Against farm subsidies

Many countries, especially those in the West, support their farmers with generous agricultural subsidies. In 2011, for example, Canada spent $6.9 billion on them. These programmes, however, create inefficiency and lead to morally questionable outcomes.

Farm subsidies artificially reduce the cost of farming. In other words, farmers produce more in jurisdictions with subsidies than those without, i.e. subsidized farmers produce more than what would otherwise be profitable under purely competitive market conditions.

For instance, consider a developed country without farm subsidies. Farmers would use land that allows them to earn as much, or more, money than they could by renting it to the highest bidder. If this country introduced agricultural subsidies, farmers would purchase or rent additional land, since it would increase their revenue from the additional land above its market price (which, all things equal, was uneconomical before subsidization). Under competitive conditions, farmers would not utilize the additional land, whereas providing subsidies encourages them to do so.

Now, imagine a farmer who plans to purchase land in one of two countries. He must choose between Country A, which has extremely fertile land, and Country B, which has only passable land. If the cost of doing business and renting land were equal in both countries, he would likely choose Country A. However, if Country B offered subsidies that compensate him for utilizing less productive land, then he may opt to operate there, instead. In other words, agricultural subsidies are inefficient, in that they encourage farming on land that could be useful for building shopping malls, restaurants, or movie theatres. Moreover, subsidies create inefficiencies between countries with different agricultural policies.

These subsidies are more pervasive in the developed world than in its developing counterpart. Farmers in poorer countries are unable to compete with farmers in richer countries that offer artificially low factor prices resulting from lavish subsidies. As a result, these subsidies encouraging production in areas that are not especially suitable for agriculture, while discouraging production in areas that are suitable for farming. It is in the interest of developing countries to end agricultural subsidies, as it would allow them to expand their agricultural industries, which currently underperform due to subsidies in rich countries, and would alleviate rural poverty by boosting production and prices. Currently, however, richer countries “dump” their subsidized products in poorer countries, not only deteriorating their ability to generate economic activity, but also creating a dependency trap. From the perspective of richer countries that provide billions in annual subsidies, it is more efficient to stop transferring wealth to their agricultural industry and, instead, purchase foodstuffs from abroad.

Agricultural subsidies additionally affect wealth distribution at the domestic level. Policymakers fund the subsidies using tax revenue, which they transfer to farmers and landowners that tend to be wealthier than most; in 2011, the average income of a farm family was $93,426. That is, they redistribute wealth from the general population to a small group of wealthy individuals and firms. Indeed, contemporary “farming” is much different from its predecessor: most “farmers” are wealthier individuals and many farm operations involve large firms that use factories.

Farm subsidies also have a tendency to remain politically relevant–the special interest group behind farm subsidies is very powerful. It is politically expedient for governments to stay these benefits, as they require little funding per capita, yet, provide massive benefits to a small group. In other words, the cost of fighting these subsidies exceeds to cost of providing them in the first place. Moreover, when subsidies increase, this group begins to sense that they can generate more profit by lobbying the government than by actually producing foodstuffs or agricultural commodities.

Lastly, the farming lobby provides a massive obstacle to potential trade deals. In 2007, for instance, American and European governments’ objected to limiting their agricultural subsidies, which threatened the World Trade Organization’s Doha talks. India and Brazil, the countries proposing that western farm subsidies recede, in turn, refused to open their markets.

Proponents of agricultural subsidies typically defend their position by arguing that they benefit farmers and increase food security. However, in world of institutionalized trade relationships, there is little reason why any country should strive for food autarky at the expense of efficiency. Additionally, the age of rural poverty in rich countries is essentially over: farmers whom subsidies support tend to be quite wealthy. For these reasons, and those mentioned above, all states would be wise to stop subsidizing agriculture.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Equalization, Incrementalism, the Unlikeliness of Rapid Reform

Equalization is a staple of the Canadian Dominion. Policymakers in the 19th century designed and implemented it to ensure that government provided equal services throughout the country and achieve greater balance between the provinces (or, as they were at the time, regions). The rationale is that small provinces, like Prince Edward Island (PEI), should be able to offer the same quality of public services as larger provinces that have greater fiscal capacity. Ottawa collects revenue from each province, based on a complicated formula that takes into consideration income levels, economic growth, and a swath of complex variables, and then redistributes it to those provinces in need.

