Don't Take the Bait

August, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The "Better Deal" Could be Better

August, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


George M. Garner 1955 - 2017

July, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford

July, 2017

Washington -- Many people of widely-varied political and ideological persuasions have already reproached the President for his inappropriate remarks at both the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford in Virginia and at the annual Boy Scout jamboree in West Virginia. His asides at the Boy Scout gathering were downright indecent.

I cannot improve on the condemnations, but with regard to the ship's commissioning I can offer the perspective of a veteran who is familiar with what is, and what is not, appropriate at a such an event.

It should go without saying that in front of assembled dignitaries, no remarks should be offered that would be improper in the ship's wardroom; that is, religion and politics are off limits. Yet the president openly invited and even instructed the ship's company to contact Congress in support of his political agenda. In any wardroom of which I was a member (USS Rainier, USS Arlington) this kind of talk would result in a stern admonition from the ship's executive officer.

In April, 1963, I was invited to the commissioning of the USS Platte, named after Nebraska's Platte River, as staff to Nebraska Senator J. James Exon, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I drafted his remarks for the occasion, if memory serves. Admiral William Crowe, CINCUSNAVEUR, attended; he was soon to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and ambassador to the Court of St. James under President Clinton. I cannot fathom Admiral Crowe's reaction, had he been in attendance at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The commissioning of this new aircraft carrier reminds us of the qualities of President Ford. He stood for a respectable conservatism that cared about balanced budgets, cautious monetary policy, free trade, and strong international alliances. He was a decent man, above everything. The country misses you, Gerald Ford.

That's More Like it, NIC

July, 2017

Lincoln -- In the past I've expressed disappointment with the Nebraska Innovation Campus, both its direction and the time and money it has taken to get going.

Early on, its only claim to innovation was to link the University's food science department up with Omaha food company ConAgra, which soon left Nebraska for Chicago in search of ideas to offer healthier nourishment. No future in Nebraska, ConAgra concluded. Next for NIC: small-bore innovations in production agriculture, but nothing remotely close to justifying the NIC's existence. My opinion was that NIC should be thinking big in agriculture, in terms of health and wellness where the need is great and the opportunities commensurate.

Now that may be happening. With big thinking from Nebraska native Jeff Raikes, along with substantial funding from his foundation, NIC and other campuses are starting to work seriously on combining agriculture and health research into something that might be called Agriculture 2.0. NIC could be central to this effort.

"There are rich sources of commodities that have been exploited for production, agronomic, and yield traits that have not been exploited for health-promoting traits," a University official said in response to the Raikes challenge.

Well, yes. In case no one's noticed it, Nebraskans and Americans everywhere are suffering and dying from unhealthy food at alarming rates. Glad to see NIC now heading in the right direction. It deserves support and encouragement.

Also heartening is the renewed attention being given at the University to food labeling. One outcome of the new Agriculture 2.0 could be food labels that go beyond listing ingredients, to actually stating how certain foods may increase or reduce the risks of certain diseases. HFCS increases the risk of diabetes, for example. This is appropriate for the University of Nebraska, whose own Dr. Ruth Leverton led the way to create the first USDA food labeling effort. This history is something the Univerity should build upon as it looks for ways to define and create Agriculture 2.0.

What About a "Decent Deal"?

July, 2017

Washington -- Prominent members of the Democratic Party, including a congressman who has designs on House leadership, have recently looked at Democrats' electoral prospects and come to the conclusion that, for large numbers of swing voters across the country, the Democratic brand is held in even lower esteem than is the Trump brand. This is hard to fathom, given the embarrassing incompetence and moral vacuity of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office. But there can be little doubt that it is true. The question is, what are Democrats going to do about it?

One approach is to sharpen the Democrat's economic message, but others caution (wisely in my opinion), that it's not the economy, stupid, it's the culture. Many voters will not move away from Trump regardless of economic issues, because they associate the Democratic Party with a culture that is anathema to them.

But is it really? It wouldn't be if Democrats united around both an economic policy and a culture that Trump voters could embrace in the next election as a refuge from the dangerous directions of the party they put in power. And it wouldn't be if Democrats could unite on something positive they can be for, rather than simply shaking their heads in disgust at the degrading nonsense of Trumpism.

It's time for Democrats to offer that combination in a "Decent Deal."

Foremost in this appellation is the word decent, and all that it offers as a counterweight to the many levels of indecency of the current president.

Next, the word deal elicits memories of the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, and of and Harry Truman and his Fair Deal. In the spirit of bi-partisanship, Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal should not be left out.

Democrats should look to the details of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Square Deal as touchstones to unite its competing factions. The New Deal, with its Social Security and its oversight of financial institutions, is now part of American life but needs continual adjustment and reaffirmation. The Fair Deal, with its focus on racial integration and access to medical care, is a work in progress. The Square Deal, with its emphasis on the environment and trust-busting, is still relevant and critical.

Framing current issues in these terms will not set well with those who want continually to frame politics and elections in ideological terms. This plays into the hands of the not-so-hidden persuaders who have turned descriptors like "liberal" into cultural epithets to turn voters away from Democrats. Most people -- especially swing voters -- actually hold both liberal and conservative views simultaneously, depending on the particulars of an issue, and will welcome relief from divisive ideological battles that never seem to deliver what they want, which is effective, honest government.

A decent deal is all that most voters want out of life. They do not want special privileges, only a decent chance to succeed, and a decent chance for everyone. This is what they will vote for, if given a choice.

A Decent Deal represents the culture of decency and opportunity that Democrats should be offering, and uniting around.





Admissions about College Admissions

July, 2017

Washington -- The struggle for transparency in college admissions and student financial aid got a welcome boost this week from a prominent college president, Morton O. Shapiro of Northwestern University. His analysis (with co-author Gary S. Morson) of the shortcomings of many college officials working in this secretive field, titled "Ethics 101 for Admissions Officers," can be read in the July, 2, 2017 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One pernicious practice Shapiro questions is the gauging of student interest in attending a particular college in order to raise its net price, thus putting financially needy students into greater debt because they naïvely took the college's bait to demonstrate their enrollment intentions. Of this and other such misuse of econometric data collected on students, Shapiro writes that it is "not exactly what the public is led to believe about how the admissions process works."

