Drive along virtually any road in rural Ohio, and you will see them everywhere: towering cornstalks, high as an elephant’s eye, dappled brown and tan and deep green in the warm autumn sunshine. It’s harvest time in Ohio.
College football features lots of weird trophies that are steeped in tradition, like old oaken buckets and wooden turtles and long axes, among others. It would be hard to say which of the many trophies is the weirdest or the worst — until now.
A few days ago the Iowa Corn Growers Association unveiled the Cy-Hawk Trophy that will be given to the winner of the annual game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes. (Cyclones and Hawkeyes = Cy-Hawk. Pretty creative, eh?) The trophy features a farmer kneeling next to a basket of corn, presenting an ear to a young boy wearing a baseball cap while a woman holding a young child looks on. What it has to do with sports generally, or football specifically, is anybody’s guess. The CEO of Iowa Corn says, however, that the trophy represents “the people and characteristics that are uniquely Iowan.”
Perhaps — that is, if Iowans are slow-witted corn cultists. The farmer seems to be amazed that corn has sprung from the ground and is ready to perform some kind of ritual to celebrate its arrival. The kid in the baseball cap, the girl, and their Mom, on the other hand, presumably have lived on the farm long enough to have seen an ear of corn before and don’t find it to be a particularly awesome object, no matter what weird old Dad might believe. Seriously, what kind of bizarre life must these people lead if they are regularly kneeling around the family corn basket? How many people in Iowa even have a corn basket, anyway? And what’s with the trophy name? “Cy-Hawk” sounds like something somebody with a phlegm problem might do to clear their clogged airways.
If you were a football player, would you even want to win this trophy? Would anyone stand up and make an impassioned Knute Rockne-type speech about the need to win back the treasured Cy-Hawk? And if your team did prevail, would your school want to prominently display it anywhere that it could be seen by, say, potential recruits who don’t happen to worship the Mighty Corn God?
The Washington Post has an editorial today urging Congress to end corn ethanol subsidies. The subsidies cost $6 billion, and their value in encouraging corn ethanol use is questionable in light of other government requirements.
What the Post editorial does not say is that these kinds of subsidies, and other government programs that seek to encourage or discourage other forms of economic activity, distort the market and have a much broader ripple effect than Congress typically intends. If government subsidies encourage a farmer to grow corn when he otherwise would grow something else, the result will be an outflow of government money and, because the farmer is not growing the other crop, less competition and therefore higher prices in the market for that other crop. If the subsidy encourages maximum production of corn, the farmer may use special fertilizers and other forms of chemicals to increase yield that may have an unexpected environmental impact. The farmer may buy otherwise unnecessary types of equipment and build otherwise unnecessary silos or other structures, thereby making him and his farm economically dependent on the continuation of the subsidy and increasing the risk of an unsustainable debt burden and foreclosure if the subsidy is ended.
Once subsidies are started, they are difficult to end. The alliances that caused the subsidy to be created in the first place grow stronger as subsidy money flows in and part is then contributed to politicians to encourage them to keep the subsidy in place. In the case of the corn ethanol subsidy, the alliances presumably would be between farming states, large corporate agricultural concerns, and groups seeking to end our dependence on foreign oil. Any effort to eliminate the corn ethanol subsidy — or any similar subsidy — therefore would likely face very stiff political opposition. Occasionally, however, forces coalesce that make the elimination of such programs possible, such as happened when President Reagan was elected and Depression-era farm commodity price support programs were ended.
For anyone serious about deficit reduction, a careful examination of government subsidies, tax breaks, and other methods of interfering with the economy would be a good place to start. We don’t need the government to pick winners and losers and to waste our tax dollars in doing so.