South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, May 24, 2010

They're going to get you, Sam.

 Sam Hurst has three characteristics that are unbearable.   He writes exceptionally well.  He sees things that could be improved in America.  And he uses his right of free speech to express his viewpoints.  He is sure to be branded (in this hot age of branding) as an unpatriotic, America-hating socialist-fascist, atheistic narcissist.

In one of his latest stints, he volunteered to ghost write a speech for Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan.  And by reflective implication, for Red Cloud, too.

Here is the speech that is sure to get him nominated for banishment by the cretin caucus.   It's on his blog, Dakota Day, "Everything I know about American foreign policy I learned on Pine Ridge."

"Brothers. I am fearful that our alliance with the Americans cannot last. Their enormous military power has made them weak. They do not seek solutions to problems. They seek domination. They put a low value on human life. They shoot at our buses and bomb our homes. But, amazingly, we do not have the worst of it. In America they are obsessed with guns. It is hard to understand how they keep their children safe. Home grown terrorists attack their schools, their churches and markets. They call it freedom. I have asked President Obama about this. He says he is powerless to change it. It is very strange.

They are corrupt beyond imagination. They are corrupt in their business affairs, eager to cheat each other. Even in their relations with us their work is shoddy and their contractors seem more preoccupied with stealing money than building projects that might actually serve Afghanistan.

They have an elaborate system of graft in which businesses buy and sell politicians for votes. It reaches to the highest levels of government. It is the way that President Obama himself was elected, and every member of Congress participates. It is shameful, but they seem content with the system.

Americans are an exotic people, hard to understand, but one of the most impossibly corrupt ways of doing business is for corporations to bribe politicians with millions of dollars and call it free speech. This is a low form of civilization, but their highest court actually gives license to the system. They are so accustomed to it that they do not even bother to hide it from their citizens. You know, corruption is endemic in their way of life. I have tried to talk to President Obama about this. I have told him it threatens our alliance, but he says there is nothing he can do about it. I have looked into his eyes and I believe I can trust him. But I wonder if he is a leader or a puppet.

I have been forced to confront President Obama about the excessive American market in illegal drugs. America is the largest heroin and cocaine market in the world, but President Obama seems unable to control it. The man is a weak ally. He complains constantly that he is trying his best, but there is nothing he can do. Should we believe him? His own people do not believe he is an American. They think he is from Kenya. They think he is a Muslim. This is because Americans have no families. Our children can recite their ancestors for a dozen generations. American children have no memory of family. It is very strange.

I do not know if the United States will hold together. They have a powerful Army, but it is reckless, and for all their power, they have a weak sense of themselves as a nation. The public is in rebellion against Washington. The Governor of Texas threatens to secede. Several states have threatened to reject federal laws. I do not know if they are a stable ally.

We continue to try...brothers. But we should all be aware. America is an untrustworthy, unstable ally."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

La plume de la mer

Those who are still smarting over the criticism George W. Bush and his administration received over the handling of Katrina are attempting to make Obama's handling of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico  an equivalent problem.  They contend that Obama was slow to react.  What they don't say is the government is shackled in this instance.  The shackle is called BP.

The difference between the two disasters is obvious.  Katrina was a natural storm (although some conspiracy theorists say it was controlled by human powers) which the government was unprepared, unwilling, and incompetent to deal with.  The Great Oil Plume is a man-made disaster resulting from collusion between big corporations and agreeable government bureaucracies compounded by greed, negligence, and a the strong faction on the American right who deny that humankind can be the cause of and responsible for  things that despoil the planet and threaten life, human and non-human alike.

News reports keep referring to the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a spill.  It's not.  It's a spew.  It's not something that leaked or slopped over.  It is something that is furiously spewing forth toxicity, and it has been doing so for a month.

Many people do not understand why Obama is so slow to act.  I, for one, wonder why he has not acted with more decisiveness and expediency.  From an environmental standpoint, the spew has the potential of destroying the sea habitat from the Gulf to New England.  From the economic standpoint, it has the potential of destroying the fishing industry along the entire gulf and eastern seaboard.  Instead of Atlantic cod, salmon, and lobsters, those who try to get Omega-3 in their diets may be doomed to that mushy farm-raised tilapia from Indonesia. 

