Tall Orders for an Admiral

November, 2019

Lincoln – The NU Regents have selected retired Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter, Jr., to be the next president of the University of Nebraska.

At first glance, the choice seems incongruous.  Admiral Carter is a native of Rhode Island; he does not have a doctorate or a record of scholarship; he has no experience at land-grant universities and is untested in the agriculture arena, critical to Nebraska.

He might, however, be a good choice.  I confess to a touch of enthusiasm because NU and the U.S. Navy are both institutions dear to my heart and there is more commonality than one might think.

• Admiral Carter has led two academic institutions successfully, the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.   He knows governments and bureaucracies, federal and state, and faculties.  The Naval Academy is located in a state capital, Annapolis, as is NU in Lincoln.

• NU has a Navy unit on the UNL campus.  Students can minor in Naval Science and receive commissions in the Navy and Marine Corps.  Perhaps Admiral Carter will be given a faculty post in the Naval Science department, from which he can draw on his USNWC connections to explore national security issues for the benefit of NU students and faculty.

• Certain issues transcend state and national borders.  Climate-change flooding threatens the Annapolis campus and the nation's harbors, just as climate-change flooding threatens Nebraska agriculture.  This should form a quick, common bond with the leadership at NU's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which for years has been sounding the alarm, despite the issue's unpopularity in right-wing political circles.

There are three immediate challenges at NU that I hope Admiral Carter will meet with "early and decisive action," a phrase he will know from ship-handling at sea.

One is to re-establish better relations with the Nebraska Legislature, based on mutual respect and the Nebraska Constitution, which places authority over university governance with the Board of Regents.  There must be no more occasions where an NU president is summoned to a freshman senator's office and told which instructors to hire or fire.  A vice admiral should have the stature and experience to handle such situations.  (Perhaps that is one reason for the Regents' hiring decision.)

The second challenge is to bring a broader perspective to matters of agricultural export markets, on which the Nebraska economy is overly dependent.  The current agricultural leadership in Nebraska, including many elected officials, is desperate for a trade deal with China.  Nebraskans now surely realize that it was a grave mistake for President Trump to scrap the TPP, giving China the upper hand in Pacific trade, and to impose tariffs for which farmers suffer retaliation.  Is Nebraska agriculture ready to accept or endorse an even greater blunder to try to restore Nebraska's China exports?  There are clear warning signs that President Trump will abandon Hong Kong and the South China Sea (he has already spoken to Chairman Xi about it) for a trade deal that may please farmers in the Midwest before the 2020 election.  But is this in the U.S. national security interest?

From the Naval War College Review, "Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea:"

Today, the situation in the South China Sea is reaching a critical stage as Chinese advances accumulate, America’s room for maneuver diminishes, and observers throughout the region wonder whether the United States is up to the challenge. And yet Washington still is searching for a strategy.

Admiral Carter, as former leader of the Naval War College, is positioned as no other candidate for NU president to grapple with these issue of immense importance to Nebraska.

The third challenge also deals with rural Nebraska, where the population, counterproductively, is increasingly giving up on higher education.  The results of the 2019 Nebraska Rural Poll "showed a sharp decline in the perceived importance of higher education among respondents."  What got into Nebraskans to make insularity and ignorance attractive?  This is alarming and deserves immediate priority from Nebraska's higher education leadership.

Admiral Carter, welcome to Nebraska.  You have tall orders.

Nebraska Hall of Fame: Two Suggestions

November, 2019

Lincoln –  One of the most famous members of Nebraska's Hall of Fame, William Jennings Bryan, has suffering yet another slight, albeit without apparent intention or malice.  His statue has been moved from the U.S. Capitol to the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.

The movement out of Washington is innocent enough in Bryan's case, as the Nebraska Legislature determined that it was time for Standing Bear and Willa Cather to represent the state in the Capitol's statuary hall rather than Bryan and J. Sterling Morton.  However, because Morton's removal was strategic to avoid growing embarrassment over his sympathies with slavery and the Confederate cause, some may wonder – incorrectly – if Bryan also had something untoward in his past and it was time for him to go as well.

