Untouched by foreign human hands

If you’re into food policy you’ve certainly heard by now about the Bush Administration’s last minute decision to slap a punitive 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese. Because it’s, uh, French and stuff. Still, I thought this email from the owner of Cheesetique in Alexandria, VA was worth reprinting (the whole thing’s at Crispy):

I was shocked and awed not by that cavalier attack on our broad free-trade liberties, but by the specific violation featured prominently on the front page (albeit below the fold): little old Roquefort is under attack! That sublime product of lactation, coagulation, and fermentation has always held a special place in my heart, despite its high price tag and limited availability. Not only do I have a particular affection for Roquefort, but so do Cheesetique’s discerning customers, who marvel at its romantic story of creation, rustic approach to production even today, and exclusive availability. Your love of raw milk Roquefort has made it a staple in many of my cheese classes and one of the most popular and consistent sellers at Cheesetique. Since opening our doors more than four years ago, we have never been without Roquefort Papillon (I prefer this brand above others, though we have also carried Carles, which is outstanding). We have sold hundreds of pounds of Roquefort despite its title as the most expensive cheese consistently carried at Cheesetique. [...]

Why do I focus today on this seemingly insignificant example of protectionism at it worst when there are such large-scale issues to consider in our tumultuous time? For that reason exactly. There are so many huge examples of economic policies gone awry, totaling billions and trillions of dollars, and for that very reason, I point out this easily identifiable, but no less extreme violation of the American ways of free choice and trade.

As our own form of culinary protest, Cheesetique will continue to carry Roquefort until it is no longer available, which I assure you, will only be a matter of time. Not only will we continue to carry it, but its price will never exceed that which we pay for it. We encourage those of you that might have shied away from this pricey perfection in the past to come in and pick up a piece of one of the most historically significant and perfectly created foods in the world – at $20.00 per pound. Yes, you read correctly. $20 per pound.

Remember: Protectionism is bad. Roquefort is good. Long live the latter!

It’s a good thing our new cosmopolitan rulers are above such petty anti-foreign sentiment. Oh, wait:

Washington souvenirs worth $100,000 — including images of the Capitol dome and printings of the U.S. Constitution — are locked in storage, blocked from sale in the new U.S. Capitol Visitors Center because the items are made in China.

Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he warned operators of the visitors center not to purchase merchandise made outside the United States, but they did it anyway.

Although the center has the goods in hand, Brady said, “I’m not allowing them to sell those products.”

His Administration Committee oversees operations in the House of Representatives, including the House restaurant, parking facilities and the Capitol Visitors Center. A spokesman for the committee said other House gift shops also are under restrictions on items made outside the United States.

Brady, whose district includes Philadelphia, insists that it’s wrong for tourists to return home with a souvenir from the nation’s capital that bears a “‘Made in China’ sticker.”

And it’s not just the little stuff, either:

The stimulus bill passed by the House last night contains a controversial provision that would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package.

A Senate version, yet to be acted upon, goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

Proponents of expanding the “Buy American” provisions enacted during the Great Depression, including steel and iron manufacturers and labor unions, argue that it is the only way to ensure that the stimulus creates jobs at home and not overseas.

Stimulus advocates are fond of comparing our current situation to the Great Depression. Though the scale of the recession and the trade restrictions are nothing compared to that period yet, the comparison should give them pause. Dan Ikenson writes:

For all practical purposes there is no difference between the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930 and the “Buy American” provisions in the $819 billion spending bill that passed the House Wednesday.

Smoot-Hawley was the catalyst for a pandemic of tit-for-tat protectionism around the world, which helped deepen and prolong the global depression in the 1930s. “Buy American” provisions will no doubt inspire similar trade barriers abroad and will have the same effect of reducing global trade—and therefore prospects for economic recovery. It is not unreasonable to say that U.S. policymakers are on the verge of taking us down that same disastrous path.

The first acts of Obama’s presidency impressed even skeptics like me, but if we continue down this path McCain’s principled free trade policies are going to be sorely missed.

Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    I guess I don’t see the parallels between S-H and the “Buy American” stuff. Smoot-Hawley imposed a lot of tariffs charged directly on all foreign imports. The “Buy American” provisions simply state that the federal government, as a consumer (albeit a large one), shall not purchase foreign-made goods. Our fellow consumers frequently make the same decision, and it hasn’t touched off a round of protectionism among other nations’ consumers. What makes you think that the same decision, when taken by buyers for the federal government, would lead to different and more drastic consequences?

  2. Jacob Grier says:

    Because, as with so many other activities, governments are held to a stricter standard than private individuals. Specifically the stimulus bill may violate government procurement agreements in the WTO, allowing other nations to penalize the US with the WTO’s blessing.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/31/AR2009013101895.html

    Even if this turns out not to be the case, it is a sign that Obama will not put the US in the position of being a credible advocate for free trade at a time when that role is sorely needed.

  3. Jacob Grier says:

    Paul Krugman just posted on this too:
    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/protectionism-and-stimulus-wonkish/

    In short, even if you like domestic stimulus, you have to consider that it may not be worth the potentially long-term setbacks to global trade.

  4. Jeff says:

    Not a big fan of stimulus in general, but yeah, I didn’t realize that the WTO dictated government procurement standards.

    Quasi-related question: how do libertarians reconcile a desire for limited government generally with the presence of an organization like the WTO, which dictates terms of trade agreements to other countries?

  5. Jacob Grier says:

    I was actually considering doing a post on that in the near future. Some grass roots libertarians oppose the WTO for just that reason, but I think it’s safe to say that the more policy-oriented libertarians view the WTO favorably.

    It’s really a very weak organization that doesn’t have the power to dictate to anyone. It’s more like a court of arbitration whose rules signatories agree to abide by — and if they violate those rules, the worst that happens is that other countries get to retaliate with WTO approval. It’s not a sovereign government body and it serves a useful role in driving free trade, so most DC-style libertarians are ok with it even if they have some specific criticisms about its policies or priorities.

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