He adds, "If colleges were open about what they were doing, at least the deception would disappear."

The Shapiro offering comes at the same time Inside Higher Ed has put a spotlight on a recently passed Maryland law that prohibits displacement of outside scholarships at Maryland's public institutions. Opposition to the law was led by college financial aid officials who do not want the public to know how scholarship aid is manipulated to the disadvantage of outside scholarship providers and recipients. Not always, but often grant shell-gaming comes at the expense of the financially needy, who lose institutional grant aid and must take on higher student loan debt. Associations of college financial aid officials will be mounting campaigns to prevent other states from adopting such legislation, on the grounds that how they package financial aid is proprietary information that the public is not entitled to see. Many colleges pay good money for econometric data and algorithms that they would rather not be exposed to public view.

The Secretary of Education could put an end to a lot of this deception and unethical behavior by enforcing the Student Right to Know law (20 USC 1092; 34 CFR 668.42), which provides that students have a right to know how their financial aid is determined. It has been on the books for years without enforcement.

Some college officials defend scholarship displacment because it involves their "own" money, which they say they have a right to spend, or not spend, as they see fit. Setting aside the question of whose money it is (often it is tuition income from other students), as a federal and state taxpayer I certainly have an interest in how such money is spent, if it results in defeating or undermining the purpose of federal programs like Pell grants, which like outside scholarships can also be displaced. Sometimes federal regulations are necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and this is one of them. There is no requirement for colleges to participate in federal programs, but if they do, they must expect to comply with basic rules of program and fiscal integrity.

Orwellian-Named "Agro-terrorism" Bill

July, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Congress has passed and the president has signed legislation to speed up USDA reactions and countermeasures to combat agricultural disasters such as the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza. To control the 2015 outbreak, tens of millions of exposed chickens and turkeys across the Midwest had to be killed to prevent the influenza's spread. The USDA was faulted by producers and consumers alike for its mis-handling of the epidemic.

Iowa Congressman David Young, a sponsor of the legislation, suggests the need for it is to fight "agro-terrorism."

This is more than a stretch, it is downright Orwellian. Theoretically, perhaps, terrorists could infect flocks; but anyone with a little imagination can conjure many situations that terrorists could exploit.

Just for the record, terrorism was not behind the 2015 avian influenza outbreak. The culprit was bad farming practices. Anyone with a basic understanding of raising poultry knows that packing together huge numbers of birds of any kind, especially in dark confined spaces like modern factory-farms, is an invitation to disaster. We are our own terrorists.

My family was once in the pountry business in Nebraska. George Oberg, my great uncle, started the Oberg Hatcheries, training his sons, nephews, and in-laws in the trade. "Best in Chix Since '26" was one of the advertising slogans. Those with a George Oberg connection ran hatcheries for decades in Schuyler, Fremont, Columbus, Leigh, Ceresco, Imperial, and Fairbury. George Oberg became a member of the Nebraska Poultry Hall of Fame, which is located on the campus of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

But the Univesity no longer has a Poultry Science department. It went the way of Oberg Hatcheries when corporate agriculture took over the poultry industry. And now Congress is trying to use the excuse of terrorism to try to clean up the mess that has resulted.



Collision at Sea: USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal

July, 2017

Washington -- The USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with the cargo ship ACX Crystal in the middle of the night last month off the coast of Japan. Early accounts of the accident, in which seven U.S. Navy sailors died, expressed surprise that such a mishap could occur. Why didn't the Fitzgerald lookouts see the lights of other ship? Why didn't Fitzgerald radar track it? Why couldn't a nimble destroyer maneuver out of the way of a clumsy cargo ship? Why wasn't the captain on the bridge?

As a former Navy officer with experience in Japanese seas, I am not surprised at all. Sealanes can be crowded and ships must often avoid several other ships at the same time. Perhaps Fitzgerald was privileged against one but burdened in relation to another under the international rules of the road when Crystal made a sudden turn. Cargo ships are notorious for not following rules and even sailing by "iron mike" with no humans on the bridge. Perhaps the Fitzgerald starboard (the side of the collision) lookout was distracted or reporting other ships to the bridge and missed the moment Crystal's running lights changed color so as to indicate a different aspect of an otherwise invisible ship. The radar operators in CIC behind the Fitzgerald bridge may have been calculating courses and speeds that did not make sense to those on the bridge who had a first-hand view, as can happen. It may have been a wild mid-watch for the Officer of the Deck, who had standing night orders from the captain to wake him under certain conditions, but was hesitant to do so for some reason. Perhaps it all happened so fast, the OOD did not think he had time to awaken the captain and get him to the bridge, even if the captain's sea-cabin was only steps away.

In 1964, I was on a training cruise on the destroyer USS Waller in the Ligurian Sea, off the coast of Italy. It was nighttime. The OOD was Mr. Christian (yes, that was his name). He did not think much of the captain, who was a Captain Bligh type. Despite orders never to sit in the captain's bridge chair, Mr. Christian took pleasure in it on the mid-watch. We did not have any reason to call the captain to the bridge that night, but I suspect Mr. Christian would be reluctant to do so if there was any doubt about it.

In 1967, I was OOD myself aboard USS Rainier in the Tonkin Gulf. A U.S. aircraft carrier crossed paths with us twice. I knew what I was doing (or thought I did) and did not awaken the captain, who was new aboard and untested. In retrospect, perhaps I should have, because the carrier approached within the limits covered by the standing night orders. But at no time was there a situation of "constant bearing, decreasing range," the indication that a collision could happen and the standard to overcome any ambiguity in night orders.

I've known shipmates, qualified OODs, who were reluctant to call a captain to the bridge because they were on his wrong side for one reason or another and did not want yet another chewing out, deserved or not. By the way, the captain I did not call to the bridge was soon to wreck the ship's car late one night in port, while driving intoxicated back to the ship from the officer's club in Subic Bay, the Philippines.

A thorough investigation of the Fitzgerald collision will take place to try to determine the cause of it. It was tragic not only because seven lives were lost, but because Fitzgerald sailors had to make life and death decisions either to try to rescue their shipmates or to seal off hatches and doorways to keep the ship afloat, saving the lives of others. For my part, I'd like to know the relationship between the captain and his OOD that night. Navy tradition will hold the captain responsible whatever the circumstances (and I don't take issue with that tradition), but in so doing it may miss an opportunity to look into issues of character and leadership that may have been contributory.








What Republicans Must Do Now

June, 2017

Lincoln -- In recent posts I've been hard on the man we somehow elected president, as well as on the Democratic Party for losing touch with too many voters. It's about time to focus on Republican voters who with their votes have put the country and its institutions in great peril. What do Republican voters do now to right the ship of state?

Previous posts have looked at political choices in the context of a healthy, two-party system of government. One-party government, I believe, is asking for trouble regardless of party and regardless of level – local, state, or federal. Voters in both parties should want a healthy, competitive two-party system to encourage good candidates to run on both tickets, so that there is a responsible alternative when one party governs poorly or, in the current case, dangerously.

I've heard from Republican friends who say they voted for Trump not because they wanted to, but because they did not believe there was an alternative. The choice was made easier for them because they did not think such a man could ever win, so their vote was more of a protest than a choice. And, being bombarded by ever-more divisive partisan shouting, they say they will vote for him again.

Here's what responsible Republicans can do to restore a healthy two-party system, even if they cannot bring themselves to vote Democratic:

• Vote, but understand that there is no obligation to vote in every race. Leaving some contests blank sends a protest message in itself. Sometimes it just makes sense to take a pass on a contest. In 2014, Maryland voters, in a nearly one-party Democratic state, declined to support what they perceived as a weak Democratic candidate; the Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor with largely Republican votes. This will have a salubrious effect on future races, as potential candidates in both parties will know it is possible to win.

• Oppose gerrymandering and support all efforts to eliminate it. Gerrymandering is both a cause and an effect of one-party government.

• Do not support dark money candidates funded by 501(c)4 sources with an agenda that is eager to tear down our country's most hallowed institutions. Watch out especially for those who celebrate rather than lament misrule.

• Oppose measures that limit the voting franchise. If you don't understand how such limitations work, read federal appeals court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz's opinion in a North Carolina case, a decision so well crafted the Supreme Court has no appetite to review it.

If there is one thing Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on, it is that our system of government needs candidates who can compete for votes based on their attractiveness, not on which is the lesser evil. But that will require thoughtful voters in both parties, which at this point is particularly required of decent and patriotic Republicans.

War and Peace with Germany

June, 2017

Berlin and Lincoln -- Am I the only one who shudders at the spectacle of a German chancellor addressing a crowd in a Munich beer hall, announcing that Germany henceforth will have to go its own way? It happened last week. Didn't a would-be (and future) chancellor say essentially the same thing in a Munich beer hall in 1923? Yes. We know how that turned out.

Times and issues are different, but it's worth looking at what Germany now sees as its own way and how geopolitically the situations are similar, albeit for different reasons. Germany has a fundamental interest in the Baltic States and in Eastern Europe for security reasons, with or without American partnership through NATO. Germany's relationship with Turkey, because of the large Turkish population left over from the Wirtschaftswunder, has dimensions beyond America's view of Turkey's importance. India and China are rushing in to fill a relationship with Germany being vacated by America. In technology, trade, and geopolitics, America will be left in the dust.

How will these changing relationships affect, say, America's effort to keep the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean from being taken over by China's rapidly expanding navies? It's hard to see how a split in German-American relations is going to have anything but a very bad outcome.

What if Russia continues to press forward in Ukraine and the Baltics under the ruse that it is protecting Russian nationals in those countries? Does Germany push back to protect German nationals in Kaliningrad (Königsberg, the city of Kant). Not without NATO's nuclear weapons behind it, you might think, if we are thinking the unthinkable. But Germany is aligned in continental Europe with France, itself a nuclear power, a country America seems equally intent on breaking up with.

Why is this even a topic of discussion? Didn't we Americans shed blood and treasure in two world wars to overcome the horrors of German nationalism? How can this be happening? Was last weekend's Memorial Day celebration for naught?

My own family has a history of war and peace with Germany. Three of my great uncles fought Germany in WWI; all were wounded (two seriously for life). Five of my first cousins, once removed, fought in WWII; three as navy officers, one as an infantryman, one as a paratrooper. When my time came for navy service a generation later, after two tours in the South China Sea I was sent to Germany as part of the U.S. European Command. In Stuttgart, I joined a German-American friendship group, the Metropolitan Club, and married one of its members. We raised two children who attended both American and German schools. Now adults, one lives in Maryland and one in Berlin. My dear wife is deceased. She would be appalled at recent developments. She was a great friend of America. As a high school student in Stuttgart, she amassed a collection of German newspaper and magazine articles about America, especially about President Kennedy and his support of West Germany in the face of Soviet aggression. Her collection is now in Lincoln, Nebraska, resting uneasy in a state that voted for an unworthy and unfit successor president who in his recklessness dishonors patriots who fought the wars and won the peace.



Democrats: Think Culture, Not Just Policy and Ideology

May, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Our two-party system in the United States, and in many individual states, is in trouble. Many of our constitutional checks and balances are undermined because of it. One-party government at any level is not good, be it one party or the other.

Although much commentary these days is devoted to dysfunction in the Republican Party, that party has enjoyed much electoral success at both national and state levels. How that success was achieved is problematic (gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money and the like), but this post is devoted to the issues in the Democratic Party that are equally a threat to a healthy two-party system. This is a continuation of an earlier post about Democratic Party failures.

That post explored the idea that party platforms and policies can be overstated in their effect on voter behavior. If voters do not feel a cultural affinity to a party, they may well vote against policies that would otherwise benefit them. The Democratic Party is slow to recognize this. It needs to show less scorn for voters it has lost and more concern for bringing voters back by offering a political culture that is a credible alternative to the wildly careening, morally off-putting culture that has come to represent the Republican Party.

Here are some suggestions for the Democratic Party that would be appropriate to recapture voters in the Upper Midwest and Plains States, especially, in terms of political culture:

• Recapture the flag of agrarian populism, once closely aligned with the Democratic Party. The issues that animated farmers and laborers of decades ago (corporate monopolies, crop price parity, credit policy, tariffs and trade) have not gone away.

• Associate policies and politicians' behaviors more closely with the religious faiths many voters hold strongly. Many religious texts teach the values of helping the poor, of being the keeper of one's neighbors, of stewardship of the land and nature, of showing compassion and humility. An outside observer would surely be astounded that the Republican Party has appropriated religion to its benefit, and that the Democratic Party, whose policies are often more attuned to such texts, has increasingly disassociated itself from religious faith.

• Be proud of America's historical role in international affairs. America has stood for universal human rights and values, through war and peace. There have been mistakes and setbacks, but now is the time for the Democratic Party to assert its continuing, hard-won vision for a world that values human rights in all countries. The Republican Party's affinity to dictators should be a cultural disconnect to many troubled voters whose families and friends gave much in the cause of human rights, fighting dictatorships.

• Advocate for good, honest, moral government, including the reduction of economic inequality, through fiscally responsible approaches. The Democratic Party must talk sense about government in the face of nihilistic theories that would have voters believe all goverment and all taxation is bad. Most voters want their local, state, and federal governments to work efficiently and for the benefit of the whole society.

The goal of the Democratic Party should be to offer voters a safe political refuge, in a cultural context they can relate to without apology. Many of these voters have voted Democratic before, so it should not be difficult to move enough voters to restore a healthier two-party system. This approach is much preferable to the recent efforts of the Democratic Party to rely on identity politics, demographics, and ridicule of the opposition to win elections. That approach has failed.

Note that there is no discussion here of ideology, as in "moving left" or "moving right." Many voters do not adhere to an ideology; their behaviors and beliefs run the ideological gamut. They can be liberal on some matters and conservative on others, and even proud of it.

It is political culture that must now be the greater concern.




Burning and Looting, 21st Century Version

May, 2017

Berlin -- The city survived another May Day (Labor Day in Germany) without burning and looting. Some demonstrators brought their own canned smoke, which is progress compared to the riots of previous years. This was the 30th anniversary of the worst of the excesses, when arson and plundering prevailed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Around Mariannenplatz this year all was festive with many children especially delighted to get big, animal-shaped balloons from vendors. Turkish families and organizations provided dozens of tables of food up and down Oranienstrasse and several other streets, which were turned over to pedestrians. No cars in sight: less temptation for trouble-makers to overturn vehicles and set them on fire.

A more meaningful event, to me, was held two days before on Petersburgerplatz in nearby Friedrichshain, where a few hundred people gathered to protest the Bayer-Monsanto merger. It was organized by farmers, bakers, bee-keepers, and environmentalists. Some in the crowd wore bee costumes; one man came as a bear (to show love for honey, presumably). I joined the marchers as they proceeded down the boulevard toward Frankfurter Tor.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln daily newspaper reports an effort to save monarch butterflies and other pollinators by planting milkweed, but treads lightly on who and what is killing the pollinators off. That would be, in significant part, the Bayers and Monsantos of the world. It will take more than planting milkweed for pollinators to recover, and more than using pesticides and herbicides carefully as directed, as this and other such articles always advise. It is the ubiquitous use of these products that is the problem, not a matter of following application directions. This is the issue that must be faced. We are burning and looting our natural resources, 21st century style.

Varieties of Anarchists

April, 2017

Berlin -- It is three days before May Day in Berlin. Near my place in Berlin-Kreuzberg, I am having lunch in a small cafe a short walk across what used to be the Berlin Wall. To the sound of Turkish music, I see a headline in the Berliner Morgenpost stating that the "Linksautonomen" will be allowed to march here in the big celebration on May Day without obtaining a permit.

This is news, as leftist anarchists have often provoked May Day violence in the past. The responsible Berlin city official explains that "the police are the guarantor of the right of free assembly in our country." But the article goes on to say that the police will be reinforced by uniformed officers brought in from Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Nordrhein-Westfallen, Hessen, Rhineland-Pfalz, and the federal police.

Toward evening, on the big plaza in front of the Bethanien Arts Center, I see young men and women lined up with revolutionary flags and banners practicing for May Day. They are in a military formation and are being instructed on what to do in case of clashes, presumably with right-wing trouble-makers or with police. On command, the leaders challenge them to a shoving scrum. A few fall to the ground. They back off and do it again. This looks like more than free assembly.

Meanwhile, in an ironic coincidence, America's right-wing economic anarchists have been planning their attack on federal revenues at none other than the Cafe Berlin on Capitol Hill, according to the Washington Post. Larry Kudlow, Steve Forbes, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore gathered there last week to sketch out new tax legislation over dinner and were joined by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. Laffer, we should all remember, does his economics on napkins, which is apparently the reason they are meeting at the Cafe Berlin rather than at the Treasury Department. Make no mistake; this group is about starving the government, ballooning the federal deficit, and endangering national security. Tax cuts do not pay for themselves and everyone knows it.

Both of these varieties of anarchists, from the left and the right, are dangerous. May they both fail.

The Eat Crow Tour

April, 2017

Lincoln -- One of the best things the national Democratic Party could do for itself, and for the country, is to take an Eat Crow Tour through regions where it did so poorly in the 2016 elections. The tour should make stops especially in the rust belt and the farm belt, in counties where Democrats once did well. The theme of the tour would not be how Democrats were cheated by Putin, or Comey, or McConnell; it would be a sincere apology for running a national campaign that did not offer, in the minds of too many, a credible alternative to the Republican ticket.

The 2016 election should have been easy. The top of the Republican ticket was headed by a man with such flaws even many die-hard Republicans had trouble accepting him. But Democrats were so tone-deaf to many regions it didn't matter. Instead of listening to the people in abandoned areas, and offering policies that related to their concerns, it offered a national campaign based on identity politics, demographics, and ridiculing the opposition. It was not a winning strategy, as some of us pointed out well in advance.

