Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill:  Part 1: Synopsis

Introduction to the Series: A Teachable Moment

This is a review of a presentation by Dr. Silvia Secchi in a webinar of the Iowa Farmers Union on the parity farm programs (here: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=272843577976670&id=107307789290804&anchor_composer=false). Upon hearing Dr. Secchi’s presentation, a number of farmers expressed concerns that she didn’t understand the issues, and I commented that her presentation surely contained at least “two dozen falsehoods.”

First:  “Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 1: Synopsis,” is a condensed version of the long 2nd paper, a quick overview. Less than 5 pages. (You’re here now.)

Second: “Review: Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill:  Part 2: ‘2 Dozen Falsehoods?‘” is a lengthy rebuttal or response to 28 claims or statements that she made in her presentation. About 34 pages, including 15 data charts. More than 80 endnotes are posted separately as Part 3, below.

Third:  Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 3:  Endnotes to Part 2

Fourth: “Silvia Secchi on the Farm Bill: Part 4:  Generalizations that Mystify,” is a fairly brief discussion of 8 generalizations that she made in her talk. While I see these as good and sometimes great generalizations, I see each one as misapplied, and generally more applicable to my rebuttal of her thesis than to her claims in support of it.  This mixture of common sense and false applications, I argue, mystifies us, blocking our progress on these important issues.

The reason I’ve gone into such great detail is that I see this as a teachable moment. Dr. Secchi’s views are widely held, and closely related to additional views that are also widely held. At the same time, the issues are extremely important, as they are the biggest issues of U.S. and global agriculture.

Dr. Secchi’s Core Anomaly

As I explain in great detail in Part 2, (the long paper with endnotes,) Dr. Secchi supports policy positions that most strongly work against her (progressive) values.  While I generally share most of her core values, I reject her core anomaly, and offer solutions that are more congruent with these values.

Two Dozen Falsehoods?”

Right after hearing her presentation to the Iowa Farmers Union, I commented below the video that there were probably at least two dozen falsehoods in it. In the long paper I identify the specific falsehoods and related matters that I see, 28 of them, and provide rebuttals to them. Here below I briefly describe each of these.

[1] Dr. Secchi suggested that we got rid of parity because it was a bad idea. I show that overwhelming evidence points the other way, that it was and is a great idea, and that Congress/Presidents reduced and ended it because of pressure from the agribusiness lobby, which has always opposed it.

[2] Dr. Secchi suggested that price and supply management works by the government buying up the excess to push up the price, such as of corn, which, of course, would not reduce the supply. I show that it works with price floors and by cutting acreage, and if that’s done correctly, the government rarely has to take temporary ownership of grain, and in that case, when they do, they’ll likely make a profit on it. 

[3] Dr. Secchi argued that, under parity programs, government “is in charge of stocks,” such as of grain, and that, “history proves” that oversupply is the result of the programs. I show that there was little oversupply during parity, that the problems occurred with the decline from parity and the ending of parity.

[4] Dr. Secchi argued that minimum price floor programs, (which are similar in principle to minimum wage floors,) cannot work if a country exports. I show that price floor/supply management programs did work as we exported, and that this is also supported by academics in a number of econometric studies.

[5] Dr. Secchi argued that the only way parity programs work with exports is if you lose money on exports with a two-tiered price system.” I show the evidence for how, though you export a smaller quality with these programs, you make more money on the exports.

[6] Dr. Secchi argued that the WTO would oppose what she imagines as a system of losing money on exports. I showed how WTO has never really opposed export dumping, and has never had a system for preventing it.

[7] Dr. Secchi argued that the programs can’t work because farmers will increase production with these programs, producing more because the higher prices, (which is a conservative, free market philosophy, assuming that supply and demand effectively self-correct, as in economic theory and economics textbooks). I show a list of reasons why that view is incorrect: that that philosophy fails for agriculture in the “aggregate,” (as in the real world,) for a variety of reasons that make it different from other industries; (that farmers have only so much land, and if they acquire more, others have less); that there is a huge factor of diminishing returns with over-fertilization; that the programs just cut back on supply however much more is needed on following any year of increased carryover (oversupply).

[8] Dr. Secchi argued that the programs also fail because of new technology that increases yields. I address that along with [7], showed how parity successfully handled the huge change from draft power to tractors, (which freed up tens of millions of acres from usage as draft power feeds [fuels]), showed how the extreme conditions of the Great Depression that radically altered supply and demand for farm equipment manufacturers was successfully addressed by supply management, showed also how the huge recent changes in technology in the auto industry did not at all eliminate their need for their supply management, which they see as essential, and in fact, all of this is all exactly why the programs are needed.

