Friday, November 1, 2019

The Hypocrisy Of Our GOP "Anti-Socialists" In South Dakota

    We've institutionalized hypocrisy in South Dakota government.  The politically useful designation of "socialism" as an evil to be avoided at all costs has blinded the ultra-dominant Republicans in Pierre to the realities of life and the utter hypocrisy of their anti-socialist rhetoric.  Most recent example?  Two days ago at a legislative committee hearing in Pierre, state reps were grilling our state universities about their progress on implementing a law (HB 1087) passed earlier this year that is intended "to promote free speech and intellectual diversity" at South Dakota's public universities.  According to Sioux Falls Republican Rep Steven Haugaard, the law is needed to counter what he considers an "increasing amount of socialism on campuses nationwide."
The Republican Socialist
Producers Don't Seem Happy About It

     Haugaard's harangue has a by gum, we ain't gonna let this happen in South Dakota, no way, no how tone to it, and, considering how easily HB 1087 sailed through legislation and into law, the language sells well to South Dakota's political market.  But behind the pugnacious rhetoric, Haugaard, every Republican legislator who supported the law, and its signer Republican Governor Kristi Noem know one inescapable fact:  Our state and its economy are riddled with socialistically supported institutions and private sector endeavors.  Let's start with federal aid as a percentage of state revenues, which is typically about a third of the money that comes into state coffers.  You might say, well, our residents pay federal taxes, so some of that money should be rightfully coming back to South Dakota.  True enough, but South Dakota gets significantly more, about 15% more, than it sends to Washington, D.C.  In 2016 (latest figures I could find) that amounted to $1.4 billion, which is about $1800 per resident.  Nothing socialistic about that, right,  South Dakota Republicans?
     And then there's the bulwark of our state's economy, agriculture.  Talk about socialism, the Farm Bureau just reported that 2019 farm income, nationally, will reach $88 billion, the highest since 2014.  But, anti-socialists, get this. The Farm Bureau notes that  "nearly 40% of that income is related to trade assistance, disaster assistance, and insurance indemnities."  I can't find South Dakota-specific numbers, but considering that conditions here are similar to those in the farm belt, generally, it's reasonable to guess that our state's farmers are in the same shape as their peers across the region. With so much dependence on federal assistance,  farmers lately seem to be wards of the state.  How do South Dakota's vociferous opponents to socialism come to terms with this reality?  They can''t.  Nothing against the rationale for federal help (sans the trade assistance, which is a payoff for the disaster created by Trump's tariff war).  It makes sense.  We need farmers, period, which is more than enough reason for us to socialistically help them out as necessary.
     But in the meantime, these anti-socialists who represent us are pushing other socialist schemes.  Our elected officials are unified in supporting ethanol, which is socialistically-mandated for use because the free market needs the government to tell refiners how much they must consume.  And we just had to pay a taxpayer-funded, socialistic bounty to kill thousands of predators in order to support our pheasant-hunting industry. Our Governor's Office Of Economic Development is another example.  It offers socialistically-mandated employer-supported incentives and grants to businesses seeking to expand into South Dakota, but only if those expansion plans "would not have occurred" without assistance from GOED.  In other words, if the free market makes it impossible for your business to come here, South Dakota taxpayers will gladly give you a socialistic hand.
     Given the reality of the situation, it's hard to understand the browbeating that our socialistically-supported universities are getting.  I trust campus administrators to make sure a diversity of opinions stock their marketplace of ideas, but if there is indeed "an increasing amount of socialism on our campuses nationwide," it's probably because the amount of it is increasing across the country.  South Dakota's Republicans seem to have no  problem encouraging it.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

South Dakota's Deficit Hawks In Congress Have Turned Into Deficit Doves--Or Is That Deficit Chickens?

