Monday, May 05, 2008

The Politics of Rice 29

From Becker-Posner Blog, Posner condemns US farm bill:

There is no justification for the [US] Farm Bill in terms of social welfare. The agriculture industry does not exhibit the symptoms, such as large fixed costs, that make unregulated competition problematic in some industries, such as the airline industry, about which Becker and I blogged recently. It is true that crops are vulnerable to disease, drought, floods, and other natural disasters, but the global insurance industry insures against such disasters, and in addition large agricultural enterprises can reduce the risk of such disasters by diversifying crops and by owning farm land in different parts of the nation and the world. If a farm enterprise grows soybeans in different regions, a soybean blight in one region, by reducing the supply of soybeans, will increase the price of soybeans, so the enterprise will be hedged, at least partially, against the risk of disaster. Supply fluctuations due to natural disaster create instability in farm prices, but farmers can hedge against such instability by purchasing future or forward contracts. There is no "market failure" problem that would justify regulating the farm industry. All the subsidies should be repealed.

and he raises the paradox of protection:

The small number of American farmers is, paradoxically, a factor that facilitates their obtaining transfer payments from taxpayers. They are so few that they can organize effectively, and being few the average benefit they derive (the $50,000 a year) creates a strong incentive to contribute time and money to securing the subsidies. The free-rider problem that plagues collective action is minimized when the benefit to the individual member of the collective group is great.

to which Becker offers explanation:

I believe that the explanation for the very opposite treatment of farmers in developing and developed countries is interest group competition (see my "A Theory of Competition Among Pressure Groups for Political Influence", The Quarterly Journal of Economics (Aug., 1983), pp. 371-400. This analysis shows that small groups, like farmers in rich countries, often have much greater political clout than large groups, like farmers in poorer countries. The reason is that even large per capita subsidies to small groups, such as farmers in the US, impose rather little cost (i.e., taxes) on each member of the large groups, like urban and suburban residents of the US. As a result, these large groups do not fight very hard politically against the small per capita taxes used to subsidize farmers.

By contrast, a large subsidy to farmers in developing countries would require imposing high per capita taxes on their relatively small urban populations since farmers are a rather large proportion of the total population in these countries. Instead, the same political pressures as in developed countries lead poorer countries, regardless of the nature of their political systems, to subsidize the smaller urban populations at the expense of the larger farm populations.

Of course any serious econ student should have read that Becker paper. It sounds Olsonian, too.

Olsonian or not, the difference between the cases of US and Indonesia lies a lot on the composition of the farmer group. That is, when it comes to talking about Indonesian case, dividing farmers into net producers and net consumers is critical.

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