Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘The Context of Rural Consciousness’ (Part 4 of 9) – 2017

This is the fourth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

If in Chapter 3 Cramer sought to provide the contours (outlines) of a rural consciousness,  in Chapter 4 she attempts to describe the context (the circumstances around it) of it all.

Cramer sees the obvious challenge to her work:

I know many readers will be wondering whether this thing I am calling rural consciousness is justified—that is, whether it reflects real or simply perceived disparities in government resources, concern, and attention.

(She doesn’t concede so plainly other challenges to her work, however: that a small government preference is not necessarily a rural product, any more than a socialist one might not be a rural product, that the divide in large areas is more than rural and urban, indeed more than economic, and that ample work across centuries in market theory sits outside her urban-rural framework but has nonetheless shaped life across this continent and planet.)

And yet, and yet, here’s Cramer’s answer to this question, as she frames it:

I know this because when I describe complaints of injustice among small-town residents to urban audiences, I am almost always asked whether it is actually the case, for example, that rural areas get fewer public dollars than urban areas do. In the conversations I observed in rural Wisconsin, many people thought they were getting the short end of the stick with respect to taxpayer dollars. But was that really the case?

The evidence is mixed.

That’s quite the concession. Imagine someone asking about the effectiveness of a medication, or of a parachute, and receiving that reply: the evidence is mixed.

Here’s how Cramer describes basic fiscal policy for rural and urban Wisconsinites:

In Wisconsin, rural counties do receive fewer public dollars than urban counties. In the aggregate, measures of both state and federal government expenditures at the county level in fiscal year 2010 show that more than 75 percent of this money went to counties with urban metropolitan communities (fig. 4.1)

However, there are far fewer people living in rural counties than urban ones, so a more apt comparison might be one that uses a per capita basis for comparison. Figures 4.2 and 4.3 show two correlation plots, with each dot representing a single county in Wisconsin. This pair of figures shows almost no relationship between how rural a county is and the dollars it receives in expenditures per capita from the state and federal government.1 Excluding outliers, a slight upward trend is evident, with more rural counties receiving slightly more dollars per person; however, the relationship is weak.2 But the evidence certainly does not support the notion that urban counties receive far more than their share of tax dollars per resident.

(Emphasis mine.)

Seeing this, that in fact rural residents aren’t short-changed in the amounts that they receive, Cramer must – if she believes that a rural consciousness depends on rural residents accurately and correctly observing a disparity with urban areas – find another economic explanation.

She does:

While this evidence does not back up the perceptions I heard among many rural residents that there is vastly disproporationate spending in urban counties and higher tax burdens falling on rural communities, many would also be quick to point out that what these numbers do not reveal is how effectively the money was spent. Even if the spending were proportionate across type of place, if the spending failed to meet the needs of people living there, it really would not matter. Some services simply cost less per capita in cities because of economies of scale.4

Where, though, does this economies of scale endnote (#4) lead? Here: “I am sincerely indebted to Ben Toff for these analyses and to Sarah Niebler for a similar set of analyses in the early stages of this project.” That is, Cramer’s presumably thanking Toff and Niebler for their data collection for the preceding Figures 4.1 to 4.9, not to an economies of scale analysis. She offers no such analysis here.

If Cramer cannot provide compelling data for her claim that a supposed rural consciousness rests significantly on an actual mis- or under-allocation of government funds to the detriment of rural residents, then she’s left either with (1) her own misperception of a rural consciousness, (2) rural residents’ misperception of their own condition, or (3) both.

By her own account, she cannot offer, so to speak, unmixed economic data.

That’s quite a predicament for her thesis.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Attitudes toward Public Institutions and Public Employees’ (Part 5 of 9).

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