Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rural Schools: Going Forward by Looking Back?




If you live in a rural area in the United States, chances are that you are near a school district that has undergone the consolidation of schools in multiple small towns into one, larger school in the past few years. As I wrote about here, rural communities are generally shrinking and aging, which obviously leads to lower school enrollment as there are fewer school-aged children around. At the same time, property tax revenues - nearly half of which nationwide are used to fund public elementary and secondary schools - have been declining in recent years due to lower property values and the generally poor economy (and, at least where I live [in Colorado], ag land assessments are not based on market value - thus limiting how much the upward spiral of land prices can contribute to property tax growth). Given these two considerations, it is natural for school districts to want to save money. What more could any conservative want than for government entities to do more with less?

The problem - or, rather, the first problem - is that study after study concludes that the perceived savings achieved by consolidation are minimal at best. University of Michigan researches reported in 1994 that "there is very little evidence that larger educational units will achieve economics of scale in administration or operations." The Rural School and Community Trust summarized the literature on the subject by saying, "Projected cost savings from consolidation are either temporary or illusory because lower costs in some expenditure categories" [e.g., administration] "are often offset by higher costs in other areas" [e.g., transportation].

The other major problem with school consolidation is simply that it tends to have negative results for both students and the surrounding communities. Bard, Gardener, and Wieland, writing in The Rural Educator in 2006, summarize their findings by saying, in part:
• Smaller districts have higher achievement, affective and social outcomes...
• Local school officials should be wary of merging several smaller elementary schools, at least if the goal is improved performance.
• After a school closure, out migration, population decline, and neighborhood
deterioration are set in motion, and support for public education diminishes.
• There is no solid foundation for the belief that eliminating school districts will improve education, enhance cost-effectiveness or promote equality.
• Students from low income areas have better achievement in small
schools.

However, the fact remains that many rural schools are in drastic - and disproportionate - need of improvement. Only about a fifth of American students attend rural schools, yet those same rural schools "account for an estimated one-third of the roughly 5,000 schools nationwide targeted for improvement." But how can schools improve when facing decreasing revenue streams and frequent budget shortfalls?

The answer - according to Lips, Watkins, and Fleming - is not to simply throw more money at the problem (even if the money were available). They suggest that "policymakers should resist proposals to increase funding for public education" because "[h]istorical trends and other evidence suggest that simply increasing funding... has not led to corresponding improvement in academic achievement." Combine this with the case made above against school consolidation, and readers are probably wondering what other alternatives might exist.

A starting point may be to realize that the very schools now threatened by consolidation are themselves the product of previous consolidation. As anyone who's ever read Little House on the Prairie or seen "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman" knows, most rural areas in the Midwest and West were once served by iconic "one room schoolhouses." In fact, those schoolhouses were the primary mode of education for children up to about 8th grade in my part of the country until the middle of the Twentieth Century. The first half of my dad's siblings attended a country school; the younger ones were bused into town.

So, what happened to all of those schools? Was there something fundamentally flawed with that model of education? In the view of Bard, et al., the biggest strike against them seems to have simply been intellectual fashion:

The rise of industry in urban areas in the late nineteenth century contributed to the school consolidation movement. The prevailing belief during the industrial revolution was that education could contribute to an optimal social order using organizational techniques adapted from industry (Orr, 1992). Early school reformers and policy makers felt that an industrialized society required all schools to look alike, and began to advocate more of an urban, centralized model of education... urban and larger schools were adopted as the “one best model,” and from this context rural schools were judged deficient.

However, the new schools (which we now consider the mainstream) were inferior to the old model in several important ways. This is now being recognized by reformers of the large, urban schools that served as the "one best model" decades ago - so much so that The New York Times reported that "the fundamental aspects of teaching inside them [one room schoolhouses] - from multi-age classrooms and peer tutoring to interdisciplinary projects and keeping students with the same teacher for more than one year - are being copied in large school systems across the country."

The same Times article (which highlighted one of an estimated 380 traditional one room schools still operating in the US) quotes Professor Andrew Gulliford of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado as saying:

One-room schools really represent, I think, the best model for training American children for the first through the eighth grades... In terms of ego development, in terms of character, in terms of personality, in terms of the well-rounded individual fitting in with the group, country schools are very efficient - they helped train generations of Americans... In a one-room schoolhouse, every child counts - they've always counted, whether it was 1890 or 1990. How can you say that in most modern educational systems today? It's just not true.
This superior model may also be far more cost-effective than our current system. Charlie Martin, writing for pajamasmedia.com, conducted a "thought experiment" in which he developed a proposal for a one room school in midtown Manhattan. Parker used the general class-size and square footage of a preserved schoolhouse he had visited at the Adams County, Colorado Historical Society, but equipped his hypothetical school with new furniture and modern technology (including one computer for every two students, internet connections, plus $1,000 each for other books and supplies). Applying the current per-pupil funding in New York City, he was left - after paying to rent, furnish, and supply his school - with $230,000 to apply to the cost of salary and benefits for a teacher.

Sadly, the public education system in the United States has gradually become so unionized, bureaucratized, and monopolistic that such dramatic institutional change is likely to take decades (if it is even possible). There are some things concerned parents and/or taxpayers can do within the system to pursue real change: in Douglas County, Colorado, four Republicans ran for school board as an organized slate of candidates specifically to oppose union-backed candidates in November of 2009, and they won. One year later, the Douglas County school district is seriously considering a proposal in which it "could be the first wealthy, high-performing district to introduce vouchers." In California, a "parent trigger" law went into effect this January which gives parents of students in failing schools a mechanism that can "trigger a forcible transformation of the school - either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright."

But these options will be (and have been) fought tooth and nail by those who benefit from the status quo - typically the teachers' unions - and inevitably take a great deal of time to set in motion. Once successfully implemented, they may still be for naught as an activist judge or court could overturn them, as the Colorado Supreme Court did with the state legislature's last effort to provide a voucher program in the most poorly performing districts. As Eva Moskowitz, the charter school founder prominently featured in the film The Lottery, says, "Parents need options now. Their 5 year old can’t wait five years."

One immediate option available for parents who are able and willing to take on the work, financial hardship, and possible stigmatization is to homeschool. Especially when more than one sibling is being educated, children receive many of the benefits listed for one room schools: mixed age classes, peer tutoring, keeping students with the same teacher for multiple years, and (of course) individualized attention. If parents can find at least one other family with whom they share these ideals and are willing to keep "minimal records" and abide by other statuory requirements, Colorado law actually permits them to establish an "independent school" in which "The administrator can be one of the parents... teachers are the parents, and all teaching is done in separate campus sites in each home." So, even if the days of the schoolhouse are essentially over, rural parents may want to consider the idea of "house schools" for their young wards.

