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Visiting (Again) Flyover Country…

I’ve spent the last two weeks on a 3,000 mile road trip through nine very rural western and southwestern states – flyover country for Hillary, Jeb and the cast of thousands seeking a nomination, any nomination, for president.

All the candidates who seek our attention now and our votes next year, will say they lust for the White House in order to “give voice to” and “represent” the “real folks” in rural America. They all talk about flyover country like they’ve been there. Truth be told none of them have really spent any time in the American outback and if they were to visit – don’t hold your breath – they would be as out of place as sport coat at a rodeo.

The rural American west is where you see motels named Shady Rest and where every town seems to shady-rest-motel-51f1835ed3bf7e0fb700009chave an Outlaw Saloon and an El Rancho Steakhouse. The main streets are wide and mostly quiet, particularly since Walmart came to town. The chain stores that helped doom the mom and pop stores in rural America tend to cluster at the far edges of the old pioneer towns along the highways where you slow  down to 30 miles per hour so that you have time to count the pick-ups at the Taco Bell.

Occasionally you can still find a reminder of what good tastes like at places like Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Café in McCook, Nebraska. We had to ask what a bieroc was, but the locals know. You can’t get a bieroc at the Taco Bell, by the way. More often the storefronts are covered with plywood, the drug stores are empty and convenience stores double as a place to buy groceries.

Lots of things have disappeared in flyover country, including most of the movie theaters. I love Netflix and Hulu, but there is no substitute for the group dynamic of going to a movie in a real theater. A Harneyfavorite uncle long ago owned The Harney Theater in Custer, South Dakota. It was a magical place for a kid where cutouts of snowy white clouds – made of plywood, I suppose – were suspended from a robin’s egg blue ceiling. It was a place for dreaming. For the admission price of a quarter I fell in love with Doris Day at the Harney and marveled at the exploits of Henry Fonda and Richard Burton in The Longest Day. I held hands with a girl for the first time in that dark, slightly musty movie palace. Talk about magic. Today the Harney is a pizza parlor and seeing that made me feel like I had just said goodbye to one more piece of my youth.

On Interstate 80 west of Green River, Wyoming and literally in the middle of nowhere sits Little America. Once upon a time calling Little America a “truck stop” was a little like calling John Wayne a “thespian.” Little America was our regular lunch stop on the road to Salt Lake City years ago and when we stopped recently – I remembered the booths, the soft serve ice cream and the waitresses who called everyone “honey” – the nice woman behind the counter said the “sit down and be waited on” restaurant had closed last fall. Lunch options in Little America now included the kind of fare you find at a convenience store connected to gas pumps. A slice of rural America really did turn out to be just a truck stop. Change can be tough on memories.

My road trip was an attempt to connect again with some places I knew forty (or more years ago) and to jog old memories of events, people and places that, whether we fully know it or not, shaped our understanding of the world. After the trip my memories of life in rural America seem better than today’s reality.

I once lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for example (quit laughing) and realized that my (almost) life-long fascination with trains can be traced back to that old railroad and coal mining town that is literally divided in half by the Union Pacific mainline. At the zenith of American train travel in the 1940’s one hundred trains a day passed through Rock Springs and fully a quarter of that number were passenger trains.

"SONY DSC                       "By the time I came to live in southwestern Wyoming the passenger train era was rapidly coming to a close, but as a romantic eighth grader already enamored by travel I still remember walking down to the old Rock Springs depot to wait for the arrival of the Portland Rose, one of the Union Pacific’s most impressive trains. The Rose operated right up until the Amtrak era. I was never disappointed with the arrival of the sleek yellow coaches trimmed in red and gray. I wanted, of course, to get on board, settle in my Pullman and think about dinner in the diner complete with “many Pacific Northwest products.” Sadly that is only a memory.

