Saturday, December 31, 2011

Communitarian-conservative blogger goes back to small town, gets write-up from big-time pundit

"They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community." That's how conservative columnist David Brooks, a pretty good sociologist, summed up the decision of conservative blogger Rod Dreher and his wife to return to St. Francisville, La., after they witnessed its outpouring of kindness for his sister, who did of cancer this year.

"They moved in just before Christmas," Brooks notes, linking to the blog post about the decision. Dreher's sister and mother "had a tradition of going to a nearby cemetery on Christmas Eve to put candles on all the graves," but her mom "was too sad to do it," Brooks reports in The New York Times. "But, as she was driving by the cemetery that night, she noticed little flames dotting the graveyard." A neighbor had filled the vacuum.

"Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and is part of a communitarian conservative tradition that goes back to thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet," Brooks writes. "Forty years ago, Kirk led one of the two great poles of conservatism. It existed in creative tension with the other great pole, Milton Friedman’s free-market philosophy. In recent decades, the communitarian conservatism has become less popular while the market conservatism dominates. But that doesn’t make Kirk’s insights into small towns, traditions and community any less true, as Rod Dreher so powerfully rediscovered." For The Rural Blog, it's a nice way to end 2011. (Read more)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Oversight panel says Postal Service used unreliable data to draw up post-office closure list

The Postal Regulatory Commission, which advises the U.S. Postal Service and Congress, said today that the service used questionable data to choose more than 3,600 post offices for possible closure. The PRC opinion is pretty dense, and the press release isn't much better, but Lisa Rein of The Washington Post sums it up nicely: "In many cases the selection process ignored whether an alternate post office was nearby and which closures would reduce costs the most and lacked sufficient data and analysis to make the best decisions."

“We certainly challenge their methodology,” Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway told the Post. “They had a simple screening process, but it did not optimize the choices. They don’t have really good data that tells them which post offices will continue to grow or be on a downhill path.” The commission said in its opinion that it could not "develop reliable cost-savings estimates because the Postal Service does not collect facility-specific revenue and cost data, or separate retail costs from other operational costs. The commission found that such data should be available for use in comprehensive facility closing plans."

Rein notes, "The opinion is not binding, but it carries weight with Congress, which has questioned whether so many closures are necessary. Lawmakers are worried about leaving too many constituents without mail service, especially in rural areas. Under pressure from Congress, the Postal Service earlier this month agreed to delay the proposed closures and consolidations until the spring in hopes that pending legislation to shore up the agency’s finances will pass."

The service said it was most likely to close rural post offices "that take in less than $27,000 in revenue each year and suburban and urban ones with less than $500,000," Rein reports. "But the oversight commission consulted economists and other experts who concluded that other factors should come into play: How many miles away is the nearest post office? Would closing deny service to large groups of customers, such as seniors, who would have trouble finding alternatives?" (Read more) The same concerns have been voiced at many public meetings held by USPS about possible closures of individual offices.

'Business as usual' by big energy company, hiding its leasing, angers Mich. farmers denied bonuses

An investigation by the Reuters news service has found that Chesapeake Energy Corp., the No. 2 natural-gas driller in the U.S., used shell companies to conceal its role in a big gas play in rural Northern Michigan, and has since voided the deals, leaving farmers without the bonuses they expected.

"Chesapeake's effort to hide its involvement isn't illegal," Joshua Schneyer and Brian Grow report for Reuters. "To the contrary, the company's maneuvering exemplifies how U.S. corporations routinely can conceal financial and corporate transactions through the use of shell companies. President Barack Obama has called on other nations to improve corporate transparency, but under state laws governing corporate formation in America, privately held businesses aren't required to disclose the individuals or companies who really own them."

Grow and Schneyer note that the Chesapeake website advises landowners that their "main consideration" in leasing should be "to discover who will ultimately be producing your minerals." However, "Chesapeake's strategy made that extremely difficult for the Michigan landowners," they note.

Joshua Fershee, a contract law professor at the University of North Dakota, told Reuters that Chesapeake's tactics "raise moral and ethical questions about how entities can be used," but John Lowe, a professor of energy law at Southern Methodist University, calls it "business as usual" in the oil and gas industry. If large companies are known to be interested in leasing, that tends to drive up lease prices. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Spokane paper has good take on troubles that may lie ahead for rural hospitals

Here's a good, localized look at the challenges facing rural hospitals all over the U.S., by John Stucke of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane: "Many of Eastern Washington’s small hospitals are bracing for cutbacks as federal and state governments look to save money.

"Consider Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Chewelah [pin on MapQuest image]: On any given day perhaps nine of its 25 patient beds are occupied. Two of those patients might have private insurance. One might not pay the medical bill. The rest will be covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

"And yet the hospital has made money in four of the past five years, in part because rural hospitals receive richer payments from government than larger urban hospitals to care for proportionally higher numbers of the poor, elderly and uninsured who populate rural America.

"It’s a bottom-line boost that has kept 38 hospitals in rural Washington afloat. But that extra money from Medicare and Medicaid is drawing the attention of budget cutters. If proposals to retool and scale back the payments are adopted, up to half of these hospitals could be closed within a matter of years, say administrators and policy analysts." (Read more)

Idealistic Southern farmers and chefs find synergy in reviving, retaining old and tasty foodways

South Carolina heritage hog farmer Emile DeFelice, right, is "part of a thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine," Julia Moskin reports for The New York Times. "They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience. Their work is being encouraged, and sponsored, by a new generation of chefs who have pushed Southern cooking into the vanguard of world cuisine — and who depend on these small producers to literally flesh out their ambitions." (Times photo by Kathryn Wagner)

Moskin says the synergy has high potential: "Like California in the 1970s — when Alice Waters collaborated with farmers, foragers and cheesemakers on the food at Chez Panisse — the South today has just the right combination of climate, culinary skill, regional chic and receptive audience." She says many Southern chefs are working along the same line as chef Sean Brock, from Wise County, Virginia, whose Charleston restaurant Husk " serves only food produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Georgia olive oil to Tennessee chocolate to capers made from locally foraged elderberries. . . . Perhaps most important, they are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients: money that is keeping food traditions, and small producers, alive."

Moskin notes, "The quest for 'real' Southern food isn’t new," citing the Southern Foodways Alliance and Slow Food USA. "Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel." DeFelice told her, "My mother didn’t cook like that, and my grandmother didn’t cook like that. And if you want to come down here and talk about shrimp and grits, well, we’re tired of that, too. Southern cooking is a lot more interesting than people think.” (Read more)