I May Be Wrong

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Trying to keep up on events and ideas in three very different capitals runs the risk of being shallow about each and occasionally outright wrong in my observations of any of them. This post is a look-back at my previous writings to see where a dose of humility may be in order.

As a kid growing up in Nebraska, every school night I was tasked to polish my shoes with brown Jet-Oil to be ready for the next day at school. The liquid's dauber being prone to splattering, I would always do the job over the previous day's newspaper to catch the splashes. Inadvertently, I became quite an expert on such subjects as the demise of Bulgarin in favor of Khrushchev. I also couldn't help reading many of the newspaper's columnists, like Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann. One local columnist always used the caption "I May Be Wrong," which I thought was a good reason not to read his column, but it was catchy and makes for a good title for this post.

A few years ago I wrote a column on the new GI Bill; the New America Foundation posted it. I warned veterans that the benefits weren't quite what they seemed, predicted that colleges would find ways to exploit the new legislation, and that many veterans would find themselves saddled with student loan debt. But I neglected to mention which colleges were most likely to do this -- the for-profit schools, which soon made veterans a mark for exploitation. This was a big error of omission. I should also have warned that leaving the administration of the higher education benefits to the Veteran's Administration was a big mistake. It has taken years for the VA to get the program underway correctly, and much still remains to be done. This was totally foreseeable. My column on the matter was far too shallow.

More recently I wrote a post on the slow start of the Nebraska Innovation Campus on the site of the old State Fair, noting that it had only one private partner after years of searches. The next day, the NIC announced three more. I should have waited. Time will tell, however, if this announcement was to try to prime the pump to make it seem as if interest is picking up. These are modest new partners, by any measure, the kind that could be created for the sake of appearances. Either way, I hope the NIC soon takes off successfully with a wide variety of innovative businesses.

Six months ago I offered an opinion on the scandal in Nebraska's correctional system. Most people were too eager to blame corrections' employees and to accept the explanation of bureaucratic bumbling. My own view was clouded by examples of ineptitude too, but I did point out one thread for further investigation: a corrections attorney claimed that the state attorney general's office had told the corrections department, more than once, not to follow a Nebraska Supreme Court decision, apparently for political reasons. At last, in recent days, a Lincoln digital reporter (with no connection to a newspaper) has uncovered the internal communications that bears this out.

As more and more information about this scandal has come to light, it's clear that the former governor bears much responsibility. It is also becoming clear that the former attorney general, who was quick to call others incompetent, now has a great deal of explaining to do himself. For political reasons, both the ex-governor and the ex-attorney general put corrections officials into no-win situations, and then blamed them for the outcomes. I tried to defend state employees to some extent, but I did not get to the heart of the matter. We all should have been more cautious about jumping to conclusions.

These are three posts I wish I had back, to get them right in the first place.







Reauthorizing the HEA and the Need to Rebalance Funding

Washington -- Another Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is upon us and I find myself in rare agreement with Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate committee of jurisdiction, on two issues. One is the overdue simplification of the form that students use to apply for financial aid; the other is the need to reduce federal higher education regulations.

Republican Senator Alexander is right in joining with Democratic Senator Michael Bennett in a bipartisan effort to trim down the number of questions asked of aid applicants. The so-called FAFSA form is so complicated it scares many students and families away from postsecondary education. The main opponents of this needed change are states and institutions, which have successfully lobbied the federal goverment over the years to include their own questions in the federal form. They now threaten that if the federal form is simplified, they will separately start collecting much more data about applicants themselves with their own forms, making a bad situation even worse.

What has been left out of this discussion is why states and institutions need so much information. If the assumption is that states and institutions simply want to target their own aid to the truly financially needy, someone hasn't been paying attention. One of the reasons states and institutions desire detailed information is to know more about students and families than the students and families know about them. Students and families must reveal much about themselves while institutions are free to manipulate the information behind closed doors, often to the disadvantage of the financially needy. The irony is that the federal form, as it currently exists, gives states and institutions information on how to undermine the very federal programs that are supposed to be helping the students.

It is high time for Senators Alexander and Bennett to understand more fully why their simplification proposal (or something like it) is fundamentally sound, and to challenge those who would keep on collecting information that in practice is used too often for dubious ends.

The other issue on which I agree with Senator Alexander (and Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, among others), is the need to rein in the regulation-happy U.S. Department of Education. There are altogether too many higher education regulations and there are too many Department officials who think the answer to every problem is a new regulation.