    When it came to crusading against federal overspending, South Dakota's GOP Senators
Deficit Hawks Chickens Rounds & Thune
Bwak, Bwak, Bwak
John Thune and Mike Rounds once made quite the tag-team during their rhetorical wrestling matches with Congressional budgeteers. 
They both inveighed mightily against red ink.  "Every South Dakota family must live within a budget," harrumphs Thune in his website, adding "and I continue to believe that the federal government should do the same."  Rounds is no less adamant, even throwing in predictions of catastrophe on his site, noting that the "federal deficit is approaching $18 trillion and we must reverse this trend before it crushes our economy."  Rounds's site, probably prepared a few years ago, is somewhat outdated, as this year's federal debt load is actually closer to $22 trillion, according to the U.S. government's General Accounting Office.  Meantime, the Congressional Budget Office says that "if current laws remain unchanged . . . through 2029 . . . debt held by the public would rise significantly from its already high level."
     The "high level" noted by CBO is a high of historic proportions.  As a percentage of GDP, it's exceeded only by the levels reached during World War 2.  The most recent uptrend began during the Obama years, when federal spending poured into the recession-battered economy.  Those were debt loads that Rounds and Thune were railing against, in concert with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who said during his campaign that he would "completely eliminate" the national debt within 8 years.  At the time, Trump promised that he could do it by "renegotiating our trade deals," an assertion that has turned out to be baloney.  Later, as President, Trump--along with strong support from Senators Thune and Rounds--promised that a spurt of economic growth created by his tax cuts would reduce deficits. Thune actually claimed on WNAX radio that over ten years the added growth would "wash out" the debt.
     These ridiculous notions have been steadily refuted by budget data on a regular basis since Trump's ludicrous trade war and the tax cut was passed into law last year.  Yesterday's announcement by government auditors that this year's budget shortfall will so far add about a trillion dollars to the overall debt is a reality check that exposes our two senators as being either self-delusional or simply liars.  You can decide, but remember that many forecasters, the Congressional Budget Office included, warned that the tax cut would significantly slice revenues, a warning that both Thune and Rounds ignored and brushed aside with their insistence that the opposite--more revenues from a robust economy--would occur.  As it happens, spending this year has gone up by 8% but revenues only increased by half as much, 4%.  The tax cut (and trade negotiations) did squat for energizing revenues.  Those who say the culprit is spending have a point, but tell it to the GOP-controlled White House and Senate . . . and add a special note to our so-called budgetary skinflints Thune and Rounds, who've so far ignored every bit of their own advice as to how the federal government should be managing its fiscal affairs.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

It's Time To Quit Beefing About Cattle Messing Up The Climate. A Ton Of Research Says They Don't.

      De Smet, South Dakota, cowman Todd Wilkinson testified in front of a U.S. Senate
Time To Find
Anudder Culprit
subcommittee's hearing on clean air last week. 
He successfully completed his task of debunking the long- and widely-disseminated notion that cattle production does bad things for the climate.  Said Wilkinson, "climate policies that unfairly target cattle producers fail to recognize the positive role of cattle and beef in a healthy, sustainable food system . . . Rather than adopting misguided policies that threaten the viability of farmers and ranchers, we want to shift the conversation."
     "Viability" is probably the key word in Wilkinson's opening statement.  In South Dakota, we're talking about an industry that accounts for 13,000 full-time jobs and $2.4 billion in direct sales, leading to an annual economic impact of $4.5 billion.  Our entire state has an interest in keeping this industry intact--and for reasons that go beyond the economy.  Having fed cattle during my long stint as a commodities broker and producer in Chicago and South Dakota, I can vouch for the fact that every cattle producer I ever worked with (and there were a lot), was committed to keeping the source of his/her wealth--the earth itself--in tip-top and productive shape.
      Wilkinson's testimony is filled with scientific data and conclusions about methane and carbon sequestration that support his contention that cattle production ultimately benefits the environment.  If you're skeptical and suspect that he cherry-picked his sources, try hunting for conclusive research finding opposite results. It's not that easy.   A study at Penn State ends by saying "more studies need to be done to reach a final verdict regarding our culprit cows."  Another study at Washington State U. notes that "all foods have an environmental impact" and that "nutrition, biodiversity and land use" should also be considered when making decisions about your diet. Meantime, a recently completed study by the USDA finds that cattle contribute to just 3.3% of greenhouse gas emissions.  If you can find a compelling and convincing counter-study, feel free to share it here in the comments section. 
     By the way, that 3.3% figure needs to be seen in context.  By rank, cattle production is way down on the list of greenhouse gas emitters.  Energy production, either directly or through manufacturing and transportation, is number one at 66%.  Cattle are getting a disproportionately bad rap in the finger pointing derby that's associated with finding climate change culprits, the facts themselves saying otherwise. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Elizabeth Warren's Inflexible Demands On Trade Deals Probably Won't Do South Dakota Farmers Much Good.

    South Dakota farmers who are fed up with the awful consequences of President Trump's
Will She Make Farmers Her Tools?
trade policies have good reason to consider voting for a successor in 2020. 
Unfortunately for them, Elizabeth Warren, who seems to have taken the lead in the chase for the Democratic nomination, seems likely to fall short of expectations for improvement.  The outlook for favorable trade deals should she become our next President is clouded by her messianic desire to create a new global society.  Switching over from Trump, who doesn't even understand how tariffs work (the guy still thinks China pays the tariffs he imposed, when it's Americans that do) to Warren, who wants to use trade agreements to get the entire world to measure up to her standards of political and economic behavior, will probably give American farmers another few years of frustration.
     The problem?  Warren lays out a stringent and probably politically impossible set of conditions to make a trade deal eligible for consideration should she occupy the White House.  Some of them--labor rights, climate change commitments, elimination of currency manipulation and anti-corruption enforcement--seem doable, or at least negotiable.  Others, laudable as their goals may be, are just plain non-starters when getting foreign governments on board with a trade deal.  Upholding human rights, guaranteeing religious freedom, reining in human trafficking--worthy conditions all, but making sure that our trade partners have achieved compliance with Warren's expectations before she even talks to them about deals?  Please.  The United States could stand some improvement in many of these areas.  How could our negotiators expect their counterparts to meet Warren's standards when we fall short of them ourselves?
     Though Warren does make it a point to ensure that all players, including rural interests, are represented in the committees that will advise her on trade, her ultimate approach doesn't put their immediate interests first.  Warren's gambit has more to do with using trade agreements as a cudgel to force her social and political standards on the rest of the world than to get a good deal for American producers.  This is the opposite of  how it works.  The benefits of free trade have always gone a step farther than good deals that make people money.  The iconically conservative The Heritage Foundation lays it out succinctly when it says that free trade "fosters a wellspring of freedom, opportunity and prosperity that benefits every citizen."  When goods and services cross borders, ideas travel with them and societies get enlightened.  Elizabeth Warren doesn't get that.  South Dakota ag producers, who depend mightily on export sales--about $2 billion worth in 2017--need to be wary of Warren's commitment to doing trade deals that depend on social and political factors that have little or nothing to do with the transfer of their commodities.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Since When Does South Dakota Support Discrimination? Our Attorney General Says The Civil Rights Act Doesn't Apply To Everyone.

