Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CORN STARCH....E.J. Dionne notes that although the Republican presidential candidates are usually full of blustery talk about the evils of big government, they're a wee bit more cagey when it comes to specific examples that might be unpopular in early primary states:

Oh, yes, the candidates were all for big spending cuts — but only of the vague, across-the-board variety. When the brave foes of Washington's largess were confronted with a question about eliminating farm subsidies, they morphed into big-government guys.

Bold about slashing budgets earlier in the debate, Giuliani was judiciousness itself when it came to farmers. Farm spending cuts, he insisted, should not be done "simplistically." No, no, "we've got to do this very carefully."

Romney, who kept coming back to the dangers of runaway government outlays, insisted that farm subsidies were different because "it's important for us to make sure that our farmers are able to stay on the farm." Romney helpfully explained all this opportunism by ticking off the list of states besides Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating caucus, where farmers loom large. He sounded as if he were merrily counting delegate votes in his head.

Plus, guarding our precious food supply is a national security issue. Also a basic matter of anti-Europe fairness. And a boon for struggling family farmers. Uh huh.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Comments

Like the poor, it seems unnecessary ag subsidies will always be with us. That and a defense budget that accounts for 1/3 of annual spending.

Posted by: JeffII on November 30, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

It is really depressing how once every four years all the presidential candidates wax enthusiastically about how ethanol is the solution to all our problems, at least until after the Iowa caucuses.

Posted by: fafner1 on November 30, 2007 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

It's not really a "defense" budget though, is it. It is offensive, in every sense.

Posted by: craigie on November 30, 2007 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

one of these days a republican might actually lift a finger toward elimininating the energy and education departments -- after all they've been promising to do so for more than a quarter century. and i'm sure they were sincere promises, everyone of them.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on November 30, 2007 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

one of these days a republican might actually lift a finger toward elimininating the energy and education departments -- Posted by: mudwall jackson

Fuck you, troll! If both departments got half the money that defense has received since the beginning of the Iraq war, we'd have had a substitute for oil by now and All Children Left Behind would be just a cruel memory.

Why do trolls hate America?

Posted by: JeffII on November 30, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone still believe that the GOP is committed to smaller government and lowered spending? They put paid to that idea once they controlled both the Congress and the White House.

Posted by: Brian on November 30, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Sometimes I wonder how many of the opponents of agriculture subsidies have ever actually seen a farm, aside from that time they flew over Iowa, of course.

Our agriculture is our biggest export and possibly the largest export in the world. The system is enormous and enormously complex. Most of the people griping about subsidies don't know enough about it to gripe about the real subsidies that are hidden in plain sight.

For example, what do you know about the relationship between irrigation, conservancy, and power generation? Go to the head of the class if you even know there is a relationship, or that all of this may intersect with bulk transport and the futures market.

When has there been a society without government intervention in agricultural markets? Maybe someone could explain to us when that magical moment yielded a bounteous harvest, but it won't be me. Even the crofters in the Hebrides were part of a national economy and would have been displaced by someone else if they weren't.

The present vogue for ending agriculture subsidies is a clever move by Republicans to put our agriculture in hock to the international grain dealers. It's just about that simple, and a chronic debility of the so-called 'left' that they don't know enough about agriculture to see the problem.

Posted by: serial catowner on November 30, 2007 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Can one of these yutzes seriously win the presidency? Sure they can, but if they do I really fear for the country. The Dems have had some pretty weak candidates in the past, but nothing like these guys. I feel for their consultants, since they've got to figure out how to pivot these jagoffs from positions that are empty-head, paranoid and insane to something closer to the middle. Do Republicans out there see what a disaster the primary campaign is for the general election? They're practically teeing it up for the Dems. Not that they couldn't still blow it, but it they do, the Dems should shut their offices and just go home.

Posted by: JZ on November 30, 2007 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

E. J. Dionne is sniping at Republican Presidential candidates for sounding just like Democrats on farm subsidies. I agree with him.

Posted by: Zathras on November 30, 2007 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

Our agriculture is our biggest export and possibly the largest export in the world.

