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.
NAFTA,
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."  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Still Kidding Ourselves About Wages In South Dakota

     Governor Dennis Daugaard's affection for our state of South Dakota got a big thumbs up from me last week.  His piece in the RCJ, concluding with the line "I wouldn't trade this place,
Nice Try
Nobody's Buying It
with its wide open spaces and down-to-earth people, for anything" is a sentiment I love and share. The "down to earth" part is especially compelling because of its suggestion that the general attitude in our state is focused on reality and the practical approaches to dealing with our issues.  It's a generalization that has lots of exceptions, no doubt, but after having spent the first two-thirds of my life in L.A. and Chicago, my impression is that there's something to it.  I love my social and professional dealings with people here, and consider myself blessed to be able to accomplish what I have while in the embrace of this unbeatable Black Hills lifestyle.  I'm staying put.

     But much as our mutual love of this state is a powerful bond, I wonder why Daugaard rejects the "down to earth" acceptance of the reality that our state has little attraction for the workers that we need to maintain a decent semblance of economic growth.  Last week's release by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis second quarter GDP figures show a national growth rate of 2.6% while South Dakota's GDP fell by 3.8%, the second worst showing in the country.  That the problem is created by South Dakota's dependence on agriculture, which has been in the doldrums in recent years, only underscores the need for economic diversification as a way of smoothing out the ups and downs of a commodities and natural resources-dependent economy.  
     To do that, we probably have to step things up in our manufacturing sector, a fact that Daugaard acknowledges with his efforts to overcome South Dakota's persistent workforce shortage.  On that front, Daugaard is singularly rejecting the notion that wages in this state are low.  Calling attention to an arcane wage-measurement scale called "Regional Price Parity," the governor correctly notes that when adjusted for inflation, SD wages on the whole compare favorably to other states. However, the scale that Daugaard uses doesn't differentiate between rural and urban districts. When our state's two largest metro areas (Rapid City and Sioux Falls, accounting for 42% of SD's population) are broken out of the statewide analysis, the picture is quite different.  Those two centers come in at the low- to mid-90s of the national average, which puts almost half our population at close to the middle of the national pack.  The big statewide advantage disappears in our cities, where non-ag economic growth is going to happen.  
     A "down to earth" assessment of the situation would understand that when it comes to retaining and attracting a good workforce, South Dakota has a lousy reputation.  During the past couple of years, South Dakota has been ranked among the 10-15 worst states to make a living in USA Today, Forbes, and MoneyRates.com, which makes for a powerful arsenal of arguments against the public-relations efforts of our state's public- and private-sector leadership.  Those of us that live here may believe otherwise, but we're up against a set of pre-judgements and perceptions that will keep making economic growth difficult. Remaining obtuse, even delusional, about our "great" wage structure won't make it any easier.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Will Technology Kill Us?

   Much as I love the idea of expanding internet capacity to match the immense increase in usage, which is straining current telecom infrastructure to the max, we need to step back a bit
A 5G Antenna
(photo from NaturalHealth 365)
and consider some of the consequences of rapid expansion.  
Our Senator John Thune recently introduced a bill (SB-19 "Mobile Now Act") to the U.S. Senate that would increase infrastructure (think antennas placed on utility poles throughout the country) to support latest generation technology and its need to support more usage.  As the owner of commercial property that is constantly finding its bandwidth capacity strained by heavy usage of mobile devices, I have to welcome some relief in the form of increased access to new generation technology.  In general, we have to move in this direction.  

