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Saturday, June 30, 2007

As American as Baseball, Hot Dogs, and... the Free Market?

Just in time for the 4th of July, I'm getting into John Gray's indictment of global capitalism, False Dawn (New York: New Press, 1998). Gray offers numerous interesting claims:
  • The best examples of economic prosperity have resulted from state action, not laissez-faire economics.
  • Free market capitalism is antithetical to family values.
  • Global capital markets threaten the social cohesion and political autonomy of every nation.
See my commentary on Gray's look at free markets and anxiety. That should provide plenty of fodder for good patriotic discussions over the long Independence Week.

see also my summary of Gray's eight main arguments in False Dawn.

Four Lanes for 34? Get Behind 106

No news lately on the "Four for the Future" effort to get the state to expand Highway 34 to four lanes from Lake Madison to I-29. Google and Yahoo don't yet list the website promised by the group (loyal readers! send me a link if it's out there!). I have noticed some little triangle placards placed by the group around town urging folks to call South Dakota's Congressional delegation and urge their support for the project. I did notice that just a week after my suggestion for a Plan B, trucks were out laying concrete for a new turning lane into the Dakota Ethanol plant (no credit here, I'm sure - just serendipity). But so far, no news of advances in the project.

If the state does have a list of highway projects, and if we're on it, expanding Highway 34 may have just fallen back a notch. Evidently the megalopolitan creep of Sioux Falls into Lincoln County is causing serious traffic tie-ups around the intersection of Highways 106 and 111 north of Tea [Luke Evans, "Tea Traffic Trips Commuters," KELOLand.com, 2007.06.28]. KELO's count of rush-hour traffic Thursday found 75 cars backed up on 106. The report also cites daily traffic counts exceeding 10,000. Uff da -- the Four for the Future folks (2007.07.13 update! they're online, now awkwardly renamed "Highway 34 four [sic] the Future") offer a daily traffic count from 2005 of about 3600 vehicles. Plus, in our various trips to Lake Madison, Sioux Falls, and Minnesota, we've never experienced traffic jams of any sort on 34.

Fortunately for Tea commuters, state senator Sandy Jerstad appears to be among those tangling with Tea's terrible traffic. KELO quotes her as supporting a $4-million expansion of Highway 106. "It's really needed," says Jerstad (in a KELO-sanctioned run-on sentence), "there are a lot of businesses along there, a lot of people coming and going from driveways, a lot of people coming up against one another and a lot of accidents. "

Let's see if Democrat Jerstad can muster any more legislative clout to shake loose highway funds than our own District 8 Representative Russ Olson, one of the Four for the Future committee members, could with the apparently obstinate fellow Republican Governor Rounds. Maybe our man Olson can connect with his fellow rookie legislator Jerstad and put forward some joint legislation to expand both 106 and 34. Maybe bipartisan wheeling and dealing can put some more zoom-zoom in the lives of commuters in Lincoln and Lake counties.

Another Look at Madison -- Photos by Rausch

If you'd like to see some snapshots of life in Madison and South Dakota in general, visitprolific photographer Miles Rausch's flickr page -- 4463 photos and counting!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Eminent Domain for Pipeline? Not Likely

KELO's Ben Dunsmoor stirs some coals over the Transcanada oil pipeline, reporting that the Canadian corporation might turn to eminent domain to get the land it needs to run its pipeline across South Dakota. "They have the right to use [the land]," says Freeman farmer Mike Schultz, for whose land Transcanada has made an evidently unsatisfactory offer, "bu I would say they would be a lot better off if they could make 75 to 80 percent of the people happy."

Toughen up, Farmer Schultz! We can push Transcanada harder than they that. Transcanada isn't the government; it's a foreign company. It has no right to eminent domain. I would say they need to make 100% of the landowners along the proposed corridor happy or move their pipeline elsewhere. South Dakota is under no obligation to make this pipeline happen or help Transcanada minimize its costs. Eminent domain is only for projects that serve the public good, not private development, and I have yet to see how a pipeline through the state makes life better for South Dakotans. It's not like we'll suddenly see more oil in our state; it all gets pumped to Illinois. The pipeline won't increase anyone's land values or tax revenue. As Schultz points out, farmers would lose profitable land. The pipeline doesn't improve South Dakota's quality of life one iota; it just sends oil to Illinois and money to Canada.

I wouldn't worry about eminent domain on this one. In reaction to the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, the 2006 South Dakota Legislature passed HB 1080, which prohibits the use of eminent domain "For transfer to any private person, nongovernmental entity, or other public-private business entity." (The bill passed nearly unanimously, with just one nay in the House.) If anyone can show me how Transcanada is exempt from this law, I'll welcome the correction. But KELO seems to be raising a little ruckus that simply can't arise. The pipeline is a private business venture, not a highway, not a public utility. The state should see no benefit in and no legal basis for taking land out of the hands of farmers and putting it into the hands of a foreign company.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Growth Is Good for Taxpayers, Right?

KELO's commentator emeritus Steve Hemmingsen poses an interesting question on his blog. He offers some gentle grousing about the Minnehaha County Commission's decision to raise property taxes while giving its employees a 4% raise and upping the county's share of employee health insurance to 70% at a time when, according to Hemmingsen, most private sector employees in South Dakota are struggling to win any sort of raise, not to mention hang onto their health plans.

Hemmingsen's really good question: When does all the "phenominal [sic] growth in Minnehaha County" start paying for itself? Indeed, what an interesting observation: more population, more business, more tax base, yet city and county residents are hit with tax and fee increases all the time. Who's reaping the benefits of all that growth?

Sam Hurst on Health Care, Abortion, and Rational Action

Bless Sam Hurst for his column in the June 23 Rapid City Journal. Don't let the title -- "It's Time to Make State an Abortion-Free Zone" -- fool you: he's not blowing the Leslee-Unruh trumpet for a legislated ban, but proposing practical steps we could take to reduce the abortion rate in South Dakota from 800 a year to 10. As Wham implored us, if you're gonna do it, do it right....

Note, among other great points, Hurst's comments on the absurdity of a health insurance system that doubles his daughter's premium as she turns 19 because of the generally higher medical expenses of her sex and age group but doesn't cover pregnancy, abortion, contraception, or the HPV vaccine, the very issues that may lead to those higher medical expenses. Hurst concludes that universal health care is part of the solution to abortion. Talk about connections! Way to go, Sam!

