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South Dakota’s socialist experiment

The last couple months revealed a gap in my education: South Dakota history. Granted, I know the basics — the Homestead Act, sod homes, Indian tribes and treaties, the railroads, agriculture, the Dirty Thirties, meatpacking, credit cards. But I’ve never had a South Dakota history course and it became apparent when I learned South Dakota toyed with what most would consider socialism.

This fall I was reviewing materials in the Peter Norbeck papers in the State Archives. I realized I didn’t know much about Norbeck, governor from 1917 through 1921 and U.S. Senator from 1921 to 1936, so I bought a copy of his biography. While Norbeck was a Republican like all but one of the prior governors, I was shocked by his political views and legislative accomplishments as governor.

Norbeck was a Republican a la Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. “Trust buster” Roosevelt’s support for progressive reform grew during his presidential term (1901-09). About 18 months after leaving office, Roosevelt gave the so-called “New Nationalism” speech. In it, he observed that lack of government restraints helped “create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” He said such fortunes should be allowed “only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.” Within two years, he split from the Republican Party to form and run as the presidential candidate of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party. La Follette would form a new Progressive Party and be its presidential candidate 12 years later.

Peter Norbeck

Peter Norbeck

Although Norbeck always was a Republican, he certainly wouldn’t be considered one today. The 1917 legislative session, the first of his gubernatorial terms, reflects his progressivism.

That legislature proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the state to own and operate “proper business enterprises” and to own stock in corporations. Other proposed constitutional amendments embraced state ownership of specific types of businesses: hydroelectric plants, coal mines, a cement plant, hail insurance, grain elevators and warehouses, and flour and meat-packing businesses. Norbeck supported all of them, although he was admittedly lukewarm on the grain, flour and meat-packing enterprises. Even prior to becoming governor, Norbeck promoted creation of a state rural credits system. He largely wrote the law passed in 1917. It allowed a Rural Credits Board to borrow funds on state credit and then, using real estate mortgages as security, make direct loans to farmers at interest rates of no more than five percent.

Norbeck’s support for direct state involvement in the economy is clear. As noted in a book on South Dakota leaders, his actions were “a shift in South Dakota politics to the ideological left[.]” The shift was such that voters approved all of the constitutional amendments in the 1918 election. (Although a workers’ compensation act also passed in 1917, not all the days’ popular ideas look good today. Thanks to the growing eugenics movement, the legislature also passed a bill “for the Prevention of the Procreation of Idiots, Imbeciles and Feeble-Minded Persons.” It allowed the state’s “Home for Feeble-Minded persons” to determine whether residents should be allowed to “procreate.” If not, they would be sterilized.)

A 1918 Norbeck campaign pamphlet reflects his accord with Roosevelt’s ideas. Norbeck argued that the state being in certain areas of business wasn’t socialism. “Where men attempt to extort an unreasonable profit,” Norbeck wrote, “it is the business of government to step in and regulate it and where the regulation can be best had by government ownership and operation, this plan should be adopted.”

In addition to the rural credits system South Dakota would have a state hail insurance program, would buy a coal mine (located, ironically, in North Dakota) and toke steps toward a state cement plant, which began production in late 1924. Norbeck embarked on a massive road construction program and the state funded a survey of possible hydroelectric dam sites on the Missouri River — nearly 30 years before the Pick-Sloan Plan would lead to federal construction of Missouri River dams.

The thought of a Republican governor advocating government business ownership is beyond imagination today. Ultimately, though, only the cement plant, sold at the end of 2000, was a success. Due in part to malfeasance by its treasurer and an agricultural depression after World War I, the rural credits system was shut down after 6½ years. By then, it had loaned $45 million and borrowed $47.5 million. When finally liquidated, it cost taxpayers $57 million.

The state bought the coal mine for a total investment of $185,000 (approximately $2.6 million today). It was sold in the midst of the Depression for only $5,500, although that disregards what state institutions saved buying coal below market rates. The hail insurance program was abolished in 1933. The state ultimately paid just under $279,000 in debt ($4.7 million today), although backers claimed farmers saved $7.5 million in insurance premiums between 1919 and 1929.

I can’t help but wonder if these expensive failures helped lock South Dakota Republicans and politics into conservatism. Legislators and the public felt burned and it was easy to condemn analogous ideas by saying, “Not only is this socialism, look what it cost!” It certainly discredited progressivism in the party that enacted Norbeck’s programs and which dominates state government to this day.

“In spite of his flirtation with state socialism while he was governor, [Norbeck] never embraced its basic theories and strongly opposed ‘radicalism,'” writes his biographer. Norbeck’s actions can speak for themselves. But who today would believe South Dakota dabbled with state socialism while Republicans held the governorship and more than a two-thirds majority in each house of the legislature? It boggles the mind.


Actually [Norbeck] was a New Dealer before Franklin Roosevelt’s era.

