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Cotton fleece

"Cotton fleece" Continued...

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

If the federal government really wants to help poor rural America, Mr. Riedl suggests, it would cost just $4 billion a year to support each full-time farmer at 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $32,600 for a family of four in 2001). Still, it is wealthy commercial farmers and agri-businesses who were able to pressure Congress to extend the 1996 farm bill, and pad it with more pay-outs.

"In 2002, Senate leaders identified farmers as the swing voters who would decide control of the Senate," said Mr. Riedl. "The ensuing bipartisan bidding war resulted in the most expensive farm bill in American history."

Paying out farm subsidies is hypocritical for the United States, which always encourages developing countries to create free-market economies, says American University economist George Ayittey. But he distinguishes subsidy woes from Africa's chronic food shortages. "There has been a general tendency, on the part of African leaders, to overplay the external factors, perhaps to provide justification for more food aid or to shift responsibility away from their own failed policies," he said. "If the agricultural sector were on a strong basis to begin with, it would have recovered quickly from an externally induced shock."

Even with enough blame to go around for Africa's poverty, cutting U.S. subsidies would help the continent support itself instead of relying on handouts. Mr. Hamufuba put his family's needs at a modest $1,000 a year. He looked at his settlement and saw things he would like to improve soon. One thatched roof-"a fire hazard"-he said, grinning, will have to go in favor of metal roof sheeting. He is careful with the tools of his livelihood, sheltering 100-pound bags of cotton fertilizer in one house, and hanging his pesticide sprayer in a dusky corner of another.

He built his second house because it is cultural taboo for his second wife to live under the same roof as his first, who died of malaria four years ago. He did not have the money to take his first wife to the local hospital immediately, and she died after 10 days there.

"A lot of death here is because of poorness," he said. "We cannot do things urgently. If they refer you to the hospital, you have to start borrowing money. Also the disease gets worse, and after two to three days, one dies." But, he said, a sudden smile breaking across his face, "God blessed me again. I got another wife."

Trade and aid

More than two months after Asia's tsunami, talk has turned away from emergency aid to rebuilding. The estimated price tag is as big as the wave: $10 billion to $12 billion over the next three to five years.

Looking at the long run, economist Eric Schansberg detected some irony. The Indiana University Southeast professor noted that Americans were generous in sending money for the tsunami's victims-his own Kentucky church collected more than $700,000. At the same time, he also found that countries such as Sri Lanka pay steep tariffs on the products they export to the United States. Such duties could hinder their reconstruction work, and several have already asked the United States to lower or remove them.

In 2003, for example, Sri Lanka paid $244 million in tariffs for garments and textiles it exports to the United States. According to Oxfam International, an advocacy group for poor countries, the clothing industry accounts for more than half the island's export income and provides 350,000 jobs. Indonesia also paid a tidy sum, $426 million.

"It's like telling welfare people who are working, you should not sell your products," Mr. Schansberg said. "In the case of the tsunami victims, if we're rendering aid, why not look at trade as well?"

As with farm subsidies, however, U.S. industries are reluctant to lose their market share to low-cost foreign producers. Thailand lost almost a third of its shrimp hatcheries along its coastline, which supplied more than half the country's shrimps. But U.S. shrimpers are afraid cheap Thai shrimp-along with other Asian suppliers-will drive them out of business. The United States is considering lifting tariffs after the tsunami, but good intentions stand to be washed away by special interest groups.

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