What's an Elector of Conscience (and Patriotism) To Do?

December, 2016

Washington -- As I write this, there are only five days left before the Electoral College convenes. Some of the Electors have grouped themselves into what they call "Hamilton Electors," indicating they will be voting in accordance with Alexander Hamilton's explanation of their responsibilities in Federalist #68, which allows them considerable discretion. Specifically, that includes taking into consideration the qualifications of the candidates and whether the preceding general elections may have been tainted by foreign involvement. In Hamilton's exact words, "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils."

So far, only one among the Hamilton Electors is an Elector for Donald Trump. It would take about 12% (or only about one in eight) of the remaining Trump Electors to deny him the presidency in the Electoral College. The rest are Hillary Clinton Electors, whose votes may be symbolic but of no practical consequence.

Although the goal of the Hamilton Electors seems to be denying the presidency to Trump, there is, to me, another reason for Electors to deny any candidate an Electoral College majority. Without a majority, the selection of the president would be left to the House of Representatives. This is the procedure set up by the Constitution. The House presumably would select Trump, but not without first having the opportunity to determine the involvement of foreign powers in the general election. This would actually help legitimize Trump, if he is chosen. He would then be the properly chosen president under the Constitution, taking Federalist #68 into consideration.

Using this procedure would have other advantages:

• Electors would have a clear conscience, knowing that they acted responsibly as the founders of the country intended. The choice of president would not forever be disputed, for example, on whether the CIA adequately divulged what it knew before the general election.

• It would provide more time to look into the involvement of foreign powers before the House votes. The House could compel the production of relevant documents.

• It would signal, for future elections, that tampering with the general election, as may have been done in 2016, is not necessarly a formula for victory, because the Constitution provides checks and balances on both the popular vote and on the Electoral College.

• It would ease the consciences of many, many voters who, as it now stands, may have to acknowledge that they were duped. Consider, for example, veterans who voted for Trump not fully aware that he was the candidate of a foreign power against which they once risked their lives, and against which they may have lost compatriots directly or indirectly. Consider any voter who would have voted for Trump under any circumstances, but would feel better with validation through the workings of the Constitution.

Better to have the House take a vote. It would very likely not change the outcome but the process would be cleansing and cathartic for our republican form of government.



A Reply to Tom Vilsack

December, 2016

Lincoln -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is scolding his fellow Democrats: "Stop Writing Off Rural America."

He is half right. He points to his own success in Iowa, based on extensive travel and campaigning in rural areas. He was elected governor twice; his fellow Democrats controlled the Iowa Legislature after he was governor. But he is wrong if he thinks Iowa will vote Democratic again if only Democrats will wear down more shoe leather. The real problem is that Democrats lack a message for most Iowans.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank looked at his home state of Kansas, bewildered about why Kansas turned so far right politically. In What's the Matter with Kansas, he concluded that the Democratic Party had nothing to offer a rural state like Kansas, that the party essentially wrote Kansas off.

And now big losses in rural states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have cost the Democratic party not only the presidency, but sent the Democratic party into a tailspin at all levels and branches of government.

What could and should Tom Vilsack's Democrats have offered for states like Iowa?

• For starters, a decent farm program that did not tear down Iowa's precious topsoil in order to provide China with bargain-priced food. Federal subsidies have been structured to pay Iowa farmers to overproduce, driving down commodity prices for buyers like China. This does not make intuitive sense, and many midwesterners know it.

• An alternative to the myth "Got to Feed the World" as propagated by the agribusiness industry, which profits from overproduction. Almost all our agricultural exports go to developed countries, not to impoverished ones. In a generation or two, we may indeed need to feed the world's hungry, which is why it is not good policy to use up our topsoil resources prematurely.

• A farm program that would allow farmers the freedom to farm responsibly as they know how to do, rather than taking instructions from their bankers. Admittedly, bankers have little choice other than to require farmers to engage in overproduction, but this is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

• Incentives to farm sustainably and to take marginal land out of production, rather than the other way around. Tax policy is one vehicle to do this. The federal tax deductibility of local property taxes against income is inadequate when income is low or even negative. Make it a means-tested credit and pay for it with cuts to overproduction subsidies. Make good farmers' balance sheets work without dictates from bankers. And save the pollinators in the process.

