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.