Death from Epidemics – Islamic view

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The Prophet (sallalahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) declared, as only a true Prophet (sallalahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) could declare, that “death from epidemic is martyrdom for every Muslim” (Sahīh Bukhāri). A Muslim is here defined as anyone who has declared belief in the One God, i.e., the God of our father Abraham (‘alaihi al-Salām). That One God created both the male and the female, but is neither male nor female. Anyone who worships a man (or woman) or a God who appeared as a man (or woman), would be guilty of blasphemy and, unless he or she now repents, would pay a terrible price on Judgment Day for such blasphemy.

It was in consequence of that assurance of martyrdom for those who have faith in Allah Most High, that the Prophet (sallalahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) could give an order that would today evoke the envy of governments: “If you hear of an epidemic outbreak in a land, do not enter it; but if it breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place”(Sahīh Bukhāri). It should be clear that obedience of the Prophet’s (sallalahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) command would effectively quarantine the epidemic and eventually contain it and prevent its spread to other places.

Read the entire article by Imran Hosein

In Madoff scandal, Jews feel an acute betrayal

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International Herald Tribune
In Madoff scandal, Jews feel an acute betrayal
By Robin Pogrebin
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

There is a teaching in the Talmud that says an individual who comes before God after death will be asked a series of questions, the first one of which is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” But it is the Ten Commandments that have weighed most heavily on the mind of Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles in light of the sins for which Bernard Madoff stands accused.

“You shouldn’t steal,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And this is theft on a global scale.”

The full scope of the misdeeds to which Madoff has confessed in swindling individuals and charitable groups has yet to be calculated, and he is far from being convicted. But Jews all over the country are already sending up something of a communal cry over a cost they say goes beyond the financial to the theological and the personal.

Here is a Jew accused of cheating Jewish organizations trying to help other Jews, they say, and of betraying the trust of Jews and violating the basic tenets of Jewish law. A Jew, they say, who seemed to exemplify the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes of the thieving Jewish banker.

So in synagogues and community centers, on blogs and in countless conversations, many Jews are beating their chests — not out of contrition, as they do on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but because they say Madoff has brought shame on their people in addition to financial ruin and shaken the bonds of trust that bind Jewish communities.

“Jews have these familial ties,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “It’s not solely a shared belief; it’s a sense of close communal bonds, and in the same way that your family can embarrass you as no one else can, when a Jew does this, Jews feel ashamed by proxy. I’d like to believe someone raised in our community, imbued with Jewish values, would be better than this.”

Among the apparent victims of Madoff were many Jewish educational institutions and charitable causes that lost fortunes in his investments; they include Yeshiva University, Hadassah, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The Chais Family Foundation, which worked on educational projects in Israel, was recently forced to shut down because of losses in Madoff investments. Many of Madoff’s individual investors were Jewish and supported Jewish causes, apparently drawn to him precisely because of his own communal involvement and because he radiated the comfortable sense of being one of them.

“The Jewish world is not going to be the same for a while,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York.

Jews are also grappling with the implications of Madoff’s deeds for their public image, what one rabbi referred to as the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for an embarrassing shame or disgrace. As Bradley Burston, a columnist for haaretz.com, the English-language Web site of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote on Dec. 17: “The anti-Semite’s new Santa is Bernard Madoff. The answer to every Jew-hater’s wish list. The Aryan Nation at its most delusional couldn’t have come up with anything to rival this.”

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that Madoff’s arrest had prompted an outpouring of anti-Semitic comments on Web sites around the world, most repeating familiar tropes about Jews and money. Abraham Foxman, the group’s national director, said that canard went back hundreds of years, but he noted that anti-Semites did not need facts to be anti-Semitic.

“We’re not immune from having thieves and people who engage in fraud,” Foxman said in an interview, disputing any notion that Madoff should be seen as emblematic. “Why, because he happens to be Jewish, he should have a conscience?”

He added that Madoff’s victims extended well beyond the Jewish community.

In addition to theft, the Torah discusses another kind of stealing, geneivat da’at, the Hebrew term for deception or stealing someone’s mind. “In the rabbinic mind-set, he’s guilty of two sins: one is theft, and the other is deception,” said Burton Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“The fact that he stole from Jewish charities puts him in a special circle of hell,” Rabbi Visotzky added. “He really undermined the fabric of the Jewish community, because it’s built on trust. There is a wonderful rabbinic saying — often misapplied — that all Jews are sureties for one another, which means, for instance, that if a Jew takes a loan out, in some ways the whole Jewish community guarantees it.”

Several rabbis said they were reminded of Esau, a figure of mistrust in the Bible. According to a rabbinic interpretation, Esau, upon embracing his brother Jacob after 20 years apart, was actually frisking him to see what he could steal. “The saying goes that, when Esau kisses you,” Rabbi Visotzky said, “check to make sure your teeth are still there.”

Rabbi Kalmanofsky said he was struck by reports that Madoff had tried to give bonus payments to his employees just before he was arrested, that he was moved to do something right even as he was about to be charged with doing so much wrong. “The small-scale thought for people who work for him amidst this large-scale fraud — what is the dissonance between that sense of responsibility and the gross sense of irresponsibility?” he said.

In a recent sermon, Rabbi Kalmanofsky described Madoff as the antithesis of true piety.

“I said, what it means to be a religious person is to be terrified of the possibility that you’re going to harm someone else,” he said.

Rabbi Kalmanofsky said Judaism had highly developed mechanisms for not letting people control money without ample checks and balances. When tzedakah, or charity, is collected, it must be done so in pairs. “These things are supposed to be done in the public eye,” Rabbi Kalmanofsky said, “so there is a high degree of confidence that people are behaving in honorable ways.”

While the Madoff affair has resonated powerfully among Jews, some say it actually stands for a broader dysfunction in the business world. “The Bernie Madoff story has become a Jewish story,” said Rabbi Jennifer Krause, the author of “The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time,” “but I do see it in the much greater context of a human drama that is playing out in sensationally terrible ways in America right now.”

“The Talmud teaches that a person who only looks out for himself and his own interests will eventually be brought to poverty,” Rabbi Krause added. “Unfortunately, this is the metadrama of what’s happening in our country right now. When you have too many people who are only looking out for themselves and they forget the other piece, which is to look out for others, we’re brought to poverty.”

According to Jewish tradition, the last question people are asked when they meet God after dying is, “Did you hope for redemption?”

Rabbi Wolpe said he did not believe Madoff could ever make amends.

“It is not possible for him to atone for all the damage he did,” the rabbi said, “and I don’t even think that there is a punishment that is commensurate with the crime, for the wreckage of lives that he’s left behind. The only thing he could do, for the rest of his life, is work for redemption that he would never achieve.”

5-minute Guide to Gaza

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Get fast facts about the desperate situation facing children and their families in Gaza.

Caught in the conflict between Israel and Hamas are the families of Gaza. Here is a quick summary of the challenges faced by many Gazan children and their families.

Minute 1: Gaza’s History

  • The Gaza Strip is a sliver of towns, villages and farmland at the southeast end of the Mediterranean. It’s located between Israel to the north and east, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the south.
  • Gaza city, the region’s capital, has been continuously inhabited for more than 3,000 years and was a crossroads of ancient civilizations.
  • The Israeli military occupied Gaza from 1967-2005.
  • Today, more than 40 per cent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees, many of whom live in crowded camps.
  • An 18-month blockade by Israel has driven most families in Gaza into dire poverty. Closed borders and restricted movement has hampered aid from reaching those in need.

Minute 2: Socio-economic Conditions

  • 49.1 per cent of Gazans are unemployed.
  • More than 50 per cent of families in Gaza live below the poverty line.
  • Most Gazans live on less than $2 a day

Minute 3: Food and Water

  • Socio-economic conditions in Gaza, which is subject to severe restrictions, have deteriorated sharply, causing nearly 80 per cent of Gaza’s residents to rely on food aid.
  • 46 per cent of all Palestinians are either food insecure or in danger of becoming so.
  • In Beit Lahya, North Gaza, most households have access to water, but the quality is so poor that 95 per cent have to buy drinking water.

