Tag: usda

Ezra Klein vs. the Secretary of Agriculture

It seems that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack took exception to Ezra Klein’s recent blog post on “Why we still need cities”. Someone at the USDA emailed Ezra, outlining the Secretary’s concerns and to set up a time for the two of them to talk. Ezra took notes during their discussion and, yesterday, posted a “lightly edited” transcript of their conversation.

The Secretary had plenty of the standard talking points on hand – and some new ones, like the fact that we should support farm subsidies because rural America has good values and farmers don’t feel appreciated – but Ezra expertly took him to task, deftly pushing back on the non-sequiturs, questionable assumptions and enduring myths about the need for farm subsidies.  He even gets in a worthy swipe at sugar tariffs and the “need” to produce all our food in America. Read the entire thing; it is worth your time.

(HT: Justin Logan)

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.

Why Government Should Not Give Nutrition Advice

There are plenty of reasons why politicians and government bureaucrats have no business telling you what you should eat.  The Constitution grants the federal government no authority to do so, for one thing.  Even if it did, it is simply wrong to force people to pay taxes so that other people can hand down nutritional advice or – God forbid – mandates.

A terrific article by Jane Black in The Washington Post illustrates why, furthermore, the government’s advice isn’t likely to be very good:

[H]istorically, the government has shied away from offering controversial advice. And with food, everything is controversial: A boost for one type of food in the guidelines can be viewed as a threat by providers of competing products. The result, critics say, is a nutritional education system so politically influenced that it is ineffective.

This year’s process appears to be no exception. In public comments, the meat lobby has opposed strict warnings on sodium that could cast a negative light on lunch meats. The milk lobby has expressed concerns about warnings to cut back on added sugars, lest chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milks fall from favor. Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation also weighed in against added-sugar restrictions in defense of the cranberry…

In 1977, a Senate select committee led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was forced to beat a hasty retreat after it initially recommended that Americans could cut their intake of saturated fat by reducing their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Its revised guidelines suggested choosing “meat, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

McGovern, whose constituents included many cattle ranchers, lost his seat in 1980. Since then, in case after case, the guidelines have refrained from suggesting that Americans eat less of just about anything.

Public health advocates say that kind of vacuum is precisely the problem: By avoiding blunt messages about what not to eat, the government has spoken in a way that baffles consumers.

“The only time they talk about food is if it’s an ‘eat more’ message,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and a longtime critic of the food industry. “If it’s a question of eating less, then they talk about nutrients.”…

[A]s in the past, translating scientific data into clear and useful recommendations poses political pitfalls. The advisory committee’s emphasis on a “plant-based” diet, for example, has caused much consternation among the powerful egg and meat lobbies who say the term might be misunderstood as advocating a vegetarian diet.

This problem trips up all big-government schemes.  Right-wing and left-wing statists think they have a terrific idea: give the government power to do this or that, and Experts will use that power to improve mankind.  But then the people with a financial stake get involved, and the effort ends up serving them more than mankind.  See also health care, national defense, etc..

Food Stamps = Economic Driver?

It’s become standard fare for senior government leaders to declare that any and all subsidies are good for economic growth. Two weeks ago it was the Economic Development Administration’s John Fernandez. This week it’s USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

From GovExec.com:

In his speech, Vilsack called the increase in supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits “an economic driver” that helps truckers, grocery stores and farmers. Those benefits, which used to be known as food stamps, have gotten the most funding of any USDA program.

Vilsack also cited increased funding to bring high-speed Internet service to rural America; accelerated implementation of the energy title of the farm bill; and USDA investments in small, local processing and slaughtering plants for “creating a framework for a 21st century America.

Food stamps are an economic driver? Extending Vilsack’s logic, if the government put all citizens on food stamps it would create the economic equivalent of heaven on earth. There’s just one tiny problem: what the government gives with one hand it takes with the other.

Whether it is food stamps, high-speed internet, or slaughter houses, the government has to tax or borrow the resources to pay for these programs out of the private sector economy. One can debate the merits of these programs, but one cannot deny that they come at a cost. And with history and practical experience as a guide, it is clear that the private sector is more effective than the government when it comes to feeding the poor, fostering technology, and processing animals.

See here for information and essays on how to downsize the USDA.

Your Choices Are Unacceptable

Through my work on agriculture, I get occasional media calls on obesity and the agri-industrial complex supposedly behind it.  On Sunday, for example, I gave an interview on NPR about the USDA’s push for – and subsidisation of – farmers markets and “eating locally” as the solution to poor nutrition. (This a recurrent theme of the Obama administration: Michelle Obama has made people’s food habits her business, growing a White House Garden and driving in a convoy of 36 vehicles to the H Street farmers’ market in a photo-op to promote it. The USDA even has a “People’s Garden”.)

So an article in today’s New York Times caught my eye. According to a recent study, the push for calorie postings in restaurants has had no affect on people’s eating habits in certain low-income areas of New York City.  People’s choices are, apparently, pretty impermeable to the information that nutrition and public health advocates assured us was the key to better choices.

You would be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter and we could go on eating what we like unharassed. Think again:

“I think it does show us that labels are not enough,” Brian Elbel, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

I hope I’m not coming across as hyperbolic, but I find it difficult to believe that healthy eating advocates will be content to accept that people are making choices, unpalatable though they may be to the ”slow food” movement, based on the benefits and costs of the alternatives available to them. If people won’t voluntarily submit to the food police – even when information is available – then I suspect calls for regulation will soon follow.

(HT: Radley Balko)

Breaking: Economics 101 Still in Effect

Dairy farmers are working lobbying hard to ensure they get their hands on more of your money.  Apparently, changes made last year to the Milk Income Loss Contract – mainly to take account of rising feed costs – were not enough to stem the losses.

The Senate recently voted to give the USDA an extra $350 million for dairy farmers’ support. The House left dairy support out of its appropriations bill, so the two chambers are working on the compromise now (prediction: the taxpayer will get screwed).

Here’s an ironic quote from a Brownfield news post yesterday (linked to above). It’s Missouri Dairy Association Chairman Larry Purdom on how to bring prices back up:

“Our feeling is that if [USDA] would buy some cheese and product that’s in storage…hanging over our heads, depressing prices,” Purdom tells Brownfield from his farm at Purdy, Missouri, “we feel like the prices would start moving on their own if we didn’t have this surplus.”

More on U.S. dairy policy here.

Feds Pay Farmers to Till the Desert

No, this headline and story is not brought to you by The Onion.

The latest proof that there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary federal program:

As drought forces families in the West to shorten their showers and let their lawns turn brown, two Depression-era government programs have been paying some of the nation’s biggest farms hundreds of millions of dollars to grow water-thirsty crops in what was once desert.

My sympathy for this farmer lies somewhere between that which I have for Bernie Madoff and Ted Stevens:

Jim Hansen, a 69-year-old cotton grower in California’s Central Valley, said his family business would crumble if the government took away low-cost water and the nearly $1.7 million in crop payments he received in 2007 and 2008.

For more on the insanity that is federal farm policy and why the USDA needs to be downsized and/or done away with, click here.