Before launching such a tour, Democrats should read Nobel-laureate Paul Krugman's insightful analyses about how they must not only offer credible policies to these populations, but how they must understand the regions' cultures. People will vote against their own interests, policy-wise, if they do not have a cultural fit with the party asking for their votes. Policy is important, but culture often supersedes policy.

In 2016, Democrats offered little by way of either public policy or cultural identification to huge swaths of the nation. Consider the Upper Midwest, where the agricultural economy is in big trouble, but Democrats' and Republicans' farm policy platforms were hardly distinguishable, if they existed at all. In terms of culture, Democrats failed to take advantage of the rich heritage of agrarian populism, allowing the mantle to be claimed by a Republican tied closely to big, eastern banks. Do national Democrats even know of the Cross of Gold speech, or Fighting Bob? It's time to learn, or face even more election debacles.

The goal of the Eat Crow Tour would be to get back in touch with voters who are not happy with the electoral choices they were offered in 2016, to admit responsibility more than cast blame, to listen carefully to concerns of voters, to remember cultural heritage, and to commit to better efforts in the future. This would go a long way toward being competitive again, especially with voters who were mortified about having to vote for Trump but felt there was no alternative.

Soil Health as Infrastructure, Redux

April, 2017

Lincoln -- Last December, I posted "Topsoil as Infrastructure," which suggested that soil health should be considered a key component of our nation's infrastructure, to be included in any Congressional legislation to rebuild the country.

In the Lincoln newspaper today, "Make Our Soil Great Again" expresses many of the same thoughts. The author, a professor at the University of Washington, writes, "...degraded agricultural soils is one of humanity’s most pressing and under-recognized natural infrastructure projects..."

It would be good to see this cause taken up by the University of Nebraska, and by Nebraska's congressional delegation. When I sent my post in December to my two senators and one representative, I got back one reply but nothing from the two others, which was disappointing. Clearly they are not thinking along these lines. This should be a bipartisan effort if there ever was one.

A Little Good News in Higher Education

April, 2017

Washington -- Finally, there's good news in higher education. The Maryland Legislature has passed legislation prohibiting egregious practices of scholarship displacement in student financial aid packaging in Maryland. In February of 2016 I wrote about the issue in a blog entitled Switcheroo Algorithms.

Hats are off to Central Scholarship of Maryland and to several Maryland legislators for shepherding the prohibition through the House and Senate. It will help low-income students pay for college more with grants as opposed to loans. It strikes a blow for honesty and transparency in financial aid packaging.

Here's hoping other states follow suit. Is it too much to ask that the U.S. Department of Education also crack down on scholarship displacement? It would make federal grant money go much further than it does.

Will the Senate Stand Up for Itself?

April, 2017

Washington -- There is a reason for Senate Democrats and even Republicans to vote against the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch. It is not based on:

• his judicial philosophy
• his unwillingness to answer questions at his confirmation hearing
• his being out of the mainstream (witness his opinion on services to handicapped children being overturned 8-0 by the Supreme Court during his hearing)
• payback for shabby treatment of Judge Garland the previous year
• partisanship

Rather, it is based on separation of powers and the system of checks and balances provided by the Constitution. When one branch overreaches, the others have remedies at their disposal. In this case, the overreach was the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, in which an activist court majority overturned Congressional legislation on campaign finance. Whereupon political organizations created "dark money" operations that have funded advertising campaigns to pressure Senators to confirm Judge Gorsuch. The result of this effort would require the Senate to change its own rules and diminish the body as an institution that protects minority rights and encourages compromise.

The remedy is for the Senate to vote no on the dark money nominee, as provided in the Constitution.

Recall a similar challenge to Congress posed by Richard Nixon when he aggressively impounded funds appropriated by Congress for programs he did not support. Had Nixon's actions not been met with resistance, Congress's power of the purse, granted by the Constitution, would have been severely undermined. Congress responded with the Budget Impoundment and Control Act of 1974, putting the executive branch back in its constitutional place, not just for the programs at issue but for the principle of separation of powers.

The Senate should do likewise on this occasion, to act on constitutional principle rather than on the merits or lack thereof of the particular nominee at issue. This is a test of the Senate as an institution and fundamentally an issue of our system of checks and balances.

Real Man March for Washington

March, 2017

Lincoln -- What Washington needs is a Real Man March. Thousands of Real Men could gather in view of the White House so as to provide role models for the current occupant who, try as he might, comes up short.

If you have any of the ten following attributes--even one--you qualify as a badly needed Real Man role model:

1. Veteran
2. Good Samaritan to the unfortunate
3. Not a braggart
4. Selfless in charity
5. Never stiffed contractors
6. Truth teller
7. Never filed for bankruptcy
8. Friend and protector of nature
9. Never divorced
10. Respectful and decent to all

Of course many women would also qualify as Real Men. So much the better. When do we march?

Nebraska Notables

March, 2017

Lincoln -- For the occasion of Nebraska's 150th statehood anniversary, the Lincoln Journal-Star put together a list of 150 "notable" Nebraskans. It was offered as a conversation starter.

Without challenging anyone who made the list, I'd observe with regret that not more scientists at the University of Nebraska are considered notable. To be sure, several of the list's notables studied at the University and made their marks in science elsewhere, but other than Charles Bessey, who was NU chancellor, scientists from the NU faculty are conspicuously absent.

Rachel Lloyd, Frederic and Edith Clements, E.F. Barbour, Ruth Leverton, and John Weaver all left their marks on the world but Nebraskans seem not to know who they were or what they did. It's too bad they and others like them have largely been forgotten. It's especially unfortunate because three on my short list are women; all six would be good role models for students who wish to become scientists.




What Would Roscoe Pound Do?

February, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- The president's executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries has been overturned in one fashion or another by federal courts, but likely the order will be re-issued in somewhat different form and will again come before the judiciary. There is much speculation about how courts will eventually rule, as the issue pits fundamental civil rights against the national security powers of the president.

How might Roscoe Pound have approached the question? Pound is venerated in Nebraska, a member of the state's Hall of Fame. A century ago, Pound changed American law forever with his writings on "sociological jurisprudence." He argued that the law cannot be blind to social reality. Perhaps the most famous decision employing sociological jurisprudence is Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down school segregation by concluding that although the law on its face provided separate but equal education, it was a sociological fact that segregated schools were not equal.

