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Sunday, December 31, 2006

If You've Got to Subsidize...

Some characters around here will surely say the last thing we need is some liberal kid from out East telling us how to run our farms. (Listening to me is bad enough, I'm sure.) But Hannah Lupien, Yale freshman (freshperson?) and food pantry volunteer, writes an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun about the real cost of food (reprinted in various papers; I found my copy in the Minneapolis Star Tribune). She notes that many of the people she has served over seven years of volunteer work at a Baltimore food pantry are overweight and suffer diabetes. These poor folks can't afford diet products or even fresh fruits and vegetables. Lupien suggests various solutions to the lack of nutrition among the poor, including higher standards and funding for nutritious food supplied through food pantries and WIC. But here's Lupien's kicker:

Most important, if the government would stop subsidizing corn and soybeans and start subsidizing fruits and vegetables, we could begin to make real progress.

I'll probably get a tractorload of snow dumped at the end of my driveway for saying this, but Lupien makes sense. Our agricultural market has been knocked out of whack by government intervention to favor agriculture products that don't really feed people. For instance, 80% of the corn we grow goes to feed livestock (which, yes, we do eventually eat, but imagine how much better that meat would be if the livestock ate grass!). Far too little of the corn we directly consume is fresh corn on the cob. More than three times as much corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners than is used to produce cereal and other directly consumable corn products (see the chart on page 4 of "US Corn Growers: Producing Food AND Fuel" from the National Corn Growers Association).

Government subsidies of corn and beans drive producers away from healthier products. The result: the cheapest foods are indeed the least healthy. The seemingly paradoxical increase of obesity among the poor is a result of bad choices, not by the poor, who act quite rationally in choosing the cheapest foods, but by the government, which favors certain agricultural corporations who proceed to flood the market with cheap, fattening food.

Now I can't guarantee that the government could make everyone give up Cheetos in favor of celery sticks by an overhaul of its ag subsidies. But by shifting the market back toward fruits and vegetables, the government could drive some healthy changes, as the poor might find healthy food more affordable, and, as a not so peripheral benefit, many of my neighbors might find it more profitable to turn their cropland and their cattle back to pasture.

Wish List -- Top Ten Stories of 2007

The good folks of Madison and the great state of South Dakota have given me plenty to write about in 2006, and I'm sure they'll keep up the good work through 2007. But if I could wave my magic wand and conjure up news of my own, here are the ten biggest South Dakota stories I'd like to be able to comment on in 2007:

10. Rounds Endorses Replacing Property Tax with Corporate Income Tax
--Says Governor Rounds, "It's time Wal-Mart and Citibank paid their fair share for the highly educated workforce our tax dollars provide."

9. Madison Abandons Marketing Campaign; Banners Recycled to Fill Potholes
--"$100,000 a year, for banners?!" gasped Mayor Gene Hexom. "What were we thinking? We can get more bang for the buck paying kids to shovel snow and mow the city parks."

8. Rounds Commutes Death Sentences to Life in Prison; Legislature Follows by Banning Capital Punishment

7. Camp Lakodia Purchases Land, Donates to Nature Conservancy
--Entire south side of Lake Herman now off limits to further residential and commercial development.

6. Krabbenhoft Abandons Viking Dreams, Donates Personal Fortune to Schools, Speech Programs
--Sioux Valley Hospital CEO says education, not sports, real basis for community development. "Besides, the Vikings stink!"

5. South Dakota Implements Statewide Universal Health Coverage; Businesses and Young Professionals Flock to State
--"We've been shouting 'Live baby good, dead baby bad' at all the pro-life rallies," says Representative Roger Hunt of Brandon. "I figured it's time for us to put our money where our pro-life mouth is. Besides, universal health coverage will save South Dakotans millions."

4. Legislature Mandates School De-Consolidation
--Citing "educational advantage of smaller schools," Governor Rounds signs into law requirement that Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, and 12 other districts split into autonomous districts with enrollment no greater than 600 by July 1, 2009.

3. Highway Patrol Reports Quiet New Year's/Prom/Graduation Weekend
--"How do we explain the complete absence of DUI accidents and fatalities among our teenagers in 2007?" asks Secretary Tom Dravland of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. "Is it our Parents Matter program? Is it parents putting a stop to teen drinking? Is it kids themselves finally getting sick of losing their friends for no reason? Who knows... and who cares, as long as our kids live long and happy lives?"

2. No Abortion Bills in 2007 Legislature
--"We're too busy," says Leslee Unruh, leader of the newly renamed Abstinence (from Political Grandstanding) Clearinghouse. "Feeding children, helping single mothers, promoting comprehensive health education -- who has time for politics?"

1. Pitchfork Revolution -- South Dakota Evicts Corporate Farms, Goes 100% Organic
--Brandishing pitchforks and copies of Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale, South Dakota farmers celebrated the Legislature's unanimous passage of land reform abolishing corporate farms and non-organic farming practices. "Farm Bill Schmarm Bill!" cried jubilant ex-legislator turned farm-revolutionary Gerry Lange of Madison. "With our organic meat and produce feeding our own people and filling high-end markets, we won't need any more farm subsidies!" When asked where South Dakota would find the workforce necessary to sustain the sudden increase in the number of smaller farms and the more labor-intensive, non-technological practices of organic farming, Lange pointed to the thousands of South Dakota ex-pats flocking back to the state to enjoy the recently passed universal health care program and the unparalleled quality of life. "So many good things are happening in South Dakota," said Lange, "that everyone wants to be a part of it."

TANSTAAFL -- Ethanol Plants Impact Quality of Life

TANSTAAFL: "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." As we seek solutions to economic problems, it's tempting to think we can find some magic solution that will make everything better. But we must remember that no solution will come without costs. Yesterday's Mitchell Daily Republic offers more evidence of the costs of ethanol, costs we don't see until it's too late. Residents in Loomis, a tiny town 10 miles north and west of Mitchell, complained to the Davison County Commission on Thursday of the noise pollution generated by the new Prairie Ethanol plant. Folks living near the new plant are losing sleep. One resident, Jay Ivers, backs his complaint with some science: using a dosimeter, he has measured noise levels from the ethanol plant reaching 58 to 63 decibels in his bedroom and 70 to 80 decibels in his yard. Perspective: normal conversation is 60 decibels; 80 decibels is a vacuum cleaner, heavy city traffic, or, according Ivers's own experiments, a rolling freight train passing 40 feet away.

Ivers gets my sympathy right away just for being scientific in his approach to the problem. As the father of a noisy, erratically sleeping infant, I further sympathize with his desire for a simple quiet night's sleep. A homeowner ought to be able to sleep peacefully in his own house without having to rearrange his life by moving his bedroom to the far end of the house or the basement, turning on appliances to drown out the noise, or installing expensive insulation. (A homeowner who loses sleep because of a noisy baby -- well, that's his own problem! :-) ). Ivers also wins my sympathy as he faces the typical corporate reaction: plant manager Dean Frederickson shrugs off the complaints, saying Ivers and his neighbors "have every right to say what they want, and I have a right to exist as a business as long as I'm legal, and I am legal and will continue to be legal." Don't expect good-neighborliness from corporations; all that matters to industry is the bottom line and the law (when the law works in their favor).

Ivers and his neighbors are victims of a classic example of externality, a cost of an economic transaction borne by individuals not party to that transaction. Prairie Ethanol gets to produce South Dakota's new liquid gold, which we are told will keep our family farms in business and promote energy independence to boot. To produce this valuable product, ethanol plants consume great quantities of energy and water, which they pay a fair market price for (cushioned, of course, by the ethanol production subsidy which the government gives not to the farmers producing the corn but to the big industrialists operating the ethanol plants). However, the ethanol plants also consume something for which they offer no compensation: the peace and quiet of country living. That quality of life is South Dakota's trump card in the competition for business. We can never outduel New York or San Francisco or even Minneapolis or Omaha for big-city shopping, transportation, or culture. But we can offer quiet country living, wide open spaces letting folks build their homes far away from the rush and roar of population and industry. That quality of life distinguishes South Dakota from the places we compete with for jobs... and that quality of life will erode as we buy into the promise of ethanol riches and crowd our landscape with ethanol plants. More prairie towns and farms will become uncomfortable, if not outright unlivable as the roar of the machinery, not to mention the glare of the factory lights (see the photo in the Daily Republic story) and the stench of grain alcohol (when the wind is right, I've smelled the Wentworth ethanol plant from Lake Herman, ten miles away).

Now I'm not ready to abandon ethanol as an alternative energy source. South Dakotans have to make a living, and the nation has to pursue alternative energy for its own economic and military secruity. However, we need to recognize all the costs that come with ethanol and balance them with all the benefits so glowingly promised by the big corporate interests and our own government. Higher corn prices? Great. More jobs? Keep 'em coming. But a quiet prairie night, a good night's sleep -- what are they worth to us?

