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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Black Friday Indeed: Consumerism Kills

Reverend Billy, this is serious: we need you now more than ever.

On the Black Friday death by consumer frenzy of Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour, Mr. Epp's RSS feed list points me to neighbor Dale at SW Minnesota's Corner House Comments, who says exactly what I was thinking on the long grey drive home yesterday.

The facts: about 2000 bargain hunters lined up at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart on Long Island in the wee hours Friday morning. They started pushing, busted the doors open a few minutes early, and trampled Mr. Damour to death. The sale-crazed shoppers put four other people in the hospital, including a pregnant woman. The rushing crowd also pushed aside workers who tried to assist Damour and others. Minutes later, when the store announced everyone had to leave due to the death and injuries, shoppers complained that they had been in line since Thursday morning and kept shopping.

The meaning: this is what unbridled consumerism gets us. 2,000 people participated in mass murder... or murder by the savage masses. 2,000 people killed a man, not for justice, not in some understandable (excusable?) panic from fire or flood, but for greed. It is sufficiently idiotic that in their burning desire to accumulate more cheap plastic junk from China, these Long Islanders—these fellow Americans—sacrificed sleep, family time, and even in some cases the entire Thanksgiving holiday. But Friday morning, they sacrificed a life, and their own humanity.

The consequences: Here's what should happen:

--Every identifiable shopper on the surveillance cameras who ran through those doors at 4:55 a.m. should be charged as an accessory to murder, arrested, booked, and scheduled for trial... on Friday, November 27, 2009. Hold the trial at Shea Stadium, require every defendant to check in by 5 a.m. Require each one testify publicly, on the Jumbotron, just what consumer product was so important that they had to kill a man to get it. No one leaves until every defendant has testified. Then dismiss the charges. We probably cannot gather sufficient evidence to establish the direct culpability of any one person, and our legal system isn't built to punish crowds. This public shaming and the denial of their precious shopping privileges next Black Friday is perhaps the best we can manage.

--Shut down Wal-Mart... for one day. Wal-Mart should close every one of its stores on Friday, November 27, 2009, to remind itself and the rest of us of the crime in which our shared avarice makes us all complicit. If Wal-Mart wants to continue that tradition and remain closed on every Black Friday, that's fine by me. But Wal-Mart needs at least once to say, "Our policies, our advertising, our pursuit of profit led to the death of an employee. People are more important than profit. We will sacrifice the profit of the biggest shopping day of the year, because it's not worth people dying."

--Require the networks to broadcast What Would Jesus Buy? every year on Thanksgiving. During the Thanksgiving football games and other programming that day, impose a modified Fairness Doctrine: for every five minutes of Black Friday sales ads, give Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping 30 seconds of PSA time.

--And the rest of us? Enjoy Thanksgiving. Sleep in. Refuse to roll out of bed at 2 a.m. for something as meaningless as cheap DVDs. Reject the hype of all those ads for door-buster sales—false urgency is a bedrock of marketing... but you can bet this junk will all be discounted again and again. And for Christ's sake (and this atheist uses phrase literally), remember what the holiday season is supposed to be about.

Update 14:00 CST: More on this story:

Bush Easing EPA Rules on Feedlots

Realizing deregulation got a bad name this year, President Bush is busy pushing a rash of new regulations... which really just translate into more favors for corporations at the expense of common folks and common sense. Here's what appears to be another example:

The EPA is implementing new rules for confined animal feeding operations—CAFOs, those big factory farm feedlots that can become environmental nightmares when not properly managed and regulated. This press release, apparently from the EPA and posted in an industry newsletter, makes it sound like the new regulations will prevent all sorts of water pollution. Come December 22, the EPA will require CAFO operators to submit a nutrient management plan with their Clean Water Act permits to address nitrogen and phosphorus from manure.

Now that sounds great... if the CAFO operator is filing a Clean Water Act permit. Check out this paragraph from the press release:

The regulation also requires that an owner or operator of a CAFO that actually discharges to streams, lakes, and other waters must apply for a permit under the Clean Water Act. If a farmer designs, constructs, operates and maintains their facility such that a discharge will occur, a permit is needed. EPA is also providing an opportunity for CAFO operators who do not discharge or propose to discharge to show their commitment to pollution prevention by obtaining certification as zero dischargers [Dave Ryan, EPA, "Manure: EPA Finalizes CAFO Rule," Water and Wastewater.com, 2008.11.17].

"...a CAFO that actually discharges...." How do we know if a CAFO requesting a permit will discharge any waste? Why, they'll tell us, of course:

... [EPA Region 7 Administrator John] Askew described two major provisions of a new agricultural strategy that flows from the Clean Water Act.

One would allow owners of livestock farms to opt out of discharge permit requirements if they can certify that they are not at risk of run-off emergencies....

Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch is troubled by an approach that allows large livestock farms, known as confined animal feeding operations, to certify that they don’t need discharge permits because they say they are not at risk of discharging.

As far as he can tell, there’s no provision made for EPA to verify those certifications.

“That’s our problem,” Corbo said, “that there’s no oversight over this self-certification. So that’s a major issue" [Art Hovey, "Livestock Operations Await New Rules for Manure Pollution," Lincoln JournalStar, 2008.11.28].

Despite my frequent manure spreading here on the blog, I don't raise cattle and can't claim expertise on feedlot operations. But allowing factory farms to opt out of environmental permitting on their own good word sounds like letting me opt out of getting a building permit just because I tell Zoning Officer Deb Reinicke, "Oh, don't worry, Deb, I'll build it so it won't fall over."

Next up from the Bush Administration: formal USDA recognition of foxes as henhouse guards.

Tribes Sue to Stop Keystone Pipeline

Forget the cavalry—maybe the Indians can save us! I was pleased to read this week that the Sisseton-Wahpeton, Rosebud, Santee, and Yankton Sioux peoples are suing the U.S. State Department to stop further work on TransCanada's Keystone pipeline in North and South Dakota. Treaty violations! say our fellow prairie dwellers. The current suit appears to only cover Keystone I here in eastern Dakota Territory, although maybe the tribes will have a similar argument if the State Department approves Keystone II across West River.

The rain spirits haven't been smiling on the project; perhaps we'll luck out and have a judge or two take the same position.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Vet Debt: Student Loan Forgiveness Could Ease Rural Veterinarian Shortage

It 's hard enough finding a doctor in rural South Dakota (that free market thingy is working so gosh-darn well for us). Apparently South Dakota's horses, cows, and other big critters have fewer health care choices as well: Chuck Clement reports in Friday's Madison Daily Leader that rural South Dakota has a worsening veterinarian shortage.

If you ride your horse to work in Sioux Falls or Rapid City, don't worry: apparently 39% of our vet's offices and 42% of vet-science workers are based in those two cities. But out in the small towns, our vets are getting older, and the vet schools aren't getting a lot of applicants to fill the pipeline.

Now I haven't looked into whether a universal single-payer not-for-profit coverage system would work the wonders on animal health care that it would for people health care. But Clement's article does point toward one parallel between the veterinarian and doctor shortages in rural South Dakota: both stem in part from high student debt. Young doctors graduate with $150K–$250K in debt; young vets graduate with an average debt of "only" $107K, but starting salaries are also a lot less for vets than for docs. When med or vet students graduate with that much debt, they can't afford to take a realtively low-paying job in Arlington or Bison, not if they want to get free and clear of that starting debt so they can buy a house and start a family.

I guess we could let the free market decide that 64 out of South Dakota's 66 counties just aren't worth having veterinarians or doctors. Or we could take some of that bailout money and use it to stimulate the rural economy.

How about this: declare medical and veterinary work to be national service. Fund an expansion of veterinary and medical schools at universities in rural areas (note to my neighbor Gerry Lange: let's see that bill of yours for a vet school at SDSU on January's agenda!). Forgive new vets' and docs' student debt, or at least give them zero-interest loans. Let's keep the rural economy healthy!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Great Expectations 2009: We Raise the Bar for Obama

In a good essay about that deals more with our national soul than the economy, David Newquist makes the following observations about the significance of the coming Obama administration:

At least with the Obama regime, people who expect better of their government and say so will not be termed disloyal and unpatriotic. And people who expect better of our business community and say so will not be termed communist and anti-free-enterprise. And people who are smart and work hard and attain good educations and establish impressive achievements will not be dismissed as elitist [David Newquist, "Better Prospects for the Economy," Northern Valley Beacon, 2008.11.27].

