An Agricultural Adjustment Act of our time

Today’s top prize for neat historical analogy goes to Econbrowser, for comparing the cash-for-clunkers program to a New Deal act of 1933, that encouraged farmers to kill livestock and plow up their fields, “as if destroying useful goods could somehow make the nation wealthier,” as Econbrowser sardonically sums them up.

The action to reduce supply by killing some portion of the pigs born in the spring of the year made good sense as part of the administration’s emergency efforts to raise prices and incomes for the rural poor. But even before the advent of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights movements, it was a public relations disaster. In 1933 over one-third of US households had some member out of work and many people experienced hunger. Killing hogs to raise hog prices at such a time struck many as wrong-headed.

The administration’s Agricultural Adjustment Act also provided for the plowing under of a significant portion of the cotton crop, which was already in the ground. But cotton seedlings are not as photogenic as piglets, as Hollywood well knows, and destroying cotton to raise prices never raised the same public outcry as that of killing baby pigs.

Participation in the program was voluntary, and farmers were paid for pigs that were killed. Most of the hogs killed were sent to packing plants that contracted with the government. Some 5 million light hogs, averaging 53 pounds, were simply “tanked” or processed into inedible meat and bone meal. Sows, which were required to be visibly pregnant for acceptance into the program, were processed into meat that was donated to various local food relief programs.

Historical records show that some 6.4 million pigs and sows were killed at an expenditure of $31 million. (Livestock Under the AAA, The Brookings Institution, 1935.) Using the Consumer Price Index, an equivalent amount today would be about $400 million in 1998 dollars. A history of the program concluded that “it is extremely difficult to estimate the effects of the measures on hog prices,” but said that perhaps prices were increased by $1.75 per hundredweight, a 20 percent to 30 percent increase over what prices had been before it’s inception. The slaughter program was never repeated, in part due to public outcry and because a system of contracting with farmers not to produce was implemented in succeeding years.

I’m fascinated at a system that can devise a way to kill a pig without producing meat. Meat is necessarily murder. But not all animal murder leads to meat.


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