Economists aren’t always thought of as enivronmentalists, but both are concerned with scarce resources and how they are distributed. Environmentalists happen to be concerned with “public goods”—the sorts of things that often seem free to citizens, like clean air and a livable climate. It’s difficult to align self-interest to secure the provision of these goods, since many people basically take them for granted and want someone else to worry about them. Economists, along with scarce resources, study incentives and even the most conservative of them will suggest ideas for aligning them with sustainable resource distributions; one of those is a tax on carbon usage, another is to end farm subsidies.
Michael Pollan, not an economist but the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a series of case studies in the forces that shape how we eat, has a passionate essay in today’s NYT Magazine about U.S. farm legislation, which he argues is the reason junk food (Made of corn and soy and wheat and the livestock corn feeds) is cheaper than healthy food (other vegetables).
A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.
Later Pollan suggests that the farm bill regards American eaters as “food processors” who vacuum up “industrial raw materials” manufactured by agribusiness. He urges Americans to complain to legislators about the farm bill (which ought to be called the agribusiness bill) and argue for one that puts consumers’ rather than producers’ interests first. But because the U.S. Constitution protects the interest of small states in various ways (the Senate, the Electoral College), this is easier polemicized than done. The major presidential candidates are far more likely to call for more subsidies for corn (to boost the ethanol industry unnecessarily, since it’s cheaper and better for the environment—the whole reason to use ethanol in the first place—to make the fuel from Brazilian sugar) than to campaign for their withdrawal.