Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Big Handout: How Government Subsidies and Corporate Welfare Corrupt the World We Live In and Wreak Havoc on Our Food Bills, by Thomas Kostigen

Rodale Books, ISBN 9781609611132, October 2011

This book makes an interesting counterpoint to Clean Energy Nation, by Congressman Jerry McNerney, which I reviewed in August. McNerney is a Democrat, has a high regard for the sustainable energy policies pursued by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s while regretting the micromanagement and lack of higher-level political skills that helped to doom those policies, thinks well of Clinton and Obama, and is not so fond of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Kostigen is  libertarian-leaning, considers the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation good and respectable sources, and admires Ronald Reagan as one of our great presidents. These two men are not coming from the same place, in their political worldviews.

Yet the underlying central message of the two books is the same: Our economic, energy, and agricultural policies are unsustainable, doing damage to our planet, endangering our national security, and making us poorer. McNerney attacked the problem from the perspective of energy policy; Kostigen comes at it primarily through agricultural and other corporate subsidies.

Yes, other corporate subsidies, because while 80% of our farms are smaller family-owned operations, nearly all of the agricultural subsidies, direct and indirect, go to the 20% that are owned by large corporate agribusiness entities. For some subsidies, small farms aren't even eligible. We think of farm subsidies as helping the ordinary farmer on a family-owned farm, vulnerable to the hazards of weather, natural disaster, and uncertain demand, but the reality is that those subsidies are primarily going to "farmers" who are corporate executives.

Kostigan lays out in careful detail how this distorts our agriculture, our food bills, our diets, and our international relations. Subsidies encourage high-capacity factory farms (or, in the preferred terminology, "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations," or "CAFOs.") These CAFOs crowd animals together in ways that promote the spread of disease among the animals, requiring routine use of antibiotics, which aren't completely eliminated from the animals' systems and affect us, promoting the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. They create toxic runoff which damages our waterways and causes dead zones along our coasts. They help to drive smaller farms, that operate more sustainably--not due to ideology, but simply because it's what makes practical sense for smaller farms--out of business.

Corn is heavily subsidized, so making high fructose corn syrup and using it as a substitute for sugar is cheap. Sugar, meanwhile, is artificially high in price due to tariffs designed to keep out foreign sugar. Result? Artificially cheap HFCS is used to make low-quality food, including junk food, tastier and more attractive to us, while healthier foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and sustainably raised meats are more expensive than they would otherwise be. There's more than one factor in the obesity epidemic in America, but the rise of obesity as a major problem tracks very well with the rise of the use of High Fructose Corn Syrup in our food.

We pay to lower the cost of agricultural production, and we get some benefit here, but the greater part of the effect is to make our agricultural products cheaper on the world market--enough cheaper that in developing countries, we're driving local farmers out of business. The result is that they have no income, and even our "cheap" food is hard for them to buy--and they are angry, resentful, and more susceptible to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kostigen, while focusing mainly on agricultural subsidies, also talks about subsidies to the oil industry--the most profitable industry in the history of the planet. McNerney focuses heavily on global warming and its effects. Kostigen says, no matter what you think of global warming, it's bad for our health to inhale the pollutants that burning fossil fuels puts into the air, and we're paying to encourage this to continue, rather that switching to more sustainable, less polluting, energy sources.

I haven't, and won't, discuss the numbers in detail; you're better off reading Kostigen's discussion of them. However, he lays out those numbers very clearly, and while we get some savings at the cash register due to the subsidies, those savings are a small fraction of what we're spending. In exchange, we get air pollution, water pollution, soil erosion, and increased hostility to our country around the world.

There's a lot to take in here, and I haven't scratched the surface. This book is really a must-read for anyone concerned about our economy.

Highly recommended.

To purchase a copy of this book from Amazon, click on the cover image.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.


  1. Sounds like one I might enjoy reading. I love non-fiction. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!