But what once again has been left out of the discussion is why there are so many regulations to start with. It is partly because Congress itself has used program structures in higher education legislation which invite abuse, which then invites regulation. Because Congress itself has also loaded up its already vulnerable programs with issue-of-the-moment hobby horses, even more regulation ensues.

In 1965 and 1972, Congress set up the framework for federal higher education assistance with a variety of institutional and student aid programs. Soon thereafter, Congress chose to prefer student aid over institutional aid (making higher education access for the financially needy the top priority), and to prefer student aid programs such as the 100% federally funded Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, which had few strings, over programs that required buy-in from states and institutions in the form of matching funds and maintenance of effort. Congress thereby chose "redivision federalism" as the basic approach to higher education assistance, as it redivided what had been concurrent powers with states and institutions. In so doing, Congress moved away from the opposite concept, "cooperative federalism," in which federal, state, and institutional resources are combined so that all parties have skin in the game and fewer regulations are necessary to prevent abuses. The result has been that despite the federal government's hubris of attempting to fund the effort itself, it soon discovered it could not do so and, moreover, eventually found its former partners diminishing their own efforts.

Think for a moment about the scandals of the past few years involving the for-profit schools. If states had had substantial money at stake through the old SSIG student aid matching program, based on the cooperative federalism model, would they have tolerated and funded their share of the abuses at these schools? Likely not. Sadly, under the redivision model, the schools have been able to concentrate their lobbying and political contributions on the few key members of Congress necessary to exploit the federal programs. Seeing the bad outcomes resulting from billions of dollars of Pell and Stafford spending through these schools, the Department has tried to issue regulations, only to find itself the target of Congressional disapproval.

One solution to all the bickering about regulations is to rebalance funding of programs. Revitalize cooperative federalism models; back off the idea that the federal government can go it alone. Think through the interaction of program models and the need for regulation simultaneously rather than thinking only of the regulations alone. Same for the FAFSA. Make the states and institutions partners again with the federal government.

Back when the Higher Education Act was shaped in 1965 and 1972, another issue occupied much Congressional attention: the need to clean up the nation's waterways. But Congress chose, in the Clean Water Act, cooperative federalism to do the job rather than redivision federalism. It must be noted that it is not the household water bill that has skyrocketed above all else, or that a generation is saddled with a trillion dollars of economy-strangling debt to pay for clean water, or that the nation has spent billions on water with little to show for it. It is past time to put the principles of cooperative federalism to work in higher education.






Airplanes, Subways, and Buses

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Over the last month I've been in these three cities, each of which leave much to be desired when it comes to getting to and from their respective airports by public transportation.

When traveling accompanied, I often use private cars or taxis to go to and from airports, but when traveling alone I like to check out airport connections to trains, subways, and buses. A few years ago I was a member (and for two years, chairman) of the Rockville, Maryland, Traffic and Transportation Commission and got into the habit of traveling public transportation routes and connections of all kinds.

Lincoln seems to have no connection between its airport and public transportation. If there is such a connection, it's well hidden. Many people in Lincoln don't even use the local airport, preferring Omaha, an hour away, with its better airline connections and lower prices. A private shuttle operates between Lincoln and Omaha for people who don't drive to and from the Omaha airport.

Washington has three area airports, National, Dulles, and BWI. I prefer to use National whenever possible because it is on the Washington subway's Yellow Line. National also has non-stop flights to Omaha. Another reason to take the subway: parking at National is expensive and the lots are sometimes full. There's nothing like trying to catch a plane only to be greeted by an airport parking "Full" sign.

No Washington area airport has good airline connections to Berlin. One might think the de facto capitals of North America and Europe would have direct flights between them, but this is not the case. (Stavanger and Houston, yes; Berlin and Washington, no.) Among the one-stop choices are National to Newark to Berlin, or BWI to London to Berlin, or Dulles to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich, London, or elsewhere (even Istanbul), then on to Berlin. I've tried many of them from Dulles, the latest being Copenhagen.

Dulles is not well connected to public transportation. Last week I arrived at Dulles from Copenhagen and it took me nearly two and a half hours to get to my destination in suburban Maryland via a shuttle bus from the airport to the subway's Silver Line, then a transfer to the Red Line. But this was during rush hour. One consolation: I was not in a vehicle on the infamous Washington Beltway, which may have taken almost as long and is surely more dangerous. Another consolation: I was able to help two young, non-English-speaking Japanese women navigate the public transportation system and get to their destination in downtown Washington.

