Saturday, November 03, 2007

Circling the drain...

The legislative churning of the new farm bill is being matched by the furious spate of crusading editorials. Victor Davis Hanson (I thought poets and assassins were the only three-namers?) weighs in from the far, sanctimonious right.
The result is that there is absolutely no need for this federal relic for 21st Century prospering farmers. Republicans should disavow the program because it goes against their professed creed of free markets, self-reliance and small government.

Democrats have even less reason to vote for these big giveaways to large and often corporate farms -- two-thirds of the direct payouts going to the wealthiest 10 percent of growers. Isn't corporate welfare at odds with the little-guy, egalitarian concerns of traditional liberals?

If these farm bills are illogical and contrary to the beliefs of both parties, why do they continue?

Hint: Agribusiness lobbyists fund politicians' campaigns. In return, grateful politicians promise donors someone else's federal dollars. Then both groups think up creative ways to keep the money rolling in.

The $280 billion-plus farm bill is not the largest waste of federal funds, but it is the most unnecessary -- and dishonest. We are running federal budget deficits.

The shameful thing is not that the farm bill will probably pass, but that it was even introduced. [More]

Hanson (who enjoys being referred to as "VDH") is essentially correct, but his superficial understanding of of industrial agriculture (he refers to a "massive air-conditioned tractor combine") and pompous reputation spoil much of the effect. More interesting to me is before he decided to become the final word in historical academics at the Hoover Institute, he was writing Wendell Berry - type agrarianism polemics.

Besides, if observers like ol' VDH haven't caught on yet, fiscal responsibility is sooo yesterday - especially on the right. If anyone would have told me we would look back on Bill Clinton as the epitome of spending restraint I would have doubled over laughing. To be fair, it required Newt to make it happen too.

TIME magazine meanwhile, devotes considerable space in the current issue to a summary of the farm bill and comparison of two Nebraska farms - one large, one on the cusp of being big enough to survive. The article is accurate, but misses the growing distinction between agrarian and industrial production. Most notably it includes [in the magazine, but not online] a photo of one of the most horrifying safety blunders I have ever seen published.
[A young farmer is holding his two-year old son on his lap with an arm wrapped around him, operating an loader tractor without cab or rollover moving big round bales. As a grandfather myself, I was ready to declare child abuse. A slip of the clutch foot and we have another statistic about why farms, or at least small farms, may NOT the best place to raise children. This lapse is inexcusable in my book, or at least left over from older, stupider times.]
But I digress.

Still critics seem to think wasting money will make legislators think twice, but exposes of the
sugar program, for example and its costs simply seem to make other legislators determined to get theirs. And now that PAYGO rules are routinely neutralized by a bevy of byzantine legislative maneuvers, not only is spending in vogue, there are few ways to stop it.

For example, recent CBO explanations point out the supposed "savings" from the ACR are really costs that occur after the budget period.
Compared to current law, on a crop-year basis, the choice between traditional programs and the ACRP would increase government costs by $4.7 billion over 10 years. However, on a fiscal-year basis, the choice between traditional programs and the ACRP would reduce government costs by $2.4 billion over 10 years because the schedule for ACRP payments would be slower than traditional payments. Thus, some of the costs of the new program would not occur until after 2017. [More from Jim Weisemeyer by subscription]
This now-standard habit of having the bill come when the accountant and legislator have retired is one reason why the AMT, estate tax, and similar tricked-up measures are waiting to explode after current occupants are golfing. The larger question is how many times can we pull this stunt? If we slide into recession, my guess is not many.

The remaining cards to be played seem to be payment limits/means tests and the possibility of a veto. The impending Statement of Position from the administration and breadth of farm bill passage (i.e. Is it veto-proof?) could be the only chance to rein in the farm program for now.

Ya gotta admit, however, a lot more people came to play in this game than last time. I think the EWG website can be fairly credited with this awareness-raising result.


Joe said...

Ya know, after working a 90 hour week, juggling three generations on a family farm, keeping things running, seeing my name in the paper as the greedy farmer, again, I don't care about the farm bill. Why doesn't somebody try something inovative and drop it.

John Phipps said...


Thanks for reading (and taking the trouble to find JWorld!).

I'm with you. It looks to me like Sen. Lugar's proposal is a good place to start.

Even payment limits would help. If they didn't send money to me or guys like me, we'd still be on the same competitive level.