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January 2012 Archive for The Truth about Trade

RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

Don’t Mess With the Single-Focused USTR

Jan 26, 2012

 By Dean Kleckner

I have a message for President Obama: Don’t mess with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Earlier this month, the President spoke of the need to improve the government’s performance--and he amplified this theme on Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address.
"The executive branch also needs to change," he said. "Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated, and remote."
True enough.
Then he continued: "That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people."
It sounds like a great idea. Yet the details of the President’s recent proposal to reform one area of the federal government contain a serious defect that would undermine the very principles he applauds.
President Obama wants to merge the core functions of the Department of Commerce with six agencies: the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Trade and Development Agency, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Bureaucratic reorganization is often an excellent idea, especially if it eliminates wasteful spending by wiping out redundancy. The White House claims that this particular consolidation would reduce the federal payroll by as many as 2,000 jobs, saving taxpayers $3 billion in ten years. That’s probably a stretch, but even a fraction of this amount is a goal worth pursuing.
So much of President Obama’s proposal has merit.
Yet it also contains a fatal flaw. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) works very well right now. It should remain independent, reporting directly to the president.
USTR is a model agency for government, operating at an astonishing level of efficiency. I’ve seen it around the world.  They do so much with so few.  Only about 200 people work for it, meaning that there are more than 10,000 federal workers for every employee of the trade office.
At the same time, USTR delivers big benefits by negotiating trade deals with other countries that help Americans sell goods and services to foreign customers.
During his State of the Union speech, President Obama singled out the accomplishments of USTR. "We’re also making it easier for American businesses to sell products all over the world," he said.  "Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. Soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit, and Toledo, and Chicago."
He might have added that American farmers and ranchers also will enjoy new opportunities to sell what they grow and raise.
These trade pacts will create thousands of jobs on farms and in factories. They would not exist without USTR. There probably is not a government agency that achieves better results with fewer resources.
Given that USTR does so much so well, we shouldn’t try to change the way it works. Stuffing it inside the Department of Commerce would downgrade its status, eliminate its independence, and thwart its objectives.
The United States needs to have a trade diplomat who possesses genuine stature, rather than a spot on an organization chart that puts the office below the head of a third-tier cabinet secretary. Not only should the trade chief speak directly for the president, but foreign leaders must understand that the Oval Office is just a phone call away. Otherwise, they won’t engage in serious trade negotiations with us.
What’s more, the Department of Commerce is home to a bundle of bureaucracies, from the Census Bureau to the National Weather Service. The tiny trade office would become lost amid the department’s multitude of agencies and purposes. Parts of the department aren’t even oriented toward expanding trade, but rather toward protecting industries from foreign competition.
Our trade negotiators should have a single focus on expanding U.S. economic opportunities, without having to worry about the distractions of petty turf wars.
So President Obama should move forward with his proposed reorganization of the Department of Commerce and several related agencies--but he should leave USTR alone, in recognition of its unique contributions to our prosperity.
Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)

