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Payments `scandal' in eye of beholder

With preliminary talks already underway on legislation to follow the current "Freedom to Farm Act" when it expires, the national media have begun weighing in with their "stop-the-payments-going-to-all-those-rich-farmers" editorial kibitzing.

The Washington Post, in a recent piece entitled "The Farm Subsidy Scandal" (in Washington, where government and politics are the tail that wags the dog, "scandal" is almost a required headline word in order to get anyone's attention), contends federal farm programs "are riddled with hypocrisies."

Noting that the U.S. has averaged $14 billion per year "propping up farmers, a considerable increase in the spending under former-president George Bush," spending that is "defended with the rhetoric about the need to help poor family farmers," the article goes on to declare "the truth is that the bulk of it goes to large land holders, who use it to drive down prices and push small farms under." Worse, it says, the government payments often result in damage to the environment and "consistently undermine the efforts of developing countries to follow Washington's economic prescriptions."

The latter occurs, the writer asserts, because "for at least two decades, American administrations have been telling developing countries to export their way out of poverty." But rather than "building white elephant steel mills" and encouraging third world countries to industrial self-sufficiency, the article says, these nations should be helped to "focus on producing things for which they have a natural advantage - such as agricultural goods."

The U.S. and "other rich countries" have made this difficult, it says, by imposing tariffs and quotas that keep farm products from developing nations out of rich markets, and by subsidies to farmers, which keep production higher and prices lower than they would otherwise be, "hobbling poor countries chances of making a living from agriculture."

The main reason for this "scandal," the article avers: politics. Even though they represent a very small percentage of the work force of the U.S., Japan, the European Union, etc., "farmers everywhere seem adept at holding politicians hostage."

In the U.S., it says, "agribusiness outdoes such rivals as the auto and chemical industries in handing out soft money to campaign committees. Each farm guarded by a growing lobby. In 1996, Congress attempted to introduce market discipline into farming, but the lobbies have seen to it that subsidies have kept expanding anyway."

The piece concludes with a slap at President Clinton for talking about reform but doing nothing, and the hope that President Bush "will make a serious effort to translate words into action."

It's interesting that articles such as this, decrying farm programs, advocating more agricultural competition from developing nations, etc., conveniently overlook the fact that (1) the American consumer has been the primary beneficiary of American agriculture's success by having to spend a lower percentage of its income on food than any country in the world; (2) if world food production were left to developing nations, a lot less would be produced and a lot of folks (including editorial-writing opponents) might be significantly less well-fed, and (3) "subsidizing" agriculture is no less questionable than bailing out S&Ls, spending millions on witch hunts of one kind or another, or tossing billions down various ratholes in government itself.

It would, I suppose, be churlish to point out that, had the Freedom of Farm legislation been allowed to work as written, and had Congress done nothing to assist farmers during the past three years when markets shriveled and prices went to the dogs, a whale of a lot of the family farmers that the editorial writers are so fond of pontificating about would've gone down the bankruptcy tubes.

Denouncing payments to farmers is easy editorial fodder for the national media, since much of their audience hasn't a clue where milk comes from, let alone the effort, cost, and problems of producing it and the other foods/fiber they take for granted.

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