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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tech Jobs Growing and Paying... But South Dakota Still at Bottom of Pay Scale

DSU students, take heart: the tech sector is still pulling its weight in the recession. A new report finds that the U.S. still managed to add 77,000 high-tech jobs in 2008. ($150 gets you the full survey from TechAmerica.)

South Dakota's doing what it can to keep up with the tech train. In 2007, our fair state added 700 new tech jobs (that's like putting everyone in Howard to work!) that have an average wage of $47,962. That's good news if you're a DSU grad looking for work in South Dakota, where, by my doodling with the wage stats from the South Dakota Department of Labor, average wages for all professions are about $33K.

But it's not spectacular news if you're a South Dakota employer competing to keep those DSU grads here on the farm or a state program trying to lure high-tech expats back, given that nationwide, those eager techies can earn an average tech-industry wage of $83,300. Uff da—last again!

Well, not quite last. We placed 51st... ahead of Puerto Rico.

Now indeed, South Dakota can still claim that low cost of living as an incentive to move here and take a pay cut. But for perspective, according to the most recent data available, South Dakota's cost of living is 90.5% of the national average. Our average tech wage is 57.5% of the national average. Therefore (cue slide rule), a DSU graduate choosing to stay in South Dakota rather than pursuing pay elsewhere is taking a 36% cut in actual purchasing power.

I'll still make the case that life is better in South Dakota than anywhere else (I'll still take blizzards over hurricanes or New York traffic any day!). But numbers like the above make that case a little harder sell.

By the way, six states still managed a slightly cheaper cost of living in Q4 2008 than South Dakota: Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the big winner, Tennessee, with a COL of 88.3% of the national average. All but one of those states (Texas) has some sort of income tax.

Gov't Helps GM, Chrysler; Ford Helps You!

Auto news #3: while GM and Chrysler cling to government life support, Ford has enough fight left in it to help customers through the recession. Ford just announced that if you buy a new Ford between now and June 1 and then lose your job, the company will cover your car payment, up to $700 a month, for a year.

A commenter noted yesterday that I paint plenty broadly when it comes to portraying corporations as evil. Point well taken. Ford surely has its bottom-line reasons for offering what is essentially private unemployment insurance. They are following a plan similar to one that helped Hyundai avoid the huge sales losses that pretty much every other automaker has experienced so far this year. But I will grant that Ford is recognizing that social responsibility and fiscal responsibility go hand in hand. "You help us, we'll help you," Ford is saying. "We're all in this together."

Update 11:35 CDT: GM's in, too! New CEO Fritz Henderson says GM will cover up to nine $500 payments for laid-off customers.

Drive Like Edison and Rockefeller: Buy a Detroit Electric!

In other automotive news, Detroit Electric, a brand resurrected from the early 20th century, announced yesterday that it will partner with Malaysia's Proton Holdings to produce an electric car priced between $24,000 and $26,000. That'll get you a daily range of 110 miles; the 200-mile model will run $4K–$5K more. If you need more range than that, you're quite the outlier, as the average American drives 33 miles a day.

The company plans to put the new Detroit Electric in showrooms in Europe and China in quarter 1 of 2010, then the U.S. in quarter 3.

The Detroit Electric could be the future... but it's also a trip back in time:

In early part of the 20th century, Detroit Electric was one of a number of electric car manufacturers. These cars drove only about 20 miles per hour and had limited range but were considered suitable for city use and, by some, easier to drive than gasoline cars, which required a manual start.

In 1900, 28 percent of all cars produced were electric, but 20 years later the industry was all but dead, according to Michael Brian Schiffer, author of a history of electric cars in the U.S. The original Detroit Electric went out of business in the 1930s [Martin LaMonica, "Detroit Electric Resurrected as $25,000 Electric Car," CNet News, 2009.03.30].

The original Detroit Electric won customers like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Thomas Edison. Perhaps Chrysler should skip Fiat and merge with Detroit Electric; then we might see our modern captains of industry and invention buzzing merrily down the thoroughfare in Detroit Electrics next year!

President Obama Now Chairman of the Board at GM, Chrysler

The President just fired the CEO of General Motors. He's telling Chrysler to merge with Italian carmaker Fiat (whither Pat and Nick's All-American Auto Mall?). And he's tapping the TARP to back the warranties on new GM and Chrysler cars. (FDIC for cars? Well, at least the TARP money is backing working folks' purchase of cars and trucks rather than financial abstractions).

Tell me if I'm wrong, but these are pretty radical steps, aren't they? Whether they are the right steps is open for debate, but Obama's current actions to save the auto industry seem like about as big a departure from the status quo as we can get without nationalizing Detroit. Now if we could just see similar forcefulness from the Administration toward the bankers and brokers who are getting even more of our money and not producing results, we might get this recession licked!

By the way, Mike Madden at Salon.com notes that GM CEO Rick Wagoner isn't even getting a nice severance package: "officials say he'll be kept on, in some harmless position, at his $1 annual salary, so taxpayers don't wind up on the hook for the multimillion-dollar pension he'd be entitled to otherwise." Ouch!)

Cranky conservatives were pushing the "Obama = used-car salesman" meme before 2008; maybe now they can have fun portraying the President as a new car salesman. Actually, Obama's take-charge turn is winning praise from some conservatives, who would rather see the controlled burn of bankruptcy than a possibly bottomless bailout.

Monday, March 30, 2009

County Poor Farm Public Access to Lake Madison? Meeting Thursday!

Hey, neighbors, clear those calendars: the Lake County Commission is hosting a special meeting Thursday night to discuss opening the old county poor farm to create a new public access area on the west side of Lake Madison, just off Highway 19.

View Larger Map

This little patch of land, one of the last open plots along Lake Madison tucked between fancy-pants houses, has been mined for gravel and leased for farming. It became a point of contention this winter when the county commission considered leasing the shoreline portion of the poor farm's 150-odd acres to the state Game Fish & Parks Department, who wanted to pay the county for the privilege of building and maintaining a public access area. Fishermen and local media loved the idea; neighbors (at least a couple of them) did not.

Now we all get a chance to talk about it, including all those Lake Madison snowbirds who've all flocked back to South Dakota now that winter's done (just ignore that blizzard warning).

Comments are welcome here, but they're even more welcome in person, face-to-face, at the meeting. Come talk to your neighbors about the best use for our public resources. Thursday, April 2, 7 p.m., at the 4-H Grounds on Egan Avenue, south edge of Madison, quarter mile west from the white buffalo, across from the Bethel home.

I've got class that night... but my prof lives on Lake Madison! Maybe we'll both play hooky! :-)

Brzezinski Pricks Conscience of Rich Talking Heads

Class solidarity and national responsibility... novel concepts from Zbigniew Brzezinski:

"How many yachts can you own? How many homes can you own? How many planes can you own?"

"There has to be some demonstrable response to this sense of crisis today from the rich people rathere than have them hide or hire security guards or insist that they stay anonymous."

Instead of throwing our little tea parties in public parks and whining about raising taxes back to Clinton- or Reagan-era levels, maybe the proper place for Revolutionary re-enactments is the front lawns of the wealthy who used to recognize some obligation beyond their personal avarice. It's not Washington keeping your wages stagnant: it's the corporations.

