Monday, October 23, 2017

Sustaining The Unsustainable

       As if the disastrous shredding of the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare weren't an embarrassing enough exposure of the GOP's inability to bring its rhetoric into line with reality, we now have the spectacle of a tax cut promised by President
Rounds And Thune
Not A Bit Worried About Federal Debt
Trump that is likely to jack up the very deficits that South Dakota's U.S. senators have been vowing to contain for years. 
  Our senior Senator John Thune preaches in his website that "for too long responsible budgeting has not been practiced in Washington" and that "our country is on an unsustainable fiscal path."  Not to be out-evangelized, junior Senator Mike Rounds said in his website last August that "with our debt spiraling out of control . . . it's clear that federal spending at current levels is unsustainable."

     So just how did Thune and Rounds mount their crusades against unsustainability?   They ignored them and voted last week to approve a budget of about $4.1 trillion in spending with revenues anticipated at $3.65 trillion, leaving a deficit of $440 billion through October, 2018.  What's more, in the byzantine process of Senate deliberations, this budget sets the stage for deficits totalling $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.  So much for unsustainability.
     Naturally, there's a Republican explanation for this gush of red ink our Senators support.  According to the partisan line, this budget sustains the "unsustainable" in order to smooth the way for the tax reforms that President Trump has been pushing since inauguration day.  The GOP line is that the economic growth spurred by Trump's tax cuts will not be budget busters at all.  Powerful economic growth will generate tax revenues that themselves are strong enough to cut into the federal debt and bring it more in line with historic levels. Based on the experiences of the last half-century, this is bunk.  I have yet to see any data that support that argument.  George W. Bush's tax cuts were followed by the 4th largest national debt increase incurred during a president's tenureReagan's often-ballyhooed tax cuts were followed by a tripling of the national debt during his years in office.    
      Bringing that theory down to a more relateable level, the recent Kansas tax-cutting experiment instigated by Governor Sam Brownback has been a disaster, leading to a $900 million deficit. The Washington Times last summer called Brownback's effort a "failed tax experiment" that should be heeded by Republicans at the national level.  We South Dakotans can take note of the fact that we don't even have an income tax, which according to Republican dogma should make our state a wonderland of investment and economic growth  As we've seen, of course, that's a pipe dream.  In the 5 year period that ended in 2016, South Dakota's per capita GDP growth was a fraction of 1%, compared to a national growth rate of more than 6%.  Last June the financial data service Wallethub ranked South Dakota's income taxless economy an underwhelming #32 in the country.  Much as tax relief would be nice for me and my peers in South Dakota's business community, on the basis of facts and history, I'd like to know how Senators Rounds and Thune can keep pushing the line that tax cuts will make up for the federal deficits they support    
     
    

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

South Dakota's Motto "Under God The People Rule" Is About To Get Tested . . . Again

     Talk about the power of a popular backlash.  Tommorow's gathering in Pierre is a serious statement about the will of a lot of people in South Dakota, more than 50 thousand of whom (me
They Will.
included) signed a petition intended to bring our state's government into compliance with the state motto "Under God The People Rule."  The petition will put the "Voter Protection and Anti-Corruption Amendment" to the South Dakota Constitution on next November's ballot, where I believe it has a great chance of passage.  

