A Different Take on the 11-Worth Café

June, 2020

Lincoln –  The 11-Worth Café in Omaha has been much in the news.

Two of us stopped in for lunch there a few years ago.  Our kind of place, we thought.  And not far from the house on Mason Street once owned by our ancestors who moved there from Polk County.

We were seated in a booth near a table occupied by two young, thin girls under ten years old and their very wide-bodied grandparents.  The grandfather ordered tall frothy shakes for them all, along with a huge pile of salty french fries.  He then demonstrated how to dip the fries into the shake:  "This is how to eat your fries."

It was enough to make me want to intervene with "Do you want your granddaughters to grow up to look like you?"  But I didn't.

When it came time for us to order, I asked for an omelette.  "What do you want with that," the waitress asked, "hash browns or fries?"  "Could I have some greens?" I replied.  "What do you mean, greens?" she asked.  "You know, cole slaw, peas, beans, any green vegetable," I suggested. "We don't have those," she explained, "that's not what people want here, so we don't have them."  "How about lettuce?" I asked.  "I'll see if we have any," she said. She brought out a pale wedge of iceberg lettuce, brown around the edges.

Sometimes we eat lunch in Omaha at the Union Pacific public cafeteria at 14th and Douglas.  UP pays attention to employee "wellness" and therefore has a wide variety of fresh foods available.  We can't help but remark that that the 11-Worth customers will likely have a shorter life expectancy compared to the UP cafeteria customers. 

Along comes the coronavirus pandemic.  Who will succumb to it?  I'm afraid the 11-Worth regulars are likely to be at much higher risk.

The reason the 11-Worth Café is in the Nebraska news is not nutrition but the "Robert E. Lee" breakfast dish on the menu, which prompted questions of racism.  Protesters objected, a social-media war ensued, and the owners closed down.

The relationship between nutrition, Covid-19, and race never came up for discussion, as it might have.  They are interrelated.

I was disappointed in a recent Washington Post Outlook op-ed that downplayed the role of nutrition in Covid-19 incidence by race.  Those in lower socio-economic classes who live in areas not well served by fresh-food grocery stores and cafés are going to be more susceptible to pandemics; that includes many African Americans.  The unfortunate tone of the op-ed was that those who look at the role of nutrition in Covid-19 racial disparities are somehow engaging in "junk science" and the focus must stay on the symbols of racism, like the naming of a dish.  But better nutrition is doubtless one of the keys to fighting pandemics on behalf of all, and would help reduce disparities both by race and by social class.

A happy ending to the story of the 11-Worth Café would be a re-opening without the Lee name on a dish and with a healthier overall menu.

Next Gen Student Loan Servicing Contracts

June, 2020

Washington – The nation's student loan servicing, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, has been shockingly inadequate for years.  Borrowers can get into student loan servicing hell and never get out.  This is no small matter, as lives are ruined and the nation's economy is damaged.

One of my all-time favorite headlines appeared above an article by Ron Lieber of the New York Times: "Your Student Loan Servicer Will Call You Back in a Year. Sorry."  That sums up the situation well.

The Department of Education's standard response has been to say that this will all be fixed when new contracts are put into effect under its "Next Gen" program.  Some of those contracts were announced yesterday and, indeed, none of the Big Four servicers that do the bulk of the nation's current servicing are on the list of winners going forward.  There is another contract round for the architecture of a common servicing portal, but that should not diminish the importance of yesterday's announcement of a chosen five.

The glaring problem is that only two of the current Big Four servicers, Navient and FedLoan (PHEAA), are responsible for the worst of the servicing.  The other two have decent records and through experience have learned lessons that in the end benefited borrowers, at least in comparison with the truly terrible two.

Even more confounding: some of the winners announced yesterday don't have much to commend them.  In a recent ranking of nine servicers, EdFinancial is three places below Great Lakes, best of the Big Four.  MOHELA is well down in the rankings, barely above PHEAA.  Trellis's CEO came from MOHELA.  MAXIMUS is a troubled contractor when it comes to student loan defaults; its opaque operations are the subject of lawsuits and an unflattering law journal article, forthcoming. The contractor has been involved in preposterously unfair hearings in garnishment cases, hardly a recommendation for becoming a student loan servicer that is supposed to watch out for the interests of borrowers.

