Tuesday, September 12, 2017

SD Senator Thune Sticks It To Consumers

     Our Senator John Thune said in the Rapid City Journal yesterday (9/11) that his "biggest priority for the remainder of the year" is tax reform.  Thune wants to send the president a
Sticking It To Consumers
package that will help "middle class South Dakotans who are struggling to make ends meet."  

     That's a nice enough sentiment, but while Thune's heart is in the right place, I'm not sure his head is following suit.  In fact, Thune kept his bias against middle-class consumers out of his RCJ piece.  In his website, he was recently praising the general thrust of his trickle-down tax reform philosophy by saying we "need to move our tax system more toward taxing consumption rather than savings and investment."  
     He then reveals a lack of interest or attention to his home state's constant struggle with that very tax policy by stating that "South Dakota is, of course, a great example of how to do this at the state level."  Yes.  "Of course."  Thune's infatuation with our state's regressive tax structure is so complete that he now wants to inflict it on the rest of the country.  Does the Senator understand that our reliance on sales taxes has led to a regular budget re-set derby among state government officials who've had to change projections twice during the past three years because sales tax receipts fell significantly short of expectations?  This is what happens in a state where consumption (sales and gross receipts) taxes are the dominant source of revenues.  South Dakota in 2015 got 82.4% of its state revenues from sales taxes, compared to a national average of 23.3%.  And Thune calls South Dakota a "great example" of efficient taxation?  Please.
     Meantime, when it comes to championing the economic interests of South Dakota's mid- to lower-income residents, Thune's proposal to focus on tax relief for savings and investments means virtually squat.  In his RCJ piece, the senator notes that half the public lives paycheck to paycheck and that a third are $400 bucks away from a serious financial crisis.  I doubt South Dakotans who fit that profile are cheering Thune's notion that a tax break for those who save and invest will make them better off.  In his website's trickle-down polemic, Thune claims that Reagan-era tax cuts were responsible for the economy's bounce-back during the 1980s, completely ignoring that federal spending increased by 2.5% a year from 1981-1989.  The federal debt during that era went from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. Those who know something about John Maynard Keynes and his theories about government spending driving economic growth are sagely nodding their heads. We also wonder why trickle-down proponents never mention Reagan's ballooning deficits. 
     I cheer the prospects for Thune's style of tax-cutting as lustily as any of my peers in the business community, but I also know that without consumers my business interests wouldn't amount to much.  Consumer spending represents more than 70% of the American economy. Giving us business types some tax relief is indeed likely to drive more investment and capital spending, but to do so by "moving our tax system more toward taxing consumption rather than savings and investment" makes no sense.  Thune needs to focus on those who spend, not on those who save.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

We Need A Multi-Lingual Workforce In South Dakota

      We South Dakotans might as well face the fact that developing multi-lingual opportunities is probably the only realistic way to advance our economic interests.  A piece in
Immigrants Matter
last week's Sioux Falls Argus Leader showcased the problems that our state's most powerful region of economic growth, the Sioux Falls metro area, is having with this. The construction trade in particular is finding it hard to fill its workforce needs because of a built-in language barrier that's written into our state's laws.  Specifically, South Dakota's legal requirement that all government documents--including drivers license exams--be written in English is turning into an economic roadblock.  The English-only law was adopted in 1995, apparently to save printing expenses, according to a retired legislator, Mel Olson, who helped push the bill through. Olson told the Argus Leader that there was "never any intention on prohibiting giving the driver's license test in other languages."  

     Olson's deeper explanation--that the law's intent was to save the state money by blocking an effort to get official state reference guides printed in Lakota as well as English--has some questionable overtones, but regardless of the objective, the  unintended consequence now poses a problem.  This is a law that needs to be refined, if not altogether repealed.  I have some background in this.  My family came up through the immigration ranks (I was born in a refugee camp in Rome, Italy) of the post-WW II era. Nearly seventy years later I'm actually pretty glad that in our day we refugees seeking a new life here in the U.S. were by custom and circumstance totally immersed in English.  By any standard we Tsitrians have done pretty well for ourselves and our communities, an outcome that I believe was energized and accelerated by our quick adoption of English as the language of our household.  I wish that were the case for every immigrant in this country--but it isn't.  
     And the fact that it isn't has come home to roost right here in South Dakota, where we have to grapple with the fact that English immersion for immigrants will probably never be a fact of our state's economic and cultural life again.  Nostalgia for our historic character as a "melting pot" doesn't get the job of building our economy done, as a lot of South Dakota enterprises are finding out.  In Sioux Falls, the head of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors tells the Argus Leader that immigrant labor is "hugely important" to the construction trade, a fact that anybody in the Black Hills who's had a roof installed in recent years knows first hand.  I've put up three roofs, two commercial and one residential, in the past four years and I'm pretty sure that each crew was close to 100% Spanish-speaking, with only the lead installer capable of communicating in a halting version of English on each job.  
     I doubt that roofing and other contractors here would have much luck putting adequate work crews together without Spanish-only speakers making up a good share of the workforce. The much-discussed labor shortage brought up frequently in state government circles is one that is only magnified by making it difficult for non-English speakers to gain some sort of residential and professional toehold in South Dakota.  By at least making driver's licenses accessible to them in their native tongues, as the Sioux Falls business community is promoting, our state will probably be doing itself some good on the economic development front.  

