This weekend we asked what other reporters and editors locally and around the state were curious about. This is a selection of articles that appeared locally in the last week.
Can Modesto’s world religions class help bridge the divides?
Nearly 20 years ago, a case of egregious bullying galvanized the Modesto City Schools community behind what became the nation’s only required world religions course in high schools. A new Canadian study finds the course is changing hearts and minds, raising hopes it can deter religious bullying.
But even with a strong interfaith alliance and more enlightened graduates, a local imam and rabbi noted, Modesto still has bullies.
“Going forward, we have a lot to do. It’s a crazy world right now,” said Alice Chan, a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. Chan traveled to Modesto to do her thesis in part on what remains the only district in the nation to require students take a world religions course. She returned earlier this month to share her research with Modesto’s faith leaders.
Students who took the course reported they better understood other religions, and their diverse classmates, and their answers showed greater tolerance, she said in a presentation at Congregation Beth Shalom on April 7.
“A number of them have shown that the course has changed their attitudes. They understand people differently,” Chan said. “The findings here are very clearly positive. The results (of my similar study) in Montreal are very inconclusive. ... But here, there is something about this course that changes attitudes.”
The results did not surprise retired Modesto teacher Yvonne Taylor, one of the original seven who developed the course in concert with local religious leaders and the First Amendment Center. “I’m very proud of what we did,” Taylor said after hearing Chan’s presentation.
The class, in place since 2000, spends much of its first day assuring students the course does not advocate any religion, and emphasizing respecting ideas does not mean agreeing with them. Over nine weeks it lays out the basic tenets and history of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. World geography fills the rest of the semester.
The state recognized Modesto’s world religions course with a Assembly resolution in 2014, and its lessons filled a chapter of Linda K. Wertheimer’s 2015 book, “Faith Ed.” The new California history framework, adopted in July, suggests “a survey of world religions” as a freshman option. Taylor said the outline largely follows the course, which she presented at state hearings seeking input for the new framework.
Many teachers and districts would like to add the course, Chan said, but fear community reaction. The Modesto community, it should be noted, did not initially embrace religious literacy. It was actually a furor 20 years ago over protecting gay students who were bullied that led to a 115-member community committee, which hashed out a character education program, which led to the world religions course.
“I do see Modesto as a place that tolerates diversity,” said Rabbi Shalom Bochner. He also belongs to the Stanislaus County Interfaith Council, he said. “The range of perspectives and people’s desire to build relationships with each other is very inspiring across the religious, political and ethnic divides.”
The synagogue has received a few disturbing phone calls and letters with hateful messages in recent months, Bochner said, but also offers of help and solidarity.
“We have experienced recent incidents of Jewish students being bullied and Alice's research can help proactively move forward,” he said.
In her presentation, Chan stressed, most people do not understand that there is religious bullying, and teens rarely report bullying – especially religious bullying. The current political atmosphere, moreover, has amplified the problem.
“The Trump effect is real,” she said, referring to a rise in bullying and baiting educators saw as anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric flared around President Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Preliminary findings of a scholarly study found 90 percent of over 25,000 U.S. teachers polled said the political climate has had a negative effect on the mood and behavior of students since the elections.
“That’s very disheartening,” Chan said. “Bullying of any sort is a communal issue. It is a societal issue, so we need a societal response.”
At the Islamic Center of Modesto, Imam Ahmad Kayello did not need a major study to tell him religious bullying has gotten worse.
“I know it is a problem. It is happening. It is not being reported, for different reasons,” Kayello said Friday. “It really got bad around the election time, with the president making his speeches. It was really a hard time.”
Students have told him the bullying is frightening, but mostly verbal. “Usually it’s about making comments – ‘Go back where you came from. We don’t want you here.’ ‘You terrorist!’ Things like that,” he said. “If you can only imagine the dominance of a seventh-grader or eighth-grader being bullied, and the impact that has on a student.”
The research Chan did was a start, he said, “She got the picture, but not fully.” He believes the class helps but, in the current climate, is not enough.
“We have to appreciate all (Modesto City Schools) did and what they’re doing now. But I think it’s a very serious subject, and I’m not talking just about Muslims,” Kayello said. “Bullying can be against anybody.”
