November 14, 2008

Checkers vs. Chess

As long as we're all going to assume Vilsack is our new Ag Sec'y, I may as well keep playing along. Ezra Klein takes issue with my Nixon-to-China analogy as not properly capturing the interest group dynamics involved in farm subsidies. Well, fine. But as he would have it:
The question is not a vulnerability in the realm of political narrative, but a tangible economic cost inflicted on an interest group that's been very effective at hijacking our system of regional representation. That it's an Iowan closing the spigot won't blunt the uproar among farm state senators who see those subsidies as crucial for their state's economies
If that's the case, then the truth is that no Secretary of Agriculture could ever enact meaningful reform. What's that you say? Some fiery reform-minded insurgent is going to storm in and change everything? Like that ever happens. Well, okay, maybe that happens sometimes, but the will of the American electorate, strong as it is, pales in comparison to that of the Farm Lobby. So that leaves the Department of Agriculture as the last place you'd go for subsidy reform.

Meanwhile, Ezra also managed to get Michael Pollan on the record as skeptical of Vilsack's potential. Pollan also again advocated for a "food policy advisor" who would, according to Pollan:
help coordinate policy across the Cabinet departments, so that health impacts are considered when write USDA rules, or food safety when writing trade rules, or climate change impacts when drawing the farm bill, etc etc. You need someone who can connect the dots between agriculture and health and energy and climate-- as Obama himself clearly is inclined to do. That won't happen at any one department.
Now, I've never been a big fan of a "czar" of this or that. Typically, they are more cheerleader than regulator and often lack budgets and true executive power. However, this line of thought got me thinking: What if our President-elect is once again playing chess while the rest of us fiddle around with checkers?

This is pure (hopeful) speculation, of course, but let's connect some dots. It's well established that Obama is a pragmatist. At the same time, in his food policy comment that got the foodies so excited in the first place, Obama is really coming at the problem from the perspective of climate change. And, as Ezra elegantly summarizes, though its power over subsidies remains, the Agriculture Department actually regulates a shrinking portion of the economy. While farming was once the country's main economic activity, it is now a tiny fraction of our overall economic output. In the days of yore, farming was a behemoth. "Today," as Ezra says, "it's an interest group. It begs subsidies and mainly supports massive corporations."

When I chew all that up, here's what I spit out. By putting Vilsack in charge, Obama is signaling that he's NOT attacking subsides frontally. For Obama, it will be all about climate change. I seriously doubt he'll create a food czar. But I would bet good money that Obama will create a Czar of All the Climate, i.e. a Cabinet-level Climate Secretary. If you empower a climate czar with actual power over the country's carbon emissions, you force the issue. Imagine if the Climate Sec'y came up with a carbon budget for different economic sectors, or forced each cabinet department to come up with a carbon reduction plan for each of its regulated industries. In that scenario, the current farm subsidy regime gets transformed into some kind of emissions reduction system. And we know from Pollan that monoculture Big Farming can't survive without the overwhelming use of fossil fuels - from diesel fuel to pesticides. That's how a strategist of Obama's class would operate and that's how he could reform the US agricultural sector.

Am I getting carried away? Sure. But seeing how greatly we've underestimated Obama time and time again in the last 18 months, why are we all so convinced he's about to underdeliver on something (i.e. climate change) that he says is his number one priority after the economy. I bet he goes long.

Image by frankblacknoir used under CC license

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Blogger charliereece said...

Nice West Wing reference.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Tom! Gets me all hopeful again. And the last time that happened.... well, HOPE TRIUMPHED!

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