Growing up in northern Illinois and being a Packers fan I would often hear the insult of “Cheesehead” hurled my way by disgruntled Bears fans.
Of course given the fact that cheese is delicious (especially the all-important cheese curds), I never took the term to be much of an insult. Although I – and many other football fans around the country – are looking forward to purchasing cheese for tailgates and parties in preparation for football season, the prices might be higher than expected thanks to an outdated and little-known government program.
As it turns out, America currently suffers from a glut of cheese caused by a combination of overproduction and weak exports. Commercial freezers stored a record 1.3 billion pounds by the end of July. Excess supply, as any economics 101 textbook will tell you, reduces prices until hungry consumers devour the excess supply. Unfortunately, due to the United States Department of Agriculture and the 2014 Farm Bill, the government consistently refuses to let prices fall. Instead the USDA will purchase $20 million of cheese products to distribute to federal nutrition programs and food banks across the country.
Government meddling in the cheese market has a long and storied history. In the 1980s, the government spent millions to purchase cheese from dairy farmers in order to raise prices. The problem was that the federal government had literally run out of places to store it, even as they were storing millions of pounds in caves in Missouri. To try to unclog the government’s arteries, the Reagan administration decided to simply give away the cheese to needy families: hence, the term “government cheese.”
The program unsurprisingly turned out to be a logistical nightmare. The government is neither equipped nor specialized in transporting large quantities of perishable products—much of the excess cheese arrived moldy or in otherwise poor condition.
While this is certainly a muenster of a government subsidy, it’s far from the only one.
Due to an excess of peanut crops the federal government will be spending nearly $2 billion in subsidies before consumers even crack open a shell. The Supreme Court just recently invalidated a New Deal agricultural policy where the federal government would literally take raisins without paying for them in order to raise prices.
The list of their market-meddling subsidies goes on and on.
What’s more, the shamelessness of the most recent cheese purchase is astounding. In a letter to the USDA the National Milk Producers Federation “respectfully requested that USDA provide $100-150 million in assistance.” Could you imagine the outrage if Apple CEO Tim Cook asked the government for millions of dollars to purchase iPhones for the purpose of artificially raising prices?
When it comes to subsidies, the dairy industry could take a cue from the playbook of Wisconsin’s other greatest export: The Green Bay Packers.
Unlike every other professional sports franchise, the Packers are owned by individual shareholders rather than by a single or small group of owners. When it came time to expand historic Lambeau Field in 2011, rather than asking taxpayers to open their wallets, the team self-funded the entire expansion.
The agricultural industry needs to learn from the Packers’ example and get off the government gravy train. While America’s farmers and its cheese makers certainly are an important part of America’s economy and rich heritage, giving away government cheese is simply not the solution.
After all, tailgates are no place for government cheese.
Eric Peterson is a Senior Policy Analyst at Americans for Prosperity. You can follow his policy and sports musings at @IllinoisEric89
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