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Shut Down The Government, President Trump? Do So At Our Country's Peril.

     The awful scene in Texas these days coincides just in time with President Trump's belligerent threat to shut down the government if he doesn't get the funding to build that Mexican border wall he's
The Feds?
Sorry, Unavailable
obsessed with.
Speaking to a throng of true believers in Phoenix last week, Trump declared, "If we have to shut down the government, we're building that wall." The lunacy of that avowal in the context of the hurricane Harvey disaster should be self-evident to South Dakota's GOP trio of Congressional reps. If it isn't, they need to consider the consequences of a disabled federal government just as this unprecedented natural disaster has befallen our countrymen in Texas.  

    This might also be a good time to jog their memories of a local natural disaster that coincided with a politically-driven decision to close down the United States government when federal help was desperately needed.  In October 2013 a winter storm known as Atlas swept down on western South Dakota and killed as many as 70,000 head of cattle, according to estimates at the time. Our U.S. Representative Kristi Noem, who now aspires to become Governor of South Dakota, had just voted with her party to deny an extension of funding to the federal government, requiring the United States of America to shut down.  It was a masterstroke of political miscalculation, as the effect here was to close the federal agencies that ranchers, facing multi-million dollar losses, would normally turn to for disaster assistance.  Can you imagine being a rancher caught up in this mess who called the local disaster assistance office and got this recording?  "Hello.  You've reached the USDA service center.  Due to the lapse in current federal government funding, all employees aren't available until further notice.  Thank you."  
     On another economic front, of much interest to many a western South Dakotan, Noem's vote to strangle the federal government by denying it money to operate caused all of our national parks and monuments, including Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, to close their doors.  I'm heavily enough involved in the tourism biz to tell you that it killed our Autumn season and did some real harm to the many thousands of workers employed in the industry, coming as it did just before the holiday shopping season.  Compounding this display of federal heartlessness, dedicated Republican Noem joined with all of her colleagues in the House of Representatives to restore the pay of furloughed federal workers who were laid off during the shutdown, but never said a peep about the lost wages of South Dakota's private sector workers who were effectively "furloughed" at the time. 
     Local memories and the current catastrophe in Texas should be enough to convince our GOP congressional threesome (Thune and Rounds in the Senate, Noem in the House) that President Trump is risking a calamity with his threats of a government shutdown.  Atlas was a micro disaster compared to the apocalyptic result that would occur if the government were out of business during Harvey.  Our reps need to understand that party loyalty is one thing, irresponsibility is another.  As Kristi Noem has probably figured out by now, we send these people to Washington to run the government, not shut it down as an act of political complicity.  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

There's Principle, There's Reality, And Then There's NAFTA

     It takes a talented wordsmith to come up with a catch-phrase as ringing with ambiguity as "principled realism," the doctrine that President Trump just espoused in last Monday's speech on the American approach to Afghanistan.  Kudos to the ghostwriter who dreamed that one up, and a great big hearty "hear, hear!" to the administration's policy makers as they engage Mexico and Canada in the just-started NAFTA renegotiations. The notion that "principle" has to be modified by "realism" is one that South Dakotans should hope is in the marching orders for Trump's negotiating team, because Trump's charge that "NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever signed" completely ignores the value of the deal to South Dakota's ag industry.
A Flat-Out Good Deal For South Dakota