Once upon a time you could get a train to almost anywhere in rural America. Now you can drive. If you live in Cambridge, Nebraska or Sundance, Wyoming you drive a hundred miles to get on an airplane. Nostalgia aside, and while admitting I love trains, we have made systematic public policy decisions over many decades to lavish massive public subsidies on planes, trucks and automobiles and permitted a once great national passenger rail system wither and die. Deregulating airlines in the 1970’s doomed air service to many small markets and as a result transportation alternatives really don’t exist now in the outback. There are a lot of gas stations, however.

The more conservatives candidates for high public office now and next year will appeal to rural Americans by talking about guns and stoking fear of the federal government. Those are time-tested tactics that have worked for a long time and will work again. Most of rural America is painted dark red after all and no candidate is likely to offer a public policy answer to keeping a local restaurant in business in rural Nebraska. You can take to the bank the fact that no one will talk seriously about the poverty, the flight of young people to “urban opportunities” or the persistent economic decline of small town America. No one will recall that once upon a time government programs brought electric lights to farms and precious water to crops and that politicians fought for the honor to speak for small town America. The overheated rhetoric of the coming campaign will merely reinforce the sentiments of the guy in South Dakota I saw, who displayed a big sign saying, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American.” There is a good deal of anger – maybe even fear – just below the surface in the outback.

I’m old enough to remember when Robert Kennedy came to Pine Ridge, South Dakota in 1968, the Kennedypoorest county and the poorest Indian reservation in the country, in an attempt to place rural and Native American poverty on the presidential agenda. Historian Thurston Clarke has written about Kennedy’s visit and noted that no presidential candidate since has made the trip to Pine Ridge, even though poverty is just as endemic today as it was in 1968 and the suicide rates are tragic to the point of scandal.

Rural America’s challenges have been reduced to a political talking point. Conservatives blame the problems on the heavy hand of government and too much regulation and they take rural votes for granted, while liberals have lost elections in rural American for so long they hardly even attempt to relate, which makes what Bobby Kennedy did nearly 50 years ago all the more remarkable.

The Census Bureau reported in 2012 that the urban population of the United States increased by more than twelve percent in the first decade of the 21st Century. As rural America continues to shrink there is more and more reason for politicians to ignore the fewer and fewer Americans who scratch out a living in the outback. Politicians and most of the rest of us, like the mythology of rural America – the rugged, up-from-humble beginnings storyline, the idea of wide-open spaces, family farms and Sunday dinners. But that old, rural, western American mythology only masks the nasty reality that is mostly ignored in our politics. About a third of the poorest counties in the nation are in the rural, mostly very conservative west. Colorado’s poorest county, for example, has a population of about 1,200 souls and more than 1,000 live below the poverty line. (Mitt Romney, the 47 percent guy, won Crowley County, Colorado in 2012 with more than 61 percent of the vote.)

It will be impossible for any serious presidential candidate during the next campaign to avoid talk of the dramatic growth of economic inequality and the shrinking middle class in the United States, but most will do so while headed to a fundraiser in New York City or Silicon Valley. Fly over country, the place that promised opportunity to immigrant Americans a hundred or more years ago, is more familiar than most places with the decline of the middle class. Today the rural west seems a shrinking, weathered place where jobs are as scarce as a first run movie – or any movie – and real solutions for generations of problems are as non-existent as a passenger train or a serious visit from a national candidate.


The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.



An Old Notion Relevant Again

On the downhill side of the Gilded Age in American political and business life – that would have been in the late 1800’s – progressive reformers from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis found fault with the idea and reality of a concentration of economic power.

Brandeis, a great legal advocate before he went on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, described the threat of economic concentration by a single, simple word “bigness.” Brandeis entitled one of his greatest works, published in 1913, Other People’s Money and one chapter in that book was called “The Curse of Bigness.”

“Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote, “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it was attained or the uses to which it is put. And it is size attained by combination, instead of natural growth, which has contributed so largely to our financial concentration.”

