Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Conflict between farmers and fiscal conservatives is overblown

There has long been a tension over farm subsidies within the conservative world. On the one hand, subsidizing anything is contrary to most conservative principles about how markets work -- or should work. On the other hand, farmers and ranchers tend to be generally very conservative in their politics -- and a pretty reliable Republican voting bloc.

Those who make their living in agriculture understand that the most important voice they have is in their U.S. Senators, since each state, no matter how sparsely populated, gets the same two votes. Farm state Senators have consistently been the difference-makers when it comes to providing government support for agriculture, sometimes in way that is healthy for the industry and the nation -- and sometimes not (think boondoggle corn ethanol subsidies.) Their elections often depend on how they are viewed by the farmers and ranchers in their states, a situation that isn't true in states with large urban populations. It isn't that there is an absence of agriculture going on in places like New York and Illinois -- far from it. It's just that the numbers of voters who have a connection to agriculture are a drop in the bucket compared to the immense urban populations found in those states.

The story, however, isn't as simple as fiscal absolutists in the Republican Party would like to make it. Farmers benefit from subsidies, but the ultimate beneficiaries are the food-buying public. For decades, the U.S. government has pursued "cheap food" policies and subsidies were a part of that, as were "get big or get out" policies that favored industrialized farming. Additionally, the entire financial and pricing structure of agriculture has developed around such subsidies. I've yet to meet a farmer or rancher who benefits from some sort of government assistance who hasn't said he would prefer to get that money in the form of higher commodity prices or lower operating costs. But subsidies can't be eliminated precipitously without massive disruptions for farmers and ranchers -- especially smaller operations that can't absorb sudden changes in the status quo.

In addition, the benefits are hardly distributed equally. Some agricultural products receive massive subsidies, while other receive none. Traditionally, agricultural subsidies are based on the scale of production, which means that a very small number of extremely large corporate operations receive the lion's share of government checks.

Tom Lutey's recent Gazette article thus does point up conflicts that do exist, but it is highly doubtful whether this internecine warfare will lead to any lasting political effects, no matter how much some would love for this to be so. While it probably wasn't Lutey's intent, at points his article reads like a cowboy boot-wearing Big Sky version of What's the Matter with Kansas?.

One hopes that debate over the "the farm bill" will lead to more fairness in how subsidies are distributed, eliminating some of the worst offenders in past farm bills. (The amount of the subsidies for corn, for instance, is mind-boggling.)

Besides cheap food policies, other things that need to be taken into consideration are subsidies provided by competitor nations to their farmers -- some subsidies in the U.S. are simply aimed at leveling the playing field. Since having a reliable and adequate source of food is a matter of vital national concern -- even national security -- this is a legitimate role for the government (although it would make more sense if tariffs on imports were the method used to level the playing field rather than subsidies -- another hot topic for another time.)

We suspect that any hopes Democrats have of exploiting any disagreement between conservatives in agriculture and conservatives elsewhere will prove ephemeral. If anything has been shown over the decades, it is that people vote for a broad variety of reasons, and naked economic interest is rarely the deciding point, especially for conservatives. The modern Democratic Party may be good at borrowing money and writing out checks to purchase voting blocs, but for the most part it has become an increasingly alien entity to rural America -- urban, coastal, secular, and hostile to an old-fashioned sense of America.

It is an America that we have all lost, no matter where we live, but while the modern Democratic Party embraces with glee the loss it helped to create, rural and small-town America tends to have a sense of sadness and nostalgia at the loss, and no farm subsidy payment is ever going to make up for it.

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Full disclosure: I receive a small direct government payment for some wheat fields that I have. I also have land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for which I receive government payments. That program has allowed me -- like my father before me -- to put marginal farm ground back into native grasses.

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