Response to Bloom.

Editor’s note: Well, once again, my fingers were running faster than my brain, and I posted this prematurely. So I suppose I had better actually shape it up, cite sources, and make it into a real post.

At any rate, today, Stephen G. Bloom, a professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa, published a lengthy piece in The Atlantic which served as a rather scathing exposé on the backwards hicks that are Iowans. You can read his work here. To be honest, though, I couldn’t even stomach it all. In fact, I readily admit that I stopped reading Bloom’s rants and clichés before the halfway point. And I chuckled and cheered inwardly as I read a sarcastic response by Todd Razor.

Those who know me will realize that I am a fan of sarcasm. It can be used with great effect. In fact, Biblical authors used it rather frequently to point out some of the ludicrous things that people say, think, and do. But Bloom’s 6,000-word (someone else counted it; I have much better things to do, like pull out my toenails, one by one) article, which only reinforces the stereotypes which so many people have of Iowans, demands more than sarcasm.

You see, wit, sarcasm, and rhetoric in general do not, in and of themselves, counter the points which Bloom made. And they do nothing to justify in non-Iowans’ minds our place as the first-in-the-nation caucus. So we need some real data which shows that Iowans are not the hapless, hopeless fools that Bloom paints us to be.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to demonstrate that Iowa is about a lot more than farming and hunting. According to the US Census Bureau, only 4.2% of Iowans are employed in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining industries. This is higher than the national average of 1.9%, but still far from everyone in the state! In fact, Iowans are also more likely than the national average to work in manufacturing (14.2% – 10.4%); wholesale trade (3.1% – 2.8%); finance, insurance, and real estate (7.9% – 6.7%); and education, health, and social services (24% – 23.2%). We are more likely than the rest of the nation to be private wage and salary workers (78.5% – 78.4%); less likely to be government workers (14.2% – 15.3%); and more likely to be self-employed (7.1% – 6.3%).

Speaking of employment, Bloom speaks of the depressed economy in which there are few jobs available, and many have even given up looking. In reality, though, of Iowa’s total population of 3,049,883 people, 1,653,217 or 68.6% are in the labor force. That represents 68.6% of the population 16 and over. This, compared to the national percentage of 64.4%, means that an above-average portion of Iowans are working. Those additional workers don’t quite make as much as the rest of the nation: our median household income is only $47,961 compared to $50,046 nationally. But while 11.3% of families – and 15.3% of all people – nationwide are living below the poverty level, the Census Bureau estimates that only 8.2%% of Iowan families – and 12.6% of all Iowans – are. The bottom line here, then, must be that Iowans are hard working people who make ends meet.

On the education front, only 9.9% of Iowans 18 and over do not have a high school diploma, compared to 14.7% nationally. And while only 23% of Iowans hold a bachelor’s or higher degree, compared to 24.4% nationwide, Iowans are more than 2% more likely to have attended some college and/or attained an associate’s degree (34.6% – 32%). In short, we may not have an extremely dense population of advanced degrees, but Iowans are far from the ignorant hicks Bloom paints us to be.

Bloom spends a lot of time in his article (well, the part that I read) talking about how Iowans are predominantly farmers and hunters who don’t do anything else, a presumption supported by the miles upon miles of corn and bean fields he undoubtedly passed as he visited every one of our 99 counties, but the truth is that insurance, finance, and real estate is the single largest industry in the state, contributing more than $32 billion to the state economy in 2009 and accounting for 23.5% of our state’s Gross State Product (GSP) (source). Companies like Principal, EMC, Nationwide, and more consider Iowa home, and many others have (e.g., Wells Fargo) have a significant presence here, prompting many to consider Iowa in general, and Des Moines in particular, the insurance and banking capital of the nation.

We’re also a leader in renewable energy, with the capacity to produce more than twice the amount of ethanol of any other state in the union (source) and passing California in 2008 to rank second in the nation (behind Texas) in wind energy production capacity. In fact, with some 3,675 megawatts, representing 15.4% of Iowa’s total electricity production, flowing from the massive wind farms which have sprung across the state in 2010, Iowa ranks first in the nation in the percentage of power produced from the wind. And when the final numbers are in for 2011, it’s expected that that percentage will jump to 20%. Practically speaking, in Iowa, the wind powers more than 900,000 homes (source).

How about technology? Iowa is at the heart of a region along the I-29 corridor which has become known as “Silicon Prairie.” And with companies such as Google investing $600 million to plant a massive data center in Council Bluffs in 2007, and Microsoft starting construction on a $200 million facility in West Des Moines in 2010 and then announcing in September 2011 that it would double the facility’s size, the name would seem warranted. Then there are the tech startups which have branches and even their very roots right here in Iowa, including industry and investor darlings like Dwolla and Ubuntu and many more!

And we haven’t even covered manufacturing giants like Whirlpool, which is expanding its operations in Iowa; Pella Corporation, which produces windows and doors for a sizable portion of the new homes constructed across the nation; and Winnebago, which continues to dominate the recreational vehicle market. Nor have we touched on the caliber of Iowa’s three state universities, including the one at which Bloom himself works, and countless private institutions of higher education. Schools such as Luther College, with its world-class music program and connections with Norwegian royalty; Drake University, with its renowned law program and famous blue oval; and Des Moines University, one of the twenty largest medical schools in the nation. And we haven’t mentioned all of the countless cultural opportunities in our state such as the Waterloo Community Playhouse, the National Czech and Slovak Museum of Cedar Rapids, or the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and Des Moines Civic Center.

And finally, there are the politics themselves. With a Senate delegation which includes the highly conservative Charles Grassley and the ultra-liberal Tom Harkin, a US House delegation which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans, and a state legislature which is split between Republicans and Democrats as well, it’s hard to imagine a more balanced place to examine candidates.

Indeed, rather than unrepresentative of the overall population of the United States, we could actually go on and on for thousands more words about why Iowa is at least as likely as any other state in the union to vet those who would hold the highest office in our land. But we’ll stop here, if for no other reason than that I’m tired and ready to retire to my bed. And so I’ll simply close with this: Dear Mr. Bloom, you may have visited every one of our 99 counties and interviewed hundreds – even thousands – of Iowans, but you will probably never understand us until you remove your thoroughly blue-colored glasses and see us as the bullheaded but hard-working, aloof but fiercely loyal, brilliant but down-to-earth people that prompted composer Meredith Willson – who, by the way, was born and raised in Iowa! – to write:

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We’ve never been without.
That we recall.
We can be cold
As our falling thermometers in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we’re so by God stubborn
We could stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But what the heck, you’re welcome,
Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give Iowa a try.
Provided you are contrary,
We can be cold
As our falling thermometer in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we’re so by God stubborn
We can stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But we’ll give you our shirt
And a back to go with it
If your crops should happen to die.

Farmer:
So, what the heck, you’re welcome,
Glad to have you with us.

Farmer and Wife:
Even though we may not ever mention it again.

Townspeople:
You really ought to give Iowa
Hawkeye Iowa
Dubuque, Des
Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown,
Mason City, Keokuk, Ames,
Clear Lake
Ought to give Iowa a try!

And that’s what makes Iowa exactly the perfect place, the perfect people, to be first in the nation.

Oh, and by the way, like Mr. Razor, my wife and I were born and raised in Iowa, too. (She actually grew up in the Hawkeye, Iowa, Willson mentioned.) We were high school sweethearts and left the state to go to college because the program I needed wasn’t available here. So we’ve been out of the state. We know what’s out there, but we returned less than a month after I finished my degree. We’ve been here ever since, and we have no plans to leave.

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