Score a Move to Nutrition-Based Agriculture

September, 2017

Washington -- A bill is moving through Congress that will have as much or more effect on the health and pocketbooks of Americans than the more widely known attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It is the 2018 Farm Bill, which might also be called the Food Bill because its reach extends well beyond farmers. It contains re-authorizations for farm programs and for nutrition programs that feed tens of millions of Americans.

The Farm Bill is the vehicle through which rural-America policy is enacted. It is the vehicle through which nutrition is provided to needy families.

At least that is how it will be described as it is considered by Congress. In reality, it is more accurate to say it is the vehicle for how the destruction of rural-America is being implemented, and how bad nutrition is being perpetrated on Americans who are increasingly unhealthy because of it. Has no one noticed the decline of rural-America and the concomitant epidemic of obesity and diabetes? And made a connection?

How did this sorry state of affairs come about? For decades, farm policy has focused on "production" agriculture. A "nutrition" title was added long ago to the basic legislation to ease re-authorization passage, linking rural interests in agricultural commodities to urban interests in food stamps for the poor. Debates about the bill still revolve mostly around the details of the commodity programs and the level of food stamp funding, oblivious to the larger issues at stake.

Meanwhile, the country and the world are awash with commodities that are increasingly used in the production of unhealthy processed food. Low commodity prices due to the surpluses are depopulating rural areas across America. The largest use of food stamps is for the purchase of sweetened beverages and processed junk food. This unhealthy change in diet is taking place in other countries as well; Brazil now has a new obesity and diabetes crisis on its hands.

It would he hard to devise from scratch a more diabolical Farm Bill than the one Congress will be passing by thoughtless inertia. What would be a better approach?

Markets are changing. There is growing demand for healthy food, which is "high-quality, defined, traceable, and secure," according to the former CEO of the U.S. Grains Council, who is alarmed at the failure of Congress to respond to it. He advocates a market approach, rather than a commodities approach, to encourage and build these markets.

That would mean rather than putting all our eggs in the basket of production agriculture, which we might call Agriculture 1.0, we would put more in the basket of nutrition agriculture, or Agriculture 2.0. It would mean enhancing the other titles of the Farm Bill to turn loose our inventive population on ways to grow and market food that is not only better for us, but which could re-vitalize our rural communities. It would mean taking unhealthy products off the list of what can be purchased through SNAP, as is already done through WIC.

Is a move to Ag 2.0 possible? Take a look at a recent segment from The News Hour, which told the story of an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia who, with the help of his local community college, restored the soil of a decapitated mountain-top and is selling his planted crops, his pork and his poultry, into local healthy food markets. Is this scalable? Of course it is. There is still a population living in many rural and urban areas that is skilled in labor-intensive farming, and would be eager to get back to it were there markets for their products. Why not unleash the existing, formidable Extension Service onto Ag 2.0, rather than tying it to 1.0 forever?

Neither political party seems to be interested. Republicans are tied through campaign finance to Ag 1.0. Democrats are still captured by identity politics and don't see that this would be a huge opportunity to do something for rural-America, where they desperately need votes. Neither party sees the Farm Bill as they should, as an opportunity to reverse our population's declining health, even as an answer to opioid addiction that is driven by unhealthy foods and bad economic prospects.

Someone in Congress should ask CBO to score what a move to Ag 2.0 would cost, or save. I'm confident it would result in huge savings for American taxpayers, when nutrition based agriculture starts to cut down on federal costs for health related expenditures in SS disability, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or maybe ask for a GAO study? Time's a-wasting.

"The Vietnam War" on PBS

September, 2017

Washington -- Like many others, I am watching "The Vietnam War" on public television. Part of my perspective is unavoidably that of a one-time member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, as those of us who served there were sometimes called.

First episode:

"The Vietnam War" got off to a bad start with me in its first minute. No one talked about the war after we came home? That's not the sense I had. For months and years, I was asked about my experiences and my feelings about the war by fellow veterans and non-veterans alike. Often. So to start off the program with a former Marine who says he was friends with another former Marine for twelve years before they knew they had both fought in Vietnam – that just seems wrong.

The episode recovered with its look at the history of Vietnam under French colonial rule. The best part of the program was the description of well-intentioned efforts by the U.S. to end colonial rule after WWII, especially the work of Colonel Peter Dewey working for the OSS. His death at the hands of the people he was trying to help is not only ironic, but tragic. His death in 1945 is not considered the first U.S. fatality of the Vietnam War. Rather, the first on the Vietnam Memorial is Major Dale Buis of Pender, Nebraska, killed in Bien Hoa in 1959. More should be done to remember Dewey, even if his service in Vietnam was only a few weeks.

Not everything can be covered in the program, of course, but I wish mention could have been made that France asked for air strikes from U.S. aircraft carriers operating off the Vietnam coast in 1954 to relieve the siege at Dien Bien Phu. President Eisenhower declined in part because his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Radford, was conflating the issue of the siege with his desire to use the occasion to demonstrate how nuclear weapons could be used in a conventional war. Eisenhower also declined because he felt the American public would not understand a decision to agree to the French request, which is ironic since American taxpayers were already paying for eighty percent of the French Indochina war, including the troops under siege at Dien Bien Phu. Some of us in those same waters a decade later knew the story.

Second episode:

The most memorable line of this episode is the one from a volunteer American soldier who in retrospect thinks he was a member of the last generation who thought the U.S. could do no wrong and that our government would never lie to its people. Not all of us of that generation were quite that naïve; instead, we saw the U.S. side of the war and hoped for a victory that would replace autocratic, brutal governments in both the North and the South. I had just finished a master's thesis that dealt with the aftermath of decades of broken treaties with Native American tribes, immunizing me considerably from the idea that we could do no wrong.

Third episode:

Congress's Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, this episode explains, was premised on a North Vietnamese patrol boat attack on the destroyer USS C. Turner Joy in the Tonkin Gulf. My classmate Dave Wetherell was on the Turner Joy that summer in training, while I was on the USS Waller in the Mediterranean. When we got back to Naval Science classes that fall, Dave told his classmates that the attack didn't happen. We were stunned to contemplate that Congress authorized a widening of the war based on an event that was essentially made up. Only decades later did the truth come out, but we knew it in Lincoln, Nebraska, in September, 1964.

Fourth episode:

The war is escalating in 1966-67 and the country is becoming more divided about it. The episode shows selected, gung-ho soldiers and marines, and their subsequent disillusionment, juxtaposed against students and other war protesters. This is typical for a documentary of this type, but misleading. I wonder if the program will get around to giving equal time to those who served but were not gung-ho about the war, of which there were many. And if the program will take a look at those who were gung-ho, could not get enough of killing gooks and slopes (as they called the Vietnamese), came home and now vote to Make America Great Again, of which there are also many.

This episode exposes the shortcomings of Robert McNamara and his misguided reliance on systems analysis in decision-making. Is this what it's like to run government like a business? Yes. (Take heed, all who campaign for elective office on such platitudes.) It also exposes Lyndon Johnson's self-defeating body language in discussions with his top advisors. He slouches, they slouch. He grimaces, they grimace. He shakes his head in hopelessness, so do they. The answer to tough questions about the war? More slouching, to a point the president is literally horizontal in his chair. Can people think clearly from such positions? Apparently not.

George Kennan, the intellectual leader of the post-WWII strategy of communist "containment," gives cover for the Johnson Administration to extricate the country from the war, but the best and the brightest in the government, left over from the Kennedy Administration, demonstrate that they are anything but, as they do not take advantage of it.

Fifth episode:

Well into this episode, the NU campus in Lincoln appears on the screen as a backdrop to an interview with Barry Todd, an NU graduate who went into the Marine Corps in 1967 and within months turned against the war. He must have been two years behind me, as I don't recall him. The campus is shown in turmoil because of protests against the war. I never witnessed the demonstrations in Lincoln, as I was mostly in the Tonkin Gulf in 1967. I recall the Regents came down hard on faculty that did not support the war, in particular one political science professor.

The episode shows captive American pilots being paraded through the streets of Hanoi, my NU classmate Dick Ratzlaff presumably among them. He would not be released for several more years, in 1973. He died a few years later of causes related to his captivity. He and I traveled together in college as starting five on our Navy basketball team, which played in tournaments around the Midwest. He was a great player.

If it wasn't already obvious that President Johnson was deluding himself about the progress of the war by 1967, this episode confirms it. He also was delusional about the causes of the mass protests going on at home, across the country. He would not accept the CIA's determination that they were not organized by communists. He also is revealed to be a man of all talk and no listen.




Public Service and Risks to Public Institutions

September, 2017

Lincoln -- Three commendable public service undertakings highlight the early fall calendars of colleges and universities in Lincoln, Nebraska:

• Union College sent two dozen students to assist victims of Hurrican Harvey in Texas. Half were nursing students, the other half students in Union College's International Rescue and Relief program. (I'm not aware of any other such college program in the state.)

• Nebraska Wesleyan University presented its annual Visions & Ventures Symposium with best-selling authors Byran Stephenson and J.D. Vance. They addressed the origins of fear and anxiety that have become part of our contemporary discouse. The symposium ran two days and was open to the public.

• At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Colleges of Business, Law, and Journalism are hosting "Truth Be Told: Reflections of Whistleblowers." Richard Bowen of Citibank and Walt Tamosaitis of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation will discuss their whistleblowing experiences on September 20th at the Lied Auditorium. (Full disclosure: I am a supporter of this and similar ethics events at universities.)

Of course this is only a small sampling of the public service work performed continually by these three institutions, one of which organizationally is under the control of elected officials and two are independent non-profits.

But such works in the public interest – often bringing attention to divergent opinions – should not be taken for granted. Unfortunately, these good news stories were overshadowed this week by a contretemps at UNL over free speech. A student provocateur exercising her speech in an outdoor forum was confronted by a faculty lecturer exercising hers. It was caught on video and elicited a "troll storm" directed at NU officials.* At least two Regents forwarded intemperate and threatening messages to multiple parties, amplifying the storm. Several state legislators could not resist offering to cut the NU budget in response to the dust-up.

Which brings up a subject I have discussed here before: the susceptibility of Regents and others with control over the University to the demands of mob behavior. In World War I, Nebraska Regents targeted and removed faculty for teaching the German language; in the 1960s, Regents demanded faculty support for the Vietnam war. Of course the most notorious example of maladministration of higher education by public officials was the Nazi takeover of German universities in the 1930s. The lesson: don't count on public institutions to be constant defenders and bastions of our freedoms. Public institutions can be fragile. "It Can't Happen Here" you say? But perhaps it can, and we are witnessing it.

While it is important for public officials to defend even unpopular free speech and to resist the shouts of the mob, it is also prudent public policy over the long haul to encourage faculty engagement and public service programs at both public and independent non-profit institutions, like those noted above, so as not to put all liberty's eggs in one basket.

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* One person sent an email full of nonsense and vulgarity; he identified himself as a retired naval officer. Perhaps he is but, being one myself, I wonder how he escaped instruction on how to be an officer and a gentleman. Square yourself away, whoever you are, and stop being an embarassment to the Navy.

Navy Collisions and the Price of Beans

September, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Another U.S. Navy destroyer has had a collision at sea. Ten sailors were trapped below decks and drowned. This time it was the USS John S McCain, approaching the Straits of Malacca after transiting the South China Sea, where China is building military bases in the Paracel and Spratley islands.

The cause of the collision is under investigation. Early reports indicated the destroyer may have lost its steering. This is not uncommon; it is usually remedied by shifting to backup "after-steering," named for its location in the aft of the ship, near the rudder. Shifting to after-steering is a routine drill, sometimes requested by those on watch to relieve boredom. While in training, I once stood after-steering watch at night on the USS Kitty Hawk with a sailor who had a hard time staying awake. That was 1962; but simple inattention could be no less a problem in 2017, and cause a collision.

It is the Seventh Fleet's fourth major accident in the past several months. The fleet's commander in Yokosuka, Japan, has been relieved of duty for lack of proper fleet training. There are also suggestions* that fleet watch bills are too demanding, leading to crew fatigue. But this is nothing new. To some of us who have known port-and-starboard watch bills, three section watches are tolerable.

The disaster has had repercussions far beyond the crew casualty list. China propagandists were quick to suggest that the U.S. Navy, with its multiple accidents, was a menace to safe navigation and that America was acting as an arrogant hegemon in the region. China, of course, is eager to have its neighbors break alliances with the U.S., both in terms of defense and trade.

What has this to do with the price of beans? A lot, literally. And the price of corn and wheat and milo. This comes on top of a U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which China is pleased to see fall apart. Coupled with statements from the president that the U.S. may no longer be committed to defense alliances in that part of the world, the outlook for the Nebraska farm economy has only dimmed further.

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*Many in Washington were quick to blame the collision on lack of proper funding for defense, especially on the budget "sequester" that took a meat-axe to defense spending and doubtless impaired readiness. The sequester was a foolish contrivance employed a few years ago to see if the executive or the congressional branch would be first to blink over appropriations for defense readiness. Neither blinked, so rather than budgeting rationally for defense, readiness suffered instead of, say, obsolescent pork-barrel-driven weapons systems. Unfortunately, the Navy may have shown too much "can do" spirit, to which there is a limit. The commander of the Seventh Fleet is now being condemned for trying to do too much with too little, and there may be some truth in that. It is surely time to revise the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, to revise or do away with reconciliation and sequester processes that have worked in recent years more to distort rational budgeting than to enhance it.

Prairie Pines, Community Crops Link Up

September, 2017

Lincoln -- Prairie Pines, at 112th and Adams Streets east of Lincoln, is a remarkable arboretum and native prairie where several organizations cooperate to offer outdoor education. It was first established by Walt and Virginia Bagley and is now held in a conservation easement by the NU Foundation. The Nebraska Forest Service does the physical management. Community Crops makes plots available for training new farmers in the business of local organic food production. Prairie Pines Partners provides public access to the site on the second Saturday of each month from April through January.

On a recent August Saturday, Talent Plus, a Lincoln-based human resources company, presented "Feast on the Farm" with tents and booths set up around the Community Crops gardens. Branched Oak Farm, Prairie Plate, Dish, Piedmont Bistro, The Hub Cafe, and Kitchen Table (Omaha), among several others, offered superb organic food.

This is a model worthy of emulation. Nebraska, like most other midwestern states, imports most of its food from elsewhere. Much healthier food could be produced locally, to the benefit of both the local economy and the well-being of the population. And the taste! Nothing can beat the food provided at Feast on the Farm.