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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Madville Times Wish List: Top Stories of 2009

As the last grains of the old year trickle out of the glass, I look with enthusiasm and hope toward a historic new year. As is tradition here, I offer not predictions but wishes: the ten biggest stories I hope I'll get to report in 2009:

Madison Highway 34 Gets Six Lanes: The Department of Transportation announces it is scrapping its plan to add a center turning lane to Highway 34 in Madison. Instead, the state plans to add dedicated bicycle lanes to both sides of the highway. "The blogging bicycle lobby really pressed hard," says Scott Jansen, DOT Mitchell Region Traffic Engineer, "and we could see their point. South Dakota needs to put bicycles and other green transportation first. Besides, to qualify for President Obama's Green Stimulus program, South Dakota has to put forward five billion dollars' worth of non-petro-based transportation programs."

Rapid City Journal Buys Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Six months after taking over the Rapid City Journal, upstart Woster Media buys the Sioux Falls Argus Leader from bankrupt Gannett Company. "We considered letting it die," says Woster Media CEO Terry Woster. "Kevin and I have been plenty busy overseeing the Journal/Mount Blogmore conversion. But our little sister was getting fidgety in retirement." Mary Alice Haug takes over as managing editor of the newly renamed Woster Booster. Woster Media has also hired Todd Epp as chief new media consultant.

Governor Signs Corporate Income Tax: Says Governor Mike Rounds at the signing ceremony, "I was on Inside KELOLand last Decemeber when I mentioned that South Dakota has an income tax on banks, the franchise tax. Then it hit me: income taxes don't kill business. Gerry Lange was right all along!" The new tax includes an exemption for corporations with headquarters and main operations in South Dakota. "That headquarters exemption was the deal-maker," said primary sponsor Gerry Lange (D-8). "Daktronics and Citigroup still get a break, plus a motive to stay and expand here in South Dakota. Heck of an idea!"

Lake Herman Sanitary District Eases Regulations: After a failed bid to dissolve the district, board member Cory Heidelberger announces the repeal of restrictions on small livestock, composting toilets, and graywater recycling. "There's a depression going on," writes Heidelberger on the district website, "and our rules said residents couldn't even keep a chicken or two in their yard. People gotta eat!" Permitting composting toilets and graywater projects will open the door for residents to apply for individual grants under President Obama's Green Stimulus program.

Congress Passes Universal Health Coverage: President Obama wins an enormous political victory over insurance lobbyists and bitter resistance from conservatives. As Tom Daschle steps down to run for governor of South Dakota, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich will take over as Secretary of Health and Human Services to oversee implementation of the revolutionary single-payer not-for-profit health insurance system. "Revolutionary? Nuts," says Kucinich. "We're just catching up with the rest of the civilized world."

Lake County Website Does Something: After years of inactivity, the Lake County website undergoes a serious transformation into a genuine portal of service provision and citizen engagement. Says new commissioner Dan Bohl, "I always say, 'Don't just sit there, do something!' That applies to governments and websites." Bohl and fellow new commission Chris Giles blog daily and field citizen questions on the new county website.

Paulson Buys Credit Soup: After completing his doctorate in just four semesters, Dakota State University graduate Matthew Paulson takes over Madison's leading Web business. "I needed a bigger platform and workforce for my existing online enterprises," says Paulson. "I also wanted to be in a position to revamp all these local websites. Static, filled with marketing and PR-speak—they're so 1990s. We need to make them more authentic and interactive, like the new county website."

South Dakota Web Publication Wins Pulitzers: Despite the vigorous opposition of board member Randell Beck ("It's a blog, not news!"), the Pulitzer Board awards online publication The Dakota Day two Pultizers, for public service and local reporting, for its coverage of the 2009 South Dakota Legislature. Says Pulitzer chair Richard Oppel, "Sam Hurst and his writers stepped forward to fill a vacuum left by the corporate media."

Meyer Misses Nationals by One: MHS freshman debater Azmon Meyer makes finals in U.S. Extemp at the National Forensic League Qualifying Tournament and places third, missing a shot at Nationals by one place. "Disappointed? Sure," says young Meyer, "But hey: I didn't get to compete until January. The other kids in that final were seniors, and they'd been extemping every weekend since the beginning of November. I'm looking forward. Dad [Lake County States Attorney and Bulldog debate veteran Ken Meyer] is sending me to debate camp at SDSU this summer. Next year: Nats in extemp, and state championship in Policy debate!"

Obama Makes Moon Base Key Component of Economic Recovery: President Obama announces an acceleration of his predecessor's space exploration plans, moving the target date for a permanently staffed lunar base ahead eight years to 2016. Helping achieve this goal will be two million workers mobilized in the Civilian Cosmos Corps, which will retool U.S. manufacturing plants to turn out 200 rockets a year, along with a wide range of high-tech space habitat components and science equipment. Says President Obama, "It turns out fixing the economy really is rocket science."

Gaza, Golf, and the President-Elect: Playing the Right Games

Dr. Blanchard and others seem to wish President-Elect Obama would quit golfing and take over as spokesman for American foreign policy.

Quick question: if the President-Elect were staking a more public position on U.S. Middle East policy, especially if that included sending signals differing from those coming from the current administration, would not the conservative commentariat go ape over the President-Elect's crass presumption?

Some games you just can't win. Middle East peace might be one such game; satisfying those who call Obama "The One" is definitely another.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gonzo Eruption at Madison Daily Leader

Chuck Clement must have gotten Fear and Loathing for Christmas!

So I come home from a happy day of post-Christmas consumerism (yes, even I bear the disease) and click open my all-too-thin e-copy of the Madison Daily Leader. Last night's only story: Chuck Clement's report on Madison Central's laptop problems with Gateway/MPC. He begins thus:

When Madison High School joined the state-sponsored laptop computer program in 2007, students were supposed to learn with the same type of technology that they would most likely use in the 21st Century workplace.

Well, the teens are also becoming familiar with another problem that adults sometimes need to overcome -- getting what you paid for [Chuck Clement, "MHS Works Through Laptop Problems with Gateway," Madison Daily Leader, 2008.12.29].

I stop cold at the first word of that second paragraph. Well?!? An empty, colloquial interjection in Madison's professional journalism?

And that ending phrase, getting what you paid for—it feels strangely... vivid, real, personal.

The strangeness continues: Clement—oh, but the buzzy directness of his language compels me to first-name familiarity—Chuck says two paragraphs later that Gateway "used to do business as one of the big boys in personal computers" but now "has hit the skids."

Are Jon and Marcia both on vacation?

I check the masthead to make sure I haven't stumbled into The Huffington Post or Dakota War College, but no, it's MDL, and the gonzo beat goes on:
  • Bankruptcy is supposed to give MPC "breathing room."
  • "...15 tablets have been on ice at an Iowa repair facility since last summer."
  • Two sentences start with but (perfectly acceptable, but recognized in some quarters as slightly informal and, by Microsoft Word, worthy of revision).
Is this the beginning of a gonzo revolution at the Madison Daily Leader? All I can wonder is, where is Chuck Clement and what have you done with his body?

