There are many policies about which economists disagree. To read the news you might think that economists disagree about everything. In reality, there are plenty of areas in which the economics profession has reached a consensus. One is farm policy. Economists from Greg Mankiw to Paul Krugman oppose the “insane” (Mankiw’s word) and “grotesque” (Krugman’s) handouts to farmers that constitute U.S. farm policy. More broadly, Robert Whaples has found that more than 85 percent of surveyed economists oppose agricultural subsidies. (I’m willing to bet that many of the remaining 15 percent also oppose agriculture subsidies but are uncomfortable ending them cold-turkey).
Why is there so much agreement on this issue? Here are a few thoughts.
Subsidies and Price Supports Create Dead Weight Losses
U.S. farm policy is a grab bag of over 80 separate programs with confusing names like the “shallow loss program” and the “dairy indemnity program.” But for all the arcane language, the programs match pretty neatly to the simple microeconomic models that we teach undergraduate economics majors. They are price supports, they are subsidies, or they are barriers to trade. And whatever they are, they are inefficient.
Consider the Dairy Product Price Support Program. According to the CRS, it “specifies minimum purchase prices of: block cheese, $1.13/lb.; barrel cheese, $1.10/lb.; butter, $1.05/lb.; and nonfat dry milk, $0.80/lb.”
With the mandated price set above the market price, consumers gain less from exchange than they otherwise would and producers gain more than they otherwise would. Importantly, though, the simple economic model of a price floor (see below) tells us that consumers lose more than producers gain. Economists call this “dead-weight loss.”
Or consider the Direct Payments program. According to the CRS, it pays growers of “wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, upland cotton, rice, soybeans, and other oilseeds” a fixed subsidy that does not vary according to the market price. This effectively lowers the marginal cost of production, lowering the price and increasing the quantity sold. In this case, producers and consumers gain, but taxpayers lose. Moreover, the simple producer subsidy model tells us that taxpayers lose more than consumers and producers gain. Thus, this program too creates a dead-weight loss.
These interventions might be rationalized by some sort of story about market imperfection (externality, monopoly, asymmetric information, etc.). But as a commodity industry with so many producers and so many consumers, agriculture is much closer to the textbook ideal of a perfectly competitive industry than one plagued by market failure.
Safety Nets for People Not for Firms
“Well yes,” a champion of farm policy might reply, “but poor American farmers deserve a safety net.” Lots of economists (even Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek) have conceded that publicly-funded social safety nets might be worthwhile. But these nets should catch people when they fall, not the firms that these people work for. The farm safety net makes even less sense when you dig into the numbers. As Vincent Smith has shown in his recent Mercatus paper, average household farm income is substantial greater than overall average income. Moreover, about 80 percent of direct payments go to the largest 15-20 percent of farms and a majority goes to the top 10 percent “whose owners, for the most part full-time farm operators, typically earn many times the national average household income.”
As Smith points out, many in the farm lobby claim that farmers need the safety net because they are in a particularly risky line of business. But, he says, this claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:
Farms fail at an annual rate of 0.5 percent: only one in every 200 farms goes out of business because of financial problems.24 By comparison, the annual business-failure rate is over 7 percent, 14 times greater. Among small nonfarm businesses, the companies most comparable to farms in terms of sales, the failure rate is about 14 percent, almost 30 times greater than among farms.
The farm safety net makes even less sense when you think about justice on a global scale. Daniel Sumner explains it well in his Agricultural Subsidy Program entry in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Some of the poorest countries in West Africa have traditionally been cotton exporters. In 2001 and 2002, they faced a world price of cotton ranging from thirty-five cents to forty-five cents per pound. Meanwhile, cotton growers in the United States, the world’s largest exporter, received seventy cents or more per pound from the subsidies plus the market price. Economists have estimated that U.S. exports of cotton would have been substantially lower, and the world price of cotton 10 to 15 percent higher, if U.S. cotton subsidies had been unavailable during this period. Reducing farm subsidies in the United States and other rich countries would help poor cotton growers and other farmers in poor countries, and, moreover, would begin a process of relying more on trade rather than aid for economic growth.
Given the near-consensus among economists, why does the U.S. continue this grotesque and insane experiment? I’ll explore this question in subsequent posts.