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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.


It 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 been.


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.


A 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 Tanzanian citizens.


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 production.


American Idol 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 charity.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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