Category: International Trade

In one of this week’s Acton Commentaries, Ray Nothstine and I juxtapose a static, sedentary dependence on government subsidies with a dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of innovation.

The impetus for this short piece was an article that originally appeared in the Grand Rapids Press (linked in the commentary). I have two things to say about these stories and then I want to add some further reflections on the world of agricultures subsidies.

First, I found the article’s “hook” to be quite shoddy and lame. The blatant attempt to “shock” the reader into a reaction of disgust that a billionaire like Dick DeVos, yes, “that Dick DeVos,” got a whopping “$6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005.” That’s roughly $2k a year for three years.

Unsurprisingly, DeVos’ spokesperson didn’t know anything about it. It’s ludicrous to think that a guy with as much on his plate as Dick DeVos would have any time for what is essentially pocket change for a billionaire. Does the fact that DeVos got a subsidy even though he campaigned on eliminating government waste make him a hypocrite?

Judge for yourself, but I think these payments say more about the government’s inefficiency and waste than they do about DeVos’ integrity. People of all income brackets pay tax professionals to maximize their returns. For the very wealthy, it’s simply a process that’s on a bigger scale, that’s much more thorough, and with many more loopholes than when you or I go to H&R Block. The more diversified your holdings, the more likely there are a plethora of tax breaks for you to exploit. The breathless lede to this story was simply off-putting to me, especially given the rather clear political undertones of the insinuations.

“Simplify, man.”

What’s the real lesson? As a recycling hippie once told The Simpsons‘ Principal Skinner in a quite different context, “Simplify, man.” Simplify the tax code and eliminate all these special interest loopholes.

But the complaint about the story’s hook is really a minor quibble compared to my second point. In a companion piece, Lisa Rose Starner, executive director at Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens says that farm subsidies are essentially about “social justice.” That’s right, subsidies are about social justice. They’re about the social injustice of subsidizing a product so that people from poorer nations around the world, who would like to do more than simply engage in subsistence farming, can’t compete in a global marketplace because prices are artificially deflated. So, our subsidies are feeding the rich at the expense of the poor in more ways than one.

Of course, the pat response is that other nations are subsidizing too, so our subsidies are just leveling the playing field. To be sure, the world of agricultural business is a complex one, as many of the commenters on our piece point out. Direct farm subsidies are just one thin slice of the government’s intervention into agriculture. Perhaps they’re the most obvious, but they may also not be the most insidious. As one astute reader wrote to me, “The web of market interference in ag is broad and complex.”

Simplify, man.

Update: The Detroit News ran a version of the original piece here.

Last month the World Bank published a report titled, “Where is the Wealth of Nations?” (HT: From the Heartland). The report

describes estimates of wealth and its components for nearly 120 countries. The book has four sections. The first part introduces the wealth estimates and highlights the level and composition of wealth across countries. The second part analyzes changes in wealth and their implications for economic policy. The third part deepens the analysis by considering the importance of human and institutional capital, and by linking wealth to production. The fourth part reviews existing applications of resource and environmental accounting in developed and developing countries.

Also out recently is an index of the most globalized nations by Foreign Policy (HT: International Civic Engagement). The top ten, based on 2005 data, which claims to “measure countries on their economic, personal, technological, and political integration”:

  1. Singapore (252,607)
  2. Hong Kong (NR)
  3. Netherlands (421,389)
  4. Switzerland (648,241)
  5. Ireland (330,490)
  6. Denmark (575,138)
  7. United States (512,612)
  8. Canada (324,979)
  9. Jordan (31,546)
  10. Estonia (66,769)

In parenthesis after the name of the country in the top ten, I’ve placed the total wealth estimate for the year 2000 from the World Bank report (appendix 2 PDF).

Look at Estonia, for example. Even though its total wealth score is much smaller relative to other nations on the globalization list, the majority of its wealth score (41,802) in the World Bank report is garnered from “intangible capital,” which refers to, as the From the Heartland blogger put it, “the value of the nation’s economic and political institutions,” such as the rule of law. And now compare Estonia with the Republic of Congo, which has almost the same ratings in terms of tangible capital as Estonia, but whose -12,158 intangible capital rating keeps its total wealth score disturbingly low (3,516).

Clearly it isn’t the case that countries that only have rich natural resources have something to offer the international marketplace. Strong and responsible economic and political institutions can foster intellectual creativity, technological innovation, and social capital that more than makes up for deficits in natural resources.

