Chuck Todd of NBC News is traveling the country, talking to voters, and generally filing interesting reports. But in his report on Arkansas, he repeats a familiar, and false, trope:
Cotton looks poised to win in the state, but if you're trying to figure out why he hasn't put this race away yet, one thing that can't be ignored is his vote against the farm bill. It came up in our talk with Arkansas farmers here -- who were less Pryor Democrats than Clinton Republicans. If it were a disqualifying issue for Cotton, he'd be losing, but it is certainly something that's resonated in a negative way. This is a conservative state, but it's not one that's anti-federal government the way some other Southern states are (or at least are stereotyped to be.) These folks want to be a partner with government.
Two major points about the Farm Bill that Todd ignores.
First, it does little to help the average Arkansan. The Farm Bill is loaded with payoffs that accrue primarily to the wealthiest farmers in the country. Moreover, even the benefits distributed to rich farms usually do not go to the workers who run the farms, the people who supply those farms with equipment, feed, or seed -- or generally anybody with elastic inputs to contribute to the farm economy. Subsidies increase prices temporarily, but these only only induce new people to enter the market, so existing suppliers just end up facing stiffer competition, which drives prices back down.
So, the farm bill helps one group of people: those who own the land. To be more specific, it helps people who owned the land when the subsidies were increased. They collect windfall profits. Later buyers of the land end up paying more because the subsidies drive up the price they must pay.
Second, it is a massive logroll that has become a less and less good deal for rural America. What do you suppose the average Arkansan thinks of the extraordinary increase in food stamp participation over the last six years? I’ll bet dollars to donuts that these voters do not like it. Well, guess where it comes from? The Farm Bill. Since the 1970s food stamps and farm subsidies have been intertwined in the Farm Bill. They have no logical relationship to one another; they are rather combined for purely political purposes. That is, linking them together creates a logroll that protects parochial interests that could probably not survive a straight up or down vote on the House or Senate floor.
All in all, the Farm Bill is a terrible deal for rural people. The benefits their communities accrue are targeted narrowly, to the most wealthy landowners. Moreover, an enormous amount of their tax dollars are spent on a broken and wasteful food stamp program.
In fact, it is worse than useless. Already isolated and often vulnerable, rural communities in this country have been going through a decades-long, painful process of economic and social contraction. The federal government is too resource-strapped to help these places in part because they waste untold billions on the terrible Farm Bill.
The matter cannot be stated more bluntly: The Farm Bill is such a lopsided deal for rural people that the entire House delegation of Kansas voted against it earlier this year. This is the same Kansas that was at the very center of the farmers’ revolt in the 1880s and 1890s. ‘nuff said.
I am putting the final edits on a book about political corruption. Chapter Nine is dedicated entirely to the Farm Bill. It is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with Washington, D.C. It is wasteful, unfair, and counterproductive to American agriculture.
That Tom Cotton voted against this monstrosity signals only one thing: he is not in hock to the special interest groups that love it. Every fair minded voter -- liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican -- should be glad about that.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for the Weekly Standard. His new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of Political Corruption, will be released by Encounter Books on February 10, 2015.