Legislature's New Year's Promise: You're Fired!

This public school teacher wakes up on the last day of 2006 to find the legislature may be eliminating his job. Keloland.com reports that the 2007 South Dakota Legislature will consider mandating consolidation for school districts with fewer than 200 students.

At my place of employment, the Montrose School District, where enrollment sits too precariously close to 200, we've been expecting this move for some time. The governor has hinted in this direction previously. It doesn't surprise me that the state has waited until after Governor Rounds's re-election to make this move. (Hmmm, I wonder what other interesting and controversial legislation our governor might pursue now that he doesn't have to face his small-town constituents at the polls again.)

We have to keep in mind that this legislation can only be justified on fiscal, not educational grounds. Senate Republican Leader Dave Knudson from Sioux Falls has stated (in the Sioux Falls newspaper that advertises smut) that it's hard to get a quality education in schools that small. If that's the case, then how does Senator Knudson explain Montrose producing two SDSU Briggs Scholars (SDSU's most prestigious academic award to incoming freshmen) in the past two years, or Montrose making its annual yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind?

The State Aid Study Task Force final report from this fall offers a little more perspective. Small schools* outperform larger districts on the state's own NCLB assessments. The report notes, "The differences in performance are more pronounced at the elementary level, less so at the middle grades, and disappear at the high school level." The report does show a full one-point advantage for large-school students on the ACT over their small-school counterparts, a reflection of the advantages large schools have in offering more college-prep courses in addition to the required curriculum. However, the report also shows that in the last two years, small-school students have tied or bettered their medium-school counterparts on the ACT. The task force report itself points out that since consolidation will turn small schools into medium schools, not large schools, we should weigh the educational impacts of consolidation by comparing achievement results of small and medium schools. When we focus our attention on that data, we find no educational reason to mash small schools into fewer, larger schools.

So don't let your legislators fool you: they aren't acting in the educational interest of our children. School consolidation isn't about education; it's about money. Legislators like Senator Knudson aren't asking whether kids learn better in small schools (or they are ignoring their own data, which seems to suggest that students, especially the younger ones, enjoy significant benefits from education in smaller districts). The legislators pushing consolidation are asking just how much we are willing to spend on education... and the answer seems to be, "Not enough to keep small schools -- and small communities -- alive."

Please note that while my job hangs in the balance -- even if my teaching and coaching position would survive consolidation, I'm not terribly interested in teaching in a larger school district, and I certainly don't want to have to commute further to a consolidated school in Canistota or Salem -- I am open to the fiscal debate on school consolidation. I would argue that in a state where people can afford RVs, half-million dollar lake homes, and other proliferating luxuries, the money exists to expand funding for all of our schools and bring teacher pay up from the national cellar. However, the Legislature may be able to produce evidence that the state cannot justify drawing more tax dollars out of the economy to prop up the existing statewide school district structure, which already gives extra funding per student to the small schools. Even with that extra assistance, small schools still shortchange their teachers, who earn an average of $1500 less per year than their medium-school counterparts and $7000 less than their large-school counterparts. I am open to the argument that small schools, while educationally effective, are not sufficiently efficient for state fiscal purposes.

The Legislature should definitely have an open and studious debate about the best way to fulfill its State-Constitutional duty to provide a free and uniform education to all of its children. However, let's be honest in that debate. The evidence shows that small schools educate their students just as well as, if not better than, the medium-size schools into which consolidation would transform them. The real debate is about whether the legislators and taxpayers of this state are willing to pay for the good education those small schools produce.

*Some perspective for my friends from the big city: on South Dakota's very human scale, "small" means up to 200 students in the district. "Medium" means 201-600. "Large" means a school district with more than 600 students. [back to text]

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Argus Peddles Smut, Drives Blogger to Irrational Behavior

Four weeks ago, I submitted a complaint to the Argus about its advertising for an "adult superstore" -- i.e., an establishment that sells sex toys and other degrading items. The ads appeared on the same page as regular news stories. I suggested to the Argus that if it couldn't bring itself to pass on the sex store's advertising dollars, the paper could at least restrict the ads to a separate section of its website requiring a login and certification that viewers are adults. The Argus has not responded, not even with a simple, "Thanks for your concern, but our advertising is our business, so tough cookies."

I hate to call for a boycott -- I like reading the Argus, and I have found it to be te best source for substantive online South Dakota news articles. But for what it's worth, I'm going to remove my link to the Argus here, and I will try my best to refrain from referring you, gentle reader, to articles in that paper, at least for a little while... until my desire to fight quixotic battles gives way to the practical need to know what the heck is going on!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Kucinich for Farmers, for Workers... for President!

While the Washington Post trumpets the entry of "Populist Edwards" into the 2008 Presidential race, the Madville Times proudly throws its support behind a real populist, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Of particular interest to South Dakotans should be the Cleveland congressman's views on saving family farms and rural communities by promoting local economy. And Dennis, if you're listening, come on out to South Dakota! We'd love to have you over for dinner and help you round up some primary votes in 2008!

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Transparency of Baloney

The banners emblazoned with Madison's new slogan, "Discover the Unexpected," have been up for a good couple-three months now, and the city's marketing ads have been on the air (or so my friends report -- I apparently haven't been watching enough TV... although I have seen Marion's and Mitchell's ads). Strangely, I haven't noticed any great whooshing sound of tourists, shoppers, and venture capitalists zooming here to invest. I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation are gathering data right now and will be able to offer complete reports next year on exactly how much tax revenue these marketing efforts are generating and how many times these efforts will recoup the amount we paid outside consultants to come up with them.

While I wait for such data to roll in and prove the marketers' worth, I offer the following comment, more than tangentially related, from 15-year-old Traci Drinkwater. Today's New York Times reports on a 152-year-old rural Georgia church's decision to change its name from Hog Mountain Baptist Church to Hamilton Mill, after a new subdivision nearby.

But evidently, the name is no more likely to appeal to the young than the old. Traci Drinkwater, 15, a member, and her friend Elyse Young, 17, a frequent visitor, said they preferred the name Hog Mountain.

“Everything’s changing to fit the Hamilton Mill folk,” Elyse said. “They’re snooty. Money’s what it’s all about.”

Traci added: “If they weren’t coming here with the old name, then they wouldn’t be coming here for the right reasons. It’s not the name, it’s what’s on the inside.”
[emphasis mine]

It's a relief to know not everyone falls prey to the "image is everything" thinking the marketing industry would sell us. Whether we're talking a church, a store, or an entire town, what matters isn't signs, but substance.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Home School -- How to Make Everyone Happy

As my wife tries out some spontaneous homeschool curriculum with our 9-month-old daughter ("Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Tickle tickle tickle!"), we consider the relationship we want to have with our state's public education system. Our commitment to supporting public schools goes beyond our very practical desire to see my paycheck as a high school English teacher and debate/interp/drama coach pay the bills. We share the belief expressed by our state constitution that society has a duty to maintain a system of free, quality education for the benefit of all citizens. Individuals may choose not to avail themselves of that free service, but as members of society, we all have an obligation to support that free service through our tax dollars. (Analogy: I'm not obliged to check out books from our public library, but a portion of my tax dollars should support it. I've never called the fire department, but I should bear a fair share of the tax burden for supporting it.)

But it occurs to us that, in South Dakota, when we choose to homeschool, we do not decrease our household tax burden, but our local school district suffers a decrease in its funding. At the current funding level, a school district loses about $4400 in state aid for each child whose parents homeschool instead of enrolling the child in the public district. The state offers no vouchers or rebates, so those tax dollars aren't dedicated to any sort of direct assistance to the education of that homeschool child. That money simply rolls into other programs or savings for the state.

As you might imagine, this method of funding schools per enrolled students creates a logical pressure for school districts to discourage homeschooling. Civic-minded parents might feel a similar pressure. So why not alleviate that pressure by changing the rules? Perhaps public schools in South Dakota should receive state aid based on the total number of students studying in their district, period. Sure, if students open-enroll outside of the district, the state aid should follow them. But if a student homeschools within the bounds of the school district, let that district continue to count that student toward its Average Daily Membership (the statistic used as a multiplier for state education aid).

In return for this restored funding, public schools would agree to make all facilities, resources, and programs available for the use of homeschool students in their jurisdictions. Currently, South Dakota public schools can choose whether and under what conditions they will allow homeschoolers to participate in extracurriculars, with those schools barring such participation arguing that homeschool participants are an uncompensated drain on funding. If we restore the per-student funding for homeschoolers, schools will have no reason to bar homeschoolers' participation in band, drama, etc. And if a school really doesn't want homeschoolers participating in activities, we could always leave the school the option to decline the restored funding.