Today it is almost an article of faith that “bigger is better,” but the early 20th Century focus on means and uses of economic concentration are just as relevant today as when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

Our political and regulatory system seems unable to address the “too big to fail” syndrome and the human abuses that can follow. Much of corporate America seems one big merger followed by another and meanwhile, Walmart, one of the biggest of the bigs, seems to be engulfed by a major foreign bribery scandal in Mexico, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire is now defending its political clout in Great Britain as Murdoch execs fend off criminal charges for violating privacy. Criminal charges have been leveled against a BP engineer involved in the Gulf oil spill. You could go on, but the situation is clear – too big to fail can also be too good to be true.

Idaho Sen. Frank Church – he served in the Senate from 1957-1981 – is remembered today primarily for his headline generating investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s, but Church always considered another of his Senate investigations equally, if not more, important. As chairman of a subcommittee on multinational corporations in 1973, Church delved deeply into the practices, some of them corrupt, of some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world.

Church’s work cast light on International Telephone & Telegraph’s involvement in the fall and murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Lockheed was exposed for its role in a bribery scandal in Japan. Lockheed’s CEO at the time admitted to spending millions on bribes to foreign officials and a Japanese prime minister went to jail in the resulting scandal. The entire chain of events led to passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, the U.S. law that Walmart may find itself on the wrong side of today.

Frank Church discovered in that long ago investigation that human nature, driven by an imperative to constantly expand and concentrate economic power has its dark side. In such a world corners get trimmed, ends justify means and we experience an Enron or we end up bailing out a financial institution that can only justify its continued existence because it’s too big to fail.

A thinking man’s conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks, had a fascinating column this week in which, in a way, he came at this bigness issue from a novel angle. Brooks’ point was that a blind focus on destroying the competition – Brandeis might have termed it how businesses become always bigger – is the flip side of a lack of innovation. When the focus is on constantly and relentlessly growing, creativity goes begging. The need to be bigger inevitably trumps everything, including finding a better way to make a widget.

Brandeis argued a hundred years ago – his was the age of Standard Oil and the House of Morgan – that eventually bigness, that which “is attendant of excessive size,” is inefficient. Eventually, he wrote, “Decentralization will begin. The liberated smaller units will find no difficulty in financing their needs without bowing the knee to money lords. And a long step will have been taken toward attainment of the New Freedom [a reference to Wilson-era reforms in banking and business.]

It may well be in this age of globalization with a bank in Rhode Island tied to the fate of a housing development in Ireland that there is no going back from bigness, but there may be more than nostalgia in longing for a simpler, smaller time.

Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, helped expose the evils of bigness and concentrated power in the 1970’s, just as his role model in the Senate, William E. Borah, had done in the 1930’s. Borah, a Republican progressive, hated bigness, monopoly and concentration of power. He championed small business and decentralization and once said, “When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power, [which in turn ensures] the concentration of political power.  Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel.”

I don’t know about you, but I long for a political leader willing to call bluff on concentrated power. Bigger isn’t always better, it may just be bigger.


Margin Call

We Never Learn

One particularly chilling scene in the outstanding new film Margin Call takes place when the CEO of a big banking house, played with cool detachment by Jeremy Irons, recounts the cyclical nature of the financial markets. As he ticks off the years when markets have tanked, including 1929, he calmly suggests it is just the way things work in the rarefied world of high, high finance. The biggest, toughest, most ruthless survive, he says.  It’s just the way the world works.

The movie, featuring a terrific cast including Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore, is an examination of one day in the life of a big Wall Street firm that finally must come to grips with its reckless speculation in the type of complicated financial instruments that even the big boss doesn’t understand. (In another great scene, the CEO interrupts a junior risk analyst to tell him that he doesn’t understand this esoteric, but widely profitable financial stuff, but to explain it so he can.)