An Antidote of Truth for The Atlantic’s Misinformation

Jan 19, 2012

 By Bill Horan – Rockwell City, Iowa

"You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts," said the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The editors of The Atlantic should hang this line in their newsroom. If they had paid more attention to its wisdom, they might have saved their magazine from an embarrassment last week.
On January 9, The Atlantic’s website published an article whose headline won’t win any awards for subtlety: "The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods," by Ari LeVaux.
It sounded like a press release from Greenpeace, or one of the other radical groups that crusade against agricultural technology with ideological fervor. The content wasn’t much better. It showed what can happen when people who don’t know much about science try to write about it.
The Atlantic should know better. It’s one of the great magazines in the history of American journalism. It was founded more than a century and a half ago by the country’s intellectual leaders--figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It made its name publishing authors like Mark Twain. The Atlantic has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence.
But it will squander this legacy if it continues to publish trash as it did last week.
LeVaux is a newspaper columnist who, according to his personal website, writes restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Weekly Alibi, a publication that describes itself as an "alternative newsweekly." How this makes him an authority on genetics and food is unclear. In his article for The Atlantic, however, LeVaux claimed to have discovered a troubling connection between genetically modified food and human health. He tossed around terms chosen for maximum fright value, such as "metabolic disorders" and "cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes."
LeVaux based his allegations on a paper by a team of Chinese scientists and published in Cell Research. It concerned microRNA, which are tiny sequences of RNA.
There was just one problem: The paper in Cell Research said absolutely nothing about GM food. The connection between microRNA and the health of the billions of people who eat GM food daily was entirely hypothetical.
Yet ordinary readers of LeVaux’s article wouldn’t have known this. The Atlantic is a general-interest magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal for scientific experts. Its readers most likely never have heard of microRNA or, if they have, possess only a sketchy understanding of what it is and what it does.
Before long, LeVaux’s provocative claims were tweeting around the world. It was the most emailed article on The Atlantic’s website.
This is a case study in how misinformation is born--and how it can spread, like a virus.
Almost immediately, however, scientists fought back with the antidote of truth. On the website of Scientific American--another highly respected magazine--Christie Wilcox published a compelling rebuttal titled "The Very Real Scaremongering of Ari LeVaux." And on a blog called The Biology Files, Emily Willingham presented her own devastating response.
Discover magazine summed up the controversy on its website: "For anyone familiar with the paper [LaVaux] referred to, or with molecular biology in general, the article was full of conflation and sloppy logic."
By the end of the week, LeVaux was backpedaling. On his personal website, he admitted to "many unfortunate errors" in his original article. He wrote a revised version for AlterNet, a left-wing website, with a new headline: "How Genetically Modified Foods Could Affect Our Health in Unexpected Ways." Even this toned-down headline was a gross and misleading overstatement, but at least it appeared in a venue that doesn’t carry The Atlantic’s prestigious stamp of approval.
Genetically modified food is perfectly safe and nobody has ever shown otherwise. Farmers have planted more than three billion acres of GM crops. If this food was harmful, we’d have clear evidence by now.
It doesn’t surprise me that LeVaux would attack GM food with such desperate and ignorant passion. The world is full of people who refuse to understand the promise of agricultural biotechnology. They’ll never learn.
But The Atlantic? I expect better from this important and influential magazine.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa.  Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Vote for Trade, Not War

Jan 16, 2012

By John Rigolizzo Jr., Berlin, N.J.

The New Hampshire primary provided a glimpse of our political future—and not only in terms of who may win the Republican presidential nomination. It also foreshadowed a coming national debate over trade with China.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney carried the state, as expected. He took 39 percent of the vote and now looks like a strong favorite as the race shifts to South Carolina and Florida.
Romney may in fact have found a winning formula, and part of that formula involves talking tough on China. He has been at it for months—and he hammered China again on Saturday night, in a debate with the other candidates.
"If I’m president of the United States, I’m not going to continue to talk about how important China is and how we have to get along," he said. "They’re very important, and we do have to get along. But I’m also going to tell the Chinese it’s time to stop. You have to play by the rules. I will not let you kill American jobs any longer."
Romney lit into the Chinese for "stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our know-how, and our brand names." His indictment continued: "They’re hacking into our computers, stealing information from not only corporate computers but from government computers. And they’re manipulating their currency."
Many of these charges are accurate. But they raise an important question: Is Romney willing to risk a trade war with China?
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire with 17 percent, thinks so: "What [Romney] is calling for would lead to a trade war," he said. Huntsman can claim some expertise on the matter. He was the U.S. ambassador in Beijing and can talk about China in Chinese, as he did on Saturday night, to the puzzlement of many listeners.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum—the surprise of the Iowa caucuses but an also-ran in New Hampshire—has complained about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. But he has also warned about starting a trade war with China. "We just need to beat them," he said last fall.
Romney says he doesn’t want a trade war. That’s good, because nobody wins trade wars. Everybody loses. And when it comes to trade with China, Americans have a lot to lose—by 2014, say economists; China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest importer of goods and services.
This is a business opportunity we should pursue, rather than throw away for the sake of political expediency. Farmers have a special stake in this debate because China buys enormous amounts of soybeans and, increasingly, corn.
Romney appears to understand the importance of international trade. He was a supporter of the recently approved trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. He says the president should have Trade Promotion Authority. He knows that U.S. exports create jobs for Americans.
Yet he has also embraced a dangerous bit of protectionism: He calls for special tariffs on Chinese products, in retaliation for China keeping the value of its currency artificially low. Last fall, the Democrat-led Senate passed a bill to impose these duties, but the Republican-controlled House refused to take up the legislation.
The White House has remained noncommittal. This week, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration plans to convene a special task force to monitor trade with China "as part of a larger White House effort to get more assertive with Beijing this election year."
So the bipartisan China bashing is sure to continue.
There is no doubt that China manipulates its currency. The question is whether Washington can compel Beijing to change its ways. More likely, it would just escalate tensions, to the detriment of ordinary people in both countries.
Here’s another idea. Instead of risking a trade war with China, let’s get behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both Obama and Romney say they’re for this initiative, which would create a free-trade zone around the Pacific Rim—but not with China, at least not in the near term.
The best way to get tough with China, while working with our allies, is convincing the Chinese that working with us is to their advantage.
John Rigolizzo Jr. is a fifth-generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

Iowa Caucus -- A Comparison Plot for Candidates

Jan 04, 2012


By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa


Pundits say that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.


