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Posts Tagged ‘agricultural subsidies’

Academics are given to bemoaning partisan polarization. But the mushy centrism being pushed by the No Labels crowd frequently just amounts to special-interest whoring. Bipartisanship usually means the people get screwed, and the lobbyists win. Latest case in point: the morally corrupt Farm Bill. Congress is claiming it has reformed the program and cut it slightly, but those claims turn out to be false. Perniciously, the farm subsidies are now more indirect and less transparent. The only Congressmen who voted against this were the radical Tea Partiers. Conservatives claim to defend the taxpayer and the free market, yet most of them voted for a bill that extends $10 billion or more a year in corporate welfare. Progressives claim to defend the poor, yet voted overwhelmingly for a bill that gives away taxpayer money to big business and wealthy families while killing starving Africans.

Shame on them.

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Twenty years after its establishment, the World Trade Organization finally reached its first global trade deal last night at the meeting of the world’s trade ministers in Bali. The successful agreement foiled expectations that this meeting, like all others of the Doha Round, would end in failure and acrimony. Media outlets have been reporting the Peterson Institute’s estimate of $1 trillion in higher global output as a result of the deal, but what’s most interesting about the deal is that it happened only because the member states decided to focus on a narrow slice of the issues under discussion in the Doha Round. The deal focuses mostly on streamlining customs procedures to facilitate timely cross-border transportation, along with measures to eliminate tariff and quota barriers against exports from “least developed countries” to richer countries, to reduce agricultural export subsidies (here the deal merely makes a “strong political statement” and doesn’t require specific changes in law), and to permit developing countries’ governments to stockpile food.

Why did it happen? Ten days ago, after talks in Geneva, WTO head Roberto Azevedo warned that global trade talks would collapse if ministers did not narrow down the scope of their deliberations to issues on which consensus was achievable. Global trade talks have been bogged down over the last 20 years over severe distributional issues: developing-country governments want sharp cuts in rich-world agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas, while rich-country governments want their poorer counterparts to cut trade barriers on services, beef up intellectual-property enforcement, and liberalize foreign investment. None of those big issues were solved in Geneva and Bali. A narrow deal on customs procedures happened because the distributional and enforcement issues here are far less severe. Few governments have any interest in holding up traffic at the border longer than necessary. Simplifying customs procedures is more like a coordination game than a Prisoner’s Dilemma: everyone benefits if forms are standardized and simplified. Rich-country governments also promised poor-country governments help with hiring customs officials to help speed up processes.

The conventional wisdom in international relations is that a broad scope of issues helps international organizations solve distributional problems, all else equal, because broad scope makes it easier for governments to trade off gains to one side on one dimension with gains to the other on another dimension. But all else was not equal here: some issues faced much lower distributional conflict than others, and on those it was relatively easy for governments to reach agreement. They chose to go for a small deal rather than a big one because, frankly, the WTO needed a win. Another collapse of talks would have called into question whether multilateral trade liberalization is even possible.

This deal does not end the Doha Round. Talks will continue on the “big issues” mentioned above. This is fortunate, since the Bali deal does little to reduce the extent to which U.S. and European agricultural policies kill poor people. While the deal helps with market access for least developed countries, essentially all rich countries have already implemented duty-free, quota-free access for these countries’ exports, and least developed countries contain merely 12% of the world’s population and less than half of those living in extreme poverty. There need to be binding legal limits, actionable before the Dispute Settlement Body, on agricultural subsidies, quotas, and tariffs in rich countries.

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Last night the U.S. Senate played host to naked special-interest politics, as agricultural subsidy interests won vote after vote on the floor. As this story from Politico notes,

the sugar program stands out as one of the most intrusive of the commodity programs still on the books: a mix of price supports, import quotas, and since 2008, a feedstock program under which sugar can be purchased by the government to be used in biofuels.

The amendment Wednesday sought to end these purchases and roll back the price-support level from 18.75 cents per pound to 18 cents.

The amendment failed, 53-46. Some Republicans voted to keep the subsidies, including Marco Rubio of Florida. Even non-sugar-producing states’ senators voted to keep sugar subsidies:

And as a member of the Agriculture panel, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), warned her colleagues against unraveling the commodity coalition behind the farm bill.