In the end, the firm decides to unload its entire cache of toxic assets as fast as possible, settling for pennies on the dollar in order to save the firm and peddle, as Spacey’s character says, goods that they know are absolutely worthless. We are left to believe that the firm does survive, because as Irons’ character says at one point, there are three ways to make money in his business: be first, be smarter or cheat. He convinces himself that he is being first and smart – dumping the toxic investments before the markets wise up – but, of course, he is really cheating. We last see the self assured, but completely unself aware CEO lunching alone, enjoying undoubtedly an expensive bottle of wine, in the Executive Dining Room.

Lehman Brothers wasn’t so lucky. Writing in The New Yorker, film critic David Denby said Margin Call is the best film ever made about Wall Street. And Jake Bernstein, a reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing Wall Street practices that helped fuel the current economic mess, says the filmmaker J.C  Chandor actually doesn’t tell as corrupt a story as played out in real life. Bernstein does note that the CEO character in the film is named Tuld. Lehman’s CEO was Dick Fuld, a man that TIME has suggested should be remembered as one to blame for the current mess.

Chandor is “mining deeper truths than the intricacies of credit default swaps,” Bernstein wrote in a review of the film. “The societal costs of high finance, the power of self-rationalization, and the easy embrace of personal corruption is his terrain.”

Margin Call gets high marks not only for the superb cast and believable script, but, as Bernstein suggests, for the larger points it makes, including that the people who work on Wall Street, at least most of them, are decent, striving, ambitious and incredibly competitive. All the stuff of success in business. What is missing is any sense of proportion; any real self reflection. These folks convince themselves that what they do and how they do it is necessary and that they are worth the million dollar bonuses that they are promised for deceiving their customers. This lack of self awareness is at the center of the film and at the heart of the continuing utilization of massive Wall Street salaries and bonuses derived from essentially creating nothing but a market for investment vehicles even the CEO’s don’t understand.

Also near the heart of the Wall Street-inspired economic crisis that is soon to extend into its fifth year are two elements that history has repeatedly shown are always at the core of a crisis of capitalism: vast money and vast inattention; inattention by both the financial players benefitting from the “system” and the sleepy regulators who always seem a day late. In the end unbelievable risk is tolerated long past the point of reason and ethics and personal values are corrupted because the money is so incredibly appealing. And, as one character in the film notes, the firm should be able to dump its steamy mass of worthless, well, investments because the “feds” won’t wake up until it’s too late to act.  This level of inattention really is art imitating life.

The Hollywood press is abuzz with the notion that the Occupy movement will push Margin Call into serious Academy Award contention. Maybe. Hollywood is often as clueless about the real America as Wall Street, still as Denby wrote, “If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues. “

I came away from watching Margin Call thinking again that of the many, many tragedies in the current economic meltdown the one with potentially the most lasting consequence has been the abject failure of the current political class to explain what really happened, why it happened and to hold anyone accountable. Already what “reforms” were put in place in the wake of the Lehman collapse, the TARP bailout, etc. are having their hard edges sanded away. Gretchen Morgenson, another of the journalists who understands more about the ways of Wall Street than most members of Congress, reports, for example, that efforts to create greater transparency in the shadowy derivatives market are currently under attack in Washington. In other words, the people who helped bring about the current economic meltdown are resisting efforts to change their behavior. Self reflection works about as well on Wall Street as self policing.

“Wall Street,” Morgenson observes, “loves to do business in the shadows. Sunshine, after all, is bad for profits.” She quotes the great Wall Street investigator of the 1930’s, Ferdinand Pecora, as saying that then, as now, pitch darkness was the bankers’ stoutest ally.

Here is the real and lasting threat of the real life margin call we continjue to deal with every day: No real and comprehensive Congressional investigations have been done. No candidate for president – in either party – has offered a coherent explanation about what happened in 2008 and earlier. Americans across the specturm from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street are mad, and for some good reason, but not out of any comprehensive factual notion of what they should be mad about. Our political system has not, perhaps because of its own vested interest in the essential status quo, offered taxpayers and investors of the nation the explanation that is needed in order to try and correct a system that still presents tremendous risk to the national and world economy.

