Friday, September 19, 2014

Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS?

September 19, 2014, 9:45 a.m.

Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands

William Hale Thompson, known as "Big Bill," Chicago's colorful 41st mayor, was in office 1915 to 1923, and again from 1927 to 1931. He chose as his opponent King George V of the United Kingdom (1910-1936), whom he claimed was America's greatest enemy, and threatened to punch him in the nose should they ever meet. [Photo source: Commons,]

So far as we know, King George V wisely chose not to come within arm's length of Big Bill Thompson, nor to respond in any other way to the threat, and ended up holding his office for five years beyond the last term of the mayor.

A part of Thompson's motive in this choice of campaign strategy was an effort to divert public concern about Chicago's crime and corruption during the 1920s -- a kind of "oh, look at the squirrel." But it was also an effort to enhance his own stature -- to say, in effect, "I am big, tough and important enough to stand toe-to-toe with the King of England."

Similarly, it is important for the U.S. to at least be aware of the extent to which we have unwittingly accepted the role of the King in the ISIS script in which they play Big Bill Thompson. What we are doing is creating, supporting and encouraging ISIS' ability to recruit more terrorists and otherwise expand their influence. It can present itself as an organization that is the full equal of the U.S., under attack by the U.S., but willing to stand toe-to-toe with us, give us a punch in the nose, and defend their followers from the Great Satin. [Photo source: Commons,; 1911 coronation portrait by Sir Luke Fildes.]

Now for us to "be aware" of the unintended consequences of our speech and actions is not the same as "we should, like the King, simply ignore ISIS." Many choices in life are, as the punch line in the joke puts it, "compared to what." A rational, benefit-cost analysis may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we are aiding ISIS in achieving its goals, the damage we are causing to our cause is less than if we were to abandon military action. That's a topic for another blog essay. This discussion is merely designed to explore the ways in which our talk and actions are aiding, rather than harming, ISIS.

As ISIS' latest professionally produced propaganda film demonstrates, however evil and barbaric these folks may be, they are also very skilled manipulators of public opinion. Without America's military involvement in Iraq ISIS is nothing but evil and barbaric -- in the eyes of Iraqis as well as Americans. With our involvement, ISIS (Mayor Thompson) has more than a squirrel, it has its King of England (the United States), now "the Great Satin," a western invader, something it can use to divert the population's frustration, despair and hopelessness away from Iraq to a land, government, and people thousands of miles distant. [Photo credit: AP file photo.]

To do this, it needs the support of the American people, something most easily obtained by frightening us into believing that we are at risk of another 9/11. The cheapest, easiest, most dramatic and powerful way to do this is with YouTube videos of a beheading -- or two, or three.

They know that we have a significant number of weapons manufacturers and hawkish politicians who keep their drum sets in the basement, always ready to dust them off and start beating the drums of war. The "military-industrial complex" of which President Eisenhower warned us has only been strengthened over the years. With pressure from the hawks, and driven by a terrorized population, soon other elected officials find the easiest political stance is to support the option of "war" -- as both the House and Senate did yesterday in authorizing $500 million for the training of troops in Syria. Jonathan Weisman and Jeremy W. Peters, "Congress Gives Final Approval to Aid Rebels in Fight With ISIS," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A10; Ben Hubbard, "U.S. Goal Is to Make Syrian Rebels Viable," New York Times, September 19, 2014, p. A1.

ISIS needs the U.S. to appear to be waging war with them. Every bomb we drop, every civilian we kill, every American soldier or CIA contractor we put in Iraq or Syria (notwithstanding our "no boots on the ground" policy), further strengthens ISIS' claim that it is both willing and able to stand up to the United States. We increase its ability to recruit more terrorists from an increasing number of countries around the world. "Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS . . .." Somini Senguptasept, "Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS," New York Times, September 13, 2014, p. A1. We give credibility to its claim of being a "state." Nor does our constant use of its phrase, an "Islamic State" (the "IS" in ISIS and ISIL) help to reduce its prestige among potential recruits and locals.

In short, we appear to be playing into ISIS' hands, playing their game by their rules, reacting as they predict and desire rather than taking the initiative, providing an essential element of their game plan, without which they would be far less of a threat. To the extent these intuitions are correct, and whatever conclusions one may draw from them with regard to modifications of our anti-ISIS strategy, they would seem to be worthy of serious consideration.

# # #

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III

September 16, 2014, 4:30 p.m.

Why Do We Accept Words Like "Islam," "State," and "Caliphate"?
To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. And that’s why . . . clear guidelines, oversight and accountability [are] now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.

In the Afghan war theater, we . . . will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but . . . the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. . . .

America . . . take[s] strikes . . . against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people . . ..
[emphasis supplied]
-- President Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President at the National Defense University," Fort McNair Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013

"[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 . . ..” [emphasis supplied]
-- "Authorization for Use of Military Force," September 14, 2001 ((Pub. L. 107-40, codified at 115 Stat. 224).

On September 12 I embedded a column in a blog essay titled, ""Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" -- with links to 10 prior, related blog essays. (Nicholas Johnson, "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7). That column pointed out that the intelligence community seems to have concluded there is presently little to no likelihood of what the White House calls ISIL conducting terrorist activity inside the United States, and it posed the questions, "Why is Iraq War III in our nation's best interests, and if so, what is our goal, our objective, and 'How would we know if we'd ever been successful?'"

But 600 words is not enough to pursue all the related issues, let alone keep up with unfolding events in this adventure. So there may well be even more blog essays to come over time. Here is today's.

It is personally disappointing that there is not more citizen debate on this war -- including within Iowa. There are many ways in which it impacts Iowans. Iowans are sent to war; some never return, some suffer physical and psychological damage that can last a lifetime, too many reduce their life span through suicide. Families are disrupted, with stress sometimes leading to divorce. Fighting wars on a credit card instead of a pay-as-you-go war tax means there is the financial opportunity cost of war -- the trillions already spent, and billions that continue to be spent, are funds that are unavailable for our roads and bridges, schools and libraries, clean water and flood control, early childhood education, financial support for ethanol production and wind energy, mental health and drug programs as an alternative to our use of prisons.

