Two Museums to See

December, 2019

Lincoln – Two remarkable museum additions in Lincoln and Seward invite the public to see the past and consider the future.

One is the stunning new fourth floor redesign of the State Museum at Morrill Hall on the UNL campus.  It offers a look at Nebraska flora and fauna over millions of years, interspersed with contemporary descriptions.  There are surprises around every corner for children and adults, regardless of age.  The big globe onto which short videos are projected is a welcome departure from flat video screens.  There are plenty of benches for rest along the way.

Nebraska soil and water get special attention.  Visitors are challenged to think about how they use or misuse these natural resources.  Climate change is met head-on by UNL scientists, with descriptions of droughts, floods, and rapidly altered growing zones.

The other is the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.  It is instructive as to the Guard's long history, established in 1854.  Particularly well done are the museum's descriptions of Nebraska Guard involvement in the Spanish American War, the Philippine American War, and the two World Wars.

For the Spanish American War display, the museum has obtained the statue of William Jennings Bryan that stood for decades in the U.S. Capitol.  Colonel Bryan led the Nebraska Guard in 1898 but the regiment was assigned to a disease-ridden camp by President William McKinley, who did not want his political opponent to get favorable attention for his military service.

The Philippine American War narrative notes the heroic deeds of Major Frank Eager and Colonel John Stotsenburg of Lincoln in the 1899 Battle of Manila.  Eager won the Silver Star; Stotsenburg was killed in action and buried with ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.   Nebraska Private William Grayson's role in the war is duly noted.  (I'd put an asterisk by it to show that his role is controversial, at best, as he violated good order and discipline by needlessly killing a Filipino lieutenant while on guard duty, touching off the war.)

Both museums unintentionally but unavoidably raise questions of state government versus federal government missions and powers.

At Morrill Hall, the work of state university scientists contrasts with current federal efforts to discount science in the natural resources, especially climate science.  The split is having profound effect on all Nebraska, especially on agriculture.  Nationally, the split is so bad that unlikely groups and individuals are gathering to recognize the urgency of climate action.

At the Nebraska Guard museum in Seward, two display boards differentiate the federal mission of the Guard from the state mission.  It is not often that the missions are in conflict, but the possibility increasingly exists as states begin to assert more strongly their sovereign rights against federal policies they find contrary to their own establishment of law and order.  It's happening: more on state guards in subsequent posts.

Unequivocal recommendation:  visit these two wonderful museums in Lincoln and Seward.

Sea Duty, USS Arlington (AGMR-2)

December, 2019

Lincoln –  Previously I posted a memoir blog about my first U.S. Navy sea duty, on USS Rainier (AE-5), 1966-68.  My second sea duty was aboard the much larger USS Arlington (AGMR-2), 1968-69.

The first glimpse I got of Arlington was through a snow storm in the Sea of Japan in early 1968, from a helicopter that was transporting me over from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, where I'd spent the previous night after flying onto Enterprise from Atsugi, Japan.   The two ships were operating off the coast of North Korea, where they had been dispatched after North Korea captured USS Pueblo and was holding it and its crew.

After landing on Arlington, which had been converted from the old aircraft carrier USS Saipan into a long-range communications relay ship with huge antennas over its former flight deck, I immediately went to the operations room, where Captain T.F. Utegaard* was being briefed on the hostage situation.  I was the new assistant communications officer aboard Arlington and got immediately to work.

Two months later we steamed into port at Yokosuka, Japan, moving on to other tasks.  The Pueblo crew would not be released for another year.  For the rest of 1968, Arlington operated in the waters of the western Pacific, often in the Tonkin Gulf, making port calls at Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan; Subic Bay, Philippines; Hong Kong; and Sydney, Australia.  In December of 1968, Arlington proceeded to Hawaii and then south to the splashdown site of Apollo 8, to provide long-range communications for NASA.

I was able to take shore leave on occasion and visited several cities in Japan, including Nagasaki, Kamakura, Kyoto, and Tokyo.  I learned a few phrases in Japanese to aid in getting around.  In Yokosuka I ran into Nebraska friends who were in the Navy:  childhood pal Bill Anderson and college classmate Ivan Ficken.  Bill was a submarine sailor; Ivan was an officer on a tender.

The aged photos below show USS Arlington in port in Yokosuka, at sea; and in Sydney.  The bottom photo is of a basketball game in the hanger bay, at sea.  It's different, playing on a rolling deck.

* I knew Captain Utegaard from his classic book on navigation, a text I still have in my collection.  I never imagined while studying navigation that I would later serve as one of his officers at sea.

Fireworks Between House and DeVos at Hearing

December, 2019

Washington – There were figurative fireworks at the House Education and Labor Committee's hearing last week on predatory student loans, at which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified.  Given the dire circumstances of many borrowers, it was to be expected.

Here are some exchanges from the hearing that badly need follow-up:

•  The formula for determining partial loan cancellation under a new DeVos "borrower defense" rule, based on borrower earnings, has problems.  Although the Secretary referred to the rule over and over as "scientific," it has clear flaws in its misuse of statistical methods.  The fact that she could not explain the difference between mean and median only underscores the larger problem of the use of variability measures (standard deviations) suited to normal distributions, which earnings distributions are not.  Then there is a problem of the validity of using the earnings data in the first place, as earnings are not well related to the fraudulent actions of the predatory schools, which is the statutory basis for loan cancellation.  The new rule starts from the premise under Chevron that courts indulge federal departments and their rules, but whether this one will pass muster with Judge Sally Kim, who has previously held Secretary DeVos in contempt, is a question yet to be answered.

• As to Judge Kim's contempt of court citation and its $100,000 fine, Secretary DeVos said at the hearing that she personally would not be paying it, nor would the Department, as it was improper in her view and is being appealed.  Clearly, from her demeanor, Secretary DeVos is not taking the matter very seriously.

•  The Secretary went out of her way several times to argue the equivalency of for-profit institutions, even the most notorious ones that have closed, with public and non-profit institutions.  She suggested that if for-profit school victims had claims for loan cancellation, perhaps students at the University of California–Berkeley should have their loans cancelled for being defrauded because a UC employee fudged data on a U.S. News survey for its Best Colleges report.  Shame on that employee, but the Secretary should be doubly ashamed for reductio ad absurdum arguments.

•   Loan servicers got off lightly at the hearing, despite their collections on loans that had been cancelled under borrower defense.  The Secretary chalked this up to loan servicer errors, which she said have been corrected and that victims have since been made whole.  She was reluctant to admit that the resulting erroneous credit scores have incurred lasting damage to borrowers that cannot be undone.  She was determined not to name the Department official who had been in charge of instructing servicers in 2018 not to collect on cancelled loans, per a court order.  Only after being pressed again and again did she come forth with the name of James Manning, whose method of communicating with servicers about the court order was the briefest of informal emails that seem not to have made much of an impression on the recipients.*

•  One reason for servicers not to pay serious attention to Manning's emails (or for him to communicate more formally) was the March, 2018, determination by Secretary DeVos that loan servicers must not respond to state attorneys general acting on borrowers' behalf under state consumer protection laws.  In her view (prompted by industry suggestions), federal privacy law preempts such aid.  Without help from consumer protection advocates, borrowers would be unlikely on their own to resolve unlawful collections.  Although the DeVos attempt at preemption has now been overturned in several courts, at the hearing Secretary DeVos continued to say that the Department would not recognize borrower defense claims assisted by state attorneys general. **  This is obstruction of law enforcement, for which the Secretary needs to be held accountable.

•  Secretary DeVos repeatedly argued at the hearing that her actions were guided by her concern for federal taxpayers, despite the increasingly profligate ways of the president who appointed her.  Granted she does not have control over his devil-may-care personal indulgences at taxpayer expense, but she does have the ability to collect $22.3 million from student loan servicer Navient for false claims against taxpayers dating to a 2009 Inspector General audit.  An administrative law judge ruled in March of this year that the Department must collect the sums due.  Collecting would demonstrate DeVos's concern for taxpayers; not doing so would represent obvious hypocrisy:  one standard for students and their families, a different one for the student loan industry.

Underlying the whole hearing, but never mentioned by anyone on either side of the aisle or by Secretary DeVos, is the fact that for-profit schools and student loan servicers make contributions in the tens of millions of dollars to the political campaigns of members of Congress.  The schools and servicers receive these funds from taxpayers and essentially recycle a portion of the funds back in contributions, to keep the money flowing.  Politicians are loathe to cut them off, even when the federal programs leave a trail of destruction through the lives of student loan borrowers and their families.

Secretary DeVos says everything she does is for students; she repeated it many times at the hearing. It is a good line, but every DeVos decision seems to go in the opposite direction. 

* See earlier posts about personnel in the revolving door between industry and the Department of Education, including James Manning.  He once signed a letter, which FedLoan Servicing (PHEAA) took as a "joke" that they were in on, as a way for the Department to dispose of a troublesome audit issue.  FedLoan may have thought of this Manning communication about collections as another such less than serious message, inasmuch as Secretary DeVos was known to have signed off on borrower defense cancellations "with extreme displeasure" and had issued a preemption notice to thwart consumer protections for such borrowers.

** The preemption action by Secretary DeVos followed on the heels of a federal appeals court decision, confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that stripped servicer FedLoan of its claimed sovereign immunity.  Such immunity had previously protected FedLoan from borrower and state attorney general lawsuits.  After the loss of sovereign immunity, Massachusetts and New York both sued FedLoan on behalf of their borrower residents.  Those cases are pending.

More Student Loan Hearings

December, 2019

Washington –  On December 12th, Secretary Betsy DeVos will testify before the full House Committee on Education and Labor.  The subject is "borrower defense" and why she has not complied with the law to cancel the loans of defrauded students.  She has continued loan collections, garnished wages, withheld tax refunds, and ruined the credit of borrowers whom she knows owe nothing.  The victims number in the tens of thousands.

This puts her in a lawbreaking league above even celebrities caught in Operation Varsity Blues, some of whom went to jail, and international students stung by the ICE's controversial University of Farmington, who were deported.  So far Betsy DeVos has been cited for only contempt of court (for which the U.S. Department of Education was fined $100,000, paid by taxpayers, not DeVos).

If other recent hearings on student loans are any guide, however, there will be an attempt by the Secretary and by the Committee's minority to distract from the subject, to scurry down tried and true rabbit holes with claims that

(1) student loan law is too complicated, for which Congress is to blame;
(2) tuition is too high, for which colleges and universities are to blame;
(3) the Democrats caused the problem, with the Affordable Care Act of 2010 that terminated the bank-based FFEL program;
(4) government itself is the problem, so student loans should be turned over to private experts to administer;
(5) greedy borrowers are owed nothing; they signed for the loans and they should repay them;
(6) Federal Student Aid's NextGen system will solve all student loan problems with more iPhone apps;
(7) loan servicers are actually to blame, for not following Department of Education instructions.

I'm not optimistic that the hearing will stay on the subject, given so many such possible diversions for members on both sides of the aisle.

But I'm hoping Committee members will at least ask which servicers have been sanctioned for servicing misdeeds and what kind of discipline was meted out within the Department for administrative failures.  The FSA COO, General Mark Brown, made a statement on October 24th that such actions were taken, but there is good reason to believe that servicer sanctions were meaningless and that employee discipline measures were directed at people who were trying to solve the problem, not those who created it. 

The other October 24th claims by COO Brown have proved to be wildly inaccurate, unfortunately, so the Committee has all the more reason to ask about the details of any actual servicer reprimands and internal Department personnel actions.

President Trump is reportedly looking for a big student loan move he can announce soon, so as to compete for attention with presidential candidates and others who propose widespread loan cancellation.   He is not satisfied with what Betsy DeVos has proposed, whatever that is, according to newspaper reports.  His deadline is December 20th.

The following are some administrative actions the President could take, to immediate approbation, by directing his Secretary of Education to:

a. follow the law expeditiously in all cases involving borrower rights, whether borrower defense, total and permanent disability discharges (including veterans), public service loan forgiveness, or other loan cancellation programs.  Although some cancellations have been announced, they have not actually happened, most notably disability discharges. 
b.  drop the "preemption" argument that federal student aid law supersedes state consumer protections and other legal rights, as the preemption doctrine has been shredded by several courts and is transparently hostile to student loan borrowers.
c.  begin using discretion on which student loan bankruptcies to oppose, rather than opposing all.
d.  close the revolving door between the Department and the student loan industry, by removing or reassigning Department employees with loan industry conflicts of interest.
e.  renegotiate servicer contracts, open servicing to new competitors, and debar servicers with bad records.

The President should scrap a new DeVos proposal to move student loans to another entity, out of the Department of Education, which at best is a move to distract from her abysmal record and at worst a possible move to sell off the student loan portfolio to profiteers and eliminate borrower protections.

If the White House wants a bold initiative on student loans, it could propose to emulate other countries' successes with income-based repayments through tax system administration, coupled with adoption of the tools of fiscal federalism* to reduce college and university tuition.  That would turn heads and actually be workable, equitable, and affordable.

* Matching, maintenance-of-effort, and performance requirements were once features of federal higher education efforts, not coincidentally in an era of low tuition. 

The Day of Infamy

December, 2019

Washington – It has now been seventy-eight years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In 1967, twenty-six years after the attack, I took the picture below.

My ship, USS Rainier, is tied up on battleship row in front of the memorial to USS Arizona.  It is approximately where USS Maryland, USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee, and USS Oklahoma were moored on December 7, 1941.

When I first reported aboard USS Rainier in 1966, one of our crew was a USS Arizona survivor.  He had remained in the Navy and become a chief petty officer.

My ship was enroute from Yokosuka, Japan, to Concord, California, when it stopped at Pearl.  It was hard to fathom that we had re-traced the 1941 route of the Japanese fleet and were now at the site of so much wreckage and death.

Rural America Must Be Contested

November, 2019

Washington –  Where do Democrats get their counterproductive and sometimes downright foolish ideas about how to win national elections?  Unfortunately, some come from respectable sources that should know better.

Take The Atlantic, usually perspicacious but unaccountably off-target in publishing an article by Ronald Brownstein last month.  Subtitled "Dirt Doesn't Vote," it confidently asserts Democrats should not worry about maps, favored by Donald Trump, that show a Republican red nation with Democratic blue enclaves limited to the coasts.  Excerpt:

Trump’s map offers a misleading portrait because it pictures counties by geographic area, not by population. The map “says to me he has more support from cows than people,” sniffs the longtime Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “It’s not a representation of the population of the United States...." 

As any good student of American Government should know, the cows-versus-people apportionment cases Baker v. Carr (1962), Westbury v. Sanders (1964), and Reynolds v. Sims (1964) struck a blow for "one person, one vote" at the state and local level, but not at the national level.  U.S. presidents are still chosen by the electoral college, which places a premium on dirt and cows.  Nor is the U.S. Senate apportioned by population; that's also by constitutional design, for better or worse.

Democratic strategists who do not recognize this and continue to plan futile campaigns around winning the popular vote should amend their thinking.  Tad Devine, it must be noted, has been associated with the losing campaigns of Gore and Clinton, both of whom won the popular vote but not the presidency.  Devine has plenty of company, including those who still do not want to hear the word "rural" brought up for discussion, let alone included as part of a 2020 election strategy.   

Somewhere, red on the map must be turned blue by Democrats, not written off.  Making blue states even bluer will not count.  In practical terms, that means states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Ohio, all with plentiful dirt and many cows, must be vigorously contested by Democrats.  

These states are winnable with the right strategy, which consists of (1) showing up and (2) offering a positive platform that makes sense to rural constituencies, where swing voters make all the difference.  Key to winning in these states:  not losing by large margins in the most rural areas, because such losses offset Democratic gains in the suburbs.  As Heidi Heitkamp puts it, in one of the few sensible comments in The Atlantic article, "We're not trying to turn those [rural] areas blue, we are trying to turn them pink." 

This should not be so difficult.  Donald Trump is not personally popular with many rural voters on the margins, who would welcome a credible Democratic alternative. Trump's trade policies are hugely unpopular with farmers, who want "trade not aid."  His promises on biofuels are not believable.  His Secretary of Agriculture, George (nothing Sonny about him) Perdue, insults farmers as whiners and advises them to "go big or just go."  A Democrat who shows up with a platform of scrapping the current Farm Bill and starting over to build local and regional farm markets, fighting rural epidemics of obesity and diabetes with nutritious food, and demonstrating respect for rural America will turn many areas pink, some purple, and a few even blue.  Enough to win key swing states.

And the alternative?  Ready to move in are those who see rural America as fertile ground for frightening ideologies.  If coastal Democrats write off America's heartland, be prepared for a surge of white nationalists and far-right militias, according to those who have their fingers on the pulse of people increasingly in despair.  This can happen when people fear their very extinction.  

Publishing elsewhere are sensible voices who should be heeded, who offer valuable critiques of Democrats and their strategies, including those of House Democrats who are failing to protect rural America.  Writing in The Washington Monthly, Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan offer that "Democrats need to perform meaningful oversight of the Trump administration's assault on American farmers."  House Democrats are just not getting it done.  Collin Peterson should resign as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in favor of someone who is up to the job. 

But for every sensible voice, there are others who assure themselves that Dirt Doesn't Vote and are leading Democrats yet again into losing strategies.  The red map of the country is not misleading.  Even editing it so show population rather than area, to make it look bluer, is not going to change how the electoral college works.  The Atlantic and its authors should know better.

Censure, Now

November, 2019

Washington –  In the matter of the impeachment of the president, too many House options under consideration lead to increasing divisiveness and partisanship.

To some of us, the whole matter of impeachment is not one of partisanship but of national security.  National security is not going to be enhanced by House impeachment, Senate trial, and failure to convict, as now seems likely.  That is the hope and goal of Russia, which is undermining democracy worldwide and is being remarkably successful at it.  Such a scenario plays directly into Russia's hands.

I fully appreciate the House majority's decision to move toward impeachment.  The evidence warrants it and it would be irresponsible, arguably even a violation of members' oaths, not to respond to the president's unthinkable transgressions that put America's national security at such risk.

But there is a better way forward:  the House majority should censure the president, now.  It offers an appropriately strong response.  It is more likely to pass with bipartisan support, however modest.  Even if a few Republicans support censure as a way to lessen support for impeachment, that is not necessarily a bad outcome, given the likely alternative of total partisan impasse over impeachment, which Russia wants.

Last week's testimony, before the Intelligence Committee, by national security realist Fiona Hill and diplomats William Taylor and George Kent, makes it clear that national security must be put ahead of partisanship, and the issue must be America versus Russia, not Democrats versus Republicans.

What too many fail to realize is that this is not a question of censure versus impeachment, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  Impeachment articles can continue to move after censure, but without the burden of being the sole vehicle of presidential reproof.  If the effort to impeach and convict fails at some point later, as looks likely, it will be easier, with censure accomplished, for all to turn to other issues of urgent concern.  Voters do not want the impeachment process to dominate all else. Polls show a clear majority knows the president did wrong and must be chastened.  Censure accomplishes that. 

It's football season.  Censure should be seen as America putting points on the board with a makable field goal, come what may later, which is quite likely to be a stalemate with no scoring.  Censure would constitute a victory over Russia, for America's national security and for defense of the U.S.  Constitution.

Elder Abuse: "There Oughta Be a Law"

November, 2019

Washington -- Two years ago, on the death of George Garner, the Shepherd of Accokeek, I wrote that one of his regrets was not knowing how his years of legal work to protect the legacy of his rural Maryland neighbor, Howard Vess, actually turned out.  George knew Howard had been a victim of financial fraud, perpetrated on the elderly man by an unscrupulous financial advisor.

The litigation is over.  George Garner would be pleased that his work was not in vain.  There was a successful settlement. The outcome would have been even better had several Maryland judges looked at fewer trees and more forest, figuratively speaking.  And the whole case could have been avoided entirely if Maryland law had better guarded against financial advisors becoming their clients' beneficiaries, as do other states, but that's getting ahead of the story.

George's neighbor in Accokeek, Howard Vess, wanted to preserve his rural property after his death so that friends and neighbors could continue to use the trails through his woods for hiking and hunting.  The property was also in the Mount Vernon viewshed from across the Potomac, which any elevated development could spoil.

Howard also wanted to leave the balance of his considerable estate to several favorite charities, as he had no survivors in his immediate family.  He told this to his extended family, including his niece, Claudia Vess, who kept in touch with him from her home an hour away.  All were pleased with the arrangements.  Wills and codicils were on file with the county register of wills spelling this out, designating Robert Price, Howard's financial advisor, as personal representative to carry out his instructions.  George also knew this from both Howard and Howard's niece.

I knew Howard, the Vess family, and George, and this was my understanding as well.

So it was a shock that preceding Howard's funeral service in 2011, Price described to gathering guests (of which I was one) the ins and outs of dividing up Howard's property for both housing and shopping development.  Then, at the beginning of the service, Price announced that a charity of Howard's would be supported by contributions left by guests in envelopes at the funeral home, puzzling those of us who thought Howard's own estate provided well for several charities.  After the funeral, Price demurred when discussing next steps with Vess family and friends, explaining that he was taking his own family to Las Vegas, which naturally only raised more suspicions that Price was not carrying out Howard's wishes at all.  

A few months later, Howard’s niece discovered that there was a later will, superseding earlier arrangements, which Price had kept in his private office and filed quietly at the courthouse after Howard's deathInstead of rural land preservation and money for charities, the last will made Price, his financial advisor and personal representative, the sole beneficiary. 

George Garner and other neighbors supported Howard's niece in an effort to challenge the surprise will on grounds that Price had taken advantage of his elderly client.  Claudia Vess knew from last conversations with her uncle before his death that he had been confused about what Price was doing with the estate, but she had never guessed Price had audaciously made himself sole beneficiary.  

So she challenged the will, hiring a local attorney to file Vess v. Price.  George, Howard's closest neighbor whose off-farm business had been preparing legal briefs for cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, assisted without fee.  

Price's lawyer spared no effort or expense in defending the surprise will.  The battle went on for years through three different Maryland courts.  In the meantime, Price's administration of the will was obviously deficient on multiple grounds.  A judge removed Price from his role as personal representative in favor of a new one, appointed by the court.  Fortunately, the successor sold the Vess real property as two rural acreages, a victory for Howard's intention to prevent urban development.  

Because of dozens of procedural motions in Vess v. Price, no court in six years ever got to the fundamental question: had Price through undue influence taken fraudulent advantage of a putative friendship and violated his fiduciary responsibility to his elderly client, Howard Vess? The case was a procedural standoff.  More time was spent by Maryland courts looking at time stamps and courthouse drop boxes than on what the case was about.  Although Price lost his appointment as personal representative, Vess counsel was reproved by an appeals court for not explaining the case well, despite George Garner's thorough research and legal prep sessions.  

After George's untimely death in 2017, and after an appeals court defeat for Vess counsel, based on procedural rather than substantive issues, the case returned to the original court of jurisdiction for a jury trial.  Claudia Vess then replaced her original counsel with a lawyer who has a strong litigation practice.  The new counsel immediately showed she meant business at the first depositions and serious settlement talks ensued.  

In the final 2019 settlement, niece Claudia succeeded in obtaining several thousand dollars from the estate for four of six of her uncle's charities, plus returning to the family her uncle's Arlington Cemetery burial-ceremony flag (he had served in the Marine Corps).  Although some of her legal bills were covered in settlement, her goal was not to become a beneficiary but to fight for her uncle's true intentions.

Unfortunately, the amounts for the charities were only about ten percent of what they would have been had Howard Vess's desires been honored, as filed at the courthouse rather than as represented in a surprise will held privately by his financial advisor.  Much of the estate proceeds were spent covering the huge legal expenses of financial advisor Price, even after his removal as personal representative.

Maryland law must be changed to guard against financial advisors becoming clients' beneficiaries.  Lawyers would be disbarred if they attempted the same chicanery.  Financial advisors are often positioned even better than lawyers to take advantage of their elderly clients. 

Although in the Vess v. Price case a measure of justice was reached, it took many years of effort to achieve it.  The State of Maryland needs to decide if elder abuse by financial advisors is going to be tolerated or stopped.  It needs to decide if Maryland justice continues in the tradition of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce,  Charles Dickens' tale of an estate that was entirely depleted by its legal bills. 

Neighbors often do a good job of watching out for neighbors, and the story of George Garner and Howard Vess is illustrative, as it ends, if not entirely happily, at least with a silver lining.  But nothing would be better in Maryland than an overdue statutory crackdown, following the lead of many other states that have better provisions to protect elders against abuse by financial advisors. 

Who's Conservative, Who's Not

November, 2019

Washington – Attorney General William Barr, in a provocative speech to the Federalist Society, said voters put President Trump in office with knowledge of his agenda and those who oppose him are trampling on the Constitution's Article II executive powers:

“While the president has certainly thrown out the traditional Beltway playbook and punctilio, he was up front about what he wanted to do and the people decided they wanted him to serve as president...”

Two observations:

First, that's not the 2016 election I recall.  Many Trump votes were a protest in the face of what was widely predicted to be a Hillary Clinton victory, without much regard to his agenda.  They simply weren't going to vote for her.  Moreover, Clinton won the popular vote decisively; it was the electoral college that delivered the election to Trump.

This was also the election in which some voters, in the famous formulation, took Trump seriously but not literally, and others literally but not seriously.  The former prevailed.  This was an election that was decided by voters who did not take the Trump agenda literally.

Then there were the Trump voters who thought once he was elected, he would start acting like a president, because his campaign was based on his experience as an entertainer and he would moderate his behavior upon inauguration.

That's why Trump was elected in November, 2016.  There is simply not much of a record to support the Barr thesis; of all the reasons people voted for Trump, his literal agenda was not high on the list.

Second, I see that there is conservative push-back against the Barr notion that the concept of unitary executive (that the president leads the executive branch) also extends to executive primacy in the context of separation of powers.  Barr goes too far, they say, in eroding the Constitution's checks and balances; he is sounding like an authoritarian, not a conservative.

Charles Fried, solicitor general in the Reagan administration, reacted to Barr this way:

“Conservatism is respect for the rule of law. It is respect for tradition. The people who claim they’re conservatives today are demanding loyalty to this completely lawless, ignorant, foul-mouthed president.”

Stuart Gerson, an official in the George W. Bush administration, was not so blunt, but put it this way:

“It’s important for conservatives to speak up.  This administration is anything but conservative.”

I'm glad Attorney General Barr made his attention-getting, illuminating speech to the Federalist Society.  He has thrown out history; he has thrown out his party's tradition.  It gives us all a glimpse into what lies ahead, and it's not conservatism.

Tall Orders for an Admiral

November, 2019

Lincoln – The NU Regents have selected retired Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter, Jr., to be the next president of the University of Nebraska.

At first glance, the choice seems incongruous.  Admiral Carter is a native of Rhode Island; he does not have a doctorate or a record of scholarship; he has no experience at land-grant universities and is untested in the agriculture arena, critical to Nebraska.

He might, however, be a good choice.  I confess to a touch of enthusiasm because NU and the U.S. Navy are both institutions dear to my heart and there is more commonality than one might think.

• Admiral Carter has led two academic institutions successfully, the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.   He knows governments and bureaucracies, federal and state, and faculties.  The Naval Academy is located in a state capital, Annapolis, as is NU in Lincoln.

• NU has a Navy unit on the UNL campus.  Students can minor in Naval Science and receive commissions in the Navy and Marine Corps.  Perhaps Admiral Carter will be given a faculty post in the Naval Science department, from which he can draw on his USNWC connections to explore national security issues for the benefit of NU students and faculty.

• Certain issues transcend state and national borders.  Climate-change flooding threatens the Annapolis campus and the nation's harbors, just as climate-change flooding threatens Nebraska agriculture.  This should form a quick, common bond with the leadership at NU's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which for years has been sounding the alarm, despite the issue's unpopularity in right-wing political circles.

There are three immediate challenges at NU that I hope Admiral Carter will meet with "early and decisive action," a phrase he will know from ship-handling at sea.

One is to re-establish better relations with the Nebraska Legislature, based on mutual respect and the Nebraska Constitution, which places authority over university governance with the Board of Regents.  There must be no more occasions where an NU president is summoned to a freshman senator's office and told which instructors to hire or fire.  A vice admiral should have the stature and experience to handle such situations.  (Perhaps that is one reason for the Regents' hiring decision.)

The second challenge is to bring a broader perspective to matters of agricultural export markets, on which the Nebraska economy is overly dependent.  The current agricultural leadership in Nebraska, including many elected officials, is desperate for a trade deal with China.  Nebraskans now surely realize that it was a grave mistake for President Trump to scrap the TPP, giving China the upper hand in Pacific trade, and to impose tariffs for which farmers suffer retaliation.  Is Nebraska agriculture ready to accept or endorse an even greater blunder to try to restore Nebraska's China exports?  There are clear warning signs that President Trump will abandon Hong Kong and the South China Sea (he has already spoken to Chairman Xi about it) for a trade deal that may please farmers in the Midwest before the 2020 election.  But is this in the U.S. national security interest?

From the Naval War College Review, "Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea:"

Today, the situation in the South China Sea is reaching a critical stage as Chinese advances accumulate, America’s room for maneuver diminishes, and observers throughout the region wonder whether the United States is up to the challenge. And yet Washington still is searching for a strategy.

Admiral Carter, as former leader of the Naval War College, is positioned as no other candidate for NU president to grapple with these issue of immense importance to Nebraska.

The third challenge also deals with rural Nebraska, where the population, counterproductively, is increasingly giving up on higher education.  The results of the 2019 Nebraska Rural Poll "showed a sharp decline in the perceived importance of higher education among respondents."  What got into Nebraskans to make insularity and ignorance attractive?  This is alarming and deserves immediate priority from Nebraska's higher education leadership.

Admiral Carter, welcome to Nebraska.  You have tall orders.

Nebraska Hall of Fame: Two Suggestions

November, 2019

Lincoln –  One of the most famous members of Nebraska's Hall of Fame, William Jennings Bryan, has suffering yet another slight, albeit without apparent intention or malice.  His statue has been moved from the U.S. Capitol to the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.

The movement out of Washington is innocent enough in Bryan's case, as the Nebraska Legislature determined that it was time for Standing Bear and Willa Cather to represent the state in the Capitol's statuary hall rather than Bryan and J. Sterling Morton.  However, because Morton's removal was strategic to avoid growing embarrassment over his sympathies with slavery and the Confederate cause, some may wonder – incorrectly – if Bryan also had something untoward in his past and it was time for him to go as well.

In reality, Morton and Bryan were political enemies and their pairing in Washington has always been uneasy.  Their paired removal only adds to the irony.

Likewise, the acquisition of Bryan's statue by the Nebraska National Guard Museum is innocent enough and actually quite a coup to help put the museum on the map.   It should stimulate interest in Bryan's military career and his views on foreign policy and imperialism, not just provide another reason to visit Seward.

For Nebraska's political reporter nonpareil, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star, the relocation of Bryan's statue to the museum is too much.  He would like to see Bryan's statue placed on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Bryan, he points out, was so much more than a member of Nebraska's National Guard.

That's why the movement of any of his statues elicits notice.  Bryan was the founder of the modern Democratic Party.  He was instrumental in the passage of four amendments to the U.S. Constitution (16, 17, 18, 19).  He was a thorn in the side of bankers.  Perhaps that is why, in the 1960s, Nebraska Republican governor Norbert Tiemann, a Wausa banker, removed Bryan's statue from the front of the Nebraska state capitol, at the head of Centennial Mall, in favor of a less-conspicuous place under a tree at Bryan's Lincoln home, Fairview.

Beyond looking at Bryan's career, now is also a good time to reflect on Bryan's family.  His brother Charles was twice governor of Nebraska and the Democratic nominee for U.S. vice president in 1924.  His wife Mary Baird Bryan was an attorney and a full partner in all her husband's campaigns and offices.  She sat in on meetings of President Wilson's cabinet with her husband, the Secretary of State.

Daughter Ruth Bryan Owen was the first Florida congresswoman and the first woman to be a U.S. ambassador.  She was a delegate to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, and is a member of the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Bryan's granddaughter Ruth "Kitty" Leavitt, for whom he once had custody after his daughter Ruth's divorce, paradoxically became the wife of Robert Lehman, longtime head of Lehman Brothers, the investment bankers.  Bryan's other daughter, Grace, also married a banker, in California, but is better known for her writing about the Bryan family's world travels.

It is more than appropriate to place a Bryan statue on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Another good idea would be for the University of Nebraska to establish a Center for Bryan Studies.  Far from being demoted, Bryan's star is actually rising among historians worldwide.  There is much to discover.  I'd like to know how his travels and his family, especially his daughter Ruth, influenced the development of his abhorrence of eugenics and Social Darwinism, of which we know little beyond H.L. Mencken's clever but superficial reportage at the end of Bryan's life.   

Statues aside, Bryan will never be removed from Washington, as he and several members of his family are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  And presumably his bust is safe in the Hall of Fame corridors of the Nebraska state capitol.

Another Nebraska Hall of Fame development is this new article about one-time nominees Frederic and Edith Clements, founders of the discipline of plant ecology.* Because the work of one cannot be separated from the other, the Nebraska law allowing for only one person to be chosen during a nomination cycle should be amended to allow their joint consideration.  Readers may find it of interest that, through their common university connections, the Clementses were an influence on Willa Cather and on Ruth and Grace Bryan.

*Available through UNL Digital Commons as a publication of the University of Nebraska State Museum staff and affiliates.

Collin Peterson: Don't Run

November, 2019

Washington –  A Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, is undecided about making another run for re-election from his Minnesota district.

He thinks he could win but does not look forward to leading a legislative effort on another farm bill.  He says it is getting harder every time to pass one.

I'm surely not alone in hoping Collin Peterson will retire.  The farm bills he has guided to passage have been woefully short of meeting rural America's needs.  They have been long on special interest protections and short on conservation, nutrition, crop insurance reforms, and developing agricultural markets.

Step back from the minutia of farm bills and look at the big picture:  much of rural America is depopulating; much of it is suffering from obesity and diabetes epidemics; topsoil is eroding at an alarming rate; grocery stores of any kind (let alone those offering healthy food) are ironically disappearing from America's breadbasket regions; trade policy is a tariff-driven shambles.

Note these recent headlines and read their links:

How Washington keeps America sick and fat  (Politico)

Farm Country Feeds America.  But Just Try Buying Groceries There.  (New York Times)

House Democrats Are Failing to Protect Farmers from Trump (Washington Monthly)

It may be unfair to blame Collin Peterson for all of this, but he's been a large part of the problem, as have his fellow Democrats who have written off rural America for their own misguided reasons.  Peterson and the Democrats had a huge opportunity after the 2018 elections, when they took power in the House, to address these issues in 2019 rather than pass a 2018 lame-duck farm bill still shaped by the discredited theories of Earl ("Get big or get out") Butz, but they did not.   

Please retire, Collin Peterson.  Step aside for new leadership that is up to the job. 

Veterans Day Remembrances

November, 2019

Lincoln – It's Veterans Day.  In past years I've noted family members who served our country.  This year, special remembrance is due two friends, Dick Ratzlaff and Rich Brenning.

We were in the same Navy ROTC unit at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and often travelled together around the Midwest as part of our Navy basketball team.  Both were mainstays:  Dick was point guard, Rich power forward.  One year, 1963, our team was undefeated in about twenty local and regional games and tournaments.  It tight spots, Rich could always be counted on to hit a jump shot from the corner, and Dick would come through with one of his many steals.

Dick Ratzaff, of Aberdeen, South Dakota, was shot down over Vietnam in 1966 and became a POW for seven years.  He earned a Silver Star for his resistance.  He never fully recovered and died in 1981.

Rich Brenning was lost at sea in 1969, flying off USS Ticonderoga.  Lincoln was his hometown.

Still miss you both.


Student Loan Relief as Tax Cut 2.0

November, 2019

Washington –  Analysts at Moody's Investor Services are floating the idea that student loan debt relief is, for purposes of fiscal stimulus to boost the economy, an alternative to a 2020 tax cut.


A big obstacle, however, is the notion of equity.  Why only borrowers with current balances?  That gives the perception of unfairness and likely will be a hurdle against enactment.

Sixteen months ago in these pages, and again last May, I suggested a refundable, means-tested tax credit based not on current borrower balances but on a calculation of the tuition premium incurred by the college-going generations of the 21st century. 

By no means would such a tax credit be a cure-all for the nation's student loan crisis.  Restoration of bankruptcy protections for student loan borrowers and addressing corruption in the U.S. Department of Education are both essential.  But the recent flurry of interest in using tax policy to address the crisis makes it worthwhile to repeat arguments from an earlier post:

...a means-tested, refundable federal tax credit would be more equitable for all students who went to college in the high-tuition era of the last two decades. It would avoid such problems as unfairness between those in similar economic circumstances who struggled mightily to pay off their loans and those who did not; between those who chose lower priced community colleges or less selective schools and those who did not; and between those who worked to try to pay for college over many years and those who did not. The tax credit could be called the "Tuition Premium Tax Credit," the benefits of which could be used to pay off student debt, or simply used by recipients to recover economically from the high price of college, however it affected them wherever they attended. Such a tax credit would also help remedy generational inequities. The boomer generation benefitted enormously from the long, low tuition era that made paying for college relatively easy. The 2017 tax cut piled more wealth on the boomer generation; it could be trimmed back with savings applied to generational and income-class equity.

House Has Been MIA on Student Loans

November, 2019

Washington – When we last visited the subject of federal student loans a few weeks ago, we had little reason to hope for any breakthroughs that would benefit the nation's many aggrieved and defrauded borrowers.  It was as if the whole country had become inured to student loan corruption.

But much has changed since:

• Secretary Betsy DeVos has been held in contempt of federal district court for violating court orders in thousands of "borrower defense" cases.  Her legal advisor on student loans and consumer protections, Steven Menashi, was nominated to a federal appeals court seat but that nomination is now in trouble in the Senate, as it should be.

• DeVos's first choice to head office of Federal Student Aid in 2017, A. Wayne Johnson, has resigned abruptly from the Department of Education, calling the federal student loan system "fundamentally broken."  He has announced his candidacy, as a Republican, for the Senate based on cancelling most borrowers' loans and providing tax credits to others.

•  The National Student Loan Defense Network, led by former Department officials committed to justice for defrauded borrowers, is suing DeVos and the "corrupt Department of Education" for sending millions of student loan dollars to two for-profit schools despite knowing they were unaccredited, then covering it up and collecting from borrowers on the illegal loans.  NSLDN has already prevailed in other student loan cases.

• The recently appointed COO of  Federal Student Aid, Mark Brown, has released a video promising to do better by borrowers, saying that loan servicers have been reprimanded for improperly collecting on student loans and that certain Department officials have likewise been disciplined.

So what is Congress doing about this?  For most intents and purposes, the House has been missing-in-action.  Although it has held several hearings among its committees and subcommittees, they have fizzled despite excellent panel testimony from student loan experts and victims.  Members got sidetracked by student loan industry arguments that the programs are too complicated to administer, that borrowers themselves are to blame, and that fixes must await new legislation.

I have watched all the hearings.  Only once did I ever hear, from a member, the word "wrongdoing," and only once the word "corruption."  This, despite overwhelming evidence of just that. Corruption has infected the Department for many years.  See earlier posts for examples of perjury, obstruction, and false claims.

The chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Congressman Bobby Scott, has now threatened to subpoena Betsy DeVos if she does not voluntarily appear before the committee to answer questions about the matter for which she was found in contempt of court, and about the distribution of funds to unaccredited colleges.

That is only the tip of the iceberg.  The chairman must be ready to confront the Secretary over the corruption that has ruined the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and determine what kind of meaningful "reprimands" servicers have ever been given for illegal actions in any program.  He needs to determine which Department officials have been "disciplined" by Mark Brown, if that is indeed the case as claimed.  Are the disciplined officials political appointees or civil servants?  Are they being scapegoated? 

If the system is so bad, as Wayne Johnson concluded, is it because the Department of Education was long ago captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate?  The answer to that is an obvious yes.  The Department's key positions for many years have been filled through a revolving door with industry. 

Whatever Chairman Scott does, he needs to know that another round of fizzled House hearings will make matters worse.  Inconclusive hearings will only encourage more defiant behavior from the DeVos Department, which has proved itself committed to delivering taxpayer funds to voracious appetites in the student loan industry and for-profit colleges, at the expense of taxpayers and borrowers, with disregard for the rule of law.

On the other hand, we can hope that Chairman Scott has now seen what happens when remedies commensurate to the offenses are seriously considered.  The mention by a federal judge of possible jail time for DeVos was quickly followed by one high-level resignation and much apologizing from another.

Congress has many remedies at its disposal.  It's time to let the DeVos Department know that measures from fines to impeachment may be put into play to see that borrowers and taxpayers get the justice due them.

In other words, Chairman Scott, it's time to rise to the occasion.

American Resolve in Doubt

November, 2019

Berlin – In 1945, this city was a mess.  After the Nazi surrender, Russian troops took revenge on the Berlin population.  The main parts of the city were rubble.  Power plants and transportation facilities were largely destroyed.  Food supplies were running out.

American, British, and French forces were slow to reach Berlin, hampered at every step by the Red Army.  U.S. Army occupation forces, led by Colonel Frank Howley for the American sector in Berlin and by General Lucius Clay for the entire U.S. Zone in Germany, did not have solid support from Washington.  Many in Congress thought a Soviet takeover of Berlin was inevitable and wanted an American pull-out.

Soviet Russia had designs on all of Europe.  Berlin was the focus for maximum pressure.  If Berlin fell, it would signal that America could not be counted on as a reliable ally.  Berliners knew that, and for a time American resolve was in doubt.  The crisis came in 1948, when the Russians walked out of the four-powers Kommandatura building and began a blockade of West Berlin to force it into submission.

President Truman agreed to a massive effort to try to supply West Berlin by air.  Against all odds, it worked.  At the same time, Secretary of State George Marshall conceived the Marshall Plan for overall European recovery, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created for mutual defense against Soviet Russia.

The story of the Berlin Airlift is well told today at the Allied Museum* on Clayallee in Berlin, the major thoroughfare named after the American who led the effort.  Truman Plaza is nearby.  Berlin today is a thriving beacon of freedom from which the rest of the world can learn.  Thirty one Americans died in the airlift effort.

In a few days, Berlin and the free world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Berlin's Soviet sector finally collapsed, to be followed soon by the rest of the Soviet puppet state of East Germany.

My family and I were there to see the wall opened in 1989.  It was not a given.  The days leading up to it were tense.  The Red Army still had Berlin surrounded.  What was a given was the resolve of the U.S. and its NATO partners to stand firm.  That made all the difference.

Contrast this with our current international posture of retreat and withdrawal, which now resembles that of early 1948 when American resolve was much in doubt.   Our 45th president is without forward vision or historical insight and talks of getting out of "endless wars."  Even veterans who have fought in recent wars and sacrificed much are showing misguided agreement.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Some of America's wars were ill-advised and tragic:  Viet-Nam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are stains on the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.  Johnson misled the American people badly with his prevarications about the Tonkin Gulf attacks; Nixon sabotaged peace talks to win election in 1968; Bush made up Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war.

Conversely, we should not forget that U.S. leadership wisely reversed Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, initially defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, and ended Caliphate rule in much of Syria.

That these successes were not properly consolidated in their aftermath does not mean they should be lumped in with our failures.  It means that those who did not consolidate them must be held accountable, Democratic and Republican presidents alike.  They should have learned from President Truman, who knew that Berlin came at such cost that it could not be abandoned.

Our current president is going one step further than retreating from America's historic role in protecting freedom.  He is casting doubt on what America stands for.  In 1948, it was understandable that some American public opinion was against remaining in Berlin to defend Germans, who had been our enemy.  In 2019, however, an American president is shamefully turning his back on Kurds, our ally in the fight against the Caliphate.  That is beyond the pale.  America is also abandoning the cause of freedom in China, as China exterminates the Uighur people and threatens democracy in Hong Kong. 

It is well to remember 1948 and the Berlin airlift to note that our opponent then was Soviet Russia, bent on expansion.  How little changes.  Russia, still led by a former Soviet agent, is now our geopolitical opponent in Syria and Ukraine.  President Truman knew what he had to do and took courageous action to save the free world from Russian totalitarianism.  Our current president seems not to know which side he is on.

I am one veteran who yearns for another Harry Truman and will do everything possible to see that America returns to its proper, hard-won role in world affairs.

* I am proud to say that my late wife, a German citizen with great respect for America, helped in the creation of the museum. 

A Tour of FU Berlin

October, 2019

Berlin – While much was going on in this blog's other capital cities (in Washington, a top federal student loan official quit to run for the Senate; and in Lincoln, the Board of Regents picked a new NU president), I spent the day of October 25th on a walking tour of the Berlin university campus where I studied and wrote a dissertation three decades ago.

• From the U-Bahn at Thielplatz, the Harnack Haus is only a short walk.  It is a conference center now, but once was an American military officers' club where my family and I had privileges.  It was often a welcome place of respite from the academic pressures at Freie Universität Berlin.

• Onward to the Audimax, a large auditorium noted for the famous speakers it has accommodated.  President Kennedy spoke here in 1963 before his more famous speech at Schöneberger Rathaus.  Rudi Dutschke changed German politics forever with his 1967 protest speeches on behalf of the student movement.  Some two dozen portraits of famous Audimax speakers hang suspended in the grand staircase, above the comings and goings of present-day students.

• Across a campus mall of grasses and forbs in the direction of Corrensplatz is the forgotten site of the home of Fritz Haber, the German scientist whose reputation is still disputed despite his Nobel prize.  During WWI, he was on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a research organization that was converted after WWII into the FU Berlin campus.

• Adjacent to Corrensplatz are two buildings with small plaques to explain their significance.  One is the former Kommandantura, where after WWII the four victorious powers administered the city.  It now houses the FU president's office.  Across the street is the Hahn-Meintner building, once a physics laboratory for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where the atom was first split in 1938.  Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for physics.

• Across Habelschwerterallee is the huge classroom complex known as the Rostlaube and the Silberlaube.  Here I once made friends with many other foreign students who were working on their German language requirements (necessary for all exams).

• Toward the U-Bahn at Dahlem-Dorf is the JFK Institute, where my advisor, Professor Dr. Ekkehart Krippendorff, had his office.  A political scientist and peace researcher, he was also famous for his own academic freedom case.

FU Berlin has, for me, the feel of a real university, dedicated solely to education and research.  Its current president is a mathematician, from the ranks of the faculty.  It has been designated as one of Germany's elite universities and therefore qualifies for extra funding from the government.  It has no football team.  Translated into English, it is known as the Free University of Berlin.  The word free does not refer to its cost of attendance (although fees are minimal, if one is admitted), but to the freedom of ideas and to political freedoms.

Threats Foreign and Domestic

October, 2019

Berlin – Last week there was a large demonstration here, coursing through the streets of Berlin's Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods on behalf of Rojava, the Kurdish homeland in northern Syria.  Many Kurds live in Berlin.  Signs of support hang from windows.

At least some of the many Turks who also live in Berlin are not happy with the Turkish invasion of Rojava, or with the Turkish government generally.  At a sundries shop in Kreuzberg, the owners engaged us about our respective homelands.  We said we were Americans from Washington, DC, but at the moment not proud of our country's actions in the Middle East.  They identified their hometown in Turkey and said they were not happy with their government, either.

Russia, with Turkey's help, is moving in on Syria, to expand territories under the Syrian tyrant Assad.  Rojava is threatened with genocide.

The Russian threat also looms in Ukraine, abetted by feckless Americans, which include not only the president but his so-called base.  It casts a shadow over Europe, as described so well yesterday by Ambassador William Taylor in his testimony to Congress:

"...if Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace.  In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world."

I look for some sign that my all-Republican Nebraska congressional delegation will come to its senses, but they seem paralyzed by fear of the money and power being amassed to discipline any Republican who steps out of line.  Whose money and power it is, is not clear.  Some of it, recent developments show, is foreign.

What with Ambassador Taylor's testimony, the impeachment inquiry may move from definitions of high crimes and misdemeanors to what constitutes bribery and even treason.  How is withholding military aid for a political favor not bribery?  How does advancing Russia's interests above America's, repeatedly, not raise issues of treason?  Let's not dance around the issues.  Ambassador Taylor has done America a great service and we need to make the most of it, the sooner the better.


European Flags as Symbols

October, 2019

Berlin – On a day when the British parliament voted to delay Brexit once again, the flag of the European Union flew proudly in Berlin in front of the Chancellery.  As if in victory.

I happened to walk by the Chancellery during this symbolic occasion and take the photo below.  As it so happens, the E.U. flag is unfurling briskly in the breeze, as the German flag remains comparatively listless.  Internationalism over nationalism, symbolically, and fitting for 21st century Germany, which has staked its future on collective European strength.  

Later the same evening, at the Brandenburg gate the recorded words of two American presidents rang out over a crowd assembled to see a light show at Pariser Platz.  There was sustained applause for each:  

"Ich bin ein Berliner;" 

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Just what do the current British and American leaders think they are accomplishing by pushing for the return to a kind of nationalism that resulted in world wars?  They should instead be building on the British and American achievements that have given the world decades of relative peace and brought tyrants to account.  

The British must hold a second referendum on Brexit.  The first one was demonstrably tainted.  Now it's clear what is at stake.  

The Americans should get back as quickly as possible to world leadership based on freedom and human rights.  May we soon see a successful Amtsenthebungsverfahren. 

Berlin Billboards

October, 2019

Berlin – Two bestsellers of long ago focused on this city and its turbulent 20th century history:  Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich and Leon Uris's Armageddon.  I've been reading them in a new context, the 21st century American foreign-policy collapse.

Speer wrote first-hand of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Uris wrote of the heroic Berlin Airlift, when the city was saved from the grasp of the Soviet Union by a constant rotation of supply aircraft between Berlin and the western zone. 

Berlin is now capital of a free, democratic, united Germany and de facto leader of Europe.  The sacrifices of Americans to defeat the Nazis and the communist totalitarians paid off, which should be a constant celebration of a united America.

Instead, past American sacrifices and efforts are now being mocked in our own country and around the globe by those who would tear down the free world step by step through disinformation and propaganda and replace it with authoritarian governments subservient to the likes of Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines.

Germany has a special history with propaganda.  Speer reminds us how Josef Goebbels mastered its use in the rise of the Nazis with his Hitler-featured rallies and his command of the mass media.  It is no wonder that the current German government is mounting its own counter-propaganda campaign against authoritarianism by reminding its citizens that it is a Rechtsstaat, or country of the rule of law.

Today, at the S-Bahn at Botanischer Garten and the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor, I saw large billboards placed by the federal ministry of justice.  See an example in the photo below, which offers the Rechtsstaat, the backbone of democracy, as protection against arbitrariness and as pursuer of justice. 

