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Jewish World Review
Feb. 9, 2005
/ 30 Shevat, 5765
Fifth Avenue farmers
Times Square. The Empire State Building. Grand Central Terminal. Ah, the sights, the smells, the peaceful sounds of farm country.
Farm country? When politicians start handing out subsidies, you never can tell. Hundreds of federally subsidized farmers live in New York City. Among them is Mike Sonnenfeldt. He lives in the same building as Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin, and he gets cotton subsidies. I asked him whether he grows any cotton.
"I have no idea," he said. "I bought a piece of property that got traded for a piece of property. ... I'm not sure exactly even why I get (the subsidies)."
Politicians often think nothing happens unless they do it. Some say we won't have an ample food supply unless we protect farms with subsidies. Congress passes farm subsidies, and presidents sign them.
The politicians don't talk much about people like Mike Sonnenfeldt. They talk about protecting "family farms." Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards spoke of "fighting for family farmers." Actually, big agribusinesses receive most federal farm subsidies, but some of the money does reach real, live family farmers, such as Fred and Larry Starrh.
The Starrhs grow mostly cotton on their 12,000-acre spread in California. It's hard to think of them as needy with all that land, but without subsidies, they say, they couldn't make a profit.
Most businesses that can't make a profit go out of business. Woolworth closed. So did TWA. So do 20,000 restaurants every year. It's that freedom to fail that has helped make America as prosperous as it is, because it frees people to do more productive things.
But not on subsidized farms. When the Starrhs can't make a profit, you give them a handout, although Fred Starrh refuses to call it a handout. "I look at it," he says, "as a way to maintain a viable agriculture in this country."
That's the myth. Subsidies don't maintain viable agriculture. Viable agriculture maintains itself, because people are willing to buy its products at more than the costs of growing them. In fact, most crops are not subsidized. Not lettuce, peas, potatoes, plums, peaches, broccoli or green beans. There's no shortage of any of these. Yet the Starrhs and others say farming can't survive without subsidies.
"If I can't grow my 6,000 acres of cotton because the subsidy's gone," said Larry Starrh, "where am I going to go with that acreage? Do I just idle it?"
Subsidies are like a heroin fix. They feel good, but they lead to more subsidies.
The first subsidy makes cotton more expensive. That causes a problem for manufacturers, so we give them a subsidy, too. That subsidy hurts poor farmers worldwide, so we send them more money in foreign aid. But that's not enough for our cotton farmers. We give them another subsidy for the water they use and another subsidy to advertise their cotton overseas. We give away billions in handouts, without which, say the Starrhs, American cotton which Americans value would be replaced by foreign cotton.
The foreign cotton Fred Starrh mentioned China, India and Pakistan as likely sources sounds like a good deal to me. The free market puts resources to work where they're most productive. If Americans bought cheap cotton overseas, we'd have more money to spend on other things.
If Fred and Larry Starrh got out of the cotton business, they might become self-supporting in some other line of work, and their land could be used, by them or by someone else, for some more profitable purpose. If Third World farmers became the world's leading growers of cotton, we and they would benefit.
But Fred and Larry Starrh maintain that cotton farmers deserve subsidies and that subsidized farmers are not "welfare queens," which is what I called them. "I totally disagree with you, John," said Fred Starrh. "And the legislature is with us at this point, so we're winning, and you're losing." They are winning in the political arena, which shows American politics has degenerated into nothing more than a competition for the privilege of putting public force to work for your private interests and against everyone else's.
The Starrhs find the title of welfare queen offensive. "Change it to king. Welfare kings. Because 'queens' is bad in California," says Larry Starrh, with a laugh. "Call me Sponge Bob, please."
A "sponge" he is, to the tune of nearly $3.5 million of your money.
Give Me a Break.
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02/02/05: Buy a bridge? This $200 Million one isn't for sale it's being paid for by taxpayers and it leads almost nowhere
01/28/05: Aren't science and scholarship supposed to ask questions and open our eyes to facts?
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