Health care hotbed for fraud cases like one in which Modesto doctors face charges
By Jeff Jardine
While it might surprise some folks that five Modesto doctors are among those facing fraud charges in a $40 million medical billing and kickback case based in Southern California, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there was yet another medical fraud case.
Wherever there is money, you’ll find people or institutions are that ripe for defrauding, and the health care industry is susceptible on many fronts. Providers work the system to stick it to insurers, including the government. Insurers stick it to patients through higher premiums and denied claims. Pharmaceutical companies charge ridiculous amounts of money for prescription drugs, driving up higher care and insurance costs. Those, along with patients who refuse to pay their due, drive up medical costs for everyone. And if you don’t have coverage but can afford to pay the hospital, you don’t get the same discounts as the insurers get. You pay the full exorbitant price.
Among the local physicians named in the complaint, Jonathan Louis Cohen, 57, John Joseph Casey Jr., 65, and William Louis Pistel, 53, are from Modesto and with the Stanislaus Orthpaedic and Sports Medicine Clinic, while another, Mohamed Adly Ibrahim, 40, is affiliated with that same clinic but lives in Danville. Authorities also charged Modesto physicians Jerome Anthony Robson, 68, and Robert Edward Caton, 65.
Caton and Robson are accused of receiving $175,000 apiece in kickbacks, with the four Stanislaus Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Clinic physicians allegedly getting a combined $248,000 in kickbacks. Charged with conspiracy to commit medical insurance fraud; filing false and fraudulent claims; taking rebates for patient referrals; and insurance fraud, they remain innocent until proven guilty.
That stated, the outcomes of fraud cases almost always hinge on whether the paper trails and specifically the money trails are damning and irrefutable..
The Association of Certified Fraud examiners in 2012 rated health care as the fourth most-defrauded industry in the U.S., accounting for 6.7 percent of all fraud cases filed. The winner? Banking (a gimme) at 17 percent, followed by government at 10.3 due its “sheer size and number of employees,” and manufacturing at 10 percent.
That same agency identified the major ways health care fraud is committed. The list includes billing for services not rendered or for a noncovered service as a covered service, fudging the dates, locations and providers of service, waiving deductible or co-pays, falsifying the reporting of diagnoses or procedures, performing unnecessary procedures, prescribing drugs unnecessarily and, finally, kickbacks and bribery. The last two are among the allegations in the case involving the Modesto physicians.
In 2015, the FBI cracked a $712 million Medicare fraud ring, arresting 243 people for billing for care that either wasn’t needed or never provided. That same year, a pharmacy owner in Florida bilked Medicare for $20 million, which financed his new Bentley and more than a few oil changes.
In what was dubbed “Operation Spinal Cap,” a hospital official and two surgeons in Long Beach were charged with billing $600 million in fraudulent charges.
The case announced Thursday certainly wasn’t the first involving Modesto physicians or organizations.
In 2004, the state filed felony charges against 20 dentists working at Hatch Dental Clinics in Modesto, Ceres and Stockton. Their crime? Overbilling by overdrilling. The company’s husband-and-wife owners ultimately got a year each in jail and had to repay $3 million to Medi-Cal.
A year earlier, a Redding hospital and its parent company, Tenet – which owns Doctors Medical Center in Modesto and Doctors Hospital in Manteca – paid $54 million to settle claims that two of its doctors performed unnecessary heart surgeries.
After news broke Thursday of the complaints involving the Modesto physicians, we received calls and posts on social media from people who simply didn’t believe it. They are good people and good physicians, some commented.
And indeed, they all might be fantastic doctors. But those aren’t the operating skills that concern the state in this case.
The De-Electrification of the U.S. Economy
For more than a century after the advent of commercial electrical power in the late 1800s, electricity use in the U.S. rose and rose and rose. Sure, there were pauses during recessions, but the general trajectory was up. Until 2007, it appears:
The Electricity Plateau
U.S. annual net electricity generation, in terawatt hours
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
The initial drop in electricity use in 2008 and 2009 could be attributed partly to the economic downturn. But the economy grew again in 2010, and every year since. Electricity use in the U.S., meanwhile, is still below its 2007 level, and seemingly flatlining. The change is even more dramatic if you measure on a per-capita basis:
The change is even more dramatic ifou measure on a per-capita basis.:
Per-capita electricity use has fallen for six years in a row. We're now back to the levels of the mid-1990s, and seemingly headed lower.
