February 19, 2006

Defending the World Trade Organization (Again)

A few weeks ago I was one of the speakers on a panel entitled, “Free Trade Agreements and Sustainable Agriculture,” at the Ecofarm Conference in Asilomar, California. The other two speakers were a representative from Oxfam and a representative from The Forum for Free Trade and Democracy. I knew that both of them, as well as the crowd, would favor the anti-globalization agenda, and I looked forward to making the case in favor of free trade. I put together a 20-minute talk on who would be the likely winners and losers if we truly made a shift to free trade in agriculture, and how the benefits both to people and the environment would clearly outweigh any costs (and even these would mostly come at the expense of special interests).

The panel began with the representative from Oxfam struggling to fill her 20 minutes. Somehow she believed that citing statistics about global poverty, and how most poor people work in agriculture, was a substantive critique of free trade. She added a few random statements about CAFTA being bad, but that “we” almost defeated it was a sign of the strength of the anti-globalization movement. She also made fuzzy statements about NAFTA having harmed farmers in Mexico, though this has largely been disproved (not that she thought evidence was necessary anyway).

Then came the man representing the Forum for Free Trade and Democracy, who spoke for almost 40 minutes (more on that in a moment). I don’t remember clearly what he said, since he immediately began fielding questions from the audience and got sidetracked on issues that had little to do with the topic. One thing that did strike me was his insistence that if you wanted people to work on your side of the free trade debate, there are none better than the South Koreans. I found this both disturbing and bizarre, since it was an apparent reference to the South Korean who committed suicide at the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun; I didn’t realize that people were actually in search of martyrs for the cause.

Now it was my turn. To get people’s attention I announced that I was pro-WTO, pro-free trade, pro-markets, pro-NAFTA, and pro-CAFTA, and I think that did the trick. I then ticked off the winners and losers in our highly protected and subsidized global agricultural system, in which hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted every year on special interests, the environment is trashed, and on balance developing countries are hurt (for details of the talk please contact me). I also noted that the WTO is one of the most democratic institutions in the world, and that the problem is not that people are following its mandate, but that they aren’t following it enough. (It was around here, after only 10 minutes of my allotted 20, that I was told I was almost out of time; I joked that I guess you get less time if you’re in favor of free trade at an Ecofarm conference.)

I concluded with two observations.

First, that I believe it has been a terrible miscalculation on the left to jump aboard the anti-globalization bandwagon, and that helping to direct globalization in a way that helps people raise their standards of living and moderate the difficult transitions would be much more constructive. I asked the audience whether the world might be a better place if, since the Seattle protests in 1999, organizers had been working to end perverse subsidies and protectionist policies instead of trying to disrupt every WTO meeting.

Second, I used an example involving CAFTA to point out how to tell when you’re on the wrong side of a debate. Florida sugar producers receive about $1 billion a year in subsidies, and they fiercely opposed CAFTA because of the modest competition that the agreement would create (competition that would cut into the money they receive from American taxpayers). These producers have for decades had some of the worst labor violations and conditions in America, have almost single-handedly trashed the Florida Everglades (with damages in the billions), are directly impoverishing many Caribbean and Central American producers who could sell sugar more cheaply, and have forced many U.S. candy and soda manufacturers to move operations to Canada. If there was ever a progressive cause to get behind, it would be to decrease their power. But the anti-globalization crowd, in its blind opposition to free-trade, joined hands with this special interest to oppose CAFTA. This should cause all those who considers themselves liberal to take a long look in the mirror.

It was at this point when someone in the audience yelled out “who’s paying you?” I reminded him that free-thinking individuals can support free trade.

Many of the questions during the Q&A session that followed were directed at me. A number of people came up to talk and were generally supportive that someone had dared to break the “party line” and engage in a substantive debate.

But the fun wasn’t over. I decided to sit in on a discussion about the upcoming Farm Bill.

One of the speakers, a representative of the assorted Farm Bureaus of California, made his case that California farmers must unite as a caucus in order to get as much money as possible for California, including more money for every possible agricultural program. Keep in mind, federal farm support is already at record highs (budget deficits and other national priorities be damned!). He mentioned that discord between the cotton growers, who get a lot of subsidies already, and other California farmers has in the past hampered California’s efforts to get its “fair share” of the subsidy bounty.

I wish my students could have been there to hear it: it was the most blatant example of a corrupt special interest operating in broad daylight that I had seen in a long time (and at an Ecofarm conference no less!) During the Q&A session I asked him why, as a Californian, I should support cotton growers who have no business getting subsidized water to grow subsidized cotton with tons of pesticides in the middle of the desert. I could see his blush from all the way in the back of the hall. He made some vacuous point about representing all of his clients and moved on; I guess his clients don’t include the public interest of California.

In summary, I remain a steadfast supporter of the WTO and free trade. The benefits so overwhelm the negatives that I’m amazed there is even a controversy. The real debate should be over how to best manage the forces of globalization in order to balance the need for continuing national economic progress with individual economic security. The sooner we focus on these issues, the better. I’m prepared to go back to Ecofarm next year and repeat the same talk if need be.


“The extreme left and the extreme right are in reality two sides of the same coin.”

P.S. The WTO has ruled that the EU’s ban on GMO’s is illegal since the EU has not proven that GMOs represent a public health risk, and that the labeling of GMO products is a less trade-distorting way to allow people to discriminate against GMO products if they chose to on an individual basis. This is clearly the correct ruling, and I say that as someone who pretty much buys 100% organic food, which is just about the only non-GMO food you can buy in America. While there are legitimate scientific issues regarding GMOs, so far the scientific consensus is that they are safe both from the environmental and health perspectives. If Europeans don’t want to eat GMOs they don’t have to, but for those who don’t care they should be able to purchase the (mostly) cheaper GMO products. This case also speaks to the larger issue of what should be done when environmental scare tactics go awry, such as the cases of poor African nations actually refusing food aid because the food contains GMOs. In cases like this the precautionary principle goes too far, and the environmental movement becomes a creature of hysteria rather than a sensible movement that wants to balance human and non-human needs.

P.P.S. This is the absolute best response to the Danish cartoon controversy imaginable. Check it out.

Jason Scorse