Ending Net Neutrality: A Primer

Net neutrality is the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all service consumer equally, regardless of bandwidth use. Currently, consumers and website creators buy access to the Internet at the same rate regardless of use. But, that could change.

Instead of allowing Minnesota 2020 or online retailing giant Amazon to be accessed at the same speed, the proposed tiered system could deliver Amazon to you at a faster speed than Minnesota 2020, simply because Amazon was able to pay your specific ISP (such as Comcast or Time-Warner Cable) more money for its bits to load faster.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing a rule to “protect and promote the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission, and thereby to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability and remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” The FCC has extended a public comment period on the issue of classifying ISPs as common carriers, so anyone (including you) can leave a comment on their website.

ISPs dislike this rule, because it treats them as common carriers. Common carriers (including buses, trains and cargo ships) cannot refuse or limit service to any user, since the service they provide can be accessed simply for a fee.

Classifying ISPs as common carriers is in the public’s interest because it ensures that anti-trust laws against monopolies are enforced and that the Internet maintains its status as a level playing field. Without this classification, ISPs could refuse to build high speed internet infrastructure in rural areas because they will not be turning an acceptable profit.

To put it simply, net neutrality is one of the most important undiscussed public policy issues. In subsequent posts, I will explain the specific implications that the loss of net neutrality could have in many different sectors that impact Minnesotans’ daily lives. There's much to think about it.

For additional introductions to the complex issue of net neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Communication  Technology 

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs Reports for Clearwater County, Rural Minnesota

The Minnesota county with the highest unemployment rate in June also saw the greatest month-to-month improvement among Minnesota's 87 counties.

Clearwater County, in northwest Minnesota, had a full one percent drop in the official unemployment rate from May with unemployment falling to 9.5 percent in June from 10.5 percent in May and and from a painfully high 14 percent as recent as April.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) released June unemployment data for counties on Tuesday, July 22. Statewide, Minnesota is among the Top Ten states for low unemployment, at 4.5 percent, but the extremes of both high and low unemployment continue to be localized in counties far from the Twin Cities metro area.

Tom Burford, manager of the Farmers Publishing Co. community cooperative and editor of its Farmers Independent newspaper at Bagley, said he suspects the statistical improvement in the county unemployment rate reflects a return to more "normal" employment in June. "We really had awful spring weather," he said.

A few firms, such as component parts engineering and manufacturing company Team Industries at Bagley, have added jobs, he said. At the same time, no new factories or new businesses have opened in the county and started hiring in June.

Clay County is the Minnesota side of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. It had the lowest unemployment rates in June at 2.8 percent. Stevens County, which had a statewide low of 2.6 percent unemployment rate in May, had its June rate bump to 3.0 percent.

The Canadian border county of Koochiching, meanwhile, saw June unemployment increase a tick to 9.2 percent, from 9.1percent in May, to join Clearwater County on the high end of the unemployment list.

Except for Clay, statistical measures of employment and unemployment are influenced by thin numbers in demographic information in several rural counties. Clearwater County, with five incorporated cities that are all small towns, had only 8,695 residents in the 2010 Census. County seat Bagley, the county's largest city, had a population of 1,392.

As Burford noted, it doesn't take a huge number of jobs gained or lost to impact the unemployment rate in densely populated counties. Going forward, however, it will take jobs creation and higher paying jobs to lift people out of poverty and get unemployed people back into the jobs market.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Unemployment  Rural Minnesota 

Community Collaboration Helps Shape Policy

Public policy shapes and regulates our country, states, and municipalities but it can also strengthen and empower communities. Unfortunately, policy is too often created without enough (or any) input from those it affects. To change this typical top-down implementation framework, communities must organize their members to help fight for policies that they, collectively, are passionate about and will benefit from.

