Trade Policy Stinks (and Not in a Good Way)


Semi-good news for lovers of cheese and free trade: The U.S. Trade Representative's office has announced that a looming 300 percent tax on Roquefort will be postponed for a month, and possibly done away with.

Prices were already inflating in anticipation of a March 23 deadline, courtesy of a parting gift from the Bush administration, which slapped the tax increase on the stinky blue sheep's cheese as part of a spat with France over importation of American beef.

Even if a deal is reached and the Roquefort is allowed to roam free, delighting cheese lovers of many nations, the whole hullabaloo highlights how ridiculous international trade negotiations can be, with countries running to the World Trade Organization to "tell" on each other for being unfair. Consider this fairly normal back-and-forth, as reported straight by Reuters:

The European Union banned U.S. and Canadian beef in 1988 because of fears growth hormones fed to cattle by U.S. and Canadian farmers could cause cancer.

The United States and Canada complained to the World Trade Organization, which agreed the ban was not supported by scientific studies. The WTO battle has continued.

The United States was allowed to impose sanctions worth $116.8 million per year on EU goods starting in July 1999.

The Bush administration changed the list of products facing duties just before leaving office in January, adding meat, chewing gum, chocolate, certain jams, and some fruit. Mineral water and chestnuts from France were added, and the duties on Roquefort cheese were to be hiked to 300 percent.

Last month, I got an email from my favorite cheese-monger, Jill Erber, at Cheesetique in Alexandria, Virginia. She sums things up perfectly:

Obviously, Roquefort is a TEENY TINY portion of imported food in the US, so why pick on this poor little cheese and, by association, the 600-person town of Roquefort? It's called symbolism, my friends. Roquefort, like foie gras and truffles, simply says, "France".

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.