Minute 4: Gaza’s Children

  • More than half of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are children.
  • 50,000 children in Gaza are malnourished. About half of children under two are anemic and 70 per cent have vitamin A deficiency. Current malnutrition rates rival levels seen in drought-stricken regions of Africa
  • Nearly half of all students in the Palestinian territories have seen their school besieged by troops, and more than 10 per cent have witnessed the killing of a teacher in school.

Minute 5: World Vision’s Work in Gaza

  • There are two World Vision communities in Gaza.
  • World Vision supports 23,893 children in the West Bank and Gaza, including 6,000 children sponsored by Canadians.

by World Vision Canada
Please donate now to World Vision’s relief efforts in conflict ridden regions.

Iceland – When an entire Country goes Bankrupt

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Stunned Icelanders Struggle After Economy’s Fall
By SARAH LYALL
November 9, 2008

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – The collapse came so fast it seemed unreal, impossible. One woman here compared it to being hit by a train. Another said she felt as if she were watching it through a window. Another said, “It feels like you’ve been put in a prison, and you don’t know what you did wrong.”

This country, as modern and sophisticated as it is geographically isolated, still seems to be in shock. But if the events of last month – the failure of Iceland’s banks; the plummeting of its currency; the first wave of layoffs; the loss of reputation abroad – felt like a bad dream, Iceland has now awakened to find that it is all coming true.

It is not as if Reykjavik, where about two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 people live, is filled with bread lines or homeless shanties or looters smashing store windows. But this city, until recently the center of one of the world’s fastest economic booms, is now the unhappy site of one of its great crashes. It is impossible to meet anyone here who has not been profoundly affected by the financial crisis.

Overnight, people lost their savings. Prices are soaring. Once-crowded restaurants are almost empty. Banks are rationing foreign currency, and companies are finding it dauntingly difficult to do business abroad. Inflation is at 16 percent and rising. People have stopped traveling overseas. The local currency, the krona, was 65 to the dollar a year ago; now it is 130. Companies are slashing salaries, reducing workers’ hours and, in some instances, embarking on mass layoffs.

“No country has ever crashed as quickly and as badly in peacetime,” said Jon Danielsson, an economist with the London School of Economics.

The loss goes beyond the personal, shattering a proud country’s sense of itself.

“Years ago, I would say that I was Icelandic and people might say, ‘Oh, where’s that?’ ” said Katrin Runolfsdottir, 49, who was fired from her secretarial job on Oct. 31. “That was fine. But now there’s this image of us being overspenders, thieves.”

Aldis Nordfjord, a 53-year-old architect, also lost her job last month. So did all 44 of her co-workers – everyone in the company except its owners. As many as 75 percent of Iceland’s private-sector architects have probably been fired in the past few weeks, she said.

In a strange way, she said, it is comforting to be one in a crowd. “Everyone is in the same situation,” she said. “If you can imagine, if only 10 out of 40 people had been fired, it would have been different; you would have felt, ‘Why me? Why not him?’ ”

Until last spring, Iceland’s economy seemed white-hot. It had the fourth-highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. Unemployment hovered between 0 and 1 percent (while forecasts for next spring are as high as 10 percent). A 2007 United Nations report measuring life expectancy, real per-capita income and educational levels identified Iceland as the world’s best country in which to live.

Emboldened by the strong krona, once-frugal Icelanders took regular shopping weekends in Europe, bought fancy cars and built bigger houses paid for with low-interest loans in foreign currencies.

Like the Vikings of old, Icelandic bankers were roaming the world and aggressively seizing business, pumping debt into a soufflé of a system. The banks are the ones that cannot repay tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt, and “they’re the ones who ruined our reputation,” said Adalheidur Hedinsdottir, who runs a small chain of coffee shops called Kaffitar and sells coffee wholesale to stores.

There was so much work, employers had to import workers from abroad. Ms. Nordfjord, the architect, worked so much overtime last year that she doubled her salary. She was featured on a Swedish radio program as an expert on Iceland’s extraordinary building boom.

Two months ago, her company canceled all overtime. Two weeks ago, it acknowledged that work was slowing. But it promised that there would be enough to last through next summer.

The next day, everyone was herded into a conference room and fired.

Employers are hurting just as much as employees. Ms. Hedinsdottir has laid off seven part-time employees, cut full-time workers’ hours and raised prices. The Kaffitar branch on Reykjavik’s central shopping street was perhaps half full; in normal times, it would have been bursting at its seams.

While business is dwindling, costs are soaring. When the government took over the country’s failing banks in October, Ms. Hedinsdottir’s latest shipment of coffee – more than 109,000 pounds – was already on the water, en route from Nicaragua. She had the money to pay for it, but because the crisis made foreign banks leery of doing business with Iceland, she said, she was unable to convert enough cash into foreign currency.

“They were calling me every day and asking me what the situation was, and they got really nervous,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said of her creditors. They got so nervous that they sent the coffee to a warehouse in Hamburg, Germany, where it now sits while she tries to find the foreign currency to pay for it.

Her fixed costs are no longer fixed. Five years ago, the company built a new factory, borrowing the 120 million kronur – about $1.5 million – in foreign currencies. But the currency’s fall has increased her debt to 200 million kronur. This summer, her monthly payments were 2.5 million kronur; now they may be double that – the equivalent of $38,500 in Iceland’s debased currency.

“My financial manager is talking to the banks every day, and we don’t know how much we’re supposed to pay,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said.

In a recent survey, one-third of Icelanders said they would consider emigrating. Foreigners are already abandoning Iceland.

Anthony Restivo, an American who worked this fall for a potato farm in eastern Iceland and was heading home, said all of the farm’s foreign workers abruptly left last month because their salaries had fallen so much. One man arrived from Poland, he said, then realized how little the krona was worth and went home the next day.

At the Kringlan shopping center on the edge of Reykjavik, Hronn Helgadottir, who works at the Aveda beauty store, said she could no longer afford to travel abroad. But the previous weekend, she said, she and her husband had gone for a last trip to Amsterdam, a holiday they had paid for months ago, when the krona was still strong.

They ate as cheaply as they could and bought nothing. “It was strange to stand in a store and look at a bag or a pair of shoes and see that they cost 100,000 kronur, when last year they cost only 40,000,” she said.

In Kopavogur, a suburb of Reykjavik, Ms. Runolfsdottir, the recently fired secretary, said she had worried for some time that Iceland would collapse under the weight of inflated expectations.

“If you drive through Reykjavik, you see all these new houses, and I’ve been thinking for the longest time, ‘Where are we going to get people to live in all these homes?'” she said.

The real estate firm that used to employ Ms. Runolfsdottir built about 800 houses two years ago, she said; only 40 percent have been sold.

By Icelandic law, Ms. Runolfsdottir and other fired employees have three months before they have to leave their jobs. At the end of that period, she will start drawing unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, her husband’s modest investment in several now-failed Icelandic banks is worthless. “They were encouraging us to buy shares in their firms until the last minute,” she said.

She feels angry at the government, which in her view has mishandled everything, and angry at the banks that have tarnished Iceland’s reputation. And while she has every sympathy with the hundreds of thousands of foreign depositors who may have lost their money, she wonders why the Icelandic government – and, in essence, the Icelandic people – should have to suffer more than they already have.

“We didn’t ask anyone to put their money in the banks,” she said. “These are private companies and private banks, and they went abroad and did business there.”

Despite all this, Icelanders are naturally optimistic, a trait born, perhaps, of living in one of the world’s most punishing landscapes and depending for so much of their history on the fickle fishing industry. The weak krona will make exports more attractive, they point out. Also, Iceland has a highly educated, young and flexible population, and has triumphed after hardship before.

Ragna Sara Jonsdottir, who runs a small business consultancy, said she had met for the first time with other businesses in her office building. “We sat down and said, ‘We all have ideas, and we can help each other through difficult times,’ ” she said.

