May 15, 2004

King Cotton

Tyler Cowen alerts me to a charge of economic treason. But what surprises me most is the quote attributed to Neal van Alfen, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC-Davis. Is van Alfen qualified to hold his job? If Paul Blustein's story below is correct, then the answer is clearly "No," and UC Davis's Chancellor Vanderhoef badly needs to choose a different dean, and choose one soon:

washingtonpost.com: In U.S., Cotton Cries Betrayal: ...Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis, played a key role in an international trade case that is shaping up as one of the most significant defeats the United States has ever suffered on the trade front. An analysis that he wrote helped frame a preliminary decision issued two weeks ago by a World Trade Organization panel, which held that the federal subsidies paid to U.S. cotton farmers violate WTO rules because they cause overproduction, drive down world prices and impoverish farmers in developing countries. Since Sumner served as a paid consultant for Brazil, which brought the case against Washington, he is being reviled as a traitor by some U.S. farmers. Leaders of some farm groups, furious at Sumner for helping a foreign government win a victory that could end agricultural subsidies in their current form, are vowing to retaliate by cutting off funding for other work that he does....

To opponents of farm subsidies, the treatment Sumner is getting underscores what they have been saying all along: that well-organized and well-heeled interest groups benefit from the federal payments and will go to great lengths to protect the system despite evidence of the harm inflicted on some of the world's weakest citizens. The World Bank and other international institutions have long complained about the impact of subsidies on Third World farmers, but Sumner's cotton analysis was unusually detailed and precise. "He's done a real service, not just to Brazil, but to the world, by clarifying the role that U.S. farm programs are having globally," said Gawain Kripke, senior policy adviser at Oxfam, the international aid group.... Dale E. Hathaway, a former undersecretary of agriculture, said Sumner "did an honest job of trying to assess the impact of these subsidies, and there are some people who are not particularly enthused about having a serious job of assessing the impact, because it makes them look bad."...

U.S. trade officials defending Washington's case at the WTO attacked Sumner's analysis as faulty, but a much more vituperative reaction came from farm organizations whose California representatives went to Sumner's university last summer to confront him and university administrators. "If this was governmental or military related, it might be called treason and court martial proceedings would be in order," Earl P. Williams, president of the California Cotton Growers Association, was quoted as saying in the Western Farm Press. "Furthermore, I would hope that anyone that supports the UC system financially would step back and question continued support until this issue is resolved."...

Now that the WTO has ruled against the U.S. position, "we're just as mad as we were earlier, if not madder," Cameron said of the cotton growers group. The message has been received loud and clear by Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC-Davis, who said the amount of money farm organizations provide for research at the university is "significant."

Van Alfen said Sumner "has the right, and it's an important right" to use his academic expertise as he did by working for the Brazilians, and be paid for it, especially since he was careful to spend only vacation time doing so. But, the dean said, "I question his judgment. It's a matter of, in any organization, if you have close working relationships with a broad group of people, you want to think twice about developing relations with their competitor, and doing it in such a public way."

Posted by DeLong at May 15, 2004 04:52 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

An old story with ag colleges. It reminds me of the economist William H. Nicholls, who along with a number of others got run off from Iowa State in the 1940s. "There," he reported later, "the attack came from the state dairy association, incensed by the kind word for oleomargarine which a member of the economics department had to say in a college publication." Nicholls, ironically, wound up at Vanderbilt, where he became noted outside academe for a book entitled *Southern Tradition and Regional Progress* [from which the above quote is taken], in which he attributed the South's economic backwardness to, among other things, the vulnerability of its universities to political pressures.

Posted by: David on May 15, 2004 05:24 PM

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Hello Brad,

Respectfully, I'd like to request that you refrain from any more posts about the various ups and downs of academia. It's not that your post was so egregious, it was that it incited a veritable lovefest of other academics moonlighting as bloggers and, in some cases, bloggers who play academics on TV, to write about this subject as well. As an academic myself, I think that there is nothing more pathetic than a group of academics talking about, well, academics. Perhaps Hollywood making movies about people making movies is more pathetic. Close call. Anyway, let's keep the therapy where it should be, private, please. I'm here. I'm listening.

