The so-called free market for food

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe:

[N]ot even Ted Kennedy would have suggested that Washington nationalize US food production or overhaul the clothing industry. It is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities, because we do leave their availability to the market, that they can be had in such abundance and diversity.

From the New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005:

Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.

If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writing in the Times on Sept. 9, 2009:

[F]ood system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

If Jacoby had wanted to argue against government health-care reform, he could have done it quite easily by using the food industry as his prime example. As Pollan and others have shown, we are awash in a sea of cheap, federally subsidized corn that has been transformed into oceans of sweet soda, unhealthy beef (corn is toxic to cattle) and a host of other dubious products that barely deserve to be called food.

Do we want the government to do to health care what it’s done to the food supply? It’s not an argument I would make. But Jacoby could have made it, and he’d have produced a much more valid column if he had.