Newquist's mention of our expectations makes me think of one distinct strand of sour grapes coming from the nattering nabobs of Nobama negativism: the frequent warnings that Obama can't live up to his supporters' expectations.

It must be simply crushing for the bitter fringe of the radical right to see the destroyer of their party, Mr. Low Expectations himself, George W. Bush, replaced by a Democrat of whom we actually expect performance. As a teacher and coach, I've always thought it better to hold students to the highest expectations, to say, "Forget the easy stuff—let's go for something big!" The same high expectations are all the more appropriate for the leader of the free world.

When I say I expect great things of President Barack Hussein Obama, I'm not praising him. I'm setting goals, standards of achievement to which he must rise. I won't say to our President, "Oh, just do what you can, try not to bump into the nuclear button, and that'll be fine." America and the world deserve better, and we should keep the pressure on our President to aim high.

For the last eight years, we seem to have forgotten that the Presidency is a high jump, not a limbo contest. Fellow lefties, keep that bar high. Mr. Obama, let's see some vertical!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Conspiracy Theories: Morgellons, Sam Adams, and Big Oil

Thanksgiving is the time for turkey and conspiracy theories at the Madville Times extended family gathering. My brother-in-law suggests we watch out for something called morgellons, a mysterious skin rash he suggests may be connected with Project Bluebeam and the Illuminati.

Oh my. I'll settle for for my own nutty idea that along with its overt online operations, the Sam Adams Alliance was also pursuing a coordinated campaign to clutter up the comment sections of liberal blogs with their favorite anti-leftist/Marxist/Messiah memes and Lee-Atwater-style personal attacks to throw us off our guard. Clever....

And now for a conspiracy theory that you might actually believe: my lovely and well-read wife contends that Big Oil is artificially deflating oil prices. They cahootsify with speculators to crank up the price as high as they could and build up a nice nest egg of record-breaking profits. They draw investors into the alternative energy market to sink big money into ethanol and other alternative fuels. Then they slam on the brakes and hold oil prices below the level where ethanol can compete. Big Oil has the reserves to ride out a year or two of losses; VeraSun et al. do not. Crush the alternative energy start-ups, lull the rest of us into complacency, put off any serious market challengers for another decade or two.

Don't get me wrong: I'm thrilled that the trip to G-ma and G-pa's house will only cost $32 this Thanksgiving instead of $61 as it did back in April. But the precipitous drop in gasoline prices, seemingly out of proportion with falling demand and rising supply, suggest market manipulation. (Of course, one wry editor jokes the conspirators are us!)

Conspiracy or no, will we retreat from red-alert status on kicking our oil addiction? I'd like to think we won't repeat the short-sightedness of the 1980s and 1990s, when we happily put the oil shocks of the 1970s behind us and built our lives, parking lots, and Detroit business model around ever bigger vehicles. I'd also like to think President-Elect Obama has the moral courage and long-term vision to not let us forget $4-a-gallon gasoline and to stick with his plan to create those millions of green-collar jobs.

So go ahead, engage in some happy over-consumption at the dinner table. Pass me another drumstick and an extra plop of dressing (o.k., two plops). But then go for a walk, burn off that turkey, and cast a wary eye, if not on those invisible satellites the Illuminati are launching, then on those strangely low gas prices at the corner gas station.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Doctors in Countries with Socialized Medicine? Data, Please....

Oh look! Some early turkey in my inbox! ;-)

"Ronald S. Bank, M.D." sends me an e-mail with nothing but the following subject line: "Good luck trying to find MDs willing to work for nothing in single payer."

Right, Dr. Ron. Our glorious market-based health care system is why the United States ranks 42nd worldwide in physicians per capita, ahead of those godless socialists in Canada, but behind Denmark, Ukraine, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Germany, France, Portugal, Israel, and even Cuba, all of which I suspect have some sort of nationalized health coverage.

So, Dr. Ron, when Obama and Daschle get done reforming health care, be sure to send me a postcard from your new office in Zimbabwe.

Obama: Electoral Mandate? Maybe. Situational Mandate? Yes.

So does Todd's man-crush have a man-date? Not according to Professor Schaff:

Another constraint on Obama is that he cannot really claim a mandate. First, winning 53 percent of the popular vote is not exactly a landslide. Also, those who voted for him did so for differing reasons. Some voted for him because of his Iraq policy. For some it was the financial meltdown. Some people had a nebulous desire for “change” that had no policy content. Some Obama voters, in fact, didn't really vote for Obama at all as much as against George Bush and the Republicans [Jon Schaff, "Constraints on President Obama," South Dakota Politics, 2008.11.25].

Just for fun, let's take a trip in the Internet Wayback Machine, to a Nov. 23, 2004 post from SDP founder Jason Van Beek, who cited the following from Lyn Nofziger:

In reality, the president can thank Republican gains in the Senate and House for giving credibility to his claims of a mandate. The defeat of the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, was, next to Mr. Bush's own win, the Republicans' most significant victory.

The GOP gained four Senate seats in 2004. So far in 2008, Dems have gained seven.

In fairness, Nofziger's own thesis was that claims of a Bush mandate in 2004 were hot air. Obama won bigger than Bush by most counts (exception: Bush 2004 pulled 31 states; Obama 2008 pulled 28 plus DC), but do we call it a mandate? Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says you betcha... but what does Chris Cillizza know—he thought Badlands Blue was South Dakota's best political blog. (Chris—get out and read more!)

Maybe the mandate is defined not so much by the vote total as by the situation. In 2004, Bush claimed a mandate, but neither he nor the rest of the country seemed to know what to do with it. In 2008, everybody's attention is focused squarely on one overarching issue: keeping Mundt in Madison—oops! I mean, fixing the economy. Obama and everybody else knows exactly what he needs to be doing on Day 1; heck, he's already doing in on Day T-minus 55.

Even lots of folks who didn't vote for Obama want him to do something about this economy. Even if Obama's specific policy responses won't win everyone's support, that almost universal desire for action and solutions constitutes the closest thing to a mandate we've had since 1980.

South Dakota Higher Ed Cheap, But Students Still in Debt

Just after some interesting discussion here about student loans, Republic Insider Seth Tupper points out a surprising and logic-defying news item: A survey from the Project on Student Debt finds that South Dakota's collge graduates are incurring more debt than the national average. Some key facts:
  • South Dakota students who graduated from college in 2007 with debt: 81%
  • Percentage of 2007 college grads in same boat nationwide: 59%
  • Average debt carried by South Dakota's 2007 college grads: $22,254
  • Nationwide 2007 college grad debt average: $20,098
  • Average debt of grads from private Augustana College: $18,836
  • Average debt of grads from public South Dakota State University: $20,804
The logic-defying part here: South Dakota ranks below the national average and median for college tuition (I'm still looking for some updated stats: here's a USA Today 2006 sample of public universities in all 50 states, some national 2006-2007 numbers, and the South Dakota Board of Regents numbers for 2006-2007 [PDF alert!]). South Dakota students supposedly have that unique work ethic that should mean they'll work harder and earn more cash to pay for college up front. How on earth could more of our students end up in debt?

SDSU financial aid director Jay Larsen isn't surprised: he tells Steve Young that one problem is that South Dakota's per capita income is low, so folks here can't afford college as easily as our neighbors. His counterpart at Augie, Brenda Murtha, notes that another problem is our stingy state government: Minnesota offers needy college students $7,000 grants. Other neighboring states have similar programs. South Dakota has no need-based grant program.