A quick search reveals that the South Dakota legislature tried something like this funding plan in its 2006 session. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, House Bill 1160 would have given school districts 25% of the standard per-pupil funding for each homeschooling student in their districts, as long as the benefiting districts made their programs available to thse homeschooling students. Perhaps oddly, the HSLDA opposed this "windfall" for the public schools, complaining that the districts would have gotten the funding even if no homeschoolers actually participated in the available school programs.

This homeschool family doesn't see the problem with such a measure. (In my usual full-tilt, no-compromise nature, this homeschool dad sees no reason to stop at 25% -- let's go for the full funding figure!) A measure like last session's HB 1160 doesn't put state money directly into homeschool families' hands, so the state can't use it as an excuse to impose more controls on how families school their own children. Public schools get more money without directly increasing the burden. We remove a significant source of pressure districts might feel to reject homeschool applications. And we increase opportunities for students, which ought to be the primary goal of any education policy, whether the education comes from the state or the home.

One could make an argument that parents who take on the burden of educating their children deserve direct financial assistance from the state, like a voucher for educational materials or even a straight tax rebate. However, education funding is strapped as it is, and even homeschool parents have an obligation to support the system that will provide education for every student in the state who wants it. Allowing public schools to include homeschool students in their Average Daily Membership for state aid calculation sustains the sharing of that obligation while opening the door for a more cooperative relationship between homeschool families and the public school system.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Watch What You Say... and What You Say Next

My analytical powers are devoted mostly to final exams for my Montrose students this week, but I can't pass up this unfortunate juxtaposition from the Pierre Capital Journal, two headlines that appeared in exactly this order on the CapJournal's website front page:

Hunter loses lower arm in accident
PIERRE - The victim of a hunting accident last week is in stable but serious condition in a Nebraska hospital. Full�story>>>
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Lending a helping hand
PIERRE - McKinley first-grade students have recently made some new friends while learning to read. However, most of those friends happen to be 70 years older than the students. Full�story>>>
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

We shouldn't laugh. We really shouldn't. But sometimes, we just can't help it.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Real Reason for the Season

Reading "Weekend Daycare Is a Big Help to Parents" on KELOLand.Com, I couldn't help wondering the weekend interns in the newsroom were just joking.
Some parents may feel guilty dropping off their child during this time of year, but parents say it helps them focus more on what the season is really about. Parent Sarah Webb explains, “It's a lifesaver. It's hard enough to keep your patience in line and everything else let alone having a two-year-old hanging on your leg."

In this fit of sloppy weekend writing, Casey Wonnenberg glaringly omits a clear statement of what the season is about. Given the context, this passage seems to affirm with an embarrassingly straight face that Christmas is all about ditching your inconvenient children and going shopping.
Webb says shopping isn't the only thing that's difficult with little ones around, it's also hard to wrap the presents. She says, “The eyes are always around at the worst possible time, and this is the time of year when you need a little privacy of your own."

Did I miss some cultural shift, some mutation of the American species that has rendered me an obsolete organism incompatible with the culture at large? Every present I got back in the 1970s and '80s was wrapped, and my parents had me home with them every weekend.
But I've always recognized that when I start saying things like, "Back when I was a kid," I've become an old fogey. I'll just need to learn to quit spouting off my obsolete notions of family values and embrace the devaluation of old-fashioned family time in favor of constantly expanding the market for goods and services. Ho ho ho!

Friday, December 1, 2006

Free Speech, Advertising, and Public Decency

The Argus Leader has gotten on my bad side this week. The Argus has already caused my journalistically minded friends significant annoyance with its web redesign, a great jumble of links and far-too-slowly updated podcasts and other whizbangs crowding out the news headlines. The Argus has perhaps tried to alleviate this problem by pulling the local, region, state, and business news links up to the top of the page, but even in that effort, the Argus as slipped, giving readers a view of only one headline at a time under each heading on the front page. (More information, fewer doodads, please!)

But it's not web layout that's getting my goat. (A quick look at my websites should demonstrate I'm in no position to cast stones on that issue!) Bothering me much more is the appearance of ads for a sex-toys store in Sioux Falls. Of course, the business (which, in a fit of quixotic prudery, I will not give the pleasure of free publicity by name here) makes no mention of sex in its ads. It euphemizes itself as an "adult supercenter." Its ads do not name or depict its products. The sex-store's ads simply try to build name recognition, pique curiosity, and overcome people's nagging sense that porn shops just aren't places for decent people. (Darn shame when conscience and good upbringing limit a business's market.) The current ad urges us to forget Tupperware and purse parties and instead "spice it up!" with an at-home party.

I take umbrage at such advertising on a number of levels. First, if I were a newspaper editor, I'd be uneasy placing such an ad next to a number of articles. I found the ad popping up next to stories about the death of one of my Montrose students and the upcoming retirement of SDSU President Peggy Miller. Both people deserve more respect than to have their faces placed next to an ad for sex toys. Later I encountered the same ad beside a story about a Rapid City man sentenced for possession of child pornography. That juxtaposition was as crass as placing an ad for Jack Daniels next to a story about drunk driving. Ads for sex toys just don't fit in a discussion of the day's news.

Such ads really don't fit into any sort of civil discourse. Take the ad and its message out of the context of the newspaper and place it in a public, face-to-face conversation. If I were to talk about this store and its products at work, my co-workers and students could easily sue me for sexual harassment. If my discussion of such matters infringes on the civil liberties of the people I work with, doesn't the presence of ads for a sex-toy store on news website open to the public constitute a similar form of harassment? I would argue the same is true of other ads for this store that shout out at us from radios and billboards throughout the work day. At the very least, shouldn't a responsible newspaper restrict such advertising to adults-only sections of its website, where everyday readers and students won't be bothered by it?

Now my offense at such ads is not based purely on some weird puritanical distaste for sex derived from growing up around lots of reserved Midwestern Lutherans. Sex is perfectly acceptable and enjoyable human behavior. But sex should not be a commercial good, something to commodify and mechanize and advertise. Sex should be a healthy physical and emotional relationship between two committed people, not a ménage à trois including some profiteer selling perverted plastic junk from China. If a relationship is lacking, nothing at an "adult supercenter" will resolve that problem. No sex toy or dirty movie -- no consumer product of any sort, decent or indecent -- will make up for a lack of genuine love and respect. We shouldn't need a business to "spice up" our relationships... and businesses should not try to make a profit by convincing us otherwise.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Division II? Division I? How About Division None?

Today's Argus editorializes about the costs USD faces if it pursues the recommendations of Inter-Collegiate Athletic Consulting and its own task force to follow SDSU into Division I athletics. the consulting firm's study cautions that the move would require an increase of the athletic budget from the current $5 million a year to $7 million a year.

I find it remarkable that we pour even $5 million into athletics at a public university. Imagine if instead of using that money to support the throwing of balls, we eliminated intercollegiate athletics from the budget, maintained funding for intramural sports and workout facilities to meet the wellness needs of the student body as a whole, and poured the remaining money into academics. Perhaps South Dakota should experiment with converting one of its universities (as a Madison resident, I volunteer DSU) to a purely academic institution. No intercollegiate athletics, no sports scholarships, no money for athletics of any sort that are not open and directly beneficial to every student on campus. Let this one institution focus our money entirely on students who are students first and athletes solely for recreation.

I know SDSU justifies its move to D-I from a marketing perspective: big-time football can generate big-time revenue, not to mention good brand buzz. But USD shouldn't buy into this thinking. If USD is serious about being South Dakota's "academic showcase," President Abbott should send a strong message that athletics should be an afterthought. That's the way it is at the academic showcases of the nation. No great intellectual gun enrolls at Harvard or Yale because of their football teams' records. The same could be true of USD. A university staking its claim to academic superiority should have the courage to put brains over brawn and abandon the rush to Division I. Students with their eyes on the future know that the amount of time they spend at SUD playing ball will have much less impact on their future success than the time they spend hitting the books.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Vote No on Referred Law 6 -- Our Last Shot

A guest writer -- my lovely Lutheran wife -- submitted the following letter for publication in the Monday Madison Daily Leader, but it appears that only paying opinions got ink in that edition. I thus submit to your our final comment on the proposed abortion ban before an Election Day that promises to be a doozy:

I urge the citizens of Lake County to vote "No" on Referred Law 6 on Tuesday. I advocate this for a simple reason: I want to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States.

Seems like fuzzy logic, doesn't it? However, the facts of the matter speak volumes. Let's compare the U.S. with Holland, which has the lowest abortion rate in the world. Holland's rate is approximately 6.5 abortions per 1,000 live births. In the U.S., the rate is approximately 21.5 abortions per 1,000 live births. Disturbing, isn't that?