*(Black and white photographs used above were taken for the United States Library of Congress and are considered public domain.)*

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Night Live-Blog!

Come over to Facebook (link on the left) for our Election Night Live Blogging!  Grab a beverage, pull up a chair, and discuss the latest returns from Election 2010. 

Or, if you're not a fan of the Facebook for whatever reason, post your comments here.  Should be an interesting night!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Spying

In light of the upcoming election, I wanted to be an educated voter, so I went online to research the candidates in my area and stumbled across a handy little quiz that pairs up your views on the issues with the best matched candidate. I knew where I stood on all the issues, but decided to take it anyway just for fun. I about fell out of my seat when the results revealed that I share the most views with Libertarians. WHAT? I went back and reviewed the questions and realized that I had misread a question regarding laws and marriage. I changed that one answer and the results threw me back to where I suspected, smack dab in the middle of conservatism. Phew! Dodged a bullet there. But then I started to wonder how could one teeny, tiny answer could cause such a rift between both sides. If we truly have that much in common with members of ‘the other side’ why are the emotions so animated over the few things that we don’t agree on?


So, feeling like a spy, I decided to go to websites that support the other sides. I started with the Libertarian party’s website since the quiz almost catapulted me there. At first glance, it seemed promising because its slogan is ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom’. Sounds good to me. I dug deeper. After searching its website, I quickly realized where I had problems with their way of thinking. It lists 5 points of Libertarian belief referring to: America’s heritage, caring for others, politics based on self-ownership (these three points I more or less basically agreed with), but then a couple of points threw up red flags for me: free and independent, and tolerant. I have a romanticized vision of the wild west and am pretty much for marshal law in times of crises, however, this idea of ‘live and let live’ seems a rather irresponsible approach to governing. It reminds me of the phrase, “you got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” Another one of my biggest complaints is their opinion to legalize drugs. It would be like a parent who knows that their child smokes pot, but then is shocked when their child begins to do other illegal activity or loses all motivation to do anything but smoke pot. Responsibility is not a bad thing. I want a responsible government representing my family and me. I have since learned that the previously mentioned handy quiz was created by the Libertarian party to change the way others see them. They may have initially done that in my mind, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that almost half of their platform is ridiculous.

On the particular quiz I took, Statism was listed as the opposite of Libertarian. While there is no Statist party in the U.S. (mainly because that belief system is essentially as un-American as you can get), I peaked at Wikipedia’s definition only to confirm my sad belief that economic statism (a.k.a. socialism) is alive and well and is seeping into the mainstream of the foundation of the U.S.A. Maybe President Obama should refer to that the next time he wants the government to purchase an automaker. Quite frankly, I had nothing in common with the Statist belief. Oppression was the heavy word that came to my mind.

And on to the opposite of most RR readers, I looked up Liberalism (a.k.a left wing, Democrat, crazy—oops wait, not that). I really have a hard time saying this, but some of my favorite people are Democrats. That is why I get so confused when someone that I would obviously have much in common with otherwise could possibly be on that side of the quiz. How different are we? Well, the Dem’s website has a very sweet sentiment when you read what they believe in.

Here’s a quote from the website, “Democrats recognize that our country and our economy are strongest when they provide opportunity for all Americans—when we grow our country from the bottom up…Democrats stand for an abiding faith in the judgment of hardworking American families, and a commitment to helping the excluded, the disenfranchised and the poor strengthen our nation by earning themselves a piece of the American Dream…Democrats believe that each of us has an obligation to each other, to our neighbors and our communities. Each of us has a role to play in creating our future—and while we have made great progress as a nation, we know that our work is never done.” Or rephrased from my observation: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I can easily pick apart that paragraph alone: provide opportunity for all sounds nice, except when they step all over my freedom to do so. It’s like grading on a curve, the person with the highest grade always gets the bad end by making their hard work not as valuable because their grade is not based on the work, but on the comparison of everyone else’s work. Grow our country from the bottom up…yeah right. I’m sure there are certain circumstances that all politicians have had to overcome, but don’t try to fool me when the majority of people in power who are trying to grow the country from the bottom up were born with a silver spoon in hand. Helping the excluded…by earning themselves a piece of the American Dream. Have they forgotten that is what free enterprise is? That is the American Dream. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by giving that which they should do on their own. You can’t give gumption. You can’t give creativity. How ridiculous does it sound to “help someone by earning themselves”?!?!? They are missing their own point of earning themselves. That means without help.

That does explain why I am so fond of several Democrats! I truly believe that most Democrats (minus Nancy Pelosi—she’s E-V-I-L haha) think that influence and money is enough to change others. It is a common pattern in life, but the truth always dispels that belief. They are the governmental version to enablers to drug addicts. They are the nosy and meddling aunt whose intentions are good, but the plan is flawed. They are the ‘Helicopter parents’ as described in the book “Parenting with Love & Logic”. They hate to see the natural consequences that others receive for making wrong choices. They are the wives that think controlling their husbands will change them. I won’t even go into their stance on the issues because I feel as though they look at problems in an idealistic view versus reality.


All in all, I see we have many similarities with our political counterparts, but the differences are valid. It is important to know who you vote for. If you vote because you like a guy’s personality rather than his belief system, you will be disappointed. Just look at all the angry people who voted for Obama. He was the most likeable presidential candidate, but that saavyness ended up polarizing most of America. We as a free society, do need the liberals even though they can frustrate us. They can provide a sense of balance (when debating on a mud-free platform). I can’t help but allude to the example that sometimes my husband and I don’t agree on personal matters and he can frustrate me. In our personal ‘debates’ we usually come to some sort of compromise or when he has a valid point, I submit to that stance. In the end, when we are respectful of each others feelings, the result is better than what I originally imagined. My idealistic hope would be that we as a country could somehow go back to the common ground and not demonize each other, but have healthy debates that could get our great nation back on track.

Since that handy little quiz was taken, I received my handy little voter’s guide in the mail. Quite honestly, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. The majority of candidates didn’t even answer the questions. So, with Election Day right around the corner, I encourage you to really take some time to research who and what is on the ballot. I guarantee it won’t be easy, but being an informed voter is a good thing. Don’t just vote for your party just because. I think that is how so many crooks snuck into Congress to begin with. It always stinks when you are voting for the lesser of two evils, however, knowing that is empowering and can give you ammo for the next primary.

