I happened upon this idea watching the Ellis and Cheney documentary King Corn. While the filmmakers highlighted the demerits of a high-fructose corn syrup diet, a relatively minor point stuck with me ever since. Human actors, in this case a majority of Congressional men and women, authorize funds for the United States Department of Agriculture to pay farmers to produce corn and sugar beets, among many other agricultural products. There are various reasons for this, including a pledge to maintain low-cost food available to the citizenry, stabilizing farmers' incomes, and the reelection of the aforementioned human actors.
Market intervention always results in undesired effects - this is not a revelation of the Austrian School as much as a reminder that unintended consequences occur when force is brought to bear on free exchange, no matter how benevolent the intention. When the Federal Treasury outlaid $2.5 billion to corn producers in 2008, it (read: We The People) assumed the role of the largest corn consumer. And corn is a wonderful product. With current technology, American industry successfully produces a wide variety of goods from this plant, including highly effective food sweeteners, feedstock for the majority of U.S. cattle and ethanol fuel. (Digression: earlier this month our Environmental Protection Agency changed its mandate for biofuel production by vastly increasing the amount of advanced biofuel technology required in combustion fuels sold in the U.S., while decreasing its requirements for ethanol fuel production, as ethanol is now regarded as more a effective source of greenhouse gas than even gasoline. This may come as an unpleasant surprise to the thousands of farmers who chose to produce corn this year in anticipation of the formerly-mandated demand for this fuel source.)
As young adults, we are considered by advertisers to be "easy prey" for impulse purchases. Gastronomically speaking, such choices include ready-to-consume prepared food, often in fast food and convenience store forms. The menus of the largest fast food restaurant chains consist primarily of beef (corn-fed), soft drinks (flavor-enhanced by high-fructose corn syrup) and bread (subsidized wheat and sugar-laden.) These businesses are often cited by another human actor in government - Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services - as culprits in the increased levels of obesity (34%!) and diabetes among Americans, due to their highly desirable, fat and sugar-endowed products. Oddly enough, these same foods are also subsidized by our taxes.
Is this not a little crazy?
The Economist January 21st article entitled "The Fat Plateau" quoted Secretary Sebelius as saying "fighting obesity is at the heart" of health care reform. Obese patients' bills average 42% more than those of "normal-weighted" patients. Yet human actors just across town from her, sworn to the same oath of duty to the country, send our money to the industries which provide the goods necessary to produce food these same obesity-causing foods. Interestingly, lower-income Americans have two things in common - higher than average consumption of fast food, and lower than average health care coverage. And now perhaps I begin to see the correlation between corn and sugar subsidies, and health care. One literally feeds the other.
This situation reminds me of Ludwig von Mises' 3d Lecture, "Interventionism," in which he stated that "isolated government interference brings about a worse situation than it sought to abolish." FDR's Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace called the original farm subsidies "a temporary solution to deal with an emergency" (the Dust Bowl), yet these subsidies apparently now increase our subsidized health care costs.
And The Force continues its schizophrenic spiral...