Factual note: make sure you read that headline properly. Chuck's report reveals the prepositional phrase "with Gateway" hooks into the problems, not MHS's effort to work through them. District tech honcho Rob Honomichl says MHS can't get any warranty work done by Gateway MPC, which is breaking its contract right and left and leaving Madison (and other school districts) to pay for repairs out their own (our own) pockets.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Readers Speak Up III: Top Stories of 2008 -- U.S. Edition

Catch all of the Most-Commented Stories of 2008:
***South Dakota stories
***Madison stories
I caught heck from a reader or two for talking about Sarah Palin all the time this fall. But it wasn't just me: John McCain's running mate was comment gold. You all wanted to talk about her, too, so much so that five of the ten most-commented posts on the Madville Times this year had "Palin" in the headline.

So, Palin or not, here they come: the national posts you, faithful readers, wanted to talk about the most in 2008.

Palin Reveals Psychic Powers [9/13]: I take it back: if Gov. Palin really could read Barack Obama's mind, she would have known he knew exactly what he was doing every step of the way.

McCain Acts with Honor, Defends Obama Against Racists and Fearmongers [10/12]: Even John McCain had enough decency left to publicly reject the lies some of his supporters spewed.

Obama Caves to Bush; Clinton Stands for 4th Amendment [7/9]: Don't say the Madville Times was an unmitigated love fest for Obama. He torqued off many of us freedom-loving bloggers by siding with President Bush on FISA and the continued violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Sarah Palin, Omniscient [10/1]: What papers do you read, Governor Palin? "All of them." Unbelievable.

France Not Perfect, But Universal Health Coverage Still Great! [7/14]: We'd have heard a lot more about universal health care if my man Dennis Kucinich had been the nominee. But sit tight: Secretary Daschle may move us toward the kind of health care that France, Canada, and most of the rest of the industrialized world have realized produces better health outcomes for less money than our broken system.

The Selfishness of Joe Wurzelbacher: The Plumber Is Plumb Wrong [10/16]: My first post on Joe the Plumber dectupled my daily hits, as everyone spent the 24 hours after the last Presidential debate playing Google-P.I. trying to find out who Joe the Plumber really was. Shady as he seemed, no one ever produced evidence that Wurzelbacher was a McCain plant (or an in-law of Charles Keating). This post addressed what really mattered: that Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher symbolized a thoughtless selfishness that could hardly be called patriotic.

Palin Installs Tanning Bed in Governor's Mansion [9/16]: Why did the silliest posts spark so much conversation?

Palin Comparison: McCain Takes Youth and Inexperience off the Table [8/29]: I put this analysis up the day McCain announced his VP choice. No rumors, no distortion, just the facts about Palin's basic qualifications and how they erased one of the best arguments McCain could have made against Obama: experience.

Palin Misquotes Albright, Condemns Self [10/7]: Short post, long and vigorous disputes in the comments section.

Obama Respects Second Amendment; NRA Keeps Lying [9/24]: The 2008 champ! 43 comments! The conversation wasn't always pretty, but I can take it... especially if it exposes the paucity of true civic spirit behind some political movements.

Obviously, the Presidential election dominated the most-commented stories. I find it interesting (and a little disappointing) that more conversation didn't spring up around some of the other big national stories of the year, like the mortgage meltdown, the stimulus checks, and the big bank bailouts. With the election over, we'll see if the 2009 conversation turns more toward those heady economic topics.

But you never know what the new year will bring. Whatever happens in 2009, if it affects Lake Herman and South Dakota, I'm eager to blog about it. I hope you'll keep reading and commenting... and tell your friends to do the same!

Thanks for an exciting and intellectually challenging 2008. Here's to nothing but good news and good conversation in 2009!

Tax Our Gas, Buck a Gallon, Now!

I like saving a billion dollars a day on gas as much as the next guy, but if just two months of cheaper gas have us Americans dropping hybrids and buying more SUVs, we need a kick in the pants... or the pocketbook. It's time to bring gas back to $3 a gallon. The South Dakota Legislature could do it, but it would be better coming from Barack Obama. How? Say the magic words:

Gas tax.

I could tell you why, but Thomas Friedman can tell you better. This is no hippie cry to destroy Detroit and put everyone on bicycles; Friedman offers a hardnosed geopolitical argument that would make Kissinger and Brzezinski proud:

A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America, dries up funding for terrorists and reduces the clout of Iran and Russia at a time when Obama will be looking for greater leverage against petro-dictatorships. It reduces our current account deficit, which strengthens the dollar. It reduces U.S. carbon emissions driving climate change, which means more global respect for America. And it increases the incentives for U.S. innovation on clean cars and clean-tech [Thomas Friedman, "Win, Win, Win, Win, Win," New York Times, 2008.12.28].

Of course, if you think driving your Hummer with pride is more important than standing up to Iran and Russia... well, that's the sort of vanity that destroys empires.

Man up, America: gas tax and Smart cars are the path to a second American century.

Readers Speak Up II: Top Stories of 2008 -- South Dakota Edition

Catch all of the Most-Commented Stories of 2008:
***U.S. stories
***Madison stories
Following yesterday's list of the biggest Madison stories of the year, here are the South Dakota stories that drew the most comments here on the Madville Times in 2008:

SD Blogosphere Polarizing for Fall Campaign?
[7/27]: No, I wasn't just disappointed that everyone didn't come to my party (though Lake Herman beats a conference room at the Ramkota any day). The Sam Adams alliance didn't have much immediate impact: the arch-conservative blog aggregator (both wrong and stupid) petered out before the election, and for all their Lee Atwater tactics to jam the liberal blogosphere, they still got hammered in November. Now, can we all just get along?

Hickey for Choice? Left and Right Throw BS Flag [9/14]: Abortion and South Dakota's Initiated Measure 11 make the list three times. This post addressed the word games played by Pastor Steve Hickey, whose blog and entire church were dedicated to banning abortion. His own mission has since drifted into standard right-wing nuttery on doubting Obama's citizenship and bemoaning the soul-destroying power of vampire movies. No word yet on whether the flock will follow....

Initiated Measure Makes Women Second-Class Citizens [4/16]: I had hoped not to get embroiled in abortion politics, but a serious conversation with my wife reminded me that there's too much at stake not to fight oppressive laws like IM11.

Higher Feed Costs Send Cattle to Pasture [8/30]: Feedlots and stinky cows made the news. This report was part of a series of posts relating to efforts to build a 5,500-head feedlot in Grant County (the county commission kaboshed that plan, thank goodness).

Teacher Pay -- The Crunch Is Coming [3/24]: This post mixed local and state politics. I was running for school board and noted that with baby boom teachers retiring and new graduates able to find much better pay just across the border, the whole state had to look seriously at raising taxes to raise teacher pay. (Ah, so that's why I lost! ;-) )

Sex, Oil, and Misogyny from the McCain Campaign [8/5]: National politics came to South Dakota, as GOP Presidential candidate John McCain came to the Buffalo Chip (appropriate on so many levels) at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and laid bare the sexist mentality on which his campaign was based.

Female Chauvinist Pig Applies Double Standard to Herseth Sandlin [8/22]: Interesting that these two posts tied! Anessa Klumb, sister of a Joel Dykstra campaign staffer, declared that moms (like Herseth Sandlin) can't hold office because they should take care of the kids, but dads (like GOP challenger Chris Lien) should be free to traipse off to Washington. Right.

