I hope not to lose friends in the public-interest-minded readership of U.S. Food Policy if I put in a good word for well-designed trade agreements. The combination of protectionism and massive subsidies for the U.S. sugar industry makes no sense on economic, environmental, or nutritional grounds. The hard working Central American farmers who would benefit from the agreement count for something with me. And on the U.S. side, I guess I care as much for the winners in these trade agreements (U.S. consumers of Central American produce and industries around the country who export goods and services to Central America) as I do for the losers (for example, U.S. growers of sugar cane, sugar beets, and high-fructose corn syrup).
Raleigh, N.C.: Do you find it ironic that American business interests as well as politicians are screaming "unfair" to China not allowing their currency to float and flooding our markets with cheap goods, yet this is the same argument that developing countries make concerning American and European agricultural subsidies? Though I do not support CAFTA, I am not against "free-trade" just as long as it is "fair-trade". I only wish the Democrats would take a stand on this issue based on the merits of the agreement, and not to spite Bush and the Republicans.
Jonathan Weisman: The West's stand on agriculture subsidies undermines every position is takes on trade in goods and services. There is simply no way you can legitimately demand one country lower its export subsidies or currency manipulation while you blatantly protect your farmers. The next round of international trade negotiations, the Doha round, is supposed to get to this point, but given the difficulty is easing sugar barriers the tiniest amount, I'm not holding my breath.
Weisman's article and interview are worth reading in full. For another sample, here's a funny exchange:
Update: Other webloggers have taken Weisman's piece as their starting point for a conversation about CAFTA. Daniel Drezner speaks up in favor of the agreement, and links to Matthew Yglesias (who raises reasonable concerns about the heavy-handed intellectual property rights provisions in the agreement) and Tyler Cowen (who also worries about how these provisions would affect anti-AIDS drugs for Central Americans, but who gives the agreement a lukewarm endorsement in the end). Drezner also notes Brad DeLong's disagreement with Drezner's post, mainly a difference of opinion about the role of Democrats in opposing the treaty. Nobody pays much attention to Weisman's comments on the role of sugar protectionism.
Dale City, Va.: How on earth does the sugar industry have so much politcal power that politicians barely dare touch protective measures that have no rational basis and indeed are harmful to everyone in the country that isn't a sugar producer?
Jonathan Weisman: For a very long time, the sugar industry has understood the tenuousness of its position. Sugar cane is not particularly conducive to the U.S., even in Louisiana and Florida, and sugar beets are a costly way of producing what is basically a very cheap product. So they have protected themselves with political campaign contributions that are by far the most generous in the ag industry. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton interupted one of his trysts with Monica Lewinsky to take a call from one the the Fanjul brothers, the legendary South Florida sugar barons.