Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The US/Brazil Cotton War: A secret conflict that says much about our political myopia

Tonight while trying to keep my sanity on a gridlocked 405 freeway at rush hour, I had a chance to revisit an old friend, NPR’s All Things Considered. The flagship news program of the American public radio scene, ATC was my co-pilot and information czar during my long commutes from home to grad school. However, since the advent of the iPod, I find I seldom listen to the radio. This night, however, I had forgotten my little metal box and leash so I got get reacquainted with the pleasures of public radio.

What shows like ATC do that no other broadcast news medium does (as well) is to find the depth of the topic and explain it to the listener who, it is assumed, is an intelligent critical thinker. Case in point , evidently we are in a kind of trade war with Brazil over cotton. Brazilian farmers were having a hard time competing with American farmers because we are “breaking the rules” by giving subsidies to our cotton farmers. Brazil took the US to the WTO. The WTO found in favor of Brazil. But the WTO has no enforcement power so the US went right on giving subsidies to the cotton farmers. In other words, nothing changed.

We should mention that this was the early 2000s, during the W Bush administration . Subsidies are the dirty little secret in the world of Republicans. It is socialism by definition, but some would call it “trade promotion.”

Then the Brazilian trade commissioner discovered that the WTO ruling allowed Brazil to retaliate. But how so? The commissioner sent letters to every major American trade association and trade-related politician in the US stating that due to the US’s continued defiance of the WTO’s ruling, Brazil would, in 30 days time, begin to apply taxes on a wide range of American goods exported to Brazil.

That rang a few bells. Long story short, the Obama administration got involved. They sent a trade delegation to Brazil to discuss what can be done. Obviously, the Brazilians want the subsidy program stopped. But the thing is, the US is not in a position to do that now. Subsidies are the lynchpin of big agra in this country. For some farmers, the subsidy is all that is keeping them profitable. So while there may be some talk of phasing out subsidies in the future, it’s not to happen overnight. So, another impasse, yes?

No. The Americans offered the Brazilians a deal: for as long as we continue to pay subsidies, will pay your farmers, $147 million dollars a year. Not bad considering American tax payers front cotton farmers $3 BILLION dollars a year. $150 million seems like chump-change.

What I love about this article is the way it takes a seemingly esoteric trade policy and casts it the black light of explicit irony. These are expenditures hidden in plain sight. No one cares because no one on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX is going to talk about trade policy when it is much sexier to talk about personality politics as a horse race. Think back to all those times that John McCain would groan about ear marks… a few million hear, a few there. Did he ever mention the big fat payout to American cotton farmers who are essentially bribed to plant crops even when prices are low (thus undermining one of the major tenants of capitalism, the law of supply and demand?)

Coming out the midterm election cycle where issues and individuals were foisted on the public like the coming of a new fall season of television, I am even more disgusted by the low-regard politicians and pundits have for the American public. It’s as though a conspiracy of silence has been erected to keep real problems from being discussed. $3 billion dollars a year is a scandal. Bribing another country not to tax us is a scandal. Both the Bush and Obama administrations should be called to task. Instead, we get the dumbest of the dumbed down rhetoric from both sides. Politicians presented as celebrities, saviors, or the worst kind of scum. OR, if you live in states unfortunate enough to have an initiative process, you get a chance to vote on complicated and possible unconstitutional potential laws which are described in 20 second TV ads in such simplistic terms, you’d think the State capital is located on Sesame Street. It makes you wonder, perhaps briefly, but indelibly and with slightly sick twinge in the gut, whether we’re really cut out for democracy in this country. At some point we opted for a popular culture rather than a political culture. And yet, we still want to do the dance. We want to feel like we are doing something. And if things are too bad, we can have a do-over in two years. And the change of seats will be to us like the coming of a new dawn. A euphoria will overwhelm us long enough to let us forget that we ever cared at all.