(Jan. 21, GUEST COLUMN) In this political season of primary elections and an open battle for the presidency in both parties, one might expect food, farm labor and international trade deals to get a fair amount of attention. What’s more crucial than the food supply, an “energy issue” far more important than oil?
Actually, the first two issues, food and farm labor, get little or no attention. The third, trade deals, have become one of those toxic topics the politicians avoid like the plague, except to claim we’ve “given away the store” in past deals. Democrats in particular are loath to say anything good about “free trade.” Instead they demand a re-examination of past deals, such as NAFTA, and cry for tough measures to force China to live up to its trade obligations. No one is calling for new trade deals.
Food is not an issue because there is plenty of it at reasonable prices, despite a spike in prices this past year. Americans spend a little less than 10% of income on food, a figure that has come down year after year. It is the lowest percentage figure among major nations. It’s still a big number, well over $1 trillion, with more than $100 billion spent on produce. But medical costs are at $2 trillion and rising. Energy prices continue to climb — $100 a barrel for oil. Just a few years ago, oil was $25 a barrel. Yet people complain when corn prices, for decades at around $2 bushel, rise 50% because of ethanol demand.
Farm labor, the guest worker proposal, and other farm worker issues have gotten lost in the political infighting over immigration. The argument now is about who will build a bigger fence, get tougher on illegal immigration, and clamp down on employers.
In the rush for votes, politicians quickly realize that in our message-saturated society, with its cascade of information from all directions, their messages have to be quick, easily understood and emotionally satisfying. No politician is going to take the time to explain why a guest worker program is a key to solving the immigration crisis. (Well, maybe the maverick John McCain would take the time. His state of Arizona is in the crosshairs of the debate.)
I would love to get a friend of mine, a State Department consular official originally from Arizona, to explain to voters why he thinks the guest worker program is vital. He’s worked around the world on immigration, including on the Mexican-U.S. border. A guest worker program would let workers in, allow them to make money to send or take back home to build a better life south of the border. He believes many workers would opt to go home if they knew they could work legally in the U.S. This would be neither amnesty nor citizenship. It’s a foreign labor program — we already have several of them.
This plan would help get the work done, the crops picked and packed, would grant a legal status but not citizenship, provide incentives to return home and greatly reduce the urge to sneak across the border.
Those who continue to come illegally would find a tough gauntlet indeed of border security and refusals by employers to hire without guest worker documentation.
International trade is also a tricky and complicated issue. Not many politicians want to get down into the dirty details when asking voters for votes. Can a policy be explained in 20 seconds? If the answer is no, then best leave it alone. Instead, the politicians say they want “fair trade” that protects American workers. They may even attack “free trade” and point to the huge and growing trade deficit, sparked by $400 billion in oil and energy imports.
Trade ought to be an issue. The U.S.’s strong point has always been in agriculture at one end, high tech at the other.
We export grains, produce, meat, software and airplanes. We import just about everything else.
We still have an advantage in agriculture, but that is trickling away despite the weakness of the dollar. The ag trade surplus that used to pay for a lot of foreign oil, is now much smaller. Produce has become a deficit. We buy more than we sell.
This ought to be an issue because over time we went from energy self-sufficiency to 60% dependence on foreign oil. What happens when this occurs in food? Nations will fight to guarantee their food supply.
Maybe some politician would like to run on a platform that says:
- We will secure our domestic food supply while trading openly and fairly with other countries on a reciprocal basis. We will pursue free market policies of supply and demand while providing safety net protections in the wake of weather and diseases.
- We will pursue policies and practices that encourage competition and efficiency in supply, distribution, transportation and retailing.
- We will encourage the conversion of surplus crops into energy, provided this does not disrupt the domestic and export food supply.
- We will develop a guest worker program that lets foreign workers into the U.S. to perform jobs and that provides incentives for them to return to their own countries where their money and talents can transform those economies.
- We will open our markets to other countries that agree to open their markets to our products without artificial barriers or evasions. We will strive to raise labor, environmental and safety standards in those countries wishing to sell in the U.S., while taking into account the limitations of underdevelopment.
Hey, politicians, here’s a platform you can stand, jump and run on. Grab it and go.