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Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

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Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


The U.S. and Iran in One Long Sentence

Just two months before handing the keys to the Oval Office over to Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman insisted that all covert action in Tehran be put on hold. “We tried to get the block-headed British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran,” Truman complained privately, but “no, no, they could not do that.” — Historian Douglas Little on U.S.-Iranian relations

By way of providing historical context for the just announced U.S. – Iran nuclear talks continue in SwitzerlandIranian “framework” for a deal on Iran’s nuclear capability, let’s see if I can reduce more than 100 years of history between the two countries to one, very, very long sentence. Hang on.

The U.S. and Iran: History in a Sentence 

As long ago as 1900 the U.S. and Britain coveted Persian (as it was then called) oil, a valuable commodity that became critical to powering the Royal Navy during World War I; some guys in Persia decided that locals weren’t getting a fair share of the oil revenue from the Anglo-Iran Oil Company – we call it BP today – so they set up a fellow called the Shah; this first Shah flirted with Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – some people still say the Iranians are “Nazi-like” – and alarmed the western allies, so Churchill and Stalin secretly plotted to depose him and they installed the Shah’s son in his place, Iran was then occupied by Allied and Russia forces and after the second World War the U.S. cozied up to this new Shah – Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – believing he would be a good buffer against Soviet designs on the region (and the oil), but in 1949 an Iranian politician named Mossadegh – he never
www.MohammadMossadegh.comliked the Shah – complicated things when he started arguing for more
local control over the oil (he wanted a 50-50 split with Britain, that’s what Harry Truman was referring to above) and then he became the democratically elected prime minister, but, fearing Mossadegh was a dupe of the Russians, the CIA sponsored a coup in 1953 to force him out – Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson was the CIA officer in charge and the Shah just happened to be out of town – and the reformist prime minister (Mossadegh again) was arrested and imprisoned (he died under house arrest in 1967), the Shah was now fully in control and could return to town, while his secret police (with CIA support) cracked down on all dissent, but the U.S. still liked the Shah and kept him on the diplomatic A-list (he was anti-communist, after all), even while Iranian clerics termed him a puppet of the United States; an impression Richard Nixon seemed to confirm when he gave the Shah a big load of military equipment in the 1970’s believing that the Shah and his army would help create “stability in the region” (he was anti-communist, after all), but finally things got really shaky for the Shah, even after Jimmy Carter toasted him on New Years Eve in 1977 Carter - Shahand called his regime “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” but the Iranians were restless and the clerics demanded change, and before long the U.S. had to tell the Shah it was time for him to go and he left for Egypt, but he was sick with cancer and the United States – for humanitarian reasons it was said – let him come to New York for treatment, which dredged up old memories of that U.S. coup back in ’53 when the Shah was conveniently out of town, and twelve days later the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun by students and a bunch of U.S. citizens were held hostage for 444 days, while an ancient Ayatollah started really running things in Iran, a hostage rescue Tehranmission failed pretty much sealing Carter’s re-election defeat and cementing the power of the clerics, then a few minutes after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 the hostages were released, which may have been the least of Iranian concerns at the time since they were locked in a hugely bloody war with their neighbors in Iraq and, of course, the U.S. backed a guy named Saddam in that war, which ended in a stalemate in 1988, but when the U.S.’s one time friend Saddam then invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Iranians suddenly didn’t look all that bad, but there was a lot of history here and when the U.S. subsequently invaded Iraq in 2003, the Iranians were opposed to “the great Satan” messing around in their back yard – even though they hated Iraq and fought a war against Saddam they considered the U.S. a bigger threat (maybe history had something to do with it) and they also wanted to “bring stability to the region” by supporting their guys in Iraq – and, about the same time, Iran really started supporting an outfit called Hamas – terrorists to some – and they hated the idea of Israel, but that was a long-standing deal going back to that first World War, and Iran didn’t care much for Saudi Arabia either, a U.S. ally, and some U.S. guys – Dick Cheney comes to mind – welcomed a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons and, oh yes I nearlyoliver-north-time-magazine-200x263 forgot, when Reagan was president some smart guys in the U.S. government came up with the idea of engineering a complicated trade of weapons for hostages with money from the deal then going to support the Nicaraguan Contras (they were anti-communist, after all), but the whole deal – illegal in any event – got botched up by a Marine Corps Lt. Colonel named North and Congress investigated what we started to call the “Iran-Contra affair,” and Reagan apologized, and a couple of guys went to jail, and then in 2008 the United States elected a new president who seemed to be saying “since we’re so worried about an Iranian nuke, and since the Israelis already have nukes, and rather than stabilizing the region the Iraq war, where we not only didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, but just helped make things in the region crazier, maybe – all the history aside – maybe we should just talk to these people rather than default to another war that might not bring stability to the region,” and the Iranians might be forgiven for thinking (after all this history): what the heck, can we trust these guys?

