Lester Brown’s OP-ED on the Nile, Trade and Bread Prices in Egypt

In today’s NY Times, Lester Brown points out some unintended consequences of international trade in agricultural products.  He is worried about Egypt’s quality of life being harmed by the choices of its neighbors and proposes to ban certain trades to minimize the harm.  In a cross-post, I respond.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

5 thoughts on “Lester Brown’s OP-ED on the Nile, Trade and Bread Prices in Egypt”

  1. Your logic chain description is incorrect. That is not Les’ assertion. And I guess it is OK for the rich to consume resources for what they need and not care about the effects of their consumption. Its always been that way. And we can see here that economics as described apparently doesn’t care for solutions to this dilemma that don’t include the standard way of doing business. Interesting, surely.

  2. There are definitely certain kinds of international trade that should be banned. People smuggling and organ buying are just two that come to mind. Oops, I forgot sex tourism. Throw them all in jail!!! So, let’s agree that generalizing about things like “globalization” is not helpful.

    And it sounds to me as if Egypt’s water is being *stolen.* If they have a right to 75% of the water, it should be enforced, and the other parties would have to pay Egypt.

  3. @ NCG

    Water rights are among the most contentious things alive. Water rights law is byzantine beyond belief, and that’s just in the US, with a reasonably strong Federal government to enforce the rulings. If you’re right (and honestly, that’s my read on it, too) there is no competent entity to enforce any rulings that might come down. The World Court might rule, but Ethiopia and Sudan will likely say, “Hey, not us. We’re not diverting that water, it’s the Chinese and the Saudia and the Koreans. We just leased them the land.”

    The Chinese, Saudis and Koreans will likely echo the words attributed President Andrew Jackson: “The World Court has ruled, now let them enforce it.”

  4. Matthew, you say “So, how can regional rivers be allocated fairly and efficiently?” and just leave it at that. You seem utterly uninterested in the fact that FAIRLY is an extraordinarily tricky concept, and that that’s where all the problems lie.

    Is it fair to limit Koreans from access to cheap African grain?
    Is it fair to change a deal that has been around for 60 years?
    Is it fair to grow your population excessively, then claim you “deserve” the water because your lands are teeming with new mouths to feed?

    Yet you cannot avoid this issue. Wearing your economist’s hat, you can talk all you like about how efficient a particular water allocation will be in terms of maximizing dollars. Unfortunately, when the response to your “efficient” allocation is to start a shooting war between Sudan and Egypt that destroys value of 100x the supposed dollars your efficient allocation saved, you haven’t really made the world a better place, have you?

  5. IIRC in 2009 the President of Nestle wrote an essay on why his company is going around purchasing water rights. One of his arguments was that since ~2007, countries and corporations had purchased cropland about the size of the eastern European grain belt in Ger-Aus-Pol axis. Why? For the water. Countries make up for their water deficit by purchasing foreign grain. The rich can purchase land in Africa. The poor in Africa watch corporations and China purchase land to export grain. Meanwhile, droughts continue and investment in ag infra does not even begin. But to hear some economists tell it, these Africans can be smart and choose to move! By golly! Gee Whiz they are smart! They can pack up the car and sell the furniture and move to Europe and purchase farmland and make a handsome living!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1 Just like that!!!!!11!! No problem! Crop failures in the Horn of Africa 5 out of 6 years wipes you out? No problem, by golly!!1one! Sell some stock, divest some productive farmland, and migrate! Gee whiz, what could be easier?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11/1//1/

    No, really. Frreals. That’s the adaptation plan. Migrate after years of crop failure to a country that doesn’t want you, where you can’t afford the land that no one wants to sell you anyway.

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