U.S. policy leads to hopes for failure

The most positive news about the most negative United States presidential campaign in modern history is that, in 80 or so days, we can forget to remember it.

Or should that read “remember to forget it?”

It’s hard to get the words right when it’s so easy for political actors to get them wrong. In their hands and on their lips facts become fiction and fiction becomes fact.

For example, according to estimates from the not-for-profit, non-partisan U.S. Tax Policy Center, only 5,300 of the 2.4 million Americans who died in 2015, or only two of every 1,000, paid estate taxes.

But, noted Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an Aug. 8 speech to the Detroit Economic Club, “American workers have paid taxes their whole lives, and they should not be taxed again at death and it’s just plain wrong and most people agree with that.”

Of course most agree because almost all Americans, 998 out of every 1,000 in fact, never pay one penny of estate taxes.

Trump isn’t alone in turning the truth into mush; it’s rural gospel that most American farmers and ranchers sell land to pay “death taxes.”

But that, too, is fiction, says one of the most respected agricultural tax experts in the U.S., Iowa State University’s Neil Harl.

In fact, says Harl, only 660 “decedents nationally”—Americans who died—in 2013 (the latest numbers available) reported owning farm property. Of those, he notes, the “most striking feature is the increase in farm assets by the super wealthy.”

As such, he explained to the Washington Post last year, “(P)ublic policy is not served by eliminating the federal estate tax which is the force behind this push to argue that ordinary farmers, bona fide farmers, are likely to pay a huge amount of federal estate tax. It simply is not true.”

None of these facts, however, will keep U.S. political candidates — or several farm and ranch lobbying efforts — from campaigning on the tried-and-not-true “death tax” fiction. Truth, after all, is often unsparing and unflattering.

Take the 2014 U.S. farm bill — a sweeping document that sets out agriculture priorities and spending for years to come.

Big Ag sold it as a cost-cutting, hands-off law that would give farmers better control over what they produced and, in turn, better control over their bottom lines.

Initially, it did just that; total federal direct farm program payments fell in the U.S. from around $11 billion in 2013 to $9.7 billion in 2014.

Then the ground shifted. Generous crop insurance benefits, included in the 2014 law, encouraged farmers to focus heavily on corn and soybean production in 2015 and 2016. The expanded acres, combined with good weather, sent total production upward and crop prices downward.

In turn, total federal program payments began to climb. In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the “cost-saving” 2014 Farm Bill cost $10.6 billion.

Earlier this year, USDA forecasted 2016’s total federal farm support will balloon to an estimated $13.9 billion, or 30 percent over last year’s cost and 40 percent more than 2014’s tab.

Worse, the increased spending isn’t actually supporting farm and ranch income. Nationwide, total net farm income fell from $123.3 billion in 2013 to $90.5 billion in 2014, then to $56.4 billion in 2015 and, now, to a forecasted $54 billion in 2016.

As such, the U.S. has a farm policy where taxpayers openly subsidize overproduction and lower prices, while everyone with a stake in food’s future — farmers, ranchers, and taxpayers — hopefully, or nervously, awaits a crop disaster to lift commodity and food prices.

In light of this failure, will the 2014 farm bill be discussed on the campaign trail this election season or will producers and the public be offered the same tired platitudes about how “America feeds the world”?

We need that discussion because the U.S. Congress elected this November will write the 2018 farm bill and all Americans deserve something better than a crop failure to make our farm policy a success.

Alan Guebert is an Illinois-based agricultural commentator.

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