The Truth About the GOP’s War on Rural America

rural AmericaThere are a lot of explanations for the unexpected rise of a crass businessman to the most powerful seat in the world. There’s the actual fake stories planted by kids with hungry wallets (versus the “fake” news that President 45 labels anything that doesn’t echo his propaganda machine). There’s misogyny. There’s racism. There’s the greatest coordinated international smear-job in history. There’s a healthy dose of pendulum effect. But one of the biggest sectors that gets the credit for delivering a Republican president (albeit one who has his party leadership wringing its hands) to a still-GOP-dominated Capitol Hill is rural America.

For a long time, rural America has been ignored, misunderstood and even at times downright insulted by urban (and especially coastal urban)(and especially liberal) America. Discounted as redneck rubes, animal-killing gun nut Jesus freaks who marry their cousins and aren’t educated enough to appreciate the New Yorker, or independent cinema, or the pansexuality of a new, neon-colored America. Of all the claims hurled at the left, this is the one that rings most true: having lived in big cities most of my life and now having chosen to make my life in a rural (though decidedly non-traditionally rural) community, I’ve seen the glaring disconnect echoed in such memes as the ones discounting middle America as “Dumbfuckistan” and calling for California secession; seen the smugness that refers to most of America (and, admittedly, most of the most beautiful parts of America) as fly-over states.

Citizens of the bread basket were angry as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore. There’s been a slow-and-then-fast bleed going on in rural America for decades (see “Hillbilly Elegy“) as policies and attention turned to fighting urban blight while ignoring a dying way of life in the country. El Trumpo promised, among other things, that he was going to make the bleeding stop. So they voted for him, hoping that a New York/DC billionaire was going to save them from the other New York/DC billionaires.

Yet everything Trump and his Republican congress has proposed points to one simple fact: The hurting for rural America is about to get a whole hell of a lot worse.

The Trade Wars Against Rural America

Part 1: Sticker Shock

The face of the GOP’s shadow government is Paul Ryan, the Congressional head who just touted a proposal to increase border taxes on imports and whose inability to understand that most of America eats from spoons not made of silver is further proof that the people in DC out of touch with real Americans aren’t the Democrats. He claims his border tax will level the playing field, Made in the USA will bounce back, yes, absolutely. While a majority of economists don’t seem to agree — at the least, they’ll say that there simply isn’t enough empirical evidence — let’s just pretend it works. Let’s say that magically this tax on imports forces companies to bring their plants back home and socks are again made in Barnwell, cars are made in Lansing, auto parts are made in Sandusky and DVD players are made in Cleveland. That doesn’t do a damn thing for corn growers in Indiana, ranchers in Montana or grain farmers in Nebraska. If American manufacturing comes back, companies will re-purpose the rotting husks of post-industrial decline dotting the waterways and railstops of the big cities of America. Not the hollers.

The tax will affect the shopping of rural America, though. Walmart is one of the retailers protesting this tax. An addition of a 20% tax on imports will work out to products costing about 20% more. Walmart’s stores skew towards less-populated, lower-income areas. Which means that Walmart stores are a big shopping resource for rural America. So while not reaping job gains, the growers and ranchers will have to pay more for their goods; effectively, they’ll be losing buying power.

And if this affects Walmart, a company with trillions of dollars, a vast empire of outlets and massive global reach, imagine what it’ll do to small retailers that won’t be able to absorb such a blow by spreading out margin shrink. The other part of the border tax is a drop of corporate taxes (to 10% was the number I heard floating around). When Paul Ryan says everything will be evened out by this, he shows a wild lack of understanding of corporate finance. If a company pays less in taxes, it’s not going to  pump that back into consumer’s pockets, use it to absorb sticker shock; it’ll use that to line the pockets of those at the top, pockets that open less for consumption than to invest in real estate, other companies or exotic luxury travel (an industry which will be booming but, again, won’t benefit the rurals)(thus negating the tax reform darling of conservatives that says a flat tax on consumption would help everybody equally).

Trump, to his credit, had already expressed concern over Ryan’s border tax plan. But his trade skirmishes, both with China and more recently with Mexico (he even proposed an increase of 20% on Mexican goods) will not only similarly raise prices at such retailers, they’ll also hurt our farmers in another way: exports.

Part 2: Rotting Produce

For many rust belt states, exports make up a large percent of their state income.

The export industry is extremely important to what we do here in Clinton county and eastern Iowa and in the Midwest,” said Iowa corn grower Dennis Campbell.

And who are America’s top importers of agricultural goods? China, Canada, then Mexico. So if we impose tariffs backed by Congress and/or 45, likely the nations they’re proposed against, namely Mexico and China, will respond in kind. That takes out 2 of our top 3 international buyers.

“Agriculture is one area that’s truly benefited from NAFTA,” said Illinois Farm Bureau senior director of commodities Tamara Nelsen. And ol’ number 45 wants to end NAFTA. So look for a glut of produce to lead to fields left fallow and ag prices falling into the slagheap.

The Health War on Rural America

Health care is most expensive in rural communities. They just don’t have the volume that urban hospitals do. My wife delivered our son in a hospital that averages slightly less than one birth a day. We were the only patients in the ward, outnumbered by nurses 4 to 1. Contrast that with an average of 7,000 babies delivered annually at Cedars-Sinai in L.A.

For this reason, many hospitals and insured in rural America depend on and benefit immensely from federal subsidies. During the health care vote-a-rama that started this year, during which Senate dems forced the Senate GOP to say what exactly it would not support in its repeal-and-replace bid, the GOP flatly voted against subsidies for rural health care.

