tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Leadership is mostly a matter of hard work

David Metzen, former superintendent of South Saint Paul's School District, is chairman of the board of regents for the University of Minnesota. I had an opportunity to sit down with him for a conversation about leadership recently. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Are leaders born or made?

They are made. I feel very strongly about that. It’s a myth that they are born. People usually get ahead through hard work. Successful people are always learning and growing. The ones who are stuck in the past are the ones who quit learning and growing.

By nature, people want to be liked. How important is ‘being liked’ to successful leadership?

I went down that road of wanting to be liked and it is a recipe for failure. What you want is to be respected. Being liked will not take your company to where you want to be. I started out as a 28-year-old principal, wanting everyone to like me. But it doesn’t work. I also made a mistake in trying to make people happy. All you can do is create the environment. You can’t be an enabler to people.

What advice would you have for a mid-level manager who wants to be the CEO someday? What should they do to get that promotion?

First, you have to be authentic. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. And you have to work hard. You have to keep learning and growing. You should hook onto a mentor or someone you really respect. Try to shadow that person, learn as much as you can. Set goals for yourself, and if you are in an organization where there aren’t any spots for you in senior management then you might want to start looking for a different organization.

You are the chairman of the board of regents of a major, land-grant university. You also serve on the board of a bank. What do you expect from the relationship between the University and industry?

The most important thing for industry to understand is how important it is to have an educated population. Look at the state of Minnesota. One of the only things we have to offer is a smart, hard-working population. The day we stop producing smart people will be the day we won’t exist as a state. I think we have been riding on the coattails of the investment our parents made in the 1960s. All the wonderful companies we have here are the direct result of having smart, hard-working people.

Who do you identify as outstanding leaders of our time, and why?

Thinking way back, I think of Bill Norris, who ran Control Data. History has proven that he had a vision back in the last 1960s, early 1970s, as a person who looked at the welfare of his employees, looked at daycare issues, looked at places in Minneapolis that needed jobs. He was a visionary who I really respected. Another leader is a person by the name of Tom Swain who was chief of staff to Gov. Elmer Andersen. He has given back to his community for over 50 years. He’s 84 years old. But if you look around, the Twin Cities has been blessed with some very wonderful leaders. People like the Daytons, who have given back to their community.

What would you say about the need to weigh the need to make a profit against the desire to give back to the community?

It’s a balance you have to achieve. You can’t give back unless you have a profit. So you first have to make a profit. You have to care about your employees and make sure the place is profitable. After that, look at a formula. I think the Dayton-Hudson organization for years had a formula of giving back 5 percent to the community. It’s up to each company to ascertain what their comfort level is.

Any final thoughts on leadership?

The most important thing is that you have to keep learning and growing. That’s part of leadership. One thing I want to emphasize is that either you are getting better or you are getting worse as an organization. If you are living in neutral, you are getting worse. The good organizations, even during tough times, are always investing in their people. With all due respect to technology, it really gets down to hiring the right people. Jim Collins wrote a wonderful book, “From Good to Great.” He talks about ‘the bus’ and getting the right people on the bus, the right people off the bus, getting people in the right seat on the bus. Then we decide where we are going to go. That makes good sense to me. The real tremendous organizations are always investing in their people, trying to make them better.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Greetings at Christmastime

A Charlie Brown Christmas was on the other night and I watched it with the kids. Internet lore has it that network executives initially balked at airing the Charles Shultz program because they were afraid it was too religious. Since it was first shown in 1965, however, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become the most successful Christmas special ever made.

I like the show because of its timelessness. Charlie Brown complains that he doesn’t feel happy. He knows he’s supposed to be happy but he doesn’t feel that way.

I know how he feels. I have been looking for happiness since the day I was born. First it came in the form of milk, then in an ability to walk, then as a bicycle, then a car, then a good job. All the things that brought me happiness seem so short-lived; I always found myself searching for more.

And I am not alone, at least according to Fareed Zakaria, the editor of the International edition of Newsweek magazine. In his book, “The Future of Freedom,” Zakaria says this about Americans and happiness:

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but you would think $5 trillion would make a dent. In the last quarter century the United States has added just that amount to its real gross domestic product and yet every survey and measure that psychologists use suggests that Americans are no happier than they were twenty-five years ago.

Wow, people are spending a lot of money in search of happiness. For the past 18 months, Susan and I have been involved in scripture study, led by nationally-known instructor Jeff Cavins. He exposed us to the teaching of St. Augustine, a Church father who wrote that there are four levels of happiness: 1) instant gratification; 2) achievement; 3) giving to others; and 4) communion with God.

