Putting Faces to Voices, Recommended Reading, Big Changes Coming

Putting Faces to Voices
When I teach online classes, one of the first things I do is post a picture of myself so that students can see who’s teaching them and to try to make more of a connection. Strangely, in the over two years we’ve been doing The Politics Guys, I’ve yet to do the same thing here.

Recently, a listener mentioned that we needed to get some pictures of ourselves up on the Politics Guys website, which finally prompted me to action. Here’s what The Politics Guys look like (for better or worse). I’m first, followed by Jay, then Trey.

What I’m Reading
I think I may have mentioned Jonah Goldberg from time to time on the show. If not, I should have, because he ‘s one of the most interesting and engaging conservative columnists around. For years, Jonah has been writing a column for National Review called ‘The G-File’. I frequently disagree with him, but I value his perspective and his humor – so much so that I’ve subscribed to The G-File in order to ensure that I see it every week.

As many of you know, Jay is a big fan of the Wall Street Journal. I have a subscription as well, but I understand that not everyone is interested in shelling out money to support a Murdoch-owned media outlet. So if you’re looking for solid, conservative commentary but you don’t want to get a WSJ subscription, I highly recommend National Review. They feature a range of interesting and thoughtful articles and they don’t have a paywall, like the Journal does.

Finally, I’m going to re-recommend Tyler Cowen – more specifically ‘Stubborn Attachments’, his recent long essay on morality and economic growth. I just finished reading it and ended up taking a ton of notes (I’m hoping to get Tyler on the show). In the essay, he makes what I think is the best ethical argument I’ve seen for focusing on sustainable economic growth over everything other than fundamental human rights.

Big Changes Coming to The Politics Guys
On February 8, our contract with audioBoom runs out, which means that we’ll be ad-free. It also means we’ll be free to pursue our efforts to turn The Politics Guys into a nonprofit organization. We’ve already chosen a name – the Bipartisan Political Education Project – reserved a web domain (bipartisanproject.org – which isn’t active yet, so you won’t see anything if you go there), assembled a board of directors, and filed for nonprofit status.

We’re still keeping ‘The Politics Guys’ name and there shouldn’t be any big changes to the podcast – at least not at first. There may be a few technical glitches as I move everything over from audioBoom, so if you run into any issues with shows not downloading or anything else, please let me know.

Our plan is to not only keep on doing the podcast, but to expand and improve our politicsguys.com website, branch out into video on YouTube, and even work with schools on helping to improve political media literacy.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and we’re going to be doing it without the support of advertisers. If this is something you’d be willing to get behind financially, we could most definitely use your help. To contribute, just go to politicsguys.com and click on either the Patreon or PayPal links you’ll find there.

New Year’s Resolutions

Over the past few weeks, I’ve mainly been focusing on my classes at Northern Kentucky University, both the super-intense three week class I’m currently teaching (American Politics in Film) and the four classes I’ll be teaching when our spring semester starts on Monday.

But in addition to that, I’ve been thinking about something lots of people think about this time of year: resolutions for the new year. I have some personal resolutions (none of which I’ve broken – at least not yet) as well as a couple of resolutions for The Politics Guys, which I’d like to share with you.

My first resolution is to use social media more thoughtfully. Last year, I too often succumbed to the temptation to post something inflammatory, or superficial, or snarky. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy inflammatory, superficial, snarky stuff as much as the next guy, but Facebook and Twitter are already overflowing with that. You don’t need more of it from me, and this year I’m resolving to limit my social media posts to things that pose thoughtful questions or somehow serve to advance political conversation in a sane and rational manner.

My second resolution is to give Politics Guys listeners more in-depth debate. Back in the early days of the show, Jay and I regularly featured mid-week shows in which we picked out an issue or two and really dug into it. Last year, we turned almost exclusively to interviews and listener question shows. I think they were some great shows, but a number of listeners have told me that they missed those in-depth debates. You’ll get more of those in 2018.

I’m telling you about these resolutions because I’m hoping you’ll hold me to them. If you think I’m slacking, please let me know. And if you have any suggestions for debate shows, definitely pass those along (you can reach me at mike@politicsguys.com).

