Unknown Nebraska Hero

December, 2020

Lincoln – This fall, when the spread of Covid-19 was raging across Nebraska, one person, an unidentified state employee working in a Unicameral office, came to the rescue.  He or she identified an existing state law that allows cities to implement necessary countermeasures of their choosing against infectious diseases. It is Neb. Rev. Stat. § 16-238.

Cities and local health departments across the state quickly acted on this discovery, many choosing to implement mask mandates and to take other appropriate actions. The Covid curve has now bent downward as a result.

They had not done this before, based on instructions from the governor and the attorney general, who either did not know of this statute, or chose not to inform local governments of its existence.  Both the governor and the attorney general, in fact, had threatened local officials with legal consequences for acting without their permission.  The governor and attorney general were following the lead of the president, who ridiculed mask-wearing and told the country the virus would soon go away on its own.  

At the same time the state employee discovered the key statute, many doctors, nurses, and hospital leaders intensified their pleas to the public to limit gatherings and to wear masks.   They testified at public hearings across the state in support of measures authorized by the heretofore neglected law.  

It worked.  Nebraska is now in a much better place as it continues to fight the pandemic.  Lincoln and Omaha, which had already defied the governor and attorney general based on other statutes, saw their hospital conditions improve because of fewer patients coming from Nebraska's other jurisdictions. 

I called the office of Senator Justin Wayne in the state capitol, where the unknown hero works, and asked to know his or her name.  The receptionist declined to tell me, other than that the person indeed works in that office.  I asked the receptionist if she was that person.  She laughed and said no.

But I asked her to pass along the heartfelt thanks of a Nebraska taxpayer who is getting his money's worth from the work of one unknown Nebraska hero.  One person can indeed make a difference.  On behalf of many whose very lives may have been saved, thank you. 

Reality at Bryan Hospital

December, 2020

Lincoln – Nebraska's Covid crisis is out of control.  Despite repeated pleas from health professionals, pandemic avoidance measures are being ignored by far too many people. 

An account of the dire situation in one Lincoln hospital, Bryan Memorial, has just appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.  It is the best Covid reporting I have seen this year, from anyone, anywhere.   The author is Chris Dunker.

The situation developed because of, and is exacerbated by, dangerously inept political leadership, which is only getting worse.  When hospitalizations declined slightly in recent days, because of a raised bar for admissions, desperate entreaties from doctors and nurses, and new mask mandates from more local governments, Governor Ricketts relaxed countermeasures against group gatherings, the effect of which will be to push hospitals once again past their limits. 

It is as if the Governor is watching for any available hospital space, so as to fill it up with new patients.  For months he has refused to look at numbers of cases or deaths, but to the availability of hospital beds for his basic guidance.  

Despite the recent exemplary reporting, Nebraska's fourth estate has not distinguished itself in calling out the deficient political leadership that is costing hundreds of Nebraskans their lives, needlessly.  The press has customarily reported on the Governor's pronouncements as if they were public service announcements, and not taken the opportunity simultaneously to inform the public that those fighting the Covid battles on the front lines have been screaming, sometimes literally, that more must be done beyond the Governor's weak responses to the pandemic challenge.  

Joe Biden and Tom Vilsack

December, 2020

Washington – Tom Vilsack will be nominated for Secretary of Agriculture.  Some readers of this blog may have preferred other candidates, like Chellie Pingree, Steve Bullock, Marcia Fudge, or Heidi Heitkamp, each of whom also brought strong credentials to bolster their cases for the job.  

But none of them could match the personal relationship that Tom Vilsack has with President-elect Joe Biden.  That is a big advantage on which Vilsack should be able to capitalize, to great benefit for food and agriculture causes. The fact that Marcia Fudge will take over at HUD means her voice for better American nutrition will be heard in the Biden cabinet as well. 

Two points stood out for me in the announcement naming Vilsack: 

● "He is committed to helping farmers, ranchers and producers by creating new and growing markets here and around the world, identifying new income opportunities as rural landowners use their land to sequester carbon and generate renewable energy and fuel, and supporting regenerative farming practices."

● "Vilsack will be a trusted partner to the President-elect. He will expand access to safe, affordable, nutritious food for those most in need; build resilient rural economies; invest in communities that struggle with persistent poverty; and fight the opioid epidemic."

The best way Tom Vilsack can achieve these goals is to use his influence with Joe Biden to elevate the causes above the department level, so as to incorporate them into the thinking and priorities at the Council of Economic Advisors, the Office of Management and Budget, the office of the Climate Envoy, and the Domestic Policy Council.  

There are no more important issues in America than climate change and ruinous epidemics magnified  by poor nutrition.  They need urgent action at the highest levels. If that is something Tom Vilsack can achieve — and I believe he can — then he is the right person for the job and he deserves everyone's support.  Proof of his success will come when Ceci Rouse, Neera Tanden, and Susan Rice become the leading advocates of the Biden rural plan.  

It is also no secret that Tom Vilsack has told Joe Biden in no uncertain terms that rural America must not be neglected, as Democrats have been doing for years at their own peril.  His nomination shows an acknowledgement of that and with it, we hope, a long overdue reversal of Democratic fortunes in the heartland, to be led by the President himself, for the good of the two-party system and the very future of American democracy.      

Student Loan Debt Remains a Hot Topic

December, 2020

Washington – The Biden Administration has big decisions to make on student loans.  Here are some suggestions.

Immediately:  Support bipartisan legislation to treat student loans as other consumer debt is treated and, administratively, develop new, more flexible standards to determine conditions under which to oppose borrower bankruptcies.  Such changes will not only assist borrowers in need of a new start, as recognized even in the Constitution, but provide better incentives throughout the student loan system to help borrowers in trouble, as opposed to mistreating them on the assumption they cannot take bankruptcy. 

So go big on straightening out bankruptcy, as it is long overdue.  

Immediately:  Use existing "compromise and settlement "powers (20 U.S.C. 1082) to begin addressing pending cases hung up in borrower defense litigation and in servicer mismanagement of loan cancellation programs, such as disability discharges and public service loan forgiveness.  The guiding principle should be that if a borrower is in trouble because of the actions, mistakes, or misrepresentations of a school, guaranty agency, servicer, accreditor, or government agency, the Secretary will take action to slice through the matter using these powers, regardless of the Gordian knots fashioned as obstacles by the Trump Administration.  

So go big on rescuing borrowers who are in student loan hell through no fault of their own.   

Quickly:  Determine workable paths to provide general student loan relief for those (a) most in need, which will provide (b) the most benefit to the pandemic-damaged economy, and which will provide (c) long-term student debt solutions.  Choosing the wrong paths may achieve some goals at the expense of others.  

The way to find the best paths is by examining equities.  The best paths will have not only vertical and horizontal equities within the borrower population, but also across economic sectors and over time.  

A place to start is the excellent article "How the Biden Administration Can Free Americans from Student Debt," by Astra Taylor, who argues, with impressive sourcing, for a student debt jubilee, essentially wiping out existing student debt through administrative action.  This could do well by (b) and would achieve a measure of equity across economic sectors, inasmuch as much corporate debt has been wiped away twice in this century for economic reasons.  

But it does not fulfill (a) as it falls short in terms of vertical (need based) equity and it does not adequately address (c). As to the latter, the Biden Administration should not accept the jubilee premise that "the slate must periodically be wiped clean."  Cancelling debt without addressing the underlying causes that created such mountains of it only sets up succeeding generations for the same trouble.

There is another problem: under current law, the amount of cancellation is taxable, diminishing its benefit both to individuals and to the economy.  While the Secretary of Education has the authority to cancel debt, the power to change the tax code rests in Congress, according to most authorities, not with the Secretary of the Treasury. 

Which means that the bests paths to achieve (a), (b), and (c) run through legislation, and the best way to get legislative action may be a promise to use executive action as a blunt instrument should legislation fail.  

But there is good reason to believe legislation could succeed if the right parties are at the table to make it happen.  Foremost among them would be those (of both conservative and progressive persuasions) who want the debt relief to be need-based.  The higher education community must also be represented with a convincing case that it would be better to commit potentially hundreds of billions of dollars* on ways to prevent future debt crises than to put it toward cancelling debt for those who have no strong case for cancellation.  For example, the higher education community should be ready to condition participation in HEA Title IV programs on use of federal aid, like Pell Grants, to reduce or eliminate borrowing.  And that is only for starters.     

