Taking On Captured Government Agencies

July, 2021

Lincoln — As an NU undergraduate many years ago, I studied the relationship between the economy and government.  A theme emerged:  first came good times for business, with little government involvement beyond providing infrastructure, paid for by taxpayers, so business could thrive.  Then came scandals and demands from the public for the government to regulate excesses.  Then the regulated industries worked their way into the government, "capturing" regulatory mechanisms to serve their own interests.  Inevitably, there were more scandals, whereupon the process would repeat.

During much of the first two decades of this century, I've been in struggles with captured agencies.  When necessary, I've had to go to court to protest and to stop egregious waste, fraud, and abuse.

In 2007, I sued nine student-loan lenders for civil fraud.  They were taking advantage of a captured agency, the U.S. Department of Education.  By 2015, my legal team had won seven settlements.  The other two cases were a draw:  one lender paid false claims back to the U.S. Treasury, but only about half of what I estimated it owed, and then got out of the case on the basis of sovereign immunity.  The final lender, PHEAA, fought us twelve years through federal district court, federal appeals court, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  We won the latter.  PHEAA won one big district court decision, but at great cost.   My counsel estimated they spent $10-15 million on that decision, which is ironic because we had signaled willingness to settle in 2014 for $7.5 million.  What were they thinking?

Now the federal contracting arms of PHEAA, known as AES and FedLoan Servicing, are collapsing, so we can move that tie into the win column. The real winners are millions of borrowers who have been ill-served by PHEAA.  

For years, PHEAA had many former employees well-placed at the U.S. Department of Education to protect it. But PHEAA perjury in April was one scandal too many, so the cycle of scandal and reform has once again repeated.  (Here's a good question: which other servicers are sufficiently in a cycle of reform to be trusted to pick up the millions of PHEAA accounts?)

At the state level, where I have long worked on conservation issues, I was taken aback when the Nebraska legislature, in 2019, merged the Department of Environmental Quality with the state Energy Office.  This looked as if the government itself was welcoming capture.  Soon enough, the new Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy showed it was much more interested in energy, especially in subsidizing ethanol, than it was in environmental quality.  NDEE watched as the Alt-En ethanol facility in Mead poisoned everything around, for miles.  And that, unfortunately, might even be an optimistic assessment of the scope of the environmental disaster.  

Another taxpayer and I sued to block the ethanol subsidies, which were coming at the expense of conservation programs.  That lawsuit is still in court, so I will not comment on it other than to refer readers to newspaper articles about it, which I believe are basically correct.  We'll see how this turns out; there are still important issues for the court to decide, the situation is still fluid and could be taking  twists to reveal if agencies are still in a capture rather than a reform mode.  We've been at this a year and I wouldn't be surprised to see it go on considerably longer. 

I am almost always the last person who wants a lawsuit.  They require time and money; they can get very difficult if FOIAs and discovery are involved; they can turn into Jarndyce v. Jarndyce situations.  Recommendation: let's all read our Dickens and decide to work to avoid litigation.

Which is not to say that I regret these lawsuits.  Sometimes it's necessary to step in to stop scandals in order to move on to the reform part of a cycle, which might even last.  Students of government should take note that PHEAA is collapsing and its business may well go to others that kept their noses clean in the first place or have cleaned up their acts.  

PHEAA Departs Federal Student-Loan Servicing

July, 2021

Washington — So PHEAA, the student-loan lender and servicer, is collapsing its organization.  I join with Senator Elizabeth Warren and many others who are cheering its demise as a federal student-loan servicer, for I have been pointing out for most of the past two decades that the organization, also known as American Education Services and FedLoan servicing, has engaged in fraud against taxpayers and abuse of student-loan borrowers.  

With a great legal team behind me, we won an important victory over PHEAA when federal courts, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, determined that PHEAA did not have sovereign immunity from borrower and other lawsuits.*  Unfortunately, Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to protect PHEAA by coming up with rules that substituted for immunity, but federal courts across the nation have struck them down and the Biden administration has appropriately withdrawn them. 

This surely influenced PHEAA's decision to depart federal student-loan servicing as a contractor.  No longer can it brush away litigation against it.  Let me put it this way:  PHEAA has ruined many borrowers' lives, and justice will be sought.  

