So Repugnant, So Effective

January, 2018

Washington -- Pundits and commentators in this morning's newspapers didn't see the same Trump State of the Union speech I did last evening; or maybe they were afraid to say what they saw.

I saw manipulation of patriotic symbols worthy of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl; a strong-man, high-chin pose not seen since Benito Mussolini; and self-congratulatory clapping modeled after Josef Stalin.

Speaking of Stalin, the speech also announced an upcoming purge of government workers in all departments who "fail the American people." Those who noticed the line minimized it by suggesting it was just part of a spat with the Justice Department. Better read it again: all departments.

The speech went over well, according to pollsters. So what it if had factual errors and offered policy choices repugnant to traditional American values? It was great theater.

It went over especially well in America's heartland, no doubt, where Trump won the election in 2016 and is now poised to win again in 2020 with a strategy of conceding the seaboard states to Democrats.

Anne Applebaum writes of the recent Czech election as a prelude to our next presidential election. The Trump-like president, an ally of Vladimir Putin, was challenged by a scientist who campaigned for Western values and decency. In the last few days of the toss-up campaign, the challenger was smeared in a vicious social media barrage. He lost, of course.

The Czech experience is a plausible scenario for America in 2020. Anne Applebaum writes:

Of course, it may be no coincidence that this particular brand of politics captured presidencies and prime ministerships in central Europe: The independent media is extremely weak in small countries where advertising markets can’t support it, and public debate is dominated by conspiratorial websites and cheap tabloids. In Germany and France, strong public and private media mean that, in general, the level of the national conversation is higher.

All of this is true. Yet consider rural America, where the independent media is extremely weak, where advertising markets can’t support it, and public debate is dominated by conspiratorial websites and cheap tabloids. So maybe there’s no need to say anything except that some of the world’s oldest democracies and some of the world’s newest democracies have more in common than you think.

If you listened closely to the SOTU speech, Trump did not once mention rural America. He takes it for granted, for the reasons Applebaum states so well. The Democratic response of Congressman Joe Kennedy worked in the word "rural" about five minutes before its end, somehow escaping Democratic editors who are bent on a seaboard strategy and sufficient revulsion of the indecent Trump in the heartland to pull Democrats through. That's not going to happen. A Goebbels-style propaganda effort and a Putin-inspired social media disinformation campaign looks stronger every day.

Is there a Democratic opposition to all this, based on the realities of our electoral college politics? Not that I see. Brave talk of a Democratic "blue wave" suffered a huge setback last evening.

Required Reading for Federal Civil Servants

January, 2018

Washington -- Federal civil servants would do well to read Ambassador Nancy McEldowney's words of advice about how to conduct themselves in the Trump Administration. She writes about "how civil servants should navigate the ethical and professional minefields that lie before them."

The advice may not be welcomed by all, as it points out obligations that some in the civil service are not prepared to fulfill. She writes that "civil servants...should never allow themselves to further enable the corrosion of ethical norms and accountability standards;" and "[i]f a government worker sees wrongdoing and chooses to look the other way, he or she becomes complicit."

These are strong words, but Ambassador McEldowney reminds us that "every federal employee takes an oath of office and swears to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic." Civil servants: read these lines again. Click here if you haven't already. This is what you signed up for.

It therefore is a little surprising, and disappointing, that the ambassador also advises, in cases when ethical lines are crossed, that public servants should "[r]efuse to comply and if necessary resign." She has already made a compelling case that resigning is the wrong thing to do. Resignation, in my view, should not be presented so casually as a way out of a dilemma. I wish she had qualified resignation with "as an absolute last resort, after exploring all other options."

I suggest that resigning can often be tantamount to admitting the oath we all took is too much to bear, and represents the very complicity she so eloquently argues against. Resignation should not be an easy way out, somehow to soothe the conscience.

From my own experience in these matters, I'd like to point out to civil servants a few routes they can take to make their choices less difficult, all the while fully honoring their oath.

• Make use of the Lloyd-Lafollette Act, which permits civil servants to take their cases to Congress as long as they do it as private citizens. I did this in 2003, when I discovered illegal lender claims in the federal student loan program and revealed them to the Government Accountability Office. GAO soon investigated and wrote a report on which Congress acted.

• Share your situation with colleagues, explaining how wrongdoing is occurring and why you will not be complicit. When I found illegal claims, I explained to several colleagues why they were illegal and what could be done about it. This was ultimately helpful when the Inspector General cracked down and declared the claims illegal, in spite of continuing Department of Education indulgence of them.

• Do not get your hopes up about the Office of Special Counsel, or any other official government body, helping you. OSC has a poor record.* Do not expect fairness or justice from any quarter at any time. There is no clause in your oath that guarantees you fairness or justice when you act to uphold your oath. Be satisfied that you did the right thing and that by so doing, others' backbones were stiffened.

• Do not be forced out. Many upper level and senior civil service executives can choose to retire on their own terms and on their own timelines.**

• Prepare yourself to carry on after leaving the government, not as a matter of oath but as matter of a citizen's duty. One of my most important achievements came twelve years after I retired, when the Supreme Court ruled against a lender's claim of immunity from lawsuits, a potentially far-reaching decision that may rescue thousands of borrowers from the clutches of predatory lenders.

My advice to civil servants is to hang tough. Don't be pushed around. Be guided by your oath. Your country needs you now more than ever.