Costa Rica’s voters ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a sign of hope against a rising tide of populist, anti-trade sentiment in Latin America — and the United States. “In short, this is not the time for Latin America to abandon free trade agendas,” Gregg says.

Read the full commentary here.

Related to Sam Gregg’s Acton Commentary today, “Free Trade: Latin America’s Last Hope?” I pass along this ENI news item: “Growing rich-poor gap is new ‘slavery’, say Protestant leaders.”

Globalization and free trade are the causes of a new class of worldwide slavery, say the ecumenical officials. Citing the foundational 2004 Accra Confession, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, says that “an even more pernicious form of human enslavement is being wrought on millions through the process of neoliberal globalisation that is driving a dramatic and growing wedge between the rich and the poor.”

These statements come at a critical time in the history of the Reformed ecumenical movement. The Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have joined this week to become one organization:

Reformed church groupings agree to create new global body

Port of Spain (ENI). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has agreed to unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to create a new “global entity” that will group 80 million Reformed Christians. “This is a truly, truly important moment,” said WARC president the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick after the alliance’s executive committee, meeting in Trinidad, voted unanimously on 22 October to unite with the REC, whose executive committee had agreed to the proposal in March. The Geneva-based WARC has 75 million members in 214 churches in 107 countries, while the Grand Rapids, Michigan-headquartered REC has 12 million members belonging to 39 churches in 25 countries. Of the REC’s member churches, 27 also belong to WARC. [ENI-07-0815]

It’s not clear at this time if the conditions laid out in 2005 are those under which the union has taken place. This merger is significant in many ways, not least of which is the requirement of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church that its Synod “shall send delegates to Reformed ecumenical synods in which the Christian Reformed Church cooperates with other denominations which confess and maintain the Reformed faith” (Article 50). Citing Calvin once in awhile and promulgating platitudes about the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean you are Reformed.

In response to concerns from member churches from the global North that the Accra Confession is not sufficiently doctrinal, Rev. Setri Nyomi responds, “The Reformed family recognises the sovereignty of God … We do not separate whether God is sovereign in the mundane and in the spiritual realm. Therefore our stance on social issues is consistent with the doctrinal claim of sovereignty.”

Quite frankly the WARC leaderships rhetoric about income and wealth disparity as a “more pernicious form of human enslavement” is offensive on a number of levels besides its doctrinal spuriousness. It’s offensive to those who actually are slaves today (sex trafficking is a huge global issue). And it’s insulting to those whose historical legacy involves victimization by the practice of chattel slavery.

WARC is more than happy to talk about “slavery” in material terms, identifying anything other than complete egalitarianism with injustice and bondage. But the one kind of slavery you won’t hear WARC discuss is the sense in which it is put forward most prominently in the Scriptures: bondage to corruption and sin in a personally and individually relevant way.

When Christ said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he didn’t have globalization in mind.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
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In answer to the query in the headline of this week’s Acton Commentary, “Who’s Afraid of Free Trade?”, I submit the following: the ecumenical movement. Note the following news item from Ecumenical News International:

Church groups mount week of action to transform global trade

Geneva (ENI). Faith groups have joined activists around the globe in calling for fair, equitable and just trade policies while urging churches to join a Trade Week of Action that seeks to promote alternatives to the global system of commerce. “During this week, the churches and other organizations will tell the world that enforced free trade is causing poverty and that there are viable alternatives,” said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which has organized the 14-21 October Trade Week of Action. “When the systems we have created to buy, sell and share goods cause hunger and suffering then these systems are wrong. Every voice counts, and every action makes a difference,” Hartke told Ecumenical News International. [ENI-07-0798]

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
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Society is changing as economic freedom and diversification gradually creep into the Middle East. Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explores the effects of free trade on nations including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and, in turn, the effect those nations are having on their neighbors.

The diversification of economies, notably the development of new products and services for export, allows nations to grow out of reliance on oil production as the main source of capital. The emerging economies create an entrepreneurial atmosphere open to all and encourages foreign investment. The result is a rise out of poverty and more open foreign relations.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, October 4, 2007
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The Free Exchange blog at Economist.com (HT) concludes a long and thoughtful post on fair trade, specifically in response to this recent NYT article, “Fair Trade in Bloom,” by wondering:

And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.

Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.

These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.

To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.

But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.

You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.

The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.

For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”