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March 18, 2009

Ag Subsidies are Popular

Matt Yglesias questions whether or not "everyone" really hates agricultural subsidies as an example of the worst kind of narrow interest groups politics. This comes in response to the inclusion of ag subsidies in a list by Stephen Walt of areas "where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change." Yglesias responds by pulling out a question from a recent Pew poll on Obama's proposed budget:

On the issue of reducing agricultural subsidies, more Republicans say it is the wrong thing than the right thing (57% vs. 34%), while Democrats and independents are more evenly divided.


To Yglesias, the poll:
seems to indicate that this is a bit more than a question of a narrow group blocking change. What may be happening is that since farm subsidies have passionate defenders in both parties, a wide swathe of people are accustomed to seeing them endorsed by leaders they trust.
I think he's being a bit glib here. The fact that Americans in general don't support cutting ag subsidies is easy to understand (although isn't it fascinating that Republicans overwhelmingly oppose cuts while Dems and independents are split - which is the party of big government again?) The repeated farm crises of the last 30 or so years along with the media drumbeat over the disappearing family farm have at a minimum demonstrated to voters the importance of government support for agriculture. It's a given in our society that farmers need help to survive. I don't think voters who express an opinion on ag subsidies need "passionate defenders" of them in government to tell them to do so.

If anything, this is a case where narrow, entrenched interest groups have subverted for their own ends what is generally perceived to be a public good. Most Americans are probably not well enough versed in ag policy to be aware that subsidies are only available on any scale for a small set of commodity crops like corn, wheat and rice. Or that it's illegal for farmers who receive commodity crop subsidies to plant fruits or vegetables on their land (although there's a bill before Congress to change that). Nor do they likely realize that the current subsidy regime, which encourages over-production and keeps corn prices artificially low, replaced a New Deal-era system that helped farmers far more than it helped industrial food processors (a phenomenon that is now reversed).

I'm sure you could easily craft a set of survey questions that teased out how voters felt about the current subsidy regime. They might not seem nearly so supportive of the particulars, even if they like the general idea. As for the impossibility of change the subsidy system, I'm with Walt on this one. With the entire food system an inverted pyramid balanced on a kernel of corn, it's no mystery that any attempt to "reform" subsidies will be immediately portrayed by agribusiness as a one-way ticket to Price Hike City.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what Yglesias' real point is. The food processing companies like ADM and Cargill are some of the most secretive privately-held companies in the world. They, along with farm industry groups like the American Farm Bureau as well as the food conglomerates, are some of the most well-connected interest groups in politics. Their representatives dominate congressional and executive branch hearings. They have sky-high lobbying budgets and fill campaign coffers of sympathetic farm state politicians to overflowing. They have, by most measures, bent the process to their will. That Americans ostensibly like the sausage doesn't mean they still would if they really knew what was in it.

Photo by cobalt123 used under a CC license


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Anonymous CTBanker said...

Clearly the wording of the question is important. "Reduce ag. subsidies for many farms" doesn't suggest an overall reduction of the subsidization of agriculture but rather it implies that farms will be selected for reductions. If you worded the question, "In the current era of record ag product prices, do you support reducing the amount that the government provides as direct payments to farmers, with the majority going to large factory operations?" you'd see very different results. Until I've seen the question asked several different ways and seen the variance in the responses, I don't believe that Americans overall support subsidies. Beyond this, of course GOPers support subsidies. They are the party of rural America -- the "real America," as their spokesmodel says.

Blogger Travis Saunders, MSc said...

Excellent post. This may be a naive question, but why does the GOP support farm subsidies so much? Wouldn't the more conservative party favor less subsidies? They seem to come out in force against any sort of extra tax on soft drinks because they would rather people make their own food choices without government interference, but they ignore the fact that soft drink prices are artificially low because corn production is subsidized. From an ideological perspective, I would have expected that it would be the Democrats and Independents who would be in favor of Ag subsidies in general.

Blogger Carl said...

Rural areas are more Republican. It's the flip side of Democratic politicians in New York fighting against taxes on hedge funds or financial regulation.

Blogger My Fat Spouse said...

How many millions of dollars does the government pass out in Ag subs every year? Who gets that money? are there any hidden costs, like say the obesity epidemic or the devastation that our corn subsidies have caused to the Mexican agricultural sector. Sugar used to employ quite a few Mexicans that have now found jobs in our formerly unionized slaughter houses and everywhere else in America.

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