09 February 2014

The system's broken

 The Economist discusses the US Farm Bill, passed on 4 February:
[M]ore than 10,000 policyholders received over $100,000 from crop-insurance subsidies in 2011. The new bill tries to cap the amount that any one farmer can receive; but if the weather is bad, it could lead to higher payouts than planned. Taken together, these subsidies distort behaviour and trade in unhelpful ways. They have created products that make no economic sense in the rest of the world, such as making sugar from corn. As a penalty for keeping cotton subsidies in place, the World Trade Organisation’s rules require the American government to pay $147m a year to compensate farmers in Brazil. A trillion in the trough, 'The Economist', 8 February
It's the persistence for decades of these economically and environmentally disastrous policies that indict our entire policymaking system. Yes, policymakers will make mistakes; all the more reason why we should have systems in place to ensure that failed policies are terminated. But instead, we have the systems that ensure that appalling policies become more and more entrenched because of political inertia, because they subsidise resistance to their termination, or because they become capitalised into high asset values that would create genuine but temporary hardship if they were withdrawn. Governments have a long history of meddling in agriculture; they persist even though it's been known for decades that they are, to put it kindly, irrational.

And corrupt. The Economist continues:
How could Congress write such a law? One answer can be found in the register of political donations. The ten members of the House, nine Republicans and one Democrat, who accepted most money from agriculture lobbyists took in an average of $225,000 in political contributions during 2013, according to Open Secrets, which tracks donations—almost as much as some farmers received in return.
Not much is black or white in politics and policymaking, but as P J O’Rourke put it twenty-three years ago (in Parliament of Whores):
I spent two and a half years examining the American political process. All that time I was looking for a straight forward issue. But everything I investigated – election campaigns, the budget, lawmaking, the court system, bureaucracy, social policy – turned out to be more complicated than I had thought. There were always angles I hadn’t considered, aspects I hadn’t weighed, complexities I’d never dreamed of. Until I got to agriculture. Here at last is a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax.

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