The Twin Cities Labor Chorus at the East Side Freedom Library

Minnesota is home to many unique communities—towns, neighborhoods, cultural communities, and others—that each face their own obstacles when trying to bring people together. Some communities experience large variation in ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, and languages, and these differences should be celebrated. While such celebration doesn’t always come easily, one way to help connect people is by sharing personal narratives, which help people empathize and create movements that win the policies that can help all different members.

My recent tour of the East Side Freedom Library opened my eyes to the necessity of community ties and collaboration. Formerly the community's St Paul branch library, one of three historic Carnegie libraries, it has been reinvented as a community space where members of the community can share their stories and research the area’s rich history. Peter Rachleff, the president and project visionary, shared with me his ideas of the many ways (plays, paintings, sculpture, readings, etc) people could tell their stories.

This combination of storytelling and historical research helps neighbors connect with and understand those around them, despite any barriers. These established connections can lead to further discussions and understanding, helping a group of people come together because of their differences to help change things for the better.

This type of hyper-localized community building is just one of many examples around the state. Others include: community centers run by local parks and rec boards and resident volunteers, schools that directly involve parents in their children’s education, and community gardens.

Too often people become disconnected from their neighbors, their town, or their city, and what they need is a connecting force or institution to bring them together. Public policy that builds these connections creates a feedback loop, empowering people to take control and shape future policies that affect their communities. We should expect more public policy to make stronger and more supportive communities where hopefully all people, no matter their differences, will benefit and thrive.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Libraries  Progressive Community 

Climate Change as an Economic Threat

Last Thursday, Governor Dayton charged Minnesota to eliminate coal from the state’s energy production. This aspiration is not only rooted in environmental concern; climate change poses a serious economic threat to the state. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the smartest business strategy to lessen the risk.

The Midwest faces a daunting financial future if we do not shrink our carbon footprint. According to a June report by The Risky Business Project, midwest agriculture is especially vulnerable. If no progress is made to slow rising temperatures, the entire region could face a decline of up to 63% in its crop yield by the end of the century.

Farmers can accommodate climate change with strategies like double-and-triple cropping, crop rotation, and seed modification but these adaptations come at a high price. Shifting new crops requires expensive new equipment and expertise which often impose economic losses.

Climate change could move agricultural business away from the Midwest to the Upper Great Plains, Northwest, and Canada. “This shift could put individual Midwest farmers and farm communities at risk if production moves to cooler climates,” the report warns.

As greenhouse gases accumulate, heat and humidity threaten Minnesota’s public health and economy. When temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher pair with high humidity, the danger of heat stroke and death increases. Research shows that from 2020 to 2039, Minnesota could see between 3 to 7 days every year with such dangerous temperatures and humidity levels.

With hotter conditions, labor productivity for outdoor workers will plummet. Demand for electricity to fuel air conditioning will increase, and costs for residential and commercial consumers will skyrocket.

By understanding the economic consequences of climate change, businesses and governments can integrate climate-related risks into their decisions on capital expenditures and infrastructure projects.

Governor Dayton’s action against unsustainable energy portrays the sentiment that must be adopted by all policymakers and business owners in order to mitigate climate change. Our economy depends on it.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Economic Growth  Climate Change 

Decline in Hunting Permits Shows Shifting Leisure Trends

The romantic image of the hunter in Minnesota’s popular culture will continue to hold substantial weight with many Minnesotans. However, this image is becoming increasingly inaccurate. From our history as a leader in the fur trapping industry during the 18th and 19th centuries to annual expeditions for the November deer hunting season opener, Minnesotan’s relationship with hunting can be described as quixotic at best. We're not hunting nearly as much as we thought we were.

In the 12 years of data available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources there has been a marked stagnation in hunting and fishing licenses. The hunting license numbers remain at 2000 levels, despite state population growth, but with one significant difference. In 2000, only 400,000 hunting licenses were sold within the two weeks prior to the Deer Opener, whereas in 2011, nearly 550,000 of all licenses sold were.

This 5% increase in late licensure is indicative of the fact that fewer hunters are buying either life-time permits or permits for the entire season. That's a not insignificant pattern shift.

