From Surf to Serfdom

What the plight of the Massachusetts fishing industry tells us about Big Government.

Unemployment in my home state of Massachusetts is less than the national average. In August, it stood at 6.3% compared to 8.1% nationally.

The state benefits from very robust high-tech sectors. But, of course, low-tech industries also figure in its economy. Particularly hard hit among the latter in the current downturn has been the state’s large fishing industry. Its problems, and the plight of workers dependent on fishing for their livelihood, are illustrative both of the general difficulties of the economy across the country and of ways in which specific Obama administration policies have compounded the overall decline.

While Massachusetts high-tech has been a relative bright spot, it, too, has not been immune to the economy’s problems. In addition to being affected by the general downturn, the fortunes of particular sectors and individual companies have been subject to the vagaries of administration selection of favored and unfavored industries and companies. For example, biotechnology is a key component of high-tech here. Within biotech, the big pharmaceutical companies cut deals with the administration around Obamacare. They were involved in fashioning Obamacare in ways that benefitted them, and they, in turn, lent their support to passage of the health care legislation. The big pharmaceutical companies have done relatively well, including in Massachusetts.

The medical device industry, also well represented in the state, is one of the most innovative and productive segments of the high-tech economy. But it differs from the pharmaceutical industry in consisting mainly of smaller companies. Consequently, it had neither the political nor financial heft to play the role in deal-making and agenda-shaping with the administration that the latter played. One result was that it was regarded by the administration as relatively expendable, and, to help fund the leviathan of Obamacare and offset the deal-making and costs elsewhere, the medical device industry was hit with a new, special tax. It is a 2.3% tax applied not just to profits but to gross receipts. This is, predictably, a major problem for the industry, and is affecting both its creativity and its generation of jobs and revenue in the state.

The Obama administration’s playing favorites in industries is not limited, of course, to which companies could help with particular legislation. In other instances, favorites have been picked to benefit supportive constituencies, such as unions, as in the government bailout of General Motors. In still other cases, it has been to reward individuals who have funded Obama’s campaigns. For example, campaign backers and bundlers received 80% of clean energy government grant dollars. This includes leading figures in Solyndra and in nearly a score of other companies that have failed, resulting in huge taxpayer losses.

The Solyndra fiasco, and similar instances of extensive government grants being provided to alternative energy enterprises, can be seen as reflecting efforts to at once reward the president’s financiers and please his environmentalist supporters. But in other policies, the former consideration seems to take priority over the latter.

For example, a Wall Street Journal editorial of August 14 noted “the Interior Department announced that it will allow construction permitting on 285,000 acres of public land… for solar projects…” and that the department also said “energy firms can petition Interior to build solar installations ‘on approximately 19 million acres…’” Moreover, “the agency is also streamlining National Environmental Policy Act approval” for the solar projects. While environmentalists may support the promotion of clean energy, many would likely balk at providing these favors to the solar industry at the cost of riding roughshod over considerations of the environmental impact on proffered federal lands.

Losers among the nation’s industries in the administration’s political calculus include, of course, fossil fuel companies, which are the bete noire of government environment watchdog ideologues as well as Obama’s alternative-energy-linked financiers and many environmentalist supporters. Thus, the Keystone pipeline is stopped despite, as environmental studies of the project strongly indicate, almost certainly threatening much less environmental damage than the Interior Department’s approved “solaring over” of huge swathes of federal land.

The Massachusetts fishing industry and its workers have been sacrificed on similar administration altars. The preservation of fishing stock and the dangers of over-fishing are important concerns both to environmentalists and to fishermen. Indeed, there is general acknowledgment that the state and region’s fishing fleets have long been adhering to federal catch limits. But new layers of federal bureaucracy created without congressional authority but rather by an Obama executive order - under the rubric of “The National Ocean Policy” - have introduced dramatic additional restrictions on catches on the basis of questionable stock assessments and dubious new guidelines for protecting and maintaining fisheries; policies that have elicited bi-partisan challenges in Congress.

The bureaucrats responsible for formulating and enforcing the new policies have demonstrated little interest in the bi-partisan criticism directed at them in Congress. They have similarly given short shrift to the difficulties of Massachusetts and other northeastern fishermen and their families, as well as myriad others dependent on the fishing industry, who have been deprived of livelihoods and face the specter of their industry suffering long-term and possibly permanent decline.

The administration’s high-handedness, not only vis-a-vis these people’s circumstances but with regard to workers in all industries that have suffered from the general economic downturn or have had their difficulties compounded by the government’s picking of favored and unfavored, winners and losers, seems in no small part to be due to the administration’s viewing the plight of American workers as a win-win situation. Those who are doing well will, it is assumed, translate their positive situation into support for the administration; while those who are out of work will join the burgeoning ranks of Americans dependent on public assistance and are likely to back an administration that delivers more and more such aid.

No doubt the majority of Massachusetts fishermen just want to return to their boats and their work. But as doing so becomes more remote, and potentially only temporary if it occurs at all, the prospect of losing government support - both that available to others in need and the additional support their representatives are now trying to move through Congress - becomes more anxiety-provoking and daunting. This is the way the virtually unprecedented numbers of Americans on welfare (by Obama fiat no longer constrained by workfare rules), on food stamps, on other forms of government assistance continue to grow, and along with those rolls the constituency for its political promoters.

This perhaps most cynical element in the Obama administration’s policy calculus, as it has been applied to Massachusetts fishermen and to so many others across the nation, gives a new twist to the well-known Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. For the Obama administration and too many Democrat Party leaders, the translation of proverb into policy runs more like: Enable a man to fish and you free him from want and dependence for a lifetime; create obstacles to fishing, make them the norm, while giving a man a fish, and another tomorrow, and another the day after that, and you own him, and his vote, for all his days.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.