     South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg makes it sound so simple.  Without explanation and no particularly compelling state interest, he just added South Dakota to a brief filed at the Supreme Court by 15 states supporting the defendants, employers in a case who, in separate instances, fired people because of their sexual orientation and/or sexual identity.  The employees sued, claiming they were denied protections granted by the federal Civil Rights Act that became law in 1964.  The law mentions "sex" as a protected status but says nothing about sexual behavior or gender identity.  Ravnsborg has said, disingenuosly, that "the case rests with the definition of 'sex' as it exists [in the Act] as written in 1964 . . . and that the plain meaning of 'sex' is biological status, not sexual orientation or gender identity."
AG Ravnsborg
LGBTQ?  No Civil Rights For You

     Why disingenuous?  Because if the meaning of sex is as plain as Ravnsborg claims it to be, this case wouldn't have made it to the Supreme Court.  His offhanded dismissal of the complexities involved is simplistic and doesn't address the myriad demands for justice in a society as complicated and diverse as ours.  And if "plain meaning" is the criterion our Attorney General chooses to use for the law's application, then "plain meaning" should be applied to define what actually occurred.  The facts are that these employees were "plainly" fired because of who they are.  That means they were "plainly" discriminated against.  Ravnsborg has officially put the State of South Dakota into the position of supporting a discriminatory action by employers who can't tolerate the presence of employees that differ from their standards of appearance and personal behavior.  And we South Dakotans are supposedly supporting this on the basis of a definition of sex that is archaic and no longer fits contemporary social realities.  Heck, if it's about sticking to outmoded language and concepts, we should insist that every gun owner in this country be a member of a "well-regulated militia," just like it says in the Second Amendment.
     Our Attorney General can't see that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is more about protecting individual rights than about defining the status of victims.  There doesn't seem to be a similar complaint having been lodged in South Dakota (I'm correctable on this--I just haven't found anything), which, if true, means that Ravnsborg is making a gratuitous political statement, one that tells our state's employers that it's okay to fire people for the way they dress or behave privately.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

It's Time For South Dakota's Congressional Delegation To Wake Up And Smell The Covfefe. Trump's Trade War Is A Wreck.

        If South Dakota's trio (GOP Senators Mike Rounds and John Thune and GOP
Who Can Figure Out Anything
About Trump?
Representative Dusty Johnson) 
of Congressional delegates  isn't already sick and tired of supporting President Trump's trade war, they should be.   Actually, and more reflective of their jobs representing this state's battered ag economy, they should be more than sick and tired.  They should be scrambling to call for a halt in this ill-conceived catastrophe and hope that our state's multi-billion dollar soybean industry hasn't been shut out of its world markets altogether.  Trump's taxpayer-funded bailout ($14.5 billion this year) of our country's farmers in the form of "mitigation payments" meant to keep producers afloat can only go on for so long.  Right now those payments are fueling the trade war, but after two years of getting by without American soybeans, China, our principal market, is probably well on the way to developing other supply sources.  The long term damage to American farmers--and the subsequent ripples in their surrounding economies--are probably incalculable.
       Up to now, Trump and his enablers, including our reps from South Dakota, have been able to rationalize the farm belt's pain as something to be endured for the greater good, meaning the overall American economy.  Trump himself has been calling farmers "patriots" for enduring the punishment required by his trade wars, which he last year characterized as "good and so easy to win."  But how has it been going on the "greater good" front of the war?  About as bad as it has in our farm sector.  Today's dismal report on the state of American manufacturing, showing that American factories are at their lowest activity levels in a decade, only underscores the long-held, traditionally Republican dogma that free trade--not tariff spats, nor fully blown trade wars--is the ideal when it comes to international economic activity.  Trump's bellicose comment about our Fed keeping interest rates so high that our resulting strong dollar has weakened our international trade position is total baloney.  Europe has much lower interest rates than we do, and its currencies are as weak as Trump wishes the dollar were, but European manufacturing is slumping just as fast, if not faster, than America's.
     Blame-shifting is par for his particular course.  A month ago he said that "badly run and weak companies" are responsible for their own economic woes.  "Excuses!"he tweeted.  But, as with his now infamous twitter-rendering of "coffee" as "covfefe," Trump's tweet on manufacturing is absurd.  The entire manufacturing sector is getting hammered, not just some companies that aren't run as well as Trump thinks they should be.  This about neither interest rates nor bad management.  This is about Trump and his utter mishandling of American international trade.  South Dakota's congressional reps were silent and pliant as their state's ag sector got bludgeoned by the President.  Somehow I don't think we'll see a similar level of complicity from reps in our manufacturing states.  Industrial workers who were once seduced by Trump and his pipe dreams about the resurgence of America's factories will be re-thinking their adoration as they experience a reversion to recession-levels of activity.  I don't think they'll take too kindly to being called "patriots" and I doubt that our federal coffers have enough money to be handing these millions of people and their families mitigation checks.  There's only so much money that a fella can spend on jilted lovers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

