Topsoil as Infrastructure

Lincoln -- It's likely Congress will pass infrastructure legislation in the coming year to rebuild roads, bridges, railways, airports, harbors, power grids, and the like. Without doubt, the nation's infrastructure has been neglected and has deteriorated over decades of increasing demands. Infrastructure improvements are also an important source of jobs.

But rebuilding the nation's deterioriating topsoil will not be on the list of infrastructure improvements because, as most any politician will tell you, that's a matter for the farm bill, not an infrastructure bill.

This is a mistake for multiple reasons:

• The enormous loss of topsoil is arguably more severe than the deteriorations in any other category. The United States loses an average of three tons per acre per year. It may sound alarmist, but responsible estimates suggest that, at current rates of loss, the world has only sixty years of topsoil left.

• The current farm bill has been a disaster, cutting soil and water conservation programs while encouraging agricultural overproduction, which in turn depresses prices and farm income but increases federal spending on subsidies.

• Unmitigated topsoil erosion presents a huge cost to other infrastructure improvements. If soil and water were retained better on the land, consider how much longer roads and bridges would last, how less frequently rivers and harbors would require dredging, how cities would save on stormwater infrastructure, and how cleaner water would result from better natural filtration, lessening costs of water treatment facilities. Consider as well how hydroelectric plants would generate electricity more efficiently, and how much healthier our off-shore reefs and fisheries would be.

• "Green infrastructure" involves construction projects much the same as other infrastructure efforts. Examples: aquifer recharge structures, bio-swales, wetlands restorations, terraces and waterways, small watershed dams, pervious pavements, and rainwater harvesting facilities, just to name a few. No one should forget the substantial infrastructure effort (shelterbelts and cover crops) put forth in the 1930s to combat the Dust Bowl; all that has largely disappeared.

• Infrastruce improvements have health and safety implications, with concomitant economic benefits. Safer transportation systems are an obvious example. Likewise, topsoil is a health and safety issue. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide run-off is a major problem all the way up and down the food chain.

So what is stopping Congress from addressing topsoil deterioration as an infrastructure issue? Lack of imagination, for one thing. Silo thinking ("it's a farm bill issue") for another. Congressional rules also can get in the way. However, Congress increasingly turns to so-called reconciliation bills to get around jurisdictional problems and filibusters. Next year's infrastructure bill could be handled through reconciliation.

Maybe Nebraska's congressional delegation would step up? It should, not only for the good of the country but also to get a share of federal infrastructure spending for the country's heartland.

Deep Regrets and Narrowed Opportunities in Higher Education

Washington -- Those who work in higher education policy, who care deeply about the well-being of students, families, and taxpayers in the administration of federal higher education programs, are surely feeling dismayed at the prospect that the Trump Administration will roll back well-intentioned efforts to protect these vulnerable and often-neglected constituencies. I know I am.

These efforts over recent years have resulted in regulations and program adaptations that aim to protect student loan borrowers, student victims of illegal for-profit college practices, and students who suffer under all manner of civil rights violations.

But there should also be a feeling of deep regret that more was not done, when there was plenty of opportunity, to work these protections into law and into the fabric of the federal system through which higher education is organized and managed in this country. Why wasn't more of an effort made to:

• Reduce student loan borrowing by requiring states and institutions to keep up their financial support, in exchange for federal dollars, through state and institutional matching and maintenance of effort requirements? It has been clear for many years (indeed, decades) that federal aid increases have been undermined, especially by reductions in state support.

• Protect for-profit college students by requiring states to share the responsibility against financial ruin of students and families who were duped by false advertising and illegal recruiting? Such a requirement would have complemented the federal Gainful Employment regulations and served as a fail-safe backup against the weakening or elimination of the regulations. If states had been required to put up funding as match or as insurance in the first place, the problems never would have grown as they did. Most state legislatures would never fund dubious enterprises like many of the for-profit colleges; they are almost entirely a federal government creation.