Gilbert Fite, Peter Norbeck: Prairie Statesman

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It’s Bookmas season

As my kids have told me for years, I’m a hard person to buy presents for. That’s in part due to my varying and often eclectic tastes. But a bigger reason is that for items that are probably $50 or less, I have no hesitancy in buying the things in which I’m most interested. That makes Christmas season dangerous.

booksIn ensuring I’m getting the “gifts” I want, I tend to binge a bit and doing virtually all my shopping online makes it a bit too easy. Not surprisingly, my greatest indulgence comes with books. The accompanying picture reflects the reading gifts to myself purchase on Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year. It’s probably typical, if not slightly below average.

The stack reflects a couple History Book Club sales and the balance came from a couple discount codes Amazon offered. While these will keep me occupied for a good chunk of the winter, I’m sure there will be some more online deals before Christmas arrives. Moreover, I haven’t been to the local B&N with the discount and gift cards I have.

I love Bookmas.


Books as physical objects matter to me … because i find their presence emotionally enriching.

Joe Queenan, One for the Books

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The day 343 was my lucky number

I recently finished an oral history of the period from August 1969 through September 1970, one of the most tumultuous of 20th century America. The first chapter dealt with the draft and the draft resistance movement and, as would be expected, the Vietnam war infused the other topics in the book, which I recommend reading. It brought to mind a particular day of my freshman year of college.

For those too young to remember, in December 1969 the Selective Service System began conducting lotteries to determine the order in which draft-eligible men would be called to report for possible military induction. It was the first such lottery since 1942. That day, 366 slips of paper containing birth dates were placed in plastic capsules and drawn individually by hand from a water-cooler size glass bowl. The order of selection was the order in which draft calls would be made for all men born from 1944 to 1950.

I actually was in the last draft lottery on March 12, 1975. By then, it was more randomized. A date would be pulled from one large rotatable bin and a number from 1 to 366 would be pulled from a second. Thus, the order in which the dates were drawn didn’t affect the resulting draft number.

It would be easy to think there was no reason to worry about the draft then. The last draft call had been December 7, 1972, and the last American combat soldiers left South Vietnam in March 1973. But in January 1975 the North Vietnamese started a major offensive and by March 1 the South Vietnamese Army had suffered massive losses and was in full retreat. Whether justified or not, my peers and I began wondering if Washington would think it necessary to go back into the fray. While that didn’t occur, all we knew on that March 12 was that things were quickly going to hell in South Vietnam (in fact, Saigon would fall on April 30).

Given there was no internet, no 24-hour news cycle and the lottery wasn’t a central concern in the country, finding the draft numbers took some effort. I don’t recall exactly how we found out but my lottery number was 343, meaning that even if the U.S. foolishly re-entered Vietnam, there was zero chance I would be drafted. To the best of my recollection, my roommate’s draft number was over 200, also a safe place. We actually threw a party in our dorm room to celebrate.

Fortunately, the lottery wasn’t a life-changing event. And criticism that the lack of a draft skews the socioeconomic makeup of our military and overburdens the National Guard has some validity. Yet it’s something I still and will always remember. I am perhaps more thrilled I wasn’t born six years earlier. In that December 1, 1969, lottery, the first date drawn was my birthday.


A “just war” – if there could be such a thing – would not require conscription. Volunteers would be plentiful.

Ben Salmon, “Open Letter to President Wilson

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Oppose, resist and dissent

Damn it to hell. It’s happening already. The media is trying to normalize Trump. They say “give him a chance” or that he’s already moderating his positions.

Bullshit. The reality is America is giving control of the country to a misogynist, racist, irrational, bullying, pathological liar. And, of course, he’s already appointed an alt-right conspiracy theorist as his “chief strategist and senior counselor.”

trump-hateLook, I HATED Richard Nixon. I HATED Dubya. But Trump scares me shitless. This is a guy whose insistence on shooting off his mouth, usually with made up facts, was beyond the control of his campaign advisors and whose main interest seems to be retribution against anyone who challenges or irritates him. Just the kind of guy you want dealing with crisis situations. And even if Trump were to resign immediately after being sworn in, he’d need to fire Mike Pence first because although Pence makes a better appearance he is, believe it or not, just as bad, if not worse.

My slight glimmer of hope is that Trump’s election will galvanize the wide array of people he’s attacked — women, LGBT, minorities, Muslims, immigrants, etc. — and a united dissident movement will emerge to protest and challenge him, his policies and his hatred. I’ve stayed away from politics for years. But this man is a threat to my family, America and the world. I will do everything I can to resist and oppose him and, hopefully, an organization of like-minded people will come to fruition in this area.


How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

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Are we being played?

Most people I know agree that Donald Trump is a political nightmare. I long thought the GOP planned to block him at the convention, but I think the primary structure ended that before it could get off the ground. But are we now seeing that goal achieved by a Republican October surprise on its own candidate?

Think about it. Trump’s tax records were leaked just three days before the first debate. Rumors have been flying that the leak came from the Trump camp. But godawful “brangelina” pushed it out of the news and Trump went about shooting himself in the foot over Miss Universe so it didn’t have as much long-lasting weight as might have been expected, even though Hillary scored some points with it.