    This initiative is a direct response to the way our state's legislative and executive branches dismantled Initiated Measure 22 during last Winter's session.  IM-22 was a complicated amalgam of draconian restrictions on government and electoral processes that included a provision for taxpayer funding using a system dubbed "democracy credits" for candidates seeking office.  Though I was generally supportive of its goals for oversight and transparency, the taxpayer-financing  of elections turned me off and I opposed the measure, which nonetheless passed with a 52-48 majority.  
      The political backlash in Pierre was swift and decisive.  Within weeks of IM-22's passage, Governor Daugaard disdained the new law, calling it "irresponsible" and a "bad law."  He also condescendingly scolded voters by claiming they were "misled" and "deceived."  As expected, the law itself was immediately challenged on Constitutional grounds and began moving through the courts, where it was headed for judgement by the state's Supreme Court.  In the meantime, state legislators and the Governor crafted a series of replacement acts while repealing IM-22 altogether via House Bill 1069. Neither the state's courts nor a majority of South Dakota voters were considered to be a relevant part of the process.
    The subsequent pushback by voters is one that I supported right away.  Like plenty of South Dakotans I was dismayed by the cavalier and presumptuous manner in which our elected officials blew off  the will of the people and destroyed the measure before it was given its due process in court. "Under God The People Rule" was rendered a mockery and the resulting outrage should come as no surprise to our political class, as SD's legislative and executive branches now have to contend with a powerful, new replacement for IM-22.
    This "updated" version wisely dropped the deal-killing "democracy credits" plan for taxpayer financing that turned off a lot of potential supporters.  Also, unlike its predecessor this amendment is much simpler and focused on fewer concepts, possibly the most important of which is that it stops elected officials from overturning any voter-approved laws without going back to the voters themselves for permission.  I also like that the proposal creates an independent citizen's ethics commission, not the state agency (I mean, the state monitoring itself?  Come on.) that the legislature set up when it revoked IM-22. It also flat-out bans gifts (including food, beverages and alcohol) from lobbyists to elected officials.  A provision banning "foreign" money from our elections could stand some explanation, but coming discussions and debates will clarify it.  You can go to represent.us to read the full amendment.  Nobody, most notably our elected officials, will be "misled" or "deceived." Some might even be enlightened.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Q For SD Pubs Running For Congress: Your Thoughts, Please?

     It's been many months since Shantel Krebs and Dusty Johnson announced that they'd be running for the Republican nomination for Congress next year.  So far it looks like they've been going through all the standard motions, but apparently neither of them feels the need
Krebs
Trump Toady or Independent Thinker?
to be burdened with positions on issues that matter to us South Dakotans. As you might expect their respective websites don't reveal much in the way of specifics, so I've been looking elsewhere for their thoughts on policy.                                                                                                                         
Upon googling, it looks like the closest Krebs has come is to make a broad proclamation to the Rapid City Journal last month, telling the paper that when Trump was elected she was "all in," and that her motivating force is that she "wants to help him deliver results."  Her "logo" (doesn't Krebs mean "slogan?"), she explains, is "Get it done."  I admire that she rejects procrastination, but I also wonder what the "it" is that she's determined to "get done."  If "it" references her complete devotion and dedication to Trump and his policies, I wouldn't give Krebs much consideration as a congressional  representative.  "All in" is pretty inclusive, which sounds to me like she's determined to be a rubber stamp for the administration.  If elected would she have the mettle to assert some independence when White House policies may not be the best for South Dakota?  For example, is she "all in" with Trump's hostility toward NAFTA?  He's on the record as calling it the "worst trade deal" ever approved by the United States, yet the benefits to farm states since the treaty's inception a quarter-century ago are self-evidently positive, as our senior Senator John Thune noted in a radio interview recently.  
     My guess is that Krebs will be quick to reject the notion that she'd be a rubber stamp for the White House.  I mean, who on earth would go on record as being a toady?  But by doing so she would be repudiating her "all in" commitment to the President.  Her website provides a nice bio and platitudes along the lines of making Washington "responsive" to the needs of our state, but doesn't touch specifics. So what is it, Ms. Krebs, are you all in with Trump or are you willing to consider issues on their merits and make decisions based on what you think is best for South Dakota?
     
