By Larry Combest

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

John Henry Newman wrote that, “The truer doctrines are, the more liable they are to be perverted.”

But you didn’t have to live in Victorian England to get the recently beatified Cardinal’s point.  In fact, in modern day Washington, we have reached the stage where anytime anyone even mutters the truth it’s worth popping a cork over.

So, it’s been encouraging to watch the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six,” Wellesley College Professor Robert Paarlberg, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack help the truth crash a few parties it was never invited to.

The bipartisan gang of six, led by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Mark Warner (D-VA), has made it plain that anything short of a comprehensive, bipartisan approach to deficit reduction is bound to fail, bringing our nation another step closer to financial ruin. 

If the Gang of Six is successful in its efforts, it could usher in the confidence of the public, the markets, and the world, with the added quality of life benefit of ending the high octane, low performance legislative skirmishes that gobble up so much time and demean the institution of Congress and the many fine people who have come to Washington to take on the real challenges and to do the right thing.

It cannot be easy for the Republicans comprising this group to look at their colleagues in the GOP conference and say they are prepared to consider the revenue side of the ledger, nor can it be any easier for Democratic counterparts to tell their caucus that they are ready to examine the big entitlements.  This is a profile in courage and for this reason the Gang of Six is the first in the trifecta for truth.

Then comes Professor Robert Paarlberg who recently penned a column entitled, “The Inconvenient Truth About Cheap Food and Obesity:  It’s Not Farm Subsidies.”  Paarlberg begins his piece with a pop quiz.  “What mistaken belief about food is endorsed by both the libertarian right and the foodie left?  Answer: That farm subsidies make unhealthy foods artificially cheap.” In his pronouncement, Paarlberg upends a heaping spoonful of misinformation that the public has been force fed almost daily.  But then he goes on to chew up and spit out another falsehood.  Writes Paarlberg:  “[t]hat other popular claim—Americans are obese because unsubsidized healthy foods have become more expensive—is also bogus.”

But Paarlberg’s column has implications far beyond the controversies of obesity and health.  By refuting the long-running contention that U.S. farm policy spurs overproduction, depresses crop prices, cheapens unhealthy foods, and, thereby, causes obesity and poor health (and, by extension, also degrades the environment and harms producers in developing countries), Paarlberg’s piece shoots a silver bullet that runs clear through the heart of the objections leveled not only by the foodie-left and the libertarian right but by the extreme environmental community and to foreign countries that challenge our policies on trade grounds.                   

To be clear, I don’t mean to give the impression that Dr. Paarlberg is at all sympathetic to U.S. farm policy, and I do not agree with all of his reasoning or even some of the conclusions he draws.  But, Dr. Paarlberg sought to bring out the truth even when it may have cut against his own views on farm policy and that, too, is a profile in courage. 

That said, I can’t entirely leave Dr. Paarlberg without addressing one of his points, that some aspects of farm policy, which he speaks of in broad terms, may increase food prices.  In this vein, Paarlberg arrives at the same place as one environmental lawyer-turned-big food company lobbyist who in his previous life had argued that farm policy depresses prices but now argues with equal vigor and a most flexible conviction that it inflates prices. 

The examples Paarlberg cites are CRP, sugar and dairy policies, and ethanol, though the first and the last are more properly treated as conservation and energy policies.  On sugar policy, it’s an uphill climb to make a serious case that this policy (that costs taxpayers nothing) adds to consumer costs.  There’s only 2 cents of sugar in a candy bar, for example.  If producers gave sugar away for free, how many believe that that would translate into a lower priced Nestle Crunch Bar (which incidentally costs more than a whole pound of sugar)?  A comparison of the sugar markets in the U.S. vis-à-vis Canada and Australia, for examples, shows little difference in consumer costs.  That’s because this debate is not about consumers, but about food company profits which, by the way, are setting new records thanks in part to U.S. companies paying about 9% less for sugar than counterparts in other developed countries.       

On dairy policy, too, it’s a tough sell.  As we witnessed not all that long ago, current dairy policy can be said to increase dairy prices to about the same extent that a $1 per hour minimum wage (not a $1 per hour increase) might contribute to wage inflation.          

On CRP, there is a debate going on about what enrollment levels ought to be.  But, for purposes of this discussion, the question boils down to how much subprime, environmentally sensitive land would have to be put into production to increase crop production enough to move the needle on food prices and, beyond this, what would be the environmental impact?  Without prejudicing the debate over appropriate enrollment levels, I do seriously question any ultimate impact on food prices and recommend folks read “The Worst Hard Times” before firming up their positions.

Finally, then, there is the issue of biofuels policy where Secretary Vilsack comes in to complete the trifecta for truth by going against the grain on this policy’s perceived role in food price inflation.  While even the critics admit that the effect of biofuels, much less biofuels policies, on the price U.S. consumers pay for their food is minor, it has not stopped the beating up of biofuels like a policy piñata, held responsible for everything gone wrong in the world save the abduction of the Lindbergh baby.  But at a time when even some proponents of biofuels have gotten bashful, to his credit Secretary Vilsack has taken to the road in its defense over the food price allegations and that, too, is a profile in courage. 

Whether or not you support whatever budget the Gang of Six comes out with, Dr. Paarlberg’s position on farm policy, or Secretary Vilsack’s stance on biofuels is not the point.  The point is that the truth and the courage to speak it should still merit our respect, and in my part of the country that is certainly the case.  Unfortunately, as Cardinal Newman discovered then and as we witness so often now, in some places interjecting the truth in a debate may still take writing a book.


About the author:  Larry Combest, a Republican from West Texas, represented the 19th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 2002 where he chaired the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Agriculture.          

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