Sunday, July 29, 2007

American Farmers Addicted to Harvesting Cash

Fifty-seven percent of farms receive no payments and two-thirds of those that do receive less than $10,000. The largest 8 percent of farms receive 58 percent of the payments. Farms with revenues of $250,000 or more receive payments averaging $70,000.

Under the continuing New Deal approach, five commodities -- corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat -- got about 90 percent of last year's $19 billion in subsidies. This is a perverse incentive for overproduction of the five, which depresses prices, which triggers federal supports.

By subsidizing corn-based ethanol, the government is making the "crop specific" approach to subsidies increasingly irrational: Ethanol enthusiasm has produced a one-year increase of 12 percent in acres planted in corn, the price of which has risen 20 percent in a year. So farmers are planting fewer acres in soybeans, which therefore also are being made more expensive by federal policy. Furthermore, U.S. agriculture subsidies, which have the World Trade Organization properly frowning, are becoming major impediments to further liberalization of global trade, and hence to the huge potential growth of U.S. farmers' incomes from exports.

Agriculture policy -- another manifestation of the welfare state, another contributor to another faction's entitlement mentality -- involves a perennial conundrum of welfare, corporate as well as individual: How do you break an addiction to government without breaking the addicted? If Lugar and like-minded legislators can accomplish their aims, their achievement will be comparable to the welfare reform of 1996 -- the fecund year of the short-lived Freedom to Farm Act. As Lugar again puts his hand to the plow, attempting to plow under a New Deal remnant, wish him well.

~George Will from his most recent column

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