“Green Scissors,” Dull Shears

April 17, 2001 • Commentary

The Green Scissors campaign–a coalition composed of Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group, Friends of the Earth, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, to name a few–is spending lots of money to convince people that they–the institutionalized Left–are the true proponents of free markets because they’re the only principled opponents of “corporate welfare.” Excuse us if we gag.

In paid advertisements that blanketed the nation last month, the Web site Tom​Paine​.com trumpeted the release of the coalition’s latest report, “Green Scissors 2001,” and challenged the “‘limited‐​government, free‐​market’ crowd” by asking: “Will they endorse [the report’s] findings even when their friends and supporters in corporate America benefit from the boondoggles profiled?” Their answer: “We don’t expect to hear a peep.” Perhaps they’ll settle for a roar of truth.

First, the $55 billion of environmentally harmful corporate welfare cuts they propose is little but false advertising. The sum is inflated, not an “exact” figure, according to the authors, but “illustrative” and, disingenuously, the result of lumping together multi‐​year and single‐​year estimates. Clearly, something funny is going on.

The mathematical puffery is necessary because the cuts are a drop in the bucket given the panoply of corporate welfare programs that aren’t targeted by these newly baptized disciples of Adam Smith. We at Cato, for instance, have long called for almost all the same cuts, plus another $23 billion worth of annualized savings from programs that could be described as “corporate welfare” with negative environmental implications. We don’t need lectures about limited government from the likes of Friends of the Earth.

Why is Green Scissors so reluctant to wield the budgetary axe? Perhaps it’s because almost all the corporate welfare ignored by our Green friends represents subsidies for voting groups that the Left is fond of courting.

Consider the agricultural programs. Green Scissors denounces the sugar, tobacco, mohair, and cotton programs— all subsidies for farmers in primarily Republican districts. Fine, we agree. But where’s the milk program? Are milk subsidies somehow less obnoxious than the rest? Green Scissors is likewise silent about the massive annual handouts to grain farmers. Those programs meet anyone’s definition of corporate welfare and clearly have negative environmental consequences; they keep more farmland under plow than necessary and promote the excessive consumption of agrochemical products. Moreover, the cost of those handouts dwarfs the cost of the ag programs targeted by the report.

The report likewise failed to find any complaint with the ethanol program: a corn subsidy operation decried by nearly every environmental organization as a major contributor to summer‐​time urban smog and a notorious pork barrel for such agri‐​giants as Archer Daniels Midland.

And despite the environmental hand‐ wringing over declining fisheries in the North Atlantic, the report refused to address $160 million of subsidies to the domestic fishing industry, subsidies responsible for much of the over‐ harvesting of dwindling commercial fish species. What are the common denominators of these overlooked programs? They all benefit agricultural interests represented by the likes of Tom Daschle, Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy. Apparently, Green Scissors’ commitment to the free market stops at politics’ door.

Similar complaints can be lodged against the report’s proposed energy cuts, which only target fossil fuel industries. Why not wind power subsidies? Windmill turbines are called the “cuisinarts of the air” by the National Audubon Society (ironically, a member of the Green Scissors coalition) and Audubon has long campaigned for a construction moratorium given the massive destruction of bird populations documented at those facilities. And why ignore solar and geothermal energy subsidies? Are desert and wilderness areas of the lower 48 states (the only profitable sites for those plants) somehow less worthy of protection than the icy tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Green Scissors’ proposed international and military program cuts are likewise timid. Why not go after payments to the World Bank, which only serve to subsidize infrastructure projects that can’t stand on their own in the marketplace? The same thing goes for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter‐​American Development Bank, the African Development Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Most of the projects they fund affect the environment (usually detrimentally), and all have failed to promote economic growth.

It was only a few years ago that the bulk of the environmental community supported the elimination of the World Bank and related organizations. What happened? Those institutions promised to hand out some of their largess to Green causes, that’s what happened.

While we applaud the effort to find wasteful government spending, Green Scissors 2001 is less a principled guide to reform than a cynical attempt to stick it to Republicans. Fine, Republicans should be reminded that free markets aren’t just for the other guy. It’s too bad, however, that the contributors to Green Scissors 2001 lack the courage of their newly minted limited‐​government convictions and refuse to apply the same steely budgetary eye to their friends on the Left. But what else is new?

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