“We forget that this is much bigger than a sugar program. It’s much bigger than any one single commodity,” said the North Dakota freshman, who hails from a state that is a major producer of sugar beets. “My concern is when you single out one commodity, whether it’s soybeans, corn or sugar or tobacco or rice, when you single out one commodity, you threaten the effectiveness of the overall farm bill.”

In other words, there’s a logroll among senators from subsidized states. My guess is that if you ran a logit model of votes on the sugar amendment, both sugar production and production of other subsidized commodities would enter the equation negatively. I wonder whether ideology or partisanship would factor in. I count 20 GOP “nays” (out of 45), meaning that a little over 60% of Democrats voted nay. And will Tea Party activists hold people like Rubio to account? I’m not holding my breath.

My last intemperate rant against agricultural subsidies here.

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Conservatives and taxpayer groups are ready to fight the $1 trillion farm bill when it comes up for a vote in the new Congress. Agricultural subsidies, price supports, and tariffs in developed countries (the U.S., Japan, and the European Union especially) not only harm consumers at home by hitting them with higher prices, but cause severe poverty abroad by shutting exports from less developed countries (LDCs) out of developed-country markets and by dumping developed-country surpluses on LDC markets at prices below marginal cost. Since the poorest people in the world are farmers in poor countries, and over 15 million people die from hunger and disease each year due to severe poverty, rich-country agricultural subsidies are literally killing poor people on a massive scale.

Here’s just one anecdote from the IFPRI report of how this works:

Harrison Amukoyi’s farm is perched on a hillside in western Kenya. On less than two acres of land, he raises several crops and a dairy cow. To sell milk, Harrison and his neighbors must compete with industrialized countries that dump their subsidized milk on local markets, depressing prices for Kenyan farmers. This unfair contest appears in countless guises throughout the developing world, intensifying conditions of poverty.

And here are some figures from the NCPA analysis on how poor farmers would benefit if cotton subsidies alone were eliminated:

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) estimates that ending U.S. cotton subsidies would raise world prices by 26 percent, or 11 cents per pound. The results for African countries dependent on cotton exports would be substantial:

  • Burkina Faso would gain $28 million in export revenues
  • Benin would gain $33 million in export revenues
  • Mali would gain $43 million in export revenues.

We have seen reductions in severe poverty recently. The world’s biggest reduction in severe poverty has come in China over the last three decades. It’s clear that economic reform is the critical, long-term driver of poverty reductions. But where did China’s poverty reductions start? With growing agricultural productivity. The poorest countries of the world can’t just move straight into manufacturing. They need first to generate some agricultural surplus. Making it possible for poor farmers to sell to rich consumers, or even to their own people, is necessary to making that happen.

Removing rich-country agricultural subsidies could also have political-economy benefits. Many LDCs repress their agricultural markets in favor of the urban sector. Thus, their own governments deserve some share of the blame. The typical tool for this repression is a “marketing board” monopsony. The marketing board buys produce at coercively depressed prices and then tries to export it for a profit, plowing the proceeds back into urban subsidies. Rising world prices for farm goods would increase the profits of these marketing boards, potentially allowing them to raise the prices they pay farmers at home. While some nasty governments might find the new revenue reinforces their power, the new revenues would surely build useful state capacity in just as many places. Furthermore, rising farm incomes should increase the political power of the farm bloc in LDCs, which increases the probability of domestic liberalization.

Ending the rich world’s harmful policies would not eliminate global poverty. However, it would make a significant dent and could set in motion economic and political processes that would have far-reaching effects indeed.

Still, agricultural subsidies and trade barriers survive, amounting to well over $300 billion per year in the rich countries of the OECD, dwarfing the aid sent from rich to poor countries. They survive because of the collective-action problem: poor people have no voice at all in the political systems of the rich world, and rich-world consumers barely have one. Producers organize effectively because of the clear benefits they receive from subsidies, and even ideological opposition from both the left and the right cannot effectively fight them.

The only effective way to counter the greed of the few is with the white-hot moral passion of the many. (more…)

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