"Hillary Clinton supports milk cartel; hurts children, working Americans and the poor." This is the headline that didn't appear in any big-city paper, or even any left-wing Web site, after the first lady launched her New York Senate campaign last week. Although Hillary Rodham Clinton's support for a business cartel qualifies as a "man bites dog story," and therefore is exactly what editors claim to prize, the story got little play outside New York, and the wrong kind of play there.
The New York Times headlined its report "Hillary Clinton Sides With New York Dairy Farmers on Milk Price Cartel," a protective spin that all but obscured the real import of her decision. It left an impression on casual readers that Hillary was standing up for farmers, a comfortable fit for her political profile.
In fact, the milk cartel -- otherwise known as the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact -- is a creation of government bureaucrats and farm interests to artificially drive up the price of milk, a commodity that is crucial to the health and well-being of the nation's children, whose champion Hillary purports to be. The real rationale behind the milk cartel is to protect inefficient Northeast milk producers against the more efficient producers of the Midwest who -- if market forces were allowed free play - would drive down the price of milk and make it more available to those who can afford it least.
Consumer advocates estimate that the bill behind which the first lady has thrown her considerable weight will raise the price of a gallon of milk by 50 cents. This represents an almost a 20 percent hike in the already artificially inflated cost. This tax on consumers will fall most heavily on the poor. The bill is expected to put $74,000 in the pocket of every New York farmer, well-heeled and struggling alike. Clinton's likely opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, opposes the rip-off and has bucked Gov. George Pataki and other Republican legislators in the state to fight it.
Defenders of the dairy compact claim, of course, that it is a defense of struggling farmers. But since the compact was created last year, farm failures in New England have increased 25 percent. The main beneficiaries of the price gouge will be the well-off farms that have survived.
The compact is, in fact, a regional protection racket. That's why its opponents include strange bedfellows like the two senators from Minnesota, left-wing Democrat Paul Wellstone and conservative Republican Rod Grams. They know Minnesota can produce milk at more reasonable prices than New York. All of Vermont's liberal legislators, whose state is the biggest beneficiary of the cartel, support it.
But whoever gains or loses on the business end of this deal, the sure victims of the cartel are poor families and their children all over America. Supporting Goliath against these Davids is not a small betrayal for Clinton, who has long been allied with the Children's Defense Fund (also silent on this issue), and who is constantly promising that her "concern" for children is the rationale for her political career.
Driving up the price of milk cuts into the welfare budgets of millions of recipients trying to provide their children with a proper diet. It increases the costs of the sacred school lunches that Republicans were hung out to dry for tampering with not long ago. And its sole purpose is to protect inefficient milk producers from competition that would make more milk available to more households at reduced costs.
The failure of the press to hold the first lady accountable for this hypocrisy would be inexplicable but for the bias that relentlessly runs through the media. If Newt Gingrich were casting his vote with the milk cartel, you can bet that the words "mean-spirited" would appear in the story, and the howls of consumer advocates would be duly recorded. Left-wing advocates of "social justice" and crusaders for the poor would be up in arms over the issue, instead of comatose as they seem to be now.
As for Republicans, many of them are also snugly in bed with regional dairy interests, and thus unwilling to make this an issue against Clinton. Even those who would fight about the issue haven't a clue as to how to do so in ways that would mobilize the constituencies most affected. One way to start would be to do what Democrats do, and to shout from every media rooftop: "Hillary's milk cartel is a price break for the wealthy on the backs of the poor!"
But don't hold your breath. If Republicans do fight back, their rallying cry will be "deregulation" and letting the market work, things that only economists and business professors care about. That's why when bipartisan forces converge, as they do on this issue, instead of being a gain for ordinary Americans, it usually adds up to a loss.