The News and Opinion departments at the Times are wholly separate entities. And although trustworthiness is a scare commodity these days, the Times is on my personal list of trusted news sources, so I believe their claim. Which is why today’s paper made me think hard as I flipped back and forth between the front page, the Op-Ed page, and the business section. Below the fold on the front page (where news of ongoing international crimes against humanity belongs,) an article about the Zimbabwean dictator’s efforts to make food more affordable in that country, a brilliant plan that has resulted in severe economic depression, widespread poverty and malnutrition as producers stop making goods they are forced to sell below cost. It reminded me of this article from Tuesday’s Times also about African governments fiddling with the economy, although the famines involved in this one were of a slightly more innocent nature. Rather than a despotic African leader misguidedly immobilizing business and starving his people, in this case the Kenyan government was attempting to protect their own agricultural industry, demanding that the U.S. purchase corn locally to provide to Kenyans working on an American-financed irrigation project. The U.S. couldn’t comply, whether they would have liked to or not, because our food aid program stipulates that American farmers must provide the food supplied. The losers in all this are the Kenyans, who wound up not receiving any corn. And of course the winners in the food aid scheme are the American farmers.
Just a few pages after the photos of empty Zimbabwean grocery store shelves I found Nick Kristof’s column criticizing “the inanity of our farm policy.” His main argument is that his readers (and the rest of the country) shouldn’t be paying him (and hundreds of other rural landowners, dead and alive) not to grow food. I would go so far as to call that policy something worse than inane.
The next page in the paper (for those of us who don’t get the Metro section) is the front page of the business section. And this, page C1, is when I began to wonder if the Times was trying to tell me something. Front and center, a story about New Zealand dairy farmers entitled “Surviving Without Subsidies.” Yes, it was rough when the subsides were first eliminated, back in 1984, the article read, but now the farmers are doing better than ever, producing products the market wants to buy. It was like I was being hit over the head: farm subsidies are bad (whack.) Farm subsidies are bad (whack.) Farm subsidies are bad (whack.)
And yet, less than a week ago, the House of Representatives, in all their partisan political wisdom, passed a farm bill maintaining these ludicrous agribusiness subsidies. Does Nancy Pelosi need to be whacked over the head while someone informs her that farm subsides are bad for American consumers and taxpayers, not to mention poor African farmers? The sad fact of the matter is that her previous comments would imply she’s aware of all three side effects. She’s also, no doubt, aware that corn prices have been pushed sky-high by ethanol R&D. Yet corn remains among the products most heavily subsidized by the new bill, along with other row crops like wheat. In fact, their historically privileged position is the explanation for that broad orange base of the familiar food pyramid. Although if you’ve been paying attention to the government’s nutritional advice recently (and maybe you shouldn’t be, last I read they were advising obese Americans to buy dogs) they’ve reformed their pyramid in the post-low-carb era, and the orange band is now somewhat more reasonable. It’s still larger than any of the others, but smaller than the green (vegetables) and red (fruit) combines. In another nod to nutrition, Friday's farm bill did include some new subsidies for vegetable and fruit growers. It also lowered the eligibility level for subsidies from annual incomes of less than $2.5 million to $1 million. But as the New York Times editorialized, “reducing an outrageous cap to a lower outrageous cap is not exactly our idea of reform.” And although I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader for the Times, I have to say, it’s not mine either.