There is considerable evidence, and opinion within the intelligence community, that what we are doing in Iraq as I write this is increasing rather than decreasing the number of Iraq's terrorists both in Iraq and Syria and the likelihood that their anger at America will bring them to our shores.

A Rose By Any Other Name; Whom Are We Fighting in Iraq, and How Does That Affect the President's Authority? Does Our Current Military Strategy Make Even Military Sense?

Naming Rights
Names make a difference. As general semanticist Wendell Johnson once wrote,
A rose with onion for its name
Might never, never smell the same --
And canny is the nose that knows
An onion that is called a rose.
Why on earth would we want to go along with the words the new gang in Iraq want to use to describe themselves: "Islamic State," "caliphate," "ISIS," or "ISIL"? Those words are their efforts at a branding designed to increase their worldwide appeal to potential terrorists, and otherwise increase their status. Our relentless use of their words only increases their power, appeal, and potential threat to us.

They are not a "state" by any definition of the word. They are not recognized as such by the international community, they do not have the organization of a state, and they do not provide the services of a state. It's hard to justify calling something a duck that can neither quack, walk, nor swim like a duck.

Nor are they Islamic. Catholics associated with Catholic Charities are affiliated with the Catholic Church. Catholics associated with the Mafia are not. Alexander Stille, "The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia, Finally," The New Yorker, June 24, 2014. Muslims are entitled to the same distinctions.

Nor are they a branch of al-Qaeda, a distinction with serious consequences for the President's authority to go to war in Iraq -- for reasons explained immediately below. They can be thought of most accurately, and most favorably to our cause, as Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria (QSIS).

Affiliation of QSIS with al Qaeda

Congress can certainly authorize the President's war in Iraq if it chooses. But it has not yet done so. The White House may be able to find authorization elsewhere; but I'm not convinced by its arguments so far. In any event, it is extraordinarily difficult to make the case that a war against QSIS is legal under the authority granted the President by the AUMF of 2001 (quoted above). It limits his power to fighting "those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

There are a number of problems with relying on this document. Given its language and date (2001) it certainly does not appear to be focused on today's challenges in Iraq. Beyond that, for starters, those persons who “planned” or “committed” the 2001 attacks are, for the most part either dead or captured. It is even a stretch to use it as justification for continued pursuit of today's terrorists we consider “members of al-Qaeda.” It is a bigger stretch to say it authorizes using drones to attack “affiliates” of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. But there is seemingly no justification whatsoever for using it as authority for conducting war against an al-Qaeda separatist that is actually fighting al-Qaeda.

Congress may or may not want to provide the President an AUMF for what he has announced he is doing in Iraq. But if they do, whatever form that authorization may take, the one Congress approved on September 14, 2001 is not it.
The repudiation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came after the failure of repeated efforts by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to heal a dispute between ISIS and the officially anointed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra that has erupted in fighting in parts of rebel-held northern Syria.

ISIS 'is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,' al-Qaeda’s General Command said in a statement . . .. A U.S. counterterrorism official . . . said Zawahiri had been left with 'little choice but to announce a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place.' But despite the weight the al-Qaeda brand still carries among jihadists worldwide, the official said, ISIS 'has never been dependent on AQ core for resources or direction, so the tangible impact of the decision may not be that significant.'”
Liz Sly, "Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq," Washington Post, February 3, 2014.
Mission Creep
Nor is the President's legal position helped by Monday's [Sept. 15] action: "The new campaign included a strike on Monday southwest of Baghdad . . .. The strikes, the Pentagon said, go beyond the United States’ initial mission announced last month of 'protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.'” Steve Kenny, "U.S. Airstrikes Hit Targets Near Baghdad Held by ISIS," New York Times, September 16, 2014, p. A11.

This is not the only evidence of what is more like "mission run" than "mission creep." Assume for a moment that, contrary to the last blog essay, war is the best answer. ["Whatever Is the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" Sept. 10.]
Does Iraq War III Make Military Sense?
"Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out. . . . [As] General Dempsey made it clear, [when] trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties." Jeremy W. Peters and Mark Landler, "U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS," New York Times, Online September 16, 2014.

“Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” he said, adding that it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy. “That may be a tough pill to swallow. But there is no military solution.” Ibid.

Even if there were a military solution, the current military approach -- airstrikes along with only marginal success at putting together a "coalition of the willing" Arab states -- is a long way from the element in the Powell Doctrine that calls for overwhelming force. ("Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should . . . use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory" -- and that only after his eight prior conditions were clearly met. Stephen M. Walt, "Applying the 8 Questions of the Powell Doctrine to Syria," Foreign Policy, September 3, 2013.) [General Colin Powell; photo credit: unknown.]

At the Dempsey hearing, Senator John McCain, not surprisingly, found the military response so far to be "inadequate." Senator Angus King said that airstrikes here and there from time to time struck him as something more resembling a game of "whack-a-mole" than a well-considered military strategy. Peters and Landler, above.

[As will develop over the days to come, and will ultimately be discussed in this blog, there are at least a couple of additional rather significant military obstacles to overcome. (a) Anti-aircraft defenses. Both QSIS and Syria have anti-aircraft capability. There are reports that either QSIS or the Syrian government shot down a plane over Syria just this week. So what? So (1) our bombing efforts cannot be as effective as we thought, (2) more significant, our air war is now, unambiguously, "combat," (3) manned fighter planes are not unmanned drones; there is now a real risk that U.S. pilots can be killed, and (4) if they aren't killed, but are shot down, or otherwise forced to land, General Dempsey has made clear that he will put "boots on the ground" to attempt their rescue. (b) Syria. It is even less clear now than it was a year ago how we can effectively participate in Syria -- with or without combat forces on the ground. Our presumed purpose in entering Syria in any way at this time is to "destroy" QSIS. In addition to the problems always associated with air bombardments in urban wars, and the likelihood of our planes being shot down, we will be fighting (with a goal of destroying) the Syrian government's most effective enemy at this time: QSIS. It is unlikely that we can train enough "moderate" resistance fighters to overwhelm QSIS, and even less likely that all the arms we would supply them would never be taken and used by QSIS forces. And if we were to be "successful" in this effort, which is unlikely, we would have simply aided the Syrian government in oppressing its people further. Thus, our participation in a war in Syria seems even more problematical than our participation in Iraq War III.]

