Michael McCormick Commentary: “One Community at a Time”

Hello, my name is Michael McCormick. I’m the Executive Director of The Livingston Food Pantry of Park County. After 30 years working in corporate America, and spending many summers fishing in Montana, I retired about 7 years ago and my wife and I moved to Livingston to be closer to the area’s great fishing and hiking opportunities. Everything was terrific for the first year, but then one day I realized that if the toughest decision I was going to make each day was whether or not I was going fishing… life was going to become pretty boring in a hurry. It was at the same time that I met the chairman of The Livingston Food Pantry’s board of directors who informed me that they were looking for a new director. The opportunity sounded like a chance to get involved in the community and help people in need, so, not having a moments worth of non-profit experience, I applied for the job.

I’ve been in the position for nearly four years now and it has been the most remarkable four years of my life… I quickly realized that in my prior “corporate life” I was cynical about providing assistance to people in need. If, at that time I had driven past a food pantry like ours in Livingston, I would have quickly dismissed the people waiting in line for emergency food assistance as being lazy and unmotivated and would have made some comment like “Go get a job.”
What I know now is that 99% of the people in the line are doing the best that they can with what they have to work with. They really do need assistance from those of us who are in positions to help.

I’ve learned that a community food pantry can be a remarkable tool for helping people in need… In addition to providing emergency food that helps people in the short term, food pantries can leverage the need to eat that we all share regardless of our economic situation, and design and implement programs that impact the lives and well being of people in need for the long term.

Every program that is implemented by The Livingston Food Pantry is designed to address a specific need that exists among the people we serve. The goal for each program is to help people eliminate the need to come to the food pantry in the first place. We know for instance that the primary cause for people needing The Livingston Food Pantry is unemployment. In an average month 55% of the people we serve are unemployed. Another 25% are employed, but are terribly underemployed, working minimum wage, hourly jobs. To address this issue of employment for example, we are designing and implementing courses in restaurant cooking to prepare people for jobs in the food service industry.

We recognize that most of the people who come to the food pantry are disenfranchised; they don’t participate in the community socially, economically, or politically.
In an effort to get people that we serve reengaged with the community, we started a community garden three summers ago. The primary goal was to give people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. At the same time we hoped that people would see that with some work and effort they could be productive, and in addition to beans and onions, we would be growing self confidence and self esteem. One of the best stories that have come from the garden involves a man who had been unemployed for a long period and had essentially given up hope of finding a job. When he started planting his plot, he was withdrawn and seemed to have little hope for the future. After proving to be a very good gardener and selling his excess produce at our weekly farmers market, his personality bloomed like the plants in the garden and he is now the manager of a retail store in Livingston.

What I have come to believe strongly is that community food pantries should play an active, leadership role in the development and support of sustainable, local food systems that serve all people in the community. Further, I believe that community food pantries, and all tax exempt public charities, should be required to define and help resolve the root causes that drive the needs they are serving. Like hunger, most challenges will be resolved one community at a time.

By accomplishing our goals in three areas: Caring for people in need; Supporting food related, local economic development: and, Educating people for the future, we can move toward our ultimate goal of helping people be successful, self sufficient, and not in need of emergency food provided by the pantry.

In Livingston I’m Michael McCormick for the Livingston Food Pantry and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org and have a wonderful holiday season.

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Julia Altemus Commentary: “A SEASON OF GOOD DEEDS DONE”

In the early 1940’s, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, hoping to spur holiday buying by adding a week to the season. Many Americans resisted the change to their traditional holiday, and when it had no effect on sales, Thanksgiving soon returned to the fourth Thursday of November, where it remains today. However, Thanksgiving Day came yearly this year, in fact on the earliest possible date on the calendar that it could have occurred.

That means we now are in the midst of the longest possible shopping season between “Black Friday”, “Cyber Monday” and Christmas. However, another – lesser known – special day was on the holiday calendar this year, but with an entirely different purpose. “Giving Tuesday”, a project by non-profit charitable groups, hoped to carve out a day encouraging Americans to turn their thoughts to the less fortunate and pledge gifts to worthy causes. Having debuted on November 27, “Giving Tuesday” has gathered momentum. Americans pledged more than $10 million, as well as volunteered time and donated goods to over 2,000 non-profit groups on that day. “Giving Tuesday” hopes to bring back attention to the deeper meaning for the season.

