The Ratchet Effect, Agriculture Edition

Between the lines of a front-page Wall Street Journal article about farm subsidies [$] is an instructive example of the ratchet effect:

Land prices are way up and so are bank deposits, as high corn and soybean prices mean local farmers are making the most money in their lives…An exception to the boom is the local office of the U.S. Agriculture Department, the dispensary of federal payments to farmers from an array of arcane programs with names like ‘loan deficiency’ and ‘milk income loss.’ On a recent afternoon, the parking lot in front of the squat brick building behind a Chinese restaurant was nearly empty.

The reason: Payments from America’s primary farm-subsidy program, dating from the 1930s, have stopped here. Grain prices are far too high to trigger payouts under the program’s ‘price support’ formula. The market, in other words, has done what decades of political wrangling couldn’t: slash farm subsidies.

Though the subsidy payments always ebbed and flowed with crop prices, many economists are convinced that what is happening now is different. A fundamental upward shift in crop prices is creating the real possibility that Midwestern farmers won’t ever again qualify for the primary form of farm subsidy.

There remain other types of subsidies, which continue to pay out because they aren’t linked to market prices. But high prices are undermining political support for those programs…

Well, there’s some good news. Maybe we can start downsizing the USDA, including by closing some of those local offices? Not so fast. The last two paragraphs of the article (on page A10) leave us with this cheery thought [emphasis added]:

Meanwhile, workers in the USDA’s county offices, seeing the handwriting on the wall, are campaigning for new things to do, now that there aren’t any price-support payments to dispense. One idea is to give them responsibility for federally subsidized crop insurance, currently handled by private companies.

Heck, why not? Heaven knows the federal government is flush with cash.