Moving from Abstraction to Reality: Why Marriage and Fatherhood Made Me Pro-Choice [7/24]: Some people argue that marriage and children change your views on political issues. They certainly have: now that I live with two female citizens, I realize all the more the importance of defending their right to let them and not Pierre control their bodies.

Oral Roberts University as a Voting Issue [1/23]: An odd insertion on the list: I mentioned one day that Joel Dykstra's education at narrow-minded Oral Roberts University was fair game in the debate over qualifications for representing South Dakota in Washington. Much discussion ensued. Maybe if Dykstra had gone to SDSU and networked with South Dakota's future leaders, he'd have had a shot at beating Tim Johnson.

South Dakota Stands Alone with Clinton on Prairie [6/5]: Again, we couldn't get away from national politics. This South Dakota story—which I actually wrote at a blog conference in Minneapolis—was inspired by a startling graphic: South Dakota alone in deep Hillary Clinton blue surrounded on the upper Plains by green Barack Obama states. You have to drive through at least two other states from South Dakota to get to another state that favored Clinton in the primary. Whatever our reasons, something very different was operating in the minds of the South Dakota electorate than in any of our neighboring states, and you had a lot of fun discussing what that difference might be. (Just to shake up your local political theorizing: Lake County voted 60–40 for Clinton over Obama, then went for Obama in November.)

Next up: the Madville Times goes national, with the most-commented U.S. stories of 2008!

More Blame for Mortgage Meltdown: Unchecked Greed

The New York Times continues its weighty series "The Reckoning" explaining the mortgage meltdown with an in-depth article on Washington Mutual, one of the big lenders who reaped the whirlwind of subprime loans this year.

Now remember: the point of studying the causes of the mortgage meltdown is not just to assign blame (again, there's plenty to go around), but primarily to understand what happened so we can keep it from happening again.

Read Goodman and Morgenson carefully, all four pages. You will not find a word about the Community Reinvestment Act or President Bush's push for easier credit for immigrant homebuyers. The cause of disaster at Washington Mutual? Unchecked greed:

The ultimate supervisor at WaMu was [Kerry] Killinger, who joined the company in 1983 and became chief executive in 1990. He inherited a bank that had been founded in 1889 and had survived the Depression and the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s.

An investment analyst by training, he was attuned to Wall Street's hunger for growth. Between late 1996 and early 2002, he transformed WaMu into the sixth-largest U.S. bank through a series of acquisitions [emphasis mine; Peter S. Goodman and Gretchen Morgenson, "At Washington Mutual, a Relentless Urge to Approve Any Loan," New York Times, 2008.12.27].

Cancer also has a hunger for growth. Growth is not inherently good.

According to these accounts [from former employees], pressure to keep lending emanated from the top, where executives profited from the swift expansion - not least, Kerry Killinger, who was WaMu's chief executive from 1990 until he was forced out in September.

Between 2001 and 2007, Killinger received compensation of $88 million, according to the Corporate Library, a research firm. He declined to respond to a list of questions, and his spokesman said he was unavailable for an interview.

Boy, those limits on executive pay are looking better every minute. Salary caps aren't not just class warfare; it's a sensible check on reckless business practices.

During Killinger's tenure, WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers' incomes and assets, according to former employees. The bank set up what insiders described as a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients.

WaMu gave mortgage brokers handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans, which carried higher fees, bolstering profits and ultimately the compensation of the bank's executives. WaMu pressed appraisers to provide inflated property values that made loans appear less risky, enabling Wall Street to bundle them more easily for sale to investors.

I'm still waiting for the line that says, "Executives felt pressured to put satisfy social engineering objectives from Washington to put more low-income workers and minorities in homes."

For WaMu, variable-rate loans - option adjustable-rate mortgages, in particular - were especially attractive because they carried higher fees than other loans and allowed WaMu to book profits on interest payments that borrowers deferred. Because WaMu was selling many of its loans to investors, it did not worry about defaults: by the time loans went bad, they were often in other hands.

What did I say about keeping loans local and lenders tied to risk?

Goodman and Morgenson cite many instances of rank-and-file employees questioning sketchy loan applications. Good people at Washington Mutual tried to stop the madness, but managers and money shut them up. Don't tell me deregulation will solve that problem. Banks need rules, big scary rules. Heavy regulation will indeed curb prospects for outlandish growth and enormous executive salaries. It will also support workers who try to do the right thing and provide a more secure basis for slow, steady economic growth.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Readers Speak Up: Top Madison Stories of 2008

Catch all of the Most-Commented Stories of 2008:
***South Dakota stories
***U.S. stories
There are as many ways to rank the biggest stories and newsmakers of the year as there are columnists and bloggers. This year, I'm happy to offer you the top stories of 2008 based on your comments. I've gone through the archives, over 1200 posts from this year, and picked out the ones that provoked the most responses from Anonymous and real people alike. I've even broken it down into three separate lists, for local, state, and national stories. Note: Madville Times traffic climbed throughout the year, so ranking stories by number of comments or any other readership metric skews the results toward the second half of the year. But you'll still find a few goodies from last winter and spring.

First up, a list you will find nowhere else: the biggest Madison stories that got you talking:

Madison May Lose Karl Mundt Debate Tournament [11/09]: A story broken by the Madville Times and followed up by the local media and a cross Principal Knowlton (see #4 below!). I get the feeling the school district is trying to keep things quiet now and just let the tournament slip away without a fuss. Stay tuned!

Verbatim: Dwaine Chapel on the Community Reinvestment Act [11/12]: Local economic development exec Dwaine Chapel's penchant for managerial fuzz-speak shone with the clarity of pure mud this fall, as he issued a weird D-minus missive on the opportunity/obligation lending institutions have to support lending for low-income housing. But at least he's not plagiarizing: Chapel and fellow Depot dweller Julie Gross of the Chamber have become much more diligent about citing their sources in the Chamber newsletter (you're welcome).

Commentary: Madison School Board Candidate Responses [3/29]: The Madison Central School Board Election drew all sorts of interest. And given that the Madison Daily Leader editorial policy forbids letters to the editor evaluating the candidates (other than last-minute hit pieces and hastily excepted responses), the Madville Times was the only local media airing your opinions (again, you're welcome!).

Madison TIF Neighbors: Dollar Speaks Louder Than Citizens [12/1]: The Tax Increment Finance district continues to fascinate, irritate, and discombobulate. Readers had lots to say for and against the project, some of it baloney, some of it crotchety envy, some of it fair concern and criticism. We still wait to see whether this investment of public dollars will pay off in tax revenues and truly affordable housing.

Goeman, Olson, and Obama: Yes We Can? [12/14]: Even Joel Dykstra supporters will line up behind a Democratic President if they can bring federal dollars for a favored local project. Hey, don't say Madison's pols can't put the general welfare ahead of partisan politics!

No Free Lunch: Protecting Women and Children Costs Money [11/16]: Reporting on the expenses and salary listed on the House of Hope's tax documents provoked some serious discussion of what closed the domestic abuse shelter and what it would take to get a new one running.

Defamatory, Malicious Misinfo... oh, wait, nope: Documents [11/19]: Principal Knowlton knew what she was doing when she told me I couldn't bring another concerned citizen along with me to our meeting about the Mundt Tournament in November. She wanted me alone so she could chew me out as she might a student or a staff member. Among the blog commentary she branded "defamatory," "malicious," and "misinformation" (recognize the libel language? nice try, Sharon) was my comment that Madison let school out early for the Mundt Tournament but not for a full day. Never mind that school schedules published on the district website supported my statement: Principal Knowlton is committed to defending a bad decision that will likely cause Madison to lose the Mundt Tournament.