Yes. Because we developed a system of unnecessary price supports that encouraged the massive over production of, mostly, commodity crops in quantities that we can't possible consume here.

And then there are the subsidies for things like cotton and rice being grown in arid California, lettuce, one of the most water needy crops, being grown in Arizona. And then there is sugar.

The system is enormous and enormously complex.

Yes. But it needn't be. Mostly, it's just enormously wasteful with next to nothing of the subsidies and supports going the proverbial family farm, but to agra-business giants like ADM, Monsanto and Con Ag.

Most of the people griping about subsidies don't know enough about it to gripe about the real subsidies that are hidden in plain sight. . . Go to the head of the class if you even know there is a relationship, or that all of this may intersect with bulk transport and the futures market.

Yep. I want my gold star right fucking now!

For example, what do you know about the relationship between irrigation, conservancy, and power generation?

Yes. Because after the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Central Valley system in California, in the PNW we and the Snake and Columbia River system harnessed mostly for agriculture, power generation, and river transport. I've written more than once to the state ecology department to complain about water wasted in Eastern Washington's typical 90-degree weather as water continues to flow through open irrigation canals and farmers use sprinklers during the heat of the day. "Salmon? Fuck the salmon!"

The present vogue for ending agriculture subsidies is a clever move by Republicans to put our agriculture in hock to the international grain dealers. It's just about that simple, and a chronic debility of the so-called 'left' that they don't know enough about agriculture to see the problem. Posted by: serial catowner

My god! You haven't been paying attention. None of the Midwest, California, Gulf state or, or, . . . members of congress, regardless of party affiliation, are willing to even suggest the slightest fix or reduction for ag for fear of being a one-term member. Not even the people with supposedly gold-plated districts are willing to tackle this mess. Same thing is true of all the brave people from Michigan and making meaningful changes in CAFE standards.

Ag subsidies are, by and large, a waste of money that distorts the national economy and international trade.

Posted by: JeffII on November 30, 2007 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

And don't forget that people who live in "the heartland" are the real Americans, while the 80% who live in cities, well, they are just rootless cosmopolitans who don't count.

Posted by: Kenji on November 30, 2007 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Serial Cat Owner

Actually I grew up in a farm town (not a commodity crop farm town, so no subsidies for us). Subsidies are not about exports, they are about money. Thats why we subsidize crops like sugar beets (a nonstarter for exports) which compete for farmland with soybeans (a good export crop). I cant quite figure out what your point is. Are you saying the present system of government farm subsidies works well? You dont happen to own one of those mega-farms that suck in beau coup subsidies do you?

Posted by: fafner1 on November 30, 2007 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Not just on farm subsidies. I had low expectations for these jokers, but was still astonished by the incredible lameness and cowardice of just about every single answer to every question I watched. I expect a reasonable degree of evasion and sidestepping, but this was the most pathetic bunch I can remember ever watching.

Posted by: q on November 30, 2007 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

What I'm saying is that people should crack a book and learn more about this before shouting cheerful applause for the latest Tyler Cowen rant against "wasteful government spending".

Do we have an entirely wrong-headed system of agricultural subsidies? Maybe we do, but if the critic chorus is largely urging the people who run the system now to make changes, well, the changes that get made may not be what you expected.

My own feeling is that a wholesale move to sustainable organic farming is long overdue and will be forced on us by global warming and the backside of peak oil. But there's no free lunch. There will still be subsidies, in different forms, or we'll end up with silted-up irrigation projects, lands laden with salt, and most of our topsoil forming a new delta in the Gulf of Mexico. Not to mention being hungry.

And even as they stand, these subsidies are barely a tenth of what we pay for a "defense" that involves 10,000 nuclear weapons, a dozen nuclear task forces cruising the globe, and 600 bases abroad. When will we hear some serious talk about cutting that budget?

Priorities, people, it's all about priorities.

Posted by: serial catowner on November 30, 2007 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Do we have an entirely wrong-headed system of agricultural subsidies? Posted by: serial catowner

Pretty much.