It is, of course, too early to tell how Iraq War III will end -- indeed, whether it ever will. But it is not too early to predict, to sound a warning, and to hope that reason will ultimately prevail.

# # #

Friday, September 12, 2014

Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?

September 10, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

NOTE: There will undoubtedly be updates regarding our Iraq adventure from time to tome. Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.

The column, below, was composed and submitted immediately following the President's speech Wednesday evening, September 10, and published today, September 12. It reflects my immediate, personal reactions following that speech. During the 48 hours or more since, it has been both heartening and frightening to see how many individuals who know much more about international law, foreign affairs, policy analysis, and military strategy than I seem to hold similar views.

I had analogous concerns in 2003 and expressed them in the form of "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," a column in the local college paper, The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6. As the years passed, most of those concerns proved to have been valid.

Thereafter I wondered, as I do today about our 2014 Iraq adventure, if my instincts and intuition and limited knowledge are driving me to these concerns, concerns that seem to be shared by others more qualified, why, oh why, are we continuing to pursue such ill-fated approaches? I mean that seriously; what is it that causes our government's disconnect between what seems to be rather widely shared rational analyses by those of independent mind and the policies the government pursues in our name? That, of course, is a column for some future day.

Meanwhile, here is my Wednesday evening effort to understand our most current pursuit of folly, along with today's Press-Citizen editorial on the subject, and links to some prior writing of mine on this and related subjects.

Is War the Best Answer?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7
We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. . . . As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.
-- General Martin Dempsey, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 19, 2013

With his speech Wednesday evening, once again an American President is preparing the people for a rush to war in Iraq –- adding Syria to our expanding battlefield. [Photo credit: The Guardian/AP.]

Once again, our oil has found its way under someone else’s land.

Once again, we must turn to our military leaders for the caution and rational analysis borne of their experience in battle and their study of history.

Now I’m not saying the pre-election threat to America from ISIS in President Obama’s scenario is no more serious today than the pre-election threat to America from Albania was in the movie “Wag the Dog.” Those ISIS folks seem a truly brutal lot.

But the intelligence community is much less alarmist than the politicians and pundits. As Matthew G. Olsen, National Counterterrorism Center director, put it last week, “ISIL is not Al Qaeda pre-9/11.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson agrees: “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.”

Moreover, the President’s strategy carries high risk of creating the very threat that does not now exist. Andrew Liepman, former National Counterterrorism Center deputy director says, “It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking.”

Put aside for the moment any moral questions about the inevitable deaths of thousands of civilians. Put aside legal questions about the President’s authority to wage this war, and international law restraints on “pre-emptive war.” Put aside the likelihood that our intervention will increase, rather than decrease, ISIS’ recruitment of terrorists and risk of harm to our homeland. Put aside the multi-trillion-dollar cost for our grandchildren of these Mideast adventures.

What is our goal? The President says it is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. What if the Iraqi Army is not up to that task? What’s “Plan B”? Do we go home, or send in American troops? Are we better off once we’ve destroyed the Syrian government’s toughest enemy?

Have we “destroyed” al Qaeda or just moved it off the front page? Assume we destroyed al Qaeda. How did that work out for us? We got ISIS. Do we really think if we could destroy ISIS nothing would replace it?

What’s our exit strategy? Once we “win,” how do we get out, and what happens when we do? Even if we could eliminate today’s chaos, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflict, why will it not return?

The most fundamental question that’s seldom if ever stated, let alone addressed or resolved is, “What is our ultimate goal, our purpose, for this air war in Iraq and Syria?” As I used to put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?” Hopefully, our purpose is not limited to executing our “strategy” for winning battles and wars and then come home, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.

Will we clean up after the party, reconstructing what war destroys? For how long? With how many billions of taxpayers’ dollars? Is nation-building still a part of our Mideast mission?

Even though we’re rightfully enraged over the beheadings, and want to “do something,” unthinking, precipitous action is not always the most effective revenge.
Nicholas Johnson, former Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration, was responsible for sealift to Vietnam, and maintains and

Samples of Nicholas Johnson's Prior Writing on Terrorism and War

"Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014;

" Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014;

"Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014

"Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses; Spotting the Issues," September 4, 2013;

"Thinking About War -- Before Starting One," March 20, 2013;

"General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006;

"War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks: War With Iraq, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003;

"Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6;

Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11;

Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4;

Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both);

Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3;

Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002.

"Learn the Right Lessons From the 'War on Terror'"
Editorial Board
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7

Has it really been fewer than 18 months since President Obama said it was time for the U.S. to stop thinking about future conflicts in terms of “a boundless ‘global war on terror’ ”?

Speaking in May 2013 — more than a decade after Congress first approved the Authorization to Use Military Force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the president suggested that the nation, instead, should start viewing such military ventures as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

The phrasing was meant to refocus the county’s attention toward the supposed endings of such military efforts. It was supposed to stop conjuring up the specter of a never-ending conflict that will continue to require the erosion of civil liberties and governmental checks and balances.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said at the time. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

During his national address Wednesday night, however, the president again raised the specter of an open-ended, military involvement against a terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” (aka ISIS, aka ISIL) and is scattered throughout the Middle East.

Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Obama at times sounded like a saber-rattler. (“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.) And at other times, he risked sounding more like a stand-up comedian. (“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. … And ISIL is certainly not a state.”)

