Klein Over Vilsack in a Knockout

Friday, Ezra Klein lauded Ed Glaeser’s new book, The Triumph of the City, and concludes, “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.”

Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, apparently took personal umbrage to this statement of the obvious, taking it as “a slam on rural America.” So, he agreed to a telephone conversation in which Klein eviscerated his feeble arguments.

A taste:

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.

EK: My understanding of why I pay 6 or 7 percent of my paycheck for food and people in other countries pay more is that I’m richer than people in other countries, my paycheck is bigger. Further, my understanding is that a lot of these subsidies don’t make my food cheaper so much as they increase the amount of it that comes from America. If we didn’t have a tariff on Brazilian sugar cane, for instance, my food would be less expensive. If we didn’t subsidize our corn, we’d import it from somewhere else.

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.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    “Essentially, Vilsack justifies subsiding farmers on the basis that rural America is the storehouse of our values, for which he has no evidence.”

    Are we sure he’s a Democrat? Such rhetoric is a mainstay on the Republican side of the aisle (and indeed this is a very mild variation compared with rural area being the “real America”), but seems much rarer on the Democratic side.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    I also thought this was quite the smackdown. But then, I’ve always been fond of the “City boys” like Benjamin Franklin.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    I grew up on a 1,000 acre farm, and was a 10 year member of 4H. After college I’ve lived in Chicago, Houston, Charleston, and Indianapolis, and other smaller cities,

    This idea that there is a fundamental difference in culture between rural america and urban america, and that they hold different values, has always been extremely befuddling to me. Geographic regions make much more of a difference in culture and values than urban/rural.

    Farmers and city folk buy their groceries the same way, watch the same tv shows, listen to the same top 40 charts, hear the same things in church (and skip the same churches except for major holidays) and generally hold the exact same values. You’ll find liberal farmers, and conservative hipsters just as much as you find stereotypes fulfilled.

  4. mantis says:

    Are we sure he’s a Democrat? Such rhetoric is a mainstay on the Republican side of the aisle (and indeed this is a very mild variation compared with rural area being the “real America”), but seems much rarer on the Democratic side.

    He’s an Iowa Democrat.

  5. James, you are a soldier and I’m not, but are you sure that a disproportionate number of our soldiers come from rural areas? My understanding is that a disproportionate number of our soldiers are Black and Brown, and they generally do NOT come from rural areas. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me.

  6. Matt B says:

    This idea that there is a fundamental difference in culture between rural america and urban america, and that they hold different values, has always been extremely befuddling to me. Geographic regions make much more of a difference in culture and values than urban/rural.

    I would humbly suggest that the “fundamental” different existed in an earlier era and largely was eliminated through extending infrastructure (including mass broadcast media) to the vast majorities of rural areas.

    However, in light of that change (which, along with commercial ag, was rightly seen as a threat to certain ways of life), a lot of effort was spent to keep the differences up for largely cultural identity reasons. Folks who are mind 30’s or younger, for the most part, grew up acculturated, and lived part in one world and part in the other.

    BTW, this isn’t to say that there are not differences — especially for those who grew up on and around working farms vs. say within a specific “neighborhood” within a major city. It’s just a question of how fundamental those differences were and what they were based on.

  7. David says:

    Jonathan, the armed forces are fairly representative of the US population. It’s largely a myth that we draw most of our enlisted personnel from the ranks of the minorities.

    That’s what a Heritage Foundation study found, anyway. And my experience as an Army civilian for nearly a decade backs that up, anecdotally, at least.

    From the article:

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.

  8. Russell says:

    So, the Sec. of Agriculture thinks we need to spend billions upon billions in order to maintain a continent-spanning lifestyle themepark for the good of America? I think it’d be cheaper to set up Nebraska as a reservation for the Farmer tribe and put the savings to better use elsewhere.

  9. Mercer says:

    Vilsack’s comments reminded me of Palin’s convention speech.

    One interesting thing in the conversation was the secretary of agriculture saying that corn and ethanol subsidies should be phased out. I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Jonathan Zasloff :

    Rural areas and the South have a disproportionate amount of enlistments. The South is also disproportionately black.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    “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.”

    The latter point should be a concern not a point of pride. Anytime a military is disproportionately drawn from one subset of the society it’s a bad thing.

  12. RE: The Heritage study — The military isn’t disproportionately minority, but certain groups are slightly overrepresented; something like 13.7 percent of active-duty soldiers are African American, where as blacks are only 12.1 percent of the total population.

    And to echo James, the South is very rural and very black, and a majority of Southern blacks live in rural areas (speaking as a rural Southern black, by upbringing, at least).

  13. jpe says:

    This idea that there is a fundamental difference in culture between rural america and urban america, and that they hold different values, has always been extremely befuddling to me.

    Certainly agree. When my folks visit me in NYC from their exurban home, they appear to be startled by the apparent dissimilarity between themselves and NYC denizens. That, in turn, incorrectly feeds their belief that there’s some “difference in values” that’s also operating (‘they look different, so they must be different’). That’s my strong sense, anyways.

  14. Nitpicker says:

    As one of those kids from the country–my graduating class had 22 people–who joined the military, I assure you the choice to put on a uniform usually has a lot more to do with getting the hell out of rural areas than all that Midwestern values claptrap.

  15. Rob in CT says:

    I agree with you all that this guy is wrong and his arguments make little to no sense, but I am unsurprised by them.

    Hell, my supposedly liberal Democrat congresscritter will fight TOOTH AND NAIL to keep the New London submarine base open. Jobs in the district, you see. Such concerns trump ideology most of the time.