Germany's Options to Save the Western Alliance

June, 2018

Berlin -- Western Europe is looking to save itself from a rogue U.S. president who seems bent on disrupting if not destroying the defense and economic alliances that have served our common interests so well since World War II.

European leadership in this crisis must come from the German government in Berlin.

Germany could do as Gaullist France did in 1966: assert itself by removing U.S. troops from the country. Or Germany could embark on a trade war. But these options only weaken all parties and make the alliances even more vulnerable.

A move that would make Western Europe's point and actually strenghten all the parties in our alliances would be for Germany quickly to fulfill its pledge to increase its defense spending to 2% of GDP. Currently it is at about 1.3%.

But the increased spending would not be for conventional NATO purposes; it would be for increased cybersecurity, to fend off hacking and social media threats from both the east (Putin) and the west (Trump).

In addition to increasing spending for security measures along an east-west axis, Germany should also be prepared to spend more to defend itself and Western Europe along a north-south axis. This will require investments and new defense and economic alliances with the countries of North Africa, to stem the flow of dispossessed peoples into Europe.

Such bold moves by Germany would make an indelible impression around the world. They would be welcomed by its Western European partners and by many if not most Americans, who likewise are troubled by the crisis needlessly fomented by our own president.

One Reform to Save America

June, 2018

Washington -- The conservative pundit David Brooks and I would not agree on everything, but I can't say enough good about his recent column on how voting reforms are the most promising cure for our increasingly destructive two-party polarization.

Ranked-choice voting and multimember congressional districts have much to offer. Maine voters are leading the way on ranked choice voting this month. Let this adage once more come true: As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Eight years ago I wrote in favor of voting reforms that would bring the advantages of proportional representation into our national politics. There is nothing in our Constitution that mandates political parties and winner-take-all voting. These matters are under the jurisdiction of states. In fact, many local governments already utilize ranked choice (instant run-off) voting and multimember districts, so these concepts are hardly new.

Brooks' column is titled "One Reform to Save America." This is not hyperbole. We should get on with it.

Exploiting Veterans and the Military

May, 2018

Washington and Lincoln -- It's Memorial Day and a time to think of veterans past, present, and future.

The New York Times led off the day with a harsh but truthful look at how veterans are being exploited by predatory colleges. It is shameful; it is corrupt, there are no other words for it. As a veteran myself, I assist as much as I can those who are in the fight to protect veterans, but it is a difficult struggle when so much of the country willfully turns a blind eye to it.

Then there is the news that my U.S. senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, supports taking money out of the federal Impact Aid program to support private elementary and secondary schools for the children of those in the military. Impact Aid now supports public schools to make up for the loss of taxable property in locations where there are large military bases. Bellevue and Papillion in Nebraska are examples of school districts where there are many military schoolchildren but a small tax base due to the presence of Offut Air Force Base.

When I worked in the U.S. Senate many years ago, Impact Aid was targeted for cuts by Ronald Reagan. The cuts had no real rationale behind them other than that Nebraska should be happy to have the presence of Offut and that state, not federal, taxpayers should be responsible for equalizing property tax bases among districts.

Bellevue and Papillion school boards approached Nebraska Senator Jim Exon about fighting the cuts to Impact Aid. He was a member of the Armed Services Committee and well-positioned to lead the fight. And lead he did, organizing a hearing at which he was joined by his committee colleagues Sam Nunn of Georgia, John Warner of Virginia, John Tower of Texas, and others to keep Impact Aid intact.

If memory serves (I assisted with the testimony), John Chafee of Rhode Island, a former Secretary of the Navy, and James Abnor of South Dakota also fought the cuts vigorously. Abnor was particularly concerned about the effect of the cuts on South Dakota counties with Indian Reservations.

The effort succeeded. Impact Aid survived intact.

How times change. Now my Nebraska senator would take funds from Impact Aid with the rationale that military families will choose to take their children out of public schools, so districts like Bellevue and Papillion will have fewer pupils and therefore need less support.

If I were still writing testimony on Impact Aid, I would raise another question. Is it good to promote, with federal funds, an educational system in which military families are incentivized to leave the the public schools? The public schools are institutions that bring communities together, where civilians and military families mix and learn from each other. The public schools are places where our common heritage and common values are taught. Increasingly, non-public schools and home-based schools are teaching their own versions of our country, promoting nativist and sectarian ideologies. Many military children go into military service themselves. Is it for support of such ideological causes our future military is being prepared?

