The Importance of Farm Subsidies


Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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185 Responses

  1. Avatar Will H. says:

    I think it’s the subsidies for cotton that most of our trading partners are concerned with.
    There are a number of ways that the fishing industry is subsidized.

    I think it’s the direct payouts that are the hard sell.
    Various forms of incentives would have a wider effect.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Will H. says:

      “There are a number of ways that the fishing industry is subsidized.”

      Until I realized it was not the usual bowdlerization, I thought we were subsidizing porn for second.Report

  2. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    According to the Wikipedia article you link to, total human cases of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in even the worst-hit countries are in the low triple digits.  That’s not a very convincing case for spending billions and immiserating third-world farmers.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Dan Miller says:

      Dan – that’s just one part of the ag industry. The same problems could happen with any crop.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        No they couldn’t, there’s an issue of biology here.  The more biological similarities there are between you and what you eat the more risk there is of some kind of disease or disorder carrying over into you, this is why pig meat has to be handled with care – pigs are very similar to us biologically.  It’s also why cannibalism is a bad idea.

        Plants in particular can’t give us their diseases because we’re too dissimilar.Report

  3. Avatar Shelley says:

    As someone who writes about heroic farmers, I fear not only giving our production totally over to foreign countries, but giving it totally over to larger and larger mega-corporations (which will eventually amount to the same thing.)

    Thanks for this post.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    What would the world look like without U.S. farm subsidies? Would we still have production levels as high as we do? Would food still be as cheap, varies, nutritious, and plentiful (for us) as it is?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, by the way. But I’m skeptical that after the adjustment shocks were done, things would be appreciably different.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Sugar cane subsidies warp the market.   It keeps other countries’ sugar out, countries which could use the trade.Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Mike – One of the arguments I remember from way back about farm subsidies that I never hear talked about anymore is the whole crop oration argument.  That if you don’t pay someone not to plant in fields part of the time they will always plant in every field, and the ground will soon not be able to grow anything.

    Is this true?  Or was it true, but isn’t any longer?  Or did I just dream this, and no one ever argued any such thing?Report

  7. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    Honest question from a coastal elite-

    Are subsidies the same as price supports?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Liberty60 says:

      Are you asking legally or is this an “at the end of the day/technically” kinda question?Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Jaybird says:

        Either one.

        I ask because What little I know from high school economics is that price supports were introduced as a way of leveling out the wild swings of the marketplace; And I can understand that.

        I don’t know if subsidies are an attempt to level out the chaos of the market, or an attempt to entice people to grow what they couldn’t otherwise sell.Report

        • Avatar Will H. in reply to Liberty60 says:

          There are different programs.
          Some of them are incentives, like planting a crop from the B list for that region.
          I’ve seen sunflowers as an alternative crop choice.
          Others are direct payments to keep prices at a certain level.Report

  8. Awhile back, you took some heat (unjustifiably, IMHO, even though I disagreed with you) for your assumptions about the attitudes of persons of various political stripes towards disaster preparedness and food stockpiling.  I suspect there may have been a nugget of truth in those assumptions, but it seems to me that they were probably more accurate as applied to Red State/Blue State cultural differences rather than differences in political ideology.  In other words, a liberal from rural Iowa would presumably be more obsessive about disaster preparedness than a conservative from Staten Island.

    Here, you justify farm subsidies as a matter of national security, in effect a form of disaster preparedness.  I more or less expect that liberals from relatively rural states would be reasonably likely to agree with you on this.

    I’d also suspect that most folks of any political stripe from the Northeast Megalopolis, myself included, would pretty strongly disagree with you.

    I wonder the extent to which this is a function of having a relationship only with the always seemingly abundant outputs of agriculture without any relationship with the inputs.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      You might be right Mark. I spend a lot of time on farms. I see how easy it would be to have events line up in a way that creates a real food shortage here in the U.S. It’s a very tricky business. Subsidies mitigate risk which encourages more people to farm and thus hedges our bets against crop failures or tainted supplies from abroad.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        This, in and of itself, doesn’t bother me.

        The attendant aggregation of farming into smaller pools of entities with a larger reach who then collect the subsidies and use a portion of the subsidy money to encourage more subsidies, that bothers me.Report

  9. Avatar Jeff says:

    I wonder how much of the world’s farms are owned by mega-ag.  I know the percentage is quite high here in the US.  If it’s also high around the world, it could well be that each country is paying a same corporation not to compete with itself.  Nice little scam — I’m not sure how to test it though.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jeff says:

      Depends on your definition of mega-ag because many farms are vertical market operations.   It’s hard to make a wheat farm operation work without five or six sections.   Here’s a little breakdown, a bit old, of farm size distribution.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:


        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

          Ecch, Monsanto is a beast.   There are several others, Cargill’s a big ugly one.   Know them much better, knew a fair number of their traders.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Big Ag is ten steps away from world destruction. Maybe nine by now.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

              Heh.   It’s always been this way, Kimmi.   There are just too goddamn many human beings on this planet.

              “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is?….”Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                … no, no it hasn’t. Blaise, we’re talking specific steps, including genetic engineering (either of pests, anti-pests, or crops).

                There’s a reason a friend of mine runs some anti genetic engineering foolz (had to tell them to knock it off over the yellow rice people. SOME genetic engineering is just fine. done by reasonable scientists).Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                The limiting variable is arable land.   Yes, you’re right, insofar as we can GM our way into somewhat more productive crops but a sizable fraction of our grain goes into livestock production.   There’s also the cost of transportation.   I foresee many old malls and warehouses becoming indoor farms once the price per watt of LED lighting suitable for agriculture comes down.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                you mistake me. I was talking of the potential for world destruction. It’s only one of many (we were far closer with that BP disaster -10% chance of the world ending)Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                Big Ag is a mixed blessing.   I’ve always said those guys are amoral, not immoral.   Sure better than China’s screwed up ag model, putting melamine in the milk and some ghastly substance in the chicken jerky to kill our dogs.

                I sure wish someone would come up with a SCOTUS case on patenting genome sequences.   That’s gonna become a bigbig problem, it has already with soybeans.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                well… arable land and fresh water.Report

              • Avatar James B Franks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Hmmm I seem to recall that a couple of the mega farms use an interesting legal dodge to appear to be smaller then they are. Let me see if I can find some info.Report

              • You get this exactly wrong, BlaiseP.  Every single species on the planet falls into the Malthusian trap except humanity.  We’re the only species with the foresight to limit our numbers in response to dwindling resources, rather than allowing a natural equilibrium brought about by starvation and privation to regulate our numbers.  Conveniently, technological change that increases our burden on the planet has also made family planning a significantly easier affair.


                Scope the UN’s latest population projection scenario (  Their average scenario has us topping out at 9.1 billion in 2100, and their low scenario has us topping out at 7.1 billion in 2050 before a precipitous decline.  This is even more optimistic from where it was a few years ago, where the best guess was topping out at 10 billion.  Average births per fertile female in a lifetime has dwindled from 6.0 in 1950 to 2.5 in the present day, and it’s still plummeting.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

                Absolute statistical nonsense.   Mankind reduces his numbers with wars and plague.  These days, he reduces his numbers by educating the women.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Until the modern era, humans were as subject to the Malthusian curse as every other species. With the advent of free enterprise and science we have progressed faster at producing wealth than the population has increased. This is why we have increased in numbers, lifespan and prosperity per person. More pele, better fed, more literate.

