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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

How do you define 'rural subsidies'?

By Ezra Klein

Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs e-mails a good response to my conversation with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack:

You refer a couple of times to “rural subsidies” and you quiz Vilsack on what justifies subsidizing rural people. You don’t explain what you mean by “rural subsidies” and Vilsack didn’t challenge you to unpack it. That results in a huge gap in the conversation -- a critical gap.

If by “rural subsidies” you mean farm commodity subsidies, that should be isolated and taken head on. You are right to question and challenge the current structure of farm commodity subsidies. They provide unlimited benefit to the largest farm operators. This drives consolidation of farms. Fewer farmers means fewer people in rural America. This approach is not good for rural America, and rural America most certainly has been losing people for decades as a direct result.

The organization that I work for -- the Center for Rural Affairs -- is the leading organization in the nation fighting to reform this system. I’d be happy to tell you more about the two decades long battle.

In short, farm commodity subsidies should not be characterized as “rural subsides.” Their benefit accrues to only a very small portion of the rural population. A 2007 report from the Center for Rural Affairs, Over Subsidizing and Under Investing, shows how badly skewed USDA investment is toward very large farm operators and away from investing in programs that build a future for all of rural America.

The report found that the USDA spent nearly twice as much to subsidize just the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states examined as it invested in rural-development programs to create economic opportunity for the 3 million people living in 1,400 towns in the 20 most-struggling rural counties in the same 13 states.

DePew goes on to argue that “all other rural development programs (inclusive of one ones like broadband development that you spoke well of) account for literally a fraction of one percent of all farm bill spending.” I can nitpick this a little bit:Rural living ends up costing a lot more than urban living on a variety of measures. The roads are used less and have to stretch farther. Energy use -- which is subsidized for all of us because we don’t price carbon -- is higher. The Postal Service spends a lot of money driving from place to place. For obvious reasons, it’s easier to deliver services to a lot of people living close together than a few people living far apart.

But I’m not interested in shutting down postal delivery or ceasing to build roads. My point in the initial post wasn’t that we should end subsidies to rural America, but that urban living has certain economic benefits that our political system, which heavily overrepresents rural voters, is not set up to maximize. I thought this a relatively uncontroversial point, and have been surprised to see people take it as a criticism of rural residents rather than an observation on demonstrated rates of productivity growth. To offer an analogy, I often praise the German health-care system in comparison to the mess we’ve got in America, but I assure you that it’s not because I have any special affection for Germany.

By Ezra Klein  | March 9, 2011; 10:22 AM ET
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Why were rural roads built in the first place? To bring food to the city. Why, before about 1920, did every city back yard have chickens? Because the roads were so crappy you couldn't carry eggs on them without breaking them, so you had to grow them locally. BTW, our roads are still crappy.

Why are rural roads used for other than rural business? Because city people, while maintaining their sense of innate superiority, can't stand the city and move out here. Then they get ordinances passed saying rural business should not go on within their visual, auditory or olfactory range. Energy use? How about the towns in Vermont where the emigres from NY have made clothes lines illegal?

Posted by: GBMcM | March 9, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

"our political system, which heavily overrepresents rural voters"

Are politicians from "rural states" really "rural people" to begin with though? Idaho may have 2 Senators - but if they are both from Boise, with primary support from the urban contingency there - can we really define them as "rural"?

I think rural voters see America's senators and congressmen as rich, white men from cities; whether or not those cities are in "rural" states is almost beside the point. You never see Congress members in session wearing rural clothing and avoiding long-winded, jargon-filled speeches. In this sense, perhaps it is rural voters who feel should feel underrepresented.

Posted by: est2 | March 9, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, just let it go! Some people like to think of us still as an "agrarian democracy" of family farms. Even though the Depression ended that world forever, they want to cling to Capraesque ideas. Leave them in peace. You can't change them.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 9, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Ezra - I think that the reason people are getting so ruffled about what you have written is that you are challenging a fundamental fallacy that many rural people employ to justify the state of their lives.

People who leave rural areas for the city (as I did) often do so to pursue more lucrative jobs. Further, city life has the perception (if not the reality) of greater glamor and excitement over that of a rural existence.

This feeds directly into class resentment. Those who didn't "get out" often buffer any envy or resentment by insisting that a rural environment has sounder "values." The implication is that this makes them more virtuous than us city folks who have clearly sold our souls for glamor and money.

