Welfare for the Wealthy?

June 6, 2013

Yesterday, I read a piece by Mark Bittman on the current state of The Farm Bill in Congress.  He notes that enormous sums are being directed to ‘support’ farmers (not all farmers) who are quite wealthy, and calls this “welfare for the wealthy.”  I agree with his analysis for the most part, only taking issue with his sarcastic references to “the food system,” and “industrial agriculture.”  Industrial ag, thanks to the Green Revolution, keeps a lot of the world’s population from starving to death, but that’s another discussion.  I am finding myself, however, very weary of the term “welfare for the wealthy”.

This term is used by liberal critics of government policies that favor the wealthy, those who clearly do not need our favoring.  It’s not just farmers:  the military-industrial complex is another target often tarred with this brush.  What bothers me so much about it these days is that it  sets up a false equivalency between the poor takers of welfare, and the rich takers of subsidies.  The point is, these policies must be bad:  they’re welfare!  But for the rich!!  We all know how bad welfare is.  That’s why we cheered when Bill Clinton ended it, at least as we knew it…

That’s all garbage.  Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), aka Welfare, goes mostly to children.  Mostly to white children, a fact that is lost on those who rant with Saint Ronnie about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and feasting on food stamps.  It was never more than a tiny part of government expenditures, and it did, and still does, what’s left of it, tremendous good.  I don’t see much in common between a program that gets food and income support to struggling families with one that is fine tuned by highly paid lobbyists to direct rivers of cash from Congress towards their clients for…not growing stuff?  Growing stuff where they shouldn’t grow stuff?  To pay insurance to the farmers when their ill advised crops fail, the ones they were subsidized for growing?  And so on…

The term welfare for the wealthy implies that the problem is welfare.  Welfare directs money towards those with the least resources and power in our society.  The problem is that those with the most resources and power have been increasingly successful in turning our economy, a collective enterprise, into their cash cow.  That’s their idea of farming.


Malthus on my mind

September 14, 2009

malthus normanborlaug

It just so happens that I have been reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population these days – another one of those famous books that I’d never gotten around to.  And it just so happens that Norman Borlaug died yesterday.  And it just so happens that T. R. Malthus keeps coming up in discussion about consumption, scarcity, the environment, global warming, etc.  Consider this riposte by Paul Krugman regarding feedback on earlier post of his.  It’s all related.

Some would say that Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, showed Malthus the door when he ushered in the Green Revolution.  (He rejected that term, though.)  Food supply didn’t have to inevitably fall behind the growth of population.  Except that Borlaug remained worried about population growth throughout his life and feared that if the rate of increase wasn’t checked, his work would have done no more than bought a temporary reprieve from famine to the world.  Borlaug, who seems to have been a deeply compassionate and extremely sensible man (see this address) was also criticized by many for a narrow technocratic approach to the problem of feeding the world – Simple, we’ll breed more productive wheat! – understood the wider context within which agriculture sits.  He wasn’t trying to get the developing world hooked on Western fertilizer and seed products – he was trying to feed the world.  He regarded such critics as elitists who didn’t worry about where their next meal, or their family’s meal, was coming from.

Oh dear, so much comes together here, not the least of which is just how great those 18th century thinkers were.  Did Malthus forsee it all?  Now we associate him with Carlyle’s remark about economics being the dismal science:  nothing but famine, war and pestilence bring production and consumption into balance, that’s the future.  Dismal, yes, but that’s not what Carlyle was talking about anyway. And Malthus was just trying to introduce some hard nosed good sense into a discussion too much dominated by optimistic good feeling of people like Condorcet.  In situating ourselves within Nature, the universe, we have not advanced much beyond Rousseau and Voltaire’s argument of more than 200 years ago.

Krugman’s gripe was with people calling him a (neo) Malthusian when he rantedabout congressmen being treasonous to the planet and the sky falling and all that climate change stuff.  But he was way off base, as this commenter pointed out:

“[Krugman wrote] We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work.”

Only an economist could say that with a straight face.

Shorter version: “Malthus was wrong because his theory had zero predictive ability”.

Yes, I thought of that too.  If only Malthus had published his work in 1598, he would be looked upon as an undisputed master of analysis and prediction!   On the other hand, just this evening, here at a conference on water resources and climate change, a speaker remarked that maybe bringing the Green Revolution to India wasn’t such a “wise idea” because a significant consequence has been unregulated and unrestricted pumping of groundwater for irrigation, which is bringing the nation to the point of  massive water shortages.  Maybe Malthus should have written about water supply instead of grain supply, although it comes to the same thing in the end.

Or does it?  The same speaker said we should never underestimate our ability to adapt, an intellectual mistake that neo-Malthusians make a lot.