Looking at these matters from a veteran's viewpoint, I think we are on dangerous ground here at all levels of education, from elementary school through college. What are we becoming as a nation, when veterans and those in military service are not so much to be honored as exploited?

Don Bacon's Farm Bill

May, 2018

Lincoln -- On April 30, 2018, a dust storm swept across central Nebraska. Visibility was so bad that traffic on Interstate 80 was halted after a twenty-nine vehicle pile-up that caused one fatality. The source of the dust? Blowing farm fields, inadequately protected by conservation measures.

On May 18, Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted for a farm bill that kills the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation's largest conservation program for working farms. Nebraska, moreover, has been the nation's largest beneficiary of CSP in terms of acres covered, almost eight hundred thousand in 2017. But clearly not enough.

This could not have been an easy vote for Don Bacon, hurting Nebraska so hard, assuming he understood what he was voting on.

Historically, farm bills have been developed on a bipartisan basis with the needs of different parts of the country taken into account. This one, however, was a partisan product of the Republican leadership, for which conservation is a low priority. Congress being what it is these days, Don Bacon saw no option but to put partisanship above soil health. Let the fields blow.

Fortunately, the bill did not pass. It is widely seen as the worst farm bill in memory. Conservative organizations such as the Cato Institute, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action oppose it. So do many farmer-led organizations. Conservation and natural resource groups are dead set against it to the point of outrage.

Unfortunately, Speaker Paul Ryan will try to bring the bill up again, to force it through the House on a party-line vote. The Republican leadership wants political talking points about putting more work requirements on food stamp (SNAP) recipients, sensing (perhaps correctly) that it can take rural America voters for granted and need not address rural America's needs. The major media seem happy to play along, as there has been scant coverage of anything that is actually in the farm bill beyond the SNAP issue.

Apologists for the bill say some of the savings from killing CSP will be redirected to other conservation programs, such as EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This is good if you want taxpayer dollars moved from land stewardship to helping feedlots and huge chicken farms expand across the countryside, as is now happening around Fremont. Maybe that's the future Don Bacon sees for the remaining rural areas of Douglas County.

Adding insult to injury, the bill does not modernize and reform crop insurance as it should, to encourage farmers to plant cover crops to protect the soil. Instead, it wastes $3.4 billion (over ten years) in unnecessary subsidies (according to CBO scoring) and even retreats from the crop insurance reforms that were enacted in the 2014 Farm Bill. Think what $3.4 billion could have done for soil conservation.

Cogent reviews of the House farm bill and its conservation issues have been written by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Rural Advancement Foundation International.
For a broader look, check out Farm and Food File; if you can stand to be really appalled about what is happening to the Great Plains, read "Kansas Is Dying."

Because this is not a partisan blog, I should note that Democrats are hardly being helpful in bringing the farm bill's shortcomings to public attention. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi visited an Iowa farm on May 7 and said nothing about how the troubling provisions in the bill are hurting rural America. Although Democrats have pointed out the bill's lamentable attempt to end bipartisan farm bill cooperation over food stamp issues, at the national level they have been silent as to what they stand for in the rest of the bill, if anything.

It remains a mystery as to how Democrats think they can win elections in rural America by ignoring it. Rural voters may develop suspicions about whether the Don Bacons of the world are watching out for their interests (clearly not), but they will ask Democrats what they are for, and Democrats need to be ready with answers, rather than silence.

Iron Triangles: Part VII

May, 2018

Washington -- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has twice this year admonished Education Department employees that they must not communicate with others outside the department. The first was a crackdown of communications between budget and appropriations officials. The second is more general warning that employment at the department is a "public trust" and all outside communications must be cleared, even by departmental attorneys if necessary.

All I can say is that if there is any breach of the public trust going on, it is being committed by the Secretary and her appointees, who are rife with conflicts of interest and whose policies are inimical to the very concept of public trust. The latest violation of such a trust is the disestablishment of the office to police fraud by for-profit colleges. As one victim of the DeVos reign put it, “Those people who are in those high positions — they need to look at themselves....I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

Viewed historically, however, this behavior is typical of what happens when outside interests capture the government and turn it to their own ends through establishment of an iron triangle. Currently the for-profit college industry has its people in control at both the Education Department and at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. They are dismantling consumer protections everywhere they find them.

It is not the first time. From 2002-2006 the House committee was led by Congressmen John Boehner and Buck McKeon. McKeon owned stock in a for-profit college (Corinthian) when he presided over higher education policy. The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the time, Sally Stroup, had been a lobbyist for the for-profit college industry as well as a former member of the committee's staff. Together, they pushed through repeal of a previous consumer protection statute known as the fifty-percent rule.

The rule had been put in place after Senator Sam Nunn's hearings on corruption in the for-profit sector in 1990. The idea was that a college could not offer more than fifty percent of its programs online, in order to discourage fly-by-night online operators. When McKeon and Stroup got the consumer protection repealed, the for-profit industry boomed.

In 2012, Senator Tom Harkin opened more hearings on fraud in the for-profit college industry. Two years later, McKeon left the House, but not before had taken advantage of the iron triangle to recover from his California western-wear store's bankruptcy, in part by using political campaign contributions from the for-profit college industry to pay his wife to be his campaign manager. In the meantime, after Stroup's departure from the Education Department, she went back to work for McKeon in the House and eventually returned to her position as a very well paid lobbyist for the industry through 2015.

The DeVos threats against Education Department employees who speak up against iron triangle behavior of any kind will likely succeed, I'm afraid. One reason is that federal employees are kept in the dark about the Lloyd-Lafollette Act, under which they may legally and properly share their concerns about waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement with Congress and its agencies. It would be good to see Education Department employees take the "public trust" argument and turn it right back against iron triangle behavior wherever and whenever it occurs. The DeVos administration is nothing if not a gross abuser of programs intended to help students and families, not to ruin countless lives with worthless degrees and unmanageable student debt.

Farm Bill in Trouble, As It Should Be

May, 2018

Lincoln -- Today the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the 2018 Farm Bill, but for the wrong reason: the House Freedom Caucus wanted a vote on immigration first.

Republicans have now gone on record that they would rather play politics on immigration than pass the Farm Bill for rural America. Apparently it is a calculation that Democrats are so weak in rural America that Republicans can neglect heartland voters with impunity, and get by with it. They may be right, as Democrats have shown no savvy in crafting their own version of the legislation that would signal a return to political competitiveness in the heartland.

This particular Farm Bill, let it be noted, deserves to be voted down on its own accord, politics aside. It is a remarkably bad bill. The non-partisan National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offered this:

“This bill is an insult to the American family farmers and rural communities who are responsible for putting food on our families’ tables each night,” said Greg Fogel, NSAC Policy Director. “For over 30 years, our coalition has been fighting for a stronger, more sustainable and equitable food and farm system – and we’ve seen real progress being made. Congress has advanced many important issues in recent years, including efforts to strengthen working lands conservation and increase support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The farm bill before the House today, however, will go down in history as being one of the most anti-farmer bills ever seen.It is a shame that the bill drafters have thrown away the bipartisan legacy of the farm bill, and instead chosen to provide unlimited subsidies to mega-farms, undermine rural entrepreneurship and make it more difficult for farmers to access new markets, and decimate our natural resources by cutting support for working lands conservation programs and eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program completely. We sincerely hope that Members will do the right thing this week, and vote on this bill."

NSAC is right, which raises the question of how Nebraska House members Don Bacon, Adrian Smith, and Jeff Fortenberry could have voted for it. It should be an albatross around each of their necks in November.

I expect Kara Eastman, the new Democratic nominee in Nebraska's second congressional district, will be all over Bacon for his vote for this insult to farmers. Bacon beat Brad Ashford in 2016 with strong support in rural areas around Omaha, but is this the Farm Bill those rural voters will support? Not if they know what's in it.* Bacon has no excuse for it, as he is even a member of the committee that brought the bill to the floor.

*H.R. 2 has also been panned by a multitude of conservation and rural-advocacy organizations, including the National Farmers Union and the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. Organizations on the right of the political spectrum don't like it either: Heritage Action for America, The Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks said in a letter, “The House Agriculture Committee farm bill, which is expected to be debated on the House floor in May, is unacceptable." Religious groups have also weighed in: “Providing food for those suffering from hunger is central to our Christian faith. The United Methodist Church understands this call not simply as a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice,” said the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry Crowe, general secretary of the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.

Academic Program Cuts at UNL

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The UNL chancellor has announced cuts to several academic programs in response to the Nebraska legislature's reductions in university appropriations. The fact that the reductions could have been much worse should not take attention away from the implications of the new rollbacks.

In a previous post, I suggested that the governor and the legislature should be demanding more from the university to help the state's agriculture sector, as opposed to trying to cut appropriations as a way to prosperity. The UNL college of agriculture should be a particular focus.

It is therefore not a good signal that the chancellor's first cut is to eliminate the Rural Futures Institute, launched in 2012 to considerable fanfare. Unless, of course, the RFI interdisciplinary approach to reviving rural Nebraska has not measured up and indeed should be on the chopping block. My sense of RFI is that it has had an impossible task given national and state trends in agriculture. On top of that, its approach was too much cheerleading and not enough sober assessment of the fundamentals of rural economies as they now exist given failing national agriculture policy.

Another cut that raises eyebrows is the downsizing of the Survey Research and Methodology Program and a concomitant re-arrangement of funding for the department of statistics. At a time when the integrity of academic research is threatened as never before by funding sources who want to skew findings favorable to their interests, universities need strong efforts in research methodology and statistics.*

The other cuts are more understandable. Universities must constantly update, which requires cutting as well as adding. Sometimes funding pressures can actually be good for institutional renewal.

The chancellor doubtless was tempted to cut the English department, as it has been attacked by a few in the Nebraska legislature who do not approve of its curriculum. Commendably, he did not succumb.

I must relate an anecdote about English teachers from two days ago, when I attended the annual Ron Ridenhour awards ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, sponsored by the Project on Goverment Oversight. Ridenhour was a courageous Vietnam veteran and reporter who first chronicled the My Lai massacre, fifty years ago. His eyewitness source was Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who stopped the massacre by use of force against his fellow servicemen who were committing it. After Hugh Thompson left the Army he sought guidance about whether he should participate in a cover-up of the massacre. His old Boy Scout leader and his old football coach advised him to stay quiet. His English teacher told him of his moral duty to speak up. We are a better country for that English teacher.

* If any statistics faculty are losing their jobs, they could get a measure of poetic justice on their way out the door by instructing the chairman of the board of regents and the president of the university about how to calculate and describe percentages. Both the chairman and the president, during this year's budget battle with the legislature, claimed that UNL administrative costs were "125% lower" than such costs at peer institutions in other states. Meaning what, exactly? That they were less than zero? The actual numbers, it turns out, are these: UNL, $52 million; peer group, $117 million. The former is not "125% lower" than the latter. Correctly expressed, one can say the peer group is 125% higher than UNL, or UNL is 44% of the peer group. The same error was made in describing UNO against its peer group, claiming that it was "100% lower." Again, meaning what, that UNO had no administrative costs whatsoever? What was meant, apparently, is that UNO costs are 50% of its peer group, or its peer group is 100% higher than UNO; that is, twice as high. UNO is not "100% lower." This is embarrassing for a research university.

Two 'Debficits'

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Legislature is adjourning without providing property tax relief, further stressing the hard-pressed agriculture sector. The state budget simply can't sustain even the paltry amount half-heartedly offered by the governor. Now the state is facing a voter referendum on property taxes that may throw the state into fiscal chaos not seen in decades.

At the federal level, the Congressional Budget Office has just projected this year's federal deficit to exceed one trillion dollars, with many more such deficits projected far into the future. This is a huge reversal in the fiscal condition of the federal government, which in recent years had actually been cutting deficits.

These two dangerous conditions would not have developed had elected officials – one in particular – only abided by basic tenets of fiscal responsibility.

At the state level, when times were momentarily flush for agriculture, and when state revenues were growing nicely in 2011 and 2012, the legislature took a portion of the sales tax base and dedicated it to highway construction. This was a risky move as it violated a commonly accepted principle of public budgeting and finance: user taxes should pay for roads and sales taxes for general government. Rather than raising gas taxes, which for many years had been declining as a percentage of gas prices and construction needs, the legislature took tens of millions of dollars annually away from sales tax revenue, a textbook source of local property tax relief. The predictable happened: the farm economy faltered, land prices did not decline commensurately, and the state became crippled, unable to respond to the property tax crisis squeezing Nebraska's all-important agriculture sector.

At the federal level, Congress passed an unfunded tax bill in December of 2017, followed by a huge spending bill in early 2018. The combination is sending the federal deficit to unprecedented and dangerous levels.

One elected official has been instrumental in all three acts of breathtaking fiscal irresponsibility: Deb Fischer. As a state senator, she led the raid on the state sales tax base, which should have been preserved for property tax relief. As a U.S. senator, she voted for both the tax bill and the spending bill, sending the annual federal deficit over a trillion dollars.

Her name is now synonymous with deficits at both state and federal levels. Henceforth in Nebraska the word "deficit" should be called "Debficit."

It is no wonder that Deb Fischer has many challengers this election year, and that her re-election chances have been declining somewhat. Particularly in the Third District she may be weaker than many people assume. Nebraskans in this district especially want property tax relief and want their candidates to support federal fiscal responsibility, if not outright balanced budgets. Deb Fischer has a terrible record on both.

Demanding More from NU Investment

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The 2018 Nebraska legislative session is over and the University of Nebraska budget escaped with only relatively minor cuts. The governor and several state senators had wanted much deeper reductions, given state government's bleak revenue outlook.

A question was tossed my way when I was in Lincoln during the session: as a person who once worked on such matters for many years, would I cut the NU budget?

The short answer is no, but I would demand more from the university in areas crucial to Nebraska's future. Let me explain.

A case can be made that Nebraska spends more on higher education compared to other states and, therefore, cutbacks might be in order, especially in times of state revenue shortfalls. But a case can also be made that Nebraska ranks high as a good place to live and that its overall educational system is among the top ten in the country.

I'd venture that there is some level of causality at work here, not just fortuitious correlations. Nebraska's investment in higher education may be somewhat high, but so are the returns.

Looking at the Nebraska economy, we see the Omaha and Lincoln urban areas doing well. I think it's reasonable for the university – UNL, UNO, and UNMC – to take a considerable measure of credit for it. The engineering and business colleges, the professional schools of medicine, dentistry, law, and pharmacy, and especially the departments in the arts and sciences that do the heavy intellectual lifting, should be recognized for their roles in this good fortune.

Rural Nebraska is another story, however. The agricultural sector is doing poorly and is responsible for the state's revenue woes. Which raises the question of the responsibility of the state's college of agriculture.

Of course it's not just Nebraska's ag economy that is suffering; the nation's whole farm belt is in crisis. So it's hardly fair to target one college for falling short, let alone single it out for budget cuts.

Rather, I believe, more should be demanded of this college, and of other such colleges of agriculture across the country at land-grant universities. What does it take to get the agricultural economy healthy again? This should be the burning question at both the Nebraska statehouse and at the university.

And is it even appropriate to think in terms of making Nebraska agriculture "healthy again"? The state's rural areas (and its towns and cities) have been depopulating for decades. Some say it is unavoidable and inevitable; others say it is the legacy of the ag economists who were the hand-maidens of those who would turn agriculture from a way of life for many into a business opportunity for few. I lean toward the latter explanation.

There is a way out. At last the spell of Earl Butz ("Get big or get out") is being broken by those who recognize the promise of new, emerging markets. See, for example, Harvesting Opportunity by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which sees substantial local and regional market potential. The "feed the world" school of thought has also been dealt a blow by the NYT series on world obesity; to what end has American agriculture's "fencerow to fencerow" production been put? The answer to that does not bode well for the current Nebraska agricultural economy, but it may stimulate moves toward nutrition-based rather than calorie-based production, which would be good for all of us, here and abroad.

At a minimum, Nebraska legislators and taxpayers should be looking to the state's agriculture college and demanding a Plan B based on Nebraska's own comparative advantages of land, water, and human resources. Agronomists trying to squeeze another bushel of yield out of corn or Extension agents instructing farmers in the use of dicamba are not going to solve the sector's problems. In fact, they may worsen them. Bolder thinking is in order.

It's long past time not to slash away at the university's budget indiscriminately, but to demand more from our investment, especially in agriculture-related areas.

Readers' Reactions and Questions

April, 2018

Lincoln and Berlin -- This blog admittedly jumps around with regard both to its geographical perspective ("Three Capitals") and its subject matter. I am often taken by surprise myself at what can pop up as a topic at any given time.

Contacts with readers are important determinants of the varied subjects of these blog posts. For example, several readers have appreciated the recent six-part Iron Triangle series; likely there will be more such.

Today's post takes note of recent, unexpected but welcome reader questions about posts from a few years ago.

One reader, having read my post about Edith Schwartz Clements, wanted more information about her. Several exchanges later, I was delighted to see two new references (here and here) to the pioneer ecologist's remarkable life and work.

This was not the first time I was contacted about Edith Clements, as another reader's curiosity helped lead to an excellent Wikipedia entry about her. This led to yet another short biography of Edith Clements, who is finally getting recognition long overdue.

Another reader, a New York publisher, having read my posts about the books of Gretchen Klotz Dutschke, recently asked for her contact information. Gretchen, a good friend who knows Germany as no one else possibly can, has a new book out that made its appearance last month at the Leipzig book fair. I hope that putting the publisher in touch with her will soon lead to a book in English for an American readership.

As noted in the author profile sidebar (above), I welcome comments and questions from researchers and others with an interest in the subjects covered in this blog. It is especially gratifying to have had questions that led to a wider appreciation of noteworthy people like Edith Schwartz Clements and Gretchen Klotz Dutschke.