Licensed lifetime hunters and trappers number around 600,000 in Minnesota which only makes up 24% of the total licenses in a given year. These two data points suggest that deer hunting as a leisure activity, frequently indentified as male-dominated and time-consuming, is declining in popularity.

There are many factors contributing to this decline, including more women than ever in the workplace and the increased shared responsibility of parenting by both men and women in families. What these factors point to is, in fact, a shift in the general culture around hunting in Minnesota. Non-family, time-consuming activities seem to be experiencing declining participation.

Hunting is an increasingly time luxurious activity. Many people do not have the time or drive to spend multiple weekends a month apart from their families. But, hunting isn't the only leisure activity affected by work-life changes. Golf's popularity has been waning for the same basic reasons.

But what does declining hunting interest mean for Minnesota? It means that we are evolving and changing as a state. Leisure and recreational activities remain important but particular expressions won't remain constant. Lost licensing revenue and declining interest in hunting can and should prompt policy priority reflection. Growing demand must be accomodated just as decline must be recognized. Hunting isn't going away but it doesn't command the same attention that it once did. That's normal. Minnesota's policy planning response should be normal as well.

Posted in Economic Development

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The Power of the Digital Economy

Minnesota’s economy has the potential to be more efficient, accessible, and resilient, thanks to our head start in implementing new technology statewide.

Minnesota ranks second place in the U.S. digital economy score, according to The 2014 State New Economy Index. As employees, civilians, and voters, it is vital for Minnesotans to understand the value of a successful digital economy so the state can expedite more improvements.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) measured four aspects of the digital economy. The first weighs the usage of digital technologies in state government. Technological adaption fosters government productivity with resources like cloud computing, data analytics, kiosks, and mobile apps.

Governments that lack digital accommodations often struggle with administrative obstacles that frustrate and alienate the public. E-government enhances civilian accessibility to legal services with quick, easy methods for tasks like paying fees and taxes, renewing licenses, and submitting requests or complaints.

The report shares that state governments should aim for “breaking down bureaucratic barriers to create functionally oriented, citizen-centered government Web presences designed to give citizens a self-service government.”

By shrinking wait time and allowing citizens to deal with legal matters from their laptops or smart phones, digital innovation breeds more active interaction with government. This relationship leads to better representation of diverse populations and their needs, in addition to a stronger sense of trust, responsibility, and cooperation between the people and their leaders.

Online agriculture is another component of a digital economy. Farmers who use the Internet and computers for business consistently outperform those who do not.

The third factor in Minnesota’s top-rated digital economy is its widespread broadband adoption. Broadband access allows e-commerce to flourish, and it enables distance education, data transmission, community dialogue, and business communication.

Minnesota especially excels in the study’s healthcare IT ranking, which calculates the share of electronic prescriptions and health records. In 2011, Minnesota was the first state to enact a mandate encouraging e-prescriptions. 

Digitalized prescriptions and records cut costs and improve efficiency, but the future of health IT could also lead to video conferences with doctors, better access to specialists, and remote diagnoses if we continue to prioritize technological improvements in healthcare.

Minnesota must enhance financial incentives for innovation, support higher education, and strengthen entrepreneurial support to maintain the state’s progressive, accessible use of technology in business and government.

As a national leader in the digital economy, Minnesota is already strides ahead. But as our surroundings keep evolving, so must our efforts for further advancements.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Business Growth  Technology 

A Case for Urban Ecosystems: What is a Biophilic City?

The term “concrete jungle” could soon take on a whole new meaning. Hoping to transform urban centers into abundant ecosystems, a recent push for Biophilic cities spreads around the globe. Minnesota still has time to join in.

A Biophilic city is a place where plants, animals, and people can thrive together in a dense, nature-rich, urban metropolis. The concept harmonizes biodiversity with daily city life.

The idea stems from “Biophilia,” a theory by E.O. Wilson that argues for “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

Biophilic cities do a lot more than protect plants and animals. Evidence shows that interaction with nature reduces stress levels, aids healthy recoveries, enhances creativity, boosts mood, and even makes us more generous.

