Tag: farm subsidies

The Federal Government’s “Rural” Industrial Complex

David Fahrenthold has another excellent article on waste in government in Sunday’s Washington Post. This time he finds a truly comic example of waste, duplication, and confusion:

[T]he U.S. government has at least 15 official definitions of the word “rural,” two of which apply only to Puerto Rico and parts of Hawaii.

All of these definitions matter; they’re used by various agencies to parcel out $37 billion-plus in federal money for “rural development.” And each one is different….

There are 11 definitions of “rural” in use within the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone.

It’s laughable. But the real question is, Why does the federal government even need to define “rural”? Well, of course the answer comes back to the real purpose of our modern tax-and-transfer state: The definitions define who gets the subsidies.

Every year, there are billions available to fund projects in rural communities. Money for housing. Community centers. Sewer plants. Broadband connections.

In a sidebar to the story, we get some details. The Census Bureau has one definition of “rural” so it can tell us how many Americans live in rural areas. Here are the purposes of the other 14 definitions:

Used for a variety of loan and grant programs, all meant to foster rural development…for loans and grants for “community facilities” in rural areas… for aid for water and waste-disposal systems… for aid for improvements in telecommunications systems…by farm-credit associations making housing loans… for certain lending programs for rural community development…to determine areas served by Office of Rural Health…by the National Rural Development Partnership…for grants to rural institutions of higher education…to determine what areas of Hawaii are eligible for rural-aid programs…to determine what areas of Puerto Rico are eligible for rural-aid programs…by various rural development loan and grant programs.

So let’s see. People in rural areas pay federal taxes. People in urban areas pay federal taxes. All that money goes to Washington – where a great deal of it stays – and then some of it is used to provide programs and services in rural and urban areas. Maybe both rural and urban Americans would be better off keeping their money at home and paying for whatever services they think are actually worth the cost. And then the federal government wouldn’t have to pay handsome salaries to well-educated people to form task forces to determine 15 different definitions of “rural.” And states, cities, and rural areas wouldn’t have to hire expensive lobbyists to get a piece of that federal pie.

And the Award for Most Hypocritical Performance by a Member of Congress Goes To…

During the House Agriculture Committee’s debate over a new farm bill, Tennessee Republican Stephen Fincher cited 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in defending relatively small cuts in food stamps after Rep. Juan Vargas’s (D-CA) cited Jesus’s call to feed the hungry: 

“For also, when we were with you, this we declared to you: that, if any man will not work, neither let him eat.”     

The federal government uses force and the threat of violence to obtain the money that is used to pay for food stamps, so I would argue that Rep. Vargas badly misunderstands what the Prince of Peace was getting at. But whereas Vargas was wrong, Rep. Fincher’s biblical counterpunch was breathtakingly hypocritical. As it turns out, Fincher has likely received millions of dollars in federal farm subsidy payments over the years. 

From the New York Times: 

Using Agriculture Department data, researchers at the Environmental Working Group found that Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican and a farmer from Frog Jump, Tenn., collected nearly $3.5 million in subsidies from 1999 to 2012. The data is part of the research group’s online farm subsidy database, from which the group issues a report each year. 

In 2012 alone, the data shows, Mr. Fincher received about $70,000 in direct payments, money that is given to farmers and farmland owners, even if they do not grow crops. It is unclear how much Mr. Fincher received in crop insurance subsidies because the names of people receiving the subsidies are not public. The group said most of the agriculture subsidies go to the largest, most profitable farm operations in the country. These farmers have received $265 billion in direct payments and farm insurance subsidies since 1995, federal records show. 

During debate on the farm bill in the House Agriculture Committee last week, Mr. Fincher was one of the biggest proponents of $20 billion in cuts to food stamps in the legislation. At times he quoted passages from the Bible in defending the cuts. 

“We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over,” Mr. Fincher said during the debate. “This is other people’s money that Washington is appropriating and spending.”