Posted by: Nash on May 15, 2004 05:48 PM

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I'm finishing up my PhD (in atmospheric chemistry) and I really like teaching - it is fun. But increasingly I see signs which scream 'stay away from academics.' It seems like the golden age of academics is in the past, slowly whittled away by the All-Taxes-Are-Theft jihadists, and other forces. This bit is just another indicator of that...

Nash, Brad's blog is pretty free of ivory-tower navel gazing and I've appreciated his points-of-view on these matters. Do not judge a blog by its poor imitators!

Posted by: BoulderDuck on May 15, 2004 05:58 PM

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Iím going to remember this. The conclusion from professor who is a paid consultant is not automatically false because it is assumed that he must have a conflict of interest. Critics always play the conflict of interest card. Iím thinking of a recent paper on secondary tobacco smoke.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on May 15, 2004 05:59 PM

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Land grant ag colleges have a mission. You could look it up.

Posted by: Eli Rabett on May 15, 2004 06:01 PM

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Lol, Brad--sometime you should turn your attention to the economics of fundraising. Dean van Alfen's got a major problem that has nothing to do with academics, which is only one of his jobs. His other job is to get out there and meet with donors (or sponsors) and raise money for his college, and Sumner has, in that respect, done the unthinkable--ticked off the people who write the checks that support the institution. This isn't a rare occurrence (van Alfen's remark), it just usually doesn't make the papers. If Ag raises $5 million a year, and $1 million comes from the cotton industry for subsidized research and outright support, then there's gonna be a hot time in the old development office tonight if that $1 million is suddently jeopardized. There isn't a dean in the country (let alone a development officer) who'd want to go through that kind of situation. So the dean is being reasonable by those standards, albeit he runs right up against his role as an academic who should support his professor.

Posted by: Dia on May 15, 2004 06:12 PM

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Eh?

I'm afraid I'm not an academic, and perhaps a little bit obtuse. Why is it a problem that the guy did the analysis?

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim on May 15, 2004 06:12 PM

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That's my undergrad alma mater, and my college, and that's what I would expect. It is not the first apparently paradoxical or contradictory thing to come out of that college, and it won't be the last.

I still got a great education there, despite all the contradictions.

D

Posted by: Dano on May 15, 2004 06:33 PM

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Dan Sumner is, or was, the Buck Professor of Ag & Resource Economics at UCD, a chair endowed by a local farming family. When he was hired it helped that he was also the offspring of a local farming family. Before he went away to the University of Chicago he used to make the rounds of the County Fair 4-H exhibitions, showing his prize heifers. Sumner will occasionally wear a great big shiny belt buckle that celebrates those Good Old Days.

I will be pleased and delighted to see Brad embark on a Love Fest with Dan. Dan's previous job before coming to Davis was as chief economist at the USDA, during the Reagan/Bush-I administrations. Dan comes close to being a Rabid Right-Winger, of the Chicago Variety. Not Brad's type at all. Of course Dan is an honest RRWer, which means he hates subsidies & trade barriers...

Posted by: Marcus Sitz on May 15, 2004 06:40 PM

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And this case differs from all that corporate sponsorship of academic teaching and research exactly how?

Posted by: john c. halasz on May 15, 2004 06:42 PM

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I work in a pretty similar position as Sumner. There are many topics that I stay away from becuase I would not get tenure. The Dean is in a pretty similar position to me-the Ag colleges in the UC system have taken severely disproportionate cuts the last few years. So the quotes from the dean are fine- he may be facing laying off faculty if he loses grower support.

