15 February 2015

Rewarding the rich and the dead

From the Economist:
According to the [United States] Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2011 Uncle Sam paid some $3m in subsidies to 2,300 farms where no crop of any sort was grown. Between 2008 and 2012, $10.6m was paid to farmers who had been dead for over a year. ... [W]ith crop prices now falling, taxpayers are braced to be fleeced again. Milking taxpayers, 'the Economist', 14 February

When government makes so many policy interventions, some of them are going to be bad. A working, viable, democratic, accountable and transparent policymaking system would, we'd hope and expect, weed out bad policies or, with judicious regulation and further intervention, convert them into better policies. But our current policymaking system is incapable of doing that. Instead, bad policies become worse policies, because rather than have mechanisms for getting rid of them they create interest groups who resist change and, as recipients of taxpayer funds, can afford expensive lobbyists to make these policies permanent features of the political landscape. 
So it is with agricultural policy, not only in the US, but in almost all of the developed countries. Forty years ago, or instance, the stupidity of the European Community's Common Agricultural Policy was well established and widely discussed. But very little has changed. These policies hurt consumers in the developed countries by raising food prices. They reward intensive farming with devastating effects on the environment and animal welfare. They penalise third-world countries by putting up barriers to their agricultural exports. They cost billions of dollars and their only beneficiaries, apart from the bureaucrats who administer them, are agribusiness corporates and wealthy landowners. From the same article: 

I wrote about all this 15 years ago. Worth repeating and emphasising is that our policymaking system does not correct its errors. Instead, appallingly wasteful policies persist because they enrich people who lobby against their removal. We have a system that cannot correct errors but rather entrenches them. The current system, in brief, is dysfunctional.

A better alternative would be to focus on outcomes, and reward people for achieving them. People understand outcomes, and policies under an outcome-oriented system would not be subject to the smoke-and-mirrors manipulation that saw measures taken to 'protect the family farm' be transmuted into subsidies for agribusiness and billionaire landowners - alive and dead. Agriculture, of course, is not the only sector that government policy has corrupted in ways that hurt ordinary people, though it is one of those with the longest history of government intervention. Our failure to correct our policy mistakes in agriculture speaks volumes about how unfit is our current policymaking system.

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