I May Be Wrong

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Trying to keep up on events and ideas in three very different capitals runs the risk of being shallow about each locale and occasionally outright wrong in my observations of any of them. This post is a look-back at my previous writings to see where a dose of humility may be in order.

As a kid growing up in Nebraska, every school night I was tasked to polish my shoes with brown Jet-Oil to be ready for the next day at school. The liquid's dauber being prone to splattering, I would always do the job over the previous day's newspaper to catch the splashes. Inadvertently, I became quite an expert on such subjects as the demise of Bulgarin in favor of Khrushchev. I also couldn't help reading many of the newspaper's columnists, like Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann. One local columnist always used the caption "I May Be Wrong," which I thought was a good reason not to read his column, but it was catchy and makes for a good title for this post.

A few years ago I wrote a column on the new GI Bill; the New America Foundation posted it. I warned veterans that the benefits weren't quite what they seemed, predicted that colleges would find ways to exploit the new legislation, and that many veterans would find themselves saddled with student loan debt. But I neglected to mention which colleges were most likely to do this -- the for-profit schools, which soon made veterans a mark for exploitation. This was a big error of omission. I should also have warned that leaving the administration of the higher education benefits to the Veteran's Administration was a big mistake. It has taken years for the VA to get the program underway correctly, and much still remains to be done. This was totally foreseeable. My column on the matter was far too shallow.

More recently I wrote a post on the slow start of the Nebraska Innovation Campus on the site of the old State Fair, noting that it had only one private partner after years of searches. The next day, the NIC announced three more. I should have waited. Time will tell, however, if this announcement was to try to prime the pump to make it seem as if interest is picking up. These are modest new partners, by any measure, the kind that could be created for the sake of appearances. Either way, I hope the NIC soon takes off successfully with a wide variety of innovative businesses.

Six months ago I offered an opinion on the scandal in Nebraska's correctional system. Most people were too eager to blame corrections' employees and to accept the explanation of bureaucratic bumbling. My own view was clouded by examples of ineptitude too, but I did point out one thread for further investigation: a corrections attorney claimed that the state attorney general's office had told the corrections department, more than once, not to follow a Nebraska Supreme Court decision, apparently for political reasons. At last, in recent days, a Lincoln digital reporter (with no connection to a newspaper) has uncovered the internal communications that bears this out.

As more and more information about this scandal has come to light, it's clear that the former governor bears much responsibility. It is also becoming clear that the former attorney general, who was quick to call others incompetent, now has a great deal of explaining to do himself. For political reasons, both the ex-governor and the ex-attorney general put corrections officials into no-win situations, and then blamed them for the outcomes. I tried to defend state employees to some extent, but I did not get to the heart of the matter. We all should have been more cautious about jumping to conclusions.

These are three posts I wish I had back, to get them right in the first place.

Reauthorizing the HEA and the Need to Rebalance Funding

February, 2015

Washington -- Another Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is upon us and I find myself in rare agreement with Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate committee of jurisdiction, on two issues. One is the overdue simplification of the form that students use to apply for financial aid; the other is the need to reduce federal higher education regulations.

Republican Senator Alexander is right in joining with Democratic Senator Michael Bennett in a bipartisan effort to trim down the number of questions asked of aid applicants. The so-called FAFSA form is so complicated it scares many students and families away from postsecondary education. The main opponents of this needed change are states and institutions, which have successfully lobbied the federal goverment over the years to include their own questions in the federal form. They now threaten that if the federal form is simplified, they will separately start collecting much more data about applicants themselves with their own forms, making a bad situation even worse.

What has been left out of this discussion is why states and institutions need so much information. If the assumption is that states and institutions simply want to target their own aid to the truly financially needy, someone hasn't been paying attention. One of the reasons states and institutions desire detailed information is to know more about students and families than the students and families know about them. Students and families must reveal much about themselves while institutions are free to manipulate the information behind closed doors, often to the disadvantage of the financially needy. The irony is that the federal form, as it currently exists, gives states and institutions information on how to undermine the very federal programs that are supposed to be helping the students.

It is high time for Senators Alexander and Bennett to understand more fully why their simplification proposal (or something like it) is fundamentally sound, and to challenge those who would keep on collecting information that in practice is used too often for dubious ends.

The other issue on which I agree with Senator Alexander (and Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, among others), is the need to rein in the regulation-happy U.S. Department of Education. There are altogether too many higher education regulations and there are too many Department officials who think the answer to every problem is a new regulation.

But what once again has been left out of the discussion is why there are so many regulations to start with. It is partly because Congress itself has used program structures in higher education legislation which invite abuse, which then invites regulation. Because Congress itself has also loaded up its already vulnerable programs with issue-of-the-moment hobby horses, even more regulation ensues.

In 1965 and 1972, Congress set up the framework for federal higher education assistance with a variety of institutional and student aid programs. Soon thereafter, Congress chose to prefer student aid over institutional aid (making higher education access for the financially needy the top priority), and to prefer student aid programs such as the 100% federally funded Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, which had few strings, over programs that required buy-in from states and institutions in the form of matching funds and maintenance of effort. Congress thereby chose "redivision federalism" as the basic approach to higher education assistance, as it redivided what had been concurrent powers with states and institutions. In so doing, Congress moved away from the opposite concept, "cooperative federalism," in which federal, state, and institutional resources are combined so that all parties have skin in the game and fewer regulations are necessary to prevent abuses. The result has been that despite the federal government's hubris of attempting to fund the effort itself, it soon discovered it could not do so and, moreover, eventually found its former partners diminishing their own efforts.

Think for a moment about the scandals of the past few years involving the for-profit schools. If states had had substantial money at stake through the old SSIG student aid matching program, based on the cooperative federalism model, would they have tolerated and funded their share of the abuses at these schools? Likely not. Sadly, under the redivision model, the schools have been able to concentrate their lobbying and political contributions on the few key members of Congress necessary to exploit the federal programs. Seeing the bad outcomes resulting from billions of dollars of Pell and Stafford spending through these schools, the Department has tried to issue regulations, only to find itself the target of Congressional disapproval.

One solution to all the bickering about regulations is to rebalance funding of programs. Revitalize cooperative federalism models; back off the idea that the federal government can go it alone. Think through the interaction of program models and the need for regulation simultaneously rather than thinking only of regulations. Same for the FAFSA. Make the states and institutions partners again with the federal government.

Back when the Higher Education Act was shaped in 1965 and 1972, another issue occupied much Congressional attention: the need to clean up the nation's waterways. But Congress chose, in the Clean Water Act, cooperative federalism to do the job rather than redivision federalism. It must be noted that it is not the household water bill that has skyrocketed above all else, or that a generation is saddled with a trillion dollars of economy-strangling debt to pay for clean water, or that the nation has spent billions on water with little to show for it. It is past time to put the principles of cooperative federalism to work in higher education.

Airplanes, Subways, and Buses

February, 2015

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Over the last month I've been in these three cities, each of which leaves much to be desired when it comes to getting to and from their respective airports by public transportation.

When traveling accompanied, I often use private cars or taxis to go to and from airports, but when traveling alone I like to check out airport connections to trains, subways, and buses. A few years ago I was a member (and for two years, chairman) of the Rockville, Maryland, Traffic and Transportation Commission and got into the habit of traveling public transportation routes and connections of all kinds.

Lincoln seems to have no connection between its airport and public transportation. If there is such a connection, it's well hidden. Many people in Lincoln don't even use the local airport, preferring Omaha, an hour away, with its better airline connections and lower prices. A private shuttle operates between Lincoln and Omaha for people who don't drive to and from the Omaha airport.

Washington has three area airports, National, Dulles, and BWI. I prefer to use National whenever possible because it is on the Washington subway's Yellow Line. National also has non-stop flights to Omaha. Another reason to take the subway: parking at National is expensive and the lots are sometimes full. There's nothing like trying to catch a plane only to be greeted by an airport parking "Full" sign.

No Washington area airport has good airline connections to Berlin. One might think the de facto capitals of North America and Europe would have direct flights between them, but this is not the case. (Stavanger and Houston, yes; Berlin and Washington, no.) Among the one-stop choices are National to Newark to Berlin, or BWI to London to Berlin, or Dulles to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich, London, or elsewhere (even Istanbul), then on to Berlin. I've tried many of them from Dulles, the latest being Copenhagen.

Dulles is not well connected to public transportation. Last week I arrived at Dulles from Copenhagen and it took me nearly two and a half hours to get to my destination in suburban Maryland via a shuttle bus from the airport to the subway's Silver Line, then a transfer to the Red Line. But this was during rush hour. One consolation: I was not in a vehicle on the infamous Washington Beltway, which may have taken almost as long and is surely more dangerous. Another consolation: I was able to help two young, non-English-speaking Japanese women navigate the public transportation system and get to their destination in downtown Washington.

Berlin's airports are wholly inadequate, in part because of the legacy of Berlin's administration under the Four Powers Treaty from the end of the 1940s into the 1990s. Each sector of the city had its own airport: Gatow for the British, Tempelhof for the Americans, Schönefeld for the Soviets, and Tegel for the French. Gatow is now gone and Tempelhof is no longer in service. The German government has tried to expand Schönefeld, but it has had so many opening issues it's become a national scandal. Maybe it will be ready in 2017. Which leaves Tegel.

Tegel is not connected to Berlin's extensive U-Bahn, Tram, or S-Bahn systems. The route from Tegel to my place in Kreuzberg involves taking the 128 Bus to Osloer Strasse, taking the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor, and then either walking or taking the 140 Bus to Mariannenplatz. It takes an hour. A taxi takes thirty or forty minutes. But one big advantage of taking public transportation in Berlin is price. For less than the cost of a taxi fare, one can buy a seven-day public transportation pass for all of Berlin, a great deal. Looking for something to do in Berlin? Just ride the double-decker buses through the neighborhoods, or take the trains through the great stations that echo history.

It's poor transportation planning not to have airports connected to trains and subways. Dulles, which was to be the airport of the future for Washington, is now losing passengers to National. Even BWI, outside of Baltimore, has MARC and Amtrak train service into Washington and is becoming more popular than Dulles. It will be years before Metro's Silver Line reaches Dulles. Berlin has the excuse of once being a divided city, but it is taking far too long to replace Tegel with the better connected Schönefeld.

In the meantime, it's good exercise and quite a geography education rolling the luggage across multiple systems of public transportation.


February, 2015

Berlin -- On February 2nd at the Zeughaus, in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition, the German Historical Museum sponsored a panel discussion about the 1970s leftist terror group Red Army Faction (RAF). The Baader-Meinhof Gang, as it was also called, created havoc across Germany with its kidnappings and murders of prominent citizens.

A clearly divided panel – two academics, one journalist, and a representative of the German internal security agency, the Verfassungsschutz – debated the causes of this terror movement. Many in the audience took sides, clapping for one panelist or another. Among many subjects of contention was the role of Peter Urbach and his role as agent provocateur in the service of the Verfassungsschutz. Incredibly, he made bombs and put them in the hands of terrorists, but was never brought to justice. He was given a new identity and hustled off to the United States, where he died in 2011. It demonstrates that internal security organizations can be among a country's own worst enemies.

Which brings us to the current terrorism in Europe, most recently in Paris. The U.S. Government has issued a warning to Americans in Berlin and in several other German cities. But what are the causes of this terrorism? As in the case of the RAF, it is without doubt complicated. Should the statements of the terrorists themselves be given any credence? The brothers who murdered Parisians have previously said their extreme radicalism was triggered by American torture in Iraq. This is a risk and a consequence of torture: the escalation of terror. When we engage in torture, we may be our own worst enemy.

Blowback of any kind should be a concern to citizens and security agencies alike, whether it be from torture or from the glorification of violence in the name of artistic freedom or the desire to make a buck. I cringe whenever I see a movie trailer exalting the use of weapons, blowing up cars, taking hostages, killing indiscriminately. Somehow I don't get the message that this is all okay – even thrilling – when it's condoned because it is done in the name of American security. Some viewers may think, indeed, why not in the name of Allah?