A Simpler Sentence…

There is a simpler sentence to explain the long and troubled relationship. Let’s just say: It is complicated, very, very complicated.


America’s Great Problems

1028_retire-early-education-caps_397x278The verdict is in. I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but I’m confident of what I am about to assert – the American attention span is shorter than the time it takes for Auburn to score a touchdown after a missed Alabama field goal.

In other words – short. Very short.

For a few moments earlier this fall we were consumed by the news of a humanitarian crisis and chemical weapons use in Syria. Then the Obamacare website didn’t work. Then Iran seemed to be coming to the international table to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and then China started issuing orders about disputed airspace in the Far East. Oh, yes, throw in a train wreck, a few tornadoes and an NFL lineman who is a bully. So much news and so much noise that much of the media and most policy makers seem to consistently miss the truly great issues confronting the nation.

Most of us continue to look – silly us – to our political leaders to help us understand what is really important, but people in elected office, even the smartest, most dedicated seem more victims than masters of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder. We certainly don’t lack for controversy and crisis. We do lack a leadership that helps define a sense of national priorities. What might we agree on as a nation that would really make a difference?

Syria, Iran, China and inadequate health insurance websites are all legitimate problems to be sure, but they are truly dwarfed by two more fundamental issues that, at the risk of hyperbole, really threaten the nation’s long-term viability. For the most part political leadership is missing in action. The issues are growing income inequality and the profound challenges confronting the nation’s education system at every level. As if to render the issues even more complicated, we need to recognize that income inequality and educational attainment are actually two sides of the same coin.

A few statistics to put the great problems in sharper focus:

State-level funding for education at all levels, and particularly higher education, has been tumbling since the 1980’s and at the same time – if you’re putting kids through college you know this – tuition rates have spiked. In Idaho, in-state tuition is up by about 45 percent in less than a decade. There have been comparable increases in Oregon and Washington. Arizona led the nation with a 70 percent increase in the last five years, while the national average increase has been 27 percent. Little wonder there is a mounting crisis – $1.2 trillion worth – of college loan debt.

The American Council on Education, a respected advocacy group of college and university presidents, said in a recent report appropriately entitled A Race to the Bottom, “The 2011 funding effort [for higher education] was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Another data point: The country’s standing in terms of the number of young people completing post-secondary education is in decline compared to much of the rest of the developing world. As the Washington Post reported in September, “Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.”

The attainment rate for college graduates in the United States has actually crept up to 41 percent, but as the Post noted, “in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.”

In terms of college attainment the United States now trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, all of whom passed the U.S. in the latest rankings.

No doubt you’ve heard that a college degree, more costly than ever, just isn’t worth all that much in terms of economic value. It’s just not true.

Eduardo Porter, a very well educated fellow, writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times and recently wrote this: “On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong. Despite a weak job market for recent graduates, workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates. College might be more expensive than ever, but a degree is worth about $365,000 over a lifetime, after defraying all the direct and indirect costs of going to school. This is a higher payoff than in any other advanced nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Now let’s try to connect the dots of educational attainment and income inequality.

In September – you remember September, we were focused on shutting down the government, I think – the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty and a typical American family is making less on an annual basis in 2013 than it was in 1989. From about 1993 until about 2000, median household income was increasing steadily, but that upward trend ended and has, with the exception of brief uptick in 2007, been headed down…and down.

It is not terribly surprising that educational attainment is generally the worst in communities with the worst economic conditions. One example from Las Vegas where, as the Review-Journal reported recently, “With rare exception, school ratings are higher district wide when the surrounding neighborhood has a higher median household income and more college-educated residents, regardless of whether parents have degrees.

“Schools do progressively worse when their neighborhoods have higher rates of high school-only educated residents, families falling below the poverty line, and minorities.” In other words, education equals better economic conditions.

To summarize: state-level support for education at all levels (but higher education particularly) has been plummeting, more Americans than ever are acquiring education beyond high school (in part because the recession sent many folks who were out of work back to school), but most of the rest of the developed world – our economic competitors – are getting more advanced education then we are, and more education is still the surest path to a better economic life, particularly when real family income in the United States is as flat as a pancake.