But the president did manage to outline a clear, four-step response to the long-term threat posed the Islamic State:

• 1: The U.S. will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against the terrorist group.

• 2: The U.S. will increase its support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground — whether in Iraq or Syria.

• 3: The U.S. will continue to draw on its “substantial counterterrorism capabilities” to prevent future attacks.

• 4: The U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”

The president was equally clear that “this is not our fight alone” and that the American military would be playing more of an advisory role — with regional allies being the ones with boots on the ground.

Yet president didn’t address some of the basic questions — like, “What’s our end point?” — that should be answered before the U.S. commits to any “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”

That’s why lawmakers, when responding to the president’s speech, couldn’t really criticize the tone and resolve. Yet they nearly all said they were waiting for more details to flesh out Obama’s broad strokes.

We’d like to believe Obama is moving past the failed policies of the “war on terror” approach. Yet the president also did raise the specter of Americans (and American intelligence) needing to keep a suspicious eye on allies and fellow citizens.

“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world,” Obama said, “and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. … And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

We’ve seen before how a seemingly never-ending, war-time agenda provides presidents with far too much unchecked authority. How it encourages further mission/linguistic drift and allows phrases like “immediate threat” to come to mean something more along the lines of a threat to someone, somewhere, sometime in the unknown future.

So in their vigilance, the American people also need to make sure that their leaders show they are learning the right lessons from the nation’s past foreign policy mistakes.

# # #

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Labor Day for All

September 2, 2014, 10:45 p.m.
I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.
-- President Abraham Lincoln, "Notes for Speech at Hartford, Connecticut," March 5, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, p. 7

Labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen—human companionship on the job, and music in the home -- to be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father -- to know these things is to understand what American labor means.
-- Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Party Presidential Nominee, 1952, 1956

Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party . . ..
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

Every advance in this half-century--Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another--came with the support and leadership of American Labor.
-- President Jimmy Carter [Previous three quotes from "Presidential Quotes."]

It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
-- President Barack Obama, "President Obama on Labor Day: The Fight for America's Workers Continues," Milwaukee, Sept. 6, 2010

Yesterday, Labor Day, September 1, 2014, I attended the Iowa City Labor Day Picnic in the Iowa City Park -- as I usually do on Labor Day. There are pictures, below, that capture a wee bit of the spirit of that gathering. It is an opportunity once a year for members and friends of labor to gather, share food everyone has provided (what we used to call a "pot luck" meal), listen to political candidates and quality live music, and generally share what was a lovely summer day in the park.

Most union members have at least some notion of the history of labor in this country, and the sacrifices that were made by our predecessors to gain the right to bargain with management collectively rather than individually. There are brief references to that history in Labor Day speeches, but that's about all. The folks present yesterday know that history, and didn't need anyone to run through all the details.

But the day before Labor Day I put a brief comment on Facebook for the benefit of those who don't attend Labor Day picnics, and are apt to know much less about the history of America's working people. It has since gained a couple dozen shares, and many more comments and "likes." But on the assumption you haven't seen it, I'm going to reprint it here, along with the picture of a poster I used with it.

When I wrote it I had done no research, and just spoke from the heart and memory. As you'll see from the quotes above, which I've just found on the Internet, apparently a great many others -- of all political stripes -- have shared these sentiments over the years, from President Lincoln to President Obama.

Here is that Facebook entry:
Regardless of your politics or what you've been told about unions, take a moment tomorrow to thank "Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend, the minimum wage, the end to child labor, the 40-hour week, a safer workplace than you otherwise would have had, the decades-long fight for healthcare (remember, health INSURANCE is not health CARE), Social Security in your old age -- among a great many other things."

Remember, they also were beaten and died and imprisoned when they stood up for their rights (and ours) in the face of police and National Guard called out by public officials as much in the pocket of the corporate interests of their day as ours are today. Unions were the muscle that built the post-WWII middle class, and booming economy, and elected officials who talked to each other and did stuff. This poster tells it all: "United We Bargain. Divided We Beg." It's the only way that's ever worked. Since the 1980s we've been begging.
Here's my point. On July 4th every American celebrates the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of our nation. It is not a day limited to the descendants of those who fought in that War -- such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. We all celebrate, we all remember.

No, I'm not saying everyone needs to go to a labor union's Labor Day picnic, anymore than everyone should go to a DAR meeting on July 4th. But on both days, I believe, it contributes to our nation's civic health for all of us to reflect upon the debt we owe to those who have gone before us -- along with the ways in which the economic and other problems we have as a nation today are a product of our failure to remember, and apply, the lessons we should have learned when labor unions were a partner with business in building one of the greatest periods in our history.

From 1945 until the 1980s unions were strong. The rich paid substantial taxes, and income inequality was nowhere nearly as stark as it is today. The economy was booming; union workers were paid well, and spent freely, which increased the profits of business, created a demand for more jobs, enabled parents to afford college for their kids, and kept things humming. As a result, both the rich and their workers did better than they otherwise would have.

We need to realize, for example, that what is called a "raise" in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 is not a raise at all -- it is merely bringing the minimum wage back up to the level of buying power it had in 1968.

When Wall Street and big business treat the human mothers and fathers who are their workers as a "cost center," and expense item -- even putting aside the human consequences for a moment -- the resulting decline in the economy, as those workers lose buying power, ends up harming the rich as well as the poor.

Unions, the ability of workers to bargain collectively rather than individually, and to be paid at least a living wage, has always been the only way to maintain any economy -- especially one like ours that is 70% dependent upon consumer spending.

OK, enough of all that. Here are some pictures from a great Iowa City Labor Day.

Here is what the shelter and the grounds looked like when I arrived on my bicycle. Tom Jacobs took this picture; the others are ones I took. Congressman Dave Loebsack had a lot of Labor Day events to hit yesterday, and so was allowed to speak and run before all the food had even been set out.

But the food was soon laid out on a table as long as the shelter house for these folks who like to talk almost more than they like to eat. Some stayed out in the sun, but most gathered at the shelter house tables, as I did.

One of the continuing highlights of the event most years, as it was this year, was the very generous provision of live music throughout the afternoon provided by Pigs and Clover, otherwise known as Matt and Jamie Kearney. They have one of the greatest collection of union songs I've ever heard, great voices, a driving guitar and drum rhythm, and a good sense of fun.

To give you a sense of the music (and the crowd noise) here is a one-minute excerpt from their rendition of "Mean Winds" (taken by me with an iPhone):

As a special event, our Johnson County Attorney, Janet Lyness, took and passed the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge executed by her daughter.

All in all it was a really great day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Curing a Cancer on the Academy

August 27, 2014, 7:10 a.m.; August 20, 2014, 1:10 p.m.

Notes: (1) This morning [Aug. 27] the Iowa City Press-Citizen published a hard copy and online opinion column drawn from this blog essay. It is reproduced below.

(2) Near the bottom of this blog essay is a list of "Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014." They are grouped by: "The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)," "Football's Ties to Alcohol," "Football's Ties to Gambling," and "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood." (Not listed are additional football-related blog essays from 2006-2009.)

We have a cancer--within, close to the Presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.
--John Dean to President Richard Nixon, March 21, 1973
"Transcript of a Recording of a Meeting Among the President, John Dean, and H.R. Haldeman in the Oval Office," March 21, 2073, 10:13 to 11:55 a.m.," Watergate Trial Conversations, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

John Dean, President Nixon's Chief White House Counsel, famously warned his boss that the Watergate burglary was like a cancer growing on the Presidency.

I'm no doctor, but with the opening of yet another college football season, somebody needs to tell the presidents of the big money football schools about the cancer growing on "the academy."

There have been earlier diagnoses of this disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, told college presidents he'd outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they organized and agreed to require helmets -- ultimately evolving into today's NCAA. Weiler, et al, Sports and the Law, p. 747.

My friend, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was appointed President of the University of Chicago when he was 30 years old. He considered Chicago's football program a distraction from the school's educational mission, pulled out of the Big Ten, and simply abolished the program. ( "Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and [gained] the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939.")

Although Hutchins' analysis and solution are even more persuasive now than 75 years ago, few politically perceptive football critics are today advocating the death penalty for football -- nor am I. If parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans and TV viewers want to invest their time (and money) watching, the libertarian position seems pretty clear. We will continue to have football.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer on the academy that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education who touches it. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to athletic directors and coaches than to fight (Penn State). Non-tenured professors have to weigh how flunking a football starter may affect their career. Coaches must give a nod to players' academic performance, but know that their own multi-million-dollar salaries are much more closely tied to their players' on-field performance. When players' become criminal defendants, ideals of players' personal integrity may conflict with a team's ability to win games. Conventional students are excluded from participation, suspect favoritism for team members, and use football as an additional excuse for drunkenness. Players who really would like a substantive college education are forced to choose between lab time and scheduled practices.

As this photo of a Kinnick scoreboard ad reveals, athletic directors are forced to rationalize why it's OK to take advertising and sky box dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. The IRS struggles with the propriety of granting tax deductions when fans make "contributions" to a big-money football program as a condition of the opportunity to buy better tickets. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Inevitably, the college administrators, who want to put the best possible face on their schools for the benefit of reassuring parents, attracting students, favorably impressing other academics, granting authorities, Regents, legislators, and the public, are left trying to explain away football's controversial externalities. There are the players' criminal records, the football-associated student binge drinking and sexual assaults, the associated reputation as one of the nation's top "party" schools, the fans' trash throughout the stadium's neighborhood, and charges that painting the opponents' locker room pink is unacceptably anti-feminist -- things for which "the university" is not really responsible, but which challenge its administrators and tarnish its reputation anyway; e.g., Kembrew McLeod, "Pink Locker Room Doesn't Even Pass the Giggle Test," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 26, 2014, p. A5. [Photo credit: Des Moines Register, 2006.]

These days, the conflicts, chaos, and controversies are making life more difficult for the big-money football programs as well.

The NCAA still lives in its dreamworld of the 1906 academically accomplished students who played football without helmets just for the fun of it, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision becomes increasingly difficult to market now that, as CNN reports, the 68 top teams took in $2.2 billion in 2010. Chris Isidore, "College Football's $1.1 Billion Profit," CNN Money, December 29, 2010. The highest paid public employee in most states is some school's football coach. Student athletes? How many schools pay department heads millions of dollars a year? (For the details by school see ESPN's shocking, revealing, "College Athletics Revenues and Expenses - 2008." As just one example, the Hawkeyes ranked 16th that year by revenue. Of the top 17 schools, 7 gave their students free admission to the games played by their "student-athletes." The Hawkeyes still consider the UI's students as "customers" rather than students and charges them significant ticket prices to attend the games played by "their" school's fellow "students.")

College players want to unionize, to be paid more of their full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions the schools make off of their likenesses and jersey numbers in fantasy football video games and clothing sales. Byron Tau, "NCAA Hires New Lobbyists for Amateurism Fight," Politico, June 13, 2014 ("The NCAA is facing a number of existential legal and legislative threats to its current system of unpaid student-athletes").

"No pain no gain" is football's mantra. Players want compensation for the healthcare costs from football related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime -- a minor form of which is portrayed in this photo of an injured Iowa tackle, Brandon Scherff, screaming in pain during Penn State game at Kinnick, October 20, 2012. [Photo credit: John Schultz/Quad City Times, Oct. 21, 2012.]

Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered "Big Ten" schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA's restrictive regulations.

In short, from a variety of perspectives this is not your great grandfather's college football.

So what's the win-win cancer cure for America's universities and their big-money football programs?

Start by recognizing them for what they are -- profit-making, commercial organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6% of college players will be NFL draftees), organizations largely disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their loosely affiliated university. Spin them off, leaving them free from NCAA regulation and the conflicts inherent in their association with higher education. As for-profit corporations they will be less subject to criticism for what their boards of directors agree to pay their coaches -- and players. Remove the requirement that the players pretend to be college students during the football season and associated practice times.

The rest is "administrative detail" -- detail admittedly not insignificant, and possibly even deal-breaking. But detail that is not the central issue. The separate commercial football corporations could continue to lease the facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes) they were using before. (It's unlikely any school would require a football stadium as a venue for a poetry reading.) Players who wanted to get a college education might be given some special consideration as a result of an agreement between the team and the formerly-associated school -- such as, say, a degree program requiring only attendance during spring semesters. But there would be no requirement that they be "college students."

Once the major college football teams are out from under the NCAA's regulations, there should be no problems with the professional leagues' requirements. It is at least already possible in some situations for high school athletes who have not attended college to join a professional team in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or a professional baseball team's farm club.

Could all this be accomplished before the Hawkeyes' opener against University of Northern Iowa this forthcoming Saturday, August 30? Of course not. Maybe it won't even be accomplished during my lifetime (given my age). But it's an idea that needs to be back on the table as a possible win-win solution to a battery of conflicts and other challenges confronting millions of Americans.

When there is a cure for a cancer of any kind -- whether on the presidency of the United States, or the presidencies of major universities -- it does seem a shame not to make use of it.


Prior College Football-Related Blog Essays, 2010-2014

The College Football Industry (impact, economics, crime, future)

"The $100 Million Hawkeyes' Football Team; Hawks: "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Dollars," Aug. 28, 2010

"Coach Ferentz Provides Classy Variety of Wins; Winning Isn't Everything," Nov. 22, 2010

"Fandom; Super Bowl, Super Mystery," Jan. 30, 2011

"Super Boosters' Super Bowl; Campions' Wins Can Be Taxpayers' Losses; Lessons for Iowa," Feb. 8, 2011

"Crisis Communications 101; There Are Three Steps," Feb. 14, 2011

"Hawkeye Football Players' Criminal Records; We're Number Two! We're Number Two!," March 3, 2011

"Felons as Student Athletes; Felons on the Field; From District Court to Basketball Court; Do Hawkeyes Check Criminal Records Before Awarding Scholarships? March 27, 2011

"College Football Scandals Larger Lessons; Football's Privileged Tip of Abuses by Powerful," Nov. 8, 2011

"Peak Oil, Peak Football; $80,000 for the Seat; $3750/Year to Sit In It," Jan. 21, 2012

"What America Most Highly Values; In 23 of 50 States It's Football Coaches," Aug. 16, 2013

Football's Ties to Alcohol (and see, "Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood," below)

"A Busch in the Hand is Worth . . . Who Knows? They Won't Tell Us," June 16, 2012

"'We're # 2!' . . . in Campus Drunks; Coach: Players Should Drink in Dorms, Not Downtown," Aug. 21, 2012

"UI Administrators 'Shocked' By School's Beer Ads; Who Could Have Guessed?" Aug. 30, 2012

Football's Ties to Gambling

"Does Herky Have a Gambling Problem? NCAA vs. Hawkeyes," Jan. 25, 2012

Impact of Fans on Stadium Neighborhood

"Football Trash Talk; Iowa City: Where Great Minds Drink Alike," Sept. 12, 2012

"Anheuser-Busch, UI & Hawks a Win-Win-Win; Advertising Pays," Sept. 17, 2012

"Clean Streets and Creative Consumption," Sept. 30, 2012

"'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard; Homecoming's Public Urination," Oct. 5, 2013


Note: On August 27, 2014, the Iowa City Press-Citizen ran excerpts from this blog essay as an op ed column. Its online version is reproduced below; [brackets] identify the text as submitted, and contained in the online version, that was deleted from the hard copy version.

Let's Stop Making Players Pretend to Be Students
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 27, 2014, p. A11

John Dean, President Nixon’s chief White House counsel, famously warned his boss in 1973 that the Watergate burglary was a cancer growing on his presidency.

With the opening of the college football season, somebody needs to warn the presidents of big-money football schools that there’s a cancer growing on their presidency.

There have been earlier diagnoses of disease.

In 1906, when college football was killing 15 to 20 players a year, and permanently disabling 150 more, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt told college presidents he’d outlaw the sport unless they made it safer. Reluctantly, they agreed to require helmets and organized what became today’s NCAA.

University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins considered Chicago’s football team a distraction, scorned colleges that received more publicity from sports than educational programs, and with trustee support simply abolished football in 1939.

Hutchins’ analysis and solution are even more persuasive today. But few politically perceptive football critics advocate the death penalty — nor do I. So long as parents and players know the health risks, taxpayers know the costs, fans know its cost in time and money, and all still want football, we’ll have it.

Moreover, there is a win-win cure for this cancer that would solve current challenges confronting both higher education and big-money college football.

The cancer has metastasized its conflicts of interest for everyone in higher education. University presidents find it easier to capitulate to coaches than fight (Penn State). Athletic directors must rationalize taking advertising and skybox dollars from the alcohol and gambling industries. [Coaches must encourage players’ academic performance, while their multi-million-dollar salaries turn on players’ on-field performance. Non-tenured professors fear flunking players.] Players who do seek a college education must choose between lab time and scheduled practice.

Nor is the current system loved by the big-money football programs.

The NCAA lives in a 1906 dream world peopled with academically accomplished students playing football without helmets just for fun, and the college professors who doubled as their volunteer coaches. This vision is an increasingly tough sell when the highest paid public employees in most states are football coaches, and their college football industry grosses billions of dollars a year.

College players want to unionize, to be paid the full costs of attending college, and a share of the millions schools make from their likenesses in video games. They want reimbursement for the healthcare costs of football-related concussions and other injuries that may last a lifetime.

[Conferences are expanding. The once-midwest-centered Big “Ten” schools are now 14, including Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland -- well to the east of Iowa. The football-wealthiest schools, and their conferences, have just negotiated a withdrawal from some of the NCAA’s restrictive regulations.]

