All this is sweet for the lucky few who happen to be holding buckets when the federal cash falls out of the sky. But someone has to foot the bill, and that someone is anyone who 1) eats or 2) pays taxes. Government meddling raises the price of products at the grocery, while burning up billions of dollars in federal revenues. A study by Sallie James and Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, put the total cost of farm programs at $430 billion over the past decade.
Some farmers, and some urbanites, assume that agriculture would plunge into a death spiral if the government ever stopped furnishing all this help. In fact, the majority of people plowing fields would never miss it. In 2005, 85 percent of all federal payments went to just four crops -- corn, wheat, cotton and rice. Two-thirds of all farmers are locked out of the largesse.
"For most commodities (such as fruits and vegetables, hay, meat products, ornamentals), there is little government involvement or income support," report economists Bruce Gardner of the University of Maryland and Daniel Sumner of the University of California at Davis. Not only that, but the commodities that get no help are just as profitable as those that do.
Yet Congress shows little interest in ridding us of this extravagant waste. President Bush proposed to trim costs and reduce payments to the richest growers, but the five-year farm bill approved by the House of Representatives in July omitted these modest reforms. A more ambitious bill to significantly reduce the federal role in agriculture, meanwhile, was cut down like a weed. The Senate is currently considering its own version, but the Agriculture Committee has indicated it's quite content with the status quo.
The American economy has undergone radical transformation in the past 75 years, and the majority of farmers have shown they can prosper outside a government-run hothouse. Yet our leaders seem to think that what was good enough for Ma and Pa Kettle is good enough for us.