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Akst: Farmers, food stamps, feds, futility

A card food stamp recipients use for purchases

A card food stamp recipients use for purchases in California. Photo Credit: AP

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

Some things in life never change. The Whitestone Bridge is always under construction, and apparently always will be. And Uncle Sam will always waste billions on subsidies to farmers.

A renewal of the nation's main farm and food-aid bill is making its way through Congress, reminding us yet again (as if we needed a reminder!) of what's wrong with the way things work in Washington.

But first let me get the ritual denunciations out of the way. Like its predecessors over the years, this new farm bill offers juicy giveaways to agribusiness under the guise of helping the couple with the pitchfork in the famous Grant Wood painting. To be sure, three-quarters of the bill's trillion dollar cost over the next decade would be for nutrition programs (mainly food stamps). But this aid for the needy is yoked to $140 billion in agricultural subsidies.

There's a lot of self-congratulation going on in Congress right now because the new Senate farm bill, unlike the law currently in place, eliminates $5 billion a year in fixed annual subsidies -- essentially, free cash -- for farmers.

But the bill does contain costly new versions of crop insurance that will transfer more of the risk of farming onto the backs of taxpayers, whose sacroiliacs are already pretty sore from bearing the risks of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the too-big-to-fail banks.

We'll get a wasteful farm bill no matter how much policy wonks and pundits jump up and down. The question is whether we can learn anything from the persistence of this ridiculous program.

I think we can. Federal aid to agriculture got going in a big way during the Great Depression, when many farmers, like the Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath," were desperate. But these policies have endured long past the conditions they were meant to remedy.

Before long the land was covered in a crazy-quilt of farm programs, many of them contradictory. Over the years laws and tax dollars have been used to prop up the price of healthy items like milk and fruit, which should be more affordable, and to subsidize the production of a lethal weed (tobacco). Farmers have been discouraged from planting high-water crops in wet places, and encouraged to plant them in dry ones. Each market intervention seemed to require offsetting new ones, as with a patient who takes medication to counteract the effects of other medications.

And where, you might ask, is the outcry in Congress? Conservatives should be complaining of agricultural socialism. Liberals should condemn corporate welfare cloaked in denim overalls. Both sides would be right.

Alas, such cries are faint because by now, everyone takes farm subsidies for granted. Every state, including the ones mainly full of soybeans, has two senators. Iowa is an important presidential primary venue. And democracy is about compromise. The price of food stamps -- which themselves increase the demand for food -- has been agricultural subsidies.

There is a cautionary tale in all this. Once initiated, special-interest government programs are hard to get rid of, even when they've outlived their usefulness. They build up organized constituencies, and these motivated groups lobby all too effectively. Beneficiaries also propagate sentimental myths (the family farmer, our cherished agrarian heritage) about the programs they so passionately defend.

Because no one lobbies for the general interest, these costly legacies accumulate: the weapons even the Pentagon doesn't want, the tax subsidies to big oil companies, the unneeded military bases and post offices Uncle Sam won't close.

So yes, we can learn from the latest farm bill. Unfortunately, the lesson is one we already know all too well.