                And no food subsidies had nothing to do with it.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                You’re preaching to the choir.   I’m against subsidies of any sort, unless we’re trying to create a market or deal with a catastrophe and these are rare events.   Even under these circumstances, I believe subsidies should act as a runway or an aircraft carrier catapult, providing enough force to get Bernoulli’s Equations of Lift in operation and not one joule more.

                Malthus was just plain wrong.   No population in nature obeys his laws.   Every population evolves.   For Malthus’ theories to have any validity, the world must remain static.

                I’ve spent most of my life analyzing how various market forces affect each other.   Seldom have I ever seen a situation where a well-regulated market couldn’t solve a problem — well-regulated in the sense that winners and losers can be separated from each other.   Subsidies are noxious substitutes for working markets and they inevitably lead to systemic rot.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:


                Why do you keep saying Malthus was wrong? Populations, including humans prior to the modern era routinely bred to the limits of their environment. That is one reason why humans have lived off around the equivalent of a dollar or two per day for all recorded history. As long as a population can grow each generation, it will quickly outrun it’s resources. This was one of the critical insights Darwin used to come up with his theory. Natural selection doesn’t refute Malthus, it builds upon his insights.

                Where I agree with you is that human culture can increase per cap productivity at a faster rate than pop growth. Where this happens– see the past 200 years — the Malthusian curse can be lifted. The interesting thing about Malthus is that his observation has always been true up until when he made it.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                Well, let me clarify a bit.  Malthus’ equations were static.   They work if we presume nothing changes.   Let me backtrack a bit and say my quote from The Matrix should have been encapsulated in snark tags, more’s the pity they weren’t engineered into HTML from the beginning.   I do not believe humankind acts like a virus.

                So let’s examine why Malthus was wrong.   In a given ecosystem or market or what have you, some seemingly-complete set of forces, Malthus says a simple exponential growth model applies.   That might be true in a petri dish but nowhere else.   There are constraints to e in the real world.   We both agree the human species has not conformed to such a model.  Well, nothing else has in the real world, either.

                You see, no set of forces is complete in the real world.   Sure, we can manage short term predictions based on an exponential growth model, e remains hugely important to such predictive models.   But in the real world, species evolve to produce young in accordance with the forces in play.   An arctic fox will have one litter of as many as a dozen pups per year.   A lemming will have three litters a year of four pups.   These old wives’ tales about foxes and lemmings where the population crashes up and down are simply untrue.   It is true lemming population varies and so does fox litter size but neither seems to obey an exponential growth model.   Too many external variables.   The arctic fox can change prey species.   The lemmings migrate, as do other rodent species.

                The data doesn’t support Malthus and never has.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:


                I hear what you are saying, but would appreciate a reference or two to support what sounds like an extraordinary claim.

                The essence of Malthusian theory is simply that population tends to grow faster than food supply. This puts pressure against levels of subsistence (which I agree are elastic). In other words there is a negative feedback effect between subsistence and population.

                The Malthusian model does not have to lead to up and down population explosions and crashes (though it may in some cases), but it does lead to changes in “external variables” one of which is availability of food (another is prevalence of predators and disease).

                It really comes down to a simple truth for all species other than modern man… As the population grows you will put more pressure on subsistence for the average individual in the population, until the forces balance out. It has been true for every species except one for 3.8 billion years, and is a central tenant of natural selection. If it was not true for a species, then that species would now overrun the entire universe.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                I’m happy to oblige, in the form you’d find most acceptable.   Here’s as simple a study as I can find which points out the natural world doesn’t obey Malthusian growth model.   And that’s just yeast.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                I could also introduce Oded Galor and his work on dynamical systems.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

                You are just citing examples of more sophisticated versions of Malthus’ basic theory. The point is that population can outgrow the carrying capacity of the environment. Malthus was not wrong about this general tendency in populations.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                (patiently)  no, Roger, they’re not extensions of Malthus.   They’re profoundly different than Malthus.   In the real world, species don’t go extinct because they overgraze their territory.    Malthus is right, but only in the very short term.   His conclusions have never panned out in biology.

                Either your view of Malthus is vague enough to where you can fit other growth models within his constraints, which I have demonstrated do not work, or you didn’t look at the links I provided.


              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:


                Sorry to draw this out, but let me clarify.

                Let me be clear what I meant by “the Malthusian Curse”. This is a term (adding the word curse) I Borrowed from economist Deirdre McCloskey. It refers to the tendency of populations to grow. This puts pressure on resources. This puts pressure on living conditions and checks population growth. Longer term, even evolutionary improvements are checked by the Malthusian Curse. The debate over which growth formula best fits these facts is irrelevant to the basic fact that a population that requires scarce resources cannot expand forever. Full stop. If you believe this is wrong, I suggest you submit your thoughts in a paper. I am sure it will be worthy of a Nobel Prize.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                I like Deirdre McCloskey despite disagreeing with much of what she has to say.    Here’s where McCloskey is right:   if a student of economics is fed an exclusive diet of Samuelson and Keynes, he’ll get his foot stuck the same analytical trap as his philosophical forebears.   Keynes must be seen as a man of his time and much of what passes for Keynesian these days would appall that worthy old gentleman.  Keynes’ enemies are mostly innumerate slobs, viz.  PJ O’Rourke but not all of them, especially excluding McCloskey from that roster of unscientific cretins.   As for those who oppose Samuelson, he’s written a fine textbook which everyone ought to read: his basic principles are still sound, if a bit theoretical.

                I contend every would-be economist should get a copy of TradeStation and learn how markets actually work before opining upon their fundamentals.    That’s where McCloskey falls down flat on her face:  for all her brilliance, she simply does not understand capitalism:  it is not ethical.   Capitalism is at best amoral.   Her attacks on other economists as unscientific ring a bit hollow:  she’s on very thin ice, as was Marx in his own time:  fine rhetoric, often based on entirely reasonable assertions, but leading to bizarre and ultimately worthless conclusions.    Her attacks on the mathematics of economics are extremely stupid.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:

                I too enjoy reading her without agreeing with all her conclusions. Bourgouis Dignity basically simplified down to culture explains modern prosperity. I disagree, even as I enjoyed every page.

                Before reading her. I used the phrase Malthusian crisis. I think Malthusian Curse is a better term. I assume she borrowed it too.

                Is Samuelson really worth my time? I know he is the main man and all, but I have always heard he suffers from an overly analytical, static view of economics and misses the creative, dynamic disequilibrium of the process. Your comments on him seem to reinforce this. Thoughts?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                I’m obsessed with a few mathematical and geometrical constructs, among them the catenary.   First thing to know about a catenary, it’s not a parabola.   Lots of interesting people have been fascinated with the difference.   There are both parabolas and catenaries in the real world, but the catenary is what you get when you roll a parabola along a straight line.   A catenary is inelastic.   That’s why Jefferson coined the word from the Latin word for a chain.