     But I'm sensing a growing problem with this rush to pour on the capacity, and I wish Senator Thune would address it.  Thune has taken some substantial money from the communications and electronics industry, to the tune of $731 thousand during the 2016 cycle.  The sector was his 4th largest contributor, which makes his political friendliness to the telecom industry explainable.  That he unabashedly supports those financial paramours in their pursuit of content control by insisting on the destruction of net neutrality (the principle that service providers should enable users to have free, equal and open access to content, regardless of source) is a long-standing obsession with the Senator.  That he's willing to move ahead with adding infrastructure without entirely reassuring his constituents about its possible consequences is somewhat troubling, if not altogether dismaying. About a year ago Scientific American magazine published some findings from a $25 million study conducted by the National Institute of Health that showed clear linkage between radio-frequency radiation and brain tumor formation in lab animals.  An NIH spokesman said "I would call it a causative study, absolutely.  They controlled everything in the study.  It's [the cancer] because of the exposure."  This is probably music to the ears of some of the plaintiff lawyers I've known over the years.  Of even more compelling interest is the fact that the type of cancer turning up was found in the glial cells of the brains--gliablastoma--the same cancer that recently formed in Senator John McCain's brain.  
     As prolific as cancer studies have been over the past umpteen decades, I've tended to pooh-pooh many of them and go on living as I normally would. The result?  Probably the same as it is for most of us:  So far, so good, knock wood.  There is, however, a twist to this one: namely the liability issue.  The State of California is developing a bill similar to the federal legislation that Thune is pursuing and the consideration of financial liability for cellular injury cases is an issue that is being raised there. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I think South Dakota has to make sure we're indemnified from liability claims before we start allowing telecom companies to attach antennas to our utility poles.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hey, What About Us Country Folk?

     A handful of  courageous Republicans in the United States Senate took a politically risky but highly principled and practical stand against their party's "healthcare" bill this week and
Thune, Noem, Rounds
Great Teeth, Now What About Healthcare?
sank it.  
Senators Moran, Lee, Paul, and Collins are on the record as opposing this misguided effort at replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) for a mix of ideological and substantive reasons, killing the last faint hopes that GOP leadership had for its survival in Congress and ultimate passage with President Trump's signature.  

      Those of us who understand how tough this bill would have been for rural states like South Dakota, which stood to lose billions of dollars in Medicaid if the bill became law, can breathe a bit easier--at least for the time being.  The bill's reduction in Medicaid funding to South Dakota--which I calculate to be about $100 million a year over the course of the next few years--would leave a substantial hole in our state's budget.  This is an issue that has had rural medical providers seriously concerned and seems to be what prompted three of the aforementioned naysayers to turn thumbs down on it.  Maggie Elewhaney, speaking for the National Rural Health Association, says the bill would "exacerbate the rural hospital closure crisis."  The Kaiser Family Foundation notes that Medicaid is an essential component of rural healthcare, where the proportion of Medicaid recipients is higher than in urban areas.  According to Kaiser, rural areas actually had net gains in coverage under the ACA.  Those gains, and then some, would be given up by the GOP bill.
     I never saw an explanation from any of our Congressional reps as to how they expected South Dakota to deal with the substantial drop in Medicaid funding that would affect their rural constituents.   I'd be especially interested in Congresswoman Noem's take, considering her aspirations for Governor in the coming election cycle.  I doubt that demand for medical services would decline, so somebody, somewhere, somehow in South Dakota would have to make up the difference. As there's general agreement that some aspects of ACA (premium increases and loss of insurers, particularly) need fixing, our reps need to explain how their proposed fix, cutting back on rural healthcare in this quintessentially rural state of ours, is a good thing for South Dakota.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why Didn't Governor Daugaard Become A Welder? After All, It's A Good Trade And It Pays Well.

     Our South Dakota Governor Daugaard's thoughts on matching students with workforce needs have some merit.  As Daugaard notes in his piece on the subject in the RCJ a couple of days
Does Daugaard Know About This?
Job Now, Unemployment Later
ago, South Dakota "has a shortage of skilled workers" that "limits businesses' ability to grow."  As an employer in this state I can--along with probably every one of my peers--vouch for that indisputable fact.  We need more skilled workers in South Dakota, period.  I appreciate that Daugaard is approaching the problem head-on by focusing on programs that will give our high school students some direct job-based training opportunities before they graduate.  No doubt many of these young people will learn skills that will do them and their communities a lot of good.

