World Trade Organisation rules US cotton subsidies illegal

In another chapter of the never-ending story of global trade normalization, globalization, protectionism and the world economy, the BBC is reporting that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has announced that cotton subsidies are illegal and must stop.
I can already hear you, dear reader, saying “so what?”. In fact, there’s a very big “so what” here in the United States because the United States government spends a lot of money subsidizing cotton production. How much? We’re talking billions. Specifically, In 1992, America paid cotton producers $1.62 billion, $2.3 billion in 1999 and $2.06 billion in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To put these numbers in context, according to international relief organization Oxfam, the United States spends more on subsidizing its 25,000 cotton farmers than it does in aid to the entire continent of Africa in any given year.
This entire situation came about when Brazil appealed to the WTO about America’s cotton subsidies, claiming that these massive subsidies depress world cotton prices and cause other nations to lose millions of dollars in revenue. The Economist has an interesting story on this particular facet of the situation.
What I want to talk about is the challenge of quotas, tariffs, and subsidies in the global economy, however. In the ideal global economy, every country produces what it can produce better, more efficiently, or more cost effectively than any other nation, and through a global barter system of foreign exchange and shipping, countries purchase what they need by selling what they can produce more efficiently than any other nation. That’s just economics 101.
The challenge, then, is whether free trade works when there are dramatic variations in both the cost of goods, cost of production and cost of living in various places around the world. While my economics professors would like to say that free trade works — through the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, no doubt — I have to say that the reality of our protectionist societies suggest that it doesn’t work.
If one country says “we want to be protectionist, give our own producers an unfair advantage by subsidizing them or, the flip side of subsidies, levy import tariffs on foreign goods” then things begin to break down. When one of the largest consumers of goods on the planet does this — as we do here in the United States — it not only affects our own economy, but it has devastating impact on other economies around the globe.
And yet, I can’t help wonder what would happen in the long term if we were to drop all agricultural and manufacturing subsidies, limit import tariffs to what a neutral global organization like the World Trade Organisation felt were reasonable and fair (that is, to avoid “dumping”, where foreign nations price goods below fair market value in the interest of changing specific industries) and open ourselves up to the scary but liberating world of global free trade.
After all, when the concern is raised about jobs going overseas, we respond by retraining and reeducating our workforce to become part of an industry where we can excel. When it’s cheaper to buy shirts sewn in Hong Kong than Manhattan, we learn to create another differentiator (often, style, but less often than you think if you were to follow the trail of apparel production back to its sources in Asia and the Pacific Rim).
When industries fall into the mire of commoditization, responding by forcing the industry to not commoditize, or by propping up a specific manufacturer or two just doesn’t work in the long term. People who stitched shirts together in Manhattan were adversely affected by the entry in the apparel market of apparel manufacturing coordination firms like TAL Industries of Hong Kong, but the consumer found that they could purchase a better shirt for less money. The burden was on the New Yorkers to learn how to manage in a new economy that had shifted their job overseas, but of course this is going to happen, and of course it happens in almost all job sectors as time passes because the global economy is fluid, not static.
Consider the case of Chrysler to see what I’m saying here. When Chrysler demanded a $1 billion bailout in 1979 so that it wouldn’t shut down and put thousands of workers on the street, the government complied, subsidizing a car manufacturer who couldn’t compete and succeed on its own abilities. For a few years things at Chrysler went well, with superstar CEO Lee Iacocca at the helm. But then, in an early parallel to ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina, it became all about Iacocca and not about Chrysler and the company stalled out and is again in financial trouble.
If you believe in a free market economy, where companies succeed or fail based on their ability to maneuver in the ever-changing global economy, where differentiation and the ability to embrace commoditization as an opportunity, not a threat, is tantamount, then you can’t help but also believe in free trade as a necessary adjunct of the free market.
Free trade is what the World Trade Organisation ruling is all about. In a free market economy, cotton would be priced based purely on supply, demand, the cost of production and the cost of distribution. Monkey with that, close our borders, add excessive tariffs or prop up non-competitive producers with multi-billion-dollar subsidies and you’re creating a monolith that is doomed to inevitable failure in the global economy.
The U.S. isn’t alone in its attempts to skew the inevitable result of free trade either. The WTO has ruled against the European Union about sugar subsidies in the last few months, for example. The WTO also isnt’ anti-American, for that matter. Last year it agreed with the United States that Vietnam and China were dumping shrimp on the world market at below market prices, and agreed on import duties of 93-112% for shrimp from those two nations.
The anti-US cotton subsidy WTO ruling will also inevitably affect other crops that the Department of Agriculture subsidizes, including corn and soya beans. The reaction of the Department is predictable, though: “We will study the report carefully and work closely with Congress and our farm community on our next steps,” said Richard Mills.
My hope? That we stop subsidizing noncompetitive crops, fund farmers retooling for crops that they can be more price-competitive with, and by doing so help many third world nations reap a better standard of living and greater love for the democratic nation of America and our brand of freedom too. It’s a strange path, but free trade might well do as much for world peace as all the negotiations and “police actions”, at the cost of retraining citizens rather than sacrificing lives.

4 comments on “World Trade Organisation rules US cotton subsidies illegal

  1. It is interesting to me that you mention the cotton subsidies are more than the total amount we give to the continent of Africa. Money that could turn around the lives of millions suffering from AIDS and poverty is being used to prop up farmers in America.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am from a small farming community in Texas, but the United States needs to move to improve its strengths, not capitalize on its weaknesses.

  2. Odd that you put it this way. It is about time someone came out and said it.
    Aboout the subsidies in America, you look at the price of cotton, the price of a pair of good jeans, there is a hudge disparity in pricing, and until this comes in line with each other, there are needs for these subsidies. Look at where the clothing we wear is made. Normally this is over seas and then shipped here, rarely do you see anything that is textile that is made in America any more.
    About subsidies, I agree partially that we need to protect ourselves. The entire concept of dumping is to lower the prices to put the competition out of business, at which time you go in and raise your prices steeply.
    If we were to re-tool the farmers that we have here at home (the most productive per capita then anywhere else) we would be left at the mercy of the rest of the world.
    We currently have this situation with the petro market, and look at where it has taken us. The only reason that the petrolium prices have not kept with inflation is because of the risk of invention. We can hold tech over their heads, with hybrid and new fuel sources. With something like Cotton and soy we cannot do this, as we cannot go without cotton.
    What we need to do is to realize that this is in defense of our economy that we have many subsities, and as such need to protect these farmers as much as we can.
    But there is a flip side to this. The resulting product should be the property of the federal/state governments in which the subsities came. Imagine the new Prision uniform lines, the savings (since our taxes are paying for it anyway), for the savings in foods etc.
    I could see building incarceration compounds where we have those that are the guests in our prision systems have to work with these products under the strictest controlls to off set the costs of the subsities and the prision system it’s self.

  3. I was with you until the last two paragraphs, Ted. Somehow “the resulting product should be the property of the government” sounds a lot more like socialism than democracy. I’m not against private ownership and free market economies, domestically and internationally, I’m just against ill-thought-out subsidies that could be better spent elsewhere, with far great long-term results.

  4. Subsidies are wrong because they skew fair trade, especially in view of a global market. Also, Dave Taylor left out an important facet of farm subsidies: they are skewed in favor of huge factory farms that squeeze family farms out of existence. Who decides how subsidies are awarded, and who makes sure that the awards are equitable? Lobbyists!

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