On Cowboys, Welfare Queens, and Dog Whistles

By Keith Kloor | April 28, 2014 2:37 pm

Paul Krugman’s current New York Times column on the Nevada rancher who was a folk hero to Fox news before he revealed himself to be an ugly racist will typically please liberals and infuriate conservatives. I was nodding along in agreement with Krugman’s piece until about halfway through. That’s when I came across a sentence that gave me pause.

Here’s the set-up for Krugman’s colorful line, which I bolded:

Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that by all accounts the government charges too little — that is, it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and in many cases doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs that these private activities impose. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidize ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s true that some of the people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage, all the same, to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage.

Stop right there and think about the last time you heard the term “welfare queen.” Krugman knows well the meaning and origins of this phrase, which we have Ronald Reagan to thank for. In a 2007 column, Krugman recalled that, “Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.”

The story behind the story of the actual “welfare queen” is quite incredible. But the point I want to make was said best last year by NPR’s Gene Demby:

In the popular imagination, the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is thoroughly raced — she’s an indolent black woman, living off the largesse of taxpayers. The term is seen by many as a dogwhistle, a way to play on racial anxieties without summoning them directly.

Krugman’s play off the term to score political points is unfortunate, because it lends credibility to a stereotype that he himself abhors and knows was cynically used for political purposes. But I wonder if he can appreciate an additional irony, which involves his own grossly exaggerated broad brush tarring of all law-obeying public-land using Western farmers and ranchers as “welfare queens of the purple sage.” Do cowboys on the range benefit from government subsidized, below-market grazing fees for federal lands? Absolutely. But is this the equivalent of rural welfare?

Lastly, if we want to be precise about federal hand-outs, let’s not leave billionaires and celebrities off the list.

UDATE: So it appears there has already been some discussion about the appropriateness of the “welfare queen” term being invoked in the Cliven Bundy debate. I completely missed that last week, but you can read about it in an excellent piece  by Amanda Marcotte at Slate. I wonder if Krugman missed this, too, or just completely ignored it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Fox News, Paul Krugman, select
  • Richard_Arrett

    Nice article.

    I wonder about the “government charges too little” portion of the quote as well.

    The government has a set fee, set by either rule or statute – so saying they are charging to little is really an opinion – not a fact.

    If they want to update or change their schedule of fees – they can do that by rule changing or passing a new law.

    But to say that someone who is paying exactly what is required by law (or rule) isn’t paying enough, rubs me the wrong way.

    I think back on mining rights on Federal land – which are usually free.

    The government benefits in that Gold, which otherwise would still be in the ground, gets into circulation. Who are we to decide that the company getting the mining rights is paying “too little”. Again it seems like a value judgment – but stated as a fact.

    Just my opinion (of course).

    • JH

      Everyone benefits from the production of public resources.

      If the gov charges higher royalties for copper production, then copper production drops, driving the price up, and driving up the price of homes, cars and consumer goods. And lets not forget that the production of resources creates jobs, which generate taxes. Less production, fewer jobs, lower gov revenue.

    • Sara_Tonin00

      It’s not an opinion if the amount they charge is less than the amount it costs to manage the resources.

  • Ginger

    By definition, if a rancher is paying government-subsidized below-market fees, he is receiving a benefit from the government. According to GAO figures, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management spend 7 times as much managing grazing programs than they receive in fees. Ending grazing on public lands or any significant increases in fees are both too politically charged to touch.

    Mr. Krugman has pointed out perks for billionaires previously. He can hardly cover all recipients of government largesse in one column.

    The word “cowboys” is also emotionally charged. The romantic Western movie version of the cowboy as the epitome of American rugged individualism was always a fiction.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Are you suggesting that “cowboy” is emotionally charged in the same way as “welfare queen”?

      • Ginger

        I’m suggesting that “cowboys” evokes the whole Hollywood Western mythos of simple but honorable cowpokes standing up to rustlers and evil land barons. It implies that the wealthy ranchers who benefit from cheap grazing are the good guys. Everyone roots for the cowboy.

    • JH

      “Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management spend 7 times as much managing grazing programs than they receive in fees.”

      Perhaps. But private land would receive nearly the same intensity of management. I wonder how much of what the Fed spends managing grazing lands is spent fending off lawsuits from both ranchers and environmental groups.

    • Richard_Arrett

      How can you say they are “below market” when the rate is set by the Government in the first place. I am a little unclear on who sets the “market rate” for use of public land – if not the government.

      • Ginger

        The rates are below market in that they are a fraction of what private landowners charge per head for grazing or what it would cost for a rancher to graze the cattle on his own land.

  • Newcastle

    Federal grazing fees are a fraction of state or private grazing fees. The reasons for the disparity are purely political. If you can call corporate subsidies “corporate welfare” then you can call commodity price supports and below-market grazing fees “rural welfare”. It may not be polite but it isn’t entirely wrong either. The “welfare queen” term was wrong to begin with and would best be dropped. Bundy can be accurately described as a trespasser and a thief when talking about his ranching operations.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      yes, I agree.

  • David Skurnick

    I have read that other ranchers in that area have been driven out of business; Mr. Bundy is the only rancher left. If he were paying the legal grazing fees charged, perhaps he’d be out of business, too. When grazing fees are so high as to be unaffordable, how can they be called welfare? After all, the proper fee level must be one that a both sides would be OK with.

  • From the Left Coast

    Welfare kings, if you want to be accurate. Tax breaks, subsidies, failure to pay their fees, complaining when asked to do so, expecting entitlements no one else can have, unless we’re rich like them, that’s a welfare king.

  • DrDenim

    ehh, I thought Krugman’s point was to use the (racist) term employed by conservatives against one of “their own” to make a point? Yes it’s likely racist, but it’s more or less commonly used by certain people on the right-wing spectrum; thus he used it.

    I feel this is like being upset Colbert is racists when aping conservatives. Yes he is, because the people he’s mocking are!

  • Richard_Arrett

    Again, keying off of the “government charges too little” portion of the quote – is the purpose of Federal land to maximize the money which can be earned from that land?

    Take a Federal park (like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon). Money can be generated by park passes or camping fees or admission.

    However, you could also mine it or drill for oil, which might garner more dollars, but might diminish its ability to generate park passes, comping fees or admission. Or maybe the opposite would be true (I have no idea really).

    How do you evaluate Federal land, which is being grazed versus Federal land which is just sitting there and not being grazed? What is the cost benefit analysis the government uses?

    Are there values involved in this (i.e. keep the Federal park pretty and pristine) or just dollars?

    Not clear on that cost benefit analysis either.

    Maybe grazing fees which are “too little” but which keep the land pristine are better than strip mining the land to generate more bucks?

    Does that play into this debate as well?

  • Tom C

    OK – I read the linked articles. Reagan did not make up the term “welfare queen” he did not say it was typical, he said it was an extreme example (“the record”). Krugman said it was “bogus” which was not true, and he said it was a minor case, which was not true.
    Let’s keep in mind that the former ombudsman for the NYT quit because, among other things, he was tired of dealing with Krugman’s lies.


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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