Next question.

Posted by: JeffII on November 30, 2007 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

As someone quite familiar with farms (there's one not 200 feet from my back door), the problem isn't the theory of farm subsidies -- it's the fact there seems to be so little oversight in who gets them.

Small family farms were what the subsidies were supposed to help, but now huge conglomerates get them, with folks who live in Manhattan getting checks from the government.

The solution isn't to dump all subsidies. It's to have them make more sense.

Since farmers can make good money one year, and then lose it the next (often due to situations beyond their control) they need to look at NET income over several years.

Farmers need some cash reserves to help offset costs during lean years, but it makes zero sense to give handouts to those netting any more than, say, $500K a year over the course of several years.

Setting the bar around that amount allows farmers to stash money for future tough times, while cutting off the millionaires who keep getting fat checks.

Just my opinion, of course ...

Posted by: Mark D on November 30, 2007 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

Wait, so you're saying the market doesn't work properly all by itself?

Hold on, I'm feeling dizzy...

Posted by: craigie on November 30, 2007 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

serial catowner: There will still be subsidies, in different forms, or we'll end up with silted-up irrigation projects, lands laden with salt, and most of our topsoil forming a new delta in the Gulf of Mexico.

Often subsidies are exactly what causes such problems. Subsidized irrigation water means it makes financial sense for farmers to use wasteful irrigation practices instead of frugal ones like drip irrigation. In addition to wasting water, it greatly accelerates the rate at which the soil gets salted up.

Subsidizing crops where they can't otherwise be grown economically, like cotton in northern Texas, has the same effect. They're sucking water from the Oglala Aquifer faster than it is replenished so they can grow cotton in a place where (unsubsidized) it's uneconomical.

Of course then there are the indirect subsidies - like the de facto policy of tolerating illegal aliens so they can keep down the price of agricultural labor.

In addition to subsidies, the US, despite its supposed support for "free trade", has more tariffs on agricultural products than anything else. Uneconomical to produce orange juice or sugar in the US? No problem, we've got tariffs.

Worst of all is our ethanol tariff. Instead of importing it from places where it can be produced both economically and sustainably, like Brazil, we have both tariffs and subsidies so that we can produce it from an absurd source like domestic corn. The reduction in petroleum use with corn ethanol is laughably small, and of course corn is hard on the soil. So much for sustainability.

Posted by: alex on November 30, 2007 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

Of course subsidies caused those problems. But simply cutting some subsidies and feeling good about the fact that you're no longer subsidizing sugar growers in Florida, for example, is not going to solve those problems.

For starters, "cutting pork" becomes a publicity stunt, and subsidies like irrigation to corporate farms slide right in under the heading of "maintenance" or "flood control" or even "recreation". The Corps of Engineers has a hundred years of experience at boondoggling and most of us have about a year of experience at being outraged. Who do you think is going to win that fight?

And sometimes you need to bite the bullet and bribe people. In southern Oregon farmers are destroying the salmon run by stealing water from a river. For gods sake, pay these people not to farm! Pay them to grow a dry land crop until the current owner dies, when the land reverts to a soil bank. Send their kids to college and get them off the land.

Folks, we are talking climate change here that will make the Great Dust Bowl look like the bull pen before a big game. Just sitting around like some old coot growling about subsidies is not going to cut it.

Posted by: serial catowner on November 30, 2007 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

serial catowner: But simply cutting some subsidies and feeling good about the fact that you're no longer subsidizing sugar growers in Florida, for example, is not going to solve those problems.

Cutting, for example, subsidies for cotton, and tariffs for sugar, orange juice and (most importantly) corn ethanol, would be a good start.

subsidies like irrigation to corporate farms slide right in under the heading of "maintenance" or "flood control" or even "recreation"

First, it's not just corporate farms that benefit. Second, your attitude is nihilistic. Basically you're saying there's no way to eliminate this welfare. So why even discuss it?

And sometimes you need to bite the bullet and bribe people.

