Spy Schools: How Intelligence Services Have Infiltrated Higher Education

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

Mike talks with Daniel Golden, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden, author of Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. They discuss how widespread spying is (a lot more widespread than Mike thought, that’s for sure), if schools that are recruiting more international students are more vulnerable, how Trump administration immigration policies are likely to affect spying in colleges and universities, and lots more.

Dan Golden on Twitter

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.

PG127: Net Neutrality, AT&T Time-Warner Merger, Transgender Ban, Sexual Harassment

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

Mike and Jay start off this week with a discussion of net neutrality in the wake of the FCC’s move to revoke Obama-era rules that prevent internet service providers from privileging content from certain providers over others. Jay argues that this is a welcome backing off of government regulation that is not only more fair to ISPs but should result in greater investment and better outcomes for consumers. Mike disagrees, saying that investment didn’t drop after the net neutrality rules went into effect and says that this is a perfect example of a market in which natural monopolies cry out for smart regulation to enhance competition. Mike goes even further than this, calling for an internet infrastructure project as a 21st century equivalent of the interstate highway system.

Then the Guys look at the Justice Department’s surprising legal challenge to the AT&T / Time Warner merger. Neither Mike nor Jay think that there’s much of a case, because historically, ‘vertical’ mergers like this – where the two companies involved are not in direct competition – don’t meet anti-trust guidelines. Mike thinks this is probably a negotiating strategy on the part of the Justice Department and that an out-of-court settlement will ultimately be reached.

Next, it’s a look at the latest challenge to President Trump’s ban on transgender troops. Both Mike and Jay agree that the federal judges ruling against the ban made the right call, and they also both have trouble understanding what rational reason the president would have for attempting to change policy in this area.

Finally, Mike and Jay discuss the latest sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill involving long-time Democratic Representative John Conyers, new allegations against Democratic Senator Al Franken, as well as President Trump’s semi-endorsement of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

What Mike’s Reading:
The chained CPI: Another secret tax hike for the middle class slipped into the GOP tax bills

What Jay’s Reading:
The Desolate Wilderness
And The Fair Land

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.

Gobble Gobble – The Politics of Turkey

(I normally post on Saturdays, but it seemed fitting to release this ‘turkey politics’ post before Thanksgiving. I hope you like it!)

While Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon – of former Maricopa County Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio – was highly controversial, his second pardon was met with bipartisan support. On November 21, 2017, President Trump pardoned the turkey ‘Drumstick’, carrying on a tradition of pre-Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardons that began with President George H.W. Bush in 1989. (Some claim that the first turkey pardon was granted by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, and others say that President Lincoln was the first turkey pardoner, but these were ‘unofficial’ pardons and the tradition wasn’t picked up by their successors.)

“Drumstick, you are hereby pardoned.”

While President Trump’s pardon was good news for Drumstick, around 244 million other turkeys raised in the United States weren’t so lucky.[1] Those turkeys feed a growing demand, with U.S. turkey consumption at 16.7 pounds per person, more than double what it was in 1970. Even so, turkey is still by far the least popular of the Big Four meats, trailing pork (49.8 pounds per person), beef (53.9) and chicken (88.9) [2]. But that doesn’t mean that the turkey business is small potatoes: The value of U.S. turkey production in 2016 was $6.18 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.[3]

Back when the United States was a largely rural country and most food was produced by small, local farmers, food safety wasn’t much of an issue. But as the country grew, industrialized, and urbanized, horror stories about contaminated, adulterated, and mislabeled food and disgusting conditions in slaughterhouses began to mount.

In early 1906 Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle was published. In it, Sinclair graphically portrayed the horrific practices in slaughterhouses of the era. The public was shocked and outraged – so much so that even the decidedly business-friendly Congress of the day was forced to act.

On June 30, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, which called for wide-ranging regulation of food products and drugs as well as establishing the agency that would become the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On the same day, President Roosevelt also signed the Meat Inspection Act, which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to inspect and regulate meat.

