Apollo 8, Fifty Years Later

December, 2018

Lincoln -- It's nice to see so much attention being given to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, the first circumnavigation of the moon. Too bad celebration of it at the National Archives is curtailed because of a government shutdown. Times change, and lately not for the better. The success of Apollo 8 provided a moment of great pride and hope in America. It was also a key Cold War victory over the Soviet Union.

I was part of the Apollo 8 recovery effort, aboard USS Arlington (AGMR-2). We and USS Yorktown (CVS-10) left Pearl Harbor for the target zone before Christmas, 1968, and waited there for the splashdown on December 27th. Several of my shipmates were topside at dawn and saw the capsule descend. I was below decks, being the communications watch officer connecting Yorktown circuits through Arlington to the rest of the world. Arlington was a major communications relay ship, featuring huge sending and receiving antennas everywhere.

Once aboard Yorktown, astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell stepped out onto a starboard sponson and gave the Arlington crew a wave. I was off watch by that time and waved back, along with hundreds of others. What a moment; what a relief that they were back safely, and that all communication circuits worked for the splashdown.

Looking back, it's nothing short of remarkable what our country achieved, albeit at great risk because so many of the rocket and computer systems of the time were unreliable. What courage, what selfless heroism from the Apollo 8 astronauts.

Farm Bill Lost Opportunities

December, 2018

Lincoln -- The 2018 Farm Bill is now law. History will look back on it as a lost opportunity to do something more to stem decline in rural America.

To me it is almost inexplicable why Senators compromised away their bipartisan approach so as to accept harmful, partisan provisions in the House bill. The Senate was in a good position in November to advise the House either to drop the offensive provisions or to extend the 2014 Farm Bill until the House changed political control in 2019. Instead, in December the Senate allowed multi-year cutbacks to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and expansion of wasteful commodity subsidies to those who are not farmers and have no financial need for them.

The latter is particularly troubling because the expansion of these subsidies will soon be capitalized into the price of land, making entry into farming more difficult for young farmers and likewise making it more difficult for current, struggling farmers to pay property taxes. A major reason why land prices do not fall with commodity prices is federal subsidy spending on behalf of all the wrong people.

This is not a partisan issue. Iowa Republican Senator (and farmer) Charles Grassley has been fighting for better targeting of the farm safety net for years, as have many Democrats. Non-partisan groups on both the right and left have also tried to cut back on this hugely counterproductive spending, which should be re-directed elsewhere in the Farm Bill. (CSP could certainly benefit from it.) For a more in-depth analysis, see this analysis from Taxpayers for Common Sense, in which two Nebraska farmers are quoted.

As a Nebraskan myself, I was disappointed to see the Lincoln JournalStar commend the Farm Bill's so-called compromises in an editorial. The only necessary compromises had already been made in the Senate's own bipartisan bill, which had earlier passed the Senate 86-11. If there was any topic the newspaper should have been editorializing on, it would be the failure of Nebraska's congressional delegation to stand up for rural Nebraska interests. Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, actually supported large conservation cuts; Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, helped ensure the demise of the Grassley Amendment.*

The editorial was also premature in praising how the ultimate compromise resolved the issue of work requirements for SNAP (food stamp) recipients. No sooner was the Farm Bill finished than the Trump Administration did by regulation what it could not get in the Farm Bill. Will we see an editorial about that, eating earlier words?

The purpose of this post is not to point out the egg that is now on many faces, but to urge more attention to the real issues of the Farm Bill. Rural America is in steep decline. The disastrous effects of the Trump tariffs will require new legislation as soon as 2019 to try to keep farmers afloat. This means the legislation just passed may have to be opened up again. Maybe this time Congress will come closer to getting it right.

P.S. (January, 2019) One of the reasons the Senate felt under pressure to make bad December compromises was lobbying from farmer organizations to pass legislation, good or bad, to provide the necessary "certainty" to permit farmers to get new operating loans. But within days, Farm Service Agency offices shut down and remain closed due to the government shutdown. So much for the benefits of rushing through legislation.

* Senator Fischer must also take some responsibility for Nebraska's high property taxes in that she led the effort, while a state senator in the Nebraska unicameral, to narrow the state sales tax base, a source of funding for property tax relief. Rather than relying on fuel taxes for road construction, she led the raid on the sales tax.

Kill the Farm Bill

December, 2018

Washington -- There was an opportunity, in mid-November, for Congress to pass a respectable 2018 Farm Bill. The Senate had already passed its bipartisan bill 86-11 and was in conference with a contentious, partisan House bill containing items that could never become law. The mid-term elections foretold a Democratic takeover of the House in January, dooming the House bill provisions.

All the Senate had to do was to hold firm on its bipartisan version and advise the House that the only alternative to accepting the Senate bill was to extend the existing legislation a year and start over next year with a Democratic House. Senate Democrats held leverage in that they could block 2018 action if the House balked.

It didn't happen. The Senate compromised away the bipartisan-sponsored Grassley Amendment, a reform of wasteful subsidies hurting small farmers, in exchange for deleting a House non-starter on the SNAP program. Moreover, USDA will implement the House SNAP provision anyway, by administrative action, and the new conference compromise not only drops the Grassley-Durbin provisions but opens up even more wasteful and counterproductive federal crop subsidies to cousins, nieces, and nephews of farmers.

The subsidy give-aways are so outrageous that six often ideologically opposed groups from the right, left, and center have joined together to bring attention to them: Taxpayers for Common Sense, National Taxpayers Union, R Street Institute, Americans for Prosperity, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Environmental Working Group.

The 2018 Farm Bill conference report should be voted down. Extend current law another year and start over. Give America the kind of Farm Bill it needs.

And what can Senate Democrats be thinking, to give up leverage when their party desperately needs a Rural Policy to compete for votes in the heartland? Not to mention looking foolish to compromise away something for nothing.

Truth, Ethics, and Citizenship at Syracuse University

December, 2018

Washington -- It was my pleasure and honor last week to be invited by Syracuse University to attend the Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility.

The highlight of two days of events was the address by artist Robert Shetterly at a packed Setnor Auditorium. He was joined on stage by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Richard Bowen, whose portraits he recently painted in his series Americans Who Tell The Truth.

This was also the first time all of Rob Shetterly's 238 portraits had been assembled together, at the university's Schine Center, for a public show.

During the several events I met two portrait subjects for whom I have great respect for their work in the field of nutrition, Joan Dye Gussow and Stephen Ritz. Joan Gussow has been called the "matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally" food movement. Stephen Ritz is an urban farmer who does wonders in his Bronx classroom and across the country.

Richard Bowen is my friend of several years; we are connected through the Government Accountability Project. His work a decade ago to try to save the financial world from its own self-destruction is being recounted in a new film by a French filmaker.

Until last week I had never met Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who revealed lead in the Flint water supply. We talked at length about our common experiences in getting data out of government agencies that did not want to give them up, and how we both had to do data analyses on our own, over government objections. She is a force of nature and, as part of an Iraqi immigrant family, an example of what immigrants contribute to America.

My favorite moment from the Tanner Lecture was when Dr. Mona, as she is known, was asked by a person in the audience if she ever felt intimidated by all the local, state, and federal officials who initially denounced her work. She said no, not when she reflected on how important her work was to Flint's children. She actually laughed and said her attitude was "bring it on." As she spoke last week, criminal trials in Michigan continued, fixing responsibility for the Flint public health disaster, a validation of her efforts.

Many thanks especially to Dr. James Clark for his part in organizing these events, to Dr. Julia Ganson of GAP, to Mr. Lynn Tanner for sponsoring the lecture series, and to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse for its leadership in ethics.