What is confusing about this process is the idea that the five new winners will start out with "back-office" operations and then move on to actual servicing later. Will they then subcontract with any of the Big Four as they attempt to scale up?  MOHELA and PHEAA have a relationship that goes back many years.  MOHELA uses PHEAA's loan servicing software known as COMPASS, as do other servicers.  COMPASS has a checkered history of being used to make false claims against taxpayers.

It's hard not to think that politics is playing a big role in these decisions.  EdFinancial is in Knoxville, Tennessee, home state of Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over student loans.  MOHELA is always furiously defended by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, without whose blessing the Department does nothing on student loan servicing.

PHEAA is in a revolving-door relationship with the Department of Education that has existed for nearly two decades and was recently strengthened.  It is hard to imagine that PHEAA will not emerge intact from the Next Gen process.  Historically, PHEAA has had back-up plans to protect itself.  In 2004 it had a confidential agreement with Iowa Student Loan to take over much of its business in case it was bought out by SLMA, as was advocated at the time by Governor Ed Rendell. 

Maybe Next Gen will work out for the better, but you can't blame people for having their doubts.  There is simply too long a history of incompetence and outright corruption at the Department of Education to believe that Next Gen is finally the remedy for it all.  My own preference is to make the switch to student loans that operate through the tax system, as in Australia and several other countries. 

Why George Norris, Why Now

June, 2020

Lincoln and Washington –  In a recent blog post, I suggested taking down the portrait of John C. Calhoun in the U.S. Senate Reception Room and replacing it with George W. Norris.  Thanks to Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star for quoting from it in his popular column.

I also heard from others, one of whom wrote:  "That's a noble goal....I spent 28 years on Capitol Hill, 18 in the Senate, and regret not trying to do something about that.... "

The obvious justification for the change is that Nebraskan George Norris, of McCook, was once chosen by a large panel of scholars and historians as the greatest senator in the history of the U.S. Senate, expressly for the purpose of placing his portrait in the prominent entryway.  That it never happened is not a happy chapter in Nebraska political history.

Of course the question must be raised, if pro-slavery advocacy is reason to re-locate the portrait of John C. Calhoun, whether Senator Norris's own history on race questions makes him a suitable replacement in 2020.

George Norris was a defender of all disadvantaged classes of Americans and sought social changes through governmental actions.  His advocacy for African Americans had a personal connection, he once explained, because his older brother John Henry Norris died in the Civil War, in the cause to end slavery.

Norris was instrumental in creating the Tennessee Valley Authority.  When the huge construction projects were undertaken during the Great Depression, the contracts were to contain anti-discrimination provisions, by law.  Unfortunately, the effort was undermined by an unhappy confluence of local Jim Crow practices with a TVA chairman of the board, Arthur Morgan, who was progressive but also eugenicist, more common at the time than we now acknowledge.

Norris was defeated by Kenneth S. Wherry in the 1942 elections in a contrast of opposites.  Wherry never met a minority group he didn't discriminate against, or try to make fun of.  When Wherry's name was put into nomination in 2004 for the Nebraska Hall of Fame, to which George Norris had been selected decades earlier as its first member, Nebraska earned unwanted national attention for even considering Wherry as an addition.

George Norris's legacy on race relations has become more apparent through his influence on fellow Nebraskan Herbert Brownell.  Brownell was a follower of Norris who became an advisor to Dwight Eisenhower and subsequently U.S. Attorney General.  He was instrumental in appointing judges that ended separate-but-equal policies.

Whatever happens to the portrait of John C. Calhoun, the portrait of George Norris needs placement where it was intended to be, on its own merits.  Norris must be understood in 2020 as a senator who chose honor over political expediency, who was not afraid to work across the aisle for the good of the country, even if it cost him an election.

That is a lesson that needs teaching in today's United States Senate.

An Open Letter to Six Governors

June, 2020

Washington – The following letter is being sent to the governors of six election battleground states:  North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Dear Governor:

The upcoming November general elections will test American democracy as never before.  Can your state conduct a free and fair election, or will it be fraudulent?  

