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Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Comment on Andrew Sabl

I can't log in to comment on the RBC. I don't know why.

Mark Kleiman proposed "A Populist Substitute for Farm Subsidies."

in brief

Through whatever mechanism, reduce the amount of subsidy paid (e.g., by finally putting an enforceable upper limit on how much any individual, family, firm, or group of firms can collect). For each county where subsidies were paid, total up the reduction and divide that amount by teh population of the county.

Pay out 125% of that amount to each resident of the county in the first year, 120% in the second year, 115% in the third year, and so on.

Andrew Sabl argues that Kleiman doesn't know what populism is writing

Mark proposes replacing agricultural subsidies with cash grants, of steadily decreasing amounts every year, to residents of rural areas. His plan sounds unimpeachable in terms of efficiency, equity, environmentalism, etc., and he wonders why nobody's discussed it.

Short answer: they haven't discussed it because it's un-American. Agricultural subsidies involve paying people for doing What Decent People Do: that is, work—and most particularly, work at growing stuff and raising sources of future barbecue. Cash payments given out regardless of the work done by their recipients involve, well, welfare.

Sabl is wrong about Agricultural subsidies. Subsidies have long been paid for Not working.

Mounting surpluses and increased costs of government programs led to the enactment of a flexible price support program (1954) and of the Soil Bank program (1956), which provided for direct payments to farmers in return for reducing their acreage of major supported crops and required that they leave fallow the land removed from production.

Now Sabl is certainly partly right. His main point is the following

When Mark calls his scheme "populist," he's falsely implying that populism has something to do with equity or distributive justice. But in fact, populism--wherever it has existed, though it's much stronger and louder in the U.S. than in, say, Western Europe--is, above all, producerism. It's grounded in a moral distinction between those who do Real Work (agricultural, or, grudgingly, urban but physical) and those who use their abstract intelligence to exploit the real workers through useless tasks like finance or politics.

This is, or once was, true. However, according to Sabl populists ought to hate Sarah Palin who increased the cash given to each citizen of Alaska for doing nothing.

While recognising that Sabl is absolutely right about the ideology of the original populists (the people's party in the USA) I think he over-estimates the extent to which current US self proclaimed populists really mean "give the money to me" and oppose say AFDC, because it is money going to others not to people like them. Taht is populists can and have been bought off.

That is, I think that Sabl is right and Kleiman is wrong about the best definition of the word "populist," the definition which applies to the most self declared populists in history, I don't think that populism as he correctly defines it is really such a strong force in the USA.

Frankly, I think that current self declared populists have more in common with the Democratic party pseudo populists like pitchfork Ben Tilmann (perfect name for a populist showing his ancestors were Northern European plowmen by the way) than the original populists. I believe that most of them use the rhetoric of populism to dress up interest group politics, regionalism, and racism. I'm sure they can be bought off.


Anonymous said...

Andy Sabl here. Since RBC doesn't take comments, I'll respond here (and link to this post in an update).

A few things:
--I know that some ag subsidies are paid to farmers not to grow. But these aren't the popular part. Mark would make the welfarism explicit, therefore unpopular. (I mentioned unpopular with recipients--but what about with voters from *outside* farm states?)
--I think a lot of old-fashioned populists *do* hate Sarah Palin, and didn't like what they saw in the campaign regarding Alaskans' pork-heavy politics generally. And the only reason that they don't hate AFDC is that it no longer exists: nobody can now draw benefits for more than a few years.
--I fully agree that populist rhetoric is used in the service of nasty movements that have little to do with true producerism. But as the updated version of my post suggests, giving in to producerism encourages such rhetoric. Creative compromises on these matters are hard, and of course nobody can be sure which kinds of rhetoric will work. But it's never, I think, merely as simple as buying people off.

Robert said...

Thanks for the link !

Ah now I understand about comments at RBC.

I guess I'm not really cynical enough to think that buying rural votes is an optimal strategy. I agree that people aren't just money grubbers.

I guess on agricultural policy I would go for focusing subsidies on full time farmers (with no other labor income) with small farms. The argument for agricultural subsidies is that we should save the family farm. In fact they are not tilted to family farmers. John McCain himself talked about cutting subsidies to rich farmers.

But basically I am cynical enough to assume that it is all hopeless and that agricultural subsidies can't be reformed and aren't so important compared to other problems.

dunnettreader said...

Thank you, Robert, for your comment on Sali's post re the fact that a large part of Ag subsidies have been for not producing. I also tried to comment on RBC with no luck.

However, I think there's a bit of merit to Sali's point about populist attitudes, even though he got the source of attitudes slightly skewed. The folks who get Ag subsidies for taking land out of production, or a lot of other regionally-based interest groups who get paid off when their economic situation goes downhill, feel entitled to those payments because they see them as protecting what they have -- homes, lifestyle, culture. Not much different from industrial subsidies sold as job-protection. And in most cases, it's the folks at the top of the income distribution who actually rake in the big bucks, but get the political cover from the demands of the voting little guys who feel threatened. And who feel entitled to the payments because of the threat, whether they actually work for those payments or not.

I agree that the sense of economic threat can be exploited by linking it to the other more cultural populist themes you list. Whether these folks can be bought off with a declining subsidy program would depend on whether temporary monetary compensation allowed them to ease into another situation where they didn't feel so threatened. But unfortunately a lot of the people who are most susceptible to cultural populism are also some of the less economically mobile. So I'm not convinced they can be so easily bought off.

As for voters outside the farm states, there's no groundswell of desire to subsidize agriculture. But there's also no groundswell of revulsion against ag subsidies either, so non-farm-state Congresscritters don't have anything to fear from voting for big farm bills. Even the most recent obscenely garantuan Farm Bill got lost in the horsetrading among regions as far as public perception goes -- making the subsidies more visible to the public isn't going to suddenly mobilize voters.

To change anything would require determined leadership in both White House and Congress to stir up public opinion against ag subsidies and not need farm state votes for other important agenda items. But there are too many farm states in the Senate for that to be likely.

Robert said...

Andy Sable asks how policy can be egalitarian populist and reasonable all at the same time. He notes that wage insurance is all of those things.

I just want to add that the Obama "making work pay" tax cut is similarly egalitarian populist and reasonable. Obama proposes cutting the taxes of 95% of US families. People unfamiliar with the US income distribution might imagine that the 5% who don't get a cut are those with taxable income over $250,000. However less than 2% of US families have incomes that high.

Most of the 5% are families which are excluded because all adults are neither elderly nor employed. Cutting off the non working poor is the populist price that Obama chose to pay for a huge egalitarian redistribution and the Presidency.

Of course there is also an economic logic to making work pay, but it is feeble compared to the populist resentment of the idle poor.