As if Thailand didn’t already have enough troubles, now comes an influential U.S. congressman who wants to attack one of the bright spots in the Southeast Asian nation’s economy: its thriving seafood-exports. Last year, Thai exports of canned tuna to the U.S. reached $360 million, a 19 percent increase from 2008, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the view of Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, this is “unfair” trade that deserves to be rolled back with stiff U.S. anti-dumping tariffs. Faleomavaega is a Democrat who represents the U.S. territory of American Samoa. While he doesn’t get a vote, the lawmaker is nevertheless a force to be reckoned with. Known for his gregariousness, Faleomavaega once told the Comedy Channel’s Stephen Colbert that “I tattoo my butt,” explaining with a grin that he was only conforming to Samoan cultural traditions. More importantly, Faleomavaega chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee for Asia and the Pacific. Educated at Brigham Young University, Faleomavaega earned a law degree from the University of Houston. He has important friends on the Hill, including fellow Mormons like Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the powerful Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over trade.
It’s not that the gentleman from Pago Pago has evidence that the Thais are guilty of anything other than being very good in competing in the global tuna trade. Far from it. But Faleomavaega does have ample evidence that the tuna industry in his American Samoa — a dot in the South Pacific, about half-way between Hawaii and New Zealand — is collapsing and has no viable future. Canned tuna has long been the backbone of American Samoa’s economy. The other half of the territory’s economy is comprised of various forms of federal welfare dispensed by the U.S. government, the largest employer in Pago Pago. The federal largesse includes generous tax breaks, hurricane disaster-relief monies, Medicaid, Nutrition Assistance Block Grants, and so on. “[T]he tuna canneries and federal financial aid accounted for virtually all of the economic growth in American Samoa between 1975 and 2005,” according to a 2008 report submitted to the American Samoa government by U.S. consultant Malcolm McPhee. The territory’s annual per-capita income of about $8,000 is “about one-fifth the US average,” McPhee noted. “American Samoa has the lowest per capita income in the entire US system including 3141 counties, 50 states and the other US territories.”
American Samoa’s poor performance illustrates that bad economic policies — in this case, so obviously bad that they would be quickly understood and discredited in any Econ 101 classroom — have consequences. Beyond the basic economics lessons, American Samoa’s unfortunate economic plight has ramifications that go far beyond remote South Pacific fishing grounds. The fight over tuna tariffs and access to U.S. markets is being closely watched by other important U.S. trading partners from Asia to Latin America. For those who study tuna tariffs, national security issues are never far from the surface. Muslim tuna workers in the southern Philippines, for instance, have long protested that they have been disadvantaged because Uncle Sam gives preferences to otherwise uncompetitive American Samoans that are withheld from Filipinos. And diplomats from Ecuador have stressed to U.S. officials in recent years that the tuna trade is an important national security priority for them — one alternative to narco-trafficking. Charlie the Tuna is a political fish — swimming in seas where economic favors granted or withheld can affect bottom lines, not to mention real lives in global tuna canneries.