On the Commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford

July, 2017

Washington -- Many people of widely-varied political and ideological persuasions have already reproached the President for his inappropriate remarks at both the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford in Virginia and at the annual Boy Scout jamboree in West Virginia. His asides at the Boy Scout gathering were downright indecent.

I cannot improve on the condemnations, but with regard to the ship's commissioning I can offer the perspective of a veteran who is familiar with what is, and what is not, appropriate at a such an event.

It should go without saying that in front of assembled dignitaries, no remarks should be offered that would be improper in the ship's wardroom; that is, religion and politics are off limits. Yet the president openly invited and even instructed the ship's company to contact Congress in support of his political agenda. In any wardroom of which I was a member (USS Rainier, USS Arlington) this kind of talk would result in a stern admonition from the ship's executive officer.

In April, 1963, I was invited to the commissioning of the USS Platte, named after Nebraska's Platte River, as staff to Nebraska Senator J. James Exon, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I drafted his remarks for the occasion, if memory serves. Admiral William Crowe, CINCUSNAVEUR, attended; he was soon to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and ambassador to the Court of St. James under President Clinton. I cannot fathom Admiral Crowe's reaction, had he been in attendance at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The commissioning of this new aircraft carrier reminds us of the qualities of President Ford. He stood for a respectable conservatism that cared about balanced budgets, cautious monetary policy, free trade, and strong international alliances. He was a decent man, above everything. The country misses you, Gerald Ford.

That's More Like it, NIC

July, 2017

Lincoln -- In the past I've expressed disappointment with the Nebraska Innovation Campus, both its direction and the time and money it has taken to get going.

Early on, its only claim to innovation was to link the University's food science department up with Omaha food company ConAgra, which soon left Nebraska for Chicago in search of ideas to offer healthier nourishment. No future in Nebraska, ConAgra concluded. Next for NIC: small-bore innovations in production agriculture, but nothing remotely close to justifying the NIC's existence. My opinion was that NIC should be thinking big in agriculture, in terms of health and wellness where the need is great and the opportunities commensurate.

Now that may be happening. With big thinking from Nebraska native Jeff Raikes, along with substantial funding from his foundation, NIC and other campuses are starting to work seriously on combining agriculture and health research into something that might be called Agriculture 2.0. NIC could be central to this effort.

"There are rich sources of commodities that have been exploited for production, agronomic, and yield traits that have not been exploited for health-promoting traits," a University official said in response to the Raikes challenge.

Well, yes. In case no one's noticed it, Nebraskans and Americans everywhere are suffering and dying from unhealthy food at alarming rates. Glad to see NIC now heading in the right direction. It deserves support and encouragement.

Also heartening is the renewed attention being given at the University to food labeling. One outcome of the new Agriculture 2.0 could be food labels that go beyond listing ingredients, to actually stating how certain foods may increase or reduce the risks of certain diseases. HFCS increases the risk of diabetes, for example. This is appropriate for the University of Nebraska, whose own Dr. Ruth Leverton led the way to create the first USDA food labeling effort. This history is something the Univerity should build upon as it looks for ways to define and create Agriculture 2.0.

What About a "Decent Deal"?

July, 2017

Washington -- Prominent members of the Democratic Party, including a congressman who has designs on House leadership, have recently looked at Democrats' electoral prospects and come to the conclusion that, for large numbers of swing voters across the country, the Democratic brand is held in even lower esteem than is the Trump brand. This is hard to fathom, given the embarrassing incompetence and moral vacuity of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office. But there can be little doubt that it is true. The question is, what are Democrats going to do about it?

One approach is to sharpen the Democrat's economic message, but others caution (wisely in my opinion), that it's not the economy, stupid, it's the culture. Many voters will not move away from Trump regardless of economic issues, because they associate the Democratic Party with a culture that is anathema to them.

But is it really? It wouldn't be if Democrats united around both an economic policy and a culture that Trump voters could embrace in the next election as a refuge from the dangerous directions of the party they put in power. And it wouldn't be if Democrats could unite on something positive they can be for, rather than simply shaking their heads in disgust at the degrading nonsense of Trumpism.

It's time for Democrats to offer that combination in a "Decent Deal."

Foremost in this appellation is the word decent, and all that it offers as a counterweight to the many levels of indecency of the current president.

Next, the word deal elicits memories of the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, and of and Harry Truman and his Fair Deal. In the spirit of bi-partisanship, Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal should not be left out.

Democrats should look to the details of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Square Deal as touchstones to unite its competing factions. The New Deal, with its Social Security and its oversight of financial institutions, is now part of American life but needs continual adjustment and reaffirmation. The Fair Deal, with its focus on racial integration and access to medical care, is a work in progress. The Square Deal, with its emphasis on the environment and trust-busting, is still relevant and critical.

Framing current issues in these terms will not set well with those who want continually to frame politics and elections in ideological terms. This plays into the hands of the not-so-hidden persuaders who have turned descriptors like "liberal" into cultural epithets to turn voters away from Democrats. Most people -- especially swing voters -- actually hold both liberal and conservative views simultaneously, depending on the particulars of an issue, and will welcome relief from divisive ideological battles that never seem to deliver what they want, which is effective, honest government.

A decent deal is all that most voters want out of life. They do not want special privileges, only a decent chance to succeed, and a decent chance for everyone. This is what they will vote for, if given a choice.

A Decent Deal represents the culture of decency and opportunity that Democrats should be offering, and uniting around.





Admissions about College Admissions

July, 2017

Washington -- The struggle for transparency in college admissions and student financial aid got a welcome boost this week from a prominent college president, Morton O. Shapiro of Northwestern University. His analysis (with co-author Gary S. Morson) of the shortcomings of many college officials working in this secretive field, titled "Ethics 101 for Admissions Officers," can be read in the July, 2, 2017 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One pernicious practice Shapiro questions is the gauging of student interest in attending a particular college in order to raise its net price, thus putting financially needy students into greater debt because they naïvely took the college's bait to demonstrate their enrollment intentions. Of this and other such misuse of econometric data collected on students, Shapiro writes that it is "not exactly what the public is led to believe about how the admissions process works."

He adds, "If colleges were open about what they were doing, at least the deception would disappear."

The Shapiro offering comes at the same time Inside Higher Ed has put a spotlight on a recently passed Maryland law that prohibits displacement of outside scholarships at Maryland's public institutions. Opposition to the law was led by college financial aid officials who do not want the public to know how scholarship aid is manipulated to the disadvantage of outside scholarship providers and recipients. Not always, but often grant shell-gaming comes at the expense of the financially needy, who lose institutional grant aid and must take on higher student loan debt. Associations of college financial aid officials will be mounting campaigns to prevent other states from adopting such legislation, on the grounds that how they package financial aid is proprietary information that the public is not entitled to see. Many colleges pay good money for econometric data and algorithms that they would rather not be exposed to public view.

The Secretary of Education could put an end to a lot of this deception and unethical behavior by enforcing the Student Right to Know law (20 USC 1092; 34 CFR 668.42), which provides that students have a right to know how their financial aid is determined. It has been on the books for years without enforcement.

Some college officials defend scholarship displacment because it involves their "own" money, which they say they have a right to spend, or not spend, as they see fit. Setting aside the question of whose money it is (often it is tuition income from other students), as a federal and state taxpayer I certainly have an interest in how such money is spent, if it results in defeating or undermining the purpose of federal programs like Pell grants, which like outside scholarships can also be displaced. Sometimes federal regulations are necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and this is one of them. There is no requirement for colleges to participate in federal programs, but if they do, they must expect to comply with basic rules of program and fiscal integrity.

Orwellian-Named "Agro-terrorism" Bill

July, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Congress has passed and the president has signed legislation to speed up USDA reactions and countermeasures to combat agricultural disasters such as the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza. To control the 2015 outbreak, tens of millions of exposed chickens and turkeys across the Midwest had to be killed to prevent the influenza's spread. The USDA was faulted by producers and consumers alike for its mis-handling of the epidemic.

Iowa Congressman David Young, a sponsor of the legislation, suggests the need for it is to fight "agro-terrorism."

This is more than a stretch, it is downright Orwellian. Theoretically, perhaps, terrorists could infect flocks; but anyone with a little imagination can conjure many situations that terrorists could exploit.

Just for the record, terrorism was not behind the 2015 avian influenza outbreak. The culprit was bad farming practices. Anyone with a basic understanding of raising poultry knows that packing together huge numbers of birds of any kind, especially in dark confined spaces like modern factory-farms, is an invitation to disaster. We are our own terrorists.

My family was once in the pountry business in Nebraska. George Oberg, my great uncle, started the Oberg Hatcheries, training his sons, nephews, and in-laws in the trade. "Best in Chix Since '26" was one of the advertising slogans. Those with a George Oberg connection ran hatcheries for decades in Schuyler, Fremont, Columbus, Leigh, Ceresco, Imperial, and Fairbury. George Oberg became a member of the Nebraska Poultry Hall of Fame, which is located on the campus of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

But the Univesity no longer has a Poultry Science department. It went the way of Oberg Hatcheries when corporate agriculture took over the poultry industry. And now Congress is trying to use the excuse of terrorism to try to clean up the mess that has resulted.



Collision at Sea: USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal

July, 2017

Washington -- The USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with the cargo ship ACX Crystal in the middle of the night last month off the coast of Japan. Early accounts of the accident, in which seven U.S. Navy sailors died, expressed surprise that such a mishap could occur. Why didn't the Fitzgerald lookouts see the lights of other ship? Why didn't Fitzgerald radar track it? Why couldn't a nimble destroyer maneuver out of the way of a clumsy cargo ship? Why wasn't the captain on the bridge?

As a former Navy officer with experience in Japanese seas, I am not surprised at all. Sealanes can be crowded and ships must often avoid several other ships at the same time. Perhaps Fitzgerald was privileged against one but burdened in relation to another under the international rules of the road when Crystal made a sudden turn. Cargo ships are notorious for not following rules and even sailing by "iron mike" with no humans on the bridge. Perhaps the Fitzgerald starboard (the side of the collision) lookout was distracted or reporting other ships to the bridge and missed the moment Crystal's running lights changed color so as to indicate a different aspect of an otherwise invisible ship. The radar operators in CIC behind the Fitzgerald bridge may have been calculating courses and speeds that did not make sense to those on the bridge who had a first-hand view, as can happen. It may have been a wild mid-watch for the Officer of the Deck, who had standing night orders from the captain to wake him under certain conditions, but was hesitant to do so for some reason. Perhaps it all happened so fast, the OOD did not think he had time to awaken the captain and get him to the bridge, even if the captain's sea-cabin was only steps away.

In 1964, I was on a training cruise on the destroyer USS Waller in the Ligurian Sea, off the coast of Italy. It was nighttime. The OOD was Mr. Christian (yes, that was his name). He did not think much of the captain, who was a Captain Bligh type. Despite orders never to sit in the captain's bridge chair, Mr. Christian took pleasure in it on the mid-watch. We did not have any reason to call the captain to the bridge that night, but I suspect Mr. Christian would be reluctant to do so if there was any doubt about it.

In 1967, I was OOD myself aboard USS Rainier in the Tonkin Gulf. A U.S. aircraft carrier crossed paths with us twice. I knew what I was doing (or thought I did) and did not awaken the captain, who was new aboard and untested. In retrospect, perhaps I should have, because the carrier approached within the limits covered by the standing night orders. But at no time was there a situation of "constant bearing, decreasing range," the indication that a collision could happen and the standard to overcome any ambiguity in night orders.

I've known shipmates, qualified OODs, who were reluctant to call a captain to the bridge because they were on his wrong side for one reason or another and did not want yet another chewing out, deserved or not. By the way, the captain I did not call to the bridge was soon to wreck the ship's car late one night in port, while driving intoxicated back to the ship from the officer's club in Subic Bay, the Philippines.

A thorough investigation of the Fitzgerald collision will take place to try to determine the cause of it. It was tragic not only because seven lives were lost, but because Fitzgerald sailors had to make life and death decisions either to try to rescue their shipmates or to seal off hatches and doorways to keep the ship afloat, saving the lives of others. For my part, I'd like to know the relationship between the captain and his OOD that night. Navy tradition will hold the captain responsible whatever the circumstances (and I don't take issue with that tradition), but in so doing it may miss an opportunity to look into issues of character and leadership that may have been contributory.








What Republicans Must Do Now

June, 2017

Lincoln -- In recent posts I've been hard on the man we somehow elected president, as well as on the Democratic Party for losing touch with too many voters. It's about time to focus on Republican voters who with their votes have put the country and its institutions in great peril. What do Republican voters do now to right the ship of state?

Previous posts have looked at political choices in the context of a healthy, two-party system of government. One-party government, I believe, is asking for trouble regardless of party and regardless of level – local, state, or federal. Voters in both parties should want a healthy, competitive two-party system to encourage good candidates to run on both tickets, so that there is a responsible alternative when one party governs poorly or, in the current case, dangerously.

I've heard from Republican friends who say they voted for Trump not because they wanted to, but because they did not believe there was an alternative. The choice was made easier for them because they did not think such a man could ever win, so their vote was more of a protest than a choice. And, being bombarded by ever-more divisive partisan shouting, they say they will vote for him again.

Here's what responsible Republicans can do to restore a healthy two-party system, even if they cannot bring themselves to vote Democratic:

• Vote, but understand that there is no obligation to vote in every race. Leaving some contests blank sends a protest message in itself. Sometimes it just makes sense to take a pass on a contest. In 2014, Maryland voters, in a nearly one-party Democratic state, declined to support what they perceived as a weak Democratic candidate; the Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor with largely Republican votes. This will have a salubrious effect on future races, as potential candidates in both parties will know it is possible to win.

• Oppose gerrymandering and support all efforts to eliminate it. Gerrymandering is both a cause and an effect of one-party government.

• Do not support dark money candidates funded by 501(c)4 sources with an agenda that is eager to tear down our country's most hallowed institutions. Watch out especially for those who celebrate rather than lament misrule.

• Oppose measures that limit the voting franchise. If you don't understand how such limitations work, read federal appeals court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz's opinion in a North Carolina case, a decision so well crafted the Supreme Court has no appetite to review it.

If there is one thing Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on, it is that our system of government needs candidates who can compete for votes based on their attractiveness, not on which is the lesser evil. But that will require thoughtful voters in both parties, which at this point is particularly required of decent and patriotic Republicans.

War and Peace with Germany

June, 2017

Berlin and Lincoln -- Am I the only one who shudders at the spectacle of a German chancellor addressing a crowd in a Munich beer hall, announcing that Germany henceforth will have to go its own way? It happened last week. Didn't a would-be (and future) chancellor say essentially the same thing in a Munich beer hall in 1923? Yes. We know how that turned out.

Times and issues are different, but it's worth looking at what Germany now sees as its own way and how geopolitically the situations are similar, albeit for different reasons. Germany has a fundamental interest in the Baltic States and in Eastern Europe for security reasons, with or without American partnership through NATO. Germany's relationship with Turkey, because of the large Turkish population left over from the Wirtschaftswunder, has dimensions beyond America's view of Turkey's importance. India and China are rushing in to fill a relationship with Germany being vacated by America. In technology, trade, and geopolitics, America will be left in the dust.

How will these changing relationships affect, say, America's effort to keep the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean from being taken over by China's rapidly expanding navies? It's hard to see how a split in German-American relations is going to have anything but a very bad outcome.

What if Russia continues to press forward in Ukraine and the Baltics under the ruse that it is protecting Russian nationals in those countries? Does Germany push back to protect German nationals in Kaliningrad (Königsberg, the city of Kant). Not without NATO's nuclear weapons behind it, you might think, if we are thinking the unthinkable. But Germany is aligned in continental Europe with France, itself a nuclear power, a country America seems equally intent on breaking up with.

Why is this even a topic of discussion? Didn't we Americans shed blood and treasure in two world wars to overcome the horrors of German nationalism? How can this be happening? Was last weekend's Memorial Day celebration for naught?

My own family has a history of war and peace with Germany. Three of my great uncles fought Germany in WWI; all were wounded (two seriously for life). Five of my first cousins, once removed, fought in WWII; three as navy officers, one as an infantryman, one as a paratrooper. When my time came for navy service a generation later, after two tours in the South China Sea I was sent to Germany as part of the U.S. European Command. In Stuttgart, I joined a German-American friendship group, the Metropolitan Club, and married one of its members. We raised two children who attended both American and German schools. Now adults, one lives in Maryland and one in Berlin. My dear wife is deceased. She would be appalled at recent developments. She was a great friend of America. As a high school student in Stuttgart, she amassed a collection of German newspaper and magazine articles about America, especially about President Kennedy and his support of West Germany in the face of Soviet aggression. Her collection is now in Lincoln, Nebraska, resting uneasy in a state that voted for an unworthy and unfit successor president who in his recklessness dishonors patriots who fought the wars and won the peace.



Democrats: Think Culture, Not Just Policy and Ideology

May, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Our two-party system in the United States, and in many individual states, is in trouble. Many of our constitutional checks and balances are undermined because of it. One-party government at any level is not good, be it one party or the other.

Although much commentary these days is devoted to dysfunction in the Republican Party, that party has enjoyed much electoral success at both national and state levels. How that success was achieved is problematic (gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money and the like), but this post is devoted to the issues in the Democratic Party that are equally a threat to a healthy two-party system. This is a continuation of an earlier post about Democratic Party failures.

That post explored the idea that party platforms and policies can be overstated in their effect on voter behavior. If voters do not feel a cultural affinity to a party, they may well vote against policies that would otherwise benefit them. The Democratic Party is slow to recognize this. It needs to show less scorn for voters it has lost and more concern for bringing voters back by offering a political culture that is a credible alternative to the wildly careening, morally off-putting culture that has come to represent the Republican Party.

Here are some suggestions for the Democratic Party that would be appropriate to recapture voters in the Upper Midwest and Plains States, especially, in terms of political culture:

• Recapture the flag of agrarian populism, once closely aligned with the Democratic Party. The issues that animated farmers and laborers of decades ago (corporate monopolies, crop price parity, credit policy, tariffs and trade) have not gone away.

• Associate policies and politicians' behaviors more closely with the religious faiths many voters hold strongly. Many religious texts teach the values of helping the poor, of being the keeper of one's neighbors, of stewardship of the land and nature, of showing compassion and humility. An outside observer would surely be astounded that the Republican Party has appropriated religion to its benefit, and that the Democratic Party, whose policies are often more attuned to such texts, has increasingly disassociated itself from religious faith.

• Be proud of America's historical role in international affairs. America has stood for universal human rights and values, through war and peace. There have been mistakes and setbacks, but now is the time for the Democratic Party to assert its continuing, hard-won vision for a world that values human rights in all countries. The Republican Party's affinity to dictators should be a cultural disconnect to many troubled voters whose families and friends gave much in the cause of human rights, fighting dictatorships.

• Advocate for good, honest, moral government, including the reduction of economic inequality, through fiscally responsible approaches. The Democratic Party must talk sense about government in the face of nihilistic theories that would have voters believe all goverment and all taxation is bad. Most voters want their local, state, and federal governments to work efficiently and for the benefit of the whole society.

The goal of the Democratic Party should be to offer voters a safe political refuge, in a cultural context they can relate to without apology. Many of these voters have voted Democratic before, so it should not be difficult to move enough voters to restore a healthier two-party system. This approach is much preferable to the recent efforts of the Democratic Party to rely on identity politics, demographics, and ridicule of the opposition to win elections. That approach has failed.

Note that there is no discussion here of ideology, as in "moving left" or "moving right." Many voters do not adhere to an ideology; their behaviors and beliefs run the ideological gamut. They can be liberal on some matters and conservative on others, and even proud of it.

It is political culture that must now be the greater concern.




Burning and Looting, 21st Century Version

May, 2017

Berlin -- The city survived another May Day (Labor Day in Germany) without burning and looting. Some demonstrators brought their own canned smoke, which is progress compared to the riots of previous years. This was the 30th anniversary of the worst of the excesses, when arson and plundering prevailed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Around Mariannenplatz this year all was festive with many children especially delighted to get big, animal-shaped balloons from vendors. Turkish families and organizations provided dozens of tables of food up and down Oranienstrasse and several other streets, which were turned over to pedestrians. No cars in sight: less temptation for trouble-makers to overturn vehicles and set them on fire.

A more meaningful event, to me, was held two days before on Petersburgerplatz in nearby Friedrichshain, where a few hundred people gathered to protest the Bayer-Monsanto merger. It was organized by farmers, bakers, bee-keepers, and environmentalists. Some in the crowd wore bee costumes; one man came as a bear (to show love for honey, presumably). I joined the marchers as they proceeded down the boulevard toward Frankfurter Tor.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln daily newspaper reports an effort to save monarch butterflies and other pollinators by planting milkweed, but treads lightly on who and what is killing the pollinators off. That would be, in significant part, the Bayers and Monsantos of the world. It will take more than planting milkweed for pollinators to recover, and more than using pesticides and herbicides carefully as directed, as this and other such articles always advise. It is the ubiquitous use of these products that is the problem, not a matter of following application directions. This is the issue that must be faced. We are burning and looting our natural resources, 21st century style.