Thursday 21 August 2003

Welfare for Agribusiness

"To those that hath, shall be given".

As a special favour to my many US readers, I just thought you'd like to know why you have to pay so much for food.

From the New Republic :
Agricultural protectionism--the combination of quotas, tariffs, and subsidies for farm products--may be the purest example of destructive special-interest politics ever created. Rich countries--with a few exceptions, such as Australia--burden their own populations three times over. The policies cost taxpayers directly--the atrocious 2002 U.S. farm bill is slated to cost $180 billion over ten years. (Worse, annual unbudgeted "emergency" farm spending during the late 1990s accounted for a great deal of the spending boom that squandered much of the predicted budget surplus long before the first Bush tax cut took effect.) In return for their largesse, taxpayers get the privilege of paying higher prices as consumers (and, of course, inflated prices for basic foodstuffs hit the poorest proportionately hardest). And, by locking up an excess of labor and capital in an agribusiness sector that couldn't turn an honest profit on its own, agricultural protectionism inhibits productivity growth, preventing shifts in employment and investment to more productive parts of the economy.

Still, the costs agricultural policies impose on their own societies are manageable in the huge economies of the developed world. The costs they impose on the rest of the world are often devastating. By shutting off access to developed countries' markets for the goods that developing countries are most likely to produce competitively, agricultural protectionism forecloses the most likely route to development and poverty alleviation. Moreover, the artificially high prices in the rich countries encourage overproduction there; the surplus gets exported at cut-rate prices, which not only makes it hard for developing countries to compete in export markets, it typically makes poor farmers uncompetitive in their home markets as well. And as farms go out of business, unemployed and underemployed farmers migrate to sprawling cities; but often there aren't many jobs available in the cities, either. (The next rung up the development ladder after agriculture is typically textiles, which is also the subject of massive protectionism.) In the end, the damage done to poor countries by the agricultural policies of the United States, the European Union, and Japan probably far outweighs the aid they gives those countries.
That's not quite fair : Japan does put on a 50% tariff on most imported food, and gives huge subsidies to local farmers, but they never have significant surplusses to export, and it's the dumping of food at way-below-cost-price that does the damage. South Korea's just as bad. The US, although it doesn't give very much Government-funded Foreign Aid in relative terms, gives a lot in absolute terms, and vastly more through private donations.

But yes, the US and EU have indirectly killed 10's of millions of people by their agricultural policies, as has been mentioned before. The quote above tells you exactly what the mechanism is.

Some figures from the good old CIA Factbook : US Workforce - 141.8 million. Percentage in Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing : 2.4%. So let's be generous, and assume there are 180 million taxpayers.

<sarcasm>Isn't it nice to know what $100 per year of your tax money gets spent on? To give (at most) 4 million fellow-Americans a measly extra forty thousand bucks? Hey, you only have to pay 3 times the world price for luxuries like Sugar as the result. You should feel honoured.

Who says the USA doesn't have a Welfare state? I mean, not every American farmer is a miillionaire. Yet.</sarcasm>

If you want to change this state of affairs, you know what to do. You have a power that much of the world doesn't. A power you've helped give to others. Write to your Congresscritter, and vote accordingly.

Oh by the way, if you live in Europe, you're paying twice as much.

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