Abortion is legal in both countries. So, what factors influence Holland's very low abortion rate? Among many factors are the following: free and widespread access to contraception since the 1970s, a cultural view that abortion is a last resort, and excellent access to sex education (which, by the way, does not result in more sexual activity; teenagers in Holland have a later age of first sexual experience and fewer partners than their U.S. counterparts).

Why not completely ban abortion? Although it seems contrary to reason, countries with very strict bans on abortion do not experience lower abortion rates than countries with more liberal abortion access. For example, Latin America as a region, has strict bans on abortions and an abortion rate of approximately 37 abortions per 1,000 live births, which is significantly higher than the abortion rate in the U.S. Peru, where abortion is illegal, has a staggering abortion rate of 56 abortions per 1,000 live births. (Excellent information on abortion rates is available from the Guttmacher Institute and the National Center for Biotechnology Information.)

Throughout the world, the two factors that have proven to drastically reduce abortion rates are access to contraception and sex education. The evidence shows that restricting access to legal abortions does not result in fewer abortions. If we're truly committed to reducing the number of dead babies, Referred Law 6 is not the way to do it. Let's start discussing and acting on ways to effect real change.

The Information Superhighway -- Still a Vital Metaphor

This morning's Argus Leader tells us the Regents are lobbying for the state to create a high-speed Internet system -- "Internet Three" -- to promote education and draw the big research dollars to our universities and the proposed lab at Homestake.
"This is not just a university issue," Regents President Harvey Jewett of Aberdeen told a legislative committee recently. "This is a full state issue. Without Internet Three, well, imagine South Dakota without interstate."

The price tag -- $8 million to build it, maybe $1.5 million annually to maintain it, if we cooperate with other states -- doesn't seem too bad. But if we build it, we should adopt the same philosophy as we do with the Interstate highways: everyone pays for it, everyone has access to it. If the state builds Internet Three, it should include access for every school, business, and home in the state so everyone can directly enjoy the benefit of this public good (and Erin and I can blog and promote the people's revolution even more efficiently).

Sunday, November 5, 2006

How to Reduce Abortion -- the Dutch Approach

The Netherlands has an abortion rate around a quarter that of the United States. The teen abortion rate is one seventh that of the US. (South Dakota's reported abortion rate is also remarkably low, nearly the same as the Netherlands' rate, although the Guttmacher Institute notes that it's hard to be certain about the SD number, since it doesn't include the number of SD women who go out of state for abortions.) How do the Dutch do it? I suspect kicking out the Puritans four centuries ago might have helped. But research shows the reduced abortion rates actually come from starting further up the problem stream and reducing unwanted pregnancies, not by scaring, demonizing or punishing women, but by good old education and empowerment. The Dutch don't pontificate; they just solve the problem. Instead of just restricting abortion and then patting themselves on the back for being so darned moral, the Dutch educate their people, reduce abortion, and get other public health benefits -- less teen sex, lower STD rates, and fewer unwanted pregnancies -- to boot. Think about that when you vote on Tuesday.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Four Million Dollars Saves a Lot of Babies... or Does It?

This morning's Argus Leader reports that the two main groups battling each other on the abortion ban, Vote Yes for Life and the South Dakota Campaign for Health Families, have raised almost four million dollars. (Vote Yes for Life has taken the lead, 2.2 million to 1.8 million, which suggests it costs more to get doctors to lie.) Now imagine if, instead of ads and posters, these groups had put their money into a fund to support the children of any women who otherwise would have had an abortion. About 800 abortions a year, divide those into 4 million dollars... presto! $5,000 per saved baby. That would cover a lot of pre-natal check-ups and maternity costs. But instead of directly helping women, we throw our money at media campaigns.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

State Fair Breaks Even?

After receiving a couple comments on one of my earlier posts on the State Fair, I went searching for updates. I found the trusty Huron Plainsman reporting on an October 19 meeting of the State Fair Advisory Commission. According to fair business manager Lynn Moller, the fair may break even this year! His figures at the meeting indicated a deficit of a mere $81,061, which may be erased once the Department of Revenue kicks in an expected $14,000 and sponsors write their checks for an outstanding $65,000. Hooray for good news! Perhaps the fair is on its way to reversing twenty years of decline and sustaining itself without continued backfilling and subsidy from Pierre.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Universal Health Care in 2008!

I'm not too anal retentive about the direction comments take on various entries. The discussion under my 2006 SD Voter's Guide has turned toward universal health care, and issue that, alas, hasn't come up on the South Dakota ballot. Maybe Erin and I will change that. After the election, we're going to call Jack Billion, whether he wins or not, and ask if he'd like to help us craft an initiated measure to create a statewide universal health care system. We invite any and all activists interested in the same issue to come help. Heck, if South Dakota is willing to spend tax dollars creating an unconstitutional abortion ban just to give activist lawyers and excuse to build their Supreme Court resumes, maybe South Dakota could create an actual program that serves genuine needs and challenges the status quo of corporate-capitalist health care. And note, if we can get universal health care on the ballot, it will not take the form of a constitutional amendment declaring health care a right. It will be an initiated law offering a specific policy solution to address the failures of the pseudo-free-market system. Below is the comment "Phaedrus" wrote (and my response) that got me thinking about this idea and spurred me to make it a separate thread:

Phaedrus said...

Universal Healthcare like every other kind of socialism saps the strength of innovation. There is no drive to improve such a system and it stagnates. Bread was 'universaly available' in the Soviet system as well. No hunger there ever right? Since it would be complete insanity for a government to try to provide the absolute best in medical technology and new therapy to every citizen - instant bankruptcy, what the people end up getting is the affordable mediocre medical treatment that won't stress the system.
It is only by opening it up to capitalism and the free market that the best things become available at all, and then those things eventually become cheaper and everyone benefits.

You are right when you say that democracy and the public good benefit by better health. You are wrong in thinking that can be achieved by declaring healthcare a universal right. It is the same as pretending that poverty could be eliminated if we took everyones money away and gave it back to everyone equally: causing productivity and economic growth to completely disintergrate. Canada's best doctors go the same place their best actors go. There's a very good reason for that.

coralhei said...

1. Note that I am not terribly uptight about keeping the discussion on the original topic. I wish universal health care were on the South Dakota ballot. South Dakota may lack the population necessary to create a statewide risk pool... although we already have the high-risk pool sponsored by the state to serve those good citizens whom the free market refuses to serve, so maybe we could cover everyone.

2. Phaedrus raises the red flag on declaring health care a right. Erin and I don't have to go that far. We can look at the matter purely in pragmatic terms. The private system isn't doing what Phaedrus says it should. Where are the absolute best technologies and therapies that the free market should be making cheaper and available to everyone? Health care costs are going up much faster than inflation. Fewer and fewer people can afford basic health care (like pre-natal check-ups, well-baby doctor visits, etc.). What good are the "absolute best" medical technologies and therapies if they drive families into bankruptcy even when they seek basic care for medical emergencies? Maybe "affordable mediocre medical treatment that won't stress the system" wouldn't be so bad.

By the way, Phaedrus makes analogies to the bread shortages in the Soviet Union. Why not make a better analogy, directly to the Soviet Union's universal health care system? Russians had better access to health care and better health outcomes under the Soviet system than they do under today's mafia-capitalism.

Phaedrus's analogy to the failure of food distribution in the USSR misses the point. Food distribution under the free market system works because we can make genuine free market choices. We have the time to decide which loaf of bread we want for supper, which bakery we want to buy from, or even whether we want to bake it ourselves. I can get all the information I need about bread costs and bread options from the bakery ads in the paper and by trying the bread from different bakeries each week to decide which bread best serves my needs. I don't need a complex insurance policy to obtain bread (and I don't get charged extra if I walk into a bakery to buy bread out-of-pocket). Take the preceding four sentences, try substituting "health care" for "bread" and "hospital" for "bakery," and you'll see the failure of Phaedrus's faith in the free market to provide health care.

Hospital patients cannot get the time or information they need to make genuine free market decisions about their health care. The doctors and nurses administering the care cannot tell the patient how much the shots and pills and procedures they are offering cost. When a man stumbles into the ER on a Saturday night with an appendicitis, the only people who can tell him how much the procedure will cost, the business office staff, are all at home sleeping and won't be in until Monday morning. South Dakota passes a law requiring hospitals to post their charges, but we only get a list of median charges for up to 25 most common general procedures, with no practical breakdown of specific charges within each procedure that a patient might reasonably be able to minimize through wise choices (assuming the patient is not unconscious, in labor, vomiting blood, terrified of dying, or experiencing some other distraction that might hamper her or his responsible free-market decision-making). The free market cannot work in a situation where real choice and information are not available.