So when you question the assumption of rural virtue, you are attacking a primal sense of Karma among many rural folks. And this often doesn't go down well.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | March 9, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

--*Energy use -- which is subsidized for all of us because we don’t price carbon*--

You're hopeless, Klein.

Posted by: msoja | March 9, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

So now the Center for Rural Affairs is opposed to farm commodity subsidies as well?

Great! We should be able to get a consensus to get rid of them then.

Posted by: jnc4p | March 9, 2011 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Are you saying we shouldn't end subsidies to rural America or are you saying you just haven't addressed that issue.

If you think we shouldn't end subsidies...please explain

Posted by: Mazzi455 | March 9, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

It's nice to see someone challenge your vague and ill-conceived use of the term "rural subsidies." If you want to "empower cities" then fine - I'm all for it. If you are tired to hearing about how rural Americans are real Americans well then (Whaa) I feel for you (it's tough). The reality though is that most people who live in rural America can't pick up and move to NYC or even CT. It's too expensive. I'm unsure as to exactly why you haven't been able to recognize the poverty that affects these areas of the country.

Posted by: bstahlbe | March 9, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse


Look up the term "externalities"

Posted by: Mazzi455 | March 9, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"To offer an analogy, I often praise the German health-care system in comparison to the mess we’ve got in America, but I assure you that it’s not because I have any special affection for Germany."

So your saying that you don't think that city life is better? That you don't prefer it? If not, the analogy falls apart.

Posted by: bstahlbe | March 9, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

People who lived in rural areas deserve the equivalent access to health care, pensions, and jobs in, for example, tourism, as city and suburban dwellers. So, yes, we ought to assist rural areas -- and encourage people to remain on small family farms.

Posted by: harold3 | March 9, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Furthermore, we need to develop sustainable agriculture:

Posted by: harold3 | March 9, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Sustainable agriculture

- a system desinged to totally ignore the fact that the vast majority of the world lives in densely populated urban environments and can only be fed through heavily productive large scale farming.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 9, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra's point was that we have a lot of spending that goes to rural states/areas supported with arguments based around the intrinsic virtue of the people that live there or rurality in general. His point was that we should look at our spending and ask: 1) is this subsidy for a cause that is actually worth supporting, and 2) if it is a cause worth supporting is it serving its purpose well? He also argued that the lionization of rural people and rural life is in contrast to how difficult it often is approach urban policies with such rosy arguments, despite the fact that cities, city life, and city dwellers have a lot to recommend them.

We should subsidize access to broadband in rural areas because it's a good thing for more people to have access to high speed internet, not because rural people have better values or because we're trying to maintain some ideal of the family farm. If we actually do want to support family farming, we should target programs to do that. What we shouldn't do is funnel billions of dollars to sparsely populated areas without thinking it through because there are a bunch of happy stereotypes about rural areas and people.

This isn't about the relative value of rural people vs. city people. It's about being smart and clear eyed about how we spend our money. Do ag subsidies really help preserve family farms? It seems like what they mostly do is subsidize giant, profitable corporate farming. Is that a smart use of our money, and if we want to help out people living in rural areas, is there a better way to do it?

Posted by: MosBen | March 9, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

There's a lot more going on in rural areas than just farming. For example, where do you think all of the clean drinking water for NY City comes from? Or how about the electricity that allows us to read your blog? Or the roads that allow you to receive the computer you are working on? Or the wood pulp that makes the paper for your toilet? Or the place you go on vacation to get away from it all? Etc.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | March 9, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The Center for Rural Affairs does excellent work and has opposed the current structure of wasteful farm commodity subsidies for decades. They were at the forefront of fighting unsustainable farming practices in the 1970s, when vast tracks of land in western Nebraska were over-irrigated and heavily fertilized to the point where the soil was depleted and crop yields dwindled year over year. They (correctly) see farmland in rural America as better cared-for when the owners actually live on the property and in the local communities, and therefore have a long-term interest in sustainable production practices. Thanks for printing Depew's letter.

Posted by: steveandshelley | March 9, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

What mos ben said.

Posted by: harold3 | March 9, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

It's an idea whose time has come:

(Reuters) - Many farmers in developing nations can double food production within a decade by shifting to ecological agriculture from use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a U.N. report showed on Tuesday.

Posted by: harold3 | March 9, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Those are some mighty big assumptions to make about the costs to government about rural living without a single link to back up your assumptions. Where are the facts, Ezra?

