Don't Look Behind the Curtain

Dairy Cow USDA

USDA Photo by Preston Keres

In the wake of the G7 summit, the news was focused on President Trump’s astonishing demands to end all tariffs everywhere and to readmit Russia, as well as his insults of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Just days ago, most of the other countries’ leaders were focused on the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs and the waves or retaliatory tariffs that were underway. Now, suddenly, that focus has vanished, with attention shifting to the next outlandish statement. 

This sleight of hand is nothing new in this administration, especially on trade policy. Whether Trump will agree to NAFTA or withdraw, whether he will exempt countries from the steel and aluminum tariffs, is anyone’s guess from day-to-day. 

Look behind the curtain now of what’s actually being negotiated. The “show” is that these moves are there to help U.S. workers. That’s an appealing show—one I’d like to see—especially after the heavy-handed push by the Obama and Clinton administrations to ram through trade deals with virtually no attention to the interests of working people. In that show, Trump appears to be a champion for trade that helps Americans.

Except that he isn’t.

One only need look to the text of NAFTA, or what we can see of it. Hidden well behind the curtain, what we know of the negotiations is alarming. On one hand, there appears to be a real move to eliminate the egregious investor-state dispute settlement. That would be an important first step.

On the other hand, there are many issues being negotiated behind closed doors. From public comments, we know that big businesses are pushing to include many of the worst provisions from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would create new obstacles to better environmental and public health rules. But what’s in the agreement is unknown. There was one important leak on labeling: A proposal to put limits on nutrition warning labels that “inappropriately denotes that a hazard exists from consumption of the food or nonalcoholic beverages.” After that hit the New York Times and a congressional hearing, reports are that it has been shelved. But the rest of the text, including possible restrictions on processed food labels and on government rules on marketing junk food to children, remains hidden.

This is bad news for farmers. Farm incomes are down for the fifth straight year, and the rate of suicides is higher among farmers than any other profession. But in that case too, the promise is the mirage of export markets. Trump has pushed hard to open up Canada’s dairy markets to U.S. exports. Canada has a successful dairy supply management program that balances supply and demand in ways that help farmers and consumers. But even if that market was completely opened, it wouldn’t resolve the deeper problems of overproduction and low prices. Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman asked, “Why should I want to produce more, sell more, when there is no profit? It only means farmers will need to work harder to make the same or less, at the expense of Canadian and Mexican farmers.”

Trade rules matter. The fact that other countries have announced their own retaliatory tariffs within WTO guidelines and have brought official complaints to the WTO dispute body is unsurprising. That’s how the system is designed to work. That system is deeply flawed, but it is a starting point from which we can debate and determine the right ways to resolve differences in the world economy.

For farmers, trade rules go hand in hand with the Farm Bill, in a cycle based on the promise that ever-expanding markets will somehow this time magically resolve problems (like erratic incomes, unhealthy foods and overstressed environments) they have only worsened in the past. 

That cycle must be broken. Other proposals exist. In Mexico, leading presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador endorsed the Plan de Ayala Siglo XXI, to refocus agricultural policy to stimulate local production, including tariffs when necessary. In the U.S., many organizations are pushing hard for new Farm Bill that would prioritize healthy food and high-value markets. In neither case are the groups calling for no trade, only that the priority should be on healthy local economies.

In the end, those proposals matter much more than Trump’s latest tweet on trade. That will still hold true as discussions and controversies continue to swirl around his meeting with North Korea’s leader. Maybe the point isn’t to worry about what’s behind the curtain, but to keep our focus on the rules and democratic values that matter.