Acton Institute Powerblog

Farm Subsidies Follow-up: Feed the Rich

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In one of this week’s Acton Commentaries, Ray Nothstine and I juxtapose a static, sedentary dependence on government subsidies with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

The impetus for this short piece was an article that originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press (linked in the commentary). I have two things to say about these stories and then I want to add some further reflections on the world of agricultures subsidies.

First, I found the article’s “hook” to be quite shoddy and lame. The blatant attempt to “shock” the reader into a reaction of disgust that a billionaire like Dick DeVos, yes, “that Dick DeVos,” got a whopping “$6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005.” That’s roughly $2k a year for three years.

Unsurprisingly, DeVos’ spokesperson didn’t know anything about it. It’s ludicrous to think that a guy with as much on his plate as Dick DeVos would have any time for what is essentially pocket change for a billionaire. Does the fact that DeVos got a subsidy even though he campaigned on eliminating government waste make him a hypocrite?

Judge for yourself, but I think these payments say more about the government’s inefficiency and waste than they do about DeVos’ integrity. People of all income brackets pay tax professionals to maximize their returns. For the very wealthy, it’s simply a process that’s on a bigger scale, that’s much more thorough, and with many more loopholes than when you or I go to H&R Block. The more diversified your holdings, the more likely there are a plethora of tax breaks for you to exploit. The breathless lede to this story was simply off-putting to me, especially given the rather clear political undertones of the insinuations.

“Simplify, man.”

What’s the real lesson? As a recycling hippie once told The Simpsons‘ Principal Skinner in a quite different context, “Simplify, man.” Simplify the tax code and eliminate all these special interest loopholes.

But the complaint about the story’s hook is really a minor quibble compared to my second point. In a companion piece, Lisa Rose Starner, executive director at Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens says that farm subsidies are essentially about “social justice.” That’s right, subsidies are about social justice. They’re about the social injustice of subsidizing a product so that people from poorer nations around the world, who would like to do more than simply engage in subsistence farming, can’t compete in a global marketplace because prices are artificially deflated. So, our subsidies are feeding the rich at the expense of the poor in more ways than one.

Of course, the pat response is that other nations are subsidizing too, so our subsidies are just leveling the playing field. To be sure, the world of agricultural business is a complex one, as many of the commenters on our piece point out. Direct farm subsidies are just one thin slice of the government’s intervention into agriculture. Perhaps they’re the most obvious, but they may also not be the most insidious. As one astute reader wrote to me, “The web of market interference in ag is broad and complex.”

Simplify, man.

Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • The biodiesel industry is a prime example. It is a noble thought to promote the development and technology of a renewable energy source. Yes, ween us off foreign oil through subsidies that support green industry at home.

    However, there are strong arguments against biodisel: low return on investment, land requirements affecting food prices, etc. The most insidious being that the recipients of subsidies are the usual suspects- corporate producers who have an inordinate amount to sway over the supply of BOTH food and farmland. And these details are no secret, nor are they highly debated.

    Yet the lobbying process to secure subsidies continues. And no one questions it.

  • I was recently surprised to see that I consider subsidies as a structure to support social justice. If you bothered to contact me or knew my stance on the issue then it would be clear that my perspection on this issue is the furthest from what you claim. I will dismiss this as bad reporting.

  • Louise Cate

    Members of Congress should not vote on legislation concerning global warming, until they can pass this quiz. If they actually knew something about “global warming”, they might not have have passed subsidies for for farmer to raise crops for diodiesel fuel.

    · During the past hundred years, how much has the earth’s temperature increased?
    ANSWER: It has only increased O.6-degree centigrade.

    · During the past ten years (1998 to 2008), how much has the earth’s temperature increased?
    ANSWER: It has increased ZERO degrees in the past ten years.

    · During the next ten years (2008 to 2018), how much will the earth’s temperature increase?
    ANSWER: The UN’s committee on climate, the IPCC, announced the earth’s temperature will increase ZERO degrees in the next ten years.

    · Do increases in CO2 levels precede or follow temperature increases?
    ANSWER: Science magazine reported that CO2 increases FOLLOWED temperature increases by 400 to 1000 years during all three glacial interglacial transitions on record. Because CO2 increases FOLLOW temperature increases, the global warming alarmists are wrong to claim that CO2 increases cause world temperature increases.

    · Has the earth’s temperature been higher than it is now?
    ANSWER: Yes. The earth’s temperature has been higher in each of the three previous interglacial transition periods

    · Has the CO2 level ever been higher than it is now?
    ANSWER: Yes, before mankind added significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, there were periods when the CO2 level was higher than now.

    · Does the UN sponsored IPCC committee represent the world’s top 2500 climate scientists?
    ANSWER: NO. Less than 50% of the 2500 IPCC members are scientists who have degrees that qualify them as earth/atmospheric scientists. The IPCC includes economists, public heath workers, biologists, and others who are NOT included in the world’s top 2500 climate scientists.

    · Do many scientists disagree with what is called the global warming consensus?
    ANSWER: YES. For example, one of the three co-chairmen of IPCC does NOT agree with the so-called “consensus”. Over 32,000 people, with degrees in sciences relevant to global warming, signed a petition that challenged the “global warming consensus”. 9,000 of those scientists had PhDs.

    · Have environmental activists ever caused any harm?
    ANSWER: YES. About 70,000 Africans died of malaria because environmentalists in the early 1970s unjustly demonized DDT and reduced the use of DDT worldwide. Recently, WHO and USAID advised the use of DDT be started again in order to stop malaria epidemics in areas where malaria was not a problem before DDT was demonized.