I love the free market. I wish it worked all the time. But it doesn't. And when it doesn't, Adam Smith says government needs to step in and get the job done. Health care does not allow genuine free market decision-making. The free market is pricing more and more people out of health care. Universal health care might not get us the best erectile-dysfunction treatments, but it would get shots and check-ups to everyone who wants them and stop half of all bankruptcies to boot. When the free market can lower my health insurance premiums -- or heck, just limit the premium increases to the rate of my wage increases -- give me a call. Until then, I vote for universal health care, not because it's a right, but because it gets the job done better.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

State Fair Attendance Up... and Down!

The State Fair board has apparently had enough time to coordinate their spin and get all the principals on the same page so they can release their attendance numbers, which remained a closely guarded secret for almost a month after the fair wrapped up. The Rapid City Journal reports that daily average attendance and vendor sales were up from last year. But remember, the fair truncated this year's event from eight days to five. So while daily attendance was up from 19,000 last year to 26,000 this year, total attendance dropped again, from 158,000 last year to 133,000 this year.

Fair manager Susan Hayward said attendance and other indicators show that the move to the shorter fair was a success.

"We are pleased with the figures that have come in, and this has been the most successful fair season we have had in my four years as manager," Hayward said Friday as officials released the attendance figures.

Now remember, this is the same Susan Hayward who is on record saying that attendance figures "are no indication of how well the fair is doing." I'm willing to give Hayward the benefit of the doubt and assume that her earlier comments in the Huron Plainsman during the fair were taken out of context. Surely she meant to say attendance figures are no indication of how well the fair is doing, at least not until we can cherry-pick the figures that make us look better. We'll see how well the spin from the fair board and the political forces from Huron goes over during the 2007 legislative session.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

2006 Voter's Guide Begins!

Election Day, November 7, is fast approaching, and with 11 ballot measures to decide in addition to the races for US House, governor, and other state and local offices, we South Dakotans have a lot to figure out before marking our ballots. Over the coming weeks, I will offer my recommendations on the various races and issues. I will also create an index on my home page to compile all of the recommendations in one easy summary that voters can print and take to the polls with them as a checklist to make sure they're doing the right thing for this great state. Let the debates rage, and let's all get out and vote!

Monday, September 4, 2006

"We're Not Racing!" -- South Dakota State Fair Downplays Attendance

Summer is wrapping up, and in a state where tourism is the second-largest industry, we pay close attention to the success of our various efforts to draw tourists here for one last blast of fun and taxable spending before the leaves and the snow begin their race to the ground. We should pay even closer attention to the success of an event like the South Dakota State Fair, which the state subsidized last year to the tune of $1,000,000 last year, only to see a decline in attendance from 210,000 for the 2004 event to 158,000 at the month-early 2005 event. A tad disappointed, the state reduced the subsidy, handing the State Fair a meager (please read that adjective with sarcasm, thank you) $750,000 to keep the event afloat this year.

Now the State Fair has made efforts to improve over last year's performance. The fair moved back to the traditional Labor Day weekend and shortened its run to five days. But as a demonstration of its lack of confidence (either in its actual performance or in its ability to generate instant spin), the State Fair officials are refusing to release any attendance numbers until two weeks after the fair ends. Says State Fair manager Susan Hayward in the Huron Plainsman, "The No. 1 reason the attendance figures will not be released is because they are no indication of how well the fair is doing." Hayward complains that "sometimes the press relies heavily on the attendance figures as a measuring stick on how the fair is doing."

So the number of people attending an event is not a measure of an event's success? State Fair officials are certainly bucking conventional wisdom here. The Lifelight Christian music festival in Sioux Falls just wrapped up its three-day run, and event coordinators Mike Samp and Nathan Schock offered the media attendance estimates each day, rain or shine, from the 50,000 who braved the logistical nightmare of Friday's rain and mud, to Saturday's rebound to 93,000 concertgoers losing flip-flops in the mud, to Sunday's 120,000 who came for partly sunny skies and the Newsboys and set a one-day attendance record for Lifelight. Across the border, the Minnesota State Fair posts as the second "Quicklink" on its home page a chart comparing daily attendance between last year's fair and this year's. These successful events don't hesitate to make attendance numbers public, even though neither is supported by public money. (The Minnesota State Fair has received no public funding of any kind since 1949.)

Fair manager Hayward can likely make a strong argument that the State Fair is more than a revenue-generator. The fair is the "state tournament" for 4-H-ers who compete in a diverse array of fun and practical events. The fair brings families and friends together for an enjoyable traditional event, sort of a South Dakota family reunion. We certainly shouldn't judge the success of every aspect of our culture in terms of numbers and dollars. However, when $750,000 of state tax dollars are involved, taxpayers are entitled to ask for practical policy results. The state doesn't spend $750,000 on the state debate, football, or basketball tournaments that Secretary mentions (in today's Argus editorial) in justifying state funding for the fair. When the state throws that much money at a project, it expects a return on that investment.

To claim that attendance numbers aren't a measure of the fair's success defies good business sense. Success in tourism is increased visitor numbers. Visitors equal dollars and good word-of-mouth. Visitors are votes, people signaling their support of an event with their wheels and their wallets. As a publicly funded event, the State Fair has an obligation to inform its stockholders (us taxpayers) of the results our money is producing. To keep those numbers hidden, even for a couple weeks, smacks of little kids who see they are falling a step or two behind in a game and whiningly declare, "We're not racing!" Even if the attendance numbers aren't good, the State Fair should deal straightforwardly with us and conduct its business as openly as possible.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rounds Chooses Technicalities, Not Life

When Governor Rounds stayed Elijah Page's execution last night, the news carried comments from relieved protestors, including one woman on KELO TV who said she knew that the Governor had it in him to spare Page's life. She averred that Rounds is a good man, as demonstrated by his support for the abortion ban (now Referred Law 6 on the November ballot). Others now may draw the conclusion that Rounds holds a consistent pro-life vision.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In his press conference yesterday laying out his reasons for the stay, Rounds said absolutely nothing about sparing Page's life or even sparing the convict cruel and unusual punishment. Rounds couched his decision entirely in terms of the particularities of South Dakota statute. South Dakota's death penalty law, written in 1984 (and evidently not reviewed by the governor until yesterday afternoon around 4 p.m.), specifies the use of a two-drug combination in the lethal injection chamber. Board of Corrections officials had made plans to use the 3-drug combination that apparently has become the standard in other states. The only reason Governor Rounds postponed the execution was his concern that state employees participating in the execution might have faced legal penalties afterward. He thus has stayed the execution until July 1, 2007, by which time he expects the legislature will have addressed the issue in its winter session and cleared the way for the execution to take place in a legal fashion.

As he did on the first abortion ban to come to his desk in 2005, Governor Rounds has avoided making a moral decision and instead played the bureaucrat. He has successfully delayed the execution, South Dakota's first since the 1940s, until well after the election, when he can calmly oversee the state's killing of a man without facing any awkward questions from his voters on their way to the polls about the depth and consistency of his pro-life stance. Governor Rounds has not answered anyone's prayers besides his political consultants, who know that the two-drug mix of abortion and the death penalty, while perhaps not guaranteed lethal, could cause Rounds some cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of his fellow Catholics and other riled voters in his effort to be re-elected governor.

The debate on an issue as serious as the death penalty, the state-sanctioned pre-meditated killing of individuals who have already been contained and deprived of their state-given rights, should not center on technicalities. True political leaders would engage us in a conversation about the fundamental values involved. True political leaders would face up to and either defend or resolve the apparently contradictory position of forbidding a rape victim from seeking an abortion because of our dedvotion to the sanctity of life but allowing a brutal criminal to dictate the terms of his punishment and assisting in a suicide. Governor Rounds is failing to show that leadership on this moral issue.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Comment Moderation -- The Madville Times Policy

Update 2009.05.01: I'm trying out a new comment policy. Given my experience that anonymous comments foster unneighborly, unproductive, off-topic ranting, I'm banning anonymous comments. Very simply:
  1. Leave your real name with your comment.
  2. If I don't recognize your name, and if you don't provide a hyperlink to a profile or other identifying information, I delete the comment.
  3. If you have something to say but are unwilling to say it publicly, send your info privately, and we can talk.
  4. Don't like it? Get your own blog. It's easy, it's free.
My rules of civility outlined below are worth reading. And if you think I'm picky, feel free to compare comment policies from NPR, Huffington Post, and New York Times.

--earlier comment moderation policy, repealed 2009.05.01--
sections rendered wholly irrelevant by nymity policy
appear in red italics

The Madville Times does not moderate comments. If you submit a comment—pro, con, or neutral—it will appear (barring gremlins) uncensored. The Madville Times reserves the right to delete comments at whim, but will use that right sparingly. The Madville Times assumes no responsibility for illegal content (e.g., libel); commenters retain sole legal responsibility for the content of their submitted material.