    But admirable as our Governor's intentions are, there are two problems with them.  The first of those has to do with the overall structure of economic and living conditions in South Dakota, which have to create an environment that attracts highly skilled workers in the first place.  Wages top that list of conditions, and on that front, South Dakota's ranking is awful.  Daugaard is focusing on the supply of skilled labor while ignoring the weakness of demand for it.  Per an analysis in the Argus-Leader last year, hourly wages here are fifth-lowest in the nation.  More troubling is the trend: adjusted for inflation, South Dakota wages last year dropped .3 percent while the average nationally rose by 1.6%.  
     The old canard about tut-tutting that persistent differential by claiming South Dakotans have a lower cost of living has long-since been discredited by the facts.  The Council For Community And Economic Research, whose data is developed in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau, ranked South Dakota's cost of living during the first quarter of this year as virtually identical to the national average.  The fact is, our workforce is seriously underpaid compared to the rest of the country's, a fact that Daugaard either ignores or refuses to address.  
     The second problem with Daugaard's approach is more troubling to me because of its built-in development of a calcified workforce.  That may have worked in the 20th century, but nowadays we regularly see the unfortunate destinies of workers with skills that are no longer needed. Factory workers in particular are being regularly displaced by robots.  Educated young people need to know how to deal with a world that will value their skills one day and disdain them the next. The ability to analyze, think, and adjust is just as important as any specific job specialty, and those qualities can be developed and nurtured in our public schools. His good intentions notwithstanding, it would be nice to see Governor Daugaard place as much emphasis on intellectual development as he does on vocational training.  

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Attaway, Mike! Rounds Finally Shows Some Moxie

     Senator Mike Rounds has finally stepped up to the plate and taken a decent swing.  Our junior senator yesterday analyzed a proposed tax cut that's part of the Senate's healthcare bill and
Rounds Questions A Tax Cut
Will Wonders Never Cease?
questioned its reason for being.  The tax is a 3.8% surcharge on investment income that is currently in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, what we commonly call Obamacare).  Bloomberg analysts say that it applies to those earning over $200 thousand a year.  The Senate bill wants it removed.   Mike Rounds is saying "not so fast."  This is so uncharacteristic of Rounds that  New York Magazine took notice and commented that  "Mike Rounds of South Dakota" is a "solid member of the GOP conference who has not been on anybody's list of troublemakers" with respect to the Senate bill.  I'm impressed.

     This is actually bracing on two levels.  The first is that Rounds, who so far has been a reliable pitchman for the Trumphuggers in the GOP, has shown us some independence.  This is a rare moment among our trio of Republican congressional reps, who have a penchant for going along with their national party agenda without giving thought to consequences in South Dakota.  I recall when Congresswoman Noem voted to shut down the federal government, including our national parks (Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and Wind Cave), wiping out the 2013 autumn tourist season just so she could make an absurdly irrelevant political point. Then there's Senator Thune with his commitment to de-neutralize the internet, opening the door for our telecom providers to arbitrarily change costs and terms of service without federal oversight from the FCC.  That would leave us smaller market customers at the mercy of a limited number of ISPs, who wouldn't have to respond to competitive demands like those in urban areas, where the competition is much more intense. Rounds, relatively new as he is to Congress, has been mostly a "get-along and go-along" representative, his utterances generally limited to platitudinous recitations of Republican talking points.  Last April I noted  in my blog that he had so far mastered nothingness.  Rounds just gave me hope that my judgement was premature.
     That gets us to the second level of appreciation for Mike Rounds' sudden burst of independent thought.  Our junior senator not only questioned the tax cut, but offered up a compellingly practical way of using that money should a Senate bill actually materialize for a vote. He wants to convert the funds into a tax credit to Americans who don't get coverage if their spouses have employer-paid plans that don't cover dependents.  So Rounds has not only shown a streak of independence, he's actually put a pretty good idea on the table.  That he did so at the risk of isolating himself from his party's leaders shows some moxie that should cheer every South Dakotan who wants a representative who can think for himself.  It might also serve as a useful lesson to Noem and Thune, whose politically ingratiating styles could use a dose of intellectual self-reliance.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Thune Pushes Healthcare Repeal, Has No Clue About How South Dakota Will Deal With It