Stop Illegal Immigration -- Bust the Employers

Immigration is more of a federal issue, so the Madville Times hasn't had much to say on the topic. However, the mutation of the comment section on an earlier health care post into a discussion of illegal immigrants, as well as current press coverage of illegal immigration cases in Sioux Falls and Oacoma, warrants brief comment.

Some commenters have complained that illegal immigrants are a bunch of no-good freeloaders taking advantage of our country. The Madville Times suggests that the real freeloaders are the selfish, unpatriotic American employers who hire those illegal immigrants. Such employers cheat legal immigrants and citizens of jobs and wages. They take advantage of illegal immigrants who lack community connections or legal standings to bring complaints about exploitative employment practices -- i.e., the employers can use and abuse their illegal workers, since the illegal workers know that the employers can turn them over to the authorities if they make any trouble. The employers also skip out on paying their fair share of withholding, Social Security, and Medicare taxes, unfairly boosting their profits and shifting that burden to honest, patriotic businesspeople who play by the rules.

We can talk about fighting illegal immigration by putting up walls, posting guards, and all sorts of police-state measures to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get in. But consider: they are already willing to hike across deserts, swim rivers, and risk arrest and death just to get here for jobs that pay more in a month than they can make back home in a year. The root of the problem lies with demand, not supply. If we wouldn't hire them -- if every American employer would do his duty to verify the legal status of every applicant for work -- the illegal immigrants would have no reason to come. If law enforcement would go after the employers harder, the illegal immigration problem would dry up in an instant.

I love the rule of law and hate freeloaders as much as my commenters. Respecting the rule of law and paying one's fair share starts with us, with our own businesses and hiring practices.

Madison Uneasy About Dancing in the Streets

The Madison City Commission is showing its cautious side this month. Monday night it put off action on a request from the Jaycees to hold a street dance at the end of July. Th commissioners didn't actually say the Jaycees can't hold the street dance; the action the commission delayed ws issuing a one-day malt beverage license, which apparently is an essential component of holding a street dance.

The alcohol side of the dance brought local counselor Kelly Johnson to the board meeting to express concerns about the street dance. He worries that street dances promote intoxication and other unhealthy behaviors that our community should not support. According the Tuesday print MDL, similar concerns about public safety prompted the commission to deny the Jaycees' last request for a booze license for a street dance back in 2001. This year the commission is giving the Jaycees a week to work on those security issues and report back at next week's meeting.

A street dance wouldn't be a bad thing. As the Jaycees point out, it will add some festivity to Crazy Days (oops, that's Beadle Days, remember?) and help celebrate Madison's selection by Governor Rounds as nicest little town in the world for 2007. So who needs a malt beverage license? Why don't the Jaycees say nuts to the city commission, hold their dance, and just sell pop and pizza? Without alcohol on tap, the dance could be a family-friendly environment where all Madison residents could come celebrate together comfortably. And we could send a message to the kids that we as a community recognize that we don't need alcohol to have a good time. Forget the booze; let's just boogie!

Ethanol and Food Prices -- Mixed Messages

MDL is sending some mixed messages about ethanol's impact on food prices. On Monday's front page, staff writer Chuck Clement offers a largely one-sided report claiming that "higher energy prices have a greater overall effect on food prices than the price of corn." He cites a report released by the Law and Economics Consulting Group that quantifies energy prices' impact on food prices as twice that of corn prices.

We have posted previously on press to the contrary. The Madville Times takes recognizes that ethanol is a new and complicated issue and that the science surrounding its economic and environmental impacts is far from settled.

However, readers should note that the LECG study was funded by the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol advocacy group. This somewhat more balanced June 14 CNN report cites Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (a group that doesn't stand to make money from ethanol), as citing the LECG report's failure to consider the possibility that rising corn prices will also cause price hikes for other grains. As more farmers plant corn, supply of wheat, rice, and other grains will tighten, leading to higher prices for those commodities as well.

Note also that LECG is also essentially a group of mercenary experts, academics who make big money crafting expert testimony for the highest bidder. LECG itself links to a reprint of a Wall Street Journal article describing the huge profits it makes from such consulting work [George Anders, "An Economist's Courtroom Bonanza," Wall Street Journal, 2007.03.19]. Of course, they couldnt make big money if they didn't bring good qualifications to the table. John Urbanchuk, one of several directors listed on the LECG's staff page, studied economics at Penn State and Temple and has held a number of impressive-sounding consulting positions. At the very least, he knows more about a wide range of economic topics than the Madville Times.

Urbanchuk's profit motive and competency notwithstanding, there are plenty of ethanol opponents looking to make a buck as well. The American Petroleum Institute criticizes the LECG report, saying "it understated the impact of higher corn prices and overstated the impact of gasoline costs." API member Art Wiese notes that adding ethanol "to gasoline increases transportation costs, and thus, food prices" [UPI, "Supporters Defend Ethanol," 2007.06.15].

MDL itself seems uncertain on the issue of ethanol and food prices. The very next day's edition runs a version of this AP story on rising pizza costs [Bruce Schreiner, "Pizza Makers Hit with Higher Cheese Costs Raise Prices for Pies," StarTribune.com, 2007.06.22]. The chain of causation: pizza makers raise prices to make up for higher cheese costs, which make up 35-40% of the food cost of a pizza. Cheese costs more because milk costs more (up over three bucks for a gallon jug of nature's goodness at our local store). Milk costs more in part because of increased global demand for US dairy products and in part because feed grain for dairy cattle costs more. Feed grain costs more because ethanol is driving up corn prices.

Now ethanol may be fine and dandy for corn producers and big-industry groups, but when it starts messing with the price of pizza, the official food and fuel of the Madville Times, get ready for a fight!

Seriously, these two MDL articles and the other press around ethanol demonstrate there's still a lot of research to be done on the impact of this liquid gold on all facets of our economy and environment.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Public Employee Salaries Public Knowledge

The major Sioux Falls newspaper still peddles smut, but it also engages in some enjoyable finger-poking in the eyes of our crotchety, secrecy-inclined state government. As KJAM notes, the Sioux Falls newspaper is requesting the salary information of state employees. On a couple of reports, I've heard some vague reference to how the state needs to keep those salaries secret to protect the safety of come employees. Excuse me? How does published salary information endanger any employee?