Oceanic scientists have joined the voices raised in impatience, asking, in effect, what the hell are you doing,  Obama?

The first problem is that all the solutions for the problem lie with the oil industry.  The second part of that problem is that the government lease managers have been gullible buddies of the oil industry.  They have been assured that the safety devices that shut down wells in case of blow-outs and other failures are redundant and fool-proof.  They have become such devout believers that they have accepted as gospel the reassurances that off-shore drilling in our technological day-and-age will never cause a major environmental crisis.  Apparently, Obama bought into this when he announced that he was going to allow off-shore drilling along the east coast. 

The scientists have stated one of the clues as to why the Obama administration is not acting more decisively.  According to The New York Times:

BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

As the major lease-holder and operator of the drilling rig and oil well, BP has legal rights through which it can control any activities and information surrounding the disaster. Those rights apparently extend to making the rules about information on the oil slick.  A boatload full of photographers were chased away from taking pictures of the slick by the Coast Guard.  As the Coast Guard vessel pulled away, someone yelled, "It's BP's rules, not ours."

The Obama administration is stymied from swift and effective action by legal rules by which corporations, and particularly foreign corporations, operate.  In inquiring through our Congressional delegation just why the  U.S. government seems to be stuck on blame placing and not decisive action, I was told that the press needs to cut through the political propaganda and to deal with the facts.  I was told that the very same people who are claiming the loans provided to automobile companies to turn them into "Government Motors" and the passage of health care reform are takeovers of private industries by government are the ones who want government to take over an oil company.  The same ones who have worked against regulation of business and industry are the ones crying loudest that the administration has been lax in its regulation of BP. 

The Congressional source says that there is little that the government can do in terms of taking direct action, as it is dealing with entities that lie outside of its jurisdiction.  One possible measure would be for the president and congress to declare martial law, which would put the contaminated area under military control.  But BP is a foreign corporation which could not be put under the full authority of the U.S. government.   Another possibility would be to obtain a court order requiring submission to and compliance with emergency actions the government would take.  But the oil industry has managed to erect a set of laws which limit its responsibilities in case of mishaps.  And court orders would not extend to the BP company headquarters in London.

The oil spew is not Obama's Katrina.  It's his dilemma.  BP is exercising its power.  It will not even allow government officials or scientists to make an assessment of the amount of  oil spewing forth or the damage being done.   BP has said it will pay all reasonable claims against the company, but it reserves the right to decide what is reasonable.  While it has obtained the cooperation of the government in trying to manage the spew, it sets the terms of that cooperation and prevents it from obtaining and releasing information about the extent and severity of the damage being done.

Obama has to admit a defeat in this matter.  Those who oppose government oversight and regulation of the way business conducts itself have got what they want:  a prodigious mess and a government too shackled to do anything about it. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Freedom of religion, freedom from religion

A candidate for governor has urged pastors to ignore the law which would remove the tax-exempt status of churches if they allow the pulpit to be used for partisan political purposes. Madville Times has weighed in on the matter.  He has caused the devotees of misinformation, disinformation, and general scurrility to make up a whole bunch of stuff under the pretext of shining their beams of enlightenment on what they regard as the benighted Cory Heidelberger.  

The Constitution is not explicit about the separation of church and state.  It's major author, James Madison, was not all that specific about a lot of things he covers in the Constitution. The First Amendment simply states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  For interpretation of how  far that sentence extends, people cite most often Thomas Jefferson, who said that a "wall of separation" between church and state was established in that amendment. 

However, Madison and Jefferson drew heavily on John Locke in defining the separation, as they did many of the concepts incorporated into our form of democracy. Reduced to his basic argument, Locke maintains that no civil magistrate has any business tampering in the affairs of the church.  And likewise, no ecclesiastical authority has any business tampering with the affairs of state.  The wall of separation of which Jefferson spoke was defined in those terms.  