     Is South Dakota's all-Republican congressional delegation collectively catatonic when it comes to its political infatuation with all things Trump?  Congresswoman Noem was effusive
Thune Explains, We Decide
Will Trump Call It "Mean?"
about her support for a Trump-instigated healthcare bill that passed the house ("a very significant day for me," crowed Noem) last May, only to be backstabbed when it was dissed a few weeks ago by the President himself, who called it "mean" when he touted the Senate's version of the bill.  Trump's blow-off of Noem's pride and joy should be a lesson to our federal reps that they're tools to be used--and potentially tossed aside--when politically convenient to the President.  

     So now that the Senate's version of a healthcare bill has finally been flushed out and exposed to the light of analysis, how does our Senator Thune project his political commitment to President Trump's demand for an overhaul in the law?  With the same unabashed and uncritical exercise in rhetorical Trumphuggery that Noem applied to her version.  Thune claims to have "listened to South Dakotans who've shared their personal Obamacare experiences," a useful exercise but apparently tilted toward listening only to those who've had genuine problems with it.  We all get that insurance premiums and deductibles have got to be reined in, but Thune's contention that this Senate bill ("The American Healthcare Act") will "provide better, more affordable healthcare for all South Dakotans," just does not square with reality.  In an NPR interview last week, Thune acknowledges that Medicaid cuts in the Senate bill will require states to come up with alternative plans to care for their poor populations.  If Thune could come up with a plan for our rural state I'd be more likely to take his projection seriously, but for now, consider that in its minority report,  Senate Democrats conclude that the long term cuts in Medicaid "will hurt rural hospitals" by "cutting premium assistance."   That conclusion was supported by Roll Call last week when it noted that rural areas are bracing for the bill's impact and provides a rundown of GOP senators from states with large swaths of rural area who have serious concerns about Medicaid cuts to their constituents.  
     Thune's confidence that rural states can work things out internally isn't particularly convincing, lacking as it does any ideas on how South Dakota can go about it.   In 2014, Medicaid accounted for 20% of South Dakota's total expenditures. with nearly 60% of the money in recent years coming from the federal government.  Did Thune consult with South Dakota's government leadership on just how things are supposed to work out?  I doubt it.  Blindly supporting Trump demands fealty, not independent thought and analysis.  Until our Congressional tag-team comes up with some ideas on how South Dakota is supposed to deal with potentially crippling cuts in Medicaid, this whole idea of Obamacare repeal/replace should be set aside, if not junked altogether.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

GOP Healthcare Reform Is A Magical Mystery Tour

     Looks like the U.S. Congress is celebrating the golden anniversary of a great album (Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles) by coming out with its own cover of it.  If there ever were such thing as a political "magical mystery
AKA GOP 
Healthcare Reform
tour," our reps in D.C. have created it.  I think they call this version of it "Obamacare repeal," but shrouded as it is in political mystery, I doubt that anyone really can put a title on it, much less define what it's actually supposed to accomplish. Our South Dakota congressional threesome, Noem, Rounds and Thune, seem to have a vague idea that they're tasked with repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act that sprang to life during the Obama administration, but so far no specifics have emerged.  Actually, I don't think any generalities have emerged either.  This is mysterious and magical, all right.