As I write this, the Trump campaign is enlisting 50,000 people to disrupt polling places and planning to spend $20 million on tying up the courts in election litigation, so as to make certain the President wins the electoral college vote.  The effort is only thinly disguised.  Our foreign adversaries are also using social media, as they did in 2016, to re-elect a president they know is weak and manipulable toward their own ends.  

I know you are aware of this and are working to protect the integrity of your state's election.  However, there must be no assumption that you will succeed.  The question is, what will you do if and when your state's election is thrown into chaos?

It is time to explore your state's options under the Constitution and under federal and state statutes.  I am a political scientist and find more questions than answers about options, and few precedents. 

The Constitution clearly anticipates situations in which the electoral college cannot produce a winner and provides the alternative of an election in the House.  Would one of those situations be state abstention for lack of ability to conduct a free and fair election?  I believe so; it is at least worth a full legal analysis.  That would seem preferable to the 1836 precedent when Virginia threw the vice-presidential selection into the Senate by choosing electors for a candidate that did not win the general election, and to the 2000 precedent when Florida prematurely choose electors before a re-count was completed.  

So I ask you to do the legal homework on the question as it pertains to your state, and to other battleground states as well, in case there should be collective consideration in view of widespread election chaos.  Moreover, if you would announce now that you are inviting certified election monitors to assess the conduct of your election, so as to convey a message that you will not be without remedies against election tampering, it would discourage those who think elections can be stolen by disinformation, intimidation, creation of confusion, and endless litigation.  

Yours sincerely,

Jon H. Oberg 

The Nebraska Republican Primary

June, 2020

Lincoln and Berlin – It's hard to fathom the outcome of last month's Nebraska Republican primary election, in which Donald Trump received 242,032 votes, double the 122,327 he received in the 2016 primary.  His performance in office – the 2020 primary election was held at the height of the Coronavirus outbreak and at the depth of the farm economy crisis – cannot explain the results.

If anything, one might expect the reverse.  In 2016 voters may have cast their Trump votes as a protest, thinking he would not win; or believed that, once elected, he would become "presidential"; or believed in the promises he made to the working-class, to be their champion; or believed he would drain the Washington political swamp.

Why would people vote again for Trump in 2020, after his performance as the most un-presidential, morally-challenged, and divisive president ever?  Single-issue voters (guns, abortion) would account for some votes; those who care only about his advocacy of a rapacious business climate would account for more; so would the poorly educated who are addicted to "govertainment."  But a doubling of the vote after he was impeached, after his ruination of the farm economy, after weakening our international alliances, after his lack of leadership to confront the Coronavirus?

That's improbable.  Something else must be at work.

An explanation that seems plausible to me grows out of what I and many others witnessed in Germany before the country was unified thirty years ago.   The East German television network broadcast Communist propaganda continuously, which could also be seen in West Berlin.  I remember watching the avuncular Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler interpret Western news over what was called Der Schwarze Kanal.  To much of the East German population, it was truth.  They had long since become collaborators with the authoritarian regime.  As Anne Applebaum explains in an insightful new work, collaborationists feel immensely relieved with their capitulation.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and people from the West were able to see actual conditions in East Germany, they were appalled.  The reaction was summed up in this common analysis:  "If East Germany is the world's 11th largest economy, we'd hate to see the 12th."  The cities were horribly contaminated, the countryside poisoned, the economy in permanent depression.

Nebraska is not East Germany, to be sure, but there are parallels.  Television channels and their hosts popular with Nebraskans are reminiscent of Der Schwarze Kanal; birds and insects are disappearing from Nebraska at an alarming rate; a one-party political system governs in Nebraska, badly but largely unchallenged; the rural economy is not viable and much of the state is de-populating; the urban economy is fragile, susceptible to pandemics and unrest resulting from inequality.

