Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Doha, or die

THE apparent collapse in Geneva of the 149-member World Trade Organization's Doha round of talks on liberalizing world trade reflects an unalterable fact: Nations put their own best interests ahead of the greater good.

The fundamental thesis of liberalizing trade - which is to say, removing national barriers, including duties, to international trade - is that the freer the trade, the better off everyone will be.

Pursuing that theory, the ideal situation would be one in which economics ruled the day and national politics took second place to economic good judgment. The latter would be defined as all countries acting above their national political interests in the name of economic good sense.

Fat chance.

National political interests and national economic well-being are thoroughly intertwined, and, as long as democracy is the name of the game, voters - also known as producers and consumers - will make their feelings on economic measures known at the ballot box.

The main stumbling block that pushed the five-year-old Doha round of talks over the cliff was the question of agricultural subsidies - the money that governments pay their farmers above and beyond their costs of production to grow crops.

The poorer countries, many of which are agricultural producers, wanted the developed, industrial countries to cut these subsidies to improve their ability to compete for the developed countries' markets for agricultural products.

The poorer agricultural countries' main targets for reducing or eliminating these subsidies were the United States, the European Union countries, and Japan, all of which top off their farmers' incomes with help from the taxpayers.

Behind all the argumentation there were three basic reasons why the United States, the European Union countries, and Japan were not willing to reduce their farmers' subsidies.

The first is the perhaps atavistic but real fear of not making themselves dependent on imported food.

The second is that American farmers vote, as do European and Japanese farmers.

The third is that farmers are considered in all of these societies to play an important, although admittedly to some degree folkloric, role in their self-perception. In the United States, all of this is personified by Willie Nelson and Farm Aid.

In France, the farmers have the untidy habit of dumping tons of food products in the streets of Paris. In Japan, the rice farmer is sanctified as the salt of the Japanese earth.

On a less lyrical level, do we really want to eliminate and out-source the jobs of one more sector of the American economy, and of a sector that has all sorts of symbolic charisma?

The answer this time was "no," and the Doha round of trade talks appears to have gone down in flames.

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