Sinclair’s book shocked and outraged the American public

It might seem strange that Congress would break up food inspection authority instead of centralizing it in one place. There’s actually a good reason for it – at least a good political reason. The USDA had previously been given meat inspection authority under two not-so-good Meat Inspection Acts, passed in 1890 and 1891. As a general rule, once an agency gains authority over something, it fights to keep it because additional ‘turf’ means more power and a bigger budget. And so Congress decided that the path of least political resistance would be to leave meat inspection with the USDA and give everything else to the FDA.

As food regulation legislation proliferated over the years, Congress kept on parceling out authority to more federal agencies, for reasons that I’m sure seemed reasonable, or at least politically expedient, at the time. We’ve now reached a point where anyone who takes a close look at this system, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO), National Research Council (NRC), and Institute of Medicine (IOM), invariably concludes that the current system, one in which over a dozen different federal agencies are involved in food safety, is pretty screwy (I’m paraphrasing – but not that much).

Plenty of food safety reformers have called for a consolidation of the system, usually recommending that the FDA be given primary authority. It’s definitely a good idea, but there’s a big problem. Reorganizing government agencies is the sort of unglamorous work that sucks up a ton of time and invariably upsets a whole bunch of career bureaucrats without much of a political upside. There aren’t too many lawmakers whose hearts go all pitty-pat at the thought of administrative reorganization, and who can blame them? Imagine a politician campaigning on the basis of her tireless efforts to ‘consolidate regulatory authority’ – a message just about guaranteed to put voters to sleep.

Rules specific to turkey inspection are set down in the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) of 1957. The purpose of the PPIA is to ensure that poultry sold in the United States is, “wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged.”[4] To that end, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) places inspectors in all slaughterhouses and processing plants for continuous inspection. Their job is to check the turkeys (and all other poultry, which includes chicken, geese, guineas, ratites, and squab) both pre and post-slaughter to ensure that they’re not diseased and that steps are taken to minimize the likelihood of contamination throughout the process. This isn’t a ‘drop in every once in a while’ sort of thing – government inspectors are at the plants whenever they’re running.

27 states have their own meat and poultry inspection services. (Here’s a list[5]). By law, state standards have to be at least equal to those set down by the federal government. State inspection services are regularly reviewed, though mainly through state self-assessment reports, along with some targeted inspections and on-site reviews of selected state programs. (In 2016, FSIS did comprehensive reviews in nine of the 27 states, an on-site review in one state, and had all 27 states do self-assessments).[1]

There’s a lot to inspect, and in recent years FSIS has been asked to do more with less. While the U.S. population and its meat consumption continues to grow, the FSIS has shrunk from 9,343 employees in 2009 to 8,938 in 2016. Funding has also declined somewhat, from $1.09 billion in 2009 to $1.01 in 2016.[6]

Inspectors, whether they’re from state agencies or the FSIS, are concerned almost exclusively with food safety, not animal welfare. The only legislation that deals directly with treatment of non-organic certified animals raised for food is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires that animal areas be free of objects such as loose boards or splintered planking that may cause injury to animals, slip resistant surfaces, minimal use of electric prods and other devices that may cause animals pain, removal of sick or diseased animals from the herd, and detailed guidelines concerning acceptable methods of slaughter.[7]

While the law does require a minimal level of what some may claim to be humane treatment, conditions in feed lots and slaughterhouses can be truly atrocious. Animal-rights activist groups have repeatedly documented horrific conditions  in interviews with former slaughterhouse workers and with gut-wrenching hidden-camera footage. Animals raised to ‘USDA Organic’ certification standards are typically better off, but even their comparatively more humane environment is considered unacceptable by many animal-rights advocates.

Next time, I’ll take a look at what the various ‘humane’ animal welfare certifications mean, including USDA Organic certification.


[1] “USDA ERS – Turkey Sector: Background & Statistics,” accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/newsroom/trending-topics/turkey-sector-background-statistics/.

[2] “Turkey Business Statistics | Eatturkey.Com,” accessed November 21, 2017, http://www.eatturkey.com/why-turkey/stats.

