Friday, October 20, 2006

free and fair?

somewhere, i suspect, in the intricate webworks of the specialty coffee world there are many intersections of politics and economics affecting the lives of the masses of coffee workers. this is nothing new, i suppose; for everyone who buys green coffee has at one point or another been subject to the pricing whims of the market as a measure of their cost of goods. and while the scale of proportion maxim rings very true that pennies per pound to a roaster means a year's survival--or not--to a farmer and his people there are even more of those clouds brewing overhead in the near future that, sadly, have very little to do with the quality of coffee itself.

one such intersection of the economics of coffee comes in the upcoming elections to be held next month in the u.s. more specifically, it has to do with the politics of power and how economic policies here in the u.s. can have terrible ramifications for people in many, many other nations.

i'm talking about the potential loss of power by the republicans and the unwillingness of their more economically liberal democrats to bring legislation to the table that would eliminate tariffs between the u.s. and other nations. much has been made about the democrats' proclivity toward protectionism and how a return to power by the democrats could mean a return to the glory days of influence peddling by organized labor and their populist policies.

in other words, a classic battle is brewing between the forces of free trade and the forces of fair trade.

on the face of it it seems pretty straightforward. fair-trade has been a boon for many coffee farmers and helped them escape a crushing cycle of poverty. but it also has a tendency to create a bloated bureaucracy around its implementation, is a huge disincentive toward quality coffee and is wholly unverifiable to any degree of comfort for this blogger. it is an artificial system to level the playing field by making everyone and everything equal, regardless of merit or quality of product. and while, yes, it definitely has helped quite a few, ultimately, like the failed socialistic systems of the former soviet republic, fair trade will finally collapse under its own weight because either the people will see it for the sham it has become or because a truer view of specialty coffee will prevail, one in which spectacular coffee is valued at a much higher rate of return than the fair trade movement can keep pace with (see examples here and here). but the fair trade scheme is typical of any system that is often blindly touted as a savior for coffee and countries. it doesn't matter what the merits are, let's just give them all a ribbon and call it good. this is the radical egalitarian ethos and summation of the liberal left currently vying for power in the upcoming elections. and if indeed republicans do lose those six seats in the senate and the handful of seats in the house the hard won victories for free trade in the americas could come to a screeching halt, raising the price of coffee yet again--based on artificial economics and not on quality. democrats might likely attempt to repeal both nafta and cafta and seem certain to keep any potential similar legislation from even reaching the floor of the legislative bodies.

the other side of the coin is the free trade reality that some say is not really all that free for all. often, one side stands to gain much more from the opening of economic borders than nearly all others combined. the case has been made many times that the u.s. is the single largest beneficiary of free trade agreements such as nafta and cafta because in the world market, u.s. manufacturing might (would?) effectively crowd out local products, opening the way for further globalization and domination by american companies. this is, obviously, wholly irrelevant to the discussion of coffee, since only one state in the union even produces coffee--and has its own set of artificial price propper-uppers that are completely devoid of merit, in my opinion. continued free trade between the americas only stands to help american coffee importers, roasters and consumers, since we would be able to continue to enjoy the benefits of great coffee arriving at our shores without taxes, tariffs and trade regulations which would bump the price ever higher both artificially and arbitrarily. the long and short of that equation is that freed up american dollars always flow downward, creating a rising tide that lifts all boats. before long, americans will start comparing what kind of boats between them and begin to race/consume toward the top of that category. in that analogy, specialty coffee is the 'boat' category that is set to continue floating ever higher under any free trade agreement.

republicans: good for specialty coffee?


At Sunday, 22 October, 2006, Blogger Ditchdigger said...

I tend to think of politics in general and politicians specifically as being irrelevant to me and my life, but the more I read about history, the more I am coming to realize how much of an affect they actually have on the way we live. Cause and effect. Thanks for the interesting article.


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