Yes, because farmers are sacred. Meanwhile, manufacturing workers and many others get screwed left and right by our "free trade" policies, and other than an occasional crocodile tear, nobody gives a damn.

The reason that the dollar is falling so much is simply that it's been too high for ten years. Manufacturing workers, engineers, etc. have been getting screwed by this, and (despite recent improvements) we have a dangerous trade deficit.

Maybe if farmers hadn't been so protected by tariffs and subsidies, they would have pushed for policies that led to a lower dollar, so they could export more food and we would import less.

In southern Oregon farmers are destroying the salmon run by stealing water from a river.

What do you mean "stealing"? If they're taking water that they have no legal right to, then they should be prosecuted, not bribed.

As for salmon runs: salmon is a luxury food, and there is a tradeoff between that and whatever the farmers are growing. If you're talking about wildlife and environmental preservation in general, then you should say so - the salmon are but a small part of the overall picture.

we are talking climate change here that will make the Great Dust Bowl look like the bull pen before a big game

All the more reason to stop, as soon as possible, subsidizing people to farm in places that are unsuitable and will be hardest hit by climate change.

I agree with Mark D above that there may be some place for ag subsidies. Mostly to even out year-to-year fluctuations and promote sustainable practices. But our current subsidies mostly promote unsustainable practices - we'd be better off without any subsidies than what we have now.

Posted by: alex on November 30, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

"He sounded as if he were merrily counting delegate votes in his head."

I almost spit my wine out! This is positively Clintonesque coverage of a...a...a republican!

The tide has changed! But don't stop doing Gods work, Kev!

Posted by: mickslam on November 30, 2007 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, any country that doesn't support its agricultural infrastructure is fucking stupid.

This includes any country, for example one whose initials are USA, that subsidizes its agribusiness giants while letting its real agricultural infrastructure, i.e. its topsoil, get flushed away down the river while real farmers drown in debut.

Posted by: thersites on December 1, 2007 at 1:41 AM | PERMALINK

It is overwhelmingly corporate farms that benefit. The family farm has gone the way of the salmon, that is to say, 95% of what we once had is now gone. In terms of the tonnage or dollars, American agriculture is corporate agriculture.

But saying we'd be better off simply dropping these corporate freeloaders from the welfare rolls misses a big point- they don't care. The big action in agriculture takes place in the markets, and the markets can crush the farmer or the consumer. The markets for our biggest crops will have no problem finding money to tide them over in a pinch.

In fact, that is the specialty of the markets- taking advantage of the fact that neither the farmer nor the consumer can store a years worth of food and defy the market. In actuality, of course, you could store 800 pounds of wheat (a lot of Mormons do just that) if you have a spare room. Of course, then you have to eat wheat every day to rotate your stock, and that in fact would be the healthiest way to live- but I'm not going to hold my breath while you all go out and buy your grain grinder and 800 pounds of wheat. I've done it myself and the only person who thought it made sense was the Mormon trucker who grew and delivered the organic wheat.

America grows something like ten times the capacity of all of our elevators and storage facilities. You can't turn the international grain trade on and off like your kitchen faucet.

As for the salmon, don't get me started. I have things to do today. If the thread survives the day I may comment later.

Posted by: serial catowner on December 1, 2007 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

JeffI:"defense budget that accounts for 1/3 of annual spending."

Fuck you, you right wing troll! It's over 60%, not 1/3. All you wingers try to hide this by including Social Security in the numbers, but it doesn't belong there.

Posted by: Eric on December 1, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin drum is a piece of crap; he calls the great Ron Paul a "fruitcake" as well as an "immature politician". Kevin has his "Bachelors" degree in journalism from CSULB, where his grades where not the best. He did not attend any top university's. Ron Paul on the other hand got his medical doctorate at Duke University School of Medicine. He is also a congressman and a practicing surgeon and physician. Kevin is non of these, not even close, Kevin is proud of jacking off to homosexual internet porn. Kevin has very little money, and Ron Paul is rich. Kevin would eat the corn out of Charles Peters shit for a pat on the back.

Posted by: joel on December 2, 2007 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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