Don Parker Spreading Creationist Propaganda in Madison [12/1]: Lots of comments on this one, from here and abroad. Now if the Madison IDEA club can draw even a quarter of the interest of my blog post, Mr. Parker may have a going operation.

Free Speech, Local Business, and Where I Buy My Raisin Bran [10.09]: Dan Roemen stuck a "Vote Yes on 11" sign in front of his grocery store. I wrote "Vote No on 11" on my receipts until Election Day. The retread abortion ban failed. Dan's still in business; I still buy raisin bran from him.

Madison Central School Board Election: The Conversation [2/29]: Oh yeah, I ran for office this year! There was some personal stuff, but lots of you really did want to talk about school board policy, and that was the most fun part of it all, even when (especially when?) we disagreed. Local politics: try it! You'll like it!

Coming up: the top South Dakota stories, according to your enthusiastic comments!

Herseth Sandlin for Governor? Don't Order Those Inaugural Ball Tickets Yet...

I told myself I wasn't going to say a word about the 2010 election until, well, 2010. But Kevin Woster's Mt. Blogmore musings over Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's chances at the governor's seat, if she runs for it, got me thinking.

Woster offers a number of reasons that we Dems shouldn't think we've got the governor's office in the bag if SHS throws her hat in that ring. The most relevant reasons have dollar signs in front of them, like Dennis Daugaard's $400K in the bank at the end of last year. Of course, if Dave Knutson really can raise a million, and if the Republicans drain their war chests in a bruising primary brawl, that strength could disappear.

Also don't forget that deep down, every South Dakota voter knows South Dakota is a welfare state, and we like sending Republicans to Pierre to keep our taxes down and Dems to Washington to bring home the pork to make up for the shortfall.

In terms of pure campaigning, I would never underestimate a Groton National Forensic League veteran (not to mention a national tournament orator!). Nonetheless, eager Dems might also want to note that SHS hasn't faced a tough election since 2004. South Dakota's Republicans have seemed willing to let our lone seat in Congress go without much of a fight. Threaten the GOP with a historic surrender of the South Dakota veto pen to a Democrat, and they might break out the brass knuckles. (Don't think they'll hit a girl? All's fair....)

Bets on the race now are silly. We don't even know which horses are running, let alone whether they'll be running in a recession, a depression, or Year Two of the Glorious American Restoration. Nonetheless, for kicks and giggles and New Year's cocktail chatter, here are the Madville Times early odds on who could beat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin:

Dennis Daugaard: even. (Fundraising since last year!)
Scott Munsterman: 1.5 to 1 (Exectuive experience! Alas, he'll catch some Joe the Plumber heck in the primary for ruling the People's Socialist Republic of Brookings. And Mr. Mayor, switch off that automatic audio on the website!)
Dave Knudson: 3 to 1. (SHS can play the anti-Sioux Falls bias against Knudson, who just won't look as good on a tractor.)
Ken Knuppe: 10 to 1 (if he could beat his 50 to 1 odds in the primary. I want to believe in the handlebar 'stache, but I know better.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tom Wolf for Madison City Commission?

Campaign Sign: Vote Tom Wolf, Commissioner, 2nd and Chicago, Madison, SDThe Madison City Commission election isn't until April—heck, candidates can't even start circulating petitions until January 30. So when I saw this campaign sign (photo left) along the highway at Second and Chicago on Christmas Day, I thought maybe jokers were just pulling someone's leg. Then on my Saturday bike ride on our blessedly unslushy roads (15°F—the perfect winter biking temperature!), I saw the second sign, right in Tom and Grace Wolf's neighborhood on North Chicago Ave:

Campaign Sign: Vote Tom Wolf, Commissioner, North Chicago Ave., Madison, SD
Well. I was going to write about how no one can replace Dan Bohl, who steps down from his city commission seat Monday to ascend to the loftier heights of county government. (On Dan's irreplaceability, the city commission appears to agree.) But these signs appear to indicate that Tom Wolf is ready to do the job.

I'd call Mr. Wolf and ask if he's really running, but I hate to bug a guy during the holidays. I will note that if Wolf is running (and if I'm not confusing him with another Thomas Wolf from Madison), he appears to have plenty of experience in various civic projects:
So, is campaign 2009 on? (And is Madison the first town in the state to see a 2009 campaign sign go up?) We have two seats to fill, Bohl's and Karen Lembcke's. Given that petitions aren't due until February 27, we might not hear any other names for some time... which is o.k. with me—I've got a presidential inauguration and the 2009 Legislature to concentrate on!

Compassionate Conservatism at Work: Bush Expands Community Health Centers

Did you know President Bush expanded not-for-profit government health care? As governor of Texas, Bush saw that the free market just doesn't get the job done in health care. When he became President, Bush followed through on a campaign promise and used federal money to create or expand almost 1,300 community health centers. According to Thursday's New York Times, these clinics, funded mostly by Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and federal grants, provide health care to low-income folks and immigrants in underserved areas. Some highlights:
  • These community health centers take pressure off emergency rooms, where the uninsured often go for non-emergency care when they have nowhere else to turn.
  • Bush's expansion of the clinics—now serving 16 million patients, up 60% under Bush's watch—is the alrgest boost to the community health center program since it started under LBJ.
  • A third of the patients served are Hispanic (yup, we're helping immigrants, also known as our fellow man).
  • Far from fitting the Limbaugh stereotype of wasteful government operations, community health centers are a model of efficiency: for an investment of $2.1 billion in current federal funding, these clinics return savings for the health care system of $17.6 billion a year.
More on community health centers' efficiency:

Though United Neighborhood Health Services has more than doubled in size this decade, Ms. Bufwack, its chief executive, manages to run five neighborhood clinics, five school clinics, a homeless clinic, two mobile clinics and a rural clinic, with 24,391 patients, on a budget of $8.1 million. Starting pay for her doctors is $120,000. Patients are charged on an income-based sliding scale, and the uninsured are expected to pay at least $20 for an office visit. One clinic is housed in a double-wide trailer [Kevin Sack, "Bush Has Built Foundation for Improved Health Care," New York Times, 2008.12.25].

The Times notes that these clinics provide great backup for whatever plans President Obama and Secretary Daschle may come up with to help the uninsured. If Obama and Daschle can't win funding for full-tilt health care reform, "a vast expansion of community health centers may again serve as a stopgap while universal coverage waits for flusher times" [Sack]. The community centers are on Obama's radar: this August, Senator Obama sponsored legislation to quadruple funding for these centers. Michelle Obama worked with community health centers in Chicago.

Bob Ellis once echoed some wishful rhetoric from the McCain campaign, saying that the use of community health centers to provide more cost-effective care and take pressure off emergency rooms was just "a liberal's idea of compassionate health care." Who would have thought that liberal was George W. Bush?