According to the Urban Institute, an estimated “2.3 million non-profit organizations operate in the United States, an increase of 24 percent from 2000. The non-profit sector contributed $805 billion to the U.S. economy in 2010, making up 5.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2010, public charities, the largest component of the non-profit sector, reported $1.5 trillion in revenue, and $2.7 trillion in assets. In 2011, private charitable contributions, which include giving to public charities and religious congregations, totaled $300 billion. In 2011, 27 percent of adults in the United States volunteered with an organization. Volunteers contributed 15 billion hours, worth an estimated $296 billion.”

These are staggering figures. Giving back to our community or helping a neighbor has long been an important part of our culture. Montanans reported giving on average 4 percent of their salary to charities in 2010, ranking us 23rd in the nation for charitable giving. Not bad for a state that consistently ranks 48th for annual adjusted gross income or gross domestic product.

For decades, Montana’s forest products industry, which includes corporate wood manufacturers, family-owned sawmill operations, logging contractors, log haulers and their employees, has helped provide local affordable housing, supported education efforts, the arts, culture, athletics, and youth programs. Just to name a few specifics, RY Timber donated $50,000 to the Townsend Hospital Foundation and the Montana Logging Association’s Log a Load for Kids raised over $300,000 since 1996 for the Shodair Children’s Hospital in Montana.

However, the fine print in the current fiscal debate proposes to once again cap or otherwise limit deductions in order to raise tax revenues. Concerned that special tax benefits offered as encouragement to give to charity might be significantly curtailed, a non-profit consortium met with the White House last week and “laid out their fears predicting lost revenues and abrogated programs, even if donations only dip at the margins.” At stake is the $300 billion that we donate to non-profits every year, at an annual cost to the government of $50 billion.

Both republicans and democrats say they want to maintain tax laws that encourage Americans to give money to non-profit groups. But with the White House looking to raise an additional $1.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years, and the republicans looking to raise $800 billion, there is growing bipartisan support for peeling back the 1917 federal tax code. If the benefit is repealed, who is going to pick up the slack? Certainly not the government.

There is no doubt that charities and politics certainly are not perfect together. However, the charitable deduction is the only deduction that directly impacts communities. So, one might argue that now is not the right time to divorce politics from charity. Instead, what we need most during this “crisis of confidence” in our congressional leaders is a season of good deeds done. We need a season to pause and cherish and acknowledge our own and all efforts that promote peace and goodwill.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus. Happy holidays and good giving.

Tom Power Commentary: “Creating an Economic Crisis for Political Purposes”