Posted by: CalDem on May 15, 2004 08:19 PM

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Some years ago I read of a suit filed against at least one of the land grant schools (can't remember if UC-Davis was one of the defendants or not, but I think it was a CA case) if not all of them. The basis for the suit was that the research being done was all for the benefit of corporate agriculture (which, at least in the case of the cotton agriculture, gets almost all the subsidies available), not family farms, or smaller farms. The lawsuit alleged that it was the latter two groups that were intended to be benefited (at least in part) by the establishement of Land grant schools, i.e., the original mission. I never found out how the suit fared--it sure sounded like an interesting one. I understand that organic farmers receive only a very tiny portion of all agricultural subsidies, although I believe the sale of organically grown foods has had a much higher rate of growth then other parts of the food industry. And various groups and people have had to (twice now) fight off efforts of corporate agriculture to weaken USDA regs defining "organic" (what can be fed to poultry, etc.) to the the point of pointlessness. I wonder if any of the land grant schools do any research relating organic farming or if that would be "too radical." Last year (or early this year) the Wall St Journal ran an article on a scientist/MD who was unable to get funding for research on using Prednisone (or was it cortisone? perhaps the difference isn't important) for, I think it was sepsis. He couldn't get any funding although he'd been having significant success in treatment--because Prednisone is off patent, therefore no chance for big bucks for a pharmecutical company. Money talks . . . It's too bad (but certainly consistent with the political ideology at the top)that corporate influence has replaced tax funding and with it the state university systems lose a great deal of independence (although they were never completely independent, if my father's experience as an academic was a typical experience). But that's the trend, isn't it? The private sector does it better and if it can't do it, it shouldn't get done or the taxpayer should subsidize the private sector to make sure it gets done-even if doing so is not to the benefit of the broader public.

Posted by: azurite on May 15, 2004 09:59 PM

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What's dangerous is not the Dean's response which is natural given his mixed administrative and academic role that naturally will feel funding pressure, but the change in norms regarding scientific research.

Part of the right-wing agenda which I detest is the attempt to politicize science and denigrate its value. The thing to do if you disagree with an academic is to get your own intellectual gunslinger and have it out in an argument of ideas.

The problem with the loss of the value of science is that people feel more and more free to pressure or ignore scientists when they don't agree with their conclusions. Whether you're talking about creation science, intelligent design vs biology, ecological and environmental science, global warming, etc. there are a variety of quite sound scientific positions that are being politicized or undermined for specific agendas.

As a result people are becoming more ideological about science - they expect to get the results they want instead of being told the facts.

This can't continue if we wish to remain a dominant society. It's not even a right or wrong issue, but an ideology versus reality issue.

Posted by: Oldman on May 15, 2004 11:33 PM

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Unless it's a deliberate provocation, or an act of childish vanity, it's hard for mere mortals to understand what Nash wrote, and why he posted it. Apparently his sensibilities, and not just California cotton, must be protected. On any campus I've seen, there's some diversity: not quite all of them are afflicted with such grandiose self regard. The Ag professor's analysis must have been robust and effective. Good for him.

Posted by: John G. Fought on May 16, 2004 08:08 AM

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My apologies, John, I should have made clear it was an OT comment, in jest, about Brad's much earlier post about late-spring life at Berkeley. Indeed, if you were looking at other bloggers, you would see that Brad's post did clearly hit a popular chord. My comment was not in reference to the King Cotton post, which I should have made clear. I agree with what Brad is saying here. Snark noted, snark deserved.

Posted by: Nash on May 16, 2004 10:30 AM

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Well, my father went to a land-grant college (Texas A&M) which required all students to be
ROTC. He did not learn from this that schools are adjuncts of business-as-usual, or that everyone whould be a soldier sometime.

He felt the land-grant schools were an important American contribution to education as a universally uplifting experience.

Whether this broad belief can be consonant with keeping your mouth shut when funding is threatened by speaking out, I cannot say.

Posted by: serial catowner on May 16, 2004 11:07 AM

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CalDem and azurite are getting at it: where do you get funding from these days? Agribiness will give you lots of money, but is antithetical to traditional, nurturing farming, and absolutely antithetical to family farming.

