Posted by Daniel Hall on May 22, 2008
I’ve been surprised by the lack of attention that the U.S. farm bill has received in the corners of the blogosphere I frequent. The current food crisis is getting lots of attention, but the farm bill… not so much. I’ve refrained from commenting largely because of how shamefully little I know about U.S. farm policy.
I suspect that some of the current silence among bloggers is a result of similar ignorance, but a larger portion represents a combination of shame and despair. Nearly every policy wonk of any political persuasion agrees U.S. agricultural policy is a disaster — conservatives hate it (or should) for the massive governement handouts, while liberals decry (or should) who the handouts go to and the environmental damages they cause. But at the same time the political interests entrenched behind leaving policy ‘as is’ mean that substantive reform is a non-starter. Hence the shame and despair.
Now that the bill has passed (over the President’s veto) I thought I’d point you to the best post I’ve seen so far on the bill’s problems: Greg Mankiw quotes an insider at the White House on some of the bill’s most distasteful provisions. Do read the whole thing, but here’s a couple candidates for worst part of the policy:
Too much spending: The bill increases spending by almost $20 billion over the next ten years, at a time when net farm income is at an all-time high. …
New sugar program: The bill would make the government buy sugar for 2X the world price, store it, then resell it at about an 80% loss to the taxpayer. Sugar sells for about 11¢/lb on the world market. The US government would have to buy sugar for about 22¢/lb, store it, and then auction off the excess to ethanol plants. …
Using food aid $ inefficiently: Under current law, US food assistance for hungry people around the world must be spent purchasing US crops. The President proposed to allow up to 25 percent of US global food assistance to be spent purchasing food from local farmers (in the country where the people are starving). This allows US dollars to be spent purchasing food, rather than paying transportation costs.
Meanwhile, the WaPost editorial page highlights another real loser from the bill:
…the bill could authorize up to $16 billion more in crop subsidies than previously projected…
The culprit is a new program called Average Crop Revenue Election, or ACRE for short. ACRE gives farmers an alternative to direct payments, which come regardless of how much money they make, and other subsidies. Starting in 2009, farmers can choose to trade in some of their traditional subsidies in return for a government promise to make up 90 percent of the difference between what they actually made from farming and their usual income. …
[ACRE] pegs the subsidies to current, record-high prices for grain, meaning farmers would get paid if prices fall back to their historical and, for farmers, perfectly profitable norms. A program that started out as a streamlined insurance policy against extraordinary hardship has mutated into a possible guarantee of extraordinary prosperity. [emphasis added]
As the editorial makes clear, the policy change could have actually been a welcome reform, by providing a way to transition from direct subsidies to a more insurance-based model where farmers got paid in bad years. The problem is that by using record-high grain prices as the baseline for ‘usual income’, the program is insuring that farmers make bank. On the other hand, there’s always the chance that this won’t cost the government as much as we think:
The farm bill’s defenders insist that a budgetary disaster will not come to pass, because grain prices will not come down much during the five years the bill will be in effect.
Ah, what a relief! The government won’t have to pay for this program because the world’s urban poor are going to continue to be choked by food prices for the next five years. Glad we got that cleared up.
If readers are aware of other good analyses of the farm bill I’d be thankful for a pointer. Here’s Tim Haab recently on the effects of U.S. farm subsidies.