Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a “usda.gov” address. “Secretary Vilsack read your blog post ‘Why we still need cities’ over the weekend, and he has some thoughts and reflections, particularly about the importance of rural America,” it said. A call was set for a little later in the day. I think it’s safe to say Vilsack didn’t like the post. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion about rural America, subsidies and values follows.
Ezra Klein: Let’s talk about the post.
Tom Vilsack: I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.
EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?
TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.
The other thing is that people don’t understand is how difficult farming is. There are really three different kinds of farmers. Of the 2.1 million people who counted as farmers, about 1.3 million of them live in a farmstead in rural America. They don’t really make any money from their operation. Then there are 600,000 people who, if you ask them what they do for a living, they’re farmers. They produce more than $10,000 but less than $250,000 in sales. Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. And those are the folks for whom I’m trying to figure out how to diversify income opportunities, help them spread out into renewable fuel sources. And then the balance of farmers, roughly 200,000 to 300,000, are commercial operations, and they do pretty well, particularly when commodity prices are high. But they have a tremendous amount of capital at risk. And they’re aging at a rapid rate, with 37 percent over 65. Who’s going to replace those folks?
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.
TV: Corn and ethanol subsidies are one small piece of this. I admit and acknowledge that over a period of time, those subsidies need to be phased out. But it doesn’t make sense for us to have a continued reliance on a supply of oil where whenever there is unrest in another part of the world, gasoline prices jump up. We need a renewable fuel industry that’s more than corn-based, of course, and there are a whole series of great opportunities here. But as soon as we reduced subsidizes for biodiesel, we lost 12,000 jobs there. So if you create a cliff, you’re going to create significant disruption and end, for a while, our ability to move beyond oil. And keep in mind that the Department of Agriculture has moved, for years, to reduce our spending. We cut $4 billion in crop insurance and put that to deficit reduction. So we are making proposals to get these things in line. But a lot of our money goes to conservation, and goes to some of those 600,000 farmers who are barely making it.
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.
EK: But the way we show various professions respect in this country is to increase pay. It sounds to me like the policy you’re suggesting here is to subsidize the military by subsidizing rural America. Why not just increase military pay? Do you believe that if there was a substantial shift in geography over the next 15 years, that we wouldn’t be able to furnish a military?
TV: I think we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do. When’s the last time we thanked a farmer for the fact that only 6 or 7 percent of our paycheck goes to food? We talk about innovation and these guys have been extraordinarily innovative. We talk about trade deficits and agriculture has a surplus.
EK: I feel like I hear a lot of paeans to the good people of rural America. I feel like politics is thick with tributes to farmers and to the heartland — and that’s fine with me. Which isn’t to say I doubt what you’re telling me. But I guess I’d offer a hypothesis: Some of the frustration you hear is because of the subsidies that go to rural America. If rural America wasn’t getting these subsidies but was flourishing, they’d get more of the respect you’re saying they deserve. But as long as they’re heavily subsidized, people are going to feel that there’s something wrong.
TV: I don’t know if it’s that. I think one of the reasons that there’s a safety net for American farmers is that we don’t really want to be so dependent on other countries for our food. How much more do we spend on the military in order to protect our ability to get oil? I make the same argument on immigration: One reason we need immigration reform is that 50 percent to 75 percent of our food is, at some point or another, touched by immigrant hands. Growing our own food is important. That’s where I come from in my attitude that there should at least be some acknowledgment of the role that farmers and ranchers play in our country. You may be right that politicians speak up for these folks, but I have a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them.