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.

Historical Papers from the U.S. Senate, 1978-84.

Lincoln and Washington -- Last week I packed up two banker's boxes and sent them to our records room in Lincoln. One was full of working papers from my dissertation. The other contained many files from my years working in the U.S. Senate, 1979-84. It is the latter box that might be of interest to anyone who comes across this blog while looking for a research topic on Congress for a senior thesis or a graduate paper. I'll gladly open up the files for such a purpose.

One of the Senate files contains records from the time I was a Task Force Investigator for the Senate Budget Committee. In 1979, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted, for the first time ever, to employ the so-called budget reconciliation process to cut the federal deficit. This process is more common now, and it is highly political. But the first time it was used, Senate Budget Committee chairman Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine, was actually aligned in support of the process with Republican minority leader in the House John Rhodes. House Budget Committee chairman Robert Giaimo, Democrat of Connecticut, opposed the use of reconciliation, which was highly unpopular with other committee chairmen in both chambers who saw the upstart process as a threat to their powerful domains. Among other contemporary papers, I collected letters of opposition to reconciliation from dozens of interest groups; they are in these files.

When I was legislative director for Senator J. James Exon of Nebraska, I retained many working papers on a variety of legislative initiatives, which are also in these files. One was the Exon-Bradley tax trigger amendment of 1981 which, while it failed on a Senate floor vote, nevertheless presaged what Congress had to do soon thereafter: adjust the Reagan tax cuts to cut the deficit. Another was a bill to create for state governments a federal categorical grant "trade in" process, through which states could forgo certain federal grants in favor of increased federal revenue sharing. The bill actually passed as a pilot program but was never implemented.

There are also papers in these files relating to successfully stopping the Norden Dam on the Niobrara River and a number of other such Nebraska issues. There are several drafts of speeches showing the process of revision, many internal office notes on a wide variety of matters, and lists of staff. The earliest file dates from late 1978; it contains orientation materials on how to set up Senate offices.

I'll be working on these papers but would gladly share them with others as I do so, before they are donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Educational Courses for Prisoners: Remembering a Huge Success

Lincoln and Berlin -- The passing of the German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher reminds us of the value of bringing education programs into prisons. We are indebted to Bracher, a former German POW in WWII, for writing a clear-eyed, comprehensive history of the Nazis and their evils. He taught in universities in Berlin and Bonn.

Bracher was a prisoner at the POW camp in Concordia, Kansas. He took courses there as offered by the University of Kansas. KU offered 300 courses to POWs, for academic credit. Others who took KU courses at the camp were the architect Harald Deilmann (who later designed the school my children attended in Berlin-Zehlendorf) and Reinhard Mohn, who built Bertelsmann into a multinational publishing empire. The return from the investment in such courses for prisoners has been enormous.

What a contrast to today. Higher education institutions now offer few if any programs in prisons, as I noted in a previous post. Nebraska has unprecedented problems in its Department of Corrections, due to lack of educational programming for prisoners and severely overcrowded facilities. But until riots broke out and prisoners began attacking guards on a regular basis, Nebraska's elected officials seemed not to care. In 2014, the Nebraska attorney general (who failed to supervise Corrections attorneys, resulting in many premature prisoner releases) campaiged for the office of governor on a do-nothing platform: "We can make people share rooms. I mean, if you don't like that you have to share a room, don't get yourself sent to prison,” Jon Bruning said. The question of educational programming was invisible in the campaign.

After nearly two years of further inaction, the Ricketts Administration is finally moving ahead with facility planning and has initiated at least some new programming, although it appears as if Defy Ventures is more like a rally at an Amway convention than a serious educational turnaround.

It's appropriate to remember that the Concordia camp was constructed in only 90 days, and included a 177-bed hospital. The camp operated only two years, from 1943-45. A state university conducted 300 courses in that time, some of which set prisoners on the way to making futures for themselves and significant contributions to society. That history should be an inspiration to us.

Only a Bold Stroke...

Washington -- As a political scientist, I have a crystal ball that tells me the Clinton campaign's strategy of relying excessively on demographics and identity politics will not win the 2016 presidential election. As a person who has worked in government and politics at every level over five decades, I have a second crystal ball that shows Trump winning, assisted by free media exposure he has cleverly turned to his advantage. As a person who has tried to think ahead by prudent planning, I have a third crystal ball that shows a colossal crisis looming from day one of a Trump presidency as he throws government into turmoil by issuing previously unimaginable executive orders that challenge what we hold dear as the American way of life.

When these three crystal balls agree, the outcome seems inevitable. I see only one event that would smash these visions. It is a Bold Stroke by the Clinton campaign to change the dynamics of the campaign in her favor, and for her as a consequence to win impressively as the media moves on to a new and compelling story.

The Bold Stroke I have in mind is for Clinton to focus on the failure of our politics and our political parties, and to offer solutions to begin taking effect on her election. The failure of our politics is the common denominator of discontent throughout the country. What has brought us to this frightening point in history are not the usual differences over our economy or our foreign policy. Rather, it is the year-after-year failure -- with no end in sight -- of politicians and parties to put the national interest first, through respectful debate and compromise, ahead of themselves and their narrow interests, be they right, left, center, or personal. It is the selfish exploitation of our country's institutions that depend on comity and goodwill to operate effectively that has the country's electorate so desperate for leadership even the whiff of fascism seems refreshing to a growing share of voters.

With a Bold Stroke Clinton would propose a change, through her election, in both political parties. She would offer nothing less than a re-alignment of the two parties so as to be able to break out of the current stalemate.

As president, she would be the leader of the Democratic Party and would bring it back closer to its roots as champion of the working class, a move that would be welcomed by former Democrats who have left the party out of concern that it has become elitist and dependent on Wall Street money.

To change the Republican Party, she would use the presidency to reward Republican cooperation to move legislation. To do this, she would enlist the two most recent Republican nominees for president, Mitt Romney and John McCain, to identify areas of cooperation and compromise in the best Republican traditions of presidents like Abraham Lincoln (infrastructure and education), Theodore Roosevelt (foreign policy and environment), and Dwight Eisenhower (decency). In the process they would drive out the dangerous party fringes and those who love to hate. Clinton would make reform of our politics her highest priority and name Romney, McCain, Vice President Kaine (a man respected by both parties), and herself to a committee of four to move ahead with an agenda that likely would include immediately passing a huge, job-creating infrastructure bill, an immigration bill based on McCain-Bush, and perhaps legislation in obvious areas of common concern such as anti-hacking. The results of their work would be highlighted in the first state-of-the-union message.

Would it work? Could the party caucus strangleholds be broken in Congress? Of course. They collapsed in the Spring of 1981 under far less demanding circumstances, to give one example where I watched it happen.

Would Romney and McCain agree to do it? My fourth crystal ball is clarifying -- yes. Hell, they might even propose it.

Edith Schwartz Clements, Redux

Lincoln -- Among the more popular posts that have appeared in these pages is one about Edith Schwartz Clements, whom I nominated for the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 2012. This week alone the 2013 post has had more than two dozen hits. It has had hundreds of hits over the years.

Since that post appeared, Edith Clements has been the subject of an excellent new Wikipedia entry. New biographical sketches of her have also started appearing online, such as those here and here. Older biographical entries in professional journals are also becoming available online. Her papers are with her husband's at the American Heritge Center, University of Wyoming.

It is deeply satisfying to know there is still interest in the life and work of Edith Clements. Someone should write a full biography of both the Clementses, or a movie script, or an opera.

Delightful Museum Surprise

Lincoln -- Recently I visited the Museum of American Speed on Oak Creek Drive in Lincoln. It's not well-known but should be. One does not have to be a car or racing enthusiast to enjoy and admire the immense historical collection, the care with which it is presented, and the story behind the local businessman who made it all happen.

Like several other noteworthy museums and sites in the city and state, it is more of a secret than a popular destination, unfortunately. The Nebraska Prairie Museum in Holdrege likewise comes to mind. Because I came across both of these places more by accident than design, I have a sinking feeling that there are many other such places I am missing.

We Nebraskans should show more interest in our own history. It distinguishes us from the rest of the country in many ways. We should resist easy homogenization into a bland national culture that relegates us to being so-called flyover country. Through our museums and historical sites, we should also resist me-too fads and fashions in analysis and presentation of our history.

To do this, we need first-rate state and local historians and citizen support. The trends are not good. This year, the Nebraska State Historical Society has suffered the premature deaths of three irreplaceable historians. The state university has not had a specialist in Nebraska history for many years. I can understand, appreciate, and defend the UNL history department's expertise in esoteric areas like Coptic civilization and Italian fascist architecture. In fact, as an alumnus I make annual donations to the College of Arts and Sciences to help support such scholarship and gladly support the College with taxes. I believe these subjects are actually more timely and relevant than they might appear at first glance. But these are also subjects of importance to higher learning institutions everywhere. Who is watching out for Nebraska state and local history?

It is a mystery as to why regents, legislators, or others in a position to do so do not make Nebraska history a higher priority. More faculty expertise in Nebraska state and local history would help guide graduate students into the field as well. Many great Nebraska topics are waiting for the attention they deserve in a master's thesis or a doctoral dissertation. It is commendable that local museums and volunteer historians do their best with the resources at hand, but we Nebraskans should be treating our history with the attention and respect it demands if we truly care about our state.

Forty Advocacy Groups Write for Action Long Overdue

Washington -- The trade paper Inside Higher Ed reports this week on a letter from forty organizations that asks the Department of Education to inquire into the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” the letter avows.

Actually, the department has known of the disparity for nearly fifteen years. When I worked at the National Center for Education Research in 2002, I looked at the matter and found that low-income African Americans were being burdened disproportionately with student debt. In a paper in which I investigated the responses of colleges and universities to changes in federal student loan and grant levels over time, I found that regardless of grant levels, loan levels for low-income blacks increased. This was not the case for any other group I investigated. Interestingly, when Pell grants went up, loan burdens decreased for middle and upper income groups of all races and ethnicities (Pell grants being fungible) but loan burdens increased for low-income blacks.

The department had no interest in the findings and no curiosity as to why I was getting these results. I asked the National Center for Education Statistics to publish its descriptive reports on student debt by race/by income, so the public could see the interactions between race and class, and so that other researchers could develop theories and hypotheses as to how and why federal aid programs were not working as intended for the low-come black population.

But NCES saw institutions as its clientele, and institutions insisted on separate reports for race and for class. One reason was that most colleges and universities by 2002 were committed to affirmative action by race and rejected the use of class-based affirmative action as a means of achieving racial and ethnic diversity. They had a compelling logic for this -- cost. It was much easier on institutions' budgets to enroll middle and higher income blacks and Hispanics to meet diversity targets rather than to provide aid to the financially needy. Ironically, while institutions publicly disdained class-based affirmative action as inferior to race-based, they enthusiastically employed class as an overlay to race-based affirmative action when it came to their own budgets.

As long as the Department of Education did not report its statistics by race/by class, institutions were able to talk a good game about commitment to racial diversity, and they do to this day. However, because institutions systematically shortchanged the low-income black population, the student debt crisis has understandably hit this group harder than others. Which is the reason forty advocacy groups have now demanded that the department track and address the issue. The letter is excellent; action is long overdue.

Pell Grants for Prisoners Revisited

Lincoln -- As the Nebraska Department of Corrections lurches from one crisis to another -- three of the top seven stories in the Omaha newspaper today deal with this department's problems -- it's appropriate to recall a mistake at the national level that has contributed to prisoner recidivism and overcrowding all across the country.

In the 1990s, Congress cut off Pell grant access for prisoners. Prior thereto, many community colleges and other educational institutions had prison-based programs, paid for by Pell grants for prisoners. After the Pell termination, these programs largely disappeared for lack of funding.

Congressional politicians back then were impressed with an argument made by ill-informed families trying to pay for college: why should prisoners be getting Pell grants when their law-abiding children could not? The issue was twisted into the idea that law-breakers were taking Pell grants away from others more deserving of them.

Except it was not true. No otherwise eligible law-abiding student ever lost out on a Pell grant because a prisoner got one. That's because Pell grants were funded as a quasi-entitlement; one person's grant did not come at the expense of another's. Secretary Richard Riley at the U.S. Department of Education explained this to Congress, but was drowned out by many in the media who thought they had come across a scandal. Politicians who tried to explain the facts to their constituents came off as siding with criminals. So there have been no Pell grants for prisoners for over two decades.

There is now an effort to restore Pell for prisoners. I hope it is accepted. Many in prison could benefit from education and training. It would reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Governors should get behind it. Taxpayers should get behind it as well.

As a Nebraska taxpayer, I am angry about the messes at the Corrections Department and the huge costs required to clean them up. The Pell cut-off many years ago was unwise, but it does not excuse Nebraska for failing to step up with its own education and training programs. Many other states did. In recent years, several other state and local governments have had remarkable success with truck farming and horticulture programs, for example, to get prisoners trained and turned into gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens once they are released. I write this not out of compassion for those serving time for their misdeeds, but from a practical budgetary and public safety standpoint. How many more front-page stories of prisoner escapes, guard assaults, and personnel misbehavior must we read before state officials take the necessary action?

A Cold-Hearted Report on Student Loans

Washington -- The White House Council of Economic Advisors has released a head-scratcher of a study on student loans. The message? Not to worry. Current policy is hunky-dory, especially with all the added improvements accomplished by the Obama Administration.

While giving full credit to the Administration's achievements, I believe the consensus of policy experts (that is, those without vested interests) holds that current higher education policy at both federal and state levels is a mess and the country is headed in the wrong direction in paying for college. This is reflected in the national political debates and all the activity in think-tanks to come up with better programs that would deal more effectively to control escalating tuition fees and student debt.

In a rejoinder to the CEA report, Mark Huelsman asks the obvious question of current-policy apologists: compared to what? He writes, "Those of us concerned with student debt are not saying that students should avoid college, any more than we would complain about high rent and recommend homelessness instead."

What bothers me especially about the CEA report is its cold-heartedness. Current student loan policy, with its appalling default numbers and its shameful debt collection practices, has ruined the lives of countless borrowers and their families across the country. Too often it is the convoluted system itself that is to blame, a system the U.S. Department of Education has never effectively administered or regulated. Although I left the department in 2005, I still get calls and emails from borrowers across the country who are desperate for help. I only wish I could make things right for all of them. What I can do is register my profound disappointment at the CEA report for its insufficient attention to the very real human suffering brought about by current student loan policy.

Conversations and Tribalism

Washington -- It is sobering and depressing to come back to the States to witness racial divisiveness in America, manifested by police killings. The national conversations we are admonished to engage in to lessen tensions obviously aren't working well. Indeed, there is concern that these conversations serve, counterproductively, to drive competing "tribes" even further into their "respective corners." Such is the regrettable language with which these issues are now discussed.

Perhaps conversations with our historical selves are in order. Looking back, where did we go wrong and is there any way, through such reflection, to get back on the right track?

Some of us are older; our memories go back to the years before and during the civil rights era of the 1960s. It may surprise those of more recent generations to learn that the goal of most moderates and progressives in that era was an integrated, colorblind society, to be achieved relatively quickly. Conservatives of the era held the view that change must come only slowly, which in some cases was a position sincerely held but often it was an excuse for the status quo, and discredited.

My hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, was partly segregated. Several of the cafés and taverns downtown were white-only. As a college senior at NU in the spring of 1965, I joined with friends both black and white to integrate a handful of establishments. Typically, four of us would sit down for service and be told by other patrons that whites could stay but blacks would have to leave. We did not budge and made it clear that if anyone was leaving, it was not us. Rarely was there further confrontation, but I remember one time my friends thought I was heading them into a fight, until the segregationist enforcers abruptly departed after sensing our determination (and that they would come out on the short end of any physical scuffles).

Overcoming segregation at NU itself was more difficult. Several NU affiliated organizations, fraternities and sororities most notably, had white-only clauses in their membership qualifications. University administrators, some of whom were members of organizations with white-only clauses, actually proposed as late as the early 1960s separate-but-equal organizations for blacks, in the tradition of the Second Morrill Act. In the neighborhood once known as T-Town, immediately northeast of the campus and largely black, the university razed housing and, in lease-purchase arrangements, built white-only sororities in the mid-1960s.

I am not singling out NU for criticism in recounting this. NU was not as bad as many universities when it came to race. Within a few years, its overt social discrimination ended.

My purpose in looking back on this history is to raise a question about how to hold conversations about race with those who do not know about this pivotal time. Such conversations would be helpful to understanding and resolving our current problems, I think. I'm afraid many who did not live through the era are unaware that it was once respectable to envision an integrated, colorblind society, and for a time much of American society acted accordingly. There were real advances in racial harmony. After a few years, a prominent black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, even wrote The Declinining Significance of Race.

But now progressives have placed their bets on identity politics, which emphasizes racial differences and voting blocs; conservatives do not want to acknowledge their troubled history with race or that they now sound like progressives of decades past; universities are heavily invested in racial distinctions, both in their academic departments and admissions offices. Words like integration and colorblind are not only out of fashion, they are ridiculed. Those with an interest in fanning racial resentment flames dominate discussions, despite evidence that wide majorities among all races have other priorities, such as economic advancement.

Who is going to pass along to younger generations that there was once a time of success and achievement, and that perhaps we should be having conversations about how to bring the better sentiments of that time back once again?