July 29, 2005

Farewell to Subsidies

It warms the heart to see Michael Stipe take a milk bath in order to raise awareness about the developed world's overly-high agriculture subsidies, but I still don't understand why people get so exercised over this stuff. "Trade not aid!" cries Minnie Driver in the Times today. Eh, says I. Here's what we know. Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University has found that 33 of the 49 poorest countries are net importers of food. So on balance, those countries would all likely get kneecapped—at least initially—if developed nations were to slash their own agricultural subsidies, since the price of food would rise. Obviously rural farmers in the Third World would do very well, since they could sell their wares for more. But food consumers, especially in urban areas, could suffer from the rise in food prices; and since the poorest of the poor often spend up to a third or more of their income on food, we're talking about a fair bit of potential hurt here. (Meanwhile, if OECD countries fail to lift their own import restrictions, or if some countries lose their preferential access, then rural farmers could get squashed too, but that's another story.)

Now what about the countries or people that would be helped if agricultural subsidies got the knife? It seems unlikely that they'll be helped all that much, at least in the short term. The IMF estimates that world prices would only rise by 2-8 percent for rice, sugar, and wheat; and 4 percent for cotton. That's not nothing, though do note that this is a good deal less than the typical annual fluctuation in world commodity prices. But okay, wouldn't even a modest rise in prices ameliorate poverty? Eh, hard to say. A recent and not-online Foreign Affairs article points out that in 1994, countries in the CAF currency zone—including Burkina Faso and Benin—devalued their currency 100 percent, essentially doubling the price of cotton. This vastly exceeds even the wildest hopes for what would come out of Doha. Despite all that, rural poverty remained "stubbornly high" in Burkina Faso. So why should we think that a reduction in OECD cotton subsidies now—which would have a much more modest effect on prices—would achieve so much more?

I'm all for trade liberalization, really, I just don't see how it's going to shift the world's tectonic plates all that much. Read Richard Freeman on this topic: when it comes down to it, trade just doesn't seem all that important—immigration, technology transfers, and capital flows have far greater impact. Or read Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, who make a convincing case that drastic reductions in trade barriers probably won't save the world and lift 540 million out of poverty, as William Cline has proclaimed. (Many of those enriched by trade, for instance, would go from just below $2 a day to just above.) By all means, Bush should stop holding up the Doha talks and take his mighty scythe to all those trade barriers. Go wild! But this should only be seen, I think, as one relatively small part of a larger development strategy.
-- Brad Plumer 3:43 AM || ||