But she said she was just as shocked as everyone else by the suddenness, and the severity, of the downturn. When the prime minister, Geir H. Haarde, addressed the nation at the beginning of October, she said, her 6-year-old daughter asked her to explain what he had said.

She answered that there was a crisis, but that the prime minister had not told the country how the government planned to address it. Her daughter said, “Maybe he didn’t know what to say.”

The Rise Disaster Capitalism Again – Credit Default Swaps

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April 14, 2005
By Naomi Klein

Fittingly, a government devoted to perpetual pre-emptive deconstruction now has a standing office of perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction.

Gone are the days of waiting for wars to break out and then drawing up ad hoc plans to pick up the pieces. In close cooperation with the National Intelligence Council, Pascual’s office keeps “high risk” countries on a “watch list” and assembles rapid-response teams ready to engage in prewar planning and to “mobilize and deploy quickly” after a conflict has gone down. The teams are made up of private companies, nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks–some, Pascual told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in October, will have “pre-completed” contracts to rebuild countries that are not yet broken. Doing this paperwork in advance could “cut off three to six months in your response time.”

The plans Pascual’s teams have been drawing up in his little-known office in the State Department are about changing “the very social fabric of a nation,” he told CSIS. The office’s mandate is not to rebuild any old states, you see, but to create “democratic and market-oriented” ones. So, for instance (and he was just pulling this example out of his hat, no doubt), his fast-acting reconstructors might help sell off “state-owned enterprises that created a nonviable economy.” Sometimes rebuilding, he explained, means “tearing apart the old.”

Few ideologues can resist the allure of a blank slate–that was colonialism’s seductive promise: “discovering” wide-open new lands where utopia seemed possible. But colonialism is dead, or so we are told; there are no new places to discover, no terra nullius (there never was), no more blank pages on which, as Mao once said, “the newest and most beautiful words can be written.” There is, however, plenty of destruction–countries smashed to rubble, whether by so-called Acts of God or by Acts of Bush (on orders from God). And where there is destruction there is reconstruction, a chance to grab hold of “the terrible barrenness,” as a UN official recently described the devastation in Aceh, and fill it with the most perfect, beautiful plans.

“We used to have vulgar colonialism,” says Shalmali Guttal, a Bangalore-based researcher with Focus on the Global South. “Now we have sophisticated colonialism, and they call it ‘reconstruction.'”

It certainly seems that ever-larger portions of the globe are under active reconstruction: being rebuilt by a parallel government made up of a familiar cast of for-profit consulting firms, engineering companies, mega-NGOs, government and UN aid agencies and international financial institutions. And from the people living in these reconstruction sites–Iraq to Aceh, Afghanistan to Haiti–a similar chorus of complaints can be heard. The work is far too slow, if it is happening at all. Foreign consultants live high on cost-plus expense accounts and thousand- dollar-a-day salaries, while locals are shut out of much-needed jobs, training and decision-making. Expert “democracy builders” lecture governments on the importance of transparency and “good governance,” yet most contractors and NGOs refuse to open their books to those same governments, let alone give them control over how their aid money is spent.

Three months after the tsunami hit Aceh, the New York Times ran a distressing story reporting that “almost nothing seems to have been done to begin repairs and rebuilding.” The dispatch could easily have come from Iraq, where, as the Los Angeles Times just reported, all of Bechtel’s allegedly rebuilt water plants have started to break down, one more in an endless litany of reconstruction screw-ups. It could also have come from Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai recently blasted “corrupt, wasteful and unaccountable” foreign contractors for “squandering the precious resources that Afghanistan received in aid.” Or from Sri Lanka, where 600,000 people who lost their homes in the tsunami are still languishing in temporary camps. One hundred days after the giant waves hit, Herman Kumara, head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement in Negombo, Sri Lanka, sent out a desperate e-mail to colleagues around the world. “The funds received for the benefit of the victims are directed to the benefit of the privileged few, not to the real victims,” he wrote. “Our voices are not heard and not allowed to be voiced.”

But if the reconstruction industry is stunningly inept at rebuilding, that may be because rebuilding is not its primary purpose. According to Guttal, “It’s not reconstruction at all–it’s about reshaping everything.” If anything, the stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal: the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them. Kumara, in another e-mail, warns that Sri Lanka is now facing “a second tsunami of corporate globalization and militarization,” potentially even more devastating than the first. “We see this as a plan of action amidst the tsunami crisis to hand over the sea and the coast to foreign corporations and tourism, with military assistance from the US Marines.”

As Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz designed and oversaw a strikingly similar project in Iraq: The fires were still burning in Baghdad when US occupation officials rewrote the investment laws and announced that the country’s state-owned companies would be privatized. Some have pointed to this track record to argue that Wolfowitz is unfit to lead the World Bank; in fact, nothing could have prepared him better for his new job. In Iraq, Wolfowitz was just doing what the World Bank is already doing in virtually every war-torn and disaster-struck country in the world–albeit with fewer bureaucratic niceties and more ideological bravado.

“Post-conflict” countries now receive 20-25 percent of the World Bank’s total lending, up from 16 percent in 1998–itself an 800 percent increase since 1980, according to a Congressional Research Service study. Rapid response to wars and natural disasters has traditionally been the domain of United Nations agencies, which worked with NGOs to provide emergency aid, build temporary housing and the like. But now reconstruction work has been revealed as a tremendously lucrative industry, too important to be left to the do-gooders at the UN. So today it is the World Bank, already devoted to the principle of poverty-alleviation through profit-making, that leads the charge.

And there is no doubt that there are profits to be made in the reconstruction business. There are massive engineering and supplies contracts ($10 billion to Halliburton in Iraq and Afghanistan alone); “democracy building” has exploded into a $2 billion industry; and times have never been better for public-sector consultants–the private firms that advise governments on selling off their assets, often running government services themselves as subcontractors. (Bearing Point, the favored of these firms in the United States, reported that the revenues for its “public services” division “had quadrupled in just five years,” and the profits are huge: $342 million in 2002–a profit margin of 35 percent.)

But shattered countries are attractive to the World Bank for another reason: They take orders well. After a cataclysmic event, governments will usually do whatever it takes to get aid dollars–even if it means racking up huge debts and agreeing to sweeping policy reforms. And with the local population struggling to find shelter and food, political organizing against privatization can seem like an unimaginable luxury.

Even better from the bank’s perspective, many war-ravaged countries are in states of “limited sovereignty”: They are considered too unstable and unskilled to manage the aid money pouring in, so it is often put in a trust fund managed by the World Bank. This is the case in East Timor, where the bank doles out money to the government as long as it shows it is spending responsibly. Apparently, this means slashing public-sector jobs (Timor’s government is half the size it was under Indonesian occupation) but lavishing aid money on foreign consultants the bank insists the government hire (researcher Ben Moxham writes, “In one government department, a single international consultant earns in one month the same as his twenty Timorese colleagues earn together in an entire year”).

In Afghanistan, where the World Bank also administers the country’s aid through a trust fund, it has already managed to privatize healthcare by refusing to give funds to the Ministry of Health to build hospitals. Instead it funnels money directly to NGOs, which are running their own private health clinics on three-year contracts. It has also mandated “an increased role for the private sector” in the water system, telecommunications, oil, gas and mining and directed the government to “withdraw” from the electricity sector and leave it to “foreign private investors.” These profound transformations of Afghan society were never debated or reported on, because few outside the bank know they took place: The changes were buried deep in a “technical annex” attached to a grant providing “emergency” aid to Afghanistan’s war-torn infrastructure–two years before the country had an elected government.

It has been much the same story in Haiti, following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In exchange for a $61 million loan, the bank is requiring “public-private partnership and governance in the education and health sectors,” according to bank documents–i.e., private companies running schools and hospitals. Roger Noriega, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has made it clear that the Bush Administration shares these goals. “We will also encourage the government of Haiti to move forward, at the appropriate time, with restructuring and privatization of some public sector enterprises,” he told the American Enterprise Institute on April 14, 2004.

