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Farm policy just doesn’t add up

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Kai Ryssdal: Something to think about as the Senate’s Agriculture Committee readies the Farm Bill for the Senate floor: North Dakota has one U.S. Senator for every 318,000 of its residents. California, on the other hand, has a senator for every 18 million residents.

Commentator Jonathan Chait says that fuzzy math is just one of the reasons the Farm Bill manages to survive year after year.

Jonathan Chait: Right now Congress is debating the farm bill, with the usual questions of who will get the money, what they will have to grow (or not grow), and just how much they’ll rake in. The question Congress never seems to answer is, Why – as in, why should the federal government be in the business of subsidizing agriculture at all?

Economists and policy wonks of all stripes generally agree that farm subsidies are terrible. They drive up the price of food for poor Americans, keep poor Third World citizens in poverty by driving them out of international markets, and waste billions of dollars in taxpayers money. Yet farm subsidies have been going for three-quarters of a century now, with no end in sight.

Why do they survive? One obvious reason is the design of Congress. Unlike industries concentrated in one or two cities, farmers are spread out in every state. The small population states, which are proportionately over-represented in the Senate, tend to have lots of agriculture.

The other reason is that people think of farming as a noble calling, rather than a business, which is what it is. This summer, well-meaning rock stars once again banded together to hold “Farm Aid.” You never hear of concerts to benefit struggling restaurateurs or convenience store owners.

Farmers supposedly deserve unique sympathy because they work long hours, or outdoors, or with their hands. Yet this is true of lots of occupations — prostitution comes to mind, but there are other — legal — ones, too. Or we should subsidize farmers because we “need food.” Well, sure, but we need houses and clothing too. That we need those things is a sign that there’s a demand for them, which is exactly why the free market can handle it.

The strangest thing about the debate over the farm bill is the assumption that there needs to be a farm bill in the first place.

Ryssdal: Jonathan Chait is the author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics. He is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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