This is a really big deal! For one thing, it's yet another explanation -- along with tighter federal emissions rules, the natural gas fracking boom, and the rise of solar and wind power -- for why the past few years have been so tough on coal miners. It means that even a big pro-coal policy shift from Washington may not result in higher demand for thermal coal.
For another, it seems to settle a turn-of-the-millennium debate about the electricity demands of the digital economy. Businessman and technology analyst Mark P. Mills, now a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, kicked things off in 1999 with a report stating that computers and the internet were already responsible for 13 percent of U.S. electricity demand and would be consuming 30 percent to 50 percent within two decades. In a subsequent op-ed for Forbes, charmingly titled "Dig More Coal -- the PCs are Coming," he and fellow Manhattan Instituter Peter W. Huber argued that:
Yes, today’s microprocessors are much more efficient than their forerunners at turning electricity into computations. But total demand for digital power is rising far faster than bit efficiencies are. We are using more chips -- and bigger ones -- and crunching more numbers. The bottom line: Taken all together, chips are running hotter, fans are whirring faster, and the power consumption of our disk drives and screens is rising. For the old thermoelectrical power complex, widely thought to be in senescent decline, the implications are staggering.
A group of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studied energy use were dubious of these claims, and published a series of reports calling them into question. One 2003 paper concluded that direct power use by computers and other office and network equipment accounted for just 2 percent of electricity consumption in 1999 -- 3 percent if you counted the energy used in manufacturing them.
Since then, the digital takeover of the economy has continued apace. But it hasn't translated into an explosion in electricity demand. The "old thermoelectric power complex" was decidedly not on the cusp of a big boom in 1999. Instead, per-capita electricity use more or less stopped growing after then. Now it is falling.
Part of the reason is that a grim new economic era dawned in 2000 or 2001 that has been characterized by slow growth, declining labor-force participation and general malaise -- all of which tend to depress energy demand. But if you measure electricity use per dollar of real gross domestic product, the decline is just as pronounced, and it began much earlier than the fall in per-capita demand:
In an article published in the Electricity Journal in 2015, former Lawrence Berkeley energy researcher Jonathan G. Koomey, now a consultant and a lecturer at Stanford, and Virginia Tech historian of science Richard F. Hirsh offered five hypotheses for why electricity demand had decoupled from economic growth (which I've paraphrased here):
1. State and federal efficiency standards for buildings and appliances have enabled us to get by with less electricity.
2. Increased use of information and communications technologies have also allowed people to conduct business and communicate more efficiently.
3. Higher prices for electricity in some areas have depressed its use.
4. Structural changes in the economy have reduced demand.
5. Electricity use is being underestimated because of the lack of reliable data on how much energy is being produced by rooftop solar panels.
The Energy Information Administration actually started estimating power generation from small-scale solar installations at the end of 2015, after Koomey and Hirsh's paper came out, and found that it accounted for only about 1 percent of U.S. electricity. That estimate could be off, and there's surely room for more study, but mismeasurement of solar generation doesn't seem to be the main explanation here.
Which leaves, mostly, the possibility that life in the U.S. is changing in ways that allow us to get by with less electricity. This still isn't necessarily good news -- those "structural changes in the economy" include a shift away from manufacturing toward sectors that may not provide the kinds of jobs or competitive advantages that factories do. When you look at electricity use by sector, in fact, it's the decline in industrial use since 2001 that stands out:
Still, some of that decline is surely due to efficiency gains. The corporate focus on costs has increasingly come to include energy costs, and parts of the corporate world have also reorganized themselves in ways that make saving energy more of a priority.