Now sure, we have one of the lowest loan default rates in the nation, so evidently our students are able to make their education pay off. But the Mitchell Daily Republic rightly notes that a big debt burden on young professionals is bad for South Dakota. Debt restricts one's job choices, limits the amount of career exploration and risk one can take right out of college. Debt also pressures fresh graduates to take the highest-paying job on the table... which all too often is going to be a job across the border in Minnesota or somewhere else that can beat South Dakota's wages.

I know any proposals for increased spending in South Dakota's 2010 budget are likely dead in the water. But South Dakota needs to look for ways to alleviate this high student debt burden. Raising wages would be the best strategy, although that's also the hardest to achieve. We could increase state funding to the universities to support a tuition decrease (the laughter you hear comes from the Board of Regents).

Or maybe, just maybe, we need to encourage students to pursue more affordable options. Maybe some of that extra debt burden is from young people going to university as if it were grades 13–16, going because that's what Mom and Dad and the guidance counselor told them they were supposed to do. Many students go straight to university after high school and drif along, waiting for some bright career idea to hit, then having to take a couple extra semesters to make up for a wasted freshman year. Many students would benefit from waiting, working for a year or two, and letting nine-to-five reality focus their vision on what they want from university. Maybe they'll realize that they don't even need university, that the job they really want to do only requires a two-year program at Southeast or Mitchell Tech.

Our wage gap neutralizes the advantages of our cheap tuition. South Dakota should act to close that gap and ease the debt burden on graduates. But students may be able to avoid that debt burden in the first place by taking time to decide whether they really want and need a university education.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DSU President Chooses Off-Campus Housing

Dakota State University is moving its president's home off-campus and uptown. MDL's Elisa Sand reports that DSU is trading the Girton House, on North Washington Avenue, right by the southeast corner of campus, for swankier digs on in Madison's wealthy northeast neighborhood, known by some as "Snob Hill", about seven blocks from the President's office in Heston Hall.

How much swankier? The new president's residence is Gene and Margie Phillips "old" house at 1022 NE 9th Street. The Phillips were trying to sell the house online at MadisonSDHouseforSale.com for several months. That website has gone poof, but a cached version from MSN offers the following description:

This 4 bedroom, 3 1/2 bath home was designed by Bob Visser, a Sioux Falls, SD architect. Built in 2001, it has 4050 sq. ft. of living space and 1300 sq. ft. of storage plus a heated garage with 3 stalls / shop or 4 stalls.

Geothermal heats and cools the house at minimal cost. There are 2 fireplaces that assure comfort year round. The landscaped yard has 3 patio areas surrounded by red-leaf birch, maple, evergreen trees and perennials; plus guest parking.

NEW PRICING - $399,000
Creative Financing Available

Creative financing indeed. As Sand reports, the DSU Foundation is buying the house from the Phillipses, "long-time university supporters" who have promised some "substantial gifts to the Foundation." It sounds like a win-win for all parties concerned. The Phillipses unload an expensive property that apparently wasn't moving in the Madison market (Madison's McMansion crowd must all be moving to the lake). The DSU Foundation makes some donors happy and gets assurances of future donations. DSU gets to house its president in a bigger house with better handicap accessibility and infrastructure... not to mention more room to host fundraising events.

A little history on the Girton House: The DSU Historical Archives note that the state bought the Girton House in 1921 as overflow dorm space for Eastern State Normal School for $8,417.80. The Board of Regents tried to sell it during the Depression, but the best offer they got was $1,750. The Regents said, "No deal!" Eastern State Teachers College (oh, how DSU's name does change!) thus moved President V.A. Lowry into the Girton House in 1935. So perhaps we again have a connection between a weak housing market and a change in the president's residence.

The Girton House won't face the bulldozer: evidently DSU plans to preserve it. Perhaps it will again serve as overflow dorm housing. And maybe, just maybe, the Girton House will provide some more spare rooms for hosting Mundt Debate!

Obama Picks Smart People for Economic Team

Some of my favorite words from President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama's announcement of his economic team yesterday:
  • Of Treasury Secretary appointee Tim Geithner: "...unparalleled understanding of our current economic crisis, in all of its depth, complexity and urgency... unique insight... clear vision...."
  • Of National Economic Council Director appointee Larry Summers: "...a thought leader... one of the great economic minds of our time... his thinking, writing, and speaking have set the terms of the debate."
  • Of Council of Economic Advisors chair appointee Christina Romer: "...one of the most expert people in America on economic crises and how to solve them... a leading macroeconomist and a leading economic historian... has done groundbreaking research...."
  • Of Domestic Policy Council Director appointee Melody Barnes: "...one of the most respected policy experts in America... brilliant legal mind...."
Better put your anti-intellectualism back on the shelf. This is more than "glorious, glorious competence"; this is Obama saying we need the smartest kids in the class running the show. Now that's real change!

Another smart choice: Peter Orszag to direct the Office of Management and Budget. Graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, M.Sc. and Ph.D. as Marshall Scholar at London School of Economics... and as I noted back in January, he blogs from his current job as director of the Congressional Budget Office! Smart and wired—exactly the kind of people we need to make Economy 2.0 (and Government 2.0) work!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama on Health Care: Reform "Integral" to Economic Recovery

SD Blogosphere Chairman of Thoughtful Conservatism Ken Blanchard was on Dakota Midday today trying really hard to wish away big health care reform from the Obama administration. Blanchard contended there's less chance now of major reform than there was in 1993: 2009 promises a worse economic situation, plus the prospect of millions of baby boomers getting ready to bankrupt our retiree programs.

Better check with our next President, Ken: he's having none of your negativism. Said President-Elect Obama at today's press conference to announce his economic team:

So I am extraordinarily pleased that Melody Barnes, one of the most respected policy experts in America, will be serve as my director of domestic -- the Domestic Policy Council, and that she will be working hand-in-hand with my economic policy team to chart a course to economic recovery. An integral part of that course will be health care reform, and she will work closely with my secretary of Health and Human Services on that issue [emphasis mine; President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama, press conference, Chicago, 2008.11.24].

Obama mentioned health care reform as a key part of economic recovery in response to a subsequent question as well. Health care reform is totally on Obama's radar... and it has to be.

Some folks may wonder how we find the money to pay for health care reform in addition to an economic recovery package. They miss the point: Obama is telling us that we need to pay for health care reform as part of our economic recovery. Ken is wrong; there is no better time than right now, this crisis, to make health care more affordable for every American.

A few hundred billion to pay for check-ups, pills, and heart operations—hey, sounds better than handing that money to gamblers on Wall Street.

Affordable Housing A-Plenty: USDA Mutual Self Help Program Expanding to Madison

Elisa Sand reports in Friday's MDL that Interlakes Community Action is hoping to provide more affordable housing in Madison through the USDA's Mutual Self Help Housing program. A USDA fact sheet (PDF alert!) says the program has been in existence for over 40 years (perhaps some of that socialism that darned LBJ foisted on everyone?), helping over 15,000 rural American families build affordable homes.

The concept is pretty cool: find three to six low-income families looking to get into decent housing of their own. They work together to build each other's houses—neighborly sweat equity to keep costs down. The families do all the work but the plumbing and electrical. ICAP or USDA provides all the tools. No one moves in until everybody's house is done, thus keeping everybody motivated until the last nail is pounded and last cabinet handle is screwed in.

ICAP has made progress with the program, building a hundred homes in Brookings and Watertown since 1997. At first I thought this program might replace one of my favorites, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, but the two programs evidently co-exist well enough in Brookings, where Habitat has been building like gangbusters lately. It could be that the USDA/ICAP program serves a slightly higher niche in the housing market: Sand's report says Mutual Self Help puts up houses with mortgages of $90K and total value of $130K, while Habitat usually aims for houses that cost less than that, maybe around $80K. The two programs also have different funding sources: ICAP's project has federal backing, while Habitat runs completely on private donations.

I look forward to seeing Habitat and ICAP putting up good homes for low-income families. Heck, if this keeps up, the LAIC may not have to spend any funds on truly affordable housing (maybe they'll be able to transfer more Forward Madison money to the Main Street program... which, by the way, we haven't heard a word about since last spring—what gives?).