These are extraordinarily controversial plans in a country with a powerful socialist base, and the bank admits that this is precisely why it is pushing them now, with Haiti under what approaches military rule. “The Transitional Government provide[s] a window of opportunity for implementing economic governance reforms…that may be hard for a future government to undo,” the bank notes in its Economic Governance Reform Operation Project agreement. For Haitians, this is a particularly bitter irony: Many blame multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, for deepening the political crisis that led to Aristide’s ouster by withholding hundreds of millions in promised loans. At the time, the Inter-American Development Bank, under pressure from the State Department, claimed Haiti was insufficiently democratic to receive the money, pointing to minor irregularities in a legislative election. But now that Aristide is out, the World Bank is openly celebrating the perks of operating in a democracy-free zone.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been imposing shock therapy on countries in various states of shock for at least three decades, most notably after Latin America’s military coups and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet many observers say that today’s disaster capitalism really hit its stride with Hurricane Mitch. For a week in October 1998, Mitch parked itself over Central America, swallowing villages whole and killing more than 9,000. Already impoverished countries were desperate for reconstruction aid–and it came, but with strings attached. In the two months after Mitch struck, with the country still knee-deep in rubble, corpses and mud, the Honduran congress initiated what the Financial Times called “speed sell-offs after the storm.” It passed laws allowing the privatization of airports, seaports and highways and fast-tracked plans to privatize the state telephone company, the national electric company and parts of the water sector. It overturned land-reform laws and made it easier for foreigners to buy and sell property. It was much the same in neighboring countries: In the same two months, Guatemala announced plans to sell off its phone system, and Nicaragua did likewise, along with its electric company and its petroleum sector.

All of the privatization plans were pushed aggressively by the usual suspects. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the World Bank and International Monetary Fund had thrown their weight behind the [telecom] sale, making it a condition for release of roughly $47 million in aid annually over three years and linking it to about $4.4 billion in foreign-debt relief for Nicaragua.”

Now the bank is using the December 26 tsunami to push through its cookie-cutter policies. The most devastated countries have seen almost no debt relief, and most of the World Bank’s emergency aid has come in the form of loans, not grants. Rather than emphasizing the need to help the small fishing communities–more than 80 percent of the wave’s victims–the bank is pushing for expansion of the tourism sector and industrial fish farms. As for the damaged public infrastructure, like roads and schools, bank documents recognize that rebuilding them “may strain public finances” and suggest that governments consider privatization (yes, they have only one idea). “For certain investments,” notes the bank’s tsunami-response plan, “it may be appropriate to utilize private financing.”

As in other reconstruction sites, from Haiti to Iraq, tsunami relief has little to do with recovering what was lost. Although hotels and industry have already started reconstructing on the coast, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and India, governments have passed laws preventing families from rebuilding their oceanfront homes. Hundreds of thousands of people are being forcibly relocated inland, to military style barracks in Aceh and prefab concrete boxes in Thailand. The coast is not being rebuilt as it was–dotted with fishing villages and beaches strewn with handmade nets. Instead, governments, corporations and foreign donors are teaming up to rebuild it as they would like it to be: the beaches as playgrounds for tourists, the oceans as watery mines for corporate fishing fleets, both serviced by privatized airports and highways built on borrowed money.

In January Condoleezza Rice sparked a small controversy by describing the tsunami as “a wonderful opportunity” that “has paid great dividends for us.” Many were horrified at the idea of treating a massive human tragedy as a chance to seek advantage. But, if anything, Rice was understating the case. A group calling itself Thailand Tsunami Survivors and Supporters says that for “businessmen-politicians, the tsunami was the answer to their prayers, since it literally wiped these coastal areas clean of the communities which had previously stood in the way of their plans for resorts, hotels, casinos and shrimp farms. To them, all these coastal areas are now open land!”

Disaster, it seems, is the new terra nullius.

About Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist and the author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (September 2007); an earlier international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; and the collection Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002). more…

Mortgage crisis has Washington putting aside free-market ideology

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Mortgage crisis has Washington putting aside free-market ideology
By Nelson D. Schwartz, Sunday, September 7, 2008

Despite decades of free-market rhetoric from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Washington has a long history of providing financial help to the private sector when the economic or political risk of a corporate collapse appeared too high.

The effort to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is only the latest in a series of financial maneuvers by the government that stretch back to the rescue of the military contractor Lockheed Aircraft and the Penn Central Railroad under President Richard Nixon, the shoring up of Chrysler in the waning days of the Carter administration and the salvage of the U.S. savings and loan system in the late 1980s.

More recently, after airplanes were grounded because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress approved $15 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees to the faltering airlines.

Now, with the U.S. government preparing to save Fannie and Freddie only six months after the Federal Reserve Board orchestrated the rescue of Bear Stearns, it appears that the mortgage crisis has forced the government to once again shove ideology aside and get into the bailout business.

“If anybody thought we had a pure free-market financial system, they should think again,” said Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

The closest historical analogy to the Fannie-Freddie crisis is the rescue of the Farm Credit and savings and loan systems in the late 1980s, said Bert Ely, a banking consultant who has been a longtime critic of the mortgage finance companies.

The savings and loan bailout followed years of high interest rates and risky lending practices and ultimately cost taxpayers roughly $124 billion, with the banking industry kicking in another $30 billion, Ely said.

Even if the rescue of Fannie and Freddie ends up costing tens of billions of dollars, the savings and loan collapse is still likely to remain the costliest government bailout to date, said Lawrence White, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

“The S.& L. debacle cost upwards of $100 billion, and the economy is more than twice the size today than it was in the late 1980s,” he said. “I don’t think this will turn out to be as serious as that, when over 2,000 banks and thrifts failed between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.”

Most of those losses were caused by the shortfall between what the government paid depositors and what it received by selling the troubled real estate portfolios it acquired after taking over the failed thrifts.

In the Chrysler case, Carter and lawmakers in states with auto plants helped push through a package of $1.5 billion in loan guarantees for the troubled carmaker, while also demanding concessions from labor unions and lenders.

While Chrysler is remembered as a major bailout, White says it was minor compared with the savings and loan crisis or the current effort to shore up Fannie and Freddie.

The government did not have to give money directly to Chrysler, and it actually earned a profit on the deal because of stock warrants it received when the loan guarantees were provided. At the time, Chrysler had a work force of more than 100,000 people.

Still, Ely makes a distinction between the rescue of Fannie and Freddie and the thrifts versus the aid packages for Chrysler and other industrial companies. “They didn’t have a federal nexus,” he said. “They weren’t creatures of the federal government.”

This effort is also different from the others because of the potential fallout for the broader economy and especially the beleaguered housing sector if it does not succeed.

Unlike a particular auto company or even a major bank like Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, which was bailed out in 1984, “we depend on Fannie and Freddie for funding almost half of our mortgage market,” said Thomas Stanton, an expert on the two companies who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

“The government,” he added, “has many less degrees of freedom in dealing with these companies than in the earlier bailouts.”

How Farm Subsidies Harm Taxpayers, Consumers, and Farmers, Too

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by Brian M. Riedl

Click here for a chart showing Top 10 Urban ‘Farmers’

This year’s expiration of federal agriculture policies gives Congress an important opportunity to take a fresh look at the $25 billion spent annually on farm subsidies. Current farm policies are so poorly designed that they actually worsen the conditions they claim to solve. For example:

  • Farm subsidies are intended to alleviate farmer poverty, but the majority of subsidies go to com­mercial farms with average incomes of $200,000 and net worths of nearly $2 million.
  • Farm subsidies are intended to raise farmer incomes by remedying low crop prices. Instead, they promote overproduction and therefore lower prices further.
  • Farm subsidies are intended to help struggling family farmers. Instead, they harm them by exclud­ing them from most subsidies, financing the con­solidation of family farms, and raising land values to levels that prevent young people from entering farming.
  • Farm subsidies are intended to be consumer-friendly and taxpayer-friendly. Instead, they cost Americans billions each year in higher taxes and higher food costs.