SD Gov Noem Wants Our Youth To Seek Jobs Here. Too Bad They'll Be Missing The Job Boom In Hemp.

     Our Governor Kristi Noem just launched "Week Of Work" here in Rapid City.  The idea is to
Mcconnell Pushes Hemp In Kentucky
South Dakota Needs To Smarten Up
get high schoolers from all over South Dakota to spend a week shadowing various businesses throughout the state. Noem claims that there are "incredible jobs right in our backyard," so she's getting businesses to allow teenagers to come around and check things out. Presumably, the students can then discover opportunities that match up with their interests.  Considering the awful track record that South Dakota has when it comes to retaining our most well-educated youth (we're second worst in the country at that), Noem's initiative is a well-intentioned effort at addressing that problem.  Kudos to her for taking some action.
     But before we get slap-happy with plaudits, let's stop and think about a burgeoning career field that South Dakota's young people will never consider if they remain in their home state.  Noem's stubborn and irrational rejection of industrial hemp production in  South Dakota closes out the prospects of our high schoolers entering a job field that appears to be brimming with opportunities.  CNBC says the industry "is set to create a jobs boom in the U.S."  The financial site notes that jobs will entail much more than production, processing and marketing.  The fast growing industry (sales are increasing by 14% annually, reaching about $11 billion by 2025) "will need accountants, lawyers, compliance officers, government regulators, IT specialists, financial and insurance experts, transporters, researchers, lab technicians, marketers, CFOs, CEOs, and various retail employees."  CNBC quotes an expert who believes "the hemp industry will create high-skilled management jobs, labor-type jobs and everything in between."
     Noem, though, is having none of it.  While the rest of the country (47 states have approved hemp production) moves ahead and positions itself in the hemp industry, our Governor thinks she's saving us from the evils of marijuana, hemp's distant cousin. She's out of step. I wonder if Noem knows that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell is a big booster of industrial hemp production in his home state of Kentucky.  So positive is Mcconnell about the future of the industry and its benefits to the Blue Grass state that he recently hosted U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on a tour of a hemp facility called Commonwealth Extracts in Louisville, with Mcconnell saying "hemp is already a terrific business." Governor Noem, we're talking about the stalwartiest of stalwarts in your Republican Party.  What is your problem with getting this thing going in South Dakota?
     More to the point, why are we denying young South Dakotans a shot at being a part of this soon-to-be entrenched industry?  Our kids are hip enough to know what's going on and where the opportunities are likely to be.  We're trying to keep them here while simultaneously telling them to look elsewhere when it comes to opportunities in the most promising new agricultural product in recent generations. This is senseless.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

South Dakota Farmers Have Already Been Hammered By Trump. Are Our Senior Citizens Next? Try Retiring On Negative Interest Rates.

