The Entitlement Mentality (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I recently made one of my infrequent (but certainly frequent enough) appearances as a talking head on AETN’s “Arkansas Week.” When the topic turned to the federal Farm Bill — which its critics rightly insist should really be called the “Farm & Food Stamps Bill” — I made this brilliant comment: “The entitlement mentality is not limited to people on food stamps.”

I was making a dig, of course, at the wildly successful lobbying effort that has made farming a virtually no-risk industry in the U.S. Both the House and Senate seem perfectly happy to spend more money on the safety net for farmers while quibbling over just how much they can cut from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Reducing food stamps, in theory, would have the desirable effect of making low-income Americans more self-sufficient and less dependent upon government, but cutting farm subsidies apparently wouldn’t bring about such desirable qualities in farmers.

I’m quoting here from a recent report on NPR: “[T]he way crop insurance works, farmers are eligible for payouts not only when their crops fail due to drought or flood, but also when the prices of their crops drop. In essence, farmers with crop insurance are able to lock in a guaranteed price. Sometimes, like last summer, they’re able to get the best of all worlds: High prices for their crops, together with a hefty insurance payout to compensate them for a small harvest.”

This is just a guess, but I figure that your average food stamp recipient is more eager to stop being eligible for SNAP than your average farmer is to stop being eligible to have taxpayers pay 60 percent of the premium for that sweet, sweet insurance.

Look, I’m not an expert on farming or farm policy. I’m not even a particularly good cook. I understand that there are myriad and complex factors at work in the agriculture industry, including unpredictable (and increasingly extreme) weather and competition from foreign producers whose governments barely give lip service to the idea of free market capitalism.

But there are also myriad and complex factors involved in making one in seven Americans eligible for food stamps.

This is not an original observation, but farm policy and hunger policy are really very different things that shouldn’t be lumped together just because they both involve food. Washington has a clever practice of combining unrelated issues in the same legislation so that it will be hard to vote no: Sen. Bleedingheart, if you want to feed some hungry kids, you have to also vote for more generous crop insurance subsidies. (And vice versa, of course.)

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Government handouts are one kind of entitlement mentality. We’ve seen another kind in action in Brandon Barber, the former northwest Arkansas developer charged with 27 counts of financial crimes, including bank fraud, money laundering and hiding assets from his creditors.

Barber had the opportunity to continue living and working in New York while he waited for his trials (one scheduled for September, one for October). He was allowed to go to work and even help care for his kids. Pretty sweet gig for a guy who had already been denied bankruptcy discharge because he was apparently hiding assets from his many, many creditors.

But Barber apparently still felt entitled to the occasional restaurant meal, so the court ordered him to stay home except for medical appointments and court appearances.

Barber still didn’t think those orders applied to him. He made more unauthorized excursions, sometimes eating out three times a day. So U.S. District Magistrate Judge Erin Setser had him handcuffed and taken to the Washington County jail. He’ll presumably get three meals a day there.

Barber’s defense attorney, Asa Hutchinson III, was concerned about how this would look to potential jurors. “We start losing the perception of innocence if he’s incarcerated for three months leading up to the trial,” he said.

Mr. Hutchinson, your client should have worried about appearances years ago.

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I probably shouldn’t drag this up after more than a quarter century, but all this talk of entitlement mentality reminds me of an anecdote from 1987, as the S&L crisis was unwinding.

Bankruptcy Judge Robert Fussell ordered former FirstSouth executive Roderick Reed to park his car until it could be sold to pay his creditors. “As long as you’re in Chapter 11 bankruptcy,” Fussell said, as quoted by the Arkansas Gazette, “I don’t want to see a debtor riding around in a Jaguar.”

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

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