                But most people encounter the parabola earlier in their mathematical education and there’s hell to pay trying to explain the hyperbolic cosine and roulettes to people who see that curve and assume it’s a parabola.

                Da Vinci, who worked with both parabolas and catenaries, was similarly obsessed.   His notebooks are full of hanging chains.   Da Vinci said when we’re faced with a design problem, always resort to nature.

                And that’s the only valid perspective from which to view economics and economic theories.   Samuelson is important because his equations seek equilibrium, as do the equations of thermodynamics which he so famously applied.   Samuelson’s math describes the real world, where dynamics are nonlinear and comparisons between growth models are nontrivial.   All sorts of external factors keep cropping up.   I’m not a neoclassical sorta guy, they don’t pay me to reach conclusions.   All they want is better models.


              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “Mankind reduces his numbers with wars and plague.  ”

                If combined every human killed in every war, you still wouldn’t have as many people as are alive in India today.  And there are even more people than that in China.

                And yet.  I was going through some old books the other day, and in O’Rourke’s All The Trouble In The World he discusses the fear of overpopulation.  And in the numbers he presents, the best-case scenario has us in double-digits of billions by now.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                I have already established PJ O’Rourke as a flaming idiot who should steer clear of economics until he’s spent some time up at Cato Institute, learning some of that craft.    But first he would have to learn some basic arithmetic.


              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

                And if he’d invented the numbers himself you’d have a point, d*ckhead.

                (Note: a single vowel was censored from this post by Jaybird)Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Inventing numbers?   Where are O’Rourke’s numbers?   Duck, do you know how money circulates?   Do you understand the difference between a demand deposit and actual cash?   I rather suspect you do.   I’m not going to insult your intelligence.

                If you do understand the difference, you’d be a whole lot farther ahead than PJ O’Rourke, who doesn’t.   He doesn’t understand Keynes.   He doesn’t understand jack shit about economics, often jesting about how nobody understands economics.

                So spare me the insults.  You’re out of your league, resorting to this sort of cheap shot.   And I’m better at it than you are, Duck, and you know it.   And I’ve had enough economics to know O’Rourke is completely out of his league.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

                I’m not sure how your opinion of O’Rourke’s economic understanding has anything to do with the facts he cites in an essay about population levels.Report

  10. Avatar BSK says:

    “If we give away our production to other countries (which is what will happen if subsidies are eliminated) then we give them an extraordinary amount of control over our country. We become vulnerable to trade pressure, shortages and possible embargoes.”

    What about the inverse?  When we are the country doing all the exporting, we assume production for other countries and are suddenly the ones with extraordinary control over them.  If we are going to assume this role, we ought to do so responsibly, especially if part of our justification for doing so is because we would not want to be on the other end of the stick.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BSK says:

      Americans send hundreds of millions of dollars in free food abroad annually. We aren’t forcing it on those countries. They need it so people won’t starve.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        And because they get it their domestic agricultural products are near valueless.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        the destruction of the Mexican corn market via NAFTA? sure we aren’t forcing it.Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


        I was not necessarily arguing that we shouldn’t position ourselves thusly, but that we must do so responsibly.  If one of the justifications for food subsidies is to avoid being on the other end of that dynamic, we ought to use our knowledge of the lack-of-desirability of that position to engage in fair trade practices.  As North points out, giving away food might not be the best method.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to BSK says:

          As much as it would pain me to see food wasted, I would be willing to see it rot in warehouses than cause pain in other countries. When I’m talking about food going overseas I’m thinking about disaster relief.

          And to be clear, subsidies are not about keeping out foreign goods. They are about ensuring adequate production of staples here. Other countries can divisify (as I believe North mentioned) and sell exotic goods here. They still have a foreign market to sell to.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            When I’m talking about food going overseas I’m thinking about disaster relief.

            Mike, obviously we’re not going to argue against disaster relief, but we have to keep in mind that we’re talking about political distributions, which don’t always go as they should.  It’s not unknown for the U.S. to deliver food aid not when, say, a drought-caused famine begins, but just before the next years’ crops come in in a country, ruining the farmers’ income for the year, and essentially ruining them forever because they don’t have a cushion to hold out until the next year.  It’s a particularly sad case of good intentions leading down the wrong road.Report

          • Avatar BSK in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


            It appears I misread you.  There is a lot of mileage between securing one’s own food supply to avoid “giv[ing] away our food production to other countries” (which is what you said) and assuming control of the food production of other countries (what I read).  My apologies.Report

  11. Avatar North says:

    Hi Mike,

    As is no surprise to you at all, no doubt, I disagree.

    I feel that the food security line of argument is somewhat of a non-starter. The US outsourced manufacturing because other countries had a natural advantage that allowed them to do (some kinds) of manufacturing more cheaply than the US could. Those natural advantages were numerous desperate impoverished people.

    Agriculture, on the other hand, is an area where the US has almost insurmountable natural advantages over other countries. The US has massive expanses of quality crop land and reasonably abundant supplies of agricultural water. These are not things that would go away with the end of subsidies. Even in a US without subsidies an enormous amount of agricultural production would take place here. I am deeply skeptical that the US agricultural sector could ever diminish enough that other countries could threaten to cut off the US’s food lines.  Add Canada into that equation and my skepticism becomes an absolute certainty; only the Russians have comparable land for growing grain.

    To my eyes ending subsidies would instead lead, most likely, to a diversification and increasing dynamism for American agriculture. Farmers would have to grow a greater variety of crops and likely that mix would change. I am no expert on agriculture but I suspect we’d see certain crops migrate out of the US. Not staples like beef or grain but exotics like strawberries, lettuce and perhaps tomatoes (and other desert crops, oh the madness of desert crops). Economic development in third world countries from specialized crops would offer foreign farmers alternatives to abandoning their farms (or growing cash crops like opium poppies). Also keep in mind that much of the world subsists on a paltry amount of food. One of the first things people do when their economic circumstances improve is they start eating more. And end to US farm subsidies would likely lead, in the long run, to global greater demand for all kinds of foods.

    This, of course, is without going into the negative aspects of the subsidies. The US agricultural subsidies are used as a fig leaf excuse for innumerable trade barriers that are maintained against all kinds of American goods. Financial services for instance face barriers that are explicitly maintained as a penalty against US farm protectionism. Domestically the subsidies on water in the American southwest lead to urban dwellers paying a fortune in water bills while farmers spray the water about willy-nilly to grow strawberries in the desert when they could be grown and imported from South America and Africa without any such imports.

    To my eyes the balance is so badly and obviously skewed against subsidies that their endurance is a significant example of how the political system in this country is currently heavily tilted in favor of rural empowering structures.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to North says:

      Errr South America and africa without any such imputs. Stupid typos.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to North says:

      North – I agree that a lack of subsidies drives diversification BUT at a certain level we need staple crops. As much as I love the idea of subdized soybeans giving way to heirloom tomaotoes and pawpaw trees, I don’t know how good that is for basic food security.