High Energy Costs to Change Corporate Model, Return Manufacturing to U.S.?

Just in time to take up the remaining lots in the federally subsidized Dwaine Chapel Plaza:

There may well be a different pattern of global production and distribution when the world economy emerges from the current crisis, says George Stalk, senior adviser to the Boston Consulting Group. Assuming that long-term oil prices average $80 a barrel or so, and that roads, ports and airports continue to be congested, smaller factories closer to home — in the Midwest or Mexico, for example — may be more economical and flexible than those in Asia. “For a lot of goods, China will no longer be the preferred source,” Mr. Stalk said [Steve Lohr, "How Crisis Shapes the Corporate Model," New York Times, 2009.03.28].

Even South Dakota can't compete with low wages in China. But increased transportation csts could level that playing field, restore competitive advantage for Gehl, Rosebud, et al., and maybe even draw some manufacturers back to the Midwest. Forget those call centers: let's get back to making actual stuff!

New Mexico, Alaska Work to Boost Small Schools; Lessons for South Dakota?

South Dakota's 2009 Legislature went rounds about school consolidation again. It also considered responding to the budget shortfall by freezing state aid to schools (the stimulus let us go for the standard 3% increase).

Let us for a moment compare educational goings-on in a couple other states:
  • In the midst of the same recession South Dakota is in, New Mexico gave serious consideration to a new funding formula that would have increased state education aid 15%. The biggest increases would have gone to "smaller districts serving the poorest, most rural, communities, those with large percentages of Hispanic and Native American students, and those with high proportions of English Language Learners." The money would have come from increases in the gross receipts tax and income tax. Those measures passed the House before the NM business lobby rallied to kill those ideas in the Senate.
  • Another proposal before the New Mexico Legislature would have set a maximum size for new schools built with state money. Still big by SD standards—225 students max for high schools, 60 students max for kindergartens—but an acknowledgment from another state with big rural populations that bigger isn't always better. But South Dakota consolidation pushers, take heart: Think New Mexico, the group who proposed the bill, says the most effective high school size is 600–900 students; the most efficient schools enroll 300–900. The bill passed the Senate but appears to have hung up in the House.
  • North to Alaska: In February Judge Sharon Gleason ruled Alaska was failing to fulfill its Constitutional obligation to provide sufficient education to kids in poor rural schools. The judge gave the state 60 days to straighten out that situation... during which time the governor rejected $172 million in federal stimulus assistance for schools... $74 million of which was designated for poor schools and special-needs kids. (You know, special needs kids, the ones the governor promised to advocate for if elected Vice-President. She wasn't elected VP, so I guess she's off the hook.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clyde Hides? Sioux Falls Bonnie Goes Solo

I can't believe Perry Groten didn't make more of this story: a blonde walks into the North Kiwanis Casey's Saturday night, pulls out a handgun, gets a fistful of cash from the clerk, and walks—doesn't run, doesn't peel out in a '68 Dodge Charger, just walks away.

And all Perry gets about the suspect: "She's described as 5 feet 9 inches tall, about 130 pounds with shoulder length wavy hair."

As Jemz notes, for a profile-busting case like this, the above is a stunning lack of detail, especially from KELO's most interesting reporter. Yes, I'm a chauvinist pig, but had I been working the cash register at Casey's on a Saturday night in spring, I'd have had her clothes, age, earrings, shade of lipstick, and the sound of her shoes etched firmly in memory... even before she pulled out the gun. If all the clerk got was what Perry gives us, I'm betting the clerk is either in love or in cahoots.

There's a story here... and a rather conspicuous blonde walking around Sioux Falls with a steely look in her eye. I guarantee, if she's not caught by Friday, KSFY puts her on Wheel of Justice... and triples its ratings.

Don't forget: up to $1000 for the tip that catches Sioux Falls Bonnie!

Biden as "Useful Contrarian" -- The Blogger's VP?

Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate didn't thrill me at first. As you'd expect of the liberal blogarazzi, I found sufficient reason to deem Biden worth my vote on the November ballot.

Saturday's New York Times gives me more reason to like Biden:

Top aides say it has become customary for Mr. Obama to solicit Mr. Biden’s opinion at the end of meetings. But his views by no means always carry the day. At one January meeting to discuss the budget, Mr. Biden railed that the government was in no fiscal shape to pursue a health care overhaul this year — to the dismay of many present and others who heard about it.

The vice president later backed off, but Mr. Obama — who disagreed strongly with the view — has come to see Mr. Biden as a useful contrarian in the course of decision-making.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said that "when there’s group-think going on, the vice president tends to push the envelope in the other direction" [Mark Leibovich, "Speaking Freely, Biden Finds Influential Role," New York Times, 2009.03.28].

The useful contrarian—my kind of role! Note that in the example cited here, Biden is arguing against a reform dear to my heart... yet I can respect him for being the voice of dissent in the room.

And how does the President feel about disagreement from his Number Two?

“There’s, I think, an institutional barrier sometimes to truth-telling in front of the president,” Mr. Obama said. “Joe is very good about sometimes articulating what’s on other people’s minds, or things that they’ve said in private conversations that people have been less willing to say in public. Joe, in that sense, can help stir the pot” [Leibovich, 2009.03.28].

Stirring the pot, questioning the boss: that's my kind of loyalty.

Check the Checkpoints: ActCivilized.com Alerts SD Drivers to Sobriety Searches

Do sobriety checkpoints torque you off? Believe it or not, as Sergeant Thompson pointed out Friday, South Dakota's Department of Public Safety is offering to give you a heads-up on when and where the Highway Patrol will be ignoring the Fourth Amendment. The state has set up a new website, actcivilized.com, where you can sign up to get text message alerts about sobriety checkpoints in your county.

If I had a cell phone, that would be even peachier.

The service also offers a text-message directory of cabs available throughout the Black Hills and around some of South Dakota's bigger burgs.

So this would be Big Brother helping me keep track of Big Brother. I'm having a hard time getting my mind fully around that one, and I'm sober!

Russia, Argentina, America? U.S. as "Emerging Market"

"Emerging market" is a World Bank euphemism for countries like Russia, Argentina, and Pakistan who don't do capitalism the way we Western experts think they should.

Did I say experts?

Over the past year, I've been getting Russia flashbacks as I witness the AIG debacle as well as the collapse of Bear Sterns and a host of other financial institutions. Much like the oligarchs did in Russia, a small group of traders and executives at onetime venerable institutions have brought the U.S. and global financial systems to their knees with their reckless risk-taking -- with other people's money -- for their personal gain.

...The parallels between U.S. policymaking and what we see in emerging markets are clearest in how we've mishandled the banking crisis. We delude ourselves that our banks face liquidity problems, rather than deeper solvency problems, and we try to fix it all on the cheap just like any run-of-the-mill emerging market economy would try to do. And after years of lecturing Asian and Latin American leaders about the importance of consistency and transparency in sorting out financial crises, we fail on both counts: In March 2008, one investment bank, Bear Stearns, is bailed out because it is thought to be too interconnected with the rest of the banking system to fail. However, six months later, another investment bank, Lehman Brothers -- for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from Bear Stearns in its financial market inter-connectedness -- is allowed to fail, with catastrophic effects on global financial markets.