Lawmakers would be hard-pressed to enact a set of policies that are more destructive to farmers, taxpay­ers, and consumers than the current farm policies. For these and other reasons, organizations represent­ing taxpayers, consumers, environmentalists, inter­national trade, Third World countries, and even farmers themselves have united around the shared conclusion that the current farm subsidy system is failing and in dire need of reform during this year’s reauthorization.

A Solution Seeking a Problem

Before delving into the minutiae of farm policy, lawmakers should first determine what subsidies are intended to accomplish. When President Frank­lin D. Roosevelt introduced farm subsidies in the 1930s, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace called them “a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.”[1] That emergency was the collapsing farm incomes that afflicted the 25 percent of the population living on farms.

Today, farmers account for just 1 percent of the population, and farm household incomes are well above the national average, making the orig­inal justification irrelevant. What modern market failure or social problem is solved by farm pro­grams today? Subsidy advocates offer five flawed justifications.

Myth #1: Farmer poverty.

This is the most common-and provably incor­rect-justification. The average farm household earns $81,420 annually (29 percent above the national average); has a net worth of $838,875 (more than eight times the national average); and is located in a rural area with a low cost of living.[2] The farm industry’s current 11.4 percent debt-to-asset ratio is the lowest ever measured and helps to explain why farms fail at only one-sixth the rate of non-farm businesses.[3]

Overall, net farm income totaled $279 billion between 2003 and 2006-the highest four-year total ever.[4] The farm economy is thriving, and farmer incomes are soaring.


Furthermore, farm subsidy formulas are designed to benefit large agribusinesses rather than family farmers. Most farm subsidies are distributed to commercial farmers, who have an average income of $199,975 and an average net worth of just under $2 million.[5] If farm subsidies were really about alleviating farmer poverty, lawmakers could guarantee every full-time farmer an income of 185 percent of the federal level ($38,203 for a family of four) for just over $4 billion annually-one-sixth of the current cost of farm subsidies.[6]

Myth #2: Crop disaster compensation.

While farming can be very profitable, farmers are always one weather disaster away from losing their crops, but this risk can be handled with basic crop insurance rather than with expensive annual gov­ernment subsidies. Washington does not address homeowners’ risks by writing each family an annual check regardless of whether or not their homes have been damaged.

Giving farmers $25 billion in annual subsidies regardless of whether or not their crops have been damaged is no more logical. Crop insurance mar­kets, as well as futures and options markets, can bal­ance good and bad years in a way that is cost-neutral over the long run.

Myth #3: Maintaining a cheap and stable food supply.

Some contend that food markets would fluctu­ate wildly without farm subsidies. In reality, food prices of both subsidized and unsubsidized crops are relatively stable. Given that the percentage of family budgets spent on food has dropped from 25 percent to 10 percent since 1933, any potential price instability would have an increasingly small impact on family budgets.[7] Even if price stabiliza­tion was necessary, price support programs have largely been replaced by commodity subsidies that stimulate overproduction rather than stabi­lize prices.

Nor do farm subsidies contribute to lower food costs. Two-thirds of food production is unsubsi­dized and thus relatively unaffected by subsidies. Of the remaining one-third, price reductions caused by crop subsidies are balanced by conservation pro­grams that raise prices. Furthermore, food prices are based not only on crop prices, but also on food processing, transportation, and marketing costs. Bruce Babcock, professor of economics at Iowa State University, has calculated that eliminating farm subsidies would have virtually no effect on food prices.[8]

Myth #4: National security.

Proponents contend that without subsidies, American farm products would be replaced by imports, leaving the United States dangerously dependent on foreigners for food. However, the United States currently grows more food than it needs to feed itself and exports a quarter of its pro­duction.[9] The lack of subsidies has not driven all beef, poultry, pork, fruit, and vegetable production out of America, nor would it drive away production of currently subsidized crops.

Myth #5: Other countries’ agricultural policies.

Europe and Japan’s farm subsidies bring Ameri­can consumers food at below-market prices. Rather than enact trade barriers to prevent this, Americans should welcome the cheap imports and allow farm­ers to focus on producing the crops in which the United States has a comparative advantage. Responding with U.S. subsidies and trade barriers has the net effect of raising prices for American con­sumers and thereby limiting any progress in free-trade negotiations. Australia largely eliminated its farm subsidies in the 1970s, and after a brief adjust­ment, its farm economy flourished. New Zealand implemented a similar policy in the 1980s with the same result.[10]

Two-thirds of all farm production-including fruit, vegetables, beef, and poultry-thrives despite being ineligible for farm subsidies.[11] If any of the five justifications were valid, these farmers would be impoverished, near bankruptcy, or replaced by imports, and both the supplies and prices of fruit, vegetables, beef, and poultry would fluctuate wildly. Clearly, this has not happened. In this controlled experiment comparing subsidized and unsubsi­dized crops, the doomsday scenarios described above have not occurred for unsubsidized crops.

The most logical explanation for the persistence of farm subsidies is simple politics. Eliminating a government program is nearly impossible because recipients form interest groups that relentlessly defend their handouts. The public paying the costs is too busy going about their lives to challenge each wasteful program. Furthermore, supporters of farm subsidies often repeat the five justifications, espe­cially the myth that these policies aid struggling family farmers. The difference between perception and reality in farm policy is large.

How Farm Subsidies Lack Economic Sense

Farm subsidies serve no legitimate public pur­pose. Worse, they harm the farm economy. This section explains both how farm subsidies work and the economic incoherence embedded in U.S. farm policy. (See also the accompanying text box, “How Farm Subsidies Are Calculated.”)

The Main Commodity Programs. Farm policy is extraordinarily complex. This complexity conve­niently insulates the farm policymaking process within a small group of lawmakers and interest groups who specialize in the details.

Subsidy eligibility is based on the crop. More than 90 percent of all subsidies go to just five crops-wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice- while the vast majority of crops are ineligible for subsidies. Once eligibility is established, subsidies are paid per amount of the crop produced, so the largest farms automatically receive the largest checks.

Subsidies are also quite duplicative. The names of the three different commodity subsidies do not adequately describe their purposes:

  • Marketing loan program. Despite being called a “loan,” this program has the net effect of reim­bursing farmers for the difference between a crop’s market price and the minimum level that Congress sets every five to six years.[12]
  • Fixed payments. Fixed payments are given to farmers based on their farms’ historical produc­tion and are unrelated to actual production.
  • Countercyclical payments. This program func­tions somewhat similarly to the marketing loan program by subsidizing farmers up to a govern­ment-set target price. This rate is higher than the marketing loan rate and therefore represents an additional subsidy.

For farmers who grow the subsidized crop, these policies have the net effect of subsidizing them up from their crop’s market price to its countercyclical price rate, or even higher when the market price is above the countercyclical rate and they receive fixed payments.

Remedying Low Prices with Lower Prices. Farm policy is supposed to help farmers recover income lost because of low crop prices. However, farmers can increase their subsidies by planting additional acres, which increases production and drives prices down further, thereby spurring demands for even greater subsidies. In other words, subsidies merely lower prices. This is the policy equivalent of trying to use gasoline to extin­guish a fire.

When the 1996 farm bill increased the market­ing loan rate of soybeans from $4.92 to $5.26 per bushel (which meant larger subsidies), farmers responded by planting an additional 8 million acres of soybeans, which contributed to the 33 percent decline in soybean prices over the next two years.[13] Instead of alleviating low soybean prices, the new subsidies accelerated their fall at considerable tax­payer expense. Even the U.S. Department of Agri­culture (USDA) admits that subsidy increases have induced farmers to plant millions of new acres of wheat, soybeans, cotton, and corn.[14]

In a free market, low prices serve as an important signal that supply has exceeded consumer demand and that production should shift accordingly. By shielding farmers from low market prices, farm sub­sidies induce farmers to grow whatever government will subsidize, not what consumers really want. Stephen Houston Jr., a Georgia cotton farmer, recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We’re just playing a game. [Market] prices don’t have anything to do with what we’re doing. We’re just looking at the government payments.”[15]

Contradictory Policies. After handing out com­modity subsidies that pay farmers to plant more crops, Washington then turns around and pays other farmers not to farm 40 million acres of crop­land each year-the equivalent of idling every farm in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to sign 10-year contracts pledging not to farm their land, is often promoted as supporting environmen­tal stewardship. In reality, removing farmland to raise crop prices has been the program’s central long-term justification. Paying some farmers to plant more crops and others to plant fewer crops simply makes no sense.