Mundt Debate: Think Bigger, Not Smaller

Madison Central Superintendent Vince Schaefer and Madison High School Principal Sharon Knowlton extended me the courtesy of taking an hour from their busy schedules to discuss my concerns and the district's plans for the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament. During that meeting, Principal Knowlton asked we needed to be having all this public discussion (i.e., my blog posts and your occasionally stern comments, dear readers) about a school matter that the district can handle "behind the scenes."

Well, she didn't really ask so much as rhetorically scold. That's o.k.—I know how hard it can be to switch from chewing out backtalking teenagers to having a genuine exchange of ideas with a fellow adult.

In case Mrs. Knowlton actually wanted an answer to her question, I would note that "behind the scenes" is exactly the wrong way to conduct public affairs. Folks in Madison and around the state get the feeling that their local and state governments are just good old boys' clubs that make their decisions behind closed doors to avoid public input and scrutiny. That impression weakens public confidence in their public institutions, which can translate into a lack of support, which can translate into a lack of funding (how of us want to hand more tax dollars to an entity we don't trust?).

Open government and open discussion of public policy build public confidence. When we discuss matters of public concern like keeping the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament in Madison, we should not seek to hide or narrow the discussion. We should seek input from as many perspectives as practical, so we can make decisions based on a variety of views about the value and practical challenges of hosting a debate tournament.

In that spirit, I reprint below my letter to the editor of the Madison Daily Leader, published Friday, November 21, on page 3. I also reprint because MDL doesn't have an instant comment section, and your comments are as important to public discourse as my conversation-starters.

To the Editor, Madison Daily Leader:

The Friday, November 14 Madison Daily Leader story on Madison High School's desire to scale down its support of the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament carried a number of statements that are, at the very least, open to debate, if not counterfactual. I have already discussed those statements online and in person with the Madison Central administration.

My greater concern, and the greater point missed in MDL's coverage of Mundt (as we debate veterans fondly call the tournament) is a practical one: If we downsize the tournament, which the school district appears to consider desirable and necessary, even if DSU helps, we will likely lose the tournament to Harrisburg or some other town. Coaches want their kids to have as many chances to compete as possible. Scaling down Mundt is like telling basketball teams that they can only bring their starters, no bench or JV, or that because our gym is a little small, we're only playing four-on-four.

Teams won't come to Madison for a smaller Mundt. They'll go to a tournament and a town that can find the resources and the ambition to host a full tournament.

The Mundt Debate Tournament is a great Madison institution:

  • The contest honors Senator Mundt, one of numerous distinguished graduate of MHS and the Bulldog Debate Team.
  • Mundt brings busloads of business to our restaurants and motels on an otherwise cold and quiet February weekend.
  • Mundt showcases our high school and the DSU campus.
  • Mundt helps build the Bulldog Debate Team and recruit new members, as it spotlights debate in our community, gives kids a home contest that Mom and Dad can easily come watch, and offers a team-building exercise as the students help run the tournament.
  • It's an exciting competition, the last regular-season debate tournament, and a great learning experience for hundreds of kids from all over South Dakota.

Principal Sharon Knowlton has said running the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament is "overwhelming." If the school needs help running Mundt, my hand is up. I could set Mundt up and run it from my computer... from my couch, if I had to. Mundt certainly requires effort, but it does an overwhelming amount of good for our community.

Madison has a long tradition of excellence in speech activities, going back to Senator Mundt himself and the school's charter membership since the 1920s in the National Forensic League. A key part of that tradition is Madison's successful hosting of the Mundt Debate Tournament for 41 years.

If we say Mundt is too big, that we can't handle the contest without downsizing it, we will lose that tradition. Instead of asking how we can Mundt smaller, we should be asking what we could do to bring more kids to Mundt, to give more kids more educational opportunities.

We ought to do it, and we can do it. Let's keep Mundt in Madison!

[Cory Allen Heidelberger, Madison Daily Leader, 2008.11.21, p. 3.]

Can Madison High School host Mundt? Do we say we're too small to do big things? Or do we look beyond our limitations and find the spirit to be bigger and better?

As always, your public comments are welcome.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

No Time to Waste: President Obama Now!

While President Bush takes up his tattered pom-poms again to schlep mostly ignored from conference to conference and cheer "Free markets! Free markets! Free-ee-ee-ee Markets!", Thomas Friedman wishes the inaugration could happen now:

What we can do now, though, said the Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, co-author of “The Broken Branch,” is “ask President Bush to appoint Tim Geithner, Barack Obama’s proposed Treasury secretary, immediately.” Make him a Bush appointment and let him take over next week. This is not a knock on Hank Paulson. It’s simply that we can’t afford two months of transition where the markets don’t know who is in charge or where we’re going. At the same time, Congress should remain in permanent session to pass any needed legislation.

This is the real “Code Red.” As one banker remarked to me: “We finally found the W.M.D.” They were buried in our own backyard — subprime mortgages and all the derivatives attached to them.

Yet, it is obvious that President Bush can’t mobilize the tools to defuse them — a massive stimulus program to improve infrastructure and create jobs, a broad-based homeowner initiative to limit foreclosures and stabilize housing prices, and therefore mortgage assets, more capital for bank balance sheets and, most importantly, a huge injection of optimism and confidence that we can and will pull out of this with a new economic team at the helm [Thomas Friedman, "We Found the W.M.D.," New York Times, 2008.11.22].

President Bush has two months left. He could take bold action to fight the economic downturn. Forget replacing his Cabinet with Obama's; fire Dick Cheney, appoint Barack Obama Vice-President, get Congress's approval tomorrow, and then resign.

Bailout: Throw Money at Success

Forget bailouts; let's build boats that float!

Robert Reich offers an explanation of the perverse narcissism of Wall Street (and the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, which share Wall Street's mindset) that thinks Citigroup deserves a bailout while General Motors does not. Nutshell: Big financiers want to believe that they are special, that their money games are more vital to the economy than manufacturing real goods, not to mention the jobs and communities GM more directly supports.

Reich is no champion of free money for GM, either: he notes that both GM and Citigroup are in trouble because of their own management blunders. He just wonders why, if we have tax dollars (or unused deficit capacity) to throw at losers, we don't help the losers who do more immediate good for American workers.

Listening to Bob Edwards Weekend yesterday, I heard a NASA supporter, maybe an astronaut in training, respond to a question about whether we can afford to fund NASA when we have to deal with the economic crisis. He noted that NASA's budget ($17.3 billion this year) is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars we are throwing at failing banks. [Paraphrasing] "Instead of throwing money at failure," he said, "maybe we should try throwing money at success."

Throw money at success. We can conjure up hundreds of billions of non-existent dollars to protect bankers and investors who made selfish, stupid choices. Yet we scrape together maybe $20 billion next year for brave women and men who risk their lives for science, exploration, and the future hope of mankind (not to mention GPS and Google Earth).

Want to stimulate the economy, or even just keep it alive? Let Citigroup and GM sink. Let's throw money after some winners. I'll bet $700 billion could build a whole lot of moon rockets and Mars Rovers (how about Pluto Rovers?!).

Or if you don't want to build the Enterprise, let's look around for some successful existing enterprises that deserve a reward. Someone out there has got to be making good products, services, and investments. Maybe we should match every dollar we hand to losers like Citigroup and GM with a dollar to winners like First Bank of Madison and American-based Toyota factories (oops, wait a minute...).

I can think of a host of success stories whom we could reward with some economic stimulus:
  • South Dakota teachers: producing above-average graduates on the lowest teacher wages in the nation. Dump some $10,000 bonuses on them; those teachers will spend that money on books, computers, decks and landscaping....
  • Soldiers: National Guards leaving their jobs and families for mulitple tours, dodging snipers and roadside bombs, coming home with lifelong injuries. Time for some bonuses. Big bonuses. Three million personnel in the regular ranks and reserves, $10,000 each, extra for war-zone duty... $100 billion would cover that.
  • College graduates: let's forgive student loans! But not every student loan: Uncle Sam let's you off the hook, but only if you get straight 4.0 (o.k., maybe a 3.6), and only if you get it done in four years. No dinking around—the economy needs you!
I'm sure you can come up with your own list of winners, of individuals and organizations who have made good decisions, who done real good for their communities, and who are so much mroe deserving of a fat economic stimulus check than myopically, incompentently managed corporate behemoths. Write down your list, send it to your Congresspeople and President-Elect Obama.

