King Corn – A Pareto Inefficiency

Every semester at Wheaton I have found direct relationships between the content covered in at least two of my classes, regardless of the widely disparate course disciplines. I suppose that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education – to gain multidimensional perspectives on a range of topics.

While watching King Corn in class, I couldn’t help but to become frustrated about the economic issues related to the overproduction of corn in the USA. The “urbanized” agriculture in the mid-west, fueled by GMO’s and made possible through government subsidies, is a perfect example of a Pareto inefficiency – a concept we’ve explored countless times in Public Finance with Prof. John Miller this semester. I spoke with Prof. Miller after watching the film and discussed how exactly it was possible that the government would intervene on a faulty market that has a seemingly destructive impact on both the environment and the net welfare of American citizens. As with any economic issue related to American politics, the reasons were long-winded and tough to understand. But one simple economic concept can explain why the “urbanization” and mass production of the genetically modified corn in King Corn does not make logistical sense: when supply is greater than demand, there is a surplus, and the market should correct itself by seeking the production of alternative goods. Of course, the government subsidizing corn farmers disrupts this natural reaction that would theoretically occur in a free market.

On an anthropological level, this has particularly complicated consequences for the farmers themselves, as they continue to expand their farm by cultivating more land and by absorbing neighboring farms, redesigning the social interaction of their entire communities. Additionally, they work to “urbanize” their land by incorporating GMO seeds and using modern agricultural technology to expedite the process – any opportunity to increase their yield. The implications of this farming culture are detrimental not only to the farming communities and the food itself; it also hurts the livestock who are fed the corn, as well as the people who eat the food. That said, the King Corn economy is so entrenched in so many American industries that a widespread revolution is required in order to subvert it. And when the largest industries and big business tycoons are involved, progress in political areas is hard to achieve.

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