Happy Voting, RR! Grab your tea and have a party!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monopoly Money

The other day, frequent contributer J-Lo posted a link on our Facebook page to an article her friend had sent her regarding one person's explanation of economic problems and potential fixes from a point of view of someone on the left.  (Said friend has commented here, and I hope you're still reading).  I later got a chance to read it fairly closely, and came to the conclusion that the whole thing is nonsense on stilts.  The whole thing is full of weasel words (many, much, hardly any, etc.) that don't mean anything concrete, and sometimes even mean different things in different contexts.  My favorite "weasel" is when 20-34% in one context is "only a fraction," whereas in another, 20-30% of the same figure is "much of the money."  And, as an added bonus, the whole thing is steeped rather heavily in Marxist class rhetoric, with a few "Uber-Rich"es thrown in for good measure.  If you want a fun exercise for your evening, click on over, print a copy, and black out every weasel word and gratuitous mention of class, wealth, and status.  It'll end up looking like a FOIA request about Area 51. 
Stylistic criticism aside, the whole thing is also full of contradiction and fallacy, but if you want a point-by-point rundown, I'd be happy to give one later.  But for now, I'll keep this narrow, because it's going somewhere eventually, and I'd like to still have an audience by the end.  In the article, the author makes the following assertion:
Whenever The Fed buys securities in the open market, it pays for them with money that it creates out of thin air with a keystroke.  It does not draw the money from some reserve account that is limited in size.  It is "new money" that did not exist prior to the keystroke that created it.  With any of its purchases of securities, the Fed provides loanable funds to banks that were not saved by any saver.
From a certain point of view, this is technically correct.  The cash did not exist prior to the purchase.  But cash and money are not the same thing.  Cash is just a measure of the value that money has in an economy.  But the Fed's creation of cash out of thin air did not add to the overall value of wealth in the economy.  It just changed the relative value of the ratio between cash and money.  Look at it this way:
Courtesy Hasbro
Say you're playing Monopoly on a table, with a real game set.  I know, I know, it takes so long, and everyone always fights, and there are better things to do.  It's sort of like life in that way.  But say there's a blizzard, and the TV's out, and you've worn the spots off of all the decks of cards in your house, so you're left with playing Monopoly.  After a while, the banker gets crazy, and decides to add an extra zero to some of the money.  For a while, making change might get a little tricky, but you'll keep playing.  Then say the banker adds some more, and some more, and some more, until every bill in the set has an extra zero on it.  The banker has undeniably created more cash out of thin air.  But the amount of wealth has not changed.  There are still the same number of bills, same number of cards, and same amount of property.  After a while, the game will get pretty dumb, and even staying at a hotel on Boardwalk won't hurt.  Eventually, everyone will either tire of the game, or just add an extra zero to all the bills to restore balance between cash and wealth.  What was gained by this magical creation of cash?  Not a darned thing, but a few extra hours of frustration, and damaging the resale value of the set. 
Courtesy Hasbro
Now, say you could change the game and actually affect how it plays.  What sort of rule changes could you make that would actually increase the wealth available?  First, you could tinker with the "zoning code" of the game.  You could add more houses and hotels to the available set.  You could even increase the number that can be put on a property, and correspondingly increase the amount you can charge.  Second, your mini Atlantic City could "annex" more property, increasing the size of the board and the available property to buy and charge rent on.  But perhaps the simplest hack, one that doesn't require printing a whole new board or figuring out how to build more little plastic houses, also happens to be my favorite "house rule:"  Put all of the tax money collected in the game in the middle, and whomever lands on Free Parking gets a tax refund.  What good does putting your $150 income tax in the bank do for anyone, if it can't come back to someone who can turn it around into putting houses on Connecticut and Oriental? 
Read this book.
Not that the idea of fixing the economy by toying with the value of money is a new one.  According to Amity Shlaes in The Forgotten Man, during the Great Depression, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. related the story of President Roosevelt deciding to increase the price of gold by 21 cents, because, in the President's words, "It's a lucky number, because it's three times seven."  Another time of economic trial, before depressions were called "depressions," was the Panic of 1893.  The Panic happened, as they often do, as a result of the bursting of a bubble, in this case a bubble that developed in overbuilding railroads.  Another major contributing factor was a long period of low inflation, and even deflation, of the currency.  The panic, combined with monetary issues, gave rise to a populist movement, of which a major goal was "Free Silver." 
Free Silver was a movement that sought to include silver in the pricing mechanism of the dollar, which to that point had been based on the price of gold.  At the time, the gold mining industry was slowing down significantly, while silver was so plentiful that many mines lay empty because it cost more to mine than you could sell the silver for.  The ultimate goal of the populist movement, of which the rural farming population was a significant portion, was inflation.  In the big picture, inflation helps debtors, while deflation helps borrowers, and folks who were still paying down land that they had bought in the rapid expansion of the nation in the previous decades definitely didn't mind any help in paying the mortgage, so to speak. 
Going back to our Monopoly example, let's say you're playing the long-form version of the game, and happen to land on Boardwalk, which the bank still owns.  The $400 price tag is a lot of scratch.  What if you could set up the purchase on an installment plan of a $20 every turn for 20 turns?  That would be a much easier decision, wouldn't it?  Three turns after this agreement, though, is when our crazy banker starts putting zeroes on the money.  Then each $20 becomes a $200 bill, and you can pay off the "mortgage" on Boardwalk in a couple turns, and be free and clear 15 turns earlier than the banker was expecting full payment.  Similarly, if the crazy banker scratched out zeroes, causing deflation, those two former-$100 bills you'd have to start paying your mortgage with would run out pretty quickly. 
William Jennings Bryan
So in the 1890s, the people who owed the most money – folks who had purchased property like farmers being a large number of them – wanted a monetary policy that included silver to inflate the currency and be out of debt that much easier.  Of course the evil "Eastern Banking Establishment" would lose a lot of money, so clearly they were behind keeping gold as the only measure of the dollar.  The Populist movement beginning in the Panic of 1893 gave voice to perhaps the most well-known populist in history, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.  He was noted for soaring oratory, and was even nominated to be the Democratic Party's candidate for President once in Denver, although that was 15 years after the Panic. 
In a sense, this all sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?  Of course, nowadays, the biggest debtor in the country isn't landowners (although that's not to be discounted with the bursting of the housing bubble), and a growing global market has helped the farm economy improve with higher prices.  The biggest debtor in the country, as you may have guessed, is the US Government, of course.  So it's no wonder they'd want to tinker with the price of money, is it?  Keep that in mind next time you read about the Fed tinkering with interest rates or buying debt. 
Oh, by the way.  In the year after the Panic of 1893 was the midterm election of 1894.  As Michael Barone was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, during that election, the Republican Party gained 130 seats on the Democrat and Populist parties, to take a 151-seat edge in the House of Representatives, or nearly three-quarters of the total seats in the House, making that election the tsunami of all electoral tsunamis. 
Take from that what you will, and please pass the dice.  I think it's my turn to roll.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Backwards Thinking" in the Rocky Mountain West

Although we are fairly diffuse now, we who contribute fairly regularly to Rural Republic all share a connection to Eastern Colorado. So, we would naturally be interested in the Colorado gubernatorial race in just about any year. However, the way it has shaken out this year has garnered national attention... and it just got even more interesting, especially from the viewpoint of rural Americans.