...In the twilight of my career, when I am hopefully wiser than before, I have come to regret how the IMF and the U.S. Treasury all too often lectured leaders in emerging markets on how to "get their house in order" -- without the slightest thought that the United States might fare no better when facing a major economic crisis. Now, I fear time is running out for our own policymakers to mend their ways and offer real leadership to extricate the United States from its worst economic calamity since the 1930s. If we insist on improvising and not facing our real problems, we might soon lose our status as a country to be emulated and join the ranks of those nations we have patronized for so long [Desmond Lachman, "Welcome to America, the World's Scariest Emerging Market," Washington Post, 2009.03.29, p. B01].

Lachman, a pretty smart fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blames both political parties, and sees our current Treasury Secretary to be as at sea as his predecessor. Mr. Lachman recommends following the Swedish model of bank reform, where nationalization of two major banks scared other institutions straight. He also calls for complete transparency and consistency in our bank reforms. In this morning's article, he sees disaster for America if we don't eventually rein in spending, but last October he said that the argument that a big deficit spending push "might compromise the longer run US budget position overlooks how very much worse the US budget position would be in the event of an even deeper recession than that already in train."

The policy questions of what to do at this moment are tough. But Lachman's larger point is that the United States sank into a myopic crony capitalism even as it was telling other countries to reform their markets. With our recent performance, we shouldn't be any more surprised that China would like to buck the buck and create a more stable world currency than we are that no one outside Russia uses rubles.

Green White House: Obama Continues Bush, Clinton Tradition

For my Republican friends who enjoy riffing on the "Change We Can Believe In" slogan, here's another toy to play with: President Obama's greening of the White House continues a recent tradition of environmental innovations at the presidential mansion.
The White House has led home greenification recently in some other ways:
It's good to know that the White House under both parties has been trying to set a good example. Keep up the good work, Mr. President!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Run Cars on Trash and Corn: Rube Goldberg Lives!

Poet Ethanol, the City of Sioux Falls, and even the Environmental Protection Agency were down in the dump yesterday... for a ribbon-cutting to celebrate Poet's latest innovative source of power for its ethanol plants: methane from the Sioux Falls Landfill.

All that stuff we throw away generates methane, which usually just escapes into the atmosphere. Figuring we might as well use that methane for something, the City of Sioux Falls spent $4.3 million to capture that methane and pipe it ten miles down to Chancellor, where Poet will use the methane to provide up to 90% of the power needed to run its ethanol plant there (same plant where Poet has adopted pallet power!). The landfill-methane pipeline will cost the city $300K a year to operate... and in return, Poet will pay the city $1.8 million for the methane. Mayor Munson likes that:

(Hey, Madison neighbors: anyone want to go in with me on a bigger compost bin... and some pipe to run to Wentworth?)

The Environmental Protection Agency is a partner in this project (don't tell me the EPA never does anything good). Washington sent Swarupa Ganguli, Midwest coordinator for EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program, to congratulate Poet and the city. She noted that this project, one of only three such landfill–ethanol operations in the country, removes 27,000 cars' worth of greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere.

It's not quite Doc Brown's Mr. Fusion powering your car with trash, but it's a step in that direction. It feels a little Rube Goldberg—capture methane from trash, pipe it to run a factory that turns cattle feed into car fuel—but it shows that if we take a little creativity, a little engineering, and a lot of trash, we can produce our own power.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reason #8347 I Love South Dakota: Hubba House Ranch Podcast!

Ten-gallon hat tip to John at South Dakota Magazine, who points us toward Hubba's House, the busiest blog in the Elm Springs metro area. Hubba, also known to horse and man as Matthew J. Trask, has been reporting online the goings-on at his family's West River hacienda since 2005. With videocasts like the following, I'm sorry I didn't find Hubba's House sooner:

Best line: "Show 'em that snow-manure pile. Wow, the wonders of nature."

Now why the heck would I want to live in New York City or some such urban cesspool when I can enjoy the glories of South Dakota? Keep up the good work, Hubba!

Sioux Falls After Credit: Let's Go Fishing... and Data Farming!

Marketplace runs its second report on Sioux Falls and the credit card industry, specifically on how the recession caused in part by the credit industry has impacted Sioux Falls. Layoffs at Citibank, Department of Labor going from offering a job-hunt class once a month to four times a week, people glad just to cling to a job—as anyone with a credit card should know, the credit card companies giveth, and the credit card companies taketh away.

If the credit industry goes further south, perhaps Sioux Falls can find a roadmap in a couple other Marketplace stories on Iceland. Much like their fellow Viking descendants in Sioux Falls, the sweater-wearing Icelanders staked their economy on the financial industry and were making out like bandits. But now their three largest banks have collapsed, taking the national economy with them. In response, Icelanders are going back to their simpler, self-sufficient roots:

TEITUR THORKELLSON: Like Icelanders were all crazy about flat screens one year ago. They're now all crazy about going fishing , making a living, survival.

Teitur Thorkellson runs an energy consultancy called FTO. His firm's income has been cut in half. Everywhere, he says, there are signs of a new austerity.

THORKELLSON: If you travel the country now -- six months after the crash -- you will stop at a gas station, and the girl who's attending the gas station, she will be knitting socks. People are not spending. They're not eating as much out. So we're adjusting pretty fast [Stephen Beard, "Iceland in the Cold After Collapse," Marketplace, 2009.03.26].

Fishing and knitting—there's a plan South Dakotans can relate to! Clean up the Big Sioux, stock some perch and walleye, maybe offer a yarn subsidy, and folks laid off from Citibank could make a living!

Perhaps Sioux Falls and South Dakota could also compete with another Icelandic plan for economic recovery: data farming! Marketplace reports this morning that Iceland is hoping to establish a big international server farm. The big perk to doing it in Iceland: less cost for air-conditioning.

If temperature is the competitive advantage, South Dakota can offer Icelandic temps (or colder!) for at least a few months a year. Dig a nice deep hole (or just create some space out in the Homestake Lab) and you get even better climate control, plus a nice EMP/al-Qaeda proof bunker for everyone's data. Plus, for big U.S. companies, data retrieval from South Dakota will be several milliseconds faster than from Icelandic servers.

Fishing, knitting, and server farms: opportunity awaits, South Dakota!

SDARWS New Tenants for Heartland Building

KJAM reports good downtown news: even before Heartland Consumers Power District breaks ground on its new building in federally subsidized Dwaine Chapel Plaza on the northwest edge of the City of Lake Madison, Heartland has a buyer for its current building. Who says you can't move real estate in the current economy?

And who are the new future tenants of the Heartland building?

Lobbyists. Yes, lobbyists. The South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems does lots of other useful work, like offering training and technical assistance to small-town and rural water and wastewater systems. But lobbyists... lobbyists! That Russell Olson's employer would pave the way for more lobbyists to move to town must gall Senator Olson to no end.

Oh well. It sounds like SDARWS will bring seven, eight, maybe ten new jobs to town. And lobbying, technical training, and the other services SDARWS provides are good professional jobs. Who needs a call center? Welcome to town, SDARWS!

Now, about those occasional fishy flavors I get from Kingbrook....