I’ll close with a new year’s recommendation. I’m sure you know the importance of seeking out views that conflict with your own – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t listen to the Politics Guys podcast or read this blog. But I know how difficult it is to commit to following ‘the other side’. Here’s a suggestion: pick out one decent columnist whose views tend to differ from yours and make a point of reading them on a regular basis. I’d suggest making it someone who isn’t a ‘paint-by-numbers’ ideologue: you know the type – someone whose views you know even before you hear from them. Find someone decent and respectable and – most important – someone who might just surprise you every once in a while.

I’ve got a couple of suggestions here. My fellow liberals might want to give Tyler Cowen a try. He’s a hugely intelligent conservative economist who I hold in the highest regard, even though I think he’s off-base about plenty of things. He blogs at Marginal Revolution as well as at Bloomberg View. (He’s also written a great mini-book call Stubborn Attachments that I’m currently in the middle of. He posted the whole thing on Medium, so you can check it out for free.)

If you’re a conservative, you might want to give Jonathan Bernstein a try. He’s a political scientist who used to run a blog called ‘A Plain Blog About Politics’ until the folks at Bloomberg View plucked him out of semi-obscurity to give him the platform his well-reasoned, thoughtful articles and links deserved.

One final thing before I sign off. Listener response to my food politics mini-podcast episode was very positive, and so I’ve decided to record more. One thing I’m not sure of is the best day to release them. Our weekend news analysis shows drop on Saturday afternoon and our midweek show hits your podcast app Wednesday morning. When would you like to see a food politics episode? (And while I’m thinking of it, what do you think of my spinning off the food politics show and making it its own thing?)

I hope you had a great 2017 and that you’re looking forward to the new year as much as I am. (I can’t wait for those elections in November!)

The False Choice Between ‘Big’ and ‘Small’ Government

Now that my sabbatical is over, I’m back to teaching four classes each semester, which means I’ll have a lot less time to research and write food politics blog posts. I’ll still be posting every Saturday (aside from January 30, when we won’t be doing a podcast either) but more often than not those posts will be links to things I think are worth reading, listening to, or watching, along with some thoughts on why I believe they might be worth your time. Which brings me to my suggestions for this week:

Shrinking government isn’t something I’m necessarily opposed to, but I think the focus on ‘big government’ vs. ‘small government’ often misses the point. What I believe most people really want is efficient, effective government. Sometimes, that means cutting bloated programs. But in other cases it might actually be better to increase government employment, salaries, and resources. As special interest lobbyists have grown more and more powerful, the ability of our government to independently assess and evaluate their claims has diminished. Whether you’re a libertarian concerned with crony capitalism or a liberal worried about income inequality, this is something that should matter to you. Below are two articles that flesh out this argument for investing in government capability.

Congress just doesn’t know enough to do its job well. Here’s why. 
An article from the Washington Post’s ‘Monkey Cage’ blog, where political scientists descend from their ivory towers and talk about real-world politics. The writing can sometimes be sort of stiff (I mean, what do you expect from academics?) but it’s rare that a week goes by in which I don’t find something very worthwhile there.

Members of Congress should get higher salaries
This is not from some lefty, mainstream media outlet but from the conservative Washington Examiner. One thing I’d add is that the author’s proposal to increase congressional salaries to $225,000 isn’t nearly enough. I’d like to see a system like they have in Singapore, where legislators earn close to $2 million per year.

One final recommendation. During the holidays, I try to remember to not only be grateful for all that I have, but to be aware that life is short and very precious. Not too long ago, Sam Harris started this excellent podcast episode with a short story that brought home this point in beautiful fashion. The story is only about seven minutes long – quite possibly the most meaningful seven minutes of podcast listening I did all year.

Happy Holidays!

The Politics of Better Beer

This is a golden age for American beer. It’s never been easier to find an amazing ale, a hearty porter, or a hoppy, refreshing IPA (my personal favorite). It’s all thanks to the explosive growth of craft brewing in the United States. In 2016, craft breweries (defined as breweries producing under six million barrels per year and not owned by a larger brewer) sold 24.1 million barrels of beer – that’s 747.1 million gallons, enough to fill 95.6 billion bottles.[1] Over 98 percent of the 5,301 brewers in the United States are craft breweries or brewpubs, which account for 42 percent of all employment in the domestic brewing industry.[2]

How did this craft beer revolution come about? The answer to that question has a lot to do with politics.

I still remember the first time I tried Great Lakes Christmas Ale – it was one of the greatest beer experiences of my life!