Madison also recognizes that the idea of separation of church and state was a premise of the Reformation.  He noted that Luther conceived of two kingdoms, civil and spiritual, which required discrete areas of authority to allow individuals to establish their individual relationships with their faith.  He is particularly wary of the intrusion of the church into civil affairs:

"Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history."

The wall of separation between church and state is more precisely defined by Roger Williams, the puritan minister who preached against the intrusion of civil and religious bodies into each others affairs and was banished for it.  Any cogent discussion of the First Amendment must include Roger Williams' writings because they inform the American context for its creation.

The principle set forth by Locke is based upon a reciprocal separation. Just as no state authority would be permitted to set the rules of worship for any religious sect, sectarian authorities should not intrude themselves into the civil affairs of state.  So, according to this Lockean concept,  if the pulpit becomes an agency for partisan propaganda, why could not political partisans appropriate the pulpit for their own ends?  

What concerns pastors I know and have known is that the church loses its integrity as a spiritual agency when it becomes identified as a purveyor of partisan politics.  The custom has been for people to leave their political differences at the door when they enter the church for ecclesiastical purposes.  It is a pragmatic matter.  A church cannot function when a congregation divides itself on partisan lines.  It loses its ecclesiastical purpose.

The 21st century has brought new challenges to churches.  Pastors have told me that the toxic atmosphere of contemporary politics has affected their congregations.  One pastor noted the number of members who have stopped attending services and have failed to make the annual pledges on which congregations maintain themselves.  He also said that the selection of pastors has come to involve a consideration of their political leanings.  According to him, civil concerns have already intruded into the church. And some churches are mere extensions of political factions, he claims, 

As far as churches losing their tax exemptions, there are both political thinkers and ecclesiastical thinkers who contend that giving tax exemptions is a form of government support of religious entities.  

The theological question of our time may be whether God is a registered Republican or Democrat.  Partisan advocacy is a good reason not to go to church.  


Friday, May 14, 2010

Doin' the old Jihad: dancing with the infidels

You'd have to have your head pretty far up your theological lower colon not to acknowledge that Islam confronts America with a refutation of our fundamental principles.  Many of the conflicts center on the First Amendment:  the prohibition against the state-endorsed establishment of a religion or interference with the exercise thereof; abridgment of free speech and the free press, the right to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances (a process known more familiarly in South Dakota as whining).    More basic conflicts deal with liberty, equality, and equal justice.  The Islamic status accorded women is counter to the principles of equality as they have developed in our country and much of the free world.

Islam rejects the fundamental principles on which America was formed and has developed.  The fundamentalist sects conceive that rejection as an obligation to declare holy war on America.  Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, illustrates the dilemma.  He became a U.S. citizen last year.  The obvious question he raises is, if you don't like America and what it stands for, why are you here?

The answer, apparently, is he liked the opportunities America afforded him, but he does not like the freedom and opportunities it affords people who do not subscribe to his beliefs and values.  He has that attitude in common with many in America's right wing. The radical Islamists believe that it is the obligation of women to submit to dominance, to obey the rules set for them by men, and to suppress any individual aspirations and thoughts they might have.  The penalties for not submitting are severe, including death.  The videos of old, Muslim men beating burka-clad women with canes for some infraction of their rules come to mind.  Countries seem to be subject to the same rules that are applied to women:  if they don't obey personal and sectarian commands to conform to Islamic dictates, punish them, behead them, or rain mass destruction down on them.  The basic issue in our confrontations with militant Islam is the total lack of respect for life, unless it is lived under complete subjection to whatever rules some imam is espousing at the time. 

 When puritan minister Roger Williams was banished from his Massachusetts pulpit to go live among the Indians in what became Rhode Island, he set the principles on which our First Amendment and the concept of separation of church and state was formed.  He stated:

First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.

Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God.