     Move over South Dakota farmers. You could soon be joined by another class of our state's residents who've exposed President Trump's ineptitude on economic matters.  Trump's demand today for the Federal Reserve Board to cut interest rates to zero "or less" should have every retired (or nearly retired) South Dakotan depending on income from interest-producing investments on edge.  As U.S. bond yields have never gone negative since 1900, it's impossible to guess at what their effect would be if Trump were to get his wish--but as a boomer in good standing, I can understand why a lot of my peers would be wondering about how a bond portfolio supporting their lifestyles would produce the income they need if cash returns collapse.
First Our Farmers, Now Our Seniors
   Trump's hot-headed rhetoric on this issue ignores any concerns about what his ill-considered scenario would do to retirees.  Calling Federal Reserve Board members "boneheads" for not lowering already historically low interest rates sidesteps the consequences of Trump's demands.  What it comes down to from an investor's perspective is that Trump wants bond investors to sacrifice yield for safety.  At the same time, a younger, more borrowing-oriented generation of Americans would benefit from an ultra-cheap money environment.  The macro economic results short term might be good, but you have to wonder why Trump wants lower rates during what he claims to be "perhaps the greatest economy in the history of our country."  Given this year's GDP growth rate averaging an anemic 2.5%, Trump's fantasy-driven claim about the economy's greatness exposes his concerns about its fragility.  Trump's political motivation seems clear.  He needs to prop this economy up as we go into the 2020 election cycle, and if he doesn't get his way on interest rates, he can always pull out the "blame-the-Fed" card if the economy turns south.
     Meantime, you can add many South Dakota seniors to the roll of Trump-onomics' casualties, which already contains the names of thousands of our state's residents who happen to be farmers.  My worry is that as interest rates decline, seniors will start chasing more aggressive and riskier investments to prop up their declining yields. A recent CNBC piece titled "A Warning To Seniors If The Fed Lowers Interest Rates" puts the quandary in a nutshell, suggesting that older investors have to weigh the unnerving prospects of low interest rates occurring during a market upheaval. Trump's rash tax cuts for the wealthy have ballooned the federal debt to historic highs, both in real and relative numbers.  Now that the U.S. has to borrow money like crazy to meet its obligations and pay interest at unprecedented levels, the president wants some financial relief .  . . and he expects senior citizens who've been working and saving for their lifetimes to help bail him out.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Expanding Medicaid In South Dakota Means Expanding Opportunities Throughout The State

Here’s a pop quiz.  What Republican governor said expanding Medicaid in his state would be
South Dakota, 
It's Time To Get With The Program
an "innovative, fiscally responsible program" that would "improve outcomes, improve lives and improve the fortunes" of his state's residents.  Give up? I admit it’s a toughie. It was (then) Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who successfully expanded Medicaid coverage in 2015, adding more than 300,000 Hoosiers to the state’s pool of insured residents and reducing the uninsured rate by 41%.  Whatever you think of Pence and his politics, he ain’t no dummy. Pence's successor, Republican Eric Holcomb has said, "I've not seen a more successful program."
     So why are we South Dakotans dragging our feet on this? If we were to expand Medicaid, between 40 and 50 thousand of our residents would qualify for coverage. Even with the expense of running the program amounting to 10% of its cost, our state would get a net inflow of $3 billion from the federal government over the next 10 years. Governor Noem's predecessor Republican Dennis Daugaard (like Mike Pence in Indiana) could see what a good deal this is and subsequently created a plan a few years ago that would have expanded Medicaid in South Dakota.  The momentum for it was lost when Donald Trump became President, partly on the promise that he would dismantle the Affordable Ceare Act, which authorizes Medicaid expansion. Since Trump was unable to accomplish that task, expansion is still a great opportunity for South Dakota to extend Medicaid coverage to about 50,000 of its residents who earn too much to qualify for conventional Medicaid, but don’t make enough to pay for standard coverage.  As Governor Daugaard understood, this is a good deal for our state.  
And it’s a good deal on more than just the “healthy outcome” front.  The non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that expansion has produced net budget savings among the states that have adopted it.  CBPP has found that higher-than-expected enrollments in some states have not harmed budgets and that “expansion continues to save states money.” There is probably also a positive macro-economic outcome that will accrue from all those federal dollars coming into our state, which should be a welcome boost as we slog through a minimal growth period created by the currently tough agricultural economy
Last January our Governor Kristi Noem flatly rejected Medicaid expansion, but common sense and the experience of other states should make her rethink her opposition. As Indiana and other states have found, waivers make it possible to tailor a plan that works locally. Noem should, like former Governor Daugaard, find a way to make this happen. A flat out rejection is irrational and it makes no sense to institutionalize irrationality.  

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Trump's Ethanol Waivers Are Punishing South Dakota's Corn Producers. Can Our Congressional Reps Provide Something More Than Lip Service About This?

