This is the Q and A between Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee at the Ag Summit March 7, 2015 in Des Moines.
R: Governor Huckabee, welcome to Iowa.
H: Good to be back. Thank you.
R: You’ve been a Governor of a rural state and understand a number of rural issues I think from being Governor of that state and having to deal with those issues. One of the challenges we continue to see is the urban rural divide. This is clearly apparent in income levels, education, access to quality health care, a variety of opportunities that used to be in rural areas that aren’t today. How do we reverse that?
H: First of all, we help people to understand how real that is. In Arkansas, for example, twenty-five percent of the economy is agriculture. One in six people work in an agri field. But in a bigger perspective, I think there is as much a polarization between urban and rural as there is between left and right, Democrat and Republican. A lot of the cultural divide that we see in this country is as much to do with the difference between the people who live in the nerve centers of Washington, New York, and Hollywood versus those who live in the fly-over country. There’s a disconnect, a cultural disconnect, a lot of which I hope might get some illumination by this forum today and that’s one of the reasons I was delighted you put this together and I’m happy to be a part of it.
R: So, when you were Governor of Arkansas what were some specific things that you did to help help start to reverse that trend?
H: Well, there’s a couple of things that were very important. One is to push education, particularly higher education, closer to people to make it both accessible and affordable. You can’t move a four year university, it’s not realistic. But community colleges are very nimble and they can be put in areas, even if they meet in a high school using adjunct professors. It’s very cost efficient. It’s very adaptable. And, it moves the education where the students are rather than to try to move students to where the education is. And, in the case of people who are going back for an education, maybe they didn’t receive when they were sixteen and seventeen. Most of those folks are in their thirties. Many of them already have families. It’s not practical for them to load up, live in the dorm and become a cheerleader. They’ve got to work a full time job, take classes at night to learn a skill that will help them get to a better wage.
The same thing is true with health care. You don’t have the luxury, particularly if you’re working twelve hours a day on a farm, you don’t have the luxury of spending all day in a doctor’s office, driving two or three hours to get to that office. What you’ve got to be able to do is to have community health centers that are closer to the people. So that’s a large part of what we did. We moved community health centers closer to people. We tried to make sure that our rural hospitals were sustainable. We made sure that community college education was available.
And then in the K through 12 we also focused on making sure that the standards that were evident in the largest high schools in the state, you also had standards and curriculum that gave kids access in the most rural parts of the state. Because, ah, I was commissioner for the education commission of the states for three years. One of the things that we discovered after a fifty year longitudinal study, the number one predictor of success for a student in education was not race, was not even economics, was not whether he came from a rich or poor family. It was whether that student had access to a broad and full curriculum that challenged him academically. You put a student in that kind of environment where he has exposure to a broad variety of things, including the arts, that student is going to do better than the student who has a very limited curriculum.
R: OK. So, as we think of moving on to the next subject, every farm bill there’s a debate over the food stamp program. How do you propose we address growing concerns over that program?
H: Well, the seventeen different federal programs that deal with food, and one of the problems is they often compete with each other. Instead of complementing each other, they compete with each other. They should be combined into one. I would suggest another step. Move the power of those programs back to states. This is not something the federal government has any business doing, and they certainly have no expertise doing. To try to have a one size fits all program for all fifty states, with states as diverse as Hawaii and Vermont, it makes no sense at all.
I begged the Department of Agriculture when I was Governor to let us have an experimental program, where we would take our food stamp program and in order to help people to make more nutritious choices, not to force them, because that’s people’s right to eat what they want, but rather than to tell them this is what you can or you can’t, to give them what I call weighted food stamps. Weighted by the fact that a dollar in food stamps used to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, produce things that would be good, healthy, nutritious, that dollar could be worth a dollar and a quarter in benefits. If they wanted to buy junk food, they could buy it, you’re not going to take their freedom away. But that dollar would be worth, maybe, eighty-five cents. So, the incentive is to put it in the hands of the consumer but to encourage the better choices. I don’t suggest we do that at fifty state levels, Bruce, because we don’t know if it works. But that’s the whole point of having states.
