The thunderer lets fly

The NY Times blasts trans-Atlantic trade policies: “Listening to these two [EU and USA] economic powerhouses snipe about who should be doing what is revolting; neither is doing anything real.” The paper is right, of course: the agricultural support and protection policies of the EC, Japan and the USA—not to mention India (the editorial doesn’t)—are absurd, wasteful and unfair to the poor. But what I want to see from the NY Times is an editorial policy that advocates the solution and that stays the course rather than one that merely puffs-up in indignation

The Times editorialist takes a big breath and blows really hard in condemning the inaction in the Doha round of WTO negotiations

“… So far it has been nothing but talk, talk, talk on trade. While the rich continue their shameful obfuscating, poor countries are priced out of the market. A few weeks ago, the European Union’s trade envoy, Peter Mandelson, actually complained to reporters that Europe had been making more than its fair share of compromises in the W.T.O. talks. ‘This process of compromise has been a one-way street for well over a year,’ he said.”(New York Times)

Good stuff! Hooray! Trade groupies cheer.

But I really doubt that Messrs Mandelson and Portman are cowed by this criticism. Protest politics—as those of us old enough to remember it’s heyday can recall—is invigorating, but it can’t change much in the absence of sustained, broadly supported advocacy. It’s the realities on the ground—whether in the Mekong delta, Kansas or the Midi—that matter. You have to be willing to address them and deal with the interests they represent before you can expect political leaders to reverse direction.

The WTO negotiations are not conducted in a vacuum. They don’t take a long time because the negotiators are obtuse or acting in bad faith (not all of the time, anyway). They take a long time because they must deal with hard problems where there are a range of conflicting interests that member governments find it difficult to resolve. It’s true that the conflicts of interest, between farmers and consumers for example, have usually been caused by inappropriate policies in the first place. But historical analysis alone doesn’t provide contemporary solution.

The NY Times needs to address the real issues in a sustained campaign for detailed changes in US policies. Let’s see them demand that the U.S. government rescind the $14 billion in trade-distorting subsidies to farmers in the next farm bill (2008). Let the Times press Washington to drop the proposal—the heart of the problems since Cancún—to squeeze $19 billion into a “Blue Box” category of less distorting support.

It takes much more than one editorial to snatch billions back from the farmers’ pockets. Let’s see the NY Times sustain a case month-after-month for the USA drop its ridiculous import duties on cheeses (90% on grated parmesan, for example) or its almost religious prohibition on competition from sugar imports or its sky-high duties on peanuts or cotton. It will take a lot of angry support from consumers to get Congress to deny the lobbyies behind these barriers the billions they earn for a few thousand farmers.

Let’s see the NY Times stay on the story, pushing the Whitehouse to give the same priority that it gave to an economically trivial trade agreement with Central America to a global solution to trade distortions that help to make poverty a bigger killer than terrorism ever was or ever will be.

Never mind the ridiculous policies of Japan or the EC or India. Let’s see the NY Times attack the problem that is really besetting the decision-makers in Washington—who almost certainly agree that global agricultural trade reform is well overdue: there is more effective support for protection and public subsidy to farmers in the United States than there is for open markets and fair competition.

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