Ignoring Yields. The illogic does not end there. Businesses calculate their revenues by multiplying the product’s price by the quantity sold. Similarly, farmers calculate per-acre revenues by multiplying the crop price by the yield (crop volume per acre). However, farm subsidy formulas focus only on crop prices and simply plug in a historical yield measure for the quantity.

This makes little sense. Revenues depend as much on the quantity sold as on the price, and these two variables often move in opposite direc­tions. In agriculture, this leads to one of two com­mon scenarios:

  • Surging yields flood the market with crops and cause prices to drop. Total revenues may increase, yet farmers still receive large subsidies simply because the price fell.
  • Falling yields lead to crop shortages, pushing up prices. Total revenues may decline sharply, but farmers do not receive subsidies because Wash­ington focuses only on the price increase and assumes that farmers are thriving.

These scenarios are not merely theoretical. The American Farmland Trust has observed that a large drought in 2002 cut many Midwest corn farmers’ yields in half, but many farmers did not receive sub­sidies because prices did not fall. The opposite situ­ation occurred in 2005 when very large corn yields flooded the market, driving down corn prices and inducing large corn subsidies despite healthy farm revenues.[16] Consequently, Washington often wastes taxpayer dollars by subsidizing farmers when they need it the least.

Subsidizing Both Crop Insurance and Disaster Aid. In 2000, Washington tripled crop insurance subsidies in an effort to eliminate the need for farm disaster payments. The budget-busting 2002 farm bill was also promoted as being large enough to reduce the need for disaster payments.

Yet even with generous farm programs and sub­sidized crop insurance, Congress has passed a disas­ter aid bill every year since 2000 at a total cost of $40 billion.[17] Congress has even drafted legislation offering disaster aid to farmers who refuse to pur­chase crop insurance at taxpayer-financed dis­counts. With Congress continuing to pass large disaster aid packages, what crop insurance subsi­dies are really funding is unclear.

The federal crop insurance program currently subsidizes 60 percent of all premiums for the 242 million acres that farmers have enrolled in the pro­gram. It is run by 16 private firms that accept fed­eral subsidies but must charge the prices set by Washington. Recently, an insurer that dared to offer farmers a discount was upbraided at a congressional hearing, and Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) successfully authored legislation to prohibit federal subsidies for that plan.[18]

The program seems to have been designed to aid insurance companies and harm taxpayers. Insurers are allowed to pass high-risk policies on to the gov­ernment while keeping for themselves the low-risk policies that are likely to be profitable. Conse­quently, since 1998, the participating companies have earned $3.1 billion in profits, while Washing­ton has lost $1.5 billion. Additionally, since 1998, Washington has paid nearly $20 billion in premium subsidies and more than $6 billion to cover the insurance companies’ administrative costs.

All in all, the crop insurance program spends $3.34 for every $1 in paid claims-and it still has not prevented $40 billion in disaster aid.[19]

Driving Small Farmers out of Business. Farm subsidies are promoted as assistance to family farm­ers. In reality, they finance the demise of family farms and prevent young people from entering farming. Economists estimate that subsidies inflate the value of farmland by 30 percent. High farmland prices make starting a farm prohibitively expensive for younger people, who would also have other expenses, including buying expensive equipment, seeds, and pesticides. With young farmers unable to enter the industry, the average age of farmers has increased to 55.[20]

Because agribusinesses are already the most profitable, they often use their enormous farm sub­sidies to buy out smaller family farms. In what has been called the “plantation effect,” family farms with less than 100 acres are being bought out by larger agribusinesses, which then convert them into tenant farms. Three-quarters of rice farms have already become tenant farms, and other types of farms are trending in that same direction.[21] Since 1945, the number of farms has dropped by two-thirds, and the average farm size has more than doubled to 441 acres.[22]

This consolidation is not necessarily harmful and may improve efficiency. Large agribusinesses are not villainous. They often succeed because they can produce large quantities of food at low prices. Fur­thermore, the blame for the tilted distribution of farm subsidies lies with Congress, which writes the laws, rather than with the agribusinesses that cash the checks that they receive because of those laws.

Nevertheless, taxpayers should not be required to finance this consolidation through farm subsi­dies. By raising land values and financing consolida­tion, farm subsidies drive out existing small farmers and prevent new farmers from entering the industry.

The Scandalous Distribution of Farm Subsidies

One can imagine the result if Washington tried to solve poverty by creating a welfare program that applied only to workers in the fast food, cleaning, and retail industries. Everyone in those occupations would receive a government check, with the richest executives receiving the largest checks and the poorest workers receiving the smallest. Workers in other industries would receive nothing, no matter how poor they were.

Obviously, such a policy would be nonsense, yet this exemplifies how farm subsidies are distributed. The government’s solution to alleged farmer poverty is to subsidize growers of wheat, cotton, corn, soy­beans, and rice while giving no subsidies to produc­ers of fruit, vegetables, beef, poultry, and livestock. Because subsidies are paid per acre, the largest and most profitable farms receive the largest subsidies, while family farms receive next to nothing.

Thus, a large, profitable rice corporation can receive millions while a family vegetable farmer receives nothing. Overall, farm subsidies are distrib­uted with little regard to merit or need.

Corporate Welfare. Farm subsidies are pro­moted as helping struggling farmers, but Washing­ton could guarantee every full-time farmer an income of nearly $40,000 for just $4 billion annu­ally. Instead, farm policy is designed to aid corpo­rate agribusinesses. Among farmers eligible for subsidies, just 10 percent of recipients collect 73 percent of the subsidies-an average of $91,000 per farm. (See Chart 3.) By contrast, the average subsidy granted to the bottom 80 percent of recipients is less than $3,000 annually.[23]

According to the USDA, the majority of farm subsidies are distributed to commercial farms, which have an average household income of $199,975 and a net worth of just under $2 mil­lion.[24] Commercial farms are also among those that need subsidies the least because they are the most efficient. Former U.S. Farm Bureau President Dean Kleckner writes that the top quarter of corn farmers (usually agribusinesses with economies of scale) can produce a bushel of corn 68 percent cheaper than the bottom quarter of farms can.[25]

Multiplying this larger profit margin by their substantially larger production volume shows how large agribusinesses can be enormously profitable. Yet these agribusinesses, not small family farms, receive most of the subsidies, making farm subsi­dies America’s largest corporate welfare program. (See Table 1.)

That is not all. Farm subsidies over the past decade have also been distributed to:

  • Fortune 500 companies, such as John Hancock Life Insurance ($2,849,799); International Paper ($1,183,893); Westvaco ($534,210); and ChevronTexaco ($446,914).
  • Celebrity “hobby farmers” such as David Rock­efeller ($553,782); Ted Turner ($206,948); and Scottie Pippen ($210,520).
  • Members of Congress, who vote on farm subsidies, such as Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA, $225,041); Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR, $45,400, plus a 25 percent ownership in three firms that received $2,114,622); and Represen­tative John Salazar (D-CO, $161,084).[26]


Payment limits do exist on paper. Subsidies are restricted to farmers with incomes below $2.5 mil­lion, and an individual’s subsidy may not exceed $180,000 per farm or $360,000 for up to three farms. However, an entire industry of lawyers exploits loop­holes, rendering these limits meaningless.

