Thursday, January 18, 2018

Howcum South Dakota Isn't Getting A Piece Of This Trump-Ignited Economic Wonderfulness?

     This morning the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up 300 points, right through the 26,000 line, and momentum looks unstoppable.  The bull fever contagion is spread by the corporate tax cut and boosted by the collective realization that Trump's "trade war"  rhetoric during his campaign and early on in his presidency has softened, if not disappeared altogether.  This morning his Chief of Staff John Kelly even called Trump's bombast on the border wall and immigration "uninformed," politely re-stating the oft-expressed notion in this blog and so many others that the Prez is generally clueless about the reality behind his rhetoric. Given that there's at least one adult in his inner circle, I hope this means that Trump won't be upsetting the status quo and that the forward motion of an economy he inherited from President Obama will continue for a while.  With the boost it just got from the tax bonanza handed to corporate America, things look pretty good for a bit.
Rounds, Thune, Noem
So Where's The Beef?

     Which is why I'm wondering why South Dakota has yet to get a piece of this action.  For one thing, the wellsprings of our state's economy, grain and livestock production, have yet to get a price boost from a marketplace that is showering corporate America with good will and ever-increasing value.  South Dakotans are being left behind.  Grain and livestock prices since Trump's election are at best about even, while  stock averages are up anywhere from 15 to 20 percent.  State sales tax receipts have fallen below expectations, forcing lower take-home pay for South Dakota's employees, who are double-whammied by that news and higher prices created by inflation.   As to the rest of our state's residents, things aren't much better.  During the third quarter of last year, South Dakota's personal income growth was dead last (after being 44th worst the preceding quarter) in the country at a tenth of one percent compared to a national figure 7 times higher.  Our immediate neighbors outpaced us by anywhere from 3 to 7 times more growth.
     South Dakota's three-member congressional delegation, Republicans all, should come out and say something about this.  Congresswoman Kristi Noem and Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds all shared a common theme during their respective campaigns, one heard perpetually in this state from congressional aspirants.  In a nutshell they promised to make sure that South Dakota's priorities would be forcefully represented by their presence in Congress.  That they all support Trump's presidency and belong to the majority Republican party in Congress should have given them even more visibility, stature and power when it comes to representing our state.  Yet here we are, a year after Trump's inauguration, going nowhere fast. While the rest of America celebrates and Wall Street is on an orgiastic rave, South Dakota's economic performance and outlook make us look like wallflowers at best, utterly uninvited at worst.
     Actually, I'm only using the Trump presidency as a starting point because of all the economic hullabaloo attached to its first year.  Going back even further, let's say to the start of this decade, our people in D.C. have been duds when it comes to any improvement in South Dakota's economic fortunes.  The default explanation that grain and livestock prices are to blame doesn't work because during the decade we've had episodes of explosively high, record breaking prices in crop and cattle markets.  Meantime, our GDP per capita has actually declined from 2011 to 2016 (latest number available, though our last-place to nearly-last-place personal income performance in 2017 suggest little improvement is on tap for this year).  The rest of the nation, including our immediate neighbors have fared much better.  If these congressional reps are supposedly pounding their respective tables in Congress and demanding some voice for South Dakota, how come we're getting so far behind the rest of the country? Even more dismayingly,  how come we can't keep up with our surrounding states? 
     I have no doubt that our reps and their p.r. pogues can pull out lists of all the wonderful things they've done for the state.  Unfortunately the net results, economically, don't yield much to be proud about.  South Dakota went 62% for Trump.  When do we get something to show for that kind of support? 
   
   

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here Come Da Judge: Democrat Tim Bjorkman's Quest For South Dakota's Seat In The House Of Representatives

       Tim Bjorkman  will be the Democratic nominee running for South Dakota's lone congressional seat in November.  His task is Herculean, maybe Quixotic, given the recent history of
Tim Bjorkman
Here Come Da Judge
Republican domination of state politics during the last few election cycles. But the retired circuit court judge seems undaunted.  The Republican registration advantage over Democrats, 46% to 34% in South Dakota, is so wide that calling it an "edge" is an understatement.  No doubt the 20% of voters unaffiliated with either party can be a rich source of of potential support for Bjorkman, but Donald Trump's 62% share of South Dakota voters in 2016 makes a convincing case for the GOP's ability to gobble up a lion's share of unaffiliated voters here.  

