Chicken outfit

One of my favorite magazines is The Washington Monthly, which was started several decades ago by lawyer and JFK White House staffer Charlie Peters with the goal of reporting on what government actually does, not just what politicians talk about. The Monthly takes pride in looking at what really works and what doesn’t, political ideology aside.

I learn things from every issue. Take, for example, Lina Khan’s surprisingly absorbing article in the current issue about, of all things, chicken farming. Because of lax antitrust enforcement in recent years (partly the product of some court decisions), the chicken processing industry has become highly concentrated, which means that in most of the country there is only one distributor farmers can sell to. Consequently the distributors call the shots, forcing farmers to operate as contractors rather than independent businesses, buying feed and chicks from the distributor and then reselling the grown chickens back to the distributor.

Distributors routinely require farmers to build chicken houses to distributor specifications but entirely at the farmers’ expense, typically paid for by long-term mortgages taken out by the farmer. But contracts between farmers and distributors normally run just 60 days. The farmer ends up taking essentially all the risk.

As the article (which can be read on line) recounts, the Obama administration made a major, serious effort to address these problems on behalf of farmers, but to no avail. Lobbyists were able to block even reforms in Congress. Among other things, a bipartisan group of lobbyist-influenced lawmakers cut off funds for enforcement.

Ultimately (and rather shamefully, Kahn implies) the administration gave up the fight, essentially deserting the farmers whose hopes they’d raised.

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