Look, people, “welfare state” and “having a few beers with your buds down at the local” are not perjorative terms

My Twitter feed exploded yesterday because I got some retweets and some people who wanted to argue the following points.

1) Rural people are rugged individualists! They don’t want your stinkin’ welfare!

2) It’s not about economics! It’s about how awesome the rural lifestyle is and how you city people don’t respect it!

3) Rethink those last two paragraphs, Missy! How dare you patronize the hypothetical logger and protray this marvelous, wonderful, magnificent, noble man of toil as a drunk?

Ok, let’s handle these in order.

1) I said welfare state. I did mention straight up welfare payments, as those are an option in the welfare state, but welfare state policies include a whole host of market interventions, from Coasean transfer payments to make-work infrastructure programs to social insurance programs, like unemployment insurance.

The welfare state reflects the notion that the state exists, in part, to have a managing role in distributing the spoils of economic growth right along with fostering economic growth. The welfare state is at times denigrated as the “nanny” state, but I’m old-fashioned: I don’t think there is any real point to government unless it is there to help foster the well-being of its citizens.

The neoliberal conception of state, which dominates and has since Reagen-Thatcher, views the state as an entity that exists solely for enabling markets and economic growth, but remains agnostic about who gets the spoils, because, according to Chicago school neoclassicists, any intervention that redistributes downward will slow down aggregate growth, and it’s better to have a bigger pie overall than a smaller pie, as smaller share in a bigger pie is better than a bigger share of a smaller pie. And LIBERTY! Whoo hoo!

Those of you who are good at math know that that last statement is not, necessarily, true; it depends on the percentages and the relative size of the pies. And my first argument yesterday had to do with just this problem: free markets and austerity could well mean a dwindling share of a bigger pie, which means relatively labor in all parts of the world, skilled and unskilled alike, watch while a tiny percentage of people get vasty rich. It’s hard to be free when you are so poor you have to eat whatever crap capitalists make you eat. But hey. LIBERTY.

What does this have to do with rural areas? Trump talked trade protectionism, which is a welfare state approach. Nonetheless, structurally, rural areas are still at a locational disadvantage. If we want money to flow in that direction, it takes a recalibrating of the policy mindset away from neoliberalism and towards a welfare state mindset. I don’t have a problem with that.

But it will also take a specific policy decision to vitiate the locational disadvantage of rural areas relative to major metros even within the United States. I don’t think it will be sufficient to keep jobs from going to Mexico or China or India or Laos. Rural labor and small town labor may be less expensive than central city labor, but it’s not that much less expensive, and I don’t see a locational advantage in Ohio over any footloose industry. We can try to protect steelworkers, specifically, and that will help out Ohio and Pennsylvania. But higher wages there are going to mean higher prices in construction, and that has consequences for labor elsewhere in the US. With trade protectionism, you don’t generally get high wages and low prices: it’s possible under very specific circumstances, but it’s also possible that, like minimum wage laws, better compensated labor (US labor) raises prices.

(Don’t shoot the messenger. If we want places to prosper, we have to make a normative decision to do that. I’m in.)

I had some arguments that land is cheap and rural areas are closer to natural resources, so rural places have advantages in those dimensions. And that’s true. But if cheap land and resource proximity where all that and a bag of chips, rural areas wouldn’t be troubled economically. Cheap land is a sign of something, and it’s not locational advantage. Cheap rural land is not scarce.

2) It’s about the magnificence of the rural lifestyle and how you city people don’t respect us! I am actually not willing to engage much with this argument because I think it’s hogwash. I’m from a rural area, and in general, people there are not this childish.

Like anything else, whiteness and small-town-ness can be a construct of identity politics, I suppose. But honestly, folks, nobody is thinking about *anybody else* on a day-to-day basis, and that stands for me as well as you. I think “flyover country” is rude and never say it, but can I tell you the number of times I’ve had to sit through people from various small towns in Iowa lecture me about how they flew through LAX once and thus they “hate Los Angeles” with all the violence and the traffic and the Mexicans (this is said out loud), etc etc. Nobody ever really understands anybody else’s places or love or hate for those places.

I grew up in a small town. I didn’t like it. I like where I live now. Just like I don’t like Cherry Garcia ice cream (I know, right?), I prefer one thing to another thing, but I’m pretty sure that people who like Cherry Garcia know what they are about, and our difference in preferred mode of living is just that, a preference, not some grand indicator of taste.

As to the magnificence of the rural lifestyle, sure. If you like it, great. Good on ya.