All eyes but few brains are focused on Washington, DC, where we are told the two political parties are again engaged in a dangerous game of chicken as we hurdle toward what has been described as a “fiscal cliff” that is now just 30 days away.
There are lots of ways of describing our current fiscal predicament, but it is certainly not some dangerous cliff. More accurate descriptive phrases might be “economic blackmail” or “political theater,” or the latest conservative attack on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal.
First, but not most important, we have to realize that there is no “cliff” over which we are about to tumble into economic destruction. As many observers have said, what we actually face is an economic “slope” that is not very steep. Tax rates might temporarily go up; cuts in spending might temporarily be made. All of that is reversible if we do not get purposely panicked, which, after all, is the political intent of those who created and maintain that imaginary “fiscal cliff.”
More important is the fact that the supposed fiscal crisis in which we find ourselves was purposely created as part of an extended economic blackmail aimed at eliminating most of the social programs created in response to the Great Depression eighty years ago. Those programs, including Social Security, later expanded to include Medicare, have been incredibly popular, for good reason: They, along with workplace pensions and medical insurance, lifted our seniors out of a concentrated pool of poverty into a modest middle class lifestyle.
“Free Marketeers,” of course, object to such public programs, no matter how successfully they have been. But, given their popularity, critics have found it difficult to launch an effective attack on them. The anti-government rightwing thinks it has created one now: namely the simple and powerful assertion that we cannot afford these social programs any longer. Social Security and Medicare, to critics, are not social insurance programs that people pay for across their lifetimes. Instead, they have been relabeled “entitlements,” implying that they are just foolish government giveaways.
But how does one convince Americans that we cannot afford the very same social programs all of the rest of the world’s developed nations have adopted?
A sense of impending crisis had to be created to dramatize our supposed poverty as a nation. The tool that was used was one of the routine votes that are taken every year to raise the total amount of public debt the federal government is allowed to incur. Congress has done this routinely for the entire 220 years we have operated under our Constitution. During war and peace, during depression and prosperity, our nation, like most businesses and households, has borrowed money to make investments, fight wars, and carry citizens through economic downtimes. This was not a corrupting or debilitating action. As our nation grew into the most durable, successful, and powerful economy on the planet, the federal government’s debt grew too.
That federal debt was not creating a crisis of any sort. During the world-wide Great Recession, even as our economy tittered on the edge of financial collapse because of reckless risk-taking on the part of Wall Street gamblers, investors, multi-national corporations, and other governments around the world chose the American dollar and U.S. Treasury bonds as the safest place to store their wealth.
But anti-government fanatics in our Congress decided to create a crisis by threatening not to allow the federal debt ceiling to be raised, effectively threatening to block the refinancing of existing federal debt or the issuing of new federal debt to fund the ongoing operations of the federal government, including its activities to support our citizens and businesses through the recession.
It was that political choice by anti-government ideologues that created a financial crisis where there was none. The government was having no trouble borrowing money. Interest rates were incredibly low. The rest of the world saw our federal debt as the most reliable investment available. But under our Constitution, Congress has to approve all federal borrowing. This created the perfect opportunity for economic blackmail: If you do not give us what we want, we will force the federal government into financial default even though there is no financial reason for such a default. The strategy was simple politically contrived economic blackmail.
The current supposed “fiscal cliff” came out of that political extortion. In return for raising the federal debt ceiling, the anti-government fringe demanded drastic cuts in the federal deficit. Those were written into the law that will take effect January 2nd. That is, the so-called fiscal cliff is a political artifact based on that earlier politically contrived stalemate over raising the federal debt ceiling.
Rather than being greeted with outraged at their irresponsible game of economic chicken that effectively holds the entire American economy hostage to the demands of a right-wing minority, there is a reasonable chance that the hostage-takers may succeed. All of the talk of a “Grand Bargain” to avoid going over the imaginary cliff, actually amounts to giving the anti-government ideologues what they most want: agreement that we can no longer afford Social Security and Medicare. Next up on the chopping block will be spending on education, unemployment insurance, federal environmental protection, regulation of Wall Street, union rights, etc.
This whole framing of our actual fiscal and economic situation is a fraud. The very policies that have undermined the middle class, brought the Great Recession down on us, and ballooned the federal deficit are now offered to us, without even a smirk or a smile, as the cure for what fiscally and economically ails us.
Rather than succumbing to the “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages begin to identify with the hostage-takers, it is time for us to face our economic blackmailers and call their bluff.
There is no “fiscal cliff” and there is no need for any “grand bargain”. It is time, again, to politically just say “no.”

Matt Elsaesser Commentary: “Recycle Montana”

This November fifteenth was the 15th annual “America Recycles Day,” a day to celebrate the community, environmental and economic benefits of recycling. America Recycles Day celebrations took place across Montana; in Shelby, Miles City, Helena, Lincoln, Missoula, and Dillon.

In Montana, there is much to celebrate this year. Both in our cities and rural communities, Montanans are beginning new efforts and partnerships to meet recycling’s new challenges. A 2004 study of recycling by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality found that recycling generated nearly ninety million dollars in revenue, paid over nine million dollars in wages and benefits, and sustained over 300 full-time jobs. Compared to more urban states, recycling can be more challenging in a rural state like Montana, which is further from traditional markets. However, communities across the state are finding ways to make recycling work.