Berlin's airports are wholly inadequate, in part because of the legacy of Berlin's administration under the Four Powers Treaty from the end of the 1940s into the 1990s. Each sector had its own airport: Gatow for the British, Tempelhof for the Americans, Schönefeld for the Soviets, and Tegel for the French. Gatow is now gone and Tempelhof is no longer in service. The German government has tried to expand Schönefeld, but it has had so many opening issues it's become a national scandal. Maybe it will be ready in 2017. Which leaves Tegel.

Tegel is not connected to Berlin's extensive U-Bahn, Tram, or S-Bahn systems. The route from Tegel to my place in Kreuzberg involves taking the 128 Bus to Osloer Strasse, taking the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor, and then either walking or taking the 140 Bus to Mariannenplatz. It takes an hour. A taxi takes thirty or forty minutes. But one big advantage of taking public transportation in Berlin is price. For less than the cost of a taxi fare, one can buy a seven-day public transportation pass for all of Berlin, a great deal. Looking for something to do in Berlin? Just ride the double-decker buses through the neighborhoods, or take the trains through the great stations that echo history.

It's poor transportation planning not to have airports connected to trains and subways. Dulles, which was to be the airport of the future for Washington, is now losing passengers to National. Even BWI, outside of Baltimore, has MARC and Amtrak train service into Washington and is becoming more popular than Dulles. It will be years before Metro's Silver Line reaches Dulles. Berlin has the excuse of once being a divided city, but it is taking far too long to replace Tegel with the better connected Schönefeld.

In the meantime, it's good exercise and quite a geography education rolling the luggage across multiple systems of public transportation.

Blowback

Berlin -- On February 2nd at the Zeughaus, in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition, the German Historical Museum sponsored a panel discussion about the 1970s leftist terror group Red Army Faction (RAF). The Baader-Meinhof Gang, as it was also called, created havoc across Germany with its kidnappings and murders of prominent citizens.

A clearly divided panel – two academics, one journalist, and a representative of the German internal security agency, the Verfassungsschutz – debated the causes of this terror movement. Many in the audience took sides, clapping for one panelist or another. Among many subjects of contention was the role of Peter Urbach and his role as agent provocateur in the service of the Verfassungsschutz. Incredibly, he made bombs and put them in the hands of terrorists, but was never brought to justice. He was given a new identity and hustled off to the United States, where he died in 2011. It demonstrates that internal security organizations can be among a country's own worst enemies.

Which brings us to the current terrorism in Europe, most recently in Paris. The U.S. Government has issued a warning to Americans in Berlin and in several other German cities. But what are the causes of this terrorism? As in the case of the RAF, it is without doubt complicated. Should the statements of the terrorists themselves be given any credence? The brothers who murdered Parisians have previously said their extreme radicalism was triggered by American torture in Iraq. This is a risk and a consequence of torture: the escalation of terror. When we engage in torture, we may be our own worst enemy.

Blowback of any kind should be a concern to citizens and security agencies alike, whether it be from torture or from the glorification of violence in the name of artistic freedom or the desire to make a buck. I cringe whenever I see a movie trailer exalting the use of weapons, blowing up cars, taking hostages, killing indiscriminately. Somehow I don't get the message that this is all okay – even thrilling – when it's condoned because it is done in the name of American security. Some viewers may think, indeed, why not in the name of Allah?

We wring our hands; how do we balance freedom of expression with fighting terrorism? Well, one way would be to be more discriminating as citizens and consumers, to show that we understand where our true security interests lie, and it is not in committing torture or creating demand for entertainment that will cause inevitable blowback. Such actions are akin to putting bombs in terrorists' hands.


Toward a "Prairie Boulevard"

Lincoln -- City planners have made a good decision to widen NW 48th street but to move it somewhat eastward, away from residential housing, between West Adams and West Cuming Streets. The reasons for the eastward move are to lessen traffic noise, reduce right-of-way impacts, and provide traffic benefits at Arnold Elementary School.

One good idea should lead to others. By routing the corridor through a mostly vacant area of Air Park, this part of the street could become a scenic boulevard. It already has admirable landscaping, although the loss of Scots pines in recent years has diminished the original vision.

A revised landscape plan featuring native prairie flora could be combined with an effort to make this Lincoln's "Prairie Boulevard." It would be the route Lincolnites take to nearby Nine-Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie on the National Register of Historic Places. Future developers of businesses along this corridor could encourage enterprises compatible with environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and horticulture, re-cycling, and outdoor recreation, as well as production, distribution, and consumption of healthy food to fight Nebraska's obesity epidemic. Non-profits and indigenous businesses could also be encouraged. No chain stores. Walkable paths would connect businesses; parking areas would demonstrate the feasibility of integrating pervious surfaces into an overall landscape plan. In other words, this would be a big departure from North 27th Street and its ilk. Lincoln has enough such places; it's time for something different.

The NW 48th corridor area is also overdue for re-naming. "Air Park" calls forth the old Lincoln Air Base, which has long since come and gone. Before there was an air base there were prairie hills sloping down gently to an unusual salt basin. Orchards dotted the area around the corridor, which was home to many of Lincoln's pioneer families and early leaders, like the Hartleys, the Mearses, the Fladers, and the Cheneys (not those Cheneys; the other ones who came from New York, loved Nebraska, and gave their name to the rural school that educated the children along the corridor). A Farmer's Club brought area families together socially. Orchardist Ellis Hartley became Lincoln's first superintendent of schools. Later, NU ecologist John Ernst Weaver and his protégé Theodor Steiger took a scientific interest in the remaining tallgrass prairies on the nearby heights. In 1929, Weaver wrote the definitive book on prairie plant science, and in so doing established himself as the nation's foremost authority on North American prairies. These citizens are as worthy, or more so, of commemoration than is General Henry Arnold, after whom much is named but who apparently never set foot in Lincoln. Why not Weaver Heights rather than Arnold Heights? And why do we have a school, of all places, named after the man who advocated fire-storming civilians in WWII?

Lincoln should take the opportunity to make itself into the Prairie Capital of the United States. Lincoln has no mountains or seashores, but it has remarkable prairies. Three prairies around Lincoln have much potential for greater visitor draw: Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, the newly-expanded prairie at Pioneers Park, and Nine-Mile Prairie. Fortuately for the latter, most of the surrounding landowners are committed to creating the necesssary buffer zone around this jewel of nature to protect it from the type of adjacent development that would destroy it. The University of Nebraska and the Lincoln Airport Authority are major landowners in the area. The city and the county should take the lead to protect and enhance the Nine-Mile Prairie environs, as has been done for the saline wetlands to the north of the city, another worthy prairie attraction.

No other city with surviving prairies can claim such an illustrious scientific heritage that attaches to them. It was Lincoln that produced three of the world's greatest botanists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Charles Bessey, Frederic Clements, and John Weaver. Clements was not only world-class, his theory of dynamic ecology and plant succession dominated botany throughout the world for decades, and still serves as a practical approach to grassland and range management. It does not reflect well on Lincoln that until recently, Clements' ashes lay unmarked for years in Wyuka Cemetery. That oversight should now be corrected, and one way to do it would be to brand (that's the vogue word) Lincoln as the the nation's Prairie Capital.

From one good idea, many others can spring. Opportunity awaits.








Troubled Start at NIC

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Innovation Campus, a public-private partnership endeavor on the old State Fairgrounds focusing on food, fuel, and water, is getting off to a slow start. With the exception of ConAgra, the NIC has not attracted companies interested in locating there. There has already been a management shake-up, with UNL taking a stronger role in recruiting. UNL also wants more money from the state legislature to try to get the project moving. There is talk at the Regents' level of needing additional tax breaks as location incentives.

Recruiting wasn't helped by a guest speaker at UNL in October, MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who told the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues that most universities' public-private "innovation" centers are anything but. He said universities typically go after the wrong companies and the wrong people. I was at the lecture and had to suppress a gasp – did he not know the Nebraska Innovation Campus was one of sponsors of his talk?

Recruiting may also not be helped by the UNL partnership with ConAgra. Few companies have a worse record and reputation for environmental concerns. ConAgra, a company often in trouble not only with the EPA but also with the SEC and the Department of Justice, is the epitome of Big Ag. With UNL committed to combining its Food Science and Technology Department with ConAgra on the Innovation Campus, some potential recruits may sense that Big Ag and its bottom-line emphasis on short term profits will be calling the shots, and that real scientific innovation and the faculty academic freedom that can make it happen will suffer.

Such fears could only have been enhanced by the New York Times' page 1 article and subsequent editorial on bad research practices at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center, a collaborative effort of USDA and UNL. According to the Times, an experienced veterinarian on the UNL faculty who blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and practices at the center was told by his supervisor to stay away from the center and not to show a reporter his concerns. This could steer NIC prospects away from associating with any UNL enterprise.

There is also a question of whether the university itself is ready for innovation. Last fall two of us had lunch at the famous Dairy Store on the UNL East Campus, where customers can buy ice cream, cheese, milk and other dairy products produced on site. It also serves sandwiches and salads. We asked if there was anything organic on the menu, to the bewilderment of the persons behind the counter who were not familiar with the term organic. Management in the back room was consulted; the answer was no. We ordered anyway and ate a tasteless lunch amid posters proclaiming the wonderful world of processed and manufactured foods, as if this were the 1950s and obesity was not yet a problem.

This was a shock. Innovation in agriculture is happening in the booming farm-to-table and organic farming movements all across the country. In Lincoln I shop at Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery that markets the produce of local organic farms. These farms also supply several of Lincoln's and Omaha's best restaurants. One day I asked the Open Harvest manager if her business or any of these farms were working with the university. "No," she said, "what they do with food down there is the opposite of what we stand for."

NIC may well fail if it does not begin to define itself as genuinely open to all innovation, not just the kind certain food and fuel businesses favor. This may require tolerance of truly independent thinkers who go against the grain and raise uncomfortable questions about nutrition, antibiotics, fertilizers, water, and climate change. It may require a new ethic in research administration, to stand up for whistleblowers, not to silence them.

I want the NIC to succeed, and succeed in a big way. It is located partly in the old fairgrounds' 4-H building, where as a youngster I showed beef cattle, and in the old Industrial Arts building, which was the one and only art gallery to display our one-room country school's works of art. NIC success would justify converting those venerable buildings into something far larger than we could ever imagine.














Missed Opportunity on P Street

Lincoln -- We tried out Lincoln's newly redesigned P Street strip for our New Year's Eve celebration. It was fun; we'd do it again despite the bitter cold and winds that made our eyes sting.

We started out by the Children's Museum at 15th Street and saw several families having a good time on inventive play installations. Next was a drop-in at the Zoo Bar, where five minutes of standing-room-only was enough. Then past Tower Square and on to a more hospitable Barrymore's where a friend offered opinions on everything from the impending collapse of civilization to the design of the new P street sidewalks. ("Not designed by an engineer; must have been done by an art school drop-out.") Then on to Misty's, where a subdued crowd was all dressed in red, having come over from an NU basketball game. (The home team lost.) Then back to the car to drive to the Haymarket end of P Street, to avoid the wind.

At the Haymarket, McFarland's served up good food and drink to the music of a lively Irish band, the Paddywhack.

The most memorable part of the new P Street was Tower Square. The colorful, lighted tower evokes ships' pennants waving in the wind, giving land-locked Lincoln a port area to call its own. The rest of P Street may be nice for the extended sidewalks where restaurants can offer dining under the trees (and amid prairie flora) in the warmer months, but beyond that there is excess clutter. The concrete benches with metal armrests are unwelcoming and might as well have a sign on them to warn people off. The blue lights under the benches are cold and draw the eyes downward as if our eyes should be cast toward the gutters.

What is not evident in the design is any sense of the history of the street. Imagine a man on horseback, in full army uniform wearing a hero's Silver Star (from combat in the Philippine-American War), leading a parade up P Street from the Haymarket with William Jennings Bryan in tow to welcome him home on the eve of the 1908 presidential election. That would be Col. Frank Eager, Lincoln lawyer and businessman, publisher of the populist Independent newspaper (Thomas Tibbles, editor), who envisioned a row of theaters, hotels, and office buildings along P Street, and who soon saw many of them built with his encouragement and financing. Clientele came from the nearby University, which Frank Eager kept from re-locating eastward to the State Farm (now the East Campus) in 1912. He battled Chancellor Samuel Avery over the issue, put up $700,000 of private money to expand the City Campus to 16th Street, and won a statewide-referendum showdown to keep the main campus near P Street.

That is the P Street of history, of which the new design is innocent. It is a history with which the city itself now seems unfamiliar. What a missed opportunity. Imagine an equestrian figure in the design, or an image of The Great Commoner himself, or an evocation of what an important city Lincoln was in its early years. Instead, we get concrete benches with anti-homeless armrests. Take them away. Look up instead to the pennants on the new tower.