    "Surreal" might also apply.  Just last week, President Trump disavowed a House of Representatives version of Obamacare repeal that passed in early May. He said it was "mean." Yet a month ago he was celebrating its passage in the House with a Rose Garden ceremony, vowing that "we want to brag about this plan."  Trump's surrogate in South Dakota, U.S. Representative Kristi Noem voted for its passage, saying the bill "reflected" the vision based "on the proposal we've been working on with President Trump."  Does Noem now share Trump's retrospective regrets about the bill and join in with the President, condemning the House product as "mean?"  I imagine she'll clam up on this one, even though she's been reflexively following his lead and his rhetoric on ending Obamacare every step of the way.
     Now that repealing and replacing ACA has been defaulted to the Senate, there isn't much clarity about the contents of the proposal in that chamber, either.  Long promised by President Trump, he repeatedly vowed to make repeal a "day one" priority, saying to a crowd in Florida just before the election "it's going to be so easy."  And how easy has it so far been in its political incubator in the Senate?  It's impossible to say.  There's no public dialogue about what the Senators are considering.  Our Senator John Thune claims that the internal "working group" meetings are "open to anybody," which doesn't square with reports that numerous healthcare organizations (the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association--groups like that, about 120 of them) have been rebuffed in their efforts to meet with Senators working on the bill.  
     If the deliberations are as transparent as Thune claims, why are these organizations that are clamoring to be a legitimate part of the conversation being turned away? South Dakotans have every reason and right to get a sense of how our essential healthcare options are likely to be affected by discussions in the Senate.  Leaving all of us dangling like this is a poor excuse for representation.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Laffable Curve Flatlines In Kansas. South Dakotans, Take Heed

     In an eye-catching repudiation of the "Laffer Curve," the Kansas state legislature yesterday said "no thank you" to yet more of the economic self-flagellation that has driven that
Take Heed, South Dakotans
Brownback's A Huckster
state's economy into the ground.  
The pain started in 2012, when newly elected Governor Sam Brownback turned his state into a laboratory for litmus-testing Economist Arthur Laffer's theory that tax-cuts have a stimulative effect on the economy.  Laffer's "curve" reputed to show that lower tax rates boost economic growth, a dogma that is the centerpiece of trickle-down, Tea Party-ish economics.  Often dubbed a "miracle" by Brownback's devotees, the result after 4 years has been so disastrous for Kansas that Brownback's plan was trashed by his own heavily-Republican legislature.  State reps yesterday overrode the governor's veto of their plan to roll back those tax cuts, which have left a $1 billion hole in the state's budget.  

     Brownback's claims that his plan has boosted the Kansas economy are just as dubious as his promise that cutting taxes would increase state revenues.  Last October The Wichita Eagle did an item-by-item refutation of the governor's bragging points, which showed that the state's economy has been limping along, its economy growing at about half the national rate.  To me the final proof in that pudding is the sharp drop in anticipated tax revenues, which should have gone the other way if the state's economy was indeed doing well.  In any event, yesterday's legislative override couldn't be a starker assessment of how even devoted Republicans realize the futility of trickle-down economics.  There is no evidence, none, that shows tax-cuts have a stimulative effect on the economy and subsequent tax revenues.  In fact, using President George W. Bush's cuts as an example, exactly the opposite transpired.  Some say Reagan's worked well, but private sector job growth and tax revenue growth during the Reagan years were so-so at best.
     From our South Dakota perspective we should be wary of this nonsense on two levels. First,
We're Not In Kansas Anymore
We're In Brownbackistan

given our propensity for shortfalls in state revenues that occur because of our regressive sales tax/no income tax structure and its dependence on high commodity prices to stimulate our economy, we need to think about reforming our tax system in a way that doesn't rely on swings in world market prices for grain and livestock.  Next, our congressional delegation should be wary of jumping on President Trump's promise to supercharge the economy with tax cuts for high earners.  Last Fall our Congresswoman Kristi Noem breezily and uncritically touted a tax reform package of tax cuts that she claimed would result in a 9.1% growth rate, which showed that she knows neither History, nor Economics, nor what she's talking about. The Kansas growth rate under Brownback has been 1.2%.  Given that the Laffer Curve has been a floppola at both the national and state levels,  this notion that cutting taxes automatically does all of us some good is the kind of snake oil that sells well to rubes but in the end only makes its hucksters some money.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Could Trump Be Any Worse For South Dakota?