In my nine years as a contracted public school teacher, everyone in town could find out my salary from the newspaper, board minutes, or school business manager. Last year at Montrose, I made about $29,900 for teaching an coaching, plus $1400 for opting out of the health insurance plan. This coming fall I will become a state employee of sorts, working as a doctoral assistant at DSU. The Board of Regents will issue me a stipend worth $30,900 of taxpayer money, plus they'll charge me a third of the normal tuition rate.

There -- now everyone knows how much I make on the public dole, and I don't feel any less safe. The only threat I can imagine is that people will see what obscene riches I've been gaining at the expense of taxpayers, and I'll face an angry mob of pitchfork- and torch-wielding taxpayers at midnight demanding their money back.

The bottom line is the bottom line: the boss should know how much every one of his employees is making. When it comes to public employees like myself, the public is the boss, and what the pay me (and every other teacher, cop, secretary, economic development official, and State Capitol janitor) should be public knowledge.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The New Lake Park Hotel -- A Proposal for Downtown Renovation

As noted below, the Madville Times is always thinking about downtown development. We love our downtown, but even we will acknowledge that Madison's Egan Avenue could be jazzed up a little bit. A literal step in that direction would be the creation of some main-street greenspace where musicians could play, like "Nick's Park," a little picnic nook next to famed Nick's Hamburgers in downtown Brookings that hosts live "Music on Main" every Thursday evening through this summer. (While you're at it, check out DowntownBrookings.com's entire site for a good look at grassroots downtown development!)

Lake Park Hotel, Madison, SD, early 20th centuryLake Park Hotel, Madison, SD, long ago.
Postcard image from USGenWeb Archives.
But for a bigger leap toward downtown development, how about resurrecting the Lake Park Hotel? No, no, no, not the motel on West Highway 34, but this grand stone edifice that once graced downtown Madison. If memory serves me right, the original Lake Park (which was also called the General Beadle -- an impressive and historic moniker! -- and the Park), stood on the corner of Egan and SW 2nd Street. Currently, a laundromat and Lakebrook Appliance stand in its place. Also on that block are the old Job Service building, the Jensen building that Rosebud is using for storage, and the vacant Happy Hour bar, object of Rosebud's thwarted desires for expansion.

If the city doesn't want Rosebud or other manufacturing taking up valuable main street storefronts, it needs to find something better to put in those empty spaces. We thus propose buying up as much of the block as we can get and rebuilding the Lake Park/General Beadle Hotel as a glorious downtown convention center. The location is ideal, within four blocks of restaurants, bars, City Hall, the county courthouse, all of Madison's best retail, real estate and law offices, the post office, the library and Library Park, and even the grocery store. The site is right across the street from the historic depot, which houses the Chamber of Commerce and Lake Area Improvement Corporation -- perfect location for meetings with all those jetset businessmen who will come to talk business and want swanky downtown accommodations to which to retire after a hard day of negotiations. There'd even be lots of room for parking (which everyone tells me is essential for any successful business) and expansion on that block and maybe even across Egan beside the Leader Publishing building and the old dairy loading docks.

A great downtown hotel and convention center could become an anchor of daytime business and evening entertainment in our fair city, helping energize and identify our downtown the way the Calumet Inn does in Pipestone, or the historic Franklin Hotel in Deadwood. The Madville Times capital investment fund is currently tied up in gallery and environmental projects, but the moment our sixth or seventh million comes in, we'll invest in bringing the Lake Park back into business downtown.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Support the Arts? Madville Times Is the Arts!

Off with the press hat, on with the painter's beret -- one of the Madville Times' alter egos, Lake Herman Dreamworks, kicks off a solo exhibit of paintings at the Brookings Community Cultural Center. The exhibit runs from June 28 through July 27, with a closing reception and gallery talk by the artist at 5 p.m. on July 27. The Madville Times may not be able to single-handedly generate support for the arts, but Lake Herman Dreamworks can at least generate art itself.

Now you may be wondering why this artist doesn't organize an exhibit right here in Madville. Alas, our fair city lacks a dedicated art gallery. Both libraries, the public library and the Mundt Library on the DSU campus, do what they can to showcase local artists, but those spaces don't hold much art (especially not the Lake Herman style of art, which includes some 4'x8' sheets of paneling transformed into sprawling, specklescapes). Likewise at John Green's downtown studio, one finds room for a handful of pieces from other area artists, but nothing like the Brookings Community Cultural Center, which can host full-scale exhibits as well as arts classes and competitions.

When Lake Herman Dreamworks makes its first million, I can guarantee one of its projects will be to buy the Masons' building and turn it into the Madison Institute of Modern Art. What a fine anchor that institution will make for Madison's Main Street!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

City Says No to Main Street Growth... Or Does It?

MDL reports (online! Thanks for posting the lead story, Jon!) that the Madison City Commission decided not to let furniture and cabinet maker Rosebud Manufacturing expand its manufacturing, assembly, and sales operations to the Happy Hour building on Egan Avenue, Madison's Main Street.

Did I read that right? Rosebud wants to expand its business. Rosebud says in its business expansion plan (see page 48 of the June 18 commission meeting agenda packet) that the expansion will add eight jobs to the $2.2 million dollar payroll Rosebud already pumps into the community each year. Rosebud president Don Grayson was able to round up 70 supporters to sit in on last week's planning commission meeting and 50 for last night's city commission meeting to make clear to the commissioners that there are a lot of working people who support the expansion. Grayson says this expansion has to happen now, since Rosebud apparently has orders on the books waiting to be filled. Grayson even went so far as to suggest that if the city didn't approve his request, he could expand his business in Salem instead.

The city in essence looked at immediate increased economic activity and said, "No thanks." What gives?

The Madville Times offers the bold speculation that the city commission (by a 3-1 vote: Mayor Hexom and Commissioners Bohl and Jerry Johnson voted to deny the request; Commission Karen Lembcke voted in favor; Commissioner Mechelle Nordberg was absent) occasionally recognizes some deeper community values than mere revenue-generation. In this case, the commission appears to be acting to protect the overall aesthetics of Madison's Main Street.