I'm man enough to admit President Bush has done some good things during his eight years. Bush's talk of compassionate conservatism was part of why I was willing to cheer his victory in 2000. His expansion of community health centers shows that even Republicans recognize the government can do some things, like health care, right. If Bush had focused more on programs like that, he might have kept a lot more of us cheering for him rather than for his departure.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cheaper Gas = Economic Stimulus You Can Count On

Gasoline prices are at a 58-month low, thanks to good old-fashioned conservation. We're driving less—nine billion miles less in October alone. Thanks to our conservation (not more drilling), we are now paying one billion dollars less a day than we were in July. We may already be spending that dividend at Amazon.com. Feel free to amuse yourself thinking about what else Americans could do with a billion dollars a day.

If we keep conserving, we won't need any silly little economic stimulus checks like Congress and Bush wasted on us last spring. We've got our savings at the pump: let the government focus its stimulus on lasting infrastructure projects!

Another Recession Plus: RV Sales Down

On our regular trips through Lake Herman State Park, my wife and I usually count the number of tent campers. Out of 72 campsites, we have never on a single day reached double digits. Throughout the summer, the campgrounds are all a-whir with RV air conditioners.

I like simple camping. Tent, compass, notebook, boots, and RPM (raisins, peanuts, M&Ms). On the trail, I hardly want to cook, let alone have a microwave and TV.

It thus gives me some grinchy pleasure to hear that RV sales are down nationwide about 25%. Duane Spader of Spader's RV Center near Sioux Falls tells AP he's taken an even harder hit, a 30% drop this year. I take that as a sign that more people are realizing they don't need 40 feet of fiberglass and AC to enjoy the great outdoors.

I note with some disdain that Spader appears to be getting some KELO time as part of what looks like a coordinated RV dealers campaign to publicize the impact of tight credit on RV sales. The National RV Dealers Association is trying to make the argument that banks receiving federal bailout money should "make consumer loans available for RVs on an equal basis with loans for automobiles, educational expenses, and purchases with credit cards."

Hold the phone, kids:
  1. Financing to buy an RV is not a "critical need."
  2. If you need a loan to finance your recreation, you're spending too much on recreation.
  3. If more banks are at least requiring buyers to make down payments on RVs, that's a good thing for consumer responsibility (see RVDA's Nov. 2008 dealer survey).
  4. If we have any federal money left to throw around, it should go not to finance extravagant consumer purchases for a minority who can afford loans beyond their home mortgage and auto loans, but to support building infrastructure that everyone—RVers, tenters, hikers and bikers alike—can use and enjoy. Fix the roads and bridges (WPA), build parks and trails (CCC).
Yes, yes, RV makers and dealers employ a lot of good people (150,000) and RVs are largely American-made (um, might there be a reason other countries don't invest a lot in building such extravagances?). But real economic security lies in helping people get money through work on lasting public improvements, not loans for consumer items we really don't need.

Let's hope the recession helps refocus folks' priorities: When you go camping, a good tent beats a giant tin can on wheels. And when you fix your economy, jobs and public works are more valuable than consumer spending.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bush Turns Universalist Unitarian!

Christmas is great for catching up on my reading... but wait: am I just delirious from my Christmas candy sugar buzz, or did President George W. Bush burn his Focus on the Family guest card earlier this month?

Asked about creation and evolution, Bush said: "I think you can have both. I think evolution can -- you're getting me way out of my lane here. I'm just a simple president. But it's, I think that God created the earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."

He added, "I happen to believe that evolution doesn't fully explain the mystery of life" [AP, "Bush Says Creation 'Not Incompatible' with Evolution," FoxNews.com, 2008.12.09

Now our "simple president" Bush is no more an authority on biology than James Dobson is on theology, but hearing Bush join Pope John Paul II in denying any need to wage holy war against science does my heart good.

Another goodie under the tree: President Bush rejects Biblical literalism!

Interviewer Cynthia McFadden asked Bush if the Bible was literally true.

"You know. Probably not. ... No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it, but I do think that the New Testament for example is ... has got ... You know, the important lesson is 'God sent a son,"' Bush said.

"It is hard for me to justify or prove the mystery of the Almighty in my life," he said. "All I can just tell you is that I got back into religion and I quit drinking shortly thereafter and I asked for help. ... I was a one-step program guy" [ibid.].

Is Bush saying that for him, religion is just about practical problem-solving? Amazing what a guy will say when he no longer has to court fundagelical voters.

And the kicker:

The president also said that he prays to the same God as those with different religious beliefs.

"I do believe there is an almighty that is broad and big enough and loving enough that can encompass a lot of people," Bush said [ibid.].

Man oh man! It sounds more and more like George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama have been reading from the same Bible all along!

Actually, that's exactly what some end-timers believe. Unfortunately, some keepers of the Rapture watch proceed to draw the flatly counterfactual conclusion that Bush and Obama aren't Christians.

"George Bush, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair... deadly enemies of true Christians." Uff da. Not a terribly loving Christmas spirit... and just plain silly. If the fundagelicals keep nattering about the fringes like this, they might find Bob Barr and Ralph Nader out-polling Sarah Palin in 2012.

Christmas Love for Obama... from Pat Robertson

It must be Christmas: even Pat Robertson is saying nice things about President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama:

Robertson said Tuesday he was optimistic about the incoming Obama administration. “I am remarkably pleased with Obama,” he told Malveaux. “I had grave misgivings about him. But so help me, he's come in forcefully, intelligently. He's picked a middle of the road cabinet. And so far, if he continues down this course, he has the makings of a great president. So, I'm very pleased so far" ["Pat Robertson Criticizes Bush, Praises Obama," CNN Political Ticker, 2008.12.24].

See? Christmas can bring everyone together.

Prius: the Blizzard Disaster Car

I wonder if Robb Graham has tried this yet....

So you're thinking of buying a hybrid car to ride out the next gas price spike (and you know there will be one), but you're not sure you want to eat the $3K–$4K premium instead of buying a straight gasoline-powered Corolla or Civic.

But consider this added value in your calculus: folks are finding they can use their Prii as emergency back-up generators. From Harvard, Mass. (the town, not the university), where an ice storm knocked out power this month for days:

round the corner at Madigan Lane, John Sweeney, a member of the town’s conservation-minded Heat Advisory Committee, took a characteristically green approach to powering his home during the storm. He reported his achievement in an e-mail, saying it was no big deal, but that his wife thought it an impressive tale worth sharing: Sweeney ran his refrigerator, freezer, TV, woodstove fan, and several lights through his Prius, for three days, on roughly five gallons of gas.

“When it looked like we were going to be without power for awhile, I dug out an inverter (which takes 12v DC and creates 120v AC from it) and wired it into our Prius…These inverters are available for about $100 many places online,” he wrote.

The device allowed the engine to run every half hour, automatically charging the car battery and indirectly supplying the required power [Valerie Hurley, "Ice Storm Tests Mettle of Harvard Residents," The Harvard Press, 2008.12.19].

A Prius, an inverter, and an extension cord, and you can ride out a lengthy power outage. Or you could just spend your Christmas gift cards on a regular emergency generator... at least the larger of which will run you about the same price as the premium on the Prius.

It's just a thought; your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

James Brown Loves You -- Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas—how can you not dance? Get down with your bad self!

More Christmas Spirit: Rounds Reduces 205 Inmates' Sentences

Our governor sends some Christmas love to our erring fellow men (and women): Governor Rounds has reduced the sentences of 205 state prison inmates. It's not pure grace: the recipients of these commutations have all done some practical rehab: storm/flood clean-up, roofing and tuck-pointing on state buildings, completing their GED or firefighter certification, etc. For their service, inmates get 60 or 90 days knocked off their time.