Is there a social reality that likewise must be addressed in the matter of the travel ban? Yes, according to research that suggests the ban is counterproductive to national security. The argument is that the alienation created by the ban is more of a national security concern than any danger posed by vetted travelers from the selected countries. It is not the same argument that the ban is unconstitutional because it is based on a religious test. While the religious question has been raised in attempts to overturn the travel ban, the social reality question has not.

Hence the reflection on what Roscoe Pound would do. I think he would argue for consideration of the social realities involved in the travel ban, even though on the face of it the executive order creating it purports to enhance national security.

Those of the "originalist" persuasion (what we used to call strict constructionism) likely would argue against recognition of social realities in the travel ban cases. But one of the problems with the originalist position is that it has welcomed into its philosophy of jurisprudence the so-called Law and Economics Movement, which advocates for more recognition of economic realities, such as costs of legal and regulatory compliance. It is inconsistent to embrace one reality but not another.

As the travel ban is further considered by the courts, Nebraskans especially should remember the work of the state's greatest legal scholar, Roscoe Pound.

Our Nation of Refugees

February, 2017

Lincoln -- We are a nation of immigrants, but also of refugees if we care to look closely. Some of my ancestors were refugees twice over.

Henry and Catherine Harper Wimer left the Rhineland-Palatinate in 1771 for America. Their own forebears had previously fled the Bas-Rhin region of France because of war and religious persecution. Finding Germany no more hospitable, Henry, Catherine, and their three sons set out from Rotterdam for Philadelphia.

Henry and Catherine did not make it; they died on the voyage. Their household goods were sold in Philadelphia to pay the ship's captain. Their sons were sold into indentured servitude.

Philip Wimer, age 14, was sold to Ulrich Conrad of Dry Run, Virginia, now West Virginia. After seven years of servitude, he joined the Virginia Militia cavalry, led by Captain Peter Hull* of Augusta County. His militia participated in the Siege of Yorktown, which resulted in the capitulation of Cornwallis in 1781 and American independence.

What a great contribution my fifth great-grandfather, a refugee, made to America. Thank you, Philip Wimer. His descendants remained in West Virginia until they relocated in the 1870s and 1880s, becoming pioneers in Cass, Saunders, and Lancaster counties in Nebraska.

These days, Syrian refugees are dying at sea. A few make it to America, where they are sponsored by charities, to which I contribute in quiet memory of Henry and Catherine Wimer, who never made it to America's shores.

What is the moral of this vignette? Is it that the British should never have allowed Philip Wimer (revolutionary that he turned out to be) to come to America? No. The moral is that when people are oppressed, they seek freedom. We Americans, of all people, should know that and live by it.

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*Captain Hull was the son of Peter Thomas Hull, himself an immigrant from the Palatinate and whose daughter Catherine, Captain Hull's sister, also makes up the lineage of the Wimer-Zickafoose family (including my grandmother Ressie Mae Zickafoose) who came a century later to settle Nebraska.

Remembering Another U.S. Attack on Australia

February, 2017

Washington -- The incident a few days ago, in which an American president without provocation disrespected an Austrialian prime minister in their first conversation, recalls another event forty-nine years ago when U.S. airplanes actually attacked an Australian ship, HMAS Hobart, in the South China Sea.

I served in the U.S. Navy on ships operating in the South China Sea and remember HMAS Hobart well. My first ship, USS Rainier, replenished Hobart at sea in 1967. Hobart assisted in fighting the disastrous fire aboard USS Forrestal that same year, providing fire-fighting equipment and transferring her surgeon to Forrestal to try to save the injured. We on Rainier had been scheduled to replenish Forrestal but instead passed her quietly the night after the fire, as she steamed toward port at Subic Bay.

In June of 1968, aboard USS Arlington, I remember being in the same area as HMAS Hobart and USS Edson, near Tiger Island off the Vietnam DMZ. We were providing communications to so-called Market Time operations along the coast when the nearby ships came under attack around midnight. Arlington was not hit; Hobart was struck by missiles in repeated attacks. When daylight came, missile fragments showed that the source of the attack was friendly fire from the U.S. 7th Air Force. The toll: two dead and many injured aboard HMAS Hobart.

Coincidence: LCDR John McCain narrowly escaped death on Forrestal in 1967; Senator John McCain called the Australian ambassador in 2017 to try to repair the damage caused by insulting language to Australia from an American president.

Australia has been a faithful ally, a fast friend of America through good times and bad, and deserves only expressions of regret from Americans for both entirely avoidable incidents.

Governor Ricketts' Budget (Part III)

January, 2017

Lincoln -- Nebraska's economic outlook is looking gloomier by the day, which cannot but cast a long shadow on the state budget for the next biennium. The earlier posts of just a few days ago, Part I and Part II, already seem dated. An emergency may be at hand. The state's "rainy day" approach to budgeting may be swept away in a tsunami of catastrophic decisions at the national level.

Suggestion: The Nebraska legislature's Revenue and Appropriations committees should hold a joint hearing on the state's economic outlook, inviting Nebraska's congressional delegation to participate and to testify on actions they intend to take to stop the hemorrhaging of revenues.

Exhibit A would be the Nebraska Farm Bureau's report on what the collapse of trade agreements is costing the Nebraska economy. This needs to be supplemented by expert testimony on the importance of trade generally to the state, to include testimony from those who provide input to the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board. A new world order in which America does not lead in free trade may be imminent.

A necessary part of the hearing must be to take testimony on why, for what purpose, and in whose name Nebraska's economy is being sacrificed. Surely Nebraska voters did not wish for the outcomes that are now being forced upon us. Or is that the conclusion of our congressional delegation?

There is irony in the idea of the Nebraska state legislature attempting to get its U.S. senators to act for the benefit of the state and the needs of its economy. Before the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, U.S. senators were chosen by, and responsive to, state legislatures. Nebraska's William Jennings Bryan led the effort to elect senators by popular vote, but Bryan – a champion for the Nebraska economy if there ever was one, and a committed worker for international peace – would surely be appalled at the current turn of events.