I guess all those things I mentioned earlier – bike, car, job – fall into the first category. Regarding the second category, I did achieve a significant personal milestone this year when my first book, “Emerging Son,” was published. It’s an autobiographical memoir. That achievement brought me a certain amount of happiness.

And I understand the third level. During one of her shows this year, Oprah Winfrey gave everyone in her studio audience a car. I am sure that made her as happy as the audience members. I don’t have any cars to give away, but I understand the joy that comes with giving, especially at this time of year. One of the big joys of Christmas is watching the reaction of those to whom you give gifts.

That fourth level – communion with God. That’s what I really want. That’s what Charlie Brown was looking for in that Christmas special. And that’s probably what Americans are trying to buy with $5 trillion. I guess it is all a matter of where we look for God. I’ve been looking for some time and one of the few things I know for sure is that I see God in the faces of those closest to me. When I look at Michael, our two-year-old, or Catherine (5) or John (8) or Paula (9), there’s more than just a little kid staring back at me. When I look into Susan’s eyes I see more than the woman who said ‘yes’ to my marriage proposal some 15 years ago. I see Him in my friends, relatives, neighbors and in the people with whom I work. God is alive and He’s all around us. All you have to do is look for Him, and I am sure a good place to start looking is in the faces of those around you.

Merry Christmas and may you find new levels of happiness in the new year.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A conversation about ‘Emerging Son’

Emerging Son, an autobiographical memoir, was published earlier this month. Memoir enthusiasts – especially American men at midlife – are likely to find the book to be a worthwhile read. The last two posts offer excerpts. For information about ordering your copy, see the conclusion of the December 14 post. Following is an interview with author Tom Bengtson.

Why did you write Emerging Son?

The newspapers, big-time magazines and television shows are filled with stories about people who are far from ordinary – movie stars, athletes, politicians, billionaires, or people who have done amazing things like climb Mount Everest, or break a world record, or make some great discovery. The stories of these people should be told, but not to the exclusion of the stories of ordinary people. I am marginally interested in the pro athlete and movie star but I am really interested in the guy who has to figure out a way to put his four kids through school. Or the guy who has to work three jobs to make ends meet, or the person who is trying to understand God. Those are universal struggles that are the stuff of great stories, but too often those stories go unrecorded. Ordinary people need to write their stories down. These stories can be affirming and inspirational to other ordinary people.

So Emerging Son is one of those stories?

It’s the story of an ordinary guy making his way through life from about age 20 to about age 40. The story deals with topics nearly every American guy addresses during that time of life: finding a job, getting married, starting a family, figuring out who your friends are, figuring out that the world doesn’t revolve around you.

You are 43 years old. Isn’t that kind of young to be writing a memoir?

Many of us are familiar with end-of-life memoirs but this is a genre that can work at many points in a person’s life. I wanted to write about this period in my life while it was still relatively fresh in my mind. It is essentially an adult coming-of-age story and I found there was a lot of thinking that went into that maturation process. This memoir tries to tap into some of that thinking.

What kind of ego-maniac writes an autobiographical memoir?

It is true that I am the protagonist in Emerging Son, but my hope is readers will see the book as being more about them than about me. The themes in the book are so universal to typical, middle-aged, white, American males that I hope people see the “Everyman” in my character more than specifically Tom Bengtson.

How long did it take you to write Emerging Son?

The classic answer is “all my life.” The actual writing process started in June 1999 and the manuscript was mostly complete in summer of 2003.

Tell us about the process of writing the book.

I was 38 when I started writing the book and I had it in my head that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was 40. I had always called myself a writer and I felt like the title was a little hollow without a book to my credit. Part of me wanted to prove to myself that I could even write a book-length work, something I had never done before.

A good friend encouraged me to journal and I spent most of that first year on the project doing just that. I wrote down just about everything I could think of from my life – all the little episodes and stories and interesting things that happened, and memorable moments. I put those stories into chronological order and thought I had a book. Then I took a memoir writing class at the University of Minnesota and learned I didn’t have a book at all, just a bunch of ramblings. The class was extremely helpful in terms of learning the essentials of story telling. I learned something about the arch of a story, when to introduce characters, and what level of detail to include. The class was a huge educational step forward for me. So I started over and developed an entirely new draft. I ran that version by my instructor and he very kindly told me it needed a lot of work. I eventually ended up scrapping that version and started over again. The third version took a lot of fine-tuning but it eventually became what is the published book.

What about the process of getting a book published? You went the self-publishing route.

