Nixon Goes to Farm Subsidies

I wouldn’t be nearly so quick as Ezra Klein to dismiss the possibility that a farm belt politician like Tom Vilsack could be a good choice to lead a charge for beneficial farm policy reform. Ezra says:

The Nixon-to-China analogy does not hold much water. Nixon could go to China because, unlike a Democrat, he couldn’t be painted as weak, and so the political system couldn’t muster effective opposition to his resumption of diplomatic relations. But for the corn lobby to paint an administration as anti-subsidy, all they have to do is effectively argue that the administration is opposing corn subsidies. Which is either happening or it isn’t.

As I see it, the structure of the US Congress (and especially the Senate) clearly makes it impossible to ever eliminate or even meaningfully reduce the volume of subsidies currently being directed to subsidized parts of the country. To improve policy, what you’d need to do is radically change the nature of the subsidy scheme, so that essentially the same amount of money (or perhaps slightly more) was going to essentially the same areas, but the activities being subsidized had beneficial effects rather than pernicious ones. You could, for example, subsidize the growing of healthy food and and sound environmental stewardship. In Switzerland they offer absurdly large subsidies to cows ($15,000 per cow I’ve been told) but what’s being encouraged a picturesque hillside pastures. It’s hardly ideal policy, but it’s better than subsidized CAFOs.

The trick is that even if you could design a subsidy scheme that was better for the environment and better for public health than the status quo (indeed, I recall Tom Harkin musing about this in a conversation with me and maybe a dozen other bloggers at the 2004 convention), but just as beneficial to Iowa, it would still be bad for some specific interests who would try to convince Iowans in general that what was on offer was a bad deal for everyone. To persuade them otherwise, you’d need a politician who’s trusted in farming areas. You’d need, in other words, a Vilsack.


Now that said, the only indication Obama’s ever given of having a secret plan to unveil a politically risky overhaul of farm policy is a single offhand remark about Michael Pollan in one interview. He’s released detailed proposals for large reforms of a number of policy areas, and this isn’t one of them. And his pro-ethanol record is clear. So I don’t see any particular reason to be optimistic about the short-term prospects for reform. But if reform is ever going to happen, it’s going to come through close collaboration with enlightened farm belt politicians, not by freezing them out of the process.