Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has announced plans to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from their present homes in Washington, D.C., to somewhere, anywhere else but Washington. The reaction has been swift and uniformly negative.
Perdue maintains that moving the agencies will result in cost savings, closer proximity of the agencies to the consumers of their information and research, and easier recruitment of employees. A former head of NIFA has called the decision “dumb and shortsighted,” and can’t figure out the Trump administration’s goal in moving the agencies.
Well, maybe they want to save money, recruit people interested in agriculture but not interested in living in Washington, and more closely connect the consumers of agricultural research with the producers of that information. Or, this could be an attempt to address income inequality, at least between Washington and the rest of the nation.
Four out of the five richest counties in the U.S. are located in the Washington suburbs, by some counts. The growth of the federal government has meant that the highly paid federal employees who examine, regulate, and command our economy are prospering because of taxpayers who toil daily for considerably less than what the average technocrat earns. It might be a very good idea to spread that wealth, placing the beneficiaries of our tax dollars in daily contact with people who don’t receive a federal check.
Perhaps the main criticism has been that the move will lead to a cut in research funding. Why the two are connected is not clear. It’s true that the USDA budget request this year did call for decreased funding, but Congress ignored the budget request, as every sentient being fully expected they would, and it’s almost certain that next year’s budget will have draconian budget cuts as well, and they in turn will be ignored. Agricultural research in the U.S. has paid huge dividends and we all benefit when that research funding is increased. Congress well knows this and ignores the Kabuki dance of the yearly administration budget, as should we all.
Many observers are worried that current employees will be unwilling to make the move, that a mass exodus from the agencies will occur, and that the administration will not fill those slots, using the move as a backdoor budget cut. To critics like these, life outside the D.C. area seems remote, boring, and without purpose. But life in the Midwest does have its attractions.
Commute times in Kansas City or Des Moines will be a fraction of those in the D.C. area. The USDA has promised that wages will remain the same. The cost of living in the Washington area is more than 40 percent higher than in Kansas City. Check out the real estate market in any town or city west of the Beltway and east of the Rockies and it’s easy to see that the move will mean a large increase in living standards for present employees, and that doesn’t even include the implicit costs of potential death by smoke inhalation on the D.C. Metro. Not to mention parking, which in the center part of the country is often free and within walking distance of work. That’s a perk beyond value.
Finally, there has been criticism because Perdue has also proposed moving the Economic Research Service inside the Secretary’s office, meaning that, according to critics of the move, the independence of the agency will be lost. That’s a legitimate criticism, one the administration will be forced to answer.
However, there are significant costs to the present system as well. The bureaucratic imperative is self-protection and risk aversion. A political appointee suggesting research topics would no doubt see the world through a more partisan lens, but he or she might also urge study of controversial issues that matter to the politics of the day. Most of us involved in agriculture can think of hot-button topics that would lend themselves to economic analysis, questions like the costs of various referenda-required production bans. But looking at those kinds of issues is controversial and won’t happen without political leadership. Independence is of little value if the hard questions never get asked.
There is an undercurrent here to the critics’ complaints that has to be a little discomfiting to the rest of the country. It’s obvious from their comments that they believe wisdom and knowledge come from proximity to Capitol Hill, and the work that the agencies do will certainly suffer if it’s done in Kansas City or Omaha. My gosh, it will be impossible for the economists to communicate with decision makers! The people who allocate research grants can’t possibly function without physical contact with K Street! Who knows what those people in Kansas or Missouri will come up with! Now, to maintain this attitude takes a certain, shall we say, obliviousness to what’s happening in Washington today, where one can think of a lot of adjectives to describe our federal government without stumbling across words like competence or probity.
The USDA is actively seeking proposals and the middle of the country is responding as you would expect. Highly paid and talented employees mean long-term economic benefits to the host city, and with any luck at all, this small experiment may spark a massive devolution from the D.C. area. It is not surprising the rest of the country sees this as a long-term economic development opportunity. Government agencies may not move very often, but they never die.