Yes, I did and there are a number of reasons for that. First, NFR Communications is a magazine publishing company but I have thought for a long time I would like to develop a book publishing division or service, so this was a natural way to try that out. Second, I didn’t find the book publishing industry to be interested in my work. I was told 80 percent of books are purchased by women, and that the books purchased by men are generally about investing or sports. The universe of men who buy memoirs is, apparently, very small. Emerging Son speaks mostly to men so I had no luck attracting the interest of any book publishers. Having now published the book on my own, I am hopeful that in the future NFR Communications will be able to help other ordinary people who write worthwhile books bring them to market.

Is everything in Emerging Son true?

Essentially, yes. Whenever you write a story you might have to mold a few episodes to make it work for the overall book, but I didn’t have to do that very much. I addition, you have to work with the limitations of the human memory. I did the best I could, drawing from my memory on some of the episodes from twenty and thirty years ago.

People who know me ask more about the things I left out than about the things I included. For example, I worked for a couple years at Honeywell and at the Minnesota Bankers Association. I don’t mention those two experiences at all. That’s not because I have anything to hide, but simply because my experiences there didn’t fit into the story I was trying to tell. Those first two versions of the book that I scrapped included stories from my work experience with those two organizations. They ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. That, in fact, is where most of my writing ended up. Emerging Son is 227 pages, but I easily wrote twice that in the early drafts.

You spend at least one chapter in Emerging Son describing your faith. Is this a religious book?

Emerging Son certainly is a spiritual book, but there is no preaching in it. I think for any true story about a person to be worthwhile you have to address the big questions: Who are you? What do you believe? Where did you come from? Where do you hope to go? God inevitably is going to be a part of those answers. I try to be honest in the book with my insecurities and doubts, but also about my developing faith and increasing comfort level with my place in this world.

Your father plays an important role in the book. Is Emerging Son a tribute to him?

My father played an important role in by life, so he is important to the book. I think every man has to figure out his relationship with his father. I found this universal experience makes a pretty good basis for a book.

Did you learn anything through the process of writing Emerging Son?

I learned a lot. For one, I think I learned how to be a better writer, and I hope that shows up in my work for NorthWestern Financial Review magazine. Second, I learned a thing or two about story telling. This has sharpened my eye when I watch stories on television or in the movie theatre. For example, it has made me appreciate a really well-written show, like “West Wing.” Third, the writing process helped me to define some direction in my own life. By looking back seriously at where I have been and deciding what’s important, I can see the path I am on. This has helped me to decide whether I want to remain on this path or make changes for the future. And finally, the book writing process taught me a lot about perseverance. Five years is a long time to work on any project, especially for a journalist who is used to daily and weekly deadlines. But seeing this project through from beginning to end, resisting the urge to give up, as been very reassuring for me. A person can accomplish things. It may take time -- more time than you like -- but things do get done if you stick with it.

What’s next? Are you going to write another book?

Well, first I want to devote some energy to promoting Emerging Son. It is a good book that will mean something to a lot of people and I want the book to have the best opportunity possible to reach a wide audience. But beyond that, yes, I hope to write another book. I have a lot of books inside me and the challenge for me is to channel my energies into the most worthwhile project. My next book likely will have something to do with spirituality and the workplace. I do really like memoir, however, and I hope to produce another one, God willing, when the time is right.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Another look inside 'Emerging Son'

Following is an excerpt from chapter 8 of "Emerging Son." For information about ordering your copy of this delightful memoir, see the conclusion of the December 14, 2004 post.

Back home, the details of the adoption process were weighing us down. Before a couple could adopt, they had to prepare an information packet called a “home study.” The packet required couples to describe everything in writing, from job history, to family status, to personal philosophies, to religion, to the television shows they enjoy. And a social worker conducted interviews.

“Are you angry about your fertility situation?” asked an expressionless social worker.

“No,” I said. “I was sad about it but not angry.”

“So you are in denial?” she responded, writing “denial” on a notebook she kept on her lap.

“I am not in denial!” I shouted.

The social worker underlined her original answer in the notebook.

LSS wanted to know so much about us before they would approve us for an adoption. We had to give them a picture of our extended family. A social worker came to our home. She looked in every room, humming as she checked things off her clipboard. “Will the child have her own room?” we were asked. “How old is the house? Is this lead-based paint? Are these pipes protected with asbestos? I see. How many smoke alarms do you have?”

Then they asked about our plans for discipline. “You won’t be spanking the child will you?” I had to think fast. How was I supposed to answer? Truth was, I didn’t know if I would be spanking our child or not. Of course I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to. But could I imagine a situation where a swat on the bottom was the only way to get my kid’s attention? Yes.

“No,” I told the social worker.