     Given that built-in handicap, Bjorkman has already effectively acknowledged that he'll have to run against both Donald Trump and the Republican nominee, either Shantel Krebs or Dusty Johnson.  I say "effectively" because Bjorkman's website (refreshingly loaded with positions on specific issues, unlike the me-saturated, policy-devoid versions of his opponents) contains a long, regularly updated list of his takes on the legislative topics of the day, including healthcare, net neutrality, Muslim registry, taxes and DACA.  Bjorkman's commentaries (with one big exception) don't take aim at his GOP opponents but focus on each issue, underscoring the impression that he's running against Republicanism and its local minions in general.      
     The exception on that list is titled "Shantel Krebs' Muslim Registry."  Bjorkman unequivocally slams Krebs for "appealing to our lowest based fear instincts rather than our highest ideals."  Considering that a resurrection of Bush-era plans for a Muslim registry is a Donald Trump brainstorm that probably has a fair amount of  support among the huge majority of Trump's South Dakota voters, Bjorkman's unqualified condemnation of it is some serious risk-taking.  On other issues Bjorkman similarly doesn't stray far from basic Democratic ideals.  When he can, Bjorkman stakes out positions that also have some conservative, if not Republican (yes, there is a difference), support.  For example, on healthcare, Bjorkman cites the conservative-leaning Forbes magazine, noting that "Forbes has shown that if we enact sensible universal healthcare we will not only save money, we can actually balance our budget."  Note the keyword "universal," a bulwark of Democratic healthcare policy.  Provocative as the concept of universal healthcare can be to Republicans, it doesn't hurt to have Forbes going to bat for you as a teammate.  Bjorkman can push the right buttons.
      On other matters it's buttons be hanged.  He gets really worked up on net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers must give all content the same delivery speed and access, a principle that Bjorkman says our existing GOP congressional delegation "sadly" opposes.  He pledges to support legislation "that will statutorily enforce net neutrality."    You can go to his website to find a longer list of Bjorkman's positions, which are clear, unequivocal--and risky as all get out in this red state of ours.  It'll indeed take a mash-up of Hercules and Don Quixote to accomplish what Bjorkman is trying to do.  So far he seems up to the task.  We'll see.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Grain And Livestock Futures All Down This Morning After Trump's Talk To The American Farm Bureau Yesterday.

     Ag futures markets this morning opened with a yawn after President Trump gave his speech to the American Farm Bureau convention in Nashville yesterday.  The trade is indfferent, and with good reason.  It wasn't long before it became clear  that Trump hasn't got much of a clue
Trump Talking Ag
Out Of His Element
about what's going on in farm and ranch country when he promised "I will take the first steps to expand access to broadband internet in rural America so you can compete."  Cripes, when I was trading and brokering cattle and grain (both in physical and futures markets) back in the '90s just about every producer I knew in South Dakota had access to real time news and pricing information via satellite or hardwired internet.  They were in a position to compete with the best of 'em when it came to "price discovery"--the technical term for market prices, both on exchanges or at local elevators and sale barns.  Fact is, after 12 years of trading options and ag futures in Chicago, I re-located to the beautiful Black Hills because the information technology revolution gave me the same access to markets in Rapid City, South Dakota, that I had at the intersection of Jackson and La Salle Streets in the heart of the Chicago Loop's financial district.  


     Trump's promise of better access to information is meaningless when it comes to dealing with the real problems in the farm and ranch belts.  Trump added to this diversion from those problems by crowing about the estate tax.  On this one he outright lied, saying that "most family farms" would be spared "the punishment of the deeply unfair estate tax."  No, most family farms, in fact about 98% of them, per USDA, would not have had to file estate tax returns in 2016.  Where Trump comes up with that "most family farms" bit is incomprehensible, but a lot of people out there continue to buy the fiction.  It remains a talking point that won't die
     Then there's NAFTA.  Trashing the trade deal was one of the pillars of Trump's presidential campaign, but South Dakota ag producers know its importance.  Giving it a few words in his speech yesterday, Trump said he is "working very hard to get a better deal for our country and our farmers."  I doubt that there's a better deal possible, considering North American ag sales by U.S. farmers have grown exponentially as a result of the existing deal.  Last November South Dakota Department of Agriculture sent out a news release saying that since NAFTA's inception, ag exports to Mexico and Canada grew from $9 billion annually to $38 billion last year. South Dakota ships 62% of its foreign ag exports to Mexico and Canada. Trump may be trying to get a "better deal" for American farmers, but the initiative, from an ag producers perspective, looks more like an effort to fix something that isn't broken.  Our ag industry has good reason to be concerned that our NAFTA partners can start seeking their farm goods elsewhere if Trump's revisions or outright abandonment of NAFTA make our products less financially competitive. 
     I couldn't find anywhere in the text of his speech a mention of the most pressing issue in our ag industry--money.  Mainly, ag producers have been seeing a steady drop in their income since 2013, and the widely followed USDA's Farm Futures site is looking for an income dropoff in 2018I've also seen forecasts for slight improvement next year, but nobody's talking about a reversal of the multi-year trend.  Trump's silence on the matter yesterday in Nashville reflects his lack of understanding about how global markets are essential to the health of American farms and ranches.  Exports represent about a 20% share of our ag sales and consistently account for a balance of trade surplus within their category.  Bashing global trade is anathema to farmers and ranchers, and given the steady erosion of farm income in recent years, Trump should be aggressively seeking out foreign markets as a way to prop up sales for Americans. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

