Posts tagged with: subsidies

Are the Old Continent’s farmers showing that they have a real entrepreneurial spirit and serving as role models of courage and innovation during the Great Recession? Surely not all of them, but there are some inspiring examples to be found in Central and Southern Europe.

This is somewhat surprising as Europe’s agricultural sector is usually among the most traditional, least open to market innovation and product flexibility, and heavily reliant on EU funding to keep the sector competitive. Alas, European leadership in international food trade has been slowly whittled down in the last 3-4 decades.

Some European farmers, however, are resilient and are pulling rabbits out of hats these days by risking and investing heavily to implement creative new forms of business on their farms – many of which had been on the brink of failure.

It is primarily the French and Italians who are showing their true entrepreneurial spirit and vocation to agriculture. They appear to be some of the most tenacious and creative. Just like the Michigan dairy farmer, Brad Morgan, the protagonist of Acton’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, these farmers have turned to undervalued and completely overlooked assets to build lucrative profit-making ventures that often double and triple their old incomes. They have begun reshaping the way their traditional industry operates, and at a time when Europe has lost its competitive edge to cheaper food suppliers from Africa and South America.

Making matters worse has been the total evaporation of their once abundant workforce. In France, for example, rural industry employees currently make up a mere 3% of the nation’s workers, when it once boasted over 40% at the turn of the last century (cf. August 2010 Time article “How to Save Rural France”). And figures for those farmers who have registered as operating “professional” establishments in France’s campagne have dropped from 2,000,000 to 350,000 in the last fifty years. As noted out in a 2006 Acton commentary (“French ‘Security’ and Economic Reality”), this is not at all surprising: the vast majority of France’s youth dream of careers as civil servants, or want to secure life-long union protected contracts, and furthermore claim to generally dislike or distrust free market economics.

A final blow to European farming may come in a few years when the industry’s most heavily relied upon system of public subsidy – the Common Agricultural Policy – is set to undergo reform in 2013. And no one is quite certain what the consequences may be, as EU finance officials nudge the sector to become more competitive and market orientated.

Just what are they doing?

While some major industries in France, like auto manufacturing, have received generous public subsidies to remain competitive, French farmers are beginning to rely on their entrepreneurial spirit and genuine vocation to agriculture to turn their sector around.

They are achieving this by doing exactly what entrepreneurs are called to do: take risks through investment and creatively diversify their business offerings to customers.

For example, entrepreneurial farmers in the southern Ile-de-France grain producing region have utilized the bucolic beauty of their wavy golden fields and soft rolling hillsides to create profit-making ventures. The same beauty that inspired France’s great impressionnistes, now lures thousands of international vacationers to their prime holiday centers built out of once dilapidated grain storage facilities with glorious hill-top views.

It is these same farmers who are using abandoned wheat and barley fields as horse riding tracks. They are converting their dusty old barns into equestrian club houses. Others, like Rabourdin farms in Brie, have added premium beer making facilities to their production portfolios and now attract thousands to their own micro brew facilities and connoisseurs can order their products on-line.

While interviewed for the same Time article, agricultural entrepreneur Bernadette Porchelu said that for her Basque-country farm to succeed “it required a lot of work and investment.”

“But now,” she says, “We are hustling to keep up with the demand and have more than doubled our income. When we first decided to make this move, everyone said we’d fail. Today I wonder how most farms will survive if they don’t undertake similar diversification –which may be why some of our visitors include fellow farmers asking us how we made it work.”

It’s not just the French

One of Italy’s leading agricultural entrepreneurs hailing from Rome, Annibale Gozzi, says that while France is making headlines with its creative agrotourism, Italy is not lagging too far behind.

He says that “neither can Italian farms keep up with fierce international competition in food production…Manual farm labor in other parts of the world is ten times cheaper than in Italy and we simply cannot compete even with our tremendous advances farming methods and technology.”

“We too have been forced to try different things and strive for the full integration of our products, services and assets.”

Those farms that are most successful, like Gozzi’s own agrotourism south of Rome, Villa Germaine, are the ones that have become full-scale “multi-function” operations in addition to producing traditional agriculture.

Referring to his own agriculture establishment as an example, Gozzi says he has risked huge amounts of capital to maximize his farm’s business to include “integrative products and services” such as farming courses, horse riding, premium viticulture and olive oil production, tuffa cave wine and cheese tasting facilities, as well as a full-service hotel and restaurant. His establishment now even regularly hosts business luncheons and wedding receptions with lavish menus featuring his own fresh meat and produce.

He says he does this with dedication and pride, a dream to “do a first-class job for what I love”. Gozzi’s thriving business at Villa Germaine not only has allowed him to maximize his farm’s assets and profits, but truly exemplifies what it means to combine entrepreneurial spirit and tradition all in the same business.

He adds that Italians are catching on to but this type of inventiveness, “but it is still much more appreciated by foreigners and France is clearly leading the way.”

Why they really do it

Vastly increasing revenue has been a driving factor for the survival of European farmers – especially knowing their major public financial support may dramatically change in a few years’ time and as their industry is being swept away by international competition.