This month in Lewistown, “Recycle Our Waste Lewistown,” or “R-O-W-L,” the St. James Episcopal Church Outreach Program, and community volunteers began a cooperative effort with Big Spring Market Co-op to bring plastics recycling to Central Montana. Weather permitting, ROWL now holds plastics drives on the third Saturday of the month for clear, type one bottles and type 2 translucent jugs. ROWL found partners and sponsors to acquire a generator, baler, trailer, and location to make the program possible.

Similar stories come from across the state. In Ravalli County, a recycling center has been reestablished through renewed volunteer participation. The community of Conrad now recycles cans through custom bins, including a metal cage, reusing grain sacks, and half of an old van converted into a trailer. Residents volunteer to take recycling to Great Falls when they head to town, which helps the program. This presents a “win-win,” as these residents are reimbursed for their fuel costs on those trips and the recycled materials escape the landfill. Eureka and other communities in Lincoln County have a new recycling centers and drop-off facilities.

A common theme in these success stories has been a community desire to recycle and to find creative ways to utilize community resources. We can all do our part to help these innovative efforts, not just by participating in their programs, but by doing our best to follow their guidelines. Recycling is a method of diverting material from the waste stream, and utilizing it in the economy with environmental benefit. The higher the quality control, the higher value the material recovered in the end, both environmentally and economically.

Some common rules of thumb are to always empty recyclable containers of their contents, always remove plastics lids, and give a quick rinse to items containing perishable items like milk.

Remember that your recycled materials are used to make new products. Contaminants increase the cost of separating recyclables at a processing facility and even render the product less valuable as a new resource. The environmental benefit realized when your recycling becomes a new product is possible because you preserve the value in your materials by properly sorting them.

There seem to be more and more recycling operations every year in Montana for traditional recycling materials such as cardboard, cans, and plastic. However, opportunities increase every year to recycle more specialized items such TV’s, cell phones, computers and their accessories, and rechargeable batteries. These items have high value due to the precious metals found in each, but take more handling to specifically recycle.

You can learn more about these success stories and recycling at RecycleMontana.org or by calling us at 406.461.9106. Recycle Montana, with community partners in the recycling industry, local government, and advocates across the state, is proud to take part in celebrating America Recycles Day’s 15th year in Montana and looks forward to continuing to advance accessible, effective recycling across our great state!

Matthew Elsaesser has worked in recycling for over a decade. He started his recycling work at Carroll College and since then as led an effort to expand Student Advocates for the Environment into a community effort in Helena. His now represents Recycle Montana’s statewide education and policy initiatives to increase recycling opportunities for all Montanans.

Tom Roberts Commentary: “Next Steps for Obamacare”

The re-election of Barak Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate, including our own Jon Tester, has obvious and major implications for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
There will of course be some holdouts, including our new state Attorney General, our federal representative and a variety of others who based at least part of their campaign on repealing this wide ranging law. It’s hard to not at least speculate about this profound and prolonged resistance to change. Does it come from some innate human tendency to put up with a bad system because of complacency? Are there existing financial rewards which will be compromised in a new system? Or is there some deeper mistrust and angst over having a black president with his approach to social fairness?
That our current health care system is broken in many ways should be beyond discussion. We spend twice as much money on health care as the next closest country in the world. Over 50 million people, one in six, do not have health insurance which means that they do not get the kind of health care that they deserve. We are totally alone among all first world countries and most second world countries in not making universal health coverage a basic component of our national agenda. We are last in the developed world for longevity, infant mortality, and preventable deaths. The evidence is profound, obvious, and unavoidable. Never the less, there is also the human tendency to rally for the home team. We’re the best, even when we’re clearly not.
Despite all this, people in the US have indeed spoken. Regardless of what our state legislators want, major changes are headed our way and they are coming soon. The federal government will be operating an exchange for Montana starting in 2014. Other states still have until the end of 2012 to make their own choice. Our legislators declined to address this issue in 2011 and won’t have another chance until 2013, so Montana cannot run its own.
The exchange will be a market place where individuals go to buy health insurance. Insurance companies that offer products on the exchange have to provide health insurance to everyone who buys it there. No one can be excluded because of any existing or future medical condition no matter how severe or costly this condition is. This change is almost too large to imagine, given where we are right now. Of course, this only works because everybody has to participate. It’s no longer going to be OK, except in severe economic circumstances, not to contribute at least something towards health insurance.
Individuals and families who now can’t afford health insurance, will be able to afford it by using the exchange. The federal government will pay a major portion of the cost of health insurance for those with lower incomes. Many of these are currently uninsured. But it won’t end there. Lots of people who are now insured through their employers will also be eligible for financial help when buying through the exchange. Businesses with less than 50 people can simply give their employees a little more money to buy a policy on the exchange. They can stop providing employee health insurance with no federal penalty. Businesses with more than 50 employees can do the same thing, but will have to pay something into the insurance pool. Each business will have to do its own calculations based on level of pay and number of employees. But the upshot is that many more than the currently uninsured are likely to be purchasing insurance through the exchange. They will be doing this as individuals and not as part of their place of employment.
Employer based health insurance is mostly a historical accident anyway. It’s beginning to look like this part of our current system is on the way out. Instead of the owner or a benefits manager making the decision, now the actual consumers will start having a choice about what kind of health insurance they want to buy. The health insurance policies offered on the exchange will be easy to compare in terms of cost and coverage. The insurance companies that provide the best coverage at the lowest cost are the ones who will prosper.
Of course, this means that the insurance companies will be asking doctors, hospitals, and others to provide medical care that is based on high quality and reasonable cost. Imagine that! A system that is based on efficiency and best outcomes. Maybe, just maybe we’ll eventually find ourselves in a society where everybody’s’ health and illness is addressed in an organized and thoughtful way. It shouldn’t be too much to expect, and it looks like we are finally on our way there.