Dusty Johnson, whom I've met and like, is also running a campaign that's long on self-promotion and short on policy substance.  He says he's running for Congress because he's an "optimist."   That's about as good a reason as any, I suppose, but given his background as a Commissioner on South Dakota's Public Utilities Commission, I'd expect him to say much about national energy policy and how it would affect South Dakota.  For example, last week's repeal of the "Clean Power Plan" by the Trump administration could have significant effects on ethanol production, which depends on South Dakota's largest crop, corn, as its feedstock.  Does Johnson have a position on this?  I did find a comment about healthcare in the Rapid City Journal last July--Johnson thinks more control should go to the states, a not terribly earth-shaking position by a Republican.  He could have given us a clue about how he stands on the measures to achieve that end
Johnson
Optimist, But What About Policy? 
that have so far failed in the Republican-dominated Congress.  

     That programmatic response on healthcare is probably a signal that Johnson will do as expected by the GOP, but considering his long-standing status as both an appointed and elected official, I'd love to know more.  In particular, given his experience as a state government insider, his opinion of how South Dakota could successfully run a federally funded program after our state's abysmal track record with EB-5 and Gear Up needs some explanation.  
     As with Shantel Krebs, Dusty Johnson is politically pragmatic enough to know that avoiding serious policy commitments is a way to stay out of trouble on the campaign trail.  But given what seem to be equal measures of affability, experience and media appeal, it would be nice if they could find a way to differentiate themselves on the basis of something other than gender.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

NAFTA Could Use An Update, Not A Trump-Initiated Wrecking Ball

     President Trump's long-standing beef with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will get aired out this week as the 4th round of scheduled renegotiationsof the
Revise And Modernize
Don't Wreck
landmark trade deal begin today, October 11, in Washington.  We South Dakotans, who've been watching our agriculture-driven economy flounder for the last few years (for data wonks, SD's  2017 statewide taxable sales were down almost 2% from a year ago and our 5-year per capita GDP growth was less than 1% compared to a national increase of more than 6%), should be keeping a wary eye on the talks.  Our ag sector doesn't need to take another hit.

     That NAFTA has been a very good deal for South Dakota is self-evident.  On a national scale, the numbers are eye-popping.  In 1993, when NAFTA came into being, the U.S. exported about $9 billion worth of corn and soybeans to Canada and Mexico.  Thanks to NAFTA, that number jumped to nearly $40 billion.  About 30% of U.S. ag sales go to our North American partners, with the top three products being corn, soybeans and pork.  Even one of Trump's most consistent friends in Congress, our Senator John Thune, has weighed in on the importance of NAFTA to the nation's farm sector, telling KSOO radio last Summer that "open markets, lower tariffs and uniform regulation means more money in the pockets of South Dakota farmers, particularly from livestock."  Thune singled out NAFTA as being particularly "positive for South Dakota."  
   And then there's the rest of the country.  Considering that Trump's well-known hatred of NAFTA is hanging over these negotiations, South Dakotans do indeed have every reason for concern about the future of the deal.  But  what's interesting is that "the worst trade deal ever signed," as Trump often puts it, has important supporters in parts of the country where the President thinks his protectionist agenda would be most helpful.  A piece last Summer in the Detroit Free Press notes that Michigan would be at risk in a drastically revised or entirely ditched NAFTA.  DFP says that "Michigan has more to lose than any other state" if NAFTA's terms are changed according to Trump's wishes.  Credit scoring giant Fitch Ratings says Michigan would be the most affected state in the country because "its economy is the most interconnected" with our NAFTA partners.  
     As it turns out, the uniformity of regulations and the openness of our markets have created those "interconnected" supply and distribution chains that have helped advance both the ag and industrial sectors of all three trading partners.  A 2016 study from President Trump's alma mater The Wharton School of Business notes that NAFTA-driven advances in the U.S. economy have been steady, if modest, and that job re-distribution, not net job loss,  has been the result of the agreement over the past quarter-century.  A study in the Washington Post last August reinforced that conclusion.  
     Trump's politically shrewd tirades against NAFTA played well in the industrial belt around the Great Lakes, where job losses and shuttered factories affected enough voters to give him the wafer-thin electoral victories that took him to the White House.  But the rest of the country, South Dakota (and now Michigan) in particular, stands to lose much as the President continues to focus on that relatively narrow base of support.
     
