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The U.S. food-aid program is in dire need of rescue

  • This film image released by Sony - Columbia Pictures shows Tom Hanks, center, in a scene from "Captain Phillips." (AP Photo/Sony - Columbia Pictures)

Reviewers are raving about "Captain Phillips," the new film that tells the real-life story of an American cargo-ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. Having seen it, I can confirm that this flick's got everything: suspense, high-seas adventure and brilliant acting by Tom Hanks.

Critics also praise "Captain Phillips" for evoking the common humanity of both its American hero and the Somali authors of his ordeal. Theirs is a clash of vastly different individuals and cultures — brought into collision by global commerce and the tremendous inequalities of wealth and power that it creates.

But if capitalism is at work in "Captain Phillips," it's a cronyistic version, not the free-market kind.

Thanks to the exertions of powerful lobbies, U.S. laws protect shipping and agribusiness at the expense of both American taxpayers and the world's hungry.

Specifically, the largest U.S. food aid program must distribute only U.S.-produced commodities. And at least half of that food must travel on U.S.-flagged vessels. You don't need a degree in economics to understand who profits from these rules: the American farmers, food processors, maritime unions, ship-owning companies and ports that enjoy a guaranteed flow of government business.

USA Maritime, a lobbying coalition, estimated this spring that international food aid accounts for 44,000 jobs in 28 states.

So it was that when pirates seized the 500-foot Maersk Alabama in April 2009, the ship — flying the Stars and Stripes, with Capt. Richard Phillips in charge of an American crew — was carrying, according to a spokesman, 8,000 metric tons of American-made vegetable oil, bulgur wheat, corn soya blend and dehydrated vegetables to the United Nations' World Food Programme in Mombasa, Kenya.

Of course, the domestic rewards of international altruism have been invoked in favor of food aid since President Dwight Eisenhower said that global distribution of America's bounty would "lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands." The problem is that special-interest carve-outs result in programs that feed fewer people at greater cost than might otherwise be the case.

The set-aside for U.S.-flagged vessels jacks up transportation costs. If there were no buy-American rule for the food commodities, the United States could purchase from the cheapest, most convenient source — possibly in Africa. Instead of dumping our bumper crops on their markets, Washington could provide an incentive for African farmers to invest and produce, improving self-sufficiency on that continent.

Under current law, at least 15 percent of U.S. food aid (and, in practice, usually more) must be "monetized." This means that once a U.S.-flagged vessel gets the commodities to Africa, they are resold on local markets by nongovernmental organizations, which use the cash to fund development projects.

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