In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The amendment prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States. It also closed down the over 1,000 brewers then operating in the United States. When the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933 breweries started to open up again, but in nowhere near their pre-Prohibition numbers. The market quickly became dominated by a small group of mega-brewers who churned out bland, insipid lagers for a mass market.

source: Brewers Association (http://bit.ly/2iTf5qD)

This ‘beer dark age’ began to end thanks to two laws passed in 1978. The first of them lowered the excise tax on beer for small brewers (those with overall production of under 2 million barrels per year). Previously, they’d paid $9.00 in federal tax for every barrel, just like the mega-brewers. The new law cut that to $7.00 per barrel for their first 60,000 barrels.[3] The second law repealed the excise tax on wine and beer for personal and family use, so long as you weren’t making more than 200 gallons per year (and if you need more than 200 gallons of beer per year for ‘personal and family use’, I’d say you’ve got bigger problems than an excise tax).

These laws led to a renaissance in home brewing, which in turn revitalized the craft-brewing industry as first hundreds, then thousands of home-brewers thought, ‘I should do this for a living.’ Most of them were wrong about that – if you’ve tasted much home-brewed beer, I’m sure you’ll agree – but as successful homebrew entrepreneurs began to start businesses, more and more Americans discovered that beer could actually taste good. Word began to spread, and the number of craft breweries and brewpubs soared.

source: Brewers Association (http://bit.ly/2iTf5qD)

Over the years, the federal excise tax on beer has gone up, though nowhere near as much as the rate of inflation. The current rate is $18 per barrel, which in unadjusted terms looks like a huge increase over that $9.00 rate from 1978. But in inflation-adjusted terms, $9.00 from 1978 is roughly the equivalent of $33 today, which means that in real terms the tax on beer has gone down considerably.

The special rate for small brewers is still around – it’s $7 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels.[4] That tax, combined with various state and local taxes, accounts for about 41 percent of the price of every beer, according to an analysis commissioned by the National Beer Wholesalers Association.[5]

Congress has definitely taken notice of the growing interest in craft beer. Both the House and Senate have formed Small Brewers Caucuses, with 226 members in the House and 37 in the Senate.[6] [7] Recently, there’s been a bipartisan push in Congress to lower the federal tax burden on craft brewers. The latest effort, was the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2017 (S.236 / H.R. 747). It was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) with a companion bill in the House introduced by Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Ron Kind (D-WI).

The legislation called for the excise tax to be reduced from $7 all the way down to $3.40 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels for small brewers, along with a reduction in the standard excise tax from $18 to $16 per barrel. This bill was rolled into the recently passed House and Senate tax reform legislation, with one small change – the lower rate for craft brewers was changed to $3.50 per barrel. More important to brewers is that it’s not a permanent tax cut. Under both the House and Senate versions, the lower rates only apply to beer ‘removed for consumption’ between January 1 of 2018 and December 31 of 2019.[8]

Why only a two-year cut? One reason is the deficit. Almost all independent and nonpartisan estimates of the tax bills conclude that they’ll add a minimum of $1 trillion to the national debt (currently at $20 trillion plus) over the next decade. Not only do Republicans in both chambers want to keep this number as low as possible, but the Senate can’t approve legislation with more than a $1.5 trillion increase if they want to use reconciliation rules, which prevent a Democratic filibuster. Another reason is that when Congress makes tax  cuts temporary, the industry benefiting from the cuts will almost certainly come calling when the cuts are due to expire, usually with campaign contributions.

The House-Senate conference committee kept the reduced excise tax, and given the near certainty of the bill becoming law, brewers will soon be getting a sizable tax break. Conservatives argue that this is a good thing, believing that reducing the tax will create even more growth in the brewing industry, boost employment, and result in more, better, and less expensive beer.

Many liberals counter that the industry is growing just fine without extra incentives and that, if anything, taxes on alcohol should be increased. According to economist Adam Looney of the left-leaning Brookings Tax Policy Center, the tax cuts for alcohol producers would not only lower federal alcohol tax revenue by 16 percent, leaving it at a rate not seen since 1950, but would lead to an increase in drinking that would ultimately result in over 1,500 additional alcohol-related deaths every year.[9]

I’m old enough to remember the days when good beer was hard to find, and I’m glad Congress acted back in 1978 to help the cause of good beer (a truly noble cause, in my book). But now that there’s a thriving craft beer industry in the United States, I think the potential benefit of even greater tax cuts is outweighed by the effect those cuts will have on the national debt ($20 trillion and growing) and the role they’ll indirectly play in more alcohol-related deaths.