We wring our hands; how do we balance freedom of expression with fighting terrorism? Well, one way would be to be more discriminating as citizens and consumers, to show that we understand where our true security interests lie, and it is not in committing torture or creating demand for entertainment that will cause inevitable blowback. Such actions are akin to putting bombs in terrorists' hands.

Toward a "Prairie Boulevard"

February, 2015

Lincoln -- City planners have made a good decision to widen NW 48th street but to move it somewhat eastward, away from residential housing, between West Adams and West Cuming Streets. The reasons for the eastward move are to lessen traffic noise, reduce right-of-way impacts, and provide traffic benefits at Arnold Elementary School.

One good idea should lead to others. By routing the corridor through a mostly vacant area of Air Park, this part of the street could become a scenic boulevard. It already has admirable landscaping, although the loss of Scots pines in recent years has diminished the original vision.

A revised landscape plan featuring native prairie flora could be combined with an effort to make this Lincoln's "Prairie Boulevard." It would be the route Lincolnites take to nearby Nine-Mile Prairie, a tallgrass prairie on the National Register of Historic Places. Future developers of businesses along this corridor could encourage enterprises compatible with environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and horticulture, re-cycling, and outdoor recreation, as well as production, distribution, and consumption of healthy food to fight Nebraska's obesity epidemic. Non-profits and indigenous businesses could also be encouraged. No chain stores. Walkable paths would connect businesses; parking areas would demonstrate the feasibility of integrating pervious surfaces into an overall landscape plan. In other words, this would be a big departure from North 27th Street and its ilk. Lincoln has enough such places; it's time for something different.

The NW 48th corridor area is also overdue for re-naming. "Air Park" calls forth the old Lincoln Air Base, which has long since come and gone. Before there was an air base there were prairie hills sloping down gently to an unusual salt basin. Orchards dotted the area around the corridor, which was home to many of Lincoln's pioneer families and early leaders, like the Hartleys, the Mears, the Fladers, and the Cheneys (not those Cheneys; the other ones who came from New York, loved Nebraska, and gave their name to the rural school that educated the children along the corridor). A Farmer's Club brought area families together socially. Orchardist Ellis Hartley became Lincoln's first superintendent of schools. Later, NU ecologist John Ernst Weaver and his protégé Theodor Steiger took a scientific interest in the remaining tallgrass prairies on the nearby heights. In 1929, Weaver wrote the definitive book on prairie plant science, and in so doing established himself as the nation's foremost authority on North American prairies. These citizens are as worthy, or more so, of commemoration than is General Henry Arnold, after whom much is named but who apparently never set foot in Lincoln. Why not Weaver Heights rather than Arnold Heights? And why do we have a school, of all places, named after the man who advocated fire-storming civilians in WWII?

Lincoln should take the opportunity to make itself into the Prairie Capital of the United States. Lincoln has no mountains or seashores, but it has remarkable prairies. Three prairies around Lincoln have much potential for greater visitor draw: Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, the newly-expanded prairie at Pioneers Park, and Nine-Mile Prairie. Fortunately for the latter, most of the surrounding landowners are committed to creating the necessary buffer zone around this jewel of nature to protect it from the type of adjacent development that would destroy it. The University of Nebraska and the Lincoln Airport Authority are major landowners in the area. The city and the county should take the lead to protect and enhance the Nine-Mile Prairie environs, as has been done for the saline wetlands to the north of the city, another worthy prairie attraction.

No other city with surviving prairies can claim such an illustrious scientific heritage that attaches to them. It was Lincoln that produced three of the world's greatest botanists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Charles Bessey, Frederic Clements, and John Weaver. Clements was not only world-class, his theory of dynamic ecology and plant succession dominated botany throughout the world for decades, and still serves as a practical approach to grassland and range management. It does not reflect well on Lincoln that until recently, Clements' ashes lay unmarked for years in Wyuka Cemetery. That oversight should now be corrected, and one way to do it would be to brand (that's the vogue word) Lincoln as the "Nation's Prairie Capital."

From one good idea, many others can spring. Opportunity awaits.