Priorities Check: Terrorism vs. Economy

As you head for your Friday coffee break, here are a couple questions that might spark some conversation:

1. Which headline would you rather see tomorrow?
  • Bin Laden Captured by U.S. Army
  • Recession Over
2. Which is the greater infringement on liberty?
  • Searching everyone, including Grandma, at the airport
  • Imposing regulations on hedge funds, private equity funds, bank holding companies, and insurance conglomerates

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Informed Electorate Key to Democracy... KJAM Says We're Toast

KJAM Headline of the Week:

Feel free to supply your own Jeffersonian punchlines about the other 796,000 South Dakotans.

But come on, KJAM: the Madville Times has more than 25 regular readers!

Daugaard Has South Dakota's Pulse on Pork

Bob Mercer gives favorable-sounding coverage of Lieutenant Governor Dennis Daugaard's central role in the new South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority. Daugaard's involvement with economic development tied to the airbase shows why he'll be hard to beat in South Dakota's 2010 gubernatorial race.

Ellsworth currently has 5,182 military and civilian on-base jobs. A 2006 study found Ellsworth’s direct and indirect impacts on South Dakota’s economy exceeded $300 million.

...Ellsworth gained an important administrative role in recent years as the financial center for 93 Air Force bases.

...As for the authority’s potential benefit to the election campaign of Dennis Daugaard, keep in mind the old rule about real estate: Location, location, location. Right now, on this important issue, the lieutenant governor is in the right place at the right time [Bob Mercer, "Air-base Authority Offers New Role for Daugaard," Pierre Capital Journal, 2009.03.24].

The metaphorical location is more important than the geographical. Lt. Gov. Daugaard is demonstrating that politically he is smack dab where the vast majority of South Dakota voters are: determined to pay less than our fair share of taxes while depending on federal largesse (occasionally referred to as pork) to sustain our standard of living. Watch the other Republican contenders fall all over themselves in the scramble to reconcile GOP small-government rhetoric with the need to pander to that dependence. The only Democrat who could trump Daugaard on a record of bringing home federal dollars would be Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin... and South Dakotans committed to the continued imbalance between taxes we pay and federal money we get back might do better to keep our Democratic Congresswoman in the Democratic Congress working with our Democratic President.

I note with amusement South Dakota didn't even spend its own money to come up with the idea for the Ellsworth Development Authority: Mercer points out that the idea came from "a consultant, hired through a U.S. Department of Defense grant , in the wake of the near-closure of the base in 2005."

Federal dollars pay for a federal consultant to recommend a state program to keep federal dollars flowing into our state. I think my Republican friends will have more fun with that one than I will!

"Sioux Falls: The Town Credit Built"... or Bilked?

Sioux Falls gets some national coverage on public radio: Marketplace is reporting on "The Town Credit Built." Last night's program (audio archived here) featured former Governor Bill Janklow* touting South Dakota's embrace of unfettered usury and Citibank's move here as "a heck of a deal for my state." Lincoln County Commissioner Jim Schmidt tells Marketplace reporter Stacey Vanek-Smith that Sioux Falls went from almost no white-collar jobs in the 1970s to 20,000 jobs—15% of the metro workforce—in the financial sector today.

Marketplace plans more Sioux Falls coverage tonight, with a discussion of the flipside: what happens to Sioux Falls's house of cards when credit freezes and no one can take on any more debt. Should be interesting! If you're interested, listen tonight on MPR at 6:30 or SDPB at 7:00.

If It's Good Enough for Europe...

The most popular question listed right now on the Health Care Reform section of the White House's "Open for Questions" online forum:

Why can we not have a universal health care system like many European countries, where people are treated based on needs, rather than financial resources?

Good question, given that's exactly the kind of system a majority of Americans want. I hope we get a good answer from President Obama on that one this morning!

Of course, there are other ways to cut health care costs....

Sobriety Checkpoints: Public Safety or Nanny State?

For all of you readers who like to complain about Marxism and the "nanny state," here's a question: how do you feel about sobriety checkpoints? KJAM reports the South Dakota Highway Patrol will be stopping drivers throughout April at checkpoints in Minnehaha, Moody, and several other counties around our fair state.

Police stop you without cause, ask to see your papers, sniff around... for all the talk about surging socialism in the new Administration, I'm not sure you can find a more apt analog to life in the USSR than sobriety checkpoints, and they've been going on for years... in Republican South Dakota.

I've always been made a bit nervous by the extent to which we defang the Fourth Amendment on our public roads, especially when evidence of their effectiveness is questionable. Apparently so are eleven states, including the Democratic People's Republic of Minnesota, which prohibit sobriety checkpoints.

I do not drink, and I have darn little tolerance for those who do so to excess. But I also have little tolerance for officers of the law detaining me without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.

So you tell me: where do we strike the balance?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Marxism on SDPB -- Wolff Critiques Capitalism, Calls for Participatory Economic Decision-Making!

Oops: GOP sure to cut more SDPB funding next year....

SDPB Dakota Midday chats with Dr. Richard Wolff, professor of economics at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, about his new documentary, Capitalism Hits the Fan. Dr. Wolff argues that the anti-democratic way we run capitalism now—huge corporate decisions made mini-politburos of corporate boards—has led to huge corporate profits, stagnant wages, and American workers swamped by debt. Dr. Wolff says we must respond to the resulting economic morass by, among other things, revolutionizing corporate governance to give workers (and consumers?) more voice in corporate decisions.

The professor's discourse provokes me to ask:

Fascinating conversation! I totally dig your guest's point that we have the right to participate in making the decisions that affect our lives. My question: how does your guest respond to the free-market argument that consumers already have a mechanism for holding corporations accountable with their spending if I don't like a corporation's decisions, I can take my money elsewhere. Employees, too: if they don't like the board's policies, they can take their labor elsewhere or work for themselves. Isn't that enough of a check on corporate power?

I e-mail the question, and Paul Guggenheim reads it on air. Dr. Wolff responds that if capitalism were working right, that mechanism would work. But capitalism is off the rails. Market forces don't work in favor of consumers or workers. If we take our money elsewhere, the corporation sees a downturn in profits, and it responds by laying off workers. Those laid-off workers don't have the economic liberty to make significant choices with their dwindling savings. They spend less, more workers get laid off... and the only people left with money are the corporate bonus takers picking the industrial skeleton clean. The whole system is broken!

Thanks for the answer, Dr. Wolff! Paul, expect Sibby et al. to picket the Vermillion studios within the week.

Learn more from Dr. Wolff in this video at Rethinking Marxism (yup, the M word, for real!).

By the way, Paul G. continues to introduce my Midday questions by saying "This comes from Cory in Lake Herman...." Now plenty of readers will tell you I'm all wet, but trust me: I won't be in Lake Herman for a little while... a least not until I put on my waders for water monitoring! :-)

Geithner: Marxist Power Grab or Sensible Regulation?

You might hear some hyperventilation about President Obama and Secretary Geithner seeking to "tighten the ratchet of power" in their "unrelenting" drive toward a "Marxist takeover of America." (I struggle to remind myself these are actual neighbors saying these things... and believing them.)

