Words that need a Time Out

January, 2019

Washington -- Words that have lost their meaning need to be retired or at least given a long vacation to see if they can come back refreshed. Here is my list, plucked from recent topical news and experiences.

Farm Bill. Most of the money in the Farm Bill does not go to farmers. In the last iteration, the meaning of farmers was expanded to include farmer-nieces and farmer-nephews, who may never have been on a farm.

Specialty Crops. That's what the Farm Bill calls food. (As in Michael Pollan's admonition, "Eat Food.") These foods – you probably call them fruits and vegetables – get second class treatment in the Farm Bill, after subsidized "commodity crops" that are mostly directed toward biofuels, or for processed foods sent overseas to globalize our obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Horticulture. In the Farm Bill, organic crops that are good for us are tucked away in the horticulture subsections, as if they are only for gardeners*, not farmers. What's wrong with the word agriculture for organics? Who writes these bills, farmer-nephews?

Entrepreneur. This French word has been useful in recent decades to describe legitimate business enterprises undaunted by calculated risk-taking. It has never implied scamming, until now. Etymology dictionaries henceforth should include its new meaning, as used by Liberty University when describing its official who moonlights by corruptly rigging political polls. He's just an "independent entrepreneur," according to this university. Maybe we should give the German word Unternehmer its chance instead, until it can likewise be corrupted.

Evangelical. For decades this word had a religious meaning. Now it has a political meaning. It needs a ten year hiatus to see if it can ever come back to its original sense. By the way, evangelisch in German means Protestant, if anyone is looking for refuge from its American political usage.

Guys. This was once slangy, as in the wonderful musical "Guys and Dolls." Back when, it would never be used to greet a mixed party entering a restaurant, for example. What word are we now supposed to use for "guys"? Can't we just go back to the plural word you, or you all, or folks, or even y'all, rather than ruin guys? The English have the sense not to call everyone blokes.

Student Financial Aid. How, exactly, is putting people into debt "aid"? The misuse of this word has exacted a great toll on the unwitting. Call grants grants; call loans loans; drop the word aid.

Innovation. As used now by the federal Department of Education, it has become a dog-whistle word to signal education "entrepreneurs" (see above) that the coast is clear to raid the U.S. Treasury with their schemes.

Dog-Whistle. Still a good word, at least for now. Would that we didn't have to wear it out, too.

* Nothing against horticulture in its correct sense. I am a gardener as well as a farmer. Just don't relegate the organic movement to gardening at a time when large farms are converting to organic methods to survive and to provide healthy food.

Genoways and Ricketts

January, 2019

Lincoln -- Like Governor Ricketts, I have not read This Blessed Earth, by Ted Genoways, a book chosen by One Book One Nebraska for statewide readership and discussion.

I have not read it yet, that is. Like a lot of people, I'll be eager to read the book that caused our governor to balk when it came to signing a routine proclamation for it.

I'm still reading Genoways' earlier book, The Chain, a book about the meat packing industry, the likes of which has not been written since the days of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. And I've read excerpts of Genoways' new book as published in 2017 in Harpers magazine, titled "Bringing in the Beans."

The governor thought This Blessed Earth would not be unifying, he said. Actually, I think the governor feared it would be unifying, and he would not like the results. Family farmers have it hard; pointing it out should not be considered divisive.

Ricketts said Genoways was out of touch with Nebraskans. But Genoways is a graduate of Lincoln East High School and Nebraska Wesleyan University. He studied under Ted Kooser. He has written award-winning poetry about his grandfather's job at the Omaha stockyards, inviting critics to compare Carl Sandburg.

Genoways is known nationally as a "tenacious scholar." My take on his writing is exactly that; he is thorough to a fault in his documentation and his exacting portrayals of people and their work. It isn't always pleasant to read. Truth can be like that.

This tempest recalls public reactions to other Nebraska authors' works. Mari Sandoz was run out of Lincoln for her book Capital City. She had to move to Denver for her own safety. Willa Cather was not always kind to Nebraskans. She thought poorly of the generations that followed the pioneers, especially in her 1923 essay in The Nation.

In all likelihood, the governor hasn't read those works either. He might be shocked to know Cather wrote for The Nation.

A lot of people are laughing at the governor for inadvertently helping to sell This Blessed Earth. There is a term for enjoying another's misfortune: Schadenfreude. As a Nebraskan, however, I am embarrassed for the governor, not laughing at him, so a more appropriate term is fremdschämen. It's a sentiment applicable to much in Nebraska politics this day and age.

Release of the Mueller Report

January, 2019

Washington -- The confirmation hearing of William Barr for Attorney General left a huge issue hanging: whether Barr, if confirmed, will release the forthcoming Mueller Report to Congress.

Whether he does or not, Mueller can take it upon himself to provide it to Congress under the Lloyd-Lafollette Act of 1912. Mueller is a government employee, paid by taxpayers, and is protected from being dismissed for doing so by the plain language of the Act:

"the right of employees ... to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied." 5 U.S.C. § 7211

"The purpose of this Act was to allow Congress to obtain uncensored, essential information from federal employees. Congress intended to allow the federal workers direct access to Congress in order to register complaints about conduct by their supervisors and to report corruption or incompetence."*

That pretty much sums up the situation. Barr could refuse to transmit the report to Congress, but Mueller could certainly act on his own, which would be consistent with his charge to investigate.**

* From https://en.wikipedia.org/
accessed 16 January 2019.

** Moreover, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 makes it illegal for any person to use federal money to “implement or enforce any nondisclosure policy, form, or agreement” that does not explicitly inform federal employees of their right to report any “violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety” to any member of Congress.... See commentary by Stephen M. Kohn at https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/judicial/402027-are-trumps-ndas-legal

How to End the Federal Shutdown

January, 2019

Washington -- Here's a way to end the shutdown quickly: agree to appoint a High Commission to handle border security enhancement, and empower it to make decisions as to where on the Southern border to build physical barriers and where to use other means and measures. Give it two years and an appropriation made up of new money and money previously appropriated but unspent, not to exceed $5 billion.

The High Commission would be headed by George Schultz and George Mitchell, impeccably credentialed statesmen, who would seek the advice of security and legal experts to help guide the decisions.

The president said on national television that he was following the advice of experts, so this should satisfy him, as should the designation of a High Commission. Democrats have previously acknowledged the need for physical barriers of some nature in some locations, so this should satisfy them. No one needs to blink first.

This is not so much a compromise as a expedient way forward that would result in better border security as well as reopen the government.

The country is in a perilous state, vulnerable to health, transportation, and national security dangers far more serious than any dispute over physical barrier design. We need to press for solutions to open the government, commensurate with growing risks.

Lessons from The Nation's Prairie Capital

January, 2019

Lincoln -- Some days are better than others when it comes to governments, whether federal, state, or local. On January 9, 2019, as the federal government remained partially closed and the president walked out of a meeting to open it, state and local officials meeting in Lincoln calmly discussed and made progress on long range planning for the prairie grassland area northwest of the city.

The Lincoln meeting was chaired by the mayor and attended by top city officials and natural resource administrators from the University of Nebraska. The staff work for the meeting was excellent and the discussion moved forward based on facts and science. The meeting concluded with a sense of progress and accomplishment. Would that such people were in charge at the federal level.

A highlight of the meeting for me was an aside from a university official who reported that a recent visitor to Lincoln, a national leader in the discipline of range management, wanted to visit the grave of Frederic Clements in Wyuka cemetery, to pay homage to the remarkable founder of plant ecology. They found the gravesite and paid their respects. Clements was born in Lincoln and studied under Professor Charles Bessey before revolutionizing the world of life sciences with his far-reaching theories. His work (and that of his equally remarkable wife Edith Schwartz Clements) lives on not only in the history of science, but on the practical level in soil and water conservation efforts worldwide.

Great people and great lessons can come out of Lincoln, The Nation's Prairie Capital.

Passing the Baton

January, 2019

Washington -- The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has, as somewhat expected, denied our remand request in the last of the nine civil fraud cases we brought against student loan lenders. The last case took over eleven years of back-and-forth wins and losses.

The overall final score therefore remains at 7-2. Seven lenders settled, each paying back in the millions.* One lender was determined by the court to be an arm of a state government, thus immune from suit.** The last defendant escaped, but its litigation expenses exceeded what it could have settled for and it faces additional litigation from others because of the losses it incurred in fighting our case.

Our overall record with the 4th Circuit is now concluded at 3-1. Over the years, we won three important decisions from the Richmond court. We could have ended at 3-0 and not tried for a fourth victory, but I felt an obligation to students, families, and taxpayers to continue until the legal process was fully concluded.

One of our Circuit Court victories was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, so our record there is 1-0. That case will remain an important precedent in Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence.

The baton is now passed to others whose own cases are well underway. Borrowers have filed class action lawsuits based on our 2017 victory stripping sovereign immunity from the last defendant. A state attorney general has likewise brought suit on behalf of borrowers and prevailed in the first round of litigation. More will follow. The baton has been passed with a good lead for the final legs.

I express again much gratitude to my legal teams. And settlement monies have been invested back into charities that protect students, veterans, families, and taxpayers from unscrupulous and predatory practices in higher education finance.

* The paybacks did not cover the amounts illegally claimed, however. Although the Inspector General determined that all such funds should be returned to the U.S. Treasury, Secretary Margaret Spellings overruled the Inspector General and allowed the lenders to keep the proceeds of their false claims. Hence the lawsuit under the False Claims Act to recover the funds.

** The Arkansas lender conceded, however, that it had made improper claims and voluntarily returned approximately $6 million to the Treasury prior to the lawsuit. My own research determined that the amount at issue was closer to $12 million, so the outcome was more of a tie than a loss. Because of this 50-50 split, the overall outcome could also be described as 7-1-1.