Distortions versus Outlays

My friend Gawain Kripke at Oxfam posted a very good blog entry yesterday on the proposed cuts to agriculture subsidies. In it, Gawain elaborates on a point that I made briefly in a previous post about Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget plan: that cutting so-called direct payments—those that flow to farmers regardless of how much or even whether they produce—is only part of the picture.

Here’s Gawain’s main point:

Most farm subsidies are price-dependent, meaning they are bigger if prices are low and smaller if prices are high. Prices are hitting historic highs for many commodities, which means the bulk of these subsidies are not paying out very much money. Over time, the price-dependent subsidies have been the bulk of farm subsidies. They also distort agriculture markets by encouraging farmers to depend on payments from the government rather managing their business and hedging risks.

So—these days there’s only about $5b in farm payments being made, and these payments are not considered as damaging in international trade terms because they are not based on prices…

Still, Congress will probably make some cuts. But these cuts won’t really be reform and won’t produce much long-term savings unless they tackle the price-dependent subsidies. Taking a whack at those subsidies could save taxpayers money later and make sure our farm programs don’t hurt poor farmers in developing countries. (emphasis added)

I will be delighted if direct payments are abolished, thereby saving American taxpayers about $5 billion a year. But we should not be content with that, nor should we fool ourselves that we have tackled the main distortions in agricultural markets. If the price- and production-linked programs are not abolished, too, then taxpayers and international markets will pay the price if/when commodity prices fall.