The progressive “think tank” Think Progress says this about the growing economic divide in America. “Income inequality has been growing since the 1970s, as the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their income grow much faster than the bottom 20 percent. But things have accelerated in the economic downturn. For the past three years, those at the top of the income ladder saw their incomes grow by 5 percent while everyone else’s income dropped. The top 10 percent of the country’s earners took home half of the income in 2012, the largest amount on record.

“And things at the bottom have been declining. The bottom 60 percent of earners have experienced a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, seeing their compensation fall or stagnate. Many forces have contributed to this trend, but the growth of low-wage jobs that replace middle class work during the recovery has helped it along.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that more education for more Americans – college degrees, technical skills training, even an English degree – is the one sure path to a better standard of living and, I would argue, a stronger, more diverse economy. It is past time that our budget and policy priorities got in sync with this reality.


Higher Ed, Lower Expectations

Idaho is about to lose another high value educational asset. The loss is coming, in part I suspect, because the state has engaged in prolonged and systematic disinvestment in education at all levels and higher education has been particularly hard hit.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis apparently will depart shortly for Texas Tech University in Lubbock; a 30,000 student, major research university that competes athletically in the Big 12. Nellis was named late last week as the “sole” finalist for the desirable Texas Tech job.

Nellis’ departure comes four years after University of Idaho supporters prevailed upon him to take the job at Idaho’s land grant university by sweetening the salary offer with private dollars above and beyond what the State Board of Education was prepared to pay. The Nellis move marks the second departure of a high value U of I president to a place where education is clearly a higher priority than it is in Idaho. Tim White, Nellis’ predecessor, left the Moscow school in 2008 to head the University of California-Riverside and since has since been promoted to head the entire 23-campus California State University system. Talk about a brain drain.

(Full disclosure: my firm has had a long-standing client relationship with the University of Idaho and know and admire both Nellis and White. I have also done volunteer work for years with the Andrus Center at Boise State University.)

It’s clear that Nellis was recruited for the Texas Tech job and White’s rapid rise in the huge Cal State system speaks for itself. Both men are quality leaders with national reputations who, in the whole scheme of things, had barely a cup of coffee as they passed through educational penny-wise and pound-foolish Idaho. One can hardly blame them for leaving for states where admittedly educational budgets have been whacked, but where higher education is still seen as the surest path to economic growth.

At California-Riverside White helped open the first new medical school in the state in four decades, while during his tenure in Idaho Nellis launched a major fundraising campaign and continued to grow the U of I’s research budget. Nellis moves to a Texas Tech system that boasts a law school, a health sciences center, a big graduate school and a national/international foot print in agriculture and trade.

(Political junkies will note that the Texas Tech system’s Chancellor is former U.S. Representative Kent Hance, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican who holds the distinction of having beaten one George W. Bush in a congressional race in the 1970’s. Hance is a major player in Texas politics who, among other things, as a House Democrat, helped then-President Ronald Reagan pass the Reagan tax cuts in 1981.)

California’s bizarre budget and spending constraints required that Gov. Jerry Brown take a measure to the ballot last November to raise taxes, part of which he sold as a break with the state’s recent history of disinvestment in higher education.

As the New York Times recently noted, “Governor Brown holds a position on the board of trustees for both Cal State and [the University of California]. Since November, he has attended every meeting of both boards, asking about everything from dormitories to private donations and federal student loans. He is twisting arms on issues he has long held dear, like slashing executive pay and increasing teaching requirements for professors — ideas that have long been met with considerable resistance from academia. But Mr. Brown, himself a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, has never been a man to shrink from a debate.”

Like Idaho, spending on colleges and universities is down in California and in Texas, and enrollment is up. What seems different, however, is that some states in the post-recession period are finally starting, however tentatively, to invest again. And of equal importance these states actually demonstrate a genuine commitment to higher education by exploring real reform. For example, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is pushing forward with a major reworking of the state’s university governance system that will likely lead to more independence and spending flexibility. Other states are linking state support to educational outcomes, hoping to change incentives from merely enrolling students to keeping them in school.

Idaho, on the other hand, seems content not even to discuss new models, while maintaining a top-down command structure enforced by a part-time board that generally sees it’s job as policing the higher education budget rather than growing it. A legislator who might be inclined to dust-off old ideas about a single university system, a chancellor for Idaho higher education or a higher education board devoted to policy would get laughed out of the Statehouse.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) noted in a recent report 20 years ago the United States “topped the world in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 with college degrees. Our elementary and secondary schools might have been cause for concern but, with students from around the world wanting to enroll, our colleges and universities were above reproach.” No longer.

