Robert Samuelson asks a very reasonable question: If we can't kill farm subsidies, what can we kill?
Symbolic of the debate we're not having about government's size and role -- the essence of the deficit problem -- is the future of farm subsidies. Running $10 billion to $15 billion annually, they don't do much good. For starters, they haven't saved small farms. Since the 1930s, when subsidies began, the number of farms is down 70 percent. Nor do farmers need subsidies to stay profitable. Farmers' income for 2011 and 2012 ($135 billion and $133 billion, respectively) were the highest and second-highest ever and would have been without subsidies.
Once upon a time, subsidies could be cast as an antidote for above-average instability. Farmers faced floods, droughts, insects and wild price swings. Subsidies smoothed their incomes. Other sectors were more stable. This is no longer true. Technological upheaval and foreign competition have convulsed countless industries and their workers: autos, steel, entertainment, newspapers and many more. Farmers aren't unique.
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Farm subsidies are a metaphor for our larger predicament. We no longer have the luxury -- as we did for decades -- of carrying marginal, ineffectual or wasteful programs. We can no longer afford subsidies for those who don't need them or, at least, don't need so many of them (including affluent Social Security and Medicare recipients). If we can't eliminate the least valuable spending, then we will be condemned to perpetually large deficits, huge tax increases or indiscriminate cuts in many federal programs, the good as well as the bad.
As he notes, asking government to stop anything it does, no matter how wasteful or counterproductive, is a pointless exercise. You might as well ask the pope to be an atheist.