Don't Take the Bait

August, 2017

Washington -- It's no surprise that the president is once again attempting to divide the country through a wedge issue. It's what he does. This time his wedge issue is affirmative action in college admissions, through which he hopes to stoke resentment among people of different ethnicities for his own narrow political ends.

No one should take the bait. Instead, cooler heads should offer what is long overdue in any case, college admissions that are based on reducing economic and geographic inequality, regardless of race and ethnicity, and through admissions that take into account students who could benefit from a value-added approach to education. Such counsel is wisely offered in a recent Washington Monthly article.

Sometimes called class-based affirmative action (and identified with its indefatigable proponent Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation), this non-race-based approach to college admissions has been tested successfully so as to result in increased racial and ethnic diversity, along with economic and geographic diversity as well, much desirable in their own right. Done correctly, this approach can work even better than race-based affirmative action in providing educational opportunity to minority populations.

So why haven't colleges already moved on and why do some still cling to a race-based approach that pits group against group, black against white against Asian against Hispanic? One answer is money. If you look at the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action, they are often those with comparatively less financial need.* Some colleges (and their Washington based associations) like to talk a good game on diversity as long as it comes cheap. They have filed briefs with courts to uphold the race-based approach, even though it has long been disfavored by the U.S. Supreme Court as requiring strict judicial scrutiny.

The colleges and their associations that have sown this wind are now about to reap the whirlwind, if the president is successful in using race-based affirmative action as a wedge issue. Republican support for higher education is already at a remarkable low.

Some colleges have gone to great lengths to try to demonstrate why class-based diversity measures are inferior to race-based. I am not convinced. College admission these days is manipulated by custom-made algorithms so refined that if the public knew how they worked, there would be a revolt. Colleges can make class-based affirmative action succeed if they want to. Not only can they make it succeed, in doing so they may discover ways to serve the country better by concentrating on developing students who will go on to serve communities that pay taxes for higher education and need its products, especially minority communities.**

Those who do not want to see race-based affirmative action tear the country apart could counter the president's move with one of their own. Those in Congress on the committees of jurisdiction could prepare and introduce legislation to direct the U.S. Department of Education to help colleges adopt class-based and similar affirmative action programs. This could be done by evaluating successful class-based efforts and by offering grants to colleges that want to use methods beyond skin color to achieve diversity. Although the lead can be taken by Democrats, Republicans should be welcomed as co-sponsors.

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*When I was a researcher for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, I looked at race by income by student loan debt over time. In general, affirmative action by race did not help low-income blacks, who were disadvantaged disproportionately by colleges' financial aid packaging.

**I have every confidence, based on years of watching the development of the enrollment management industry, that colleges can create variables for their admissions algorithms that look at where students come from and where they are likely to locate after college to engage in their professions – teaching, medicine, law, public administration, engineering, and the like. This is why geography and value-added education, as well as economic class, are desirable factors to consider in college admissions.





The "Better Deal" Could be Better

August, 2017

Washington -- Two weeks after I wrote a post suggesting the Democratic Party should offer the country a "Decent Deal," its leaders rolled out a "Better Deal." The Better Deal, unfortunately, still needs work.

It's not all bad. In explaining the Better Deal, Senator Charles Schumer warned against defining its economic proposals in ideological terms. This is crucial; Democrats don't need internal ideological fights when the country is in mortal danger.* In her pitch, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even mentioned agriculture and the struggles of farmers. Imagine that! What's next, an actual Democratic initiative to address rural America? Good for her.

But the Democrats' Better Deal, in focusing on economic issues, sidesteps those who (accurately, in my opinion) say that as far as winning future elections is concerned, "it's the culture, stupid." Democrats are not going to win back states where its brand, rightly or wrongly, has become cultural poison, even if its economic program makes all the sense in the world.

This is why a Decent Deal beats a Better Deal, because it introduces a cultural positive that is badly needed and will attract voters who are looking for decency in a time of cultural vulgarity and obscenity.

What else might Democrats offer to make their brand more acceptable again, especially to voters who went for Obama in 2008 only to go for Trump in 2016?

• Offer old-fashioned patriotism. Because the country as we know it is in danger of losing its institutions (even the rule of law itself) it's time for a little more flag-waving in support of the institutions that made America the country it is. Hand out those pocket-sized Constitutions. Become the party of patriotism, as contrasted with nationalism.

• Offer more veterans as candidates. Millions of veterans are Democrats. Recruit them to run for office. Did they risk their lives only to see their country turn its back on the principles veterans fought to uphold? Democracy, human rights, the four freedoms anyone?

• Offer a culture of charity and service. Democrats need to emphasize how important they consider citizens' charitable works and community service, and to structure their programs and messages accordingly. Too often Democrats are mis-characterized as believing only in big federal programs, driving away people who believe in and even define themselves in terms of their charity and service work. Democrats could turn around many voters who are eager to associate with a party that honors and promotes charity, service, and decency.

• Offer a refuge from single-issue voting appeals. Many voters may be ready in coming elections to resist appeals from interest groups that focus on a single issue, like guns or abortion. If they have lost their health insurance and are standing in line for hours to see a volunteer doctor in a make-shift tent, as in a third-world country, they may not be taking much consolation that they are packing heat during the wait. Democrats should actively welcome support from voters who may not want to change their positions on certain issues but who are ready to put all issues into perspective. They may be ready to vote for a party that does not beat them up with single-issue, cultural litmus tests.

• Offer a culture of respect for working families who live by the sweat of their brows. Historically, these are the people who made the Democratic party the party of the people. It's time to re-embrace that culture.

So far, the Democrats' Better Deal suggests a few good ideas on the economy, but does not offer much by way of making the party more attractive culturally to voters who have abandoned it. That needs to change.

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* V.O. Key taught us, or at least some of us, that successful political parties organize pragmatically in America to win elections; they are not interest groups that focus on certain issues or ideological organizations operating in parliamentary government systems.


George M. Garner 1955 - 2017

July, 2017

Washington -- George Garner, known locally as the Shepherd of Accokeek, Maryland, passed away unexpectedly this month. He owned a small farm in the Piscataway forest, where he raised Polypay sheep and a few Angus cattle. His farm was in the viewshed of Mount Vernon, across the Potomac. He and other land owners have been maintaining the forest so as to afford Mount Vernon visitors the same view as that of George and Martha Washington at our country's founding.

At his funeral, friends and neighbors said that if there was anything George Garner would miss upon departing this life, it is that he would never know the outcome of a lawsuit with which he assisted to protect his neighbor Howard Vess's property, likewise in the Piscataway forest. Howard Vess died in 2011, wanting his part of the forest to remain undeveloped, open to hunters and others who valued it for its natural beauty.

George Garner spent countless hours researching law cases so as to toss out an egregious provision in his neighbor's last will, which Howard Vess's personal representative (also his financial advisor) had arranged so as to make himself the beneficiary of the Vess property as well as personal representative. Unlike previous wills, which were filed in the county courthouse and named charities as beneficiaries, the last will was held secretly by the personal representative and revealed only after the death of Howard Vess. At the Vess funeral, the personal representative discussed with attendees, before the service even started, that the Vess property would be developed with homes and a shopping center.

George Garner brought formidable skills to the task of challenging the last Vess will, which he knew was executed when his neighbor was vulnerable* to being taken advantage of. George Garner was a forensic researcher who did Internet technology and legal work for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, among other federal agencies. He was a religious scholar who knew classical Greek and Latin and spent two years at the Vatican. He also knew his neighbor, and strived to the very end to do him justice.

But after five years of work on the Vess will, George Garner did not live to see the fruits of his labor. The case is still before a Maryland court of appeals, its outcome uncertain.

Nevertheless, it was with great respect and affection that his friends and neighbors said good-bye on July 29, 2017, to George Garner, the Shepherd of Accokeek.

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• In fact, the personal representative's own in-house attorney for his business as a financial advisor had confirmed this; in a letter to another party the lawyer maintained that a personal loan from Howard Vess, meant by Vess to be discharged at his death, had to be collected because an old, vulnerable man was not capable of making such an arrangement.

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.