Consider an analogy to your house: you don't set up a wood shop in your living room or a toilet in your kitchen. Such combinations might save a little time and maybe even help you be more productive, but they wouldn't feel right. They'd make your house a lot less comfortable and less inviting to guests.

Just as everything has its proper place in a house, everything has its proper place in a town. While there's room for mixed-use areas -- a combination of housing and small shops can make for a lively and comfortable neighborhood -- we should still seek to create an appealing overall town aesthetic, a good vibe that residents and visitors alike will appreciate. Perhaps the city commission feels that manufacturing on main street would detract from that aesthetic. The LAIC appears to hold the same opinion: it submitted the only reported, written opposition to the Rosebud expansion prior to the city commission's vote in a letter to city engineer Chad Comes. That letter (see page 51 of the commission agenda packet) states that the LAIC board of directors voted at its May meeting to "oppose further expansion of any industrial nature on Egan Avenue." The LAIC supports "the continued growth and expansion of Rosebud Manufacturing," but wants to "direct industrial businesses to a proper location, rather than continuing to expand within the downtown core of Madison."

Surprisingly, neither the commission, the LAIC, or MDL elucidate exactly what is meant by a "proper location" for industrial businesses. Fortunately, Prairie Roots offers an excellent discussion of main street aesthetics and our dreams for Madison's downtown. [Reminder/full disclosure: The Madville Times and Prairie Roots sleep together every night!] Along with her usual bewitchingly intelligent prose, Prairie Roots also includes several instructive quotes from the Main Street Program, a nationwide organization that helps towns preserve and rejuvenate their downtowns.

In a nutshell, Main Street should serve as the community's living room, a place where business, government, and recreation all take place in a balanced and inviting atmosphere. On that one vital, symbolic street, major manufacturing operations may not comfortably fit. Through its Monday vote, Madison's city commission may be recognizing the importance of that principle to healthy community development. Let's hope the commission is ready to take more action toward that noble goal of main street preservation.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Zaniya Project: Give 'Em a Call!

As the Zaniya Project Task Force meets this summer to figre out a way to help South Dakota's uninsured, I worry that we'll end up with a recommendation that the state mandate the purchase of health insurance by all citizens. After all, what other sort of solution would we expect from a governor who is also an insurance agent?

I say nuts to mandatory private insurance. If we're going to monkey with the free market, why not just abandon it and make health care a public utility?

I'm sending Kevin Forsch, senior advisor to Gov. Rounds and primary contact listed for the Zaniya Project, the following e-mail. I would urge everyone interested in affordable and efficient health care to make their voices heard to the task force as well.

Dear Mr. Forsch:

Please forward this message to the members of the Zaniya Project for discussion at their next meeting on July 12.

As a firm believer that the health insurance industry encourages over-utilization of health resources and diverts excessive funds to administrative costs and profiteering at the expense of working South Dakotans, I urge the Zaniya Project Task Force to research and recommend the creation of a unified state health risk pool for all South Dakotans. Whether South Dakota can afford a single-payer system of its own, or whether we would do better to create a cooperative risk pool with surrounding states, a single-payer system would bring down costs and fulfill our moral obligation to take care of the sick and the poor.

The document linked here offers a brief analysis of how a government single-payer health care system can actually save South Dakotans money. I urge the task force to consider such a system as it prepares its final report. Thank you for your service to the state on this important issue.

You can recommend to the task force members a wealth of articles on universal health care, including this article from today's UK Independent: Andrew Gumbel, "Sicko? The Truth About the US Healthcare System," 2007.06.04. And don't forget: Michael Moore's Sicko premieres June 29.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Missing the Mark -- Our Schools or Our Culture?

The USA Today editorial board opines online that "When it comes to your sons, schools miss the mark" [posted 2007.06.15]. The article cites data published in Education Week [2007.06.12] that shows boys graduating from high school at lower rates than girls in all major racial/ethnic classifications. The overall HS graduation rates are 73.6% for girls, 66.0% for boys. USA Today argues that our schools, specifically the K-8 levels, are failing to adequately prepare boys for the challenging reading of high school. "The key to closing the gap," says the article, "appears to involve starting early — turning boys into competent and enthusiastic readers by third grade, perhaps by hiring more male teachers and using books more appealing to boys."

This male teacher wonders just what sort of books the USA Today writers have in mind. I included The Outsiders (gang fights, teenage boys being loyal), A Separate Peace (teenage boys dealing with academic and athletic rivalries), Frankenstein (a monster!), All Quiet on the Western Front (guns, horse guts, and a funny scene about bodily excretions), Romeo and Juliet (swordfights!), and Hamlet (more swordfights!) in my literature curriculum. Are those books sufficiently manly?

Or could it be that it's not the schools but our culture that's failing to get boys as ready as girls to read and succeed academically? In my English classroom, I made lots of efforts to get books in the hands of my boys and girls (and not just boring anthologies, but real books). But what reinforcement are they getting at home? How often are boys specifically shown images that reinforce the manliness of sitting down for an hour or two to read quietly every day? How many little boys' pajamas do you see decorated with books, and how many more do you see decorated with sports equipment? How many kids choose to dress and talk like their favorite scholars rather than their favorite sports stars... and how much do parents and media encourage them to make such a choice? How often do parents take their kids to the library to spend an hour just reading, and how much more often do they send their kids to sports practices and games that last for two or three hours?

The schools I've worked in are busting their chops to get kids to read and calculate and think. But they need some support from the culture around them. If ads and movies, MTV and ESPN, newspapers and even parents don't promote reading and intellectualism as a whole -- if they send the message that books aren't manly, then teachers of either sex will struggle to get kids to enjoy reading or any other academic subject.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Steel: Cheap and Green?

Steel: Cheap and Green

Construction of the new building for the Madison Christian School is proceeding at a good clip. I bicycled by yesterday evening and saw a couple roofers in the hot sun on that shiny steel roof. Just today Keppen Construction popped some windows into the steel framing. As expected, it's not a big fancy building. However, as KJAM reports, the recycled steel framing costs less than traditional wood framing. The steel supplier for the project, Haus Steel Framing of Pierre, says that steel framing can cut materials costs as much as 40%, since they involve less waste and are cheaper to ship. HSF also says experienced contractors can erect steel framing 30%-40% faster than they can put up wood.