      And maybe a lot of farming would stay here. That has certainly been true for manufacturing. When subsidies went away American companies kept building things in our country. Look how well things are going in the Chrome Belt. Detroit is booming. Cleveland still rocks. Pittsburg steel is flying out of steel mills. Nothing changed.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

         Mike, it’s not like China can pack our soil, climate and aquifers up into container ships and tote them over to to Fujian province. You can’t just outsource agriculture the way you can outsource manufacturing. Agriculture takes land and water and the US has enormous amounts of it that other countries simply do not. Where are these vast tracts of arable land sitting waiting for our subsidies to end so they can swing into action to take all er’ farming jobs?

        As for manufacturing; it’s a dreadful inconvenient thing the facts but the facts are that the US is still the #1 manufacturing country in the world. It out-produces No. 2 China by more than 40 percent; all without the kinds of subsidies and trade barriers that agriculture enjoys. Detroit and Cleveland and the rust belt still suffer I agree but let’s not pretend like the end of subsidies meant the end of American manufacturing. To be blunt the idea that the end of agricultural subsidies seems down right fantastical to me. What country out there has the capacity to not only produce as much food as the US does but produce it cheaply enough to ship it over here and have it outcompete every single American agricultural good?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


        I live in Pittsburgh. spelled with an H. If you’re talking about the place I live, there aren’t anymore steel mills here for the steel to be flying out of.

        Maybe you meant Alcoa? Our industries here are Health Care, Pharmaceuticals, and Computers.

        We need STABLE food crops. Monocultures are NOT stable. very prone to ultimate destruction based on disease. Irish Potato famine spread by shoes, if you’ll recall.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        And maybe a lot of farming would stay here. That has certainly been true for manufacturing. When subsidies went away American companies kept building things in our country. Look how well things are going in the Chrome Belt. Detroit is booming. Cleveland still rocks. Pittsburg steel is flying out of steel mills. Nothing changed.

        Ah, the old myth that America doesn’t manufacture anything anymore.  Fortunately, despite Detroit’s decline, American manufacturing hasn’t really declined at all, except for a dip during the great recession. See me, or if you prefer, a real economist.Report

  12. What does “protecting” our beef supply mean?  I’m not an expert on farm policy, but I have to imagine that it involves strict government oversight, rather than subsidies.  I may just be uncreative, but I can’t imagine a scenario where subsidies decrease our suceptibility to mad cow disease (maybe if the lack of subsidies means we import more beef from countries with less stringent inspection standards?  Even then that would mean that our total beef supply is safer, not that American beef itself is helped, as the original wording suggest.)

    I’m flummoxed by your contention that agriculture subsidies are not economic in nature.  It may well be true that the market fails to take into account the whole value of agricultural production, that the positive externality of national security is unaccounted for by the free market- but that is a question that properly belongs in the sphere of economics.  I’m not an expert in security policy, but accepting for the sake of argument that relying on foreign countries for food is a threat to national security, I still think slashing subsidies is a good idea.  The US is a net exporter of food by a wide margin.  We can afford to produce significantly less food and still be able to feed ourselves should we be unable to access our trading partners.  This might militate against sweeping change- we want to make sure we target a subsidy rate that won’t put us as a net importer- but we surely have room to gradually draw down the subsidies (my intuition, as well, is that American natural advantage in agriculture- vast swathes of fertile land, solid institutions, respected property rights, high capital investment in agriculture- will make us a net exporter even without subsidies).Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

      By keeping out foreign beef we are better able to protect our domestic herds.

      I am not suggesting susbsidies don’t have an economic component – but I think food security trumps economic concerns.

      And I’m certainly open to reducing subsidies if they go too far. Excess is bad in anything. But making them go away completely is dangerous IMO.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I believe mad cow was actually a feed issue, Mike.
        The inspection rate was terribly low; 1-in-33 as compared to Canada’s 1-in-3. (although Canada did have confirmed cases)
        I would read that as the insularity of the feed supply, rather than of the herds themselves, prevented the outbreaks here.
        An important distinction, I believe, because as well as I can see grains tend to travel further distances.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Will H. says:

          WillH – and isn’t that an important point? If we began to source our food supply abroad wouldn’t it most likely be grains?Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


            Probably so, but that’s getting ahead of the game.  I  think we still have to address the issue of why ending subsidies would create outsourcing of food production.Report

  13. Avatar James K says:

    I don’t think your argument holds water Mike.

    For one thing, the threats to your food security are so remote as to be meaningless.  As Dan Miller pointed out above, CJD is a non-issue.

    Secondly, I don’t see how subsidising agriculture stops those threats.  The UK engages in just as many restrictive trade practices as the US and yet they have one of the highest rates of CJD in the world.  Every country that imports meat subjects it to testing so the more countries a particular type of meat gets sent to the more tests it is given.  That means international trade in meat actually makes meat safer.  Plus a foreign regulator examining imported meat has less incentive to cover up any issues it detects than a domestic regulator does.

     If we give away our production to other countries (which is what will happen if subsidies are eliminated) then we give them an extraordinary amount of control over our country. We become vulnerable to trade pressure, shortages and possible embargoes. There’s always a problem with cheap US food flooding foreign markets. It hurts foreign farmers but ultimately it feeds foreign children who are often hurt by poor farming practices in their own countries. I’ll take that trade-off any day.

    Oooh, those darn foreigners!  I don’t know what they’re up to, but it can’t be good!  The scenario you’re outlining here is absurd.  For one thing trade partners are less likely to engage in hostilities with each other than non trade partners so trading improves national security rather than harms it.  Secondly, sourcing essential inputs from multiple sources reduces risk, rather than increasing it.  If a natural disaster hit Iowa or something the life of Americans would be better if the US already had good lines of supply to other countries.

    As for embargoes, are you serious?  It would only matter if the entire world decided to embargo you at once, and frankly if that happens chances are you deserve it.  Not that I can figure out how an embargo like that would work.  Your military is large enough that you could just take what you wanted anyway if push came to shove.  Not to mention a global embargo would ruin your domestic farming industry anyway.  Good luck making nitrate fertiliser and running your tractors without access to foreign sources of hydrocarbons.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to James K says:

      “For one thing trade partners are less likely to engage in hostilities with each other than non trade partners so trading improves national security rather than harms it.  “

      Question: How many ‘trade partners’ have gone to war with one another in the last 50 years?

      Also, sure, a lot of these are unlikely scenarios but national defense is about planning for everything, not writing it off as highly unlikely.

      And I agree that diverse sourcing protects us from a draought in Iowa. Then we get the food from Alabama, not Mexico. Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Question: How many ‘trade partners’ have gone to war with one another in the last 50 years?

        Off the top of my head, very few? Do you have some pairings of countries with close trade links in mind that went to blows with each other?Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North says:

          How many democracies have we toppled in South America? Iran and America as well. Cuba had a lot of close trade links with Puerto rico, as I recall…Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi says:

            How many democracies in South America or elsewhere has the US officially declared war on in the past 50 years? I’m familiar with American history to a degree but I’m Canadian educated so I may have missed some wars.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


        Question: How many ‘trade partners’ have gone to war with one another in the last 50 years?

        Here’s the abstract from John R. Oneal, Frances Oneal, Zeev Maos and Bruce Russet, “The Liberal Peace: Interdependence, Democracy, and International Conflict, 1950-85,” Journal of Peace Research vol. 33, no. 1, 1996, pp. 11-28.

