The Heritage Foundation recently interviewed Michigan businessman and entrepreneur Dick DeVos, a former candidate for governor, about how Michigan was able to pass their Right-to-Work law and what lessons conservatives can take away from the victory as they make the case for freedom.
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.
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.”
Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.
Christianity Today has identified four political races to watch that “feature debates about issues of special concern to evangelicals.” One of these is Michigan’s race for governor between incumbent Jennifer Granholm and challenger Dick DeVos.
CT is featuring the economy as an issue of evangelical concern in this race:
The September news of massive layoffs by Ford has become far too common in Michigan. Unemployment stands at 7.1 percent, well above the national average. What’s bad for the state could be good for the campaign of Dick DeVos, the Republican. The name may sound familiar to evangelicals. His father, Rich DeVos, helped found Amway Corporation and bankrolled many evangelical schools and ministries.
Acton’s Jerry Zandstra is quoted in the brief piece, as is Corwin Smidt, executive director of Calvin College’s Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, whose “research indicates evangelicals have become more receptive to Republican economics.
Says Smidt, “Whereas evangelicals were fairly united on social issues in the 1980s and early 1990s and much less unified on economic issues, evangelical voters took a much more unified stand on economic issues by the end of the millennium.”
This contradicts, by the way, the message of Fr. Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout in their recent book The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe. In a review of the book, E.J. Dionne writes of their conclusions, “All this suggests that a significant share of the white Christian community, including Evangelicals, is willing to hear alternative arguments to those offered by the Right. Greeley and Hout believe the best arguments for Democrats are about economics. ‘Get economic justice right,’ they argue, ‘and the conservative Christians held back by economic injustice will back you.’” (HT: Mirror of Justice)
Other races featured by CT include Pennsylvania’s Senate race between Bob Casey Jr. and Sen. Rick Santorum and South Dakota’s abortion ban.