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.

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.