TCS Daily

Green Acres

By Dave Shiflett - January 29, 2002 12:00 AM

Americans who worry that heartland values have disappeared have new cause for optimism: Shame, recent reports indicate, is still with us. The grim part of the story is that taxpayers are shelling out large bushels of money to prove this point. Worse yet, it seems that shame is not quite up to the task of changing the behavior that creates shame - in this case, the acceptance of government farm subsidies.

Before attending to the particulars, a history lesson may be in order.

Shame, as older readers will recall, was once quite common in America. People who screwed up and were discovered having done so would be embarrassed to face their neighbors. Some would become recluses in the own homes, withdrawing to the point of having their groceries delivered late at night and paying the paperboy through the mail. In severe cases a shamed party would move to a distant area and change his or her name, which partially explains the West Coast's hearty population growth.

That has all changed now, largely due to sustained efforts by the entertainment and governing sectors. Not long ago a politician exposed for having used a cigar as a "marital aid" would have bolted for the Congo in public disgrace; Bill Clinton, by contrast, took his cigar revelations in stride and held on to the most public office in the land with white-knuckled determination.

But in the American heartland, shame is still operative. The point is proved by recent complaints by farmers whose government subsidies have been posted on the Environmental Working Group's web site. Apparently, being on the dole is still considered a cause for shame by these men and women of the earth. Or, to qualify that a bit, being on the dole and having the dollar amount posted is none too appreciated.

Sam Creed, of Atchison County, Mo., is one of those complaining farmers. His particular ire having been raised by seeing the numbers $67,404 posted after his name on the EWG's dole list. As he told the Kansas City Star, "I do not like it. How many people on Social Security would like to have their payments up on the screen?" Mr. Creed, it appears, is none too familiar with the precept against non sequiturs -- Social Security, after all, is swiped from one's paycheck, while the dole is swiped from others' paychecks. But he is not alone in his concerns. Many farmers are upset at having taxpayers informed about who's getting what, as are politicians who thrive either politically or personally from the subsidy scheme.

One of the major problems, at least for beneficiaries of these subsidies, is that posting the figures completely undermines a central subsidy myth: That these monies go to protect the "little guys" from the pitiless winds of shifting fortune. These postings make it clear that the major beneficiaries are not "family farmers" but instead the Big Boys, whose sense of shame is inflamed only when they don't finagle as many dole dollars as their competitors. As the EWG site documents, most subsidies go to the cream of the croppers.

A Missouri rice farm, for example, received nearly $15 million over five years. Ted Turner, the famed Buffalo herder, gentleman rancher -- and billionaire -- got around $170,000 during that period, while basketball legend Scottie Pippen soaked Sam for $132,000. Other paupers included International Paper ($375,393) and Chevron ($260,223). All told, reports the Star, "the largest 10 percent of eligible farms eat up two-thirds of the subsidy money."

Will shame change anything? Perhaps some blood pressure readings, and perhaps it will even inspire some of the exposed farmers to take refuge in the bottle, satellite television, or similar escapes. But voices calling for an end to this sinning are quite rare. Instead, supporters thump for yet more money and it appears their thumping will not be in vain. The new farm bill seeks $170 billion over 10 years, up $73.5 billion over the current system.

As might be expected, the beneficiaries of this greenback blizzard are being cast as victims. Explains Rep. Sam Graves, Jr., Republican of Missouri and member of the Agriculture Committee: "I don't think there is a farmer that likes to be dependent on government subsidies, but prices have been so bad the last three years that it has increased their dependence." As it happens, Graves has personally received money from this program (he dropped out when elected); his dad took in about $140,000 in the five-year reporting period.

Shame was once a mighty shaper of the human character, often in positive ways. One just didn't do some things in order to avoid it. But shame isn't what it once was, and seems to disappear quickly in the presence of another great motivator: money. In the farming bidness, as in many other others, shame can be borne heroically -- if the price is right.

TCS Daily Archives