The latest "unprecedented grab of power": Secretary Geithner's request that Congress grant the executive branch more control over failing financial institutions.

Is your autonomy at risk? Sure... if you're a giant insurance company or hedge fund who's screwed up so badly that you're going to collapse and take the economy down with you:

With such authority, the administration argued, rather than having to spend $170 billion to bailout the American International Group, the government could have put the insurance company into receivership or conservatorship and regulators would have been able to unwind it slowly.

Atop A.I.G. insurance companies “is an almost entirely unregulated business unit that took extraordinary risks to generate extraordinary profits,” Mr. Geithner said Wednesday. “And when this unit’s derivative contract losses pushed A.I.G. to the brink of failure last fall, the entire financial system was endangered" [Anahad O'Connor, "Geithner Campaigns for Broader Control of Financial Firms," New York Times, 2009.03.25].

Think of it this way: suppose you're on a bus and the driver drinking whiskey. You could sit back and let the driver crash—serves him right! The crowd of school kids the bus is about to plow into might feel otherwise. Geithner is suggesting it might be better for everybody if you let him push the driver aside, take the wheel, and guide the bus to a gentle stop so no one else gets hurt.

As O'Connor points out, the power Geithner is requesting is the same power the federal government has had over banks for years to try to prevent internal bank problems from turning into systemic financial meltdown. The bigger economic collapse Geithner seeks to avert is a much greater threat to our liberty than any of the oversight Geithner is seeking over the biggest (and potentially baddest) financial behemoths playing games with our money.

Health Insurers Getting Desperate, Begging for Coverage Mandate

The medical insurance industry raised eyebrows last November by making this offer to the federal government: we'll guarantee coverage for folks with pre-existing conditions if you'll require everyone to purchase private insurance. That was back in November, when there was hope Tom Daschle would ride into HHS and socialize medicine (the way it should be!).

Now with Daschle out of the way, you'd think the insurers would breathe a sigh of relief. But when they hear President Obama mention health care 30 times in a one-hour press conference, they know the steam train is still a-comin'.

So the insurers have upped their offer: they're saying that in addition to November's offer, they're now willing to "transition away from risk rating." In other words, not only will Blue Cross et al. not deny you coverage just because you have diabetes or asthma or cancer, they also won't charge you an extra arm and a leg for a policy. (They'll charge you the same arm and a leg they charge the rest of us.)

All the insurers are asking is that the federal government requier every one of us to buy their private policies... and please please please don't offer a government insurance plan.

I continue to be amused at the insurance lobby's desperation to stop the government from creating the sort of national health coverage that a majority of Americans want. Again, I must ask, if government health insurance is so ineffective, so absolutely awful, why are the private insurers so afraid of the competition?

I suspect it's because they know what I've been saying all along: that in head-to-head competition, government health insurance would beat the pants off what the profiteers offer.

MIT to Give Free Access to Faculty Research

In case you don't learn enough reading the Madville Times, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to dump a truckload of real egghead reading into your lap. MIT faculty members voted unanimously last week to let the school post every one of their scholarly articles online, where you and I can read it for free.

This is a big deal. Right now, if you want access to university research, you usually need access to a university library. Otherwise, if you're just Googling for information, you'll have to shell out $20 or more to a journal publishing company like Springer or Sage. If a journal or book accepts one of my scholarly articles, I often have to sign away the copyright, meaning that instead of throwing a copy here on the blog for you all to enjoy right now, I have to sit on the text, wait months for it to come out in the published form... and even then, I can't reproduce the text here for free public consumption.

MIT is saying nuts to that.

"Through this action, MIT faculty have shown great leadership in the promotion of free and open scholarly communication," said Ann Wolpert, MIT's director of libraries. "In the quest for higher profits, publishers have lost sight of the values of the academy. This will allow authors to advance research and education by making their research available to the world" [David Nagel, "MIT Faculty Adopt Open Access Policy for Scholarly Articles," Campus Technology, 2009.03.23].

Academic research is not here to support any business model, especially not an outdated proprietary media model. If we want our research to be relevant, we need to make it accessible. That means taking advantage of the Internet, where with the push of a button I can tell 1.6 billion people, "Hey, look what I found!"

Of course, if we scholars are going to write for the world and not just a small circle of fellow academics, it might help if we write more clearly... but that's a whole nother paper....

Learn more: Read the MIT faculty resolution on this issue.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Backyard Dinner: Beat the Recession with Gardening!

Growing your own food is a great way to fight rising prices at the grocery store and the gas pump. Every meal you can pull from your own ground is one less trip to the grocery store, not to mention that much less demand for the unhealthy long-distance transportation that brings us the harvest from California and other faraway places.

But if everyone tried to be more food self-sufficient, might that not hurt the economy as overall sales dip?

Ah, but where there's a will to make a buck, there's a way to make even self-sufficiency a boost for the broader economy. Last night's Marketplace tells us about "edible landscaping companies" that make their living helping newbie gardeners turn their boring old lawns into do-it-yourself cornucopiae:

It's part of a day-long organic gardening crash-course by Weihmann's company, All Edibles. They design and build your garden and teach you how to take care of it.

First-time gardeners Paul Silverman and Laura Shapiro are doing a new low-budget package developed by All Edibles. The entire garden gets built in one day, and the clients have to help do the work....

This one-day build costs $1,400. Not cheap, but the garden planted today should produce enough vegatables and herbs to feed a small family for the entire year [Andrew Stelzer, "Cheaper Dinner Grown in the Backyard," Marketplace, 2009.03.23].

Even in the self-sufficient local economy, the smart businessperson can find a way to provide a service that helps the neighbors and puts food on everyone's table.

Obama Reaching Beyond Mainstream Media

From Politico:

At a time when his Washington honeymoon is turning into a hazing, President Barack Obama and his team are launched on a strategy to sail above the traditional White House press corps by reaching out to liberal commentators, local reporters and ethnic media....

Obama himself plans to meet soon with liberal bloggers, according to an administration official. With little fanfare, he’s already sat for interviews with Black Enterprise magazine, Telemundo and Los Angeles-based Hispanic radio host Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo [Jonathan Martin, "Obama Seeks Filter-Free News," Politico.com, 2009.03.24].

So where's my scoop, Mr. President? Remember, the Madville Times won you Lake County in November!

I'll get Obama to come fishing in Lake Herman yet!

Health Premiums Up, Wages Stagnate -- Connection?

President Obama has referred to health care costs as the "greatest threat to America's fiscal health." His blogging OMB director Peter Orszag has consistently said, "Health care is the key to our fiscal future."

What are they talking about? Consider this: a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that "Workers' insurance costs have risen far faster than incomes." From 1996 to 2006, the amount employees paid for individual health policies rose 79%, while their wages only rose 10%. Employers are paying higher premiums, too, so all sorts of money that could have been going to wages has been eaten up by health insurance.

If wages have grown so slowly, how were we to sustain economic growth? Well, six million working adults made up the difference in their household budgets by losing their health coverage. (In South Dakota, over 54,000 workers have no health insurance.) Everybody else borrowed like crazy... and we've seen how well that works as a basis for a growing economy.

