Welfare for Corporate America

GEORGE F. WILL

July 12, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- These are salad days for those conservatives whose philosophy is confirmed by, and whose agenda is advanced by, bad behavior of government.

Recently, for example, the House of Representatives, home of the most entrenched portion of the political class, voted to continue spending taxpayers' dollars to subsidize, for large corporations and wealthy trade associations, the overseas marketing of fruit juice and candy bars, whiskey and prunes and many other profitable commodities. And the House did this after voting to terminate a less expensive program that helps export democracy.

The Agriculture Department's Market Promotion Program, begun in 1985, will, like the honey subsidy and the wool subsidy and much else, live forever. But the political class is currently insisting that the budget ''crisis'' requires the taxpayers to turn over more money to the political class. So that class is grudgingly making cosmetic cuts in some particularly egregious programs.

So the House did trim market promotion from $147 million to $127 million. That is government ''austerity'': a 13.6 percent cut in a program that is 100 percent indefensible. The program's survival says much about the ersatz ''crisis'' currently being used to justify tax increases.

The Market Promotion Program funds both generic and brand-name advertising abroad for American agricultural products. This is yet another example of the government's solicitousness on behalf of the strong. Of the 200 U.S. corporations with the largest advertising budgets, 13 last year got a total of $9 million from the program, an average of $700,000 each. But the advertising budgets of those corporations range from $45 million to $538 million, so the taxpayers' contributions can hardly be said to represent the difference between competitive success and failure.

Defenders of these welfare payments to corporations say: Other nations do it for their companies. (Translation: We have a duty to be as foolish as foreigners are.) And defenders rely on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (the rooster crows and the sun rises, therefore the crowing causes the sunrise). That is, they assert that any increase in the exports of any commodity that is the subject of subsidized advertising must be caused by that advertising. Never mind the effects of many other variables, such as the export-assisting fall in the value of the dollar since 1985.

Defenders of market promotion declare that it ''creates'' 38,000 American jobs. Amazing, is it not, the precision of the political class? It knows -- simply knows -- that without subsidized advertising (such as the $394,000 recently given to the National Association of Animal Breeders to market bull semen), demand for American products would sag and drag down 38,000 -- not 27,000, not 43,000 -- jobs.

Let us assume that the $450,000 given to the Campbell Soup Co. to entice Japanese, Koreans, Argentines and Taiwanese to drink V-8 juice ''worked.'' And that the $6.2 million given to the Blue Diamond company stimulated foreign desires for American almonds.

When making such assumptions, defenders of the subsidies face the unanswerable challenge that always confounds ''industrial policy'' and other forms of socialism: When defenders argue that the subsidy dollars are profitably invested, they must also argue that for some reason private investors would not make these remunerative investments. So, government is wiser than the private market? Please.

On June 29 the House voted to pour this $127 million (with hundreds of millions more to come as the years roll by) into the private coffers of people who, thus subsidized, will have more resources freed up to use as campaign contributions. But seven days earlier, the House had a moment of parsimony. It did not just make a 13.6 percent nick in the National Endowment for Democracy, it voted to kill it. If the endowment helped the export of prunes instead of democracy, it, too, could be immortal.

It helps democracy by means of small but life-giving grants for trade unions, student groups, publications, legal assistance for the persecuted, and other measures. It has a record of success in helping democracy put down roots in stony social soil. By voting to stop this cost-effective work, the House voted to save $50 million, less than half what it is eager to spend on ''market-protection'' handouts to corporations.

Those two votes illustrate what most congressmen most care about. What is the salient difference between the Market Protection Program and the National Endowment for Democracy? The former can, and the latter cannot, serve the dominant desire of most House members. That desire is to protect their incumbency by enlarging the ranks of grateful recipients of government money.

The political class, confronted with a rising tide of public contempt, comforts itself with condescension. The public, says the political class, just does not understand what we do.

Actually, that class is fortunate that the public is too busy to read the Congressional Record. As understanding of contemporary government increases, so does disdain for it.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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