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Posted at 4:23 PM ET, 03/ 8/2011

What do values have to do with rural subsidies?

By Ezra Klein

In comments, reader Work Monkey sees Tom Vilsack’s point:

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.

By Ezra Klein  | March 8, 2011; 4:23 PM ET
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"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."

This won't happen. Instead it will be your subsidies justify my subsidies. We would be better served getting rid of subsidies all together.

Posted by: jnc4p | March 8, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

more to the point, just why are we subsidizing any of these - wall street, agribusiness or big oil and gas - at a time when we are knocking off big bird and eviscerating public education? each of the three industries aforementioned are doing quite well on their own while the american citizen is being asked to give up more and more.

Posted by: sbvpav | March 8, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Shorter Vilsak:
In order to honor those poor rural families whose children comprise most of our underpaid military forces because it is a last ditch way out of grinding poverty, we have to give their rich, landed neighbors (whose kids are more likely to go to private college than the Marines) huge amounts of money.

Posted by: flounder2 | March 8, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

As R.A. of the Economist says:

"Move the people to the growth, not the growth to the people"

Posted by: Mazzi455 | March 8, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

--*[W]e have to decide whether the subsides are serving a meaningful purpose.*--

Is there a mouse in your pocket, Klein?

Suggesting a subsidy is needed amounts to admitting that "we" have already decided "we" don't value the thing enough to support it voluntarily. In other words, you, Klein, don't really think "we have to decide", but that some elitist group of glad handers should do our deciding for us, and "we" better like it.

Posted by: msoja | March 8, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

My objection to Vilsack's comments is that they seem to come from the same mindset that the right uses when they talk about "Real Americans." The idea seems to be that there's something inherently noble, and deserving, about rural Americans. The suggestion is that the rest of us -- those who live in the suburbs and, especially, the cities -- are ignoble and undeserving. It's an ugly suggestion that's tied up with racism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, and so much more. The right exploits this to pit people against one another, and it's unfortunate to hear Vilsack, who I generally like, feeding it.

Posted by: weiss24 | March 8, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

On the question of why military service is disproportionately high among farm kids, I don't think it's only a matter of either poverty or a special rural value. Perhaps the bigger factor is that many young men and women see the prospect of a boring life laid out ahead of them and long for something more exciting. Some choose to move to the city, but a lot of them don't have the wherewithal or the inclination to pick up and leave home. To them the military looks like their best option to get out of Dodge.

Posted by: adagio847 | March 8, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

I can see an argument for providing support to small family farms, but unfortunately, my sense is that most of the federal support is going to massive industrial farms. The ethanol subsidies in particular are terrible policy.

Posted by: JPRS | March 8, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse

A negative effect of the hidden subsidies is the fact that the people receiving the subsidies don't even know or acknowledge that they are receiving them. I live in rural Alabama and a majority of my neighbors and my congressional delegation want to cut subsidies (and their own throat). Because the subsidies are hidden, there is little recognition that they even exist.

Posted by: gpw123 | March 8, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Now that satellite TV is here, there is probably no real difference in values between rural and urban / suburban kids.

Have not read Glaeser, but I have read Jane Jacobs. Says a lot of interesting things, but she classed the TVA as a complete failure and was dead set against aid to failing cities.

As for innovation, the plow, combine and all the stuff that keeps you fed were not invented in cities. Intellectual and cultural innovation? I'd guess that for writers, at least, there may well be a statistical bias is towards rural.

Posted by: GBMcM | March 8, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Yes, thank you. Why it is that rural American's feel like they don't have a voice and yet, through institutions like the senate, they really do?

Posted by: ideallydc | March 8, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse

-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).

Can you elaborate a bit on this? Just because a state is low population doesn't mean it's rural. Rhode Island and Delware are both good examples of low population high-density states. Texas and Arizona seem like good candidates for high population/low density.

Posted by: evilado | March 8, 2011 6:50 PM | Report abuse

"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."

And is that even a result of "values," or just of the higher poverty rates Vilsack bemoans in the next sentence? I see an awful lot of urban poor people in the armed services, but not a whole lot of arguments that's a product of their unique cultural value system.

Posted by: heresiarch | March 8, 2011 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it is important for people in the city to understand the need for ag subsidies. As a resident of Iowa it is a given factor that you cannot depend on a food supply if the producers can be wiped out at any time because of global fluctuations of the commodities markets. And food supply is a matter of national security. So crop subsidies are required to insure a stable community of producers and a consistent food supply.

With that economic gun to the head of the rural biased Congress we have turned subsidies into a viciously self-destructive engine for manufacturing crap. Yes we need ag subsidies but the way we are doing it right now is going to blow up in our faces one way or another.

Antibiotic resistance disease. Spiraling health costs from a diet designed to produce degenerative disease. Soil and aquifer depletion. Squandering of energy resources in the inefficient production of protein. Diversion of tillable land into energy production so we can continue to waste energy in suburban lifestyles. Depletion of seeds stocks and genetic adaptability because of genetically modified crop usage. The list goes on and on.

This is deeply corrupt and there is nothing noble or patriotic about it. Yes, the people of rural America are noble, hard working and patriotic. Which makes the incentives that we impose on them doubly sinister and disturbing.

Posted by: BobFred | March 8, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse


what an excellent comment, you wrote.