Tim Beatley, a University of Virginia professor, asserts that meaningful lives require nature. “The qualities of wonder and fascination, the ability to nurture deep personal connection and involvement, [and] engagement in something larger than oneself, offer the potential for meaning in life few other things can provide,” he writes.

Most of the world’s population lives in cities. But our landscape of skyscrapers, highways, and parking lots does not mean we have to miss out on nature’s benefits.

In fact, cities are more suitable for environmental growth than one might expect. A recent study by the University of California-Santa Barbara observed that urban green spaces provide refuge for native plants, migrating animals, and endangered species.

Members of the Biophilic Cities Network are already making progress. Singapore sports the world’s largest vertical garden with green walls and rooftops. An unprecedented urban orchard project is underway in Seattle. Oslo’s public transit connects a network of urban forest trails. Green streets in Portland clean rainwater, and San Francisco creates urban oases with small parklets.

Urban dwellers should hear the chirps of birds and insects, smell the aroma of native flora, and see the growth of animal habitats—all during a daily stroll or bike ride downtown.

We must reach beyond conventional parks, solar panels, and landscaping. Biophilic cities take advantage of roofs, patios, balconies, and waterfronts to yield a dense integration of nature in urban space.

Minnesota has taken huge strides in sustainability, but we can still further our metropolitan relationship with nature. It is time to redefine our understanding of cities as budding potential for urban ecosystems.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Environment  Minnesota Cities 

Water knee high by the Fourth of July

The Minnesota office of USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) issed its weekly crop-weather report for the last week of June on Monday and it tells us a lot more about Minnesota weather than it does about crops.

Agricultural market watchers and rural economics observers caution that the real condition of Minnesota farm crops will become more evident in mid-July. That's when farmers have filled out federal crop insurance forms revealing how many fields didn't get planted, how many acres were flooded out, killing the early planted crops, and what the farmers are doing to cope with soggy fields.

That cautionary message aside, the NASS report clearly shows why rivers are flooding, basements are wet and farm fields look like lakes all over the state. NASS and various University of Minnesota Extension Service offices, the National Weather Service and other partners begin monitoring precipitation and temperatures each growing season on April 1.

The Twin Citries has been hard hit by rain. MSP airport  reports 12.05 inches above normal. The University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus recorded 8.79 inches while nearby Forest Lake on the north end of the metro area is up 9.59 inches. Other sites with well-above nonmal rainfall include Becker, 10.3 inches; Melrose, 9.84; St. Cloud, 9.26; Olivia, 8.95; Red Wing, 8.91; Hibbing, 8.88; Redwood Falls, 7.92; and International Falls, 7.62. That should tell you that every corner of the state is awash.

No reporting stations experienced normal or less than normal precipitation since the growing season started. Only Pipestone, in far southwestern Minnesota, and Crookston, in the northwest, recorded rainfall levels closest to normal. Even those two locations had more rain, 1.92 inches beyond normal.

All of this has economic consequences for Minnesota and for local, agricultural economies. It won't be ood. Too much rainfall, like too much drought,  means less than optimal crop growing conditions.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture 

The Verdict: Misogyny Wins in Court

This week’s flaccid attempt by the male, conservative majority on the Supreme Court to limit women’s workplace rights and access to reproductive health has progressives fired up and unified. When the Supreme Court released their rulings for Harris v. Quinn and Hobby Lobby side by side, they unintentionally illustrated the anti-woman judicial logic that connects the two rulings. In both cases, the majority of judges found themselves offended by the assertion of constitutional rights by women, and went to great length to remove those rights while reinvigorating the rights of white men and corporations under the constitution.

