Senators Peddling A False Cure For U.S. Farm Woes
The Way To Prosperity Is Through Global Market Access, Not Government Handouts
May 21, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va. - A century ago, patent medicine showmen enlivened life in rural America. They would come to town in one-horse caravans, set up on Main Street and fascinate the locals with eloquent pitches for bottles of "medicine" to cure "any ailment known to man."
Of course, the medicine didn't actually cure anyone. The "medicine" was mostly alcohol, though some contained cocaine. The patients felt better for a few hours, some became dependent on their "cures," while some suffered through hangovers. Whatever ailed them remained unchanged.
I'm reminded of these hucksters as I watch farm state politicians like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana hasten to shove more money into the recent agricultural appropriations bill.
I have a friend who doesn't believe in science-based medicine. For a year she turned to today's equivalent of patent medicine pitchmen for treatment for what turned out to be uterine cancer. Fortunately, surgeons were still able to get the cancer before it killed her.
Today's farm subsidy pitchmen are as dangerous to farmers' futures as an untreated cancer. They're trying to keep farmers hooked on dribs and drabs of government money, a ploy that delays the real cure for farmers' price problems. That problem is not due to "overproduction" or lack of global demand for farm products.
The real farm problem is a host of trade barriers that prevent today's more affluent Third World consumers from importing from the United States some of the additional food they need.
I've said in a number of forums that American agriculture should be able to double its current export earnings in just one decade of free trade. That extra $60 billion would be earned essentially with the land, water and farm equipment already on U.S. farms. The increase in net profits would make the Harkin-Burns handouts look like small change.
Sen. Harkin has offered the same thing farm subsidies throughout his career. But if government payments were going to save American farming, they would have done it 60 years ago. Instead they have been part of a dramatic decline in farmers' numbers.
With federal taxes already highland Social Security still headed for bankruptcy can no longer offer much taxpayer money in exchange for farmers' votes.
The current handout includes a onetime 35-cent payment per bushel of wheat. What will be the encore next year?
Like those hucksters of old, Harkin and Burns can't offer a cure, just a temporary "feel good" remedy continuing addiction to little federal payments.
Harkin wants farms to look like yesterday. For years he's complained that farms are getting "too big," even though his state's farmers can handle more land with modern equipment and earn more net income by doing so. He recently offered a "report" critical of confinement livestock production that consisted mostly of newspaper clippings.
Yet if Iowa takes his advice on blocking confinement meat production, tomorrow's meat will be produced outside Iowa.
Confinement production offers more comfort to animals and higher feed efficiency as a result. To top it off, confinement farming protects the environment. Wastes are carefully collected and spread on growing crops as organic fertilizer.
Meanwhile, Harkin's favorite outdoor hog farms let their wastes wash into Iowa's streams with every storm. A Harkin-style future for Iowa would find a few grain farms, the city of Des Moines and virtually nothing else.
Sen. Burns says, "It is difficult to hear the stories of family farmers and ranchers unable to get credit. It is difficult to hear of businesses that have been in the heart of small-town Montana for generations suddenly having to shut their doors for good."
Does Burns remember the days when U.S. price supports exported farming jobs to other countries and our cropland-diversion program destroyed about one-third of nonfarm jobs in rural America?
Burns has been fighting to prevent beef imports, demonstrating the same belief in farm product protectionism that has prevented expanded exports of U.S. beef and wheat to Asia.
Neither Harkin nor Burns talks of liberalizing farm trade and letting American farmers sell to the billion newly affluent consumers of India, China, Egypt and Colombia. Nor are they talking about the World Trade Organization's upcoming farm trade negotiations in Seattle this November.
It's not a party thing. Harkin is a Democrat, Burns a Republican. On the other side are Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, as well as Democrats like Rep. Calvin Dooley of California. They come from important farm states, too, but are apparently uninterested in selling snake oil.
Farmers seem to have a clear choice for the future. They can stand around Harkin's one-horse medicine show, sampling bottles of Lydia Pinkham's Famous Vegetable Compound.
Or they can seek out Dr. Trade Liberalization, who's ready to perform radical surgery on farm import barrier sand provide a real cure for what's ailing the U.S. farm market.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.