Yesterday's New York Times contained a rather extraordinary article about a group called Dairy Management, which is a creation of the Department of Agriculture. And what does Dairy Management due with its taxpayer funds? It tries to get people to eat more cheese.
Now I love cheese as much as anyone, but the idea that Americans aren't eating enough of it, and we need the government to tell us to eat more, is pretty remarkable. Actually, they aren't telling us to eat more; they're helping fast-food companies come up with ways for us to cram more cheese down our gullets. Check out this excerpt from one of the documents the Times uncovered, a Department of Agriculture report, in which the success of the program is touted under the heading, "Satisfying Unmet Demand by Growing Cheese Through Innovation:
The National Program works closely with manufacturers, retailers, and foodservice chains to create new menu items. For example, in 2006, the National Program partnered with several of the leading quick-serve retaurant chains to offer innovative new pizzas and cheeseburgers that not only make cheese the focal point, but that showcase new cheese varieties as well. As a result of these menu development efforts, Pizza Hut introduced Cheesy Bites pizza, a concept that features string cheese baked into the pizza crust. Wendy's launded a dual Double Melt sandwich concept -- cheeseburgers that use Cheddar and Jalepeno Cheddar cheeses. Burger King introduced Cheesy Angus Bacon cheeseburger and its signature, Tendercrips chicken sandwich. Both featured two slices of American cheese, a slice of Pepper Jack and a cheesy sauce. Dairy checkoff assisted in bringing these cheese-friendly concepts to market in 2006. These efforts channel-wide contributed to an overall incremental cheese sales growth of nearly 30 million pounds -- a 5 percent increase of the prior year
Good work! That's right, your tax dollars had a hand in the creation of the Wendy's Double Melt.
Just to be clear, I'm not averse to government partnering with private industry -- for instance, I'm all for the government giving grants to companies to develop new energy technologies. But I do think that the activity ought to serve some larger public goal, like freeing ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels. I'm not sure how exactly the public is served by the development of "innovative new pizzas and cheeseburgers that not only make cheese the focal point but that showcase new cheese varieties as well," at least not to the degree that it demands government involvement. And that's not even mentioning the health consequences.
This kind of government activity -- using tax dollars to make extremely wealthy corporations (both in fast food and agribusiness) a bit wealthier -- isn't something that gets the conservatives who rail against "big government" particularly angry. But now that they have a majority in the House, they've got an opportunity to take it head-on. I await John Boehner's outraged press conference in which he pledges to get rid of this kind of spending. I'm sure they'll get to it right after they're done making sure no one can get help buying health insurance.
-- Paul Waldman