The public has soured on bailouts for industries that have made the wrong decisions for years. With the billions it doled out to the financial services and auto industries, the federal government has finally imposed some requirements, modest though they may be, on the companies that received vast sums of taxpayers' funds. The public no longer wants the combination of financial bailouts and government deregulation. The industries must observe some standards and have some accountability, so that mistakes are not repeated again and again, and taxpayers can feel like the industries are not getting a complete free ride.
But the Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture never seem to have gotten the memo when it comes to Big Agribusiness, and especially the pork industry. This industry is shamelessly asking the federal government for more and more bailout money, while it spends its own dollars in an Ohio political campaign to consolidate its unchecked power. And it seems prepared to make no sacrifices, to observe no standards, and to make no course corrections in exchange for the hundreds of millions in handouts it demands from taxpayers. The Congress and USDA accommodate these unreasonable demands without hesitation, and what’s more, they expect nothing of the industry in return, except perhaps political support from the nation’s hog producers.
The federal government has doled out $150 million to purchase some of their surplus already, and last week, in testimony before the House Agriculture Subcommittee, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and other groups asked the Congress to make additional direct purchases of surplus pork that consumers here and abroad don’t want. The feds are dumping this product on school kids and on adults in prisons, military bases, and other government-run food service programs, and these unwitting recipients of factory-farmed pork are already knee deep in the stuff. Now, incredibly, Big Pork wants the government to buy up still more. NPPC unabashedly said so at the hearing, and in a separate letter sent to the USDA in early October, one-quarter of the Senate and more than 60 House members asked the agency to make an additional $100 million in pork purchases.
Yet it never seems to be enough for this industry, with Big Pork asking for an additional $200 million sow buy-out program—with the aggregate requests approaching half a billion dollars, on top of the hundreds of millions of other direct and indirect subsidies the industry racks up each year in the form of feed subsidies, waste management handouts, and trade agreements and diplomatic gymnastics to promote still more exports of pork for this deregulated industry. It reminds me of the saying attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”
Against the warnings of its own agricultural economists, the industry raises and kills more pigs, increasing supply even as demand goes down. In Economics 101, we learn that companies must deal with the consequences of excessive production and make adjustments to operate a successful enterprise. If you’re the American pork industry, however, you can exhibit almost limitless recklessness and the federal government will bail you out time and again.
The hearing last week on the subject before the House Agriculture Committee was a pep rally, not an examination of the issues. There was no debate or discussion—just a roster of industry representatives who mouth the same bromides for Big Pork. It was the latest sound test in what has become the House Agriculture Committee’s echo chamber for Big Agribusiness. Absent from the debate, of course, were the voices of animal advocates, environmentalists, family farmers, public health interests, consumers, taxpayers, or others calling for fiscal restraint.
Here’s an industry that resists regulation and reform at every turn—it wants to continue to subject breeding animals to lifelong inhumane confinement in small cages, it makes a mess of rural communities by filling open-air lagoons with extraordinary volumes of liquefied manure, it resists efforts to phase out its overuse of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, and it wants to take no action to limit its significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants. In short, it takes a libertarian approach when it is asked to limit its array of harmful impacts, but a socialist approach when it wants the government to fund sputtering business operations. It’s a great deal for Big Pork, but a scam on the American taxpayer and everyone else who has to deal with the externalities of this industry.
And if the animal cruelty, pollution, climate change, and antibiotic overuse problems were not enough, then consider the role of hog factories in the development and spread of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. The industry says it’s a victim of media hype, but the evidence is overwhelming that factory farms are the most dangerous incubators and mixing bowls for more virulent strains of the flu that threaten the safety of tens of millions of people across the globe. Hog factories run by American corporations in Mexico may have played the central role in germinating the pandemic in the first place. Now American factory farms threaten to amplify its impact in a major way through their routine practice of concentrating thousands of pigs on giant farms. What’s that additional cost to our economy? Untold billions for sure, in addition to the loss of human life.
Whatever its economic woes, the pork industry is not too strapped to put some real money behind Ohio’s Issue 2, a shameless attempt to solidify the chokehold that factory farmers already have on production methods in that state. There, in a state whose pork products are being rejected by China, Russia, and other nations concerned about the industry’s recklessness, Big Ag’s response is to throw millions of dollars—much of it from pork industry groups—at a measure placed on the ballot by state lawmakers that seeks to protect the status quo and to prevent real reforms in the state. While it unhesitatingly doles out money for political action to preserve nearly complete deregulation for its industry, NPPC keeps its hand wide open for a seemingly endless supply of more cash from taxpayers.
When you add it all up, a greater failure of government is hard to find.