The Sciences

On Cowboys, Welfare Queens, and Dog Whistles

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 28, 2014 11:37 PM


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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.

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