     South Dakotans, who went 2-to-1 for Trump last November in an outburst of euphoric infatuation, will soon be sobering up as they consider what the Trump administration's budget
Indeed
Buyer's Remorse,  Anyone?
has in store for rural states like ours.  
We rank 4th among states in terms of how much of our state's revenues come from the federal government (at $1.6 billion, about 40% overall, amounting to nearly $2 thousand apiece in 2013, the latest year I could find). Trump's cuts in programs directed at South Dakota are a fine how-do-you-do to one of his politically friendliest states.  He's already shown serious disdain for South Dakota's economic interests, considering Trump's hostility toward international trade deals that have been a boon for our farmers and ranchers during the past few decades.  South Dakota's ag economy has much at stake in the world's markets for grain and livestock as Trump's new and severely constricted trading relationships evolve in coming years.  Major farm groups are already reacting with "shock and dismay" toward the possibilities in reports from ag information giant DTN. The recent fall of commodity prices will probably extend farther into the future if our NAFTA trading partners, Mexico in particular, turn to other sources for their grain imports should Trump's threats to dismantle that agreement play out.  

     As if that "drop dead" attitude toward our state's largest industry isn't enough to compel serious concern, the Trump administration's proposed budget looks to be a real kick in the rear end to South Dakotans.  If you're cheering the possibility of severe cutbacks in most areas of federal spending in order to raise extra money for the Defense Department, you should know that much more than our ag sector will be affected by Trump-o-nomics.  The budget cuts for rural programs overseen by the Department of Agriculture are more than mere snips.  In some cases (rural water and waste disposal, direct loans for single family housing are examples) the funding disappears altogether, amounting to amputation.  In others the cuts are merely severe: rural utilities will lose billions, rural business owners tens of millions.  Trump, who "loves the poorly educated"  will continue on his quest to expand that element of his base by zeroing out programs that fund community learning centers, literacy development, and other educational opportunity grants. 
     I suppose that some devoted guns-over-butter Trumpistas are willing to trade these programs in on another aircraft carrier or two, but for most of us rural denizens a bit of consideration seems to be in order at this point.  Our generally kowtowing Congressional reps are likely to feel some heat over their champion Trump's priorities, which is why the phrase "dead on arrival" is frequently applied to Trump's budget as it moves toward Congress for consideration.   Worthy outcome as that would be, there's a much more practical aftereffect, disclosing as it does the indifference that the Trump administration has for the impact of his rhetoric on the day to day lives of millions of rural Americans.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Q For SD Senators Thune And Rounds: Why Do You Hate A Free And Open Internet?

     With their recent votes against implementation of an internet privacy rule that would have barred service providers from selling our browsing histories, Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds (both
The Future Of The Internet?
Ugly
R, SD) confirmed their  support for assaulting the neutrality of the internet.  A couple of years ago, when he lost his battle against maintaining the

internet's status as a public information highway, meaning the flow of information had to remain open and unfettered by service providers, Thune called a decision to retain oversight of the internet by the Federal Communications Commission "partisan . . . a power grab . . . and regulatory overreach." The telecom industry, which has provided Thune with $220,000 in direct campaign contributions since 2011 (placing the industry among his top ten contributors) took the political hit.  Its champion Thune dutifully responded.  Why Thune thought that allowing ISPs to create various channels of information with separate pricing for each of them would benefit us ordinary South Dakotans is still kind of a mystery to me.  The status quo lets us turn on our browsers and watch all the content that's out there without having to pay more for some information that's deemed "premium." I wish Thune would explain how his new set-up would be better for us.  
     I know the industry, via the new FCC commissioner, Trump-appointee Ajit Pai, claims that investment and innovation are stymied by the requirement that content should be provided on an equal-access basis.  Pai has repeatedly made that case over the years, and now that his political benefactor Donald Trump has ascended to power, Pai has his best chance ever at turning the internet into an online version of cable television.  When our Senator Thune (along with our Senator Rounds, whose $30k from Verizon makes that company his 3rd largest contributor) last month voted to repeal internet browser privacy rules set to go into effect (but delayed by the courts), the first shots were fired across the bow of consumer interests.  As to the lack of investment argument, it's really a bunch of hooey.  The telecom "group"  as of 2016 was by far the leading industry in terms of  spending, with the financial information giant Investopedia noting that in 2015 the industry "broke
out from the crowd" in terms of capital spending.  Meantime, using publicly available SEC data, The
The Fight Goes On
Keep It Free
Nation notes
that overall spending by the industry is up 5% in the past two years, with some areas of spending up as much as 50%. This is not an industry that lacks for growth and development opportunities.  

