July 13, 2013

THE CALIFORNIA SABINES:

One grower's grapes of wrath (David A. Fahrenthold, July 07, 2013, Washington Post)

The national raisin reserve might sound like a fever dream of the Pillsbury Doughboy. But it is a real thing -- a 64-year-old program that gives the U.S. government a heavy-handed power to interfere with the supply and demand for dried grapes.

It works like this: In a given year, the government may decide that farmers are growing more raisins than Americans will want to eat. That would cause supply to outstrip demand. Raisin prices would drop. And raisin farmers might go out of business.

To prevent that, the government does something drastic. It takes away a percentage of every farmer's raisins. Often, without paying for them.

These seized raisins are put into a government-controlled "reserve" and kept off U.S. markets. In theory, that lowers the available supply of raisins and thereby increases the price for farmers' raisin crops. Or, at least, the part of their crops that the government didn't just take.

For years, Horne handed over his raisins to the reserve. Then, in 2002, he refused.

Since then, his life has now become a case study in one of Washington's bad habits -- a tendency never to reexamine old laws once they're on the books. Even ones like this.

When Horne's case reached the Supreme Court this spring, Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether it might be "just the world's most outdated law."

"Your raisins or your life, right?" joked Justice Antonin Scalia.

Last month, the high court issued its ruling and gave Horne a partial victory. A lower court had rejected Horne's challenge of the law. Now, the justices told that court to reconsider it.

Horne does not have the persona of a live-wire revolutionary. He used to be a tax auditor for the state. Now, in his second career, he watches fruit dry.

"If I knew we were going to go through all this, I would have just pulled the grapes out and put in almond" trees, he said.

But get Horne talking about the national raisin reserve, and the spirit stirs. Suddenly he can't find a metaphor hairy enough to express his contempt. It's robbery. It's socialism. It's communism. It's feudalism. It'sā€ˆ.ā€‰.ā€‰.

"You have heard of the rape of the Sabine women? This is even worse," Horne said, referencing a legendary mass abduction from Roman mythology. "The rape of the raisin growers."

Contra Malthus, only governments can inflate food prices.

Posted by at July 13, 2013 12:26 PM
  

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