When you bet on the stock market or the horses, you generally don't lay your money on a losing streak. You look for proven performance. Let's stop throwing money at failure. Let's look for programs and people—like NASA, teachers, and soldiers—who continue to prove they can succeed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

McGovern and Students Tout Debate

Good morning from Mitchell! I'm on the road judging, this weekend at the 17th Annual George McGovern Forensic Invitational at Mitchell High School.

And the moment I get to Mitchell, I am greeted not just by the Corn Palace, not just by the jackalope outside the Thunderbird Lodge (though those are always welcome sights!), but by the tournament's namesake, Senator George S. McGovern. South Dakota's elder statesman opened the tournament with some recollections of his own experience as a Mitchell Kernel debater.

McGovern recalled his first experience on the debate team: Coach Bob Pierson asked young McGovern to give a ten-minute speech on that year's resolution, that the United States should adopt a unicameral legislature. New even to the term unicameral, McGovern managed barely a minute of commentary on the topic. Coach Pierson complimented the speech and proceeded to turn McGovern into a state champion debater.

That debate experience, said McGovern, was the best part of his high school education. Debate opened doors for McGovern, and he never had a job he didn't like. Debate also introduced him to his wife Eleanor: their first meeting came in a high school debate when she and her sister Ila came down from Woonsocket to beat George and his partner. (Go Woonsocket!) McGovern told the students gathered for this weekend's contest that they will never regret their experience in high school debate.

* * * * *
The students on the Mitchell Kernel debate team feel the same way about hosting the McGovern Invitational. An article on the tournament from the Mitchell HS Kernel newspaper (a fine looking high school publication!) offers the following:

"Having a home tournament is cool because we get to go home at the end of the day, and also because it gives Mitchell as a community the opportunity to contribute to the forensics circuit," said junior Wendy Sivik [Aaron Eggert, "Debate to Host McGovern Tournament Tomorrow," Mitchell HS Kernel, 2008.11.20].

Well said, Wendy!

Friday, November 21, 2008

GMAC Applies to Become Bank, Get Bailout Funds

Why didn't I think of this? I've been grumbling about how the government never sends me (or Jane's Electric, or Miller Construction, or any other working folks) a bailout check if I make bad investments and wind up in deep debt.

GMAC, the branch of General Motors that handles your financing when you buy a Chevy, must have felt left out, too. But they've found a way to turn grumbling to green: they are applying to become a bank so they can expand the services they offer customers... and so they can qualify for federal bank bailout funds.

Brilliant. Abso-gosh-darn-lutely brilliant. If the rest of GM were that crafty about ways to make money, they'd be buying Toyota and Honda.

Hand me an application: it's time to open the Madville Times Bank and Trust!

Deal or No Deal: Insurers Willing to Trade Pre-Existing Conditions for Nationwide Massachusetts Plan

Add another sign to my list of indicators something big is coming for health care: health insurers are proposing their own plans to work toward universal coverage. Remember, insurers played a big role in torpedoing the last big effort at health care reform in 1993–94. The insurance companies may still vigorously oppose real national health insurance, but they are putting a plan on the table that includes a big concession on their part. The deal, according to the New York Times: two insurance industry trade groups say they'll guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions if the government requires everyone to buy health insurance.

I'm generally suspicious of insurance companies, an industry that makes its money by finding clever ways not to provide the service its customers pay for. This bid feels like a negotiating position, offered to talk the government down from doing something bigger, like full-scale single-payer not-for-profit universal coverage. The insurers are offering RomneyCare to avoid KucinichCare. As the NY Times points out, even if the insurers promise not to formally deny coverage to folks with cancer or heart disease or even a history of complications in preganancy, they might still charge prohibitively expensive premiums for those applicants.

To their credit, the insurers are playing the game well, offering a plan that goes beyond the plan President-Elect Obama offered during the campaign to mandate coverage just for children. However, like my nocturnal friend Stan, I worry about ending up with a hybrid plan that combines the worst of various systems.

Getting rid of exclusions for pre-existing conditions is a big, vital, and moral step toward health care reform. But mandating the purchase of private insurance isn't a step toward reform when much of the inefficiency and bureaucracy in our health care system lies in the private insurance market. That's why I opposed the private insurance mandates proposed by Romney, Clinton, and Obama. If we're going to intrude in the market and require people to buy a product, health insurance, then we as a nation ought to get into the business of providing that product ourselves and doing it as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Remember: private insurance overhead—i.e., the money that pays for administration, executive salaries, lawyers, and everything else other than actual medical care—can be as high as 29%; America's government health coverage, Medicare, gets the job done with overhead of 3%.

But if even the health insurance industry is ready to play ball, big reform must be on the way. hang on tight: it's going to be a memorable first One Hundred Days.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Daschle and Obama to Push Universal Health Coverage? Let's Hope So!

I've had one face-to-face conversation with Tom Daschle. August 15, 2003, the Senate Minority Leader came to Madison and threw a picnic at Westside Park. In his remarks to the well-fed crowd, Senator Daschle mentioned health care. I had just discovered Dennis Kucinich and his argument that universal health coverage, Medicare for all, would actually save money. I wanted to know what the most powerful South Dakotan in the world at that moment had to say about single-payer, not-for-profit health insurance.

So I got in line with my neighbors to shake Senator Daschle's hand and see if he'd have time for a question. I thought maybe Daschle's Spidey-sense would detect my Republican registration (yup, I hadn't converted yet in 2003) and he would give me a quick hi-how-are-ya and move on.

Instead, after I opened with an invite for Daschle to come back and judge the State Debate Tournament (hey! offer remains open!) Daschle spent a good five minutes, maybe more responding to my questions about health care. On that hot summer evening, he said:
  • A single-payer system was politically unsellable.
  • The closest doable compromise system was a system of regional pools.
  • The larger the risk pool the better; a nationwide risk pool would be best.
Daschle expressed no fears about a national health care system; he spoke favorably of the systems in other countries, citing the example of his son-in-law, who broke his arm in Germany and was able to get it treated without cost or paperwork. He noted that America had the highest health care expenditures in the world as well as terribly inefficient delivery of those services.

When I asked if we would be going too far if we declared health care a fundamental human right, he said no, with the qualification that we need to define exactly what health care we consider necessary in order to avoid overutilization of the system.

That was five years ago. Senator Daschle is about to become Secretary of Health and Human Services in a Democratic administration with a Democratic Congress. I would suggest that the political sellability of health care reform has changed. To wit:
TPM's Greg Sargent says Daschle believes we need comprehensive, not incremental reform. A lot of Americans fed up with long waits, constant billing errors, and unaffordable, unportable coverage would agree.

My conservative friends are probably thinking, "Oh my goodness—Obama mght actually try to pass universal health care." This diehard Dennis Kucinich fan is saying the exact same thing... but with a tingly sense of wonder and a readiness to fight for it.

Tom, Ted, Barack—you have a moment in history, an opportunity to rally the country behind a great moral and practical reform that will save money and lives. Steam train a-comin'—Dennis, dust off HR 676! Single-payer, not-for-profit health coverage: let's make it happen!

Lake Herman: Little Muddy, Little Green, But Won't Kill You

The East Dakota Water Development District has wrapped up its water monitoring for 2008. 34 of us volunteer water monitors waded and paddled out into Lake Herman, Lake Madison, Brant Lake, and other wild waters of the great Big Sioux watershed to check bacteria content and other indicators of water quality. The full 2008 report is available in PDF format at EastDakota.org.