     We should hope that our Trump-supporting congressional reps, Republicans all, will make sure that the administration heeds the "realism" inherent to NAFTA as it applies to the benefits it created for South Dakota.  Round One of the renegotiating sessions concluded last Sunday, with Round Two scheduled for the first week of September.  Several more sessions are planned, targeting the end of the year for a conclusion to the process.  The American approach has so far been consistent with President Trump's abhorrence of the deal, with the U.S. lead negotiator Robert Lighthizer announcing at the end of last Sunday's talks that "for countless Americans this agreement has failed."  
     Unfortunately for us South Dakotans, though, Lighthizer's politically popular sentiment is a potential deal-killer, even as his claim doesn't hold water.  That's the conclusion of a detailed study in, among others, U.S. News and World Report, published last February, which notes that job losses in manufacturing are widespread throughout the developed world, mainly the result of automation, not trade deals.  Politifact.com last year examined all this rhetoric and concluded that "NAFTA produced neither significant job losses nor job gains."  Marketplace.org had similar findings, saying that "NAFTA's effect on the net number of jobs was minimal."  The Trump administration's continued insistence on the opposite is a political "principle" that needs to be displaced by economic "realism."  
     South Dakota's gains via NAFTA and other trade agreements are an essential component of that "realism" and need to be understood by this Trump-supporting state.  Our U.S. Senator John Thune said as much to KSOO radio in Sioux Falls last month, when he argued that NAFTA has been largely positive for South Dakota.  Last June, Thune told a Senate committee hearing that "it's frankly quite difficult to overstate NAFTA's importance to our agricultural sector."  I can only add that it's frankly quite difficult to overstate the importance of Thune's penetration of Trump's poorly developed and politically-motivated "principle" with some solid, South Dakota-specific "realism."  
     That "realism" is only amplified by the words of farmers and their organizations in support of NAFTA.  Said the National Corn Growers last May, "since NAFTA was implemented, U.S. ag exports to Canada and Mexico have tripled and quintupled, respectively . . . we want to ensure any updates to NAFTA maintain or increase opportunities for American farmers and ranchers."  Trump's bogus, politically-motivated and unsupportable contempt for NAFTA may strike some as a savvy negotiating position, but its emptiness of factual content will render it impotent.  We need to lighten up and cooperate, not confront.    

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

From The Leader Of The Church Of Which I Am A Member

Bishop Ough

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, issued the following statement on Charlottesville:
My shock, dismay and grief over the clashes between white supremacy advocates and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, continue to grow. I grieve for the lives lost, and pray for the family of Heather Heyer, the families of the two state troopers killed while monitoring the Charlottesville demonstration from the air, and for the healing of all the injured. I am shocked by the blatant resurgence of white nationalism, neo-Nazism and racially motivated domestic terrorism in the United States. I am dismayed (and frightened) by the animosity, division, extremism and evil that is spiraling out of control in the U.S.
Let there be no excuses or political justification for the evil that was on full display in Charlottesville last Saturday. Nor, let us forget that many such displays of white supremacy, racism and hatred go un-reported or under-reported in many places. White supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies are abhorrent and entirely inconsistent with the Christian faith.
Jesus called his followers to “love your neighbor.” It is clear this key spiritual imperative means all neighbors without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. And, Paul taught that “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions” are among many works of the flesh that are antithetical to the kingdom of God. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 19-23) These works of the Spirit lead to peace-making and the kingdom of God.
The Social Principles of our United Methodist Church are a clarion call and powerful witness in times such as these. “We affirm that no identity or culture has more legitimacy than any other. We call the Church to challenge any hierarchy of cultures or identities.” (Para. 161A, The Nurturing Community, page 110, 2016 Book of Discipline). And, from Para. 162A The Social Community, page 120: “Racism, manifested as sin, plagues and hinders our relationship with Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself … Therefore, we recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons … We commit as the Church to move beyond symbolic expressions and representative models that do not challenge unjust systems of power and access.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed a similar sentiment when he challenged the United States to transform the thin paper of the Declaration of Independence that affirms the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, are endowed with certain inalienable rights” into thick action.
I pray that the shock, dismay and grief of Charlottesville will be a turning point for the U.S. and even our global United Methodist church. We share collective responsibility to turn our thin words into thick action. We share collective responsibility to break our silence. We share collective responsibility to restore health to the communities and relationship out of which extremism, hatred and racism grow. We share collective responsibility, as followers of the Prince of Peace, to create non-violent communities where people with different political and religious views respect each other. We share responsibility to articulate the vision of the Beloved Community where no person feels endangered on account of their social, racial or cultural identity.
This collective responsibility begins by each of us examining our own hearts for the prejudice that contributes to attitudes of supremacy or hatred, or to violence, or silence or fear. Peacemaking and reconciliation always begins within.
This is the moment for The United Methodist Church and all peoples of faith to be bold in our witness against racism and white supremacy. The vision of the Beloved Community lies not behind us, but before us. I urge us to pray for the Holy Spirit to break through and work through The United Methodist Church to heal our broken world and make tangible, visible the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President
Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Nazis And Their Demented Paramours The KKK Should Be Condemned By South Dakota's Elected Officials.