Yet Trump’s ensuing Twitter tirades and fixation with Miss Universe may have created a new opening for GOP loyalists. Again, just days before a dedate, a tape appears of Trump wanting to jump an entertainment reporter’s bones and explaining his “style” with women (you know, kiss ’em when you want and grab their vagina). In almost record-breaking time, mainstream Republicans abandon ship and call for Trump to leave the ticket, even in South Dakota.

Now consider that Mike Pence is perceived to have done well at the vice presidential debate. Debasing Trump to the point the GOP can force him off the ticket would allow Pence to come to the rescue on a white horse. Chances are many Republicans who wouldn’t have voted for Trump now will check that box on their ballot, as well as the thousands who currently view Hillary as the lesser of two evils.

I know this sounds highly conspiratorial but if my idle speculation is right, watch out. People know little about Pence. So here’s just a few tidbits.

Pence’s record from his 12 years in the U.S. House “reveals scant tangible achievements.” Rather, he “saw his role much more as being a super-magnet trying to pull his party and policy away from the center and toward the right.”

At the beginning of his speech at the Republican National Convention, Pence told everyone he was, above all else, a Christian, an evangelical one to be precise. Now I don’t care if someone is religious, but when it’s going to dictate national policy, it’s a major problem. And his religion clearly dictates his policies:

  • Earlier this year, Pence signed a bill with a laundry list of abortion restrictions, including requiring the remains of miscarried or aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated. As governor, he also funneled $3.5 million of the state’s assistance program for needy families with children to crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel women against having abortions. And in Congress he worked to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood and to end tax breaks for insurance providers that cover abortion.
  • In 2015, he signed a bill allowing Indiana business owners to cite religious beliefs as a reason to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers. When running for Congress, his campaign website not only opposed gay marriage and discrimination protection for gays, he wanted public money to be used for conversion therapy, a discredited form of anti-gay therapy.
  • As a congressman he gave a speech denying evolution and calling for teaching creationism in schools.

As the latter indicates, science evidently befuddles Pence. He’s a climate change denier, voted against almost all environmental legislation and, in fact, wrote on his congressional campaign website, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”

So my cynical prediction is the latest imbroglio over Trump is simply a step in playing the American people to put a fundamentalist Christian in the White House without most voters realizing it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to polish my tin foil hat.


Now, I’m not into conspiracy theories, except the ones that are true or involve dentists.

Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country?

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Get off my dead trees!

Last week, a college friend and I got together for coffee. During the course of about two hours, we noticed several times we had reached the “you kids get off my lawn!” age. As he, too, is a former newspaper reporter, one of those times was our discussion of the newspaper business and the number of people we knew who had been subject to staff layoffs, buyouts or cuts in staff overall. As serendipity will do, the next day I saw a piece at Columbia Journalism Review that reinforced how dramatically newsroom ranks have been decimated.

In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, “In June 1990, there were nearly 458,000 people employed in the newspaper publishing industry; by March 2016, that figure had fallen to about 183,000, a decline of almost 60 percent.” The BLS noted that employment in Internet publishing and broadcasting increased from 29,700 to nearly 198,000 during that same period. Note that these figures are for all sorts of jobs in newspaper publishing. Thus, the CJR article observed that that growth in online publishing “pales in comparison to the number of journalists laid off in the newspaper industry. And in recent years, the number of journalists at digital-only publishers seems to have actually plateaued.”

When it comes just to news professionals at daily newspapers, the journalism industry long looked to an annual survey by the American Society of News Editors. ASNE’s 2015 survey reported that those employed in news functions at daily newspapers declined from 56,900 in 1990 to 32,900 in 2015, a drop of 42%. Notably, ASNE has stopped estimating the number of journalists working in newsrooms because “the structure of modern newsrooms makes it impractical and error-prone to try to estimate the number of working journalists.” I guess that can happen when an editor becomes a “content strategist,” a reporter an “audience analyst” and a photographer a “consumer experience director.”

While today’s technology may make this sound like lamenting the loss of telegraph operators, there are real world consequences. For example, the number of full-time statehouse reporters working for newspapers dropped 35% between 2003 and 2014. As one observer noted, that means “[t]he public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”

Moreover, as of 2014, 20% of all reporting jobs in the country were in DC, LA or New York. This means that citizens outside of these areas — in other words, more than 90% of the population — “have fewer reporters acting as local watchdogs.” “For the first time in American history, we are nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation’s size) dedicated to reporting the news.”

I, though, look as much at the human cost as the high-minded ideas. Various commentators have noted that amidst all this “remarkably little attention has been paid to the plight of individual journalists.” As another commentator noted earlier this year, “the tale of today’s discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes.” Yes, plenty of people feel discarded today.

While not a Luddite, I am a grumpy old man when it comes to the “good old days” of journalism. After all, it would certainly come in handy in an “news” environment populated by ideological websites and social media.


Real journalism can always be identified by the way it makes normal people sometimes feel very uncomfortable about the world.

Charles M. Madigan, “The problem with today’s ‘journalism'”

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