A trip to the grocery store costs considerably more than it did a year ago. Now Florida's congressional delegation wants to inflate prices even more.
On Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers—all of them from Florida—in submitting a petition to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai seeking "an investigation" into what the lawmakers call "the flood of imported seasonal and perishable agricultural products from Mexico." They ask Tai to invoke Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to impose "trade remedies" that will protect American growers from the scourge of…low-priced produce.
While they don't come out and say it directly, it's obvious from the letter that Rubio and his colleagues are seeking tariffs on Mexican produce. Section 301 is the same mechanism the Trump administration used to impose wide-ranging tariffs on goods imported from China. It's a law that grants the executive branch broad, unilateral power over trade.
Rubio and the other lawmakers say the Mexican government is subsidizing its domestic agricultural infrastructure as part of a scheme to undercut the prices charged by U.S. growers. "Mexico poses a direct threat to Florida's seasonal and perishable agricultural industry," they conclude.
The petition goes into more detail. A case of Mexican-grown bell peppers, for example, sells for about $5.85 less than a case of bell peppers grown in Florida. A flat of strawberries from Mexico goes for a few bucks less than the equivalent amount of strawberries picked in Florida.
And don't forget the cucumbers! The petition claims that a flat of Mexican-grown cucumbers sells for a whole "$1.32 less than the average price of a flat of Florida-produced cucumbers." What's more, "prices for Mexican cucumbers are their lowest in the months of April and May, which are the peak months for the marketing of Florida-grown cucumbers."
Anyone who has taken a basic economics class should be able to explain what's happening there. A high level of supply tends to push prices downward. Whether grown in Mexico or Florida, it makes sense that cucumber prices would be at their lowest when there are a lot of cucumbers in the market.
But that's not how Rubio and his colleagues see it. Instead, the petition describes this minor pricing difference as "a clear attempt to displace Florida cucumbers from the U.S. market."
Take a moment to enjoy the fact that some of the most powerful men and women in the U.S. government are freaking out over the idea that American consumers might get to save a few cents on their next cucumber purchase. Then amuse yourself with the optics of American agricultural special interests—which are, of course, pulling Rubio's strings here—complaining about subsidies, as if "direct government aid" doesn't account for nearly 40 percent of American farmers' annual income.
"These Florida politicians are following a time-honored tradition of trying to help their local constituents at the expense of Americans in other states, who benefit from low-priced fruits and vegetables regardless of where they are grown," says Bryan Riley, director of the free trade initiative at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Any discussion of how government subsidies are distorting the agricultural markets on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border should take into account the protectionist barriers to imported sugar, he notes.
Indeed, the American sugar industry has for decades enjoyed the kind of protectionism that Rubio and his colleagues would like to see extended to cucumbers and other produce. The results aren't great. Consumers pay billions more annually, the environment gets wrecked, and Americans end up eating less healthy sugar alternatives.
But the craziest thing about Rubio's proposal is the timing. Food prices are up 10.9 percent over the 12 months ending in July. That means they've risen even faster than overall inflation, which is up 8.5 percent over the same period. (August's inflation data will be released Tuesday morning.)
The whole point of special-interest protectionism is that the costs are diffused while the benefits are highly concentrated. All Americans pay for the federal government's dumb sugar policies, but we barely notice the added cost while the sugar-producing industry reaps billions of dollars in benefits every year.
Even so, openly calling for higher prices at the grocery store—and that is exactly what these lawmakers are doing—at a time like this? Are you serious?
It shouldn't matter whether a cucumber is grown in Florida or Mexico. And at a time when American consumers are beset by high and rising prices, it makes sense to welcome the import of cheaper goods that can put food on the table and put downward pressure on inflation. Rubio's petition should go directly to the compost heap.