The Washington Post busted open the big story about the raisin market, then opined about it, then Planet Money did an excellent story about it. For those without time to click through the genuinely fascinating links, the basics of the story is that raisins, somewhat uniquely, have their supply and demand managed centrally by a government committee, who essentially confiscates a share (sometimes a very large one) of raisin farmers’ output and with varying levels of compensation. This is probably bad public policy, and there’s no reason that this shouldn’t be done away with.

However, there is a sense in all these stories that there is something unusually unjust about the structure of this market. But I’m not sure that’s true. Let’s imagine, instead, that there was simply an additional sales tax on raisins, not unique to raisins at all. In that case, the price would rise, so demand would fall, so supply would contract and the price would rise and eventually we’d settle on an equilibrium where the overall raisin supply is lower and the price is higher and the government collects some revenue. You could even have the tax vary each year to target a price (as opposed to a tax that is a consistent percentage of the otherwise-market-determined price).

In this case, what we have instead is situation where the government targets the supply side rather than the demand side, but to pretty much a similar result, except the government collects its revenue not in money but in-kind.  Now, the fluctuations in the crop portion taken for the reserve and the uncertainty of compensation definitely feels more unfair, but the biggest difference I can see in this scenario is that in the tax scenario you’d probably have fewer raisin farmers, whereas under the status quo there seem to be more raisin farmers than the eventual market price would otherwise produce.

That, to me, is the biggest curiosity – why don’t more farmers do what the one farmer in the Planet Money story does and switch out to a less-regulated crop like almonds? The answer is that if we were in an equilibrium where no raisins were being confiscated then the existing raisin farmers would probably be making substantial profits, thus attracting new entrants into the industry, each one individually having no impact on the market but collectively driving up supply to the point where confiscation would begin. That, along with emotional attachments and the transaction costs of switching crops, probably keeps an equilibrium where you’ll always have more raisin farmers producing more supply than the eventual raisin price would otherwise demand.

In some ways, this solution is more socially optimal – because you still have farmers incentivized to produce as many raisins as possible even as the government is driving up the price, when in the taxation scenario you’d probably have a lower raisin supply. This allows raisins to be donated to school lunch programs, for example, that otherwise wouldn’t exist. In the tax scenario, however, the government could give the money to schools to spend how they see best fit, and that way would probably be better.

Additionally, you could raise the overall sales tax a miniscule amount and deregulate raisins and that would really be socially optimal. Freedom!