LSS required couples considering international adoption to participate in a cross-cultural workshop, a three-hour meeting Susan and I dutifully attended with a dozen other couples. The session offered a potpourri of information about cultures around the world but there was little on Colombia and even less on some of the really important questions we had about adoption. Susan wanted to know about adoptive nursing and I wanted to know if there were any shortcuts we could take to minimize the paperwork demanded by the Colombian court system. The workshop didn’t address those topics.

Instead, workshop leaders spent a lot of time describing the ramifications of inter-racial adoption. Our adoption would fall into this category, although I had a hard time considering Colombians as being a different race. Colombians have skin colors that vary as much as Americans – some are dark and others are light. One prospective adoptive couple shared concern that their relatives wouldn’t accept their South American-born child as readily as they accepted their relatives born in the United States. “I know they will make an issue of the brown skin,” the wife said. “I have relatives who refused to come to my baby shower.”

Although a social worker told us these kinds of reactions were common, our relatives were supportive. In fact, Susan’s parents were excited about the culture that Colombian children might bring to a clan that was otherwise dominated by Scandinavians. The social worker asked us to consider several questions: Would we celebrate Colombian holidays with our new child? Would we teach them Spanish? Would we teach the kids about Colombian history and culture? Would we make an effort to expose them to other Colombian children living in the Twin Cities? We listened to the questions and we sensed that some of the couples took the exercise quite seriously, but one couple didn’t.

“The kid is going to be raised in Minnesota,” said a woman. “We are going to raise an American. All this heritage stuff is nice but the kid won’t be living in Colombia. He’ll be living in Minnesota. He won’t need to know how to speak Spanish. He is going to need to know how to speak English.”

The social worker nodded.

We were eager to encourage our child to study his or her heritage, and to learn to speak Spanish. Francophiles since college, Susan and I were conversant in French, which did us no good at all in our current station in life. When we first began to think about international adoption, I was hoping there would be some orphanage in the south of France that would need an American couple to take a child. No such Mediterranean opportunity existed so we prepared to immerse ourselves in a culture that would be entirely new to us.

The prospective parents we talked to at the seminar seemed like well-educated people living upper-middle class lifestyles. Many were managers at Fortune 500 companies like 3M or Honeywell. As I thought about how the responsibility of parenthood would affect Susan and me, I looked around the room. Susan already had given up full-time work at NFR Communications in anticipation of spending time at home with our new baby. How many of our peers intended to stay home full-time with their new child? Would they put their baby in daycare? Would nine hours a day at a KinderCare be much of an improvement over life in an orphanage? I wish the social worker had shed some light on this for me.

At one point, we needed to be fingerprinted by an official from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which happened to have an office in the basement of a building in Bloomington. We got an appointment only after working an automated phone system for hours. One time, Susan called at 3:30 and was put on hold for 90 minutes. At 5 p.m. sharp, the line clicked to a dial tone.

The service wasn’t any better in person. Spending more than an hour in a hot, crowded waiting room, we listened to the low-level chatter of people who sat around us. Much of the banter was in languages I didn’t understand and I wondered why so many people were there. These were not prospective adoptive couples. Mostly, I guessed, they were foreigners looking for a legal way to stay in the United States. They must have been highly motivated because there was nothing welcoming about this INS office. In fact, our country seemed to be going out of its way to express indifference toward these people from a multitude of lands.

No one acknowledged us as we waited to be fingerprinted so the authorities could check us against their national database of criminals. Susan and I knew we weren’t criminals but they made us feel like we were. Eventually our number came up and we paid a fee. An aide helped us roll each finger in ink and apply it to a special fingerprint card. We were told to relax. Tight finger muscles apparently don’t provide a good print. We had to give two sets of prints so by the time we were finished, we were in desperate need of the industrial strength cleaning solution they offered us on our way out. Months later we received a computer-generated form from an office in Washington, D.C., telling us that our fingerprints had failed to turn up any matches in their criminal files. We could continue with the adoption process.

We also needed to have a psychological evaluation. We were given the name of a doctor, who interviewed us separately, asking us questions about our childhood and whether we were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Ultimately, he gave us each a certificate verifying our sanity. I joked that I was going to have it framed and hung in my office so that if anyone ever questioned my sanity, I could point to the certificate for proof. Susan reminded me that the certificate was dated and valid only for six months.

I can understand the extensive vetting but I wondered why adoptive parents were held to a higher standard than birth parents. A couple gets pregnant, has a kid, and raises it any way they want. No one checks to see if their home is good enough. No one wants to see a picture of their relatives. No one asks how they plan to discipline their child. No, those questions are reserved for adoptive couples. I complained, not so much because I wanted anything to change but because I found the venting to be somewhat therapeutic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A look inside ‘Emerging Son’

Following is an excerpt from chapter 1 of “Emerging Son.” Another excerpt will be posted tomorrow. See the end of the December 14 post for information about ordering your copy of this engaging memoir.

