Unlike most of the federal government, which is marked by unintended failure and inefficiency, the Department of Agriculture usually manages to fulfill its mission. Unfortunately, its mission is to throw money away. It ought to be called the Department of Welfare, Crony Subsidies, and Math about Vegetables.
The department employs egg inspectors and cheese-seizers, but that’s about where its utility maxes out. You can run through the budget line by line for a half-hour without finding a program worth saving.
The bulk of its budget, some $126 billion, is required by law to be wasted on welfare, farm subsidies, and such, but for the $25 billion remainder, the department has some discretion as to how it would like to waste the money on welfare and farm subsidies. There are massive programs for wasting the money indiscriminately, but also grant programs to spend the money in a targeted pointless way. An Austin gardener wants $100,000 to sell his hippie neighbors on the merits of organic produce? This is the place to fund that.
Now that the monstrosity known as Farm Bill 2018 is rumbling to life, the free market R Street Institute has put out a short report on our serious options for making the thing slightly less bad. For example, farmers can collect from two separate federal crop programs for the very same loss. R Street dares to suggest that one of those programs might be trimmed just a bit. This is the “harvest-price option,” which allows farmers to purchase insurance that pays out at either current market price at the time of purchase or the eventual harvest price, whichever is higher. The feds pay about 60 percent of the cost of premiums, and also guarantee the insurers a 14.5 percent profit on the program.
As if it made any sense to subsidize money-losing endeavors, in 2014 Congress decided to increase the incentives for failure, creating two new programs called Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage that simply made direct payments to farms that lost money, on top of any insurance payouts.
Free money proved to be far more popular than Congress initially forecast, and the ARC and PLC are costing taxpayers $31 billion over five years instead of the projected $12.6 billion.
“One reasonable reform would be to institute a ‘no-double-dipping’ provision that would require farmers to choose between either subsidized crop insurance coverage or (ARC and PLC),” says Caroline Kitchens of R Street.
Meantime, the farmers’ lead advocate, a man named Zippy, goes around telling everyone that the farmers have already sacrificed enough, so don’t go cutting more. The members involved all dutifully repeat the talking point.
“At the time of passage, the 2014 farm bill was estimated to contribute $23 billion to deficit reduction over 10 years,” Zippy says, innocently forgetting to note that those savings never materialized.
The House Agriculture Committee, meanwhile, is looking to overhaul one subsidy — for cotton — that didn’t lavish quite enough money on agribusiness. The Stacked Income Protection Plan, apparently, has not adequately protected the incomes of the stacked, according to Ag Committee Chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
Kitchens endorses several of the modest reforms contained in the Assisting Family Farmers Through Insurance Reform Measures (AFFIRM) Act, which was introduced in the House by Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and in the Senate by Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Most of them are aimed at reducing the flow of money to big agribusiness. According to one recent analysis, 77 percent of farm subsidies flow to the top 10 percent of the industry.
While their bill is unlikely ever to see the floor, parts of it could be offered as amendments to the Farm Bill, although success is unlikely. That’s because the Farm Bill represents Congress at its worst. It pairs funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with the subsidies for big agribusiness in order to create a bipartisan coalition of urban and rural lawmakers joining forces against the common good.
So we get benefits cards being used at casinos and marijuana dispensaries, or corner beer marts offering specials on crack pipes. I once visited all 17 stores in the Dallas area that both accepted benefits cards and had beer or tobacco in their names. I found plenty of stores doing the legal minimum to comply with the pretense that they were grocers — you’d pass a dusty can of Spam and some smushed white bread on a shelf on your way to the coolers. My favorite was a storefront next to a homeless shelter in South Dallas that didn’t bother with the Spam — its only products were ice cream, beer, malt liquor, and whatever else the shirtless, tattooed young man with the braided beard might have had stashed behind the counter. Your tax dollars at work.
Of course, the waste isn’t the worst of it. Welfare has destroyed the working class in this country. And for what? So we can pretend there’s a hunger crisis in this country? So we can feel good about ourselves?
The truth about the Farm Bill is right there in a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos. From the subsidized corn meal you start with, to the benefits card that pays for it, we spend hundreds of billions on garbage, and pretend we’re actually accomplishing something.
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