Can America afford it’s rural communities

We hear a lot about the “takers” in America, a classification for, usually inner-city people who survive on benefits, unemployment, housing, medical, food stamps and more. Mostly the venom about takers also contains a racial element, it’s directed at black and minority groups who many assume benefit from Government programs without paying in.

It’s not often directed at the President himself, but as the New York times pointed out last year, Trump himself could be the ultimate taker.

Picture of small town America decaying
Decaying Texas – Mark Cathcart

What we don’t hear much about is the affordability of rural towns, and even many of the suburbs. One of America’s greatest strengths, it’s size, is also one of it’s biggest problems, small town sustainability. I’m no expert on the economy and sustainability, but if you drive long distance in America away from the Interstates, you can see the problem everywhere. Decaying towns, decaying infrastructure, slowing or declining population growth. I own and subsidize a rental home in one such town in Texas.

Back in 2014, I made my only drive from Austin TX to Boulder CO with my Mum, on what was to be her last grand tour. What struck me at the time were the endless poor quality roads, and the nearly, seemingly deserted small towns.

We covered 2,500 miles, mostly north west Texas, also New Mexico, and Colorado. On the way back we went via Taos, Santa Fe, and Roswell and then back through west Texas.

They had almost no choice in terms of food, restaurants and shops. I wrote this blog post “Decaying Texas”. It has a couple of slideshows of pictures taken along the way home.

The question of affordability will be right in the headlights in the coming years of the Trump administration. Almost every major program that the administration seems to want to change or cut will have a major impact on these rural societies. Downsizing the Federal government, a project of the Cato Institute, says:

Even if rural subsidy programs were administered efficiently, they represent an unfair redistribution of wealth. In many ways, rural Americans are better off than urban and suburban Americans. They enjoy cheaper housing, cleaner air, less congestion, and other advantages. So people who live in rural areas should not be a privileged class receiving special subsidies.

The Cato Institute couches the benefits in the usual political-speak weasel words as “Scholars at Cato believe that cutting the federal budget would enhance personal freedom, increase prosperity, and leave a positive fiscal legacy to the next generation.”

Rural communities for the most part exist to allow the exploitation of the land and resources. Hence the reason why America’s size is a strength, there is plenty to exploit. From farming for cattle, corn, wheat, to mineral extraction, to oil and gas fracking, America has it in abundance.

However, most of the infrastructure to support the communities is decades or more old and needs investment to sustain. Building roads, laying pipelines for water, sewage, telephone and internet service are expensive per capita. Roads particularly require a massive subsidy given the distances involved and the low number of people they service.

Trump Pence sign
Image: thehill.com / Getty Images

What is clear is that the new administration wants to cut regulations, budgets, and “Make America Great Again” #MAGA. I fear though for these communities, as they are likely to become unintended consequences of poorly thought through, and rushed changes in policy.

