There is no sector of the American economy that has been so systematically and unnecessarily coddled for so long as agriculture. Stretching back to the 1800s, the federal government has been steadily piling on a hugely complex network of subsidies, payouts, grants, insurances, exemptions, regulations, loan programs, tariffs, production controls, protections, and who even knows what else meant to help out the supposedly struggling agricultural industry — except that none of the ostensible reasons for which the government claimed they did so actually apply anymore, if they ever did in the first place.
Alleviating farmer poverty? Farm household incomes are well above the national median. Saving the family farm? The vast majority of federal subsidies benefit the largest and wealthiest echelon of agribusiness growers of the ten biggest crops, not the small farms producing the organic butternut squash and boutique tomatoes we’re told we should be eating. Ensuring a cheap and stable food supply? The government constantly distorts market signals that jack up prices and misallocate resources — the free market just does it better. Protecting the environment? Big fail there, too: The government’s subsidies are become a part of lands’ values and create incentives for bringing marginal lands into production.
All of these agriculture and rural subsidies are so politically entrenched, however, as to have rendered them practically infallible — which is a darn shame, because as even the Washington Post editors opine, America is directly enriching an industry that doesn’t need the help in the slightest.
Actually, farming no longer resembles the hardscrabble family enterprise of so much mawkish marketing. Much of it is dominated by large operators supplying not only the U.S. dinner table but also far-flung export markets. Notwithstanding a major drought, net farm income for 2012 reached $112.8 billion, according to the Agriculture Department, down only slightly from the previous year’s record of $117.9 billion in 2011. USDA expects farm income to hit a post-1973 high of $128.2 billion in 2013. …
Farmers are wealthy, the U.S. food supply is not remotely at risk — and yet the government still piles on the subsidies. They totaled an annual average of $11.5 billion over the past four years, according to USDA. …
But limiting agricultural corporate welfare to a quarter-million dollars per couple is a far cry from a total rethink of farm policy, which might start with this question: Perhaps God made the farmer, as Paul Harvey says. But does the federal taxpayer have to make him rich?
The Post also points out that big agriculture-related companies are major recruiters on Midwest college campuses, and that students majoring in agricultural studies have the third-lowest unemployment rate of any undergraduate major. This is hardly an industry on the strugglebus — it’s food, people. The demand won’t be going away anytime soon.
The government only gets in the way of innovation and efficiency as they dole out what usually amounts to corporate welfare for the politically favored few.