The short form: we're clean! Well, mostly. Out of 191 lake bacteria samples, only one exceeded the EPA-recommended maximum level for "intense swimming." Alas, that one "hit" was here on Lake Herman, a reading of 250 colony-forming units per 100 mL, above the EPA max of 235 cfu/100mL, on the northwest shore just off Pelican Point Drive. Interestingly, a reading I took in August down on the south side of the lake, after tromping through fresh cow patties and having the herd itself come right over to see what I was doing, registered only 100 cfu/100mL.

Lake Herman's water clarity is not too bad. Folks around the lake will tell you we didn't see as much algae this year. By the numbers, the average depth we could see down into the water (the "Secchi depth") was 1.7 feet, not as good as at Lake Madison (2.0 feet) or Brant Lake (2.5 feet), but still just a touch above the average for 10 of the lakes in the project (1.6 feet). (I exclude Lake Cochrane from that average, since Lake Cochrane has an amazing Secchi depth of 16.79 feet—nowhere to hide for those little fishies!)

So Lake Herman may taste a little gritty, but it won't make you too sick. Rather like Lake Herman's busiest blog... ;-)

Saving the Fourth Estate: Sam Hurst Online

Hat tip to the estimable e-mail of Mr. Epp!

I have mentioned West River journalist Sam Hurst three times on this blog (here, here, and here). Each time, it's been because he's committed darn fine journalism.

Expect a lot more Sam Hurst links here: he has launched a blog! The Dakota Day: A Journal of Opinion and News Analysis from the Northern Plains. Two words: Yum-my!

The site looks great (I want that style sheet!). It also offers a spectacular manifesto, "What We Believe," placing Hurst's work squarely in the tradition of Edmund Burke, the Founding Fathers, and the First Amendment. He refers to Burke's coinage of the term "Fourth Estate" to describe the press as the "most powerful" pillar of society, a bulwark against business, the clergy, and the aristocracy that made up Britain's power elite in 1786. And then:

The founding fathers anointed the often rowdy, always cynical, hyper-opinionated press with a constitutional halo of public responsibility. Watchdog of unpopular opinion. Megaphone of dissent and controversy. Permanent critic of the state. What did Edmund Burke understand that John McCain and Sarah Palin did not?

At every campaign stop the GOP dynamic duo railed against the elitist press, and late in the campaign Sarah Palin even began to rant that her freedom of speech was being threatened by the revelations of the press. Burke could have offered a tutorial. There is a linkage between the idea of limited government and the idea of a free press. It is the press that keeps government limited, against all the headwinds of special interest, money, and privilege. The louder politicians scream that the press is “elite”, the more we should worry. The more politicians complain that they are “victims” of the press, the more we should cheer. The finest tradition of the press is to enforce the limits of government [Sam Hurst, "What We Believe," The Dakota Day, 2008.11.12].

Bingo. Boffo. Even stern critics of the South Dakota blogosphere, who have rightly lamented the superficial, half-baked nature of much of the discourse online, should enjoy Hurst's lengthy, substantial posts. It's only a week old, but if The Dakota Day can live up to the promise of its first few articles, South Dakota's other online scriveners (and the folks making money at it) will have to step up a notch to compete. Welcome to the show, Sam!

Anonymity Spreads Rumors... and Solves Problems

Sorry, more blog navel-gazing...

Reader TLJ e-mails me about the Sisseton Communities Meeting Place that I spotlighted yesterday. The reader is less sanguine than I about the merits of the site: characterizing blogs in general as "garbage novels," the reader finds the Sisseton blog "damning, callous, and blatantly cruel." The reader says the anonymity of the blog author and commenters only fosters cowardice and meanness.

The reader's criticism is not without merit. Yet interestingly, in class last night, my professor said that research in decision support systems has found empirical evidence that anonymity actually supports group problem-solving. Anonymity increases participation, decreases groupthink, and elicits more ideas.

We can definitely argue over whether the conversation on a blog constitutes a group problem-solving setting. But if we, dear readers, view ourselves as a community, and if we view the text here not as a personal grudge match but as ideas to share, build, and evaluate, then maybe these Web conversations can be one more venue for the conversation we have to have to recognize and solve problems.

Below is a copy of my full reply to reader TLJ. Keep those cards and letters coming!

Hi, Terry!

Thanks for the comments on the Sisseton blog. I agree with you that anonymity detracts from public discourse. We should all have the conviction to put our names to the things we say.

I've wage my own running battle with Anonymi on my own blog. I've gone back and forth over the value of leaving the door open to anonymous comments. I want to know the source of everything I read... but all of my online experience and other things I read tells me that trying to block anonymity (1) is really hard and (2) does more harm than good.

Practically, there is no easy, fool-proof anti-anonymity technique. I could require every commenter to leave a name and working e-mail address, but folks who want to hide their identity can then simply enter a fake name and a dummy e-mail address. (Consider: even you, leaving your name and e-mail address, still remain essentially unknown to me, as perhaps I remain to you: who are you? where do you live? are you related to anyone here in Madison? How can I know?) Erecting even those minimal barriers will then also deter other folks from leaving comments. I'm surprised how many people remain anonymous even to leave perfectly positive comments. It doesn't make sense to me: if I'm saying something positive, why would I hide? But I've gotten useful comments, good ideas, surprising insights from some Anonymi. Once they get comfortable after a few comments, some Anonymi come out of the shadows and put a name to their comments. I'd hate to lose that input.

Funny: just last night in class (I'm in the doctoral program at DSU), our prof said that decision support systems research has found empirical evidence that anonymity enhances group problem solving by increasing participation, decreasing "groupthink," and eliciting more ideas.

Now granted, a lot of the content on the Sisseton blog looks more like rumor and nastiness than an effort at group problem-solving. But it's a start. That nastiness and rumor-mongering are already at work in every small town. The Internet doesn't create any new bad behavior or attitudes; it just brings those features of a community out into the open, where people will be able to face problems, talk about them, and eventually get around to solving them.

Maybe I'm just too much of an Internet-optimist, but I hear language from the administrator that suggests a desire to solve problems. Both your criticism and my optimism are justifiable; perhaps one will become more justifiable than the other as more people learn about the Sisseton blog.

All that said, thanks for reading! I'll try to rise above "garbage novel" status every now then for you.

Cory Allen Heidelberger
Madville Times

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt!

I was finding plenty of conservatives to agree with before the election; after the election, they just keep coming! Now I find even Mitt Romney, one of the purveyors of sheer baloney from the RNC stage in St. Paul, talking sense. He writes the New York Times that the federal government should not offer the big U.S. automakers a bailout. "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," says the headline, not to kill Detroit, but to save it and the American economy. Call it tough love:

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check [Mitt Romney, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," New York Times, 2008.11.18].

Romney speaks from close family experience. Remember, he grew up in Michigan. His dad George ran American Motors and saved the compnay from its own collapse, apparently with no government intervention.

Romney's recipe has some ugly, like cutting retirement benefits. But it also talks sense: boot the management that helped make the mess, axe executive salaries and perks, and switch from trying to make a quick buck for shareholders to investing in "truly competitive products and innovative technologies — especially fuel-saving designs — that may not arrive for years."

Sometimes if your friend is drinking too much, you have to intervene. But Romney is saying you don't intervene with a check to buy more hooch. Romney says smack 'em until they're sober—or, more accurately, force the automakers through a managed bankruptcy. It'll hurt... but we'll all be stronger for it when it's done.

Defamatory, Malicious Misinfo... oh, wait, nope: Documents

Indulge me as I sweat the small stuff:

At a meeting yesterday at Madison High School, Principal Sharon Knowlton had some fun throwing around words like "defamatory," "malicious," and "misinformation" to describe what I do on the Madville Times. (Those might be harsher words than Principal Stapert used the last time I got called to the principal's office. ;-) ).

Among the "misinformation" is my statement that Madison Central doesn't cancel classes for the Mundt Debate Tournament but simply does an early release, shortening classes and letting kids out early after lunch. For most of the history of the tournament, that was how the school district accommodated the contest without losing a day of school, which is how most schools handle tournaments.