The other reasons this whole “rural pride” argument strikes me as off the wall is that goes where everybody says it shouldn’t: straight to white supremacy. If rural pride is really… “We are the REAL AMERICA”…uh-huh. No, America is a pluralistic place, and has been for a long time now. The fact that anybody thinks they need to be on top of the heap in such a construction is a problem, both socially and politically, and when -=6combined with Donald Trump’s grossest associations and comments, it’s a fast road from “I voted for Donald Trump because he understands I’m the REAL AMERICA in small-town USA” to “raciss small town voter.”

I’m sure that’s true in some instances. What I don’t buy is that reflects a majority of small-town and rural voters, nor do I believe that this sentiment about THE REAL AMERICA is something isolated to small towns. In other words, I suspect that there are raciss voters in metro areas, too. We wouldn’t have gated, lily white suburbs as big as they are if we didn’t.

3. You’re mean and patronizing to Cramer’s hypothetical logger because you assumed he or she is a trifling drunk.

Let’s look at exactly what I said:

Ok, that’s legit. Hard physical work is hard work. I respect that. But um, where were you, hard-working logger, when I was home Saturday nights studying until my eyeballs bled so that I could pass vector calculus and Jay Sa’Adu’s nonlinear optimization class? Having a few beers with your buddies at the local? Sounds easy to me.

How does anybody get “trifling drunk” out of that? People can go to a bar and have a few drinks without getting falling down drunk. It’s a thing that people do for fun in places where it’s possible and they have/make the time to do it. I’m thinking that there is cultural baggage wrapped up the idea of going to a local bar, but I sure didn’t bring that baggage to the discussion.

First of all, the fact that I said anything, anything at all, as a woman with PhD put a target on my back. How dare I speak? Let alone speak up for myself, let alone start from the assumption that I succeeded at something? Those are *ALL* supposed to be determinations made outside of myself, where I, the unworthy female supplicant, make sure everybody knows that they are just as smart, just as accomplished, etc etc lest they feel their status threatened by me in any way, shape or form. Mustn’t be uppity or anything.

Well, screw that. I’m done apologizing and pretending I’m just l’il ole me, who benefited from affirmative action and tons of gummint help, etc etc. I moved 800 miles away my family; I left everything I knew. I did this because I took the terms of the neoliberal social mobility ladder: you either scramble and move, or you get left behind. I scrambled. I moved. I lived and fought out my career in comparative isolation. I had help and support along the way, but I worked my ass off. Andy and I sacrificed, again and again and again, so that I could build a career. I got lucky. An able-bodied logger got lucky in his/her own way, too, being born into the world with a body healthy enough to work at all. I’m grateful for all the luck and help. But those don’t mean I didn’t and don’t work.

If you think it’s easy to get where I’m from to where I’m at, you do it.

Mores to the point…having a few beers with your buddies on Saturday night at the local is not a sin. It’s convivial. It’s social. Sitting down and playing a game of euchre and having a beer or two is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Substance abuse is a different story, but it’s not like rural areas have a monopoly on that problem.

There are all sorts of ways that sitting down and having a beer with a friend at the local makes sense: it’s one of the things that sucks about LA that local bars are very rare. (Scale; no matter the neighborhood, it’s likely to have far too many people to be really intimate.) But the friends you have a beer with are also the friends who will help you harvest your corn if you get sick; their kids might babysit your kids; they will help set out sandbags when the flood comes.

In other words, having a few beers is part of the social life of a place, unless you are a Puritan, and I am not. Community matters, in its various forms and expressions. One of my favorite episodes of House was one where Foreman meets a bright young Traveler boy who loves to read and learn, but makes the decision that he will never leave his family to go to college. Getting an education wasn’t as important to him as staying with his people. At the end of the episode, Foreman watches the boy walk to the parking lot, surrounded by his big, boisterous, happy family…and then the last scene shows Foreman, in a beautiful apartment, eating his dinner all alone.

Those are choices, and the first choice is legitimate, too; so is Foreman’s choice (it was, basically, the choice I made, too). My point in making the contrast between having a few beers (a pleasant activity) versus me studying until my eyeballs bleed is that the two are different ways of being in the world with different consequences and different modalities of investing. I studied; some people hate to study. There are different rewards and sacrifices to those activities. I moved to a place where nobody really cares if I am homeless because of the economic opportunities the place offered; people who stay where they grew up stayed in a place where people are invested in them.

The point of the welfare state, by the way, should be that neither of those two choices should entail such crippling poverty that a ‘choice’ is no longer a viable one.