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.