Tom Roberts is a physician in Missoula

Glenn Oppel Commentary: “State Worker Pay”

In a year when most state legislatures were engaged in budgetary belt-tightening, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and public employee union representatives agreed to a pay plan package that would make any private sector worker envious. According to the agreement, each of the next two years state workers would receive both a five percent raise in pay and a 10 percent increase in the state contribution toward health insurance premiums. The price tag is estimated at $138 million.

After the pay plan agreement was reached, a local representative of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) argued that it was necessary to “bring us closer to being compensated fairly with those in the private sector.” Union representatives would have the public accept as conventional wisdom their caricature of the underpaid public employee, but the data suggest that public employees are actually compensated far more generously than their private sector counterparts.

Public sector unions have a vested interest in advancing the myth that they’re undercompensated, as it gives them more power at the bargaining table. But state analysts tasked with comparing public and private pay have been encouraging it as well. In June 2012, legislators on the Legislative Finance Committee received a report outlining the results of the State Human Resources Division’s biennial salary survey. Salary data culled for the survey is used to determine what the state calls the “market midpoint” of compensation for 750 occupations within state government. According to the salary survey, state workers are earning on average 13.3 percent less than the market midpoint.

The state analysts are far more likely to shoot straight than some union research shop, but their salary survey unfortunately suffers from a weakness in methodology. By relying on salary ranges for occupational categories, the state’s report has grossly oversimplified the compensation question. For instance, many positions in the public sector, such as correctional officers and fire fighters, have no private-sector equivalent. Additionally, employees within these categories are not interchangeable; some are more educated, some are older, some are more experienced. Comparing only occupational categories ignores all of this variation.

A final shortcoming in the salary survey is that it doesn’t include the value of employee benefits – health insurance, paid leave, pension, etc. – which make up a considerable portion of any worker’s compensation.

In sum, merely matching a state job to an occupational category will not yield apples-to-apples comparisons with private sector occupations and compensation. This is an argument that both conservative and liberal analysts have agreed upon when analyzing compensation in the public and private sector.

To facilitate a more accurate comparison, the Montana Policy Institute has released a report that uses the “human capital” approach to achieve apples-to-apples comparisons between public and private sector pay. Our report starts by using government data to compare public and private employees of similar personal and professional characteristics. For instance, instead of comparing pay in broad occupational categories, we compare public and private employees of similar work experience, education, gender, race, and disability status. Additionally, we calculate the annual compensation value of fringe benefits on top of annual wages, including pension, paid leave, and health insurance (including retiree health).