I Flush Out Dusty Johnson, Sort Of. The Candidate For The GOP Nod For Congress Responds To My Column

     I have to give it to Dusty Johnson, who's running for a spot on South Dakota's ballot as the
Hi There
Wanna Hug Me?
GOP candidate for Congress. 
He wasted no time responding to my column about him in the Rapid City Journal last week, the full copy of which is two posts below.  Here's the full text of Johnson's piece, which is featured in today's opinion section in the RCJ:

“Dusty Johnson has all it takes in the photogenics department.”
Well, I’ve never heard that before.
I’m used to being described with different terms, like “policy wonk” or “solutions-focused.” When John Tsitrian’s recent column in the Journal described me as “huggable” and “endearing,” I barely recognized myself.
While I appreciate John’s coverage of my campaign for United States Congress, I did want readers to understand there is more to me than the “optimism” and “boy next door” qualities he described.
We are living in serious times, and South Dakota deserves a member of Congress with the South Dakota values needed to represent our state well. Citizens learned about my views and stances during my six years as a state Public Utilities commissioner. More recently though, I’ve released video position statements and online posts outlining my views on the Second Amendment, federalism, private sector job creation, tax reform, net neutrality, the future of Social Security, sexual harassment and the president’s agenda.
I’ve touched on other issues in interviews conducted by the Rapid City Journal, including the drought, the culture of Washington, D.C., and how we should reform health care. Apparently, John missed all that.
South Dakotans don’t vote based on who is more “photogenic.” I’m grateful for that, because most wouldn’t find me (and my slender frame, thinning hair and glasses) all that attractive.
Instead, most South Dakotans vote for the candidate they feel shares their values, will fight for their interests, and who has vision and passion for improving our nation. If that (and being huggable) is what it takes to do the job, I’m ready to get to work."
     Johnson's claim that I "missed" the fact that he has indeed been talking about issues is so overblown that I decided to check the points he raised in his RCJ, one by one.  I googled Johnson and each topic and came up with this (my comments follow):
     1)  The Second Amendment:  Johnson last October told the Mitchell Daily Republic that he "supports the rights of law abiding citizens to own firearms," but that "he's more concerned with generalized violence throughout society."  He's also "willing to learn more" about bump stocks. (I call this pablum, considering he doesn't mention the most pressing issue of assault weapons.)
     2) Federalism:  Nothing found.  (Dusty?)
     3) Private Sector Job Creation:  Johnson last Fall told the Rapid City Journal that Washington, D.C. makes it harder to create jobs.  (Um, Dusty, have you noticed the job growth numbers and the lowest unemployment rate in nearly two decades lately?  They've been trending favorably for about 10 years now. Where have the federal stumbling blocks been placed?)
    4)  Tax Reform:  Moot now that the big GOP bill has passed. Wouldn't mind hearing his thoughts on the new tax code, though.
     5)  Net Neutrality:  Nothing found.  (Dusty?)
     6)  The Future of Social Security:  Nothing found.  (Dusty?)
     7)  Sexual Harassment:  He recently told WNAX radio that "more is expected of public figures."  (Couldn't download the podcast.  Would love to see the rest of his thoughts in writing.  Dusty?)
     8) The President's Agenda:  Nothing.  (I raised the issue of Trump's hatred of NAFTA and how that might affect South Dakota's largest industry, agriculture, which has benefited "bigly" (to use a Trumpian adverb), but Johnson hasn't said much that I can find.  (Dusty?)
     9) And while we're at it, what are "South Dakota values?"  I hear this phrase a lot from politicians and have never understood them.  The phrase implies a uniformity of belief that doesn't seem plausible to me, considering all the differences of opinion and attitude that I encounter here.  
     Johnson says that he has recently released video statements and online posts outlining his views, but as of January 2 they haven't made it to his campaign website.  Except for the requirements of this commentary, I'm not about to scour the internet looking for his posts on these topics, so, yes, Dusty, I have missed all that, "all that" being not much in the first place.  How about spending a few of your campaign funds on delivering your positions in the general media or at least to your website?  On the other hand, what I did find in your list is pretty thin gruel, so maybe it's best to keep it out of the public eye for as long as possible.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Does Shantel Krebs Know She Has Egg All Over Her Face?

