April 23, 2009

Ag Subsidies are Popular Part Deux
I had a back and forth and back with Matt Yglesias recently on the question of whether or not Americans support farm subsidies. At the time, all we had to debate was a single question from a single Pew poll -- which indicated that Americans like farm subsidies. But despite the merits of either argument, I just didn't buy that you could determine anything from a single, vaguely worded question:
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.
And lo and behold, along comes World Public Opinion to help fill in some of the blanks. It turns out that, as you might expect, Americans hold a fairly nuanced view on farm subsidies (and it doesn't seem to matter whether poll-takers lived in a farm state or not). They don't support them for large farm businesses but they do support them for small farms. This is, as the survey points out, ironic since small farmers currently receive little to no subsidies. Significantly, Americans generally oppose the new (yes, new) subsidy system:
Americans are also at odds with the way that farm subsidies are provided. Most subsidies are provided on a regular annual basis, independent of whether it was a good year or a bad year for the farmer. However only minorities of Americans think that subsidies should be provided on a regular annual basis, whether for small farms (37%) or large farms (15%).
The current system -- finalized in the 1996 Farm Bill -- removed all commodity price supports, ended the use of a federal grain reserve to control supply (we still technically have one but since 1996 it can't be used to control grain supply) and allows farmers to receive payments even during good times. This new "deregulated" farm subsidy system -- having unleashed market forces back into agriculture, an area where thousands of years of experience taught us it didn't belong -- has encouraged overproduction of commodities like corn and depressed prices far below farmers' costs of production. And like the financial system which was also deregulated into chaos, it desperately needs re-regulation. If you don't believe me, just ask the dairy farmers. All this is why one of Michael Pollan's suggested "fixes" for the food system involves establishing a strategic grain reserve (or more precisely allowing the current reserve to once again control supply).

Sadly, the survey didn't get to some of the meatier aspects of the system, such as the fact that only a handful of commodities are eligible for subsidies while fruits and vegetables by and large are not. This just goes to show that the more you poll / inform people on this issue, the more likely you are to see hostility to the system we've got. None of that makes reforming the system any easier. But the more light we shine on a system that has been captured by a set of narrow interests, the easier it will be to build the coalitions we need to fight it.

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