The governor includes two Lake County inmates on the list, Cody Hall (serving for burglary) and Quentin LeBlanc. Let's hope the combination of the governor's Christmas commutations and these men's public service will help them rejoin the community as good fellow citizens.

All I Want for Christmas Is Health Reform...

Kids say the darndest things...

While judging the U.S. Extemp final at the Bell Debate Tournament last Friday, I heard one student channel Sibby and cry socialism over Daschle's coming health reforms. She gave an impassioned speech, which usually wins points in my book, but she got so wrapped up in warning us of the Red Menace—something about how the free market and consumers have pulled us out of every previous economic valley and how Daschle now wants to throw rocks down at us—that she forgot to give any specifics of what kind of health reform Daschle and his boss plan to bring us.

We don't know yet what form the Daschle-Obama health plan will take, though I will continue to urge the incoming HHS Secretary to stop by Dennis Kucinich's office on his listening tour.

The one concrete point the young made in her extemp speech before rocketing off into Sibby-Silly Land was that Daschle might not be able to get any health reform done due to the burgeoning Bush deficit and the further economic stimulus Team Obama will have to implement to get us out of the recession. On that note, Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center points out another key player in the Obama Administration who is focused on the cost side of health reform:

Can we do reform without worrying about cost? Serious analysts, including Jennings, Feder, and Rother, know we cannot. And so does Peter Orszag, who Obama will name to run OMB. Orszag, currently CBO director, has made cutting medical costs his crusade for the past couple of years.

In what will likely be an environment of mind-numbing deficits, health costs will matter more than ever. Reform cannot be just about covering the uninsured, which is relatively easy. It also means reducing the unnecessary and wasteful spending that Orszag says inflates the nation’s health care bill by one-third, or almost $700 billion annually [Howard Gleckman, "Will Recession Make Health Reform Easier for Obama?" Tax Vox, 2008.11.24].

What's that? I thought America's vaunted free market health system was all about efficiency. Silly me.

I've also heard opponents of socialized medicine fret that if the government paid for health care, everyone would rush to the hospital and overutilize medical resources.... because going to the hospital is so darn fun. Right. That's why we see rich people spending all their vacation time getting knee operations and chemotherapy.

Anyway, Gleckman suggests overutilization is actually a problem of America's private system:

Today, we grossly misallocate health care dollars. Some of us get far too many, others not nearly enough. In the end, slowing medical cost growth will mean rationing care in a more, um, rational way. It will mean that somebody—insurance companies, government, and ultimately doctors themselves—will have to tell patients that exercise and pain management may be more appropriate than back surgery, or that they may not get costly drugs that may extend their life by only a few months. Comparative effectiveness research that looks at the benefits of specific treatments is all the rage now. We are still a long way from turning this analysis into a real decision-making tool. However, the far bigger challenge will be convincing consumers to accept the consequences.

If we are going to have health reform, especially in the face of massive deficits, Obama’s most important job may be to get Americans to change the way they think about medical care. More, we must all learn, is not always better.

As Daschle has said, we already ration health care, and we do it in the least rational way possible, based on ability to pay. And that leads us to the paradoxical situation where we spend more and get less.

I hope the student I judged last weekend will recover from the lump-of-coal-like ballot I gave her and bulk up the health care folder in her extemp file. I also hope we can all carry some Christmas spirit over into the New Year, apply it to health reform, and bring some comfort and joy to our fellow man with a single-payer, not-for-profit national health coverage system.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New Bills: Highway Task Force, License Fees, REDI...

It's like Christmas a couple days early! Here are today's highlights and no-lights from the goodies under the prefiled bills tree at the South Dakota Legislature:
  • House Bill 1006: After a summer of diligent study, the Interim Committee on Highway Needs and Financing feels South Dakota's roads (and road taxes) need... more study. HB 1006 would creat a task force whose final report would be due at the end of 2010. "Create a task force"—sounds like code for, "We'd rather twiddle our thumbs for a couple years than make any hard choices." Hoghouse, anyone?
  • HB 1007: Who needs a task force? Some of the Republicans sponsoring HB 1006 already see the need to raise "certain noncommercial motor vehicle fees." (See also Senate Bill 10, which would increase the motor vehicle excise tax from 3% to 4%, and SB 11, which would eliminate fee reductions for certain older vehicles.)
  • SB 5: District 8's first big sponsorship of the session! Newly minted Senator Russell Olson puts his name atop some good old form and style amendments on Tourism and Economic Development legislation. The only apparently substantive change: elimination of an exemption for South Dakota high school and university graduates from one-to-one matching requirements for Revolving Economic Development and Initiative fund loans.
  • SB 8: A bill to cap license fees for electricians and landscape architects. (You need a license to be a landscape architect?) The bill also caps the fee for members of technical professions to place their license on inactive or retired status. Strange: if you don't pay your deactivation fee, the state terminates your inactive status... which means you're still active... unless you fail to be your license fee... in which case you're inactive... o.k., I'm sure there's some legally sensible reason for that one.
We still eagerly await Representative Gerald Lange's updated corporate income tax legislation to follow up on the trailblazing work our Republican legislators have done in forging income taxes for banks (the franchise tax) and farmers (see SB 3). Stay tuned!

Obama to Swear Oath on Lincoln Bible

The conservative fringe is dealt another demoralizing blow as President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama chooses to swear his oath of office on a Christian Bible, not a Koran.

But hang on: the Bible he's using is the same one used in 1861 by Abraham Lincoln. Abraham... hey, isn't that the name of the prophet Muslims regard as the Father of the Prophets? Isn't Abraham central to the rituals of the Hajj? Better check between that burgundy velvet binding....

And you know, I've read that Abraham Lincoln supposedly didn't have a middle name... but maybe he was just hiding it. Abraham Muhammad Lincoln...

Wiken Spots Privacy Double Standard -- Let's Flip It!

Doug Wiken at Dakota Today riffs nicely on an apparent double standard in South Dakota conservatives' thinking about privacy and government secrecy. Wiken highlights a point raised by SDPB's Paul Guggenheimer in last week's South Dakota Focus on President Bush's warrantless wiretaps:

Deep irony too that while most in South Dakota look the other way mumbling things like, "If you don't have anything to hide, what does it matter if your phone calls are recorded and call data collected into a huge federal government database." Meanwhile however, the State of South Dakota thinks almost everything it does should remain secret with a court-ordered need to know required to pry out much of anything in contrast to many states where most information is available by default unless locked for sufficient reason.

The most recent eruption of news in this area compliments of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader story on the "secret" ownership of the South Dakota video gambling machines. Also apparently state contracts issued without bids, etc, etc. Good golly, If they don't have something to hide, what difference does it make? [Doug Wiken, "South Dakota Focus and Those Bloggers and Newsmen," Dakota Today, 2008.12.22]

To their credit, Republican state senators Gant and Abdallah, along with outgoing senator Napoli, all state in Jonathan Ellis's video lottery article that the names of video lottery owners should be public.