[3] “USDA ERS – Turkey Sector: Background & Statistics.”

[4] “21 U.S. Code § 451 – Congressional Statement of Findings,” LII / Legal Information Institute, accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/21/451.

[5] The states are: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

[6] “The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer,” accessed November 20, 2017, https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RS22600.html.

[7] Government Printing Office, “CFR-2000 Title 9 Volume 2 Part 313,” accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2000-title9-vol2/pdf/CFR-2000-title9-vol2-part313.pdf.

Bad News for Mike’s Favorite Agency, Mendez Mistrial, Listener Mail

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

Mike and Jay open by discussing what, for Mike, was crushing news – Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Rob Cordray announced that he would be stepping down. Mike points out that since its creation as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, the semi-independent CFPB has been a strong advocate for consumers. He laments that this this will largely cease under Trump-appointed leadership. Jay, like most Republicans, believes that the agency is too independent, needlessly harms financial institutions for the sake of powerful Democratic interests, and needs to be reined in.

Next, they talk about the mistrial recently announced in the federal corruption trial of Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Had Menendez been convicted, outgoing governor Chris Christie may have been able to appoint a Republican to take Menendez’ place, giving the GOP another much-needed seat to bolster their slim Senate majority. Both Mike and Jay seem to believe Menendez is guilty of, at the very least, unethical behavior, but they point out that it’s incredibly difficult to demonstrate quid-pro-quo corruption (e.g. Wealthy ‘friend’: “Here’s $5,000 in exchange for which I want you to vote ‘no’ on that bill” Senator: “Okay, thanks for the $5,000. I’ll be sure to vote ‘no’.”) especially in the wake of a unanimous 2016 Supreme Court decision.

Then it’s listener mail. Jay responds to a someone who is very disappointed in Jay’s Machiavellian take on politics, Mike and Jay answer a listener who wants some solid evidence that minorities in the United States are being systematically disadvantaged, and Mike and Jay reply to a listener who wonders how to productively engage people like Mike’s friend (and Trump supporter) Joe.

Mike’s interview with campaign finance reform advocate and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig.

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.

PG126: Tax Bill Advances, Sexual Harassment

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

This week’s show opens with Mike and Jay taking a look at the current state of the Republican tax reform bills in both the House and the Senate. Mike points out – once again – that it’s a horrible idea to ram a huge, complex tax bill through only weeks after it was introduced, and that the measure is essentially a big tax cut for businesses and the rich that will be paid for by future generations of Americans. Jay believes that in the end the cuts will result in enough growth to make them worthwhile.

After that, the Guys turn to the recent wave of sexual harassment revelations, specifically more women coming forward to accuse Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who maintains his innocence, and Democratic Senator Al Franken, who has admitted his guilt. Mike also shares a personal story, in the hope that it might encourage others to speak out.

We hope you’ll check out the sponsor of today’s show:
Dollar Shave Club. Go to dollarshaveclub.com/TPG to get your first month of their best razor along with travel size versions of their shave butter, body cleanser, and butt wipes for just $5.

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.

The Politics of Farm Labor

Last time, I looked at how trade policy helped the avocado become one of the hottest fruits in the produce section. One problem with the surging demand for avocados in recent years is that they’re not exactly easy to harvest. Every single avocado has to be picked off of a tree by hand. Tree-shaking machines, like those used for harvesting almonds and cherries, don’t work for avocados because even on the same tree, avocados mature at different rates.

Another reason why mechanical picking isn’t an option has to do with basic physics – unlike almonds or cherries, avocados are fairly substantial. When a heavy fruit drops 15 to 30 feet – the height of most avocado trees – it will bruise, which is great for guacamole but not for getting avocados to the market unscathed.

A tree-shaking machine: Good for nuts, not for avocados.

