When You Give Up On Allocating Resources via Markets and Prices, All That is Left is Interest Group Politics
One of the ugly facts about how we manage water is that by eschewing markets and prices to allocate scarce water, all that is left is command and control allocation to match supply and demand. The uglier fact is that politicians like it that way. A golf course that pays a higher market rate for water doesn't help a politician one bit. A golf course that has to beg for water through a political process is a source of campaign donations for life.
In a free society without an intrusive government, it would not matter whether California almond growers were loved or hated. If people did not like them, then they just wouldn't buy their product. But in California, the government holds the power of life or death over businesses through a number of levers, not least of which is water.
Almonds have become the Left's] new bête noir. The nut is blamed for exacerbating the California drought, overtaxing honeybee colonies, starving salmon of river water, and price-gauging global consumers. Almonds may be loved by consumers, but almond growers, it seems, are increasingly despised in the media. In 2014, The Atlantic published a melodramatic essay, “The Dark Side of Almond Use”—with the ominous subtitle, “People are eating almonds in unprecedented amounts. Is that okay?” If no one much cared that California agriculture was in near depression for much of the latter twentieth century—and that almonds were hardly worth growing in the 1970s—they now worry that someone is netting $5,000 to $10,000 per acre on the nut.
It is almost too much to bear for a social or environmental activist that a corporate farm of 5,000 acres could in theory clear $30 million a year—without either exploiting poor workers or poisoning the environment, but in providing cool people with a healthy, hip, natural product. The kind of people who eat almond butter and drink almond milk, after all, are the kind of people who tend to endorse liberal causes.
As for almonds worsening the drought: The truth is that the nut uses about the same amount of water per acre as other irrigated California crops such as pasture, alfalfa, tree fruit, pistachios, cotton, or rice. In fact, almonds require a smaller percentage of yearly irrigation use than their percentage of California farmland calls for. Nonetheless, the growth of almond farming represents to many a greedy use of scarce collective resource.