Friday, November 05, 2010

Federal spending and the Tea Party in Texas House districts

I'm taking a short break from the Friday Night Lights project while I get through an especially hectic phase at my job. I'll be back at it soon. In the meantime, NPR's Planet Money just had an episode that, like Friday Night Lights and a lot of other great popular art, was about life, work, politics and survival in Texas.

Last Friday's Planet Money was about a cotton war between the United States and Brazil. The US spends about $3 billion a year subsidizing its cotton industry. This includes payments to farmers in Lubbock and Lynn County, Texas. The result is an overproduction of cotton that holds down prices worldwide. Brazil isn't happy about this since it, too, produces cotton and doesn't appreciate the US industry having this unfair advantage or the resulting price distortion. Brazil basically sued the United States through World Trade Organization, and the WTO agreed that the US cotton subsidy was against the rules each country participating in the WTO agreed to. The US appealed several times, and each time the WTO sided with Brazil.

The WTO doesn't have an enforcement mechanism; it can't actually make the US end the subsidy. What it could do, though, and what it did do, was authorize Brazil to tax American imports up to specific amount of money each year. Brazil chose to tax some high-end luxury items, hoping those American industries would then pressure the US government about the cotton subsidy, which is what happened. That motivated the US government to negotiate with Brazil. The US said that because the cotton subsidy is part of the Farm Bill, which isn't up for re-authorization until 2012, they could not legally end the subsidy until then. But, what they could do is subsidize Brazil's cotton industry. And that's where the story ends, with the United States government subsidizing not only its domestic cotton growers but Brazil's, too.

The facts of the story defy all sorts of logic, not to mention free market capitalist dogma, and its conclusion doesn't really solve any problem. If the US gets rid of the cotton subsidy in 2012, the domestic industry suffers if not dies, though the industries in other countries surely benefit. If the US continues the subsidy (a violation of both the spirit and letter of the free trade organization we opted into), it will also have to keep bribing Brazil to not exercise its right under the WTO to tax its imports from the US. There's something very practical and elegantly cynical about the bribery arrangement, it maintains the status quo indefinitely; nobody ever has to make the hard decision. It's also kind of a bargain, since the annual $147 million payments to Brazil are only about 5% of the $3 billion cotton subsidy.

This whole situation could offend plenty of political sensibilities. The Tea Party, though, has been so dogmatic* about government spending that it's hard to imagine how one of their candidates would resolve the conflict. Would they have the stomach to stand against the cotton subsidy, especially if it might mean a loss of jobs or federal money in their district? This is why I was surprised to learn that Tea Party Republicans now represent districts in Texas that benefit from the cotton subsidy.

*I know the Tea Party has developed as a decentralized, non-hierarchical movement incorporating a broad coalition, but the unifying theme of it has been the opposition to government spending.

Midterm elections usually result in losses for whichever party is in the White House. Nationally, the elections last week went the way everyone expected: the Republicans won the House and gained in the Senate. On the other hand, what happened in Texas was pretty remarkable. Texas has been reliably conservative for the last few years, but it became much more so last Tuesday. The Texas House went from being almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (76-74) to being utterly dominated by Republicans (99-51).

The areas of Texas referred to in Planet Money's Cotton Wars story, Lubbock and Lynn County, are in the state's rural panhandle, an area covered by Texas House Districts 83, 84 and 85. Last week, all three districts elected Tea Party Republicans to the Texas House (Charles Perry, John Frullo, and Jim Landtroop, respectively). Granted, the Farm Bill and its subsidies are federal issues, not state ones, so while you can't quite call these guys hypocrites, you could maybe make a case for naive or Quixotic. I have to wonder if they appreciate how government spending protects a way of life in their districts, or if they even recognize an economic and public policy reality: that government dollars flow from affluent urban areas to rural ones. It's hard for me to imagine that part of the state really wants the alternative.

1 comment:

ryan said...

At the risk of simply sounding kneejerk, I'm pretty sure very few of those Republicans (and pretty much none of the Teabaggers) actually understand how any part of taxation and government actually works. If they don't, that makes them merely stupid, uninformed, and willfully ignorant of reality, and completely unqualified to be in any position of power. If they do, that makes them even more cynical, underhanded, dishonest, and corrupt than they already seem. Not sure which one is worse.