And, as in East Germany, there is a soothing collaborationist sentiment among the majority of the population, as evidenced by the Nebraska primary vote.   It is led by the Republican elected leadership, which once said it stood for balanced federal budgets, low tariffs, infrastructure, respect for science, internationalism, checks and balances, and, above all, decency.  Where did that go?  The relief felt through collaboration with the authoritarian Trump regime, which manifests the opposite position on every such issue, seems stronger than anyone suspected.  So much for the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Willa Cather, whose statue now represents Nebraska in the U.S. Capitol, admired and celebrated Nebraska's pioneers.  In her novels she was not so sanguine about the generation that followed.  That trend has continued, to what is now Nebraska's nadir. 

Down with Calhoun, Up with Norris

June, 2020

Washington – Now would be a good time to replace the portrait of John C. Calhoun in the U.S. Senate Reception Room with a portrait of George W. Norris of Nebraska.

The Senate's own web page provides background.  In 1957, a Senate committee asked historians to list the greatest U.S. Senators of all time, in order to honor five of them with portraits in the Reception Room.  George Norris of Nebraska topped the list, which included Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Robert Taft, and John C. Calhoun.

Recognition of Norris never happened, however, because Nebraska Senator Carl T. Curtis opposed it.  The two had been rivals within the Nebraska Republican Party.  So the honor went instead to Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.  In 2000, two other senators were recognized with portraits, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert F. Wagner.

If ever there was a time to right this historic wrong against Senator Norris, it is now, when the nation with good reason is removing statues and portraits of those who advocated and defended slavery.  John C. Calhoun was the leading pro-slavery Senator.  He died before the Civil War but was the architect of Southern secession.

George Norris left the Senate in 1943 with these words: "I have done my best to repudiate wrong and evil in government affairs."

Which is all the more reason, in these times of great wrongs and evils in government, to take down the portrait of Calhoun and replace it with a portrait of perhaps the greatest of all U.S. Senators, Nebraska's George W. Norris.

Who Would Write This and Why?

June, 2020

Lincoln –  Perhaps many people have read the anecdote below (in italics).  Or only a few.  It came to me as an attachment in an email from an old friend in rural Nebraska, who thought it was "so very true" that I should see it.  

I don't know what to make of it.  I wrote back inquiring about its source, to no avail.  Who would write such a piece, playing effectively on emotion and nostalgia, but implying those who now wear masks and use hand sanitizers are "sissies" and not "real men"?  

The author knows his WWII and surely would have made a good script writer for Tokyo Rose or Axis Sally.  It's too idiomatic to have been written by a contemporary Boris, I think, although our foreign adversaries would like to see death and divisiveness undermine America.  

This line suggests a possible source:  "We didn't attack our President..."

Is this a sick campaign document?  It apparently was shared by "neighbors" during the Nebraska primary.  That's my best guess unless someone has a better explanation.  

The circulated attachment:

I talked with a man today, an 80+ year old man. I asked him if there was anything I can get him while this Coronavirus scare was gripping America.

He simply smiled, looked away and said: "Let me tell you what I need! I need to believe, at some point, this country my generation fought for ... I need to believe this nation that we handed safely to our children and their children ...

I need to know this generation will quit being a bunch of sissies .. that they respect what they've been given ... that they've earned what others sacrificed for."

I wasn't sure where the conversation was going or if it was going anywhere at all. So, I sat there, quietly listening.

"You know, I was a little boy during WWII. Those were scary days. We didn't know if we were going to be speaking English, German or Japanese at the end of the war. There was no certainty, no guarantees like Americans enjoy today.

And no home went without sacrifice or loss. Every house, up and down every street, had someone in harm's way. Maybe their Daddy was a soldier, maybe their son was a sailor, maybe it was an uncle. Sometimes it was the whole damn family ... fathers, sons, uncles ...

Having someone, you love, sent off to war ... it wasn't less frightening than it is today. It was scary as Hell. If anything, it was more frightening. We didn't have battle front news. We didn't have email or cellphones. You sent them away and you hoped ... you prayed. You may not hear from them for months, if ever. Sometimes a mother was getting her son's letters the same day Dad was comforting her over their child's death.

And we sacrificed. You couldn't buy things. Everything was rationed. You were only allowed so much milk per month, only so much bread, toilet paper. EVERYTHING was restricted for the war effort. And what you weren't using, what you didn't need, things you threw away, they were saved and sorted for the war effort. My generation was the original recycling movement in America.

And we had viruses back then ... serious viruses. Things like polio, measles, and such. It was nothing to walk to school and pass a house or two that was quarantined. We didn't shut down our schools. We didn't shut down our cities. We carried on, without masks, without hand sanitizer. And do you know what? We persevered. We overcame. We didn't attack our President, we came together. We rallied around the flag for the war. Thick or thin, we were in it to win. And we would lose more boys in an hour of combat than we lose in entire wars today."

He slowly looked away again. Maybe I saw a small tear in the corner of his eye. Then he continued: "Today's kids don't know sacrifice. They think a sacrifice is not having coverage on their phone while they freely drive across the country. Today's kids are selfish and spoiled. In my generation, we looked out for our elders. We helped out with single moms whose husbands were either at war or dead from war. Today's kids rush the store, buying everything they can ... no concern for anyone but themselves. It's shameful the way Americans behave these days. None of them deserve the sacrifices their granddads made.

So, no I don't need anything. I appreciate your offer but, I know I've been through worse things than this virus. But maybe I should be asking you, what can I do to help you? Do you have enough pop to get through this, enough steak? Will you be able to survive with 113 channels on your tv?"

I smiled, fighting back a tear of my own ... now humbled by a man in his 80's. All I could do was thank him for the history lesson, leave my number for emergency and leave with my ego firmly tucked in my rear.

I talked to a man today. A real man. An American man from an era long gone and forgotten. We will never understand the sacrifices. We will never fully earn their sacrifices. But we should work harder to learn about them ... learn from them ... to respect them.

And, whatever you do, don't wear a mask!  It would be nice if the author stepped forward and explained who wrote this and why.

Post script:  I've discovered a person named Pat Miles put his name on this, and simultaneously posted an endorsement of Trump.  That confirms my guess as to the why of it.  Perhaps he is paid to sow division so as to help his candidate.  I am of the generation that remembers polio, but that does not lead me in any way to disparage people who now wear masks to avoid spreading coronavirus.  I remember saving metal and string, but that only makes me applaud current recycling programs, not sneer at them.  And I fought in a war myself, by the way, seven times in a combat zone.  Each generation has its own challenges, its own failings and successes.  You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to divide us, Pat Miles, if you are the author.

Confederate Statues and Symbols

June, 2020

Washington – Should Confederate leaders continue to be honored with statues and Army base names?  I wonder what my ancestors in the Confederate army would think of the question.

Dear Sampson Zicafoose,

You have not heard from me before, because I have not sought your perspective across generations.  You are my second great grandfather and a veteran of the Confederate army.  

Your granddaughter Mae Zicafoose Oberg is my grandmother.  You didn't get to know her, because your son, her father William Clark Zicafoose, was only about six years old when you died in 1863.    Perhaps you had a few words for him before you passed away at your home in Pendleton County, West Virginia, but if so they have not come down to me.  

Your son and his wife Susan Wimer left West Virginia for Nebraska in the early 1890s, with their daughter Mae and son Otto.  I have a picture of your son hanging in my home in Nebraska, with his family, which in Nebraska added four more boys: Earl, Ray, Ralph, and Bryan.  

Mae's son Howard Oberg, my father, did not know a great deal about the history of the Zicafoose family.  He said his mother's family referred to themselves as originally "Pennsylvania Dutch" and that's about all.  Mae and her husband Ben Oberg (a Nebraskan born in Sweden) went back to West Virginia in 1930 to visit her remaining family.  I inherited her diary from that trip and learned much about the family from reading it.  She may have visited your grave, but I can't be sure.  

Now (it is 2020) there is a great controversy about whether statues of Confederate leaders should be taken down from honored places in the old Confederate states.

There is somehow an expectation that the descendants of Confederate veterans, like me, will object to the removal of Confederate symbols, but I certainly don't see it that way.  The war cost you your life. 

You were in the 46th Virginia militia, an infantry sergeant in Company C,  from 1861-63.  Your battles were costly losses.  You returned home in June of 1863 and died in August.   There is no record of your cause of death.

The war also cost your half-brother, Elias, his life, fighting on the Union side.  Elias C. Zicafoose died in 1865.  He served in the Ohio Infantry and died of dysentery in Louisiana, where he is buried.  

I wonder if your views of the war changed in the two years you served.  Likely you joined up because it was expected of you, by your community in the southern part of Pendleton County.  You did not own slaves, but your wife's family did.  Your wife Sarah Etta Simmons' father, William George Simmons, owned three slaves; his father Captain Henry Simmons had owned ten slaves.  

Slave-owning in the county was not prevalent but accepted.  I'd like to know what you thought of it, of the idea that a war should be fought over it, and how the Confederate military leadership conducted the war from your standpoint.   Because it certainly did not work out well for you.   

After your death, your wife Sarah Etta married Samuel Mullenax, who together raised your five children.  You never got to see them grow up. 

My own father-in-law was required to fight in the German Wehrmacht in WWII.  He hated the war as the worst thing that ever happened to him.  I served in the Navy in the Vietnam war.  That was a war to regret.  I understand that you could be bitter about the Civil War, and shake your head at the very idea that statues were ever erected to honor anyone who perpetrated it.  

That's the lesson I learn from your life: take down the statues to remember you and every other person who suffered because of the war, the sooner the better.  I'd rather remember you for something you did in your life more positive.   

Did you know Peter B. Wimer?  He was your neighbor and in the Confederate army as well.  His daughter Susan married your son.  So he is also a second great grandfather to me.   But he lived until 1895 so he got to know his granddaughter Mae.  I will also look to him for his perspective. 

Your descendant,
Jon Oberg

Dear Peter B. Wimer,

It is now the year 2020 and I'd like to learn from your life, even though we never met, of course, as you died in 1895.  I am the grandson of your granddaughter Mae Zicafoose Oberg, and therefore your direct descendant.  

I'd like to know what you might think about the current controversy over statues of Confederate army generals, and the use of their names for Army bases.  You were in the Confederate army, the 48th Virginia militia, for a considerable time.  Your father Philip Wimer owned slaves although you did not.  Your wife, Sarah Strother, came from an old aristocratic Virginia family with slaves, but her great grandparents Anthony Strother and Frances Eastham Strother gave them up and supported their family from their own labor.  

After the Civil War, and after your wife Sarah passed away in 1880, you married Catherine Kile and moved to Nebraska for several years, along with others in the greater Wimer family, including two of your sisters.  Your daughter Susan Wimer Zicafoose and her family, including Mae, moved onto your Lancaster County farm after which you moved to Barton County, Missouri.  Susan apparently traveled to Missouri to tend to you in your last year, 1895 (her son Ralph was born there), before she returned to Nebraska.  

There is not much family history that explains your move from West Virginia to Nebraska.  A lot of people went west when the railroads were built.  Your land in the Appalachians was surely not as productive as the soil of the Nebraska prairie.  Perhaps you also wanted to get away from the aftermath of the war and start anew.   

You must not have had hard feelings about the outcome of the war, as you settled amid many Union veterans only a few miles from a city named Lincoln.  The 1890 census of veterans shows you to be the sole Confederate veteran among many who fought on the other side, several of whom carried their war wounds with them.   

Your brothers Ephraim, Aaron, and Jacob Wimer were also in the Confederate army and in the thick of many battles.  But they stayed close to where they were born well into the 20th century, so they would have known about the statues and probably approved of them.  Pendleton County, West Virginia, and adjacent Highland County, Virginia, where they lived, were sites of Confederate army reunions for decades after the war. 

Earlier this year I was at the Nebraska grave of your sister Sidney's granddaughter Daisy Lambert, who died in infancy in 1882.  The abandoned cemetery is just beyond your old place on the Agnew Road.  Very likely you were at the burial back then.  

So our paths meet there 138 years apart, but I don't have a good sense of what you would say now about Confederate statues.  I hope you would say you were glad to pass along your Nebraska place to your daughter Susan and her husband, son of Sampson Zicafoose, and out of respect for the dead foreswear any celebration of Confederate symbols for all time.  