[In short, this is not your great grandfather’s college football.]

What’s the win-win cancer cure?

Recognize the big-money college football programs for what they are — profit-making, commercial entertainment organizations, serving as farm clubs for the NFL (even if only 1.6 percent of college players will be NFL draftees), substantially disconnected from the research, scholarship, and classroom instruction of their schools.

Free them from NCAA regulations and their inherent conflicts. Remove the requirement players must pretend to be college students.

The rest is administrative detail. Most professional leagues already have provisions for players who’ve not attended college. Perhaps the football corporations could lease their former facilities (Kinnick Stadium) and name (Hawkeyes). Players who want an education might have a degree program permitting spring-semester-only enrollment.

When there is a win-win cure for a cancer of any kind, it’s a shame to refuse even to talk about it.

Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and sports law professor, provides more on this and other subjects at

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

How 'bout Them Regents!!

August 5, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

Note: UPDATES are provided, below, as they occur.

Excessive Expenses vs. Petty Punctiliousness

Every once in awhile the Iowa Board of Regents comes up a whopper that, admittedly, can be viewed from a number of angles. It's just that it produces either laughter or tears anyway you look at it.

Now they've done it again with the global business consulting conglomerate they agreed to pay millions of dollars to suggest ways their already-penny-pinching universities might become more "efficient." See, "Delight Consultants: How to Increase UI's Iowans," June 14, 2014; "What Is It With the Iowa State Board of Regents?!" Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 16, 2014, p. A7, embedded in "Iowa's Economic Foundation? Graduate Education & Research," May 5, 2014; "April 1 Update: Early Deloitte Efficiency Proposals; Early Revelations Shock UI Faculty, Staff," April 1, 2014; and "UI Says, 'Deloitted to Meet You,'" March 29, 2014, with ongoing updates.

This morning's Gazette brings us the latest in this tragi-comic series. Vanessa Miller, "Consultant Expenses $220,000 Without Receipts; Regent Says Board 'Should Go Back and Review This,'" The Gazette, August 5, 2014, p. A1.

As the headline suggests, apparently this Regents' effort to uncover previously unknown possible "efficiencies" in higher education was itself somewhat lacking in minimal efficiency. The Regents simply agreed to pay the "expenses" of their new best friend's undertaking, with its ever-escalating price tag of millions, without any agreement regarding receipts, per diem, or other limits. Isn't that an "efficiency" taught in the first semester of business school?

At the outset, this raises the possibility that it is Iowa's state universities that ought to hire a consultant to look for possible "efficiencies" in the Regents' operations -- since the money the Regents unnecessarily spend is that much less available for educating Iowa's students.

Second, the universities are required to monitor employees' "expenses" with an army of bean counters of the most petty punctilious persuasion. Actual receipts must be filed, and may even be challenged. So here is an example of the Regents willingness to put more trust in a bunch of strangers from a global conglomerate than they are willing to accord their own faculty and staff members -- either that, or a lack of knowledge of their own standards and procedures, or a simple sloppiness in overlooking the need to come up with some way of addressing the issue of a contractor's expenses.

Third, while I would never advocate any institution operate, as the Regents did in this case, with no attention at all to "expenses," if one is truly interested in "efficiencies" I do think there is much to be said for the per diem approach. Can you imagine how many person hours are involved in a large institution that insists every item of an employee's reimbursable travel expense, no matter how small, be accompanied with the original receipt? The employee must gather, sort, and save each receipt, and then itemize each expense, and accompany the reimbursement form with each little scrap of paper. There must then be an institutional staff of individuals who receive, examine, and match to the form each receipt. When there are questions or ambiguity on either end, there will be phone calls and emails. If disputes arise there must be some procedure for their resolution. Future disparities will occasionally show up when the ultimate reimbursement does not match what was submitted on the form. If the employee is smart, he or she will make machine copies of everything. And all of this will have to be filed both by the employee and the bookkeeper/accountant.

With a per diem, by contrast, an estimate is made of what reasonable mileage, hotel and meals would be, per day, and that amount is given the employee. If he or she decides to walk instead of drive, sleep under bridges, and beg for bread in the streets, they can keep the per diem. On the other hand, if they'd like to stay in five-star resorts and eat at gourmet restaurants they can do that -- paying the increase over per diem out of their own pocket. Nobody needs to collect receipts. Nobody needs to confirm requests for reimbursement. You want efficiency? That's efficiency.

I don't know if I've ever billed the UI for expenses; certainly not for as far back as I can remember. But I'm told what the UI is forced to do is the worst of all possible worlds: a per diem is designated, but not paid; it is merely the maximum an employee can be reimbursed in exchange for the actual expenses supported by detailed original receipts.

So that's the possible win-win out of this late-night-talk-show-quality episode: the Regents learn that (a) they have to do something about controlling contractor's expenses, and (b) if they are truly looking for efficiencies, they might try putting faculty and staff on per diem allowances with no requirement for receipts.

August 6, 2014

(1) Yesterday (August 5), as noted and linked above, The Gazette provided the story that inspired yesterday's blog essay. Today (August 6) its editorial, reproduced below, took a similar approach to the issues. Editorial, "Regents Should Seek Receipts," The Gazette, August 6, 2014, p. A8.

(2) With a masterful sense of timing, Deloitte has responded to the embarrassing $220,000-plus unverified "expenses" story with the announcement that the savings its efforts are going to bring about -- from just one of its little ideas among many -- will save the universities $193 million. The idea? Stop favoring Iowa businesses and workers with the universities' purchases, and shop from the lowest cost (third world wages) global conglomerates instead. (a) That may be an idea, but it's not necessarily a good idea. (b) Even if it were, it might not be politically possible; it's an "academic," "theoretical" suggestion of the kind for which "ivory-tower professors" are often ridiculed. (c) In any event, it's the kind of thing that everybody knows, for which Deloitte should not be given credit as an excuse for its $3 million-plus contract and $220,000 expenses. The Iowa Legislature, Board of Regents, and universities' administrators may or may not know precisely how much more they are paying for in-state purchases, but I rather suspect they are all very much aware that their purchasing preferences sometimes produce higher prices. Vanessa Miller, "Deloitte Projects Savings at $193 Million; Regent Concerned About Disadvantaging Iowa Companies," The Gazette, August 6, 2014, p. A1.

