The Farm Dole

Saturday, February 02, 2002

TWO LINKS: Stick your snouts in these troughs of fine info. Blake Hurst's "The Great Exception" describes the failure of Freedom to Farm and the harsh effects of trade restrictions on U.S. farmers. Gerard Bourgeois' "Escaping a Dairyman's Dilemma" explains how the dairy cartel milks consumers and bilks farmers; he also proposes a solution. I'll post more links if people send 'em.

Friday, February 01, 2002

1/8/02: Re-reading the 1/2/02 post that started this whole farm-dole kick, I realized that it may be confusing. I say that farm subsidies reward overproduction, thus leading to a drop in prices. But doesn't everybody know that farm subsidies are those things where the government pays farmers not to farm?

As explained by P.J. O'Rourke in his excellent book Parliament of Whores, that's true too. (See "Agricultural Policy: How to Tell Your Ass from This Particular Hole in the Ground.") US farm policy is a shandeh, a mishegoss, and the product of a meshuginer, and almost anything you could say about it is true unless you say it helps farmers.

The farm dole exists to keep farmers farming, no matter what. Hence the "immense dog's breakfast of programs, laws and regulations" O'Rourke describes: "You see, if the weather's bad and we have lots of droughts and freezes, we'll have to give disaster aid and crop-insurance payments to farmers, and the farm bill will end up costing us more. On the other hand, if the weather's good and we have plentiful harvests, we'll have to buy up surplus commodities and pay farmers to cut down on planting, and the farm bill will end up costing us more yet. ...This conflict between policies that send prices up and policies that drive prices down results in the need for a third category of policies that do nothing at all. These are the famous programs that give farmers money for not farming."

But the basic idea is always: keep farmers from having to switch jobs. Everybody wants to keep the noble, independent small-farmer milking his cows and shucking his corn. But first of all, farm policy typically grants its welfare payments based on how much acreage you farm, so it essentially subsidizes big agribusiness concerns that buy up little farms. And more importantly, Farmer Bob has already lost the noble, independent qualities we value if he can only maintain his farm by going on the dole. (Here, have a pertinent "Bloom County" cartoon.)

Farm policy exists to remove market incentives and pressures. But you can't do that, no matter how much you try. The end result of this--despite conflicting policies--is, as far as I can tell, overproduction. Too many people are growing too much food. So prices fall. So lots of farmers leave. But many can continue to farm only because of subsidies, so they hang in there--often valiantly, if wrongly--and keep producing, and prices keep falling. Technological improvements worsen the problem by squeezing more crop out of less land. So farm prices end up higher than they would be without subsidies, but low enough that many farmers have to take second jobs. Great going, Uncle Sam.

My great-grandfather was a serial entrepreneur. He'd start a business. It would fail. He'd start another. It would fail. And so on until he'd owned half the storefronts in Maplewood, NJ--one at a time. If the government had applied its farm policy to his businesses, though, he'd still be plugging away at Failure #1, barely scraping by, probably pinning his hopes on more cash from the Feds rather than on the next business idea.

A final question, of course, is: What's wrong with high farm prices? Farmers are good people, so why shouldn't they make money? Well, let's keep in mind that farmers produce food. You know, food--that thing that when you don't get it, you starve. High farm prices mean that an inner-city mom feeds her kids welfare cheese instead of ham, and I don't know why that's supposed to be a good thing. (Jonah Goldberg makes the same point about milk subsidies.)

Okay, I await corrections and clarifications from people who know more about this stuff than I do.

1/5/02: INFORMATION AND FARMERS BOTH WANT TO BE FREE: Tom Daschle is trying to prevent the release of information about who receives farm subsidies. Daschle manages to be anti-journalist, anti-environmentalist (a green group performed the recent, splashy anti-subsidy expose), and anti-farmer too. He's on a roll.

1/2/02: BOUGHT THE FARM*: Farm subsidies are hideous, soul-sucking things. A 12/27 New York Times article (of all things) reported that many farmers are starting to get the message, thanks to the site, which publishes a list of all subsidy recipients and how much they got. (The article costs money, so I'm not linking it.) Current farm policy subsidizes overproduction--and then the bureaucrats are startled when prices fall. Hey, whaddya know, a glut on the market hurts prices! When farmers suffer from the plummeting prices, the state steps in to cushion the fall. That welfare payout saps any incentive to switch to a new product, and it traps farmers in the same cycle of crop boom and price bust. The Times hammers on the even slimier fact that big agribusinesses profit from the subsidies, while small farms get slammed--but the NYT, typically, fails to realize that prices will drop even if only small farmers are subsidized. Those who romanticize the family farmer should note that today, he is entirely dependent on government aid. To quote banker Donald J. Schiff, from the NYT article, "Now the public knows what we bankers have known for a long time: that farmers have lost their freedom." And to quote Machiavelli, "A shrewd ruler, therefore, must try to ensure that his citizens, whatever the situation may be, will always be dependent on the government and on him; and then they will always be loyal to him." Hail Prince Harkin!
*The date and time don't match because this post was transferred from GeoCities.

A few years ago, I went to a family wedding in Ames, IA. Half of my family is Hawkeye, and they all wanted to know what I planned to do after college. When I said, "journalism," one white-haired relative (I think she was an aunt of some variety) fixed me with a ferocious gaze and said intensely, "Write about farm prices!"

So I will. This page will be a running update on farm subsidy news and views. Please send personal stories, news clips, rants, questions, and even reasoned criticism to