     
     
     

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Constitutional Rights Do Not Equal Constitutional Insanity

   There are Constitutional rights and there are Constitutional absurdities, the latter having been played out during the horror show in Las Vegas last weekend.  Adhering to the rights
A Right
Not A License For Craziness
guaranteed by the country's founding documents doesn't mean extending them to a point somewhere far beyond the reaches of common sense.  For example, the 1st Amendment to the Constitution has some limitations on freedom of speech, most famously its inherently sensible denial of the right to yell "fire!" in a crowded theater when no such emergency exists. 
 
     Why that principle hasn't been applied to the 2nd Amendment seems to me a failure of logic, experience and good judgement.  Having toted and used the most lethal weapons of my generation during my 13-month hitch as a Marine in Vietnam, I'm no stranger to the genre of firearms. Nor am I a stranger to their purposes and value in civilian life. Gun ownership is an embedded part of our lives in this country, a principle that I have no trouble supporting.  I recall a close relative of mine who began carrying a handgun after a woman was raped in the underground parking garage of his upscale condominium. Who can't condone the sense of security that comes with a decision like that?  I also appreciate that a lot of people simply enjoy the sport of shooting, along with the history, the mechanics and the aesthetics of guns and rifles.  And of course there are those who hunt with firearms, a sturdy community of good citizens who also happen to support many of our wildlife conservation programs through their hunting license fees.  They're also damn good for business, as I and my peers in the lodging industry will be quick to affirm.  
     Then along came Las Vegas, which reminds us that a fondness for that guaranteed right to bear arms has occasionally morphed into a bloody and violent freak show.  The Vegas madman Stephen Paddock had an arsenal far above and beyond the needs of any rational gun owner.  News reports say that police found 43 firearms and several thousand rounds of ammunition in searches of his home and the hotel room where he went berserk.  They were all obtained legally and some were apparently modified to make them simulate automatic gunfire.  The crowning absurdity is that all of this was in keeping with laws in the books in Nevada.  
     The framers of the Constitution couldn't possibly have had this in mind when they guaranteed Americans their right to bear arms, but we've gotten to this place and there's no turning back.  Mass killings are impossible to prevent.  Just the same, gun rights can co-exist with gun control that's designed to make things more difficult for determined and deranged people to obtain weapons in the quantities that Paddock possessed.  Constitutional rights are one thing, Constitutionally sanctioned insanity is another.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Can South Dakota Handle The GOP's Healthcare Plan?

     At this point it's a matter of trust.  My native Republican instincts tell me that the latest GOP effort to replace Obamacare (Affordable Care Act, or ACA) is one I could
Probably.
But It'll Resurface.
support.
 Though likely to fail on this try, it’s bound to come up again.  I can certainly understand our Governor Daugaard 
enthusiastically getting behind it.   For one thing, the current bill renders moot South Dakota's stubbornly irrational rejection of Medicaid expansion, an offer under ACA that would provide a couple of billion bucks to our state over the next few years.  Heck, the status quo is such a good deal that then-Governor Mike Pence figured out a way to expand Medicaid into Indiana, making him one of eleven Republican governors who understood the value of insuring a sizable portion of their state populations who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford conventional insurance.  Adding in the economic gains from the rollover of those billions of dollars only reinforces the fiscal sanity of saying yes to expansion built into ACA. 
     Daugaard himself had even come up with a plan to bring it into South Dakota, an effort he abandoned after he apparently was convinced that a Trump administration could easily overturn ACA.  Trump's vision has of course been exposed as a hallucination, but Governor Daugaard is dutifully following up on his responsibilities and political affiliations by giving Republican leadership the attention and lip service it merits.  His Chief of Staff and son-in-law Tony Venhuizen was quick to address the Medicaid expansion funding issue a few days ago, when he told the Mitchell Daily Republic that one of the main reasons Daugaard supports the latest GOP plan is that it brings  "funding parity" between expansion and non-expansion states.  
    This is actually a back-door way of acknowledging what has been obvious for years:  states like South Dakota, stubborn as they've been in their resistance to Medicaid expansion, have really been getting the short-end of the stick when it comes to federal healthcare spending.  But by going along with this concept of federal block granting, South Dakota effectively gains what it has been giving up by disdaining expansion.  Block grant money would amount to a yearly gain of nearly $1 thousand per resident (almost a billion dollars) to South Dakota according to a New York Times analysis.  That would more than make up for the money we've been leaving on the table up to now.
     And, as a business-type who sees the value of money pouring into the state, regardless of whether the source is named Obamacare or Trumpcare, I love the idea.  The only caveat now is the matter of trust that began this missive.  We've seen what's happened to federally-supported and sanctioned programs in this state during the past decade or so, and it hasn't been pretty.  EB-5 and Gear-Up have set pretty poor examples of our current leadership's ability to manage Washington-sanctioned programs.  Before the Daugaard administration gets totally wound up in its enthusiasm for this block grant or the next one that’s likely to be proposed, some assurances that another fiasco won’t materialize are in order. 
     