Education
School choice has been a great boon for suburban America. It has also been a positive benefit for the re-segregation of schools. Rich, often white people move from urban centers to suburban centers where they not only have choice, but can have their choice subsidized through vouchers, funded at the expense of public schools whose budgets are impacted by funding vouchers. Forget the furor about DeVos and if she is even qualified as U.S. secretary of Education. What is clear is that if she chooses to drive her professed support for school choice through vouchers as a policy, rural education will be screwed. Rural areas, without huge subsidy, will not have choice. Private businesses are not going to rush into towns and build new alternative charter schools, they can never make money from them.
If the alternative is distance learning, it has a double impact. 1. Distance or e-learning has typically less than optimal results, 2, by opting for choice through voucher, the local public schools are further devalued by lower attendance and either great subsidy, or lower budgets. This is a major issue, as schools in rural areas don’t just teach children, they are major social hubs for community interaction. Destroying public schools in rural areas, will further destroy their communities.  The Atlantic has a great article covering DeVos and the potential impact on rural schools and communities.
Health care (ACA and replacement)
This blog post was kicked off while driving to swimming this morning. I heard this Colorado Public Radio (CPR) piece on the rural hospitals fears for post “Obamacare”. Like schools, access to medical facilities in rural America is crucial to their survival(literally). Asides from concerns of access to healthcare and the affordability of it, the thing that struck me about the CPR interview was that  San Luis Valley Health in Alamosa provides 670 jobs and is the region’s largest employer. This is consistent with what I’ve observed elsewhere in Colorado and Texas, both large and small towns with massive health care employment.
In the UK, where the National Health Service (NHS) employees around 1.6-million people, making it the world’s 5th largest employer. The NHS is notionally is single organization, the NHS employs just under 2.5% of the UK population. Using the US Bureuau of Labor Statistics data for 2009, health care employment in private-sector health care industry employees just shy of 11-million people, add to that 100,000 of the 350,000 at the Veterans Administration, and then all the small town public health care clinics that deal with vaccinations etc. and it’s safe to say some 12-million work in health care in the USA. So, nearly 3.75% of the American population work in healthcare.
Health care in the US is much more expensive than the UK and most other developed countries in the world. This is in part due to the massive over provision and duplication of healthcare facilities. The simplest way to reduce the cost of Government programs, would be to drastically cut the provisions that support poor, rural communities. Make them travel further, pay hospitals less for the procedures, make fewer people qualify for the programs. That is exactly what these rural and small regional hospitals are concerned about, as discussed in the earlier referenced CPR piece.
Environmental Protection (EPA)
As I type this blog entry, Trump Administration EPA head, Scott Pruit is making his first address to the EPA (I’m not listening). This blog isn’t about his and the administrations dislike of the EPA and it’s regulatory overreach and climate actions. However, through executive orders that have frozen grants and programmes that impact some renewal and rejuvenation projects in rural areas and poor communities. What most won’t understand are the number of programmes the EPA supports and provides for small, rural communities and also for Native Americans. It’s unclear what the side effect of the major changes to the EPA will have on these programmes, or if they will just become Pruitts shrapnel.
Infrastructure (DOT)
While the President talks up his infrastructure goals, and decries the state of the roads, bridges and airports, outside of the wall, it’s not clear the Administration understands how much we currently spend and how poorly we budget and account for infrastructure. It’s already clear that Drivers are not paying their fair share, and that we are swimming in debt for road expansion and funding. It is hard to imagine that fiscal conservatives, the GOP and the TEA party are going to swallow more debt on a massive scale to fund this. In many rural areas, pot holed roads are being downgraded already to gravel roads also known as “unpaving“. States, cities and municipalities account for infrastructure in entirely the wrong way. They assume infrastructure itself has no value in their financial statements. They depreciate the assets over the course of its useful life until it has a no value. The problem is at that point, you can’t simply walk away.
As Strong Towns pointed out “Current accounting practices do not bear any relation to the future cash flow or the actual financial health of the city. When cities take on obligations, they should be properly accounted for as liabilities, not assets.” Given Rural towns tax base, population and business are declining, they are hit even more substantially by the errors in accounting from the past.
Agriculture (USDA)
There is significant investment by way of investment and development grants in rural areas, as well through crop subsidies. The top subsidized commodities are Feed grains, mostly corn, cotton, wheat, rice, soybeans, and dairy. Many of these would be uneconomical if the mega-corporations and farming cooperatives went unsubsidized.  America currently pays around $20 billion per year to farmers in direct subsidies as “farm income stabilization” via farm bills. These bills pre-date the economic turmoil of the Great Depression with the 1922 Grain Futures Act, the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, and the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act creating a tradition of government support.(Source: Wikipedia).
USDA goes way beyond that, it runs three other major programs through these agencies: Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service, and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service. They spent $6.5 billion in 2016 alone. USDA has about 100,000 employees, and is represented in most counties, in every state in America. It’s responsibilities include USDA oversees school lunches, meat inspection, food stamps, the Forest Service, rural electrification and much more. It’s total budget is some $140 billion in programs. The late pick of Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue concerned many in the rural community, some of his actions as Governor raise more questions, especially on his brand of rural endorsement. As governor, Perdue was caught in a more than a few scandals involving his businesses and personal property deals. He is also the first from a southern state, where rural and agriculture challenges are very different from the mid-west.
Housing (HUD)
For many people HUD stands for the “U” in Housing and Urban Development, they mostly focus on urbans areas, nothing could be further from the truth.  HUD operates many rural programs, in many cases funds pass through state agencies or other entities to rural communities. As well as development and assistance grants, HUD invests around $6.2 billion per year to provide affordable housing to low-income residents. Much of this through guaranteed low interest mortgages. How these programs will fare under Ben Carson is unknown. But without clear differentiation between urban and rural communities, many in the GOP and Administration will be going after cutting back HUD in general. HUD is also a major contributor to disaster assistance and provides many grants, relocation programmes and more.