        The classical liberals believed that democracy and free trade would reduce the incidence of war. Here
        we conduct new tests of the ‘democratic peace’, incorporating into the analyses of Maoz & Russett
        (1993) a measure of economic interdependence based on the economic importance of bilateral trade. This allows us to conduct a simultaneous evaluation of the effects of regime type and interdependence on the likelihood that a pair of states will become involved in a militarized interstate dispute. We control in all our analyses for a number of potentially confounding influences: growth rates in per capita income, alliances, geographic contiguity, and relative power. Our logistic regression analyses of politically relevant dyads (1950-85) indicate that the benefits of the liberals’ economic program have not been sufficiently appreciated. Trade is a powerful influence for peace, especially among the war-prone, contiguous pairs of states. Moreover, Kant (1991 [1795]) was right: International conflict is less likely when external economic relations are important, executives are constrained, and societies are governed by non-violent norms of conflict resolution. (Emphasis added)


      • Avatar James K in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Yes, because it’s very important that your food comes from one side of an arbitrary line and not the other side.Report

  14. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I don’t know. I believe  Israel trades with Syria, for example. And I’m quite sure Germany traded with much of Europe prior to WWII.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Israel traded very little with Syria as far as i know, certainly not at all prior to their last official war. Certainly Germany had some significant trade with Europe, though we’re going an awful long way outside of the 50 year window then. Modern Industry, trade and economics were still in their infancy at the onset of WWII.Report

    • FWIW, James’ claim was just that increased trade = less likelihood of war between the two, rather than no likelihood.    I believe there’s a pretty good amount of economics literature in support of this hypothesis.

      But yes, WWI pretty well disproved the notion that close trade relations are an absolute bar to war.Report

  15. Avatar James Hanley says:

    If we give away our production to other countries (which is what will happen if subsidies are eliminated)

    Eh, that’s a claim that needs a lot more than mere assertion.  Korea’s going to start growing corn?  Iowa hog production is going to shit to Thailand?

    Americans send hundreds of millions of dollars in free food abroad annually. We aren’t forcing it on those countries. They need it so people won’t starve.

    In many cases they would starve because there’s no economically viable local agriculture, and the only reason it’s not viable is because we undercut them by giving free food.  That’s not solving a problem, but reinforcing the problem.

    As to the corporatization of ag, part of that is due simply to agriculture shifting from a labor-intensive business to a capital-intensive business–subsidies or no, that won’t change because a $200,000 combine can do 800 acres as well as 80, but 80 acres won’t pay for it.  But our subsidies flow disproportionately to large agribusinesses, and actually diminish the prospects for family farming.  One of the ways, although not the only way, this works is by driving up the market value of land, because the discounted value of the subsidy gets built into the price, making it much harder for young farmers to afford to get into the game, and making it harder to pay the inheritance taxes when Pa kicks off so you can keep the farm (this can be avoided with trusts, but a straightforward willing of the land from father to son can, as a practical matter, result in the land being sold off).

    Mike notes that land prices are rising right now.  A big part of that is ethanol subsidies, and expectations of future earnings.  Pity the guy fresh out of Iowa State with his Ag degree who’s bidding against a corporation.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

      Haiti used to produce most of the world’s sugar.   It could do so again, if it could sell to the USA.   Which it can’t.  Because Louisiana sugar and Minnesota sugar beet subsidies keep out Haitian sugar.   Reagan embargoed imported sugar.   It’s gotten a shitload worse:  the guys who used to grow sugar now grow marijuana.   Lots more profitable, too.

      And ethanol subsidies have been repealed.  Do try to keep up with this year’s news.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

      moshavs. kibbutzim. there are models that make family farms work even with large capital investments.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to James Hanley says:

      Food policy nepotism if one of those things that just hides in plain sight.Report

  16. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    East Asian countries ban U.S. meat imports. Europe bans canola oil, which is widespread here. We have the worst nutrition practices and highest rate of metabolic disorder in the world. A third of what we eat is made of corn, and another third soy, our chicken is a ticking time bomb of disease outbreak waiting to happen, our fast food never goes bad. If even the bacteria won’t touch it, there’s something seriously amiss.

    So count me among those who think that our own food is the real danger. If anything it should be taxed.Report

  17. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Given the enormous amounts of land we have with no conceivable purpose other than growing crops, it’s really hard to believe that in the absence of subsidies we would have to rely on imports for our food needs. Especially given that one major effect of those subsidies is to cause a great deal of land to be used for production of corn for ethanol rather than for food.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Brandon Berg says:


    • Avatar North in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Yeah one of my own main points summed up in one elegant little paragraph.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Brandon – it’s simply a numbers game. If the third world can produce grains cheaper, why would food producers purchase it for a more expensive rate here?

      What I sort of don’t get is that everyone is saying that American crops hurt foreign farmers who can’t compete with our subsidized production. They argue that we need to remove those subsidies so those farmers can compete. But then they say that there is still no way those farmers can compete with de-subsidized American farming soour domestic food production will remain safe.

      What am I missing?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        There’s a really big different, Mike, between an African farmer being able to compete with American food (which has to be moved half way around the globe to reach and compete in his market) and that same African farmer being able to not only feed himself and his neighbors but also ship a surplus half way around the globe to outcompete American food in the American market. Subsidies allow American food to undercut african food in african markets. What I reject is that removing subsidies would cause African food to undercut american food in the american market. It just doesn’t parse. Also you haven’t addressed the question of capacity or land: America has enormous amounts of land. Does the world have the slack agricultural capacity that would allow it to produce a wave of food that’d eliminate all American farming? Where would this wave of cheap food come from? Who’d make it? How would it be so economically superior that it’s whipe out American farms?Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to North says:

          “What I reject is that removing subsidies would cause African food to undercut american food in the american market. It just doesn’t parse.”

          Substitute the manufacturing product of your choice for food and it DOES parse. We’ve already seen it happen.

          And as for arable land, you make it sound like we’re the only country that can grow significant numbers of crops. Try this.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            As has been repeatedly noted agriculture =/= manufacture. All you need for manufacture is a small bit of horizontal land (in any condition) a workforce and transportation and energy infrastructure.

            This isn’t a question of whether we are the only country that can grow a significant number of crops but rather whether anyone else can grow more than us so much more effectively that they outcompete us. What this map you’ve linked is showing is that of the top four nations in the world in geographic size (Canada, the US, China and Russia) the US has the highest percentage of arable land. It essentially makes my point for me. So I’ll put the question again: what countries have the excess agricultural capacity to eliminate all forms of American agriculture in the absence of farm subsidies (bonus question: why haven’t they done so to the agricultural sectors of comparatively unsubsidized western peers like Canada, Australia and New Zealand)?Report

            • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North says:

              If this were really the case, you wouldn’t have the problem of NORTH and SOUTH. Like it or leave it, machines work better in temperate climates. Youd on’t need to keep all outdoor engines running like you do Up North, and things don’t have to deal with high heat and humidity, like you do down south.Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to North says:

              North – I am always skeptical about any argument that says, “This dynamic didn’t happen in other countries so it won’t happen in the United States.”