Farmers can simply divide their farms into numerous separate entities and then collect subsi­dies for each farm. For example, Tyler Farms in Arkansas has collected $37 million in farm subsi­dies since 1996 by dividing itself into 66 legally separate corporations to maximize its farm subsidies.[27] Other farmers evade payment limits by sign­ing up family members, such as the Georgia farmer who reportedly col­lected thousands in additional subsi­dies by signing up his two-year-old daughter as an additional farmer, making her eligible for up to $180,000. As Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs has con­cluded, “We have no [payment] limits today.”[28]

Eligibility Restricted to a Few Crops. Only one-third of the $240 billion in annual farm production is eligible for farm subsidies. Five crops-wheat, cotton, corn, soy­beans, and rice-receive more than 90 percent of all farm subsidies. Fruits, vegetables, livestock, and poultry, which comprise two-thirds of all farm pro­duction, are generally not subsidized at all.[29] This is important for two reasons.

First, those who assert that the absence of farm subsidies would cause massive poverty, rapid price fluctuations, and the eventual demise of the agricul­tural industry have not persuasively explained why the two-thirds of the industry that operates without subsidies has experienced none of these problems.

Second, those who assert that farm subsidies are necessary to alleviate farmer poverty have not explained why Washington should favor one crop over another.

Farm Subsidies for Suburban Backyards. In 1996, lawmakers noticed that farm subsidies were only encouraging more planting and thereby fur­ther lowering prices, so they created a fixed pay­ments subsidy that would pay farmers based on what had been grown on the land historically with­out obligating them to continue planting that crop. While designed with positive intentions to reduce market distortions, these fixed payments have ended up subsidizing land that is no longer used for farming. In fact, some homeowners are now collect­ing subsidies for the grass in their backyards.

A recent Washington Post investigation discovered 75 acres of Texas farmland that had been converted into a housing development. Today, the homeown­ers on these properties (which are worth well over $300,000 each) are eligible for fixed payments for the lawn in their backyards because of its “historical rice production.” Residents never asked for these subsidies and have even stated that as non-farmers they do not want the government mailing them checks.[30] Over the past 25 years, rice plantings in Texas have plummeted from 600,000 acres to 200,000, in part because people can now collect generous rice subsidies without planting rice. If Washington insists on subsidizing farming, subsi­dizing actual farmland rather than residential neigh­borhoods that were once farmland would make more sense.

Compensation Not Based on Actual Sale Prices. As explained in the text box, the marketing loan program (despite the “loan” misnomer) effec­tively pays farmers whenever crop prices fall below a government-set minimum. Amazingly, farmers are not compensated for the actual price at which they sell their crops. Instead, they can pick the market price on any day of the year and, even if they do not sell their crops at that market price, receive a sub­sidy based on it.

For example, in 2005, the marketing loan rate for corn in DeKalb County, Illinois, was $1.98 per bushel. In September, the market price fell to $1.52 per bushel, and local farmers walked into the local USDA field office and received a payment of $0.46 per bushel. The following January, when they finally sold their corn, the price had risen to $2.60 per bushel, well above the government-set minimum. The federal policy allowed farmers to keep the sub­sidies as compensation for a low market price at which they never actually sold their crops. The amounts can be substantial: DeKalb County farmer Roger Richardson received an extra $75,000 sub­sidy for crops that grossed $500,000.[31]

These are not isolated incidents. In 2006, national corn prices were only $0.05 below the $1.95 marketing loan rate. Nonetheless, corn farm­ers received an average marketing loan subsidy of $0.44 per bushel.[32] President Bush has proposed addressing this loophole by requiring that monthly average crop prices-rather than daily prices- become the basis for determining marketing loan subsidies. This would prevent a one-day drop in crop prices from causing a year-long surge in farm subsidies. Unless Congress acts, farmers will con­tinue to be compensated for low prices that never affect them.

Aid for Questionable Disasters. Lawmakers often supplement generous farm subsidies and sub­sidized crop insurance with annual disaster assis­tance packages. The Washington Post discovered that the USDA encourages disaster declarations for coun­ties without disasters and distributes disaster aid to farmers without requiring proof of any disaster.

Specifically, when the Livestock Compensation Program operated in 2002 and 2003 to compensate farmers for a drought, the majority of payments went to farmers in areas with either moderate drought or none at all. The USDA reportedly urged state and county officials to find anything that could be interpreted as a disaster and use it to qualify the county’s farmers for disaster aid. Consequently, more than 2,000 of the nation’s 3,141 counties were declared agriculture “disasters,” including:

  • Whatcom County, Washington, for a distant earthquake that registered only 3 on the local Richter scale and caused no reported damage.
  • All 254 counties in Texas for “farm disasters,” such as a storm two years earlier and the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion. This prompted a local farmer to tell reporters, “the livestock pro­gram is a joke, we had no losses, I don’t know what Congress is thinking sometimes.”
  • Fifty-three of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, many for a small storm that occurred two years earlier. This prompted local farmers to call the disaster aid an unjustified “waste of money.”

Nor were the individual farmers required to prove any losses. Washington simply sent them disaster assistance checks based on the number of livestock that they owned. In other words, disaster aid was almost completely disconnected from actual disasters.[33]

Livestock disaster assistance is not the only example of misdirected disaster aid. When sweet potatoes became eligible for crop insurance, plant­ing quadrupled, but crop failures surged. Farmers were purposely growing sweet potato crops on unsuited land and skimping on all production costs simply to collect generous crop insurance and disas­ter aid-a practice known as “farming your insur­ance.” Accordingly, the sweet potato insurance program was paying out $16 in insurance claims for every $1 paid in premiums before Congress fixed it in 2005.[34] It is reasonable to assume that this prac­tice continues to some degree in other crops.

The Overall Impact of Farm Policy

Although farm policies serve no legitimate pur­pose, they have profoundly negative effects on tax­payers, consumers, and small farmers, including:

  • Higher prices. James Bovard once wrote, “For almost every farm program, there is another equal but opposite farm program or provi­sion.”[35] Commodity subsidies encourage over­production and therefore lower prices. The Conservation Reserve Program encourages underproduction and thereby raises prices. Tar­iffs raise import prices. Export subsidies lower export prices. Price supports triple the price of sugar and raise the price of milk. Calculating the net effect of these contradictory programs, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that U.S. farm policy raises food prices enough to cost consumers an extra $12 billion annually-in effect, an average annual food tax of $104 per household.[36]
  • High taxes. As the farm economy booms, Con­gress is expanding farm subsidies. After averag­ing less than $14 billion per year during the 1990s, annual farm subsidies have topped $25 billion in the current decade since passage of the 2002 farm bill, the most expensive farm bill in American history. All federal spending must eventually be funded by taxes. Thus, these sub­sidies cost the average household $216 in annual taxes in addition to $104 in higher food prices.
  • No added rural economic growth. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City con­cluded that farm subsidies do not promote rural economic growth. Between 1992 and 2002, the vast majority of the 783 “farm dependent” coun­ties experienced job growth below the national average. In fact, more of these counties suffered outright job losses than experienced job growth exceeding the national average.[37] While critics can argue that growth would have been worse without subsidies, these policies are clearly not creating new growth centers. Farm subsidies are likely funding farm consolidations, which in turn are reducing employment on farms and in related industries.
  • Small farmers driven out of business. Small family farmers are generally not eligible for sig­nificant levels of farm subsidies. Furthermore, subsidies to large commercial farms harm small farmers by (1) reducing crop prices[38] and, there­fore, farmer incomes; (2) raising the prices of farmland, thereby preventing family farmers from expanding; and (3) subsidizing agribusi­ness buyouts of family farms. Small farmers receive virtually none of the subsidies, but they must endure the market distortions and financial pain caused by these policies.
  • Less trade. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Ber­nanke has stated that “the increase in trade since World War II has boosted U.S. annual incomes on the order of $10,000 per household” and that “removing all remaining barriers to trade would raise U.S. incomes anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per household.” Yet massive tariffs and import restrictions raise food prices and make the American economy less productive. Bring­ing free trade to agriculture would also make free-trade agreements in other industries much more likely.[39]


Conclusion

If Congress takes the path of least resistance and extends current farm policies for another five years, it will have surrendered an enormous opportunity for reform. Most debates over federal programs force lawmakers to balance a program’s social bene­fits with the costs of financing it, but current U.S. farm policies serve no legitimate purpose. They bur­den American families with higher taxes and higher food prices. They harm small farmers by excluding them from subsidies, raising land prices, and financing farm consolidation. They increase trade barriers that reduce incomes in America and in lesser-developed countries. They are falsely pro­moted as saving the family farm and protecting the food supply. In reality, they are America’s largest cor­porate welfare program.

