And then there’s food. The cost of
groceries has risen at an annual rate of about 5 percent in each of the
last six months, the fastest food inflation since 1990, according to
the Los Angeles Times. And it’s not going to get better soon:
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations calculates
that the price of wheat is up 130 percent, and rice is up 74 percent in
just the past year.
If you buy the notion that misery loves
company, we have lots of company worldwide. Much of the world is
wondering about the price of lettuce, and bread, and beer. Yes, even
beer. The price of hops, that magical ingredient that makes beer pop,
has mushroomed from around $5 per pound to near $20. So if you were
thinking of spending your summer in the driveway with a six-pack in the
cooler, waxing your car instead of driving it to the shore, think
again. That may not be a big money-saver, either.
In Haiti they are rioting over the price
of rice and beans, which has risen more than 50 percent in the past
year, pushing a hungry people to the brink of starvation. In Egypt, the
world’s second largest wheat importer, people are rioting over a 50
percent increase in the price of bread. In South Africa, natives
outraged at food prices are kicking out immigrants from Zimbabwe whom
they blame for taking their jobs. In Indonesia, where tofu is king,
hundreds of thousands rallied at the government palace in Jakarta
protesting what Asians call “soyflation,” a run-up in soy prices.
Here in America when times get tough, we
don’t riot at the White House. Instead, we deport Mexicans. “Everybody
is talking about the price of gas,” says my friend Paco. “Wait ’til
they see the price of lettuce.” We spoke a year ago when gas was less
than $3, and lettuce was something you didn’t think about. Paco was
talking about the fit of outrage Americans and their political leaders
were going through about tracking down and kicking out as many Mexicans
Historically whenever our economy needs
workers, like we did during World War II, we let in a lot of outside
help. The paperwork seems to matter less. When our economy goes through
a rough patch we kick them out, blame them for problems they didn’t
What a counterproductive way to deal
with the food and energy crunch. Talk to a dairy farmer in Onondaga
County or a fruit or vegetable farmer in Oswego County and you learn
that, for the most part, immigrant labor keeps them in business and, by
the way, keeps prices down for the rest of us.
If we found out that letting immigrants
pump our gas kept prices below $3 a gallon, nobody would be checking
green cards. But that it is precisely what immigrant laborers do for
our food economy: They subsidize our food budget with their cheap
labor. Ramping up for a major campaign to kick out more workers is
exactly the wrong thing to do at this time. But don’t expect that to
We haven’t faced the problem of
spiraling oil prices and spiraling food prices at the same time. If we
look at the magnitude of the problems, the mumbling of politicians
seems impotent and irrelevant. Republicans bleat about siphoning the
last few drops of oil from the continent by drilling in the Arctic.
Democrats want to tax Exxon Mobil’s windfall profits. Both parties
debate whether we should drop the taxes from the price of gas over the
None of these approaches will even come
close to addressing the issue. Come fall the presidential candidates
will face a tough choice—whether to play to our fears, which is what
usually happens, or whether to speak to us like adults.
If they treat us like adults, they will
have to acknowledge an obvious truth that is not just inconvenient but
downright painful. We can’t go on living the way we have. The rest of
the world has woken up and decided that they want to be consumers, too.
The good news about the rise in food and energy costs is that a big
part of it is due to increased demand from people who used to live at
subsistence and now have incomes that allow them to take care of their
families. Some economists say there has never been a time when so many
people have emerged from poverty as right now. (See India, China).
That should be good news. But it can be
scary news. Used to be your mother told you to eat all your vegetables
because the children in India were starving. Now she might tell you to
eat a little less, because the children in India are not.