Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Political Rant

I was browsing through the NY Times yesterday and came across an interesting if disturbing article on the current food crisis. This particular article drew a connection between global warming and a shortage of rice. Fair enough. But what is more interesting is the following tidbit, tucked away in the article, far from the headline:

“The global agricultural crisis is threatening to become political, pitting the United States and other developed countries against the developing world over the need for affordable food versus the need for renewable energy. Many poorer nations worry that subsidies from rich countries to support biofuels, which turn food, like corn, into fuel, are pushing up the price of staples.”

Again, this is a completely fair point. Subsidies for biofuel, in particular corn-based ethanol are one of the worst ideas I’ve ever come across. (Beet ethanol is perhaps another matter). But honestly: would the Times have us believe that biofuel subsidies are the only ones that pit the developing world against the rich countries? I can’t imagine ANY agricultural subsidies in the, EU or Japan are very popular among the world’s poor.

Unfortunately, they are currently very popular among American politicians, especially Democrats. It’s all too easy to see why. Nothing gets votes like the promise of subsidies for you and higher tariffs for your foreign competitors. When you consider that Iowa is among the greatest beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies, then it becomes obvious why virtually every presidential candidate this year has spoken favorably of such subsidies, usually well bashing NAFTA and/or immigrants. Brazilian beet-farmers, on the other hand, can’t caucus in Iowa. Even Ox-Fam is mostly run by Brits.

I often wonder why this issue doesn’t get more press. Isn’t this as important as who is bitter, whose pastor said what, etc, etc? If one believes, as I do, that agricultural subsidies and tariffs contribute to the appalling gap between rich and poor countries, then one ought to demand better of our politicians and our press.

The contrast between the three major candidates could hardly be greater. Both Obama and Clinton have campaigned against free-trade, and both would undoubtedly continue the subsidies that pit the haves against the have-nots. (They will, of course, do this out of altruistic concern for the well-being of American farmers!) You can’t really blame them for it. As I said before, virtually every major candidate promised more biofuel subsidies while campaigning in Iowa. The one exception was Senator John McCain of Arizona, who told Iowans bluntly that he did not and would not support such subsidies. Anyone who truly cares about closing the global wealth gap ought to keep this in mind in November.


John said...

Wow, my friend... so first, I'm so glad you're blogging here. I love the thoughtfulness that you bring to issues, and it's such a happy part of my week, this getting to sit down and chew over what's on your mind.

The connection between subsidies, tariffs, and the social/economic justice issue is clear and yet complex, is it not?

I have to say that it's disheartening to think it is unusual or remarkable when a politician like McCain takes a principled stand on an issue like this. Inspiring to think we might have two relatively principled guys running, once Obama takes his inevitable victory, he said, knocking on wood.

Still, I suppose a question I come away with is this: if the subsidies and tariffs we have right now are part of a broken system that hurts the poorest in the world, what would work better? While I think it's noble that McCain is willing to take the unpopular stance of saying he's against the subsidies, does he offer ideas around alternatives? I don't have time for research now, but I must say that you've piqued my interest. I hope to learn more soon!

Venice said...

Hey thanks for the kind words! just to clarify, I'm not saying that Obama isn't principled, only that he has been pandering to very anti-trade sentiments lately. I can't really fault him for it, since everybody panders at some point. (McCain certainly does, especially recently) I also give Obama serious free-trade props for opposing the awful sanctions against Cuba! These have been going on for decades now and made no difference. Does anyone think they will start now? Anyway, I'm really getting addicted to this bloging thing. It's almost as if I live in the 21st century now! Next I will have to pick up an iPod!

John said...

I heard loud and clear that you weren't saying Obama was unprincipled.

In fact, I was saying it's sad that it's so remarkable when any politician is. I do think it's a hopeful sign that, in my opinion, we might have presidential candidates from each of the major parties who actually seem principled relative to other politicians (which might be a completely worthless compliment).

As for blogging, it is fun. After your ipod, you'll have to get a Segway!

Venice said...

Ah, I gotcha! Did I ever tell you that the campus police use Segways here? It's awesome!