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April 14, 2008
Free Trade: How
American Idol Should Give Back
Last week the producers of American Idol put on their second
“Idol Gives Back” special, in which tens of millions of dollars were
raised from viewers and corporations for charities both in America and
Third World countries. It is a very nice thing to do, and certainly
well-intentioned. But considering the influence and audience of the
show, it is far from being the most efficacious manner to help the poor
at home, and especially abroad.
certainly feels good to send food to a starving child in Africa, provide
mosquito nets for diseased communities and build a shack for the
homeless. But the reality is that the food gets consumed, nets get torn
and shacks deteriorate.
The recipients of the food and the nets thus remain wholly dependent on
the help of others year after year in order to sustain their slightly
boosted standard of living. In other words, if American Idol is
taken off the air or the American economy experiences a downturn, the
Africans who for a few months or years were receiving charitable help
would go back to starving and getting bitten by diseased mosquitoes.
This is not to mention the many more who are never reached by charities
in the first place, and would remain as miserable as they always had
Does this make charity, as a whole, a bad thing? Absolutely not,
although some would reasonably argue that some forms of charity, such as
food sent to Africa, would discourage African farmers from sowing their
own food due to their inability to compete with free food, thus leading
to a lack of food production in certain areas that need it. But in many
instances, charitable contributions, although beneficial in the short
run, are simply not sustainable over time.
What then, should the solution be? How can American Idol help all
the poor in Third World countries escape poverty in a permanent, instead
of temporary, manner?
The best way for American Idol to achieve this would be to urge
all of their viewers to pick up the phone and urge their elected
officials to sign a free trade agreement with every country in the
world, particularly those drowned by severe poverty levels.
free trade agreement means that each of the participating countries in
the agreement would eliminate its tariffs and quotas on goods being
exchanged with another country. For instance, if the United States had a
20 percent tariff on clothes made in Tanzania, and Tanzania had a 20
percent tariff on American cars, then citizens in both countries would
be paying 20 percent more than they have to for these imported products.
A free trade agreement between the United States and Tanzania means that
individual consumers in both countries would not pay the extra 20
percent, and thus would have access to cheaper products.
How does this benefit a poor country like Tanzania? First of all,
Tanzanian people would have to pay less for imported products, which
means they would have more purchasing power and can buy, say, 30 percent
more food with the same amount of money. Further, Tanzanian products
would be in higher demand in foreign countries, because the people in
those countries no longer have to pay for the extra tariff on Tanzanian
products coming in. Therefore, new Tanzanian companies would be started,
and old ones would grow, providing stable, long-term jobs for countless
When Tanzanians have jobs, are exporting more products and are paying
less for imported products, their country will be on a path to
prosperity and stability – which in turn will spill over into better
education, health care and other improvements in the standard of living.
This is not to mention the benefits to democracy – a more prosperous
people would be less reliant on political parties or dictators for
“help,” and would have significantly more incentive to promote and
maintain democratic institutions in their country.
Indeed, encouraging free trade between all of the world’s countries
would benefit the children we saw on “Idol Gives Back,” as well as their
cousins, friends and own future children, more than any amount of money
American Idol can raise in centuries.
But if American Idol is willing to speak up for the poor, it can
certainly use its massive influence to do wonderful things. It can ask
its viewers to begin by urging the approval of the free trade agreement
with Colombia, a country that desperately needs the prosperity and
stability that free trade would provide. It can also explain to its
viewers how U.S. government subsidies of huge and wealthy farms hurt
African farmers who cannot compete with artificial prices and levels of
has the enviable ability to get across a message everyone should
understand. Since it cares about the world’s poor, American Idol
should take full advantage of its influence. It should tell the world
that the institution of free trade and capitalism is the best form of
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