              It doesn’t have to be one country that could begin to take over US food production. It would more likely be a death of a thousand cuts (And it’s also important to note that I don’t think they are going to TAKE OVER but I think they could push us to a level where our food supply is no longer secure and/or we aren’t self-suppoting).


              • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                I understand Mike but I just don’t think you’ve considered the implications or analyzed the data fully. The United States, is the #1 producer world wide of a massive array of crops and especially of staples. We’re #1 in cattle, chicken, pig, soy and corn (and many more). We’re #3 for wheat (and #2 and 3 for much much more; info here . On all of these crops and innumerable others the US is a net agricultural exporter. One simply cannot attribute this dominance to subsidies; they’re present, they’re significant yes but they’re certainly not the cause. The primary reason why the US produces so much food is because the US has the infrastructure, the climate and above all else the land to produce this food. You cannot off-shore land. You cannot move 25,000 acre wheat field to India or China or Korea.

                In order for the US to be undercut on food security we would be looking at the country going from being a net exporter of all of these crop types to becoming a net importer of most if not all of them. Moreover we’d also have to assert that the US wouldn’t become the net exporter of some other crop type that could substitute for the crop types lost. In order to US food security to be a realistic threat the US would have to, in the event of a trade embargo, be in danger of starving. So, in order to justify farm subsidies on a national security basis we’d need to have some kind of indication that the end of farm subsidies would result in a massive de-utilization of the United States’ agricultural land. The United States of America, remember, has more arable land than any other country on the planet. Now I’m not an expert on this Mike but I’m unaware of any historical precedent anywhere at any time of a nation facing so much competition from other nations in food prices that it essentially lets roughly one fifth of its entire land mass (or even a large percentage of that) lay fallow. Frankly I do not myself know any believable scenario where the US would let this massive natural resource simply go idle to the extent that the country becomes dependent on other nations for food. Such a thing happening would fly in the face of everything we know about human resource utilization, market economics and agriculture.

                I wouldn’t go so far as to call it fantasy but I submit that the idea that the country would simply stop growing crops is near fantasy. There are simply too many mouths to feed on this planet and there’s simply too much production capacity in the US to grow food and too little production capacity in the rest of the world to do the same.

                Even the example of manufacturing which you’ve cited before is an empty specter. The US is still the #1 manufacturer of manufactured goods on the planet. Yes some sectors have suffered and some goods have off-shored but others have formed to replace them, all without national manufacturing subsidies and with very little trade protectionism.

                The problem is that without the national security argument the case for farm subsidies pretty much implodes. This is without even touching on the abominable distortions that have been created by specific cases like sugar protectionism or corn over-use.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to North says:

                I agree that it seems a fantastical scenario North. So does the notion of another country invading the United States. Yet we still maintain a military. And as Christopher pointed out, there is always high potential for us to have some kind of disease break out, weather problems (global warming?) or something else which could affect a wide region of the country. Then our high capacity becomes significantly impacted. Couple that with less domestic production and you can get into a real problem.

                Keep in mind that the US imports less than 50% of our current oil supply (and of that only 60% comes from outside North America) and look how vulnerable we still are to market forces.

                I’ve also seen the way certain crops can disappear quickly without subsidies. We saw it here in KY when tobacco subsidies went away. There was a massive decline in tobacco growing even though there is still high demand. Farmers began diversifying or getting out of the growing business completely. I see no reason why this couldn’t happen with staple crops if price supports went away and there was no price floor on growing.


              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                There was a massive decline in tobacco growing even though there is still high demand. Farmers began diversifying or getting out of the growing business completely. I see no reason why this couldn’t happen with staple crops if price supports went away and there was no price floor on growing.

                I think you’re comparing one small microcosm outside the bounds.  I mean, it’s a legitimate observation in one sense: we grow a lot of corn because of the corn subsidies.  If we stopped subsidizing corn, farmers would probably start growing other more lucrative per-acre crops than corn.

                But there’s three additional factors at play, when you’re talking about staples: one, the land and the capacity is still there even if nobody plants a single plant of staple this year.   If the U.S. suddenly cut its corn, wheat, and rice production in half, two things would happen: we’d stop exporting so much in the way of corn and wheat, livestock price would hike up the wazoo, and foreign staple growers would get a better price for their wheat and corn.  This actually would work out better for everybody (I attest without much in the way of supporting evidence) as we would see (a) a price hike on meat, so Americans would eat less of it, (b) greater variety in the vegetable isle and stuff like kale or spinach or whathaveyou would be cheaper, as we’d be growing a lot more of it, and (c) foreign farmers would get price support for their own native crops, thus enabling them to build a sustainable agricultural base for their economy.

                But even if we had a single crop failure circumstance and *all* the wheat dies, analogous to the potato famine in Ireland, we’d still have all the rest of the food we grow, which makes it *not* analogous to Ireland .  Bread would get freakin’ expensive, but people would eat more corn tortillas.  We still wouldn’t be “dependent” on foreign food, even if we imported a lot of it (which I’d think not, for a number of infrastructural reasons, but that’s neither here nor there)… but we’d still have the capacity to plow under Kansas’s kale and heirloom tomatoes and whatnot and plant wheat for next year.

                This is not quite like becoming dependent as an energy importer or even a manufactured goods importer.

                The thing about staples is that you’ll still have a market for them, internally, because we produce so much meat.  I can’t see the demand for that lessening, and since the price per pound is always going to be higher than veggie price per pound, I think that will provide a pretty stable floor for staple prices.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                nota bene: ending farm subsidies would almost guarantee to send new farmers out of business.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                It’s not as easy as that. Grains, for example, require a lot of space to grow in.  Not every state can plant enough to feed its people. If you had a failure of wheat in the midwest, for example, I don’t know that even the rest of the country combined could make up the difference. Same for corn, etc. Then you look at rice (a major grain staple worldwide) and it won’t even grow in most of the country.

                Lastly, it’s easy to say, “We’ll just stop growing X in Kansas and switch to Z to help out,” but that takes time. A major crop failure would begin impacting the country in the fall and you wouldn’t be able to shift production to somewhere else until the following spring, plus you have a growing cycle to contend with.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                What’s a “lot of space”?

                WV grows wheat and soy. PA has tons of small farms, growing all sorts of stuff (a ton of corn).Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                We grow wheat and soy in KY – but in very small quantities reltively speaking. WV and PA have similar topography. Hills and mountains aren’t conductive to grain crops on a large scale. That’s why tobacco was so big here. High dollar yield for low acreage.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                gotta disagree with you there. Upland KY and upland WV are probably about the same. But PA? It’s the country’s producer of mushrooms! It produces a lot of winterwheat and buckwheat. And I remember growing up in field after field of corn.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                OK – I’ll grant you that. But more than Kansas?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Mike, a major regonal crop failure of the scale you’re describing would have the same impact regardless of whether we subsidized our agricultural industry or not. In fact our subsidies arguably make such a very unlikely failure scenario more likely since it encourages monocultures and smaller numbers of crops produces which thus would be more vulnerable to a single biological vector (the most likely cause of such an unlikely whipe out).Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Yes Mike, I get that but there’re a couple problems.