[9] Dr. Secchi argued that “at the end of the day, there was no supply reduction, but rather “a lot of surplus.” I show not only that that was false, as discussed above, but that here, and on other issues, she surely doesn’t know WHEN parity happened, and therefore was blaming parity for what happened during the time of decline from parity, and the time after the ending of parity, including times when Republican administrations mismanaged the programs. My answer outlines 5 different periods:

A. Before 1933, before the farm program.

B. Early farm bill years, pre-parity, 1933-1941.

C. The parity years, 1942-1952, (100% of parity or more every year for agriculture as a whole).

D. The Decline from Parity, 1953-1995, a time of (lower and lower price floors and inadequate acreage reductions).

E. The end of the remaining major programs, 

[10] Dr. Secchi claimed that “Parity pricing … really does nothing for the environment.”  I show why, in multiple ways, these programs have been the biggest thing in agricultural policy that has protected the environment during agricultural production, and how this has become so much more visible in hindsight. For example, it became visible after decades of reductions in farm prices, leading then to the subsidization of the loss of value-added livestock and poultry to CAFOs, leading then to the loss of the sustainable crops, the livestock crops like grass, hay and feedgrain nurse crops like oats.

[11] Dr. Secchi also claimed that “There’s also nothing for anti-trust, to reduce the power of the big agribusiness corporations,” in parity programs. I show how the parity programs made the biggest agribusiness corporations pay farmers $1.2 trillion more than they were paid over 13 years prior to the farm bill, (based upon averages per year). The higher prices, then, were a huge deterrent to CAFOs.  On the other hand, I show that the severe reduction and then ending of parity programs, (leading to multi-trillions of dollars of over all agribusiness subsidization below parity levels,) resulted in the taking away of livestock farming from diversified farmers, as a massive further subsidization of giant corporations.

[12] Dr. Secchi argued that we have CAFOs because we ignore the hidden costs. I show how, with parity, a variety of major hidden costs, (which she fails to mention, i.e. to farmers, to communities, to the economy,) are paid, by CAFOs, junk food makers, export dumpers, and others in the agribusiness input (sellers) and output (buyers) complex. This, of course, also includes hidden costs to the environment.

[13] Dr. Secchi argued that, “If we did not have oligolipsic power, CAFOs wouldn’t make sense,” which is another argument for standard antitrust laws and enforcement. I show that simply having smaller corporate sizes does nothing to reduce the massive subsidization, (i.e. cheap farm prices,) of CAFOs by farmers, since that is based on chronic market failure on both supply and demand sides.

[14] Dr. Secchi argued that farm subsidies, (seen as extra rewards,) are pushing up the price of land. I show how farmers have been paid less and less with subsidies, (due to the overlooked aspect of lowering and ending of minimum price floor programs,) resulting in much less net farm income (including subsidies) and much lower returns on equity and assets, (including subsidies). So the evidence doesn’t support her theory, (which is widely shared). I show, on the other hand, how, with this massive penalization of farmers through cheaper and cheaper farm prices, surviving farmers have increasingly had to get off farm jobs, greatly reducing the availability of their labor, while greatly increasing the role of capital in their operations. This in turn, I show, has enabled them to use their large off farm incomes for “tax loss farming,” leading then to both further capitalization, and the bidding up of land prices. (All from penalizing farmers.)

[15] Dr. Secchi then further argued that “That’s why a lot of young farmers are into CAFOs,… because you don’t need as much land.” I showed how young farmers are not “into CAFOs.”

[16] Dr. Secchi argued that “parity would do nothing for” the “transition to the next generation of farmers.” I showed how it’s the decline from parity that has been so devastating for young farmers, even when they come from established farms.

[17] Continuing re. “the next generation of farmers” Dr. Secchi further argued that “The way to break this link is to think of a subsidy system that is decoupled from production,” such as “a fixed payment per farm.” I show how her solution would maintain the cheapest of cheap farm prices for junk food, export dumping and CAFOs, which is how we lost our young farmers in the first place, as farms lost the livestock systems that favor young farmers. 

I also explain the theory of decoupling, how it came from agribusiness, and how it’s been a disastrous policy. I give a numerical example from 1980-2005 to show how the “fixed payment per farm” idea is absurd and much more unjust, (being based on misunderstandings of statistics, [where tiny acreages would get the same as full-time family-sized farms,] misunderstandings of the farm economy and misunderstandings of farm programs. I show how it would therefore be a kind of political suicide for people with progressive values. 