But I don't know that, so I'll just conclude on my own that I am one descendant of two Confederate army veterans who has no reluctance whatsoever to relegate all Confederate symbols to history's dustbin, and the sooner the better.  If we had a chance to talk, I think you'd agree that in our family, the Strothers, through their acts of manumission long before the war, are the people whom we should be honoring.

Your descendant,
Jon Oberg   

P.S.  Both of my children (your 3rd great-grandchildren), are Virginians, born there in 1979 and 1983.

Fighting Covid 19: A State Leadership Index

June, 2020

Lincoln –  In a recent post, I created an index to illustrate how to compare leadership achievements or shortfalls in fighting the coronavirus among several large western democracies.

The same process can be used to create a leadership or L index among states in the center of the U.S. that have similar population characteristics and industries.

In this illustration, Kansas is set at 1.00 for per capita numbers of Covid-19 cases, deaths, and the arithmetic average of the two.  With only 367 cases and 8 deaths per 100,000 residents, Kansas serves as a benchmark for good, or at least acceptable, leadership in its region.

South Dakota

Missouri does even better on holding down the number of cases, but not on deaths.  South Dakota does better on keeping deaths low, but not on cases.

Nebraska and Iowa fare poorly in the index, for both cases and deaths.  All raw numbers are as of June 8, 2020, as reported by the New York Times.

There is an obvious hypothesis to explain why Kansas and Missouri have fared better than Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.  The governors of the former states put shelter-in-place orders into effect early in the pandemic, so infections spread to fewer people; the governors of the latter never did, and more people were infected because of it.*

Politics likely had something to do with their decisions, as the governor of Kansas is a Democrat and those of the other four states are Republicans who felt pressures to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic to follow the example of their party's president, Donald Trump.  

Politics is only one explanation for the leadership differentials; each state is different in multiple ways.  But sometimes these differences are inapposite to expectations.  Nebraska, for example, had a head start in holding down cases because public schools were not in session to spread infections at the outset of the pandemic.  Nebraska was also fortunate to have local leadership call off attendance at the boys' state basketball tournament in Lincoln, further holding down the infection's spread at a critical time.

But all of that advantage and more was reversed in Nebraska when a Covid-19 outbreak occurred in Hall County.  Local officials there asked the governor to issue a shelter-in-place order, but he refused and the epidemic spread both westward and eastward rapidly.  Soon Nebraska had the highest virus reproduction rate in the country, a dubious title that lasted weeks.  Those cases and deaths are now reflected in the L index.

Once again, this index can be used to calculate the numbers of cases and deaths conceivably accounted for by leadership decisions.  Divide the L index into the raw numbers to determine what might have been.  For example, had Nebraska been like Kansas, its cases might have been 7,106 rather than 15,634 (15,634/2.2), and its deaths 157 rather than 198 (198/1.25).

Are there better hypotheses that would explain these numbers?  If so, I'd like to hear them.  The coronavirus pandemic is continuing and the methods to constrain it are in much need of analysis, not to mention the necessity of holding leaders accountable for their decisions.

* "Countries that have successfully contained covid-19 have this in common: They took early, decisive action. Without a vaccine, the most effective intervention is the shelter-in-place order."
-- Leana S. Wen

The Key Voters in Nebraska's 1st and 2nd District Races

June, 2020

Lincoln – Much of Nebraska's pundit class is describing the upcoming First and Second Congressional District elections in conventional ways, as contests between urban liberals and moderates against greater numbers of rural and suburban conservatives.  They are not optimistic about the chances of either Kate Bolz in the First district, against incumbent Jeff Fortenberry, or Kara Eastman in the Second, against incumbent Don Bacon.

I couldn't disagree more, unless Bolz and Eastman themselves see their races conventionally, too.  In which case, yes, they'll lose.

One group of voters that will potentially make an unexpected difference in this election is made up of veterans and military families, who constitute sizable numbers in both districts.  Many of these voters are not comfortable with President Trump's performance as commander-in-chief, both at home and abroad.

At home, he has been challenged as being a danger to our very Constitution by General James Mattis, Admiral Mike Mullen, and hundreds of other defense leaders of unquestioned patriotism.  Abroad, the President has squandered international good will by weakening our alliances and has not responded well to actual challenges, like China's takeover of the South China Sea.  Moreover, President Trump has undermined the nation's military leadership over and over with his bizarre interventions in personnel cases.

