Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prospects for the Secretary of Agriculture

President Obama named Tom Vilsack Secretary of Agriculture, and Jim Harkness of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy had some advice for him. Let's break some of this down:

"The last Iowan to serve as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Henry Wallace, was by far the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in our nation’s history. Serving under FDR during the Great Depression, Wallace made sweeping reforms that saved farmers from the Dust Bowl and ushered in the most prosperous period in rural America’s history."
Well, we know that the FDR administration did implement many changes that helped curb soil erosion and stabilize rural/farm income...but, this is a bit hyperbolic. To say that "Wallace ushered in the most prosperous period in America's history is too simplistic" for a supposed scientist. But, let's keep reading... Speaking about the Depression:

Over-production had led to a price crash, and the combination of environmentally harmful farming practices and drought had created the Dust Bowl.

The predicament facing Governor Vilsack is really not so different from 1932. The symptoms may seem new: climate change, global food shortages, biofuels, food safety scares. But the central challenges once again are markets run amok and the unsustainable farming practices they promote. (My emphasis added)
Well, the differences between now and 1932 are both minor and quite startling. Yes, high prices have been followed by a market crash. But significant conservation measures are in place and government institutions for income stabilization are present where they were not in 1932. Further, markets CANNOT run amok. People may manipulate, rules may be bent, broken, or ill-defined. But markets cannot "fail." Misinformation such as this is what makes average Americans cynical about market economies and economics in general.

Decades of free market fundamentalism and agribusiness lobbying have gutted Wallace’s programs or twisted them beyond recognition. (My emphasis added)
OK, well one could certainly argue that agribusiness lobbying has perhaps skewed things (that is, they have relative bargaining power; the extent to which that is exploited relative to the farm lobby is questionable but possible), but the nonsense about free market fundamentalism is just populist drivel.

Today, the real winners in the system are a tiny handful of agribusiness companies, who profit from the boom bust cycle and whose anti-competitive control of the market hurts farmers and consumers alike.
Again, market structure considerations are real...albeit difficult to prove. This, so far, is the only bit of real economic logic in the piece.

And instead of a Dust Bowl concentrated in the Great Plains, we have an entire agriculture system that is toxic. It runs from the poisonous chemicals used to grow crops, to the unhealthy foods marketed to our children contributing to the obesity crisis, to the enormous dead zone choking the Gulf of Mexico, to the massive emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial farming.
Man, and I just thought he was going to be logical...