Lori Schipper, a writer, lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in North Arlington. Mary Langston and Mary Bagwell are both artists living in Northwest Washington. William Layson, a PhD from MIT, opened up the Washington office of computer services giant SAIC and is now comfortably retired in McLean. Beverly Moore and her husband moved to Washington as Nader's Raiders. Former fighter pilot William Barrineau works for a defense contractor in Crystal City. Shirley Gustafson is a schoolteacher in Alexandria.
What all these people have in common, along with several thousand others in the greater Washington area, is that they are slated to share $22 million over the next decade as part of a tobacco quota buyout program hand-rolled into a recently passed corporate tax bill. The individual payments go as high as $324,000.
No, these neighbors aren't growing burley in the back yard. Almost all have inherited land in Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas that carries with it the right to produce so many pounds of tobacco, the residue of a Depression-era federal program designed to set a floor price for tobacco by limiting supply. In most cases, the allotted tobacco is being grown by tenant farmers who do most of the work, take much of the risk and get a split of any meager profits generated.
Take the case of Georgetown painter Mary Bagwell, whose ancestor Henry Bagwell stepped off the boat in Jamestown with a royal land grant. Mary grew up on a 400-acre farm in Halifax County, Va., that she inherited from her lawyer father and now rents out. The land, which has been conservatively valued at more than $500,000, yields her only $6,000 a year in tobacco profits, plus considerably larger payments from occasional timber harvests. According to government data analyzed by the Environmental Working Group, a lobbying group opposed to agriculture subsidies, her tobacco buyout comes to roughly $113,000.
This is not the only time the government has allowed recipients of some subsidy or license to convert it into a property right that can be sold to the highest bidder or passed on to heirs. The same mistake was made with grazing and logging permits on federal lands, and with TV and radio broadcast licenses. But now that the government has wisely decided to let the free market set the supply and price of tobacco, it seems intent on compounding the original mistake by sending checks to absentee landlords with good day jobs and comfortable incomes.
Don't get me wrong -- those I spoke with seemed to be nice people who didn't lobby for this windfall and, in a few instances, weren't even aware of how big it would be. Many have fond memories of childhoods in tobacco country -- baling the crop, accompanying Grandpa to the auction, sitting up all night while the tobacco was cured, and making sure the barn didn't burn down. Now that cigarette makers have turned to cheaper foreign tobacco, most are nostalgic that this centuries-old way of life is coming to an end.
But that raises the question of why 70 percent of the $10 billion buyout fund will go to the people who own the land and 30 percent to those who work it. Nor can it explain why owners need to be compensated if their land can be used to grow other crops, or raise calves, or farm fish, or be sold to developers for retirement homes, as several of the lucky Washingtonians plan to do.
What's hardest to swallow in all this is not the idea that some communities and industries might need financial help in making a difficult transition. In this case, the fact that the $10 billion will come from the tobacco industry, which will enjoy the benefits of lower tobacco prices once the quotas are lifted, actually makes some sense.
But why is it, when textile mills or furniture makers or telephone call centers shut as a result of global competition, we serve up a rather thin gruel of transitional assistance to their owners and workers? Those industries may not have the history or romance of tobacco farming, but I fail to see the moral or economic imperative to give special treatment to this one group of landlords and farmers -- in particular a group whose product makes people sick and shortens lives.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.