Obama is the Protectionist's Choice, Too

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 2/03/2008 08:49:00 PM
Jonathan over at Trade Diversion mentions that some are trying to market Barack Obama as the free trader's choice. I am very doubtful of this proposition. Larry Elder points out that this may be dubious based on comments made by Obama on a recent trip to his native Kenya. There, Obama justified the existence of US agricultural subsidies:

But a reporter raised an issue about which Obama possesses more influence -- dealing with American protectionism that hurts Kenyan farmers. Why, asked the reporter, do Americans retain farm subsidies and tariffs that prevent Kenyan farmers from competing in the world's biggest market?

Obama's response? He talked about the soybean farmers in Illinois, and said, "It's important to me to be sure I'm looking out for their interests. It's part of my job." Absolutely incredible.

For, in July, the European Union and five nations, including the United States and Japan, met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the elimination of farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs. After all, in 2002, the World Bank estimated that African exports would increase by almost $2.5 billion if the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada eliminated their agricultural tariffs. This is especially true as to peanuts and tobacco. African farmers run up against farmers in wealthy nations whose laws ensure their success at the expense of Third World farmers.

What should Obama have said? "You're right. America is a rich nation. You are a poor one. Poor nations generally turn into rich ones by starting out with agriculture. So when I get back to Washington, I'm going to tell my colleagues about the devastating real-world effect American protectionism has on poor nations."

There's more to rain on the parade of the Obama revisionists. Since being elected to office, he has been as committed as any politician to traditional subsidies. Case in point: his support for corn-based ethanol. I do not need to reiterate that corn-based ethanol is neither particularly inexpensive nor efficient. (See, for example, Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer's riposte to senator turned ethanol industry lobbyist Tom Daschle in Foreign Affairs. Author Jeff Goodell is even more blunt.) Instead of allowing the importation of less expensive sugarcane-based ethanol and the like from developing countries, Obama has been and still remains a big booster of corn-based ethanol:

Obama’s support among traditional Democratic constituencies was apparent in the audience members, a number of whom worked for low-income housing, civil rights, and pro-choice groups. Grateful representatives of big-money interests were on hand as well, in the form of officials from the Illinois Soybean Association and the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “We appreciate the relationship and the help,” said the latter, who was in town as part of a lobbying blitz called the Corn Congress.

And indeed Obama has delivered for his constituents—for social activists, but also for business groups whose demands are invariably more costly. Although this is not the place to review the full history of ethanol, it’s beyond dispute that it survives only because members of Congress from farm states, whether liberal or conservative, have for decades managed to win billions of dollars in federal subsidies to underwrite its production. It is not, of course, family farmers who primarily benefit from the program but rather the agribusiness giants such as Illinois-based Aventine Renewable Energy and Archer Daniels Midland (for which ethanol accounts for just 5 percent of its sales but an estimated 23 percent of its profits). Ethanol production, as Tad Patzek of UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering wrote in a report this year, is based on “the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.”

Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Obama has been as assiduous as any member of Congress in promoting ethanol. He has introduced a number of measures that benefit the industry—such as the “Obama Amendment” that offered oil companies a 50 percent tax credit for building stations that offer E85 fuel—and voted for the corporate-welfare-laden 2005 energy bill, which offered billions in subsidies to ethanol producers as well as lavish incentives for developing cars that run on alternative fuels.

Meanwhile, Obama, Durbin, and three other farm-state senators opposed a proposal this year by the Bush Administration to lower stiff tariffs on cheaper sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil and other countries. To lower such tariffs, the senators suggested, would leave the nation dangerously dependent on foreign ethanol. “Our focus must be on building energy security through domestically produced renewable fuels,” wrote the senators in a letter to Bush. That Obama would lend his name to such an argument—with its dubious implication that Brazilian ethanol is a national-security liability comparable to Saudi crude—indicates that he is at least as interested in protecting domestic producers of ethanol as he is in weaning America from imported petroleum.

Bottom line: Obama is as protectionist as they wanna be, especially on corn. His rhetoric and actions do not suggest otherwise. If you're looking for a real free trader, look elsewhere. Hurting poor Kenyan and Brazilian farmers in support of the corn lobby may win votes, but it doesn't look like "free trade" to me.