South Dakota has perhaps been able to muster better relative economic growth because, even though our wages have grown more slowly than the national rate, our workers and employers have seen much slower premium increases (31.2% for individual policies and 25% for family policies from 2000 to 2006). Still, even in South Dakota, health premiums sopping up more buying power at three to four times the rate that wages are growing puts a drag on what people could be buying at the lumberyard.

The point: this decreased buying power is killing the economy. If we want people buying stuff downtown, if we want working families who can support healthy economic growth without going to the poor house when the kids need an operation, we need health care reform that cuts costs for everyone while guaranteeing universal coverage.

Unfortunately, the best way to do that—single-payer not-for-profit health coverage—is the one plan President Obama has taken off the table. Nuts.

Perhaps the President Obama should note this finding from the Robert Wood Johnson report: the only group with more insured folks than in the 1990s is children, thanks to (snarky trumpets, please) America's successful socialized health coverage, also known as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Read the full RWJF study (in PDF format) here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

DSU Takes Over Mundt Debate Tournament

It's official: MHS wimps out, DSU picks up slack. Hot off the press, straight from DSU's Media Relations office:

For immediate release:
March 23, 2009

Mundt Debate Tourney to Continue

The annual Mundt Debate tournament held in Madison during February each year will continue. Dakota State University, Madison Public Schools, and the Mundt Foundation will work together to continue the tournament. Dakota State and the Mundt Foundation with provide the organizational and financial arrangements for the tournament as well as space on the campus. The Madison Public Schools will also provide space.

The annual debate tournament, named after former DSU professor and United States Senator Karl Mundt, brings over 400 high school students to Madison each year for the competition. The organizational structure for both the Mundt Oral Interp Tournament and the Mundt Debate Tournament will now be managed by DSU and the Mundt Foundation.

Hmm... funny that DSU, which doesn't even have a debate team, doesn't find running two speech tournaments overwhelming.

Small-Town Job Loss: Putting South Dakota Faces on Recession

An eager reader points to a well-done article from Stateline.org on the recession in South Dakota. Forget all the blogospheric political posturing about socialism and GOP windbaggery: author Stephen C. Fehr focuses on what matters: our friends and neighbors losing jobs and struggling to pay the bills. Fehr spins his story around the very real impact of December layoffs at Scotchman Industries in Philip:

Today, three months later, Connie Schlim is collecting $260 a week in unemployment benefits and looking for work to replace the $12.50-an-hour job she had changing parts on a milling machine. But like many victims of this recession, Schlim says she feels trapped because there are no other jobs available nearby and no new employers coming to Philip. Other than the local hospital, Scotchman is the largest employer in Philip, with 72 people after the cutbacks. The Schlims are resigned to stay in Philip but say they will cut back on expenses.

“Our golden years won’t be as golden as we had planned on,” said Schlim, who has two grown daughters [Stephen C. Fehr, "Tracking the Recession: How Layoffs Affect One Small Town", Stateline.org, 2009.03.23].

Pick your perspective: Fehr notes that the week Scotchman laid off Schlim and 11 co-workers, major U.S. companies like Dow Chemical and Home Depot cut 80,000 jobs. But in Philip, 12 jobs equal 3% of the workforce. A loss like that in Sioux Falls would be 4,000 jobs.

Fehr also notes that Schlim's $12.50 an hour counts as a "high-wage" job. If that's full-time work 52 weeks a year, that's $26,000.

One bit of blogospheric bloviation: I heard some talk on MPR this morning about the need for more "shared sacrifice." Small-town working folks, even those still hanging on to their $12.50-an-hour jobs, are already making sacrifices. Fehr notes the remaining employees at Scotchman have offered to cut their hours to save their neighbors' jobs. The big bankers who think they have to keep paying million-dollar bonuses to retain "talent" should take notes from Philip, South Dakota.

Alberta Oil Sands Development on Hold: Turn Pipeline to Power Luge?

TransCanada might have some trouble finding oil to run through its Keystone pipelines. A report on the merger of Canadian oil companies Petro-Canada and Suncor notes a big slowdown in the Alberta oil sands:

Both companies have put off projects to develop oil sands in Alberta because oil prices now are too low to make the projects viable. Alberta's once-booming oil sands sector has cooled as every major company has scrapped or delayed some expansion plans as the price of oil has plummeted from its record high last summer.

Industry officials estimate the oil sands in northern Alberta could yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil, making Canada second only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves[Rob Gillies, "Two Canadian Oil Giants Join in $15.5 Billion Deal," AP via Yahoo News, 2009.03.23].

I'd love to see you all sell your TransCanada shares... but I suspect cooler financial heads will prevail, and TransCanada will keep laying pipe. Other oil reserves will dwindle, oil prices will creep back up, and folks will come a-knockin' for Alberta's messy oil again.

Still, someday, even that oil will run out, or at least won't be economically competitive with South Dakota's windmills and geothermal installations (not to mention a nice fusion plant!). And then it'll be time to turn those Keystone pipelines into underground power luge runs!

Wasteful Gov't Spending Alerts Alaskans to Volcanic Eruptions

Remember Bobby Jindal's mockery of volcano monitoring as wasteful government spending?

After months of threatening rumbles, Mount Redoubt finally exploded overnight in five separate explosions, the latest sometime before 5 a.m. today.

A fourth explosion had rocked the volcano at 1:39 a.m. today after three eruptions earlier in the night sent an ash cloud an estimated 50,000 feet into the air, the Alaska Volcano Observatory reported.

...Winds were carrying the ash plume north toward the Susitna Valley, and an ash advisory has been issued for the area until 8 a.m., the National Weather Service said.

Ash was not expected in Anchorage or Wasilla at this time, the Weather Service said, although they said a light dusting might be possible [George Bryson, "Fifth Explosion Rocks Mount Redoubt Volcano," Anchorage Daily News, 2009.03.22].

Prediction: In the first 2012 GOP Presidential primary debate, Governor Sarah Palin gets her Reagan vs. Mondale "youth and inexperience" moment with a well-timed volcano joke that knocks Jindal's poll numbers into the single digits for good. She may even win some moderate votes as she acknowledges that sometimes—monitoring volcanoes, building schools and bridges, buying Alaska from Russia—government does some good.

Pierre City Commission Prefers Closed Government

KELO notes a story that the venerable Mr. Powers highlighted last week: the Pierre City Commission is keeping secret the names of people who have applied to fill a vacancy on that board. The commission's excuse: filling a commission vacancy is a "personnel issue."

Mr. Powers decries this thin excuse for shutting out citizens from public decisions, as do I. However, I note that we've had precedent for such closed-door actions here in Lake County. Last year's candidate search for the empty seat on the Madison Central School Board drew five applicants: the district did conduct public interviews of the two finalists, but it never made public the names of the other three candidates who sought consideration (I was one; I still haven't learned the other two). Last fall, the Lake County Commission filled a vacancy with a lightning appointment of the fourth-place finisher in the preceding Republican primary, skipping the public application process in conducted on two previous occasions.

Even my own public office, my seat on the Lake Herman Sanitary District, was filled in without any public discussion. Of course, when Keith Roskens and Larry Dirks appointed me to the seat Roskens was vacating in 2006, the action was cloaked less in secrecy than in apathy—in 30 years, we're never fielded a contested slate of candidates, and for four of the last five years, we've operated with an empty third seat. (What, no one wants to get together a couple times a year to talk about septic tanks?)

