Tag: farm subsidies

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Farmhouse Porch

Mark Bittman had a column on the NYTimes online “Opinionator” blog yesterday on farm subsidies. He included a fairly (but not completely) thorough list of what is wrong with farm subsidies in America, but he ultimately comes down on the side of “fixing” farm subsidies rather than ending them altogether.

Bittman acknowledges that the “temporary” programs intended to offset the worst effects of the Great Depression have morphed into the bloated, corrupt, regressive and damaging programs we see today, and yet he still has enough faith in government to advocate new programs. He would like to see farm subsidies reformed to (a) encourage farmers to grow foods that Bittman determines we need more of;  (b) re-size American farms to what he thinks are the appropriate size; (c) help more people to go into farming; (d) prevent farmland from being converted into higher-value development; and (e) allow us to spend more money on programs he thinks more worthy (high-speed rail, for example).

Some of the money for the new farm programs would come from the budget, primarily from the so-called “direct payments” that flow to farmers and landowners based on past production of certain crops, but Bittman seems attracted to the idea of new taxes on food processors (which, you can be sure, would be passed on to consumers). He alleges the food companies are the main beneficiaries of farm subsidies, even as he admits that consumers have benefitted from lower prices of subsidized commodities. 

The solution to a lot of the problems caused by farm subsidies, however, lies not in changing the direction of the programs. Perhaps unwittingly, Bittman himself has pointed to the way out:

The subsidy-suckers don’t grow the fresh fruits and vegetables that should be dominating our diet. Indeed, if all Americans decided to actually eat the five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that are recommended, they would discover that American agriculture isn’t set up to meet that need. They grow what they’re paid to grow: corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice.

While I agree that American farmers are producing far more for government programs than they are the demands of the market, the solution is to get rid of the farm subsidies. If Americans decide to eat more fruit and vegetables, you can be sure that farmers here or abroad (and it does not matter which) will be happy to provide them.  The solution lies not in tinkering with the program in the hope that finally, this time, bureaucrats in Washington will get it right, but in freeing the farmers from government interference totally, and letting the market decide which foods are grown.

Republicans Punt on Farm Subsidies. Again.

While I fully agree with my colleagues that President Obama “chickened out” in general in his FY2012 budget proposal, in one area he had the courage to propose some cuts that have proven controversial for ages: farm subsidies.  His plan would lower the income eligibility limits for subsidies (from $500,000 to $250,000 for off-farm AGI per farmer, and an on-farm AGI limit of $500,000, down from $750,000.) It would also lower the cap on annual direct payments that individuals can receive – from a maximum of $40,000 to $30,000.

The administration’s proposal would affect only about 2 percent of the total recipients of direct payments – subsidies that flow every year regardless of prices or farm output to owners of land that may or may not still be used for farming – and it does not by any means go far enough. But at least it is a start.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans followed their Republican Study Committee colleagues in failing to propose any cuts to “farm subsidies” as we typically understand them in their FY2011 budget proposal.  To be sure, 22 percent of the $60 billion in cuts they propose would come from the “agriculture function,” and they indeed get rid of entire programs, but they are mainly to the nutrition and conservation areas of the USDA’s responsibilities. Nothing, so far as I can tell, from the commodity programs.

I’m under no illusions that cutting farm subsidies are the key to our ever-growing fiscal mess. But it is telling that the Republicans can find not one dime in our bloated, distorting, regressive, corrupt farm programs to cut, even as farmers’ incomes and wealth soar. 

On the upside,  a group of  legislators is proposing amendments to limit direct payments and put an end to the disgraceful deal on cotton subsidies cooked up by the administration last year. So maybe some reform can come from there.

(This hardly needs to be said, but the farmers’ groups are, of course, maintaining their position that farm programs should be subject to cuts no greater than the cuts to other areas of federal spending.)

‘1099’ Repeal Speaks Volumes About ObamaCare

From my latest Kaiser Health News op-ed:

When 34 Senate Democrats joined all 47 Republicans last week to repeal ObamaCare’s 1099 reporting requirement, their votes confirmed what their talking points still deny: ObamaCare will increase the deficit, no matter what the official cost projections say…

This public-choice dynamic [of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs] is why the Congressional Budget Office, the chief Medicare actuary, and even the International Monetary Fund have discredited the idea that ObamaCare will reduce the deficit. It is one of the principal reasons why, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” In other words, the game is rigged in favor of bigger government.

It also explains why the Obama administration is sprinting to implement ObamaCare in spite of a federal court having struck down the law as unconstitutional. The White House needs to get some concentrated interest groups hooked on ObamaCare’s subsidies – fast.

Read the whole thing here.

The Real Scandal of Farm Subsidies

When the Washington Post published a story in 2007 about how dead farmers had received farm subsidies to the tune of over $1bn, most people were horrified (even “farm subsidy moderate” Rand Paul thought they should go!). Although the article made clear that “most estates are allowed to collect farm payments for up to two years after an owner’s death,” and that the payments weren’t necessarily fraudulent, outrage ensued.