Image: The Daily Herald – Mark Black | Staff Photographer
In an era when the GOP have spent forever convincing everyone that TAX=BAD, and portraying city folk as moochers and takers, can we really afford rural communities anymore? It’s very likely that these rural communities will experience the bulk of the pain from the Administration policy changes. Not through a single policy change, or executive order, but but through death by a thousand cuts.
If that happens, there will be no one but the current Administration and the Republican party to blame.

How False Stories Spread And Why People Believe Them

One of the most valuable lessons the administration will learn, is that they cannot control the media, or social media. Constantly making false or inaccurate claims, using false data, or more importantly watching something on cable news and then twisting it to fit your own agenda is a dangerous game.

The more accurate and transparent the administration is, the less conspiracy theory talk there will be, the less time it will take to manage the media, the more the administration can focus on what they really want to do. This is a hard lesson to learn, but essential.

Otherwise everything gets stuck in the mire. Too much time denying, too much time correcting, too much time covering up, too much time on internal meetings trying to decide what to do and how to handle it. All that causes stress, wastes time, and drives distrust between staff members as they don’t know who to believe.

Back in December 2016, Dave Davies on NPR Fresh Air, spoke at length to Craig Silverman, Media Editor of BuzzFeed News about fake news. If you didn’t hear it, it’s well worth a listen. It’s especially relevant based on my slow but inexorable move to delete my facebook account.

Politics and the art of deception

Yep, lots of people are rightfully outraged at the election of Donald Trump and what the future holds. They look at his tweets, at was he says, and are super excited that he is going to do all the things he said or tweeted.

Meanwhile, back in the UK there is a whole lot of hand wringing going on about #BREXIT and what it means. It started the morning after the vote was announced, when liar, braggart, and Trump confidant Nigel Farage admitted that the £350-million for the UK National Health Service that was one of the flagship reasons for leaving the EU, was a “mistake”, or a lie.

The whole point of politics to find a way to get things done? That often r
requires a twisted tongue so as not to upset a prevailing government, or official before they’ve agreed to do what you want. It’s what Clinton mean when she said  she often had both a ‘both a public and a private position’.

Often this comes back to bite the politicians, when what they want to do is bad, doesn’t happen or in some other way backfires. Anyone who thinks that you can be open and transparent with everyone all the time, simply has not been successful at any meaningful level. Tony Blair is a fine example of this, his legacy in tatters, all the positive work he did while in office forgotten, over the lies and deception that took the UK into the “War on Terror“.

Everyone now is overheating about what Trump might do based on what he said or tweeted. First of all most of that is simple distraction. It’s throwing crumbs to the dogs, while he actually gets on with what he wants. His deception and lies though will come back to bite him, but you can’t assume he’ll do, or more importantly, be able to do everything he has claimed. It’s what politicians do, they say what they need to get the chance to do what they want.

Did you never ever tell your kids a white lie, or something that wasn’t really true to get them to do something? Did you ever threaten them when you had no real intention of following through? If you can honestly answer this no you did not, I’ve got a country you can run post BREXIT.

Dystopian Future it is then

In his acceptance speech, President elect Trump said, among other things:

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This from a man, who tweeted:

I’ve no idea what to expect now from the Trump Presidency, but it’s an amazing  coincidence that the original Blade Runner film was set in In Los Angeles in November 2019, just two years from now.

Hopefully Blade Runner isn’t a metaphor for a Trump Presidency; the weather and the blade runners, especially Gaff, do not foreshadow Trumps Immigration cops; and hopefully the Los Angeles in the film, nothing like the real LA in 2019; and the replicants not an extreme of the automation I wrote about yesterday.

blade-runner

What we don’t know is how Trump will do this. Just running up the deficit doesn’t seem likely given he’s from the GOP/Republican party. Taking much of what he’s said, closing tax loopholes, defunding Nato, closing overseas bases in place like Germany, Japan and more won’t likely save enough money. Your move President Trump.

What’s the deal with guns?

Again, skirting around the election, whenever the topic of guns in America comes up, usually after yet-another-mass-shooting, I simply don’t understand. I have no context.

I recently had the chance to hear Guardian journalist Gary Younge discuss his new book “Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives” (via @amazon), with BBC Radio London, broadcaster and journalist, Robert Elms.

So much rang true. It was great hearing two people discuss guns and the bizarre attitudes towards them in the USA. Among the qoutes, and the serious discussions about 10 kids being killed by guns, the best summary of their exchange was this in the opening seconds.

