We hope President Bush has the sense to hold to his promise to veto the farm subsidy bill working its way to his desk.
At a time when crop prices are higher than ever, both the Senate and House versions would increase subsidies and expand the crops to which they apply. Not only would the bills primarily enrich the already-rich, they would continue to prohibit struggling Third World countries from getting ahead.
Even former president Jimmy Carter, hardly a hard-line conservative, wrote a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post decrying this aspect of farm subsidies. His Carter Center works with Third World farmers and has seen the effects of U.S. subsidies, which he said encourage overproduction. U.S. cotton subsidies cost sub-Saharan farmers $302 million, a 2002 Oxfam International report said. And Carter notes that 80 percent of those subsidies go to the richest 10 percent of cotton farmers in this country.
Other, more traditionally conservative voices have noted how the subsidies benefit wealthy absentee farmers, while the less wealthy people who lease their land and do the actual farming don't do nearly as well. The Wall Street Journal referred to a map from the Environmental Working Group that shows the homes of 562 farmers who receive annual government subsidies all of which are in the heart of New York City. The Journal also recently noted that Scottie Pippen, David Letterman and Ted Turner have received subsidies.
Farm subsidies were started during the Great Depression as a way to keep the poor from going bankrupt and having their farms sold at auction. That need is long gone. Today, subsidies are tools with which to make the rich even richer, and to protect political power. Only about 2 percent of Americans live on farms these days. Most subsidies go to large corporate farms.
People who don't understand the free market argue that subsidies bring stability to volatile markets. But the crops not covered by subsidies have enjoyed stable markets through the years. Now, however, the Senate bill would expand subsidies to vegetable and fruit growers, without anyone being able to demonstrate need.
Two senators, Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., had a great plan to replace subsidies with a crop insurance plan that would protect farmers against catastrophe. That was scuttled.
Bush said he would veto anything that doesn't limit subsidies to farmers earning about $200,000 or less. A better idea would be to eliminate them entirely and let the market rule farming, as it does so many other aspects of the economy.