Memories of the Soviet Union

March, 2020

Washington – Time to recall a trip to the Soviet Union in April, 1971.  I was living in Stuttgart, Germany, and joined with a dozen Germans and two other Americans for a fortnight's visit to Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.  The Soviets were eager for hard currency and open to limited tourism.

We flew on Aeroflot from Frankfurt to Moscow, where we were assigned an Intourist guide and put up in the Bucharest, an old, musty hotel opposite Red Square, two to a room.  The guide advised us not to drink the water, as Moscow water was not safe.  Meals were served in a cavernous, mostly empty dining room, where we were not allowed to mix with a vacationing Communist group from East Germany.  I liked the food, especially the breakfasts of fish, black bread, and clabbered milk.

Our Intourist guide was a Russian man of about thirty-five who moved us around the city adeptly, often via the impressive new subways.  His German was excellent (according to the native speakers), as was his appreciation of the difficult historical relationship between the two countries.  Our German companions were impressed with his frankness and his thorough knowledge of what he showed us.  A highlight was his detailed tour of the Kremlin.

Although this was the height of the Cold War and much was off-limits, our guide did not try to keep track of us.  At the end of each day he let us loose on our own, asking us only to gather for him the next morning after breakfast at the hotel.  He knew I was an American, but told me to go wherever I wanted and to take pictures, too.  Intourist guides wanted to present the Soviet Union positively, although doubtless we were under some kind of surveillance.

In Leningrad (once and again St. Petersburg) we were met at the airport by another Intourist guide, put up in another threadbare hotel, the Astoria, but again given excellent tours and explanations of the city's history.  The Hermitage and the palace square in front of it, the center of the Russian Revolution, drew our fascination, as did the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Admiralty, and the storied cruiser AuroraOur guide took us to the magnificent palaces of the czars outside the city at Tsarskoye Selo.  I caught a city bus to the bridge over the Neva, behind the Winter Palace, to see where Rasputin was drowned, then traveled up and down Nevsky Prospekt toward the Finland Station and back, thinking about what the wide boulevard looked like in 1917 and during the WWII siege of 900 days.  

When we flew to Kiev, another American in our group made the point, before we met with our third Intourist guide, that Ukraine is not Russia.  Aline Naschansky, of Parma, Ohio, grew up proudly speaking Ukrainian and not-so-proudly Russian; she was studying German that year in Salzburg, Austria, so she served as translator and often made evening arrangements, getting us into many out-of-the way places but never into trouble.  She was particularly good at retrieving lost luggage from Soviet lost-and-found offices.

In Kiev we encountered a different atmosphere on the streets.  People came up to us and wanted to trade – currency, clothes, anything Western.  At an agricultural fairgrounds, I was surprised to see a statue of the pseudo-scientist Lysenko still standing.  He had been a favorite of Stalin and responsible for devastating famines.  I caught a bus to see the Great Gate of Kiev.  It is great only in the drawings of Hartmann and in the music of Mussorgsky; in reality it is small and in ruins.

In the old photos below: cathedrals within the Kremlin walls; our Intourist guide (facing) in Moscow; a painter rendering St. Basil's Cathedral at Red Square; two of our party on the Leningrad quay; the cruiser Aurora, which fired on the Winter Palace to start the Russian Revolution; the Hermitage at a washed-down Palace Square, with the Admiralty building's spire at left; Nevsky Prospekt; a memorial to the Siege of Leningrad; the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoye Selo; a Leningrad canal, evidence of how Peter the Great built the city from a swamp to provide Russia with its window on the west; Kiev under Leninism; a Kiev street in early Spring; the "Great Gate of Kiev"; the Dnieper River at Kiev.


Hang On, Better Days May Be Coming

March, 2020

Washington –  Although these are the bleakest of times, better days may be coming when we get the worst of the coronavirus behind us.  It all depends on how well we learn from what we're going through.

If ever there was a reason to learn, it is now, because the lessons of this pandemic are so costly, especially to our health care workers who are trying to save us. 

The lessons to learn:

• We are all in this together, worldwide, across all social strata.  We must cooperate internationally and learn from the experiences of other nations.
• We must take much more seriously the warnings of our scientists and medical experts, and prepare ourselves accordingly.  Other democracies are leveraging their scientific talent better than we are.
• Pandemics are made worse by the failure to provide sick leave to the working class and a lack of universal health care coverage in some form.  Surely we can see that it has been shortsighted to widen gaps of income and health care inequality, as it endangers all Americans. 
• We must select our political leadership from those with credible experience in handling crises, and from those who can bring people together for the sake of great causes, not from media entertainers who divide us and exploit the fissures.  WWII was won by incredible feats of logistics by leaders and managers who knew how to deliver, selflessly, while simultaneously managing the economy. 

I look forward to perhaps a year from now, when these lessons have been learned and are being applied.  Better days may be coming if we act responsibly now.