Low Point in the American Experiment

Washington -- The American Experiment in government has always had its highs and lows. While one can hope and believe that the underlying trend over decades and centuries is toward a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, one need not be a follower of Howard Zinn to know that the experiment has sometimes fallen short.

Among the lowest points ever is the resort in the twenty-first century to American torture, along with a misguided discussion of whether or not it works. Of course it works: to break people unmercifully to elicit truth, falsehood, and everything in between; to knock ourselves off our pedestal as a country that lives up to its ideals; to subject our own troops to like treatment; to recruit new enemies against our experiment. Torture is effective, no doubt.

Letter-writers to the Washington Post on December 17, 2014, expressed similar thoughts:

• "Perhaps I was naive when I took an oath as an infantry lieutenant to protect and defend the Constitution and to think that part of what being a U.S. Army officer meant was that I was morally better than my enemy: I abide by the Geneva Conventions, a measure of decency I'd hope to receive if captured."

• "My first priority is not to be kept safe by any means necessary. I am extremely offended by proclamations that the American people want to be kept safe above all else."

• "As a teenager I read of Soviet torture of those considered enemies of the state. How awful, I thought, if the Russian people knew what was being done in the name of public safety and preserving their way of life. How could an ordinary person feel anything but shame? How could anyone defend torture? I was glad to be living in the home of the brave. And here we are, all illusions gone."

• "For many Americans, protecting and defending the Constitution and our principles of individual freedom and due process of law are the highest duty we expect from our public servants. I believe we became a nation of cowards the day Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush lost their heads after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

• "Who are these men who presume to know better than all of us, who have convinced themselves that, unlike all other times in history when our country has been threatened, the United States can now act as barbarously as our enemies?"

• "We send our military off to die, but we are afraid to risk another attack because we failed to torture the right person? I'm willing to take that chance if it means we can hold our heads up again as Americans and stand for something..."

• "[T]he United States must show the world we're committed to truth and justice; prosecutions must follow."

Indeed, prosecutions must follow. It is beyond ironic that the only person imprisoned in the U.S. is the one who blew the whistle on the torturers, John Kiriakou. Prosecutions should start with those who killed prisoners without due process and those who obstructed justice by covering up excesses that went beyond even fig-leaf legal opinions defining torture down.

Seventy some years ago, two very different people were born into the world in the same city, Lincoln, Nebraska. Dick Cheney, born in 1941, seems somewhere in life to have missed out on grasping what makes America special, and what is necessary to keep it special. His early career began with a mediocre record in college (dropped out twice, never completed his Ph.D.); he was convicted twice of driving under the influence of alcohol; he then avoided military service on account of having "other priorities" when it was his time to serve his country. I was born in Lincoln in 1943, never dropped out of anything, never drove drunk, performed my service as a navy officer when duty called and, in a career that also took me to Washington and abroad, always strived to uphold my country as something special in the world. Any version of torture to me is anathema, because it is so un-American. Yet it is Cheney and his ilk who wear the American flag on their lapels, as if that makes them patriots.

Note to my fellow Lincolnite: I'm still willing to take on some risk, just as are the letter-writing citizens above. Don't sell us so short. And think it through: torture is hardly something that reduces risk to the general population. If anything, torture increases risk. You could do your country a real patriotic service, at long last, by publicly acknowledging that you were wrong to degrade America as you have done and, as an act of penance, ask the country once again to aspire to fulfilling its ideals.

Cromnibus Hypocrisy

Washington -- Congress has passed the Cromnibus (The Continuing Resolution plus Omnibus appropriations act), to much disdain from those who know the wretched provisions in it. A sleight-of-hand move of higher education money in the bill is perfectly described in a news headline: "Tom Harkin Wants To Take Money From College Students to Pay Reviled Loan Contractors."

Advocates for financially needy students have heaped abuse on Senator Harkin for this. I couldn't agree more that this is a bad provision. But on reflection, two things bother me even more than what this provision will do.

First, Senator Harkin has long been a champion of protecting the interests of financially needy students. This must be taken into account. He has often stood alone, courageously taking on the for-profit schools that have misused federal tax dollars and ruined the lives of countless cynically exploited students and their families. He has done this in the face of many of his Congressional colleagues who take campaign contributions from this unverschämt industry; these contributions are almost totally recycled federal tax dollars. He has also made accrediting bodies do their job, through his Senate hearings that publicly shamed them. We are all in his debt for this work. Thank you, Senator Harkin.