When members of Congress can speculate and personally benefit from insider information as CBS recently reported several members, including the House Speaker and Minority Leader, have there isn’t much Congressional incentive to crack down on the many, many abuses on Wall Street and in the financial markets.

So, we have once again set ourselves up to experience the obvious consequences of the cyclical nature of the way markets work. What goes up must come down. To the buyer beware. The markets self correct, even if there is a tad bit of economic dislocation associated with the correction. This hard time too will pass, as the Jeremy Irons character says in the movie, and we will go back to making money – by being first, being smarter or cheating. The old ways of money and inattention win again and always.


Oil and Water

Very Strange Bedfellows

I don’t normally pay a great deal of attention to the political opinions of Hollywood personalities. So I confess I missed the initial news reports that the actress Daryl Hannah, perhaps best known for playing the mermaid in Ron Howard’s movie Splash, was arrested a few days back for protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The lovely Ms. Hannah, talented too, for all I know, isn’t the real story here, however. The politics of jobs is at work. in this international pipeline.

The pipeline project is designed to carry oil recovered from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas and the pipeline, its purpose and route, has been increasingly in the news lately. The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental impact statement that said, in essence, the project could be completed without major environmental problems. Needless to say, not everyone, including Ms. Hannah, agrees.

Most major environmental groups have expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration seems on the verge of approving the pipeline. The President’s mostly natural allies in the environmental movement are also torqued that the administration recently and abruptly dropped new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules related to smog. These two events, separate and linked at the same time, really constitute Exhibit A that the political imperative to grow the economy and create jobs, particularly during a period of prolonged economic turmoil, eventually trump most every other consideration.

My old boss former Idaho Gov. and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, no slouch when it comes to possessing an environmental ethic, used to say: “First, you must making a living and then you must have a living that is worthwhile.” That is just another way of saying that without a job you don’t have much time or ability to enjoy the great outdoors, clean air and water. Needless to say not everyone in public life agrees about the political priority of jobs first. For some being “pure” on the environment is simply a higher calling that transcends all else, including finding some way to jump start a stumbling economy.

Put former Vice President Al Gore in this category. Gore recently, and perhaps entirely predictably,  came out in opposition to the Canada to the Gulf pipeline. The motivations of the Republican Governor of Nebraska Dave Heineman, who says he also opposes the pipeline because of its route through Nebraksa, appear more interesting. Republicans don’t normally oppose pipelines.

Daryl Hannah may look better getting arrested, but Republican Heineman and Democrat Gore as an anti-pipeline dance team may have a lot more impact on this increasingly complex and contentious environmental issue.

Development of Canada’s oil sands resource has long be contentious. Gore, never bashful about hyperpole, calls it the dirtest energy on the planet. Heineman says his opposition is based on the pipeline’s threat to the huge Ogallala aquifer that lies deep below Nebraska and several other states. The route through Nebraska’s special Sand Hills country, where my grandfather homesteaded more than a hundred years ago, is also problematic according to Gov. Heineman.

In Idaho and Montana recently the long public debate and substantial opposition to huge shipments of oilfield gear from the Port of Lewiston to the Canadian fields has been much less about the articulated reasons of shipment opponents – safety, disruption of traffic, etc – than about the mostly unspoken reasons, a strategic desire by environmental groups to prevent, or at least delay, further tar sands development.

As is most often the case, the debate over the pipeline from the Great North is waged with soundbites from all sides that simplify the discussion to the point of distortion.  There is plenty of substance here on all sides, but we never hear much that isn’t the rhetorical equivilent to Daryl Hannah getting arrested in front of the White House.

For example, how many Americans know that we already import more oil from Canada than any other country, in fact, nearly twice as much as we import from Saudi Arabia and four times as much as we ship in from Iraq. What happens without the pipeline? What happens with it? Good luck getting those answers.