Increased demand, combined with the labor-intensive nature of avocado harvesting, can make it difficult for producers to find enough people to bring their crop in. According to a 2017 survey from the California Farm Bureau, 69 percent of growers with seasonal workforces have reported employee shortages, with the shortages being most acute for tree fruits (like avocados). Growers also said that the overall skill level of their workforce has become an issue, resulting in increased harvesting time and, in some instances, crops not being fully harvested. Nearly half of the growers surveyed said they’ve been offering higher wages, benefits, or other incentives in an attempt to attract a better skilled, more motivated workforce.[1]

The workforce that harvests avocados, along with every other seasonal crop, is overwhelmingly immigrant-based. According the Department of Labor, 80 percent of hired farm workers are Hispanic and only 31 percent are U.S. citizens. Mexico is far and away the main supplier of immigrant labor – 68 percent of all hired farm workers in the U.S. were born in Mexico.[2]  Only 21 percent are permanent legal residents, and just 53 percent have work authorization.[3] In other words, nearly half of the entire agricultural workforce is made up of undocumented immigrants.

Starting pay for workers is typically around $12 – $13 per hour for long days of back-breaking labor. They rarely receive any benefits, and often live in squalid conditions throughout the harvest season. There are over a million of these jobs in the U.S., but the combination of low pay, minimal benefits, and harsh working conditions makes agricultural labor extremely unattractive to most Americans. As one grower put it, “There’s no way that we can take care of and pick our crop without immigrant labor.”[4]

picking avocados – like most agricultural labor – is not something American workers willingly do

Some people don’t buy this, arguing that when the economy gets bad and there are few jobs to be found, American citizens will gladly take agricultural jobs. The problem, the argument goes, is that all the immigrant labor locks U.S. workers out of the farm labor market.

A case study using 2011 data from the North Carolina Growers Association examined this claim. That year – a year in which unemployment in North Carolina was hovering around 10 percent – the Association posted 6,500 farm job listings. At that level of unemployment (a level that was generally even higher in the rural areas where most of the jobs were based) you’d think that there would be plenty of interest from unemployed North Carolinians, but that wasn’t the case: Only 268 U.S. citizens even bothered to apply. 245 of them were hired (91 percent), but only 163 showed up for the first day of work. A month later, half of them had quit. By the end of the season, there were only seven left – a dropout rate of 95.5 percent. The dropout rate for Mexican workers? 10 percent.[5] As the authors of the study concluded, “No matter how bad the economy becomes, native workers do not take farm jobs.”

The most common type of work permit for seasonal farm laborers is an H-2A visa, with over 134,000 issued in 2016.[6] The H-2A program was created in 1986 as a way for businesses to temporarily bring in immigrant agricultural labor for the season. Businesses that want to employ H-2A visa workers first have to demonstrate that they’ve repeatedly tried and failed to attract full-time legal U.S. residents for the jobs they’re hoping to fill. If they can do that (and it’s generally not too hard), they have to deal with multiple state and federal agencies as well as the U.S. embassy of the immigrant employees. Employers also have to find the workers, arrange for their transportation to and from their home country, provide them with meals and housing, and ensure they have a way to get back and forth to work.

So many businesses have struggled with navigating this process that a cottage industry of H-2A visa advisors has sprung up. When I talked with one of these advisors, I asked her if the byzantine and confusing nature of the process might push producers – especially smaller producers – into hiring undocumented workers. “I think that happens all the time,” she said. “That’s what the majority of employers are doing.” In addition, she pointed out that businesses that try to do the right thing and go through the H-2A program open themselves up to Department of Labor investigations. Ironically, farms hiring undocumented laborers are often more insulated from investigation, because they fly under the radar with no employment paper trail on file with the federal government.[7]

A workforce made up largely of immigrants, most of whom are poorly educated with little to no English language skills, is a workforce tailor-made for exploitation. Undocumented workers seldom speak out due to fears of deportation, and even those with H-2A visas are at risk, because their residency in the United States is tied to their employer – if they’re fired, they can’t look for another job – they’re sent home (or they remain in the country illegally).