If government action pertaining to people holding elected office were just "personnel issues," then the State Senate's hearings against Senator Dan Sutton in 2007 should have been private.

The folks applying for the vacancy on the Pierre city commission understand they're not just applying for a job. They're seeking the privilege of speaking for their fellow citizens. The public deserves to know the names of those applicants and hear every bit of the discussion commissioners have in choosing the next commissioner.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

SB 91: Nice Band-Aid; Long-Term Solutions Await

So what would you call legislation that is designed to help local governments deal with budget shortfalls caused by economic troubles but...
  1. comes with strings attached,
  2. can be characterized even by supporters as "robbing Peter to pay Paul," and
  3. runs out in three years, possibly leaving governments that take advantage of the plan facing the same budget challenges as before.
I'd call it another opportunity to put Senator Russell Olson's picture on the front page of the Madison Daily Leader. Olson's Senate Bill 91, which allows school districts to use capital outlay funds for fuel, energy, utilities, mileage reimbursement, and even insurance, received Governor Rounds's signature Wednesday.

Now I've said I like the flexibility this bill gives local school districts. I simply note with amusement that many of the criticisms my Republican friends have leveled against the federal stimulus package and other Obama Administration proposals apply to SB 91. It comes with strings attached. Chester Superintendent and SB 91 supporter Mark Greguson makes the Peter and Paul reference in Friday's print MDL. The sunseting of this law—schools get to move this money around for just three years—seems open to the same "What do we do when this plan runs out?" criticism that Governor Rounds used against the unemployment money in the stimulus package. Olson himself asks the same question of the "blessing and curse" stimulus money in his last Legislative Update: "Spending must be kept in check so we, the legislature, can figure out a way to balance the budget when the federal money is gone in two years."

If Olson and his fellow Republicans fret over the temporary budget solution provided by President Obama, why would they pass a temporary budget solution for the schools? If busting the budget silos is a good idea for three years (Olson originally wanted five), why isn't it a good idea as a permanent solution? We've amended the capital outlay statute to allow textbook and software purchases. If capital outlay can cover the acquisition of property and equipment, it can cover the energy required to operate that property and equipment.

If schools need help, we should help, not with band-aids but lasting reforms. But long-term solutions would require long-term vision and commitment to education. And that's something the 2009 Session, like so many past Republican legislatures, was mighty short on.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bonus Tax: Darn Good Policy, and Perfectly Constitutional

Bill of attainder, ex post facto... you know what to do kids: scream real loud!

Dr. Blanchard joins the chorus declaring HR 1586, the AIG bonus tax, an unconstitutional bill of attainder.

I'll lay my bet to the contrary: HR 1586 will pass Constitutional muster. It is no more a bill of attainder against the executives of AIG than the PATRIOT Act was a bill of attainder against Osama bin Laden (though while we're thinking about the Constitution, I'd happily trade HR 1586 for a repeal of the PATRIOT Act). It is no more an ex post facto law than the tax refunds proposed in the stimulus package, which, oddly, provoked no such Constitutional outcry.

But what do I know? Dr. Blanchard is an honest-to-goodness NSU poli-sci guy; I'm just a DSU computer geek who married a poli-sci major. Who ya gonna call?

How about Dr. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law, who says we can tax those bonuses without violating the Constitution. HR 1586 denies no due process, it targets no "closed class of named executives," and "the ex post facto clause applies exclusively to criminal punishment," not taxes.

Of course, we don't get to have lawyer fun unless the Senate passes the bonus tax. So, Senator Thune, as you head toward your 2010 re-election campaign, are you ready to defend bonuses for AIG execs on a somewhat tenuous Constitutional claim? Senator Thune's resolution of that thorny question should be fascinating.

State Drops Classroom Laptop Funding -- Expect Netbooks

Governor Rounds took his own hits in the newly passed budget. South Dakota's Classroom Connections program, the one-to-one laptop initiative, was zeroed out of the budget, and even the stimulus couldn't save it. Pierre will still provide tech support for the schools like Madison that have already bought into the program, but no new schools will be added to the laptop rolls, at least not on the state's dime.

This is a disappointment for Governor Rounds, who included one-to-one laptops in his 2010 Education Initiative goals. But the budget crunch forced him to answer the question, "Are one-to-one laptop initiatives worth the effort?"

As we've discussed previously, that's an open debate. Promoters of such programs can find some research suggesting improvements in quality and quantity of schoolwork assigned, writing quality, and overall test scores. Laptop detractors can find retorts on academic achievement from various school administrators, the New York Times ("After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none"), and our own Department of Education have spoken to the contrary.

Perhaps the question is not whether students gain from using laptops but whether they lose from losing them. There is an argument that you can't not know how to use the latest technology in the information economy, just as a farmer can't not know how to use a combine in the ag-industrial economy. Of course, there's also a passionate argument to be made against such technological determinism (cue Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebecca Terk, and my wife).

Alas, Americans' religious faith in technological progress is likely too strong for even the recession to break. But technological progress (it's not all bad!) and the economic downturn will combine to bring cheaper computers to the classroom. $1300 per computer per child? Come on. As the state money disappears, local districts are about to discover that instead of buying $1300 computers with 2:1 matching funds from Pierre, they can get $200–$400 netbooks with their own money with no strings from Pierre and still save money. Elkton's doing it; Madison, Arlington, and other schools (so I hear) are considering it.

The death of the state laptop program will not mean the death of laptops in the classroom. As our Gateway Tablet PCs die (and they will die quickly), schools will get creative and replace them with better, cheaper netbooks that will still bring students and teachers all the tools they need to make learning happen.

Friday, March 20, 2009

America to Iran: Happy New Year -- Let's Talk

Iranians celebrate the new year as Nowruz, the beginning of spring. It seems a better time to celebrate new hope, new beginnings, and new resolutions to make ourselves and the world better.

President Obama sends his Nowruz respects to Iran and the world by saying (I paraphrase) hey, global neighbor, let's talk:

Among the highlights (funny—the White House thought this was a key line, too):

The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real reponsibilities. And that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy. It is your demonstrated ability to build and create [President Barack Obama, Nowruz address, 2009.03.20].

Happy Spring and, as the President said, Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak!

Taking Care of Business: House Passes 90% Tax on Bailout Bonuses

The House passed legislation yesterday to tax at 90% bonuses paid out by companies (AIG) receiving federal bailout money. (Details: applies only to employees making more then $250K at companies receiving more than $5B.) Our gal Stephanie Herseth Sandlin voted aye. House GOP leader John Boehner tried to lead a charge against the measure, saying it's just an effort to cover up past mistakes.

O.K., so by similar logic, on 9/12, Democrats should have blocked President Bush from waging war on the Taliban, since that was just an effort to cover up past mistakes in intelligence and foreign policy, right?

Wrong. Whatever the screw-ups that led to AIG being able to dish out bonuses for failure on the taxpayers' dime, we need to fix the problem. Sending the IRS out to recoup those bonuses is a reasonable and perfectly legal (not to mention vaguely familiar-sounding) method of doing that. And Rep. Boehner's complaint is one more sign that the GOP is all about blame and points-scoring rather than taking care of business.