Yes, Rep. Fincher – and it’s other people’s money that’s been going into your back pocket. As another recent quote from Fincher indicates, the congressman either doesn’t recognize his hypocrisy or he doesn’t care. (I can’t decide which is worse.) 

From the International Business Times: 

“But more than that, the role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity, is to take care of each other,” Fincher said at a Memphis event last week. “But not for Washington to steal money from those in the country and give it to others in the country. Our role is out of control.”

Stunning. 

Rep. Fincher’s inability or unwillingness to remove the plank in his own eye is yet another example of how Republicans are generally lousy at making the case for spending cuts. They mock President Obama’s stimulus job creation claims, but turn around and argue that military spending cuts will kill jobs and hurt the economy. They complain about Solyndra and the White House’s crony capitalist schemes, but they work to secure the same handouts for companies back in the district. They rant against big government but continue to vote for it. Etc, etc. 

Both food stamps and farm subsidies should be cut, and preferably, eliminated. Unfortunately, there are too few members of Congress who are willing and able to make the case.    

Newsflash: Politicians Pander to Agriculture!

The American Soybean Association (ASA) recently asked each of the presidential candidates to respond to a series of questions about agricultural policy issues. The questions covered farm bill and crop insurance, estate tax, biodiesel, biotechnology, trade, research, regulations, and transportation and infrastructure. The candidates’ responses (full text here) were not exactly models of courageous and principled policymaking.

I won’t parse the entire thing, as it is just too depressing and some of the issues (e.g., the estate tax) fall outside my area of research. But I will comment on a couple of the topics.

On subsidies and crop insurance, both candidates pledged to support passage of the farm bill, and the crop insurance and disaster provisions it contains. Mr Romney—no Senator John McCain in this area, at least—went on to make a broader statement about his philosophy on farm supports:

On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve [sic] a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.

Ugh. That is a monumentally awful statement. First, not all nations subsidize their farmers. New Zealand and (not to brag) Australia, for example, subsidize their farmers very little, and in very minimally distorting ways, and yet their agricultural  exports generally are thriving. They compete with other agricultural exporters because they try to be the best they can be given their natural resource endowments, research, experience, and human capital.  Second, the caution against unilaterally changing policies is, of course, ubiquitous in many trade policy statements (see, e.g., Ex-Im Bank, manufacturing, reducing tariffs generally). It is also economically insane to enact bad policies because other countries do so. Especially when it is becoming clear that other large agricultural subsidizers (e.g., Japan and the EU) are not exactly thriving, many and varied though their problems may be.

Third, as for the importance of farm supports in maintaining food independence, that’s also nonsense. As I’ve argued ad nauseum, (e.g., here), subsidies aren’t keeping us well-fed: if food abundance depended on government support, we’d see nothing but so-called program crops (soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and rice) on supermarket shelves. Judging by the size of my fellow Australians on my last visit home, no-one is starving there despite very little government support for agriculture. By the way, if you want to read some comments from a president who actually knows what he is talking about, read Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s comments in this article, where he calls for lower trade barriers around the world, particularly for food security reasons.

Mr. Romney’s support for the Senate-passed farm bill also is at odds with his statement to the ASA about the importance of open trade. Even putting aside Mr Romney’s typical mercantilist obsession with exports, I wonder if he realizes that the changes proposed in the Senate farm bill would increase the amount of subsidies deemed trade-distorting by the World Trade Organization, putting trade liberalization at risk? U.S. government spending on trade-distorting support, the “worst” kind, is at record lows right now, mainly thanks to higher commodity prices. But even a senior United States Department of Agriculture official admits (paywall) that the proposed changes to farm policy—including a move towards revenue insurance—would likely see that progress eroded:

But Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade that if either the Senate-passed farm bill or the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee were enacted, that would likely increase the level of U.S. trade-distorting payments.

While stressing that his assessment is preliminary in light of the fact that no legislation has been finalized, Glauber said it is fairly apparent that cutting direct payments and replacing them with either a revenue guarantee program or a price-loss program, as the two legislative proposals envision, would lead to an increase in amber box payments.

