BURLINGTON, Vt. - Despite what all my friends who junketed down to Cancun, Mexico, for the World Trade Organization meeting say, I think it's better to be here in Burlington. Cancun, after all, is overrun with socialists, Marxists, bureaucrats and unwashed activists with pierced faces. Burlington is too, of course. But I've got nicer weather.
The talks in Cancun failed for two reasons. First, they failed because Americans and Europeans talk a great game about free trade but are outrageously protectionist when it comes to agriculture. And, second, because the poor countries, led by Brazil, were sufficiently peeved by point No. 1 so as to foolishly decide that no progress was better than some progress.
There are two ways to be a protectionist. You can make the other guy's stuff more expensive for consumers through tariffs, duties, customs fees and other taxes at the border, or you can make your own stuff artificially cheaper for consumers by subsidizing it.
The rich countries, with a few exceptions, spend more on crops than they're worth. The price of cotton, for example, has fallen by 60 percent since 1995 to around 40 cents a pound. But under George Bush's farm bill, U.S. cotton farmers will receive payments of 66 cents a pound. This amounts to a direct subsidy of more than $3 billion to America's 25,000 cotton farmers.
And that's just cotton. American taxpayers will spend nearly $500 billion on farm subsidies and programs over the next decade - roughly $4,400 per tax-paying household, according to Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation.
Not only does this soak taxpayers for the benefit of a small special interest, it condemns billions of people to poverty because our subsidies make it impossible for foreigners to sell their crops.
Writing for TechCentralStation.com, economists Kevin Hassett and Robert Shapiro cite studies suggesting that a lifting of European agricultural subsidies could lift the annual income of everybody living in sub-Saharan Africa by 13 percent.
Ending subsidies would do more than foreign aid - i.e. transnational welfare - ever did for the world's poor for the simple reason that governments of poor countries stink at doing pretty much everything we think governments should do.
And despite what anybody may tell you, the only thing that makes poor countries less poor is economic growth. For years, the folks represented by those anti-WTO protesters believed the best way to solve poverty was to socialize it. This is actually the best way to make poverty permanent.