For the fifth summer in six years, I'm driving across the country. Aside from the country's immense beauty, the decency of its people and the impossibility of finding a good cup of coffee near the interstate, one of the things you start to appreciate when you've seen a lot of America is how sparsely populated it is in the middle. It seems the welfare recipients need a lot of room.
I'm referring, of course, to American farmers. Or, more precisely, American farm owners, a.k.a. Welfare Kings.
There are few issues for which the political consensus is so distant from both common sense and expert opinion. Right-wing economists, left-wing environmentalists and almost anybody in between who doesn't receive a check from the Department of Agriculture or depend on a political donation from said recipients understand that Americans are spending billions to prop up the last of the horse-and-buggy industries.
At this nation's founding, nearly nine out of 10 workers were employed in agriculture. By 1900 it was fewer than four in 10. Today, fewer than one in every 100 workers is in agriculture, and less than 1 percent of gross domestic product is attributable to agriculture. Yet America spends billions of dollars subsidizing a system that makes almost everyone in the world worse off.
Our system is so complicated - i.e. rigged - that it's almost impossible to know how much agricultural subsidies cost U.S. taxpayers. But we know from the Washington Post's recent reporting that since 2000, the U.S. government paid out $1.3 billion to "farmers" who don't farm. They were simply compensated for owning land previously used for farming. A Houston surgeon received nearly $500,000 for, literally, nothing. Cash payments have cost $172 billion over the last decade, and $25 billion in 2005 alone, nearly 50 percent more than what was paid to families receiving welfare.