Cuss words are generally unnecessary.

On anonymous comments: The Madville Times recognizes that some citizens want to participate in public discourse but are afraid that other citizens may retaliate in some fashion against them for expressing unpopular views. The Madville Times does not share such fears and urges all citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights respectfully yet fearlessly.

Nonetheless, recognizing that a call to fearless speech is more easily said than done, the Madville Times is currently willing to tolerate anonymous comments. Please note that this policy runs counter to established practice for most social institutions:
  1. The Madison Daily Leader, as well as nearly all newspapers, will not publish anonymous letters to the editor and requires verifiable contact information with every letter.
  2. The school districts I have worked for will not act on anonymous complaints.
  3. The legal system permits witnesses to testify anonymously only in the most extreme cases where a clear threat to the witnesses' safety can be demonstrated.
  4. People who show up at public meetings wearing masks are generally viewed with suspicion.
In general, the Madville Times frowns on anonymous comments because they represent a weaker form of civil discourse. As members of a community, we should speak with each other as equal partners in the great endeavor of maintaining and improving the quality of life in the city and state we share. Even when exercising the privilege of anonymous commenting, readers should moderate their own comments by the following criteria:
  1. Would you be willing to say these same words in a face-to-face conversation with the person to whom you are directing your comment?
  2. Would you be willing to say these same words in person with other people listening?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

SD Schools Throw Money Away on Outside Speakers

School is resuming at Montrose. We had two days of in-service, Tuesday and Wednesday, which consisted entirely of a presentation by Dr. Ed Porthan, a former teacher and administrator who now makes an apparently better living in the private sector as a consultant who presumes to tell teachers who stick with the profession how to do their jobs. I was hoping the money spent ($1500, according to one administrator) to bring Dr. Porthan down from Minnesota would turn out to be well spent. Alas, I found myself sitting through yet another in-service that offered no new information or practical knowledge that left me better prepared to step into the classroom and educate children next week Wednesday. For my assessment of the debacle (the address of which I have already mailed to the profiteering Dr. Porthan), see my essay "Teacher In-Service: More Taxpayer Dollars Down the Drain -- A Review of Dr. Ed Porthan's Educational Consulting."

The question for taxpayers to consider is this: if funds in our school budgets and small towns really are limited (and the proliferation of expensive boats and RVs sometimes leads me to question even that premise), wouldn't school boards better invest those limited funds by paying their teachers more, knowing those dollars will turn over more as local teachers spend that money locally, rather than handing spare funds over to out-of-state consultants with litte knowledge of our school districts' specific needs who will take the money and run without leaving us with any useful knowledge?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Hey, GOP! Want to Retake SD's House Seat? Recruit Herseth!

Representative Herseth proves again that she's really a Republican. In the wee hours this morning, she voted Aye with 33 other "Democrats" to support the GOP's cynical effort to slash the estate tax for its wealthy constituents. The GOP threw in a minimum-wage increase as political cover, and Rep. Herseth went along with them.

So instead of putting its hopes on its own candidate for the House, why doesn't the GOP court Stephanie? She's voted with them on the estate tax, gay marriage, and other issues; why not get her to switch to the party that her voting record better reflects?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Beetle Beadle Days....

Biking through town yesterday on a fruitless mission to find some new painting sandals, I rode down Main Street and noticed a banner on one of the Four Corners bars. The banner announced the specials and activities the bar is offering in conjunction with Crazy Days -- oh, but wait, someone involved in community marketing decided that Madison's version of the usual small-town summer festival of sales and other merriment needed a different, more distinguishing name. "Crazy" perhaps has fallen out of favor due to its politically incorrect undertones. It also is the name used by a hundred other towns for their weekends of sidewalk sales and kiddie tractor pulls, so it's not terribly useful in helping Madison build its brand (and if this town can just build a brand, then all our dreams will come true, the Lake Area Improvement Corporation tells us). Thus, Crazy Days has been renamed Beadle Days, in honor of local historic figure General William Henry Harrison Beadle.

But back to the banner: Evidently the bar owner isn't pulling together as a team player with the rest of the community. The banner reads "Beetle Days." The community marketing folks dedicated to creating these cool marketing campaigns must groan when they see that banner. And I'll admit -- even I as an English teacher groan at such apparent miscommunication and misspelling. At a bare minimum, good marketing demands understanding exactly which words we are supposed to use. Obviously that's not happening with this latest bright idea. Besides this amusing misspelling, shop windows and newspaper ads show the general confusion as to whether the weekend event is still Crazy Days. Where "Beadle" was supposed to be a unifying term, it appears to have ended up just thrown in the mix with the other labels used for the event.

Whoever screwed up -- the bar owner in not double-checking the order and recognizing the possible misunderstanding of the ambiguous word "Beadle", local businesses for not paying attention to updates from the Chamber of Commerce, maybe the Chamber itself for picking a term so easily misunderstood -- we need to make sure all the local merchants get the memo and get their advertising materials right.

Positive Economics: A Hypothesis on Reliance on Out-of-Town Dollars

Economics is divided into two fields: positive and normative. I usually spend my time in normative economics, thinking and arguing about how our economy -- local, national, and global -- should be structured. Positive economics is merely descriptive economics, analysis of how the economy is structured. You can't do good normative economics without good positive economics.
So here I offer a mere observation on why our local economy works the way it does. I've compained before about how Madison's marketing efforts focus on tourism, on drawing out-of-town dollars. I've suggested that we might build a more stable local economy if we focused on building local industries that serve local needs. However, it hit me why that model would not necessarily provide the economic growth that our fearless leaders want. Madison's wages, like wages throughout South Dakota, are significantly below the national average. We don't have a lot of high-salary jobs. We have lots of farmers who aren't even protected by minimum-wage laws. We thus don't have a lot of workers with expendable income to pour into the local economy in the first place. We have more workers who must pinch pennies and shop at Wal-Mart to keep their costs down. To get economic growth, we need to import wages from elsewhere, from folks in Sioux Falls and across the border in Minnesota who do have high-wage jobs that give them the freedom to travel and spend more money. Our own workers, on the wages we pay them, can't support strong economic growth, so we have to borrow the buying power of workers from states with higher wages. When we do import those wages, we still don't experience enormous growth -- tourism and entertainment jobs pay below-average wages to most of their workers -- but we get at least a little economic boost that our own wage base can't provide.

Like I said, this observation is only positive economics, not normative economics. Given the situation, I can at least understand why South Dakota puts so much emphasis on trying to draw tourists. However, I wonder: could we get an equal economic boost by diverting our tourism-promotion dollars into some sort of wage-support program? Here and there we could find advertising dollars that could be diverted into local paychecks. The City of Madison, for instance, instead of forking out $100,000 a year to the Lake Area Improvement Corporation to market Madison could instead give 50 city employees a $1000 raise. The state could cut back its budget for the Department of Tourism and give more property tax rebates. Or the state could really think big, increase the minimum wage, and businesses could enjoy the trickle-up economic impact of workers in the state having more money to spend at local businesses. Such wage increases seem to offer a more reliable source of economic growth than the gamble of advertising for tourist dollars. But as long as an economy's wages remain low, it must rely on somehow importing dollars from wage earners in more profitable places.

LAIC: Earn Your Keep

Yesterday's (2006.07.26) Madison Daily Leader offers the headline "LAIC Wants More Money." Yes, our friends at the Lake Area Improvement Corporation think they need $30,000 more from the city to do more facilitating and strategizing and all the other tasks that marketers do. I think we'd get as much satisfaction and enjoyment from flushing 30,000 one-dollar bills down a toilet and watching them spin into oblivion.

However, knowing the LAIC will tell us that we must grow or die, and that the only way to grow is to market, I offer the following suggestion: Sure, the LAIC can have $30,000 more in next year's budget, but first, they have to prove that they have brought twice that much revenue into the city coffers in the last year. $30,000 from the city would be the product of $1.5 million in sales (taxed by the city at 2%). Of course, the LAIC shouldn't get every penny of increased revenue -- increased tax revenue is supposed to help us pave streets and fund the library, not simply keep churning out more banners and slogans for our town. 50% of any provable revenue increase is a more than reasonable commission. Thus, for every dollar more that LAIC wants in its budget, it should have to prove that its efforts (not luck, not good weather, not national economic trends, but LAIC's own marketing campaigns) have generated an additional $100 of economic activity in Madison. LAIC's $30,000 budget increase would only be justified if LAIC could show $3 million in increased local economic activity.