In fact, Glauber argued that changing U.S. farm policy along the lines of either of the farm bill proposals could make it more likely that the U.S. exceeds the $7.6 billion cap to which the U.S. informally agreed in the Doha round, especially in those years where commodity prices dip down and subsidy payouts increase.

Pass the farm bill, in other words, and multilateral liberalization efforts get more difficult.

Finally, I note that Mr. Romney also couldn’t resist adding his standard, wrongheaded, and increasingly prominent talking point about “vigorously enforcing” U.S. trade law, and catching cheaters (plenty of blog posts by my colleagues on this topic can be viewed on this blog). I wonder if he realizes that the United States itself has been caught breaking the rules of agricultural trade, and how hypocritical his statements about farm subsidies and trade are in that context? Plenty of damage, and retaliation, has been unleashed because of various ways the U.S. government conducts its affairs in agriculture.

So, in short, there is not much to like in either candidate’s statements, with Mr. Romney deserving special opprobrium because of his professed free-market, limited government principles. But we knew that.

Farm Pig-Out Moves Forward in the Senate

Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal that substantially increases the prospects for passage of a massive farm bill in the Senate. The Senate will vote on 73 amendments and then vote on passage. According to Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the deal “is really an example of the Senate coming together to agree to get things done.”

It’s also an example of Republicans and Democrats coming together to fleece taxpayers. Chris Edwards and I noted this in an op-ed we penned yesterday for The Hill:

Pundits claim that partisanship is creating gridlock in Washington. But in the Senate, the two parties still know how to make bipartisan deals on big government subsidy legislation. That chamber may move ahead with a massive agriculture bill that would spend almost $1 trillion over the next decade. Supporters are calling it a “reform” bill because it would trim a measly two percent from projected spending over the period.

Sen. Stabenow crowed that “We are now closer than ever to achieving real reform in America’s agriculture policy.” Here’s our response to that claim:

This year, Farm Bill supporters are claiming that their bill represents major a “reform.” It is true that the Senate bill would end some types of subsidies, such as “direct payments.” However, it would replace them with new subsidies, such as a “shallow loss” program to deliver more aid if farm revenues fell below the high levels of recent years. This new program could end up costing as much or more than direct payments, and may cause more distortions to agricultural markets…Real reform would entail abolishing farm subsidy programs and not replacing them with anything—except with the natural entrepreneurial skills of farm businesses.

Assuming that Stabenow & Co. have to votes for passage, attention is going to turn to the Republican-controlled House. Edwards and I note that thus far Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his lieutenants have been silent on the Senate version of the farm bill, which is curious because the House leadership has made its intentions clear on other major bills that the Senate wants to pass before the November elections:

Perhaps the House leadership is hoping that the Senate bill goes down in flames before they have to make any decisions on it. After all, House Republicans that favor major cuts to farm subsidies will face internal opposition. The House Agriculture Committee chairman, for example, is Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who is a National Association of Wheat Growers “Wheat Champion.” For the passage of the last major Farm Bill in 2008, 100 House Republicans helped the Democrats override President Bush’s veto of that spending monstrosity.

Now that it appears that the Senate bill won’t be going down in flames, here’s the big question:  Will the more conservative House go along with the taxpayer-funded farm pig out?

Agriculture Is Doing So Well (ergo We Must Subsidize It)

Farmer-friendly members of Congress are such a target-rich environment for ridicule when it comes to poor agriculture policy that it would be a full-time job just blogging about their utterances. So I try to spare you, most of the time. (You’re welcome.) But occasionally a quote passes my desk that is so ridiculous that I just have to share.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a Democrat (not that that matters) from Michican, yesterday made a statement that contains a pretty obvious logical fallacy:

“American agriculture represents a bright spot in our economy,” Chairwoman Stabenow said. “Agricultural exports are reaching record highs and American farmers and ranchers are continuing to outpace the rest of the world in productivity and efficiency. Sixteen million American jobs are supported by American agriculture, so it’s critical we pass the Farm Bill this year. We must provide farmers and small businesses the certainty they need to continue growing and helping the country’s economy recover.” [emphasis mine]

Which of course raises the question: If U.S. agriculture is doing so well, why do we need to subsidize it? To maintain those sixteen million jobs the Senator claims are supported by U.S. agriculture? Please. Research has shown a negative link between farm subsidies and rural development, including jobs creation (more here, including on rural subsidies more broadly). And the money for farm programs is extracted from the productive sector of the economy, at ensuing cost.