“Today,” the NCLS report says, “the United States ranks 10th among developed nations in the percentage of young workers holding a post-secondary credential or degree. It’s not that today’s young people are less educated than their elders. Rather, it’s that other nations are doing all they can to boost college participation and attainment and have surpassed the United States.”

Another study, the Times World Higher Education study, concludes that elite United States colleges – Harvard, Stanford, etc. – continue to be among the very best in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up to the rest of American higher education and catching up quickly.

“New forces in higher education are emerging, especially in the East Asian countries that are investing heavily in building world-class universities, so the traditional elite must be very careful,” according to Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education. “In the three years that the World Reputation Rankings have been running, we have clear evidence that the U.S. and the U.K. in particular are losing ground.”

So place all this in this global context and recognize that the bean counters in the Idaho legislature have, after a decade of disinvestment, succeeded in downsized state government to a place many of them have long dreamed about. At the same time they seem entirely content to let higher education patch and scratch its way forward. This year there will apparently be no new money to allow the University of Idaho to expand its law school offerings in the business and government center of the state and no new money to work on critical programs to retain kids in school once they have gotten there. The vast majority of the extremely limited new money for higher education – so far the legislature has approved less than the governor requested – will barely allow the state’s colleges and universities to keep up with new enrollment and occupy a few new buildings. This hardly signifies a strategic view of how to apply the essential grease of quality higher education to the sticky gears of a still lagging state economy.

You have to wonder how Idaho will attract the jobs of the 21st Century when the state continues to have one of the most dismal percentages in the country of high school grads going on to college or skills education. Meanwhile, study after study shows the unmistakable connection between the level of educational attainment by Americans and how well they do on measures of economic security and income. It’s not difficult to conclude that while Idaho education policy in recent years has centered on various “reforms” that have often promised improvements without more money, the state’s per capita personal income has fallen from 41st in the country in 2000 to 49th in 2011.

 Most state policy makers seem entirely content with the steadily diminished status quo and they scarcely speak as another proven higher education leader leaves for a greener pasture. You won’t hear many speeches from Idaho political leaders about how the state should aspire to lead the nation (or even the region) in some academic area or find the resources to build a world-class research capability. Quite to the contrary the view seems to be that things in Idaho are just good enough and budgets and aspiration best be held in check. One doubts Duane Nellis or Tim White heard such sentiments in Texas or California when they made decisions to move on.

At the same time, new forces in higher education indeed are emerging. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Indians, just to mention the obvious, understand the links between robust, continually improving higher education and a growing 21st Century economy. Higher education shrinks income disparity, provides one sure path from poverty to a better life and, not insignificantly, creates better, critically thinking citizens. It’s one thing to be ideologically blind to the need for new investment in higher education that might require new resources. It’s quite another thing to be willfully ignorant of the way the world works.


It’s the Money

College Football…the Case for Reform

Taylor Branch is a serious historian, a man who has made his considerable reputation as perhaps the most important historian of the civil rights movement. Branch’s superb Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and it is just about the best thing in print on the politics, history and turmoil that roiled the country as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled America forward, forcing us to confront our racist past and our unequal present.

Branch is an outstanding reporter and he has now turned his impressive investigative and analytical skills to the business of college football. His story – the cover piece in the current Atlantic – is an absolute must read for any fan, any skeptic, anyone who even occasionally wonders what big time college football has to do with big time higher education.

The Columbia Journalism Review said, “Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA…a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”

Frank Deford, who has long lamented the crass commercialism of college athletics, devoted his recent NPR commentary to Branch’s article that he called “the most important article ever written about college sports.”

I read Branch’s piece last week and came away with that once-in-a-while feeling that you have just read something really important, truly insightful and that you really learned a thing or two. His distillation of the history of the NCAA is simply fascinating. His insights into the business of big-time college football should be enough to make any big corporate sponsor blush. His characterizations of the scandals rippling through the game should make every college president in America queasy. But, since we’re really talking money and hypocrisy here, it will take something more than Ohio State firing a football coach or Boise State sacking an athletic director, to reform this system. It will happen, Taylor Branch forecasts, in a courtroom. He make a very compelling case.

Branch’s fundamental indictment of college football rests to two pillars: the NCAA is today, and long has been, a corrupt “cartel” determined to control as much of college athletics as it possibly can and that the so-called “student-athlete” is a fiction dreamed up by a long line of NCAA leaders who were determined to treat young athletes as indentured servants, while college coaches and the institutions themselves are enriched beyond the wildest dreams of most of the young men who labor for free.

