Getting Our Story Straight: Rural Facts in Search of the 'Grand Narrative'
By Chuck Fluharty
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
With both House and Senate Ag Committee marks released, and Farm Bill negotiations beginning in both chambers, rural America once again will be in the domestic policy spotlight, if only for a few days. This did not go so well last time. However, as the outlines of a new framework emerge, media leads will likely target the end of direct payments, the re-regionalizing of Farm Bill commodity programs, risk management/crop insurance protection for new crops and interests, conservation compliance dynamics, SNAP funding as the ‘drop dead' challenge, etc., etc.
What we will not see is this headline: “Ag Committees Commit to Major Rural Innovation Funding.”
In fact, although the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980 explicitly designated USDA as the lead federal Rural Development agency, and authorized the Secretary to create an expansive leadership role within the federal government for integrated federal, state, and local Rural Development programming, the Ag Committees have continued to chip away at Rural Development funding in recent years. Mandatory RD funding in Farm Bills has declined from $300 million in 1996 to $150 million in last year's Senate bill and only $50 million in the House bill. Additionally, the Ag Committees have cut overall USDA Rural Development budget authority by almost one-third since 1993.
This decline flies in the face of Ag Committee utterances supporting rural development, and creates an atmosphere of negative inevitability which is tremendously destructive to rural perceptions in the broader public domain. If the lead Congressional Committees for rural America are unwilling to fund her, surely there is a problem there! These perceptual fields assume their own life in the public arena, as we all know. The role of narrative in domestic policy debate is unquestionable, and one thing is clear about policy framing-it is much easier to generate support for a positive storyline than to overcome a negative one. And with that first order principle comes the second-all the facts on Earth may not be as good as a great metaphor! It is time for those of us who love rural America to acknowledge that we lack a Grand Narrative for her primacy in public policy.
In my last column, I referred to a recent OECD study, Promoting Growth in All Regions. Earlier this year, then-USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager and current Acting Under Secretary Doug O'Brien hosted a USDA briefing in which Dr. Enrique Garcilazo, Regional Development Policy Division, Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development/OECD, and one of the principal authors of that study, presented its findings. This OECD research challenges the development framework the World Bank released in the 2009 World Development Report: Reshaping Economic Geography. OECD has now fully joined the battle between supporters of place-based domestic policy investments and those advocating the place-blind regional policies espoused by the World Bank, which argue that economic activity concentrates in agglomerating Global Cities, and should therefore drive domestic public investment. In contrast, the OECD study identifies substantial growth across the entire urban-rural continuum, and recommends investment in unexploited opportunities in all regions, rural and urban.
During the dialogue which ensued following Dr. Garcilazo's presentation, I suggested one of the greatest challenges we face is the lack of an engaging narrative which challenges the “growth engine” metaphor which urban advocates use in the Global Cities argument. In fact, many regional economists and economic geographers have offered scathing critiques of the World Bank study, and the OECD analysis adds significant weight to the data stacking up to challenge the World Bank perspective. But the “metaphor” has not been shaken; in fact, it has strengthened, over time.
Dr. Tim Wojan, a colleague in the Farm and Rural Business Branch/Economic Research Service/USDA who participated in that briefing, subsequently presented a paper at this year's Southern Regional Science Association meetings addressing this challenge, suggesting the “growth engine” metaphor of the Global Cities argument has no counter-metaphor from those supporting the strong weight of evidence in the Promoting Growth in All Regions data:
Unfortunately, the empirical evidence that casts doubt on the engines of growth explanation of regional and national growth is not accompanied by an equally compelling place-based explanation of growth. And without a compelling explanation, the empirical analysis is vulnerable to place blind counter-factual skepticism: might national and regional growth rates been faster if the densest places had actually been unbridled? This is not to say that the report is not written clearly and concisely. Indeed, the presentation of empirical data is very accessible. But even an accessible discussion of statistics, paradigm and theory in Promoting Growth in All Regions does not generate the confident “this must be so” verdict that emerges from Reshaping Economic Geography.
suggests that good metaphors which have captured the attention of laymen and
policymakers cannot be dismissed, they must be displaced. Culture eventually
trumps everything. The “rural” aura which once blessed American Agriculture has
dimmed. We are in dire need of the engaging new rural metaphor, which should be
centered within the following realities:
Chuck Fluharty is founder, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), and a Research Professor in the Harry S Truman Sc
 Wojan, Timothy R. “Metaphors of Regional Policy: Global City Engines of Growth versus a Place-based Garden of Prosperity.” Paper presented at the 52nd Annual Meetings of the Southern Regional Science Association, Arlington, VA, April 2013. Article cited with author's permission.