Consider the shift to cloud computing. From 2000 to 2005, electricity use by data centers in the U.S. increased 90 percent. From 2005 to 2010, the gain was 24 percent. As of 2014, data centers accounted for 1.8 percent of U.S. electricity use, according to a 2016 Lawrence Berkeley study, but their electricity demand growth had slowed to a crawl (4 percent from 2010 to 2014). What happened? The nation outsourced its computing needs to cloud providers, for whom cutting the massive electricity costs of their data centers became a competitive imperative. So they innovated, with more-efficient cooling systems and new ways of scaling back electricity use when servers are less busy.
In much of the world, of course, electricity demand is still growing. In China, per-capita electricity use has more than quadrupled since 1999. Still, most other developed countries have experienced a plateauing or decline in electricity use similar to that in the U.S. over the past decade. And while the phenomenon has been most pronounced in countries such as the U.K. where the economy has been especially weak, it's also apparent in Australia, which hasn't experienced a recession since 1991.
So is electricity use in the developed world fated to decline for years to come? Well, not exactly fated. Check out that bottom line in the last chart. Transportation now accounts for just 0.3 percent of retail electricity use in the U.S. If the shift to electric vehicles ever picks up real momentum, that's going to start growing, and fast. Dig more coal (or drill for more natural gas, or build more nuclear reactors, or put up more windmills and solar panels) -- the Teslas are coming.
Los Angeles Times
Was Gov. Brown wrong to make side deals to push through the gas tax hike? No, that's democracy
George SkeltonContact ReporterCapitol Journal
Among the most abused words in politics are “corrupt,” “bribery” and “graft.” And they’ve been bellowed a lot lately since the California Legislature voted to raise gas taxes to fix shabby roads.
Those pejoratives, of course, mean different things to different people in different situations.
“There’s illegal corruption, which is incredibly difficult to prove,” says Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in politics and is president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “Then there’s personal corruption that happens every day.”
Having watched garden-variety political corruption for decades, it’s pretty clear to me that the primary test is this: If you like what the Legislature did, it resulted from competence. If not, the legislative process was corrupt.
“What one person would say is corruption, another would say is compromise,” Levinson notes.
Reader emails have poured in blasting legislators who broke a two-year gridlock by voting to raise fuel taxes and vehicle fees to generate $5.2 billion annually for state and local road repairs. At least two-thirds of the money will go to that. The rest will be spent mostly on transit and improving truck access around ports.
“It was corruption plain and simple,” wrote Doug in Santa Monica, echoing other readers angry about the tax hikes.
Corruption is way too strong. It’s a given that legislating in Congress and virtually every state capitol is corrupted by political money to fund election campaigns. What would you expect? Most of the money — and all of it in California — comes from private contributors.
That’s because there’s little public appetite for funding campaigns with tax dollars. So the special interests, rather than the public, buy the politicians.
Pure public financing of campaigns has become virtually impossible anyway because of Supreme Court rulings, starting with the screwy idea that political spending is constitutionally protected speech. Thus, unlimited dollars can be spent on campaigns by independent committees not connected — wink, wink — to the candidates.
“Why do people give contributions?” Levinson asks rhetorically. “Because they want something. That’s how our system is set up. It defies human nature to think politicians won’t be grateful or they don’t understand that to keep their jobs they have to be mindful of those who spend money on their behalf.”
She adds: “Illegal corruption is quid pro quo. This for that. Something we all suspect happens often, but is very difficult to prove.”
Here’s how I define it: If you put the money in your own pocket, that’s corruption and you should be locked up. If the money goes into your campaign kitty in exchange for a vote, that could be legal or illegal, depending on what’s said and whether anyone was wearing a wire. If the money is spent on projects for your district, that’s effective politics.
As the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously liked to say: “All politics is local.”
And to secure the necessary two-thirds supermajority vote for the fuel taxes, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders distributed some very nice local pork to holdout legislators. Congrats to those lawmakers and their constituents.
“People on the fence got deals for their districts. Is that illegal? No,” Levinson says.
“Incentivizing people to vote yes by using a carrot or stick is permissible. Absolutely. That’s why the governor has power. It’s how leaders have power. It’s about committee appointments, about how much money the party is going to give you.”
But Levinson cautions: “Explicitly buying votes is not permissible.”