• Advance civil rights protections through state attorney general offices? Although some AGs have stepped up, many have not and the whole subject is fraught with problems of jurisdiction, mishandling of due process, and concerns of federal overreach.

I'd like some answers, or at least a discussion. Why did so many people think 100% federally funded programs, accompanied by ever-increasing regulations to try to control the inevitable abuses that occur with such programs, would work on their own without being simultaneously woven into our national/state/local system of federalism? One answer is hubris among those who placed their faith in a benevolent federal government over their fears for the constituencies they presumably were out to protect. As we should have seen from past experience, the power of the national government is not always exercised toward good ends.

There is an opportunity to salvage some protections for students, families, and taxpayers through the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. But success will depend on the outcome of a struggle within the Republican Party between those who sincerely believe that federalism can tame crony capitalism, and those who want to use the Department of Education as a giant piggy-bank to reward corporate interests and their associated political campaign beneficiaries who stand to gain billions of dollars from exploiting these constituencies. The stock market has already placed its bets on the latter, guessing that for-profit colleges will be unharnessed to return to their anything-goes days, and that the financial services industry will somehow get back the income stream or other largess from federal student loans.

I'm thinking the stock market has it right. Federalism of any kind, let alone progressive federalism, has not had much of a foothold in federal higher education policy for decades. Students, families, and taxpayers: prepare for difficult times.

On the other hand, the reauthorization of the HEA has a history of being a bipartisan effort. Several Republicans are amenable to injecting "skin in the game" provisions into the HEA, which are the essence of federalism. Conservative think tanks like AEI have creative ideas that could replace student loans with an IRS line of credit. Some Republicans may still be repulsed by the waste, fraud, and abuse that ensued with the last round of crony capitalism that ran rampant for years and still has not been eradicated from the Department of Education. Democrats have an opportunity, albeit a narrow one, to carve out a higher education agenda for the HEA that protects students, families, and taxpayers. The question is, will they pursue it?

Not a "Positive" Idea At All

Lincoln -- A Lincoln businessman and Marine Corps veteran appeared before the NU Board of Regents to ask for plaques on Memorial Stadium to honor veterans killed in war. He said this would be an appropriate and positive response to three football players who knelt, rather than stood, during the national anthem at a game, actions he disapproved although he recognized the players' right to do so.

“I said there’s the high road and the low road,” he said. “I could blow it off and not do anything, or I can do something positive.”

As a veteran myself, I don't think this is positive. It would represent not-so-subtle retaliation against the players, juxtaposed as it is so clearly against their actions; moreover, it would diminish the NU president's affirmation of the students' rights to express their opinions. As a veteran, I don't want veterans' names and causes used in a tit-for-tat contest against the right of free speech. It comes across as snarky, not patriotic. Veterans sacrificed for freedom of speech and other freedoms and should not be mis-used in an effort to diminish or demean the exercise of those freedoms.

And where would the money come from? This Lincoln businessman already has a history of making suggestions for dubious uses of other peoples' tax dollars. Many of us can think of better uses for the $500,000 that this plaque project would cost. The same goes for privately-raised money. For example, the UNL History Department does not have any of its faculty devoted to Nebraska state and local history. Rather than plaques, how about some research on just who these veterans were and why we should be grateful for their sacrifice? If the plaque idea moves forward (to put the memorial idea back in Memorial Stadium), it should be expressly de-linked from the suggestion that this is comeuppance of those who exercise freedom of expression.

Bad Week for State and Local Government

Lincoln -- Last week was a bad one for state and local government in Nebraska. Newspapers reported that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services owes tens of millions of dollars back to the federal goverment for mismanaging funds, and that Lancaster County is wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on needlessly removing trees while bridge repairs and other priorities go begging.

The DHHS story is a continuation of costly embarrassments that have gone on for months, if not years. The Omaha World-Herald editorializes that it must be the fault of state employees who are inept and pay no attention to whomever is governor, inasmuch as the scandal stretches back from current governor Ricketts to his predecessor Heineman to his predecessor Johanns. I'm not buying it; it's too easy to blame state employees. DHHS is a code agency, directly under the control of the state's chief executive. The buck must stop with the governors, who need to be held accountable.