Senator Napoli notes that video lottery comprises an alignment of the "biggest guns in Pierre"—retailers, petroleum dealers, beverage distributors, and others. The power behind video lottery and other government operations explains why, far from arguing for consistency in individual and government secrecy, I will argue the double standard should be flipped: government affairs like video lottery should be subject to much more public scrutiny than the state can impose on my phone calls. As an individual, I have relatively little power to do social harm on a daily basis. The content of my phone calls to friends in Canada or Russia should be subject to state inspection only upon demonstration in court of reasonable suspicion. Governments have much more daily impact on our social welfare; the actions of our governments (local, state, and federal) thus warrant much more transparency.

I've never liked the "if you have nothing to hide" argument on privacy. Try getting strip-searched at the airport, and you'll see where that argument fails. Privacy for individuals is a recognition of human dignity and autonomy, not individual innocence.

Secrecy for government affairs is much different. Government action is an extension of our popular will. We as the generators of that will thus have a right to know what our will is doing.

Call Internet Plumber: Comment RSS Plugged!

Hey, commenters, sorry to leave you hanging! For the past week, the "Recent Comments" feed in the upper right hand corner hasn't been refreshing. Bummer! I enjoy seeing your updates pop up there. Your comments are posting fine in each regular comment section. Only the comment RSS appears to be malfunctioning. I'll whack the Tubes with my e-monkey wrench a few times, see if I can get those comments flowing again. We appreciate your patience in these challenging times. ;-)

Update 11:35 CST: I'm not the only one! Other Blogger users have discovered that some coding cuts off the feed after 5000 comments. Interesting... though I note that my feed appears to have cut off in September, while the sidebar comment widget didn't cut off until last week.

Either way, it's rather amusing to think you folks have bothered to shout at me over 5,000 times. Thanks! And keep those shouts coming....

Monday, December 22, 2008

HB 1004 on Mountain Lions: Shoot 'Em and Stuff 'Em!

The Game Fish and Parks Agency Review Committee gets the early bird prize: they have filed the first five House bills for the 2009 session of the South Dakota Legislature. One measure sure to warm the cockles of PP's anti-feline heart: HB 1004, a measure to provide for the killing and dispostion of mountain lions. HB 1004 says if a mountain lion threatens you, any other person, or your livestock or pets, you can shoot it, no questions asked. You can also then keep the dead cat, stuff and mount it over your fireplace. No selling, trading, or bartering lion parts, though!

South Dakota Legislature Website Adds RSS Feeds!

So I'm getting ready to start my Russell Olson Watch, and I go to the South Dakota Legislature website to check the prefiled bills for any early goodies. I search around, find our man Russ's name on Senate Bill 5, and... hey, wait a minute. What's that little orange button at the top?

RSS—no, that's not short for Russ. It's an RSS feed! Yahoo! Those busy programmers in the Legislative Research Council are making it possible for us bloggers (and readers!) to follow our favorite bills. With innovation like this, before you know it, we'll be seeing a comments section on the Legislature's website!

RSS feeds for each bill are very cool. Who says government doesn't do anything right?

Now, if they would just add RSS feeds for each legislator... time to configure my Russ RSS!

Bailout Money: No Accountability

Just heard it on Marketplace, just read it on Yahoo News: We have no idea how the $700 billion in bailout funds is being used... and we can't get any idea. Among the strings Congress failed to attach to the TARP: any requirement or mechanism for banks to report where our tax dollars are going. A sample of the responses AP got from beenficiary banks when it asked where the bailout money has gone:

"We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it,'" said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion in emergency bailout money. "We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to."

..."We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking," said Barry Koling, a spokesman for Atlanta, Ga.-based SunTrust Banks Inc., which got $3.5 billion in taxpayer dollars.

..."We manage our capital in its aggregate," said Regions Financial Corp. spokesman Tim Deighton, who said the Birmingham, Ala.-based company is not tracking how it is spending the $3.5 billion it received as part of the financial bailout.

..."We're choosing not to disclose that," said Kevin Heine, spokesman for Bank of New York Mellon, which received about $3 billion. (...Heine... added: "I just would prefer if you wouldn't say that we're not going to discuss those details.")

...Bob Denham, a spokesman for North Carolina-based BB&T Corp., said the bailout money "doesn't have its own bucket." But he said taxpayer money wasn't used in the bank's recent purchase of a Florida insurance company. Asked how he could be sure, since the money wasn't being tracked, Denham said the bank would have made that deal regardless.

..."We're not sharing any other details. We're just not at this time," said Wendy Walker, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Comerica Inc., which received $2.25 billion from the government.

[Matt Apuzzo, "Where'd the Bailout Money Go? Shhhh, It's a Secret," AP via Yahoo News, 2008.12.22]

Funny. When East River Federal Credit Union loaned my wife and me money to build our house, they got to send out an inspector, get reports, snoop into our finances... and that was for less than $100K! But when we all loan the banks billions, they get to say, "We're not sharing any details." Right.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Barack Obama, Rick Warren, and Who's Going to Hell

For those of you who couldn't snowshoe to church today, here's some very loose Sunday morning theology... all prefaced with the clear acknowledgment that I could be wrong...

Pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration. Pastor Joseph E. Lowery will deliver the benediction.

I suppose I could get irate about all this mingling of church and state. I could demand both preachers be replaced by secular humanist voices at the inaugural podium. But I won't. I can wish our new President well regardless of who's standing next to him on the Capitol steps or which deity those people invoke in their good wishes. We already know the words on which history will turn that day; the rest is dressing.

While I have little interest in contriving kerfufflery over Warren's invocation, I find something thought-worthy in Professor Blanchard's commentary on the matter. Blanchard views Obama's pick as "brilliant and courageous politics," but I am more interested in the good professor's brief digression on salvation. Blanchard says liberals are all a-fluster in part because Warren holds the unsurprising position that only Christians get salvation. The surprising position comes from Blanchard:

I don't believe it. In fact, I think that the idea that a perfectly loving, wise, and powerful Creator could allow a single soul to end up in Hell is logically self-refuting. For then He would have done something that turned out badly. That means, of course, that God has to obey the rules of logic. But Thomas Aquinas says the does, and I'm with Tom [Ken Blanchard, "Guess Who's Giving the Blessing?" South Dakota Politics, 2008.12.20].

Not a single soul ending up in Hell? Looks like it'll be Bob Ellis, not me, making the next declaration that a nocturnal Blanchard post has gone off the rails.

Blanchard's position on salvation resembles Obama's (cf. comments on his mother and the other four-fifths of the world). I mention this not to tease the good professor or indict his conservative credentials. It seems worth noting, though, that this lack of preoccupation with salvation and an exclusive heaven appears to incline both Blanchard and Obama to concentrate on understanding and solving the practical problems of this world. Maybe that's why I like both of them.

I skipped church again this Sunday... and it wasn't just because of the two feet of new snow in front of the door I shoveled last night. If I were a believer, though, I still wouldn't be worrying much about salvation. I've osmosed enough Lutheranism to dig that salvation, if there is such a thing, is beyond our efforts. There is nothing we do—no good deed, no ritual, no magic profession of faith—to earn salvation. We don't choose God; God chooses us (or so I hear). "Saved?" He/She/It/They chuckle. "Already got it covered. Get to work."

Get to work. There is work to do in Creation, and we ought to do it... not because we get a reward if we do it or lose that reward if we don't, but simply because that work is good.

