Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets: Part Two

April, 2019

Lincoln -- Part One of this blog encouraged state and local elected officials to get behind a "Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets" movement, to scale up what is happening in Lincoln, Nebraska.

That means you, Nebraska Governor Rickets, and you, Nebraska Board of Regents. Nebraska agriculture is in a tailspin and needs new thinking based on what is good for healthy Nebraska minds and bodies, and good for new markets for agricultural products.

Nebraska, incredibly, imports most of its food, as do other corn-belt states. Why? Because former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said "Get big or get out" and proclaimed that foreign markets for processed foods were the future.

That's now demonstrably wrong. After five decades of such policies, Nebraska rural areas are rapidly depopulating; foreign markets are in a shambles; processed foods are ruining the health of people at home and abroad. See "Planet Fat" in the New York Times.

Part Two invites national candidates for president and for Congress to get behind a "Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets" movement. In 2016, candidate Hillary Clinton had no rural policy and failed to campaign adequately in Wisconsin and Michigan, two important agricultural states. No wonder she lost. Current president Donald Trump has been a market-wrecker nonpareil. His Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is a warmed-over Earl Butz, (presumably) without the dirty, racist jokes and the tax cheating that landed Butz in prison.

Some Democrats are focusing for 2020 on what they are against: agricultural monopolies. Elizabeth Warren summons William Jennings Bryan; Amy Klobuchar recalls the Granger Movement. They are wise to do so, if only to shame the current generation of meek farmers and ranchers who are preparing themselves to become serfs contracted to Chinese-owned corporations. Most Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 have no identifiable rural policies at all.

What candidates for national office need is something to be for, as well as against. That's what "Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets" provides. It's hopeful, workable, scalable. It's capitalism* put to work for jobs, for health. That's what rural America needs and what candidates would do well to work into their policy platforms.

* Many market concepts are spelled out in detail in a 2017 collection of works published by the St. Louis Federal Reserve and USDA. The authors of "Harvesting Opportunity" include agricultural policy experts, economists, businessmen, and bankers.

Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets: Part One

April, 2019

Lincoln -- Heartening news from Lincoln: the Healthy Food Access Kitchen is about to open.

Funded by the local Community Health Endowment, it will prepare nutritious food for the city's most vulnerable children and distribute it through the caterer Kinder Bites. And it will prepare healthy food for those of all ages in Lincoln's neediest neighborhoods through Lincoln Fresh, operated by the Lincoln Food Bank.

According to the Lincoln JournalStar, a local and regional healthy food marketer will soon be sharing space with the new Food Access Kitchen:

"A second business, Lone Tree Foods, will also utilize the space to wash, prep and package locally produced foods (including produce, dairy and meats) for distribution to customers such as schools, hospitals and other retail locations. This partnership will not only result in greater circulation of locally sourced produce, but also support business growth opportunities for local farmers and decrease food waste."

This is great news. Schools, hospitals, and retail locations will start getting more locally sourced produce. (Hospitals especially need it.) Nebraska farmers will have new markets for their produce, dairy, and meat. All this will stimulate market business opportunities and jobs.

Question: Could this scale up and spread to other cities? Answer: Yes, with seed money.

An appropriate source for scaling up would be within the USDA budget, at little or no additional cost to taxpayers. The current federal SNAP (food stamp) program is incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to its own mission, in that billions in SNAP dollars are spent annually by recipients on processed junk foods, especially sugared soft drinks. Ironically, SNAP is partly responsible for the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics. Other USDA programs, like WIC, do not permit use of federal dollars for the purchase of self-destructive products, so such a limitation would bring consistency to federal policy.

The resulting SNAP savings could be moved within the USDA budget to programs that promote the development of local and regional healthy food markets.

State and local elected officials in states like Nebraska, where the rural economy badly needs new markets and where nutrition-related diseases are epidemic, should be getting behind efforts like those now being set in motion by Lincoln's Community Health Endowment. And elected officials should be demanding changes to USDA budget priorities so as to help fund a movement toward "Healthy Foods, Healthy Markets."

The Scandal is The Scandal

April, 2019

Washington -- It's supposedly a national scandal, how the rich and famous cheat to get their children into elite colleges. The real scandal is that we pay so much attention to it, while ignoring the plight of thousands of students and families who followed the law and have been cheated out of student benefits actually due them. The scandal is the scandal.

To be sure, the rich cheaters in the so-called Varsity Blues scandal deserve what's coming to them, including jail time if that's in store. If there's any doubt, Caitlin Flanagan, writing in The Atlantic, erases it. She is especially hard on the lawyers and high-flying investment professionals who knew the rules but violated them anyway. Heaven knows what else they do in professional life to cheat.

Meanwhile, The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a welcome departure from their usual beats, let reporters Michael Vasquez and Donald Bauman tell the under-covered stories of upwards of half a million student victims of closed colleges:

"All across the United States..., the lives of students and their families have been plunged into unexpected crisis. A Chronicle analysis of federal data shows that, in the last five years, about half a million students have been displaced by college closures, which together shuttered more than 1,200 campuses. That’s an average of 20 campus closures per month. Many of those affected are working adults living paycheck to paycheck, who carried hopes that college would be their path to the middle class.

"When a college fully goes out of business, there is no easy fix for the people caught in the crossfire. Closures can be both traumatic and financially ruinous for students — many of whom are single parents...."

Most of the colleges going out of business are for-profit schools that should never have been allowed to participate in federal programs in the first place. Millions of federal dollars intended for these students are missing. The U.S. Department of Education, staffed at the top levels by former executives of these colleges, is dragging its feet in cancelling the student-loans of their victims, although required by law to do so.

So half a million lives have been disrupted, but there's no major media scandal because no celebrities or elite schools are involved in what is prosaically called, in higher education circles, the Borrower Defense matter.

There is an equally troubling scandal in the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, under which borrowers are entitled to have the balance of their student loans cancelled after ten years of work in public service jobs. This one is at least getting a catchy headline in the New York Times:
Your Student Loan Servicer Will Call You Back in a Year. Sorry.
This program, with tens of thousands of victims, is foundering because the same officials at the Department of Education who are unwilling to help closed-school victims are also in no hurry to see anyone get benefits under PSLF. Credit NYT reporter Ron Lieber for staying on top of this.

Congress, unfortunately, is not up to holding the Department of Education's feet to the fire on either of these administrative calamities. Congressional hearings, with rare exception, have been almost genteel, focusing on what curative might be found legislatively for the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, rather than what should be done right now to investigate corruption and racketeering at the Department of Education. There's much to investigate if there's a will to do it.

Here is a suggestion for both justice and proportionality in the Varsity Blues, Borrower Defense, and PSLF scandals. The Department of Justice should, as a condition of settlement with the rich and famous Varsity Blues perpetrators, require that they pay substantial fines to the non-profit charities representing the Borrower Defense and PSLF victims. That way, lawbreakers who tried to rig the college admission system would be aiding those who only tried to get ahead by following the rules.

That would be a satisfying measure of justice, maybe even better than jail. It would give the Varsity Blues perpetrators an opportunity for redemption as part of contrition. It would be good for the country.

This is not without precedent. For example, as part of a settlement with DOJ, Bank of America made contributions to charities in 2016 as part of a larger settlement.

Which charities would be appropriate beneficiaries of Varsity Blues fines, to help Borrower Defense, PSLF, and similar victims of higher education predators? Here's a start: National Consumer Law Center; Veterans Education Success; Project on Predatory Student Lending; Public Citizen; National Student Legal Defense Network; and the Student Borrower Protection Center.

Short of moral leadership from a Secretary of Education who could repair the damage from all three scandals – it won't happen under the current one – this might be the next best alternative.

Time to Re-think the NU Presidency?

April, 2019

Lincoln -- The resignation of University of Nebraska president Hank Bounds has set off discussion as to what led him to resign and speculation as to who might be next to fill the office. Bounds said he was overworked and wanted to spend more time with his family. That's a good reason.

Sometime soon, however, we should all ask whether this might be a good time for structural or job-description reforms, in view of evidence that the NU president's job is too much for any one person.

There is no doubt that the current university governance structure, which dates from the early 1970s, has had unfortunate, unintended consequences.

The University of Nebraska was once among the nation's prestigious research universities with membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU). Such membership helped attract top faculty, among other benefits. But when the Omaha-based College of Medicine was broken off from the Lincoln-based colleges, AAU eventually forced "UNL" out of the exclusive association. Other universities that kept their medical centers administratively attached to their main campuses did not suffer such a fate.

The existing NU structure also did not save UNL from getting in trouble with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), creating yet more faculty problems. Although it was UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green who violated (according to AAUP) a graduate student's due process, NU president Hank Bounds was of little help and essentially a bystander in the controversy, which drew unwanted national headlines.

Durward "Woody" Varner, creator of the current structure and the first NU president, was the model of a strong leader who, I believe, would have either charmed or bulled his way out of both the AAU and AAUP controversies. He likely would have persuaded Wisconsin's Biddy Martin and Michigan's Mary Sue Coleman to drop their effort to remove UNL from the AAU, something then-UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman could not do. And Woody Varner would not have been a bystander to the state legislative interference that got UNL into trouble with the AAUP. When legislative interference threatened NU in the 1970s, Varner persuaded the Board of Regents to sue to retain University independence, and he won.

But even for Woody Varner, the NU presidency may have been too demanding. He resigned unexpectedly to take a job with the NU Foundation. Which raises the question of whether the current structure expects too much of any individual.

On top of that, NU faces difficult times ahead because Nebraska's agricultural economy is failing. Hank Bounds recently put together an impressive attempt to show how the University can help the state's economy, but it has no urgent or visionary emphasis on agriculture, where it is most needed. And even his limited vision is hardly shared at the statehouse, where the executive branch is in one-party control and still looking to the farm-policy philosophy of Earl ("Get Big or Get Out") Butz* as a lodestar, which has long since lost its luster.

Rick Ruggles of the Omaha-World Herald has summarized some of the issues facing the next president. But the failing farm economy is not listed, nor is the fact that whoever the NU president is, he or she will face intense pressure from the agribusiness lobby to acquiesce in, if not outright assist in, the further monopolization and consolidation of Nebraska agriculture, which is a part of the problem.

My recommendation to the Regents is to look at the NU governance structure at least to note how it has not been a ringing success, then write a job description for the next NU president that is attuned to the times. Relieve the president of administrative duties that wore out Hank Bounds. Instruct the presidential search organization to look for a leader who can stand up for the University on the big, national reputation issues, and who has a vision to fulfill the land-grant university's mission to create a robust rural economy. That means people like Tom Vilsack and Mark Dayton, Wes Jackson and Anna Johnson, should be consulted in the search. As agriculture goes, so goes the University.

Woody Varner created an office of the presidency at Varner Hall with big shoes. The Board of Regents should try to fill them.
*Earl Butz was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford until he resigned over telling one too many inappropriate jokes. He later went to prison for tax-evasion. He was an agricultural economist from Purdue University who championed large agribusiness, corporate farming, and consolidation of farms.