[1] “National Beer Sales & Production Data,” Brewers Association, accessed December 5, 2017, https://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/national-beer-sales-production-data/.

[2] “Historical U.S. Brewery Count,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017, https://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/number-of-breweries/.

[3] Alistair Williams, “Exploring the Impact of Legislation on the Development of Craft Beer,” Beverages 3, no. 2 (March 28, 2017): 18, https://doi.org/10.3390/beverages3020018.

[4] TAD NRC, “TTB | Tax Audit Division | Tax and Fee Rates,” Data & Tools, accessed December 5, 2017, https://www.ttb.gov/tax_audit/atftaxes.shtml#Beer.

[5] John Dunham & Associates, “A Study of the U.S. Beer Industry’s Economic Contribution in 2016,” May 2017, http://beerservesamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/2017-Beer-Serves-America-Report.pdf.

[6] “House Small Brewers Caucus Members,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017, https://www.brewersassociation.org/government-affairs/house-small-brewers-caucus/house-caucus-members/.

[7] “Senate Bipartisan Small Brewers Caucus Members,” Brewers Association, accessed December 13, 2017, https://www.brewersassociation.org/government-affairs/senate-small-brewers-caucus/senate-caucus-members/.

[8] Kevin Brady, “Text – H.R.1 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” webpage, December 4, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1/text.

[9] Adam Looney, “Measuring the Loss of Life from the Senate’s Tax Cuts for Alcohol Producers,” Brookings (blog), November 22, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/measuring-the-loss-of-life-from-the-senates-tax-cuts-for-alcohol-producers/.

My Mini-Vacation

I took a mini-vacation this week to deal with a bit of burnout, which means there’s no food politics post this week. Prior to my break I was researching something I think you’ll enjoy reading about: the politics of beer. In my beer politics article, which will be up December 16, I’ll explain how Jimmy Carter, homebrewing, and tax subsidies made the craft beer revolution possible.

I don’t want to leave you with nothing new to read, so I’ve put together some … well, I was going to say ‘recommended reading’, but that doesn’t sound very enticing, so I’ll go with ‘interesting things I’ve found this week’.

(Which reminds me – if you’re interested in getting 3-5 article links like this every week, send me an email  (mike@politicsguys.com) to let me know. If there’s any sort of demand for it, I’ll make it a regular feature.)

Conservatism is dead.  Matthew Walther.
A smart and frequently funny look at what it used to mean to be a conservative and why the future prospects for ‘real’ conservatism are very dim.

The Closing of the American Mind.  Jacob Hamburger.
Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was probably the most important book to me in my days as a young Burkean conservative. While I’m now a liberal, I still consider myself a Burkean, and I still view Bloom’s book as a revelation. This article does a great job of explaining what Bloom and the book were all about – the role of higher education, the meaning of true freedom, why democracy needs elites, and much more.

Net Neutrality: A Primer.  Daniel Lyons
I think this is essentially what Jay would have to say about net neutrality if he decided to write an article about it. You probably know that I’m a strong supporter of net neutrality, but I think it’s useful to understand the best arguments that opponents of it can bring to bear. (One thing you’ll notice that’s not in this article is any discussion of the lack of real broadband competition in nearly two-thirds of the country and the related issue of natural monopolies. That’s central to my support for net neutrality, as well as my call for a nationwide fiber-optic infrastructure project.)

The Politics of Organic Meat

In my pre-Thanksgiving post last week I wrote about the politics of turkey, as well other meat products. One thing I discovered is that thanks to good inspection standards, the meat supply in the United States is very safe. While food-borne illness is extremely common – the CDC estimates that over 48 million Americans are affected every year – most cases are relatively minor. In 2016, only 0.007% of the U.S. population sought medical treatment for a food-borne illness of any kind.[1] The vast majority of these cases aren’t caused by contamination occurring at slaughterhouses or meat processing plants. You’re a lot more likely to get sick from contaminated produce or under cooking your meat.

tasty – but potentially dangerous

As I mentioned last time, animal welfare is another story. Groups like PETA have repeatedly and convincingly documented the horrific conditions livestock and poultry are subject to. (A brief definitionary aside: under federal law, ‘livestock’ includes cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, mules, donkeys, and goats, whereas poultry refers to domesticated birds including chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.)