In the meantime, a non-subsidized sector of the U.S. farm sector is faring very well indeed. The popcorn industry is booming thanks to sales to Colombia following the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect last month. That hasn’t stopped Nebraska’s senators from asking for hand-outs on behalf of the industry, of course, but the lesson to me seems clear: freer trade, fewer subsidies. [HT: Andy Roth at the Club for Growth]

For more on Cato’s work on agriculture subsidies see here, here, here, here and here. And a whole lot more here.

Government at War With Itself

An op-ed in the Washington Post discusses why federal farm subsidies don’t even make sense from an activist government point of view. Most farm subsidies go for animal-feed crops, which can be viewed as a subsidy for meat production. At the same time, the government propagandizes the public to follow healthy habits and eat lots of fruit and vegetables, but not so much meat.

At www.DownsizingGovernment.org, we’ve come across many federal policies that are contradictory. The government tells the public that X is good, but then it takes actions to do the opposite. Here are some examples:

  • Government health experts tell new moms to breastfeed, but the government spends billions of dollars a year on the WIC program, which subsidizes baby formula for moms.
  • The government imposes strict rules on property owners to protect wetlands, but the government’s Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation have destroyed vast amounts of wetlands.
  • The government enforces strict anti-pollution laws, but the Department of Energy and other federal agencies have been notorious polluters.
  • The Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars building levees to protect against flooding, but its own infrastructure has worsened the damage caused by hurricanes.
  • The government imposes tight rules to ensure proper funding and to prevent abuse in private pension plans, but its own “pension plan”—Social Security—is a Ponzi scheme.
  • The Constitution says that the federal government is created to “insure domestic tranquility,” but the government has spurred violence with alcohol prohibition and now the drug war.

My Cato colleagues are probably aware of many other contradictions, and it seems that the more the government intervenes in society, the more it will work against both the people and itself.

Polls Show Voters Don’t Support Corporate Welfare

Two polls of likely voters released by Rasmussen Reports today indicate that the federal government’s corporate welfare programs should be prime targets for spending cuts.

The first poll found little support for the Small Business Administration’s lending programs:

  • A majority (58 percent) of likely voters said that the federal government shouldn’t guarantee loans issued by private lenders to small businesses. 23 percent said the government should back small business loans and 19 percent were unsure.
  • A majority (59 percent) of likely voters said that reducing government regulations and taxes would be more helpful to small businesses than the government providing loans to small businesses that can’t obtain financing on their own. 22 percent said the government loans were better and 18 percent were unsure.
  • Entrepreneurs particularly believed that reducing government regulations and taxes is preferable to government lending programs. 76 percent of entrepreneurs felt that way and 61 percent opposed government loans to small businesses that couldn’t obtain financing.

(See this new Cato essay on why the Small Business Administration should be terminated.)

Similarly, the second poll found little support for various federal corporate welfare programs:

  • Only 15 percent of likely voters said the federal government should continue to provide funding for foreign countries to buy military weapons from U.S. companies. 70 percent were opposed and the rest were undecided.
  • Only 29 percent of likely voters said the government should continue to provide loans and loan guarantees to help finance export sales for large corporations. 46 percent were opposed and the rest were undecided. (See Sallie James’ new Cato paper on why the Export-Import Bank should be terminated.)
  • Only 37 percent of likely voters said the federal government should continue providing farm subsidies. A plurality (46 percent) said farm subsidies should be abolished and 17 percent weren’t sure. (See this Cato essay for more on farm subsidies.)

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