     So far the responses of our SD congressional delegation to the events in Charlottesville have been tepid, ambiguous, and cowardly.  Why these three can't bring themselves to condemn specifically the Nazis and KKKers who were the most visible elements in the march to "Unite The Right" shows a dismaying lack of moral specificity.  Congresswoman Noem blathers on about "anyone spreading hate and fear" while Thune called "the hate and bigotry . . . disgusting and unacceptable."  According to the SF Argus Leader, Mike Rounds deferred questions to a written response (that I haven't found) that condemned violence but didn't criticize President Trump's response.  Do our congressional reps know anything about the history of the Nazis and the Klan? Why can't they bring themselves to call out these two organizations for condemnation?  
   I wish this trio of South Dakota Republicans had the same no-nonsense rejection of moral equivocation that Ronald Reagan did when queried about the support he'd gotten from the Ku Klux Klan.  Said President Reagan in 1984, "the politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan have no place in this country and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood."  As to Nazis, Reagan's wartime service (his vision deferred him from a combat assignment) was distinguished by a long list of of anti-Nazi film productions and public appearances that put his status as a popular actor to work in the war effort.  
     More than two thousand South Dakotans were killed or wounded fighting the Nazis and their allies in World War II.  I'm a life member (by virtue of my 13 month tour of duty as a Marine in Vietnam) of the F.J. Willuweit VFW post in Quinn, at the eastern end of Pennington County. Willuweit was killed fighting Nazis in Europe.  I had an employee, long since dead, who fought with Patton in Europe.  He once told me that when he landed at Normandy the bodies floating in the water were so thick that you could practically walk on top of them to get to the beach.  My own dad, who fought the Nazis in the Balkans while serving in the Greek army, was shot and captured in Macedonia in 1942, then subsequently trucked to a POW camp near Dachau, the infamous concentration camp. He spent the rest of the war as a forced laborer, including a stint as a hod-carrier for German bricklayers constructing the ovens in which thousands of murdered Jews were incinerated. 
      That so many of us in South Dakota have direct linkage to the generation that sacrificed much, if not all, in the battle against Nazism should be enough to spur our elected leadership into condemning the latter day resurgence of this hideous legacy.   It really isn't that difficult or politically perilous.  Along with those demented paramours of Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, they're easy enough to target with the simple, clear, unequivocal and direct language of modern conservatism's towering warrior Ronald Reagan:  They have no place in this country.  Get it, Noem, Rounds and Thune?  They have no place in this country.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Crime And Punishment In South Dakota

     My good friend Cory Heidelberger called attention to a dismayingly uneven application of South Dakota justice last week in his excellent Aberdeen-based blog Dakota Free Press.  In Heidelberger's accountthe sentencing last week of Spearfish resident Rocky Roy Rardon to 10 years in the pen (five if he makes restitution) for stealing $49 thousand from the Prairie Hills Transit And Child Care Center, a non-profit of which Rardon was finance director, seems inconsistent with sentencing standards when looked at in context.
     That context has to include the sentencing of Joop Bollen, the main figure in the state's recent EB-5 fiasco.  First off, with respect to the Rardon case, I'm not criticizing or second-guessing the decision made by 4th Circuit Court judge Michelle Percy.  The punishment fits the crime and sends a message to those who would help themselves to money intended for the public good.  It's Rardon's punishment compared to Bollen's that seems systemically incongruent. Last February, Bollen was convicted via a plea agreement of diverting more than $1.2 million belonging to the state and received a $2 thousand dollar fine and two years probation.  That Bollen "put back most of the money" (how much is "most" is a number I haven't been able to find) is irrelevant because the money was not his to use and he may well have never been able to pay it back.  The State of South Dakota is not a piggy bank.
     More to the point, Bollen's actions, when seen in light of their consequences for our state, did an awful lot of harm with much broader implications than Rardon's.  To give you an idea of how far-reaching Bollen's transgressions turned out to be, the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies calculated that the "cash for green cards" EB-5 program lost South Dakota more than $100 million after Bollen took the program over via his private company, which he formed in some very shady dealings after running it for the state.  The list of shenanigan's have been meticulously laid out by CIS and RCJ correspondent Bob Mercer, an accounting of which doesn't seem to be much of a priority to South Dakota officials.  Those alone amount to a pretty sizable hill of very expensive beans. More consequential is the near-loss of the EB-5 program to South Dakota, which was allowed to survive after a federal investigation last March concluded that "state officials should share the blame" for the center's problems.  All of this was wrought by Bollen's separation of the EB-5 program from the State of South Dakota to himself.  And for this he got a tiny fine and probation.  
     Like Heidelberger, in context I'm plenty disturbed by Rardon's likely 5 year term in the slammer after absconding with less than $50 thousand.  "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" is a harsh principle, but one that is commonly understood by the criminal class.  On the other hand, if you consort with highly-placed officials in South Dakota government, Joop Bollen's experience suggests a corollary: "If you can't do the time, go ahead and do the crime anyway."