     What the industry lacks, and apparently sorely desires, is the chance to wrest control of the internet from public watchdogs like the FCC and turn it into their private universe of varying contents and speeds.  I don't get how allowing service providers to control content is an improvement on the status quo, and would like an explanation from our Senators Thune and Rounds as to why they believe it is. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trump "Loves The Poorly Educated" So Much He Wants To Make More Of Them

   In its continuing crusade to weaken programs that help the poor,  President Trump's budget agenda wants Rapid City Area Schools to lose a significant chunk of  Title I funding. Title I of the
A Worthy Concept
It's Worth The Money
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, enacted in 1965 as one of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" initiatives, provides direct federal money to schools and districts with significant concentrations of students from low-income families.  As Trump's proposed budget will cut Department of Education funding by about 14%, or about $9 billion, programs like Title I will follow suit, right down to the local level, with Rapid City public schools losing about $600 thousand from a $4.5 million annual grant.  This is in keeping with President Trump's budget, which will slash funding from 12 cabinet departments and increase it for three, Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

      As a disabled vet I cheer the support for my brethren, but in the much bigger picture, I don't like this particular prioritization.  When it comes to veterans and defense, reducing support for our many economically-disadvantaged kids seems like a tough way to help our vets--and certainly a questionable method of paying for a Defense establishment that already spends more than the next 7 countries combined.  I wish the White House and our congressional reps would consider what we'd lose here in Rapid City (as well as every other school district in this state) if Trump's budget materializes.  Professional training and technology spending would be most immediately affected, taking away the extra attention and assets that are probably needed to give these disadvantaged kids an extra boost in school.
     Longitudinal (read:  follow-up) studies are probably impossible to find at a local level, but researchers have seen some correlation between Title I spending and individual achievement on a national scale.  Studies on academic success are a mixed bag, but a most interesting conclusion was reached in 2015 at the University of California, where researchers followed participants into their adult economic outcomes and found positive correlations between Title I funding increases and "higher earnings and work hours, reductions in incarceration" and reductions in poverty rates. The Trump administration, focused as it is on "jobs, jobs, jobs" should take note.  The link between poverty and poor academic achievement is a long standing reality in the world of public education, but as Trump, who "loves the poorly educated" should know, when it comes to economic success, the effects of good character are as meaningful as the effects of education.  If the UC researchers are correct, Title I and its strategies for developing self-motivation may have as much, possibly greater, impact on the former than it does on the latter.  
     The pedagogical magic of that connection seems clear enough to researchers.  It would be a shame to weaken an opportunity like that for South Dakota's neediest kids. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Some Dot-Connecting Between Fairness And Efficiency

   What, again?  Governor Daugaard last week ordered immediate cuts in state agency budgets because tax receipts this year have come up short by 10-15 million bucks.  In his typical
caretaker-like fashion, the governor is being re-active when what we need is pro-active leadership.
Daugaard
Banking On Tourists
The chronic problem with the falloff in sales tax receipts in this state isn't likely to get solved by doing nothing but cutting overhead, or, more to the point, by standing around and crossing our fingers that grain and livestock prices will reverse course, go significantly higher, and pull enough revenues into this state to get the cash streams flowing again.  This rather calcified process that masquerades as policy has been the bane of the Daugaard administration for years now.  In 2014, SD forecasts for sales taxes fell significantly short of estimates, much as they have this year, with no 2017 relief in sight beyond the hope of a strong tourist season bringing in a surge of cash to help the state pay its bills.  