     So what's up with the relentless program of granting ethanol mandate waivers to smaller refineries?
The Premise Is Flawed
The Trump administration has exempted 31 American refineries from complying with the mandate and the ethanol industry is starting to feel the pinch.  For background, ethanol derived from corn is a legally required fuel additive, used as a way to reduce carbon emissions from automobiles.  No one doubts that demand for it has significantly increased corn production and supported corn prices for a couple of decades now.  Estimates about ethanol's impact on corn prices vary, but researchers uniformly agree that it has made a big difference in both price and production, with about 40% of our country's corn crop dedicated to supplying the federally-mandated demand for the product.
     Always controversial in terms of its efficiency as an emissions reducer, ethanol has long been subjected to criticism from both environmental and free-market constituencies.  Add to them the oil industry, which has long fought mandated ethanol because, well, it would rather your fuel be 100% gasoline.  This chorus of critics has been around for a long while now, but until Trump got elected, the EPA, which oversees ethanol policy, has been reluctant to create cutbacks in its production.  Much of it is political, of course, given that corn producing states wield enough electoral power to make a difference, as they did in 2016, when a swath of red was brushed across much of the farm belt, which went solidly for Trump--who carried South Dakota with 63% of the vote.
     But, as trade war-fatigued soybean producers found out, Trump's priorities don't put farmers very high up on his list of considerations. U.S. reps from this part of the country have been crying foul, but to little avail. Our all-GOP congressional delegation hasn't done much good.  Senator John Thune re-states the obvious,  complaining that "the oil lobby is strong" without criticizing the president that he's beholden to. His colleague Senator Mike Rounds co-sponsored a bill to make the waiver process more transparent . . . meaning what, I don't know.  Our Congressman, Dusty Johnson, called for an investigation into the process, though I doubt that Robert Mueller is available just now. Namby-pamby as these reactions are, I suppose the lip service plays well to some extent here at home. Have they stopped or even slowed down the waiver process? No. 
     For a genuinely outraged and politically courageous reaction, our federal reps should look across the border to Iowa.  Sounding off the way an elected official is supposed to, GOP Senator Charles Grassley has said, "Not only is the government not keeping its word but it also in a sense screwing the farmer."  The outspoken Iowan was responding to yesterday's news that the U.S.'s largest ethanol maker, POET, is closing its 92-million gallon a year plant in Cloverdale, Indiana.  A POET spokesman blames the closure on "mismanagement of the ethanol mandate."  Sioux Falls-based POET is also reducing production at half of its 28 plants scattered across 7 states. That's a lot of corn that won't be needed for the foreseeable future.
     Like it or not, ethanol is now a fixture in South Dakota's economy.  Chipping away at its existence with waivers may be baby steps, but the product has plenty of enemies, and they can do some long term damage to the producers who create it.  As to the farmers themselves?  They might consider re-evaluating the guy they put into the White House with so much gusto in 2016.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Let's Play 20--Make That 319--Questions: South Dakota Governor Noem's Coy Ploy On Hemp.

        South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem continues her obtuse resistance to the development
No Matter How Hard She Tries
Kristi Can't Hemp Herself
of hemp production in our state. 
Apparently determined to delay South Dakota's entry into the fast growing market for hemp and its derivative products, Noem just handed a list of 319 questions to a state legislative interim committee that is studying the pros and cons of hemp farming and processing here. This may look like due diligence on the governor's part, but 47 states in this country probably had to address a similar set of questions and concerns and concluded that hemp cultivation is okay, either in commercial quantities, as pilot programs or for research purposes.  That Noem is reluctant to join that overwhelming majority may satisfy some need to project herself as her own woman, but to do so in the face of so much support for its production by both state and national farming interests makes her look like she's just plain stubborn.
     On a national level, you won't find a more comprehensive endorsement for hemp production than the American Farm Bureau's.  In the context of the withering international demand for soybeans, ABF calls hemp a "comeback crop"  that will "benefit farmers."  The National Farmers Union says hemp "is an untapped opportunity for American farmers" and has even developed a Hemp History Week "to make our voices heard in support of bringing hemp back to U.S. farms."  Responding here in South Dakota to Noem's laundry list of questions, farmer Lee Qualm (R-Platte), the House Majority Leader in Pierre, says "we're making this way more difficult than it needs to be." Qualm also told KELO-TV  that there was much "duplication" in the questions, that some were irrelevant, and that others had to wait for data from USDA and FDA in order to be answered.
     Meanwhile, as Governor Noem continues to stall on moving South Dakota forward into the fast-growing market for hemp, she risks losing a sizable share of it to the many states that are well on their way to getting their pieces of the action.  Along with many other forecastors, CNBC-TV believes that hemp will have a big place in industries as diverse as foods, beverages, cosmetics, paper, clothing and building materials.  Marketwatch believes the industrial hemp market will grow at a compound annual rate of 14%, reaching nearly $11 billion in 2025.  It notes that research and development activities are expected to have a positive impact on hemp production, bringing higher yields and better quality to the product.
     Hemp is happening, but Governor Noem remains unconvinced.  She says industrial hemp is "surrounded by many question marks."  That many of those questions have been satisfactorily answered in nearly every state in America is lost on Noem, who is determined to abandon South Dakota's potential to be in the forefront of one of American agriculture's most promising products in recent generations.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

More Incarceration Hasn't Done Much Good. It's Time For South Dakotans To Think About Prison Reform