President Trump last week put his thumb in the eye of veterans who want protection from fraudulent schools where they try to use their GI Bill benefits.  Over 30 veterans' organizations pleaded with the President to protect veterans from these schools, rather than the schools from the veterans (as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos characterized it), but he refused, leaving countless veterans with neither benefits nor education.

Through all of this, Fortenberry and Bacon remain unmoved.  Clearly, they are afraid of Trump and put their own political careers ahead of the country's needs.  No profiles in courage are on the horizon.

None of this is lost on Nebraska veterans and military families.  But the question is whether Bolz and Eastman will engage with these voters so as to give them an alternative to Trump's incumbent apologists.

Another group of voters that should make an unconventional difference in these two elections is made up of farmers and residents of rural communities.  Many of these voters have not seen such bad times since at least the 1980s and perhaps even the Great Depression.  They have been sacrificed by President Trump in his misguided attempt to use tariffs (shades of Smoot-Hawley) to deal with unrelated issues like intellectual property theft.  They are not impressed with federal taxpayer bailouts because they want "trade not aid."  They are shaken to their foundations by the breakdown of the food-chain this year, which resulted in shameful destruction of livestock that offended farmers' views of themselves as stewards of their land and livestock.  They are concerned about the loss of topsoil, about which the President has never expressed concern as he cuts and cuts funds from conservation programs that farmers value.

But the question is whether Bolz and Eastman will listen to rural voters or write them off as a hopeless Trump constituency that will vote for Fortenberry and Bacon, regardless.

For the Democrats not to compete for the rural vote, as well as the military vote, would be a huge mistake.

There is another reason Nebraska voters may look at these races differently in 2020 and put less emphasis on party and more on country.   The all-Republican delegation Nebraskans have sent to Washington has turned out to be weak when it comes to standing up for anyone, even the constituencies noted above.  This delegation can be blown over like a feather by the President-bully Trump.  Bolz and Eastman are both credible candidates who have exhibited backbone in their own lives as well as having impressive career accomplishments.  They will attract voters.

Both of these races could go either way.  Throw out the conventional wisdom this year if the challengers run smart campaigns.

Two More Blows Against Loan Victims

June, 2020

Washington – As if there weren't enough bad news already, student loan borrowers have just been dealt two more blows by President Trump and by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

One is a slap at veterans especially; the other is an illegal collection action against borrowers generally.

Despite pleas from over thirty veterans' organizations, the President vetoed H.J. Res 76, which Congress passed on a bi-partisan basis to give loan relief to students defrauded by their institutions.  Veterans are disproportionately affected because disreputable schools target them for their GI Bill benefits.  A legal challenge is still pending, brought by the Project on Predatory Student Lending, which we can only hope is successful.

The advocacy group Veterans Education Success (VES) has done remarkable work to achieve bi-partisan support on veterans issues of all sorts.  Approval of this resolution should have been an easy call for the President, to side with honorable veterans rather than corrupt schools.  There is still a chance for Congress to redeem itself by overriding the veto.

The other problem, dealing with illegal student-loan collections, is being addressed in court in a suit brought by Student Defense and Democracy Forward against Education Secretary DeVos and Treasury Secretary Mnunchin. In violation of the CARES Act, the Treasury Department has seized more than $18 million in tax refunds from more than 11,000 student borrowers. And that was just in April.

Why do the President and the Secretary of Education care so little about the lives of struggling veterans and other student-loan borrowers who so clearly have been victimized in federal programs that were supposed to be helping them, not ruin their lives?

I think the answer is explained in Dan E. Moldea's new book, Money, Politics, and Corruption in U.S. Higher Education.  I was interviewed in the book and gave examples of perjury, obstruction, violations of recusals, insider conspiracies to undermine audit integrity, conflicts of interest, and other abuses that simply amount to racketeering and corruption.  Others gave similar accounts.

The latest predations by the President and the Secretary are hardly a surprise.  Much credit is due the organizations named above that are trying to fight, against all odds, for integrity in federal programs and for the rule of law.