     South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and her Trump-allegiant campaign to win the GOP nomination for SD's congressional seat in November's election just got a bit of a jolt. 
Kobach & Krebs
Playing Charades
When Krebs last month trotted out Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as a highly visible endorser of her campaign she was essentially embracing the voter fraud delusion that the Trump administration has been pushing since his election in November 2016.  Following through, Trump created a Voter Fraud Commission (co-chaired by Kobach and VP Mike Pence) to follow up on his paranoid claim that the reason he lost the popular vote was that millions of people voted against him illegally.  Per Trump "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."
     Trump's ludicrous assertion was taken seriously only within his brigade of sycophants and enablers, among whom we can count Krebs.  As to Kobach, I'm neutral.  For all I know he was doing a competent and objective job of managing the commission.  But his highly visible position at the head of it makes him a politically useful commodity by association with President Trump.  Krebs  unabashadly touted herself as being "all in" with Trump last September and made the most of her recent attachment to Kobach, even using it as a major campaign pitch, splattered as it was on her website during the past couple of weeks.
Going For The Bucks
Getting Trump Into The Act

     But as all fantasies eventually do, the "voter fraud" illusion dissolved into reality.  Yesterday Donald Trump himself pulled the plug on the commission, which he set up with no evidence in the first placeKobach's stature was supported by a charade that Shantel Krebs took as reality and foisted on her supporters as donation-worthy.  No doubt  Krebs and many other minions of Trump will continue to claim without evidence that voter fraud to the tune of millions of votes occurred in November, 2016. That's the nature of true believers.  If Shantel Krebs is "all in" with Trump she must endorse his assertions of voter fraud to be valid.  The question before us South Dakotans is whether or not we want somebody who embraces belief without evidence to represent us in Congress.  Ms. Krebs, explain yourself.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Will The-Boy-Next-Door Become Our Congressman-Next-Year? Maybe, But Dusty Johnson Can Only Go So Far On Optimism And Huggability

     Dusty Johnson has all it takes in the photogenics department.  The native South Dakotan, who's vying for the Republican nomination for our state's lone seat in the U.S. House of
Dusty Johnson
You Just Want To Hug Him!
Representatives, is a model boy-next-door, as huggable as a Paddington Bear and just as endearing.  Shrewdly building on that "aw shucks" persona, Johnson's  standout claim to qualifying for a place on the November ballot is "I'm an optimist.  That's why I'm running for Congress."
     Disarmingly genuine, Johnson's campaign will go far on telegenics.  As to substance, though, he comes up way short.  In fact, it's just about impossible to pin this guy down on where he stands on some of the big issues he'll be contending with should he make it all the way to Congress.  There's probably a lot of calculation in that politically safe approach, but I doubt it will carry him over the top.  Johnson's website boasts of his accomplishments as an elected Public Utilities Commissioner, though all of those decisions were made by the Commission, not Johnson himself.  Then there's that four year stint as Governor Daugaard's Chief of Staff.  Johnson makes the audacious claim that while serving Daugaard he was "overseeing much of state government."  A Chief of Staff doesn't "oversee" government and I'd be surprised if Dennis Daugaard would cede the role of government oversight to what is effectively an office manager with some advisory roles.  More to the point, considering South Dakota's feeble economic performance during Daugaard's tenure, I wonder if Johnson's close association with the Governor's office is the asset that he believes it to be.
     As to Johnson's stands on issues that matter right now, I don't see much.  His interview in the Rapid City Journal last Summer was dismissive toward the agricultural sector in this state, with Johnson saying that "ranchers and row-crop folks don't need a lot" and that "government's not going to make them whole."  He completely overlooked the importance of international trade to our state's largest industry and how he would deal with the Trump administration's hostility toward NAFTA and other trade agreements that are uniformly supported by all the major ag groups.  On health care, Johnson makes the un-stunning (for a Republican) announcement that he'd "like to have a plan that does even more to empower states." Actually, state-empowerment is already a feature of one of  one of our country's largest (to the tune of a half-trillion bucks) healthcare programs, Medicaid.  Does Johnson know that when Mike Pence was Governor of Indiana he devised an Indiana-specific plan to expand Medicaid into his state?  And that Governor Daugaard did the same here but was stymied by a recalcitrant legislature?  States already have the power that Johnson seeks, and it's funded by federal money.  He should know that.
      Meantime we have major fights on the 2018 horizon whose outcomes will mean much to South Dakotans.  At some point Johnson's positions on things like net neutrality, infrastructure spending, the "wall" and other immigration issues will be flushed out and voters will get a sense of who he is.  We'll then find out if the boy next door is capable of being our Congressman next year.