                In order for food to be a security issue the only really relevant threat is starvation. If we were embargoed and had some kind of coincidental crop failure in order for the security of the USA to be endangered we’d have to be in danger of actually starving. With the huge diversified agricultural sector we have even now that’s unlikely. Since removal of subsidies would most likely create greater diversity (and I remain deeply unconvinced the removal of subsidies would produce a decline in overall agricultural production) a non-subsidy US would be more resistant to some kind of crop failure black swan event, not less. If the malicious states of the world somehow unified and blockaded the US (and threw a magic force field across the 49th so we couldn’t help ourselves to Canada’s massive granaries) we still would just flip them the bird and grumble while we ate domestically produced food products. That would be the same in a subsidized or non-subsidized economy. If it was non-subsidized we’d be eating a greater variety of stuff but we’d have plenty to eat. There just isn’t a geo-political or geo-economic event or scenario that I can see where the US would be producing less food than it consumes. Worst case scenario prices go up. High prices are nasty and bad but that’s not national security level trouble.

                Energy isn’t exactly an apt comparison either; frankly energy security threats are utterly overblown since the US produces enough energy to fuel its military indefinitely in the result of an embargo (the rest of the economy not so much). But energy is something the US doesn’t domestically produce more of than it uses. It does present an apt counter comparison: if Saudi Arabia was paying its oil companies a subsidy to pump oil on the grounds that “if we don’t subsidize it all our oil industry will move into foreign countries and we’ll be dependent on others for energy” that would be a rough parallel to what the US does with food. We are the Saudi Arabia of food.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North says:

                How much of our farming is done in deserts? Washington apples, some of the california crops, tons of stuff in the southwest. Much of it is vulnerable to drought.

                If we have a food shortage, it will come because of Global Warming. You can bet our military is busy working out plans for it, though. Thank the dust bowl.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to North says:

          Another regularly cited problem in Africa in particular is that the rapidly growing urban populations there have developed a preference for products made from wheat flour.  For a number of reasons, the tropics are ill-suited to growing wheat, so meeting the consumer demand has required imports.  This is a problem that is largely without a solution for the local farmers in those tropical areas: they simply can’t grow the crop that consumers are demanding.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:


            I believe you could make a case that flour-based foods are “objectively” better (someoen without experience with either would, upon experiencing, choose the flour based thing).Report

  18. Avatar jc says:

    why wouldn’t your arguments apply equally to every single american industry? (computers are vital, oil is vital, cars are vital, finance is vital, etc. etc.) should we subsidize all of those industries?Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to jc says:

      Quite so.  New Zealand produces much of its own food (with no ag subsidies or tariffs either thank you very much), but could we do it without imported fuel and farm machinery?  Doubtful.  So should we protect domestic manufacturing against the dubious motives of the perfidious Americans?  We tried that once and it damn near ruined us.  Never again.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to jc says:

      JC – would you be comfortable with America’s entire medicine supply coming from overseas? How about if the Red Cross only used foreign-produced blood? Would you be alright with that scenario?

      I think there’s a big difference between securing our computer manufacturing and securing our basic food supply.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Because without your manufacturing industry your farming industry will collapse.  Each industry uses the outputs of other industries to make it’s own production.  Thus everything is essential or nothing is.Report

  19. Avatar Roger says:

    Mike, i hate to pile on to the scepticism, but i too dont buy this argument at all

    “Our food supply is a matter of national security… we give them an extraordinary amount of control over our country.”

    Why do you assume there is something wrong with cheaper or better food traded across borders? Do you envision a multinational cartel of food manipulators? I agree with all the various commenters above that free trade creates economic interdependence and reduces proclivity for war. The more we trade with china, the more we become integrated and cooperative with them. This increases real national security. Protectionism is for fools and rent seekers. It makes us poorer and less secure.

    And if the concern is with unsafe foods, then I see no reason we can’t regulate imports as easily as domestic food. Indeed, it would be easier, as the regulators are less likely to be captured by foreign interests.

    In general, subsidies and trade restrictions are bad ideas. They distort markets and raise prices. They make us worse off. I wish you would reconsider your position.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Roger says:

      “And if the concern is with unsafe foods, then I see no reason we can’t regulate imports as easily as domestic food. Indeed, it would be easier, as the regulators are less likely to be captured by foreign interests.”

      Yup, and it’d also be easier since imports bottleneck at certain ports, whereas domestically-produced food comes from all over and goes all over.Report

      • It would be real simple — we just get someone from the US to go over and prepare samples of the food being exported to us and have executives from the different companies eat the prepared samples.Report

        • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to MFarmer says:

          Singapore has 0 food security. And we manage just fine.


          • Somhow you nded up responding to the wrong thing. Complete independence on a whole bunch of stuff is going to be difficult for a city state. A lot of countries with little in the way of arable land are going to fundamentally lack “food security”. The real way to food security is regular peaceful and open trad with multiple partners so that if anything happens in one country, there is still sufficient supply from others.Report

            • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Murali says:

              “The real way to food security is regular peaceful and open trad with multiple partners so that if anything happens in one country, there is still sufficient supply from others.”

              An extremely generalizable notion.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

              Yeah, it would be real easy to starve Singapore into submission.  The U.S. Navy could easily blockade the island, repel any other countries’ forces that tried to destroy the blockade, shoot airborne food supplies out of the sky, etc.

              But why would anybody want to do that Singapore? What the hell would be gained by it?  To be threats worth worrying about things have to not only be technologically possible, but plausible events.  And, really, we’re about the only country that could plausibly carry that out unilaterally.

              So unless Singapore starts making enemies–either seriously pissing off the U.S. or seriously pissing off all food exporting countries at the same time, this just ain’t a real plausible event.

              I’d a lot rather be in Singapore than in an African country with a history of droughts, lousy trade policies, and a dysfunctional distribution system, no matter how much food it could provide for itself  in a good year.


              • Avatar Murali in reply to James Hanley says:

                Yeah, it would be real easy to starve Singapore into submission.  The U.S. Navy could easily blockade the island, repel any other countries’ forces that tried to destroy the blockade, shoot airborne food supplies out of the sky, etc.

                Not really. Singapore, like Israel and Switzerland has fairly outsized military capabilities for its small size. Any country trying shit like that with singapore will find themselves with a rather nasty surprise. We may not ultimately win, but we would take so many with us that any rational putative invader will think twice. (Of course you could nuke us, but its not obvious why you’d want to rule over a pile of glass)

                Also, I’m not sure that the US wants to screw with its chief if not only refueling station for its carriers and subs in the region.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

                That’s such a sad thought, trying to starve Singapore.   The food’s so great, all those cuisines together in one place.   Food’s almost a religion there.   All little Singapore would have to do is whistle up its customers and they would hand the besiegers a serious beating, while Singapore went on cooking up get another zillion batches of pork noodles.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Murali says:

                If an evil New World Order or Earth Empire ever comes about, I could see Singapore playing a role like Cloud City.Report

  20. Avatar MFarmer says:

    “I believe in capitalism and I believe in a free market but…”

    I started to write what I was told as a young man — everything after but is bullshit, but…

    Seriously, seeing as how my last name is Farmer, I know a thing or two about agriculture. I don’t feel like arguing, so I will say two things — energy and food. The 21st century, in large part, will be about energy and food. I say no to subsidies, but a lot has to be rolled back in our general economy before we can simply say no farm subsidies.Report

    • Avatar Jeff in reply to MFarmer says:

      The 21st century, in large part, will be about energy and food.