Let me begin my brief recap of the campaign by pointing out that, while I am pretty invested in my long-held unaffiliated voter status (I think the hierarchy of both major parties smells about as rotten as a town with a packing plant, a sugar beet refinery, and a history of sewer problems), I was just about ready to declare myself a Republican this year in order to vote for candidates I was excited to support in both the U.S. Senate race and the governor's race. Before I could even get that far, though, the national and state "powers that be" within the party did some major field-clearing and swept both candidates out of their respective races. And that's where the problems started for the Republicans in what had been expected to be a great opportunity to reclaim the governorship.

You can read up further on the subject here or at other sources, but here's what happened in a nutshell: the anointed choice of the party turned out to be a serial plagiarist and, well, just a jerk. By the time all of this became clear, though, it was too late for anyone who wasn't already on the primary ballot to get in the race - and the only other person who hadn't taken the cue to clear out was Dan Maes, a complete political novice who has turned out to be a serial... well, to be kind, "exaggerator." Seeing a chance to beat Denver mayor John Hickenlooper (the Democrats' relatively weak candidate) slipping away, former Congressman Tom Tancredo sought to bluff whoever won the primary into agreeing to step aside so that the party could name a more electable candidate. If they agreed, he said, he would stay out of the race; if not, he would enter as a "third party" candidate, potentially splitting the conservative vote.

Well, Maes won the primary and proceeded to call Tancredo's bluff. It was generally assumed that having both Maes and Tancredo in the race would guarantee a Hickenlooper win... but Maes has continued down a path of historic self-destruction and Hickenlooper has failed to generate much statewide excitement. This has resulted in a situation today in which most polls show Hickenlooper with a lead over Tancredo just smaller than the margin of error (e.g., 44% to 40%), with Maes hovering in the 10% range.

Which brings us to two days ago, when National Review Online brought to light a 2009 interview in which Hickenlooper, when asked why the Matthew Shepard Foundation (named for a young, gay man murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998) established its offices in Denver despite Shepard having no real connection to Colorado, said:

I think a couple things, I mean, you know, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard occurred in Wyoming. Colorado and Wyoming are very similar. We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico.
Hickenlooper also went on to cite the vibrant gay (or "LGBT") community in Denver, but never, apparently, did he point out reasons such as the strong nonprofit and NGO network in his city, or the most obvious point that Denver is the political and economic hub for a multi-state region. His first, primary, explanation is that the entire region is populated with a significant number of people who subscribe to "backwards thinking" and, by extension, are only different in degree from the desperate meth addicts who killed Shepard.

Now, you might think that someone who embraces the nickname "Hick" and appears in one of his campaign ads dressed as a rodeo cowboy might have a certain fondness for rural Coloradans. However, these gestures have a certain sniggering, ironic quality to them - not unlike this or this. Upon further examination of Hickenlooper's background, it seems more likely that he neither likes nor understands rural people and the issues that are important to them.

As a child, Hickenlooper attended the all-boys' Haverford School, described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as an "elite private school." He then went on to undergraduate and graduate degrees from "storied" Wesleyan University. He later co-founded a controversial philanthropic fund that supports such groups as Re-create 68, and has said of former Obama "green jobs czar" Van Jones, "he is a rock star... he's bigger and better in life than what you've heard." He is, in short, a part of the "ruling class" outlined by Angelo Codevilla (and recently described here by Jon), surpassed only by people with names like Bush and Kennedy - and, perhaps, his former chief-of-staff and fellow Wesleyan alum Senator Michael Bennet, whose father has served as Assistant Secretary of State for two Democratic presidents, CEO of National Public Radio, and president of... Wesleyan University.

The kind of contempt Hickenlooper shows for many of his potential constituents is hardly unique. Barack Obama told a group of supporters in San Francisco during his 2008 presidential campaign that people in small towns in Pennsylvania, "like a lot of small towns in the Midwest" have grown frustrated by their region's economic decline and "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

More than a century before that, William "Boss" Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy told the editor of Harper's Weekly, "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read." (He continued, "But they can't help seeing them damned pictures," referring to the political cartoons Thomas Nast had been using to criticize him.)

This time around, voters have a chance to prevent the election of someone who despises a large percentage of them. Leaders from both major parties acknowledge the importance rural voters play in statewide elections in Colorado; perhaps Mayor Hickenlooper's "bitter clinger" moment will be the impetus those voters need to demand a little respect.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Country Citizens’ Revolt

Democracy As it Was
I’ve been struggling with this essay for quite some time.  I haven’t been able to answer the “So what?” question, but it may have come to me recently.  You can let me know.  Another problem I dealt with was in the topic and message.  So far, this site has been heavy on the “Rural,” and not so much on the “Republic.”  We’ve been trying to stay fairly non-partisan, although that’s not the same as unbiased, and I wasn’t sure if getting too overtly political would damage that.  I have come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with discussing the modern civic live in the Rural Republic.  Indeed, one of the animating forces behind this concept, in my mind, was the image from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he describes the unique political character of discourse in the rural stage of this republic: 
The cares of political life engross a most prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States, and almost the only pleasure of which an American has any idea is to take a part in the Government, and to discuss the part he has taken…  Debating clubs are to a certain extent a substitute for theatrical entertainments:  an American cannot converse, but he can discuss; and when he attempts to talk he falls into a dissertation.  He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to warm in the course of the discussion, he will infallibly say, “Gentlemen,” to the person with whom he is conversing. 
 Of course the esteemed Frenchman is having a bit of fun at early Americans’ inability to separate political discussion from other social interaction.  The difference between the two cultures was incredibly portrayed in the HBO miniseries John Adams, in the episode where the eponymous founder found himself on a rather uncomfortable diplomatic envoy in France.  He may have been English just a few short years earlier, but, as his later trip to England showed, it’s the difference between the politically free citizen and the socially free subject that caused the rift, greater even than that ancient Franco-English rivalry.  Apart from his poking fun, Tocqueville had high praise for the new American society, though. 
 I am persuaded that, if ever a despotic government is established in America, it will find it more difficult to surmount the habits which free institutions have engendered than to conquer the attachment of the citizens to freedom. 