The billboards are shocking, not for what they say, but that they exist at all.  They are evidence that the American successes of the last century to help establish Germany as a strong democracy, and to protect our own, are in peril, the sacrifices perhaps for naught.  This is more than sobering, it is frightening.

First Sea Duty, USS Rainier (AE-5)

October, 2019

Washington –  Three recent memoir posts have recounted naval training in the early 1960s, in preparation for U.S. Navy active duty service.  This post recalls my first tour of active duty, aboard USS Rainier (AE-5), home-ported in Concord, California.

In 1966, I was to become the ship's communications officer and division officer for Rainier's radiomen, signalmen, and electronics technicians.

I reported aboard ship in the fall of 1966, in San Diego, after several weeks of training at the naval base in Newport, Rhode Island, where I learned cryptographic methods and how to operate crypto equipment.  From San Diego, Rainier sailed to San Francisco and then departed from Mare Island in February of 1967 for the Philippines and attachment to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

For the next several months, Rainier's mission was to replenish other Navy ships in the South China Sea, the Tonkin Gulf, and along the South Vietnamese coast.  Mostly we operated out of Subic Bay in the Philippines, but also put in at other ports:  Manila; Hong Kong; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and Sattahip, Thailand.

Rainier was an old ship, built in 1940 as a C-2 cargo hull with two massive Nordberg diesels for propulsion.  Despite antiquated equipment, we won a coveted "E" award for efficiency.  Late in 1967 Rainier returned to its homeport via Yokosuka, Japan, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

This was the height of the Vietnam War.  See an earlier, longer post reflecting on it.  My hope in 1967 was that both North and South regimes could be replaced.  I bought the books of war analyst and critic Bernard Fall in Kaohsiung and read them aboard ship.  Bernard Fall was killed in Vietnam that year.  In 1968, first with the Tet Offensive and then with Richard Nixon's sabotage of the peace talks, any such hopes were dashed.

For me personally, the Rainier experience was good.  Navy officers get the benefit of being thrust at an early age into responsibility.  There's nothing like being the officer-of-the-deck in tight situations at sea.  I learned much from my first captain, Vincent P. O'Rourke, the very model of a wise sea captain, and from my second, John C. "Jack" Smith, the very opposite, who wrecked the ship's car in the Philippines while driving drunk, and once plowed Rainier into a pier.

With few officers, our wardroom was close-knit; I recall them fondly:  Howard Murphy, chief engineer; Bob Lee, first lieutenant; Tom Stuart, operations officer; Dave Johnson, navigator; George Raines, damage control assistant; Chris Henderson, assistant engineer; pork-chops Pat Ryan and Jim Graber; and Charlie Alderman, gunnery officer and diver.  Murphy and Lee were mustangs, as was the XO. 

The crew was a proud and tough cohort of many different races and backgrounds.  Some ships had racial conflicts.  Not so much on Rainier.  In port, we often sought out a gym for a basketball game, which I organized.  Captain O'Rourke joined us once, which impressed the crew as they enjoyed playing with the captain.

The photos below show the work of our deck division sailors, who risked their lives daily to fulfill the ship's mission; my view through binoculars at two approaching ships in the South China Sea; Rainier signalmen at a day's end; in-port at Yokosuka, Japan, late 1967. 

Inured to Corruption

October, 2019

Washington – A federal judge has made waves by threatening to put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in jail for contempt of court.  Under DeVos, and in contradiction to Judge Sallie Kim's order, the Department of Education has continued to collect on thousands of student loans that should have been cancelled because the loans were made fraudulently by a for-profit school, Corinthian College.

Judge Kim may not actually jail DeVos, but she has raised the possibility.

The waves were not high enough, however, to draw the attention of the higher education trade press, namely The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, neither of which took note.  It is not higher education news, quite apparently, when borrowers are stiffed in the thousands and the Secretary ignores the courts.  It has become routine.  Perhaps it will be news to the trade press if and when the law and judges' orders are followed.*

Later this month we'll learn what Judge Kim will do in the face of the Secretary's contempt.  I hope it is not a fine that the Department will pay with taxpayer dollars.  That would be adding insult to injury.  A fine to be paid personally by the Secretary would be almost as bad, as she is a billionaire.  More fitting would be a hefty personal fine that would be paid to the non-profit organizations that have had to bring suits on behalf of borrowers whose protections have been violated in a variety of Department programs, to include TEACH and PSLF.  Or a few days in jail.

To some, it is not particularly newsworthy when a federal agency like the Department of Education is captured and controlled by the interests it is supposed to be regulating.  There is a vast amount of political science literature on the subject.  In this case, there is even a smoking gun: the for-profit college association publicly asked the Secretary to ignore the law on "borrower defense," and she did.  But she is not the first cabinet official to take her orders from those she is regulating.

Arguably, the whole higher education community has now become inured to the corruption that feeds off the victimization of student loan borrowers.   It is almost as if there is a law of nature that determines how industries and organizations exploit the vulnerable.  In biology, such a natural relationship is observed between ants and aphids. Aphids supply the sweet nourishment for ants that herd them.  If the aphids grow wings and try to take off, like borrowers trying properly under the law to escape their loans, the ants strip them of their wings and keep them captive.  It's hard to think of a better analogy to describe the DeVos Department and how it strips borrowers of their rights.  Borrowers who were legally entitled to loan discharge were slapped instead with new collection actions, like wage garnishment and tax refund seizures.

For public consumption, the Department has recently started to put blame on its servicers and loan collection contractors for violations of laws and regulations.  This would resonate truthfully were it not for the existence of a robust revolving door network between the Department and the servicers.  If the Department is serious about servicer shortcomings, it would disqualify offending servicers from competing for more business, including the upcoming NextGen awards.  Unless that happens, it looks like business as usual.

Why not some jail time for contempt of court?  Nothing else has worked.
* During the week following Judge Kim's condemnation of Secretary Devos, Inside Higher Ed covered stories such as a student who sold pot out of a dorm room, a professor who used grant money at a strip club, and a study by a conservative organization (AEI)  that suggested borrower complaints are misguided, the real problem being over-complicated legislation.  But about contempt of court for ruining the lives of thousands of borrowers?  Nichts. Nada. 

Shocking Declines in Birds and Insects

October, 2019

Lincoln – Regardless how important other events seem this year, the top bad-news development is the shocking decline of birds and insects.  The natural world seems to be on the edge of collapse, judging by these two indicators.

Bird species like quail and eastern and western meadowlarks are down precipitously.  In fact, such grassland birds are declining more rapidly than all others.

On our local grassland here, one can still see these birds.  Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks, too, are present in the adjacent riparian areas.

But for how long?  We're hopeful that a new environmental plan for the area will soon start a process to protect these streams and grasslands.  It can't come soon enough.

Our national bird, the bald eagle, was saved from extinction by purposeful action some years ago, so there is hope.

What about our state bird, the western meadowlark?  We'll soon know local reactions when the environmental plan is published later this year.  Will historic grassland habitats be saved, or bulldozed?

It's harder to know what to make of the "insect apocalypse."  Among our most beneficial insects, bees, the decline has been so severe that the Adee beekeeper family, originally from Nebraska, has taken its bees out of our state because the environmental challenges are just too great.  According to press reports"The official Nebraska state insect is feeling the sting of agricultural chemicals, unfavorable weather, flooding and mites, according to beekeepers big and small." 

We raise bees on our property, trying to provide suitable habitat.  But last year was the worst ever, according to our beekeepers.  

It's all shocking.  When the natural world is in peril, all else must be put in diminished context.