Really the dream that the founders had was that you had states that would become the laboratories of government. And if it works then other people do it, and if it doesn’t work, you don’t make a fifty state mistake like we’ve done with Obamacare, which is a fifty state mistake. And that’s the disaster that we deal with today with federal thinking there first.
R: You’ve been an unabashed supporter of the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard). Why?
H: Well, because America needs to do everything it can to do three things to be free. It needs to be able to feed itself, fuel itself, fight for itself. The country that outsources any of those three things, the food on the table, the fuel in our tanks, and the weapons of our self-defense, the degree to which we outsource is the degree to which we’ve outsourced our freedom. Not just those things. Food safety and food security is as much a national security issue as it is a food issue, agricultural issue, as it is an economic issue, and here’s why: God help us when we start importing food to America’s tables. America ought to be the exporter of food.
Now how does that relate to the RFS? Here’s how. In that area of energy, we need to make sure that America is not an importer of energy. We ought to be the exporter. If we were exporting energy we would turn the tables on Russia. Turn the tables on Iran. We wouldn’t be making this ridiculously bad deal with the Iranians right now. We wouldn’t even be at the table with them. They would be begging for some relief to their economy, instead of now being in the cat bird seat of running the world stage and basically putting the world at risk. RFS is just one bit of the components of the bigger picture of energy independence and energy security. And, making sure that, ultimately, the decisions are made, not just frankly, for what’s best for Iowa, that’s not the rationale. You can’t make a decision and say “it’s good for Iowa, gee, they’re the caucus state, we better suck up to them.” We better make decisions that are good for every consumer at the n level, so that his or her energy prices are better. They’re more sustainable. And that we have the broadest possible energy portfolio so that America is never at a point where we are going to be once again held hostage, whether it’s by the Saudis, the Iranians, the Russians, or anybody else in the marketplace.
R: Where does wind fit into that?
H: Well, I think if we could ever harness the wind that comes out of Congress we could supply the energy needs of the world, with plenty left over so that would be the first place I’d start.
But wind is part of the long term future in any energy development. There’s got to be necessary research and development component so that we make sure that it’s efficient. And, wind is part of that but I think so is coal, so is nuclear, fossil fuel. The portfolio of American energy ought to be as broad and as sustainable as possible. Let me just point out about oil and gas, we’re in a very different place than we were even eight years ago with oil and gas because of new technology that exists. So, that changes the marketplace constantly. But ultimately it’s making the marketplace better for the American consumer that’s a healthy thing. And let me just mention, I think there are three kinds of people: There are globalists, there are corporatists, and there are nationalists.
Globalists want to make America basically secondary, alright, no better than the rest of the countries in the world. The corporatists care only about what’s good for the corporations, particularly the multi-national corporations. And then there are the nationalists. And, I unapologetically put myself there. I care what’s good about America. I want to make sure that what we do is not necessarily, I don’t care if it helps the Chinese. I don’t really care if it makes the European Union stronger. I care if it makes America stronger as a nation, and American families able to reach the next rung of the economic ladder, and a lot of our decisions that we’re making today are not doing that.
R: So in order to facilitate wind, we’ve had a wind tax credit in the country. That expired in December, and the industry goes through the ups and downs when Congress has short term programs and had the wind tax credit program and doesn’t now. So do you support the wind tax credit program?
H: I think it needs to be debated. I’m not sure it’s something that needs to be discontinued but I wouldn’t say automatically continue it because the worst thing we do with any government program, government subsidy, government anything is that we give it eternal life. I think the only living beings on earth that should have eternal life are human beings and dogs. Nobody else should have eternal life. And government programs, and that’s because I’m a dog person, but no other government program should be given this almost unquenchable life that often exists not because it’s good for everybody, but because it’s good for those who have been able to push their agenda to the members of Congress.
R: Let’s move on to immigration
R: Clearly, immigrant labor has become an important part of agriculture, and to succeed at getting those jobs and people employed and production agriculture in particular. How does immigrant labor fit in to an overall immigration plan in your mind?