As Branch says: “The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

He goes on to recount, in painful detail, stories where “student-athletes” have been seriously injured playing for respected colleges only to lose appeals that they be granted the basic protections of worker compensation laws.

“The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” Branch writes. “Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”

In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the young president of the University of Chicago, did what a college president would likely get tarred and feathered for today – he dropped football. Hutchins famously said, “To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating, and I refuse to cheat.”

Hutchins confronted the fundamental question: just what does ultra expensive college football, complete with lucrative sponsorship deals, high rolling boosters who play by high rolling rules and inevitable scandal have to do with education, scholarship and research. Hutchins answer was just as valid in 1939 as it is today – nothing.

Since reading Taylor Branch’s piece, I’ve read to other pieces of reporting on college football that strangely make his fundamental point in vastly different ways. The University of Chicago, Maynard Hutchins long in the grave, resurrected its football program thirty years after it was eliminated.

As the New York Times noted recently, “In 1969, football returned as a varsity sport, oddly enough during the Vietnam War era when many rebellious students were comparing blocking and tackling to bombing and strafing.

“Since then, the game has been thriving on its own measured terms in N.C.A.A. Division III, free of the highest level of competition. Winning is a preference and not an obsession. Players, though zealously recruited, are not given athletic scholarships. Championships are won but little noticed.

“Chicago presents its own kind of parable: going from all to none before settling on a path in between.

“We’re just a teaspoon in a larger sandbox,” said Dick Maloney, the team’s head coach since 1994. “There are places where football is more like a giant shovel, but I prefer it when everything is kept in perspective.”

In a front page piece, the Times also reported on the latest trends in college football uniforms, noting that the University of Maryland has done a deal with edgy gear manufacturer Under Armour to create a series of game jerseys, pants and helmets that the team will surprise fans with every week. Of course, four of the new jerseys are on sale by the college.

Just to connect the dots, as Branch does in his reporting, while the University of Maryland and dozens of other schools make a bundle on deals to sell college football jerseys and other team goodies, Ohio State University players are serving suspensions and have had four figure fines imposed for selling their own jerseys, rings and awards.

As Branch, Deford and others have pointed out, the NCAA never really goes hard after a big time football program. They’re simply afraid that real sanctions to clean up the college football cesspool might force the Ohio State’s and Miami’s to pick up their footballs and unite under a different banner. The NCAA can’t stand that thought. It needs the money. So, the NCAA spends about one percent of its budget on enforcement and typically only gets really snarly with some kid who may have trouble scrapping together the cash to get the oil changed in his car.

The University of Chicago’s Hutchins once joked that a student could get twelve letters in college without learning to write even one. Today the University that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner and then abandoned the Big Ten Conference is best known for its 85 Nobel laureates.

The entire system of college football – the organization, the big money, the ruse of the “student-athlete” – is eventually going to come tumbling down. There is truly a scandal here and like almost every scandal its ultimately about money and what the corruption of too much money and too little integrity can do to even the noblest of intentions.



How Educated are State Legislators?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is out with fascinating new research about the educational attainment of all of the country’s 7,000 state legislators.

Key nuggets in the report: while only about 28% of adult Americans have an undergraduate degree, in no state – New Hampshire is dead last as a percentage – do less than 53% of legislators have a degree. It also doesn’t make much difference to a legislator’s support for higher education where they went to college and most, like most college going Americans, went to a public school.

The Chronicle also ranks the most and least educated state legislatures. If you think your elected officials have to be the best (or the worst), you can now confirm or deny that opinion. By the measure of having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, California has the most educated legislature with nearly 90% of lawmakers have a degree. Oregon checks in at 84.5%, Utah is nearly 80%, Washington at nearly 75%, Idaho just over 73% and Montana, Nevada and Wyoming are all in the mid-60% range. The Chronicle’s profiles of each state are fascinating including detail on the schools where most lawmakers attended and how many stayed home for college and how many went out of state.

The Chronicle says: “Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges. And most of them stayed close to home. In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state. Across the nation, many lawmakers attended community colleges. Over all, about one in four don’t have bachelor’s degrees.”

This finding will send a shudder down the back of any president of a public college or university: support for higher education budgets seems to have very little to do with where lawmakers went to school.

More than a third of South Carolina’s state legislators went to the University of South Carolina, but it hasn’t stopped them from cutting the university’s budget by 25% over the last five years.

As Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg told the Chronicle: “My conclusion is that higher education has won the academic argument with policy makers. However, we haven’t been able to convert the academic argument into political action. The big question is, Why not? One Utah legislator answered that he simply doesn’t hear from constituents about supporting higher education, because they’re more concerned with roads, unemployment, and taxes.”

All this insight from the Chronicle just makes the dilemma swamping higher education all the more obvious. Shrinking state budgets have forced colleges to turn to higher tuition and fees in a wicked race to keep current. Meanwhile, financial aid is dwindling, with loans picking up the slack. As one observer noted recently, it is not inconceivable that today’s college students will be paying off loans when their kids are in school.

Obviously – and the Chronicle research supports this – there are a lot of smart lawmakers in state capitols. Yet, all these college grads turned state legislators seem, through their votes at least, to devalue the very higher education that most of them have used to help get ahead in life. I continue to wonder how we build the 21st Century economy we say we want, and create the next big wave of good jobs, without a national commitment to invest more and more wisely in higher education.


Our Disinvestment in Higher Education

No 21st Century Economy Here

The United States has been engaged over the last 20 years or so in a systematic disinvestment in higher education. It may be the least understood and most profound economic issue we face.

Google “disinvestment in higher education” and you’ll find it is a story in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, California and nearly everywhere else.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis was part of a panel at Montana State University recently. He talked, as he always does, about the connection between a growing – in quality and in students – higher education system and a vibrant economy.

As reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “Nellis said one of his biggest challenges as a leader today is communicating to the public how important the university is, at a time of state ‘disinvestment in higher education, at a time we’re losing our competitiveness in the world.'”

The University of Idaho, along with other state institutions, the newspaper noted “has had a 23 percent cut in state funding in two years, and it’s worse in California, Washington and Oregon.” State universities, Nellis said, are “critical to economic development and quality of life.” Exactly.

(Full disclosure: my firm has a long-time relationship with the University of Idaho and two family members are grads.)

As much as the state of Idaho needs to step up its funding game, the need to improve higher education attainment – the numbers attending and completing postsecondardy education – is a critical national need that is profoundly effected by public and private spending on higher education. According to the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based outfit committed to improving the percentage of Americans with some higher education, less than 38% of us in 2008 had a two or four-year degree. Lumina’s goal is to get that number to 60% by 2025, but at the current pace we’ll never make it.

Lumina pegs Idaho’s current percentage meeting the two or four-year goal at less than 35%, nearly three percentage points below the national average. Every state bordering Idaho, except Nevada, is doing better. Some states, like Washington – 42% with some postsecondary degree – are doing substantially better than Idaho.

Why is it so important to get more Idahoans – and Americans – in postsecondary education and on a path to a degree? Another recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce provides the answer. By 2018, 61% of Idaho’s jobs will require some postsecondary education. The math here is easy, if disconcerting – no skilled workforce, no 21st Century jobs.

Idaho’s task of improving postsecondary performance is even more daunting when you consider that our high school dropout rate remains unacceptably high at about 23% and the number of Hispanic youngsters, one of the fastest growing segments of Idaho’s population, who don’t make it through high school is even more unacceptable. So too the number of Hispanic youngsters who don’t go on to higher education. Other recent analysis in Idaho shows that we can’t even agree on how to calculate the dropout numbers. Not a particularly encouraging fact.

While the U.S. struggles to improve higher education attainment numbers, the rest of the world is catching us in what has always been a reliable strength – science, technology and engineering. China and Korea, to name just two global competitors, are granting engineering degrees at five times the U.S. rate and university research by these rapidly developing economic competitors is leaping ahead with much of the research funded by the private sector.

Boise State University’s wise and politically savvy president, Bob Kustra, recently called for an Idaho Consensus to “appreciate and support higher education.” Kustra is precisely correct. The Idaho higher education leadership, the political class, the Idaho business community, alums and everyone who cares about the economic and cultural future of Idaho need to get it together. We need a consensus about what to do, what to spend, where to invest and how to compete.

It is an old cliche, but that doesn’t mean that its not true, to say that Idahoans can wildly value the football accomplishments of Boise State’s Broncos, but can’t seem to muster anywhere near the same enthusiasm for an equally accomplished higher education system backed by a smart investment and attainment strategy.

No football in Korea or China, I guess, but if we keep calling the same plays here those skillful and aggressive competitors are just going to run up the score. No one is going to like that game plan or where we’ll rank in a intellectual poll that will mean a lot more than who plays for a national championship on the gridiron.