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How to Make Rural America Great Again

April 1, 2019
In The News

It’s worth noting that two Democrats now have some of the most interesting new ideas for rural development. 

One is Rep. Ro Khanna of California. Khanna represents the Golden State’s 17th Congressional District, which includes part of Silicon Valley. In other words, in no sense can Khanna be said to represent rural America. Yet remarkably, he is doing it anyway — he is looking out for the interests of rural folks. 

You see, Khanna has outlined a plan that would specifically benefit rurals. In a December 30 op-ed in The New York Times, “Spread the Digital Wealth,” Khanna argued for a rural set-aside program: “When awarding federal software contracts, agencies should give favorable consideration if at least 10 percent of the work force is rural.” Given that sales in 2018 for just the top five Silicon Valley companies were nearly $600 billion, that could push a lot of money out across the country. 

The other Democrat thinking about rural America is Andrew Yang, the long-shot presidential candidate who is generating lots of buzz. One of his many ideas is to relocatemuch of the federal government out of Washington, DC, to the states. As Yang puts it, such a move would be healthy for bureaucrats suffering from Inside-the-Beltway-itis, and also, perhaps even more importantly, the move would be a great economic stimulus to the places receiving the transplanted workers.  

According to an estimate from the District of Columbia government, 364,000 people work for the feds in the D.C. area. And if the median salary for federal employees is $90,794 — and probably higher than that in D.C. where senior officials tend to cluster — we can see that the move would mean a lot of money for recipient places, to say nothing of the economic throw-weight of all the lobbyists, vendors, and camp-followers who would be making the same outside-the-Beltway trek. 

The idea of relocating some of the government is not new; it’s been kicking around in both Democratic and Republican circles for years. And yet, the Swamp-Drainer-in-Chief hasn’t done anything about it, and neither have any other higher-ups. So maybe now the Yang Gang can light a fire.  

Thus we see two interesting ideas. Now, where are the Republicans?

One GOP answer, of course, is that it’s necessary to get the basics right; after all, if the national ship sinks, the rural areas will go down too. So it can be argued that it’s been necessary, first, to deal with such macro-economic variables as taxes and trade. And if 71 percent of Americans think that the economy is in good shape, then obviously the Trump administration, and the GOP, must be doing something right. 

Mind the Gap: The Widening Urban-Rural Divide 

Yet still, it’s also obvious that there’s a skew in the economy, a skew favoring certain elite cities. In fact, the data show overwhelmingly that in recent decades, jobs and income growth have been much higher in the cities than in rural areas. 

Moreover, as demographer Richard Florida points out, if one looks at just the “superstar cities,” mostly on the coasts, one sees the skew getting even wider.

Indeed, according to The Washington Post, of all the cities in the U.S., the phenomenon of gentrification — that is, the onrushing of wealthy newcomers, displacing former inhabitants — is most profound in … you guessed it, the District of Columbia. 

To be sure, some of these changes are inevitable because people naturally move around. Yet as Philip Longman argued in a 2015 article for The Washington Monthly, political choices have figured into the migration equation. That is, for most of the 20th century, policies concerning infrastructure, housing, and business regulation all helped to equalize the nation’s regions — and yet in the past four decades, many of those policies have been reversed. As Longman observed:

In 1978, per capita income in metro Detroit was virtually identical with that in the metro New York area. Today, metro New York’s per capita income is 38 percent higher than metro Detroit’s.

Another indicator of the deterioration of life in many areas is the closure of rural hospitals; in the words of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report last year, “From 2013 to 2017, 64 rural hospitals closed, more than twice as many as during the previous five-year period.”

And then, too, there’s the impact of banking deregulation, which has enabled banks to consolidate, thus rendering rural areas underbanked. Yes, ATMs are everywhere, but if you’re in the boonies and you need actual banking services — from making a cash deposit to getting a loan — you might be out of luck. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal describedthe impact on small business of the shrinkage of banking services in rural areas as “like a death sentence.”

So what to do about the relative decline of rural areas?  

Once upon a time, back in the 20th century, the Democrats of the Franklin Roosevelt-Harry Truman persuasion were intensely interested in this question.

Thus Democrats spearheaded massive development projects, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the many dams along the watersheds of the Columbia and Missouririvers, and, of course, Hoover Dam.  

For their part, most Republicans of that era shared the enthusiasm; hence the Eisenhower administration pushed the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate highways. It’s hard to imagine what life in America would be like without these great projects.  

Indeed, the politicians of that era were determined to keep moving ahead with more reclamation and development. To illustrate, here’s the 1964 Democratic Party platform, which pledged the following:

Continue the quickened pace of comprehensive development of river basins in every section of the country, employing multi-purpose projects such as flood control, irrigation and reclamation, power generation, navigation, municipal water supply, fish and wildlife enhancement and recreation, where appropriate to realize the fullest possible benefits.

Surely all that was music to rural ears. And there were further platform promises:

Provide the people of this nation a balanced outdoor recreation program to add to their health and well-being, including the addition or improved management of national parks, forests, lake shores, seashores and recreation areas.  … Continue and strengthen the dynamic program inaugurated to assure fair treatment for American fishermen and the preservation of fishing rights.

So we can see: There was plenty more to perk up anyone in, say, Osceola, Tahlequah, or Wasilla. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Democratic presidential ticket in that year carried 44 states, including Florida, Oklahoma, and Alaska — and every state in the Midwestern Farm Belt.  