Militant Islam obviously disdains that notion which came to define our concept of religious freedom.  Our application of those concepts has created a dilemma.  The plots to attack America with acts of violence which kill indiscriminately and with a hateful viciousness have often been hatched and developed in mosques, and advocated by Muslim clerics. When some political group, such as some communist or fascist organization, comes to America to declare war or engage in sedition, we are unequivocal about treating them as enemies who must be dealt with according to our laws.  When Muslim groups practice war and sedition against us, we get terribly equivocal because the First Amendment asserts the freedom to practice religion.  And we are loathe to restrict people who peaceably assemble to worship, even if such worship includes a liturgy of violent sedition and the evangelizing of terrorists. We apply what might be described as theological correctness. 

We Americans are for the most part so culturally removed from the mindset possessed by Islamic terrorists that we cannot comprehend their motives.  We find it hard to conceive of the thoroughness of operant conditioning in the Muslim system which overrules any critical thinking and provides mindless violence as the way to avenge personal frustrations and prejudices.  The behavioral pattern is evident in the actions of Faisal Shahzad and Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter.  They were radicalized.  We have come to understand the "radicalization" of people under Marxist systems, as portrayed by Manchurian candidates, but we have little understanding of how this same kind of operant conditioning has such an effect on Islamics. 

  My own experience with Muslim students has puzzled me.  In the past Northern State had many students from Middle Eastern countries.  It was a destination for Saudi Arabian students who generally came to Northern to finish degrees that they started at a community college in Minnesota.  They were competent but undistinguished students who clearly relished American freedoms and culture, and had a particular attraction to the sexuality of American women.

An experience with a Pakistani pre-medical student, however, was the most puzzling.  It was at the time that Iran's Ayotollah Khomeini had issued a death warrant on author Salmon Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses which portrayed gross hypocrisies within the Muslim religious establishment.  The young man felt compelled to stop after class to inform me why Rushdie deserved such a death sentence because he had profaned the Muslim religion, and no rights took precedence over the divine right to seek vengeance over an insult to the Muslim faith.   A number of students had lingered after class to hear what the young man said, and later even came to my office to discuss the matter.  I solicited information on the matter from those who knew and understood the Muslim faith more than I. 

The professor who had the office next to mine at the time was from Pakistan, educated in Canadian universities, and was a professor of English literature, so he well knew the principles that operated in our system and our culture.  He seemed to practice a more liberal version of the Muslim religion, if he practiced at all.  I was puzzled by his response, which was that someone who brought ridicule on the Muslim religion deserved a death sentence for such a heinous act.

The idea that religious sensibility holds precedent over the very laws which enable the practice of religions is incomprehensible to Americans.  We conclude that when people take the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens  some of them must lie outright when they affirm that they accept the terms of the Oath as the condition of their citizenship:  

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.[1]

Those Islamics who are American citizens and turn to random violence in the name of jihad are troubling in the degree of their betrayal and treason.  But we forget that our most successful terrorist bombers were not Muslim  The most successful, Timothy McVeigh, seemed to have no faith other than a deep hatred of the American government, the one thing he shared with Islamic terrorists.  The same seems to be true with the Unabomber.

And then we have shooters like the Columbine boys, the Virginia Tech shooter, and the one at Northern Illinois University.  The trait they all shared was a sense of being demeaned and alienated from the society around them and a rage that meant lashing out against it with a vicious violence, knowing and planning that the acts they committed would end their lives, too.  Some were under treatment for mental illness, and some should have been, according to reports on them.

Another  aspect of violence in American life that receives mostly tabloid-like coverage in the press is that conducted by skinhead gangs, street gangs, and motorcycle gangs. And the constant shootings and killings of young people in Chicago are reminders of something that is deeply wrong.  A significant portion of America is living out the society of The Lord of the Flies with an energy that shapes the life of the community.  The problem is met with platitudes about holding criminals, not society, responsible for their acts, and so we have a prison system filled with two million who are getting advanced degrees in violence and criminality.

