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.