This ceaseless agitation which democratic government has introduced into the political world influences all social intercourse.  I am not sure that upon the whole this is not the greatest advantage of democracy.  And I am much less inclined to applaud it for what it does than for what it causes to be done.  It is incontestable that the people frequently conducts public business very ill; but it is impossible that the lower orders should take a part in public business without extending the circle of their ideas, and without quitting the ordinary routine of their mental acquirements.  The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect; and as he possesses authority, he can command the services of minds much more enlightened than his own.  …  I have no doubt that the democratic institutions of the United States, joined to the physical constitution of the country, are the cause (not direct, as is so often asserted, but the indirect cause) of the prodigious commercial activity of the inhabitants.  It is not engendered by the laws, but the people learns how to promote it by the experience derived from legislation. 
The men, and even the women, as mentioned in the remainder of that passage, of that era were steeped in democratic responsibility.  The discussion in the “ale-houses” was as often as not discussion regarding various measures and policies in the local, state, and federal governments.  Can you imagine having a discussion about state bill 1365, or the latest ballot proposals down at Buffalo Wild Wings?  I mean, I can, but I’m a nerd and I’m writing this essay.  But it certainly would be out of the ordinary.  Either way, that’s an image that’s stuck with me for a long time.  

Perhaps more than that image, though, was what he said later in the passage.  The reason everyone talked about politics was that everyone was involved in politics in one way or another.  Everyone, even the lowliest citizen, would serve on some council or board, and would be a more complete, more informed, more confident citizen as a result.  

The Division of a Democracy
My, what progress hath wrought.  In the July/August issue of the American Spectator, Angelo M. Codevilla wrote an incredible, and incredibly influential essay regarding the class stratification of American society.  In a situation of which the “Tea Party” (more on that later) is a symptom, rather than a disease, he theorized that the society today is split not along Marxist class lines, but along lines of political influence and philosophy, into two classes:  a Ruling Class and a Country Class.  There have always been those with more influence than others; it’s likely Tocqueville’s extremely democratic democracy  was more illustration than reality. 
 Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust.  Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others.  But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter.  The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another.  Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all.  So was "social engineering."  Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed.  All that has changed.
 Indeed, it has.  Today, as Codevilla uses polls and demographic statistics to illustrate, the Ruling Class is incredibly uniform in background and ideas.  They’re usually coastal, went to an Ivy League or other extremely prestigious school, and work in more liberal “professional” careers, such as law, education, journalism, or politics.  They all behave and believe a certain way, and even talk a certain way.  They overwhelmingly self-identify as Democrat, although some other members of the class are establishment Republicans.  

On the other side of the divide is the Country Class, a group as varied as the Ruling Class is uniform.  (Let me note here that I’m not making this “Country Class” thing up, though it’s certainly a happy accident that the terminology chosen by Codevilla matches so well with the concept behind this site)  The most interesting thing is they don’t identify as Republican consistently, but as “independent,” or perhaps in some polls as a practitioner of a generic “Tea Party” if given the option.   Regardless, while some members of the Country Class may aspire to the same careers as those in the Ruling Class, a Country Class lawyer will have less in common with his Ruling Class colleague, and no one will know it more than the latter.  

The whole essay is as fascinating as it is long, but it’s well worth the read.  It’s already being treated as a fundamental shift in the way of looking at the American political scene.  It certainly illustrates the difference between the democratic America described in Democracy in America and the aristocracy we experience today.  

Democracy as It Is
In their recent book The Blueprint, political journalist Adam Schrager and former Colorado state legislator Rob Witwer delve into the creation of a progressive political machine that has reshaped the state of Colorado, and indeed races across the country, in method and infrastructure.  While there is much to glean from a relatively short book, a few things stand right out, in addition to the occasional despair experienced on the part of those who would lament the creation and effects of a progressive political machine.  First, the system is what it is, or, as my college philosophy professor was fond of saying “Every system is perfectly designed to effect the result it does,” and the modern political system is apparently perfectly designed for such a progressive political machine.  So what are the rules of the system?

The first rule bounding the system is term limits.  While it’s not a necessary condition, it accelerates the effects of the “machine,” and recalled a line from Aeschylus:
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
‘With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.’
The reason term limits matter is that any given seat in a state legislature will be in play at some point in an eight year period.  With enough influence, no seat is safe.  

The second bound to the system is the campaign finance law.  To contribute to a campaign or a party, a person must pass a minimum standard (e.g., citizenship), will have their identity recorded and made public, and can give a maximum amount, which is usually fairly nominal when compared to the amount of money spent on a campaign.  There is one major exception to all of these caveats, however: so-called 527 organizations.  Simply put, these 527s can collect an unlimited amount of anonymous money from anyone, anywhere, and put it toward a political goal, or, more properly, against a political candidate.  See, one of the restrictions on 527s is that they can’t collaborate with a political campaign, which in practice means they can’t support a given candidate; they can only oppose the other candidate.  Incidentally, if you were wondering why you were getting covered in mud this campaign season, that’s why.  

Out of these rules grew an organization designed to take advantage of them for progressive political ends.  Various “anonymous,” though we know who they are, ultra-rich donors funded massive coordinated smear campaigns under numerous 527s, all with vague, fuzzy-as-a-bunny-sounding names to get their candidates elected.  It was devastatingly effective in Colorado, and is surely on its way to a political race near you.  

Democracy as It Is Becoming
But the other side of the political spectrum has an answer to the coordinated, hierarchical, unified structure of the progressive 527 machine: the “Tea Party” movement.  As I noted above, of the two classes, the Ruling Class identifies with progressive politics, while the Country Class can be said to identify with the Tea Party.  Although, since there is no real “Tea Party,” perhaps a better way of saying that is that the Tea Party is a loose collection of politically-motivated members of the Country Class.  

Either way, the Tea Party movement is as different from the progressive machine as can be imagined.  Where the “machine” is hierarchical, the Tea Party is organic.  Where it is well-funded, the Tea Party survives on small donations and volunteer leadership.  Where the machine has defined objectives and carefully-calculated campaign strategies, the Tea Party runs on free information and sheer energy. 
In the end, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.  In an article in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch discussed the advantages of the Tea Party’s disorganized structure with a few of its facilitators.  In one such vignette, one of the leaders explains to a newer volunteer how things really work:
 Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighs in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization. We're a relatively small group of people who are just trying to help coordinate. We're not in charge; we're not telling anybody what to do. You need to take a leadership role and stand up." Meckler suggests that Rick gather a group of people concerned about the issue and go to work.

Rick gets the message. "We'll get on the Ning [social-networking] site and try to take the lead on that."
 The interesting thing about the Tea Party movement is not that it’s spontaneous, not that it’s organic, but that it’s not at all novel.  As Rick in Albuquerque may soon discover, he might become a volunteer expert on voter-roll irregularities, and have his understanding and methods of dealing with other problems change.  And if he is successful, Rick may find himself chosen as a subject matter expert by other volunteers interested in the same problem, and bringing his newly-found expertise to other races and other areas of the country, if not in reality, at least virtually.  

