LET US RETURN for a moment to the price of hamburger, which, as you have probably noticed, is going nowhere but up. Congress, in the last wild days of the session, passed a beef import bill that offers an instructive example of the politics of world trade. The bill is not likely to have much effect on the course of history since, we assume, President Carter is going to veto it. But it traces the line that runs from the trade talks in Geneva to the meat counter of your neighborhood supermarket and back to the White House, where Mr. Carter is shortly to announce his anti-inflation program.
The bill started off as a modest but respectable attempt to correct the perverse effects of the present law on beef imports. The law says that imports are limited to 7 percent of domestic production. Beef production is cyclical, and the cycle is now starting to swing down. The present formula would reduce imports at just the time that the country needs more beef. Why not turn the formula around so that it widens imports when domestic production falls, and vice versa? It's a good idea, and the Carter administration supported it.
But on its long journey through Congress, the bill acquired an ominous addition. There's safety valve in the present law, allowing the president to suspend the import limits when necessary. The meat industry managed to attach provisions abolishing that safety valve.
There is a severe drop ahead in the amount of beef for American consumers. The supply has already started to fall, and prices are reflecting it. Two years ago, when the production cycle was at its peak, the average American was eating 96 pounds of beef a year. Currently, the supply is down to about 90 pounds a year - and the wholesale price has already risen by nearly one third. When the cycle hits bottom four or five years from now, the supply - under present import restrictions - would be down to about 75 pounds a year per person. Most estimates suggest that by then the price for beef will be round 50 percent higher than it is today, on top of the general inflation rate.
Under the bill that Congress sent to the president, imports would rise automatically next year. But they would rise only two or three pounds per person - hardly enough to affect prices. Meanwhile, the president would lose his power to lift import restrictions.
While the meat industry was lobbying the import bill into its present form, American trade negotiators at Geneva were leaning hard on Japan and Europe to let in more American agricultural products. The cattlemen want it both ways. They want wider opportunities to sell abroad, but they don't want other countries selling more here.
Perhaps it's possible to sustain human life without beef, but there are a lot of people in this cuontry who aren't inclined to try it. If Mr. Carter asks labor unions to hold down wage demands - as he is about to do - he can't be indifferent to the grocery bills that union members pay. Imports, unfortunately, can't be turned on and off quickly. To build up a flow of beef from abroad, the administration will have to promise foreign producers to keep American markets open to them in years ahead. That's why Mr. Carter is very likely to veto the beef import bill. Otherwise, he would cripple his wage and price guidelines even before they went into effect.