The day U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the White House plan to spread $12 billion of taxpayer salve on its festering tariff wound, November soybean futures ended their day completely unimpressed — down a sleepy 2.5 cents.
Farmers echoed the market reaction; they, too, were unimpressed with the bailout. “Trade, not aid,” was their polite, but pointed, take on the handout.
Less than a week later, however, November soybean futures closed a sparkling 28 cents higher “after Bloomberg News reported officials from the U.S. and China were having private talks in hopes of resolving trade disputes.”
Hmm. Sec. Sonny throws 12 billion borrowed bucks — and who knows how much of it from China — at U.S. farmers to bandage a trade cut and the market barely burps while a single rumor of undefined “talks” sends it skyward like a bottle rocket.
There’s a lesson here for big-tweeting, gunslinger toe shooters in the White House and its worshipful Cabinet: Holster your checkbooks, guns, and baloney and whip out your smiles, manners, and facts if you want to regain the trade ground lost since you “free traders” took over.
That’s especially important now as Congress marries the Senate and House Farm Bills for a hoped-for September vote. Each has two hinged parts — crop insurance and trade. The former won’t work without the latter and the latter is — has been — the market-driving center of U.S. farm policy for decades.
Was it — is it — wise to put our eggs in that global basket? Should we continue to, basically, export our vital natural resources at ever-cheapening world commodity prices? Should we look to a longer-term, more resource-accountable farm policy?
All are important questions. Congress, however, is a politically pragmatic body that reacts to constituents — at least the ones with political muscle and moolah. If farmers want an export-directed, risk-averse Farm Bill that’s short on rules and long on promises, Congress figures out how to deliver it, not whether it’s right or fair.
But that process leaves American farmers and ranchers at the mercy of today’s White House trade strategy: Exit nearly completed multilateral agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (with Pacific Rim nations) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with most of Europe), demand renegotiation of current agreements (NAFTA), and slap tariffs on imports from anyone (China, Mexico, Canada, the European Union) who questions anything.
It’s hard to recall a time when American farmers had more riding on such an incoherent, uncoordinated approach to trade. It isn’t hard, however, to remember a time when the U.S. was more disingenuous in its approach to trade: never.
Worse, our trading partners know it.
China, for example, alerted the Trump Administration it no longer trusts U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to act as a liason should bilateral trade talks resume. Why? Presumably because of a mid-May speech to the National Press Club in which Ross claimed that “China, the world’s largest car market, is effectively closed to our exporters.”
While that sounds good in Washington, it simply isn’t true. Indeed, General Motors announced in early 2018 that it “and its joint ventures sold more than 4 million vehicles in China for the first time in 2017.” And, it added, “China was GM’s largest retail market for the sixth consecutive year.”
Ross isn’t alone in creating facts to fit his story. Recently the president announced “a breakthrough agreement” on trade with the European Union after a White House meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
“While Mr. Trump told an Iowa crowd Thursday [July 26] that ‘we just opened up Europe for you farmers,’” the Wall Street Journal reported the next day, “officials in Brussels later said he did no such thing… ‘Agriculture is out of the scope of these discussions,’” a European Commission spokeswoman told reporters.
Which raises the simple point that if the Trump Administration can’t shoot straight with either you or your trading partners, maybe “aid, not trade” is more of a reality than a clever rural rhyme.