Saturday, July 14, 2007

Farm Bill and Douglas Adams

I just submitted this as an NPR commentary. Since I fully expect it to be kindly rejected, I thought I'd post it here since it's kind of silly and that's what blogs are for, right? Publishing stuff that possibly only you think is amusing?
Let’s say there was a piece of legislation that would benefit a small group of people while hurting virtually everyone else on the planet, some so severely that they and their children would go hungry. Let’s also say Congress would review it every five years. How would it be possible to sneak it by the nation in plain sight?

Douglas Adams, author of “Life, the Universe and Everything,” had his characters encounter a science-fiction cloaking device called the SEP field. SEP was an acronym for “Somebody Else’s Problem.” It would trick an observer into believing what they were seeing was Somebody Else’s Problem, not worth acting upon, and effectively invisible. This would allow a something like a dinosaur to walk into Times Square without so much as a raised eyebrow.

Something similar is going on with the U.S. Farm Bill. The political equivalent of a fat brontosaurus has been parked on Capitol Hill for years and the average person has no idea it’s there or assumes it is “Somebody Else’s Problem.”

This one piece of legislation touches an amazingly diverse set of interest groups. A partial list includes small-scale farmers, rural communities, urban poor, farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, environmental stewards and the biggest interest group of all: people who eat. It affects school lunch menus, food prices for consumers and nutrition safety nets for those at risk for hunger.

The Farm Bill does some good things- providing for food stamps and soup kitchens, for example. Yet it also causes great distress, most notably with the system of subsidy payments for commodity crops. So much so that it’s drawn international attention by the World Trade Organization for creating unfair pricing structures. The money in the subsidy program largely goes to big business farmers instead of under-funded conservation programs, anti-hunger initiatives, and small farmers that need it most.

So, if it affects everyone, then why isn’t everyone talking about it? What caused this real life SEP field? What makes us believe it’s Somebody Else’s Problem? Is it the name, “The Farm Bill,” which insinuates that only farmers should care? Is it because it’s so easy to make peoples’ eyes glaze over by describing an imbalanced system of commodity subsidy payments given to those who farm corn, soy beans, cotton and … just that short statement may have lost listeners right at “soy beans.” Or is it because a small bloc of legislators whose districts collect a fourth of all subsidy money are historically determined to make the issue disappear as quickly as it comes up?

The good news is that, just like Adams’ fictional SEP field, the political cloaking device can be overcome using no special equipment. It only takes an ordinary person looking specifically for the hidden object. In other words, the Farm Bill is there to be found every five years. You just have to be looking for it.

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