The pipeline debate, the fight over the smog rules and the future of nuclear power, just to name three energy issues of the moment, are all symptoms of a failure of national political leadership to confront the fundamentals of how we use energy and where it comes from.

Many on the left of our politics can hardly fathom a serious debate about how we actually might alter the nation’s energy consumption and mix of resources because they know – heck everyone knows – that it can’t be done overnight or without real pain and dislocation. These folks are increasingly locked into a short-term, tactical mindset that creates a environmental emergency about this pipeline or that power plant. Vast expansion of wind energy production in the American West is now seeing the predictable pushback from many of these folks. Real debate and establishment of priorities goes begging with such short-term thinking.

At the same time, the hard right of our political flank pays a premium to someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry who rejects the notion, now the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientic community, that climate charge is a real and urgent fact. Or, closer to home, the short-sighted bemoan the public subsidies “lavished” on public transportation, while completely ignoring that the American system of air service is built on truly vast public subsides for airports, facilities, personnel and equipment.

It’s increasingly hard to have a sensible discussion about public priorities in the United States because we can’t often agree on a common set of facts and assumptions. Is a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf an environmental disaster in the making or a critical piece of infrastructure that keeps the oil following from a nearby neighbor that we haven’t recently had a war with?

Is the delay of $90 billion in smog rules a cave in to the dirty air crowd or a prudent, temporary move that my help the economy get back on its feet?  Jobs versus the environment is a long-term reality of American political life – just not a very constructive debate.

I have this naive notion that the American public is really capable of grappling with the complexity and nuance of these kinds of issues. It’s just been so long since anyone talked to us about complexity and trade-offs that we are out of practice.

Maybe Daryl Hannah can explain.


On Wall Street and the NCAA

The nation’s political chattering classes have had plenty to chatter about over the last couple of weeks – debt ceilings, riots in London, The Gang of 12, Rick Perry, European sovereign debt, S&P credit ratings and whether Barack Obama can become relevant again.

Lyndon Johnson once reportedly switched off the television in the Oval Office after watching the revered and legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite tell the country that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. “Well,” LBJ said to no one in particular, “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost the country.”

A voice of the inside the beltway progressives, the talented and occasionally snarky Maureen Dowd, isn’t Uncle Walter, but she writes like Obama may have lost her. What Dowd writes has a canary in the coal mine feel about it.

“Faced with a country keening for reassurance and reinvention, Obama seems at a loss,” Dowd wrote this week in the New York Times. “Regarding his political skills, he turns out to be the odd case of a pragmatist who can’t learn from his mistakes and adapt.

“Many of his Democratic supporters [in Iowa], who once waited hours in line just to catch a glimpse of The One, are disillusioned.”

Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, a sometimes “message guru” for Democrats, offered an even more scathing critique of the President’s failures in a highly commented upon Times Op-Ed piece on August 7.

Rather than name names and hold accountable those responsible for the continuing economic mess, Westen said, Obama has utterly failed to address the fundamental need for a president – any president – to be the national narrative setter; to tell a story about what’s gone wrong, how it can be fixed and how the bad guys responsible will be held to account.

In contrast, for example, with Franklin Roosevelt’s full throated condemnation of Wall Street and greedy business leaders as the villains of the original Great Depression, Westen say Obama punted from the first day of his administration. Said Westen, “When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze.”

Obama, Westen said, can’t bring himself to assemble the suspects in a political line-up and identify the bad guy(s).

He’s got a point. With this morning’s headlines comparing the economic roller coaster ride of the last few days to the awful days in the fall of 2008, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone in a position of authority and power who has been held accountable for the jobs lost, the mortgages foreclosed and the lives uprooted.

Standard & Poors, by all accounts, totally missed the risks of the subprime mortgage meltdown in the last decade when it should have been front and center judging and publicly reporting such risks to the economy. Now S&P’s nameless suits downgrade sovereign debt in high-minded tones, while appearing on the Sunday talk shows lecturing Washington’s leaders on political responsibility. The ratings agency, meanwhile, lobbies Congress not to require that it report “significant errors” in its own performance.

Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, who was at the New York Fed when the economy’s foundation began to crumble, apparently wants to leave his job as more folks call for his head, but Obama has begged him to stay. George W. in back on the ranch and the big Wall Street banks roll on, while the Congress systematically weakens the Dodd-Frank legislation and prevents the appointment of a tough consumer advocate.

Accountability is obviously on an extended summer vacation in the Hamptons.

Contrast the macro-world’s lack of accountability on the economy and little things like jobs and mortgages with the penalties for screwing up in college athletics. Boise State University’s long-time athletic director was fired yesterday by the school’s president in advance of the anticipated sanctions that will be leveled against the school for a variety of infractions involving college sports.

Some boosters immediately questioned the decision to fire a 30-year employee and there will be the predictable second guessing of Boise State President Bob Kustra. But as more of the story comes out, give the one-time politician turned college president this much: the new to the big-time Bronco athletic program is facing its first real big-time challenge with the anticipated NCAA sanctions and Kustra’s personnel action just set the standard for compliance at BSU for the foreseeable future. Good, bad or indifferent that is accountability.

The Ohio State University arguably took too long to fire its slippery football coach, but it happened. It’s now reported the school has paid just south of a million bucks to unravel what went wrong with the Ohio State football program.

In a perfect world there are no mistakes. No one needs to stand and take responsibility and be held accountable. But there is a real world out there that is messy and requires accountability. Particularly in a representative democracy, beset with deep economic, social and political problems, accountability has never been more required.

The British poet, essayist, humorist, and much more Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” He might also have said it concentrates the mind of those who observe the hanging.

Accountability is not about grudges or getting even and it’s certainly not about shifting the blame. It is about understanding what when wrong and who was responsible, all in the interest of corrective action.

Dr. Johnson also wisely said “hell is paved with good intentions,” which is another way of saying good intentions don’t mend a broken economy or straighten out college athletics. Accountability isn’t the whole answer, but it is a pretty good start.


Unique Among 50

Nebraska Senator George Norriscap9Nebraska’s Unicameral

The great Nebraska Senator George Norris (that’s him in the photo) had many ideas during his long years of public service. His ideas and his enduring reputation for decency and integrity mark him as one of the truly great figures in American politics and one of the best ever U.S. Senators.

Among other things, Norris was the “Father of the TVA” – the Tennessee Valley Authority. Unusual for a man from the prairie land of McCook, Nebraska to care about rural economic development in the American south, but Norris was a different kind of senator. He didn’t believe auto builder Henry Ford should gain control of the vast hydropower resources in the Tennessee Valley and fought for public development of the resource. Norris Dam, a TVA project, carries his name. Norris also successfully pushed the Rural Electrification Act, instrumental in bringing electricity to much of rural American.

A progressive Republican, Norris was a huge supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1936, he ran as an Independent and FDR famously said: “If I were a citizen of Nebraska, regardless of what party I belonged to, I would not allow George Norris to retire from the U. S. Senate.”

One of Norris’s most interesting ideas resulted in my home state of Nebraska having the only one house, non-partisan state legislature in the nation. Nebraskans call it simply “the unicameral.”

Norris personally conceived of the idea of eliminating one house of the state legislature – he said it was just inefficient and a wasteful duplication to have two houses doing the same thing – and, after he campaigned for the idea statewide working through two sets of tires, Nebraska voters overwhelming approved the unicameral legislature in 1934. The single house has 49 members who are called Senators. The 35-year-old Speaker of the Nebraska legislature was recently profiled in TIME magazine as one of the nation’s 40 top leaders under 40 years of age.

The Nebraska system is far from perfect. No political system is. But the next time you read of a huge fight between the House and the Senate in your legislature, and those fights happen in 49 states, you’ll not be reading about Nebraska. At least, George Norris took care of that problem.