The denial of problems in America is a symptom of a deteriorating society.  As suggested by the 47 million people who do not have health  care access, there are millions of people for whom the American dream is a living nightmare.  They are excluded not just from the advantages of American life but from any regard as humans of equal status and worth.  The conclusion has been  reached that our schools, which show a a need for improvement, can be improved only by the expeditious firing of teachers.  No one wants to look seriously at the social formations of student bodies, which are the salient feature of school life that defines it for students.   For many students, school is an oppressive, destructive experience on which parents and teachers exert little influence.  Adolescents and young adults are a market particularly vulnerable to ploys that tamper with their sense of identity.  Young people tend to define their sense of worth by those over whom they can exercise a pose of distinctive superiority.  The rules  of the dog pack and pecking order, what sociologists call social stratification,  prevail.  Adolescent society left to its own devices is viciously cruel and destructive.  Nothing raises the reactionary hackles more effectively than to suggest that adolescent society is a reflection of the general society.

Self-criticism is regarded as Marxist, unpatriotic, America-hating -- a subversive activity of the liberals.  Denial has become a political platform.  It is important for a segment of Americans to deny that their political agenda is driven by racial attitudes.  When Arizona passed the law requiring police officers to ask for the citizenship papers of anyone stopped for an infraction of law, minority people interpreted this as a form of racial profiling.  The state legislature hastily modified the law in an attempt to mitigate the appearance of racial motives, and the problem of Arizona being an entry point for illegals had credence.  But when the legislature passed a law banning ethnic studies in the state's schools, it codified accusations in the legal code that are patently false.  The law:
Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:
•Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
•Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
•Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
•Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
 I have taught ethnic literature as part of study programs, and I have never come across an instance where any teacher promoted the overthrow of U.S. government,  promoted racial resentments,  where the classes were not designed to impart impart information about one culture to members of another culture, or where ethnic solidarity was an educational objective.  It is true that in covering our past and practices in our present that students are confronted with some tough facts about how racism operates in our past and present society.  But the reason for ethnic studies is to acknowledge and understand the contributions of the many ethnic elements in our culture, not to foment racial hostilities.  Ironically, Arizona State University has maintained one of the most admired ethnic studies programs in the nation.  The characterization of ethnic studies in the state law is a falsehood with defamatory purpose.

With laws  on the books which prohibit the exploration and study of various ethnic cultures, many Americans rightfully see an official decree of alienation.

We look at the conditioning process involved in radical Islam and can point to those factors which bring violence to America.  However, it is Marxist,  ungodly, unpatriotic, and America-hating to examine why we are successful in creating so much terror, violence, and anguish right here at home.

America's strength has been in being able to face up to its own transgressions against humanity and to take steps to rectify them.  But now there is a political force that wants to take us backward where conciliation of differences is neither practiced nor desired.  Bob Schieffer of CBS' Face the Nation recently commented that for the first time in his memory, the staff  of a politician who was appearing asked if the politician could be given a separate waiting room so that he or she did not have to be in the same room as members of the opposite party.  On a local level, I have seen this attitude in people who have stopped  going to church, dropped out of civic activities, and have eschewed cultural and social events because of the political tensions that are palpable in these situations.

But it is unpatriotic and an expression of America-hatred to bring it up.  And so, let alienation and hatred ring.  It's patriotic.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

So, what happened to Mrs. Shahzad and the kids?

It took only 53 hours for a coordinated investigation from the time a car bomb was discovered at Times Square Saturday night to result in the arrest of its maker and planter.  What has been unusual about this case is that investigators have kept the press informed of developments in the case almost minute-by-minute.  

The coverage has been filled with quotations from authorities who provided information on the condition that they remain anonymous because of the ongoing investigation.  The investigators have been unusually accommodating to the press.  Usually, they are very reticent because premature information on what they are doing and finding can impede, often ruin, their efforts. 