Obama gets that. Revs. Warren and Lowery both appear to get that, too. On January 20, they will all three stand before us to remind us that, whatever we believe about salvation, we all live in this world, and we all have work to do to make it better.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brookings Debate Alumna: The Next Colin Powell

Christine Knieff: Air Force Academy graduate, future Secretary of State, and Brookings debate veteran.
The Brookings Bell Debate Tournament is a favorite among South Dakota debate coaches and judges. Always the last tournament of the calendar year, Bell finds a lot of former debaters home from university or visiting family for the Christmas break. We get a chance to visit with students and friends we don't get to see during most of the debate season. Even this year's snow-shortened contest offered plenty of opportunity to visit with some debate veterans about the remarkable careers they are pursuing.

Among the successful former debaters I got to catch up with between rounds was Christine Knieff. A 2002 graduate of Brookings HS and national qualifier in Student Congress, Knieff went on to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She now is in charge of maintaining the "largest C-130 fleet in the world" at Little Rock AFB. When she gets done with leave after Christmas, she'll process out of Little Rock for her next two-year assignment: managing F-16 maintenance in South Korea (I didn't catch whether at Kunsan or Osan). Both she and the Air Force figure she's well suited for that post: her mom is Korean, and Christine is fluent in the language.

So how does a girl from Brookings, South Dakota, end up in charge of maintaining transport planes and fighter jets? High school debate helped. When she graduated and started doing briefings, she found she had an advantage over other officers. She knew just as much as they did, but she could more easily walk into a room full of her superiors, break down data, summarize main issues, and answer questions better than her peers.

Now Knieff isn't anti-sports: she ran track in high school, does martial arts, even does some work on the side as a personal trainer for folks she knows. You can't be in the military and not be physically fit. But Knieff says her ability to run has never been as useful in her daily work as an officer as her ability to communicate.

Knieff has more plans to put the skills she learned as a Bobcat debater to work for her country. After she finishes her master's degree (yes, she's getting a graduate degree while working full time protecting her country: security policy in international relations, online program, St. Mary's University, San Antonio), Knieff aspires to enter the diplomatic corps, rise serve as an ambassador and ultimately Secretary of State.

She says that with a straight face. Powell, Rice, Clinton... Knieff.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: kids, you want to have a shot at ruling the world? Join debate. Get the communication skills you will use in any good job, whether you work in a school, an insurance company, the Air Force, or the State Department.

Notes on other remarkable debate alums at Bell:
  • Another Bobcat debate alum, Scott Meyer, was in the judging corps yesterday. Scott was among the mighty Brookings debate crew who stormed the Portland Nationals in 2001. He graduated from Luther College in 2005, taught English in Tanzania, got a master's in peace and conflict studies in Oslo (yes, Norway), and now is applying to places like Notre Dame to continue his work.
  • Travis Kiefer, a proud 2006 grad of the Groton debate program, joined me on the judge panel for the U.S. Extemp Final. Before the round, we talked about his urban studies program at Stanford. You know, Stanford, where future Energy Secretary Steven Chu and 26 other Nobel laureates have professed. Very cool.

Bush Pushed Mortgage Meltdown

While Ken and I try to figure out who's trying to balance whom, the New York Times jumps on a point I made—well, actually, that a right-wing blogger made and I simply Googled: if the push for increased minority home ownership had anything to do with the mortgage meltdown, you can't pin the blame "mostly with liberals in the Press and their conjoined twins in Congress," unless you count George W. Bush as a liberal:

There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.

But the story of how we got here is partly one of Mr. Bush’s own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.

From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards [Jo Becker, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Stephen Labaton, "White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire," New York Times, 2008.12.20].

Now let me be clear:
  1. Expanding home ownership, for minorities and everyone else, is darn good idea.
  2. Home ownership promotes economic security (Bush said that).
  3. Real economic security comes from increasing income (your money), not from loosening credit (the bank's money).
The President's chief economic advisor Keith Hennessey is thinking along a similar line:

Today, administration officials say it is fair to ask whether Mr. Bush’s ownership push backfired. [Treasury Secretary] Paulson said the administration, like others before it, “over-incented housing.” Mr. Hennessey put it this way: “I would not say too much emphasis on expanding homeownership. I would say not enough early focus on easy lending practices” [Becker et al.]

Becker et al. find blame to be laid at everyone's doorstep: Congress, corporate lenders, lobbyists, and the current and past administrations (don't forget dumb borrowers!). They note that a Bush administration official, Armando Falcon, Jr., then head of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, was ready in February 2003 to sound the alarm on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

Mr. Falcon’s report outlined a worst-case situation in which Fannie and Freddie could default on debt, setting off “contagious illiquidity in the market” — in other words, a financial meltdown. He also raised red flags about the companies’ soaring use of derivatives, the complex financial instruments that economic experts now blame for spreading the housing collapse.

...[A]s Mr. Falcon was in New York preparing to deliver a speech about his findings, his cellphone rang. It was the White House personnel office, he said, telling him he was about to be unemployed.

His warnings were buried in the next day’s news coverage, trumped by the White House announcement that Mr. Bush would replace Mr. Falcon, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, with Mark C. Brickell, a leader in the derivatives industry that Mr. Falcon’s report had flagged [Becker et al.].

Tonight's dinner
table question:
~ ~ ~
Which has done more damage to your personal security: al-Qaeda or the mortgage meltdown?
~ ~ ~
February 2003. Five years before the stimulus checks, the Bear Stearns buyout, and every other crisis maneuver this year that hasn't worked. One month before the president (with, yes, the approval of a majority of Congress and, at the time, even me) marched our troops into Iraq, where Bush now admits al-Qaeda was not.

My point is not that President Bush deserves all the blame. My point is that if you are going to play the blame game, you'll have a hard time pinning it on just one side of the aisle. A lot of us had our eyes on the wrong ball.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Restore Bad Credit Through Local Bank and Hard Work, Not Credit Cards or Payday Lenders

Governor Rounds characterizes the new federal regulations on credit cards as "totally backwards." He frets the regulations will "make it more difficult for people with bad credit to get a card" [paraphrase from AP].

(Never mind the job losses Rounds fears: corporate propaganda from Total Card and Premier Bankcard says they foresee no staffing changes.)

Might I suggest that making it difficult for people with bad credit to get credit cards might actually be common sense? Maybe instead of opening up avenues for predatory lending, we should cut off more sources of easy money for folks with a demonstrated history of bad money management.

If Governor Rounds and other friends of Premier Bankcard are worried that stiffer credit card regulations will drive folks with bad credit to the payday lenders, maybe they should get on board with Rep. Joni Cutler's proposals to regulate the payday lenders (she tried last session, and she's ready to try again).

While I heed Mr. Schoenbeck's warning that the new regulations might hurt "distressed consumers that need credit," it would seem that neither credit card companies nor payday lenders are the best judges of who needs credit. If folks are in bad financial straits, either through bad decisions or bad luck, their credit "needs" might best be determined by their community banks, by real neighbors with a little more interest in their community's welfare. If those community banks decide, under the practices of responsible banking, that a neighbor just doesn't qualify for a line of credit, then that person may just have to live with not getting that new house or new car. That person will then be that much more motivated to work hard, pay off old debts, and save for the future.

Isn't that the personal responsibility my Republican neighbors preach?