YOUNGE: I was there for 12-years as a correspondant, and there were two things I never got. I never got healthcare, why would you not want that? And I never got guns…
ELMS: Why would you want that?

Gary Younge on twitter

Robert Elms on Twitter

The appearance of impropriety [Boulder Weekly]

It’s still hard to imagine the whole Donald Trump Presidential run is serious, but it is. At the same many other communities are fighting, or trying to fight the Oil & Gas Industry over fracking; at the same time  a record-tying 5.6 magnitude earthquake took place in Oklahoma early Saturday morning and state officials have ordered the shutdown of 37 disposal wells used for fracking. Meanwhile, in Colorado, voters were unable to get meaningful measures to protect Colorado from the results of fracking.

What do these three have in common? Little on the face of it! In the current Boulder Weekly, before the Oklahoma earthquake, Joel Dyer writing an OpEd, captures in one article I think the dissatisfaction people feel with the current political system, but have been unable to express.

wreckball_590_476[1]If you take time to read the piece, don’t read about Colorado, don’t read about the failed fracking measure, read about the about the political system where everyone is an insider; and because of the way big money works, there is little difference between the people, the parties are just labels.That’s the frustration that I think most people feel.

Our state government has a very real credibility problem and it doesn’t matter if it is the result of impropriety or simply the appearance of impropriety, because both are equally destructive when it comes to the political process.

whatever you think of Clintons campaign, or Clinton personally it does matter if you believe what’s said about her, what matters is the appearance of impropriety. The opposite seems to be true of Trump, no matter how much he lies, because he is not seen as an insider, they are prepared to cut him some slack.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Boulder fractivist, a gun-rights proponent from Grand Junction, a religious conservative in Colorado Springs, an environmentalist in Durango or a fifth-generation farmer from the San Luis Valley, as long as the oil and gas industry and its millionaire backers are deciding who gets elected in this state, you lose.

This is bigger than any one issue. This is about whether we are going to choose to restore our democracy or continue to be governed by a handful of the state’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. And it’s our choice not theirs. So follow the money before you check that box on your ballot. It may be the most important thing you’ll do this year.

 

Source: When it comes to the Secretary of State’s office, the appearance of impropriety is a big deal – Boulder Weekly

The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

This is one of the best blogs of many on the Strong Towns blog. American suburbia is only viable with heavy government subsidy and planning — It would be unaffordable otherwise.

As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called The Great Inversion, Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions. In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.

Source: The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

She said, he said

Friday evening we were waiting for a table for dinner, or a place at the bar, everything was looking pretty busy. I stood at the bar by a couple that looked like they were finished eating, but couldn’t get the attention of the bar staff. “She” spoke up to get the barmans attention. I thanked her and after we’d got our drinks, and cleared up that I wasn’t from Australia, the conversation went like this:

Her: How are things in Europe?
Me: Not so good, Nice sounds terrible. I suspect though at 7pm tonight, at a bar somewhere in Europe a couple were chatting and saying “what about all the gun violence in America, it’s not safe to go there anymore”.

Her: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that perspective.

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry | The Nation

This is bad news all around, but once again confirms there is no such thing as cheap energy. Fracking likely has many long term problems, no one saw this one coming though.

http://www.thenation.com/article/global-warming-terrifying-new-chemistry/

Laughing at US Banks

aka too big to do anything useful.

So, most mornings lately, during breakfast, Chase Bank has been running these commercials on TV. Yep, they are selling their bank on the basis of being able to make easy check deposits. Most US Banks and Credit Unions provide some form of ATM check deposit, similar to this…

no-checks-400x506[1]So while most western countries are running from checks as fast as they can, some have even announced the end of checks/cheques as we know them, the US is not only persisting with the check model and clearance process, they are making ATM’s better at accepting checks and spending money to promote it.

Meanwhile, I can login to my UK Bank, and for free, transfer money to my Son in Berlin in a different country, and different currency and it is in his account in about an hour. To send money to people in the UK, it’s even quicker, less than 15-minutes on average. I’ve had the account for nearly 15-years and not had a checkbook for the last 12-years.

The easiest, simplest and by far thecheapest way for a person in the USA to send me money is to write a physical check, take a picture of the check on their cellphone, and email me the picture. I remote deposit it in either of my USA Bank Accounts. Way to go USA.