Mrs. Knowlton insisted that my shoddy journalism missed the fact that Madison has cancelled classes for the entire Friday of Mundt for a long time, and that that willingness to cancel classes demonstrates even more the school's commitment to making the tournament work.

Now this is a small point. And heck, sometimes when I've been at Mundt coaching my own kids and judging, I've been too busy to pay attention to whether classes were in session or not. I do get things wrong.

Let's review the most recent contest dates to which Mrs. Knowlton seemed to refer:
Of course, that's just what the MHS website says. I could be wrong... and that's why the comment line is open. Clarifications are welcome (and a lot more convenient than having me call the school and take up Charla's time every time I want to write a blog post, wouldn't you think, Sharon?).

By the way, there's a big South Dakota debate tournament honoring another great South Dakota Senator, the 17th Annual George McGovern Forensics Tournament at Mitchell High School Friday and Saturday. And check out their schedule: they manage to host a full tournament without even an early release.

As the Vulcan proverb goes, there are always possibilities.

One thing I know for sure, the Mundt Tournament is going to be looking for volunteers to help run the 2009 contest (February 13–14, when everyone else does indeed get the day off school!). If you're interested, give the school a call: Superintendent Vince Schaefer is at 256-7700; HS Principal Sharon Knowlton is at 256-7706.

All Local (or Close Enough): Sisseton Communities Meeting Place Blog

Click click click—my morning Web surfing leads me to the Sisseton Communities Meeting Place, a fun local blog from our neighbors in northeast South Dakota. I found it through a link on the Watertown Public Opinion's blogroll... hey! Jon Hunter! How come you haven't linked me back yet on the Madison Daily Leader site?

SCMP (anyone calling it Scamp yet?) is dedicated to discussing Roberts County, local government, schools, the jail, and other matters of import to the 10,000 hardy residents of the Sissteon-Peever metroplex. And Todd Epp thinks there's nothing to write about—there's always local news! And SCMP goes looking for it.

On the good side, SCMP is following the collaborative community journalism model, posting a few details, asking questions, and getting more background from commenters. For example, a post last Friday asked about a possible shooting incident folks were talking about. Commenters quickly explained that the incident was actually a police training exercise (though if the police train the way they drive, Sisseton folks might still be jittery). The blog also offers a host of links to local resources: local media, local reservation media (I think in the big city they'd call that alternative media) local schools, even the Roberts County Freecycle group (Discover the Unexpected™, indeed!). Local, local, local—I likey, likey, likey.

On the bad side, the conversation is mostly anonymous. Even the "Administrator" offers no personally identifiable information (though that toe looks suspiciously like South Dacola's Scott Ehrisman). Perhaps the locals know perfectly well who is producing the blog, and perhaps commenters living in the midst of mistrust between Indians and white folks can make a stronger case for wanting to keep their identities private. Nonetheless, real community discussion that brings folks together requires names and faces. I hope the SCMP administrator and his commenters will consider taking that step toward openness and authenticity. Real names and faces only make your words and your community stronger.

On the whole, I applaud this effort at community discourse and watchdoggery. Such online conversation may get ugly sometimes, but even the ugly stuff isn't anything folks aren't already thinking and whispering to each other. If something's amiss in your community, you might as well get it out in the open where everyone can facce it and maybe fix it. Keep up the conversation, Sisseton and neighbors!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Decline Everywhere: What's Going Down in South Dakota?

Lots of things receding, not just the economy. Here's a random-sounding sample (though nothing is random, Alex tells me) of declining numbers, good and bad:
  • Traffic deaths in South Dakota: down 25% from this time last year.
  • Price of gas in Madison today: $1.799 for E-10 (uh oh... and I'm still waiting for grocery prices to follow)
  • South Dakota Retirement System: total value down 27%... since July 1.
  • Job cuts coming at Citigroup: 53,000 worldwide, on top of 22,000 announced last month (but remember, Citigroup: South Dakotans work cheap! Save money firing those darn Californians! We're you're Third World!)
  • Amount of open water on Lake Herman: less than 10% this morning, before the wind started blowing the ice around. Brrr!
  • Antelope population in South Dakota: down 17... in one shot! Eeeewww! That had to be an awful drive on I-90.

Hey, Argus! Ever Hear of Circuit City?

The New York Times notes that mainstream media's shedding of top talent (of which Terry Woster's early retirement is but one small example) is a lot like what Circuit City did in 2007:

In March 2007, Circuit City came up with a plan to confront softening sales and competition from online and offline retailers: fire the most talented, experienced employees.

Of course, those workers were the retail chain’s single most important point of difference from the legion of Internet retailers and general merchandisers, but in a single stroke, Philip J. Schoonover, the chief executive of Circuit City, wiped out that future.

As a pal of mine used to say when I described a particularly boneheaded course of action I had pursued, “How’d that work out for you, buddy?”

For Circuit City, not so great. The “wage management initiative” erased morale, both for employees and the folks who shopped there. Sales sank after the one-time gain from the layoffs. And last week, the company sought bankruptcy protection [David Carr, "Newspapers Jettisoning Top Talent to Cut Cost," New York Times, 2008.11.16].

So, anyone want to start a pool on when that Sioux Falls paper will file for Chapter 11? Readers, looks like you'd better start filling the Madville Times tip jar (see left sidebar!), and Todd's, and Pat's (assuming he doesn't go on permanent vacation to be Lee Schoenbeck's campaign webmaster). We bloggers may have to take on the media's job full-time.

Local Blogs Serve Community in Ways For-Profit Media Can't... or Won't

I've been having a conversation with Randy Schaefer, who is understandably unhappy with the coverage here of the Tax Increment Finance district Madison created for his housing development. Randy can live with my posts; it's the negative and cowardly anonymous comments that raise his hackles.

Local blogs can raise hackles... but on the whole, that's a good thing, especially in era when we see the mainstream media retreating from its duty to serve the public. The New York Times itself points to the rising importance of new media. While maintaining its disdain for most of us ("an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs"), the Gray Lady speaks approvingly of professional journalists who have set up their own non-profit shops in places like San Diego to dig into local politics, bring questionable policies and expenditures to light, and drive further media coverage by the mainstream journalists.

Other cites rallying professional and citizen journalists to do this kind of local coverage abound:
These local news websites all operate in markets where there are plenty of newspapers and radio and TV stations. Yet the movers and shakers behind those news sites look around and see important issues going unmentioned, or undermentioned.

That's what I'd like to think blogs like the Madville Times can do. Madison's lucky to have its own newspaper and radio station, but even MDL and KJAM don't catch every issue (and neither do I!). They certainly don't air every voice—anyone care to guess how many letters to the editor Jon Hunter has rejected in the pasy year?

Even in our small market, there is a place for more voices, more folks speaking up and investigating how their city and county and other organizations spend tax dollars. I do a little bit of that. Sometimes, so do my commenters (good work, John!). Think of it as collaborative community journalism: I start a story by mentioning a few facts and asking some questions, and readers then build the story by contributing their observations, giving context, pointing out errors in my own statements and others' comments.

This is going to sound crazy coming from someone who hates cooperative learning... but that's how journalism can work now. We can use the Internet to work together, to collaborate in telling the stories that are important to our community... and in keeping an eye on the powers that be.

Randy and the New York Times are right: this medium—not just the Madville Times, but the whole darn Internet, where any honyocker can start a blog—does facilitate negative, envious, unsubstantiated name-calling and other irrelevant baloney from chicken-hearted wimps who lack the courage to face us, their neighbors, and back their words with their names (and a fact or two). But this medium doesn't create that negativity: it exposes ill will and flawed thinking that are already there in the community. In a way the for-profit media can't or won't, this medium draws out the ills in our community, whether they include the errors and occasional chicanery of public officials or simply the ill-founded suspicions, jealousies, and prejudices of the people we live with. Drawing out those ills allows us to challenge and maybe even fix them. And that's a net plus for any community.

The Madville Times continues. So do the comments. Keep up the conversation!

Facilities Strained? Build a New Mundt Debate Building!

