The government has got it wrong. It is not the financial numbers that have dogged the rice-pledging scheme. The heart of the matter is not about whether the project will incur a huge loss of more than 200 billion baht a year as suggested by former finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula, or cause less damage of some 100 billion baht a year as argued by Deputy Commerce Minister Yanyong Phuangrach.
The truth is that the public already knew that.
People realised a long time ago that a farm subsidy scheme of this nature will run at a loss. What Thais want to hear from their government is an assurance that the project is run efficiently, that the supposed financial loss suffered by the state still results in worthy long-term benefits for poor rice farmers so they don't stay poor and remain in need of state assistance forever.
Taxpayers must be informed that their contributions have been well-spent.
The Pheu Thai government's audacious attempt to set itself up as a rice monopoly by offering to buy "every single grain of rice" in the country at prices that are 40-50% higher than market rates has been criticised heavily since its launch in 2011.
Local and international rice experts pointed out that it would be impossible for Thailand to corner the world market and release the stockpile at the rate it desired because global buyers would turn to cheaper options.
Those critics have proven to be correct. After two years of implementing the project, the government has amassed a stock of more than 26 million tonnes; it managed to sell 12 million tonnes, less than half of it.
The question, of course, is at what price? MR Pridiyathorn said early this week the mathematics is simple. The government bought its rice at an average cost of 28,673 baht per tonne but sold it at an average price of 10,750 baht per tonne, only 37% of the cost. Based on his calculation, the government, which has spent more than 700 billion baht on the scheme, is set to lose more than half of the outlay simply to price differentiation.
Cabinet ministers have come out in droves to argue against MR Pridiyathorn's prediction. Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong said MR Pridiyathorn, who was a former governor of the Bank of Thailand, did not understand the scheme's accounting system.
Deputy Commerce Minister Yanyong Phuangrach engaged the chief critic in the numbers game. He argued that he had already raised 129 billion baht in revenue from rice sales and expected to increase that to 200 billion baht at the end of this year.
He has more than 10 million tonnes of rice in stock, which he was confident he would be able to sell for another 200 billion baht. That would bring the total loss to about half of what MR Pridiyathorn claimed, or 100 billion baht a year.
It's true that a loss of 100 billion baht a year is better than 200 billion baht as suggested by MR Pridiyathorn.
But as stated earlier, the crux of the matter lies not in how much the public needs to spend on this project. The most important point when it comes to the rice-pledging scheme is what will everyone _ rice farmers, taxpayers or the public _ receive in return for the expense? What one person calls financial losses can be an investment to another. The difference is what one gets in return.
As long as the government cannot explain clearly and coherently how rice farmers benefit from the scheme; as long as they only care to say that this is something to help the poor farmers, then the rice-pledging project is but an expensive charity, a vote-winning effort that is ridden with losses with zero potential for our future development.