If the LAIC wants us to live by the mantra of marketing, the LAIC should also have to live by the rules of business and good government: you want more money, you show us results. Indexing LAIC's funding to its proven performance should have the same positive impact on productivity and efficiency that it does in the private enterprises LAIC is promoting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Herseth Supports Gay Marriage Ban; Progressives Wonder Where to Turn

Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth was one of 34 Democrats to vote for House Joint Resolution 88, proposing a Constitutional amendment restricting marriage to unions between one man and one woman. The amendment failed the July 18 vote 236-187.

To express my disappointment with Representative Herseth's un-Democratic vote, I e-mailed her the following comments:

Dear Representative Herseth:

A couple weeks ago, a young woman named Cassie called me on behalf of the South Dakota Democratic Party to talk up your achievements in Congress and solicit money so you could continue to fight against the Republican majority. I asked the caller why I should support a Democrat who associates herself with the Blue Dog conservatives and talks and votes like a Republican on numerous issues. Poor Cassie, who apparently was a new trainee in the party office, said she didn't know about that.

If Cassie calls again, I will direct her attention to your vote on HJ Res 88, proposing a constitutional amendment relating to marriage. My wife and I are both registered Democrats, and we want to vote for legislators who will fight for a truly progressive agenda. How can we do that when you vote like a Republican? Why not take a stand on this unnecessary, discriminatory, and dangerous amendment and make the effort to persuade South Dakotans that issues like gay marriage have nothing to do real family values like supporting working parents, teaching kids, and providing affordable health care for all ages? You don't have to pander to the yahoos of the religious right who are trying to co-opt Christianity as well as American politics. Make a stand; be the progressive thinker that South Dakota needs (and that progressives like us are aching to hear speaking for us in the public arena).

With sincere longing for a real Democrat....

I'll let you know if she responds....

Saturday, June 3, 2006

New Teacher Academy Ignores the Obvious

Friday's (2006.06.02, p.1) Madison Daily Leader leads with a story about next week's New Teacher Academy taking place at Dakota State University. The purpose of the three-day event: to keep new teachers in the profession. State Secretary of Education cites the well-known (in education circles) statistic that nationwide, 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years.

O.K., hold it right there. Pop quiz: Imagine you are the Secretary of Education and you wanted to address new-teacher retention. Which of the following do you think would persuade more teachers to remain in the profession?

(A) Celebrate the accomplishments of new teachers;
(B) Reflect on new teachers' progress and influence on student achievement;
(C) Examine core propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
(D) Develop professional relationships to achieve common educational goals;
(E) Participate in activities that demonstrate a commitment to the teaching profession;
(F) Receive more pay.

If you answered (F), you aren't thinking like a true education administrator. Such individuals don't get to their positions of power and influence with straight talk and common sense. They get there by proposing and lauding make-work mumbo-jumbo like options (A)-(E), which come straight from the Department of Education's description of the New Teacher Academy.

This story doesn't completely ignore the issue of teacher pay: Tom Hawley, dean of DSU's College of Education, notes (in column 5 of a six-column article) that new teachers "can go into the private sector and make a larger salary." Hawley says that through the New Teacher Academy, the state wants to be "proactive and try to keep the best and brightest teachers in the classrooms in South Dakota."

Actually, it sounds like the state is simply trying to find ways to make itself look good by throwing federal grant money down another hole. If you want to keep new teachers on the job, don't cut into their vacation with more mindless academic activities (the same sorts of tedious, content-free classes we already have to sit through to meet our overly burdensome and talent-discouraging certification requirements). Say "Good job, here's a check. Want to stick around for another year?" Handing out checks wouldn't look as good on an education administrator's resume as a fancy seminar, but it would achieve the goal of teacher retention a lot more directly and efficiently.

As Expected, Slogan Underwhelms

Friday's (2006.06.02) Madison Daily Leader reports that the employees at CommissionSoup have come up with a new slogan for Madison: we may replace "In Touch with the World" with (brace yourself) "Discover the Unexpected."

I wish I could get paid for sitting around and thinking up slogans. Apparently, I wouldn't have to think of anything terribly creative or even representative of the town, product, or service I'm trying to promote.

This new slogan fails in two ways. First, it fails in terms of content. "Discover the Unexpected" -- what unexpectedness does Madison offer? How many people have driven to Madison and exclaimed, "Wow, I never expected to find that in Madison?" I love my town, but I will admit that it is a typical small prairie town: farm and manufacturing jobs; some small shops on main street struggling to compete with the big stores out on the highway and in Sioux Falls; lakes with bullhead, walleye, and the wily carp; and a majority of high school graduates who can't wait to get out of town for their college education and better job opportunities elsewhere.

Even if a visitor with an eye less accustomed to Madison's native wonders than my own were to visit and find something unexpected, the slogan still fails on a second level, as a unique and competitive identifier of our fair city. The slogan fails to set us apart from the other communities with whom we are competing for tourism dollars and economic development.

Test the slogan this way: could we slap that slogan on any other town and still have it make sense? "Discover the Unexpected... in Brookings!" "...in Mitchell!" "...in Ramona!" The slogan makes as much sense applied to any other town as it does to Madison. Any town could claim to have unexpected treasures. Potential visitors comparing slogans to determine their next family vacation or major business investment would learn nothing about Madison from "Discover the Unexpected."

Compare the proposed slogan with another slogan, one enjoying perhaps the greatest top-of-mind awareness of any current metropolitan tagline: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Not only does the slogan mention the city by name (by somewhat catchy nickname), but it captures a defining aspect of the city's character, something that no other city could legitimately claim. ("What happens in New York stays in New York?" Heck no -- New Yorkers think their city is the center of the universe and want everyone to know what happens there.)

By this standard, even our current slogan, "In Touch with the World," sells the city better than "Discover the Unexpected." "In Touch with the World" fits with our local university's mission and our technological knowledge base. It promises businesses and new residents something specific and useful: connection with the broader economy and culture. "Discover the Unexpected" leaves people wondering whether the slogan is promising unexpected economic opportunity, simple distracting oddities for tourists, or maybe just a fly in your soup at Nicky's.

If Madison really wants to succeed in the arena of metro-slogans, it should make an effort to compose a slogan that reflects specific competitive advantages of this community over its neighbors. Of course, if Madison really wants to succeed in general, it should stop wasting time and money on marketing and focus on real economic improvements.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Correction Made, Question Remains

In response to "Local Economy Needs More Market, Not Marketing", I received the following e-mail from Commissioner Karen Lembcke:

I appreciate your opinion as to the letter to the editor. However when you are quoting people be sure you are getting the right people and comments. The commission is in favor of the marketing campaigne, and I do appreciate your interest. However I need to correct your statement, I did not make the comment about the city becoming stagnant, that would have been Mechelle Nordberg, perhaps you should have read Thursday nights paper, front page, this would let you know who said what.

Karen Lembcke
Prostrollo Auto Mall

Indeed, in my original post, I misattributed a quote by Commissioner Nordberg to Commissioner Lembcke. Commission Lembcke was quoted right before Commissioner Nordberg, and I was reading too quickly while working on my response to the article. I immediately edited the online version, although alas, the Madison Daily Leader published my essay right away in Friday's paper, so the damage has already been done. Following is the response I e-mailed to Commissioner Lembcke:

Dear Karen,

Oops! Thanks for the correction. I am sorry I got the wrong name on the quote. You rightly take me to task, just as I would any of my students who made a similar mistake. I will edit the online version of the text to properly cite Commissioner Nordberg's quote.

So, given that correction, I'm still curious why the city puts so much emphasis on creating an image. Rereading the article (yes, I did read the entire article; I just misread the tag on the quote when working on my response), I find your actual quote telling. "It seems like a lot of money, but we're going to have to find it if we want Madison to grow and prosper." Indeed, I'm all for growth and prosperity (within the framework of a reasonable plan, since bigger isn't inherently better), but I wonder, when we do find money, wouldn't we get a better return on those dollars first fixing our potholes, funding the bike trail, and making other real improvements to our infrastructure?

Keep looking for solutions! I'd run in the next election and come help, but for now, teaching is my calling to civil service. I'll be sure to use my own essay and your correction as an in-class example of how even English teachers need to check and double-check their sources.

Cory Allen Heidelberger

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Local Economy Needs More Market, not Marketing

Today's Madison Daily Leader (05.11.2006) reports that the City of Madison will throw $500,000 over the next five years into marketing our fair city. Those tax dollars will be transferred to the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, which has big plans to "market Madison through advertising on radio, TV, newspapers and magazines and create new banners, billboards, signs and possibly a new logo." Says LAIC Executive Director Dwaine Chapel, "We're already looking at ads in tourism magazines."