Several independent investigations have found rampant exploitation of immigrant farm workers. Common abuses include withholding pay, not paying overtime, intentionally under-recording time worked, confiscation of worker visas, prohibiting workers from leaving the farm, and even widespread intimidation, harassment, and sexual abuse. The federal government has investigated too. In 2015 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that from 2009 – 2013, 866 H-2A visa employers were in violation of one or more legally mandated worker protections, the vast majority of which related to worker pay. The report also found that violations may be under-reported because workers fear retaliation, deportation, and blacklisting.[8]

Technically, businesses that violate immigrant farm worker rights can be banned from the H-2A visa program for a period of time. But in reality this rarely happens because the statute of limitations is only two years. That’s not two years from the time between an alleged violation and when a complaint is filed, but two years between the violation and the conclusion of a Department of Labor investigation. According to the GAO, the median length of investigations conducted from 2009 – 2014 was 24 months. In other words, half of all investigations went on longer than the statute of limitations, meaning that even if violations were found, violators couldn’t be banned from the program.

Even if a business is debarred from the H-2A visa program, that doesn’t necessarily stop them from bringing in immigrant workers. Debarred businesses can simply make small changes to their name and reapply. You might think that this wouldn’t work, because after all, you can change the name of your farm but you can’t just move it down the road. The problem is that while the Department of Labor does check new H-2A visa applications against a ‘debarred list’, the automatic check only includes business names, not addresses.

If employment of undocumented workers is rampant in agriculture, why hasn’t the government cracked down? One reason is that it can be difficult to prove that an employer knowingly hired an undocumented worker. Employers are required to ‘check papers’, but thanks to a thriving fake immigration document business, that’s not much of a barrier. Of course the employers know that many of these documents are bogus, but it’s in their economic interest to not look too closely.

All employers have access to a federal system called E-Verify, which allows them to check job applicant documents against government records. But, two decades after its release, E-Verify remains voluntary in 41 states. And in the nine states that do mandate it, enforcement ranges from spotty to nearly nonexistent.

President Trump has called on Congress to make E-Verify mandatory nationwide, and there was initially talk of including a mandatory E-Verify provision in legislation intended to replace President Obama’s executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But as of late October, Senate negotiators ruled out making E-Verify mandatory. While there’s some Congressional support for mandatory E-Verify, there’s also bipartisan opposition. Many groups on the left voice concerns about privacy and data errors, while some on the right view E-Verify as a further intrusion ‘Big Brother’ federal government on businesses.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Underpaid, exploited immigrant workers keep costs way down. The federal government could absolutely enact immigrant labor reform that would crack down on hiring of undocumented workers and dramatically improve the lives of agricultural workers in the country legally. But providing workers with decent wages and working conditions would impose major costs on businesses, who would of course pass most of those costs along to American consumers. Sure, Americans say they care about immigrant labor abuse (at least, most Americans do), but do they care enough to pay $3 for an avocado?


[1] “Results of Ag Labor Survey Released | California Avocado Commission,” accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.californiaavocadogrowers.com/articles/results-ag-labor-survey-released.

[2] United States Department of Labor, “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2013-2014,” accessed October 31, 2017, https://www.doleta.gov/naws/pages/research/docs/NAWS_Research_Report_12.pdf.

[3] United States Department of Labor.

[4] “California’s Undocumented Workers Help the Economy Grow – but May Pay the Cost,” Public Radio International, accessed October 31, 2017, https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-06/californias-undocumented-workers-help-grow-economy-theres-cost.

[5] Michael A. Clemens, “International Harvest: A Case Study of How Foreign Workers Help American Farms Grow Crops – and the Economy,” 2013.

[6] “Unable to Fill Jobs, Companies Look to Foreign Visa Workers to Fill Void,” The North Bay Business Journal, July 10, 2017, http://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/northbay/sonomacounty/7184851-181/visa-h2a-wine-labor-tigh.

[7] name withheld, Personal interview with H-2A Visa Advisor (name withheld at request of interviewee), November 2, 2017.

[8] U.S. Government Accountability Office, “H-2A and H-2B Visa Programs: Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers [Reissued on May 30, 2017],” no. GAO-15-154 (May 30, 2017), https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-154.




How Safe Is Your Food?