Also, our political system does not heavily overrepresents rural voters. One house of one branch of our federal government overrepresents rural people. Everything else, from the electoral system to our local elections heavily overrepresents urban voters. Urban development has its own agency, for goodness sake.

Urban areas mine resources (both natural, economic and human) from rural areas and give very little in return.

Posted by: Lyoness | March 9, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

@Mazzi455 --*Look up the term "externalities"*--

How about you look up "subsidized"?

Tell me Klein doesn't mutilate language as part of his propagandic arts.

Posted by: msoja | March 9, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

"I think Ezra's point was that we have a lot of spending that goes to rural states/areas supported with arguments based around the intrinsic virtue of the people that live there or rurality in general. "

What Ezra's saying is that the structural overweighting of rural influence in politics has an ideological underpinning that goes back to Jefferson, and that it's important to separate out that ideology in order to address the consequences of the structural bias. Vilsack's "patriotic people of the plains" rhetoric simply reiterates the mythology.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 9, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

harold wrote:

"Many farmers in developing nations can double food production within a decade by shifting to ecological agriculture from use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides,"

Two thoughts, first, we don't have a decade. Remember the whole problem in the Arab world started over food riots, not human rights.

Second there are MANY areas that are not advanced in large scale farming techniques, where you could change any factor and greatly improve output. The Ukraine, which should be one of if not THE greatest farming areas on earth is symbolic of this because of years of the Soviet system and the legacy it left behind.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 9, 2011 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Lyoness, keep in mind that to be "overrepresented", in this case at least, the representation has to exceed the proportion of the represented population as a percentage of the governing body. So, Wyoming is overrepresented in the Senate because it's got far fewer people than, say, California. In one of Ezra's previous posts he discussed how even in the House smaller states actually have more representation than their populations would suggest.

To the extent that urban voters are *more* represented than rural voters, it's because there's a lot more of them. If you're intending another meaning of overrepresentation, or if you have some evidence that urban voters receive more representation than their population percentage warrants, you should make that more clear.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the Senate is one of the biggest choke points in our government, so whether it's because rural voters are overrepresented in that body or just a coincidence, rural voters benefit beyond their percentage of the population would otherwise dictate from having a lot of power to stop legislation from becoming law.

pseudonymousinnc, I think that's what I was saying, so I think we're in agreement. If I'm missing something, feel free to let me know.

Posted by: MosBen | March 9, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

MosBen: we're in agreement, just approaching it from different angles.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 9, 2011 6:06 PM | Report abuse


I'd like to know what you mean by 'over representation'. I think you would probably argue that New York's rural population is probably under-represented while Wyoming's urban population is probably under-represented.

Also, I would like for you to just come out and say that you don't like the set up of the representation for Congress, the senate and the president, instead of just casually referring to it in your posts.

And if thats true, supply us with an alternative that you believe would be a more effective representation or all of the interests.

Posted by: powerscf | March 9, 2011 8:47 PM | Report abuse

Hey! What do you have against Germans, Ezra?! LoL Next you'll be getting an angry email from the German ambassador.

Your discussion with Vilsack and the resulting fallout has made for some very interesting discussions. We can get a little touchy here in Forgottonia when it seems like big city folk are trashing rural communities. I'm not saying that's what you were doing, but that's a raw wound easily aggravated.

It may be the truth that rural communities are over-represented in our government at both the state & federal level, but the perception in rural communities is exactly the opposite. People here feel forgotten and ignored. I'm in Illinois, and there is a lot of deep-seated resentment against Chicago in the rest of the state, and I hear it from both ends of the political spectrum. When I travel & get asked where I'm from, the follow-up to my answer is nearly always "Is that near Chicago?" It grates on your nerves after the thousandth time.

Sarah Palin and other Republicans know how to poor salt in that open wound to get folks angry & swing votes to the right. Don't underestimate or dismiss that sore rural pride, because you damage your cause in doing so. Liberals could have strong political allies in rural America if they played their cards right, but they have to avoid statements that smack of condescension.

Posted by: Forgottonia | March 9, 2011 10:05 PM | Report abuse

"Liberals could have strong political allies in rural America if they played their cards right, but they have to avoid statements that smack of condescension."

Cuts both ways. If you feel forgotten and ignored, you might want to think about who's representing you. But you also might want to spell out what exactly it is that would make you feel acknowledged and respected.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 11, 2011 12:34 AM | Report abuse

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