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.