     We're kidding ourselves if we believe upping the number of inmates in our prisons will
We Spend More On Prisons
And This Is What We Get?
deter crime in South Dakota. 
In 1977, South Dakota housed about 500 inmates.  By 2017 that number increased to 3,900, a 750% jump, which is 30 times the rate of our population's growth.  Are we supposed to feel safer as a result?  Not particularly.  Citing data from the state Attorney General's office, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last year noted that "violent crime outpaced population growth" during the period 2008-2017, when South Dakota's population increased by 8% while violent crimes went up by 29%.  Arrests during the period 2009-2018 increased by 36%.  Reaching back to 2000, an FBI-compiled index composed of property and violent crimes per 100k population shows a gain of 3.4% through 2016.
     If our decades-long rush to imprison people is spurred by our urge to punish them, we've probably succeeded.  But if keeping our state safer is part of the plan, we've failed.  And an expensive failure it has been.  The National Institute of Corrections says that in 2017 South Dakotans spent $20 thousand a year per inmate in our state's prisons.  More prisoners + more money = more crime is an equation that makes no sense.  It's time to come up with a smarter approach.
     South Dakota's American Civil Liberties Union has just published a plan that should be considered.  Whatever your political inclinations and attitudes toward the ACLU may be, they should be set aside for a moment while you consider the practical, essentially non-partisan elements of this proposal, called "Blueprint For Smart Justice."  The blueprint's overall theme is to replace incarceration for many non-violent (including drug abusers) prisoners with locally developed counseling and assistance programs designed to change their behaviors.  The aim is to cut our prison population in half, which at $20k a prisoner will make for some sizable cost reductions that can either be passed on to taxpayers or spent on some productive ventures like infra-structure repair and development, education, enhanced internet access--you name it.  Given the fiscal and social failures of the status quo, I think the ACLU is on to something.  This approach needs to be given a chance.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Of Guns, Tariffs, And Toledo, Ohio. Where Art Thou, South Dakota's Congressional Delegates?

    Where has South Dakota's congressional delegation been hiding these days?  They've gone into "keep mum" mode while Americans are being slaughtered by high-powered firearms.  At the same time, they're helplessly mute in the face of the the financial catastrope that has befallen their state's sizable ag industry, which has stood by and watched President Trump's tariff-obsessions ruin our important market in China.  Senators Thune and Rounds haven't said much, and neither has Congressman Johnson. What gives with the silent treatment?                                                                                                                                                                                                                              When it comes to the murderous rampages of recent days, maybe the most disheartening
Thune, Rounds, Johnson
Ideas, Gentlemen?
aspect came when President Trump, reading carefully from a teleprompter, offered prayers to "those who perished in Toledo, Ohio." 
Missing the killing zone of Dayton by 150 miles, Trump continued his long association with muffed facts, in this case adding a dimension of indifference to his carelessly written condolences to the victims.  That he chose to blame white supremacy, video games and mental illness for Dayton and the nearly simultaneous massacre in El Paso only adds to the President's inability to correlate facts with conclusions.  If it were all about the issues he raised, there would be a simultaneous epidemic of similar massacres around the globe because, as Hillary Clinton just noted, mental illness and video games "are in virtually every country on earth."  White supremacy, ugly as it is, has been a factor in some of these rampages, but many of the incidents were set off by other causes.    Those causes are not unique to the United States, yet ours is the only country that seems to have been struck by this epidemic.
    Why?  Because as Clinton added, "the difference is the guns."  Having toted and used an M-16 for more than a year at the DMZ in Vietnam during my stint in the Marines, I'm familiar enough with its killing power.  I wish that weapon and others like it were banned altogether, but they're here to stay, and in sizable numbers, apparently well into the millions .  My beef, though, isn't so much with the weapon as it is with expansion of its killing potential, mainly abetted by the use of high-capacity magazines.  The madman in Dayton was able to fire 41 rounds in 30 seconds using such a magazine.  I've seen internet ads for magazines that hold 100 rounds. This seems ridiculous in any context, including sport-shooting, hunting and self-defense.  Even the "well-regulated" militia that is the cornerstone of the 2nd Amendment's guarantees on the right to bear arms could function effectively if all its rifle-bearers were armed with much smaller magazines. We Marines in Vietnam got along with magazines that had a capacity of about 15-20 rounds. I'd like to know what South Dakota's congressional delegates have to say about this.
     And while Thune, Rounds and Johnson are putting together some thoughts about the social and economic costs of high-powered weapons and oversized magazines, I hope they'll pen something about the disaster descending on our state's many farmers.  Our men in D.C. have been awkwardly silent about how Trump's tariff war just escalated--particularly the part where China has summarily banned all imports of American farm products.  American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall calls it a "body blow" to thousands of farmers and ranchers in this country, who are being helped through this crisis by the largesse of American taxpayers, to the tune of $28 billion during the past couple of years. My guess is that our congressional threesome will offer up some standard political rhetoric acknowledging and decrying the status quo without offering much in the way of proposals to change things for the better.  They're bereft of ideas, ditto for their party leadership.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Trump Sets The Tariff Whip To Farmers Again. The Scars Might Not Heal.