This year’s farm bill debate will test whether Congress is serious about reform or will continue business as usual by pandering to special-interest groups that are working to protect their federal lar­gesse. Congress and President Bush should take a more sensible approach to farm policy this year. Instead of rubberstamping the status quo, they should return to the market-based approach embodied in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act.

Click here for other charts (Powerpoint)

Brian M. Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Ian Hinsdale, a former Heritage Foundation intern, contributed to this paper.


[1] Henry Wallace, cited in Oxfam America, “A Vision for the 2007 Farm Bill,” 2007, at www.oxfamamerica.org/resources/files/OA-Fairness_in_the_Fields.pdf (June 4, 2007).

[2 ]Ted Covey et al., “Agriculture Income and Finance Outlook,” AIS-84, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 2006, pp. 40 and 48, at http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/AIS/
AIS-11-30-2006.pdf
(June 4, 2007).

[3] Jerome M. Stam, Daniel L. Milkove, and George B. Wallace, “Indicators of Financial Stress in Agriculture Reported by Agri­cultural Banks, 1982-99,” AIS-74, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, February 2000, p. 48, and Covey et al., “Agriculture Income and Finance Outlook,” p. 38.

[4] Council of Economic Advisers, Economic Report of the President (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), p. 342, Table B-97, at www.gpoaccess.gov/eop/2007/2007_erp.pdf (June 4, 2007).

[5] Covey et al., “Agriculture Income and Finance Outlook,” pp. 40, 48, and 63. Net worth data consist of weighted averages of large and very large farms’ net worths.

[6] U.S. Department of Agriculture, “A Safety Net for Farm Households,” Agriculture Outlook, January-February 2000, pp. 19-24. The authors estimated a cost of $7.8 billion when including everyone who reports any farm income, including “hobby farmers” who have other full-time jobs. Restricting their data to full-time farmers, defined as those working on lower-sales, higher-sales, and large family farms and the fraction of limited-resource farms that are also full-time, the total cost adds up to approximately $4 billion. The eligibility threshold for several federal income-assistance programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, is 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

[7] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Food Expenditures by Families and Individuals as a Share of Disposable Personal Income data,” Table 7, at www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/table7.htm (June 4, 2007).

[8] Bruce Babcock, “Money for Nothing: Acreage and Price Impacts of U.S. Commodity Policy for Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, Cotton, and Rice,” in American Enterprise Institute, The 2007 Farm Bill and Beyond (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2007), pp. 41-45, at www.aei.org/docLib/20070516_Summary.pdf (June 4, 2007).

[9] The U.S. runs a trade surplus in agriculture. See Economic Research Service, “Value of U.S. Trade-Agricultural, Nonagricultural, and Total-and Trade Balance, by Fiscal Year,” May 2007, at www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FATUS/DATA/fynonag.xls (June 4, 2007).

[10] Julian Alston, “Lessons from Agricultural Policy Reform in Other Countries,” in American Enterprise Institute, The 2007 Farm Bill and Beyond, pp. 83-86.

[11] Economic Research Service, “Farm Income and Costs: Farm Sector Income Forecast,” February 14, 2007, at www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/farmincome/data/cr_t3.htm (June 4, 2007).

[12] The marketing loan program can operate in different ways. It can be a loan that must be partially repaid later in the year (called a marketing loan gain), or the benefit can be paid in a lump sum as a subsidy (called a loan deficiency payment). Despite these distinctions, the net effect is to subsidize farmers up to the marketing loan rate level.

[13] University of Tennessee, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, “An Analytical Database of U.S. Agriculture, 1950-1999,” 2001, Tables 7.1a and 7.2a.

[14] Paul C. Westcott and C. Edwin Young, “U.S. Farm Program Benefits: Links to Planting Decisions and Agricultural Markets,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Outlook, October 2000, pp. 12-13.

[15] Dan Chapman, Ken Foskett, and Megan Clarke, “How Your Tax Dollars Prop Up Big Growers and Squeeze the Little Guy,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 1, 2006.

[16] American Farmland Trust, “Farm and Food Policy for All-Farmers, Citizens and Communities,” 2007.

[17] Ralph Chite, “Emergency Funding for Agriculture: A Brief History of Supplemental Appropriations, FY 1989-FY 2006,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, updated July 3, 2006. Chite mentions a total of $36.5 billion, and approximately $3.5 billion was added in 2007.

[18] Gilbert Gaul, Dan Morgan, and Sarah Cohen, “Crop Insurers Pile Up Record Profits,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2006.

[19] Ibid. The article includes a graphic showing gains and losses since 1998. The cost of premium subsidies and administrative costs since 1998 were calculated using the 1998-2005 totals listed in the article and then projecting forward for the 2006 and 2007 totals.

[20] John Frydenlund, “Farm Subsidies: Myth and Reality,” Citizens Against Government Waste Issue Brief No. 1, April 3, 2007, at www.cagw.org/site/DocServer/2007_Farm_Bill-_
Issue_Brief_1.pdf?docID=2121
(June 4, 2007).

[21] Elizabeth Becker, “Land Rich in Subsidies, and Poor in Much Else,” The New York Times, January 22, 2002, p. A14.

[22] Council of Economic Advisers, Economic Report of the President, p. 175.

[23] See Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database, at http://www.ewg.org/farm (June 4, 2007).

[24] Covey et al., “Agriculture Income and Finance Outlook,” pp. 40, 48, and 63.

[25] Dean Kleckner, “Farm Subsidies Are Not Saving the Family Farm,” updated manuscript. Copy available upon request.

[26] For a list of subsidy totals, see Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database. Corporate totals include subsidiaries. Subsidies for lawmakers are described in detail in Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., “How to Discourage Conflicts of Interest in the Federal Agriculture Subsidy Programs,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, forthcoming.

[27] John Lancaster, “More Subsidy Money Going to Fewer Farms,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2002, and Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database.

[28] Dan Chapman, Ken Foskett, and Megan Clarke, “How Savvy Growers Can Double, or Triple, Subsidy Dollars,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 2, 2006.

[29] Economic Research Service, “Farm Income and Costs.”

[30] Dan Morgan, Gilbert Gaul, and Sarah Cohen, “Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don’t Farm,” The Washington Post, July 2, 2006.

[31] Dan Morgan, Sarah Cohen, and Gilbert Gaul, “Growers Reap Benefits Even in Good Years,” The Washington Post, July 3, 2006.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Gilbert Gaul, Dan Morgan, and Sarah Cohen, “No Drought Required for Federal Drought Aid,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2006.

[34] Gilbert Gaul, “Farming Your Insurance,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2006.

[35] James Bovard, “Farm Bill Follies of 1990,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 135, July 12, 1990, at www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa135.html (June 8, 2007).

[36] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Agricultural Policies in OECD Countries: At a Glance (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2006), p. 69, Table 2.12. The 2003-2005 average annual transfer from consumers was $12.285 billion.

[37] Mark Drabenstott, “Do Farm Payments Promote Rural Economic Growth?” Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Center for the Study of Rural America, The Main Street Economist, March 2005, at www.kc.frb.org/RegionalAffairs/mainstreet/MSE_0305.pdf (June 4, 2007).

[38] Although conservation programs raise prices, it is still clear that commodity subsidies reduce prices relative to what they would be with only conservation programs.

[39] Ben S. Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman, “Embracing the Challenge of Free Trade: Competing and Prospering in a Global Economy,” remarks at the Montana Economic Development Summit 2007, Butte, Montana, May 1, 2007, at www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/Speeches/2007/
20070501/default.htm
(June 4, 2007).

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