We opened the sailing season that year like we had before – in the community room at one of the city parks. Early each spring, the Minneapolis Park Board conducted a lottery for the buoys on the lakes. During the winter, sailboat owners registered with the Park Board to get in on the drawing. As the names were pulled from a hat, boat owners got to choose the buoy they wanted for the summer. If you didn’t show up for the drawing, the Park Board gave you whatever buoy was left over at the end of the lottery. These were the worst buoys on the lake, the ones farthest from the sailing dock requiring the longest tender boat ride. Dad and I considered the acquisition of a well-placed buoy to be absolutely essential to having a good summer. Attendance at the lottery was very important and we prayed for weeks leading up to the event that our names would be drawn early. On our way to the lottery that evening, neither of us said a word. Our fate lay before us and there was nothing we could do about it.

We arrived to a crowded room and the drawing soon began. The first name was announced and it was not ours. The winner leapt out of his chair and raced up to the map displayed at the front of the room. The lucky sailor drove a pin through the best buoy on the lake – No. 1, located only a few feet from the sailing dock. His summer in paradise was set; he’d get all the benefits of a city lake mooring without much of the work. More names were drawn and happy boat owners eagerly claimed their prize positions on the lake. Sometimes the moderator drew the name of a no-show. “He’ll be sorry,” my dad muttered just loud enough for me to hear.

Finally the man drawing the names called “Frank Bengtson.” Dad and I rushed to the front of the room and selected a buoy in the middle of the pack. The one we got was far enough from shore that we wouldn’t have to worry about fishermen casting into our boat, yet close enough to the dock that we wouldn’t wear ourselves out rowing to and from our boat. With a decent buoy placement, I figured we could have a pretty good summer.

The Rose Anne proved easy to sail and like Myron’s boat, it was designed to heel. On a good run, the high side of the hull would rise out of the water and the boat would pick up speed. I learned just how far I could push the Rose Anne before she would begin to lose speed and even tip over. In fact, I eventually learned to tip the boat on purpose and right it by myself without getting wet. As the boat was going over, I’d climb over the high side of the hull and stand on the sideboard. My weight would reverse the momentum of the boat and she would begin to right. As the mast came up out of the water, I’d climb back into the cockpit, my foot leaving the sideboard just as the hull would come crashing back on top of the water. Dad was so impressed by this little maneuver that he asked me to do it in front of the sailing dock where he captured it on film with his Super-8 movie camera.

Sailing brought me life. The sound and smell of the lake water mixed with the warmth of the sun on my lean teenage body and made me high. A city lake is a wonderful place for a teen to be in the summer. How many people were watching the Rose Anne from shore, perhaps a little jealous? How many were looking at me, this kid who happened to be lucky enough to have a dad bit by the sailing bug? Maybe no one, in fact, but in my mind it was everyone and I liked the celebrity status. I liked that I could sail the boat by myself. I wasn’t dependent upon someone else.

Melanie, my high school sweetheart, came from a sailing family, her father keeping a boat on a large lake west of the cities. The first time I took her sailing on Lake Nokomis she wore a yellow, two-piece bathing suit. She knew how to sail, moving from one side of the boat to the other, depending on the wind. Another time, Melanie and her parents took me sailing on their lake. I would hate to have to choose between a girlfriend and a sailboat but that summer I had both and it seemed like heaven.

Myron and I would sometimes race, as the Calypso and the Rose Anne were evenly matched. The Calypso had a jib but the Rose Anne had a slightly bigger mainsail. Myron and I would sail along, our boats only a foot or two apart. The upwind boat had a slight advantage if it was positioned directly in the path of the wind for the other boat. If you could steal the wind from the downwind boat, it would lose speed and the upwind boat could race ahead. Sometimes we devised a racecourse made up of several legs. The trick was to figure out how to complete the course with as few tacks as possible. While Myron and I might start out with our boats a few feet apart, we often ended up on opposite sides of the lake by the middle of the race depending on where each of us decided to turn for a new tack.

Although a sailor is completely dependent upon the wind, I found that a good afternoon of sailing actually has very little to do with the wind. I had fun regardless of whether the wind was whistling at 15 miles an hour or barely stirring. Apparently, it’s not so much the power of the wind that matters but what you do with it.