The only federal law that addresses treatment of animals intended for the dinner plate is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. It limits or prohibits the use of certain livestock driving methods (you can’t, for instance, whack a cow with a piece of pipe or a sharp metal object to keep it moving) and requires that livestock be rendered insensible prior to slaughter, but that’s essentially it. Also, as the name suggests it only applies to livestock, so chickens, turkeys, and other poultry aren’t covered by even these minimal protections.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, the factory farm situation may be pretty grim, but I only get good, organic meat.” If that’s actually you, you’re in a very small minority – over 99 percent of all meat in the U.S. comes from factory farms.[2] But let’s say that is you, or at least the meat-eater you aspire to be. What’s the USDA Organic seal mean when it comes to meat?

First off, in order to be designated as organic, animals have to be fed organic feed, which basically means feed that doesn’t contain pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or animal protein or by-products. In addition, cows and other ruminants have to be able to graze a minimum of 120 days each year as well as get 30 percent of their feed from pasture.

That covers what goes into organic animals, but what about their living conditions? Going by the USDA’s Organic Livestock Requirements Fact Sheet (which, oddly, also covers poultry) standards seem pretty good. Organic-certified animals must be “raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior”, which includes access to the outdoors, clean & dry bedding, shelter, exercise space, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight and shade.[3] Just like how you’d imagine old Farmer Brown does it.

The reality is considerably different. For instance, while organic animals must be given access to the outdoors, that requirement can be satisfied by opening a single small door for an hour a day, a door none of the animals, crammed into unnaturally small spaces, can really access.

‘free-range’ organic-certified chickens

But what about that ‘accommodates their health and natural behavior’ clause? That shouldn’t allow for unnatural things like overcrowding, or chickens not ever going outside. I agree  it shouldn’t, but since there aren’t any specific requirements, the determination of what ‘accommodates natural behavior’ is made by organic certifiers. The certification isn’t actually done by the government – they approve third-party organic certifiers to do the job. (And as you might expect, there are more than a few quality-control problems with this setup, as government investigations have repeatedly uncovered.)

In the absence of clear federal guidelines, and not wanting get sued by producers, the standards certifiers adopt are generally far better for producers and certifiers than they are for animals. For example, it’s considered acceptable for producers of organic meat to de-beak their chickens, dehorn their cattle, and cut the tails off of their pigs.

chicken in a de-beaking machine

In April of 2016, the USDA introduced a rule that would provide far more extensive protections for organic-certified livestock and poultry, a rule that was made final on the very last day of the Obama administration. The ‘Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices’ rule clarifies and tightens animal welfare standards, prohibits certain ‘physical alterations’ of animals, such as de-beaking, beak clipping, tail clipping, and tail docking, sets maximum indoor and outdoor densities for chickens, and defines required outdoor space for animals, among other things. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 20, 2017. Producers were given a year after that to meet the new standards, with producers of broiler chickens given an additional two years to meet the new indoor space requirements.

Once a ‘final rule’ has been published in the Federal Registrar, it can’t be revoked without a lengthy and difficult administrative process, which meant that the decidedly anti-regulation Trump administration wasn’t able to simply ignore the new rule on organic-certified animal welfare. But what the new administration could do was delay its ‘effective date’, which they’ve now done three times, with the latest effective date being May 14, 2018.

An agency can’t simply say, ‘we don’t like this rule so we’re going to stall’ – they have to submit  ostensibly good reasons for why they’re stalling. In this case, the USDA gave two main reasons. First, they said they needed more time to properly evaluate the costs and benefits of the rule, which they contend the Obama administration had miscalculated, to the detriment of farmers. In other words, they believe that making conditions better for animals would cost farmers and more than the Obama-era USDA said it would.

