What Hath Big Government Wrought?

When I was a kid (mid- to late-’60s), nightly TV news shows were everyone’s source of information. Alongside from the flickering bland-and-white coverage of the Vietnam war and protesting hippies, I distinctly remember stories that would be foreign to us in 2009: food prices.

Yes, food prices. Right there in the segment where today you’d expect to see updates on gasoline prices, you’d have David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite or Howard K. Smith used to report on the prices of beef, chicken, bread, milk or eggs.

Food was dear back then. About 1972, Big Government changed that, and thereby sewed the seeds of today’s “Health Care Crisis”. Let’s connect the dots.

The early ’70s were the era of Nixonian price controls. Around that time, agricultural policy changed, too. Beginning with the New Deal, the USDA actively managed agricultural commodity markets with a system of price supports and by telling farmers what they could and could not grow. This was an effort to avoid the farmer’s #1 dread, the commodity surplus, in which a bumper crop leads to price collapse and financial failure for the farmer.

Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz instituted direct payments to farmers, effectively ending the “price floor”. Instead of paying farmers to leave fields fallow, Uncle Sam actively encouraged the production of soybeans, wheat, corn or whatever crop. Some of the excess commodities made their way overseas as foreign aid, and some were sold to the Soviets who had busted a Five-Year Plan or two. From the blog Alterdestiny:

The effect of Butz’s policy was to make it in farmers’ interests to grow as much corn as possible. This led to an immense amount of corn. The food industry began inventing ways to use that corn. The most profitable and widespread was high fructose corn syrup. This was invented in 1980 and today makes up an enormous part of our diet. Corn syrup replaced sugar in many products, most notably soda. And when just changing from sugar to corn syrup wasn’t enough to consume all that corn, the soda companies just made their products bigger. Americans liked that a lot. High fructose corn syrup found its way into many other foods as well, from hot dogs to ketchup to chips to bread. All of this corn-based sugar that Butz and his agribusiness friends forced us to eat has led to not only high levels of obesity but also the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes that we are now only coming to terms with.

[emphasis added]

So food is no longer dear.

Fast food chains now compete, not on price, quality or service, but on how many calories they can pack onto their $1 menu: “Want to ‘Biggie Size’ those fries?” The smallest size soft drink at McDonald’s today was the biggest size you could buy in 1973, when I worked there. Since corn is also used as animal feed, beef and pork are cheaper. Corn surpluses led to the search for new markets, so now we have to burn ever-increasing quantities of inefficient and environmentally-damaging corn ethanol in our cars. We’ve effectively subsidized ADM’s and Cargill’s entry into the motor fuel business.

Another USDA policy changed in 1969. Up until then, USDA maintained stockpiles of agricultural commodities that it would distribute, in kind, to the needy. In particular, I remember the large blocks of “government cheese” and the generic labels on honey and canned goods that were distributed.

Those were replaced with Food Stamps, and the government commodities were replaced in poor people’s diets by whatever they chose to eat, regardless of caloric content or nutritional value.

Hey, all of that high fructose corn syrup’s got to go somewhere.

Thanks to government-subsidized food prices and free government money, America now has the fattest, sickest and most nutritionally deficient poor population on the planet.

And so we need government-run health care.

Huh? Are we nuts?