I don’t know if Dad ever realized how much his investment in a sailboat paid off for me. Sailing taught me lessons at a young age that I have carried with me all my life. You can’t control the wind, and the best sailors don’t complain about it. They focus on the things they can control, making adjustments that help make the most of their situation. Sometimes, a sailor encounters an unexpected shift in the wind that other sailors avoid. Yet, if you react to the shift correctly, it doesn’t always slow you down. It may, in fact, prove to be just what you need.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

New memoir now available

I am very pleased to announce that my first book is now available. Below is a description of “Emerging Son,” followed by information for ordering your copy. The next two posts will offer excerpts from the book. For an interview about the book, see the December 20, 2004 post.

“Emerging Son” is an autobiographical memoir about a man’s journey to a purposeful midlife from youthful uncertainty. The author’s quest to recreate the happiness of his youth takes him from the newsroom to the courtroom as he launches a career, from the Midwest to Rome as he deepens his faith, and to South America as he builds a family. Tom Bengtson looks to his father as an example but ultimately discovers he has to look within himself for answers to life’s questions about faith, family and work.

The book opens with Tom recalling the lessons he learned as a kid when he sailed with his dad. Sailing teaches him to pay attention to details, to forget about things he can’t control and to make the most of what he has -- lessons that prove valuable as Tom later becomes a writer, entrepreneur, husband and father.

His journalism career gets off to a rocky start when he quickly finds himself at the center of a libel case. Daily newspaper work back East ultimately proves to be the wrong fit for Tom and he returns to his hometown of Minneapolis where he begins a career as a financial reporter for a magazine – a magazine that he eventually purchases and grows into a profitable business. As Tom transitions from reporter to publisher, he works to inspire employees, grow the business with new publishing ventures and keep up with the latest management trends.

But more than professional success Tom wants a family like the one he grew up in, where he was one of five children. Tom and his wife struggle with infertility, frustrated by the inability of doctors to help them. They turn to adoption, making their way through an equally frustrating social services network. Over a seven-year period, they adopt children from Colombia, traveling to South America four times.

Tom’s efforts are guided by a renewed interest in his Catholic faith, rekindled after years of dormancy by the example of an Evangelical friend. Tom remembers fondly his years as a child serving as an altar boy and learning in Catholic schools. As an adult, however, he finds Catholicism challenging. He contemplates the meaning of life-long marriage, the practicality of natural family planning over birth control and the sacrament of confession. His experience with infertility further tests his faith commitment.

In addition to appealing to memoir enthusiasts, “Emerging Son” will be of interest to four groups. First, it will be of interest to anyone suffering with infertility. Second, it will interest people contemplating adoption, particularly international adoption. Third, it will appeal to anyone preparing for marriage, especially marriage in the Catholic Church. And fourth, it will be of interest to small business owners who want to read how one entrepreneur grows his company by taking on a business partner and adapting to changing market conditions. This 58,000-word memoir is a timeless work that addresses themes that will be of interest for decades to come.

Order your copy of this 227-page hard-cover book by sending a check for $24 to: NFR Communications, 3109 West 50th Street, No. 125, Minneapolis, MN 55410-2102. Make check out to NFR Communications. Rate includes $3 for shipping. Paypal paments accepted.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

New Ag Secretary will have to perform a tricky balancing act

Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns will be a key player in the formation of the nation’s farm policy when he becomes U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. President Bush nominated the Iowa native, Minnesota-educated 54-year-old attorney to the position last week, after Ann Veneman resigned.

It is worth it for everyone, even life-long city-dwellers like me, to keep an eye on farm policy. The U.S. Government spent about $16 billion on farm programs last year; that’s actually down from really expensive years like 1986 when the government spent $26 billion. Congress determines farm program spending levels through legislation it passes about every five years. Assuming the Senate confirms Johanns and he fulfills his term, he will be a key player in the formation of the 2007 farm bill. The big, on-going questions are, how much should we be spending on farm programs and who should get the money?

I was at a meeting last month in Minneapolis where a trade group brought in experts to debate these questions. Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, squared off against Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a group advocating for the redistribution of farm subsidies. Flinchbaugh was instrumental in the creation of the 1996 farm legislation, commonly referred to as the “Freedom to Farm” bill, which was designed to integrate market forces into the government payments system.

Cook said the current subsidy program is flawed because most of the money goes to the biggest farm operations, while most small and medium size farm operations get little or no money. Across the country, Cook said, the 10 percent largest subsidized crop producers got 71 percent of all farm payments made between 1995 and 2002. He said 60 percent of farmers got nothing. Family farms, he said, generally get only a few hundred to a couple of thousand of dollars.