A place at the table should also be made for those who prefer dealing with debt issues through the tax expenditure side of the equation; that is, potentially through need-based, refundable tax credits both to give relief and to provide self-initiated resolution of claims and benefits.  This could relieve much administrative burden.  It could also set the stage for moving the whole student loan collection process away from troubled servicers toward tax-based repayments, as has been successfully demonstrated in several other countries.  

Legislative solutions could and should be bi-partisan; the current situation in the financing of higher education is appalling from many perspectives.  

The best way for the Biden Administration to proceed is to act aggressively at the outset to deal with bankruptcy and mismanagement issues, which are clearly within executive purview, and to put forth a legislative agenda to deal with issues best addressed by Congress.  

To keep the legislative initiative moving, a back-up plan should be readied for action to start cancelling debt by executive action to demonstrate unwavering commitment.  

For example, a first tier of such cancellation could be aimed at those who were Pell-eligible.  Demographic analyses, to take into consideration level of education, racial and gender imbalances, and even geographic considerations could inform the development of a systematic executive-action schedule for loan cancellation, to be triggered by how well the economy is doing as well as by prospects for legislative solutions.  This should replace various campaign offerings of $10,000 or $50,000 cancellations.

Going big, as recommended here, need not be seen as going partisan, and must not be, so as to give the country our best chance to overcome the huge student debt imbroglio for good. 

* How much of this is real money is in doubt.  Of the $1.6 trillion of student loan debt, according to a recent analysis, $435 billion may be uncollectible and has effectively been written off.  This is nearly the size of the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the Great Recession.  However, it is offset in federal budget scoring by fees and higher than market interest rates on student loans (especially on parent loans), which only exacerbates the problem and leads to more borrowers being put at risk.  This is a vicious cycle in which the true amount probably extends well beyond even the $435 billion identified.  Nevertheless, there are still substantial sums that are in repayment, in the hundreds of billions although not in the trillions.         

Three New Law Review Articles on Student Loans

November, 2020

Washington –  Three new, notable law review articles on student loans deserve the attention of the entire higher education community, especially those concerned about lapses in administering student loans at the U.S. Department of Education.  Each of the articles also intersects with topics explored in this blog in recent years.  

First is "Illusory Due Process: The Broken Student Loan Hearing System," by Deanne Loonin, in which the author provides an inside look at how federal contractors go through the motions of due process to give the appearance that student loans are administered under the rule of law.  The article presents original research, observation, and analysis never before published and is a remarkable contribution to the higher education literature. Toward the end of the article, reforms are offered to reverse the descent of the department and its contractors to such unacceptable levels.  One draws on, and quotes from, this blog's conclusion that corruption within the agency is an underlying cause of the descent. 

Second is David S. Rubenstein's "State Regulation of Federal Contractors: Three Puzzles of Procurement Preemption."   From the abstract: 

This article unpacks three doctrinal puzzles at the intersection of federalism and federal contracting, using student loan law as its anchoring case study. Currently, more than $1 trillion of federal student loan debt is serviced by private financial institutions under contract with the Department of Education. These loan servicers have allegedly engaged in systemic consumer abuses but are seldom held accountable by the federal government. To bridge the accountability gap, several states have recently passed “Student Borrower Bills of Rights.” These state laws include provisions to regulate the student loan servicing industry, including the Department’s federal contractors. States undoubtedly have legitimate interests to protect their residents, communities, and local economies against industry malfeasance. The overarching question, however, is whether federal law prohibits states from performing this remedial function.

Although this article is a thorough discussion of many aspects of "preemption," it would have been even more instructive had the author explained why the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos suddenly inflicted the dubious doctrine on the student loan world in 2018.  It was in considerable part due to favored contractors' loss of sovereign immunity, much discussed in this blog in previous posts.  One of the first actions of the Biden Administration should be to withdraw the DeVos preemption edict, not only on grounds that it hurts borrowers, but that several courts across the country have found it wanting.

Third is "The Sovereign Shield," by Kate Sablosky Elengold and Jonathan Glater.  The authors explore how agencies like the Department of Education are subject to capture by interest groups. They even name names, as in this passage: 

The case of student loan servicers illustrates potential capture concerns all along the spectrum. We turn again to PHEAA as an illustration of the revolving door between industry and government. Sally Stroup, for example, spent twelve years on the staff of PHEAA before staffing the House Education and Workforce Committee, had a brief stopover as a lobbyist for Apollo Education Group, which represents for-profit colleges and universities, and then was named as the Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education in President George W. Bush’s Department of Education.  Ms. Stroup is far from the only example. One of President Donald Trump’s most trusted campaign advisors now owns the lobbying firm representing PHEAA, Kathleen Smith, a former DeVos top aide, has been hired by PHEAA as senior vice president and director of federal relations, and a former PHEAA executive, Robert Cameron, was named the CFPB’s private student loan ombudsman, a job that has been called “the nation’s top [student loan] watchdog.”

The question the authors don't address, but should, is whether this is not just capture, but racketeering and corruption.  Such has been suggested before in the "Iron Triangle" series of this blog, naming the same names and several more.  A fuller treatment is offered in Dan E. Moldea's 2020 book,  Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education.  

All three of the above law journal articles are required reading for those who want to understand current student loan dilemmas and choices confronting the nation.  In times past, the higher education trade press covered these matters; now it is increasingly only law journals.  But at least, as illustrated by these outstanding articles, someone is paying attention to the lows to which a major federal agency has fallen.     

Listening to Trump Voters

November, 2020

Lincoln – Our American democratic institutions have been tested, but they held.  We have conducted a free and fair presidential election.  Joe Biden won the popular vote by six million; the electoral vote will turn out to have a substantial margin as well.  

This does not mean our democratic norms won't be tested again, and soon.  The fact that over 70 million voters chose Donald Trump, who delighted in upending our institutions, over Joe Biden, a dedicated institutionalist, signals that we have not heard the last of whatever it is that has made so many Americans down on the very foundations of our country.

We need to find out just what that is.  We should hear, systematically, from Trump voters to learn more about what drives their deeply-felt opinions and grievances.

Some three and a half years ago, I suggested that Democrats were out of touch with voters, especially in the rural heartland, and that they should do an "Eat Crow Tour" to listen to why voters rejected them.  Part of the problem, I thought, was simply neglect, which could be remedied by multiple heartfelt apologies.  Obviously, that idea went nowhere.  

It's time to resuscitate it, but make it over without any party ownership.  Call it the American Unity Project or something that suggests goodwill and a genuine desire to learn what drives so many people to embrace candidates and policies that are not in the American political tradition.

Or maybe they are; it's just different traditions that are re-asserting themselves.  

I suggest that several non-partisan civic organizations band together to hold hearing-like sessions around the country to take public testimony.  The testimony should not seek balance; it should be invited from Trump supporters, to give them a chance, for better or worse, to be heard.  The testimony should be recorded and archived, to be analyzed by scholars and non-partisan individuals who can sort it out for common threads and themes.

Who could preside over the taking of such testimony?  I'm sure there are plenty of people who have the credibility and the demeanor to do so.  Not everyone in the country is at everyone else's throat.  I'd certainly like to hear from rural Trump voters about what shapes their political behavior.  And to know if their opinions of Trump have changed any after he sought to overturn the election.    

As a political scientist, I have hypotheses about what we might hear, but I am not a Trump voter.  There is nothing like collecting actual evidence.  There is also the cathartic effect that could be a substantial benefit from the effort. 

I am not willing to trust the future of the country to a few pundits or propagandists who give us their wisdom about how to read the results of the 2020 election.  We need to hear from citizens themselves to understand just what has driven them to the brink of unraveling America and to see what repairs are in order to keep it from actually happening.   The repairs to our institutions might not be as difficult as we think, but if they are, we need to know that, too.  


Needed: Algorithms to Broaden the Mind

November, 2020

Lincoln, Berlin – This morning's New York Times offers an insightful piece by Bret Stephens about Germany's Dolchstosslegende.  It includes this observation in reference to the fall of the Weimar Republic:

In a famous passage of “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt noted how “Mass Propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

How apt, so as to understand our own times.  But that is not the point of this post.

I found the column because I like to look for thoughtful writers, like Bret Stephens, who are not necessarily of my own political persuasion.  I want to see their analyses of issues.  Which is why I have often turned to writers like George Will and, before him, William F. Buckley, before reading those whose views may be closer to my own.  Not to mention learning something of what they had to offer, including vocabulary.  Even if they sometimes drove me to despair.  