The structure of Canada’s equalization program results in wealthier provinces contributing to poorer ones. This year, for example, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, and Manitoba–colloquially referred to as the “have-not provinces”–will receive equalization payments, while the remaining four provinces–the “have provinces”–serve as their creditors.

Equalization’s current structure receives a great deal of criticism from both provinces that receive payments and those that provide a net contribution. Although this is a generalization, some believe that the formula no longer works and requires substantial reform. However, there is a disparity between defining the problem and delineating solutions to fix it. In Eastern Canada, for example, critics indicate that the program does not distribute enough wealth throughout the region, whereas those in Western Canada–where three of the four “have provinces” are located–argue that subsidizing the “have-not provinces” is unfair. In fact, some intellectuals question its constitutionality.

The inability to accurately define equalization’s most serious deficiencies precludes the capacity to solve them. For recipient provinces, including natural resource revenues in the equalization formula would increase the scope of its distributional effect. This is problematic, however, as it could also discourage creditor provinces from developing their natural resources (or, much less damaging, it would reduce their total revenue). Furthermore, including natural resources disproportionately penalizes the provinces that rely on developing them.

Conversely, those opposed to equalization argue that eliminating it or reducing its overall scope. Unfortunately, although this would benefit the “have provinces,” it would be severely damaging for those receiving the transfer payment each year–at least in the short-term. Not only would it reduce the size of federal transfer they receive, but also it could encourage residents of recipient provinces to migrate toward the more affluent West, which would only exacerbate the current migratory trend.

Reforming the Canadian equalization programme is difficult: neither those supporting nor opposing it will accept facing negative externalities of whichever reform route the government chooses. Solving this problem requires alternative solutions and, likely, a tremendous compromise between both sides. Alas, it might be better to transfer wealth directly to individuals, rather than provincial coffers, where bureaucratic excess erodes the government’s ability to effectively distribute it to individuals and families.

Ultimately, though, significant reform is unlikely and incrementalism may very well be the only option.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

Income Splitting and the “Fairness Critique”

The federal government recently tabled its 2014 budget projections, claiming a slight surplus of $2 billion in 2015. With this is mind, discussion has arisen around what to do with the extra money. Should Ottawa pay down the national debt? Should it increase program spending? What about reducing taxes?

One campaign idea from the Conservative Party is income splitting. Essentially, a couple living together could “average out” their combined incomes for tax purposes, pushing the higher earner into a lower tax bracket. The Conservatives are selling this policy as “easing the tax burden on Canadian families,” which would presumably be picked up by someone else.

While I generally favor lowering most taxes, much of the time, and for almost any reason, we must ask the question that continually surfaces in economics: As opposed to what? In the case of income splitting, what alternative is the government foregoing?

First, debt payments should be seriously considered. One other option is to trim tax rates equally across the board by a small amount. This would address the main criticism of income splitting, which is that it favours “families” (or couples) at the expense of individuals who do not find themselves in two-person households. Indeed, it is unclear whether income splitting is a subtle nudge from social conservatives trying to support the idea of the so-called traditional family.

The “fairness” critique of income splitting extends much further. Not only may there not be a reason to favour certain social arrangements in this way, but also “families” seem to use a larger chunk of public spending–recreational facilities, healthcare and education costs for children, and the like. Critics claim that it would be unfair to reduce the tax burden selectively on that group of people who use the most public services.

For the reasons above, income splitting has generated a rift among Conservatives and among fiscal conservatives, more specifically–the controversy surrounds whether selective tax cuts for a specific group is fair or not.

Another problem is framing the surplus as a prize. It might be useful to remember that it is not, in fact, the government’s money in the first place. In this light, however, it is hard to disentangle the various interest groups that may find themselves scrambling for a piece of the surplus.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see whether the Conservative Party moves forward with income splitting in light of the fast-approaching election in 2015. To do so would appeal to their socially conservative base, in addition to fulfilling a campaign promise. However, enacting a broader tax cut would support the kind of “big tent conservatism” that seems to have held together an unpopular government through the last four elections.

Michael Craig is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute