Wednesday, March 09, 2011

We're just better, that's why...

Man, I knew this little tempest would trip triggers in farm country given our long years of selfish-steam reinforcement that farmers are the best people on the planet.
Last Friday, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein made a point in touting a book, "The Triumph of the City," to take a shot across the bow at rural America.

"The overarching theme of (Ed) 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." [More]
It began with this post by Ezra Klein who (unlike Clayton) followed up with a chance for Sec. Vilsack to respond. (well worth reading, BTW)

EK: Let me go back to this question of character. You said again that this is a value system that’s important to support, that this conversation begins with the fact that these people are good and hardworking. But I come from a suburb. The people I knew had good values. My mother and father are good and hardworking people. But they don’t get subsidized because they’re good and hardworking people.
TV: I think the military service piece of this is important. It’s a value system that instilled in them. But look: I grew up in a city. My parents would think there was something wrong with America if they knew I was secretary of agriculture. So I’ve seen both sides of this. And small-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.<

To being with, it was a comment about a book about cities, but if you document good aspects of cities, you automatically malign rural America, I guess.

But the evidence for the former is considerable, and the proof we are the repository of American values a little less verifiable.

The trouble is we've been in Stuart-Smalley-mode for so long we actually swallow our propaganda: country folk are better than city folk.  Which leads to an interesting problem.  When our children leave the farm to become lawyers and accountants and ice cream salesmen, do they fall away from the moral high ground? And what happens to old farmers who move to Naples? Is my son in Elmhurst less admirable than the one up the road? 


The geographic determination of virtue and values is laughable. We know we divorce, abuse, addict and sin at rates very similar to urban denizens, but those facts stand in the way of a public-relations image which justifies entitlements.

And yes, the money does pour from urban to rural in a big way. There would be no rural utilities (phones, power, roads, etc.), for one example if city folks didn't pay more so we could pay less than the real cost. Rural school are screaming for more state aid to relieve local taxpayers.  And then there are those farm subsidies...

All said, the best summary came from Joyner:

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. [More]
Ryan Avent adds that the real problem is policy debates are reduced to personal affronts, just as Clayton took it.
ONE of the most frustrating things about policy debate is the way in which arguments about efficiency are often interpreted and responded to as arguments about values. A defence of congestion pricing, for instance, will often get one labeled as anti-car. The value-oriented arguments become very intense when one makes arguments about the relative economic benefits of different kinds of places. And so it's not really suprising that an Ezra Klein post praising Ed Glaeser's work on the economic strengths of urban agglomerations hit a nerve with Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Get to talking about how cities are associated with high productivity levels and incomes, and about how urban tax revenues subsidise inefficient policies like massive agriculture subsidies, and people from rural areas may begin to feel that they're being personally slighted. What is interesting is just how hollow these complaints ring when properly addressed.
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? [More]
The truth be told, this farmer suspects there are many, many people in the world better than himself. In fact, the older I get, the more the number grows. And the vast majority of them live exemplary lives in cities.

Why can't we be OK with being just as good as other people? Why is any criticism of our lifestyle forbidden?

[One final note. The disproportionate number of military from rural areas Vilsack reiterates doesn't seem to be reflected in farmer ranks. I cannot think of only a single younger farmer I know who is a veteran. The last significant batch seems to have been "semi-volunteers" like me during Viet Nam.]


From Virginia said...

While being a firm believer in the total depravity of man as an equal opportunity affliction, I do think some environmental influences play out in life.

I spent my first 33 years in the most densely populated state in the country (NJ), moved to the Shenandoah Valley of VA and now reside in the middle of IA. From my experience, I do think rural residents can be stereotyped as being generally more caring and respectful than urban ones. No hard research, just an anecdotal observation.

John Phipps said...


I think your experience is typical but not universal. Too many rural residents have no real data to compare to. I also think there is a whopping difference between the time I was growing up and now, but that also is suspect.

You may be the "victim" of what I call the Iowa Effect - the whole damn state is nice, albeit somewhat disconnected from the rest of us.

One key point I did not address was Vilsack's conflation of "rural" with "farm". Th vast majority of the allegedly more moral residents in rural America are not farmers. Using them as examples of rural character is meaningless, IMHO.