Even if Europe’s few remaining die-hards simply had more public financing, it doesn’t mean they would come out on top. It has not worked for decades and surely it does not provide the answer to their future.

Rather, we must follow the lead of those real entrepreneurs who in the toughest economic times are true to their vocation and come up with ingenious solutions to their sector’s woes. If there is a future at all, they are providing viable alternatives. And to do so, they must not only be highly creative. They must also be willing to take risks –a courageous attitude undertaken by those who genuinely live out a vocation and exhibit a real passion for their trade.

(This article is the first of a regular monthly series dedicated to entrepreneurship in Europe.)

Channeling his inner Ralph Nader, John Stossel calls shenanigans on the GOP talking points touting the viability of nuclear power.

As I noted in the context of a recent commentary on Obama’s promise of a new generation of nuclear reactors, Ralph Nader has asked a prescient question: “If these nuclear power plants are so efficient, so safe, why can’t they be built with unguaranteed private risk capital?”

Stossel similarly says, “I like the idea of nuclear energy too, but if ‘America is on the cusp’ of a revival, then taxpayers shouldn’t have to offer billions in guarantees! In a free country, when something is a good idea, it happens. Private capital makes it happen, without government force.”

Stossel raises and dismisses the disposal issue, which I examine at some length here.

In the end, I agree with Nader and Stossel on this point. But as I’ve said I’m a bit more sanguine about the chances of nuclear to compete on a level playing field. The problem is determining how well it can do without guarantees or subsidies when so many other forms of energy are on the receiving end of government largesse. It’s not right to ask nuclear power to go unsubsidized when its competitors don’t have such limitations.

For a look at the playing field from 1999-2007, see this summary paper, “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007” (PDF). Historically nuclear power has been handicapped relative to the incentives given to other forms, including fossil fuels. Add to that the extra regulatory burden, and you can see why there’s been so little movement in building new power plants in the last thirty years.

In one of this week’s Acton Commentaries, Ray Nothstine and I juxtapose a static, sedentary dependence on government subsidies with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

The impetus for this short piece was an article that originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press (linked in the commentary). I have two things to say about these stories and then I want to add some further reflections on the world of agricultures subsidies.

First, I found the article’s “hook” to be quite shoddy and lame. The blatant attempt to “shock” the reader into a reaction of disgust that a billionaire like Dick DeVos, yes, “that Dick DeVos,” got a whopping “$6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005.” That’s roughly $2k a year for three years.

Unsurprisingly, DeVos’ spokesperson didn’t know anything about it. It’s ludicrous to think that a guy with as much on his plate as Dick DeVos would have any time for what is essentially pocket change for a billionaire. Does the fact that DeVos got a subsidy even though he campaigned on eliminating government waste make him a hypocrite?

Judge for yourself, but I think these payments say more about the government’s inefficiency and waste than they do about DeVos’ integrity. People of all income brackets pay tax professionals to maximize their returns. For the very wealthy, it’s simply a process that’s on a bigger scale, that’s much more thorough, and with many more loopholes than when you or I go to H&R Block. The more diversified your holdings, the more likely there are a plethora of tax breaks for you to exploit. The breathless lede to this story was simply off-putting to me, especially given the rather clear political undertones of the insinuations.

“Simplify, man.”

What’s the real lesson? As a recycling hippie once told The Simpsons‘ Principal Skinner in a quite different context, “Simplify, man.” Simplify the tax code and eliminate all these special interest loopholes.

But the complaint about the story’s hook is really a minor quibble compared to my second point. In a companion piece, Lisa Rose Starner, executive director at Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens says that farm subsidies are essentially about “social justice.” That’s right, subsidies are about social justice. They’re about the social injustice of subsidizing a product so that people from poorer nations around the world, who would like to do more than simply engage in subsistence farming, can’t compete in a global marketplace because prices are artificially deflated. So, our subsidies are feeding the rich at the expense of the poor in more ways than one.

Of course, the pat response is that other nations are subsidizing too, so our subsidies are just leveling the playing field. To be sure, the world of agricultural business is a complex one, as many of the commenters on our piece point out. Direct farm subsidies are just one thin slice of the government’s intervention into agriculture. Perhaps they’re the most obvious, but they may also not be the most insidious. As one astute reader wrote to me, “The web of market interference in ag is broad and complex.”

Simplify, man.

Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.

Are farmers hooked on pork?

Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine look at the current battle over farm subsidies. “By encouraging the production of overabundant commodities, the government is creating a cycle of dependency that undermines entrepreneurial initiative,” they write.

Read the full commentary here.

What do you call titans of industry who influence governmental regulation to provide them with tax and subsidy incentives to make a business venture profitable?

They used to be called robber barons…now apparently they’re “eco-millionaires.” The NYT piece gives a brief overview of four such figures:

Bruce Khouri “did not found Solar Integrated until 2001 once tax and subsidy incentives made the market more attractive.”

Pedro Moura Costa says he “saw the carbon market could be big business and the Kyoto Protocol confirmed my views.”

