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Things we can agree on

April 6, 2010

There are so many things that 99% of Americans could agree on if it were made an issue. From Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange:

To see protectionism’s modern face, meet the Fanjuls. The heirs of wealthy Cuban sugar growers who fled the island after Fidel Castro’s victory in 1958, and one of Florida’s wealthiest families, these three brothers today own 160,000 acres of prime Florida cane fields . . . The Labor Department has repeatedly singled out their holding company, Flo-Sun, for abuse and underpayment of workers, and the Department of the Interior extracted from them a huge settlement for toxic runoff from their fields into the Everglades.

One federal agency, however, takes a sunnier view of the Fanjuls: the Agriculture Department, which in recent years has paid them an average of $65 million annually for their sugar – more than twice the world [market] price – as part of a broad system of agricultural supports costing taxpayers $8 billion per year. To the Fanjuls, this $65 million subsidy is just so much change left under the plate: the main event is the quotas, which jack up grocery store prices by keeping foreign crops out of the United States and  in 1998 robbed American consumers of an estimated $2 billion for sugar alone . . . Nor is this all: the Army Corps of Engineers spends an estimated $52 million per year keeping these sugar fields dry, damaging the environment yet more.

To summarize: tax-payer dollars subsidize a rich family’s ability to overcharge us for sugar, underpay their workers, and damage the environment. I think the Tea Partiers and I would be on the same side for this one.

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(If you worry that reducing sugar quotas would increase the incentive to eat sugar, it would be better to discourage sugar consumption through a blanket sugar tax, rather than just targeting foreign sugar.)

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