(To Anon 11/17 6:29: No anti-sports talk? Agreed! So let's try a comparison....)

I'm feeling generous: let's ignore fact-checking and entertain Principal Sharon Knowlton's contention that Madison High School lacks the facilities to host a full Mundt Debate Tournament.

An eager reader reminds me that the last time we heard someone say that the Madison Central School District lacked the facilities to properly host big contests, we got a campaign for a new $10-million gym.

Voters turned that proposal down, leaving us with a gym that is arguably too small. Yet the school has not moved to eliminate home basketball games or scale games down to four-on-four. Even with a great strain on our facilities, we find a way to soldier on and maintain educational competitive opportunities for our students and their rivals from around the state.

A $10-million Mundt Memorial Debate Building is probably a little much (although maybe I should send a memo to the Mundt Foundation). I'd settle for seeing the debaters getting their dedicated research and practice space back. But all we really need is to find the can-do spirit that Mundt (the Tournament and the Senator) deserves. Let's keep that tournament going!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama and McCain Meet, Substantive Discussion Ensues

President-Elect Barack Obama met with his erstwhile opponent, Senator John McCain, this afternoon. The two men spoke privately for an hour and a half... probably a longer and more substantive conversation than any McCain had with his erstwhile running mate.

chuck ritter, line 1...

Fact Check: Errors in Friday's MDL on Mundt Debate

As discussion continues over the fate of the Karl E. Mundt Debate Tournament, let's take a moment to address some errors contained in Friday's front-page Madison Daily Leader article on Madison High School's desire to end its support of the contest:

1. [reporter Elisa Sand] "But since its inception, the tournament has continued to grow...."

I have competed at, judged at, or helped direct Mundt for 15 of the last 20 years. I have not seen any constant upward trend in entry numbers. Entry numbers have ranged between 400 to 450 over the past five years.

2. [MHS principal Sharon Knowlton]: "...there are very few places that can handle it at the size it presently is. It's too big."

It hasn't been too big for the last 41 years. One town smaller than Madison thinks it can host. Harrisburg looks at hosting not as a strain, but an "excellent opportunity."

3. [Sand citing Knowlton]: "...the district makes a point not to schedule classes that particular day."

On the Friday of the tournament, the district has usually scheduled an early release so that classrooms will be available for competition by 2 p.m. Classes are scheduled, just shorter. The day still counts as a full school day.

4. [Sand]: "While the elementary school facility technically is available, Knowlton said that using the facility would put more of a strain on the maintenance staff that is already tapped out with cleaning and locking up the high school and middle school Friday night."

Doesn't the elementary have its own custodial staff? And how tapped out are they from cleaning up after hosting eight home basketball games?

5. [Sand]: "While talk is beginning to circulate that Madison wasn't planning to host the tournament after the 2009 event, and there's speculation that support is no longer there for the tournament, Knowlton said that couldn't be furthest from the truth."

If "that" refers to both preceding dependent clauses, the statement is incorrect. That "talk" beginning to circulate has come from Coach Renee Nills herself, who notified South Dakota debate coaches that 2009 is the last year MHS is hosting Mundt. Coach Renee Nills has said in e-mails to me that "Yes, the Mundt will no longer be hosted by MHS," and "Our building (MHS) would not continue to be used as a site for the Mundt." Note that three paragraphs later in the Friday MDL article, DSU President Doug Knowlton says [Sand's words] "representatives from MHS have approached the Mundt Foundation about discontinuing their support."

6. [Sand]: "Before securing a seat as U.S. Representative for South Dakota in 1938, Mundt was already president of the National Forensics League, a position he held for 25 years."

Mundt was elected the second President of the National Forensic League during the 1932–33 school year. He served in that position for 40 years, right through his entire career in Washington, until his resignation during the 1971–72 school year.

Now those are just the factual errors. Note also that Principal Knowlton appears to have missed a main argument from the original blog post on Mundt: If we want to keep Mundt in Madison, we can't downsize it. Coaches want their kids to have as many chances to compete as possible. Scaling down Mundt is like telling basketball teams that they can only bring their starters, no bench or JV. Teams won't come to Madison for a smaller Mundt. They'll go to a tournament and a town that can find the resources to host a full tournament.

If I missed any errors (or made any of my own), the comment line is open! Fire away... and let's keep Mundt in Madison!

America Promotes Democracy by Electing Obama

I have found it ironic that some critics and Rush Limbaugh-wannabes have mockingly called Obama the "Messiah," when America itself has from its inception often acted with a messianic sense of divine calling to save the world. The GOP spoke as much about "American exceptionalism" as anyone else this fall. Almost all of us see America as something special, as a nation with a unique potential to do good in the world.

That view usually leads our global neighbors to roll their eyes and mutter "Hypocrites" in various accents. America isn't the savior of democracy, they scorn from behind their baguettes. But the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the United States is already causing some of our European skeptics to wonder if maybe America can talk the talk and walk the walk of democracy:

Many French say that American exceptionalism must now be considered through other lenses. The neoconservative impulse in Washington in recent years, described by retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich in his new book, "Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," is associated with an evangelical passion to spread democracy, to "remake" the world, by force if necessary. But after Nov. 4, the New World example is taking on the meaning of President Lincoln's "last, best hope of earth," or Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a country that evokes universal values by example at home [Robert Marquand, "For Europe, Obama Revives Positive Image of America's Unique Identity," Christian Science Monitor, 2008.11.17].

From the same article, more remarkable words from our friends (really!) in France:

"The Americans were choosing not just a president, but an identity," says [French writer Dominique] Moisi. "And that forces us to choose as well. Now we have to define ourselves without resort to anti-Americanism. That's something new."

"The decline of representative democracy is not irreversible," adds Zaki Laidi, a French intellectual writing in Le Monde.

Hm. Not even in office yet, and already promoting democracy, equality, and pro-American sentiment around the world. And he didn't have to order a single soldier into battle to do it. Good work, Mr. Obama... and good work, America.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama Bringing Racist Worms out of America's Woodwork

Wait a minute: weren't some folks saying Obama's victory would trigger "payback" violence by blacks? Oops: looks like its cranky white folks perpetrating more hooliganism than anyone else.

Seeing President Barack Hussein Obama every day in the papers and on TV is going to drive the racists among us bonkers. Some of them will do stupid things. But President Obama will draw that stupidity out into the open, where we can more easily kill it.

Speaking of seeing the next President of the United States, there he is, on YouTube! Weekly YouTube addresses—so easy, and so sensible. White House 2.0!

Update: Fireside chats for the 21st century... I like that, Scott!

No Free Lunch: Protecting Women and Children Costs Money

cross-posted at RealMadison.org!

"You cannot put a value on what she's done. We couldn't afford to pay her for all the time she's invested. She's one of a kind." —Craig Johannsen, discussing Teri McCracken's work as executive director of Madison's House of Hope domestic abuse shelter, in Elisa Sand, "House of Hope Closes After 23 Years," Madison Daily Leader, 2008.08.28.

Johannsen was half right: They evidently couldn't afford to pay McCracken any longer, although they did put a value on her work: $67,167.80.

According to the Madison House of Hope's 990 non-profit tax filing, that was the salary paid to the House of Hope's full-time executive director in 2006. Page 1, lines 10–17 of that 2006 990, offers a breakdown of how much it costs to run a domestic abuse shelter in Lake County:

Category Amount
Grants and similar amounts paid


Benefits paid to or for members --
Salaries, other compensation, and employee benefits 77,891
Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors 2,000
Occupancy, rent, utilities, and maintenance 3,577
Printing, publications, postage, and shipping 1,011
Other expenses 12,248

Total expenses


That's a lot of money, but a domestic abuse shelter is also an important service. The House of Hope made an abrupt and seemingly unhelpful departure, ceasing its pursuit of grant support two years ago, spending down its reserves, selling its house, and announcing its closure so suddenly that there was hardly time for organziers to mount an effort to save the program.

Let's hope the new Domestic Violence Network can pick up where House of Hope left off, reconnect with those grant funding sources, and restore these services for the families that need them.