As I write, spot prices for corn at Nebraska's grain elevators are falling close to two dollar territory; China's leader has just returned home from Davos, where he has been recognized as the new world leader in free trade. America First, or America Last?








Governor Ricketts' Budget (Part II)

January, 2017

Lincoln -- Nebraska has formidable budget challenges in the coming biennium. Many of them are a result of three dollar corn and wheat, and a weak agricultural economy that has no end in sight.

Part I of this post suggested paying for overdue corrections and human services bills, run up by misfeasance in previous administrations, with a new revenue stream from increases in so-called sin taxes. This would take pressure off other areas of the budget. It should include a tax on soft drinks, the reduced consumption of which would help keep Nebraskans healthier (and help hold down future government spending on health care).

Part I of this post also noted structural issues in state higher education spending. Yet cutting such spending without careful thought could be counterproductive to state economic growth. As college and university budgets are trimmed, it would be appropriate to re-invest some of these savings into areas that are closely linked to the well-being of the state's economy. One way to do this – targeting more funds to higher performing institutions – is outlined in the post "New Tool for State Higher Education Budgeting." University research and innovation doubtless need robust support as well.

But more needs to be done immediately to try to turn Nebraska's agricultural economy around. Nebraska political leaders are missing an opportunity by not pressing for soil health and conservation projects to be included in the upcoming national infrastructure rebuilding legislation. See the post "Topsoil as Infrastructure." Other states are putting together lists of projects – high speed rail and the like. Nebraska political leaders should have a long list of NRD, NRCS, Environmental Trust, and other such soil and water conservation efforts ready for inclusion in the infrastruction bill, and be ready to justify them. Such projects would provide more jobs and more lasting benefits than, say, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, yet are getting virtually no attention from Nebraska political leaders.

As for increasing grain prices, the outlook is not good. Export markets are suddenly being jeopardized by political bluster from a new White House occupant who is, at best, inexperienced in such matters and has shown no interest in farm economics. Nebraska leaders have been unwilling to push back.

There are several things Nebraska leaders could do to help grain prices. One would be to recognize that overproduction, encouraged by the current farm bill, must be curtailed. "Got to feed the world" is a slogan of those who profit from overproduction more than from any moral imperative; the damage it does is the opposite of any such imperative. Marginal lands should be taken out of production, with appropriate incentives funded in the farm bill. Grain sorghum should be encouraged as an alternative to corn; it requires fewer costly inputs to raise, requires less water, and has a potential export market to countries that do not want GE corn because of their own environmental and consumer concerns. Nebraska leaders should be working to expand these markets. Unfortunately, it's not happening.

The cold, hard facts point to a difficult biennium for the Nebraska state budget. Past mistakes have put the state in a hole in corrections and human services; the outlook for the agricultural economy is not good given unhelpful farm bills and trade upheavals; there is little sign of insightful and courageous political leadership on the horizon.





New Tool for State Higher Education Budgeting

January, 2017

Lincoln -- A superb new database is now available to show taxpayers how colleges and universities are performing their mission to provide access to higher education, especially to students who have trouble paying for it. Easy to use, the database offers many ways of measuring access and many ways of comparing institutions.

This should be a helpful tool for setting state appropriations for higher education. Institutions doing a good job could be rewarded, incentivizing others where there is room for improvement.

To demonstrate, look at this link for the University of Nebraska. Scroll down to "College by College" and select the column to compare it with other Nebraska institutions. Then look at the indicators and the rankings. NU looks very good on "chance a poor student has to become a rich adult," coming in second only to Creighton University. Conversely, NU does not make it into the top ten in the broader measure "overall mobility index," which looks at the likelihood a student moved up two or more income quartiles as a result of his or her education.

On the overall mobility index, here are the top ten Nebraska institutions:

1. Northeast Community College
2. Midland University
3. Mid-Plains Community College
4. Doane College
5. Western Nebraska Community College
6. Bellevue University
7. Wayne State College
8. Hastings College
9. Central Community College
10. Nebraska Wesleyan University

Note that the top college is a community college, as are four of the top ten, and that five of the top ten are private, non-profit colleges. Note only one is located in Lincoln or Omaha.

If the state is interested not only in providing higher education access, but in wealth-building by taking students from lower income brackets and moving them to higher ones, then this would be a good guide as to where to look in the state appropriations process for good investments.

Note also how these top ten are spread across the state, making for good investments in rural areas and smaller cities.

Unfortunately, the database does not include Chadron or Peru State Colleges, and it does not break down the state university so we can see how UN Kearney or UN Omaha would look if split off from UN Lincoln.

Nor is there any consideration given to in- and out-migration. Some Nebraska colleges do better than others in retaining students in the state. Such ranking are available from the U.S. Census and should be worked into any effort to use this database in making state appropriations.

How would the governor and state legislature go about modifying their current appropriations process to look at these performance and investment measures? A modest percentage of the higher education appropriations would be channeled through students rather than institutions, to favor students from lower income families who are most likely to stay in the state and to build wealth in Nebraska by moving up in the income brackets as a result of their education. Such programs already exist through the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Higher Education, to include students at non-profit institutions. The appropriations through students must be sufficiently large so as to make all institutions consider them in their own admissions and student financial aid decisions.

The new database, called "Chetty" after its creator, should be used by states across the country as an accountability tool, to make certain taxpayers are getting their money's worth from higher education spending. By the same token, institutions that are doing a good job now have a powerful tool to defend against thoughtless and counterproductive budget cuts.

Governor Ricketts' Budget (Part I)

January, 2017

Lincoln -- Governor Ricketts has offered his state budget recommendations for the coming biennium. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of detractors. Higher education leaders say it will force up tuition; the Nebraska Farm Bureau says it does not offer enough property tax relief; the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court warns that the budget is seriously inadequate for the judiciary and corrections. Those who work in foster care are concerned that the progress of the recent past will be lost and children will suffer badly for it.

Is there anything good about the budget recommendations? Yes, compared to what a Governor Heineman or a Governor Brownback might have offered.

• There are funds at least to start dealing with the corrections mess left over from the Heineman/Bruning years of neglect and misfeasance. Chief Justice Heavican is appropriately engaged.