 Rick is just one of hundreds of volunteers who are “The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society.”  In the formless, leaderless structure of the Tea Party, it’s not the goals, or the races, or even the politics that matter the most.  It’s that the people are rediscovering “the habits which free institutions have engendered” one conference call, one social-networking post, one political action at a time.  It’s no accident that the new organization of the Ruling Class is hierarchical and precise, while the new organization of the Country Class has turned out to be so chaotically democratic.  Politics is, after all, just the practical application of a given philosophy.  

Democracy as It Will Be?
Where is all this taking us?  The obvious answer is all the way to November 2nd.  If you are interested in politics or the election, but don’t feel you have enough background or experience, that’s no excuse.  As Tocqueville said, everyone was involved in politics in one form or another, and not only did they learn from it, they became better citizens and built a better republic as a result.  For my part, the recognition that the system is, if not broken, far from perfect has made me recognize the need for balance in future policies that may emanate from the political realm, particularly regarding campaign finance.  

But the real big picture we see is something more than just “man a phone bank” or “knock on doors” or even “here’s my new wonkish policy solution.”  What all of these things paint is a picture of our Country Class as an active political society, diverse and unique in every way imaginable, independent-minded, and interested in any number of important and practical subjects.  Corn prices matter.  But so do elections.  Maybe we shouldn’t be as afraid to say so.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Country Roads, Take Me Home


There’s pride in wherever you grew up: your home turf; your ‘hood. Whatever you call it, no matter how much you may have despised it growing up, home will always have a special place in your heart. Just look at the national pride that erupted for Chile the past week when the Chilean miners were finally rescued. Chileans loved Chile! American reporters even showed their national pride by mentioning how American companies and people helped in the rescue efforts.

For anyone who has ever left home, the image of Dorothy clicking her heels chanting ‘There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.’ is a familiar chant in their own mind. Go back home. There’s comfort there.

Last week, I was delivering a meal I had made for a friend. To get to her house, I had to take a gravel road for only about a mile. When I was driving I looked down and laughed. I was driving 40 miles per hour. Darn city slicker!!! I remembered fondly growing up and driving at least ten miles of country roads (one way) every day and cruising at a speed of 60+ mph. It didn’t faze me to speed on gravel roads. Now, my lack of familiarity had me nervous going at only 40.

Then, a beautiful thing happened. The song ‘Country Roads, Take Me Home’ by the late John Denver popped into my head. After a few tries on my phone on Pandora, I hit the song. I savored it. It is so sweet. Growing up in Colorado, ‘Rocky Mountain High’ also is a sweet song for me, but I decided to focus on the first for now. I had to look up the lyrics. They are so good.

“Almost heaven, West Virginia” (Or in my mind Colorado)
“Blue Ridge Mountains” (Rockies)
“Shenandoah River” (Frenchman Creek—hey that’s all I had growing up!)
“Life is old there.
Older than the trees.
Younger than the mountains
Growing in the breeze.”

“Country Roads, take me home. To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma. Take me home, Country Roads”

“All my memories gathered ‘round her. Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water.
Dark and dusty. Painted on the sky. Misty taste of moonshine. Teardrops in my eye.” (There’s no place like home)

“I hear her voice
In the morning she calls me
The radio (or Pandora) reminds me of my home far away
And drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’
That I should have been home, yesterday, yesterday.” (Grab a tissue because it’s getting sappy)

“Country Roads, take me home. To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma. Take me home, Country Roads”

So on that note, I'm curious as to what some of your favorite songs are that bring you to that place you belong. Response encouraged.

Happy trails, R2 readers!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Roundup

Harvest-time, high efficiency roundup today. Hope all is well, and you have a great weekend!

"Why Small Towns Breed Pro Athletes" - "Only one-in-four Americans come from towns of fewer than 50,000 people, but nearly half of NFL players and PGA golfers do..." Raiders QB Jason Campbell, who grew up in Taylorsville, MS (pop. 1,341) says, "you have nothing else to do [there] but sit outside and throw a football at trees."

"Farmland: The Next Boom?" - "Is farmland going to be the next gold?" Wealthy non-farmers are joining farmers in paying too much for ground. Real-estate investment trusts that would allow regular investors to specifically target ag land are in the works.

"In Rural Missouri, an IT Outsourcing Company Challenges India" - Onshore Technology Services, founded by Gulf War vet Shane Mayes, teaches software development skills to unemployed or underemployed people in very rural areas and offers prices for IT services competitive with overseas companies. "While I was in Turkey for the Air Force, a sort of zealous patriotism that I have began to solidify."

Finally - and most importantly, given yesterday's outage - "There is an alternative to accessing your FarmVille farm outside of Facebook." If any future outages are like this most recent one, though, farmers may have nothing to fear. Zynga, the makers of FarmVille, assured its customers, "Wither will be off until all is well and your puppies will not get hungry and run away in the meantime, either."

Well, that's a relief. Happy Friday!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wednesday Roundup

Welcome to Wednesday! I hope you are all having a good week; in my part of the Rural Republic, fat cattle are going out today and high moisture corn will be coming in tomorrow. So, without further ado, here is (some of) the news of the day.

As I wrote about here, a major concern for many rural communities is the out-migration (or "brain-drain") of young people from their hometowns. The High Plains Journal reported this week on a presentation by Weldon Sleight, the dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, on the college's philosophy of encouraging agricultural entrepreneurship - going "back to our base" in farm country - to revitalize rural areas. Also important, according to Sleight, is instilling a sense of community pride both in youth and adults. This includes supporting local, small businesses. "It kills me," he says, "when people drive 40 miles to go to Walmart when their local hardware store is about to close."

However, not everyone is convinced that focusing so much attention on getting young people to stay (or come back) is the best way to "bring new life" to small towns. Kathie Starkweather of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska told Radio Iowa this week that small towns would be better served to "let them go" and target, instead, Baby Boomers and senior citizens. Many people over 50, she says, are interested in starting small businesses and small towns offer what they want: "“The basic quiet, not having to be involved in the rat race but also being allowed to participate in the community.”

To change subjects a little bit, the Visalia (CA) Times-Delta ran a story about a University of California study examining tensions between six "semi-rural" cities in California and the neighboring farmers. The author detailed frustrations on both sides, such as farmers having equipment stolen and vandalized, and city dwellers being irritated by dust and noise. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, the "authors of the university report indicate that the chances for compatible relations between farmers and urbanites will mostly require farmers to adjust or revise their traditional practices."