*I contacted OSC on the advice of my Ethics Office. OSC took months to reply, then said it would not deal with "de minimus" cases. Shortly thereafter, the GAO report came out suggesting billions of dollars were at stake. So much for "de minimus" and OSC.
**My own experience did not involve any attempt to force me out, so I cannot write with any authority on that. I was asked repeatedly to stay, but retired when I felt the time was right.

Grateful American

January, 2018

Berlin -- I am an American grateful for the vote of the membership of the SPD last weekend to allow coalition talks with the CDU to proceed. No doubt there is peril in the decision, because a lesson of the recent past suggests that the more the SPD works with the CDU, the more votes it loses in subsequent elections.

The SPD also had good reason to stay out of a new coalition so as to become the main party in opposition. If the SPD governs with the CDU, then the AfD takes on that role, enhancing the power of this far-right party. Not only that, some SPD members have even been defecting to the AfD just to be in opposition to the CDU.

But somebody needs to govern, and soon, not just for the sake of Germany, but Europe and the world. Courageous SPD voters chose to put country ahead of party. The FDP had the chance late last year and chose to put party ahead of country.

The CDU should now give the SPD due reward in the naming of cabinet ministers and adopting or compromising with SPD policy positions. That would send a signal to SPD members that they should stay with their party, not defect right or left. That is surely in the CDU's interest.

Huge Protest in Berlin over Agriculture Policy

January, 2018

Berlin -- Around 33,000 demonstrators marched through the heart of Berlin yesterday to demand a change in agriculture and nutrition policies. The occasion was a summit of government agriculture ministers from several countries.

The demonstration is significant in its own right but doubly important because of differences in agriculture policies between the two German political parties, CDU and SPD, that are trying to put together a coalition to form a German ruling government. Late last year, a CDU environmental minister broke an understanding over Glyphosate policy that almost blew up the talks before they started.

The following article is from today's Der Tagesspiegel. To read it in English, use the Translate option at the lower right of this page. First select German, then English. The translation will not be exact, but close and at times amusing.

Zehntausende fordern Wende in Agrarpolitik und bei Ernährung

Unter dem Motto "Wir haben es satt" sind am Samstag mehr als 30.000 Bürger und Bauern für eine umwelt- und tierfreundliche Landwirtschaft auf die Straße gegangen.


Zehntausende Demonstranten, darunter auffällig viele junge Leute. Mehr als hundert Traktoren sowie bunte Luftballons und Transparente, soweit das Auge reicht: Anlässlich der Grünen Woche haben am am Sonnabend nach Angaben der Veranstalter rund 33.000 Menschen in Mitte eine Wende in der Agrarpolitik und Ernährung gefordert. Die Polizei sprach von "mehreren zehntausend" Teilnehmern. Sie verlangten unter anderem ein Verbot umstrittenen Unkrautvernichtungsmittels Glyphosat und riefen die kommende Bundesregierung zu einer neuen Agrarpolitik auf. Ein Bündnis von mehr als hundert Umwelt-, Verbraucher-, Landwirtschafts- und Entwicklungsinitiativen hatte zu dem Protestmarsch bundesweit aufgerufen. Auf den Transparenten stand: "Kein Schwein braucht Tierfabriken!", "Wir haben's glyphosatt" oder "Ohne Bienen ist kein Staat zu machen!".

"Es geht um Artensterben, Grundwasserverschmutzung und vieles mehr"

"Die industrielle Land- und Ernährungswirtschaft verursacht lokale und globale Probleme für Bauern, Klima, Tiere und Umwelt", erklärte der Sprecher des "Wir haben es satt"-Bündnisses, Jochen Fritz. Der Umbau hin zu einer umwelt- und tierfreundlichen Landwirtschaft, in der Bauern gut von ihrer Arbeit leben könnten, dürfe von der Politik nicht weiter aufgeschoben werden.

Konkret angesprochen wurden Probleme wie Artensterben, Grundwasserverschmutzung oder Billigexporte nach Afrika. Zahlreiche Teilnehmer forderten auf Plakaten eine generelle Kennzeichnungspflicht für tierische Lebensmittel. Die Verbraucher müssten eindeutig erkennen können, ob ein Produkt aus artgerechter Tierhaltung kommt. Auch ein Verbot von Antibiotika in der Tierhaltung sowie mehr Unterstützung für kleinere bäuerliche Betriebe gehörten zum Forderungskatalog.

"Wer nachhaltig produziert und isst, muss belohnt werden"

Mit rund 33.000 Demonstranten habe sich die Teilnehmerzahl im Vergleich zum Protestumzug anlässlich der Grünen Woche im Vorjahr verdoppelt, erklärte das Bündnis. Dies zeige, dass das Interesse an Landwirtschaft und Ernährung immer größer werde. Auch deshalb müssten die verantwortlichen Politiker den Ruf nach einem ressourcenschonenden Umbau der Landwirtschaft endlich ernst nehmen.

"Essen ist politisch, immer mehr Menschen erkennen das", erklärte Organisator Jochen Fritz. "Damit wir alle nicht langfristig die Zeche dafür zahlen", müsse die künftige Bundesregierung "den Spieß jetzt umdrehen."

Diejenigen, die nachhaltig produzieren und essen, müssten belohnt werden.