Now I don't know if this is connected to the use of the steel framing itself, but KJAM also note that the building will be very energy efficient, with monthly heating and cooling bills of maybe $40 a month. Wow! Using recycled materials, saving 32 trees, keeping energy usage low -- these Christians seem to be taking creation care seriously. (Now if they can just organize a car pool -- or a bike pool! -- for all the kids to get to their site outside of town.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Energy Independence": It'll Cost You at the Grocery Store

Energy will cost us more and more, and not just at the gas station or on our utility bills. Even our homegrown, arguably better for the environment ethanol will ultimately not save us money. The June 13 Christian Science Monitor reports that grocery costs have risen as much in the first half of this year as they did in all of 2006 [Patrik Jonsson and Bina Venkataraman, "From Milk to Meat, US Food Prices Spike Upward"]. The US Labor Department sees food prices rising 7.5% this year, almost triple the expected 2.6% core inflation rate. (The core inflation rate excludes food and energy, which strikes me as a statistic only an ivory-tower economist could love: "Sure, we'll calculate how much prices are rising, but we'll ignore two seectors of the economy that are essential to our existence.")

That cost increase is not coming simply from higher energy costs in food processing and transport.

The chief culprit is corn, namely No. 2 feed corn, the staple of the breadbasket. In answer to President Bush's call for greater oil independence, the amount of feed corn distilled into ethanol is expected to double in the next five to six years. Distillation is already sucking up 18 percent of the total crop. The ethanol gambit, in turn, is sending corn prices to historic levels – topping $4 per bushel earlier this year, and remaining high. All of this trickles down to the boards at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, affecting the price of everything from sirloin to eggs (which are up, by the way, 18.6 percent across the nation).
Now I can't begrudge farmers their good corn prices -- they've got make a living, and ethanol is helping them do that. And as the South Dakota Corn Growers point out, ethanol production adds over a billion dollars to South Dakota's economy (and that was back in 2004).

However, this CSM article puts the lie to propaganda from big-industry interests like the National Corn Growers Association that tries to tell us that ethanol production doesn't really impact food prices. Ethanol is not manna from heaven. It's not free energy. We are taking viable food material -- whether for humans or for livestock -- and turning into fuel for our machines. The trade-off brings unavoidable costs. We can make that trade-off -- increased energy independence might be worh it -- but we should do so with all of the costs in full view.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Next on the Agenda: Band-Aids

Here's the KJAM headline of the week:

Farmers Begin Thinking About Scabs

I don't write this stuff. I just read it and smile.

Lange on Christianity, Capitalism, and South Dakota's Wacky Taxes

SDPB surprises me today with a lengthy interview with fellow Lake Herman philosopher Gerry Lange. I expected SDPB's Dakota Midday "Uniquely South Dakota" series to focus on feel-good stories, nice boostery interviews with colorful local figures who tell what a wonderful place their hometown is and how everyone should come spend tourist dollars there. On today's show, Madison Mayor Gene Hexom and Prairie Village's new office manager Donna Reinecke covered that ground well. Then -- surprise! some serious and wide-ranging political commentary from our man Gerry. Some choice comments:

In response to a question on public reaction to his comments against the Iraq War in 2003:"I said things... assuming that we were a Christian nation, that you are supposed to love your enemies and you are supposed to do good to those who hate you, the Sermon on the Mount thing. I belong to Kiwanis, and we always talk about the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And yet, when it comes down to practical politics, so called, it's pretty hard-nosed. And this is one of the conclusions I reached in thinking this over is that democracy itself is in contradiction to Christianity. Christianity is turn the other cheek, it's love your enemies, and even in deomcracies, the phrase is don't get mad when you get beat, get even, and so a spirit of revenge is built into our system. And so we have these two ethos, two economic-political systems, in war with each other, Christianity and economic development. Free enterprise is out to get what you can for yourself and everybody else look out for themselves."

"Politically it isn't pragmatic to go against the majority."

"...our tax system is totally wrong in this state compared with every state around us. We're the only one that taxes groceries for heaven's sakes. We're the only state that taxes luxury items at 3%, groceries at 6%. I think that's outrageous. I don't see why the people put up with it."

"Incidentally that Social Hall here at Prairie Village was called Socialist Hall. Back in the early part of the century both North Dakota (my state) and this state were very socialistic, meaning that they agreed with Peter Norbeck that we needed a state cement plant, we needed state railroads if necessary, state bank up in North Dakota, and state mill and elevator because we were being ripped off by Eastern interests. And so there's this rebellious streak in these two states, and I'm dedicated to carrying on that rebellious streak of standing up to oppression."

On his new book Under the Dome: Trying to Do Good in the People's Cathedral: "It's a five-dollar, looseleaf-bound hundred pages of rant and other bits of wisdom."

SDPB's interviewer tried to get Gerry to commit to running again in 2008. Gerry said that's a ways off, though, and he has a lot of gardening to do. (I've seen Gerry's garden, and we're not talking a few petunias and a pumpkin or two. He gardens with a skid-loader.) Even if gerry isn't ready to carry that rebellious streak into another campaign for the legislature, it was fun to hear one of our unique political voices on the radio.

Oil Refinery for Elk Point -- Market Finally Kicks In

Better late than never: Hyperion Resources is finally gearing up to build a new oil refinery. Elk Point is one of the communities competing to draw this big-money, big-employment project (hence the hush-hush "Gorilla Project" we've been hearing about). Hyperion's project would be the first new oil refinery built in the US since the 1976.

With gas prices increasing over the past seven years, it's surprising market forces haven't driven some big investor to put up a new refinery sooner. Refineries are certainly profitable, and even if the big oil companies are enjoying higher profits by decreasing their production to drive up prices, one would think at least a handful of entrepreneurs would have leapt sooner at the chance to get in on the money by building some much needed new refining capacity.

Now let's see if Elk Point wins this refinery, and how much Elk Point benefits from hitching its economic hopes to the fossil-fuel industry.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Guest Commentary: Strike Up the Band!

Jody Adams offers the following exhortation to students to join the Madison High School "Spirit of Madison" marching band in a letter to the editor in last night's MDL:

The Spirit of Madison Band members belong to a special team that no sporting activity could ever measure up to. The band does not discriminate -- if you want to be a memer, you are welcome. We never cut a team member. No one sits on the bench. When we perform, everyone participates. It does not matter whether you are male or female. We work together as a team... always!