Responsibility for the Lancaster County misadventure is harder to pin down. The County Engineer argues for taking property from a landowner and cutting down his trees along North 27th Street (at a cost of $200,000), because the county has already spent money on its road-widening project and no other owners along the stretch have objected. But the hold-out landowner points out that the county's road-widening project would be paid for by developers should the area be developed, at no cost to the county and, moreover, the land in question is environmentally protected. (It's adjacent to the Shoemaker Marsh.) The County Engineer nevertheless plunged forward with the argument that, essentially, other funds already expended would be wasted if more are not wasted. This won the support of three of the five county commissioners. Bridge repairs and other county projects apparantly can and will wait.

All of this is painful for me to watch, as I have long been a supporter of state and local governments. They are closest to the people and best able to deliver essential governmental services. There was a time, it seems to me, when these governments worked better, when state and local employees took greater pride in their work, even taking pleasure when they gave their fellow taxpayers back more than what they were paid in salaries. I worked among them for several years; they came to work eager to innovate and to serve. Now I sense that many in state and local ranks are demoralized and don't care as much. And it does not take much insight to figure out why.

One of the unfortunate legacies of Ronald Reagan's presidency is his oft-repeated quote, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" This quote became folk-wisdom for a whole generation of voters and taxpayers who, whenever governments messed up, preferred to repeat the outrageous quote and mindlessly blame government itself rather than rolling up their sleeves and correcting the problems at hand.

This misguided sentiment has progressed to the point where huge numbers of voters and taxpayers now celebrate the failure of government at any level. Yes, celebrate. And vote for politicians who promise more such celebrations by cutting and demoralizing governments and their workers even further.

I long for the day when we all start once again to take pride in the effectiveness and efficiency of our governments at all levels, whether that's our National Parks and FEMA at the federal level, Human Services and Corrections at the state level, or bridges and public schools at the local level. Let's stop celebrating government failures, begin anew to address our problems squarely, and get to work on what needs to be done. I'm a taxpayer, and I want my money's worth from governments and to be able to feel good once more about governments that succeed -- federal, state, and local. That's what we should be looking to celebrate, not governments' failures.

Varieties of Buttercups

Washington -- So now an Iowa lawmaker will introduce a bill into the Iowa legislature to reduce funding for any public higher education institution that uses Iowa taxpayer dollars to provide safe spaces or otherwise "coddles" students who are upset with the outcome of the presidential election. He's got a great title for his bill: "Suck It Up, Buttercup."

Got me; I chuckled. The day before the election, I remarked to many people how bizarre it was for the national higher education trade press (CHE and IHE) to have more articles on the nuances of microaggressions than on the election. No wonder the outcome came as a shock to the higher ed community.

But on reflection, I think the Buttercup appellation needs expansion. The real Buttercups in this election are those tender souls who think they're owed a job in the same industries their fathers worked in, regardless of changes in the economy. These Buttercups are good at complaining about the lack of safe spaces for themselves, even as they drop out of school, take drugs, smoke, eat bad food, and take up all kinds of bad behaviors no one is forcing on them. These are Trump's Buttercups, many of whom are content to have their wives work two jobs while they drink beer down at the tavern and complain about how politicians have neglected them. Suck it up, Buttercup! Take a job, even a menial one alongside immigrants; if your bosses exploit you, form a union as your ancestors did. Go back to school. Economize by cancelling your cable television subscription. Grow a garden. If you're so smart, start a business. Relocate to where jobs exist, if you must. That's how your ancestors did it. Suck it up, Buttercup!

If you actually wound up in my classroom, I'd give you whatever safe space you need to work things out and get your life back on track, politics and all else aside. I've had many a student like you, especially when I taught for a community college under a Defense Department contract. I'll respect your views; you'll appreciate it. If you're a veteran, we'll have something in common. You'll learn a lot; so will I, from you. We'll get along fine. I won't actually tell you to suck it up. You'll figure that out for yourself.

Angry at the Clinton Campaign

Washington -- It was a curious feeling to fly into National Airport after the election of Donald Trump. The usual friendly surroundings seemed as if occupied by a malevolent power.

Some people upset with the election have said they feel as if there has been a death in their family. To me, the feeling is more like the foreboding that comes with the diagnosis of a serious disease, like cancer. Many diseases can be cured, but many are fatal. Who knows how a Trump presidency will turn out?

As I have previously written (and will doubtless write again and again), the election results came to me as no surprise. I did not believe the Clinton campaign could win with its strategy of identity politics, demographics, and attacks against the other candidate. Others are now saying the same. Mark Lilla, humanities professor at Columbia University, has written a perceptive commentary about identity politics and coined the term "post-identity liberalism," which he hopes will guide the future of his political party. Amen. What about focusing on substance for a change, and less on identity?

What I missed seeing in the Clinton campaign was the Hillary Clinton who won election as senator in New York in 2000. Back then she traveled the state, listening. She spent time in the upstate rural areas with dairy farmers, learning as well as listening. When she went to Washington as senator, she made a mark as a work horse, not a show horse, and won respect for her ability to work both sides of the aisle and with rural as well as urban interests. It is ironic that she lost the 2016 election by abandoning rural interests. Surely she knew better. Who was running this disaster of a campaign?

Also, it was clear to at least some of us all along that she could have, and should have, won over rural and small town undecided voters who were unsure of voting for Trump. Harry Truman would have exulted in attacking a "do-nothing Congress" in her situation. If ever there was such a Congress, this was it: no infrastructure bill, no immigration bill, nothing but obstructionism. The country was fed up, but the Clinton campaign was in its own world and did not make an effort to go after this constituency, despite the candidate's credible record of legislative accomplishments.

I am angry at the Clinton campaign because now the country is in many ways at the mercy of a man who is untested and perhaps dangerous. Can a post-truth democracy maintain the rule of law? Probably not. I have worked in government at all levels (and in three branches) for over five decades. Our institutions are not as strong as many people think. We've already had some narrow escapes: recall the torture-permissive memo at DOJ and the near collapse of the world economy under George W. Bush. One or two mistakes by the incoming vanity-obsessed president could bring our country down much more quickly than most people realize. Over the longer term, cutting taxes, increasing the deficit, and then reneging on debt payments--heretofore unthinkable--is a sure path toward nation-bananafication.

Like a cancer that metastasizes, the disintegration of the country as we have known it could be at hand. Yes, I admit to reading Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here recently, so perhaps my concerns are more influenced by fiction than fact. (I certainly hope so, but the Trump campaign is eerily like that of Lewis's Buzz Windrip.) On the eve of this election, I told my daughter to mark the day as perhaps the last we would remember of the USA as we knew it, and loved it.

Gjerloff Prairie

Lincoln -- Last weekend we drove over to Griffith Prairie in Hamilton County (now re-named Gjerloff Prairie), managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. This is the source of the native prairie grasses and forbs we sowed to restore a couple of acres of our own Lancaster County prairie in 2012. The results have been good.

This is a wonderful prairie to walk, sloping down as it does over abrupt hillocks and through rough ravines to the Platte river at its north end. Acre after acre, native grasses cover tall eolian (wind formed) mounds and ridges of loess soils.

Take a hike!

The drive to and from the prairie was no less interesting, although not always in a positive way. Corn and soybean fields are bare, susceptible to blowing should there be drought and winds. Cornstalks have been baled and removed from the fields. Windbreaks that formerly protected the soil are long gone, being in the way of center-pivot irrigation systems. No wonder there are no pheasants here anymore, as there is no cover.

The ancient formations of wind-blown soils on the Gjeroff Prairie is a reminder of the work of the historian James Malin, who took a long view of history and said the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s were nothing remarkable. The Great Plains, he maintained, have long been subject to cycles of desertification. As to the cause of the Dust Bowl, he minimized the effects of the plows that broke the plains and stripped them of their protective grass cover. Malin warned that the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts would lead to government tyranny. Few remember Malin, apparently, or he would be the poster child of those who hold similar views today about climate change. What I remember of the early 1950s, when drought once again threatened another Dust Bowl, was that farmers were actually grateful to the previous generation--and to the Soil Conservation Service--for planting windbreaks and instituting conservation practices that worked effectively to stave off a repeat.

The countryside between Lincoln and Hamilton County is not bare when it comes to ethanol plants, seed laboratories, and anhydrous ammonia distribution centers. Chemical agriculture rules. There is a price to pay, of course. The newspapers are full of stories about the need for new water treatment facilities in the towns and cities, about the need to boil water in contaminated rural water districts, and about lakes and streams that are so dangerous that they are off-limits to people and pets.

All this is tolerated because Nebraska agriculture is needed to feed the world, or so it is said. Just who that might be in the world is not asked. The answer seems to be that, in reality, precious little of the agricultural production has been going to poor countries to feed any of the world's needy. But the phrase is ubiquitous as the justification for endangering Nebraska's soil, water, and health and human resources. To suggest that the phrase might be a PR gimmick of middlemen who exploit Nebraska farmers and natural resources would be heresy. It might be true in the future that Nebraska agriculture is needed to feed an impoverished world, but so far it is not. Just as it might be accurate to say GMO technology will someday cut pesticide usage and increase crop production, so far that hasn't been the case, either. What agricultural overproduction and GMO technology have done, so far, is to drive down crop and livestock prices, increase federal taxpayer costs for ag subsidies, ruin habitat, and drive important pollinator species to the brink of extinction.

The drive through the countryside is not all bleak, however. We saw several fields lush with turnips and radishes, cover crops to hold the soil and provide good grazing for livestock. We saw a farm near Marquette that has been turned into a supplier of organic grains, with impressive domestic and foreign markets. It also produces antibiotic-free beef and pork. Maybe its products will someday work their way into the local economy.

It's ironic that the livestock may be eating better in these counties than the humans. We stopped in York for lunch at its most renowned restaurant and found few if any greens on the menu. The salad was mostly stale, imported iceberg lettuce; the server did not know where the beef or chicken came from. Apparently we were the first patrons who ever asked. Many of our fellow diners were seriously overweight. A whole overweight family wheezed through their meals at a table next to us. "Was everything okay?" the server asked as we departed. I did not answer. Where to start?

Better to contemplate the highlights of the day, and to appreciate those who have taken the time and trouble to preserve the remarkable resource that is the Gjerloff Prairie.

Conformity versus Freedom at the State University

Lincoln -- Whenever I have a chance, I try publicly to commend the administrative leadership of the University of Nebraska. There are many occasions when I grit my teeth and am tempted to do otherwise. But President Hank Bounds' recent re-affirmation of freedom of speech and thought at NU deserves conspicuous praise.

The last time I posted favorably was to commend then Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green for stepping up with a scientific climate change study that bailed out the State Legislature from embarrassment over a study it had authorized to study climate change exclusive of anthropogenesis. Legitimate studies must have research first, conclusions following, not the other way around.

President Bounds was recently emailed by a member of the Board of Regents who wanted the university to discipline, in one way or another, a student who expressed his opinion by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Whereupon President Bounds dusted off the Board's own position on such matters and quickly concluded such action against the student would not only be wrong but a violation of what the university stands for. His statement is worth reading, if not framing. (Faculty, especially, take special note of this: "College campuses, as much as any space, must be places where robust, even uncomfortable, debate is welcomed and encouraged." Remember this when someone in your department is marching to his or her own diffent drummer.)