• The income tax cuts in the budget are subject to a trigger; that is, they don't happen unless revenues meet their targets. Kansas Governor Brownback cut taxes recklessly, based on the theory (with scant empirical evidence to support it) that more, not less revenue would result from state tax cuts. It may take Kansas decades to recover.

• The budget uses the non-political Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board's revenue assumptions. Nebraska has been wise to create such a body and to set aside "rainy day" funds to establish boundaries for responsible budgeting. The Ricketts budget may dip too far into these funds, but at least what he is doing is transparent.

The discussions around the Governor's budget recommendations also provide an opportunity for serious reflection about Nebraska's cyclical and structural budget issues. Nebraska's economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, so much so that it rises or falls based on what Congress enacts in farm bills and approves in trade treaties. Which means that a Nebraska governor must be active on these issues at the national level to make certain that Nebraska's interests are represented. For example, do farm bills promote consolidation of farms and consequently depopulate Nebraska's rural areas? (Unfortunately, they often have.) This is too complex a subject for this discussion, but it seems like a bad move for U.S. Senator Sasse to give up a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Did Governor Ricketts confer with him about this?

A structural problem in the Nebraska state budget is support for higher education. Per capita, Nebraska ranks among the highest in the nation in higher education spending. To oversimplify using a football analogy: Nebraska wants to play in the Big Ten on a Big Sky population. But it's not so simple to cut higher education spending once started. For my part, I think it is essential for taxpayers to keep up their support, especially for innovation and research in order to be able to guide the direction of these efforts toward ends that pay off for Nebraska and its economy. It is not a given that outside research dollars that might replace state tax dollars will be beneficial. Reseach integrity is even less of a given with outside funding.

So what might the legislature do in response to the Governor's budget recommendations? That could be a subject for subequent blog posts, but here is one suggestion. Deal with the corrections and human services part of the budget with a separate, additional revenue stream for a number of years until the state has recovered from the damage done in these areas by previous administrations (and legislatures). I'd raise so-called "sin taxes" on products that are not good for Nebraskans' health in any case (and where there may be behavioral, causal connections between the products and the issues the state is facing). Obviously this means higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol, on which taxes are currently comparatively low (41st and 35th in the country, respectively). Not so obvious: soft drinks, which research is showing are comparably harmful. Many of us remember the state cigarette tax hike to pay for Game and Parks projects, the Devaney Center, and the Beatrice State Home. It worked.

Such taxes would also be everyday reminders that the salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen, and when citizens are not watchful about how their state is being run, as was the case in corrections and human services, there is a price to be paid.



Call It HeritageCare

January, 2017

Washington -- Congress and the country are tied up in knots over what to do with Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It either needs fixes to help people pay premiums (Democrats' position), or it needs to be repealed and replaced (Republicans' position).

There is great confusion about the underlying issues. An Uber driver in Washington expressed his frustration well when he said he was all in favor of doing away with Obamacare, which he didn't like, but the politicians should be warned to keep their hands off his ACA policy, with which he was very happy.

Not to laugh–he was on to something. Names and appearances are all-important. Obamacare is actually a version of Romneycare in Massachusetts, which in turn was modeled after the health insurance proposal of the Heritage Foundation in 1990. The Heritage Foundation is a right-of-center think tank, perhaps most famous for its policy input into the first Reagan Administration.

The Heritage proposal is well worth reading, and not just to establish paternity. Note the lengthy discussion about the exclusion from taxation of employer contributions for medical insurance and care, and how it distorts health care markets and drives up costs. In 2016, this is by far the largest tax expenditure in the federal government, at $216 billion in 2016. It is a concern across the ideological spectrum.

How about this for a solution: trim back the huge, counterproductive tax expenditure, use the revenues to fix the Obamacare problems, and call it HeritageCare. Coverage is continuous, no one dies in the streets, tax-policy is reformed, and both sides can claim victory.

The vehicle would be Budget Reconciliation, with appropriate instructions to the revenue committees. Of course there would be howls of protest from corporation and unions alike, but now is the time to act. Never let a crisis go to waste.



Unanswered National Security Questions

January, 2017

Washington -- Try as I might to find intelligent commentary on current (and perhaps even urgent) national security issues, there seems to be little public discussion about looming problems as of January, 2017. Who in the U.S. government is working on the following questions?

• Inasmuch as Russia is actively attempting to destabilize Western Europe, what is the U.S. doing to assist our allies such as France and Germany? Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are already under the influence or control of autocrats friendly to Russia. Will U.S. intelligence about Russian covert activities be shared with potentially vulnerable allies, or will the new, incoming U.S. president, an admirer of the Russian leader, instruct the CIA and NSA to stand down from such cooperation? Has the current president anticipated such a possibility and made advance provisions for other Western intelligence agencies such as Britain's GCHQ to be ready to come to the aid of remaining democracies in Europe?•

• Because the incoming U.S. commander-in-chief has unconventional ways of communicating his thoughts and wishes, what is being done to update communication protocols from him so as to prevent the nation's military from committing acts of war (conventional or nuclear) or the breaking of treaties that might be accidental, ill-considered, illegal, or catastrophic? Should procedures be updated to require that a national security briefing of the commander-in-chief must precede any order that would break a treaty or take the nation to war? For decades, it was a given that any U.S. commander-in-chief would be fully briefed before taking national security actions, but this can no longer be taken for granted given the incoming president's stated disdain for such briefings.

• No person in the military can be required to follow an illegal order, but how are those who have taken an oath to protect and defend the country to know the difference between orders that are legal, illegal, or something in between, to carry out a foreign policy of being unpredictable? Whatever the advantages of unpredictability and doing the unexpected to advance U.S. national security, such tactics may confound our own people as much as our adversaries.

Ordinarily, the press would have an opportunity to ask a president-elect such questions in an open press conference, uncomfortable as the questions may be. But these are not ordinary times and there may never be such an opportunity. If I know the war-gamers at DOD and State, they are grappling with these and perhaps even more troubling questions, and likely losing sleep. These are dangerous times.

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• Update: Apparently this was done.