What About the Quick Win?

This is the sort of news item that doesn’t get much play in the prog-o-sphere: Report: U.S. spending billions of dollars to subsidize junk food.

The story is about subsidies for the “corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils” industries. As most people are aware, these unholy products are roundly blamed for whole categories of health problems in the United States. Industrial monoculture corn farming, which is also a response to the product subsidies as well as direct subsidization, depletes the soil and requires massive inputs of pesticides and fertilizer[1].

Playing inside the political box, i.e. imagining for the moment that some astute use of violence can improve society at large, something like health care reform is tricky. Providing health care resources is expensive, and prioritizing the individual medical needs for hundreds of millions of people among all the varied professional medical opinions inevitably leads to widespread dissatisfaction.

All of the proposed legislative “solutions” around preserving and improving health are complicated webs of winners and losers. Each proposal is further complicated by the extraordinary costs of implementation. Nothing is simple, and everything has a downside.

By contrast, there is no inside-the-box downside to eliminating the subsidies of unhealthy corn biproducts. The immediate effect would be to raise the prices of unhealthy food while freeing up 16 billion dollars of scarce federal funding.

Jumping out of the box, it’s immediately clear why this most obvious benefit to the economy and the health of American citizens will never take place. It would remove 16 billion dollars from mega-corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and drive down profitability of Coke, PepsiCo Frito Lay and other manufacturers who rely on cheap, unhealthy sugar substitutes for their products.

And so, something as obvious as eliminating this terrible subsidy will never happen. Similar patterns abound, most notably around energy. The common wisdom is that our petroleum based economy is doomed for a number of reasons, yet subsidies to oil companies are never mentioned in “serious” political circles. 41 billion dollars a year
goes to an industry already dripping with monopoly profits.

As I noted a few weeks back:

voters have zero influence or control over the course of events via their engagement with the political system. They are either aligned with the preexisting desires of capital, in which case, they will see “their side” winning; or they are opposed, and will see their policy desires warped and twisted if not ignored outright.

The same is true for political activists and pundits. To be seen as effective or prescient they must advocate for increases in government power and spending, not decreases. Thus, junk food can be more heavily regulated or maybe even taxed, but the subsidies that are the foundation of the problem will not be threatened. Energy taxes or carbon “markets” can be proposed, or subsidies to “green” energy put in place, but the 41 billion in oil and gas subsidies go unquestioned.

A really good metaphor came from a commenter on the post cited above:

I remember going to the arcade as a boy and, lacking the funds to play, I’d work the controls as the computer ran through its scenes, imagining I was in control. If you push up, every once in a while the character goes up and you’ve confirmed that you’re at least having some effect, so you have a reason to keep playing.

As a bored youngster, I used to do this very thing at the neighborhood Pizza Hut Pacman table. The key to feeling like you’re in control is to adjust your actions to match the pre-determined outcome. This is the MO of the political class and their mouthpieces and adherents.

The evidence of their impotence lies in the countless social improvements that could be made by decreasing the flow of money to malignant corporations. Nothing that reduces the pillaging of the working class and the economic and environmental ecosystems for the benefit of concentrated capital can be advocated; such actions are political impossibilities; the abject failure that would result from their pursuit would lay bare the lie of “American democracy.”

  1. [1] For more on the evils of subsidized corn, check out anything by Michael Pollan on the subject. The documentary King Corn is also an entertaining and illuminating reference.
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