Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bitter Harvest

One of many parts of the budget process left hanging when our legislators ducked out of Washington DC for their ill-conceived summer vacation was passage of the Farm Bill.  Now traditionally, passing a Farm Bill in Congress is never a problem.  Bi-Partisan agreement for them (always a danger sign) has usually been pretty simple to achieve, since in 1973 such bills began combining some of the worst of government handouts.  For the first time however Republicans in the House violated one of those previously unwritten 'I get mine and you get yours' rules in federal budgets by attempting to separate the SNAP program (better known as Food Stamps) from the various subsidy and federally-supported crop insurance programs provided to Agribusiness.  As members traded accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse, it was often difficult to tell where the acrimonious language about corporate subsidies began and rancorous words over starving children ended.   

Now the USDA who's in charge of the money for both programs was justifiably concerned, and has been doing their damnedest to see the money for both programs substantially increase over the years (no doubt thereby increasing their own influence and  power in DC).  They've even gone to the extent of creating literature, programs, and media efforts to sign people up for SNAP (though technically, it's not legal to recruit for SNAP).  With the aid of a number of private groups in recent years (some of whom are receiving other government subsidies) they have in fact been hugely successful in increasing SNAP enrollment from 17 million in 2000 to 45 million in 2011.  The total budget outlay for the program, which once stood at a mere $18 billion in 2000; saw Congressionally approved increases (including one that was a part of the original stimulus program); that have brought it to $72 billion in 2011.  

Not to be left behind in this bi-partisan effort of grabbing what you can, one of the most effective lobbying groups in the country has similarly helped to see crop insurance for farmers, once at $1.5 billion in 2002,  grow to $7.4 billion in 2011.  Even a GOP that has supposedly been taken over by its radical right-wing seems content to leave mandated bio-fuel requirements in place; insuring not only that prices for crops used in their production will remain high, but that their production will be supported by subsidy and insurance programs.  Supposed Free Market advocates in the legislature have likewise retained the crony capitalism of restrictions on things like sugar imports to a mere 15% of the domestic market, while subsidies to sugar producers remain at over $2 billion per year (according to the CATO Institute).

I can hear the cries now however.  "Wait," the populists shout, "there's a difference.  Farmers are just regular, hard-working folks doing a difficult job in tough times.  They're not someone looking for a handout."  Really!  First, let's recognize that regardless of popular myth, we're no longer talking about the gentlemen farmer in agriculture when today 50% of food production comes from the biggest 2% of all farms in the US.  But even if we look at traditional family farms in this country, let's look at how badly those farmers have been doing financially.  Average crop production was up across the country again last year, land values have increased at a double digit rates for the third year in a row, and crop prices look to be up once again in 2013; according to the magazine "The Week".  Farmer income in this country in fact averaged $87,289 in 2011, almost 30 percent higher than that of the average US household income of the same year.       

As for 'hand outs' available for farmers, let's talk a bit about programs begun during the 'Dust Bowl' that were designed to prevent the collapse of agriculture in this country.  Instead of well-intentioned assistance, since the Agricultural Act of 1949 we now 'subsistence farmers' who largely 'subsist' on their checks from the government.  That's the same government which long since made the practice of paying farmers not to farm (a program designed to keep crop prices up) a permanent part of agriculture legislation.  

This means that in the name of caring for 'farmers', typical government program abuse has led us to a point where we send farm subsidy checks to 1,500 residents of New York City (none of whom are not making Salsa to my knowledge) for rural land they own elsewhere.  Extensive efforts by the Just Blowing Smoke Research Department were unable to confirm if any of these same people were simultaneously enrolled in SNAP, but it's possible.  Between the government imposed import controls, crop subsidies, and crop insurance, it would seem difficult if not impossible today not to profit by tilling the fields these days (or not tilling it, as the case might be).

Oh I'm sure that the budget battles will begin again when our esteemed national legislature returns to DC next month.  Congress has shown themselves all but incapable of passing the annual budgets that they're obligated to, relying instead on the magical misdirection of continuing resolutions to promote and prolong partisan bickering for political purposes.  I suspect however, that somewhere amidst the noise and distractions of raising the debt limit and passing that next continuing resolution however, a quiet compromise will be reached with regards to various parts of the Farm Bill.  The seeds of waste, abuse, and corruption were planted long ago in the fields of food production and food assistance.  They've been ably fertilized over the years by lobbyists for Agribusiness and watered by decades of elected officials running for the highest office in the land in early primary states and those who could see no further than the federal funding they could brag about bringing back to their districts.  Considering that sorry state of affairs, it's should therefore be no surprise that we have little more than a bitter harvest to look forward to where the Farm Bill is concerned.

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