February 23 2012

The Farm Bill’s “Growing” Problem

Nicole Kurokawa Neily

There was an interesting discussion over at The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” feature yesterday on reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Three scholars who I like very much – the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson, the Mercatus Center’s Tyler Cowan, and Public Notice’s Gretchen Hamel – weighed in for the good guys, arguing that we must scale back (in fact, Tyler calls for terminating!) the program as a first step on our nation’s road to fiscal responsibility.

Related to this discussion, I came across the infographic below, which was created by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 2007 (during an earlier round of debate over Farm Bill reauthorization.) It provides an excellent visualization of where subsidies go – and how that affects the food we eat. Companies aren't stupid - in most cases, they're going to buy the cheapest products possible to produce a quality product. So when we oversubsidize meat, dairy,  and grains, we get... a lot more meat, dairy, and grains!

Obviously, my libertarian fantasy of simply ending the Farm Bill is politically difficult… but fortunately, my friends Sallie James and Dan Griswold (also of the Cato Institute) have thought through how best to address this problem. In the briefing paper “Freeing the Farm: A Farm Bill for All Americans,” James and Griswold detail a process to gradually phase out subsidies and tariffs – eventually leading to an agricultural system with far less government intervention than our current model. The paper is well worth a read, as it addresses the political reality of an entrenched, vocal interest group.

Winding down federal programs is a challenge… but as James and Griswold show, it’s not impossible. As the nation continues to careen towards fiscal Armageddon, it’s certainly necessary to terminate programs altogether – not just to freeze spending or to slow the growth thereof. Of the programs that should be on the chopping block, the Farm Bill is certainly a fine place to start. 

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