H: It fits in just fine as long as the immigrants are legal. It doesn’t fit in at all if you import illegal people to come in and take jobs at a lower price than perhaps somebody else could take those jobs. This is again another issue. It’s not just about the cost of labor. It’s not just about availability of labor. It really is about national security. A country that does not have secure borders is really not a country anymore. I think we’ve made all the wrong decisions as it relates to immigration ‘cause we put the focus on what do we do with all the people who are here. The question is, what do we do to stem the tide of people who are rushing over because they’ve heard that there’s a bowl of food just across the border, and if you can, rush across and get there now. The biggest issue that we are missing, Bruce, is that instead of talking about how many people are coming and where are they going to live when they get here, you know what I think we are missing? We’re not asking why people are coming.
And, here’s the question I would like to ask them when we meet them at the door of the secure border. Why are you coming to America? Are you coming because you love America, because you embrace our way of life? You love the way that we have a nation of laws? And you love who we are as a country that gives individual freedoms but expects responsibility. And, if you want to become a part of this nation because you’re wishing to come to contribute to it, to make it better, to make it greater because you love the liberties that it provides, and you’re willing to help keep those liberties, there might be a good fit for you. But if you’re coming because you hear there’s free food, free drivers’ license, you might even get to vote, and we’ll also give you free education and free health care, then we meet them at the door and say, you know what, it may not be a good fit.
R: One of the challenges, and if you visit a dairy farm, one of the challenges of visiting that dairy farm is that employer has liability for that immigrant, legal worker on an H2A program or temporary Visa program, and trying to do that through e-verify making sure they’re legal. But also, quite frankly, making sure that that year-round, legal immigrant worker that’s needed, and his family has moved there, the stability of that. How do we deal with those government regulations, and again they want to be here in this country. What would you say to that dairy farmer who is employing great people at a regular wage on what the government needs to do to fix those programs?
H: I would say to the dairy farmer elect some people with some common sense who will make sure that we will control our borders, and make sure that we put in a legal process so that we can have the labor that we need. But we don’t do labor under the table, and make sure that the labor force we have is a balance of those people in America who really want those jobs. We make those jobs sustainable jobs. That’s what we do. We keep electing the same people and expecting a different result, and no wonder we haven’t had a different result. So, I’m confident that what the dairy farmer needs to do is exercise some political muscle and put some demands upon the people who are elected to actually work for the people rather than to let them run over them without any consideration of what it takes to bring a secure border and a reasonable process of legal immigration.
R: So, one of the challenges recently in the country is the discussion about food safety. And a discussion around labeling. And, clearly, biotechnology discussions are taking place, and GMOs and in regard to organic food. Do we need labeling in this country on GMOs?
H: The science on GMO has been consistent that it’s safe. I’m not sure if we’re doing this because it’s politically correct or because it’s honestly about food safety. I have a feeling it has a whole lot more to do with political correctness than it does food safety. And, you know, I’m less concerned about how much we label the food as making sure that if the food is American-based that we make that our priority. I don’t want to see us import things that aren’t catfish, and we call it catfish when it’s coming from Vietnam, and it’s something else. I don’t want to see us importing food that competes with American food when we’ve got American farmers who ought to be producing that which is sitting on our tables.
R: So, you’d be in favor of country of origin labeling?
H: That makes more sense to me than dealing with the GMO issue. Because, again, there’s no, I’ve never seen any science that says that if you eat food that’s been genetically modified. So it perhaps is even safer for you rather than less safe. It’s safer because you have less likelihood of having to use pesticides. You’re able to do away with some of the concerns of plant disease and do it proactively. That makes more sense to me than it does to go out there and do something arbitrary. Because you have a very small minority of people who have determined, not through science, but through politics, that they want to create yet another burden for the food industry.
R: Ok, let’s move on to trade. You know one of the important aspects of agriculture is to be able to export products when you have surpluses. And, there’s a variety of free trade agreements, the Trade Promotion Authority Agreement on whether or not this Congress should give the president that authority to negotiate trade agreements. An important trade agreement that’s going on today is the TPP or the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Japan to lower tariffs in the Pacific Rim. Your view on Trade Promotion Authority if you were president? You think Congress should do that today and should you have that authority?
