How A Super Bowl Ad Could Help Unravel Government Farm Subsidies

Super Bowl commercials are one of the last bastions of truly mass media – where a 30-second spot can start a national conversation. The ads from Anheuser-Busch alleging that its competitors Coors Light and Miller Lite use corn syrup while it does not just might be a moment that gets people talking about government’s role in agriculture.

First came the inevitable social media backlash. Miller and Coors pointed out that they only use corn syrup in the fermentation process (Bug Light uses rice) which is not the same as using high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in a final food or beverage product. Allegations then flew about each brewery indeed using high fructose corn syrup in some of their final products.

The ad and ensuing exchange underscore that the health problems from high fructose corn syrup have (forgive the image) oozed into the public consciousness. Perhaps I’m dreaming too big, but it would be nice if the next step were a conversation about why we’ve been sweetening everything with something less healthy than sugar.

Subsidies High as an Elephant’s Eye

We know why there seems to be too much corn syrup floating around. Jeffrey Tucker said it. Like so many things, I slapped some data on it and said it again. Farm subsidies from the government totaled $16.2 billion last year, and create a maze of counterintuitive outcomes from the ketchup Americans eat to the kind of gas we can and can’t put into our cars.

So why can’t we get rid of them? Let’s go back to that social media backlash.

Enter the National Corn Growers Association. “America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you,” it tweeted to Anheuser-Busch. “Our office is right down the road! We would love to discuss with you the many benefits of corn!” Anheuser-Busch responded by getting in line, stating that their company "fully supports corn growers and will continue to invest in the corn industry."

Lobbyists Won’t Give Up the Fight

The whole thing played out like a miniature version of the national debate over farm subsidies. As soon as anyone puts their hand too close to the fire, the agricultural lobby is there to tell us how unraveling these subsidies would hurt farmers. After the beer kerfuffle, industry publication AgWeb even published a long list of tweets from farms including words like “angry,” “disappointed,” and even “heartbroken.”

The agricultural lobby is essentially weaponizing the American archetype of “the farmer,” just like decrying tariffs means not supporting “the American worker” or favoring lower defense spending amounts to a failure to “support the troops.” But they have a lot more leverage inside the halls of Congress.

In Congress, those who are interested in maintaining the current regime of farm subsidies have a bit of realpolitik on their side--there are districts and states where opposing farm subsidies means simply losing elections. Pepper in some dealmaking between Congressmen from less agricultural districts to protect their own pet projects and don’t expect our legislative branch to fix the problem on its own anytime soon.

Maybe the mass-media lightning strike, followed by the social media storm, is exactly what this issue needs to get a little momentum going. That may be overly optimistic, but one way to dislodge special interests is to get enough people ahead of Congress on an issue that the interests lose their power.

If so, we could have a Super Bowl commercial to thank.

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Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research often focuses on free markets and technology, including blockchain and cryptocurrencies, the sharing economy, and internet commerce. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, especially on blockchain technology. Max’s research and writing also touch on other economic topics, including governance, competition, and small businesses.
 
Max holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxgAIER.