MINOT, N.D. — This week's mailbag features a question, or more accurately a concern, that unemployment benefits which may be luring health care workers away from the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus.

Also messages about rent, price-fixing in the beef industry, divisive politics in a time of pandemic, and a recent federal court ruling on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I'm delighted with the responses this column has elicited so far. If you'd like to send me something to consider, email it to rport@forumcomm.com.

Your question or comment may be edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.

Now, to your messages!

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Carla writes: I work for a large local hospital, and the non-essential employees who are being furloughed due to restrictions on elective and non-essential services have signed up for the expanded unemployment benefits. They are being told they will get 60% of their pay PLUS an additional $600.00 a week. Well, $600 a week is equivalent to a full time $15 per hour job. So now professionals making up to $40 per hour actually make more money to stay home instead of working in a high-risk COVID environment. In N.D., that is MOST professionals. Now everyone wants to be furloughed, and no one wants to work, especially in the front line, high-risk areas. This is a problem that will get worse if true.

I think Carla has a point, and it's a concern which almost derailed the COVID-19 relief legislation in Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of the objectors arguing that "incentivized people not to go back to work."

This line of argument was slammed by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. "Somebody who's making 12 bucks an hour now like the rest of us faces an unprecedented economic crisis with 600 bucks on top of their regular unemployment check might be making a few bucks more for four months," he said during a shouty floor speech before the bill was passed. "Oh my word, will the universe survive? How absurd and wrong is that?"

On any typical day, I find Sanders and his politics to be obnoxious, but I'm sympathetic to his argument here. Giving Americans who have lost their jobs some extra cushion makes sense. But that doesn't set aside Carla's point in that it may add extra incentive to leave jobs that are already very hard, and at least somewhat dangerous, during the pandemic. I'm not just talking about health care workers. What about grocery store staff? Delivery personnel? Maintenance technicians?

One thing about the unemployment benefits is that, to get them, you have to lose your job. You can't necessarily quit and then sign up for benefits.

Still, when we consider policies responding to coronavirus, we have to stay focused on things that will keep people in their jobs. Even people who might not be able to do their work right now. That's what's going to best for our economy and our society as a whole. Anything which provides an incentive for the opposite, unemployment, is going to hurt us.

Austin writes: Not sure if you saw this but thought you may want to comment on it since you were a big follower of the DAPL protest madness.

At last! A message not related to the coronavirus! Of course, I'll find a way to loop that into my response, as you'll see in a moment.

Austin's link goes to a left-wing propaganda site that purports to report on environmental matters. The story in question is about a federal judge ordering a new environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Not a good development for several reasons:

  1. This is yet another example of our byzantine regulation of energy infrastructure. I'm in favor of a rigorous process, which ensures that projects like pipelines are built responsibly, but there needs to be a finish line. How can we attract investment into infrastructure to transport a commodity —oil —which we all use every day if those who would invest know they will be subjected to endless political attacks, targeted by violent political extremists, and forced to endure a regulatory and legal process where the goal line is moved further and further away?

  2. This could result in the shutdown of the pipeline, at least for a while, and on top of everything else that's going on (see, I told you I'd mention coronavirus) that would be a catastrophe for North Dakota. Our oil industry contributes more than half of all taxes paid in our state. DAPL moves about half of all oil produced in North Dakota. I think that's an unlikely outcome, but the judge asked for briefs from both sides on whether or not the pipeline should be allowed to continue operating, so it could happen, and it would be a disaster.
  3. One of the judge's justifications for moving the goal line on this regulatory process, yet again, was that the pipeline project was sufficiently "controversial" to warrant more scrutiny. That is an abysmal standard which gives the blinkered activists who fight these pipelines a sort of heckler's veto. If all they have to do to enlarge the bureaucratic maze pipeline companies must navigate is generate controversy, they're going to do that. We've already seen that they're willing to vandalize and trespass and attack law enforcement to get their way.

Trevor writes: As beef sees a huge increase in demand, cattle prices keep falling, while boxed beef prices keep rising. The major packers are increasing their already robust profits while ranchers are struggling and losing their livelihood. What are you doing to investigate and make sure there isn't any price-fixing or collusion within the major meatpacking conglomerates?

Trevor asked that I direct this question to Sen. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, specifically. I did just that.

Cramer spokesman Jake Wilkins pointed me to this letter, dated March 19, which the senator signed (along with Sens. John Hoeven, Steve Daines and Mike Rounds) asking the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division to investigate Trevor's concerns.

"The most immediate need for our ranchers right now is to provide them support through this pandemic, which is exactly why Congress included $9.5 billion in the Phase III bill for ag producers, including ranchers," Armstrong said when I reached him about this. "The ongoing conversation about price issues and consolidation of packers is one that we need to continue to have because it's's clear that the markets are not working. We also need to ensure a level playing field for our ranchers abroad because we cannot have countries like Brazil exporting meat that undermines the high-quality product raised in North Dakota."

Armstrong spokesman Brandon VerVelde pointed me to a recent news story about a fire at a Tyson's beef facility which somehow resulted in prices for boxed beef going higher even as cattle prices fell. "This is what Kelly's referring to when he talks about the markets not working," VerVelde told me.

Armstrong has joined other members of Congress in urging the USDA to help out ranchers, and he has also written a letter to the USDA concerning the issues with Brazilian beef.

Ronald writes: PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH, YOU AND YOUR REPUBLICAN BUDDIES LIKE CHRIS BERG ARE ALWAYS SWINGING PUBLICLY AGAINST THE DEMOCRATS. YOU PEOPLE THAT ARE ADDICTED TO PARTY ARE SICKENING. THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE, THEY'RE NOT CONSERVATIVE AT ALL, IT'S A NAME FRONT THAT SHOULD BE TAKEN AWAY. LEAD DON'T FOLLOW KEEP YOUR MEDIA IDEAS TO YOURSELF, WE CAN THINK FOR OURSELVES, CLAMP IT. PS. I'M NOT A DEMOCRAT EITHER

Ronald was reacting to a recent column in which I was critical of North Dakota Democrats for what I felt was a divisive political attack on Gov. Doug Burgum over the question of stopping evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic. I should note that I agree with Ronald that the Republican Party, which is Donald Trump's party these days, is not what it used to be. Just as one example, it bothers me that Republicans aren't even paying lip service to the tenets of fiscal conservatism anymore.

But my criticism of Democrats is hardly motivated by partisanship. I thought they took a cheap shot at Burgum and did so not so much because they're concerned about renters but because they want to tear down the political opposition.

I noted that this sort of calculation is why Democrats continue to mostly lose in North Dakota, in one election cycle after another. If they ever get around to setting the cheap shots aside and promoting workable policy solutions that are palatable to a majority of North Dakotans, they might win now and then.

Ken writes: Your article regarding rent and evictions was very well put.

John writes: I've got a number of rentals. I've been monitoring all of them. If anyone loses their job I will significantly reduce their rent. The problem I have is I try to keep my rent consistent for like properties. This will violate that standard. I don't care about the money as much as I care about being fair.

Both of these readers were responding to my recent column about the calls for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic. I'm very much against any sort of a blanket policy setting aside the contracts landlords and tenants, but I sympathetic to the plight of people who have lost their ability to pay their rent (or their mortgage) in this terrible, terrible time.

I'm not sure we can create a policy that makes this bad situation better. If we tell the landlords, they have to let non-payers stay, that's going to hurt them and add to the economic fallout we're seeing. Yet if we let the landlords evict, we're going to add to the burden already placed on our social safety net.

I think we're better off doing nothing. Let the landlords and the tenants work it out among themselves. I hope the landlords who are in a position to be gracious, like John, will do so. I hope tenants will understand that their landlords are people, too, with responsibilities of their own.

As for public policy, we need to be laser-focused right now on keeping people in a position to continue paying their bills. If we give businesses money so they can keep people on their payrolls, we can head off headaches like evictions before they happen.

I'd rather empower people to keep up with their obligations right now than restrict the options anyone has in responding to this situation.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.