Finally, NPR had an interesting report on Cuban agriculture that could serve as something of a cautionary tale. "After five decades of state-controlled agriculture," the story says, "the country struggles to feed itself, forcing the government to import some 70 percent of the island's food." When all of the farmland was nationalized with the rise of the communist regime, those who had farmed it walked away. Now, the government is trying to encourage food production by giving anyone willing to farm a free ten-year lease on federal land. Some of those taking advantage of the program are highly educated former employees of the government who are eager for entrepreneurial opportunities, however limited. As one new farmer says, "We can't all be intellectuals, because then there'd be nothing to eat."

Now that's food for thought.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday Roundup

Good morning, all!  I didn't get a chance to get to the roundup for the past few days, so we've got a pretty good selection of links this morning.
 
From the Chicago Tribune, a story on the "locavore" movement.  It's a fairly in-depth look at the advantages and disadvantages, and even includes a somewhat critical discussion of its inefficiencies.  I can certainly sympathize with the concept; a freezer full of meat you've met before is a good and delicious thing.  But I'm not convinced that everything in your refrigerator and pantry can or even should be locally procured.  To me, it seems like taking a good idea too far.  This may take the form of a longer essay in the future.  Until then, does anyone have any thoughts? 
 
Locusts have been a major pest since the days recounted in the Bible.  Now, scientists in Australia are attempting to model the swarms of immature locusts as they walk, in an attempt to be able to destroy them before they take flight.  The model of the marching swarm is unpredictable, so scientists are attempting to observe swarms using unmanned aircraft, to either identify a pattern, or, more likely, to figure out what influences a swarm to change direction. 
 
Part of the aim of the Rural Republic is not only to discuss purely rural issues, but to observe and comment on the faults in society as a whole between the rural and the more urban way of life, whether that fault is social, economic, cultural, or, in this case, political.  The Denver Post reports on the Republican candidate for Senate, Ken Buck, attempting to woo suburban voters.  While Greeley isn't exactly the middle of nowhere, he seems to identify more strongly with the rural than the suburban way of life, as evidenced by a previous proud proclamation that his boots had real, eh, bull manure on them, rather than just the more figurative variety.  In the article, one such targeted suburban voter comments that "He definitely doesn't act like he's lived in Denver in the commercials."  I'm inclined to view that as a positive attribute, but, then again, this is the Rural Republic.  Others may feel differently.  As we approach November, this election in particular may be an interesting study in the population at large's preference for either the social elite, or the "country bumpkin."
 
From the Financial Times, a few updates on the markets.  First, corn prices are on the rise, over $5/bushel at the time of this story.  This is mostly attributable to yields that are a little lower than average, though being coupled with a larger commodities rally in general doesn't exactly hurt.  Additionally, we've been keeping up with the issues involving the Russian wheat crop this year.  Unfortunately, it seems their woes may continue.  Unless the Russian breadbasket can get some timely rains, the soil may be too dry on the planting of their winter wheat crop to germinate a successful crop next year.  We'll keep an eye on this story. 
 
The FDA is going to hear arguments this week regarding the approval of the first genetically-modified meat; a breed of salmon that has been modified to continue producing growth hormone throughout its lifetime, and in effect grow very, very large.  In light of recent GM plant rulings, this could really go either way.  No word on how the monster salmon tastes. 
 
Finally, from Farm Industry News, a list of 20 things everyone needs to know about the past, present, and future of agriculture.  It's a really fascinating list, and I guarantee that everyone will learn something.  If you click through to any of the articles in this roundup, click through to this one. 
 
Thanks for reading!  Keep coming back for more updates later this week.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Roundup

It's a busy, busy time of year in the Rural Republic, so we've been kind of on again and off again with our daily roundups. We'll try to keep this site somewhat responsive to our readers' interests, so if you feel something's missing on the days we don't post a roundup, please let us know. Conversely, if you'd rather see us focus less energy on roundups and more on something else, we'd like to know that, too. We're a no-budget, volunteer outfit here, but we aim to please!

So, for your consideration, here are some stories that caught my attention today.

The U.S. government has been pouring a lot of money into expansion of rural broadband recently, but not all broadband is created equal. Apparently, some of the broadband connections in rural areas of the United Kingdom are inferior to a much lower-tech solution: carrier pigeons! The BBC has a report on a competition held in which ten pigeons with USB drives strapped to their legs took on a five-minute video upload. Seventy-five minutes after the pigeons were released and the upload was started, the birds had reached their destination 120 km away, while the upload was only 24% complete.

Moving back across the pond and heading north, a column in The Williams Lake Tribune details a British Columbia feedlot's creative attempt to find a niche market. Seeking to "produce a product that is equal to Japan’s Kobe beef, where Wagyu cattle are fed a beer a day and massaged with saki before they are slaughtered," Bill and Darlene Freding are experimenting with feeding each of their cattle a litre of wine every day. Reportedly, the results so far have been delicious... and, as the author says, "the cattle aren't drunk, just happy."

Some other cattle that may not have been so happy were reported having been "rustled" near Chadron, NE. KRVN tells us that, while cattle rustling is no longer the hanging offense it was in the "Old West," the state of Nebraska still takes this crime very seriously. Thirty-year-old Jacob Otte was convicted of two different instances of stealing about 10 head of cattle and reselling them in another part of the state. The penalty: two consecutive 3-5 year terms in prison, plus about $17,000 in restitution (mainly to the insurance company that covered both ranchers' cattle). Don't mess with Nebraska cattlemen.

And don't mess with Texas... or, at least, the Texans in Hemphill County in the northeastern corner of the state's panhandle. The Texas Observer has an interesting article about the residents of the county and their confrontation with billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has been systematically buying up water rights in rural Texas to sell to the state's sprawling cities. In another "water is for fighting over" story, the county is ground zero for a legal battle in which Texas courts will decide whether or not groundwater is - like oil and gas - owned in place by the person with rights to that water and, if so, whether a groundwater management district placing restrictions on pumping is an uncompensated "taking" of that property. It obviously gets complicated with legal jargon, but read the article: the people trying to sell their water rights are somewho both victims and victimizers in this scenario. The same story will no doubt be played out across the High Plains in the coming years.

So long for now, and have a great weekend. I hope sometime soon, we all get a little time to relax!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wednesday Roundup

Dan Maes, the embattled GOP candidate for governor in Colorado, recently compounded a campaign-finance snafu by stating, "If people want a seat at the table, what's the first thing they've got to do? Write a check." As uncomfortable as this observation may make us with the political process, ag-industry groups seem to subscribe to the same theory. According to Agri-Pulse, political action committees (PACs) representing food and agricultural industry groups have increased contributions to candidates in congressional races this year, compared to the 2008 election.

