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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why are groceries so expensive?

By Paul Krugman

Sometimes I talk about inflation with real people — no, not Donald Trump supporters in diners, but people who don’t pore over Bureau of Labor Statistics reports or argue about the relative merits of trimmed mean versus multivariate core trend inflation. And while people don’t necessarily disagree with the proposition that inflation is coming down, they do inevitably bring up the cost of groceries.

It’s a fair point. Yes, there’s a negativity bias in perceptions of food inflation, in which big jumps make a stronger impression than big declines. For example, the Eggpocalypse of 2022 got a lot more attention than the rapid normalization of 2023.

Still, it’s true that grocery prices have risen considerably more than average consumer prices since the eve of the pandemic.

Why? Can we blame Bidenomics? Or are surging food prices an example of “greedflation,” inflation caused by price gouging?

No and no. OK, the economic surge under President Joe Biden may have had some marginal impact on food prices, especially because it has led to big wage gains for low-paid workers, including workers at supermarkets. And I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some big players in the food business have taken advantage of general inflation to exploit their market power even more than usual. But the key point to understand about food inflation is that it’s a global phenomenon, outside the control of any one government (except, in a sense, Russia’s — I’ll get there in a minute) and transcending the pricing policies of even the biggest businesses.

Given the huge rise in global prices, how could prices in the United States not have gone up a lot? Indeed, there have been big food price rises around the world, for example, in Europe.

Now, the prices U.S. consumers pay for food haven’t closely tracked the global price index, and in general have gone up by less. But that’s not surprising, because the indexes are measuring somewhat different things. The World Bank is estimating the prices of raw foodstuffs, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics is measuring the prices of purchased foods — loosely speaking, bushels of wheat versus loaves of bread.

This distinction drives a wedge between global prices and the prices paid by shoppers, and this in turn means that nonglobal factors can play some role in grocery inflation.

For example, a White House blog post on grocery prices cited, among other things, “pandemic-induced shifts in food demand from restaurants to groceries.” This is a version of the toilet paper problem. Remember that? Part of the issue was that the toilet paper sold in stores is different from the toilet paper sold to businesses and restaurants, and when millions of people suddenly began staying home, the industry temporarily found itself producing the wrong kind of stuff. Similar issues arose when people stopped eating out and bought more food for home use.

Also, getting food into your shopping cart involves a number of costs over and above the price of food commodities. Among these is the cost of labor. Retail food employees earn notoriously low wages, but tight labor markets have led to significant gains for the worst paid workers, which must have had some impact on consumer prices.

And yes, maybe there was some price gouging. But it can’t have been central to the story. If it were, we wouldn’t have seen egg prices come down as fast as they went up.

So food inflation is mainly a global story. But what caused that global food spike? It seems to have been a perfect storm of adverse events (including actual storms).

At the top of the list was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the “black soil” belt that stretches across Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan regained its historic role as one of the world’s great agricultural heartlands, but now it is, once again, a war zone.

The Russian invasion was also one, although not the only, factor in an extraordinary surge in fertilizer prices.

Why? Russia itself is a major exporter of fertilizer, and Russian natural gas was a crucial input into fertilizer production in Europe. You see why I say that Russia may be the only government able to have much impact on world food inflation; we would definitely see some relief if Vladimir Putin called his invasion off (which he won’t).

Last but not least, a series of extreme weather events, made much more likely by climate change, has disrupted agricultural production in many places.

The bottom line is that even though many people would like someone to blame for high grocery prices, it’s really hard to find domestic villains. Despite what the American right claims, Biden didn’t do this. Despite what some on the left would like to believe, neither, at least for the most part, did greedy corporations.

Sometimes, as the bumper stickers don’t quite say, stuff just happens.

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