Test of Leadership in Nebraska

June, 2018

Lincoln -- The best thing that could happen right now to help Nebraska's faltering agricultural economy would be for our three congressmen – Bacon, Smith, and Fortenberry – to tell their Republican House leadership to support the just-passed Senate farm bill and consign the terrible House farm bill to history.

The House version is a partisan, divisive bill that wastes money needlessly and counterproductively; it cuts conservation programs to do so; it futher squeezes farmers at a time of low commodity prices and high property taxes. The bill's farm policy provisions are adamately opposed by left, center, and right. Its transparent purpose is to create an election-year wedge issue over food stamps; in other words, farmers' need for a decent farm bill will be held hostage to demagogic attacks on the poor.

The Senate version is a bi-partisan effort that maintains programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, much used by Nebraska farmers. The House version zeros it out in favor of giving taxpayer help to more CAFO developments (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which citizens in many Nebraska counties are vehemently opposing.*

The Senate version limits the number of non-farm managers who can benefit from farm subsidies, in the form of the Grassley Amendment. Excessive subsidies to non-farmers drive land prices upward and keep them there, not only burdening real farmers with high property taxes but limiting the entry of young farmers into agriculture. (Unfortunately, the similar Durbin-Grassley amendment was not included in the Senate bill, which would have means-tested crop-insurance subsidies to further take pressure off property taxes.**)

The Senate bill also gives support to local and regional agricultural programs, where there is huge potential for job development according to the St. Louis Fed in its encouraging report, Harvesting Opportunity. Nebraska could be in the forefront if the Senate bill passes.

All Nebraska eyes should be on Senator Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee which produced the Senate-passed bill, to see if she will try to unite the Nebraska congressional delegation in favor of the bi-partisan and clearly superior Senate bill. So far, her record both as a state and U.S. senator leaves much to be desired in terms of Nebraska agriculture. She now has a chance to remedy at least part of that unfortunate legacy by telling her Nebraska colleagues in Washington not to sacrifice the future of the state to a shameless scheme that is now unfolding in all its ugliness.

This could also be a test of Governor Rickett's leadership. Will he advise the Nebraska House delegation to drop their support of the House bill, and also weigh in for our state with the Speaker and the President?

* Colfax, Washington, and Lancaster counties are the latest to witness citizen uprisings against CAFOs. If you want to see what goes on in a pountry CAFO, watch the new documentary movie "Eating Animals." Despite its unfortunate name, it is worth a watch. (My own family – Oberg Hatcheries – goes way back in the poultry industry, when chickens were raised on small farms as a part of diversified farming.)

** Senator Durbin had too little company from his fellow Democrats on the farm bill, as their strategy is to be bi-partisan at all costs and not put forth a Democratic vision of what rural America needs. I think this is a big mistake. Rural America is hurting in so many ways; the farm bill would have been a chance for Democrats to get back into winning in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania (and holding Minnesota), where rural voters hold the balance of power. Many of these voters would be attracted to Democratic initiatives on conservation, nutrition, opioid control, diversified farming, and jobs from the growing local and regional food markets. Yet the Democrats' "Better Deal" is silent on all these issues, giving the impression that Democrats are content in doubling down on their failed 2016 bi-coastal, popular-vote strategy and conceding the heartland and the electoral college to the other party, perhaps in perpetuity.

AVA Colleagues in the News

June, 2018

Washington -- How good to open the New York Times today electronically and see an op-ed from the German entertainer-activist Wolf Bierman, writing on the difficult decisions of Angela Merkel. I especially liked that the newspaper gave us the original German version as well as English, so we can compare the two.

How daunting it must be for the translator to know that millions of bilingual people may be second-guessing him or her while reading the paper over their morning coffee. Bierman himself is a lyricist, so turning a phrase of a phrase-maker is a challenge.

Then I saw who did the translation: Isabel Cole, none other than our fellow member of American Voices Abroad (AVA) in Berlin. Well done, Isabel.

Isabel Fargo Cole has recently written a novel, Die grüne Grenze, which won notice from German reviewers not least for the idea that an American could write it so well.

Another AVA member also has published a new, important book in German, Worauf wir stolz sein dürfen. That would be our friend, the indomitable Gretchen Dutschke, who is now on tour around Germany discussing it.

Isabel and Gretchen are both midwesterners, from Illinois.

Remorse and Ranked Choice Voting

June, 2018

Washington -- Maine has now approved ranked choice voting (RCV). The RCV victory may have been helped by a strong New York Times editorial in its favor.

Australia and Ireland use this voting method, as do several local governments in the United States. Bills have been introduced in nineteen states to replace winner-take-all elections with ranked choice voting.

The reason I favor RCV is that it deals with often legitimate voter complaints. Many voters feel they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Even if their favorite candidate is on a multi-candidate ballot, in a winner-take-all election voting their actual preference can be a "wasted" vote. Voters often feel manipulated by spoiler candidates who split popular candidates' support, resulting in victories by candidates that most voters actually reject. Many voters stay home because they don't like the choices presented to them, or they think their votes make no difference if their spouses vote differently, cancelling each other out.

Many voters want to "send a message" with their vote, but can't for some or all of these reasons. And if they do vote, their desired message is often misinterpreted or deliberately twisted.

With RCV, each voter is invited to send several clear, unmistakable messages through thoughtful voting. Dislike a candidate intensely? Place that candidate last. Really like a minor candidate and want to send a message of encouragement? Place that candidate first and mark a major candidate you can tolerate second. Dislike candidates who sling mud? Reward those who don't by ranking them higher.

Once more people understand that RCV is message-voting in spades, more states will adopt it. It could also be called no-more-excuses voting.

Now is the time to give RCV* a try. There many voters who are experiencing remorse or even shame at the turn of events resulting from the 2016 national elections. Conservative voters especially sent their messages but did not want or expect outcomes to include trade wars, the breakup of the Western Alliance, cozying up to dictators, and forceably taking children from parents who legally seek asylum. Their excuse for enabling all this? That they had no choice, as it was unthinkable to vote for the other side. Leaving aside the thought that they were duped by Russian manipulation of social media, they have a point. They voted (or chose not to vote) in a system that can produce such outcomes, and it did.

Perhaps these voters will lead the charge for RCV voting. They should.

* RCV has its detractors, and not just those who benefit from the current system of electing by mere pluralities. Some voting experts and mathematicians demonstrate that different ways of counting can result in different RCV outcomes. These almost never happen, however, and hardly outweigh all the RCV advantages. Where RCV has been used, the usual result is higher voter turnout, election of more candidates who can compromise on issues, and encouragement for outsiders who can test their ideas with voters and prevail over time.

Loss of a Friend

June, 2018

Washington -- Last month I lost a friend, Harold, in Maryland. No, he didn't pass away. Rather, he acted in such a manner that friendship between us henceforth is unlikely if not impossible.

Harold (not his real name) and I had shared several good times over the years around Chesapeake Bay, including at least two Thanksgiving dinners at the home of mutual friends. I thought he was a decent fellow, always doing the right thing despite challenges from within a troubled family.

But at a gathering last month he gravely insulted his former Thanksgiving hostess with vulgarities and obscenities. Knowing she held a dim view of our country's current president, he let her know he was a strong supporter. Among his reasons: he likes how the president speaks – crudely – which gives license to people like himself to do so as well.

When his former hostess tried to change the conversation to a happier subject, the British royal wedding, Harold let loose with a stream of invective about how terrible it was that British royalty was allowing n-----s into it. (Apparently he was unaware that Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was partly of African descent.)

What is our country coming to when an American president is encouraging behaviors such as Harold's? I was surprised and disgusted when I learned of Harold's actions. He is college educated, a retired former federal employee. I inquired of a witness to these outbursts if Harold had ever served our country in the military. He had not. Often such service, in my experience, knocks nonsense like Harold's out of people. It also makes those who serve reflect on what kind of a country they are risking their very lives for: one founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, with unalienable rights, or a country of blood and soil, ruled by despots committed to the very opposite.

Are we a country full of Harolds, who put their own prejudices, grievances, and unexamined fears above the heritage passed down from the Declaration of Independence? Is the president's bestowed license more important to them than (1) two centuries of ongoing work toward a more perfect union and (2) a decent respect to the opinions of mankind? Increasingly, it seems so.

Germany's Options to Save the Western Alliance

June, 2018

Berlin -- Western Europe is looking to save itself from a rogue U.S. president who seems bent on disrupting if not destroying the defense and economic alliances that have served our common interests so well since World War II.

European leadership in this crisis must come from the German government in Berlin.

Germany could do as Gaullist France did in 1966: assert itself by removing U.S. troops from the country. Or Germany could embark on a trade war. But these options only weaken all parties and make the alliances even more vulnerable.

A move that would make Western Europe's point and actually strenghten all the parties in our alliances would be for Germany quickly to fulfill its pledge to increase its defense spending to 2% of GDP. Currently it is at about 1.3%.

But the increased spending would not be for conventional NATO purposes; it would be for increased cybersecurity, to fend off hacking and social media threats from both the east (Putin) and the west (Trump).

In addition to increasing spending for security measures along an east-west axis, Germany should also be prepared to spend more to defend itself and Western Europe along a north-south axis. This will require investments and new defense and economic alliances with the countries of North Africa, to stem the flow of dispossessed peoples into Europe.

Such bold moves by Germany would make an indelible impression around the world. They would be welcomed by its Western European partners and by many if not most Americans, who likewise are troubled by the crisis needlessly fomented by our own president.

One Reform to Save America

June, 2018

Washington -- The conservative pundit David Brooks and I would not agree on everything, but I can't say enough good about his recent column on how voting reforms are the most promising cure for our increasingly destructive two-party polarization.

Ranked-choice voting and multimember congressional districts have much to offer. Maine voters are leading the way on ranked choice voting this month. Let this adage once more come true: As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Eight years ago I wrote in favor of voting reforms that would bring the advantages of proportional representation into our national politics. There is nothing in our Constitution that mandates political parties and winner-take-all voting. These matters are under the jurisdiction of states. In fact, many local governments already utilize ranked choice (instant run-off) voting and multimember districts, so these concepts are hardly new.

Brooks' column is titled "One Reform to Save America." This is not hyperbole. We should get on with it.