Obamas Start White House Victory Garden

Forget the Rose Garden: First Lady Michelle Obama is starting a vegetable garden at the White House. It sounds like Mrs. Obama plans to use the garden as a demonstration garden (my lovely wife will love this!) to teach local kids about the benefits of growing your own food. Kids from Bancroft Elementary School will help with the garden from planting time to chow time, and Mrs. Obama says the President himself will help pull weeds.

This garden is just what sustainability activists were hoping for. There is no downside to knowing the leader of the free world will get to eat some homegrown food. Plus, there is important symbolism (as the Obama Foodorama notes) in seeing at least a small part of the President's 16-acre yard turned from decoration to practical use. It's even right next to the kids' new South Dakota swingset, where it can remind the kids that if we want to eat, we have to take care of the earth.

Eleanor Roosevelt planted the last Victory Garden on the White House grounds during World War II, over the objections of the USDA, which feared the garden might hurt the food industry. Yeah, sure wouldn't want people growing their own food and better nutrition and more self-reliance. Think of Mrs. Obama's gardening initiative as a new Victory Garden to promote healthy food, sustainable agriculture, and good old American do-it-yourself spirit.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Less Smoke, More Openness: Good Signs in South Dakota

And in happy news, South Dakota takes two more steps forward... or is that two big breaths of fresh air? Governor Rounds signs both the smoking ban and the open records law.

I don't get to pat the Governor on the back much, so let me do so here. SB 147 and HB 1240 are good laws that deserve passage, and Governor Rounds, you have done the right thing in signing them. Thank you, sir, for shifting freedom from those doing harm to those just trying to breathe. And thank you for giving all of us citizens a little more oversight of our government.

One caveat: as I look through the final version of SB 147, unless I'm misreading the amendments, I don't see quite the sweeping presumption of openness contained in the original bill. It's still better than what we had before... but there's still room for improvement.

Heidelberger Wrong Again: Obama Stimulus Saves South Dakota HPV Vaccine Funding

...and KELO makes me look bad!

I swear, last night when my wife and I looked at the KELO news story on the elimination of South Dakota's HPV vaccine program from the state budget, KELO was reporting that the governor's budget eliminated the program. When I blogged this morning, that was still the case. I said that surely South Dakota could come up with a meager 40 cents a person to restore funding for a vaccine that prevents cancer, and I already had some folks offering to chip in.

Kudos on the civic spirit, folks, but you can hang on to your spare change, for a couple years, at least. KELO has now changed the headline and story (same URL, no correction, retraction, or apology given) to report that the stimulus has restored the HPV vaccine funding that Governor Rounds would have cut.

So let me handle the apology: I regret the error I made in reporting this morning and any confusion or distress it may have caused. And I am thrilled to see that the stimulus package is able to rescue this worthy program and potentially prevent 25 South Dakota women a year from getting cancer.

Russell Olson Proves Bipartisan Support for Obama's Stimulus

You want bipartisanship? Forget Washington; look local. Republican State Senator Russell Olson attests to the positive effects of President Obama's stimulus package for South Dakota. His persistent rhetorical labeling of the stimulus package as "a blessing and a curse" in his printed Legislative Updates be darned, Senator Olson tells KJAM the stimulus gave the Legislature new energy and helped restore funding for all sorts of programs that would have been cut otherwise.

If our Republican legislators found that stimulating, just wait until ICAP gets its $4.6 million in weatherization stimulus money on July 1 and starts sending contractors to the lumberyard to spend it.

Today's moral: outside the Beltway echo chamber, Democrats and Republicans agree the stimulus is doing good.

From New Jersey to Ortonville, Taxes Don't Drive Migration of Wealthy

South Dakota's fiscal regressives like to pretend that our low taxes, including the absence of an income tax, are a great draw for getting folks to move here.

Reality will pop at least part of that balloon: a report in yesterday's New York Times makes clear that rich people just don't base their mobility on tax policy:

...[T]here is surprisingly little evidence to support the proposition that rich New Yorkers would bolt if forced to pay higher income taxes. Though tracking the movement of wealthy taxpayers from state to state is difficult, experts on public finance and migration say they have yet to document a substantial “rich drain” in states that have raised income taxes in recent years.

“At the level we’re talking about, there’s no quantitative evidence that it affects the mobility decisions of affluent taxpayers,” said Douglas S. Massey, a demographer at Princeton University and president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science [Nicholas Confessore, "Taxes Not Seen as Making the Rich Flee New York," New York Times, 2009.03.18].

New Jersey did see a little wealth-flight after 2004 when it raised its income tax 2.6% on folks making over a half-million a year. 50 to 350 "half-millionaire" households left the state—less than 0.1% of households in that tax bracket. That emigration cost the state maybe $38 million... but folks who stayed and did their civic duty chipped in $895 million more.

Confessore also points out that California's high taxes haven't driven residents of Silicon Valley to Sioux Falls yet:

Also in 2004, California voters approved a 1 percent income tax surcharge on personal income over $1 million, and Silicon Valley and Beverly Hills appear to remain well populated with the wealthy. From 2004 to 2007, according to a study by the California Budget Project, a left-leaning research organization, the number of millionaire taxpayers rose by close to 50 percent, well outpacing the 8.6 percent growth in the total number of those paying personal income tax.

“It is one of the oft-cited urban legends in California politics — that the rich are leaving California because of higher taxes,” said Jean M. Ross, the project’s executive director [Confessore, 2009.03.18].

As a local example, consider the Big Stone City–Ortonville metroplex. These two towns straddle the South Dakota–Minnesota border at the southern tip of Big Stone Lake. They are one mile and two bridges apart. If tax policy dictated migration the way South Dakota politicians like to say it does, we should expect hordes of poor downtrodden Minnesotans to hop the border to homestead in Big Stone City while commuting the extra mile to their jobs in Ortonville... or better yet, to just forsake Minnesota completely and build their businesses on the sunnier shores of the Whetstone River.

But if you've driven through Big Stone City and Ortonville, you know that's not the case. Big Stone City has a population of 549. Ortonville has a population of 1,980 (and like so many Minnesota towns, looks bigger than South Dakota towns of comparable population). Ortonville's main street has much more activity than Big Stone City's. Big Stone City does have a higher per capita income, but it also has higher poverty rates, especially among kids and senior citizens.

statistic Big Stone City, SD Ortonville, MN
population (2007)
549 1,980
per capita income $19,297 $17,132
median household income $41,659 $38,264
poverty 11.2% 9.2%
families in poverty 7.4% 7.2%
children in poverty 17.7% 9.5%
folks 65+ in poverty 16.5% 10.1%
median house value
$72,508 $88,593
new single-family
permitted, 1996–2007

Perhaps some of Ortonville's wealthy elites have snuck across the river and settled in that little arm of Big Stone City along Lake Drive, but Ortonville is still seeing more building and better general welfare for families and Main Street. After years of different state tax policies, Ortonville is still the bigger town.

Culture and other factors—"school, jobs, even the weather"—have much more to do with migration than tax policy. There are other economic arguments to make about the wisdom of various tax policies, but let's put the canard about tax-driven migration to bed.