Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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

Bishop Ough

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Crime And Punishment In South Dakota

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

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.