful World of J. Wesley Smith by Burr Shafer, the Vanguard Press Inc. New York, 1960.