OK, but good luck proving the explicit transaction.
Pork was the carrot for the highway bill.
Two notable recipients were Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced.
“I said, ‘Look you guys,’” Cannella told me, referring to Brown and the legislative leaders. “‘You know what I’ve been negotiating for these last two years. If it were in the bill, I’d vote for it.’”
It swiftly went into the bill. And it’s a game changer for the northern San Joaquin Valley, providing $400 million to partially finance a 61-mile extension of a Bay Area commuter rail line into Merced.
The project will allow people to live in the affordable valley and hop a train to work in the impossibly pricey Bay Area, including Silicon Valley — the kind of thing California should be doing all over the state.
Also tossed in was $100 million for a highway connecting the 99 Freeway with the relatively new UC Merced. Hopefully that will make the campus more inviting to students and take some enrollment pressure off more prestigious campuses on the coast.
In Riverside County, two Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Richard Roth and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes — collected $427 million in sweet pork to ease traffic congestion for their commuting constituents. The money will fund a connector between two freeways, an interchange, grade separations and a bridge widening.
“We’ve had these on the books for a number of years, but none has had funding,” says Anne Mayer, executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.
And they’d have stayed unfunded without the motorists’ tax hikes.
Those are the carrots. A stick was felt by one Democrat, Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, who refused to vote for the higher taxes and fees.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) bounced Salas as chairman of the Business and Professions Committee, a lucrative “juice” panel that draws big campaign donations. Nothing personal, just politics.
Nothing illegally corrupt in any of this, only prudent compromise.
California State University cannot justify administrative growth, manager raises, audit says
By Alexei Koseff
The California State University system has hired new managers at more than double the rate of other employees over the past decade, perhaps unnecessarily, according to a new state audit released Thursday.
Echoing complaints of administrative bloat that often arise during contract bargaining negotiations with employee unions, California State Auditor Elaine Howle called out CSU for failing to adequately explain the number of new management personnel, such as campus vice presidents, deans, supervisors and head coaches, as well as salary increases that far outstripped faculty and support staff.
Managers were generally hired for worthwhile purposes, including to increase student access to courses, four-year graduation rates and fundraising efforts, Howle wrote in her report. “Nevertheless, campuses were often unable to justify the number of management personnel they hired and consequently could not demonstrate that they are providing these services in the most cost-effective manner.”
There were nearly 4,000 managers in the CSU system during the 2015-16 academic year, comprising about 7.5 percent of all employees. But that total is almost 15 percent more than 2007-08, while the number of faculty and support staff grew by 7 and 6 percent, respectively, during that time.
Total compensation for managers also grew by almost a quarter over those nine years, nearly double the rate of increase for other employees.
Howle slammed the process of providing raises to management employees, which she said broadly lacks adequate evaluation of those employees. At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, last year, for example, at least 70 managers received raises totaling $175,000 even though they had outdated or no written performance evaluations on file.
The university said it was unfair to penalize someone who is not evaluated by their supervisor in a timely manner. But, Howle wrote, “because they were not supported by current written performance evaluations, some may be undeserved.”
In a response letter, CSU Chancellor Timothy White wrote that management personnel comprise a broad range of employees, many of whom provide direct support to students. He added that there were some staff groups, such as academic student employees and health care support, with a higher growth rate than managers.
“(I)t is important to recognize the CSU’s management staffing levels and administrative costs are lower than other similar higher education institutions both within California and nationally,” White wrote.
The audit also raised problems with how campuses are monitoring their budgets, which Howle said lack oversight on spending levels and fail to specify how state appropriations are being used to improve student success and with how CSU is paying its executives.
As tuition increases, executive compensation has become a sore point for students. While the 23 campus presidents and seven top administrators in the chancellor’s office make up a small portion of CSU’s overall budget, critics argue that high salaries show misplaced priorities.
Howle recommended that CSU eliminate its policy of allowing campuses to augment the pay of their presidents with money from foundations because it “could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.” She also urged the university to put a cap on what it will reimburse for executive moving expenses, since more than a third of those relocations since 2008 had cost in excess of $25,000.
Want to rescue rural America? Bust monopolies.