In reality, Morton and Bryan were political enemies and their pairing in Washington has always been uneasy.  Their paired removal only adds to the irony.

Likewise, the acquisition of Bryan's statue by the Nebraska National Guard Museum is innocent enough and actually quite a coup to help put the museum on the map.   It should stimulate interest in Bryan's military career and his views on foreign policy and imperialism, not just provide another reason to visit Seward.

For Nebraska's political reporter nonpareil, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star, the relocation of Bryan's statue to the museum is too much.  He would like to see Bryan's statue placed on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Bryan, he points out, was so much more than a member of Nebraska's National Guard.

That's why the movement of any of his statues elicits notice.  Bryan was the founder of the modern Democratic Party.  He was instrumental in the passage of four amendments to the U.S. Constitution (16, 17, 18, 19).  He was a thorn in the side of bankers.  Perhaps that is why, in the 1960s, Nebraska Republican governor Norbert Tiemann, a Wausa banker, removed Bryan's statue from the front of the Nebraska state capitol, at the head of Centennial Mall, in favor of a less-conspicuous place under a tree at Bryan's Lincoln home, Fairview.

Beyond looking at Bryan's career, now is also a good time to reflect on Bryan's family.  His brother Charles was twice governor of Nebraska and the Democratic nominee for U.S. vice president in 1924.  His wife Mary Baird Bryan was an attorney and a full partner in all her husband's campaigns and offices.  She sat in on meetings of President Wilson's cabinet with her husband, the Secretary of State.

Daughter Ruth Bryan Owen was the first Florida congresswoman and the first woman to be a U.S. ambassador.  She was a delegate to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, and is a member of the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Bryan's granddaughter Ruth "Kitty" Leavitt, for whom he once had custody after his daughter Ruth's divorce, paradoxically became the wife of Robert Lehman, longtime head of Lehman Brothers, the investment bankers.  Bryan's other daughter, Grace, also married a banker, in California, but is better known for her writing about the Bryan family's world travels.

It is more than appropriate to place a Bryan statue on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Another good idea would be for the University of Nebraska to establish a Center for Bryan Studies.  Far from being demoted, Bryan's star is actually rising among historians worldwide.  There is much to discover.  I'd like to know how his travels and his family, especially his daughter Ruth, influenced the development of his abhorrence of eugenics and Social Darwinism, of which we know little beyond H.L. Mencken's clever but superficial reportage at the end of Bryan's life.   

Statues aside, Bryan will never be removed from Washington, as he and several members of his family are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  And presumably his bust is safe in the Hall of Fame corridors of the Nebraska state capitol.

Another Nebraska Hall of Fame development is this new article about one-time nominees Frederic and Edith Clements, founders of the discipline of plant ecology.* Because the work of one cannot be separated from the other, the Nebraska law allowing for only one person to be chosen during a nomination cycle should be amended to allow their joint consideration.  Readers may find it of interest that, through their common university connections, the Clementses were an influence on Willa Cather and on Ruth and Grace Bryan.

*Available through UNL Digital Commons as a publication of the University of Nebraska State Museum staff and affiliates.  https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=unsmaffil

Collin Peterson: Don't Run

November, 2019

Washington –  A Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, is undecided about making another run for re-election from his Minnesota district.

He thinks he could win but does not look forward to leading a legislative effort on another farm bill.  He says it is getting harder every time to pass one.

I'm surely not alone in hoping Collin Peterson will retire.  The farm bills he has guided to passage have been woefully short of meeting rural America's needs.  They have been long on special interest protections and short on conservation, nutrition, crop insurance reforms, and developing agricultural markets.

Step back from the minutia of farm bills and look at the big picture:  much of rural America is depopulating; much of it is suffering from obesity and diabetes epidemics; topsoil is eroding at an alarming rate; grocery stores of any kind (let alone those offering healthy food) are ironically disappearing from America's breadbasket regions; trade policy is a tariff-driven shambles.

Note these recent headlines and read their links:

How Washington keeps America sick and fat  (Politico)

Farm Country Feeds America.  But Just Try Buying Groceries There.  (New York Times)

House Democrats Are Failing to Protect Farmers from Trump (Washington Monthly)

It may be unfair to blame Collin Peterson for all of this, but he's been a large part of the problem, as have his fellow Democrats who have written off rural America for their own misguided reasons.  Peterson and the Democrats had a huge opportunity after the 2018 elections, when they took power in the House, to address these issues in 2019 rather than pass a 2018 lame-duck farm bill still shaped by the discredited theories of Earl ("Get big or get out") Butz, but they did not.   

Please retire, Collin Peterson.  Step aside for new leadership that is up to the job. 

Veterans Day Remembrances

November, 2019

Lincoln – It's Veterans Day.  In past years I've noted family members who served our country.  This year, special remembrance is due two friends, Dick Ratzlaff and Rich Brenning.

We were in the same Navy ROTC unit at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and often travelled together around the Midwest as part of our Navy basketball team.  Both were mainstays:  Dick was point guard, Rich power forward.  One year, 1963, our team was undefeated in about twenty local and regional games and tournaments.  It tight spots, Rich could always be counted on to hit a jump shot from the corner, and Dick would come through with one of his many steals.

Dick Ratzaff, of Aberdeen, South Dakota, was shot down over Vietnam in 1966 and became a POW for seven years.  He earned a Silver Star for his resistance.  He never fully recovered and died in 1981.

Rich Brenning was lost at sea in 1969, flying off USS Ticonderoga.  Lincoln was his hometown.

Still miss you both.


Student Loan Relief as Tax Cut 2.0

November, 2019

Washington –  Analysts at Moody's Investor Services are floating the idea that student loan debt relief is, for purposes of fiscal stimulus to boost the economy, an alternative to a 2020 tax cut.


A big obstacle, however, is the notion of equity.  Why only borrowers with current balances?  That gives the perception of unfairness and likely will be a hurdle against enactment.

Sixteen months ago in these pages, and again last May, I suggested a refundable, means-tested tax credit based not on current borrower balances but on a calculation of the tuition premium incurred by the college-going generations of the 21st century. 

By no means would such a tax credit be a cure-all for the nation's student loan crisis.  Restoration of bankruptcy protections for student loan borrowers and addressing corruption in the U.S. Department of Education are both essential.  But the recent flurry of interest in using tax policy to address the crisis makes it worthwhile to repeat arguments from an earlier post:

...a means-tested, refundable federal tax credit would be more equitable for all students who went to college in the high-tuition era of the last two decades. It would avoid such problems as unfairness between those in similar economic circumstances who struggled mightily to pay off their loans and those who did not; between those who chose lower priced community colleges or less selective schools and those who did not; and between those who worked to try to pay for college over many years and those who did not. The tax credit could be called the "Tuition Premium Tax Credit," the benefits of which could be used to pay off student debt, or simply used by recipients to recover economically from the high price of college, however it affected them wherever they attended. Such a tax credit would also help remedy generational inequities. The boomer generation benefitted enormously from the long, low tuition era that made paying for college relatively easy. The 2017 tax cut piled more wealth on the boomer generation; it could be trimmed back with savings applied to generational and income-class equity.

House Has Been MIA on Student Loans

November, 2019

Washington – When we last visited the subject of federal student loans a few weeks ago, we had little reason to hope for any breakthroughs that would benefit the nation's many aggrieved and defrauded borrowers.  It was as if the whole country had become inured to student loan corruption.

But much has changed since:

• Secretary Betsy DeVos has been held in contempt of federal district court for violating court orders in thousands of "borrower defense" cases.  Her legal advisor on student loans and consumer protections, Steven Menashi, was nominated to a federal appeals court seat but that nomination is now in trouble in the Senate, as it should be.

• DeVos's first choice to head office of Federal Student Aid in 2017, A. Wayne Johnson, has resigned abruptly from the Department of Education, calling the federal student loan system "fundamentally broken."  He has announced his candidacy, as a Republican, for the Senate based on cancelling most borrowers' loans and providing tax credits to others.

•  The National Student Loan Defense Network, led by former Department officials committed to justice for defrauded borrowers, is suing DeVos and the "corrupt Department of Education" for sending millions of student loan dollars to two for-profit schools despite knowing they were unaccredited, then covering it up and collecting from borrowers on the illegal loans.  NSLDN has already prevailed in other student loan cases.

• The recently appointed COO of  Federal Student Aid, Mark Brown, has released a video promising to do better by borrowers, saying that loan servicers have been reprimanded for improperly collecting on student loans and that certain Department officials have likewise been disciplined.

So what is Congress doing about this?  For most intents and purposes, the House has been missing-in-action.  Although it has held several hearings among its committees and subcommittees, they have fizzled despite excellent panel testimony from student loan experts and victims.  Members got sidetracked by student loan industry arguments that the programs are too complicated to administer, that borrowers themselves are to blame, and that fixes must await new legislation.

I have watched all the hearings.  Only once did I ever hear, from a member, the word "wrongdoing," and only once the word "corruption."  This, despite overwhelming evidence of just that. Corruption has infected the Department for many years.  See earlier posts for examples of perjury, obstruction, and false claims.

The chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Congressman Bobby Scott, has now threatened to subpoena Betsy DeVos if she does not voluntarily appear before the committee to answer questions about the matter for which she was found in contempt of court, and about the distribution of funds to unaccredited colleges.

That is only the tip of the iceberg.  The chairman must be ready to confront the Secretary over the corruption that has ruined the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and determine what kind of meaningful "reprimands" servicers have ever been given for illegal actions in any program.  He needs to determine which Department officials have been "disciplined" by Mark Brown, if that is indeed the case as claimed.  Are the disciplined officials political appointees or civil servants?  Are they being scapegoated? 

If the system is so bad, as Wayne Johnson concluded, is it because the Department of Education was long ago captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate?  The answer to that is an obvious yes.  The Department's key positions for many years have been filled through a revolving door with industry. 

Whatever Chairman Scott does, he needs to know that another round of fizzled House hearings will make matters worse.  Inconclusive hearings will only encourage more defiant behavior from the DeVos Department, which has proved itself committed to delivering taxpayer funds to voracious appetites in the student loan industry and for-profit colleges, at the expense of taxpayers and borrowers, with disregard for the rule of law.

On the other hand, we can hope that Chairman Scott has now seen what happens when remedies commensurate to the offenses are seriously considered.  The mention by a federal judge of possible jail time for DeVos was quickly followed by one high-level resignation and much apologizing from another.

Congress has many remedies at its disposal.  It's time to let the DeVos Department know that measures from fines to impeachment may be put into play to see that borrowers and taxpayers get the justice due them.

In other words, Chairman Scott, it's time to rise to the occasion.

American Resolve in Doubt

November, 2019

Berlin – In 1945, this city was a mess.  After the Nazi surrender, Russian troops took revenge on the Berlin population.  The main parts of the city were rubble.  Power plants and transportation facilities were largely destroyed.  Food supplies were running out.

American, British, and French forces were slow to reach Berlin, hampered at every step by the Red Army.  U.S. Army occupation forces, led by Colonel Frank Howley for the American sector in Berlin and by General Lucius Clay for the entire U.S. Zone in Germany, did not have solid support from Washington.  Many in Congress thought a Soviet takeover of Berlin was inevitable and wanted an American pull-out.

Soviet Russia had designs on all of Europe.  Berlin was the focus for maximum pressure.  If Berlin fell, it would signal that America could not be counted on as a reliable ally.  Berliners knew that, and for a time American resolve was in doubt.  The crisis came in 1948, when the Russians walked out of the four-powers Kommandatura building and began a blockade of West Berlin to force it into submission.

President Truman agreed to a massive effort to try to supply West Berlin by air.  Against all odds, it worked.  At the same time, Secretary of State George Marshall conceived the Marshall Plan for overall European recovery, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created for mutual defense against Soviet Russia.

The story of the Berlin Airlift is well told today at the Allied Museum* on Clayallee in Berlin, the major thoroughfare named after the American who led the effort.  Truman Plaza is nearby.  Berlin today is a thriving beacon of freedom from which the rest of the world can learn.  Thirty one Americans died in the airlift effort.

In a few days, Berlin and the free world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Berlin's Soviet sector finally collapsed, to be followed soon by the rest of the Soviet puppet state of East Germany.

My family and I were there to see the wall opened in 1989.  It was not a given.  The days leading up to it were tense.  The Red Army still had Berlin surrounded.  What was a given was the resolve of the U.S. and its NATO partners to stand firm.  That made all the difference.

Contrast this with our current international posture of retreat and withdrawal, which now resembles that of early 1948 when American resolve was much in doubt.   Our 45th president is without forward vision or historical insight and talks of getting out of "endless wars."  Even veterans who have fought in recent wars and sacrificed much are showing misguided agreement.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Some of America's wars were ill-advised and tragic:  Viet-Nam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are stains on the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.  Johnson misled the American people badly with his prevarications about the Tonkin Gulf attacks; Nixon sabotaged peace talks to win election in 1968; Bush made up Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war.

Conversely, we should not forget that U.S. leadership wisely reversed Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, initially defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, and ended Caliphate rule in much of Syria.

That these successes were not properly consolidated in their aftermath does not mean they should be lumped in with our failures.  It means that those who did not consolidate them must be held accountable, Democratic and Republican presidents alike.  They should have learned from President Truman, who knew that Berlin came at such cost that it could not be abandoned.

Our current president is going one step further than retreating from America's historic role in protecting freedom.  He is casting doubt on what America stands for.  In 1948, it was understandable that some American public opinion was against remaining in Berlin to defend Germans, who had been our enemy.  In 2019, however, an American president is shamefully turning his back on Kurds, our ally in the fight against the Caliphate.  That is beyond the pale.  America is also abandoning the cause of freedom in China, as China exterminates the Uighur people and threatens democracy in Hong Kong. 

It is well to remember 1948 and the Berlin airlift to note that our opponent then was Soviet Russia, bent on expansion.  How little changes.  Russia, still led by a former Soviet agent, is now our geopolitical opponent in Syria and Ukraine.  President Truman knew what he had to do and took courageous action to save the free world from Russian totalitarianism.  Our current president seems not to know which side he is on.

I am one veteran who yearns for another Harry Truman and will do everything possible to see that America returns to its proper, hard-won role in world affairs.

* I am proud to say that my late wife, a German citizen with great respect for America, helped in the creation of the museum. 

A Tour of FU Berlin

October, 2019

Berlin – While much was going on in this blog's other capital cities (in Washington, a top federal student loan official quit to run for the Senate; and in Lincoln, the Board of Regents picked a new NU president), I spent the day of October 25th on a walking tour of the Berlin university campus where I studied and wrote a dissertation three decades ago.

• From the U-Bahn at Thielplatz, the Harnack Haus is only a short walk.  It is a conference center now, but once was an American military officers' club where my family and I had privileges.  It was often a welcome place of respite from the academic pressures at Freie Universität Berlin.

• Onward to the Audimax, a large auditorium noted for the famous speakers it has accommodated.  President Kennedy spoke here in 1963 before his more famous speech at Schöneberger Rathaus.  Rudi Dutschke changed German politics forever with his 1967 protest speeches on behalf of the student movement.  Some two dozen portraits of famous Audimax speakers hang suspended in the grand staircase, above the comings and goings of present-day students.

• Across a campus mall of grasses and forbs in the direction of Corrensplatz is the forgotten site of the home of Fritz Haber, the German scientist whose reputation is still disputed despite his Nobel prize.  During WWI, he was on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a research organization that was converted after WWII into the FU Berlin campus.