Right on the money, Jody. Hmmm... band sounds a lot like high school interp, debate, and drama!

From Big Oil to Big Ethanol?

MDL reports that Lake County's locally owned ethanol plant, Dakota Ethanol, has signed a "non-binding letter of intent" to merge with Countryside Renewable Energy, Inc., a new Iowa company looking to consolidate ethanol plants into one big company. Dakota Ethanol general manager Scott Mundt (not to be confused with KELO-TV meteorologist and Jay-Trobec wingman Scot Mundt) thinks the merger will be great. The South Dakota Corn Growers think it'll be great.

I'm suspcious. Am I the only person who isn't convinced that bigger is better? Doesn't merging mean that some portion of the money that Dakota Ethanol generates will leave the state for Iowa? I'll be interested to hear what the local investors think of the prospect of this merger. How important is independent ownership to them?

School Board Opts Back In

Talk about fiscal restraint: the Madison Central School Board has decided not to take advantage of the opt-out it won at the polls last year. The Board voted 4-3 last night not to include the $250,000 allowed by the opt-out in its FY2008 budget. Superintendent Frank Palleria says that the tax revenues were higher and expenses lower than expected (we should all be so blessed). Outgoing Board President Kelly Johnson led the majority (including Mark Hawkes, Dennis Hegg, and David Zolnowsky) in voting against budgeting the opt-out funds, saying the projected budget doesn't show an immediate need for the funds. Board member Rod Goeman dissented, saying the real budget crunch is coming in years three and four of the opt-out, which justifies collecting the higher tax revenue from the opt-out now and putting it in reserves. Michelle Tucek and Craig Walker voted with Goeman against the no-opt-out budget proposal.

Now don't go spending your projected tax savings just yet. The Board passed its budget last night, but it has until October 1 to file its final tax levy request with the county auditor. If the fiscal picture or the mood of the Board changes before then, the district can still reverse its decision and ask for part or all of that extra $250,000 for the coming fiscal year.

I've given the board a hard time over its opt-out efforts, due largely to my opposition to our unjust property tax system. Still, after winning the $250,000 opt-out in 2005 (after two failed attempts in 2002), the Board has shown remarkable fiscal restraint. Voters authorized the Board to take an extra $250,000 each year for four years. The Board has every right to take that money and sock it away for a rainy day. Yet the Board has voted, in the absence of a compelling present need, to leave that money in taxpayers' pockets.

This action resembles that taken by the Lake Herman Sanitary District (of which I am a board member) this fiscal year. The sanitary district opted out a few years ago and was collecting an extra $3000 a year just to put in the bank in hopes of saving up for a major sewer project sometime in the future. However, seeing that even that rate of saving would not bring a sewer project to fruition in the foreseeable future, the sanitary district chose not to take opt-out funds this year and limited its tax levy request to it standard operating budget. Both the school board seems to be following the same logic, that government should not try to run a surplus.

Our man Hunter agrees: the Board deserves credit for resisting the temptation that most local governmental entities feel to tax at the maximum rate allowed by law. Now let's see if that fiscal restraint sticks through October.

She Thought She Was Out...

...but they pulled her back in!

The Madison Central School Board has recalled former member Gwen Thomson to fill a vacancy on the board for the coming year. (The Madville Times is recovering from being overlooked by the Board for the position.) As it did when it appointed David Zolnowsky to fill a vacancy, the Board has perhaps wisely gone with experience. The Board is also fortunate to find a former member who is willing to take the heat again.

Contrary to this writer's expectation, Thomson was appointed only for one year rather than the full term. Her seat will be open to any candidates who want to run for the remaining two years of the term. So all of you education advocates out there, let's see some petitions next February! Democracy is a lot more fun with some competition.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Scooter Journal: Less Gas, More Wienies!

I've begun week 2 of my tenure as a math instructor at SDSU's Upward Bound. As a little extra math homework for myself, I've been keeping track of the fuel efficiency of the scooter I'm driving to work (when the weather is good). In four trips up to Brookings and back on the scenic Norwegian Boulevard, the scooter has averaged 91.3 miles per gallon. At an average price of $3.18 per gallon, I'm getting 28.8 miles per dollar. In those four trips (plus some incidental travel), I've saved $23.81 over what I would have spent on gas had I covered those miles in our Ford Focus.

As a symptom of the general American inability to save money, I find these big savings have inclined me to splurge on fancy meals at the gas stations -- a buck one day for two hot dogs, a buck another day for a burger (with fresh pickles and onions -- thank you, Brookings Cenex!). As I wiped the mayo from my chin, I got to thinking: could my gas savings actually help the local economy?

Consider: gasoline has a low profit margin: 12 to 14 cents per gallon, according to this recent NPR story. At current prices, that's 3-4%. Profit margins on food and beverages vary between 30 and 60%. Let's lowball it and suppose those hot dogs earned the station owner 30%, or 30 cents. Had I covered those miles in the Focus, one gas station would have made $1.56 profit margin. The profit margin from my scooter fill-ups is just 51 cents. However, feeling flush with funds from my gas savings, I've also bought a couple dollars worth of food that I wouldn't have bought had I been in the Focus, adding another 60 cents of profit margin. If I were just a little spendier -- if I'd bought four dollar lunches instead of just two, I'd have contributed a total of $1.71 in profit margin to the station owners, more than I would have just buying gas for the Focus.

So what would happen if everyone found a way to buy less gas -- drive scooters and Priuses (Prii?), carpool, walk -- but dedicate some fraction of their savings, maybe 25%, to buying food from their local station owners. We all spend less money, our local station owners have less revenue but more profit margin. Hmmm... it seems the only party suffering in this equation is Big Oil -- boo hoo.

This casual calculation smells of a free lunch -- I welcome better informed economists and businesspeople to tell me what economic concepts and variables I've grossly misinterpreted.

Gorilla Project Doubts... from China!

I'm not fond of speculating about the Gorilla project in Elk Point, but if the project is a big refinery to make liquid fuel out of coal, we may be barking up the wrong tree. The Chinese -- who have a booming population to provide for and thus have not been terribly sensitive to environmental concerns in their push to catch up with the industrialized nations -- are considering halting their coal-to-oil projects, citing expense and water demands, as well as concerns that such plants would produce a net increase in greenhouse gases. Maybe Elk Point and the governor need a dose of ancient Chinese wisdom....