Congress and the Third Coronavirus Bill

March 2020

Washington – As Congress prepares a third bill to deal with the coronavirus and its effect on the economy, here are some ideas to expand on those previously offered, dealing with student loans.

First, some context.  Congress and the country are looking for bipartisanship, so the most plausible actions will necessarily involve compromise.  Additionally, the bill must do its best to address the health care sector, which must take priority.  That means giving health care workers combat pay, so to speak, as they are putting their lives on the line.  It means supporting them with supplies and equipment above all else.

As for student loans, the focus should be on borrowers who need help and who will be essential to building back the economy.

Previous suggestions:

• Convert repayment forbearances to deferments for the duration of the emergency.  That will eliminate interest payments on subsidized loans.

• Allow borrowers to place their loans into deferment with conversion to forbearance at the end of the emergency.  That will give borrowers in repayment an option to pause if it makes sense for them.

• Cease debt collections and wage garnishments for the duration of the emergency.

New elaboration on a previous suggestion for a Tuition Premium Tax Credit:

• Put up to $10,000 into the hands of borrowers and others who have struggled to pay tuition, through a refundable tax credit based on full-time-equivalent years of undergraduate postsecondary education in the 21st Century.  A refundable tax credit means a check will be in the mail if the credit exceeds tax liability, and is therefore a means test to target the aid.  Basing the credit on years of tuition paid addresses issues of equity among borrowers, and between borrowers and non-borrowers.  It also addresses generational equity to recognize higher tuition burdens in the past two decades compared to earlier years.

This would achieve fairly wide coverage of many borrowers in distress.  More than two out of three students have borrowed to pay tuition.  The credit would be a maximum of $10,000 for a person with a full-time, four year postsecondary education, proportionately reduced for lesser time of enrollment.

The $10,000 figure comes from recent proposals in Congress to assist borrowers.  It also is a rough approximation of the average tuition premium paid by this generation compared to the previous one.

This approach is a way to overcome objections to distributing federal funds to those who don't need them, and to objections based on equity concerns between individuals' choices in paying for college.  It can stand on its own as sound policy as part of a coronavirus bill, or independently.

Convert Student-Loan Forbearance to Deferment in the Coronavirus Emergency

March, 2020

Washington – There is much confusion in the student-loan community about what action the federal government should take to help borrowers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The president announced as part of his coronavirus emergency declaration that interest on federal student-loans will be not be charged for six months.  But the Department of Education has apparently interpreted this to mean that a borrower's final bill, possibly years in the future, will be reduced accordingly.  That is not helpful now.

Suggestion:  convert loan payment forbearances to deferments for six months by recognizing the national coronavirus emergency as deferment-eligible.  Forbearances accrue interest, deferments on subsidized loans do not.

Such action would also target the relief more toward those who need it than those who don't.

Some have questioned the legality of giving relief at all.  Clearly, the secretary of education has the power under 20 USC 1082.  The secretary can compromise loans as necessary for the good of the program and the good of the country.  The secretary can issue emergency rules under the Administrative Procedures Act in the public interest, including public safety.

The secretary could also stop collections of defaulted loans temporarily.  There is a case for this beyond the coronavirus emergency, because some collections have been taking place illegally on loans that were already cancelled. 

States are not without their own police powers in these matters, with responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents.  Governors and state attorney generals, acting under their consumer protection authorities, could suspend garnishments and other draconian collections temporarily.  As the recent decision in Nelson v. Great Lakes indicates, states are not preempted by the federal Higher Education Act from acting on student-loans.

This is not to say more doesn't need to be done, perhaps along the lines of the previous post, only that there needs to be more clarity and action on what has already been announced. 

All Too Predictable: Debt and Disease

March, 2020

Washington – Anyone who has been trying seriously to stay well-informed in recent years (as opposed to seeing public affairs as entertainment) knows that a global pandemic was possible and even probable.  Now we have one.

Likewise, it was all too predictable that the nation's student-loan crisis will not be solved by  government cancellation of the enormous debt, regardless of its overall positive economic effects.  That idea, proposed by several candidates for public office, has met with strong opposition from those who see inequities in it between those who borrowed heavily and those who did not, and between those who can well afford to repay loans and those who cannot. 

The challenge is to come up with a way to ease the student-loan crisis significantly, but in a way that will meet equity expectations so as to win broad public support.

I offer again the idea of relief for those who have been adversely affected by increasingly unaffordable college tuition in the past two decades, whether they borrowed or not.  Congress could pass a Tuition Premium Tax Credit based not on amounts borrowed, but on college and vocational credits earned.  The credit would be refundable and means-tested.  To establish a premium baseline, the U.S. Department of Education would calculate a national average tuition premium for each year in the 21st century representing the additional burden faced by this century's learners compared to the previous generation.  The IRS would publish a tax table showing yearly premiums against college credits earned to determine tax credit amounts.

