The Cost of Price Supports

They’re disastrous for our food costs, which harms our poor especially, and they drive the “need” for food stamps.  Here are some numbers, from a recent op-ed by Burleigh CW Leonard in The Wall Street Journal.  The parity prices for some farm products are these:

  • corn: $12/bushel vs actual market price of $7.01
  • wheat: $18.30 vs $8.33
  • rice: $42.20 per hundred weight vs $14.80
  • milk: $52 vs $21.10.

We care about parity prices because the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949 require, unless other temporary support prices  are specified by subsequent Congresses, that farm support prices be set to parity according to a formula based on farm prices extant in 1910-1914 [sic].

Notice that: farmers (read: agribusiness, who are the vast majority of our modern farm industry, not the mom and pops over whom our politicians shed so many crocodile tears) can get three times the market price of rice from those supports so they produce to their heart’s content and sell the excess to the government.

This doesn’t actually happen to a great extent, though, because of an epicycle in the government’s Ptolemeic orrery of controls: the government imposes on each farmer (agribusiness) limits on how much (rice) he can produce.  I won’t get into the inconsistent manner in which such limits get applied across farm products.  Nor will I get into the interference such controls represent in each man’s right to choose for himself what he will produce with his labor (and what price he will charge for that produce, or that labor).  (Nor will I get into the mandatory diversion of food into fuel products, which is what the ethanol mandates are.  That’s for another discussion entirely.)

It’s sufficient, here, to see that the price distortion remains.  And the “need” for food stamps remains.

Leonard is on the right track with the solution he offers:

…craft a new long-term farm bill.  Its first step should be to repeal permanent law that governs commodity price support programs.  Then the default setting for US agriculture would be a free market….

He goes too far, though.  There’s no need for a new “long-term bill.”  His proposed bill’s first step is nearly sufficient by itself: repeal the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938, the Agricultural Act of 1949, and associated laws.  Then take the only additional step necessary: stop instituting other price support legislation.

Watch the need for food stamps fall precipitously.

There is nothing to fear from free market competition but fear itself.

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