Now that President Biden has unveiled a plan to combat monopolistic practices in the meat industry, much of the media coverage is treating this effort as little more than an attempt to mitigate the political fallout of inflation by blaming large corporations for it.
It’s as though the only way for many media figures to cover this initiative is through the prism of inflation, because that’s Biden’s main political problem — according to the media.
But the truth is that the White House plan only makes passing mention of inflation. Its primary focus is on the power dynamics of an industry that puts small farmers and ranchers at the mercy of large meatpacking corporations, and the role this plays in causing higher prices and creating other problems.
No one would claim the administration has no political considerations at work, since politics is at play in everything the president does. And if you want to argue that this initiative won’t make a difference in inflation in the next few months, that’s probably true.
But shouldn’t we also ask whether this is a good idea on its own terms?
Biden’s plan would take $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds and direct much of it into loans and grants for independent meat processors, to create more competition in the industry. The rest of the money would do things such as increase inspections and worker training.
The plan would also strengthen Justice Department enforcement of antitrust rules, and create greater transparency in meat-market pricing.
In much of the meat pipeline, small farmers sell their animals to the meatpackers, who then slaughter them, package the meat and send it to stores. But because the industry is dominated by a small number of gigantic meatpacking companies, these companies can dictate just about whatever terms they want to those small farmers, who have nowhere else to sell their product.
For instance, as the White House points out, four meatpacking companies control 85 percent of the market for beef. The story in pork and poultry is similar. The way Tyson and Perdue lock chicken farmers into onerous contracts has been described as modern-day sharecropping and led to multiple lawsuits; the two companies recently agreed to pay $35 million in a suit filed by small farmers charging price-fixing and other abuses.
So addressing this problem is obviously about more than inflation. What’s more, this is a potential area of bipartisan cooperation: Biden made a point of acknowledging the efforts of Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who are among the sponsors of a number of recent bills related to consolidation in the meat industry.
Finally, this new move represents not one, but two tendencies we’ve seen from Biden and Democrats for some time now. First, the ideas developing in the universe of progressive economic thinkers in recent years have increasingly focused on battling corporate concentration.
“A wide body of research argues that concentration in the economy over the last 20 years has made the economy worse,” Mike Konczal, a director at the Roosevelt Institute, told us. “There’s less investment, less innovation, worse outcomes for consumers and workers.”
This Biden push advances the focus of progressive economists in general, but also in a more specific sense. As Konczal noted, left-leaning economists have long held up battling concentration in the meat and agricultural industries in particular as central to the progressive agenda for rural America.
“This is a longer-seeded concern,” Konczal said.
Indeed, even if the administration is partly lifting this up to mitigate political fallout from inflation, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Inflation and high prices amount to a complex problem with many causes. Relying on public concern to galvanize long-sought reform is reasonable.
“Pushing against inflation on a lot of different fronts is a good idea,” Konczal said. “There’s a long-standing concern about what’s happening in agriculture and meat. Using this opportunity to visit it even more urgently is wise.”
All this reflects another important development: Biden’s surprising openness to adopting progressive economic policy ideas. The 2020 progressive presidential candidates emphasized the need to combat monopoly power to a greater degree than Biden did; now, he’s there.
Indeed, Biden’s comments on this matter on Monday were laced with a kind of populist rhetoric — “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation” — that might have once seemed at odds with his longtime moderate instincts.
But smarter progressives have noticed that Biden’s moderate aura — and his central Pennsylvania roots — have turned him into a good messenger for progressive ideas. As Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) notes, when Biden talks about such ideas, they come across as broadly representative of the whole Democratic Party and reminiscent of the America that Biden experienced “growing up in Scranton” in the postwar years.
Reducing everything the president does to an attempt to solve some short-term political problem doesn’t help us understand a given policy’s real goals, or what difference it might make in real people’s lives. The measure of his success will be whether the policy does what it’s supposed to do.