Federal cheese subsidies full of holes

By Froma Harrop

How interesting that one arm of the Agriculture Department is promoting sales of cheese as another urges the public to eat less of it for health reasons. Your tax dollars at work fighting other tax dollars.

Dairy Management is a marketing company partly funded by the department. It has done things like advise Domino’s Pizza that it could sell more pies if it piled more cheese on them, according to The New York Times. Over at Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, meanwhile, dieticians fret that cheese has become Americans’ largest source of saturated fat, contributing to heart disease and obesity.

Odd bureaucratic conflicts like these tend to ignite irrelevant debates on whether the federal government is “too big.” Determining a proper size for government is no more meaningful than setting a proper size for a vitamin pill or an air conditioner. You buy the tablets or cooling unit to achieve certain goals. You may want them as small and cheap as possible, but they must be big enough to do what you want done.

We need an active government to oversee the country’s defense and assure access to medical coverage. We don’t need such intervention because bigger government is better. We need it because these are necessities that private markets can’t effectively provide.

This doesn’t mean that every cubical in Washington needs filling. We all have our little list of programs to chop. For me, the war on drugs is a colossal black hole that sucks in billions annually while making a problem worse. Subsidizing corporations to grow wheat or soybeans also fails the logic test. (Why not subsidize store owners to sell shoes or tennis instructors to teach the backhand?)

Yet many alleged foes of government promote and profit from farm welfare programs. The strange Michele Bachmann — the Republican House member who accused President Obama of making “the final leap to socialism”— has collected a quarter million in taxpayer handouts for her family farm in Minnesota.

Dairy Management is a related example of an unjustified government subsidy. Former Domino’s Pizza CEO David A. Brandon received over $4 million in compensation last year, according to the company’s most recent proxy statement. At least four other Domino’s executives made over $1 million. They’ve been well paid to manage their line of pizzas. And shouldn’t the money to market them come out of their company’s own budget?

You have to feel for dairy farmers. Their day is long, and with many Americans switching to lower-fat dairy products, they’re stuck with a lot of leftover milk fat. And they have every right to support Dairy Management’s mission to move it off the shelves. That’s between them and consumers.

But while the industry does pay for most of Dairy Management through government fees, the taxpayers still shovel many millions into the enterprise. Here’s a more appropriate arrangement: Dairy businesses run their own trade association, and they pay for it.

I even question the nutrition police on the other side. The Agriculture Department should have a modest role educating the public on what a healthy diet looks like. But the cause of America’s growing obesity problem goes way beyond the fat content of one or several products. It’s also about lack of exercise and screwed up eating habits having to do with portion size and the collapse of the family dinner hour.

Sure, let’s argue over which government programs are wasteful or wrong-headed and which are essential. But we should agree that such matters are outside the empty debate over an optimal size for government. The needs of the moment, not a philosophical ideal, should determine government’s size.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com.