As it turns out, this may be a prudent strategy. At least two issues with regard to the federal government and its relationship with agricultural producers are in the news this week. First, Progressive Farmer Senior Editor Victoria Myers reports on concerns from farm groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) about what she calls an "impending train wreck" with the return of the estate tax. As I mentioned here, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack thinks exemptions will be created that cover most farmers and ranchers, but Myers quotes the NCBA's executive director of legislative affairs as saying that, "as things stand today the estate tax, or death tax, will revert to pre-2001 levels January 2011. Those tax rates are graduated, with 55% being the top bracket..." As Myers points out, many farms and ranches are asset-rich (especially with today's high land values), but cash poor. If heirs in this situation are forced to pay 55% of the value of their inheritance in taxes, farms may have to be broken up and sold in order to do so.

Another story involving federal policy appeared in The New York Times under the headline, "U.S. Meat Farmers Brace for Limits on Antibiotics." The Times links the timing of expected FDA guidelines intended to prevent the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria with the recent salmonella outbreak and egg recall (even though, as the reporter adds parenthetically, no drug resistant strains of salmonella have been implicated in the egg cases). According to the article, many medical and health experts are calling for action that would prohibit most uses of antibiotics on healthy animals, either for disease prevention or for speeding growth (the latter of which appears to be the scope of the the forthcoming guidelines). Opposing these experts are meat producers and many veterinary scientists, who cite Denmark's experience with similar regulations as evidence that they may be counterproductive.

As a cattle feeder, I can attest that overly restrictive guidelines would probably result in many more treatment expenses for our operation, as well as a likely increase in the number of animal deaths. We give chlortetracycline (CTC), a broad-spectrum antibiotic, to pens that seem to be experiencing a large number of sick cattle at once. The most efficient way of distributing CTC is to mix it with the feed for the entire pen, which of course includes some currently healthy cattle. If we were to wait until the cattle are visibly sick, however, some of them would already be too far gone to save. Those that do survive generally have lower weight gain. This in turn makes the beef at your supermarket more expensive. As such, I concur with what one pork producer told The Times for this article: "In the end, the producers will do what is right... My only concern is that we make decisions in a scientific fashion, not a political fashion."

Of course, many of these kinds of decisions will be made by politicians, who almost by definition will be making them in "a political fashion." So, it might not be such a bad idea to figure out how to "get a seat at the table."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tuesday Roundup

Back after a few days of hiatus, driven mostly by really, really slow news days (or at least news being focused elsewhere), it's your daily roundup.  

First, thanks to everyone who's followed our page on Facebook.  We're now at 100!  It took us just over 5 weeks to get to the century mark.  How quickly can we get 200?  If you like what we're doing, recommend us to your friends. 

I'll start with the quirky story, and save the controversy for the finish. 

Dekalb County, Georgia, is suing a resident for growing too many crops on his property, apparently against county zoning regulations.  From the story, it sounds like he's got quite the variety of crops, and does quite well for himself and his neighbors.  Unfortunately, the proverbial overzealous regulator (I like to think of the bad guy in the first Ghostbusters movie), combined with the tightening of government budgets everywhere due to the economy, resulted in his being highlighted as someone they could probably get some fines off of.

Corn harvest is moving along.  Brownfield Ag News reports that 13% of Indiana's crop is already in the bins, and moving along.  Meanwhile, the Nebraska Corn Board has compiled pictures and reports from FFA students across the state, depicting the trends toward harvest in the Cornhusker State. 

Finally, once again, water is for fighting.  Only this time, in the Land of Enchantment.  The New Mexico Environment Department filed a petition to designate 1,450 miles of waterways, 29 lakes and about 6,000 acres of wetlands in federal wilderness areas as "Outstanding Natural Resource Waters."  The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed for a restraining order to prevent the designation of that land until more information could be gathered.  However, the State Supreme Court rescinded that order, and it looks as though designation hearings will go on apace.  The fight isn't over yet, as the petition will now be heard Water Quality Control Commission. 

According to the AP story, the only two areas currently under the "outstanding natural resource waters" designation, the Rio Santa Barbara and streams in the Valle Vidal area.  A quick review of the Google and a little local knowledge make me tend to agree with those to designations, at least on the surface.  Both areas are high-mountain watersheds in the Sangre de Cristo range, and probably do little but make good camping areas and then get that water somewhere else more useful.  There's no information on where all of the areas listed in the new petition are, so I can't comment on that one, although there are bound to be more than a few that might infringe on grazing lands (despite claims from the Environment Department that grazing will be unaffected).  It's also not exactly clear whether all of the land is contained within "federal wilderness areas," or if that just refers to the location of the wetlands.  More to follow, to be sure. 

Whether it's grazing in federal wilderness areas, or farming and ranching on lease land around on military-owned land around a military range like Pinon Canyon or elsewhere, it's going to be an incredibly touchy subject.  After all, peoples' livelihoods are at stake, however not only do they not have property rights, but the land is owned by the folks who make the rules, run the courts, have bottomless pockets, and always have eminent domain to fall back on.  Sometimes, it seems land is for fighting, too. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Friday Roundup and Open Thread

Today's roundup is a little thin, partly because it seems to be a fairly slow news day for rural issues, and partly because we really got going on silage in earnest this afternoon (so I haven't been home much today). Nevertheless, I hope something here is of interest to you, and that you have a good weekend.

First up is a story from our friends in Canada. One frequent complaint among farmers is that a large percentage of non-rural people think their food magically appears at the supermarket, and are ignorant of what it takes for it to get there. Thirty-five farms in Manitoba have signed up for a project to help alleviate this problem in Canada: on September 19th, they will be available for public tours during the province's first Open Farm Day. According to one participating farmer, "It's very important because it connects people back to what they eat. It's just a good think [sic] to see that, okay this chicken running around is now roasted chicken dinner on a Sunday." Indeed.

If you read my "Subsidiarity" post a while back, you might remember my reference to farm subsidies as a Faustian bargain. Well, the Iowa Farm Bureau may agree with that assessment. In what Brownfield news refers to as "to our knowledge, the first time a farm group has made it part of their policy," the organization passed a resolution calling for the end of direct subsidy payments to farmers and their replacement with an improved revenue insurance program that would cover both crops and livestock. Interesting, but I predict they will gain little traction on this issue for the foreseeable future.

In the "perception is reality" department, The High Plains Journal reports that a Creighton University survey of rural bankers' economic optimism showed a decline for the second straight month. Contrast that with a story I linked to just over a week ago under the headline, "Reports show encouraging growth in rural economy," and what do you get? If you're like me, it's confusion.

Finally, Budget Travel magazine has released its list of "America's Coolest Small Towns." Sadly, there seems to be a pretty large "cool" dead zone in the middle part of the country, with Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and both Dakotas completely shut out of both the Top 10 and the "Best of the Rest." Hang in there, though, Midwesterners: football season has started, and hope springs eternal.

With that, have a good weekend, take care, and please say a prayer or two tomorrow in remembrance of those who died 9/11/01. They are not forgotten.