Globalization and technology aren't the only factors crushing the heartland.
By Lillian Salerno https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/04/20/want-to-resc...
Lillian Salerno is a candidate for the Democratic seat on the Federal Trade Commission, and formerly served as the Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development at the Department of Agriculture, the Administrator for Rural Business and Cooperative Services, and on the White House Rural Opioid Epidemic Task Force.
Rural communities are suffering because of corporate concentration. But there’s a solution. (Morgan Spiehs/News 21)
Since President Trump’s election, much has been made of his rural, heartland voters, and how politicians can better serve them, with most discussion centering on international trade and globalization. But there is another political and economic disaster crushing the heartland — one politicians could solve now, if they chose to.
For decades, rural America has been punished by bad policy that places too much power in the hands of distant financiers and middlemen through the formation of monopolies, which undermines small, local businesses and drains communities of resources. I know, because I started a company in rural Texas, and the challenges I faced illustrate the problem.
In 1994, at the height of the AIDS crisis, in which I lost several friends and a beloved employee to the disease, I started a manufacturing company in Little Elm, about 35 miles north of Dallas, to produce the first-ever automatically retracting syringe to eliminate the risk of nurses contracting HIV through accidental needle sticks. The syringe received rave reviews from nurses, hospital executives and public health officials, a major grant from the National Institutes of Health and robust private investment. But when my partners and I tried to sell it to hospitals, we were told time and time again that even though it was a better product — a lifesaving product — they weren’t able to purchase it. The primary supplier of syringes, which controlled 80 percent of the market, structured an arrangement with a vast network of hospitals that essentially closed our industry to new firms for good.
The environment in rural Texas was perfect for our company. We had a talented workforce, the means to build and ship our products, and a community that supported our work. But because the hospital and medical device market was intensely concentrated, our company didn’t reach its full potential. Our business became mired in litigation rather than innovation. And the entire community of Little Elm suffered as a result.
Ours is a common story. For years, rural and small-town America have fought an uphill battle for economic survival. Many in the halls of power viewed the shuttered storefronts and desolate downtowns as the inevitable consequence of globalization and technology, about which little can (or even should) be done. But one major force behind the steep economic decline is something that, until very recently, has received virtually no attention: the unprecedented level of corporate monopoly power that has been concentrated throughout the American economy.
The consequences are wide-ranging and dramatic (one new research paper found that the increase in corporate consolidation effectively transfers $14,000 a year from workers’ wages to corporate profits). But nowhere are the effects more visible than in rural and small-town America. In these communities, corporations dominate local economies to such an extent that people are unable to start their own businesses or sell into markets. They are no longer free to take their labor elsewhere for better pay. Small town businesses and the communities they serve no longer have the power to shape their own economic destinies, which were once vigorously protected by federal antimonopoly laws.
Let’s look at just one indicator — new business formation. From 2010 to 2014, 60 percent of counties nationwide saw more businesses close than open, compared with just 17 percent during the four years following the 1990s slowdown. During the 1990s recovery, smaller communities — counties with less than half a million people — generated 71 percent of all net new businesses, with counties under 100,000 people accounting for a full third. During the 2010 to 2014 recovery, however, the figure for counties with fewer than half a million people was 19 percent. For counties with less than 100,000 people, it was zero.
How did we get here? After the Great Depression, the government used antimonopoly laws to keep markets open and fair for smaller, independent businesses — in other words, to keep mom-and-pop shops open and Main Street buzzing. These were businesses run by people who cared about and understood their communities, that kept wealth circulating locally, that created the vast majority of new jobs and that were often the source of game-changing innovation.
But in the 1980s, folks in power decided bigger was better, and conventional political wisdom followed suit. For the federal officials charged with protecting competition, that meant that cheap consumer prices trumped all other values, including the preservation of American jobs, open and competitive markets where innovation could flourish, and maintaining level playing fields for start-ups and small businesses. To this day, when government officials evaluate mergers, it’s considered a good thing when they result in job losses — because that means, in the twisted reasoning we still use, gains in economic efficiency. The hard-working Americans turned out on the street corner to look for new jobs are the human sacrifices to the insatiable beast of corporate concentration.