Posted by: jkaren | March 8, 2011 11:48 PM | Report abuse

1. I think you're making a mistake when you equate 'agricultural subsidies' as a 'subsidy for rural life'. I consider myself a rural supporter but am mostly against ag subsidies (partially b/c its bad economics) but it really is a lazy attempt at helping rural Americans. As most people know, it benefits large corporations (I guess you can call them farms). I think you should be more specific and mention things besides ag subsidies.

2. You're overlooking other areas where the government/societal institutions pay less attention to rural america. There were some serious issues in the Health care bill for rural Americans (particularly physician and pharmacist reimbursement rates). Almost all new education and poverty initiatives (both government and private) are directed solely at urban school problems. While I support high speed rail and other major infrastructure upgrades, the infrastructure of many parts of rural America is abysmal. And though they are making strides at it, broadband internet access is still woefully inadequate. Often times large scale 'national problems' (poverty, education, infrastructure) that are a one size (urban) fits all.

3. I think (rightly or wrongly), rural Americans interact much more with the government. There are many environmental initiatives that provide programs for encouraging conservation and smart farming. These are good programs for the farmer, the land and society as a whole. And these are education programs that the private sector would not fill. Similarly, though there are many ag subsidies, there are many restrictions and regulations on agriculture production. Every year, farmers in my state of Tennessee, saw their 'tobacco base' (the pounds of tobacco they are legally allowed to sell) decrease every year. Now most farmers don't bother with tobacco production (probably a good thing but it is still a government program that directly affects them). Whereas there aren't that many government programs that directly impact the work lives of urban journalist, salesmen, doctors (not anymore, i guess) etc. If you think that doing your taxes this month will be difficult, try being a farmer and having to keep up with all of the new regulations (which, again, are mostly worthwhile).

4. Lastly, I think there is a general distrust of rural life from urbanites and vice versa. As a Tennessean who went to school in Chicago and currently lives in Shanghai, I can say that they both have little understanding of the other. While you may think that a 'hick from Tennessee' is uncultured and anti-intellectual, I guarantee that you would feel just as helpless on a farm talking about cattle rotation, as he or she would be on Wall Street selling derivatives. People tend to overemphasize what they do or where they are from and deemphasize unknown places. Though I will say, living in Tennessee, Chicago or China, I always read the NY Times, but I doubt anyone from New York reads the Carthage Courier (TN)


Posted by: powerscf | March 9, 2011 1:25 AM | Report abuse

It seems like most of Vilsack's point was about basic respect for rural families, and appreciating their contributions to American life. Even if the subsidies can't be supported, respect should be given.

But I think there's a lot more respect for rural families and farmers among urban liberals than perhaps some folks appreciate. Witness the enormous growth of emphasis on community-supported agriculture in cities, the focus on local food sources and supplies among foodies, the "slow food" movement, &c.

CSA is the sort of voluntary, non-governmental solution to subsidizing family farms that even a liberaltarian could love.

And local food, the importance of high-quality food from family farms, and artisanal food suppliers certainly seems like the sort of thing Ezra Klein should be interested in and reporting about.

Why shouldn't we send some respect that way?

Posted by: Panglott | March 9, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I don't normally read your blog, but I found an excerpt of it on The Daily Dish. Maybe it's just one of those days, but when you write, "That has important affects for public policy, but rather than discuss that openly. . ." I have to wonder. I'm pretty sure you mean "effects," unless you think the debate is putting on airs.

Also, I'm not sure you mean we live in an "increasingly polyglot nation" but rather an increasingly heterogenous nation- a point that I don't think is defensible anyway.

A polyglot nation would be a nation that speaks a lot of different languages. I don't think that is actually happening, unless you're describing the many different dialects of Spanish as different languages.

And perhaps if you have moved to the city from the sticks, your perception of the country is that it is growing more diverse, but for those of us who come from the big cities, it's always been that way. It's your own subjective experience that makes it seem like it's changing.

At any rate, if you're going to try and make the intellectual's case for whatever point you're making, you might not want to break out the SAT words unless you know what they mean.

While I'm at it, and being kind of a prick, I'll say that the secondary coverage I've read about some of your positions on the union situation in WI leave me scratching my head. How difficult is it to separate the merits of private sector unions from those (to the extent that they exist) of public sector unions? The conflation of the two is politically helpful to the left but is utterly indefensible as anything other than a partisan smoke screen to confuse your own side. Where is the intellectual rigor in your argument?

And with my remaining characters, I'd also have to ask why, when I heard you discussing Citizens United on NPR, are you so willing to ignore union contributions to elections? It's as if you deliberately skew the numbers to make it seem like only big businesses give money to political campaigns and only big businesses were "affected" by the Citizens United verdict. What gives? Even for a partisan, the numbers are simply too big to ignore. And for those of us in the center, when we hear you leave out half of the facts, it makes your work (and your considerable presence in the blogosphere) impossible to take seriously.

The stuff about spelling and vocabulary is just icing on a cake that we will never eat.

Posted by: davidgoodman76 | March 9, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

You must be kidding, Ezra. Are you REALLY asserting that rural areas are getting more love than cities? Because if I turn on the TV, I don't see anything about rural areas -- there is no CSI: Bakersville NC.

Furthermore, do you pay any attention at all to the global warming debate? Can you really argue that we ought to be importing even more food from outside the US?

Additionally, what about all the urban development money? We have been subsidizing your lifestyle since the 60s.

Finally, if you want to attack rural subsidies, attack the fact that most of them go to agribusiness, yet another example of how actual workers get screwed in favor of corporations.

Read some Wendell Berry, for God's sake!

Posted by: walt828 | March 9, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

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