Cook argued that since farmers export 20 percent to 40 percent of their yield, the policy framework for the 2007 farm bill should be away from farm subsidies and toward “trade adjustment assistance.” He said he would like to see money currently earmarked for farmers mixed in with assistance programs designed to aid all workers, whether they work in agriculture, manufacturing, textiles or other industries.

Flinchbaugh disputed Cook, saying “one-fourth of all payments go to small farms, half go to medium size farms, and one-fourth go to large farms.” He said payments do go to family farms. Flinchbaugh described the typical family farm in Kansas: 1,800 acres with $240,000 in annual sales and $51,000 in net income. People working these farms typically have living expenses of $39,000 and receive $28,000 in government subsidies. He said there are 2,100 such operations in Kansas. “These payments are going to these farmers,” he said.

Flinchbaugh said it is very unlikely that there will be major changes in farm subsidy payment programs when the 2007 farm bill is passed. He said the eight states that gave President Bush his highest margin of victory on November 2 are the states that would suffer the greatest losses in farmland value if subsidy programs were curtailed. The decline in farmland value would be dramatic in Texas, for example, where it would drop 34 percent according to a 2003 study conducted by Kansas State University. Oklahoma would suffer a 44 percent loss in farmland value; Kansas a 35 percent loss; Nebraska a 31 percent drop; South Dakota a 30 percent drop and North Dakota a 47 percent drop. Farmland in Wyoming and Utah also would lose value.

Although Cook said he would like to make the largest ag producers ineligible for farm payments, Flinchbaugh called that idea impractical. He implied that large farm operations would simply restructure their organizations to fit the size requirements of any new subsidy parameters. Furthermore, he said large farms have to be included in programs if environmental goals are going to be attained.

And farms are getting larger all the time. Mike Boehlje, an agricultural economist from Purdue University, cited hog producers as an example. In 1988, less than 10 percent of hog operations sold 50,000 head or more per year. Today, 70 percent of them do. “We’re seeing the same thing in potatoes,” Boehlje said. “We’re seeing more and more 10,000 acre, 20,000 acre and 30,000 acre corn and soybean farms.”

Flinchbaugh said he would like to see farm payments “decoupled” from production and market prices. In addition, he said the United States should set up a farmers’ savings account program, which already exists in Canada. These accounts would help farmers weather periods of drought or other typically difficult times.

Flinchbaugh and Cook represent just two of the competing viewpoints regarding the country’s ag policy. Johanns ultimately will be judged according to his ability to balance the interests of competing points of view. My hope as a citizen who likes to eat is that the outcome does not add to the country’s debt burden, improves the security of our food processing systems, and assures the viability of a strong agricultural sector in the United States.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Emotions run high in debate over sports facilities

Nothing stirs emotions like a good football or basketball game. A down-to-the-wire finish in any sport get spectators off their seats, gets them cheering, and sends them home euphoric or despondent, depending on the outcome. So it’s probably no surprise that the debate over the need for a new stadium in the Twin Cities is so emotionally charged. Without new facilities, the teams will leave, damaging the economic vitality of our state; on the other hand, no one wants to devote millions of dollars in taxes to a stadium that will benefit millionaire players and billionaire team owners.

In the 1970s, I was in high school and I watched my share of Twins baseball games at Bloomington’s Metropolitan stadium, built in 1956. It was a good park for baseball. I have fond memories of my dad taking me to games on “knothole” days when the price of admission was only 50 cents. The stadium always seemed good enough to me back then, and it was a little bit sad to watch them tear it down in the early 1980s after building the new Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

A similar facilities drama was unfolding at my high school at that time. Holy Angels High School in Richfield had only a very small gymnasium when I was a student there. It was too small to accommodate a varsity basketball game so our team played all its home games at a nearby grade school, which had a bigger gym. Throughout my four years there, we were asked to raise money for a new gym – a quality on-campus facility that would be big enough to accommodate a regulation basketball court and bleachers for several hundred fans. We did all kinds of things to raise money. For a while, I remember going door to door in my neighborhood selling electrostatic magnetic carpet sweepers. They cots $20 each and I think I sold two of them. It was $40 on the way toward the school’s goal of $550,000. The money got raised and the new gym was built. It opened the year after I graduated.

Now, 20-some years later, they have torn down that gym and built a bigger indoor athletic facility – a gym that is apparently as good or better than any in the area. That gym built with the money we raised, wasn’t big enough or good enough or something. It kind of rubs a person the wrong way to think that the thing we all worked so hard to build 25 years ago is no longer good enough. It seems like a gym ought to last more than a couple of decades.

