We all like to talk as if we are dedicated free marketeers. The reality is that we dispense billions in subsidies, tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare in schemes that are not only “protectionist” but in many cases destructive and nonsensical. Here are two examples of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, from the world of agriculture.
1. The American cotton industry is worth $5.9 billion. The federal government subsidizes it to the tune of $4.5 billion. That’s not a business. It’s a federal corporate welfare scheme. The cotton we grow is shipped to China (and other cheap labor countries) to the manufactured into clothing, since we no longer have a viable manufacturing sector in garments. And the tax dollars? They go mostly to Texas agribusiness, not family farmers.
2. Americans pay twice the world market price for sugar, in order to protect sugar cane producers in Florida, Hawaii (which finally gave up on sugar), and sugar beets in the Midwest (which also didn’t fly economically, even with the supports). Because of this, our soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, now the leading suspect in our epidemic of diabetes. In the process of supporting an unviable sugar industry, we helped to destroy the economies of Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines and many other countries that produce sugar by the labor-intensive, and environmentally sound, methods appropriate to “emerging economies”.
I appreciate how complex these issues are, and cannot offer any pat answers for addressing them. My first suggestion, though, is that we take a serious look at all of these subsidy programs, all government price supports, and all forms of government corporate welfare, and assess exactly how the composite of all of these federal state and local dollars could best be applied to meet our goals: how much money, how many jobs, what contribution to the economy, what strategic goals are supported, etc. For example, what if we give up on homegrown cotton and shift that subsidy to homegrown energy crops to replace fossil fuels purchased from hostile regimes? Or what if we target specifically family farms for support and select those crops that provide more jobs per federal subsidy dollar?
Dragging this back to the beginning topic, why not apply this same scrutiny to all federal assistance, whether through subsidies, tax breaks or whatever. Let’s target them to specific strategic goals, and not just to a general pumping up of the economy with tax dollars.