Falls es zu einer Großen Koalition von CDU und SPD komme, müsse als ein erster Schritt Glyphosat verboten werden.. Außerdem müsse der überfällige Umbau der Tierhaltung finanzieren werden, "damit Schweine wieder Tageslicht sehen und Kühe auf Weiden grasen können".

Auch Gipfel der Agrarminister spricht sich für bessere Tierhaltung aus

Anlass für die Großdemonstration, die vom Berliner Hauptbahnhof durch das Regierungsviertel bis zum Brandenburger Tor zog, war neben der Grünen Woche auf dem Messegelände auch der sogenannte Agrarministergipfel im Bundeswirtschaftsministerium. Dort trafen sich am Samstag die Agrarminister zahlreicher Länder sowie Spitzenvertreter der Welternährungsorganisation (FAO) und der Weltorganisation für Tiergesundheit zu einer Konferenz.

Bundeslandwirtschaftsminister Christian Schmidt (CSU) erklärte zum Abschluss, dass sich die Vertreter von rund 70 Staaten sowie Vertreter der EU-Kommission und internationaler Organisationen zu einer verantwortlichen Tierhaltung verpflichtet hätten. "Der nachhaltige Umgang mit den Tieren bei der Produktion tierischer Nahrungsmittel ist eine der zentralen Herausforderungen unserer Zeit", sagte der Minister. Man wolle sich "weltweit verstärkt gegen den unnötigen Einsatz von Antibiotika zur Wachstumsförderung in der Tierhaltung" einzusetzen, zudem sollten für eine "ressourcenschonende" Tierhaltung "standortgerechte, regional angepasste Lösungen" gefunden werden.

Vor dem Landwirtschaftsministerium gab's ein Kochtopf-Konzert

Schon am Vormittag hatten rund 160 Landwirte, die an der Spitze der Demo mit ihren Traktoren fuhren, den versammelten Ministern aus aller Welt eine Protestnote übergeben. "Wir wollen raus aus der fatalen Exportorientierung und Landkonzentration, die Bauern hier und weltweit das Genick bricht", erklärten sie. Allein in den vergangenen zwölf Jahren habe in Deutschland ein Drittel der Höfe aufgeben müssen.

Als der "Wir haben es satt"-Umzug am Bundeslandwirtschaftsministerium vorbeikam, schlugen die Demonstranten lautstark auf Kochtöpfe und forderten die Achtung der Menschenrechte, faire Handelsbedingungen und mehr Hilfen für die ländliche Bevölkerung weltweit (mit dpa und AFP).

Wisdom of Senator Russell Long

January, 2018

Washington -- Last evening, as January 19th turned to January 20th and the federal govenment shut down, I watched U.S. Senate live proceedings via a newspaper's internet feed. (Long ago, like many Americans, I cut the cable and do not watch cable-provided television.)

It was a sorry spectacle to see both the majority and minority leaders, after the failure of the vote to keep the government open, read pre-written speeches blaming the other side. I'm sure the speeches will be rebroadcast near and far, but they are counterproductive to responsible government.

Back when, I worked in the Senate. Robert Byrd was majority leader; Howard Baker was minority leader. They did not read speeches for the TV cameras, because the Senate was not televised. The Senate got its work done. Byrd and Baker would not have countenanced last evening's spectacle.

Senator Russell Long was among those who said that bringing television coverage into the Senate would destroy the institution, because Senators would be making speeches for the cameras, not doing their work. His views can still be seen in an interview that is worth watching, available via this link.

Senator Long cared about the institution. He remains the only senator whose father and mother were also senators, Huey Long and Rose Long.

If the Senate remains televised, it needs rules governing pre-drafted speeches.

Senator Fischer's Vulnerabilities

January, 2018

Lincoln -- Senator Deb Fischer, first term Republican Senator from Nebraska, will have to tiptoe carefully around several potential problems in her 2018 re-election bid. Although she has some advantages going into the election – name recognition, reflexive tendencies of Nebraskans to vote along party lines, new membership on the Senate Agriculture Committee – she has vulnerabilities that could be exploited by her challenger, Democratic businesswoman Jane Raybould of Lincoln.

One vulnerability is the high property tax level across the state, which results in large part from the inability of state government to use its sales and income tax base to provide property tax relief.* When Senator Fischer was a state senator, she exacerbated this problem by diverting a share of the sales tax base not to property tax relief, but to highway construction, traditionally funded by user taxes. Nebraska now has comparatively low fuel taxes but very high property taxes. Governor Ricketts' latest state budget proposal can only shuffle existing property tax credits around and hope for future state revenue growth, to make it appear as if property tax relief is on the way.

But real relief is not in sight, which is in part a legacy of Senator Fischer's time in the state legislature. Her tax bill never made good public policy, but when it was passed at least the agricultural economy was in much better shape – crop prices were high and land values had not yet escalated. When land prices went up and crop prices fell, farmers were caught in a high property tax squeeze from which many will not recover. When this became apparent, Senator Fischer was already gone from the Nebraska legislature, to leave it to others to try to deal with the aftermath, now a nearly $90 million annual hole in the state budget and growing.

A statewide initiative petition is circulating to put the issue of property tax relief directly on the Nebraska ballot in 2018 and let the people vote. Those who vote for the relief might well take out their displeasure on Senator Fischer at the ballot box, unless memories are short. The Fischer raid on the state sales tax has also hampered state government investments in areas that might help the state's economy, such as education. This is another Fischer vulnerability; on the other hand, Senator Fischer's campaign will be well-funded by the highway lobby.

Although Deb Fischer's membership on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee has been met with approbation from some Nebraskans with ties to agriculture, it remains to be seen what it means in terms of actual policies she will push for. Her record in agriculture to date is not impressive.

She touts a meeting with the President at which time she told him of the importance of international markets for Nebraska crops, but that has had no results. Mexico, one of our largest markets, is turning elsewhere as a result of the President's policies, which are not informed in the least by Senator Fischer, on whom the President can rely for any and all votes because of party loyalty, regardless of the impact on Nebraskans.

In her press release about joining the Ag Committee, Senator Fischer indicated she would be working for causes that actually are not well-aligned with Nebraska family farm interests. She indicated she would be "safeguarding crop insurance," which is shorthand for opposing crop insurance reform. The Congressional Budget Office has scored a $3.4 billion savings that could be achieved by capping subsidies for the wealthiest agribusiness corporations, and has found no merit in Senator Fischer's argument that the wealthiest must remain in the program for it to work properly. Crop insurance reform, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, is shaping up to be the only realistic source of money to pay for worthier programs in the Farm Bill, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Without crop insurance reform it is also more difficult for young people to get established in farming.

Senator Fischer is also claiming credit for the dubious "biotechnology labeling compromise," a euphemism for preventing meaningful food labeling. Consumers want to know what is in their food and where it comes from. The legislation abruptly cut off farmers who were proud of their products and were working with states to require fully informative labeling. Instead, with the help of Senator Fischer, the federal government encroached on states' efforts to provide food product information and to develop new, healthy food markets. This is ironic because it was a Nebraskan, the estimable NU professor Ruth Leverton, who contributed so much to the concept of food labeling.

One area where Senator Fischer can claim a success pertains to on-farm fuel storage. Senator Fischer was part of a bipartisan effort to provide relief from certain EPA regulations. The relief was likely anyway, but at least her effort, unlike those above, was not detrimental to Nebraska's interests.

Another EPA issue, with a higher profile, is the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Senator Fischer claims to have drawn "attention to the negative effects this rule would have on all Nebraskans." Indeed she has, using the issue over and over as an example of the federal government's overreach on clean water regulations, even to the extent of claiming that the EPA would be taking over control of every farmstead mud-puddle. What is lost in this is that Nebraska has a real water quality problem when it comes to nitrates and pesticides, which not only affect those who drink the water but also those who must pay for expensive new municipal water facilities. What is needed here is a solution, not perpetual talk about federal overreach, inasmuch as Senator Fischer herself is only too eager to engage in federal overreach when it suits her own purposes (see above on food labeling).

All of which leads to the question of whether her Democratic opponent, the local elected official, businesswoman, and former candidate for lieutenant governor, Jane Raybould, can make anything of these vulnerabilities. Jane Raybould can surely make a decent showing in Nebraska's urban counties, but she will need to take on Deb Fischer in the rural counties in order to win. And that means confronting her on agriculture.

Jane Raybould will have her own vulnerabilities if she is not able to deal with WOTUS. Deb Fischer's campaign will, figuratively if not literally, feature a horse named WOTUS on which she plans to ride to victory for a second Senate term. Fischer must be un-horsed from WOTUS with a believeable Raybould plan to deal with Nebraska water quality.

Jane Raybould will also be challenged to establish herself as the real expert on agriculture, food, and nutrition, which she may be able do from her experience as a grocer.** This is hazardous territory, however, given the grocery industry's traditional alignment with corporate agriculture and agribusiness, not with farmers and nutrition-minded consumers. This could be a vulnerability if Jane Raybould is seen as having few or no policy differences with Deb Fischer on issues before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Jane Raybould needs to separate herself from Deb Fischer on agriculture issues where she can likely prevail: crop insurance reform and the GIPSA rule protecting family farmers from unfair international (mostly Chinese) interference in livestock production. These are issues where Deb Fischer and her committee chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, have big challenges even within their own Senate Republican caucus.

Jane Raybould could also benefit from advancing a bold vision of what the 2018 Farm Bill should include: considering topsoil-as-infrastructure; attacking rural America's epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and opioid addiction; creating jobs and markets with support for the healthy food revolution that is upon us; opening up opportunity for new farmers; providing funding for ag research and extension that will offer hope for Nebraska's agricultural economy.

One thing is quite certain at this point in the race. No Democrat will win in Nebraska with purely an anti-Trump campaign. Democrats, if they want to win, will have to offer something positive that resonates with voters as something to be FOR, not AGAINST. That's where a visionary 2018 Farm Bill comes in.

Jane Raybould will also offer business credentials that Deb Fischer will never be able to match. Nebraskans like to know if candidates have ever run a business and met a payroll.

But the key to a Jane Raybould victory surely lies in making the most of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of Deb Fischer, who is vulnerable on property taxes, on the poor state of the Nebraska agricultural economy, and for having no vision about what needs to be done in the 2018 Farm Bill to help Nebraska.

* High levels of state and local government spending are generally not the culprit. Nebraska ranks 35th on state and local government spending as a share of personal income.
**She has a lot of goodwill from her father Russ's remarkable record as an innovative grocer. I knew Russ back when he started out at 17th and Washington Streets in Lincoln, in the early 1970s. I'd walk over from my place at 19th and B. I still see him in his apron, busy but with a smile and always ready to talk about big plans to improve his store.

Breaking One-Party Domination in Nebraska

January, 2018

Lincoln -- As readers of this blog know, I believe our two-party system of government works best when each party is competitive.

One party domination leads to trouble, be it one party or another. Maryland, where I spend considerable time, has been dominated by Democrats, which has led to trouble. One of the Maryland congressional districts was badly gerrymandered to favor a Democrat and the matter is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even the incumbent admits that the district must be redrawn. In the last gubernatorial election, Maryland Democrats put up a candidate with a flawed record, with the expectation he would win because of his party affiliation. Marylanders rejected him and elected a moderate Republican. These developments are forcing both parties to be more responsible and competitive, and Maryland will be the better for it.

Nebraska is dominated by Republicans, which has also led to trouble. Property taxes are unreasonably high, especially for farmers; the state's agricultural economy is among the worst in the country; the prison system is a mess; the governor is fighting with the university; the all-Republican congressional delegation takes voting orders from the Republican congressional leadership, lock-step, Nebraska interests be damned.

Nebraska's Second Congressional District has a history of being well-contested. It voted for Obama in 2008 and elected a Democrat in 2014, but those Democratic victories have been reversed. Freshman Republican Congressman Don Bacon could be in trouble, however, if a Democrat mounted an effective campaign against him, focusing especially on his inability to do anything for his district and the state from his seat on the House Agriculture Committee.

Bacon does not understand that agriculture in Nebraska is in huge trouble and needs both a much more supportive national policy and a voice to yell in protest until it happens.

Instead, Bacon is falling in line with his Republican committee chairman, Mike Conaway of Texas, who thinks all in rural America is just fine* and will bring out of his committee a 2018 Farm Bill that will do nothing for Nebraska, except perhaps drive crop prices even lower.

The kind of Farm Bill Bacon should be supporting, but won't, is one that would

• bring jobs and economic activity to the heartland while growing healthier food, as outlined in the new report from the St. Louis Fed and USDA, Harvesting Opportunity.

• consider topsoil-as-infrastucture and save our precious natural resource by funding shovel-ready conservation projects and expanding the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

• address the disasterous decline in rural health, particularly the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and opiod addition, by mobilizing existing health and nutrition networks such as Cooperative Extension and rural hospitals.

• launch immediate new agriculture research efforts into use of grasslands as carbon sinks and into the relationship between increasing CO2 levels and declining nutrition levels in food.

• restore the GIPSA rule protecting family farmers from unfair multinational companies who want to run them out of the livestock business. (Read the bi-partisan Grassley-Tester protest letter here.)

• reform the crop insurance program to save $3.4 billion over the next ten years, as estimated by CBO, without hurting the program.

• use the savings to fund the needs listed above, with no net cost to the Farm Bill.

The kind of language Bacon should be using is to make it clear in no uncertain terms to his President that killing NAFTA and TPP is killing Nebraska agriculture, that Nebraskans need real health care coverage and not closed hospitals, that wasteful spending in the Farm Bill needs to be cut and redirected to efforts that will actually help the Nebraska economy. Instead, he is silent.

If Bacon continues to do nothing from his seat on the House Agriculture Committee, a savvy Democrat who knows how dependent the Second District is on agriculture may come in and take the seat back. That person would campaign not just on the Farm Bill, but also on the link between the poor Nebraska ag economy and the inability of state government to provide property tax relief. Voters will make the connection if the candidate does, because there's no avoiding it.

A Democrat should also be poised to receive protest votes from those who are tired of one-party rule in Nebraska and want to send the Republican Party a message that its domination has served Nebraska citizens poorly.

* Among Conaway's pollyanna views: he states that "water is cleaner" when in fact nitrate pollution is plaguing small Nebraska towns and cities; he believes there has been a "proliferation of wildlife habitat" when most everyone knows just the opposite has been occurring. Pollinators are disappearing; bees must now be transported across country to pollinate crops.

Democrats and the 2018 Farm Bill

January, 2018

Washington -- For some reason, I have wound up with a collection of crystal balls that are remarkably good when it comes to predicting big elections. They predicted that Clinton would lose to Trump, two months before the actual election; they picked Doug Jones over Roy Moore, too.

So I have consulted them again to see what they're saying for the presidential election in 2020.

Right now, it looks like another Trump victory if certain things fall into place. He must hold his overall voter support level around thirty-some percent, foment an international crisis of some sort about a month prior to the election, and make sure he carries the rural areas that Democrats abandoned in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2016, so as to win in those states once again. With that strategy, even some other states he narrowly lost in 2016 might be in play.

Which made this article in Politico a worthwhile read, because it, like the crystal balls, suggests Democrats may well be on track to hand Trump another victory in 2020.

Not only are Democrats squabbling about whether the rural vote is even worth pursuing, they are focusing on abortion, guns, and other issues that are exactly the wrong ones if they want to tip these states back into the Democratic column. Yes, some voters could be brought back with a Big Tent strategy as implied in the new Bustos Report and described in the Politico article.

But (and here is where I disagree with the thrust of the article) these are not big issues with rural voters who saw fit to vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012, then switched to Trump in 2016 because the Democratic Party abandoned them as rural America collapsed. These rural Obama voters can be switched back with with a strong effort by national Democrats on rural issues; these are the voters Democrats need to bring swing states in the heartland back into the Democratic column.

That means a big Democratic effort on the 2018 Farm Bill, but try as I might to find mention of it in any of the ballyhoo about the Democrats' "Better Deal," I can't.* Nor does the Bustos Report actually say much about the Farm Bill and its relevance to rural America.

It's not as though the Trump Republicans haven't given the Democrats a huge opportunity by fumbling most every rural issue they've touched:

• Corn, wheat, and soybean markets may never recover from Trump's stance on NAFTA and TPP;

• U.S. livestock production may forever be changed for the worse by Trump's repeal of GIPSA rules, which family farmers had worked years to achieve;

• The rural health crisis, including opioid addictions, is not being addressed due to chaos in the White House drug policy office;

• Trump's budgets have slashed funding for Farm Bill programs indiscriminately, including agriculture research and extension programs and rural development.

The multiple fumbles are just waiting to be picked up and run with, but so far Democrats seem oblivious to them.

The Republican strategy is to distract the Democrats away from these fumbles by making work requirements for food stamps the issue in the Farm Bill, so as to make it appear that all Democrats care about are urban consituencies. It may work; it is being tested successfully as a strategy in Republican gatherings where farm policy "experts" are shaping the issues. Will Democrats fall for it? My crystal ball collection is predicting they will.

* It's not too late to revise it, call it a "Decent Deal" (which it should have been called in the first place to stress the idea of decency) and add a strong rural America component.

Beyond Cynicism on MLK Day

January, 2018

Washington -- For shame that this New York Times' article should appear on Martin Luther King Day.

The article, "Black Colleges Swept Up in For-Profit Crackdown Find Relief From DeVos," in no uncertain terms tells how such colleges are putting their own narrow interests ahead of the thousands of student loan borrowers – black, white, and everyone else – whose lives and those of their families may be ruined by unscrupulous institutions. And there is no need to read between the lines to see how the for-profit lobby is willing to exploit financial weakness in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) sector for its own ends.

The irony, and hence the shamefulness, is that black, low-income student loan borrowers are disproportionately at risk everywhere and stand the most to gain by maintaining a tough rule against fraud in the so-called defense to repayment regulations. This is well known and made even more evident with a new Brookings Institution study that presents meaningful, disaggregated data and analyses by race, income, and sector.*

Unfortunately, the NYT headline is not a surprise. For-profit schools and predatory lenders for decades have exploited issues in the HBCUs toward their own ends. So have many in Congress, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have accepted political contributions for looking the other way when it comes to matters of supporting students, families, and taxpayers as opposed to those who would profit from taking advantage of them.

Presidents know how to do this, too. Ronald Reagan, facing uncomfortable questioning about why he announced his 1980 presidental campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, (where three civil rights workers were murdered) assembled the HBCU presidents in the Oval Office for a photo-op to show that the campaign event was a coicidence and had nothing to do with race. Donald Trump did the same within days of his inauguration, at which time his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, announced that HBCUs were exemplars for her school-choice agenda.

If anyone wants to help HBCUs, rather than exploit them cynically, there is a program in the Higher Education Act, Title III, Part B, that can do so. HBCU representatives at the table in current negotiated rulemaking should tell Secretary DeVos and her departmental negotiators: no more. The way to help us is to put funds into Title III, not by using us cynically to advance the agendas of others who would exploit borrowers, especially the black low-income.

* The Department of Education for many years has resisted meaningful analyses of institutional and borrower behavior when it comes to distributions of federal grants and loans. In 2002, while at the Department, I found unsettling evidence of discrimination by both race and class, but the Department made no effort to follow up. Unfortunately, the Institute of Education Sciences and its research component, the National Center for Education Research, does not look into such questions, so it is up to private organizations like Brookings, New America, The Century Foundation, and others to do the work. This represents an undermining of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which requires federal departments to measure and evaluate the results of their own programs.

What Would 'Woody' Have Done?

January, 2018

Lincoln -- As expected, the American Association of University Professors has now formed a committee to investigate the circumstances under which UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green fired graduate student instructor Courtney Lawton. The AAUP could censure UNL for failure to follow due process and make it more difficult for the institution to recruit faculty.

This would be the second time in recent years that a prominent national organization has struck at UNL. In 2011, the Association of American Universities expelled UNL from membership over the futile pleas of Chancellor Harvey Perlman.

The Lawton firing came after Chancellor Green and President Hank Bounds met with three freshman state senators at the State Capitol, who demanded the action and suggested UNL would face budget cuts if Ms. Lawton was not fired over a name-calling incident. In August, 2017, Ms. Lawton had called sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen a "neo-fascist" for passing out "Big Government Sucks" buttons at an outdoor display table on campus.

Governor Pete Ricketts got into the act by polling his donors as to whether they were concerned that UNL was mistreating conservative students, then slashed UNL funding in his 2018 state budget. The firing of Ms. Lawton didn't seem to appease anyone, unless we expect the three freshmen senators to add money back during the upcoming legislative session because the chancellor followed their advice. That's not going to happen: the three are connected to the alt-right and are reveling in the havoc they have created.

Back in the 1970s, chancellor-turned-president Durward 'Woody' Varner faced a similar standoff with state senators. Appropriations committee chairman Richard Marvel wanted to put earmarks on new UNL money. Varner was okay with the money, but not the earmarks. He persuaded the Board of Regents to sue on grounds that such specific directions were a violation of the Nebraska Constitution. This put the Nebraska attorney general, Paul Douglas, on the spot as to whether he would defend Marvel and the legislature or ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to rule in a declaratory judgment for the Regents. He did the latter and the Regents won. Not coincidentally, Marvel's political career was over.

One wonders why the same route was not taken by the chancellor, president, and regents in the recent confrontation with senators who want to run the university. Short memories, perhaps. When two different branches of government – the legislature and the regents in this case – are in conflict, it is a matter to hand over to the attorney general and to the courts to sort out. How much better it would be for the university were attorney general Doug Peterson mulling over constitutional precedent rather than having a visit from the AAUP.

Many people miss Woody Varner, a smooth talker and sometimes a clever political strategist. Eventually, he got a little too clever for his own good and wound up resigning, only to move over to head the NU Foundation, where he was a superb fund-raiser. Too bad his legacy has been so soon forgotten.

Iron Triangles, Part III

January, 2018

Washington -- Barely was the ink dry on Part II when yesterday's events shook the higher education world:

• The Department of Justice is investigating the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in particular its Code of Ethics, to determine if there is an agreement among members "to restrain trade among colleges and universities in the recruitment of students."

• The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided Ashford University, a for-profit school with a troubled history, will maintain GI Bill eligibility after all.

• The Department of Education's negotiated rulemaking process is poised to make it nearly impossible for defrauded borrowers to qualify for federal student loan "borrower defense" cancellation.

This trifecta gives every indication that the for-profit college lobby (CECU) is expanding its iron triangle clamp-hold onto two other cabinet departments, DOJ and DVA. NACAC membership is currently for nonprofit institutions only, but with DOJ breathing down its neck, will that soon change? DVA should be ashamed of itself for bending to lobbying pressure, selling out the very veterans it is supposed to support and protect.

The other part of the triangle, Congress, seems content to take political campaign contributions from the for-profit lobby and watch its people move through the revolving doors of the triangle.

Political scientists, take note of this iron triangle for your case studies. It now involves more than one department in addition to already crossing generational lines and having linkages with other triangles (see Part II). Conflict of interest is rampant; money laundering is evident; moral hazard is palpable; lawsuits have alleged fraud, racketeering, and perjury, but as yet to no avail. It won't be long until some enterprising college (probably for-profit) will have a master's degree offering in how to create and operate iron triangles. It may even be a required stepping-stone to getting hired in the nation's capital.

Book Review: UNL, The Campus History Series

January, 2018

Lincoln -- In a recent "All About Books" podcast, Pat Leach introduced listeners to a new book about the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. The book, by on-air guest Kay Logan-Peters, is mostly a collection of photos from the university's archives, organized chronologically with explanatory text.

Both the photos and the text are noteworthy. Some of the photos have never appeared in other such works. The text, to its credit, does not shy away from controversy and even ventures opinions worthy of a raised eyebrow or two.

One photo I liked especially, p. 55, was from the 1890s, taken by Erwin Barbour, the paleontologist, of women students playing basketball on campus. The caption says Louise Pound coached the team from 1901 to 1908, but she seems not to be in the picture. She may have been off getting her doctorate at Heidelberg, because that degree was not available to women at the university at that time. But look who is in the picture (not identified), in the middle guarding the woman catching the ball: Edith Schwartz Clements, the woman who in 1904 would be the first to receive a doctorate from the university and a founder of the discipline of plant ecology.

Another photo of special note, p. 34, is of General John J. Pershing, pictured with "a small group of cadets" in 1894. Again, look who is in the picture (but not identified) standing second from left: Frank D. Eager, a protégé of Pershing who went on to earn a Silver Star in the Philippine American War, earned a law degree and became clerk of the Nebraska House of Representatives, published the leading populist newspaper of its era, The Independent, developed Lincoln's P Street with hotels and movie theaters, and led the statewide referendum to keep the main university campus downtown rather than moving it to The Farm (now the East Campus). Part of this story is told on p. 57, but it omits mention of who was behind the referendum, Frank Eager. He was also the man behind raising funds for the eastward expansion of the downtown campus.

Some photos just beg for more identification of those in them. Who is that man in the photo, p. 101, with John Neihardt, Mari Sandoz, Frank Morrison, and Clifford Hardin? Surely somebody knows. There is one person, p. 94, who is listed as "unidentified," but it is clearly Vice Chancellor G. Robert Ross, sitting along with the other vice-chancellors of the time.

The book's text follows Robert Knoll's Prairie University closely, which is good. Knoll wrote the definitive work on the history of the institution two decades ago. Gently, he spared no one. This book does likewise when it comes to naming which chancellors were failures. Current and future university leaders: take note and learn from your predecessors' mistakes.

Which is not to say I am always in agreement with the judgments of Knoll and Logan-Peters. I think it's a stretch to imply that chancellors James Zumberge and Roy Young were weak because they were "hampered by inadequate resources," p. 108. Measured how, exactly? Nebraska's state tax support for higher education has been relatively high for decades, and compared to what other chancellors faced in truly dire times, their resources problem was minor. Rather, in my opinion, those two chancellors were victims of chancellor-turned-president Durward (Woody) Varner, an outsized personality who over-shadowed the chancellors and presided over a shift of resources from Lincoln to Omaha. That shift, incidentally, was less to UNO than it was to UNMC, the Omaha-based medical center. You can look it up in the budget history of the university. It was also Woody Varner's re-organization of the university that diminished UNL such that it eventually lost its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities. That was a blow from which UNL struggles to recover. Woody Varner did better as head of the NU Foundation than he did as president, at least as I witnessed it.

Those are minor quibbles with the book. I applaud the author for making bold statements, all the better to stimulate a second look at the university's history.

To me, the biggest shortcoming of the book is that there are too many pictures and mentions of the Pounds, Geres, and the like. Given the limited space in this thin volume, it would have been better to identify all the members of the Sem Bot, p. 23, as each was a remarkable person, rather than showing us a second and third portrait of Roscoe Pound. And the text for the Pound portraits is not what it might be. It was not Pound who went on to international recognition in botany, but Frederic Clements who dominated the field world-wide for the next four decades. Seldom is it mentioned, but Roscoe Pound in 1934 accepted academic honors from a Nazi controlled university and reported that there was no persecution of Jewish scholars in Germany. That alone should cut him down to one portrait in this history; the other might be replaced with a portrait of a university student and scholar who risked is life to save Jewish scholars from the Nazis, the great Alvin Johnson.

For all the above reasons, the superb photos and the accompanying commentary, this book belongs on the bookshelves of all who care about the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Kay Logan-Peters has given us a book worthy of our closest attention.

Nebraska's Bleak Revenue Picture

January, 2018

Lincoln -- This is going to get interesting: Nebraska state government revenues are falling just as the legislature is coming into session with pressure from voters to do something about local propery tax relief. But Nebraska sales and income tax rates are already comparatively high, so there is not much hope for those sources to be able to lessen reliance on property taxes to support local governments. There is serious talk of a citizens' 2018 ballot initiative to limit property taxes, with or without replacment of lost revenues with other sources.

Nebraska's agricultural economy has been in trouble for a few years, which is the fundamental problem causing lagging state government revenues. Now there is another problem: the enacted Trump tax legislation may cut revenues further to the extent the state uses the federal base and definitions for its own state income tax.

Unless, of course, the state rates are adjusted to bring in the same amount of revenues as before, or the state tax system is further decoupled from the federal system (resulting in extra paperwork for taxpayers). There is also the possibility that Nebraskans may not benefit that much from the Trump tax cut because of the loss of deductions.

Currently there is mostly silence coming from the Nebraska statehouse about revenues, masked by brave talk about cutting spending to match revenue declines. But Nebraska is not a big spending state at either the state or local level, so there is not much room to cut unless the idea is to adopt a Brownbackian approach, the theory of which is that tax cuts propel economic growth such that state revenues increase and no spending cuts are necessary. That nonsense has flopped spectactularly in Kansas. Nebraska also has big bills to pay for long-time neglect of its prison systems.

The only areas in which Nebraska ranks relatively high in spending are roads and higher education. Given the state's geographic expanse, the spending on roads is not unusual. What is a little surprising is that the state has earmarked part of its sales tax base to pay for roads rather than relying on the fuels tax. This has eroded the base that might otherwise have been used for property tax relief. Thank you, Senator Deb Fischer.

State spending on higher education, measured either on a per capita or percentage of personal income basis, has historically been high in Nebraska. The reason for this is that Nebraska has high aspirations in this area but not the population base for it, compared to other states. The state university can argue that the spending is a good investment: Nebraska's medical school and associated complex is the largest employer in Omaha; the Institute of Agriculture in Lincoln is large but given the importance of agriculture to the state, its expenditures are hardly ever on the chopping block. The question for the Institute, given the trouble Nebraska agricultural economy is in, is whether it could be doing something more to turn that sector around.

There are good options for Nebraska to deal with its revenue problems. Other states have acted or are looking at the following:

• Enforce collection of sales taxes on Internet transactions.

• Tax sweetened beverages instead of exempting them, both to bring in revenue and to cut expenditures for health issues related to their consumption.

• Adjust state corporate taxes upward in recognition of their large federal corporate tax cuts, still providing a net tax reduction.

• Re-structure state income taxes so as to protect Nebraskans from the loss of deductions under the Trump tax act and thereby leave more money in Nebraska. This would work by reducing or eliminating state income taxes, which from 2018 onward are not fully deductible in the federal income tax system, and replacing them with payroll taxes, which are deductible for employers. Simultaneously employees' pay would be reduced by the amount of the payroll tax, as they have already been relieved of state income taxes. Several states will be exploring this option, especially states like Nebraska that do not have much fiscal capacity to deploy the state tax base to reduce local property taxes, and resent losing state and local tax deductibility for the purpose of rewarding lower tax states with even lower federal taxes.

Will Goveror Ricketts lead on any of this? Not likely. He has not shown much interest in how Nebraska's farm economy might be improved; he has shown little imagination on how property taxes might be relieved (for example, by earmarking revenues from new sources for property tax relief, which voters might go for); he is not inclined to criticize the shortcomings of the Trump tax act; his current interest in the university is not to prod it to be more of an engine for economic change, especially in agriculture, but to suggest to his political donors that conservative students are being mistreated. This may signal that the governor is preparing to try to overcome the revenue problem with spending cuts and to scapegoat others when the state legislature inevitably is unable to deliver on his promises.

I hope I am wrong about the governor and that he will step back from a misguided strategy that will only hurt the university and the state (although much of the UNL faculty apparently think it is too late for that). Rather, he should be engaging the university positively to work with it in turning around Nebraska's failing agricultural economy.