From Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein's latest article:
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.