We’ve met the reductionists and they are us

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rural farm scene

Most Americans like things simple because, well, life is just simpler that way. We like our choices even more simple — up or down, baked or fried, boxers or briefs — because we believe simple choices shorten the odds of mistaken choices.

Our friends in ivory towers disagree. Reductionism — their big word for making problems small — actually increases the odds of making a mistake because boiling choice down to its right/wrong essence often means decision-turning information is left out.

We in agriculture are expert reductionists. We’ve spent billions of land grant dollars trying to make the complex simple and, by and large, we’ve succeeded. Today’s big ag questions aren’t big and they aren’t questions, they’re choices: corn or soybeans, red or green, crop insurance or nothing?

Farming and ranching, however, are not that simple. There are hundreds of seed varieties, no definitive rate for fertilizer, weather varies daily, and no one can tell you when to sell corn, pick cotton or background cattle. Neither endeavor is simple, but that doesn’t keep us from trying to simplify ’em.

Happens in Washington too

And we’re not alone. A lot of politicians have made a lot of hay slicing issues down to the simple nothingness of left or right, red or blue, pro-government or no government. Few political choices are that straightforward. Most — outside of war and peace — involve competing claims and competing solutions.

For example, last week the White House Office of Management and Budget reported that the federal deficit for fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30, was 2.5 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. That’s the lowest percentage of GDP since 2007, lower even than the average of the last 40 years.

Great, right? Sure.

Yet it’s silly to reduce the nation’s budget picture to that lone number because federal spending last year still grew by 5 percent and overall government debt now stands at 140 percent — or $8 trillion — more than 2007.

Even as this bigger picture shows no blue sky for our red ink problems, our red and blue politicians still see today’s budget problems as red and blue. Worse, most see the solutions as red and blue, too: deep cuts to major programs or big additions to government debt.

Take this example

What would, say, a 10 percent cut in today’s federal farm programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security mean to the overall well-being of rural America? It would sting. A lot.

For example, a 10 percent cut in key federal programs to South Dakota, a largely rural and largely red state, would mean its 165,499 Social Security recipients would receive $192 million less each month — or $2.3 billion less per year — while its 60,000 or so farmers and landowners would see their annual farm program benefits cut by $61 million.

Also, the state’s 143,771 Medicare recipients and its already-stretched-thin rural health care network would face $100 million in cuts to its nearly $1 billion cost each year and another $80 million cut in annual Medicaid spending.

Add ’em up and even this small cut to these four federal programs would slice about $2.5 billion a year out of South Dakota’s rural economy.

Would any politician in really red South Dakota — or deeply blue Illinois for that matter — vote to make deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or farm programs? Of course not, but it’s not just for lack of guts.

The bigger cause is that their constituents — you, me, red, blue, and every color in between — would vote ’em out if they did cut programs that more and more rural Americans depend on.

As such, we inherently know these complex problems have no simple answers. So why do we listen to politicians who yell “Red!” or “Blue!” when we know the answers are not black and white? Because we’ve met the reductionists and they are us. Until we recognize that in ourselves and change, don’t expect our representatives to change.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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