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

Mike talks with Dan Flynn, Editor in Chief of Food Safety News about the Food Safety Modernization Act, whether FDA inspections are tough enough, if regulations are unfair to smaller farms, and the state of food safety regulation in the Trump administration.

Food Safety News on Twitter

We hope you’ll check out the sponsor of today’s show:
Blue Bottle Coffee. Hurry to bluebottlecoffee.com/TPG for $10 off your first coffee subscription order.

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.

Avocado Politics

(This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of food politics posts. I hope you enjoy it, and that you’ll let me know what you think. I’ve never tried writing what’s essentially a first draft of a book in blog form, and I’m hoping your feedback will make what I feel is a fascinating topic as interesting to you as it is to me. You can contact me directly at mike@politicsguys.com. Thanks! – Mike)

I eat avocados nearly every single day. Mostly in salads, but I make a mean avocado-chocolate-peanut butter smoothie too. Sometimes I’ll just slice one up, add hot sauce, and enjoy. It’s hard for me to believe now, but most of my life was largely avocado-free. That’s not because I was a weird, sheltered kid (well, I was definitely weird, but that’s another story) – it’s because until not all that long ago, avocados were practically an exotic fruit to most Americans, including me.

Here’s what I mean: In 2000, U.S. avocado consumption averaged just over two pounds per person – about where cauliflower is today.[1] [2] Since then, consumption has shot up – in 2016 it hit 7.1 pounds per person, a 255 percent increase. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the U.S. has added nearly 41 million people during that period.

These numbers put avocados squarely in the produce mainstream, right up there with pineapples (7 pounds per person) strawberries (7.8 pounds), and grapes (7.8 pounds).[3]  And as you might expect, all this consumption is generating a lot of revenue – nearly $2 billion in 2016, according to the Hass Avocado Board.[4]

So how did avocados go from the fruit equivalent of cauliflower to a produce superstar? The answer has a lot to do with politics.

The story starts over a century ago. In 1914 the U.S. government banned importation of all Mexican avocados. They did it because American growers claimed that Mexican avocados were infested with avocado weevils. But according to the Mexicans that was just an excuse to shut out foreign competition.

an avocado weevil (nasty looking thing, isn’t it?)

I don’t know if the U.S. was facing an imminent avocado weevil epidemic in 1914 but I have my doubts. Two things I am sure of are, one, there was no great avocado weevil infestation of 1915, and two, the ban on Mexican avocados created a problem for American avocado lovers.

California, and to a much lesser extent Florida, are the only states in the continental U.S. that can successfully grow avocado trees on a large scale. But even sunny California, which produces around 85 percent of all domestically grown avocados, doesn’t have a climate that allows for  year-round avocado growing, which creates a natural limit to avocado production.[5] And so once the ban went into effect, Americans’ access to avocados was seriously limited.

That’s more or less where things stood until 1993, when the United States Senate ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty was designed to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, create jobs, and enhance economic growth throughout the continent. While it’s unlikely that avocados were a main topic of debate among the negotiators (unless someone brought in some really good guacamole for a snack break) the passage of NAFTA had a dramatic effect on the avocado market in the United States.

It took a few years of post-NAFTA wrangling, and some threats from the Mexican government about putting restrictions on U.S. grain imports into Mexico, but in 1997 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) got on the free (or at least freer) trade bandwagon and loosened up their restrictions, ruling that avocados grown in Mexico’s Michoacan region could be imported into the United States as long as they met USDA requirements.

Avocado growers in California, who at the time produced about 90 percent of all avocados eaten in the United States, reacted just about how you’d expect any monopolist to react. They argued that there was still a grave threat from Mexican pests, and raised concerns that cheap imports would somehow lead to the rise of a dangerous, unregulated ‘black market’ in avocados. (Which, I know, might sound crazy. On the other hand, there are some pretty bizarre black markets, like the one for maple syrup.)

The USDA decided to move slowly in response to the protests from domestic growers. At first, they only allowed Mexican avocados into 19 states in the Northeast and Midwest (far away from U.S. avocado growing operations) and only from November through February, when weather forced U.S. production to shut down. Since then, the restrictions have been repeatedly relaxed, with Michoacan avocados gaining full access to the entire U.S. market year-round in 2007.