A person can go far by knowing both sides of issues, not just arguments in support of one's own views.

I recall a conversation a few years ago, among friends, about social media algorithms.  Some said they wanted to be led to sites that were aligned with their interests and their thinking, be it shopping or politics.  That, they argued, was human nature.

Some of us said the opposite.  Regardless of shopping benefits, we did not want to participate in a big political groupthink exercise.  

Social media algorithms are clever and sophisticated.  What I'd like to see is an app that senses where I need to broaden my mind, which leads me to understanding different perspectives beyond my own.

Such an approach might even help save Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms whose algorithms keep driving us apart.  Stop treating us like Pavlov's dogs. 

Bret Stephens' Dolchstosslegende column is not going to go viral, but there should be an algorithm that gives it the attention it deserves.   


Why Such Covid Case Disparities?

November, 2020

Washington, Lincoln, Berlin –  This week the number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population was 1345 in Berlin; 2818 in the Washington DC suburb Montgomery County; 4098 in Lancaster County, Nebraska; and 5252 in Nebraska overall.   

This is bad news all around, but why the disparities?  The easy answer is that the more the people fought against the virus with proven countermeasures, the more it paid off.   

The harder question is why the character and will to fight is so weak in Nebraska, and in Great Plains states generally.  

One factor seems to be the susceptibility of populations to partisan political propaganda, which, for whatever reasons (mostly spurious), has been discouraging Covid countermeasures, both subtly and overtly.  Nebraska, overall, has been blanketed for months with political messaging downplaying Covid; Lincoln not quite so much, being a city with competitive parties; Montgomery County even less, being the home of many scientific organizations and agencies, including NIH and FDA.  

Berlin is mostly beyond the reach of American commentators on Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, and One America Network.  It also knows the destructive power of political propaganda, having once succumbed to the master who perfected it, Joseph Goebbels.  

Nebraska is showing faint and belated signs of resistance to its state political leadership, which incredibly has refused for months to look at numbers of cases and has actually threatened action against local governments that want to put up a fight against Covid with all tools at their disposal.   More cities and counties are finally beginning to take matters into their own hands.  They have been encouraged to do so by the Nebraska medical community, which itself was slow off the mark but finally came to understand that they should not have lent their credibility to the half-measures and winks of state officials that kept the leadership in favor with the propagandists rather than going all out to save lives.  

What Nebraska could use now are a few football analogies directed toward its political leadership, to encourage them show a change of heart:  Stop calling the same play that doesn't work (hoping for available hospital beds); fully use the running, passing, and kicking games (contact-tracing, mask mandates, shelter-in-place where necessary); play hard all four quarters; make a fourth quarter comeback.  

Also:  Flip the channel on television sets away from govertainment to sports where the players follow the rules or are tossed out, and to science and nature programs, where pursuing truth is valued above all.    

Fighting Covid Spread with Science and Truth

November, 2020

Lincoln – A new research paper from the KU Institute for Policy and Social Research concludes that mask mandates are an effective way to fight Covid-19.  It analyzes the "natural experiment" underway in Kansas, previously discussed in an earlier post.

In Kansas, there was "a 50% reduction in the spread of COVID-19 in counties that had a mask mandate compared to those without."  This is a profoundly encouraging finding if we have the will to learn from it.  

Nebraska has a similar natural experiment underway, because mask mandates are in effect in Lancaster and Douglas counties but not elsewhere.  NU researchers should do a similar study and go one obvious step further: hypothesize and test a causal relationship, that the higher a county's percentage vote on November 3rd for Donald Trump (notably opposed to mask mandates), the higher the county Covid cases per capita.  

Aversion to masks and mask-mandates is observably rampant in rural Nebraska.  It must be considered a cause of the spread of Covid locally and elsewhere.  Going maskless is not just taking a risk with one's own life, it is an act of spreading the disease to others.  Rural Covid surges are actually taking over urban hospitals. From the Lincoln Journal Star:

Hospitalizations continue to surge in Lancaster County..., setting a new daily hospital census record for the third consecutive day. The vast majority of those hospitalized...are not Lancaster County residents....

The spread of disease has causes.  If this were the Bubonic Plague, we would be doing whatever we could to eliminate rats, fleas, and lice that spread it.  Likewise, we should deal honestly with spread of Covid by those who insist that the disease is a hoax, that masks don't work, or that individual freedom is at stake in the matter of mask mandates.  

Freedom is indeed at stake: the individual freedoms and the very lives of the victims of such beliefs and behaviors.  "The freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." 

It is shameful that our elected leaders will not use their positions to fight Covid for all they are worth, by changing the behaviors of the maskless with mandates.  Mandates work.  It is time to put politics totally aside and save lives.  Enough with the years of false witness,* making victims of us all. 

The KU study demonstrates a use of the tools of science to discover truth.  May we read it – and heed it – north of the border. 


* See the Ninth Commandment.

Dangerous Post-Election Strategies

November, 2020

Washington – As noted in earlier posts, the after-election strategies of both presidential contestants depend somewhat on which political party controls the House of Representatives on a one-vote-per-state basis, as provided in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution.  The losing candidate could try to move the presidential selection away from the Electoral College into the House, if his party controls it.  

Indeed, Donald Trump has lost the popular vote and is well behind in the Electoral College, but Republicans will control the House (on a one-vote-per-state basis), so a strategy is afoot to have Republican-controlled state legislatures certify alternative slates of electors in hopes that Joe Biden could be denied sufficient electoral votes to reach the 270 he needs to be declared the Electoral College winner.  

The rationale of the state legislatures would be that the popular elections in their respective states were fraudulent.  Although there seems to be no evidence of any significant fraud, a vigorous campaign is underway to make citizens believe there was.  

However, under law it is governors who certify electoral slates, so it becomes a question of which states did Biden win that have both Republican legislatures that would overturn a popular vote and a Republican governor who would certify a Republican slate of electors.  That appears to be only Arizona and Georgia.  But their combined 27 electoral votes, subtracted from Biden's current projection of 306, still leaves Biden with 279.  

What if Republican legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where Biden won the popular vote narrowly, certify slates to compete with the slates certified by their Democratic governors?  That would drop Biden below 270.  However, both houses of Congress must agree on rejection of any slates certified by governors, and the House, with a Democratic majority for such a vote, would not agree.

So it appears as if any strategy to deprive Biden of at least 270 electoral votes is not feasible, given the November 3rd election outcomes as they played out in each state.   

There is always the possibility that the courts might get involved and give a novel reading to the Constitution and to existing election laws, should any election questions come to them.  I believe this is unlikely.  It seems to me more plausible that the Roberts Court would reject such judicial contortions and instead use the occasion to try to restore Supreme Court credibility as an even-handed institution after making a misstep in Bush v. Gore in 2000.   The Court badly needs more credibility if it expects its other decisions to have public support.  

That leaves Trump with the use of the military to try to stay in power.  He has dismissed the Secretary of Defense, who showed an unwillingness to use the military for political purposes.  But Trump will also have to deal with the uniformed military leadership, which is doubtless preparing to resist misuse of the military in any effort to override the election outcome.  Officers are duty-bound to obey only lawful orders, and orders to overturn an election would not be among them.    

We can only hope it doesn't come to that, but to prepare for it if it does.  

Nebraska Covid Emergency

November, 2020

Lincoln – Nebraska's leading medical professionals are now in open public conflict with Governor Ricketts about how to deal with  Covid-19, which is out of control in Nebraska.  From the Omaha World-Herald:

Record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have prompted health care providers to call for Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to adopt stricter health measures to stem the spread of the disease.

“Nebraska hospitals are suffering,” Dr. Erica Carlsson, an emergency medicine physician at Nebraska Medicine, said on Twitter. “Our ER’s are jam-packed and we are tired. We need real mandates, enforcement of those mandates and action by the government. Nebraskans will suffer and many will die if we keep up this pace of COVID spread.”

Similar messages were posted online by health care providers from the two other Omaha-based health systems....

Dr. James Lawler, a director at UNMC’s Global Center for Health Security, said health care providers’ calls for more action reflect “the frustration and desperation that my colleagues are experiencing.”

It's long overdue for the chasm to become public.  The governor and medical professionals have been in conflict since April, but not so publicly.  

The governor's response: 

A spokesman for Ricketts said the governor’s decisions regarding pandemic restrictions are based on science and data, not social media campaigns and tweets.

Ricketts said Thursday that he wanted to wait several more weeks to see the impact of directed health measures put into effect last month...

Several more weeks?  At the cost of how many lives?  Governor, back away as quickly as you can from your previous positions and start following the advice of medical professionals on the front lines.  It is they who are basing their advice on "science and data"; you are not.  Stop the claim that mandatory mask requirements are counterproductive; there is no such evidence. Stop threatening local governments with financial penalties if they take more aggressive actions than you propose.  Stop your state health department from overruling local officials who are closest to what their local communities need.  Stop the nonsense of looking at the trailing indicator of remaining hospital beds as your "North Star" to guide you.  The beds are soon full to overflowing, because you have been looking at trailing, not leading, indicators.  Nebraska business leaders know that, too, and have aligned themselves with the recommendations of the medical community.  

Governor Ricketts is not the only politician acting irresponsibly.  Former congressman and mayor of Omaha, Hal Daub, felt ill on election day, went to vote and on his way home obtained at test which proved his suspicions correct: it was Covid.  How many people did he infect at the polls?  

All of which raises the question of what President-elect Biden can do nationwide to fight the pandemic now, because he does not take office until January 20th and the incumbent president has disengaged himself from consideration of immediate countermeasures against the pandemic.  

Recommendation:  when Biden appoints his Covid task force this week, he should ask them to come up with suggestions that would have bipartisan support and even get the current administration's agreement for immediate action where possible.  

For example, one suggestion would be to have the incumbent president use the Defense Production Act to authorize federal agencies like FEMA, DoD, and DHS to coordinate production and distribution of medical supplies, as well as emerging Covid treatments, among the states.  The president has already said he would use federal agencies to distribute vaccines, so this overdue action should not be seen as any fundamental violation of principles of federalism.

Another suggestion would be to obtain early agreement on a Covid legislative package by involving key Republican governors in negotiations to break the current congressional impasse.  Governors Charlie Baker, Phil Scott, and Larry Hogan know that getting help to states on a bipartisan basis is crucial to keeping local governments functioning.  That assistance would be not only for frontline health workers but also to keep firemen and policemen on the job, which the current administration should surely be ready to support.  

A key to combating Covid everywhere is not to wait until January 20th, but to get a running start on bipartisan actions by involving responsible Republican governors immediately.  


P.S.  (Three days later)  It's good to see the message that we can't wait from UNMC's Dr. Lawler, in the national press.  Read it here

Incredible Victory for Democracy

November, 2020

Washington, Lincoln, Berlin – The 2020 U.S. election, now winding up, will go down in history as one of democracy's greatest triumphs.  Pundits claiming it was somehow a calamity are wrong.

Look at the popular vote: the spread between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is four million and counting.  Importantly, that's not just Democratic votes; it includes votes from Republicans who split their tickets.  Republican candidates ran ahead of Trump in many races.  The incumbent, democratic norm-breaking president is being ousted on a bipartisan basis.  From Maine through Nebraska to California, Trump underperformed.  This gives nascent hope to Never Trump Republicans and those who want to return the party more to its founding principles.   

I'm also looking at what this election might do to shake up the Democratic Party, which badly needs to reconsider its election strategies.  The party may now be forced into an overdue understanding of various constituencies whose voices it has badly neglected — Hispanics and rural Americans are two obvious examples.  The Democratic Party must also clean its house of advisers who are so out of touch with America that they failed, while winning the presidency, to take the Senate and almost lost the House (not to mention their 2016 election fiasco and the Senate losses in 2018).  

But back to the historic nature of this election.  It's a huge victory for democracy, even comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to D-Day, and to the Battle of Midway.*  Let there be no mistake about the 2020 election: democracy in the U.S. faced a hugely difficult challenge, not unlike great struggles of the last century. 

How can 2020 compare to those events?  Consider these very real threats:

First, a large segment of the U.S. dangerously developed a taste for un-presidential behavior in its leader, fed by news media the likes of which have not been seen since the heyday of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the propagandist of Germany's Third Reich.  The more Trump broke norms, even of truth and decency, the more his base adherents cheered. Second, opposition party Democrats played into media hands by failing to develop their own disciplined messaging, allowing Democrats to be successfully, however wrongly, characterized as opponents of law and order, as socialists, and as totalitarians themselves who would end free speech.  Third, voter suppression techniques were widely applied by Republican Party operatives as never before, in an attempt to intimidate, discourage, and disqualify Democratic voters, all during an ongoing pandemic. 

I give much credit for overcoming these obstacles to citizens who stood for hours in long, long lines to vote, despite all. They risked their lives for democratic values.  I also give much credit to ticket-splitting Republicans (there were many), who mustered a final measure of decency and respect for our form of government to make this a bipartisan and historic victory for democracy itself.  

What did this victory prevent?  Another four years of increasingly autocratic rule, in my view, would have shredded our hard-earned international alliances, especially NATO; destroyed the best of our Civil Service; made the judicial branch subservient to the executive branch; squandered another four years in the race for climate change solutions; and undermined the integrity of future elections.  

No Kaiser, Emperor, Czar, or Comrade-Chairman ever posed a greater threat to our democracy than did the situation into which our country blundered with the election of 2016.  The disastrous fallout from that election has proved to be second only to the danger once presented by Der Führer, in my assessment.   

Let us build on this incredible 2020 election to end a shameful chapter of American history.  There is much to build on.  However, it does not serve us well to demonize those who did not contribute to the victory.  I understand Trump voters; many are not independent actors so much as media-addicted collections of vulnerable humans overwhelmed by messages of fear and division, and they reacted accordingly.  It's time to reach out to them with a more hopeful and understanding approach, which action should also be a tonic for those on the winning side as well.  

Look at the popular vote; look at the bipartisan nature of the Trump repudiation; look at the obvious yearning among voters for a return to decency and democratic values.  This was a truly great election. 


* Midway was a narrow escape from an Asian, fascist-aligned, totalitarian power.  The 1942 battle, like the 2020 election, could easily have gone the other way.  We lost the carrier USS Yorktown, but the Japanese lost four carriers.  The victory only stopped the enemy's advance; it did not end the war, which would go on for three more years.  But it was an incredible victory nonetheless, and gave democracy hope.  

*  D-Day was another difficult victory for democratic governments. General Eisenhower was so uncertain of the outcome that he had a speech ready to admit failure.  But the 1944 amphibious landing at Normandy was ultimately a success and led to an end of the war a year later, over European fascism.  

* The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 represented a rollback of communist totalitarianism and a resounding victory for democratic governments.  It was brought about by resolute democracies, to be sure, but also by internal weaknesses in authoritarianism, which failed to take into account democratic impulses in oppressed populations.  

Test of Character

November, 2020

Lincoln –  Nebraskans, confronting an alarming increase in Covid-19 infections, are facing a test of character.  Will we fight the pandemic or, like some other states in our region, give up and let the disease run its course, at whatever horrible cost?  

There are discouraging reports from Iowa, the Dakotas, and other states where governors say there is nothing they can do.  Nebraska Governor Ricketts has also been in that camp from the outset; his North Star guide has been to hospitalize those who becomes sick, not to use his powers to limit the number of cases.  Instead, he urges "individual responsibility."     

Now the hospitals are about to be overwhelmed.  The governor responds by saying that Nebraska has low unemployment.  But Nebraska always has low unemployment.  

There is a glimmer of hope in Nebraska, as the governor's appointed state health director has finally acknowledged the obvious, as reported by the Lincoln JournalStar:  
Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer, said "it is obvious that we are headed in the wrong direction" as COVID-19 cases continue to grow and spread across the state while hospital beds begin to fill.

"We cannot surge our way out of this pandemic by increasing hospital beds or staffing," he said. "We need to stop the number of cases rising daily. We need to decrease the number of people who are hospitalized."

Perhaps this statement is a harbinger of a change in state policy.  Governor Ricketts needs to get in step with local elected officials who want to fight the pandemic; he should not continue to oppose their efforts.*  Fighting the pandemic with "individual responsibility" makes no more sense than relying on people's good judgment about how fast to drive, or whether to buy auto insurance, or whether to poison groundwater resources with atrazine.  Collective action is sometimes necessary to protect the health and well-being of the greater population.  This is one of those times. 

This is a test of character.  Facing down the disease will require facing down those who would give up.

* The governor and attorney general have opposed local mask mandates, despite their efficacy and despite the support of many businesses that also welcome them because they provide greater protection for those who want to patronize the businesses, not to mention controlling infections more generally. 

Nebraskans: Raise Our Ranking to Save Lives

October, 2020

Lincoln –  Nebraska is being hit hard by Covid-19.  Why?  The following graphic offers a likely explanation.  The coefficient of determination between the variables (R-squared) is .73.  It suggests Nebraska's high Covid-19 ranking is attributable in considerable part to its low ranking in masking-up. 

The graphic comports to anecdotal evidence.  South Dakota, which famously hosted two largely maskless super-spreader events last summer at Mount Rushmore and Sturgis, is very bad off.  South Dakota Governor Noem is, at best, ambivalent about masks. Nebraska politicians, led by Governor Ricketts and Attorney General Peterson, advocate masks but send a mixed message by threatening legal action against local governments that require them.  

Nebraskans, when it comes to football, are ranking-obsessed.  Our state university's football team is going nowhere this year in national rankings, but if Nebraskans would come together to raise our ranking in mask-wearing, it could be a source of state pride as well as save lives.  

A look at the graphic suggests that even an increase of ten percent in masking-up would move Nebraska into the top ranks of the nation, certainly into the top ten.  

Who might take the lead to put Nebraska into national leadership?  Local elected officials; the University of Nebraska Medical Center; newspaper editors; and the business community, led by the Lincoln and Omaha chambers of commerce.  

The Lincoln Chamber already has a "Mask-Up Lincoln" effort underway, which could be expanded statewide.  The business group quotes the NU Medical Center leader, Dr. Jeffrey Gold, calling for us to work together "shoulder to shoulder," and acknowledges the business community's own "special responsibility" to speak up:  

“We’re at a critical moment in time. We’re going to get through this and emerge stronger as a society, state and country. We’re going to have to do it together, shoulder to shoulder.”

The Lincoln Chamber recognizes our prominent status in the community as a trusted, nonpartisan, collaborative organization places a special responsibility upon us to speak out. We urge all citizens of Lincoln to remember that we will all play a vital role in safely navigating this pandemic.

Let's put self-respect, respect for others, and pride of ranking* back into our behavior and emerge from this pandemic with a sense that we Nebraskans have met what many around the country, and around the world, say is ultimately a test of character.  Not to mention more of us taking personal responsibility to help our communities.  


* Of course it's possible that other states will pick up their efforts and leave Nebraska even further behind.  An analysis of 26 Republican governors shows that 21 of them have moved on masking-up beyond the Trump administration's recommendations and only 5, including Nebraska's, are echoing Trump.  However, many of the 21 made their moves months ago, so it is not futile for Nebraska now to catch up through a united, citizen-led effort and pass them.  And look at the slope of the line: a 10% increase in masking-up might reduce cases 20%.  Think of our front-line hospital workers; think of our struggling economy.  Let's not give up.  

Student Loans: "What is Really Going On"

October, 2020

Washington – Both the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government have recently taken note of on-going irregularities at the U.S. Department of Education.  One wonders what took so long, but better late (in these cases, very late) than never.

On October 19, in a class action case against Secretary Betsy DeVos, a federal district judge threw out a settlement between the parties that was supposed to have resolved hundreds of thousands of long-standing student loan borrowers' claims for relief, due the borrowers because for-profit colleges had defrauded them.  The judge wrote of a typical claim:

[T]he borrower’s path forward rings disturbingly Kafkaesque*....  Questions of legality plague the Secretary’s new perfunctory denial notice.... We need an updated record and updated discovery....  We need to know what is really going on. 

Then, on October 22, regarding manipulation of accreditation by the DeVos Department, the chairman of the House Labor and Education committee issued subpoenas to get at the truth of the matter, writing this to the Secretary: 

Due to the Department’s obstruction, the Committee’s only available avenue to obtain an accurate understanding of the Department’s role in the Dream Center collapse is to pursue depositions of the knowledgeable Department officials under subpoena. Accordingly, the Committee has served such subpoenas on the relevant Department staff.

Earlier in the year, the House Appropriations Committee put a stop to a major contract about to be awarded to a troubled student loan servicer under dubious circumstances.  

The common thread connecting these three debacles involving billions of taxpayer dollars is agency corruption at the highest levels.  It did not start with Betsy DeVos, by the way, but she has greatly exacerbated it.  I was at the department in 2001 when corruption got its initial foothold, and I witnessed it in action.  Many of the same people are still involved, as their fingerprints can be seen on each of the above scandals.  

If the other branches want "to know what is really going on"— and I believe they do — there are excellent sources beyond what they will find in discovery and through subpoenas.  One is Republic Report, where in its many iterations the peerless David Halperin explains the interconnections between predatory colleges and department personnel.  Another is this blog (Three Capitals), which has explained in several posts over the past two years the corruption involved in the department's dealings with the student loan industry.  Still another is Dan E. Moldea's new book, Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education, which offers much relevant material from discovery and subpoenas in other investigations. 

For details on what a federal judge found to be Kafkaesque, the webpage of the Project on Predatory Student Lending provides a veritable library of such cases.  Inspector General reports, routinely ignored within the department, are another source. 

Let's get on with determining "what is really going on."  Upcoming depositions and testimonies under oath must require answers to questions about how and why department personnel, political appointees and civil servants alike, systematically set about to deprive borrowers their rights under law, violating in the process statutes prohibiting conflict of interest, obstruction of justice (including state law enforcement), perjury, and contempt of both the courts and Congress.  


*  Franz Kafka has a Berlin connection; for a time in the 1920s he lived in Berlin-Steglitz, at Grunewaldstrasse 13.  I passed the site often when I lived in Steglitz many years ago, not ever thinking a U.S. federal judge would someday compare Kafka's bizarre world to that of student loan victims.    

Catholic Voters and Abortion Politics

October, 2020

Lincoln – Not being raised Catholic, and not having much interest in a religion based on dogma that its leader is infallible, I nevertheless respect many Catholic institutions and individuals. That includes the Jesuits, for example, for their dedication to teaching and scholarship, and the social and political outreach work of a few recent popes.   

But when internal Catholic arguments spill over and threaten American political institutions, and twist our body politic into contortions for a single legal decision that is surely counterproductive to its own purported goal, my even limited admiration ends.  

That decision, of course, is to overrule Roe v. Wade.  

Thomas M. Kelly, professor of systematic theology at Creighton University in Omaha, a Jesuit institution, explains the internal contradictions within the anti-abortion debate:

Catholic countries of Latin America and Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East, which outlaw abortion, have the highest abortion rates in the world....  What has been shown to reduce abortions is universal access to health care, contraception (which over 95% of Catholics use) and social safety nets for poor and single women, especially those without family networks.

Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump has appointed three Supreme Court justices who will, he says, repeal Roe.  The three have also demonstrated hostility toward universal health care programs.  In celebration of his latest appointment, the president brought many people to the White House during a pandemic, which became a coronavirus super-spreader event.  Among those was the president of the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, a native Nebraskan, who at the behest of the White House went unmasked and promptly caught the virus.  

Another Catholic university president, Patricia McGuire* of Trinity University Washington, took him to task:

Truth be told, the academic attendees parked more than their masks at the door. Bad example comes in many forms, including complicit silence in the face of official wrongs. This is an administration that has deliberately and with malice waged a deadly war against medical and public-health evidence about the pandemic, dishonoring doctors and epidemiologists by mocking their advice and excluding them from decision-making roles, even going so far as attempting to silence them. The unmasked presence of the academic leaders in the Rose Garden gave tacit consent to the silencing of those who have tried to save lives by providing correct information.

The Covid-19 pandemic has imposed harsh and unforgiving sacrifices on people not as famous or powerful as those gathered in the Rose Garden. As I looked at the photos of that elite group, I could not help but think of the millions of school children unable to sit in their classrooms because of the pandemic. I thought of the thousands of high-school and college seniors denied the joys of real graduations. I thought of the deep and pervasive grief coursing through the families and communities of the 210,000 dead, so many dying alone without the comforting touch of loved ones, with survivors bearing the uniquely awful pain of not even being able to gather for funerals. I thought of the courage of so many front-line health-care heroes, the nurses and doctors sometimes forced to wear makeshift PPE because of a lack of adequate supplies. I thought of the grand weddings made small, the laid-off waiters of shuttered restaurants, the desperation of parents who are essential workers risking their health in low-wage jobs to keep food on the table, racing home at odd hours to help their kids keep learning at kitchen tables where computers and internet access are spotty or rare.

So where does this leave the so-called pro-life voters?  It seems to me they have become pawns for all kinds of bad causes, none of which is actually pro-life.  It is the worst of all worlds.  Not to mention that the repeal of Roe would only multiply these conflicts, into the legislatures of the fifty states.  

May the coming election provide a way forward.  


* Patricia McGuire herself is not unfamiliar with visits to the White House.  I remember her well from meetings many years ago in the EOB, when she advocated for disadvantaged students and I came over to the offices from the Department of Education.  When she learned that my hometown was Lincoln, Nebraska, she asked about her good friend Larry Arth.  Larry Arth was a graduate of Pius X high school, chairman of Ameritas Life Insurance Co., and active in charity work.  He and I had been classmates at UNL, where we were both in Navy ROTC and took summer training cruises together.  Sadly, he passed away in 2008.  

P.S. See also the positions of Catholic theologians writing in the Omaha World-Herald

Twentieth Century Philosophers

 October, 2020

Washington – For those of us who need to brush up from time to time on our Wittgenstein, Gödel, and Heidegger, there is a fine book review by Adam Kirsch in The New Yorker about the Vienna Circle and what it propounded.  

The review is a model of writing with clarity, making sense of difficult concepts.

Readers will learn who murdered Professor Schlick – when, why, and how.  Through this tale we are given a new appreciation of the importance of the 1930s and the era's relevance for our own times.  

Most of us live in Wittgenstein's world, not Heidegger's, but it is worth reflecting on what it was that attracted Heidegger to the Nazis and whether we might be headed in the same direction.  

It's good to know that all of the Vienna Circle survived the Nazis.  May logical empiricism survive our current era.  



"The Freedom to Swing your Fist..."

October, 2020

Lincoln and Berlin – In Nebraska and its neighboring states of Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Missouri, Covid-19 cases are on an alarming upswing.  

So is a new description of "freedom," which heretofore has been well-defined by the memorable aphorism, "The freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."  To many in these states, that definition of freedom no longer applies.

The two developments are linked, as significant numbers of residents refuse to follow public health measures like social distancing and mask-wearing to curb the spread of the disease.  They say that to follow them is a violation of their freedom.  Unfortunately, they are given support and encouragement by top elected officials, including the governors of these states, who decline to mandate and enforce public health measures that would curtail Covid-19, and who even threaten local officials who favor such measures.

Siding with those who metaphorically swing their fists into others' noses, the governors have imperiled many other freedoms that we once enjoyed.  These include the freedom to travel safely, to associate in proximity with friends and family, to carry on businesses and business activities, to vote safely at polling places, to send our children safely to schools.  I feel the loss of these freedoms acutely; so surely do most of us. 

Is there any serious political theory behind defining the "freedom" of a few in such a way that so directly takes away the freedoms of the many?  Such ideas were once dismissed as crackpot, and deservedly so. 

But with so many governors embracing the notion that it is their governments' role to protect swinging one's fist with abandon in the name of freedom, leaving sickness and death as a consequence, it is time to take a new look at what reasoning is behind it.  We deserve and should be demanding answers.

The governors' notion is closely aligned with an urge to give up and not fight the coronavirus, to see it as inevitable, to let it run its course.  Nebraska Governor Ricketts from the outset has suggested the virus cannot be stopped; his actions have never been premised on limiting the number of cases, but on sending the sick to hospitals.  This often aligns with the Trumpist view of the virus, which waxes and wanes irresolutely, depending on entertainment value and the need to distract from scandal. 

There are shades of Social Darwinism in such thinking: survival of the fittest.  Those with good genes will survive.  This is not a new idea.  We once went to war against it.

Which not coincidentally brings us to Berlin, a city bracing for another wave of the virus but with a different approach.  Rather than twisting the meaning of freedom to rationalize giving up, as parts of America are on the verge of doing, German health minister Jens Spahn describes the upcoming struggle simply as a "test of character."  German public health measures are in place.  Along with good political leadership and reliance on leading-edge science, Germany beat back the first wave of the virus and saved thousands of lives, compared to the poorly led American effort.  For the second wave, it will be up to the strength and will of the people to overcome the virus.  

Outcomes everywhere are much in doubt.  I'm pulling for those, wherever they are, who summon strength of character to fight the virus, rather than giving up in the name of a bizarre notion of freedom that is destroying the real freedoms we all want once again to enjoy. 


Post Script (five days later):  Glad to see the same points now being made more widely by Michael Tomasky in the New York Times, 17 October 2020.  He juxtaposes Austrian economists against John Stuart Mill.  

"Meet the Donors," A Review

October, 2020

Washington and Berlin –  On Tuesday, October 13th, the Lichtblick Kino in Berlin will show (to a masked and socially distanced audience) the film "Meet the Donors," by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the Speaker of the House.

The film will also be available to a Zoom audience at 8 PM Berlin time, 2 PM EDT, with a discussion to follow.  I will be one of the discussants.  The topic is the influence of donor money in elections and government. 

The film was made in 2016, so it is now a little dated.  If anything, the need for campaign finance reform has only increased in the past four years.  Money to try to buy elections has become more plentiful, what with a 2017 tax cut for individuals and corporations in the large-donor class.  Enforcement of existing federal election laws has also waned because the Federal Election Commission has often lacked a quorum to act in the past four years.  

A candidate for president who made campaign finance reform his centerpiece issue for 2020, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, found insufficient support to keep his effort alive and dropped out of the race early.  Other issues pushed his agenda aside.  

The film spends considerable time humanizing donors, giving the impression that they are mostly harmless old men set in their ways, convinced that their giving is patriotic and their motives pure.  It later shows why this is often not the case, but sometimes first impressions are lasting.  

There are many mentions of "access," which is what donors get for their money, and a lot of denial that they get anything more.  The film inevitably comes around to lobbyists, all smooth but not oily, who explain innocently what they do for big donors.  It's all legitimate, of course, and often bipartisan.  Just ask Haley Barbour, a prime specimen of the breed.  

Former Congressman Tom Downey explains from his experience how it all works, using an example of a bankruptcy bill that passed so as to favor banks at the expense of consumers, especially student loan borrowers.  Donor access made passage of the bill a forgone conclusion.   Consumers don't have the same kind of access that bankers do, he points out.*  But we knew that.   

Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the political contribution floodgates for corporations, is noted in the film, but almost in passing.  

At its conclusion, "Meet the Donors" raises the question of whether we now have a democracy or a plutocracy.  Good question, but it comes too late, as the filmmakers have already pulled most of their punches.  

As a person who has worked several decades in government and politics, and witnessed personally from many angles (including courtrooms**) how donor money corrupts, I found the film too tepid.  Perhaps the lead filmmaker's famous name was more of a hindrance than help.  

As a political scientist, I also know something about how money in politics is treated in academe.  Too often the subject is ignored, unless, of course, it is how to get in on it.  Some institutions even have courses that teach dubious practices, as a way to make the most of the situation.  GWU has a separate, thriving degree program called Political Management, as opposed to its sleepier program in Political Science.  

Maybe other viewers of "Meet the Donors" will see the film differently, but it left me disappointed. 


* The example Downey uses to illustrate access is more troubling because it also involves corruption. Some of that access was being paid for by financial institutions' false claims against taxpayers in the student loan program.  

** Dan Moldea (2020), Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education: The Stories of Whistleblowers. moldea.com

State Legislatures and the 2020 Electoral College Vote

October, 2020

Washington and Berlin – At Berlin's Lichtblick Kino last week a member of the audience asked about the U.S. Electoral College and how it might function in 2020.  Unfortunately, that seems to be an unanswerable question.

Trump campaign lawyers are exploring interventions by state legislatures to select state electors committed to Trump, regardless of outcome of the November vote in that state.  The rationale is that mail-in voting is suspect, a claim made almost daily by the president and his partisans.  The strategy is that Republican-controlled legislatures in sufficient numbers will give Trump the 270 votes he needs to remain in office.  Arguably, the strategy is constitutional, as elections are under the purview of the states, any federal statutes to the contrary notwithstanding.

