In the aftermath of the NAFTA vote, the produce industry has a right to feel it played its cards right. After all, the agreement passed by a margin large enough to have passed without any of the Florida representatives who switched votes following several side agreements made to protect the Florida citrus, vegetable, and sugar industries. So, the agreement would have passed with or without industry support.
In a sense, getting these concessions is a great victory for an important part of the produce industry. So the question is why don’t I feel much like celebrating?
I think it is because the whole NAFTA issue revealed a lot of sad truths about the industry and about the process of governing the country. NAFTA showed the inability of the industry to form a consensus and establish industry-wide positions. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association is widely accepted as the leading government relations agency for the industry, and NAFTA was widely recognized as one of the most important governmental issues of our time. Yet on this important issue, United punted and decided to take no position on NAFTA.
We can all understand why. Powerful interests, people United depends on as members, convention attendees, exhibitors, etc., would have been powerfully offended by a pro-NAFTA stance by United. And yet, even though we can understand it, we can’t really condone it. Being the leader creates a responsibility to take positions and to attempt to build support for those positions.
Of course, there is important government relations work that United does, but most of it is obscure to the typical industry member. Here was an opportunity for United to have an impact on a crucial issue of prominence to all Americans and all produce industry members, and United passed up that chance. You can’t build support for a program by refusing to take positions.
In the end, this will lead to more groups making “Do it my way or I’m pulling out” demands and so will make it more and more difficult for United to take positions on any issue where perfect consensus doesn’t exist. This will lead to stronger regional and commodity-specific groups and the decline on the national scene of the influence of “the produce industry”.
Even worse, though, is what we saw so clearly in the way our government runs. It has long been said that people should never see how laws and sausages are made because watching either process would make anyone squeamish. It is a curious thing that a politician should consider it politically advantageous to raise the price of cucumbers for his constituents. Yet that was what this discussion was about.
Over and over again, the media would refer to Congressmen and women who were leaning against NAFTA because they come from an agricultural district. When you looked at the map, however, you saw these people were representing Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and other cities and suburbs. In fact, in all of Florida, there really are no congressional districts in which the majority or even large minorities of people are involved in agriculture, much less the crops involved in the dispute.
Since the whole point of the controversy over agriculture and NAFTA was that cheap Mexican food products would flood the market, the fact that representatives acted as they did indicates that members found it to be a winning move to support US grower interests even when those interests were opposed to the interests of most of their constituents in having less expensive food available.
Now perhaps this time it was in the produce industry’s interest that the issue be dealt with this way. But all of us are not only produce industry members but also citizens. It is worth remembering that what we are doing to others, others are doing to us.
We pay more for milk and dairy products, more for clothing and textiles and more for footwear than we would otherwise because these factions have had their way with legislation.
The problem is the influence of concentrated interests who get concentrated benefits versus the influence of large numbers of consumers who get diffuse benefits. If a law is introduced that will have the effect of increasing the price of milk or cucumbers, there are specific people and associations, such as milk and cucumber producers, who will benefit greatly from this law. That means they will pressure representatives to support it, contribute money to those who are their friends on this issue and remember how everyone voted on this issue come election day.
Unfortunately, the consumer is unlikely to know, remember or act based on the fact that someone passed a law that raised the price of cucumbers by 2 cents each or milk by a penny a quart. Suppliers, on the other hand, would never forget who lines their pockets this way.
And so, we have a vicious cycle of each interest winning and, in doing so, impoverishing everyone just a little bit. It is a sad commentary on government in America.
Is there anything that can be done? Well, there are some structural changes that can make things better. Term limits will make representatives less concerned with losing their jobs; ending PAC contributions would reduce the power of concentrated interests.
But in the end, there is no substitute for individuals with courage and a citizenry with a sense of forbearance. No government can presume virtue on the part of its citizens. But I am not the first to say that our form of government presupposes more than any other that people are able to look beyond their momentary situation and act and vote based on what they think is best for the country.
Unfortunately, it may well be that trends in our society, from MTV to channel surfing, are discouraging the development of the contemplative modes of thought that allow people to act not out of impulse but out of reflection. If this is so, the produce industry and American will have to face far bigger problems than implementing the NAFTA accord.