Yet then came the Vietnam War, and money for valuable projects at home got tight. For instance, President Lyndon Johnson had always wanted to dredge the Trinity River in his home state of Texas, so that Dallas would be a water-port city, just like Houston. Sadly, it never happened because not only was the money growing scarce in the late 60s, but the Democrats were going green, and greens oppose that sort of ambitious development. 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, many GOPers were suddenly seized with a small-government fixation that came at the expense of infrastructure.  

And thus an unfortunate alliance was formed; the greens on the left and the libertarians on the right joined together to form green scissors and snip “big” projects.  

As a result, public spending on transportation and water infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has fallen by a quarter in the last half-century. Thus we now have a rich country with a poor infrastructure; the American Society of Civil Engineers report card grades the nation’s public works as a D+. 

Yet, today’s Democrats seem uninterested in infrastructure — at least for rural areas. We might cite Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist-turned-New York Timescolumnist; in a March 18 piece headlined, “Getting Real About Rural America: Nobody knows how to reverse the heartland’s decline,” Krugman acknowledged the problem of rural under-development but seemed little interested in doing anything about it. Noting the German government’s efforts to develop depressed ex-communist eastern Germany, he wrote, “experience abroad isn’t encouraging.”  

And then Krugman gave his true game away; he reminded his liberal readership that rural folks are often conservative/populist: 

Nor, realistically, can we expect aid to produce a political turnaround. Despite all that aid, in 2017 more than a quarter of East German men cast their ballots for the extreme-right, white nationalist Alternative for Germany.

In other words, why bother with rural folks? They’re just a bunch of Trumpians. 

Okay, so now to the Republicans. Donald Trump did quite well in rural areas; in 2016 he won, for example, 85.9 percent of the vote in Holt County, Nebraska, population 10,435. 

So surely, especially as Trump eyes his own re-election, he’d be thinking hard about delivering for his base. In fact, in 2017, Trump tapped Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to chair an Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force, which finished its work later that same year.  

Perdue’s report is full of good ideas and strong themes, including a ringing defense of such economic staples of rural life as farming, mining, and logging. As the report notes, these industries are always under attack by the greens — and happily, the Trump administration has defended them. More recently, the administration has been adroit in seeking to protect farmers who would otherwise be hurt by Chinese sanctions in the ongoing trade tug-of-war. 

Yet beyond that, it’s hard to say that rural development has been a high priority of the Trump administration; indeed, the new Trump budget proposes further cuts to infrastructure.

So that’s why Democrats Khanna and Yang are suddenly so interesting. Whatever one thinks of them otherwise, they are undeniably reaching for ways to improve rural life — and yes, maybe win votes for Democrats. Can they do it? We’ll have to see. 

The Prospect of the Green New Deal

One looming issue, of course, is the Green New Deal (GND). For the moment, the GND has been laughed off the stage, what with that not-ready-for-prime-time document from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that sought to regulate cow farts. 

Yet the Democrats are dead serious about doing something on climate change, under one name or another. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii was speaking for his party the other day when he said of climate change, “This is our moment, we have to take this opportunity to lead internationally.” Thus, as we can see, this issue is a key part of the Democrats’ desire to do Big Things. And so it’s not going away any time soon. 

So it’s unsurprising that every Democrat running for president has staked out a strong position on climate change. And if the Dems win next year, they’ll have to do something about the issue. 

Yet here again, Andrew Yang has something interesting to say. He’s on board with his party on the overall climate change issue, and yet he is careful to stake out a position that could actually be beneficial for rural areas. Let’s look at his specific plank: 

Invest heavily in carbon capture and geoengineering technologies designed to reverse the damage already done to the environment through a new Global Geoengineering Institute.

We can observe that bringing up carbon capture put Yang in a different place from those enviros who simply wish to shut down carbon-based fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal — and thus shut down red states. 

As this author has argued, carbon capture is a compromise; that is, we burn the fuel for the sake of the economy and then we capture the carbon for the sake of the environment. And if so, then there are jobs at both ends of the equation: first, jobs extracting the carbon; second, jobs capturing the carbon.   

By this reckoning, the idea of fighting climate change starts to look like an economic opportunity for rural areas. And since carbon-capture plants would surely be situated out in the provinces, there’s some good economic stimulus to be had. 

Yes, this compromise approach begs the questions of whether climate change is a) for real, and b) worth fighting. Those questions get wrangled around plenty; for the moment, let’s just keep in mind that when the Democrats get back in power, they’re going to Do Something. 

Without a doubt, Republicans should always oppose a punitive carbon tax, such as the fee that was imposed, briefly, in France, till the yellow jackets got it knocked out. Such a regressive tax would fall heavily, of course, on working people and heaviest of all on those who drive long distances. In other words, it would be extremely damaging to flyover country. 

Yet as this author has also argued, it’s possible to imagine a carbon-capture scheme financed by taxes on the rich — that is, the very people who have benefited so much from globalization over these past four decades. So, if rich greens wish to raise taxes on themselves to finance their anti-climate change regime, conservatives should know that worse things could happen. 

So that’s the possible potential of the Green New Deal, as adjusted by savvy Republicans. If affluent urban greens — which seem to have more money than they know what to do with, anyway — wish to salve their eco-consciences by tackling climate change, real or imagined, well, maybe rural America should be ready to help take some of that money off their hands.  

Remember Mr. Haney on the old sitcom Green Acres? He was a good ol’ boy who had a pretty good system for relieving Manhattanites of their excess cash. So he offers us an enduring lesson: If people want to spend their money, let them. 

Thus we see one path to making Rural America Great Again. 

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