As information is revealed, the press has also shown the influence of blogs by writing stories that carp, criticize, and adopt an attitude of superior knowledge about the investigation.  And they have not gotten the information right.  Initially, the press said that Faisal Shahzad almost got away.  The aircraft he was on was leaving on the taxi ramps when it had to be called back, and then authorities arrested him, according to first reports. That turned out not to be true.  It finally came out that that the door to the aircraft had been shut, but it had not left the gate.  The airline had not downloaded the latest no-fly list, but federal authorities ran the passenger manifest and saw that Shahzad had boarded the aircraft.  The press has emphasized what it calls lapses, rather than how redundancy provisions worked in an amazing investigation.

While the press was carping about the alleged failures of the government agencies, it left another question unanswered.  It noted that Shahzad had a wife and two children, but made no mention at all if they were involved in the bomb plot or what the state of their relationship to Faisal was.  It turns out that Mrs. Shahzad is a Coloradan who graduated from the university in Boulder.  Apparently, the only assignment desk that thought that the status of the family might be worth a mention was a television station in Denver which had reporters do some investigating and came up with information on a Facebook page. Mrs. Shahzad is in Pakistan and their embassy officials have said they intend to protect her and the children from the negative publicity surrounding the  case.  That is fair, as long as she is not implicated in the bomb plot, as her father is said to be according to news reports.

In any case, the media is showing the habits of bloggers by publishing rumors and misunderstandings before checking the information and verifying it for accuracy.  It is kind of like butchers criticizing the work of brain surgeons.  The legacy media is struggling to compete with the new media, but they are doing so at the expense of their credibility.  Leave the stupidity, rumor-mongering, and petty carping to the bloggers.  We need journalists and accurate information, not displays of deranged egotism. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Killer weeds spurn Roundup

Agriculture is facing a new threat in the form of weeds that have developed a resistance to the herbicide Roundup and its generic form, glyphosate.  So far, the resistant weeds have not shown up in South Dakota, but are in neighboring Minnesota.    One of the weeds that has quickly adapted to become resistant is pigweed, a common plant that is well known in the richer soils of South Dakota. Pigweed  (right) can grow three inches a day to six feet tall and is so tough that it can damage farm equipment. Horseweed and giant ragweed are among the ten weeds which have developed a resistance to glyphosate. 

The resistant strains of weeds have a gloomy portent for agriculture.  Ninety percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S.  are genetically modified (GM) to be resistant to Roundup, a herbicide that is applied to soil and kills all plants except the crops genetically modified to be resistant to it.  Seventy percent of the corn and cotton grown in the U.S. are also such GM crops.

Roundup herbicide has had advantages for agriculture in South Dakota.  It lessens the amount of work it takes to grow crops, it has changed the methods of farming to lessen erosion and toxicity problems.  As an herbicide, it is much less dangerous and toxic than other chemicals and degrades without leaving much residual chemicals in the soil.

The use of Roundup  in South Dakota has all but eliminated the phenomena of pink air every spring.  When fall and spring plowing was the method of preparing the soil for planting, the Dakota winds would whip the dry earth into the air and give the sky a pinkish cast.  That airborne dust contained many chemical residues, so that some people with sensitivities to the chemicals had to wear masks during the windy, dusty season, or even leave the state until the air cleared up.  Minimum tillage agriculture which leaves crop residues to cover the earth and utilizes glyphosate to prevent the growth of weeds is largely responsible for cleaning up the air and reducing soil erosion to a remarkable degree.

In its coverage of the resistant weed problem, The New York Times reports that farmers are having to return to old, labor-intensive farming practices and are trying various combinations of weed control to see what might reduce the weed problem.

Monsanto Chemical owns the patent on Roundup and a number of the genetically modified crop seeds engineered to be resistant to it.  Monsanto has aggressively enforced its patent rights with teams of field investigators who search out farmers who have GM seeds that they haven't bought from Monsanto.  In some cases, farmers have been brought into court for using seeds that they grew themselves but became crossed with GM strains from neighboring fields. 

On top of the uncontrollable weeds that have developed a resistance to Roundup much like that in the GM crops, an early test of GM soybeans by members of the Russian academy of science have indicated that hamsters fed GM soybeans have developed fertility and developmental problems, and possibly heightened development of allergies.  A major concern with U.S. agricultural exports has been that some countries block GM-grown crops. While the Russian tests are too preliminary from which to draw conclusions, they may harden some nations against accepting GM crops and cause others to block them in the future. 

