Politics

It's economics, not agronomy

Why gutting commodity subsidies should be the focus of Farm Bill reform efforts

Thomas Dobbs is Professor Emeritus of Economics at South Dakota State University, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow. ----- Tom Philpott wrote an article in which he challenged some of the key assumptions underlying Farm Bill reform efforts of the past year ("It's the Agronomy, Stupid"). He contended that gutting commodity subsidies would not solve the U.S.'s long-standing oversupply problems, and that we need the money currently in the "commodity" title to remain available for eventual support of conservation and other measures reformers hold dear. The following day, a guest post by Britt Lundgren appeared in Gristmill, contending that Philpott missed the real point of the Farm Bill debate. The real point, said Lundgren, is "whether or not the current suite of farm subsidies are actually an effective and productive way to support agriculture in the U.S." I find myself largely in agreement with the contents of Lundgren's post, but I want to address more directly Philpott's contention that "it's the agronomy" that matters. I disagree. "It's the economics" that matters in assessing the consequences of the U.S. farm program's heavy emphasis on commodity subsidies.

The future of the farm bill

Moving toward responsible agriculture

North Dakota senator Kent Conrad calls the farm bill a "legislative battleship that you cannot turn around quickly." As of mid-November 2007, this year's $286 billion farm bill appears to be having engine trouble. It is stalled in the Senate, and there is talk of a presidential veto. Should farmers be able to receive more than $250,000 in subsidy payments? What should the funding be for biofuels, for school lunches? Most of these arguments are about the speed of the battleship, or which flags it should fly, not the direction. For generations, that direction has been the maintenance and continued acceptability of high-input, industrialized agriculture -- "production agriculture" to its defenders. The farm bill is the legislative and financial instrument by which we attempt to turn an agriculture that is economically, socially, and ecologically unsound into something that is politically acceptable. This is getting harder and harder to do.

A litmus test for good economic policy

Pro-business vs. pro-market

Much of the debate around the big issues of our day -- from energy to healthcare -- hinges on whether one is "pro-market" or "pro-government," with Cato and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page lining up on one side and any number of PIRGs on the other. Unfortunately, neither side appears to understand the pro-market position. Herewith, my attempt to add a bit more rigor to the debate. So what does a market look like? At the most basic level, a market is defined by its characteristics. There are various definitions out there, but they all come down to the same basic tests: No barriers to entry No barriers to exit Price transparency (e.g., prices reflect costs) No participants can independently affect price Meet these tests and Adam Smith's magic starts to work, whereby the self-interest of each participant leads to social benefit for all in the form of better products and services, at lower prices. Why? Because life in a perfect market sucks! If you're running a firm in a market as defined above, you don't sleep well at night. New entrants keep cropping up. If you can't stay competitive, you're going to lose your money. Tiny changes in raw material costs have big impacts on your profits, which you are completely powerless to change. This causes you to do two things:

CNN on Grist's climate forum

Wherein I joke about John Edwards’ hair

CNN did a short segment on our presidential climate forum and the difficulty of raising the issue’s political profile. It’s actually a fairly astute piece. I appear toward the end.

They write stories

Coverage of Grist’s presidential climate forum

Here’s a quick roundup of coverage of Grist’s presidential climate forum. If you see other stories, leave them in comments. From MSM: CNN: “Climate Change Politics“ AP: "Edwards, Clinton aim at climate change" The New …

Japanese whaling fleet to hunt up to 1,035 whales, including 50 humpbacks

Japan’s oft-criticized “scientific” whaling fleet will be extra busy this season as it aims to land up to 1,035 whales in what could be the country’s largest whale hunt in modern times. Included in the …

More light, less heat

Reflections on Grist’s presidential forum on climate change

On Saturday, presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton gathered in L.A. to discuss climate and energy at a forum co-sponsored by Grist and PRI’s Living on Earth. The forum was moderated by …

Success

The Grist presidential forum on climate and energy went off without a hitch and was a huge success. I’ll have much more to say about it tomorrow, but for now I just want to thank, …

Anticipation

I’m sitting here at the venue for tomorrow afternoon’s event: the Wadsworth Theater. It is … large. I think around 1500 people are going to be sitting in here tomorrow, judging me for the poor …

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