[18] Dr. Secchi argued that “Decoupling supports…. helps more small farmers.” I show that it continues the strategy that corporate leaders have used to get rid of them. I also explain the theory of decoupling, how it came from agribusiness, that how continues the strategy that corporate leaders have used to get rid of small farmers. I show how it’s been a disastrous policy, in all it’s versions, (both practically and politically).

[19] Dr. Secchi’s view is that, “If you have a fixed amount of support that doesn’t go away, regardless of what prices are. If you want, you sell to the open market. You do it, without subsidies.” I describe how, in the real world, this is an irrational, very expensive, and politically disastrous approach.

[20] Dr. Secchi claims that decoupling is “a policy that works regardless of market circumstances.” I show how, in truth, it’s a policy that almost always fails in real world markets, like a clock that has stopped.

[21] Dr. Secchi called for policies to “Make grazing more attractive, reward farmers who do that.” I show how trying to do that without adequate price floor programs is an extremely contradictory policy that is both expensive and doomed to fail.

[22] Dr. Secchi’s solution against CAFOs and monoculture was: “Don’t give subsidized crop insurance to corn and beans, subsidized crop insurance only for extended rotation.” “If you want to buy crop insurance, you buy crop insurance without subsidies.” I rebut this in multiple ways through my paper, (as described above,) even as I show how, with parity programs, farmers buy crop insurance without subsidies.

[23] Dr. Secchi argued that parity was chosen only for the Great Depression, but then “prices went up” and so “parity became less relevant.” She called for “a robust policy that works when prices are high, and when prices are low.” I show how prices did NOT go up over the next 7 decades, except for help from parity programs, (with fairly small exceptions,) how the reasons why parity is needed, (lack of price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides,) have continued, and how de-coupled programs are the worst we’ve ever had with regard to the issues of “when prices are high” vs. when prices are low, while parity programs have been, by far, the most successful programs to address this.

[24] Dr. Secchi suggested that farmers support systems of overproduction and the illusion that they would then “get paid more for it,” with reference to a statement identified with Earl Butz, (Nixons Secretary of Agriculture, i.e. “fencerow to fencerow,”) thus suggesting that farmers believed and followed Butz. I argued that, first, productivity is valued by farmers whether prices are high or low, second, I showed that most farmers have repeatedly supported adequate supply management, based on their understanding that oversupply leads to getting paid less, and third, I showed how farmers have vigorously rejected the myths of Earl Butz, (myths quickly proven wrong after the 1970s 2-year price spike, as Butz failed to adequately manage supply). (Of course, while rejecting supply management for farmers, [so that giant corporations can buy cheap and sell more products to farmers,] Butz supported supply management at Ralston Purina where I worked both before and after his time as Secretary of Agriclture. This has long been the standard, self-centered and hypocritical position of agribusiness.)

[25] In all of this, (and very specifically, near the end,) Dr. Secchi argued that supply management and parity programs were minor and irrelevant in significance in general, a waste of time and a diversion away from important issues like anti-trust, racial justice, and the challenges for small and beginning farmers. I showed how these core farm programs were the biggest, most important issues by far, no less relevant in 2nd or 3rd decade of the 21st century, and also much more powerful solutions with regard to antitrust, the environment, racial justice and small/beginning farmers than what others have proposed.

[26] Dr. Secchi expressed perplexity that she was viewed as being supportive of a conservative/agribusiness position like Farm Bureau and the Heritage Foundation. I showed how her positions are essentially the same as theirs with regard to the core economic issues, (and based upon the same false interpretation of the history farm program impacts,) while at the same time, her position was the opposite of Farm Bureau and others with regard to environmental regulations.

[27] Dr. Secchi made a side comment about the parity price of corn “at $12, $14 per bushel,” apparently to support her argument that the programs don’t work. Parity prices are quite high relative to most prices of recent decades, and this is a common criticism of parity. I provided a number of considerations for addressing this charge. I showed how parity prices for crops have risen more slowly than inflation, (with exceptions for a couple of highly inflationary periods specific to agriculture). I raised the question of how much social good we want from farmers in relation to costs, such as with regard to environmental considerations, (and how much do we want CAFOs and junk food makers to pay for their feed and food ingredients). I pointed out how a number of proposals, which may initially be more politically winnable (for replacing subsidies with better prices,) use lower price floor levels, and how the 1987 Family Farm Act started with lower price floors, to then gradually raise up to a final standard.

[28] When asked about reading recommendations, Dr. Secchi offered no suggestions other than to her own writing, which was not yet online, and without reference to where it would be. During her talk she offered no references to others who support for her views. In answering this, I showed the key online sources from a variety of organizations and academics. I also provided about 100 additional reference citations to support the specific points I made in answering these, “more than two dozen,” falsehoods.

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