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Save Money -- Universalize Health Care!

The backs of my envelopes get no mercy...

I received my Social Security statement in the mail yesterday. In 18 glorious years as a member of the workforce, I've kicked in $3,346 toward Medicare. I paid more than that just last year for a crappy health insurance policy with a $7500 family deductible and a billing office that made a mistake every other time it sent us a notice. My initial reaction: my family would save money and get better coverage if the government let us buy into Medicare.

Now here are some completely speculative Saturday-morning calculations, corrections to which I welcome from better-educated policy wonks:

Consider that, according to an OECD survey I've cited earlier, government spending (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) already makes up 44.7% of health care expenditures. HHS tells me that the Medicaid budget is about 44% that of Medicare. Also note that my employers have matched my contributions to Medicare. So (with lots of rounding to zero decimal places):
  1. Total contribution of my employers and me to Medicare (over 18 years): $3,346 x 2 = $6,692
  2. Proportional contribution necessary to support Medicaid (18 years): $6,692 x 44% = $2,944
  3. Total proportional contribution from my labor to existing gov't health care (18 years): $9,636
  4. Contribution per year: $9636 / 18 = $535
  5. Assuming this contribution represents my share of 45% of US health care expenditures, additional proportional amount my employers and I would have had to contribute over the last 18 years to cover the remaining 55% of US health care expenditures: ($9,636 / 45%) - $9,636 = $11,921
  6. Total proportional contribution from my employers and me that would have been necessary to sustain a universal health care program over the past 18 years: $21,557
  7. Contribution per year: $21,557 / 18 = $1,197
  8. Amount I'm paying per year now for a private family health insurance plan (slightly better than the one we had last year, but still a $7500 family deductible): $2,700
  9. Amount my family could save each year if the US switched to universal, single-payer health care: $2700 - $1197 = $1,503 (that's two monthly mortgage payments, a month of groceries, and a couple extra pizzas!).
Now even if my calculations are off by a factor of two, my family would still come out ahead: even if the amount of money coming out of my employers' and my pockets to support universal health care equals the amount that I currently spend on private insurance, we're still saving buckets of money on the big deductible we currently face. (Remember: in addition to nearly $300 a month in premiums to our old insurer, we were still responsible for $12,000 of our maternity, labor, delivery, and nursery care last year.) Oh, Canada! We could go to universal health care and divert those buckets of money into other, more productive economic uses... like investment for college and retirement and job training for all the out-of-work insurance agents.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Tonight's Weather -- Wish You Were Here

And for my far away readers, a brief postcard from the tranquil shores of Lake Herman:

After yesterday's westerly gales and surprise thundershowers, I am pleased to report winds dropping to a mere whisper in the shelterbelt. It's 61 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 16 Celsius in Canada... 16.5 in Newfoundland) here on the south deck. Birds are singing lullabies, frogs looking for love, and skies clear to Venus, Saturn, and all points beyond. Have a blissful evening, everyone.

Madville Times to Madison School Board: Pick Me! Pick Me!

The Madison Central School Board meets Monday night to, among other things, appoint someone to fill an upcoming vacancy. Three seats came open this year, and only two citizens, incumbents Dennis Hegg and Mark Hawkes, filed petitions. The Board thus gets to pick the lucky soul who will serve in the remaining seat for the next three years.

To the Board, I humbly submit myself for consideration. I have spent my career in education, specializing in math and English, the core curriculum areas of the No Child Left Behind tests and the SATs. I have years of experience in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. I'm tech-savvy, which will be a good asset as Madison joins the high-school-wide laptops program this fall. And as Madison's most prolific blogger, I demonstrate the sort of straight talk and openness that the public is clamoring for from its elected (and, in this case, appointed) officials. I'll bet Madison would love to have a board member who would be able to provide the straight dope on what's going on in our school district. Wow -- I could even blog live from board meetings! How cool would that be?!

I know, I know, if I wanted to serve, I should have filed a petition. But back in February when petitions were made available, I had planned to return to Montrose for another year of teaching and coaching. Since then, I've changed course and chosen a new and exciting opportunity, doctoral studies in information systems (ooo -- even more tech savvy), that has opened up right here at DSU in Madison. So heck, I'll even be around town! Put me in, coach -- I'm ready to play!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Let's Hope Gorillas Don't Drink Beer

Oh, and on the subject of energy, biofuels are driving up the cost of beer in Germany. I suppose that could be a good thing -- more ethanol and biodiesel could mean fewer drunk drivers?

What Do You Give a Gorilla Project to Drink?

Twelve million gallons of water -- that's how much water the "Gorilla Project," a mysterious industrial project that may come to Elk Point, would consume (that's assuming a certain paper in Sioux Falls that still advertises smut is onto something in saying elements of the secret project mirror an liquid coal refinery in Illinois).

Whether the Gorilla Project is an coal refinery, an oil refinery, or a Cheerio factory, such numbers about the resource consumption of new industrial facilities are important to keep in mind. Elk Point may get 2000 new jobs, but it will also suck 12 million gallons of water from its aquifer or wells every day. That's 6000 gallons per day per job. For perspective, 12 million gallons a day is 40% of the capacity of the Lewis and Clark Rural Water project (which doesn't serve Elk Point, thank goodness, or it would dash the hopes of upstream communities like Harrisburg, Sioux Falls, and even Madison to use that new water to support population growth). Even the big ethanol plant in Watertown uses "only" two million gallons of water today, and I thought that was alarmingly high.

People need jobs, and the economy needs fuel. But one refinery slurping up 12 million gallons of water a day ought to make clear to us that simply producing more fuel is not the solution to our energy problems. It's bad enough going to war for oil; wars over water will be even worse. Instead of finding more ways to burn up more resources -- crops, topsoil, water -- just to maintain our rates of growth of fuel consumption, we need to face the reality that only conservation will provide a solid basis for our future economy. Small reductions now in how much we drive and buy and burn will allow our kids and grandkids to enjoy a safer, more stable ecnoomy. If we keep consuming, our descendants will find themselves having to make more drastic, disruptive cuts in their lifestyles. I really don't want my grandkids' taps to run dry just because we want more cheap fuel now.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Not the Arts We Were Looking For...

