A friend who is knowledgeable in Federal agriculture policy recently sent me an article from The New York Times which reminded me of the failures of policy in this area and the political difficulties in dealing with them. Since the passage of the acclaimed Freedom To Farm Act in the mid-1990’s, which was supposed to wean food producers off their heavy government subsidies, annual direct payments to farmers in the U.S. have tripled to $28 billion in 2000, one-half of all the money made by farmers! Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman admitted that farming has “become largely an income transfer program”, with the government underwriting rural businesses and requiring very little in return. These subsidies, of course, are not about food supply but about keeping rural areas afloat, and they are kept in place by what I call the “agricultural way of life lobby”. The huge dependencies are a problem for President Bush and the Republicans because a large majority of the money goes to states that sent Republicans to Congress (and Bush to the White House). If Social Security is the “third rail” of American politics, this may be the fourth. Still, it’s time for intellectual honesty in agricultural policy and I haven’t heard much of it lately.
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