Another reason for PHEAA's departure is a potential perjury charge against its CEO for giving false and misleading information to a U.S. Senate student-loan oversight committee.  On the day he was to explain himself to the committee, July 7, PHEAA announced that it would no longer be a federal contractor.  I only hope that the committee will begin looking into all the other instances of fraud and perjury committed by PHEAA over the years.  

There is a reason, however, to temper any celebration of PHEAA's departure as a federal contractor.  Millions of borrower accounts will have to be transferred to other servicers, potentially even to Navient (formerly Sallie Mae), which has also had its problems and has been the target of lawsuits by state attorneys general and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  This comes at a difficult time because the temporary federal student-loan repayment reprieve, granted by Congress during the pandemic, is set to expire soon.  

All of which is to say that it is even more important for the U.S. Department of Education to cancel as many student loans as possible immediately, under powers given to the Secretary in 20 U.S.C. 1082.  In a previous blog post, I recommended several ways this could be done, and the reasons for it.

This also could prompt the U.S. Department of Education to widen its circle of servicers, to look to experienced credit card and mortgage loan organizations to service student-loans.  The department, long beset by a revolving door relationship between its administrators and the student-loan industry, needs to free itself from industry capture.  This might also be the time to adopt an entirely different student-loan model, such as Australia's or other countries' models that handle student-loans through their tax systems.

PHEAA's departure as a federal contractor is a silver cloud with a dark lining.  It should be a catalyst for bold action to address the nation's student loan mess. 


* U.S. ex rel. Oberg v. PHEAA, 4th Circuit (2015) 

Student Loan Servicer Perjury in the Senate

July, 2021

Washington — The chair and ranking member of a U.S. Senate oversight committee have given student-loan servicer James Steeley, CEO of PHEAA, until July 7th to explain his false and misleading statements given under oath during an April hearing. 

What is unusual about this is not that PHEAA committed perjury (it has a history of it), but that PHEAA was turned in by an official of the U.S. Department of Education.  The senators' bipartisan letter to PHEAA was prompted by a detailed letter from Richard Cordray, the head of Federal Student Aid and former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the past, the Department was more likely to help PHEAA cover up its false statements, and even go so far as to create new policies to keep borrowers, state attorneys general, and consumer advocates from suing PHEAA for its many mistakes.  For example, when PHEAA lost its sovereign immunity in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2017, meaning it was subject to suit by borrowers, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos invented a "preemption" doctrine instructing servicers like PHEAA not to respond to efforts by state and federal consumer protection offices to resolve student-loan borrower issues.  

Federal courts in many jurisdictions overturned this doctrine and it has since been formally withdrawn by the Department of Education, but only after three years of consumer injustices.  

Why is PHEAA so prone to perjury?  Some have said it is just a part of their organizational culture.  I believe it is the result of not being held to account over many years.  Now would be a good time for the Senate committee to look at past PHEAA occasions of perjury and to ask those who have looked the other way to explain themselves.  

First and foremost would be when PHEAA withheld documents from the Department of Education's Inspector General, "under penalty of perjury," in 2007.  This came to light in 2017, but to our knowledge, the IG never took action, to this or any other similar violation. Such inaction may have created a moral hazard situation, through which PHEAA learned that there is actually no penalty for perjury.  

The only time I know PHEAA was disciplined was in a federal court.  In 2014, U.S. magistrate judge John Anderson rebuked PHEAA for withholding documents dealing with potential financial fraud and levied a $45,000 penalty.*  However, it must be added that neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Justice brought the matter to the attention of the judge, although they both knew about it.  (The judge learned of it through outside litigation, to which I was a party.)   

But this was a rare act of discipline of a student-loan servicer.  Both ED and DOJ have a history of giving student loan lenders and servicers a pass on even the most egregious occasions of waste, fraud, and abuse, costing taxpayers astounding sums.  Moreover, they have agreed to keeping records confidential so that the public is not able to know how fraud was committed, by whom, by what means, for what reasons, and to what effect on the integrity of student-loan programs.   

This is a good public-policy oversight subject for the Senate committee.  Did past federal indulgence of fraud and perjury among certain student-loan contractors lead to the predictable PHEAA perjury in April?  I've been involved in student-loan programs for five decades, and can say without doubt that the answer is yes.  Perhaps the Senate will now start to get to the bottom of why student-loan programs have become such a mess.  

* Dan E. Moldea (2020).  Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education, p. 120.  




Remember the Lincoln Climate Action Plan?

July, 2021

Lincoln — On Monday, March 22, 2021, the Lincoln city council approved the Lincoln Climate Action Plan with these commendable goals regarding prairies and the environment:

Continue to support prairie restoration and protection of natural resources.

Continue to support the Lincoln Parks Foundation and Parks and Recreation Department Land Trust initiative, working in partnership with landowners to preserve native prairie, wetland areas, and other natural resources.

Create a Carbon Sequestration Plan. This plan would involve an analysis of Lincoln's tree canopy, parks and greenways, open lands, composting activity, open water areas, impervious surfaces, grasslands, and native prairie.

A mayoral aide recommended the plan to the council:  "We can’t just make things up as we go," she said. "We have to have a plan and a strategy and a vision. It’s already costing us."

But with the ink barely dry on the Climate Action Plan, city government promptly got back to making things up. The Urban Development Department devised a tax-increment-financing (TIF) proposal to destroy a broad swath of grasslands nearly a mile long, including two environmentally critical prairie parcels, claiming that the properties must yield to a developer's quickly-revealed plans for affordable housing.

The city council's initial response gave regrettable hints of losing interest in the Climate Action Plan. Some of the reactions were favorable to TIF development of the two aforementioned prairie parcels (one owned by the city, the other by the Lincoln airport authority) that had been zoned residential in 2007 but never developed. Their thinking: if we zoned them residential in 2007, we shouldn't reconsider, Climate Action Plan or not.  

The city council's initial reaction was not surprising because the Urban Development Department, claiming ignorance, had not revealed to the council that the UNL Center for Grassland Studies had recommended in 2020, after a scientific review, that the two publicly owned parcels should be protected from development.

It is instructive to look back at what previous councils and mayors have done with regard to Lincoln's rare grassland prairies, when they have discovered that their actions would endanger them.

• In 1994, the council changed a native prairie's zoning from residential back to agricultural on a 27-acre property previously planned and platted by S.E. Copple's Commonwealth organization.

• In 2005, the city's Airport West Subarea Plan identified another native prairie for future residential use. Fortunately, the 7-acre parcel has now been reclassified as an Environmental Resource.

•  In 2011, the Comprehensive Plan was changed by the mayor and council to exclude several native and restored tallgrass prairies which had previously been identified for future residential housing.  

•  In 2018, the mayor and council declined to sell the very two same (now TIF-targeted) grassland and riparian parcels for purposes of residential housing, asking instead for the recommendation from the UNL Center for Grassland Studies as to the parcels' importance to the Nine Mile Prairie ecosystem.  That resulted in the identification of these parcels as habitat-rich flora and fauna corridors. 

In other words, previous councils knew, when it came to prairie protection, how to put the brakes on development, even before "carbon sequestration" was a part of our everyday vocabulary.     

Some who would profit from the pending TIF proposal have been quick to cite a 2007 city agreement and called for the city to place the disputed parcels into the hands of developers yet this year, claiming a deadline for action.  

The problem with relying on this obscure 2007 agreement is that when the unimplemented part of it is unearthed, it will be evident that it is out of date.  The agreement specified in 2007 that "time is of the essence" but time has eroded away any sense of urgency and with it the foundation of some of the agreement's assumptions.  When the 2018 council actually took up the agreement many years later, it was apparent that staff was unsure who even owned the properties ("Additional research regarding the ownership of both parcels may be needed"). The sponsor of the 2018 proposed action, the Lincoln airport authority (LAA), was not clear about the federal role in oversight, suggesting that the previous zoning and the newly revived sale proposals were "derived from" federal regulations, which do not, however, require residential zoning as highest and best use for appraisal, as the city may once have believed.  In any case, federal law has changed since 2007.  The obligations of the city in the 2007 agreement are to take actions that are "reasonably required." There is nothing in the agreement that precluded the city from reviewing its environmental impacts, as it chose to do in 2018 and can do in 2021 in light of the Lincoln Climate Action Plan.  Nothing constrains the city from protecting the interests of its own citizens and taxpayers as conditions have changed over the many years.  As old documents are exhumed, it may be determined that LAA ascribed to itself zoning jurisdiction it did not have over properties it did not own, all in an agreement that remains, wisely, unimplemented. 

Yet to be mentioned is adequate public notice.  The far-reaching TIF development proposal, which would short-circuit the 2050 Comprehensive Planning process for the area, was not well circulated before the city council's June 28 public hearing.  Citizens and taxpayers are in the dark when it comes to knowing what this is all about:  what agreement, what maps, what UNL report, what federal laws, what deadline?  This is even before we get into what promises were made to whom, by whom, to try to salvage the TIF development deal, once some watchful city council members started asking questions.

Not to be forgotten is the testimony conspicuously made at the public TIF hearing that certain individuals and groups, meaning environmental interest groups, were "not authorized" to voice their opinions on TIF public policy issues.  Surely the testifier knows that were it not for the Wachiska Audubon Society, many of the area prairies likely would not exist today.   Among the first people I'd want to consult about prairies for his opinion is the legendary Ernie Rousek of Wachiska.* 

The best thing for city government to do right now is to re-read what it just enacted in the Lincoln Climate Action Plan and act as if it matters, because it does.  Bird and pollinator populations are collapsing, climate change is evident everywhere, and the time for climate action is now. 

The way forward for the city council is simply to remove the contested areas from the TIF proposal and sort the issues out in the Comprehensive Planning process, which is already underway and has the advantage of actually involving the public in decision-making. 

That will send a message that the Lincoln Climate Action Plan has met its first test, and that this city council of 2021 means to put the action into the plan.  

* Among other scientific articles Wachiska Audubon has brought to attention is one that concludes it is not distance but landscape context that is important in prairie preservation:
"Using a focal-patch study design we demonstrated the importance of the surrounding landscape, often out to 4 km from the fragment edge, on prairie occupancy by grassland birds. Effective management of grassland songbirds will require attention to the landscape context of prairie fragments." Note: one TIF parcel is less than 1 km away from Nine Mile Prairie, and if developed with 100 houses as proposed would be a point source introduction of bird-killing cats, pollinator-destroying pesticides, and nighttime street lighting into the heart of the prairie environs.
See: Shahan, J.L., Goodwin, B.J. & Rundquist, B.C. "Grassland songbird occurrence on remnant prairie patches is primarily determined by landscape characteristics." Landscape Ecol 32, 971–988 (2017).

Don't Destroy Prairies for Poorly Planned Housing

July, 2021

Lincoln — "Affordable housing" is a current focus in Lincoln city government, but what this means and at what sacrifice of environmental values are considerations not getting much attention.

The Urban Development Department has proposed a tax-increment-financing (TIF) area in northwest Lincoln that would destroy habitat-rich prairie parcels in order to build residential housing.  It is doing its best to ignore a scientific report by the UNL Center for Grasslands Studies that calls for these parcels to be protected because they are part of, and essential to, a larger prairie ecosystem known as the Nine Mile Prairie environs.  

One might think, with the widely reported collapse of bird and pollinator populations, and the ever-more alarming prospects of climate change catastrophes, that destroying carbon-storing prairies would not be high on the city's agenda.  Not so.  The city seems ready to give the go-ahead for housing on the two parcels such as pictured below. The photo is of other recently built affordable housing in northwest Lincoln.  Note the expanses of concrete and what the future of existing riparian streams might look like after the bulldozers are done with them.  

Where else to build, instead? 

 Not far away from the area in dispute is a better alternative, which the city has already designated for commercial development.  It could and should become mixed-use or multifamily housing because the area does not need more vacant strip malls.  It needs housing with a vibe, even trendy.

The city is already planning, for good reason, to move NW 48th street over to NW 46th between West Adams and West Cuming.  Creative housing there would add a new walkable community deliberately integral to Arnold Heights and to the shopping center immediately to the south.  By building on this site rather than on the disputed parcels, vehicular traffic generated by housing would not constantly enter and exit the Arnold Elementary School area, endangering the children.  The disputed parcels can be accessed only through the school area, which is another reason the city should not build there. 

Because the city is already planning to move NW 48th and develop the adjacent land, it is plausible that the land could be considered a part of Arnold Heights for purposes of TIF financing. This would not be a case of possibly illegal TIF gerrymandering, as is the current TIF proposal. 

Below is a city planning document showing the road redesign for moving NW 48th traffic to NW 46th for a few blocks.  This is a good idea.  Just change the ensuing zoning designation from commercial to a category allowing affordable housing. 

There are other places for affordable housing, too, which do not insert vectors of bird-killing cats, pollinator-destroying pesticides, and glaring streetlights into the heart of Lincoln's rare remaining grasslands, while creating traffic jams.  We just need to look for them.  

Give These Borrowers Their Lives Back

June, 2021

Washington — In the last post, I suggested an urgent need to cancel certain federal student loans, including those of borrowers who have been caught in loan hell through no fault of their own and deserve to get their lives back.

I'm not the only one who knows something is very wrong in the Department of Education's collection priorities.  Student Defense, in a new report, writes:  "While the Department aggressively attempts to collect from borrowers, institutions and their owners and executives walked away from more than a billion dollars owed to taxpayers."  

Action must be taken to cancel the loans of borrowers who have been victimized by the mistakes of others and have exhausted remedies without success.  I'll illustrate with the examples of Marjorie Dillon and Charles Stewart.  

Marjorie Dillon attended a public university but was not viewed as a student for whom a good financial aid package should be assembled.  In fact, the package was so loan-heavy it may have been a message that the school would rather not see her enroll.  This practice is one of the techniques of "enrollment management."  When a newspaper reporter wrote up her story, for which she waived her privacy, she was $120,000 in debt and student loan collectors were threatening to ruin her grandmother financially, as well as her disabled father.  She also had a toddler surviving on the WIC program, so four generations were at risk simultaneously.   

The reporter also talked to the "vice president of enrollment" at Ms. Dillon's university.  He made her records public, blamed her for missing application deadlines and coming in to the aid office on the day bills were due. He assured the reporter that the college had given her the required counseling at the time she took out loans.  But anyone familiar with basic federal student aid regulations knows that her rights were violated — by my count, seven times.   She should never have been placed in this situation by her school.  When I looked up the biography of the vice president, I saw he was simultaneously consulting at an enrollment management firm which, through its parent company, was about to take the grandmother's house.  

Then there is the case of Charles Stewart, who has given me permission to discuss his case.  His student loans were mishandled not by design, but by neglect.  When he tried repeatedly to get them straightened out over the years, he always got the same answer.  Yes, there were mistakes, but there's nothing to be done about it.  

I have seen the emails between Mr. Stewart and a Department of Eduction official who said the solution was for the loan guaranty agency simply to cancel the loans.  But the guaranty agency, USA Funds, refused, even though such agencies were funded by borrowers and taxpayers precisely to resolve these matters.  Incredibly, the Department official, rather than pushing back against USA Funds, advised Mr. Stewart to seek his own private counsel and sue the Department for cancellation.  That also did not work, as the lawyer soon dropped the case because he took a job with a conflict of interest.  

Not only should these two borrowers get relief, the institutions and individuals responsible for the situations should be disciplined.   

Secretary Miguel Cardona has the statutory authority to resolve these kinds of cases through compromise and settlement, and to raise the bar as to what is expected of institutions and individuals who are part of the federal student financial aid system.  And President Biden and both houses of Congress must back him up.  

Loan Cancellation Options for the Secretary of Education

June, 2021

Washington —  In all the current back and forth about potential cancellation of federal student loans, for whom and in what amount, two crucial considerations are largely and regrettably absent from the discussion.

One is a management issue.  Loan servicers often cannot properly handle loan administration even in the best of times.  They will be overwhelmed later this year when the pandemic moratorium on loan repayment expires.  It is in the best interest of the federal government to cancel loans where there is a good case to do so, simply to reduce loan administration volume.

The other consideration is the honor and credibility of the federal government.  Many borrowers are in financial trouble and cannot repay their loans because of malfeasance and fraud at schools, or mistakes by the many middlemen involved in loan administration, including the U.S. Department of Education itself.  

The Secretary of Education has statutory authority to compromise loan repayment obligations, which clearly extends to these two reasons for exercise of that authority.  Rather than arguing about cancellation solely in terms of which borrowers may or may not benefit, the conversation needs urgently to turn to what's in cancellation simply for the cause of good and honest government.  

First, the Secretary should take immediate steps to cancel the loans of borrowers who are legally entitled to cancellation.  Who would that be?  If you don't know, you haven't been paying attention.  The Trump administration denied cancellation to many such borrowers.  

Next, loans for which principal and the government's cost of interest have already been paid back should be cancelled to relieve borrowers of further payments.  In many cases, remaining balances represent fees, penalties, and capitalizations that audits and accountability reviews trace to faulty servicer advice, which in turn is a function of an overly complicated loan system and poor administration of it.*  

Next, with the input of the CFPB and SFA, a process of loan cancellation should be afforded to borrowers who have been caught in loan hell through no fault of their own.  Where there is documented evidence that borrowers have been the victims of the mistakes of others' handling of their student loans, and no other remedy has been applied, the remaining balances should be cancelled.  The very honor of the federal government is at stake here.  Bankruptcy reforms should be a part of this discussion as another way for people to get their lives back.  

The creative ideas of some in the higher education community to address the student loan crisis should be explored as a way to cancel even more loans.  For example, applying "retroactive Pell" grant amounts to reduce the loan balances of former Pell-eligible borrowers could result in the cancellation of many small-balance loans, as well as a way to target loan relief to those most in need of it.**

Costs of loan compromises must be weighed against costs of business as usual, and discounted for the fact that huge percentages of current loans must be written off as uncollectible in any honest budget scoring.    

I believe the Secretary's authority to compromise loans is broad and extends beyond the examples listed above but, simply for the sake of good government and honorable execution of the Department of Education's mission, the Secretary should act now to cancel as many loans as possible to avoid another looming crisis yet this year.  


*  Much of the rationale for the interest rates and fees now charged on federal student loans is a legacy of a dual loan delivery system, under which the Secretary was to provide equal terms and conditions between bank-based and direct government loans.  That dual system no longer exists; any remaining bank-based paper could be bought up by the Secretary, who could also issue an emergency regulation to reset interest rates going forward at lower levels.  

**  I like the retroactive Pell concept because it eliminates schools' role in subjecting Pell to aid packaging formulas that often disadvantage low-income and minority students.   



Lincoln's Unfortunate Housing Trends

June, 2021

Lincoln — The City of Lincoln has just adopted a commendable Climate Action Plan to try to deal with climate change. But simultaneously it is permitting the worst kind of urban sprawl: car-centric, unsustainable, unneighborly housing.

There is an arms-race in Lincoln among homebuilders as to who can offer more garages and lay more concrete over frontages.  No more is a two-car garage adequate; now homes have three, four, and even five garages in front. The houses themselves have to peek out from behind to show that, indeed, there is a house at the address, presumably with people living in it.  

A view from the back does not give much clue about residents, as the houses have tall, opaque fences around back yards. 

I took some photos.  Note the view of a new development from above, showing the expanses of concrete that will contribute to downstream flooding.  That is what the Climate Action Plan wants to avoid. Note the dark, heat absorbing roofs, driving up peak summer electrical usage, which the Climate Action Plan hopes to reduce.  

Wide expanses of impervious surfaces

Views from the front show small monoculture lawns, maintained by environmental toxins as hawked on television. 

These are homesites where there are likely more garages per lot than earthworms.  

Lincoln is not an environmentally friendly city, judging by its trends in housing construction.  The same could be said for its esthetics; many urban sprawl developments have the look of self-storage businesses.  

"Peek-a-boo" house style

"Fortress Garage" model

It didn't have to be this way. Lincoln dipped its toe into New Urbanism with the creation of Fallbrook, which was supposed to be a walkable community with higher population density and a smaller environmental footprint. Obviously, it didn't catch on. 

The photos above are from the development immediately west of Fallbrook, which would have been an ideal place to demonstrate that there is an alternative to climate-warming, flood-inducing urban sprawl. 

Compare another community that chose New Urbanism, this one in Maryland. Notice from the aerial view that there is much less concrete slab. Garages are tucked behind houses, entered via picturesque, tree-lined, carbon-storing alleys. Inhabitants walk to stores on sidewalks and pause to chat with neighbors on front porches.  Many roofs have solar panels.  

New Urbanism

This community, built around 2000, is also diverse, with low-income housing mixed in seamlessly with townhouses and with single family homes of various sizes.  Its county government also bans weed-and-feed and neonicotinoid products, so it is safer for children, pets, and wildlife.

Porches in front of houses

Mixed income housing: townhouse, low income, single family options 

Two-car garages in back, accessed by shady, tree-lined alleys 

Unfortunately, Lincoln is considering builder incentives to put urban sprawl housing on and adjacent to environmentally sensitive properties such as tallgrass prairies and habitat-rich riparian corridors.  Where bulldozers level the areas, centuries of carbon storage will be released.  For adjacent areas, it will mean streetlights illuminating the dark prairies at night, wide-roaming cats wiping out grassland bird species, and pesticide drift killing off prairie forbs.  

Not all is bad in Lincoln housing development.  Some areas, like the Telegraph district, are being turned into denser, walkable communities.  Smart growth.

But when it comes to urban sprawl, please stop it, Lincoln.  We're a better city than this.  

Guest Blog on Insurrection (from 1861)

May, 2021

Washington — Apropos the January 6, 2021, insurrection, the following is a look-back at the insurrection of 1861.  It is from the Civil War diary of our cousin, David Hunter Strother (also known as Porte Crayon), now several generations removed.  But we are of like mind in our common observations of insurrectionists, then and now (emphasis added).  

January-February, 1861

Martinsburg, Virginia —  … South Carolina has actually seceded! and what of that? South Carolina is a great way off, and has been threatening Secession for thirty years or more. The Toryism of 1776 has never died out in South Carolina, nor have her gentry ever fully acquiesced in our republican form of government. It is high time the questions between her and the country were settled. I wish she had made up her mind to try conclusions with Andrew Jackson when she had her hand raised to pluck the forbidden fruit. Does she think it more nearly ripe now? or that the present “Old Man” won’t throw stones? I’ll vouch for it, that if he does not, somebody will.

…I am rather glad South Carolina has taken this decisive step. Her arrogance and rashness have arrayed even her Southern neighbors against her. She will not be supported by a single State. I have not heard a voice raised in her behalf. Even those who have heretofore been most vociferous about Southern rights unite in condemning her premature presumption. A ship of war in the harbor of Charleston, and a battalion of nation troops thrown into the forts, will quench South Carolina as briefly as one may snuff out a tallow dip with his thumb and finger.

…”Sedition is like fire, easily extinguished at the commencement, but the longer it burns the more fiercely it blazes.”

… South Carolina is not quenched, and there seems to be no disposition on the part of those in power to out the extinguisher on her.

… As she pursues her course of presumptuous madness with impunity other States are following her example.

… Each day brings tidings of fresh outrages and humiliations heaped upon the Government, seizures of arsenals, arms, forts, dockyards, and vessels – of traitorous officers surrendering their charges without defense – of faithful officers arrested and thrown into prison, besieged in forts where they are cut off from supplies and assistance – our national flag hauled down and trampled in the dust, with all its glorious historic memories, to be replaced by some tawdry rag flaunting an obscure device known only to local office-holders and militiamen.

The effect of this state of things is distinctlible in the time of opinion around us. State Sovereignty dogmatism is becoming daily more open and arrogant. County court metaphysicians are modifying their Unionism with “ifs” and “ands” and “peradventures” – small anglers in the mud-puddle of village tavern opinion are drawing in their lines and changing their bait – petty politicians are craftily trimming their sails that their cock-boats may run with the rising wind. But while the weak-kneed are thus tottering, and trimmers fluttering in the breeze, the storm serves to fan to fiercer flame the indignation of all true men. All eyes and hearts are now turned toward Washington, expectant, eager, hopeful. There centres the power which in its infancy has met and twice foiled the giant of Great Britain, which in the very wontonness of its lusty youth made a holiday frolic of throttling poor Mexico. What will the Government do in this crisis?

…Is it secret sympathy with treason or mere driveling that tells the American people “the Government has no right to coerce a State?” – a nation that for more than eighty years has maintained fleets and armies, has waged wars and made peace, has collected customs and coined money; whose commerce covers the globe, whose flag is known and honored wherever the sun shines; whose power and civilization are acknowledged by the proudest and most enlightened peoples; whose future promises to surpass in grandeur all that history has yet recorded. Such a nation has not the right to suppress domestic insurrection! So vast an aggregation of power, prosperity, and hope must submit quietly and unresistingly to perish at the bidding of a local faction, a confederacy of visionary schemers, conceited dogmatists, self-deluding and self-stultifying economists – base huxters, who unblushingly pretend to barter the national honor and safety for the advantage of cheap negroes and a good cotton market; unprincipled politicians, whose vulpine instincts have warned them that the power and places which they had so long abused and so deeply corrupted are about to be withdrawn from their keeping!

Is nothing lawful or constitutional but the outrages of revolutionary mobs, the violation of solemn oaths, the plundering of national property, and the babbling of seditious orators?

Is the Government we have loved and trusted indeed so pitiable and impotent a sham? Have the founders, whom we have been accustomed to regard as wise and good men, really put such a scurvy trick upon us? Have we built houses, laid up wealth, begot children, acquired honors, and recreated in boasting and self-glorification under the delusion of a Political Idea that would disgrace a council of Pottawatomies?

Such are the questions that loyal Virginians in the bitterness of their humiliation now all each other, as the daily mails bring in the accumulating details of rebel outrage, arrogance, and menace, responded to only by governmental acquiescence, deprecatory remonstrance, and despicable compromise.

— David Hunter Strother, "Porte Crayon"

Head-Scratching over Rural Nebraska

May, 2021

Lincoln — Rural Nebraska interests gained special attention this month in the Nebraska legislature, but in head-scratching ways.  

Rural regions have been losing population disproportionately.  In response, the Nebraska Farm Bureau made a presentation to the legislature's redistricting committee, asking that it make rural representation in legislative bodies a priority over other considerations, so as to stem the decline of rural voices.  

But it's the height of irony for the Farm Bureau to make that argument without acknowledging that the depopulation has been in large part due to the "get-big-or-get-out" farm policy long embraced by the Farm Bureau itself.  This was the doctrine first enunciated so pithily by the Nixon Administration's Earl Butz and repeated more recently by the Trump Administration's Sonny Perdue.   A lot of farmers got out, and now the Farm Bureau is pleading for the legislature to make up for it.  This is akin to the old saw about the child who murdered his parents but pleaded with the judge for mercy because he was an orphan.  

But reaction to another legislative development prompts downright forehead slapping.  A Lincoln Journal Star editorial commended the legislature for advancing, 43-0, a measure to develop local farm-to-school markets.  It offered, however, this analysis:

"[W]e question why local schools haven't always purchased from in-state farmers and why such an apparent no-brainer requires state legislation.  We are in the midst of America's breadbasket, aren't we? Farming and ranching represent a large chunk of Nebraska's economy and keep the state economy churning....

"[W]e'd still be remiss for questioning the need for appropriating about $100,000 annually, to hire a statewide coordinator for the program.  It seems that Nebraska's farmers would need no prodding in applying to be included in this networking opportunity....  In a $9 billion budget, $100,000 is a drop in the bucket. ... This is a worthy project, but it’s a shame it will take additional spending to make it happen."

Either this is written with tongue well into cheek or there is a serious need for the author to brush up on agriculture in Nebraska.  Part of the Butz vision (see above) was for Midwest farmers to produce crops for export markets, to plant corn and soybeans "fencerow-to-fencerow."  Nebraska consumers, including schools, would import food from other states rather than depend on local food from diversified farms, many of which disappeared.

As to spending $100 thousand to try to re-establish farm-to-school markets, it must be noted that the state has already spent hundreds of millions on research and extension to promote the Butz view of the world.  And in fairness to Earl Butz, a Purdue University economist before he became U.S. secretary of agriculture, his path was already partially cleared by another Purdue Ph.D., his predecessor as Nixon's first ag secretary, Clifford Hardin.  The East Campus at the University of Nebraska has erected larger than life statues to three Nebraska-linked U.S. secretaries of agriculture who espoused the export-import, get-big-or-get-out model for Nebraska agriculture. 

As a farm youth once myself, participating in 4-H and FFA, I remember the shift from small, diversified farms to single-crop production, enabled by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Many farmers welcomed it.  No more crop rotation requiring out-of-production fields for summer fallow, or raising legumes to plow under as fertilizer.  No more chores around the farmstead, taking care of chickens, hogs, and cattle.  Freedom in the wintertime to go to Arizona.  And bowl games.  Fewer neighbors, though.  

I have it on good authority that some on the East Campus, reconsidering, may have assisted in encouraging the farm-to-school bill.  Good for them.