      I’ve heard that the next set of wars won’t be over oil (and we can argue as to how much the current wars have been, but it has factored some), but over drinkable water.  There are projects in the Third World to increase the amount of water available, but I’m not sure if it’s keeping up with demand — people, crops and industry all need water.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jeff says:

        Water wars are avoidable.   The underlying problem, as you point out, is potable water.   Water-borne diseases are a huge problem, so we’ve gone into water treatment in a big way.   Lots farther to go, but we’re making big progress on that front, diarrhea kills many children and now many of those children are surviving.

        Sewage treatment is the next big step:  that’s usually the background issue for potable water.   We’ll make progress on that front, too.   Soon enough, sewage will be producing large quantities of methane, it’s a simple process, well within our grasp.   That methane can be used to boil water.   Solar stills are quite efficient, too, low cost.

        The biggest water problem is desertification:  no plants, no soil, no soil, no water retention.   Again, in my opinion, a solvable problem.   We’ll adapt faster than this problem will develop, provided we can keep other war-exacerbating problems at bay.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

          The underlying problem, as you point out, is potable water.

          Here’s an interesting new way to get potable water. Pretty cheap, too.  Unfortunately not suitable for every climate.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

            Muy kewl.   In the desert up in Niger, I’d watch the little beetles prop themselves up on the windward side of the dunes, allowing dew to condense on their carapaces, letting the water drip down to their mouths.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Jeff says:

        Yes,, Jeff, and sunshine will be important, and air. There will be many important things in the 21st century. Let’s say water, food and energy and Ipads.Report

  21. Avatar smarx says:

    Our food supply is a matter of national security. If we give away our production to other countries (which is what will happen if subsidies are eliminated) then we give them an extraordinary amount of control over our country. We become vulnerable to trade pressure, shortages and possible embargoes.

    You don’t hear this argument (or, at least I don’t) a lot  in regards to the US agriculture industry.  I heard it a lot when I was in Japan.

    Japan has a population of over 100 million people, and it’s chain of mountainous islands with not enough usable land to feed everyone.  Most of its food supply, except for rice, is imported.  This has resulted in many political and social quandries.

    There is constant concern by the Japanese that their dependence on foreign agriculture could affect its economy if their are sudden price shocks due to natural disasters, disruption in the trade routes in the South China sea, climate change or market forces.  Many have made arguments for increased protection of agriculture, but Japan is faced with the problem of a graying population and a younger people not wanting to be farmers b/c of the hard work, or income instability, or the difficulty of finding a marriage partner who wants to also be a farmer.  The younger generations are leaving the rural areas and moving to the cities, leaving the older generations to do the farming (it;s not uncommon to see 80-year-olds tending fields) or else the fields are left untended.  There have been attempts to get younger people to farm, but there has been little success.  I’ve had Japanese friends tell me that they think Japan’s food supply should be self-sufficient, but they have no interest in becoming farmers.

    There are also problems with property laws that make it difficult for existing farmers to buy more land and grow their business.

    As a result, many Japanese are wary of any new trade deals that involve agriculture.  Also, because of the social attachment of rice to national identity, rice is heavily subsidized to the point that it is the only crop that Japan is self-sufficient.  There is a strong rice fetish that make any left-leaning socialist automatically side with right-leaning ultra-nationalists when the issue comes up.  No self-respecting Japanese would ever sully their meals with “inferior” foreign rice.  And, even though the US exports rice to Japan, the government keeps it all locked up in warehouses where it’s left to rot.

    An interesting quirk that is a result of Japan’s agriculture market is there are numerous foods that are highly specialized to deal with the market realities.  Wagyu beef, wedding peaches that cost over $100, certain types of green tea, square watermelons, and others are all high priced, but have become highly valued.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to smarx says:

      There’s also the problem of Japan’s amazingly recondite bid-rigging schemes for its agricultural commodities through the nokyo system.   There is no real market in rice in Japan:  an attempt to form some sort of futures market to expose the true market value of rice and other commodities was roundly rejected by the all-powerful Nokyo

      Nokyo also runs Norinchukin, a rotten bank where subsidies inevitably flow.

      There would be no problem getting young people to farm if the system wasn’t completely rigged in favour of the bureaucrats.Report

      • Avatar smarx in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I know Japanese bureaucrats have a real strangle hold on power in their government (they did help take down the last three prime ministers and kept the original head of the DPJ from becoming prime minister), but the from my experience it’s going to take more than un-rigging the system to get the younger Japanese back into farming.

        An acquaintence of mine in Osaka once took me to his family home in Nara.  His father was in his mid-80s and still farmed, but he had his own business and had no plans to return.  He might pick up farming as a hobby when he retires, but he doubts his sons would ever contemplate taking up the old family business.

        Also, during my last year in Japan I worked at a school in in rural Shizuoka.  The school was surrounded by rice fields which extended miles in either direction.  It was interesting to note that the school was built in the standard style – one level for each grade level, six home rooms per grade, 40 students per class – but the it was only 2/3’s full.  On top of that the number of students in each class shrank with each successive year.  Families were leaving because they found better work in Shizuoka City or Hamamatsu where the factories are, and they weren’t coming back.  Sure, parents brought their kids to see their grandparents, but farming ends up being being a quaint practice rather than a legitimate career choice.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to smarx says:

          Yeah.   I spent a fair bit of time up in Akita and the Touhoku, following the Oku no Hosomichi .   It’s emptying out fast up there.   Thing is, rice is so incredibly labor intensive:  there are other crops which could do pretty well in those climates.   Get those Nokyo buzzards out of the rice business and the rice farmers would come back, rather like the microbrewery movement in the USA.Report

          • Avatar smarx in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I’m actually amazed at traditional Japanese rice cultivation, despite how labor intensive it is.  I went to a mountain village in Fukui (I think) where the remaining families made a living by fareming their cedar trees.  They didn’t always have a forrest, though.  The mountain used to be used for terrace farming where they would cultivate rice some 200 feet above the local ground level.  They only switched to cedar at the behest of the government some time between the Meiji Restoration and the Pacific War (which is why they had trees big enough to be worth money), but you could still see the terraces.  I guess when a government decides to have a rice-based monetary system you go to great lengths to grow the stuff.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to smarx says:

      “And, even though the US exports rice to Japan, the government keeps it all locked up in warehouses where it’s left to rot.”

      Japanese rice is about a thousand times better than ours. One of the more interesting rice-related laws is that heavy tax breaks come for “rice farmers”. And this means that everybody that can afford it has a “rice field” somewhere on their property.Report

  22. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments – lot to chew on here. I was off the grid for the evening (go Hilltoppers!) so I will try to play catch-up in the morning.Report