• Real support for "Know Your Farmer" and other USDA programs that support the production of healthy food, but in reality have been only window dressing for programs that encourage production of unhealthy food. High fructose corn syrup is a major cause of diabetes. Why do we have a current farm policy that makes our people sick?

Tom Vilsack and the Democratic party's lack of a vision for rural America that is different from that of the agribusiness lobbyists is a problem greater than faulty Democratic campaign strategies. Tom Vilsack probably could have been on the ticket as vice president himself had be not been a Monsanto "Governor of the Year," which made him anathema to many in the party. Although Vilsack is right to condemn his Democratic party for writing off rural America, he is in no position to blame others for the party's rout in the elections.


Topsoil as Infrastructure

December, 2016

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

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

This is a mistake for multiple reasons:

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

• The current farm bill and its funding have been a disappointment, cutting soil and water conservation programs while encouraging agricultural overproduction. This depresses prices and farm income but increases federal spending on subsidies. The economies of states like Nebraska are in trouble.

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Regrets and Narrowed Opportunities in Higher Education

December, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Not a "Positive" Idea At All

November, 2017

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

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

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

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

Bad Week for State and Local Government

November, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Varieties of Buttercups

November, 2016

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

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

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

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

Angry at the Clinton Campaign

November, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Gjerloff Prairie

November, 2016

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

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

Take a hike!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conformity versus Freedom at the State University

November, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Election Surprise

November, 2016

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

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

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

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

Better Debate Questions, Please

October, 2016

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.

October, 2016

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

October, 2016

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...

September, 2016

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

September, 2016

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

August, 2016

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

August, 2016

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 actually increased for low-income blacks. What was going on?

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 completely 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. They clearly favored the upper-income.

As long as the Department of Education did not report its statistics by combined race and 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

August, 2016

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

August, 2016

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

July, 2016

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?






A Different 'Good Life'

July, 2016

Berlin -- Being a native and resident of Nebraska, I know all about 'The Good Life.' (It's a good state slogan, by the way. Let's keep it.)

But living in Berlin presents a different Good Life. Some aspects are even preferable, or at least serve as a refreshing alternative.

Der Tagesspiegel is a quality daily newspaper, always free online, with real news. No having to skip over three stories about football coaches to see if the world is at war or at peace.

• Public transportation alleviates the need for cars. Much is within walking distance.

• Mercifully, there are few chain stores. In Berlin-Kreuzberg, mom-and-pop establishments prevail. Grocery stores, taverns, cafés, restaurants, general stores, art galleries, and specialty stores are to be found all over, not to mention the markets that spring up almost every day selling everything imaginable for day-to-day living.

• Safe neighborhoods. Children walk the streets safely. Inventive playgrounds -- the pride of Berlin -- are everywhere. No guns around. Barnyard animals for children in neighborhood parks.

• No obsession over manicured lawns. Lots of natural areas. No chemical smells. Wonderful linden-tree aromas waft through the streets and along the canals in the summer.

• In Berlin-Kreuzberg, peaceful relations and tolerance prevail among the many ethnicities.

• Cultural activities for every taste. Lots of classical music performances, many free in churches. No oppressive, loud music in stores. Lots of singing birds in the parks and gardens.

• Delicious, fresh-baked rolls of a wide variety are waiting every morning to take home for breakfast. (I'm partial to Schrippen, Kürbisbrötchen, Roggenbrötchen, and Weltmeister.)

• Crazy sidewalk gardens. Architectural delights around every corner. Eye-popping juxtapositions. Wild building colors and murals.

• Peopled streetscapes at all hours. Interior courtyards for peace and quiet, and for contemplating the virtues of different ways of life and living.


Soviet Memorial in Berlin

July, 2016

Berlin -- It's been many years since I last visited the Soviet WWII cemetery and memorial in Berlin-Treptow. Today's walk through the site was the first time I've done so since our own WWII memorial was created on the mall in Washington, DC.

The Soviet memorial is noteworthy for its huge statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child, erected on a mound of earth three stories high. Sixteen imposing sarcophagi -- one for each Soviet republic -- line the approach, each featuring stone relief carvings in socialist realism style. Josef Stalin's words are featured on all sixteen. The memorial was completed in 1949. It is overwhelming in its scale and totalitarian messaging.

