The chart above displays annual refined sugar prices (cents per pound) using data from the USDA (Tables 2 and 5) between 1982 and 2011 for: a) the U.S. wholesale refined sugar price at Midwest markets, and b) the world refined sugar price. Due to import quota restrictions that strictly limit the amount of imported sugar coming into the U.S. at the world price, the domestic producers are protected from more efficient foreign sugar growers who can produce cane sugar in Central America, Africa and the Caribbean at half the cost of beet sugar in Minnesota and Michigan.

Of course, there's no free lunch, and this sweet trade protection comes at the expense of American consumers and U.S. sugar-using businesses, who have been forced to pay more than twice the world price of sugar on average since 1982 (28.6 cents for domestic sugar vs. 14 cents for world sugar, see chart). How much does this trade protection cost Americans?

We can estimate the cost of sugar protection, using some additional data from the USDA (Table 1) about sugar:

1. American consumers and businesses consumed 10.18 million metric tons (22.44 billion pounds) of sugar last, and therefore every 1 cent increase in sugar prices costs Americans an additional $224.4 million per year in higher prices.

2. The U.S. produced 7.15 million metric tons (15.76 billion pounds) of sugar last year.

3. Due to quotas, Americans were only allowed to purchase 3 metric tons (6.67 billion pounds) of world sugar, or about 30% of the total sugar consumed. Domestic sugar producers ("Big Sugar") are allowed to control 70% of the sugar market every year through protectionist sugar trade policies that strictly limit foreign competition.

4. If sugar quotas were eliminated, and American consumers and business had been able to purchase 100% their sugar in 2011 at the world price (average of 31.68 cents per pound) instead of the average U.S. price of 56.22 cents, they would have saved about $3.86 billion. In other words, by forcing Americans to pay 56.22 cents for inefficiently produced domestic sugar instead of 31.68 cents for more efficiently produced world sugar, Americans pay an additional 24.54 cents per pound for the 15.76 billion pounds of American sugar produced annually, which translates to $3.86 billion in higher costs for American consumers and businesses.

(Note: This is an estimate based on the assumptions that: a) the amount of sugar consumed in the U.S., and b) world prices, wouldn't change if the U.S. sugar market was completely open.)

Bottom Line: The cost of most trade protection is largely invisible and hard to calculate, but the cost of sugar protection is directly visible and measurable, since the USDA and the futures markets regularly report prices for both high-cost domestic sugar and low-cost world sugar. Like all protection, sugar tariffs exist to protect an inefficient domestic industry (sugar beet farmers) from more efficient foreign producers (cane sugar farmers), and come at the expense of the U.S. consumers and the American companies using sugar as an input, and make our country worse off, on net.

I'm reminded of the recent Quote of the Day from Bastiat: "Treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race." U.S. sugar policy has a long history, going back to 1789 when the First Congress of the United States imposed a tariff upon foreign sugar, and is a perfect illustration of trade protection ignores the viewpoint of disorganized, dispersed consumers in favor of the concentrated, well-organized interests of producers.