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April 25, 2008

Amidst the Campaign Trivia, Food Prices Rise


When is the last time food managed to become a campaign issue?


The answer is four years ago, when Republicans and conservatives made much of the fact that the “elitist, effete” John Kerry ordered a Philly cheese steak sandwich topped with Swiss rather than Cheez Whiz.


Campaign coverage has become more and more substance-free over the years, with this year’s obsession over ministers and Hillary Clinton’s experience with firearms ranking as the absolutely silliest display, probably ever. There was a day when American journalism had no standards, but even those – by comparison – were sobering, serious discussions of policy.


The question is how bad things have to get before the public simply ceases to tolerate it.


We could find out in a very negative way. It’s no state secret that the cost of food is headed northward. In fact, it’s evident to anyone who looks at the receipt when they’re done shopping. The prices of basic staples – eggs, milk and cheese – are all going up. So is wheat.


As hard as it is on the household budget, it’s still better here than overseas, where food line rioting has broken out.


Food riots overseas . . . just the thing to calm Americans already jittery over their grocery bills. Just in time, Sam’s Club and Costco, stores famous for selling in big quantities, have limited their sales of rice.


A shortage? Not according to industry insiders, who say that the U.S. is looking at a bumper crop. Plus, this is hardly Minute Rice we’re talking about, but exotic jasmine and basmati rice and long-grain white. Hardly the stuff typically whipped up in a household with two parents tired after working all day.


Still, if food prices continue to rise, by November it’s doubtful whether anyone will care about whether Hillary Clinton can knock back a shot of expensive sipping whisky or any of the other trivialities that have consumed the presidential campaign.


Prices are being pushed northward by a combination of a devaluing dollar, competition for ad space between wheat and corn and competition for corn between food and transportation. All of this should be placed against the backdrop that, for the first time, we depart a period of economic expansion with the median family income lower than when we started. It’s no wonder that a vast majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.


The continued rise in the cost of food, plus the squeeze it puts on household budgets, will not help the Republican candidate. He will be saddled by the impression that food prices are a reflection of the economy, which is a reflection of the competence of the guy leaving office. An incompetent president inspires a deep desire for change (so do highly controversial ones), which tends to make handing the torch within the same party difficult.


That could be the kind of issue that just simply drives the campaign, ending media obsession with the kinds of nonsense and trivialities that have so far consumed it. It might be giving average voters more credit than they deserve, but it seems highly unlikely that anyone will want to hear about a candidate’s minister when the average voter has a hard time affording a gallon of milk.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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