When the plan for the WWII memorial in Washington was revealed, more than a few critics condemned it for its imitation of totalitarian grandiosity. I didn't like it -- still don't -- for that reason and because to me it seems like a memorial to Americans' directional confusion and geographic illiteracy. It places the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on the north and south, where Canada and Mexico are, not on the west and east sides of the memorial where they should be. It also makes it seem as if the war was fought by individual states, in an attempt to make some kind of misguided connection to the Civil War. It also has hundreds of five-pointed stars, which looks like an attempt to outdo the number of such stars in the Soviet memorial.

Many Americans say they like our WWII memorial. Surely a lot of us are just being polite and don't want to offend WWII veterans. It's too late now, but could we not have come up with something that better symbolized our great WWII victory without the whiff of a Soviet-style memorial?

Hamburg

June, 2016

Berlin -- A recent weekend trip to Hamburg casts light on an important time in our family's history. In October of 1880, my great-grandparents, John and Johanna Oberg, with their two young sons, Otto and Ben (my grandfather), left Europe for America. They traveled from Sweden to Hamburg where they embarked on the S.S. Wieland for Le Havre and New York.

Hamburg has established a new emigration museum on Veddel Island, the site from which my family likely departed. The museum deals mostly with emigration after that time, so the buildings and replicas are probably not those my family would have known. According to other family histories recounting emigration around 1880, it's likely the emigrants got into small boats at Veddel Island to be transported down the Elbe River to meet the larger ocean-going ships at the mouth of the river.

The museum nevertheless has mock-ups of between-deck accommodations on ships like the S.S. Wieland, a ship of the Hamburg America Packet Line (HAPAG). The small wooden bunks with low ceilings would have made for a difficult voyage. Families had to supply their own mattresses and bedding. Oberg family lore tells of an unpleasant voyage to New York. In New York, the family likely entered through Castle Garden, on the Battery, as Ellis Island was not yet in operation. The Statue of Liberty was still a few years away as well. In America, my family went first to Chicago to relatives who were already there and then, a few years later, to Nebraska.

As far as I know, I am the first of my family's descendants to re-visit the departure point in Hamburg. Hamburg today would be recognizable to 1880 travelers, because it prohibits high rise construction that would obscure church spires and lighthouses that go back centuries. I can imagine my ancestors' feelings and impressions as they embarked on their voyage.

The ship's manifest seems to have the age of the boys wrong, as it lists Otto as being eleven months old and Ben being one month old. In fact, Otto was born in 1877 and Ben in 1878, so they were three and two, respectively. John was thirty when they left for America; Johanna was twenty-eight.



Refugees in Berlin

June, 2016

Berlin -- In my Kreuzberg neighborhood, the welcome signs are still out for refugees. Across the park, a volunteer center enlists those who want to help handle the newcomers. There are many such volunteers.

That's the upbeat side of the story. The reality of the situation is not so good. Local, state, and federal governments are overwhelmed by the refugees. Unscrupulous hostel and hotel owners have been packing refugees into uninhabitable conditions to make quick profits off government payments. Government payments are so slow, many otherwise good service providers have given up on attending to refugee needs. This includes those offering German language instruction.

Last weekend I went over to the Templehof neighborhood to see conditions there. The huge building at the former airport -- still the third largest building in the world -- shows few outward signs of housing thousands of refugees, as it did over the winter. Many have been moved out once their asylum applications were approved. Some refugees have returned to their native countries, not liking the prospects here. Surely being sequestered in an old airplane hangar during long, cold Berlin winter nights was not what refugees hoped for.

Those refugees still in the hangars apparently are not allowed out into the adjoining park, Templehofer Feld, which is fenced off. Looking through the fence, one can see a few children riding bikes on the apron next to the hangars and a few pieces of laundry hung out to dry. It looks desolate.

Kreuzberg is multi-ethnic, so refugees among us do not stand out. Surely there are many. On the U-Bahn, a family of four looks as if they could be refugees. They apparently have been clothed by donations, as their clothes are fresh but ill-fitting. One of the little boys is delighted with an oversized pair of goggle-glasses. The mother looks pleased that her family is safe and together. The father looks worried about the family's future.

Postscript: Two news stories illustrate the latest developments. Der Tagesspiegel reports troubles among refugees who don't want to go back to Templehof hangars. The New York Times gives a more optimistic view of how newcomers are being welcomed in Berlin.




Pox All Around

June, 2016

Washington -- The New York Times recently offered readers what appeared simply to be good financial advice in an article "The Best Way to Help A Grandchild with College." But in a quick rejoinder a college president said he was stunned that the article appeared, claiming it was shameful to try to hide potential tuition-paying resources from colleges. He said his college was doing its best to help students pay for college with institutional aid based on merit and need, and that grandparents and parents should not try to game the system.

A college admissions officer was even more blunt: "I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid."

College officials would have more credibility if only they were transparent about their own financial aid gaming. Colleges routinely siphon off federal aid aimed at needy students. The trend of financial aid is unmistakably toward those who don't need it, at the expense of those who do. So much for the argument that grandparents who read financial advice columns are responsible for the lack of aid to needy students. Colleges even mislead charities willfully, falsely telling them that the funds they raise will help needy students pay for college. These are not isolated examples. Colleges are engaged in widespread, systematic gaming of students, families, charities, and taxpayers.

A pox on all of the gamers, including those in Congress who perpetuate such a diabolically difficult student financial aid system. Let's add a pox on the U.S. Department of Education, too, for not cracking down on those who undermine the purpose and mission of federal programs.

There is an opportunity coming up to change things: the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is being drafted in Congress. But don't get your hopes up. There is little evidence that we are in for anything but six more years of financial aid gaming by whichever parties are clever enough to do it or, to put it another way, naive enough not to.

Worried About Nebraska

June, 2016

Lincoln -- Nebraska is no longer the same place I grew up in. Although I was born here and Nebraska is still my domicile, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

When I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, Nebraskans had remarkable longevity compared to the rest of the country. Hardy pioneer stock, we explained. Good food from our fields and gardens, we thought. Now we Nebraskans lag behind places like New York City and San Francisco in longevity. It may be the result of our less healthy, car-centric, HFCS-swilling lifestyle, combined with a more toxic environment. One disturbing new indicator: Nebraska has the highest incidence of Parkinson's disease in the nation, according to research that correlates the disease geographically with pesticide usage.

The change is about more than health indicators.

Our literature of the past several decades comes nowhere close to the works of earlier Nebraskans like Cather and Sandoz. Our politics, which once produced the founder of the modern Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, and produced a remarkable Republican, Nobel laureate Charles Dawes as well as the maverick Republican George Norris, hasn't seen their likes since. Nebraska is not a competitive two-party state, nor is there much room for other than an imported, grump-talk conservatism for the prevalent ideology. Bryan, Dawes, and Norris likely would not stand a chance if running for office in today's Nebraska. Indeed, my congressman is actually from Louisiana and the man who won the primary in my state legislative race is from Texas. These are not people of the Nebraska pioneer strain.

State government, which once summoned the resources and will to build the architectural wonder that is the Nebraska State Capitol, has sunk to new lows in prison scandals. No one from the governor on down seems able to keep track of prisoners' sentences, despite tough talk on fighting crime. This year, in a vote I thought I'd never see, the Nebraska legislature sacrificed the state's independent pork producers to a company owned by China, which will now dictate terms as to how hogs will be raised in Nebraska. (Yes, Red China, the authoritarian country of unfathomable food safety problems and choking environmental pollution.)

Nebraska's cities are no longer the tree-covered oases of my childhood. No more shade-dappled streets and homes with front porches; the houses now favored have great expanses of concrete slab fronting forbidding garage doors, behind which are hidden afterthought houses. Flip through Lincoln's "Parade of Homes." The vast majority of these houses are for people whose lives are not centered around neighborliness. The buyers want nature subdued, not celebrated. The more that can be paved-over, the better.

The State University, where the first graduate college was established west of the Mississippi, and which once was known as the Harvard of the Plains with only mild exaggeration, has fallen in national esteem. It has been voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which it had been a proud member (led by its natural sciences faculty) since 1909. No other university in the country has suffered the same indignity. And few in Nebraska seem to have much cared.

Grain prices are low. At the nearest local co-op, corn is $3.56 per bushel, wheat is $3.59, sorghum is $3.24. Farmers are continuing to leave the land, as they have been for decades. Farmers with diversified operations to hedge farming risks across wheat, feed grains, hay, and livestock, using crop rotation to preserve the soil, are mostly gone. Chemical agriculture has replaced them, luring farmers into dreams of high commodity prices driven by markets that too often proved illusory. Chemical agriculture is also responsible for the dangerous decline of pollinators essential, ironically, to many kinds of food production. It has also led indirectly to the deadly chemical of choice for many disaffected rural youth: meth. The decline in longevity in Nebraska is due in part to a vicious cycle of hopelessness linked to changes in agriculture.

There is a glimmer of hope, so small it seems almost foolish to raise it. The new UNL chancellor has been working to bring the faculty of the agriculture campus and the faculty of the city campus closer together. The gulf between them is wide. The ag faculty has, inadvertently or not, championed the changes that have depopulated much of the state, while the sociology, botany, history, political science, and economics faculties have recorded the declines in many social and natural science indicators. I wish the project well. It's about time they got together. I'm worried about Nebraska. We can do better.







Caught in Loan Hell

May, 2016

Washington -- How is it that consumers, especially borrowers, can get caught up in run-arounds from which there is apparently no exit? How can this happen even when consumers have done nothing wrong, but have explicitly followed the directions they were given to resolve issues?

It's not as if such situations are mere nuisances. They can result in bad consequences, such as having one's credit score lowered for a loan mix-up, or in the case of student loans, being defenseless while education is interrupted, income tax refunds taken, wages garnisheed, and bankruptcy options eliminated. Student loans can be the most problematic, not only because consumers have so few rights, but loan snafus affect borrowers at a most vulnerable time in life, when they are first trying to make successful futures for themselves.

It does not help that many student loans are still handled through an inefficient, antiquated, often uncaring system filled with players concerned more about their own profits and paychecks than solving borrower problems. This includes some people and offices in the U.S. Department of Education itself.

Consider the case of Charles Stewart, who has given me permission to write about his situation. He has been trying for over twenty years to get his life back from student loan hell, to no avail. He first took out loans (a Stafford and an SLS) at Fisk University where he was a student in the mid-1990s for three semesters before transferring to Edward Waters College for a fourth. The financial aid office at Edward Waters, however, did not file in-school deferment papers on the loans correctly, and the loans went into repayment status and then into default. A school administrator admitted they had made a mistake by confusing Charles Stewart with another student.

These being loans guaranteed by the federal government, Chemical Bank, holder of the loans, filed to recoup their losses with USA Funds, a non-profit guaranty agency. USA Funds paid.

Soon thereafter, however, Chemical Bank realized that Charles Stewart was eligible for hardship deferral/forbearance and issued a reprieve retroactively on both loans.

The U.S. Department of Education determined that it was not within Chemical Bank's authority to issue the retroactive actions after it had already been reimbursed by the guaranty agency; the Department pursued repayment of the loans from Charles Stewart. But he was not able to continue his education and not able to repay the loans.

This dragged on for years while Mr. Stewart tried to clear up the paperwork with the Department of Education so he could go back to school. At first he found a sympathetic loan analyst at the Department who tried to undo the mistakes and restore Charles Stewart's eligibility for federal student aid.

It didn't happen. USA Funds did not cooperate with the analyst's suggestion that they take back the loans. This was a reasonable approach by the analyst inasmuch as guaranty agencies like USA Funds charge borrowers fees and get federal subsidies in order to see that the loan programs are correctly administered.

The analyst told Charles Stewart to be patient. In the meantime, he provided him with a letter of eligibility for student financial aid, an appropriate action under the circumstances. But as the Department analyst ran out of solutions, he told Mr. Stewart that perhaps only a lawsuit from him would resolve the issue. Things went from bad to worse when the analyst discovered that collection letters, which were supposed to have been suspended until a solution was found, were going out from the Department. He told Charles Stewart to ignore them.

Many consumers are all too familar with this nightmare: being told one thing on the phone or email but being told something else by letter. Not to mention being advised to file a lawsuit as the best solution.

The sympathetic Department loan analyst was never able to solve the problem. He was transferred; on his way elsewhere he wished Charles Stewart "good luck."

Mr. Stewart retained counsel and for a time, it appeared as if progress was being made toward resolution. Then his lawyer failed to follow through on what he had set in motion and had to give up Mr. Stewart as a client because the lawyer took employment with a firm that represented student loan lenders, a conflict of interest. He referred Mr. Stewart to Legal Aid.

This is the kind of situation that calls out for someone to take responsibility. The Secretary has powers under the statute governing student loan programs to compromise loans when it is in the best interest of the government to do so. Secretary Margaret Spellings in January, 2007, used her powers to write off over $700 million of federal taxpayer dollars due from lenders. One would think there might be a process somewhere through which a borrower such as Charles Stewart might be given relief. If the Department cannot get USA Funds to do the right thing, it should cancel the loans itself and use the case as a cautionary tale. It would be worth more than the cost of cancellation to impress on all how important it is to have colleges capable of administering federal programs; how guaranty agencies need to keep borrowers' interests in mind, not just banks' interests; and how the credibility of the Department can be hurt when these kinds of situations occur.

When I worked in the Department of Education's Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs in the 1990s, these kinds of cases sometimes landed on my desk. Often they came through congressional offices as a result of irate constituents demanding action. Some dedicated caseworkers on the Hill knew how to get problems solved by escalating them, even to the point of demanding the Secretary appear before a Senator or Congressman in person to apologize for the Department's incompetence or complicity. At this point I would customarily call the bank, the guaranty agency, the college, or whoever had been a part of the foul-up and ask them to be present. Give us twenty-four hours, they would often ask. More times than not, a day later they would call and say "problem solved, no need for a meeting."

That remedy may also exist for Charles Stewart, but increasingly, it seems to me there are fewer caseworkers on the Hill or anywhere who can solve consumer and constituent problems. Good caseworkers on the Hill are hard to find. Staff want to play politics, not help constituents with knotty problems. The creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has been a breath of fresh air, and that agency may also be a remedy for Charles Stewart. But nothing would be more appropriate than for the Department of Education to set things right itself, with no further prompting. Enough with the finger-pointing. There's so much blame to go around that this case should be turned into a training exercise. Talk about a teachable moment.

Tragedy and Farce at the Statehouse

May, 2016

Lincoln -- The sad stories of two Nebraska state agencies suggest that, as the old saying goes, history repeats itself... first as tragedy, then as farce.

The continuing troubles at the Department of Corrections are the tragedy. Nebraska's correctional institutions are not safe for either guards or inmates. The farce is newly uncovered mismanagement at the Nebraska Tourism Commission, in the form of nepotism, cost overruns, exorbitant speaker fees, and wildly excessive employee moving expenses, all being done under the noses of oblivious tourism commissioners.

Two governors, immediate past and present, were quick to call for the firing of the director of the Tourism Commission, as if she were the cause of all the trouble, not the gubernatorially appointed commissioners. Could be. Others around the statehouse suggested the independent Tourism Commission should execute a contract with the state's Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to help it with financial management. Others said the Tourism Commission should be placed back under the Department of Economic Development, where it was until made an independent state agency by the Nebraska legislature in 2012.

A deep breath and a little history are in order.

None of this should have happened at the Tourism Commission in the first place had state government been functioning properly. Long ago, to his credit, Governor Tiemann led an effort to modernize Nebraska state government by creating clear lines of budget and accounting authority from the governor on down. The idea was to give the governor executive budget authority to make spending recommendations to the legislature for all agencies and to centralize in one department, under the governor, responsibility for executing the legislature's ultimate budget and accounting for the state's expenditures under that budget. In this way, all state agencies, whether directly under the control of the governor, independent as created by the legislature, or separately created by the state constitution, would be under the same general rules for budget preparation, execution, and accounting.

Under the Tiemann-led effort, the Department of Administrative Services was created to provide these functions, its director to be appointed by and responsible to the governor. Within DAS, a budget division was created with a small staff of budget analysts to work with all agencies to help train their personnel in fiscal administration, keep track of their spending to make sure it was authorized by law, and generally to monitor the agencies to keep them focused on their missions and out of trouble. When troubles came up, as they always do, it was the responsibility of the DAS budget analysts to recommend solutions to the governor and to the legislature. Sometimes that entailed agency cutbacks; sometimes the analysts would recommend, through the governor, supplemental appropriations as the best solution. Likewise, a DAS accounting division was created to handle the actual mechanics of central bill-paying and financial reporting. These DAS divisions were created to serve all of state government.

Under Tiemann's successor, Governor Exon, this system was put to test by the State Department of Education, an agency with a constitutionally established, independently elected board. Although the legislature in 1973 created a new program to assist in the education of handicapped children, the Education Department wanted to distribute the millions in new funds the same way it always had without regard to the new legislation. The DAS budget division, monitoring the situation, consulted with the attorney general's office, which agreed that the Education Department's distribution plan would violate the law. The Education Department persisted, citing its independent, constitutional status. Governor Exon personally went before a special session of the State Board of Education and persuaded it to direct its staff to follow the law. The system worked; the misappropriation of funds was caught in time; the program director at the Education Department who caused the dust-up soon moved on to other employment.

(Sidebar: Governor Exon's appearance before the State Board of Education was facilitated by its chairman, Gerald Whelan of Hastings. Exon and Whelan met at the Cornhusker Hotel for coffee before the meeting to go over the issues. For the next election, Exon chose Whelan as his lieutenant governor running mate.)

All of which raises the question of how the current Tourism Commission got so far off track. Yes, perhaps its director was not up to the management challenges; yes, perhaps the tourism commissioners were not paying attention. But these kinds of problems should be anticipated and even expected. Nebraska governors have long since been given the tools to train agency personnel and to monitor agency fiscal performance, even in cases where the governor does not have policy control.

Governor Ricketts came into office touting his business acumen. But in his rush to re-organize the top levels of state government, creating offices and titles to match up with his private business experience (only to quickly disestablish or by-pass them), Govenor Ricketts seems not to have familiarized himself with the existing structure and tools at his disposal to stop state government from making a farce of itself. Which is not to say that his ideas for reorganization might not have had merit or that the old ways of doing things were perfect. But his finger-pointing is a little too much, unless he also is willing to point occasionally in the mirror.

It strikes me as a bad, bad idea to have an agency "contract" with DAS. All agencies should be working with DAS already. DAS should be reaching out to train personnel and to understand the issues, large and small, that all agencies confront, to help them with solutions and to bring major problems to the attention of elected officials early enough to prevent both tragedies and farces.






Nice to Have Company, But...

April, 2016

Washington -- It's nice to see a like-minded author write on higher education finance in a prominent Capitol Hill publication. Ingrid Schroeder, director of fiscal federalism initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, makes a strong case for a better understanding of how higher education funding streams interact in her article "Footing the Bill for Higher Education." An excerpt:

Both states and the federal government contribute significant funding to higher education — similar to transportation, K-12 education and other policy areas. However, higher education is unlike these other areas, where there are generally federal-state funding matches or states are required to maintain a certain funding level to receive federal dollars. In higher education, states can, for the most part, cut spending without a loss of federal support.

But it's disappointing, so far, that those in Congress with committee jurisdiction over higher education have yet to put forth changes to the Higher Education Act that reflect an understanding of these increasingly painful realities of fiscal federalism. Although the federal government continues to pour billions into higher education, states and institutions have been reducing their support in the very area -- college affordability -- where the federal government has been increasing its spending. One result is student loan debt that now exceeds $1.3 trillion nationwide and is a drag on the economy, not to mention how student loan debt gone wrong is taking a devastating toll on millions of individuals and families.

Instead of using the tools of fiscal federalism to keep federal, state, and institutional funding streams in balance, Congress over the years has been killing off or strangling the programs in the Higher Education Act that contain matching and maintenance of effort provisions. It's not as if the federal fiscal effort needs huge increases; what it desperately needs is re-balancing among the various spending and tax expenditure programs to draw the states and the institutions back into "cooperative federalism."

To the credit of several past and present presidential candidates of both parties, their proposals for higher education affordability acknowledge the role that states and institutions must play. Where is the Congress?