In the case of Harris v. Quinn, the argument was framed, rightly or wrongly, as a first amendment issue. The Court could have decided it in a way that endangered the rights of stereotypically manly public employees like police and firefighters, along with the rest of the public payroll. Instead, they handled it by creating a new class of worker: a “partially public employee” for whom they could restrict women’s rights (home workers in Minnesota are 91.1% female, slightly less extreme than the 93.1% national figure, according to EPI). In so doing, they further enshrined their misogynist worldview into law, valorizing work outside the home and denying the value of work in the home.

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the ruling was framed in terms of religious freedom in a way that once again had the potential to threaten non-feminized state interests alongside the lady bits. Instead, they applied a “least restrictive means” standard that uses accommodations the state already makes for religious institutions as an argument for allowing Hobby Lobby a religious exemption. Because the state already provides an alternative path for church workers to get contraception their employer refuses to finance, the court felt those alternatives provide an alternate “least restrictive means” for women to get contraception. The Court finds no state interest in women having their reproductive health connected to the rest of their health care in a coherent way. Thus, the Court was able to claim a broad umbrella of religious freedom while leaving themselves room to find a legitimate state interest in anything besides the paternalistic corporate policing of women’s sexual health.

These cases, taken together, are a textbook illustration of the way powerful elites use gender and race to claim power for themselves. By limiting new restrictions to mostly female, disproportionately non-white, low-income workers, they’re cynically hoping most Americans won’t care enough to raise too much of a fuss, and the incremental encroachment of corporate power on all of our lives will continue unchecked. Corporate leaders and anti-union activists got to measure their relative constitutional virility against working women in court, and emerged victorious. That should not be taken lightly.

It would be a mistake, however, to overestimate these rulings’ ability to limit either union strength or access to contraception. Home-care workers in Illinois saw their wages go up dramatically when they unionized, and they’re not going to want to go back. The ruling changes some technical rules about agency fees, but it doesn’t do anything to stop home care workers from organizing, and they’ve announced their strong resolve to continue fighting for fair wages and working conditions.

There’s also nothing in the ruling, it’s worth noting, to stop a union from organizing Hobby Lobby workers. A strike over equal access to health care would test the strength of the corporation’s religious beliefs against their economic self interest. Relying on the Supreme Court to dispense workers’ rights has always been a losing proposition. Monday’s rulings were an excellent reminder that rights are won by organizing.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Courts & Justice  Health Care Reform 


The Problem with “Going All Scott Walker on Minnesota”

At a May Southeast Metro Tea Party gathering, GOP endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson discussed his plan “to go all Scott Walker on Minnesota.” Scott Walker is the conservative governor of Wisconsin who—after slashing budgets and declaring war on public employee unions—has become the darling of the far right policy activists, not just in the Badger State but nationwide.

But, before we “go all Scott Walker,” let’s take a look at Walker’s track record. Since Walker took office in January 2011, Wisconsin’s rate of job growth (4.0%) is a full one-fourth below the upper Midwest* average (5.5%). Wisconsin also trails the upper Midwest average in terms of growth in personal income, median household income, and Gross Domestic Product (each measured from 2010 to the most current year available). Minnesota, in comparison, meets or surpasses the regional growth rate in each of these categories.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently concluded that “it will be virtually impossible for Walker to meet his promise of creating 250,000 private-sector jobs in his four-year term.” In fact, through April 2014 Wisconsin has added fewer than half the jobs needed to make Walker’s pledge come true. Over the same period, Minnesota’s economy has created four new jobs for every three created in Wisconsin and Minnesota’s unemployment rate (4.6%) is a full one percent below Wisconsin’s 5.7% unempolyment rate. Minnesota has also comfortably surpassed Wisconsin in new business filings in each of the last three years, as summarized in a January 2014 Minnesota 2020 article.

Word of advice to candidates: in choosing an elected leader to emulate upon coming to office, best not to pick one whose agenda has produced outcomes that are at best disappointing. Scott Walker’s policies may play well with the anti-tax radicals that Jeff Johnson is currently pandering to, but they are a poor fit for Minnesota and, based on the track record of the last three plus years, Wisconsin as well.

* The standard definition of “upper Midwest” includes the states of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth 


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