We do grow a lot of corn on our acres here in Iowa--and our political caucuses reap a different kind of harvest. From a big field of candidates, they separate the serious from the pretenders, narrowing the range of choices for voters elsewhere.


Farmers may want to think of the process as democracy’s comparison plot: You plant a variety of seeds in different rows, testing new traits and technologies and picking winners based on yield and other quality characteristics.


Sometimes the results offer a surprise. A couple of weeks ago, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum looked like a non-factor in the Republican presidential contest. Then he enjoyed a growth spurt at exactly the right time, earning a photo-finish tie with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on Tuesday night.


If the GOP nomination comes down to a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, it will be due to the comparison-plot research that Iowans have just conducted. Voters in other states will study the results and make their own assessments, starting next week in New Hampshire.


Technically, Romney won the caucuses--but only by eight votes, out of more than 122,000 cast. It remains to be seen whether Santorum can break the pattern of this race, in which Romney has maintained a weak but consistent lead as a series of rivals have risen and fallen.


We’ve all experienced crops that appear promising early on but disappoint later. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas congressman Ron Paul, and Texas governor Rick Perry each have enjoyed moments of opportunity--but they’ve also withered under close scrutiny.


Will Santorum? He’s the man of the hour. The good news for Republican voters is that Santorum’s 16 years in Congress--four in the House, 12 in the Senate--provide an extensive record for examination. Although Santorum is best known for his social conservatism, he has cast votes on just about everything.


Farmers who understand that their livelihood depends on access to foreign markets will discover a mixed record. Santorum has supported many of the free-trade agreements that are essential to U.S. exports in agriculture and manufacturing. He voted for deals with Australia, Chile, Morocco, Oman, and Singapore. He also favored the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which faced fierce opposition in 2005.


Yet his record also betrays a willingness to play the politics of protectionism. In 1993, Santorum opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement--and he has defended his vote ever since. "I thought that Mexico was, frankly, not going to be a particularly trustworthy trading partner at the time, and I think that proved out to be the case," he said in August. "NAFTA has been, at best, in my opinion, a wash."


This strain of populism may appeal to certain constituencies, but it doesn’t exactly present a profile in political courage.


Santorum has turned away from trade at other times as well. He supported tariffs on steel--a move that may coddle a few manufacturers in his home state, but which also raises consumer prices on all Americans, including farmers who need to buy new tractors made of affordable materials. In 1997, he proposed a special penny tax on imported honey, in a measure that the Club for Growth has described as "a special-interest giveaway."


Going forward, Santorum has said that during his first term as president, he would negotiate five new free-trade agreements. Yet he hasn’t provided specifics--and it’s unclear whether he would get behind a bold plan such as a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could potentially include Japan, Canada and Mexico.


Romney says he’s for the TPP. But I have major concerns with his statements regarding our trade relationship with China and the potential need to add tariffs to Chinese products coming into this country.  He has also outlined a plan to pursue free-trade agreements with Brazil and India as well as create a "Reagan Economic Zone" that would encourage the exchange of goods and services throughout the Americas.


The TPP is a key plank in the economic agenda of President Obama, who, by the way, won Iowa’s Democratic caucus on Tuesday (he was unopposed). Before arriving in the White House, Obama was a hardcore protectionist--but then he reversed course, delivering free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and plotting additional progress as he tries to make good on a promise to double U.S. exports by 2015.


When Obama squares off against a Republican--whether it’s Romney, Santorum, or someone else--he’ll be able to claim, accurately, that he has increased export opportunities for American farmers and manufacturers.


Republicans will be wise to select a candidate who wants to do the same--or they may find themselves, come November, stranded in the wrong comparison plot.


Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm.  Tim participated in his precinct caucus.  He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology.  www.truthabouttrade.org
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