What do values have to do with rural subsidies?
As a longtime resident of a big cities, I think I get what Vilsack is saying. Wall Street doesn’t produce anything of value, per se, yet they too get subsidies in the form of tax cuts and government bailouts. Similarly, the artists that city livers adore so much also often rely on government grants. Farmers produce much of the huge amounts of food city dwellers buy at grocery stores and restaurants — which is much more essential than a derivative — and yet there isn’t necessarily any thought or appreciation to where it comes from. I’ve been at dinners where the table orders expensive dish after expensive dish, with all the credit going to the restaurant and celebrity chef, and little to no thought going to where that food came from in the first place. We just assume we can get a pear or veal steak anytime we want it, with no thought to anything else.
Professions in cities seem to be becoming increasingly removed from the making of tangible products — what exactly does a regional manager of acquisitions for Aflac produce for me? — whereas products like chicken breast and iPods are just assumed to come from “somewhere else”. Cities certainly consume en masse the products that rural communities produce, especially with the high demand for organic and natural products (ever been at a Whole Foods in NYC on a Thursday night?) and there should be some acknowledgment of that. I also think that anyone who has lived in cities long enough knows that there is a certain amount of pride and even arrogance that comes with it — that you are more worldly than the hicks back in the rural world — even though you might be the first to cherish an organic white cheddar from Vermont or expensive Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. The point is rural communities support much of our consumption (and military) and that should be acknowledged, if not subsidized.
There’s a lot to that. But the final sentence — the one that brings subsidies into the conversation — complicates matters.
There are all sorts of subsidies in American life. There are subsidies for sprawl, for Wall Street, for ethanol, for weatherization. In each case, we have to decide whether the subsides are serving a meaningful purpose. Vilsack’s comments aside, it’s notable that the Secretary of Agriculture is calling to defend the various subsidies that help make rural life affordable: The Department of Agriculture is used as the Department of Rural Affairs. They have an Office of Rural Development, which administers, among other things, broadband subsidies. And it’s not just the Department of Agriculture that has this odd mission: The House Committee on Agriculture has a subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. The Senate’s Committee on Agriculture has a Subcommittee on Rural Revitalization, Conservation, Forestry and Credit. In America, agriculture policy is rural policy. And I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.
If we want to subsidize living in rural America, we should do it, and do it in a straightforward manner. But agricultural policy shouldn’t be conscripted to serve that purpose. Similarly, if we want to further subsidize or reward people who go into the military, or families that send their children into the military, we should do that, not send money to rural communities because they enlist at higher rates.
By all accounts, Vilsack is a very good, and very forward-looking, secretary of agriculture. He’s worked hard to orient his agency’s spending towards renewable energy, broadband and other industries and services that make sense to subsidize. He’s interested in a more sensible system of food subsidies, though that’s a hard lift in Congress. But I’m much more comfortable with his initiatives on their own merits than when they’re framed in terms of what rural Americans deserve because they’re rural Americans. I have no problem paying taxes to expand broadband access from sea to shining sea, but I do have a problem when the rationale for that subsidy shifts from helping people live good and productive lives or viewing broadband as a public good to supporting rural Americans because rural Americans deserve a subsidy by dint of their decency and work ethic. That doesn’t scan as affirmative to rural America to me, though I know Vilsack means it as such. It scans as divisive for those of us who don’t live in rural America.
And what Vilsack doesn’t acknowledge, I think, is that the political system has a hard time appreciating urban America. As Ed Glaeser argues at length, cities are incredibly productive. They drive economic innovation in this country, and in most others. They are crucial sources of cultural and artistic innovation. Rural America hasn’t been losing people for the past century because of subsidies. They’ve been losing people because people have been choosing to move to urban and suburban areas — despite quite a lot of subsidies pointing the other way. And those choices say something important about urban and suburban America. Something the political system is set up to ignore, and even fight.
The Senate is overwhelmingly biased toward rural America, and the House is biased as well (by population, Wyoming should have 1/68th as much representation as California, not 1/53rd). That has important affects for public policy, but rather than discuss that openly, we tend to talk wrap the residents of rural America in many layers of rhetorical gauze and justify policy towards them in terms of values. But as someone who chose to move to a city rather than to a rural area, I don’t think rural America’s values are better or superior to urban America’s. Cities breed a tolerance and openness that’s of great importance to our increasingly polyglot nation, just as rural areas inculcate an ethic of service and patriotism that’s deeply valuable in a perennially fractious nation.
I’m not hostile to subsidies that benefit America unevenly. In fact, I think a Department of Rural Affairs would make a lot of sense. But I want to discuss those subsidies and their justification openly, not ignore the unequal political representation that produces them or free them from scrutiny because of the group that’s benefiting. And, as the post that kicked all this off said, I also want to discuss the benefits of urban living openly, and not have that taken as a shot at rural America.
| March 8, 2011; 4:23 PM ET
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