I have those same feelings about the Metrodome. This was the stadium that was going to solve all our problems. With a covered facility, games would always be played as scheduled and no one traveling a long distance to see a game would have to go home because of rain. It would also be a lot more comfortable for fans to watch, particularly in late fall when the Gophers and Vikings were playing.

Now there’s a lot of talk about building a new stadium. Somehow the Metrodome, built in 1980, just isn’t good enough. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me that I was covering Gopher football games at the Metrodome for my college newspaper; now some people want to retire the Metrodome. Just as the whole high school gymnasium thing rubs me the wrong way, this flap over a stadium rubs me the wrong way too. What’s worse is that the talk is not about the need for another stadium but the need for three more stadiums. Apparently the Twins, Vikings and Gophers just can’t get along sharing a single facility; each team feels it needs its own stadium.

About a month ago, I had a chance to listen to Roy Terwilliger explain the stadium debate. Roy, whom I have known for many years, is a banker from Eden Prairie. My company has even done some work for him. He served in the state senate for 11 years and ran unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator. He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and he has a reputation as a common-sense consensus builder who gets things done. About a year and a half ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Terwilliger chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the seven-person body charged with managing the Metrodome.

“Our first and foremost job is to retain professional football and baseball,” Terwilliger told a business group on November 4. Terwilliger noted that the Twins do not have a long-term contract to play in the Metrodome; their agreement runs year to year. The Vikings, on the other hand, have signed a contract obligating them to play there until 2011. Terwilliger said it takes about five years to move a team, so he feels it is necessary to reach agreement on a contract extension before 2006. The only way to get the extension, he says, is to offer the team a new place to play.

The Vikings frequently point out that other teams in the midwest – the Lions, Packers and Bears – are playing in facilities that have been upgraded in recent years. All are seeing their revenues rise, while the Vikings complain their revenues are flat.

Terwilliger said the metro area gets a stadium for all kinds of uses because of the Twins and Vikings. He explained that the Metrodome has 300 dates a year available for events. Eighty-one are used for baseball, 10 are used for Vikings football and six are used for Gopher football. “That leaves 203 days that we are able to do things because the Vikings and the Twins pay the freight,” Terwilliger said. “No tax dollars are being used to run the stadium. Those teams make it possible to have that facility for our use.” Over the years, the Metrodome has hosted big-time concerts, rallies, truck-pulls and other events, not to mention a Super Bowl, All Star game and two World Series.

Terwilliger obviously wants the state legislature to authorize the construction of new stadium facilities. “We don’t know what the legislature will do,” Terwilliger summarized. Keep in mind that the biggest issue the legislature will face when it convenes in January is how to balance a budget that is expected to be $700 million in the red.

“We know it is pretty tough to put athletes ahead of kids and senior citizens,” said Terwilliger, who wanted to make one point clear. “No one is advocating using general fund money for a stadium. We are looking at special assessments to finance a stadium.

“The fact is, we don’t want to lose the Vikings or the Twins, and we want the Minnesota Gophers to have a good on-campus program,” said Terwilliger. The Gophers, he said, have $200 million already committed to build a new stadium on campus. Because of that head start, he said a Gopher facility is likely to be the first new stadium built.

Next year will be a better year to work on stadium issues in the legislature than 2006 for two reasons. First, it is not an election year; this timing gives lawmakers additional freedom to make difficult decisions. Second, there’s still plenty of time to work things out before the Vikings’ contract comes into play. Terwilliger believes lawmakers can reach agreement on an approach to new facilities, citing Denver and Detroit as examples of similar metro areas that have separate baseball and football stadiums. “I can’t believe we can’t get this done,” he said.

Losing either of the pro sports teams would be bad, according to Terwilliger. He said the impact of pro sports is significant in Minnesota. Each of the teams, he said, generates millions of dollars in revenue to the state and in economic activity. He said pro athletes pay between $10 million and $12 million in income taxes in Minnesota. “When other teams play here, those visiting players pay income taxes here for the work they do while in the state,” Terwilliger said.

And fans spend millions of dollars because of the teams. “Money spent is not just entertainment dollars that would be spent elsewhere if the teams didn’t exist,” Terwilliger said. “I don’t believe that money would be spent.”

Emotionally, these are difficult issues. Just like it rubs me the wrong way to tear down a high school gym that’s not even 25 years old, it’s a little difficult to get excited about financing new stadiums when the one we’ve got seems adequate to me. But just like I am willing to put my emotions on the shelf so today’s students at my old high school can have athletic facilities as good as those at many other high schools, I am probably willing to put my emotions on the shelf to support efforts to retain pro sports -- an important economic catalyst -- in our Twin Cities.