Second, some of those jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of this provision have little or no moral high ground from which to object, however odious the shift of funding may be. The American Council on Education wrote this about Harkin's taking some $300 million from a Pell grant surplus account for the benefit of loan collectors:

[W]e oppose any efforts to weaken this proven, successful program by depleting the current surplus. With Pell Grants projected to return to significant shortfalls in the near future, stripping existing funding will needlessly endanger the near-term health and stability of the program. Congress has cut federal financial aid repeatedly over the last few years. Benefits have been eliminated, and students are paying more for their federal student loans. Students cannot afford to continue subsidizing other areas of the budget. We urge you to support America’s students and reject any proposals that would weaken the Pell Grant Program.

This is hypocrisy. If anyone has weakened the Pell program over the years, it is much of the membership of ACE. Many colleges and universities, by manipulating their own institutional aid, routinely repackage Pell grants, taking financial aid away from low income students that the program is supposed to help, thereby capturing the funds for other purposes. This amounts to billions of dollars annually, many times over the amount at issue in the Cromnibus act. Are students being forced to subsidize other areas of the budget, as ACE claims? Yes, indeed. But it is the ACE membership itself that is a far greater culprit than the Harkin provision, when one looks at the shifting of subsidies within college budgets. Are students being required to take out more student loans? Yes, but ACE needs to look in the mirror as to who is behind this.

Moreover, ACE has been noticably absent from helping with any of the heavy lifting involved in curtailing for-profit school abuses and reforming accreditation. They have let others do the work and take the heat.

And why does ACE continue to use the word "proven" with regard to Pell grants? Because repeating it over and over will make it so? It will not; the program has never been rigorously evaluated by the Department of Education. Many attempts by economists and others, over decades, have failed to conclude that the program is the success often claimed. No one wishes more than I do that these studies are wrong, but the evidence just isn't there to back up the claims for the program. Finally, ACE, of all organizations, should be more careful with its use of language. Sloppy use of the the word proven is often evidence that the user does not understand the philosophy and methods of science. This should be beneath the nation's leading higher education association.

Germany Struggles with Its History

Berlin -- Germany still struggles with its history, and not just the Nazizeit.

The state of Thüringen, after recent elections, is trying to put together a red-red-green governing coalition; that is, two parties of the left (SPD and Die Linke) along with the Greens (die Grünen). But to some it is unthinkable that the leader of the government might be a member of Die Linke, in that he has ties to the old East German state, the DDR. The president of the entire federal republic, Joachim Gauck, is weighing in, saying it is going to be hard for those of his generation to agree to seeing such a person come to power. The SPD in Thüringen is polling its membership to see if it will accept being in a coalition with a member of Die Linke as its head.

Others, including a friend of mine in Berlin with impeccable credentials on the left, say there was an election and Die Linke should be allowed, in a democracy, to take leadership. I tend to agree; there's nothing like having to take responsibility for governing in a coalition to make people and parties face real issues rather than forever carping from the ideological sidelines. It can also be a good way to clean up a tainted past.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Berlin a new palace is rising, a reconstruction of the palace of the Kaisers. It is a huge edifice and will soon be the talk of the world. What is Germany trying to do, bring back the Prussia of Frederick the Great? Indeed, the palace is just down the street from the benevolent gaze of a statue of Frederick that dominates Unter den Linden boulevard. I remember in the 1990s when the new palace was proposed. The building on the site at that time was the former East German Palast der Republik, the parliament and cultural center of the DDR. It had to go, not just for symbolism but because it was riddled with asbestos. The new palace was just to be a reconstruction of the palace that was torn down by the Soviets in the 1950s, a nice tourist attraction if nothing else.

Technically, the new palace project is called the Humboldt Forum. The building will serve as a scientific and educational conference center, named for the Humboldt brothers (after whom nearby Humboldt University is also named). Inescapably, it will also glorify German science. With such a colossal building, it is going to be tempting for the German government to use it for diplomatic goals as well as educational and historical purposes. This may all be for the better. Germany has been a responsible world power now for several decades, but the country must be ready for raised eyebrows as attention starts to be drawn to the completion of a splendid new palace of the Kaisers.

Now if only a few Euros could trickle down from the palace to complete the construction work around Kottbusser Tor, in my neighborhood, which has been a mess for years and years. This is where the world meets: Turks, Germans, Britons, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans, Africans.... Finishing up the project would signal that Berlin also cares about the diplomacy of the street.