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rapid City (SD) Area Pubs Go Secret

     Last week's "invitation only" gathering organized by seven local Republican state legislators was a bizarre and embarrassing attempt at exclusion and avoidance of reality.  It was also a microcosm of what is probably a growing divide in the GOP on all levels, from local to national.  The seven local Pubs--Senators Haverly, Solano and Partridge and Representatives Johnson, McPherson, Tieszen and Conzet--took it on themselves to hold a public gathering that was limited to 107 invitees, of whom 40 showed up, meant to "hear nonpartisan ideas from local leaders about community and economic development."  In a show of secrecy that would evoke admiring nods from autocratic societies everywhere, organizers wouldn't make the invitation list public, apparently taking it on themselves to covertly pick and choose who among their constituents in this area are capable of delivering nonpartisan ideas about public affairs.  
     I get that the elected officials who staged this exercise in exclusion are (like me, on many an occasion) fed up with legislative time and resources devoted to controversial social issues. Transgender bathroom use and gun rights were singled out in the RCJ article about the meeting, but I have no doubt that other issues, like reproductive and religious rights, were probably considered off limits by organizer Johnson, who told the Journal that "we didn't want those controversial social issues to override the economic and community development issues that we wanted to talk about at this event."  
     Well, doggone those "controversial social issues" anyway.  Imagine the temerity of voters and taxpayers who think they should have a place at the table of an invitation-only gathering of elected officials and their hand-picked constituents.  Just who do those social issue-oriented citizens think they are?  Sarcasm aside, much as I empathize with the organizers of this event, their planning and execution of it are for the birds.  I suppose that this is what you can expect from a party that has split.  Like Republicans everywhere, the local GOP seems to be struggling with a collective identity crisis focused on its commitment to conservative values.  The pragmatists like Johnson and his cohorts just can not insulate themselves against party ideologues (of whom Reps Lynn DiSanto and Taffy Howard were mentioned in the RCJ piece) who are identified with the "social issues" that this meeting sought to avoid. 
     This is a rupture that Republicans have to contend with now that a sizable wing of the party claims its conservative values entitle the government to meddle in the private affairs of Americans, denying rights on the basis of personal behavior.  I don't much care for that segment of the GOP myself, considering that public policy matters of some immense importance need all the time and attention that our elected officials can give to them.  Many of these so-called "social issues" are a distraction, an annoyance and a pain for some of us, but the true believers who support them have their rights.  Specifically excluding them or any voters from a public gathering of elected officials is about as un-American as anything I can think of.  As to limiting invitees to a secret list of supportive voters? How elitist can these Republicans get?  Democracy makes a lot of noise.  Putting your hands over your ears is no way to make it go away.
     
     
     

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

SD Senator Thune Sticks It To Consumers

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

We Need A Multi-Lingual Workforce In South Dakota

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

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

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

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