A documentary film, "Food, Inc.," has also called into question Monsanto's patented hold on agriculture and the approval of GM crops for human and animal consumption.  The testing procedures for determining whether GM crops can have any effect on the humans and animals who eat them are inadequate and have not been developed to the point where scientists feel confident in their results. 

SDSU President David L. Chicoine sits on the board of Monsanto, a paid position.  He was Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Illinois, which works closely with Monsanto in its research and development and marketing programs.  While the Roundup resistant weeds have not invaded South Dakota yet, the concerns about Monsanto and its products and practices have.

In a year when farmers in the northeastern part of the state can't get into their fields because of flooded roads and saturated soils, the herbicide-resistant weeds and the questions about GM crops cast deeper shadows on agriculture, which is struggling for vialbility in these parts.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The war on energy

April was a cruel month for the Obama administration in terms of dealing with energy problems.

It began with Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners.  Massey Energy had accrued scores of safety violations for that mine.  It was a non-union mine where the workers accepted their proper attitude of  expendability for the privilege of working.  They relinquished an effective  voice over work conditions and the actions which could be taken to enforce mine safety provisions.

At this time, no cause of the explosion has been identified.  The country has followed the accepted rituals of acknowledging the expended, so now it can get over it and go back to the mines.  There are a few kooks out there who will keep moaning about coal devastating the environment by injecting pollutants into the air (they claim there is no such thing as "clean coal"),  who will say that mountaintop mining is a wasteful destruction of the landscape, and that mine safety is being ignored at the behest of large corporations that pump money into the campaigns of candidates who promise to  let their business go on as usual.  But those people are also expendable because their protests are unpatriotic and embolden tree-huggers.

And then big oil asserted its voice with the Deepwater Horizon funeral pyre leased by BP, a coal lump's throw from New Orleans.  After unsuccessful efforts to put out the fire resulting from its explosion, it sank, broke its pipes, and leaked oil into to gulf.  The ding-a-ling caucus is excitedly jumping up and down, clapping their hands, and ringing their dingers, chanting that Obama got his Katrina.  They say he did not act fast enough.  After all, he could have hovered over the burning pyre in Marine One and peed out the door.   But that would risk exposing his African-American-ness and inciting more racial epithets.
The man is so busy destroying American with his socialist agenda, his efforts to be the leader of the communist world,  his Nazi depredations against white folks, and all the other nefarious activities he directs from the Oval Office that it is surprising that he'd even notice a little thing like the twelve bodies aroasting on that funeral pyre.  The missing presumed dead were never named, so they must be included among the expendables.

It is somewhat ironic that the drilling rig blew up and started spewing crude oil about a week after Obama said it was alright to do offshore drilling in some places.  We can't imagine what objections anyone would have to keeping our energy supply flowing.  Except for tree-huggers and whale humpers.  We hope he will next make it a Constitutional Amendment to give everyone over the age of two the right to carry a concealed weapon.  It will keep those huggers and humpers in line.  And insure the flow of oil.  In our estuaries.  On our beaches.  In the fishes gills.  It is Obama's Katrina and he has the chance to outdo Bush in what can be destroyed and what expendables he can expend.  But we doubt he can accomplish anything of that magnitude.

The regressives have finally  joined his side.  They berated him for turning General Motors into Government Motors.  They hated it when he took over the American Medical Association, fired the doctors, and put health care in the hands of former McDonald's burger flippers.  They hated it when he gave the banks money to lend.  But they've changed their minds and now endorsed his takeover of BP, like he should have, and put out that damned fire.  But not before we could have some bodies to do our rituals over so we can get over them and get back to  drilling. 

