A Reply to Tom Vilsack

December, 2016

Lincoln -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is scolding his fellow Democrats: "Stop Writing Off Rural America."

He is half right. He points to his own success in Iowa, based on extensive travel and campaigning in rural areas. He was elected governor twice; his fellow Democrats controlled the Iowa Legislature after he was governor. But he is wrong if he thinks Iowa will vote Democratic again if only Democrats will wear down more shoe leather. The real problem is that Democrats lack a message for most Iowans.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank looked at his home state of Kansas, bewildered about why Kansas turned so far right politically. In What's the Matter with Kansas, he concluded that the Democratic Party had nothing to offer a rural state like Kansas, that the party essentially wrote Kansas off.

And now big losses in rural states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have cost the Democratic party not only the presidency, but sent the Democratic party into a tailspin at all levels and branches of government.

What could and should Tom Vilsack's Democrats have offered for states like Iowa?

• For starters, a decent farm program that did not tear down Iowa's precious topsoil in order to provide China with bargain-priced food. Federal subsidies have been structured to pay Iowa farmers to overproduce, driving down commodity prices for buyers like China. This does not make intuitive sense, and many midwesterners know it.

• An alternative to the myth "Got to Feed the World" as propagated by the agribusiness industry, which profits from overproduction. Almost all our agricultural exports go to developed countries, not to impoverished ones. In a generation or two, we may indeed need to feed the world's hungry, which is why it is not good policy to use up our topsoil resources prematurely.

• A farm program that would allow farmers the freedom to farm responsibly as they know how to do, rather than taking instructions from their bankers. Admittedly, bankers have little choice other than to require farmers to engage in overproduction, but this is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

• Incentives to farm sustainably and to take marginal land out of production, rather than the other way around. Tax policy is one vehicle to do this. The federal tax deductibility of local property taxes against income is inadequate when income is low or even negative. Make it a means-tested credit and pay for it with cuts to overproduction subsidies. Make good farmers' balance sheets work without dictates from bankers. And save the pollinators in the process.

• Real support for "Know Your Farmer" and other USDA programs that support the production of healthy food, but in reality have been only window dressing for programs that encourage production of unhealthy food. High fructose corn syrup is a major cause of diabetes. Why do we have a current farm policy that makes our people sick?

Tom Vilsack and the Democratic party's lack of a vision for rural America that is different from that of the agribusiness lobbyists is a problem greater than faulty Democratic campaign strategies. Tom Vilsack probably could have been on the ticket as vice president himself had be not been a Monsanto "Governor of the Year," which made him anathema to many in the party. Although Vilsack is right to condemn his Democratic party for writing off rural America, he is in no position to blame others for the party's rout in the elections.