According to David Scaysbrook, “tax breaks, subsidies and emissions caps had prompted even more conservative investors ‘to finally move off their perch.'”

And “Neil Eckert, chief executive of Climate Exchange, which runs the main European exchange for carbon trading, has shares worth about 18 million pounds ($36 million). He is also non-executive chairman of Trading Emissions and Econergy, both involved in emission-cutting projects and generating revenue from carbon credits.”

More here on how not only individual investors but also nations are cashing in on artificially-created carbon schemes.

In today’s NYT: “Oxfam Suggests Benefit in Africa if U.S. Cuts Cotton Subsidies.”

“Eliminating billions of dollars in federal subsidies to American cotton growers each year would reduce American cotton production and exports, raise world prices by about 10 percent and modestly improve the incomes of millions of poor cotton farmers in Africa, according to a new study by Oxfam, the aid group.”

About how many other industries could a similar thing be said? It’s also good to see that some of these multinational aid groups sometimes focus on liberalizing trade, rather than simply on direct government-to-government compensatory aid packages. Apparently Oxfam “has long campaigned for reductions in rich country agricultural subsides as a means to fight rural poverty in the developing world.”

One reason Oxfam is critical of bilateral free trade agreements is that they “do not address the adverse impacts of rich-country subsidies on poor countries through dumping, or the plethora of non-tariff barriers that continue to impede access to rich-country markets.” Their claim is that the bargaining power of individual developing nations is reduced under such agreements, so that the developing nation ends up giving up concessions to the wealthier nation, while the latter does no such thing. Reducing tariffs without addressing subsidies and other “non-tariff barriers” works to undermine the interests of developing nations.

The NYT piece ends on a bit of a pessimistic note, and no doubt the elimination of subsidies alone will not be enough to combat the grinding poverty that is so prevalent in the developing world. But it would do a lot to level the playing field and give resources and products from the developing world a fighting chance in the global market.

“Subsidy reform alone will not resolve all the challenges facing the cotton sector,” Oxfam said. “But it could significantly ease the burden on poor cotton farmers struggling to support their families.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Last night the President spoke of “the challenge of entitlements” and said that “Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are commitments of conscience — and so it is our duty to keep them permanently sound.”

“With enough good sense and good will, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid — and save Social Security,” he averred. The ability of the federal government to negotiate drug prices has been an aspect of the recent debate over Medicare that was brought to the fore in the recent “100 hours” legislative agenda.

A number of conservative commentators have come out against this idea, including Acton’s own Rev. Jerry Zandstra and Benjamin Zycher of the Manhattan Institute (HT: The Reform Club). These are just two voices in a chorus of criticism rising against federal negotiation (I use them just because they are the ones with which I’m most familiar. I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular).

Both of their arguments seem to me to boil down to this: the government is an effective negotiator and the result of negotiation will be that drug companies will have less money coming in and therefore spending on research and development will suffer.

Zandstra says of successful negotiation, “if, in doing so, you dry up research and development dollars so you aren’t developing drugs to treat cancer and Alzheimer’s and other diseases — if you take the profit motivation away — have you done good? No, you really haven’t.”

Zycher writes, “Federal price negotiations will cause sharp price reductions, but this will yield less research and development investment in new and improved medicines over time.”

These claims fail at a number of points in my opinion. Zycher and Zandstra are probably right on the mere claim that federal negotiation of drug prices will produce a drop in pharma income. But that isn’t the datum that is most relevant to the policy discussion.

Once government has decided to tax us and spend our money on a particular program, I think it is government’s responsibility to spend that money as well as it can, to be good stewards of efficient and productive use of those funds. This is true regardless of whether or not the program itself is one that government should be undertaking. The question of whether the government should be doing or pursuing a particular program or agenda is a different one than whether the government should pursue these programs efficiently and well.

So, given that Medicare is an entitlement to which our government has committed itself, it seems to me that the government is responsble for administering it as cost-effectively as possible. The government needs to make our tax dollars stretch as far as they can. This should include negotiating lower prices paid for prescription drugs, regardless of the effect it might have on drug company profits or research budgets.

It is a separate question whether drug companies need federal support to achieve the current or higher levels of funding for research and development. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that pharma companies do need federal support to find new drugs for “Alzheimer’s and other diseases.” If that’s the case, then the argument for subsidizing pharmaceutical research should be parsed out from the question of drug price negotiation.

Refusing to allow the feds to negotiate prescription drug prices effectively creates a subsidy for drug companies…something I would think that Zandstra and Zycher would be against, at least in principle. But maybe not.

Drug companies are in fact struggling, it seems. Pfizer, for instance, is shutting down operations at three Michigan sites and laying of 2400 workers, as part of a broader layoff of 10% of its workforce. And perhaps the estimated “loss of about five million life-years each year” is sufficient reason to support government subsidy of drug research.

But if conservatives are in favor of government subsidies for drug companies, they need to make that argument stand on its own and separate it from the question of price negotiation. Government subsidy of drug R&D should be a separate question, complete with its own line-item and its own policy analysis.