erik lundegaard

Sunday December 30, 2018

USDA-Approved Anecdote

There's a great anecdote in Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk,” a book that's not only about how the Trump administration screwed up the transition but how government works, and how dedicated its civil servants are, and what we‘re losing as a result of doubling down on Trump idiocy and half a century of GOP anti-government rhetoric.

Here’s the anecdote:

As the USDA's loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News–watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He's telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The USDA person goes to introduce herself, and he says,‘So, who are you?’ She says,” I'm the USDA person.' He asks,‘What are you doing here?’ She says,“ Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.' He was white as a sheet.”

In this section, Lewis interviews Lillian Salerno, a Texas enterpreneur and Deputy Undersecretary of Rural Development in the USDA during the Obama administration. What did her department do? “Channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than fifty thousand people in them,” Lewis writes.

Salerno: “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That's us.” Lewis: “It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and internet access and health care.” Salerno: “But for the federal government, rural Alaska wouldn't have any drinking water.”

Of course, the good work the federal government does here isn't well-known, per above, and most of the people in these areas watch Fox-News and buy into the small-government argument and vote Republican. They voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They gave us Trump. And what did he give them? To show he was serious about foreign trade, he split USDA department, “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services,” into two: farm programs and foreign ag affairs.

Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there's a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the USDA's org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development.

“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”

Read the book. Spread the word. 

Posted at 07:52 AM on Sunday December 30, 2018 in category Books  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard