Farm Subsidies

Back before Bush’s blunder, I fondly remember a time when Congress pretended to make “policy”, and we citizens would sit ’round the campfire (or, a few candles in our living rooms) debating the merits of said policies.

These days it’s about all we can do to get a little attention for “business critical” things like health care and retirement issues. And that’s not nearly enough. While we’ve been fixated on Iraq, with precious little headspace for much else, the world’s continued to evolve. Unfortunately, because we’ve been so distracted, America hasn’t.

One issue area where this is the case is farm subsidies. As an OpEd in today’s NYT points out, it’s high time for reform.

Today, it’s obvious that we need to transform our public support for farmers. Many of our current subsidies inhibit trade because of their link to commodity prices. By promising to cover losses, the government insulates farmers from market signals that normally would encourage sensible, long-term decisions about what to grow and where to grow it. There’s something fundamentally perverse about a system that has farmers hoping for low prices at harvest time — it’s like praying for bad weather. But that’s precisely what happens, because those low prices mean bigger checks from Washington.

Moreover, these practices hurt poor farmers in the developing world who find themselves struggling to compete. It’s one of the reasons that the World Trade Organization won’t let these practices stand.

Now would be a particularly opportune time to change the system. Food commodity prices are high, so a transition away from subsidies will hurt farmers less. Today’s farmers enjoy much better marketing tools, crop protection and technology than they did only a decade ago.

Now, I’m no expert on farm policy.  But I do know two things:

1) Farm subsidies are inherently anticompetitive.  They prop up inefficient farmers at the expense of more efficient ones, whether at home or abroad.  Farmers without subsidies would be forced to become more efficient, or to diversify into higher quality or niche-type products that command a higher price.  And that would be a good thing for consumers (probably for the environment, too).

2) Farm subsidies delay the continuing migration of rural Americans to urban areas, and thus become a de facto means of support for the American wahabbism so rampant in rural, red counties.

I suppose there’s more … subsidies also encourage the use of non-citizen labor, foster a whole range of perverse incentives, keep lawmakers beholden to farm interests, probably do more for the bottom line of ADM, etc. than they do for small farmers, etc.

The main point I want to make is that there are dozens of issue areas — including farm policy — that are crying out for attention and leadership for our elected officials.  Yet another reason why we need to get out of Iraq as soon as possible.

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