Sunday, November 14, 2004

Coleman responds to MILC program criticism

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:56 AM |  

It might seem that I’m being a little hard on Sen. Norm Coleman this week, but he’s one of “my guys,” in the sense that I voted for him. I can shrug-off when the “bad guys” throw off unfounded opinions, but I take some responsibility when it’s my guy spouting the lunacy. In that context, I have to make mention of Coleman’s response today in the Pioneer Press to its editorial criticizing the Milk Income Loss Compensation program.

In defense of the MILC program, Coleman uses statistics the way Chinese generals use the infantry charge. He keeps them coming, the dead piling on top of the dead. Refute one statistic, and there’s another waiting, equally and so outlandish that it is at the same time indefensible and unassailable. Arguing statistics with statistics is a politician’s game. The bureaucracy always wins a war of statistical attrition.

My objections to Coleman’s response are philosophical. I intend to take several comments he makes out of context. I do so, because in this case, the context camouflages the underlying attitudes of the senator, which are what I find objectionable. To be fair, here is the senator’s complete unedited column. Here are my objections.

In the first paragraph of his response to the Pioneer Press, Sen. Coleman uses the “think-of-all-the-people-we-don’t-kill” Mafia defense. Speaking of subsidies and tariffs he writes --

“The United States uses less than half of the total support authority allowed to us under the WTO.”
Coleman’s rational is an underlying problem of conservatism -- conservatives claim it is a victory when they move to the left if they don’t move as far as liberals would like. Senator, it’s still a move to the left. As the Pioneer Press editorial suggests, we should be questioning the justification for supports, not justifying them on the grounds they are not as bad as they could be.

The senator then adds --

“The unlevel playing field is the whole point to President Bush’s efforts to . . . equalize domestic support so Europe and Japan, for example, do not provide more help for their farmers than we provide for ours.”
Excuse me? Did the senator somehow avoid a mother’s caution “If the neighbor kids jumped off a bridge, would you?” Do we really want to get into a subsidy race with Europe and Japan? Is that really what’s best for our economy? Remember -- this is our “conservative” Senator.

After sending another battalion of statistics into the fray, Coleman makes this comment --

“[W]e have the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world and … the federal policy that helps make it possible amounts to about 0.5 percent of the total federal budget.”
This is one of the more frightening remarks that a conservative can make -- that federal policy is responsible for private sector success. A half percent of a multi-trillion dollar budget is not exactly chump change, but if it is that small, is it even necessary? That’s the question a conservative should be asking. And if it is necessary, his next question should be how do we eliminate the need, not how do we continue and enhance it.

Once more into the breach, Coleman notes --

“[A]ccording to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, MILC has had little or no effect on milk prices. So, the bottom line is that MILC has provided a critical safety net to Minnesota dairy farm families, while not harming consumers.”
I don’t think that’s economically possible, unless by “no effect” and “consumers haven’t been harmed” Coleman means prices have not dropped as they would if supply were high relative to demand. Unless he means that the country as a whole spending more resources on the diary industry than is warranted doesn’t hurt other areas of the economy where those resources might be better spent. The government can’t spend more in one place without an effect in another -- even if the senator can’t see it.

And finally, here is the senator’s penultimate paragraph -- right out of the “a-good-government-is-one-that-fixes-75-percent-of-the-problems-it-causes” playbook..

“For decades, Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states have faced discriminatory federal dairy policies that have resulted in the wholesale exodus of thousands of farm families. Federal Milk Marketing Orders, which remain in place today, still cling to a system that effectively punishes dairy farmers close to Eau Claire, Wis., while the Northeast Dairy Compact, now defunct, added insult to injury. Today, in contrast, MILC has not only replaced discriminatory compacts with a safety net fair to the Upper Midwest, but MILC also offers at least some compensation to our region's dairy farmers for an Order system still way out of whack.”
Remember those policies the senator touted as helping to make possible the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world? Well, the Federal Milk Marketing Orders and the Northeast Dairy Compact are among those policies. Essentially the MILC program is fix to previous federal programs that hurt Midwest dairy farmers. It fixes the problem by penalizing other areas of the economy. In other words, let’s play politics with government programs rather than eliminating the government programs that screwed up the natural market order in the first place.

As noted earlier, Sen. Coleman’s approach wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if it were coming from Sen. Dayton. But it’s not. It’s coming from our “conservative” senator. I don’t know what this says about the Pioneer Press (yes I do), but it would now seem that both Minnesota senators are to the left of the St. Paul daily.

UPDATE -- J. Ewing comments: "Actually, it's about $10 billion [0.5% pf the budget], but try to cut that much out of the budget and listen to the screams."