     Just when it looked like the grain markets (well, wheat and corn, anyway) were getting
Great Again?
I Don't Think So
back to a normal footing--thanks to weather-related shortages that have driven buyers aggressively into the market--along comes President Trump this morning with another useless tariff increase. 
Not having figured out that the Chinese aren't about to cry uncle and give in to Trump's tariff fixation, the President today announced that he's slapping a 10% duty on another $300 billion worth of Chinese products coming into our country, effective September 1.  The effect on farm commodity markets?  About what you'd expect.  Wheat and corn sold off sharply, only adding to some recent selling pressure that has brought them down 10% or so from their recent peaks.  As to perenially struggling soybean prices, they got hammered from their already historic lows to the kinds of price levels they haven't seen in nearly a decade.
     With a wider domestic and foreign market base, corn and wheat farmers may weather this storm, but for soybeans this is worrisome stuff.  Well into a second consecutive crop year with an export-dependent market that has seen foreign purchases dry up, American farmers must be coming to the realization that China has found a way to get by without buying huge quantities of product from the United States.  Mitigation payments ranging from $15 to $150 per acre, nationally, and probably somewhere in the middle of that range for South Dakota's producers, are a temporary help, but soybean farmers are far from relieved.  A week ago President Trump crowed that "farmers are starting to do great again.  The $16 billion China replacement money didn't exactly hurt!" American Soybean Association Vice President Bill Gordon's reaction?  "To say we're doing great would probably be an overstatement.  These markets are definitely suppressed due to tariffs."  Happily, the mitigation payments haven't silenced farmers, who know a financial bandage when they see it.
     The cash payoff to farmers not only didn't buy their silence, it made the Chinese position all the more stark and ominous.  If Chinese policymakers were hoping that financial pain in the American farm belt would push Trump to ease off on his tariff mania, the cash payoff from D.C. proved them wrong.  Trump is perfectly willing to support farmers, no matter how badly their markets get clobbered.  That probably leaves the Chinese with one practical option:  kiss off American farm products altogether.  China Daily as much as said so when it concluded last June that "U.S. soybeans will lose their Chinese market if the U.S. administration doesn't give up its unilateral policies."  The difference between trade wars and real wars is that in a real war we don't inflict  damage on our own people.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

In God We Trust

     From the Washington National Cathedral.  The Constant Commoner stands aside:

Have We No Decency?  A Response To President Trump

The escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States has evoked
responses from all sides of the political spectrum. On one side, African American leaders have led the way in rightfully expressing outrage. On the other, those aligned with the President seek to downplay the racial overtones of his attacks, or remain silent.
As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral ¬– the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?
As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?
We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.
This week, President Trump crossed another threshold. Not only did he insult a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality for all persons; not only did he savage the nations from which immigrants to this country have come; but now he has condemned the residents of an entire American city. Where will he go from here?
Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.
These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.
When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.
As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.
There is another moment in our history worth recalling. On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.
The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar BuddeBishop of the Episcopal Diocese of WashingtonThe Very Rev. Randolph Marshall HollerithDean of Washington National CathedralThe Rev. Canon Kelly Brown DouglasCanon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Reality Bites. Hypocrisy Bites Harder. What Happened To Your Precious Fiscal Conservatism, South Dakota Senators Thune And Rounds?

        "Unsustainable" is the word about federal budget deficits that will live in infamy when
What, Us Worry?
South Dakota GOP senators John Thune and Mike Rounds get their records reviewed by history. 
As their political paramour President Trump concludes a deal with Congress that raises the deficit ceiling this year and alleviates yet another shutdown threat, the United States will push its federal debt to levels unseen since World War II.  The silent acquiescence of Thune and Rounds isn't so shocking, considering their unwavering fealty to President Trump, but their blatant hypocrisy is gag-worthy just the same.
      Thune's abandonment of his principles regarding fiscal discipline was gaudily displayed by his cheerleading rhetoric about the 2017 tax cut.  Ignoring conclusions from the Congressional Budget Office about the the deficits created by the cut, Thune kissed off his own warnings about "unsustainable" deficits and his credo "that every South Dakota family must live within a budget, and I continue to believe the federal government should do the same." As we've seen, Thune's rhetoric has proven to be pure political buncum, as sagging revenues from the tax cut--not spending that was generally in line with expectations--are the cause of our budget shortfalls.   
    Mike Rounds has proven to be equally adept at ignoring his own principles about federal fiscal responsibility.  On his website, Rounds says that "with an $18 trillion national debt that threatens to destroy our economy, budget issues are a top priority of mine."  Considering that he hasn't said a peep about how the tax cuts he supported look to push the national debt to $22 trillion and expand it to "unprecedented levels", you'd expect Rounds to be scrambling to find ways to cut spending as an offset to the fiscally disastrous tax cuts.  But with the budget deal just concluded, the urgency of the situation is alleviated and Rounds will continue to go along with a situation he once decried. 
     Meantime, just when the heck is the benefit of all this illusory tax cut-stimulus going to trickle down to South Dakota, senators?  Our state's economy is growing at just a fraction of the already so-so national rate.  And now we get word that state budget analysts are projecting a second consecutive revenue shortfall for fiscal 2020.  State Revenue Secretary Jim Terwilliger blames it on "lots of uncertainties and challenges in the ag sector."  I blame it on the poorly thought out trade and fiscal policies coming from the Trump administration and many of its unprincipled enablers, including John Thune and Mike Rounds.