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.