In a previous life, I worked as an agricultural economist at the Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C.

I started work in an international economic analysis section and became a bit of a star in the section, probably the only time in my life I’ve been a star.

Eventually, I wanted to work on my writing skills and moved over to the European Community trade policy group. Trade policy analysts wrote all day (“The Secretary is making a speech in London, we need talking points!”). This was in the late 1980’s, during the EC-12 days.

[I’m starting to fade, I tried to cut down on caffeine today, so I’m going to cut to the chase.]

The European Community Bans U.S. Beef Imports

The EC had banned imports of all U.S. beef. The damage was $100 million a year. The GATT (the precursor to the World Trade Organization) said the EC import ban was illegal. That gave the United States the blessing to retaliate and ban the imports of $100 million of European products and to call it even-steven.

So the next question was, “What European imports will the United States ban?”

So the powers that be told me – the only numbers guy in the European Trade Policy group – to draft up a list of $100 million worth of European imports to ban!

Oh, and by the way, John, the French and Italians were the forces behind the U.S. beef import ban so it would be nice if there were a lot of French and Italian products on the list.

The retaliation list evolved over the months but in the end I was shocked how much input I had over which products were ultimately banned from importation into the United States.

Simple Pleasures

Some of my best memories of that time were, simply enough, walking from USDA to meetings at USTR (U.S. Trade Representative) office. I was born and raised in Arizona and wasn’t used to being cooped up inside buildings. I love to be outside – summer, winter, day and night.

To get out of the USDA building had the exhilaration of a jail break for me. We would walk by the base of the Washington Monument (it’s gorgeous) across a glorious expanse of green grass and blue sky toward a spectacular view of the back of the White House, The South Lawn. We’d soak in a little funkiness walking by the back of the Old Executive Office Building and then across the street to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Then the fun was over. Completely over.

Enter the Arena

Inside USTR it was a constant battle. As USDA’s representative, I had to fight like hell (and finagle and cajole) to get the different departments and agencies to eventually sign off on our retaliation. These urbane bureaucrats thought USDA was a bunch of trigger happy cowboys.

My arch enemy was the Department of Commerce. The DOC rep said in one meeting, “I’ve been instructed to fall on my sword to prevent any DOC products from being included in an agricultural trade dispute.”

In the end he succeeded and there were no commercial or industrial products on the retaliation list, although that in turn severely limited the effectiveness of the retaliation.


But in the end, I also succeeded and a $100 million retaliation list of European agricultural products was approved by USDA, USTR, DOC, all other U.S. government trade policy agencies and the President.

I like to think the European Community was a bit more cautious about flaunting their international trade agreements after my $100 million retaliation list took effect and that I did my little bit to promote free trade and international economic prosperity.

(I hadn’t thought about this story in several years but the memories came back when I heard about a recent U.S. trade retaliation against China.)