You paid a price for that government-subsidized Thanksgiving turkey

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Government subsidies actually increased the cost of your Thanksgiving feast, says the writer. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Hope you enjoyed that Thanksgiving turkey, everybody, because you paid a stiff price for the privilege.

Every year, the federal government dishes out north of $20 billion in farm subsidies. Five crops — wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton — make up more than 80 percent of the subsidies. They go to big agriculture businesses and investors, many of whom live in cities far away from the fields of harvest.

The result is that for us taxpayers, the rolls, long-grain rice, stuffing and creamed corn on our plates, as well as the cotton tablecloths we dined on, cost us before we even went to the store.

OPINION

Our turkeys were subsidized, too, through government giveaways to livestock producers. And so were our potatoes and cranberry sauce, which benefit from payments by crop insurance programs on a regular basis. Pretty much everything we swallowed on Thanksgiving and in these days of eating leftovers had been subsidized once, if not twice.

As a consumer, you might think that you are a net beneficiary. After all, aren’t subsidized goods cheaper? Nope.

The economic literature shows that abolishing subsidies would actually lower the world price of crops. For instance, a 2011 study by the World Bank looked at the effects of removing agricultural protection and subsidies from rich countries and found that poverty rates would fall in virtually all of the developing countries included in the sample as a result of the lower world prices for farm products. Rich countries’ consumers would benefit, too.

Take the ridiculous protective scheme built around a politically powerful cartel of domestic sugar processing companies. Between protective tariffs that reduce cheap foreign supplies, loan guarantees and bailouts, American consumers pay about double the global average price for sugar. Obviously, consumers are hurt, but so are all the producers of goods that require the use of sugar, such as bakers and candy-makers.

The rationale to use farm subsidies to keep farm households out of poverty might have made some sense in the 1930s, but it doesn’t today. Yet advocates of farm subsidies never tire of arguing that providing a safety net for farmers is an important function of these government handouts. But this claim doesn’t hold up under examination.

For one thing, only 2 percent of farm households fall below the federal poverty line. Second, our country already has a safety net, in the form of such programs as food stamps and Medicaid. If poverty is an issue, why on earth should farmers get treated any differently than other Americans?

Finally, a recent study by Montana State University economist Vincent Smith, published at the American Enterprise Institute, shows that farm subsidies do not mostly benefit poor farmers in rural and urban areas.

Smith writes, “About 70 percent of all crop insurance and other farm income safety net payments flow to 10 percent of the largest crop-producing farm businesses.” That’s fewer than 100,000 farms with an average income of over $140,000. Considering the median household income in the United States is $59,000, these guys are doing well.

If you include net wealth, the picture becomes even clearer. Taxpayers, consumers and other low-income Americans redistribute a large amount of their wealth to the largest farm operations and wealthiest farming households.

This system is also incredibly unfair to younger farmers. All of these subsidies increase the cost of farmland and makes it more difficult for newcomers to break into the farm business. It’s also worth thinking about the absurdity of a system that puts, in one single piece of legislation, the subsidies that raise food prices and the food stamps that help low-income Americans pay over-inflated prices for food.

I hope you didn’t forget to give thanks on this Thanksgiving to all the happy warriors — Democrats and Republicans — who have been fighting for years to free your holiday dinner bills from higher prices and taxes, as well as from the unfairness of farm subsidies.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Creators Syndicate

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