• Adjacent to Corrensplatz are two buildings with small plaques to explain their significance.  One is the former Kommandantura, where after WWII the four victorious powers administered the city.  It now houses the FU president's office.  Across the street is the Hahn-Meintner building, once a physics laboratory for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where the atom was first split in 1938.  Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for physics.

• Across Habelschwerterallee is the huge classroom complex known as the Rostlaube and the Silberlaube.  Here I once made friends with many other foreign students who were working on their German language requirements (necessary for all exams).

• Toward the U-Bahn at Dahlem-Dorf is the JFK Institute, where my advisor, Professor Dr. Ekkehart Krippendorff, had his office.  A political scientist and peace researcher, he was also famous for his own academic freedom case.

FU Berlin has, for me, the feel of a real university, dedicated solely to education and research.  Its current president is a mathematician, from the ranks of the faculty.  It has been designated as one of Germany's elite universities and therefore qualifies for extra funding from the government.  It has no football team.  Translated into English, it is known as the Free University of Berlin.  The word free does not refer to its cost of attendance (although fees are minimal, if one is admitted), but to the freedom of ideas and to political freedoms.

Threats Foreign and Domestic

October, 2019

Berlin – Last week there was a large demonstration here, coursing through the streets of Berlin's Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods on behalf of Rojava, the Kurdish homeland in northern Syria.  Many Kurds live in Berlin.  Signs of support hang from windows.

At least some of the many Turks who also live in Berlin are not happy with the Turkish invasion of Rojava, or with the Turkish government generally.  At a sundries shop in Kreuzberg, the owners engaged us about our respective homelands.  We said we were Americans from Washington, DC, but at the moment not proud of our country's actions in the Middle East.  They identified their hometown in Turkey and said they were not happy with their government, either.

Russia, with Turkey's help, is moving in on Syria, to expand territories under the Syrian tyrant Assad.  Rojava is threatened with genocide.

The Russian threat also looms in Ukraine, abetted by feckless Americans, which include not only the president but his so-called base.  It casts a shadow over Europe, as described so well yesterday by Ambassador William Taylor in his testimony to Congress:

"...if Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace.  In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world."

I look for some sign that my all-Republican Nebraska congressional delegation will come to its senses, but they seem paralyzed by fear of the money and power being amassed to discipline any Republican who steps out of line.  Whose money and power it is, is not clear.  Some of it, recent developments show, is foreign.

What with Ambassador Taylor's testimony, the impeachment inquiry may move from definitions of high crimes and misdemeanors to what constitutes bribery and even treason.  How is withholding military aid for a political favor not bribery?  How does advancing Russia's interests above America's, repeatedly, not raise issues of treason?  Let's not dance around the issues.  Ambassador Taylor has done America a great service and we need to make the most of it, the sooner the better.


European Flags as Symbols

October, 2019

Berlin – On a day when the British parliament voted to delay Brexit once again, the flag of the European Union flew proudly in Berlin in front of the Chancellery.  As if in victory.

I happened to walk by the Chancellery during this symbolic occasion and take the photo below.  As it so happens, the E.U. flag is unfurling briskly in the breeze, as the German flag remains comparatively listless.  Internationalism over nationalism, symbolically, and fitting for 21st century Germany, which has staked its future on collective European strength.  

Later the same evening, at the Brandenburg gate the recorded words of two American presidents rang out over a crowd assembled to see a light show at Pariser Platz.  There was sustained applause for each:  

"Ich bin ein Berliner;" 

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Just what do the current British and American leaders think they are accomplishing by pushing for the return to a kind of nationalism that resulted in world wars?  They should instead be building on the British and American achievements that have given the world decades of relative peace and brought tyrants to account.  

The British must hold a second referendum on Brexit.  The first one was demonstrably tainted.  Now it's clear what is at stake.  

The Americans should get back as quickly as possible to world leadership based on freedom and human rights.  May we soon see a successful Amtsenthebungsverfahren.