If state legislatures are to get involved, however, it would be better for several of them quickly to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which commits states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  From the Compact's webpage (emphasis added):

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Compact ensures that every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election. The Compact is a state-based approach that preserves the Electoral College, state control of elections, and the power of the states to control how the President is elected.

The National Popular Vote bill has been enacted by 16 jurisdictions possessing 196 electoral votes, including 4 small states (DE, HI, RI, VT), 8 medium-sized states (CO, CT, MD, MA, NJ, NM, OR, WA), 3 big states (CA, IL, NY), and the District of Columbia. The bill will take effect when enacted by states with 74 more electoral votes. The bill has passed at least one chamber in 9 additional states with 88 more electoral votes (AR, AZ, ME, MI, MN, NC, NV, OK, VA). A total of 3,408 state legislators from all 50 states have endorsed it.

Note that in nine states, at least one chamber has already passed the measure to join the interstate compact, so it is not out of the question for these states, or others, to act to bring the electoral vote into line with the popular vote and, in effect, end the dangerous plotting to circumvent democratic rule.   

"Rigged...." A Review

September, 2020

Washington and Berlin – On Monday, September 28th, the film "Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook" will be shown in Berlin at the Lichtblick Kino, Kastanienallee 77.  The film starts at 8 PM and a discussion of it at 9:15 PM.  

For the discussion and a critique of the film, Doug Hillmer and I will be joining by Zoom from the USA (3:15 PM EDT).  

The film can also be viewed at any time at https://www.riggedthefilm.com/watch-at-home

The "playbook" is presented in nine parts to explain systematic approaches to rigging elections: 1. The Red Map Plan; 2. Gerrymandering; 3. Voter Residency Laws; 4. The Voting Rights Act; 5. Voter Fraud; 6. Voter Purges; 7. Voter Intimidation; 8. Voter IDs; 9. Change the Courts.  Each part in the film has its share of memorable characters, both perpetrators and victims.  

Some of the parts show lamentably successful election-rigging to be within the law; other parts show pure corruption at work.  Legal or not, malign intent is pervasive in all the playbook techniques.  The film benefits by drawing on authoritative sources like Jane Mayer, the author of Dark Money.    

Viewed through my métier (political science), what I see is the Republican Party being taken over by unprincipled and cynical corporate interests, falsely posing as traditional conservatives, that see election-rigging as a means to increase power and profits to levels never before imagined.  I see the Democratic Party as largely blind to this development until it became too late to stop it.  

The result is a country on the verge of losing its very democracy.

The failures of the two political parties reflect weaknesses in the constituencies of both when it comes to understanding how American government works.  

In my experience, both in teaching and in the practice of government, Republicans too often associate American patriotism with its symbols rather than looking behind what the symbols stand for.  To many Republicans, it's all about saluting the flag, cheering on the 4th of July, and interpreting the term "American exceptionalism" to mean national superiority.  That's as far as it goes.  The party has long been vulnerable to a take-over from authoritarian election-riggers who traffic in symbol manipulation while blatantly undermining the meanings behind the symbols.  Republicans now cheer voter suppression in the name of America First. 

Democrats, in my experience, are prone to misunderstanding the relationships between the different levels of government.  Their conception of American government is often a pyramid with the national government at the apex and state and local governments under it.  They put excessive reliance on winning the presidency, to the neglect of state and local offices.   They too often do not understand that the U.S. Constitution creates a system of dual sovereignty, with the states responsible for elections among other areas of jurisdiction.  This misconception became particularly pronounced after the 2008 elections and has contributed to the current crisis in American democracy.  Democrats neglected state and local elections and now have lost the presidency as well, with a diminishing chance of regaining it from a reckless autocrat and serial prevaricator who does not abide by democratic norms.

Saving American democracy will likely not come about through the traditional Republican Party, which has all but vanished.  It has been replaced by a claque directed by a power-hungry chief executive.  Democrats are in disarray, unsure how to respond responsibly to the unravelling situation.  

The film stops without moving on to discuss lawful tools available to countermand the techniques of the playbook.  Among those would be the authority of conscientious state officials to prevent rigged election returns from being certified to the Electoral College, forcing the selection of president into the House of Representatives as provided in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.  

Another tool would be the Constitutional provision in Article I, Section 5, which specifies that "Each House shall be the Judge of ... its own Members," meaning that there is no obligation or requirement to seat gerrymandered delegations.  If the House selects the president, let it be on the basis of votes NOT gerrymandered, thereby removing a linchpin of the election-rigging playbook.  

"Rigged..." enlightens us as to how democracy has been corrupted.  The next step is to identify and take countermeasures to restore our democratic ideals under the rule of law.    

Causes for Optimism

September, 2020

Washington –  Just when things look increasingly bleak for the future of the human condition and the planet itself, along come reasons for hope.  

A climate change fix, based on current technology, now seems possible.  It's not based on sketchy ideas like blocking the sun or fertilizing the oceans with iron.  It does not rely excessively on conversion to renewable energy sources, or on conservation of energy, which must be undertaken but not as the sole solutions.  The proposal is to create marine permaculture arrays (MPAs):

Marine permaculture arrays (MPAs) are man-made irrigation grids for growing kelp forests, equipped with wave-powered pumps and pipes that can restore overturning circulation — the process that moves warm and cold water and nutrients around the depths and surface waters of the Atlantic — lost due to climate disruption. They can be towed out to sea, establishing new kelp forests and restoring fisheries in what are increasingly becoming ocean deserts. MPAs are relatively inexpensive to build, and the resulting kelp and fish can be sold commercially. MPA inventor Brian von Herzen estimates that the arrays can remove CO2 at a cost of about $80 per ton, while producing kelp products that could dramatically offset the production cost and boost fisheries. ... According to von Herzen, growing new kelp forests in just 1 to 2 percent of the oceans would sequester enough carbon to restore the climate, provided we do our part to reduce the carbon intensity of our civilization.

While this would require a huge investment, it would not necessarily be larger than our current effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  This is a lesson to learn from pandemic macroeconomics.  The payoff would be enormous in savings from not having to fight the ravages of forest fires and rising sea levels.  The food produced in the MPAs would feed billions.

Which raises a question of food production in the U.S. farm belt, which badly needs new approaches. Some of those are outlined by Art Cullen of Storm Lake, Iowa, who writes:

Rural fortunes can be salvaged, along with the planet, if we pay farmers to sequester carbon by planting grass instead of corn, put their livestock back on pasture and out of unsustainable feedlots, and rotate crops with minimal tillage. Regenerative agriculture, as it is called, using old-fashioned crop-livestock rotations, can eliminate agriculture’s greenhouse-gas footprint and actually start drawing down carbon and planting it in the soil.

Those suggestions have been expressed in this blog for years, but now there seems to be more widespread acknowledgement of the need to change farming practices, which is cause for optimism.  Too bad such changes were not incorporated into the last Farm Bill, but it's not too late if Congress will only act decisively in 2021.   

But what of the coming U.S. elections, which might result in re-election a president who discounts science and technology, even in the face of avoidable disasters like pandemics and climate change?  Who can be optimistic if he is re-elected?

While such an election outcome would doubtless be a grave threat to the planet, other key countries are still in the hands of responsible, democratically-elected officials.  Foremost among them are Germany and Japan, which ironically are the major countries America defeated in WWII, but then re-created as viable democratic governments.  They are now proving themselves up to formidable challenges, meeting crises with scientific and governmental competence.  A legacy of American wisdom back then, we can hope, may yet prevail over American foolishness now.   

MPAs, regenerative agriculture, leadership from abroad:  they're causes for optimism.  

Admirable to Admit a Mistake and Correct It

September, 2020

Lincoln –  Back in the 1950s I knew of a farmer who bought three cows at a local livestock auction and brought them to his farm before he realized they did not have the proper Brucellosis paperwork to show they had been vaccinated.  They looked healthy but actually they had been intended for sale into the Canners and Cutters market, not for sale to another farmer.  

He did the right thing by having them trucked back to the auction barn, took a financial loss, and learned a lesson.  Admitting the mistake was admirable.  

Now is the time for rural voters, many of whom did not properly look into whom they chose for president in 2016, to correct their mistake and save the country from further unravelling, and perhaps from calamity.  There is no shame in owning up to a mistake; it's admirable.

No need to make excuses.  I've heard them:  Donald Trump was supposed to be a great businessman; he couldn't be bought because he was already wealthy; his language was locker-room but he told the truth; he was the friend of rural America, so he said; he was a patriot because he literally hugged the flag.

Then there was his opposition, which you said forced your hand to vote for Trump.  Hillary Clinton had a private email server; she was Secretary of State when an ambassador and three others were killed in Benghazi; the EPA was waiting to take jurisdiction over every mud-puddle in your farmyard; the Clintons had a charitable foundation that must have been a front for something.  Maybe the candidate was a murderer herself, because you saw the allegation on a commercial during a televised football game of your favorite team.  All this was too much for you, so you had to vote for Trump.  Even if he was a draft-dodger, a bankrupt, a philanderer, and had never held any previous elected office, you had to vote for him, because you couldn't leave that part of the ballot unmarked.    

You're thinking of doing it again.  Never mind Trump's appalling record of lying about the coronavirus and causing tens of thousands of deaths, insulting veterans for their military service, cheating at every turn for his own financial benefit, corrupting federal agencies thoroughly, devastating the rural economy with nonsensical tariffs, welcoming foreign interference in our elections, fomenting violence in the cities, belittling science, stoking fear and division across the land, and even turning the remaining few conservative principles of his party completely on their head.    

Which for many rural voters is apparently okay.  After all, if Biden is elected, he might check for Atrazine in mud-puddles. He might advocate a health care system like Switzerland or Denmark (aren't they socialist or communist or something?).  We also need to get to the bottom of why, like Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton had an email server for her private emails, and hold a few trials.  Let's vote for martial law while we're at it, and confiscate ballot boxes in case of voter fraud (can't be too careful).   

Please, rural voters.  Like the farmer who knew he made a mistake when he bought the wrong cows, just do the admirable thing: own up and correct it. 

Or not.  This is an election about the soul of the country.  If you believe the flag is to hug, not stand for something; that if it stands for something, it's for people like us, not for you-know-who; that more weaponized Americans with assault rifles will lead to more security; that international alliances like NATO are passé; that Donald Trump knows more than scientists; that Vladimir Putin is a model for how to run a country; that Jerry Falwell Jr. is your kind of Christian; and that QAnon may be on to something, then vote that way.  But realize it may be the last free and democratic vote you ever cast.    

UNL, OWH, and Race Relations

September, 2020

Lincoln – The Omaha World Herald and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are embarking on a joint effort to improve race relations within their institutions, according to OWH editor Randy Essex and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green:

"In this joint effort, we will explore the history of race relations in Nebraska, give voice to community leaders and UNL scholars, and engage the public to map a path to understand the past and bring about a more equitable future."

This is a worthy endeavor, if carried out properly.  It will include a historical look at race relations at UNL itself.  I was a student on the UNL campus from 1961-1966 (B.A. '65; M.A. '66) and have many recollections about race relations from the period.

During my freshman and sophomore years I was invited to a few fraternities on campus, which were seeking members.  Before I gave them serious consideration, I asked about their charters, if they had whites-only clauses.  Most did in those days, but recruiters emphasized that other races were free to form their own fraternities, so it wasn't as if they were discriminating, in the way they saw the situation.  Indeed, at least one black fraternity was created and recognized by the University in the early 1960s, so as to provide an alternative to the white fraternities.  

In other words, separate-but-equal was very much alive in Lincoln, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Plessy v. Ferguson almost a decade earlier.   Plessy was the case that had enshrined the concept as enacted in the Second Morrill Act of 1890, which set up a two-tiered land-grant university system.  

A close friend of mine in a fraternity informed me that national black organizations were trying to test and break the whites-only clauses at UNL by recruiting high-achieving black students with excellent social skills to participate in annual fraternity and sorority "rush" weeks.  He said it was hard for his fraternity to turn down one applicant, because he was obviously so well qualified, but they did so in order to preserve what he called the overall good.     

I declined fraternity invitations, saying I would not join any whites-only system, and expressed the hope things would someday change. 

As an upperclassman and graduate student, I helped organize efforts to integrate Lincoln restaurants and taverns near the campus.  This simply involved a mixed party of four or five students entering an establishment, expecting to be served.  Most Lincoln establishments were not overtly whites-only, but some had other customers who would tell parties such as ours that we were not welcome, and ask us to leave.  Sometimes sparks flew; we never left, anywhere.  Places like The Happy Hour on 13th Street and Duffy's on O Street were soon integrated.  

During the summer of 1965, I was employed by the University to welcome prospective students and their parents to the campus, give them group tours of the campus, and tell them what to expect from college life.  The University showed them a film promoting fraternities and sororities, which I always sat through as well.  One summer evening, while leading a tour group that had just watched the film, I said that not all of us bought into the idea of such organizations with their membership restrictions.  

That quickly got back to my University employers, apparently from a parent.  I was taken aside the next day by a University administrator and advised not to say such things.  My response was that they could let me go if they wanted to, but I would speak about campus life as I was employed to do.  Nothing further came of it, from my standpoint.  I suspect University officials got back to the person offended with a message that they had spoken to the offender, but I have no direct knowledge of it.   

As a graduate student I watched the University expand northward, building not only dormitories along 17th Street, but also three new houses on University property for sororities, at least one of which had a whites-only membership clause.  This was in a neighborhood that a few years earlier, when I was a freshman, was populated by the black community of Lincoln.  I pointed out to those in University administration with whom I still had contact (G. Robert Ross, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, if memory serves) that this was a problem that could be resolved by requiring the sororities to drop their whites-only requirements.  To my knowledge, that did not happen, even after University officials noted the irony of displacing black residents with houses for whites-only, acting through the power of the state to issue revenue bonds for the buildings. 

University dorms, however, were integrated throughout my years on campus. One year I lived in Selleck Quadrangle, where my neighbors downstairs were roommates Benny Nelson (later governor and senator) and Thunder Thornton (a notable athlete), white and black.  They had requested the pairing as an expression of racial progress.  There were several other examples.  

Classrooms were always integrated and, as I recall, the general tenor on campus was that we students were of a generation that would put Jim Crow practices and racial discrimination behind us.  I would not say we were woke, as the saying now goes.  Many of us had simply been raised to believe that racial discrimination was wrong and we would not be a part of it, regardless of the University leadership's indulgence of it.  

What now?  

As noted above, this joint effort is a worthy endeavor if something comes of it beyond its public relations value.  I'm not in favor of taking down the campus statue of former chancellor Clifford Hardin, who tolerated the separate-but-equal atmosphere of the time, or that of Clayton Yeutter, whose fraternity cooperated in enforcing that system.  Nor do they and others of their era need asterisks by their records, although it would be good for UNL historians to explore in much greater depth the nature of race relations on campus in the period immediately before and after the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.*  Perhaps more names of courageous individuals would emerge.  

Rather than doubling down one more time on diversity officers, multicultural centers, sensitivity training, and other measures based on identity politics (to which exercises like these often lead), I'd like to see UNL take initiatives nationally in areas that might make longer lasting contributions in matters of racial equality.  

One such place might be nutrition studies, where the University's Food for Health initiative holds great promise for addressing diseases that disproportionately affect the non-white population.  We need to look no further than the coronavirus pandemic to see the effects of the nutrition variable.  Another area that badly needs national leadership is the deteriorating condition of postsecondary student finance.  It has become increasingly clear that the nation's student loan and enrollment management systems are creating ever-greater divisions by race.  The situation cries out for leadership from major institutions like UNL, which is not doing a bad job itself in this area and would be in a position to rally others to national reforms.  

I'll be interested in seeing the role the OWH carves out for itself in this project.  May it succeed beyond expectations.  Frank Partsch, former reporter and editorial page editor of the OWH, was a good friend of mine at UNL, where he was also editor of the Daily Nebraskan.  John Gottschalk, former OWH publisher and I shared a class in freshman English.  They should be able to make outstanding contributions to this effort.


* One topic that should be of interest is the influence their years at UNL had on Hardin and Yeutter, after which each later became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.  During their respective tenures as Secretary, the civil rights of black farmers were routinely violated, resulting in great losses of black land ownership.  See Pigford v. Glickman (1999).  I suspect that the record under Hardin's successor, Earl Butz, was even worse, but nevertheless the subject must be explored.  Eventually, billions of federal taxpayer dollars were paid out in settlements going back to 1981, covering the Yeutter but not the Hardin years.