The Madville Times loves live music. We even like to pump up the volume every now and then. But we'd rather not have a thunderous live music event at midnight keeping the entire lake awake. Such was the case last night, as a rather raucous party with a live band thundered its music at the Madison Country Club until at least one a.m.

Madville Times World Headquarters sits one and a quarter crow-flying miles south of the country club. The windows were closed, a movie was playing (The Motorcycle Diaries -- a fun, beautiful, and thoughtful movie, enjoyable even if you aren't a communist revolutionary), and we could still hear the party. We can only imagine how thunderously loud the ruckus must have been to the dozens of families who live around the golf course and on nearby Pelican Point and Territorial Road.

It was obviously loud enough to draw several calls to the Lake County Sheriff's Department. When contacted at 12:20 p.m., the sheriff's dispatcher reported several calls about the noise had already been received. The dispatcher offered an assurance that a deputy would be sent out to the source of the noise. The deupty must have hit some heavy midnight traffic, as the band played on until at least 1:00 a.m.

To put this event in context, we've been talking a lot this week about the arts and the need for more music in our local life. More live music in Madison would be a wonderful improvement to our culture. However, arts should build community. They should express our neighborliness. if someone's going to host an arts event, I'd prefer to be invited to enjoy it rather than to have such an event barge into my living room and interrupt my other chosen entertainment (or my baby's precious slumber).

Such is the ethos followed by the Madville Times. I offer these small contributions to the local political and literary culture to all readers who feel like clicking and commenting. However, I don't plant viruses to reset everyone's homepage to the Madville Times or drive through neighborhoods shouting my latest entries by bullhorn into everyone's homes. Sharing the arts is one thing; forcing your particular arts on unwilling and uninvited listeners (especially after midnight) demonstrates an arrogance and lack of community spirit to be ashamed of.

Comments on the Pifer Opus: What Are We Missing?

MDL has just finished its run of Mr. Gale Pifer's four-part series on the arts in Madison. Pifer ends the series on a hopeful note in Friday's paper, offering a list of various groups, volunteers, and professional artists keeping the arts alive in the community. However, the series' overall message is that that noble corps of cultural crusaders -- Jim Swanson's writing group, middle school art teacher Ginny Freitag, wildlife artist John Green, arts promoter Beth Knuths, artist-author couple Allan and Eve Fisher, and our favorite local artist-entrepreneurs, Michael and Reina Hope -- are fighting a losing battle in the face of waning fiscal support for music and theater from our school district and the community at large.

Of course, the rhetorical structure of Pifer's opus makes sense. He offers a hard-hitting assessment of the problem but constantly intersperses reminders that Madison has a long tradition of great arts programs -- Bill Ireland's legendary high school band (and Jim Glanzer's profound influence on a full generation of middle school hornblowers and drum-pounders), lively theater from both SDSU's Prairie Rep and a community acting company started by Senator Mundt himself, a downtown art gallery with free art lessons for kids. These reminders of past arts achievements work in tandem with Pifer's optimistic ending to tell us that Madison can support a vigorous arts scene. We all just need to be willing to jump in and help.

So why don't we? Why do we accept our duly elected school board's prioritization of football (ten coaches for grades 7-12) over music (from what I read in the paper, one instructor for 6-12 band, one for 6-12 chorus, and one for elementary music)? How did we lose the ambition to stage community theater productions? Why did we let the city's need for more office space crowd out the old Firehouse Gallery without finding a way to ensure the city would help create a new community arts center?

Now I suppose the best supporter of the arts wouldn't sit around and ask these questions; he'd just get up and do make some art. And trust me: in the coming weeks, this artist will be out in the studio making more paintings. But this artist is also a blogger, with a compelling desire to sit around and chew on such questions (and maybe provoke you, loyal readers, to come up with some answers, if not solutions).

A conversation Friday evening with a former student, now just a friend, inclines me to wonder if economics plays role. This friend just moved to Madison and has been struggling to find a decent job. The want ads mostly seek wait staff and bartenders. Gehl has some welding positions that I hear pay $13 an hour, but even that doesn't go much farther than paying the basic bills for a small family. (My roughly $20 an hour barely does that, and I buy 90% of my teacher clothes at Goodwill.) Maybe people just can't afford a night out at a show.

But as far as I know, wages in Madison and South Dakota have never been very high. I'm not sure today's Madisonites are making significantly more or less than our predecessors. I'm not even willing to say wealth is more concentrated. We still have a large laboring and farming class that doesn't have a lot of spare money, but we also have an apparently growing class that can fuel a small housing boom on Lake Madison with some half- and three-quarter-million (do I hear one million?) McMansions. I see no clear indication that the town or county as a whole is poorer and thus less financially able to support the arts than it was in the 1960s or 1980s.

Maybe the regional wealth is relatively the same, but people are having to work harder to get it. Perhaps as we have shifted to the two-income household model, people find themselves having to work more hours just to keep up with their increasing taxes, tech bills (cell phone, wireless Internet, satellite TV -- all monthly budget expenses that hardly existed 20 years ago and haven't been offset by other immediate household savings), and daycare costs (another budget line item that has ballooned compared to previous decades' household budgets). If husband and wife are both out working all day to pay the bills, and if the kids are hustled through school and day care and other activities all day, by suppertime, the family may just want to spend time relaxing together at the homestead instead of running around town to arts events.

That explanation may not cover the issue entirely, either, since we still have hundreds of people regularly finding time to pack the gym for basketball games. Maybe we come back to priorities: in the old days (and I welcome my senior readers to correct any rose-colored glasses viewing of a false past here), maybe folks had time to see a couple games a week and catch a show or even volunteer to perform on stage or do some fundraising for the band.

I don't have a clear answer on this question. But something has clearly changed. Madison used to support more arts activities. It could support a similar number of arts programs now, but somehow the collective will has not formed to make that happen. Is the economy stopping us, or is it something else? Some mysterious demographic shift that has pushed creative types away? An influx of yahoos? Some shift in our education system that has promoted a devaluation of the arts? The answer to that question is the only thing missing from Gale Pifer's otherwise thorough and welcome discussion of the state of the arts in Madison.