City Commissioner Mechelle Nordberg sounds particularly sanguine about the project. Noting that other communities are ramping up their marketing efforts, she says, "Unless we want to just sit here and be stagnant, we have to compete with those communities as well."

I am underwhelmed at Madison's efforts to make itself South Dakota's next "City on the Go." Remember that slogan? Watertown used that silly line to promote itself a few years ago on billboards and in TV ads. I remember the line only because my wife and I gleefully mocked the absurd tone of Watertown's ads and slogan. "City on the Go? Where's it going? Someone better catch it before it gets too far. Oh, wait, it's Watertown -- let it go!"

Luverne, Minnesota, is running similar ads for our amusement on local TV. As much as we revel in identifying the weak production elements of this montage of various Luverne landmarks on Luverne's apparently sleepy streets, we have yet to see anything in Luverne's marketing campaign that makes us want to leap off the couch, pull up stakes, and move to Luverne (or even go have dinner there).

Has the Lake Area Improvement Corporation seen these ads? Does LAIC think it has some magic formula that will make Madison's marketing campaign chuckle-proof? More importantly, does LAIC have any data that suggests these ads have contributed to any economic growth in these towns? Commissioner Nordberg's comment suggests the only successful marketing going on here is the campaign to market marketing: get a few towns to hire some image consultants and buy a few cheesy billboards and TV ads, and all the other towns will feel like they have to do the same to keep up.

If Madison needs to keep up with the surrounding burgs in anything, it's not marketing. I suspect that any economic growth Watertown has enjoyed in the last ten years has not come from impressionable consumers seeing the ads, crying "City on the Go?! That's the place for us!" and racing up I-29 to shop at the Watertown Mall. Economic growth comes from entrepreneurs taking risks, starting businesses, creating jobs, and providing goods and services that people want. When a town has strong businesses, their goods and services will draw customers by their own merits. Prostrollo's is an excellent example: Prostrollo's doesn't draw people to Madison by saying, "Look how pretty Main Street is"; Prostrollo's draws people by shouting "We've got the cars you want!"

Likewise, towns draw new residents not by packaging themselves in a slick media campaign, but by offering honest and varied opportunities. When my ex-students finish college and look for towns in which to work and raise their families, they look at the job listings, not the clever slogan on the sign outside town.

If the City Commission and LAIC are serious about drawing new businesses and residents, they should direct their money toward something much more lasting and useful than advertising. What could we do with $500,000?
  • Create a small business development fund. Offer grants for job creation: any small business, existing or new, could get $5000 for every job it creates. Imagine the boon to the community if that $500,000 fund led to the creation of 100 new jobs in Madison. (Remember, this doesn't apply if Wal-Mart comes to town, since they'll put everyone at Jubilee, Stan's, and Pamida out of work. We want new small businesses that add to the diversity of goods, services, and jobs in Madison.)
  • Create a new-resident home loan benefit. When a new resident moves to Madison and buys or builds a house, LAIC pays the closing costs or offers to pay $5000 toward the down payment. Such money would promote genuine long-term investment in Madison.
  • Create a small-business advertising fund. If we just can't get away from the idea that advertising will make Madison a boom town, then we could at least give the money to small businesses to advertise their goods and services to a wider market. Give the money to our local entrepreneurs and let them dream up their own ad campaigns. Maria's new Mexican market at Second and Egan is a great addition to the community; an advertising grant could help Maria's buy a big sign to catch drivers' attention on the highway or some radio and TV spots to draw creative cooks from around the area.
If Madison really is a land of opportunity, its businesses can promote themselves. If the City Commission insists on throwing money into the development effort, it can do so in more fruitful ways than trying to brand our city as just another "City on the Go." Savvy consumers chuckle at cheesy marketing campaigns; they spend their money on goods and services of real value. The occasional RV tourist may make a brief detour on the basis of a glossy ad; serious entrepreneurs and investors work and live in communities that create and support healthy, diverse local economies.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Basketball Parents Display March Madness

As western South Dakota digs out from under its biggest snowstorm of the season thus far (now that it's spring, it only seems reasonable to expect bigger snowstorms), I would like to note a travel alert issued by the state Department of Public Safety over the weekend. With the snowstorm bearing down on Rapid City, site of the State AA Boys Basketball Tournament, the Department of Public Safety paid special attention to all the teenage fans traveling to and from the event. The agency urged parents whose children had driven to Rapid City for the tournament to contact their kids and tell them to stay put until the storm had blown over and the roads were clear.

Now understand that I appreciate such concern from our state government for the safety of our youth. But wait a minute: who are these parents who let their kids drive unchaperoned across the state with a big blizzard on the way? Wouldn't a better travel alert have been in order before the tournament, telling parents that letting their kids drive alone 300+ miles into a winter storm watch area (not to mention to a state tournament for 2-3 days without any adult supervision) is a bad idea?

Such a travel alert tells a lot about South Dakota culture. Every year kids at Montrose, the school I teach at, take off for the State B tournaments whether Montrose is playing in them or not (we made the State 9B football tournament last season for the first time since the 1980s). They go not to watch the games but to drink and trash hotel rooms. And parents seem perfectly accepting of behavior. Our school board even schedules the Fridays of the state basketball and football tournaments as days off to facilitate our students' participation in this parentally approved, state-sponsored bacchanalia.

As far as I know, all the kids got home o.k., and the Rapid City economy turned a nice profit on hotels, restaurants, and various consumables. Thank goodness we have the state to remind parents to call their kids with parental advice but not get in the way of a good time.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Abortion Ban? Why Not Free Delivery?

Yesterday Governor Mike Rounds signed South Dakota's abortion ban into law, bringing great joy to all those spoiling for a Supreme Court fight. The law will also bring happiness to those activists eager for the chance to stand on busy street corners and shout their mindless chant "Live baby good, dead baby bad." (Reminds me of the sheep bleating "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" to disrupt the political speeches in Animal Farm.)

Now this abortion ban won't amount to much. It will make various self-righteous evangelicals feel good about their commitment to the moral cause. When the law ges struck down by the Supreme Court, the defeat will reinforce the illusory sense of oppression and martyrhood that evangelicals apparently find so vital to their sense of identity. However, the ban will not save a single baby. Kate Looby of South Dakota Planned Parenthood hass her lawsuit against the ban in her back pocket, and she will file it well before July 1 to block the law from coming into effect. Even if the law somehow does pass Constitutional muster (and South Dakota's lawmakers, along with the anonymous donors kicking in the money to help defray the costs of the impending court battle), it will only drive abortions out of the state. The estimated 800 women who have abortions in South Dakota each year already have to drive all the way to either Sioux Falls or Rapid City for the procedure; it's not a big step for them to drive to the next closest abortion clinic in Minnesota or North Dakota. (Where a young woman out in Faith will have to drive, I hate to think -- Bismarck? Cheyenne? Sheridan? Billings?)

But while we wait for the next shoe (the lawsuit) to drop, it occurs to me that South Dakota could go for the one-two punch in terms of making a stand for live babies. South Dakota could demonstrate its genuine commitment to the value of life by offering free delivery of every baby born in South Dakota. If babies really are the most precious thing in the world, shouldn't we as a state put our money where our mouth is? Consider that somewhere out there some self-righteous Bible-thumper is willing to put up a million dollars to help defend the abortion ban in court. (Funny how people following the word of Jesus, the poor itinerant carpenter, manage to find the time to get so rich.) Instead of throwing that one million dollars at the handful of lawyers who will profit from this fight, the anonymous donor could donate that one million dollars to Sioux Valley Hospital to cover the costs of the next 300 deliveries. That would allow 300 families to save over $3000 each, money they could apply toward their pre-natal and post-natal care; toward buying warm clothes, sturdy car seats, and child gates; and toward generally increasing the health, safety, and comfort of their new child. That step alone would do more for the welfare of real live babies in South Dakota than the abortion ban ever will.

Besides, in pure economic terms, "Free Delivery" would more than make up for the business South Dakota will lose from abortion seekers heading to Minnesota or Wyoming for the procedure. Young parents would flock across the border to Sioux Falls, Yankton, Rapid City, and Aberdeen to have their babies delivered for free. They'd quite likely come here then for their pre- and post-natal care (a boost for the economy). While they were here, the new parents would surely pick up some groceries and lots of baby items (another boost for the economy). Some young parents might be so impressed with the Free Delivery policy and the socially enlightened state government that would pass it that they would choose to relocate here (and the young-parent demographic is exactly the one we need to permanently boost our economy).

Free Delivery would do much more to help real live babies than the abortion ban ever will. But the Christian Right isn't interested in real solvency. They're interested in making statements that make themselves feel good, regardless of the real-world impacts. They don't want to step out of their comfort zone and enter into a genuine Christian relationship of community with the women and poor children who really need help to make it into and through the world.