Bare Trees Tell on the Free Market

Riding the country roads in Western Illinois, Tim Collins sees what decades of "free market economics"  have brought rural America.

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Even in the best of times, rural life in a global economy isn’t all that easy, but curiously – and contrary to the general wisdom  – some indicators from the current deep recession, such as unemployment rates, suggest that many rural areas in the United States aren’t doing too badly compared with some urbanized areas.

The current economic cave-in, in contrast with the Great Depression of the 1930s and the smash up of the 1980s, was not caused by downturns in agriculture and natural resource industries. We are enduring an urban-based recession created by global movements of abstract financial debt instruments. These leveraged instruments glutted the markets with money for awhile, creating huge profits for some, and, oops, they exploded, leaving a mess all over the place.

So, will rural areas miss out on this recession? It depends on where you are. For example, unemployment has not risen much in the Great Plains, and there is an economic explanation: Population and job losses over the last century have finally stabilized labor markets in this region. There just aren’t that many jobs, and there aren’t that many to lose. These places are at an economic equilibrium of sorts, so, maybe they just can’t sink much lower. Perhaps the current condition of some rural areas does indicate an efficient allocation of resources, especially west of the Mississippi. Few people. Few jobs. Giant agriculture. Wide-open spaces. But I wonder.

Basic economics teaches that capitalism is an efficient way of allocating resources, that markets, guided by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand, take care of things. This is dogma. In reality, economic efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. Those who embrace unfettered markets aren’t considering the whole picture or the long run. A winter drive through Midwestern America shows the scars left by that efficient invisible hand: abandoned buildings in small towns and substandard housing that creates rural ghettoes, junk vehicles, and the wide open emptiness of the rural landscape that may be efficient for agribusiness and not for much else.

Timothy Collins
Barns are obsolete on grain farms and allowed to fall down. This one, next to the abandoned house, collapsed in slow motion over three years.

Sometimes it seems as if we have created a cultivated rural wilderness, lush and productive for six or seven months of the year and barren and windswept the rest of the time. This landscape can offer beautiful pictures. But where are all the people? They’ve followed the beckoning of the invisible hand to greater opportunities in the cities and suburbs, even tough those opportunities are more limited now.

But where does this leave the people left behind, not only the unemployed and underemployed poor, but those who are employed with adequate income? We are left with decrepit infrastructure and local governments that cannot raise enough revenue to restore or maintain it. Worse, we are left with schools where children can spend two or more hours a day on buses, riding to buildings where teachers are underpaid, facilities are marginal, and the curriculum cannot possibly provide students with what they need to survive in a rapidly changing world. Medical care may be many miles away if we can even find physicians to serve in smaller cities. We are often left with inadequate or costly broadband access. And now, even the U.S. Postal Service is closing post offices in small communities, places populated by the poor and elderly who may be limited in their ability to drive, who don’t even have adequate access to the Internet or training in how to use it.

The hand of the globalized market is definitely invisible in these places, but always at work. Call it market failure, geographic inequality, or uneven development. But please don’t call it efficient. Large-scale capitalism has never been able deal effectively with efficient movement of people and goods across the landscape. Issues of relative isolation facing rural America in this day and age were not inevitabilities. They are a result of inefficient markets and political decisions that brought on wasteful use of our land and our people, a cardinal sin that moral philosopher and the father of economics Adam Smith probably would condemn.

Timothy Collins
A collapsed shed next to two grain bins on a back road in McDonough County, Illinois.

In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, often said to be one of those seminal works that affected President John F. Kennedy’s administration and helped launch President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The book takes great pains to explain the invisibility of poverty in both urban and rural areas. Harrington believed the U.S. could end poverty if it had the political will to do so. Maybe he was right, but it hasn’t happened yet, and the current recession has us backsliding.

So, now is the winter of my discontent. As I drive through rural areas at this time of year, especially, the forlornness of it all is powerful. Suffering from rural seasonal affective disorder, I end up questioning why a city-born-and-raised kid always wanted to live and work in and for rural areas. Is this a lost cause?

I don’t think so. Rural areas have always been risky, but they also offer opportunities. Rural seasonal affective disorder is based on frustration with the seemingly omnipotent invisible hand.  That hand manipulates rural areas that are invisible, at least to urban and suburban dwellers, the vast majority of the country’s population that includes business leaders and policy makers. It is the ignoring of and ignorance about rural areas that cause me to question my vocation during the deep, gray days of winter.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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