Tearing down the avocado wall between the United States and Mexico has allowed Mexico to dominate the U.S. avocado market – in 2016, Mexican imports made up over 80 percent of the U.S. supply. You might think that this would have hurt US avocado production, but just the opposite has happened. In the 10 years that Mexican avocados have had unfettered access to the US market, US production has increased by an average of 29 percent per year. In the decade before that, the average increase was only three percent. It’s the same story if you look at the overall value of domestic avocado production (the number of tons of avocados produced in the U.S. multiplied by the price per ton).  Since 2007 it’s gone up an average of 22 percent per year, whereas from 1997 – 2006 the average increase was zero percent.[6]

All those avocados don’t grow and harvest themselves. Next week, I’ll take a look at the politics of agricultural labor in the United States, examining things like whether immigrants are taking farm jobs from Americans, if government does enough to protect immigrant laborers, why agricultural producers so often turn to illegal immigrant labor, and lots more.


[1] Statista, “U.S. Fresh Avocados Consumption per Capita, 2015 | Statistic,” Statista, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.statista.com/statistics/257192/per-capita-consumption-of-fresh-avocados-in-the-us/.

[2] “Cauliflower | Agricultural Marketing Resource Center,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/vegetables/cauliflower/.

[3] “Avocados Climbing the Charts in Search of No. 1 Status,” Packer, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.thepacker.com/article/avocados-climbing-charts-search-no-1-status.

[4] Hass Avocado Board, “Regional Data Report Jan – Dec 2016 vs. 2015,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.hassavocadoboard.com/sites/default/files/hab_-_2016_q4_hab_regional_composite_-_total_u.s.pdf.

[5] “This Just in: Americans Are Eating a Lot of Avocados,” New Hope Network, May 10, 2017, http://www.newhope.com/food-and-beverage/just-americans-are-eating-lot-avocados.

[6] “USDA ERS – Yearbook Tables,” accessed October 30, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-tree-nut-data/yearbook-tables/#Noncitrus Fruit.

PG125: The Great House and Senate Tax Plan Question, Elections in VA, NJ, and ME, Trump Visits Asia, and Roy Moore’s Denial

Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

This week Trey and Jay start by taking on the Senate’s proposed tax plan. It differs from its House counterpart. Trey worries about the deficit and Jay focuses on growth.

Next they turn to the major Democratic wins in Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine. Both hosts agree that they are not necessarily representative of the country as a whole, but they do point to the Trump problem all Republicans now face: to Trump or not to Trump.

After the elections the hosts discuss Trump’s week in Asia. They note that the two big areas of concern were North Korea and trade policy.

Trey and Jay conclude by discussing the recent Washington Post story arguing that Roy Moore had inappropriate relationships with underage girls.

We hope you’ll check out today’s sponsor:
ZipRecruiter. Politics Guys listeners can post jobs on ZipRecruiter for FREE. Just go to ZipRecruiter.com/politicsguy


Subscribe:  iTunes | PocketCasts | Overcast | Stitcher | RSS

For the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s election, we brought back Mike’s friend Joe, who Mike talked to in the ‘A Trump Supporter Speaks‘ episode in October of 2016.

At the time, Mike thought it would be good to hear from an actual Trump supporter (as opposed to an ‘anyone buy Hillary’ Trump voter) to get a sense of how Donald Trump convinced so many people to follow him down a path that would surely lead the Republican Party to a crushing electoral defeat giving President Hillary Clinton House and filibuster-proof Senate majorities.

Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way. One year on, how does an intelligent, decent Trump supporter see the Trump presidency? In this interview you’ll find out. (And no – ‘intelligent, decent Trump supporter’ isn’t an oxymoron. Mike says that Joe is one of the smartest and most fundamentally decent people he knows.)

Listener support helps make The Politics Guys possible. If you’re interested in supporting the show, go to politicsguys.com and click on the Patreon link.