This federal tax credit would provide equity between generations, between borrowers and non-borrowers, between attendance at low priced institutions versus those higher priced, and, because the tax credit would be means-tested, between recipients and taxpayers.  Borrowers could use their tax credits to pay down loan balances.

Congress should also pass student loan bankruptcy reform (S.1414 and H.R.770), so student debt is treated as are other kinds of debt.  Republican John Katko leads the effort in the House, Democrat Dick Durbin leads it in the Senate.

A refundable Tuition Premium Tax Credit established immediately would inject resources into our pandemic-weakened economy, helping both the employed and the unemployed while simultaneously alleviating the student-loan crisis that weighs heavily on millions who are now being doubly squeezed by both debt and disease.  This tax credit would be preferable to a payroll tax cut, as it would reach better into the interstices of the huge gig and loan-forbearance economies, as well as be better targeted because of its means test.  It could win bipartisan support.

Controlling Eastern Red Cedars

March, 2020

Lincoln – Last year I cut out over 750 Eastern Red Cedars from our grasslands; last week I eliminated over 600 more.  These are young cedars, from 6" to 6', still small enough to take out with loppers.  The larger ones require an axe or chain saw, but we'll get them under control, too.

Managers of the neighboring Alexis pasture took out hundreds of cedars last year with a tractor-mounted saw.  Nearby, UNL managers burned cedars and brush on historic Nine Mile Prairie.  Most other neighbors are also working at cedar control.

If the cedars are not controlled they will take over the grasslands, creating dense forests inhospitable to the abundant flora and fauna of native and restored prairies.

Chelsea Forehead, Hubbard Fellow at The Nature Conservancy's prairie in Aurora, Nebraska, writes:

The magnitude of cedar invasion across Nebraska and surrounding states is daunting.

One of her suggestions is to eliminate female cedars from planted windbreaks.  Apparently Nebraska nurseries distribute huge numbers of cedars for such purposes, both male and female.

There is an average of 850,000 eastern red cedar trees cultivated for distribution in Nebraska each year- more than any other state in the region.

Nurseries could help in the effort by selling only males, if it is possible to identify them as seedlings.  If not, perhaps researchers could develop ways to do so.

Saving remaining grasslands from forestation will require the concerted efforts of landowners and conservation organizations alike. For those efforts to be successful, stakeholders will have to take a multi-faceted approach and consider all possible measures of combating cedar spread.

Another Blockbuster Report on College Affordability

March, 2020

Washington – Last month, Stephen Burd at New America described how many public universities are failing in their mission to provide affordable higher education. This month, Third Way is stepping up with a similar analysis and a similar prescription:  

[P]ublic flagship universities may expend substantial resources recruiting and offering “merit” aid to mediocre out-of-state students who are rejected from public universities in their own state, while high- achieving, low-income in-state students are neglected and often funneled to community colleges that dramatically reduce their chances of ultimately obtaining a bachelor’s degree. This is not a meritocracy. Nor is it an evil plot by universities. It is a rational response to incentives created by government disinvestment in public higher education. Policymakers at both the federal and state levels should give consideration to how they can apply policy levers to provide sustainable financial pathways that enable public research universities to flourish by serving the mission of social mobility that they were founded to serve. (emphasis added)

Both reports show how government disinvestment incentives have created this remarkably bad situation.

But the question of the moment is whether Congress is paying attention, or indeed, if it comprehends what it has done.

Even as four congressional committees work on higher education appropriations and reauthorizations this month, there are no signs that Congress wants to re-think the incentives it has created that are counterproductive to the purposes of the Higher Education Act.

The major reason for this, I believe, is that the higher education lobby sees changing any "policy levers" as regulation and oversight.  It wants money, no strings.  And the for-profit industries that benefit from the status quo (student loan companies and for-profit colleges) are adamantly opposed to disrupting their lucrative business models that are based on student borrowing.  Collectively, they have the ear of Congress.

There is another way to tackle this, which has never been tried but should be an option for any secretary of education who really cares about higher education affordability and attainment.  Monies appropriated by Congress must be spent for purposes authorized by statute.  Congress has never authorized dumping federal money into financial-aid-packaging maws invented by enrollment management consultants so as to emerge as merit aid for the non-needy and larger student loan burdens for the needy.  A secretary should therefore dispatch program review teams to a few selected universities to determine if federal funds are properly aiding those for which they are intended and, if not, the institutions would be put into limitation, suspension, or termination (LS&T) status until their enrollment management plans can conform to HEA statutorily expressed purposes.

If Congress remains blind to the unfortunate incentives it has created, a secretary of education can and must act, nevertheless.  With two excellent reports from New America and Third Way, excuses like "we didn't know how our programs worked" are running out.