The results of the analysis are telling. Whereas the state’s salary survey concludes that that average state employee is earning 13.3 percent less than the market midpoint, our report shows that after adjusting for age, work experience, education, gender, race, and disability status, state and local public employees are in a statistical dead-heat with their private sector counterparts in terms of take-home pay. Where state and local public employees surpass private sector workers in total annual compensation is from their various fringe benefits. When compensation from fringe benefits is factored in, state and local public employees earn nearly 15.4 percent more in total annual compensation than comparable private sector workers.

Last session, lawmakers didn’t enact the previously-negotiated pay plan, citing concerns over revenue forecasts and challenges faced by private sector workers. With fiscal analysts projecting a $457 million surplus, union representatives will lobby vociferously this coming session for some follow through from legislators. Half a billion dollars seems like a lot of extra money, but our fiscal house is not exactly in order. As the Montana Policy Institute details in another study on Montana’s budget, there are long-term structural deficits that could break the bank in the near future, including unfunded liabilities of $3.8 billion in its pension programs for state workers and teachers.

This fiscal sleeping giant, and others, should be priority number one for lawmakers, and true solutions could easily consume whatever surplus materializes.

Glenn Oppel is the Director of the Montana Policy Institute

Dan Smith Commentary: “CyberSecurity: The New Frontier”

About four years ago, I was checking my e-mail while on vacation. As often happens, I was rapidly moving through the dozens of e-mails lodged in my inbox, when I hit on an important message from Hotmail. It said that my e-mail account was in danger of being compromised because of my weak password. The advice – change my password immediately. After requesting specific information, there was a seemingly innocuous question: “Current password?” Foolishly, I filled in my current password – and, then, it hit me! My e-mail had indeed been compromised – my internet identity stolen. I felt personally violated. All of my credit cards had to be cancelled and re-issued. Every one of my contacts received an e-mail within minutes requesting that each send $3,500 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as I was ostensibly stranded in the airport where my wallet and passport had been stolen and I had no way of returning to Montana without an infusion of cash from my friends. How profoundly embarrassing!

Perhaps you or one of your friends or family members have experienced something similar – identity theft in cyberspace. Through simple inattention, you have bypassed the security software and firewalls intended to protect your identity.

Now project that insecurity on a world-wide screen that could affect the identity – life and livelihood of more than seven billion people, indeed the welfare of the planet through manipulation of cyberspace. Cyberspace is the domain of global digital electronic communications. It is far broader than the internet. It includes the entire spectrum of networked information and communications systems world-wide. Cyberspace permeates all aspects of human society, virtually every aspect of political, economic, cultural and social life is premised on the flow of information through cyberspace.

Ronald Deibert, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and Director of the OpenNet Initiative, has written extensively on cybersecurity. In a
recent article on “Cybersecurity: the New Frontier” in the foreign policy journal, Great Decisions, he outlines key issues we need to consider. According to Deibert “Cyberspace is entering a period of intense contestation and potential chaos, as a multitude of different actors (states, civil society, businesses, militant and organized criminal groups ) struggle to shape the domain to their strategic interests. Many governments are now grappling with a wide range of new threats that have emerged including cybercrime, espionage and warfare.” Indeed “The transformation of the domain of cyberspace into a matter of national security is perhaps the most important force shaping global communications today.” Today’s news sources are replete with instances of critical disruptions of global transportation, finance, defense, telecommunications and social media systems that affect the lives of multi-millions of people.

At its core is the global challenge to find a way out of the chaos of cyber insecurity. Deibert raises the following suggestions: “ In the formulation of cyberspace policy two major issues collide: the practical necessity of securing cyberspace to preserve public confidence ( which extends to policing, commercial viability, and national security), and the preservation of openness as a global public good that is in line with the norms of liberal democratic societies. How should these competing challenges be balanced?

Further, “Who should govern cyberspace? Should international efforts be conducted by governments in a centralized, multilateral body – possible under the auspices of the UN? What are the barriers to international cooperation on efforts to combat cybercrime and to regulate other activity in cyberspace?”

Beyond the immediate concern for the security of our own identity in cyberspace, we need to stay tuned to the unfolding answers to these questions which might affect the common future of the human race.