H: If I were president I would like to have all the authority there is. Somebody else is president, I think they should have to go through Congress just ‘cause I don’t trust ‘em. It’s pretty simple. The problem with the TPP, the only major nation it really adds to one that we don’t already have agreement with is Japan and a very, very few small countries whose total trade is miniscule. What we have to do, is if we’re going to have a trade agreement, make sure it’s not just a free trade. That’s fine. That sounds great, but if it’s not fair trade, it’s not free trade. And, we’ve allowed the Chinese to manipulate the trade market, to steal intellectual property, to dump products into the United States, artificially subsidized, and make it very difficult for American manufacturers to compete. This is a dangerous issue, not just because we’re taking money out of the paychecks of American workers. This is dangerous because we’re going to end up exporting all of that manufacturing base, and, God forbid, even our agricultural and food and fiber production base. And that, I go back to what I said before, it’s a national security issue. If we don’t feed ourselves, fuel ourselves, fight for ourselves with our own weapons of self-defense we’re in real serious trouble.
I would point one thing out. The most important factor of the trade issue when it comes to the food and fiber for America is the fact that we spend less per family for food and fiber in our family budget, seven to nine percent on average. What that means is, is that when, if you’re talking about the Europeans you’re talking twice that, Third World countries some of them are spending half of their family income just to put food on the table. But the fact that we have such efficient and effective food production, what it ultimately means is that family is able to access food much less expensively. That means that they have more money to spend on other parts of the economy, diversifying the economy, adding to the overall growth. What I fear is that there are lots of people in parts of the country, aren’t in agricultural areas. They have no clue that the cost of everything on their table affects everything else they do in life. Whether it’s the clothes on their backs, or the cars they drive, or the houses they own. And I just think that that disconnect is a very, very serious one.
R: So, should we trade with Cuba?
H: Not until Cuba makes some concessions for freedom and liberty and releases the political prisoners. I think we ought to quit pretending that Cuba is some wonderful nation with whom we can sit down and visit with any more than we can believe the Iranians are. They’re not. These are untrustworthy people that never kept an agreement in their lives. They oppress their people. They kick their people in the groin. You don’t go around and make friends and nice with people who do horrible things. You put pressure on them. You don’t release the pressure. My gosh, if my parents had raised me that way, I would’ve been a monster. My parents corrected my bad behavior. They didn’t encourage it by rewarding me with ice cream and candy every time I did something horrible. So, when you’ve got the Iranians and Cubans doing terrible things to their people you don’t give them ice cream and candy for heaven sakes.
R: So, we haven’t always had that same requirement with China?
R: So, why?
H: Because we have basically surrendered to the Chinese market, that’s why. We’ve not put the pressure on them. I will say, I was there just last year. I found it stunning that in China, I felt like they were becoming more like America used to be. But sadly, America is becoming more like they used to be. Our government is becoming more oppressive. Theirs is beginning to ease up, but they are a long way from really easing up. But the fact is, we have allowed the Chinese to get away with things and trade agreements that we never should have done. And we’ve done it because, again, we have a lot of globalists and, frankly, corporatists instead of having nationalists who put the best interests of the United States and working families.
For forty years, Bruce, the wages of the bottom ninety percent of the economy in this America have been stagnant. Stagnant. The twenty-five years prior to that, wages in America grew by eighty-five percent for the working bottom ninety percent of the economy. What’s happened is that, not just in Iowa but all over America, people are working harder this year than they’ve worked before, lifting heavy things, sweating through their clothes every day and they have less to show for it. And, if we’ve got to get serious and honest and tough with the Chinese in order for Americans to once again live the American dream, then so be it. We need to quit apologizing for being America and we need to start making it so that Americans can prosper and not just so the Chinese can buy Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags.
R: Governor we are out of time, we certainly appreciate you being here. Good luck, thanks for coming to Iowa.
H: Thank you, Bruce, great to be here, and thank all of you for letting me visit with you.