Boy, sometimes you just don't realize how simplistic and cynical some of these candidates can be until somebody like Michael Kinsley steps into the void to alert us.
Take his Jan. 28 column on Rep. Richard Gephardt's presidential campaign. Please.
Kinsley blasts Gephardt's farm program, saying it "would create a government-supervised national food cartel, controlling production, giving a monopoly to current producers and guaranteeing them higher prices."
The horror. The horror.
Control production it would. Raise commodity prices it would. In fact, that's the whole idea. If a majority of farmers voted for the program, they would each be required to reduce their production -- not to raise prices by creating shortages, but simply to match total production with demand instead of running up price-busting, budget-busting surpluses. In return for cutting their production, the existing mechanism would be used to ensure a fair price (at least their average cost-of-production) in the marketplace, not from government subsidy payments.
It's a basic supply-and-demand, market-oriented approach, but it allows farmers to ask the government to enforce it because without government playing that role, there's no way to achieve the necessary level of compliance by hundreds of thousands of individual farmers. Currently, for instance, if I decide enough producers might comply with the voluntary acreage set-aside to drive crop prices up, there's nothing to stop me from ignoring the set-aside program and planting fence row to fence row to take advantage of the hoped-for higher market prices. Too often, too many farmers have decided they'd be suckers to enroll in the acreage-reduction program, so we ended up with the enormous surpluses that sent prices in the '80s plummeting to the lowest (inflation-adjusted) levels since the '30s.
How far would Gephardt's program raise commodity prices? They'd still be lower than they were when David Stockman so cleverly crafted the 1981 farm bill that intentionally sent crop prices into the spin that is only now leveling off. But raise them some it would, so Gephardt's bill includes provisions to use a small portion of the $10 billion to $14 billion in taxpayer savings to offset any impact on low-income Americans.
As for Kinsley's hyperbolic contention that the "typical" farmer has assets worth several hundred thousand dollars, well, he should also point out that his typical farmer is over 50 years old, paid his land off and got his family raised years before the crash of the '80s and probably still has a tough time keeping his aging $50,000-plus tractor and $100,000-plus combine in good enough repair to raise and harvest his crop. At a loss.
The typical young or middle-aged farmer doesn't have the assets Kinsley cites, nor is he in a position to acquire them while he struggles to pay off -- or simply to service -- the debts built up under farm programs designed to accelerate the "migration from farming" that Kinsley implies is not only inevitable but okay with him.
Who's going to own the land and shop on Main Street and attend the churches and schools and cafe's and movie houses of rural America when the older farmers retire and the younger ones are driven off? And more to the urban consumer's point, who's going to control our food supply?
By the way, Kinsley's "monopoly" of current producers is a shrinking group of more than half a million individual entrepreneurial units that would become a monopoly of a lot fewer if Kinsley's migration continues unabated. The Gephardt farm program is targeted to small and mid-size family farm operations, and it penalizes bigness and contains incentives for a retiring farmer to sell out to young and beginning farmers. As such, it is certainly more antimonopoly than the current program.
What's Kinsley's alternative? Or does he think a farm policy that has cut crop prices in half, increased annual government subsidy outlays sixfold and eliminated half a million family farms since 1981 is "progressive"? -- Doug Zabel
The writer is policy and research director of The League of Rural Voters.