Unsettling Cotton Settlement at the WTO

Last week the U.S. government settled a long-running trade dispute with Brazil, winning taxpayers the privilege of continuing to subsidize America’s wealthy cotton farmers in exchange for our commitment to subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers, as well. That’s right! We get to pay U.S. cotton farming businesses to overproduce, export, and suppress global prices to the detriment of Brazilian (and other countries’) cotton farmers provided that we compensate the Brazilians to the tune of $300 million.

Some background. Ten years ago, in a case brought by Brazil, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled that the United States was exceeding its subsidy allowances for domestic cotton farmers and that it should bring its practices into compliance with the relevant WTO agreements. After delays and half-baked U.S. efforts to comply, Brazil sought and received permission from the WTO to retaliate (or, in WTO parlance, to “withdraw concessions” because opening one’s own market in a world of mercantilist reciprocity is, perversely, considered a cost or concession). Under the threat of such retaliation, instead of bringing its cotton subsidies into WTO compliance, the U.S. government agreed to pay $147 million per year to Brazilian farmers so that it could continue subsidizing U.S. farmers beyond agreed limits. That arrangement prevailed for a few years until the funds were cut during the budget sequester earlier this year – an event that triggered a renewed threat of retaliation from Brazil, which now has been averted on account of last week’s $300 million settlement.

The Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer characterized the agreement as a “good deal” because it ends the specter of soured bilateral relations, which $800 million of targeted retaliation against U.S. exporters and intellectual property holders would likely produce, for a reasonable price of $300 million “spread widely across the US population, around 90 cents a person.” In Hufbauer’s opinion:

Money damages, paid in this way, are much fairer, and do not destroy the benefits of international commerce, unlike concentrated retaliation against firms that had nothing to do with the original dispute. The WTO system is only designed to authorize such retaliation, but the US-Brazil settlement points the way towards a better way of satisfying breaches of WTO obligations.

While I share Hufbauer’s desire to avoid retaliation and soured relations, his rationale for endorsing the settlement seems a bit strained. If the settlement is justifiable because the costs are spread across 300-plus million Americans, then Hufbauer can probably lend his support to most subsidies, tariffs, and other forms of protectionism, which endure because the concentrated benefits accruing to the favor-seekers are paid through costs imposed, often imperceptibly, on a diffuse base of unorganized consumers or taxpayers. Does the smallness or the imperceptibility of the costs make it right? No, but it makes it easy to get away with, which is why I think it’s pennywise and pound foolish to endorse such outcomes. There are all sorts of federal subsidies to industries and tariffs on goods that may be small or imperceptible as a cost on a standalone basis at the individual level.  But when aggregated across programs, the costs to individuals become more significant. It’s death by 10,000 cuts.

Hufbauer implies that $0.90 per American is not an unreasonable amount.  Does he have a threshold per-person cost above which he would consider the burden unjustified? As it stands now, the cost to taxpayers is well in excess of the $0.90 – a figure that accounts only for the subsidies to the Brazilians.  We know that the U.S. subsidies are approximately $800 million in excess of allowance, which means that the violating portion of taxpayer subsidies to cotton producers amounts to $2.40 per American.  For the “right” to spend that $2.40 per American, each American must spend $0.90 for a total of $3.30 each.  So, instead of saving $2.40 per American by bringing subsidies into compliance, taxpayers are in the red by $3.30 each – a $5.70 reversal. But, of course, the real cost to Americans is not the excess subsidies plus the cost of subsidizing Brazilians, but the overall cost of cotton subsidies, which were close to $2 billion per year for the period 1995-2012, or over $6.00 per American per year during that period. But why should Americans be forced to support wealthy U.S. cotton farmers in the first place?

Hufbauer’s point is that money damages spread over a broad base of payers is more fair than targeted retaliation, which would impose those costs on a few innocent U.S. industries and IP holders, and he writes that “the WTO system is only designed to authorize” such retaliation.  But I think Hufbauer is selling the system short. Compliance with the rules is preferable to both targeted retaliation and damages spread across a broad base, and the WTO system is designed to encourage such compliance without imposing on national sovereignty.

First of all, retaliatory trade measures are something most governments prefer to avoid because trade restrictions hurt businesses and consumers in the country imposing them. But the purpose of permitting a WTO member to withdraw concessions in response to another Member’s violations and persistent non-compliance is, ultimately, to encourage compliance by bringing otherwise dormant domestic pressures to bear on the offending government. The threat of retaliation along with publication of a target list essentially broadens the dispute by creating more stakeholders – specifically, domestic stakeholders with an interest in compliance.  In 2002, when the United States imposed restrictions on steel imports from most countries, which were found to violate the WTO Safeguards Agreement, the EU’s retaliation list included products known to be important to organized lobbies or states with particular relevance to congressional and presidential electoral outcomes – products such as citrus, textiles, and motorcycles. The credible threat of retaliation against these and other industries created a powerful political constituency encouraging compliance with the WTO ruling by ending the steel restrictions, which also brought U.S. producers and consumers the benefits of lower steel prices.

In the cotton case, instead of achieving compliance and reducing burdens on U.S. taxpayers, the targets of Brazilian retaliation managed to get themselves out of harm’s way, but at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. Any leverage to compel the U.S. government to do the right thing and rein in the cotton subsidies has been spent. Hufbauer’s outlook differs:

Brazil’s agreement to drop its WTO case against US cotton subsidies (specifically an export credit program known as GSM-102) and not to launch a new case expires at the same time that the US Agricultural Act of 2014 expires in 2018. What this means is that the US Congress in 2018 will face pressure not to renew a subsidy program that enriches a few already rich American farmers.

The problem with that logic is that the same “pressure” existed this year, before Congress passed the farm bill.  Yet, the Agricultural Act of 2014 includes the same offensive provisions for cotton.  Moreover, what incentives exist for Congress “not to renew a subsidy program that enriches a few already rich American farmers” if the price of buying four more years of peace is a comparably reasonable $0.90 per person?”

Settlements like these may appease the primary governments involved in the dispute, but they leave unresolved the original sins, which impose a lot of collateral damage on a variety of interests.  In that regard, settlements are failures.

Finally, if the cotton settlement and the tobacco settlement (the latter is described by Bill Watson here today) – which both, essentially, release the United States from its WTO commitments in exchange for some form of payment to the complainant – are portrayed as trade policy successes, it will be just a matter of time before WTO adjudication devolves into a claims court before descending into irrelevance.