This slow-rolling wave of corporate mergers has left almost all major markets — airlines, telecommunications, health care, retail, milk, seeds for growing crops, hardware, even cowboy boots — dominated by a cluster of mega-corporations, cloaked behind a plethora of brand names. These behemoths now hold unprecedented power over thousands of once-thriving community economies.
Corporate concentration has hit farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers especially hard. Many markets are entirely monopolized by a single company that dictates the terms of business to suppliers. Two decades ago, in the seed industry alone, 600 independent companies existed. Today there are six giants, several of which are pursuing high-profile mergers that will result in even more radical concentration. Similar levels of concentration exist for the beef, pork, chicken and dairy industries. The result is that the farmer’s share of each retail dollar of food has been collapsing, while consumers pay either the same or higher prices. Mega-corporations in the middle exploit their dominant market positions to reap all the profits.
It is a myth that the economic challenges that rural and small-town America face are caused by forces largely outside our control, like globalization or improvements in technology. We have the ability to help restore competition and economic vibrancy in rural America and beyond. The government has the authority to ensure markets are once again open and competitive so that communities have a chance to shape their own economic destinies. The question is whether we will recognize the error of our ways and put taking on monopolies high on the economic agenda — for rural and small-town America, and for everyone who wants to ensure our country can once again be the land of opportunity.
Fallout from court ruling on fallowing scares some at OID
OAKDALE --How might losing a recent lawsuit affect all water sales contemplated by the Oakdale Irrigation District?
A sizable audience heard that question debated at Tuesday’s OID board meeting, the last held before a recall election for one board member concludes next week.
When a judge chastised OID for failing to do environmental studies related to its fallowing proposal, General Manager Steve Knell predicted dire consequences including having to spend much more money “on any project ... that has a potential to cause even the slightest of impacts.”
Attorney Tim O’Laughlin, who advises OID, also provided a written warning that the district could be sued if it moves forward with a March promise to sell some water to neighboring farmers just outside its boundaries.
Those are senseless overreactions, said those who won the fallowing lawsuit.
The judge had ruled that OID must study how shipping Stanislaus River water south of the San Joaquin Delta might affect the groundwater table here. Selling water to neighboring growers would only help the local water table, plaintiffs noted.
Besides, who would sue? No environmentalists or government agencies objected when OID first announced it would sell water to neighbors back in January 2016, and anyone hoping to sue should have done so before the statute of limitations expired in February 2016, said Osha Meserve, the attorney who won the fallowing lawsuit.
“I don’t think you’re vulnerable,” she told the board. “No one should be penalized because the district is not happy with the outcome (of the lawsuit).”
Audience member Jamie Coston accused OID of “fear mongering” and questioned whether it was prompted by politics.
Before Meserve spoke, O’Laughlin softened his recommendation to the board, saying chances of getting sued were “fairly small” and outweighed by benefits to local buyers. But the judge’s ruling points up the wisdom in the idea of a more holistic approach to OID’s outside water sales, he said.
OID for years has relied heavily on selling water to wealthy buyers elsewhere, although not this year. Whether contracting with the highest bidder, or selling to neighbors, or annexing neighbors, or freeing up water by fallowing farmland – all might be covered by an environmental impact report associated with a comprehensive, long-range action plan, O’Laughlin said.
“The issue isn’t going away,” O’Laughlin said. “You can’t continue to address out-of-district sales on an ad-hoc basis.”
If board member Linda Santos is recalled Tuesday, she would be replaced by Nate Ludlow, the only candidate who signed up. He had seized on the fallowing ruling as a campaign issue.
The OID board also approved new boundaries for voting divisions. The redistricting move does not protect Gary Osmundson’s seat when he moves to a new home in a few weeks, meaning the composition of the deeply divided board could change if Santos prevails in the recall. If she doesn’t, Ludlow is expected to help the old guard retain control.
Many Division 4 voters – mostly southeast of town – may already have voted by mail, as ballots were sent late last month. Those who don’t vote by mail can cast ballots before 8 p.m. Tuesday at Life Community Church, 105 E. G St. in Oakdale