But Obama is the one who has really seen the light in his efforts to emulate George W. Bush.  He has approved offshore drilling.  Now maybe he will drop that nonsense about financial reform.  And keep the oil flowing so we can return to leaded gasoline and cars that can really guzzle it.  And stop regulating the production of electricity with coal by taking taking those pesky scrubbers off the smokestacks.  He can let America go back to being America again.  And make us all free to be expendable,

Now that's something worth fighting for.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Deriding derivatives

When I was in basic training at Ft. Carson, payday occasioned some marathon crap games for a few days.   I did not play, but the games attracted my interest because of a man in my outfit, who did not play either, but made side bets on the rolls of those who did play,  This man had just graduated from law school, passed a bar exam, and was headed for the adjutant's office as soon as he completed basic.  Because he had an incipient ulcer, he was exempted from some of the more strenuous training.  I noticed him sitting on his bunk for long periods of time shuffling through a set of flashcards.  They were cards that contained the probability formulas for various sequences of dice rolls.  He had these flash card sessions to keep the odds for certain roll sequences at the front of his mind.

After the crap shoots, he always had a huge amount of cash.  I and some of his other friends would accompany him to the secure mail box outside the post office because there were people who knew how much money he was carrying, some of whom were pretty pissed-off because some of it was originally theirs, and would not mind getting it back.  He would mail brown envelopes containing two to three thousand dollars home to his wife.  At that time, buck privates in basic training were paid about $63 a month.

When the SEC announced its suit against Goldman Sachs and the Senate held hearings,  I immediately thought of my old army buddy.  Goldman Sachs was doing essentially what he was doing,  They were making side bets on other peoples' plays in the futures market.  Some people were investing in groups of mortgages.  Then Goldman Sachs would make bets on whether those investors would lose their asses on a bad investment, just as my old army friend would bet on bad crap-shoot bets.  It is gambling no matter what technical sounding names they give it.    And when people know the odds that bets being made by investors--or crap shooters--are pretty sure to lose, they tend to win mightily.

I was a farm and business editor when the Chicago Commodities Exchange started dealing in futures markets.  The idea of a futures contract was that a farmer could buy a contract to deliver his corn harvest at a certain price in October, for example.  The advantage was that he could lock in a price and did not have to worry about the ups-and-downs of the market.  If the market went down in October, he got the price he bargained for, which could be better than the market price at the time.  If the price went up,  he might get less for his corn than the prevailing price on the actual market.  That was the idea on which the futures market was established.

However, very few farmers bought futures contracts.  Most preferred to gamble on the actual market price for their corn, and they would either sell at harvest time or store it to see what the prices would do.  The people who bought and sold futures contracts were mostly speculators, sometimes called day traders, sometimes called gamblers.  They kept track of agricultural  production forecasts, weather trends, and foreign markets, and spent the day buying and selling futures contracts.

Another commodity that was wildly traded was pork belly futures.  At the time that the futures market was established for commodities, the Chicago stockyards were being closed and packing houses were decentralized throughout the country.  The futures contracts provided the packers with a means of scheduling a constant supply of pork at a known price.  Regional livestock auctions took the place of stock buyers at the old stock yards.  One in my region began to get complaints from packers to whom he had scheduled shipments that kept coming in late.  They found that he was buying  futures contracts and then delaying shipments on hogs to the packers.  When the packers reported that their supplies were a bit short, this showed up in the daily livestock reports and the futures traders would take it as a sign of a demand market and offer to buy futures contracts at high rates.  The auction operator would then sell his contracts to them and make a profit.  And then ship the hogs, which would get reported as an abundant market.  These manipulations took only a few days.

When the man's ploy was discovered, new rules were put in place, but he had made quite a bit of money by then.  He was side-betting on other people's hedges or bets and then manipulating the market.  He kept on playing the futures market, but his strategies were no linger as apparent and he continued to make money. 

Derivatives are essentially side bets on someone else's throw of the dice.  It is pure gambling, but some people, like my old army buddy, had developed ways to know the odds on what would fail.   So did that auction-house operator.  One cannot help but wonder if Goldman Sachs also found a way to manipulate the market or tabbed sure losers and bet on them.

This is pure gambling, and when it is referred to as casino banking, the term is right on. 


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States