The second reason they gave for delaying was the need for more public input on the new rule. To get more comments from the public, the USDA opened up a 30-day public comment period that ended on June 9. The public responded with over 47,000 comments. Over 40,000 of them –  over 85 percent  – urged the agency to implement the rule. Most of these comments weren’t exactly handwritten, heartfelt letters though – as is usual for  public comments on regulatory changes, the bulk of the responses were via form letter. The USDA made sure to point out that of those 40,000 ‘implement it’ letters, 34,600 were form letters. They didn’t bother to provide similar information concerning the under 7,000 letters from those who wanted the USDA to delay, suspend, or withdraw the rule. I don’t think that was an oversight.[4]

The Organic Trade Association, which is the main lobbying group for organic producers, filed suit against the USDA, arguing that it unlawfully delayed the rule as well as ignored the overwhelming percentage of public comments calling for implementation of the law. Lawsuits concerning administrative rules are incredibly common, and often take many years to resolve. If you’re a fan of the status quo that’s pretty good news, because every day you delay the implementation of a rule, you save yourself the cost of complying with it. In this case, even if everything moves along incredibly fast by regulatory lawsuit standards, I wouldn’t bet on  conditions getting any better for organic-certified animals before the next presidential election.


[1] “Foodborne Illnesses Hit 24,000 Americans in 2016,” Medscape, accessed November 28, 2017, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/878896.

[2] “Farm Animal Welfare,” ASPCA, accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare.

[3] United States Department of Agriculture, “Organic Livestock Requirements,” accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf.

[4] “National Organic Program (NOP); Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices,” Federal Register, November 14, 2017, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/11/14/2017-24675/national-organic-program-nop-organic-livestock-and-poultry-practices.

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.

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.




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.

Introducing Mike’s Blog

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re a Politics Guys listener, which means that you already know who I am and why I’m starting this blog. But for readers who aren’t Politics Guys listeners, here’s a quick intro: I’m Michael Baranowski, political scientist at Northern Kentucky University. I’m also the co-founder and co-host of The Politics Guys podcast.

I’m starting a blog largely out of frustration with academic book publishing. When I set out to write my first book (Navigating the News) I did what all academics are socialized to do – I went in search of an academic publisher. I found one, they offered me a contract, and I produced a book.

That was over four years ago. In that time, total sales of Navigating the News are somewhere under 600. That’s not too bad for an academic book, as amazing as that may seem. My publisher was actually pleased with how ‘well’ the book sold, and last year when I suggested a new edition, they told me that they wanted to wait until sales slowed before considering it. (Seriously.)

I asked them if they could cut the price to increase sales, but to my astonishment, they were entirely uninterested in doing that. Today, if you want to pick up a copy of Navigating the News, it will set you back $37.00 for the print version, and $35.00 for the Kindle edition. This, for a 173 page book that I’d say should be priced at $10 for a hard copy and maybe half that for the Kindle version.

I’m not blaming my publisher – this is how almost all academic publishing works. But the experience made me realize that academic publishing wasn’t for me. I spent years dreaming about, planning, and writing Navigating the News, all for under 600 readers. How depressing. I vowed that never again would I pour my heart and soul into something that was practically guaranteed to have so little impact in the real world.

This presented me with a big problem. While it’s not all that difficult to get a contract with an academic publisher, finding a ‘real’ publisher is another thing altogether. You first have to convince a literary agent that your book is commercially viable. Then, your agent has to convince a publisher that they should buy your book. Very few book ideas make it through this process, and even those that do can take quite a while to go from proposal to publication.

Right now, I’m on sabbatical doing research for my next book, on the politics of food. You may not realize it, but food is incredibly political. There are huge issues involving things like organics, GMOs, agricultural laborers, health & safety, and tons more. I think it’s fascinating stuff, and I want to share my political scientist’s take on these issues with as many people as possible.

But as fascinating and important as I think food politics is, there’s no guarantee that I can find a literary agent who agrees. And even if I do, there’s no guarantee that my agent can find a publisher. I could always self-publish, but without the resources of a publisher behind me, I’m right back to where I was with academic publishing – having written a book that almost nobody sees. No thanks.

And so, instead of doing a ton of research and writing, then waiting and hoping that my book will get published and maybe have some real-world impact, I’m going to publish my book-in-progress here on this blog. That will let me hear what you think about what I’m doing as I’m doing it: what you like, what you don’t like, questions, comments, whatever. It’s sort of like crowd-sourcing the editing of the book as I write it. Plus, building an online community around a book project makes it far more interesting to agents and publishers. Finally, telling you here and now that I’ll be posting new material on food politics once a week puts my feet to the fire and should really help my progress. (In addition to weekly food politics posts, I might also put up some other random musings about politics, semi-political thoughts, or whatever happens to be on my mind.)

This is a big experiment for me, and I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. I’m excited about the possibilities, and I hope you’ll join me in creating my next book.