The sustainability folks who destroyed GM test plots on campus land (and forced UCD to hide subsequent plots and put them behind fencing) disagrees with the partnering-with-agribiness approach, leading to the contradictory statments coming out of the college.

D

Posted by: Dano on May 16, 2004 11:26 AM

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azurite: Perhaps you are thinking about the United Farm Workers suit against UC Davis to stop R/D on farm automation equipment. A Cornell professor (in the agriculture department) told me that the suit was frivolous, lost, but nevertheless had large a large impact on UC Davis. He said it put them out of that business. I donít know the current picture. Our conversation was circa 1986.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on May 16, 2004 04:44 PM

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to assess the impact of these subsidies

if this is so easy and works so well, why are we not fighting the war on terror and the global trade war with subsidized trial lawyers

Posted by: Moe Levine on May 16, 2004 05:23 PM

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This competing loyalties business is rotten, you bet. Just look at the Forest Service and all the other agencies with a mandate to simultaneously defend and exploit our natural endowment. Thinking of a better way to do it is, however, problematic. There has to be some institutional location for balancing competing interests. Courts don't seem a very efficient answer, at least they way we do it here in the US.

If we want different outcomes (more honesty, less sucking up to patrons), then we have to be willing to change the system of incentives. More few-strings-attached public money, less direct bribery of universities to get the research results you want for your next EPA hearing.

Posted by: K Harris on May 17, 2004 12:18 PM

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Marcus Sitz wrote that Dan Sumner "comes close to being a Rabid Right-Winger, of the Chicago Variety." I've known Dan for over 20 years, and I'd hardly describe him as a Rabid Right-Winger, though he is a Chicago-trained economist who believes in letting markets work where possible and in doing solid analytical work.

A similar firestorm erupted in 1984, when Dan and Julian Alston (also now at UC-Davis) were at N.C. State. They wrote a paper on the effects on the N.C. economy if the tobacco program were eliminated. As a result, they were denounced by legislators, the state commissioner of agriculture, and by various farm groups. Mind you, they weren't advocating eliminating the program, just trying to estimate the adjustment path if it were eliminated. The tobacco program was a "third-rail" issue in N.C.; even hard-core conservative then-senator Jesse Helms, defended it.

It would be sad, indeed, if academics are pressured not to research touchy issues or publish controversial conclusions. Though I'm not in a position to evaluate the merits of Dan's research in this area, it seems to me that one of the functions of academics is to "speak truth to power."

Posted by: Ed Rosenberg on June 3, 2004 10:28 AM

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Posted by: Online Casino on June 23, 2004 03:50 AM

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It seems like the golden age of academics is in the past, slowly whittled away by the All-Taxes-Are-Theft jihadists, and other forces.

Posted by: Peter on July 29, 2004 11:25 PM

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I think that there is nothing more pathetic than a group of academics talking about, well, academics. Perhaps Hollywood making movies about people making movies is more pathetic. Close call.

Posted by: Garm on August 2, 2004 02:22 AM

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The private sector does it better and if it can't do it, it shouldn't get done or the taxpayer should subsidize the private sector to make sure it gets done-even if doing so is not to the benefit of the broader public.

Posted by: Jack on August 9, 2004 02:24 AM

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I will be pleased and delighted to see Brad embark on a Love Fest with Dan. Dan's previous job before coming to Davis was as chief economist at the USDA, during the Reagan/Bush-I administrations. Dan comes close to being a Rabid Right-Winger, of the Chicago Variety.

Posted by: Carl on August 13, 2004 02:49 AM

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I wonder if any of the land grant schools do any research relating organic farming or if that would be "too radical." Last year (or early this year) the Wall St Journal ran an article on a scientist/MD who was unable to get funding for research on using Prednisone (or was it cortisone?

Posted by: Shaoshi on August 20, 2004 03:38 AM

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