     Even should that occur, we're continuing to rely on broad economic and market forces beyond our control to determine our state's fiscal destiny.  Twice now in the past 3 years, forecasters have gotten it wrong and there's no reason to expect their crystal balls to get any more prescient. Meantime, our sales tax revenues fluctuate with the whims of the commodity markets, which seems amazingly inefficient, considering that taxation based on personal income would probably be a much more stable alternative.  The ag sector in South Dakota now has 76% less money to spend than it did in 2011, to the tune of around $3 billion. That debacle, as noted by our elected officials, is probably the most responsible for our sales tax woes.  Meantime, I was startled to discover in a report from
Unfair
And Inefficient
the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis that our  personal income--derived from a wide array of non-ag related businesses in South Dakota--during the decade from 2006-2016 grew at a compound annual rate of 4.2%, substantially faster than the U.S. growth rate of 3.5%. 

     We're too self-fixated on our status as a state with no income taxes, as I often hear, but I think some comprehensive tax reform that reduces sales taxes, puts a freeze on property taxes with strict limitations on annual increases, and initiates a progressive tax on income, both personal and corporate, merits consideration.  Ideally it would result in a tax shift, not a tax increase.  Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the financial information website 24/7 Wall Street reports that income growth in South Dakota households from 2011-2015 ranged from 5% in the middle levels to nearly 10% in the upper.  The story lists us as one of the 9 states in the country where the middle class is being left behind,  income growth disparity (definitely a subject worth pursuing in another post) being a good reason why. Given the trend, a graduated income tax seems like a reasonable way to expect people making good money here to bear their share of the burden, which they now escape given our regressive and bumpy sales tax-dependent system. The dots between tax fairness and smoother government revenue streams look connectable to me.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Repeal, Replace, Repent

      Giddy with the consequences of her recent vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, South Dakota's lone congresswoman, Republican Kristi Noem, was clear about what it meant to her.
Working?  Maybe
Thinking?  Um, I Doubt It
She said "it's a very significant day for me" because "I loved the fact that we repealed the mandates." Apparently, getting rid of those mandates was the main driver of her vote to toss ACA out altogether, circumspection about the full implications of her vote be hanged.  In their rush to create the appearance of a legislative victory for the Trump administration, Noem and her fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives abandoned all pretense of deliberation and put together a bill that even Noem acknowledges has its flaws.  She knows the House whipped up a batch of hasty pudding and even reiterates its pitfalls, particularly in the way it gives states so much leeway in developing requirements for insurers on matters like "essential services" and price protections for older and sicker folk. To questions about that, Noem plaintively responds, "I didn't get to shut the door to my office and write it myself."  Please.

     We South Dakotans have to hope that our GOP Senators Rounds and Thune can give this package a serious once-over before they go the Kristi Noem-esque rubber stamp route.  Besides the matters of making sure all of us get adequate and affordable health care, there are broader economic implications that seem to have whizzed right past the partisan heads in the House.  For one thing, the job-conscious Trump administration should consider that the growth in healthcare jobs (about 10% faster than the overall rate of job growth) in this country during the past few years has more than offset the loss of manufacturing and construction jobs.  Healthcare consulting firm Oliver, Wyman tells CNN "Obamacare was a de facto jobs program
Our Dynamic Duo
Rounds and Thune
whether it was intended that way or not." Researchers at Trump's alma mater UPenn say that the expected decrease in healthcare spending "will translate into a contraction in the healthcare sector."  


     Besides job losses, which are bound to hit South Dakota's 30,000 healthcare pros and technicians, there's the vulnerability of our rural hospitals to consider.  They've been having a tough enough time as it is, especially in states like South Dakota that have refused to expand Medicaid and bring more of its rural populations into that federal insurance pool, which would only add to the revenues of small hospitals. The National Rural Health Association notes that 70 rural hospitals have closed in recent years, with another 700 at risk as it appears that states are likely to get less federal money to treat the poor.  Can South Dakota make up the difference if that transpires? Given our perenially cash-starved fiscal status, I doubt it.  Maybe Rounds and Thune can explain what will happen to our poorer rural residents with the plan they have in mind.