But a follow-up investigation by the USDA has found that all but about $1 million of the payments were completely above board. From the Associated Press:

A 2007 report that the federal government had paid $1.1 billion in subsidies to dead farmers sparked an outcry and has been frequently cited by critics who considered the payments a blatant example of wasteful spending. But a follow-up that found no fraud and determined nearly all the subsidies paid on behalf of dead farmers in recent years were proper has received little attention.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, just a little over $1 million out of the billions of dollars paid in subsidies in 2009 went to estates or business entities that weren’t entitled to them.

Very little money is going to individuals who have not earned that money. Very little is being paid in error because a farmer has passed away,” FSA Administrator Jonathan Coppess told The Associated Press. [emphasis mine]

Don’t you just love how Mr Coppess uses the word “earned” there?

That’s the real scandal of farm subsidies, readers. Not that they are fraudulent (although that is of course an outrage), but that they are, for the most part, perfectly legal.

GOP Conservatives Propose Spending Cuts

Last week the conservative House Republican Study Committee released its Spending Reduction Act of 2011, which would cut federal spending by $2.5 trillion over the next ten years. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) will introduce it in the Senate.

The vast majority of the savings, $2.3 trillion, would come from freezing non-defense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006 levels over the next ten years. The rest would come from cutting the federal civilian workforce, privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, repealing the state Medicaid FMAP increase, repealing remaining stimulus funds, and immediately reducing non-security discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels.

Of the $2.3 trillion over 10 years that would be saved by freezing nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006 levels, only $330 billion in savings are actually specified, or about $33 billion annually. That’s only about 5 percent of nondefense discretionary spending, and nondefense discretionary spending only accounts for about 17 percent of total federal spending.

The RSC targeted an array of small and silly programs such as $17 million in subsidies for the International Fund for Ireland. They would eliminate mohair subsides saving $1 million, but that’s tiny compared to the needed termination of all farm subsidies. And proposing to eliminate “duplicative education programs” is fine, but the Department of Education doesn’t need house cleaning – it needs to be cleaned out.

The plan does include some good cuts that have been proposed at Downsizing Government:

However, most of the RSC’s savings are generated by a largely amorphous promise to keep domestic spending flat for years to come at 2006 levels. Unfortunately, this evades the needed national conversation on closing down major agencies and departments.

Another disappointment with the RSC plan is that there are no proposed cuts for the Department of Defense. That could be a major political error as more and more conservatives have been coming to the conclusion that it needs to be downsized. And by failing to include the Pentagon, any chance of support by congressional Democrats is killed.

Farm Subsidies Benefit Landowners

Almost half of America’s farmland is operated by someone other than the owner. Critics of farm subsidies often point to examples of famous wealthy landowners receiving handouts as a reason to end the federal government’s agriculture gravy train. Notable recipients have included Ted Turner, Larry Flynt, Charles Schwab, and numerous members of Congress.

While policymakers justify their support for farm subsidies in the name of “protecting farmers,” a new academic study describes how landowners are often the real winners. Farm subsidies get “capitalized” into the price of farm land, pushing up land prices. As a result, those farmers who lease land from landowners at the inflated prices end up having a substantial share of their subsidy benefits effectively canceled out.

From the paper:

In all, the results confirm that government payments exert a significant effect on land values. The (marginal) rates of capitalization suggest that in the current policy context, a dollar in benefits typically raises land values by $13-$30 per acre, with the response differing substantially across different types of policies. This response certainly suggests that agents expect these benefits to be sustained for some time. In terms of the implications for the distribution of farm program benefits, our results confirm that a substantial share of the benefits is captured by landowners.

The authors’ conclude that the rhetoric exhibited by supporters of farm subsidies doesn’t always match the reality:

Policy rhetoric often justifies Farm Bill expenditures with the argument that impoverished farmers are in need of governmental support to remain in business. This view is pervasive outside of Washington. For example, consider the annual “Farm Aid” events intended to draw attention to the plight of the American farmer. Our analysis challenges this view. We demonstrate that land owners capture substantial benefits from agricultural policy. This is particularly problematic given that in many cases land owners are distinct from the farmers whose plight we are told we should be concerned with.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.

Surprise, Surprise

Last year I wrote about the intriguing proposal by the North Dakota Farm Bureau to do away with federal farm subsidies. I expressed at the time my doubt that the proposal would find much traction with the national American Farm Bureau Federation and, indeed, the group voted yesterday (at their annual conference in Atlanta) against the milder proposition to cut direct payments – the approximately $5.2 billion per year of your money that flows to farmers regardless of what, or even whether, they farm. Those payments are becoming increasingly politically contentious at a time of growing unease about record deficits, and some farm groups had said defending (let alone receiving) them was a threat to farmers’ broader interests.

Well, despite some discord among the group, the AFBF – you’ll be shocked, shocked to hear – voted largely for the status quo. From Brownfield (in an article that contains interesting analysis of how support for various programs breaks down on state/regional lines):

By a comfortable margin, the delegates passed a resolution calling for ‘a strong and effective safety net that consists of direct payments, crop insurance and a simplified Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program.

Hopefully Congress can prove me wrong and cut farm subsidies when the farm bill comes up for renewal in 2012.