Saturday, October 29, 2016

The scale of SNAP (food stamp) spending relative to other budget priorities

Multiple social media friends recently shared a fall 2015 chart from an organization called "The Other 98%" (slogans: "kicking corporate asses for the working classes" and "we didn't start the class war, but we're going to end it").

I like the chart's implied message. In my own words: "The United States should seek to advance peace, reduce military spending, pursue economic justice, and support programs that promote food security."

But, the chart badly botches the details, showing SNAP (food stamp) spending as a minuscule portion of federal spending, "somewhere within the tiny orange sliver at the bottom," less than 1% of federal spending, and therefore less than 1/57th as large as the military budget that takes most of the pie.

In a democracy, we don't all need to be budget experts, but I highly recommend that every voter take just the 10 minutes needed to understand some basics about the federal budget. I like the clear "Federal Budget 101" provided by the National Priorities Project. Here are 4 items from that website that help in interpreting the chart above.

1. The total budget was about $3.8 trillion in 2015. Military spending was $598 billion (16% of the total). SNAP spending (part of "everything else") was $74 billion (2% of the total). Therefore, SNAP spending is 1/8th as large as military spending.

2. Federal spending can be divided into "mandatory spending" (65%, including SNAP and many other programs whose annual spending follows rules that were decided when the program was authorized) and "discretionary spending" (29%, including military spending and many other programs whose annual spending is mainly decided by appropriations each year).

3. Military spending is a large part of discretionary spending (which, in turn, is 29% of the total budget). The Other 98%'s chart shows discretionary spending -- as noted in the text underneath the Facebook post above. It agrees closely with the numbers from the National Priorities Project. However, The Other 98% is wrong to say that the small "Food and Agriculture" slice contains SNAP.

4. Social security and medical costs make up a large fraction of mandatory spending (which, in turn, is 65% of the total budget). SNAP ($74 billion) and mandatory farm subsidy programs are both included within the yellow food and agriculture slice ($122.6 billion) of this chart -- not the food and agriculture slice of the preceding discretionary chart.

To summarize, the military budget ($598 billion) is about 8 times as big as the SNAP or food stamp budget ($74 billion). For many readers, there never was any reason for the original Facebook post to indulge in misrepresentation, confusion, or error. These accurate numbers would have been sufficient to motivate the main rhetorical argument: "The United States will be better off if we pursue peace, reduce military spending, promote justice, and ensure enough food for all people in our community."

I hope this time was useful to you in a small way (to understand a quibble with the Facebook post) and a big way (to comprehend the broad outlines of how our government spends our money).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some in Massachusetts are concerned with animal welfare and yet not voting for Ballot Measure #3

In a commentary for WBUR this week, my faculty colleagues Will Masters and Jennifer Hashley write about Massachusetts Ballot Measure #3, which would ban the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork, and veal from confined production methods.

This debate is commonly described as a tension between animal welfare goals and protecting poor people from higher prices. Masters and Hashley actually speak favorably about the animal welfare goals, and even say that in principle more humane production practices could be accomplished at reasonable cost (assuming the right supports), but they say in practice the Massachusetts initiative generates too much concern about higher prices right now.

They write:
The more we understand Ballot Question 3, the more vexing the choice appears. From our long experience with U.S. agriculture and food policy, we know that America’s diverse and resilient farms could potentially deliver improved animal welfare without harming access to low-cost, convenient and nutritious eggs. But we also know that this won’t happen automatically. If government remains on the sidelines, a yes vote on Question 3 would bring unacceptable price rises.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Baylen Linnekin: "Biting the Hands That Feed Us"

In Biting the Hands that Feed Us (Island Press, 2016), food lawyer Baylen Linnekin offers a libertarian appeal for reduced food regulations.

Like many such books, Linnekin reviews a long littany of well-meaning business people whose enterprises were thwarted by silly rules and regulations that fail to serve a sound public purpose: small "salumi" makers (sort of like salami) who are told to use preservatives in their cured meats; artisinal cheese makers who are told not to use wooden boards for aging cheese; fishermen who must discard "bycatch" to comply with harvest rules; and local farmers who are prevented from selling off-size tomatoes or who suffer under the fixed costs of compliance with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

A couple features favorably distinguish this book from others in the same vein. Linnekin's appreciation for small and artisinal producers is heartfelt, in contrast with others who might use complaints about regulation implicitly to breeze over shortcomings in the current conventional industrialized food system. Linnekin's main thesis is that rules too often harm sustainable production strategies. As one might hope, Linnekin takes a completely consistent and highly critical libertarian view of "Ag Gag" laws, which risk preventing private individuals from honestly reporting how food really is produced. I could not help being pleased with Linnekin's coverage of checkoff programs, including a citation to some coverage from this blog.

In the end, though, I think Linnekin understates the genuine public interest motivation for many rules and regulations. With any proposed food safety policy, there is risk of both Type I error (prohibiting an economic action that would not in fact have caused an illness) and Type II error (failing to prevent an illness that we should have prevented). I see the struggle to get this balance right as fundamental to U.S. food safety policy. The fact that Linnekin can recount examples of regulations that failed to correctly judge a particular producer falls far short of persuading a reader of his broader point.

In his final chapter, though without using these terms, Linnekin wrestles with precisely this challenge of getting the balance of Type I and Type II correct. As I would paraphrase the argument, he feels one can distinguish the right regulatory policies by: (a) promoting sustainability, (b) enforcing standards for food safety outcomes, not food safety processes, (c) avoiding any favor for large producers over small producers, and (d) ending farm subsidies. I don't think this four-part screen is sufficient to strike the right balance. For example, deciding when to regulate outcomes and when to regulate processes is complicated. In many cases, it is far more straightforward to regulate the temperature at which food must be held than to regulate microbial counts on the product.

Overall, though I liked the book, I doubt Linnekin is right to call so broadly for regulatory retrenchment. We have endured decades now of strong attacks in the U.S. Congress on regulatory agencies, using sharp anti-government rhetoric, including many of the same libertarian themes that Linnekin highlights. Even if Linnekin does devote one chapter to regulations he does support -- which not every such author would do -- this does not suffice to give the book as a whole a full balance.