The late historian Henry Steele Commanger made his own powerful statement on the matter of students' freedom of opinion, discussing it in the context -- borrowed from German higher education -- of Lehr- and Lernfreiheit, in "The University and Freedom: 'Lehrfreiheit' and 'Lehrnfreiheit'[sic]," The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 34, No.7 (Oct., 1963):

"What we call academic freedom really consists of two traditions: lehrfreiheit [freedom to teach] and lehrnfreiheit [freedom to learn].... The second was originally the more important of the two. It was designed to provide independence for students. It meant freedom to learn..., to live one's own life. We in America have largely lost sight of academic freedom for the student, and it is high time that it be restored to our academic pattern..., if our universities are not to be merely advanced preparatory schools.

"The reason for this is practical, not sentimental. Almost all the pressures on the young in our society are for...conformity.

"One of the functions of the university here is to provide some counterbalance to this conformity so natural to the young. Probably nowhere else in the world do young persons talk so much about their liberty and do so little about it when they have it in the United States. They do not know how to act when they are given independence because they have not been trained to use it. Even our colleges and universities provide little effective training in freedom. Well may we ask when our young people are supposed to learn how to be independent, how to think for themselves, how to manage their own affairs, if they don't learn it in this crucial period of their lives. How are they going to grow up intellectually if they are not allowed to do so in their college years?"

But what about the exercise of such freedom when representing the university on an athletic team? Should not the student be required to conform to the norms of others, or those prescribed by the university? I would answer the question by asking what better way to represent the university than by showing that freedom prevails over conformity at the institution.

Personally, I stand for the national anthem, although at times I am tempted to remain seated when the occasion is used for self-promotion by incredibly bad performers, or when it is exploited for ideological purposes. I like my national anthem straight, not twisted. If the situation calls for it, I might want to take a knee, or at least reserve the freedom to do so.

Like President Bounds, I am a military veteran (and I am writing this on Veterans' Day). I served in many a risky situation and survived. I did not serve -- Regents please note -- so that my country or my state would enforce conformity over freedom.

No Election Surprise

Lincoln -- For anyone who read my post of two months ago, predicting a Trump victory, you'll know I am not surprised by yesterday's election in the least. Clinton needed a bold stroke to give people a reason to support her but she did not think so, relying instead on identity politics, demographics, and talking down her opponent as the elements of her campaign.

Both political parties should convene summits quickly among party leaders to see where they now need to go, to put this terrible election behind us and start thinking about the overall good of the country.

Many of those surprised by the election are guilty of losing touch with the country's working classes and of putting too much faith in purported experts. I have never lost touch (being domiciled in the Nebraska countryside helps) and my skepticism of experts has been reinforced by works such as Liaquat Amamed's magisterial Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, and any number of incisive analyses (for example, The Big Short) of the failures of Wall Street insiders to understand their own industry.

Also, any good researcher and statistician knows that political polling as currently practiced includes all kinds of assumptions that may be influenced by biases. It should be an embarrassment to polling experts that the simplistic approach of AU professor Allan Lichtman predicted that if Clinton won, it would be an upset. That was my guess, too. She needed a bold stroke to win, but didn't deliver one.

Better Debate Questions, Please

Washington -- For the final presidential debate of 2016, could we please have better questions for the candidates? We need questions that would help us discover what knowledge the candidates have about actual problems facing the country. Many of the questions in the first two debates were at the fourth-grade level. We need a few questions that require candidates to deal with subjects at least at the college undergraduate level, if they presume to be president.

How about questions on:

• Federalism. What are the current problems in federalism and how can they be solved?
• Nuclear Triad. Is it obsolete?
• Food. Describe the connections between federal agriculture policies and the health of our citizens.
• Industrial Policy. Do we need the tools of industrial policy to revitalize manufacturing?
• Congressional Branch. Why is it broken and how can it be fixed?
• Bipartisanship. Identify areas of common interest that the two parties could unite on without compromising party principles.

Sorry if this reads like a mid-term exam in a sophomore year college course, but perhaps that's what's needed to get the candidates beyond glib, one-sentence answers or laundry lists of talking points. Give the candidates five minutes per question, including moderators' detailed follow-up questions, to let us see what the candidates actually know beyond the lines they have memorized to get cheers and headlines.