Thursday, May 15, 2008

Come and Get It

The House of Representatives and Senate passed a 5-year, $290 billion farm bill this week. In Pennsylvania, Republican challenger Chris Hackett hammered incumbent Chris Carney (D-10th-PA) on his vote in support of the bill. Claiming it had too many earmarks and not enough money for the district, Hackett decried Carney's vote in support of the bill. To which Carney responded, "Family farming is not a partisan issue."

If Carney was looking to support "family farming," then certainly he should have voted against this bill. Furthermore, if Hackett was really looking to exploit Carney, he would point to the fact that the way our government distributes farm subsidies fails prioritize the family farmer.

This, in itself, may be surprising given the way Washington debates the issue. They portray every dollar as a necessity to small farmers back home in their districts. Of course, it may make sense to get every extra dollar into the bill, that way small farmers could actually see some of it since most of it goes to corporate farmers.

The way we distribute farm subsidies in this country is extremely inefficient and defies the basic principles of a free economy. If you don't believe me, look at a Government Accountability Office report from last summer which showed:
For 1999 through 2005, USDA paid $1.1 billion in farm payments in the names of 172,801 deceased individuals (either as an individual recipient or as a member of an entity). Of this total, 40 percent went to those who had been dead for 3 or more years, and 19 percent to those dead for 7 or more years.

Glad to know the government is giving the subsidies to those who really need it!

Also consider this, 10% of all subsidy recipients from the government receive 75% of the money allocated (about $91,000 a year per farm). The rest of the recipients--small family farms--receive less than $3,000 a year.

It's not an inherently bad thing that the money is disproportionately going to corporate farmers, but if you listen to the explicit statements coming from members of Congress, it is supposed to be benefiting the smaller farms. In this regard, the policy has failed because it's not keeping farmers in the business. They are a dieing breed.

This country was built on the back of family farmers. Now, only a small percentage of the population are farmers. And of those, most of their primary income comes from sources outside farming. Farming now is only profitable is you have modern machinery, larger acres to farm, and the right commodities to get the biggest bang for your buck in subsidies. This makes the big guys bigger and pushes the little guys out.

The current system also encourages an overproduction of goods. This leads to a decrease in price for those goods--simple supply and demand. The subsidizing of these products keeps the production artificially high and the price artificially low.

In a market run system, farmers could grow what they want and set their asking price. This basically forces them to survive on their own, but allows much more potential for success and longevity. Food is a necessity; the fact that it isn't a disposable good forces the market laws to work their magic. However, the current system essentially has a farmer growing a crop directly for the government. Big Brother in turn gives them a set price for the good and goes on their way. Because of all the government regulations, guaranteed reimbursement rates, and promises of disaster aid, farmers opt-into the system.

The American government is doing the most harm to farmers and putting taxpayers on the hook for it. The farm subsidy framework establishes a system which provides for one big game of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" on the government's dime.

A much more sensible solution would be similar to that put forth by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in "FARM 21" legislation (or click here for more detail). FARM 21 would establish "risk management accounts" which act like an agricultural IRA. The accounts would be tax-free and the government would contribute to the accounts in lieu of subsidies. The cash subsidies from the government would then be phased out, and the contributed money in the "risk management accounts" would be used by the farmers for disaster relief, future investments, and planning for the future.

Anything that is more sensible than the current system we have would be a great leap in the right direction. We need to stop beefing up "fat" farm bills and remove the subsidies from those who don't need it (and stop pretending its really going to Ma & Pa down the road). Congress should work to encourage more farming, but this inefficiency at the taxpayers expense has just got to stop.

Update: Over at Greg Mankiw's blog, he's posted an e-mail from a friend at the White House with the top 5 reasons for the President to veto the bill.

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