There’s lots of interesting stuff in Ed Glaeser’s new book, “The Triumph of the City.” One of Glaeser’s themes, for instance, is the apparent paradox of cities becoming more expensive and more crowded even as the cost of communicating over great distances has fallen dramatically. New York is a good example of this, but Silicon Valley is a better one
The overarching theme of Glaeser’s book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer. And the evidence in favor of this point is very, very strong. But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.
Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a “usda.gov” address. “Secretary Vilsack read your blog post ‘Why we still need cities’ over the weekend, and he has some thoughts and reflections, particularly about the importance of rural America,” it said. A call was set for a little later in the day. I think it’s safe to say Vilsack didn’t like the post. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion about rural America, subsidies and values follows.
Ezra Klein: Let’s talk about the post.
Tom Vilsack: I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.
EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?
TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.
The other thing is that people don’t understand is how difficult farming is. There are really three different kinds of farmers. Of the 2.1 million people who counted as farmers, about 1.3 million of them live in a farmstead in rural America. They don’t really make any money from their operation. Then there are 600,000 people who, if you ask them what they do for a living, they’re farmers. They produce more than $10,000 but less than $250,000 in sales. Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. And those are the folks for whom I’m trying to figure out how to diversify income opportunities, help them spread out into renewable fuel sources. And then the balance of farmers, roughly 200,000 to 300,000, are commercial operations, and they do pretty well, particularly when commodity prices are high. But they have a tremendous amount of capital at risk. And they’re aging at a rapid rate, with 37 percent over 65. Who’s going to replace those folks?
EK: You keep saying that rural Americans are good and decent people, that they work hard and participate in their communities. But no one is questioning that. The issue is that people who live in cities are also good people. People who live in exurbs work hard and mow their lawns. So what does the character of rural America have to do with subsidies for rural America?
TV: It is an argument. There is a value system that’s important to support. If there’s not economic opportunity, we can’t utilize the resources of rural America. I think it’s a complicated discussion and it does start with the fact that these are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated. When you spend 6 or 7 percent of your paycheck for groceries and people in other countries spend 20 percent, that’s partly because of these farmers.
Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:
IN THIS chat with Ezra Klein, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, offers a pandering defence of agricultural subsidies so thoroughly bereft of substance I began to fear that Mr Vilsack would be sucked into the vacuum of his mouth and disappear.When Mr Klein first raises the subject of subsidies for sugar and corn, Mr Vilsack admirably says, “I admit and acknowledge that over a period of time, those subsidies need to be phased out.” But not yet! Vilsack immediately thereafter scrambles to defend the injurious practice. Ethanol subsidies help to wean us off foreign fuels and dampen price volatility when there is no peace is the Middle East, Mr Vilsack contends. Anyway, he continues, undoing the economic dislocation created by decades of corporate welfare for the likes of ADM and Cargill will create economic dislocation. Neither of these points is entirely lacking in merit, but they at best argue for phasing out subsidies slowly starting now.
Mr Vilsack should have stopped here, since this is as strong as his case is ever going to be, but instead he goes on to argue that these subsidies sustain rural culture, which is a patriotic culture that honours and encourages vital military service:
[S]mall-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated. They feel they do a great service for America. They send their children to the military not just because it’s an opportunity, but because they have a value system from the farm: They have to give something back to the land that sustains them.
Mr Klein follows up sanely:
It sounds to me like the policy you’re suggesting here is to subsidize the military by subsidizing rural America. Why not just increase military pay? Do you believe that if there was a substantial shift in geography over the next 15 years, that we wouldn’t be able to furnish a military?
To which Mr Vilsack says:
I think we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do.
In the end, Mr Vilsack’s argument comes down to the notion that the people of rural America feel that they have lost social status, and that subsidies amount to a form of just compensation for this injury. I don’t think Mr Vilsack really believes that in the absence of welfare for farmers, the armed services would be hard-pressed to find young men and women willing to make war for the American state. He’s using willingness-to-volunteer as proof of superior patriotism, and superior patriotism is the one claim to status left to those who have no other.
Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:
I’ll add a few comments. First, it may be that the economists who understand the economic virtues of city life aren’t doing a sufficiently good job explaining that it’s not the people in cities that contribute the extra economic punch; it’s the cities or, more exactly, the interactions between the people cities facilitate. It’s fine to love the peace of rural life. Just understand that the price of peace is isolation, which reduces productivity.
Second, the idea that economically virtuous actors deserve to be rewarded not simply with economic success but with subsidies is remarkably common in America (and elsewhere) and is not by any means a characteristic limited to rural people. I also find it strange how upset Mr Vilsack is by the fact that he “ha[s] a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them”. Agricultural interests are represented by some of the most effective lobbyists in the country, but their feelings are hurt by the fact that journalists aren’t saying how great they are? This reminds me of the argument that business leaders aren’t investing because they’re put off by the president’s populist rhetoric. When did people become so sensitive? When did hurt feelings become a sufficient justification for untold government subsidies?
Finally, what Mr Klein doesn’t mention is that rural voters are purchasing respect or dignity at the price of livelihoods in much poorer places. If Americans truly cared for the values of an urban life and truly wished to address rural poverty, they’d get rid of agricultural policies that primarily punish farmers in developing economies.
Ezra Klein sounds like my clone when arguing with the Secretary of Agriculture.
Essentially, Vilsack justifies subsiding farmers on the basis that rural America is the storehouse of our values, for which he has no evidence. And he’s befuddled when confronted with someone who doesn’t take his homilies as obvious facts.
Nobody argues that America’s farmers aren’t a vital part of our economy or denies that rural areas provide a disproportionate number of our soldiers. But the notion that country folks are somehow better people or even better Americans has no basis in reality.
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
Why is it so common to praise the character of rural America? Part of it is doubtless that rural life represents the past, and we think of the past as a simpler and more honest time. But surely another element is simply that rural America is overwhelmingly white and Protestant. And completely aside from the policy ramifications, the deep-seated veneration of rural America reflects, at bottom, a prejudice few would be willing to openly spell out.