Thursday, October 12, 2006

Federalist 10 and Weird Bedfellows

I think it's fair to say that Mr. Madison predicted this sort of alignment of weird bedfellows: it's the sort of shifting alliance of diverse interests that he saw as saving us from mob rule. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on cotton program:
Oxfam, Cato, the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense, American Farmland Trust and Bread for the World helped form the Alliance for Sensible Agriculture Policies, an ad hoc, politically diverse coalition preparing to fight the farm bill. Oxfam, along with Yum Brands, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants in 100 countries, decries subsidies' impact on free trade. So, too, does the Food Products Association, the nation's largest food and beverage trade group.
The problem of farm programs and big farms is built into the program's genes: if a program intends to help "farming", then it starts off favoring those who do more "farming" than less. I remember when I started with USDA, the cotton allotment program had a special 10-acre provision. I think it worked that people who usually farmed less than 10 acres got program benefits without having to reduce their plantings in the years that plantings were reduced. The provision was dropped--few people farmed only 10 acres (which probably had originated as a sharecropper's share).

It seems a general principle that you can be equitable to people either by capping at the top end (payment limitations in farm programs, "progressive" tax rates for the wealthy) or by focusing on the low end (the earned income tax credit). But if you focus on the low end, you create inequities. The inequities might be lessened if you do a sliding scale, as EITC does. And with computers we might now have the bureaucratic capacity to administer such a program.

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