Of course the other big clause being toyed around with is the repeal of the pre-existing conditions clause. In many rural communities that focus on extraction, there are things like black lung (which has made a comeback in Appalachia) and other conditions that go hand-in-hand with explosives and dangerous labor (seen what a rock can do when it crushes a body part?).

So for rural America we’ve jacked up consumer prices without increasing jobs AND increased health care costs or, in some cases, negated health care completely. What’s next?

The War on the Rural American Sportsman

A big point of pride in rural communities is self-sufficiency. A key to self-sufficiency is the ability to feed one’s family with food harvested yourself. In rural America, this happens in two parts: 1. raising and growing your own food and 2. hunting.

I’ve only been hunting for a few years and the knowledge that I’m a participant in the oldest human activity and that I can put food on my family’s table swells me with pride. And I’m a lousy hunter.

America is one of the few developed nations with enough public lands that nearly anybody can find a place near their home to get their own dinner. In most of Europe, a majority of the land is privately-owned and hunters and fishers have to pay landowners fees to get on the grounds, and that’s if you can even get the landowners’ permission in the first place; over there, the hunt is truly a practice of the wealthy.

President 45 and GOP lawmakers agree on the idea to turn federal lands over to the states. At first this seems like a good idea for rural America. States should have a better idea on how to manage their lands than bureaucrats in D.C., right?

But there’s one problem: States wouldn’t be able to afford to manage those lands. The US Forest Service and Interior spent nearly $2B in firefighting in 2016. A recent university study in Utah predicted that a transfer of the federal lands being proposed for the transfer would lead to a Utah fire-fighting expenditure of $76.7 million, nearly a sixfold increase. Add in the costs of building and maintaining roads and access points and you’re talking a huge chunk of change. According to sportsmensaccess.org, total federal outlays nationwide for public lands are $646 trillion.

Wyoming, one sportsmen’s paradise, is already looking at having to dip into rainy day funds just to meet their education budgets. Add the extra weight of maintaining public lands and there will be only one solution: start selling. That land would then go to wealthy real estate investors and/or extraction companies. Which would benefit President 45’s wealthy friends and big oil and coal cronies. And ensure that the age-old tradition of taking your son or daughter out in the forest to hunt for food becomes a pastime for the well-connected and deep-pocketed. Rural America need not apply.

But What About Lower Regulations…

The heads says that Obama’s regulations are killing rural America. There’s the war on coal. And the war on farmers, claims that EPA clean-water rules have overstepped their boundaries, making it so ranchers can’t afford to raise livestock.

But Coal isn’t dying because of some leftwing conspiracy, any more than the manufacture of horse wagons was killed by some dastardly cabal of anti-equine government interests. Cars were the future of transportation; and renewables are the future of energy production. Can’t stop the future, no matter how you may want to try.

As for EPA laws hurting farmers, that’s a gray area. Some people claim environmental regs dictate what farmers can and can’t grow, how they plow and how they irrigate. But these rules hit feedlots the hardest. Without regulations, the Harris Ranch (with its 100,000 head of cattle) will have little to keep it from expanding to untenable levels. This will drive most smaller, family-owned ranches out of business, effectively killing rural America.

The other side to it is that money is nothing if your family can’t drink the water from the well because all the pesticides and methane and environmentally-harmful ag practices have rotted the soil. Still, there should be more study to the actual effects here. So far all I’ve seen from the anti-ag-reg side is conjecture that smells to me an awful lot like more of a landgrab, another case of smooth-talking honchos throwing their weight around to build their oligarchies. I haven’t seen anti-EPA data addressing the effectiveness of the regs; it all just says they’re bad and claims liberals hate farmers. The crush of rural America and its farmers was happening long before Obama and Clinton and the proposals from the supposedly “pro-farm” folks look like they would just exacerbate the problem.

Cannibalizing Rural America

In the end, this is a classic bait-and-switch. Both sides do it, but for the last few decades it’s taken somewhat of a rightward bend. When the GOP became the party of the wealthy, they had to find a way to convince a large number of Americans to vote against their own interests. So they painted a big, pretty picture of how they would bring back the golden days of rural America. And from the moment that today’s Republican party (and let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t the GOP of Bush or Reagan and certainly not of Lincoln) took control, they’ve been doing everything they can to plunder their rural members for the sake of their own greedy, power-hungry peers.

And I haven’t even gotten into the claims by many growers that the mass-deportation of immigrant labor could turn their books from black to red. That’s a whole other article.

Still, I expected there to be changes from what direction I think America should take. That’s the give and take of democracy. When a party acts in the interests of its own constituents over those of the opposition, that’s always a victor’s walk and after 8 years of progressive growth and expansion, some retrogressivism is to be expected.

But when a party so egregiously acts to the detriment of its supporters, when the GOP elite cannibalizes rural America to strengthen itself enough to shit its agenda all over the liberals, that’s a betrayal that should incense righteous people on both sides of the fence.

I guess that’s to be expected as the status quo in President 45’s America, though. Take what you can and tell the meek they’ll inherit the earth so they don’t feel as bad when they’re ground into it. Sadly, today’s GOP seems bent on returning their big cheer section in rural America to the dust from whence they came.

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Ryan Ariano

Born and raised in Baltimore, Ryan has been kicking around the west since the first Clinton White House. Having worked all over SoCal in the surf industry, Hollywood, marketing, journalism and finance, he now hangs his hat just outside Jackson Hole where he can fulfill an addiction to ascending and descending mountains.

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  1. June 22, 2017

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