The President has expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed Farm Bill wending its way through Congress. He wants farmers whose annual incomes exceed $200,000 to be denied subsidies; the present cutoff is $2.6 million and Congress will not go below $950,000. The President's concern with farm subsidies cannot be taken very seriously, since in 2002 the Republican Congress with Administration connivance greatly increased these subsidies and at the same time repealed some of the modest reforms that the Clinton Administration had introduced in 1996. The Administration's current proposals would, if enacted, be a step in the right direction, but they will not be enacted, and, judging from the 2002 legislation, they are intended I suspect merely to embarrass the Democratic Congress.
The deregulation movement passed agriculture by, leaving in place a series of government programs that lack any economic justification and at the same time are regressive. They should offend liberals on the latter score and conservatives on the former; their firm entrenchment in American public policy illustrates the limitations of the American democratic system. A million farmers receive subsidies in a variety of forms (direct crop subsidies, R&D, crop insurance, federal loans, ethanol tariffs, export subsidies, emergency relief, the food-stamp program, and more), which will cost in the aggregate, under the pending Farm Bill, some $50 billion a year, or $50,000 per farmer on average. Farm subsidies account for about a sixth of total farm revenues. So, not surprisingly, the income of the average farmer is actually above the average of all American incomes, and anyway 74 percent of the subsidies go to the 10 percent largest farm enterprises. The subsidies are regressive, especially during a recession coinciding with worldwide food shortages (i.e., high prices).
There is no justification for the Farm Bill in terms of social welfare. The agriculture industry does not exhibit the symptoms, such as large fixed costs, that make unregulated competition problematic in some industries, such as the airline industry, about which Becker and I blogged recently. It is true that crops are vulnerable to disease, drought, floods, and other natural disasters, but the global insurance industry insures against such disasters, and in addition large agricultural enterprises can reduce the risk of such disasters by diversifying crops and by owning farm land in different parts of the nation and the world. If a farm enterprise grows soybeans in different regions, a soybean blight in one region, by reducing the supply of soybeans, will increase the price of soybeans, so the enterprise will be hedged, at least partially, against the risk of disaster. Supply fluctuations due to natural disaster create instability in farm prices, but farmers can hedge against such instability by purchasing future or forward contracts. There is no "market failure" problem that would justify regulating the farm industry. All the subsidies should be repealed.
This of course will not happen, and that is a lesson in the limitations of democracy, at least as practiced in the United States at this time, though I doubt that it is peculiarities of American democracy that explain the farm programs, for their European counterparts are far more generous. The small number of American farmers is, paradoxically, a factor that facilitates their obtaining transfer payments from taxpayers. They are so few that they can organize effectively, and being few the average benefit they derive (the $50,000 a year) creates a strong incentive to contribute time and money to securing the subsidies. The free-rider problem that plagues collective action is minimized when the benefit to the individual member of the collective group is great. Then too many of the members of the farm community and hence recipients of the subsidies are wealthy, and the wealthy have great influence in Congress as a result of the lack of effective limitations on private financing of congressional campaigns and on lobbying generally. In addition, the allocation of two senators to each state regardless of population enhances the political power of sparsely populated states, which tend to be disproportionately agricultural. The key role of Iowa in the presidential electoral process is a further barrier to the abolition of farm subsidies, and the final factor is the alliance of urban with farm interests in support of the food-stamp program, itself inferior to a negative income tax, which would give the poor money but allow them to make their own consumption choices.
A puzzle about the farm programs is the heavy emphasis on money subsidies, since by reducing the cost of farming they encourage greater output, which results in lower prices for farm products, thus offsetting some, perhaps much, of the effect of the subsidies. (The lower prices are not a social benefit, because as the result of subsidization they are below cost.) Acreage restrictions, which used to be the core of federal farm policy, and which correspond to the type of entry-limiting regulations imposed on airlines, railroads, trucking, pipelines, long-distance telecommunications, banking, and the wholesale sale of electricity, before the deregulation movement, are more efficient at raising farmers‚Äô incomes by reducing output, in effect cartelizing agriculture. Those restrictions have been reduced, but between them and export subsidies (which reduce the supply of agricultural products to American consumers) farm prices in America are higher than they would be without the farm programs, and this contributes to the regressive effects of the programs.