(3) Although no one has commented about this, I want to concede that my blog essay's description of per diem expenses practices in general, and at the state's universities in particular -- while well within the "poetic license" of a blogger -- are not, and are not intended to be, precise explanations of the standards, practices and procedures employed. Anyone who wants to explore that level of detail might want to begin with this publication and the links it provides: University of Iowa Travel Department, Travel Manual: Guide for Travel Policy, Payment Options, and Travel Related Processes," October 29, 2013. For example, receipts are required on some occasions for some items, but are not literally required for all expenses within fixed per diem guidelines. However, the rules do limit employees' reimbursements to their actual expenses -- that is, they are not entitled to receive the entire per diem (as some institutions provide), only the portion they've actually spent. Because this "honor system" could lead to abuses and institutional challenges, any reasonably prudent employee will probably be collecting all receipts anyway in the event they are asked to produce them later.

August 7, 2014

The response was swift: Vanessa Miller, "Regents to Require Receipts from Consultant; Change Comes After News Report on $220,000 Expenses to Date," The Gazette, August 7, 2014, p. A1.

August 23, 2014

A most bizarre report showed up in the Des Moines Register online edition, MacKenzie Elmer, "Academic Review of Regents' Universities Delayed," Des Moines Register, August 21, 2014. Apparently Deloitte has had a sub-contractor since January, KH Consulting, to help with the "academic" portion of its multi-million-dollar efficiency study on behalf of the Regents. Now Deloitte's decision to cast KH Consulting adrift has thrown even more delay into this ever-more-pricy endeavor.

For starters, since the Regents say they are looking for "efficiencies" in what are, after all, academic institutions, if Deloitte is sufficiently unsure of the adequacy of its "core competency" (improving efficiency in commercial institutions) to deal with Iowa's universities, perhaps that should have been taken as a sign that the Regents just might have selected the wrong global conglomerate consultant for what Deloitte calls the "academic review" portion of the project. See "UI Says, 'Deloitted to Meet You,'" March 29, 2014.

Joe Gorton, a UNI professor and leader of the faculty union, is quoted as saying, "I started publicly and privately raising red flags almost immediately regarding KH. For one thing, their analytical methodology was completely suspect and it was a real concern. So far this efficiency study, for the academic portion, seems to be remarkably inefficient."

Why were the Regents unable to see this? Even if they couldn't, why would they ignore Gorton's warnings? Even if the Regents weren't initially troubled by this evidence of Deloitte's inadequacy when it signed on KH Consulting in January 2014, wouldn't you think they would at least take as much interest in the selection of their "academic" sub-contractor as their prime, corporate consultant? And yet the Register reports, "Regent Larry McKibben, efficiency review committee chairman, said the decision to replace KH Consulting was made about a week ago by Deloitte Consulting. . . . 'I don’t micromanage who Deloitte brings in,' McKibben said. 'It was at their recommendation.'” Really? For the Regents to participate in the selection (and now dismissal) of the consultant who actually does the "academic review" portion of the study would be "micro-managing"?

Apparently, KH Consulting has been working away on its June-December assignment -- 1100 hours for $350,055. This is nearly the end of August. So how much work product have they produced, and what have they been paid? The Register says "its unclear." Joe Gorton says, "Faculty have already put a lot of time and effort into gathering data for KH Consulting’s review."

The solution? The academy's Keystone Cops are sending in their star quarterback, currently UI President Sally Mason's Chief of Staff, Mark Braun (known to the Regents as a former Regents' staffer). The chant goes up, "Mark Braun, he's our man, if he can't do it nobody can." I think that's right. He knows the players and has the experience. But it just may be that "nobody can." At a minimum, it's a little unfair to send him into the game when the team's getting beat by a score of 56-6 and there's only five minutes left in the fourth quarter. There are at least some limits to what even a Mark Braun can do with this disaster. Vanessa Miller, "Mason's Chief of Staff to Lead Efficiency Review of Iowa Universities; Braun Taking Leave of Absence for Temporary Role," The Gazette, August 22, 2014, p. A1.

Now, for those who would like to follow this ongoing saga in greater depth, here is a:

Chronological List of Newspaper Coverage, Feb. 11-Aug. 22, with Links to Full Text

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents Choose Consultant for Efficiency Review, Spend $2.5 Million; Study Seeks to Identify Ways to Maximize Scarce Resources, Find New Efficiencies, Seek Out Collaboration," The Gazette, February 11, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Protestors Interrupt Iowa Board of Regents Meeting; Protest Over Firm Hired to Audit Iowa's Public Universities," The Gazette, March 12, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa University Heads Pitch Performance-Based Funding Ideas; Performance-Funding Task Force to Make Recommendations in June," The Gazette, March 13, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Universities Take Part in Efficiency Review; Deloitte Representatives Will Participate in UI-Centered Public Forum on Friday," The Gazette, March 24, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "UI Students, Faculty Express Concerns About Efficiency Review; Forum Is First of Three," The Gazette, March 29, 2014, p. A3

Vanessa Miller, "Efficiency Review Consultant Requested 230-Plus Items From Universities; Deloitte Consulting LLP Delivered Its 'Initial Data Request' March 13," The Gazette, April 2, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents Have No Preconceived Notions About University Cuts, Efficiencies; Analysis Will Determine Core, Non-Core Elements to University's Mission," The Gazette, April 2, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Regents to Pay More to Find, Implement University Efficiencies; One Board Member Says He's Been Impressed With Consultant's Work," The Gazette, June 4, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Regent Efficiency Review Identifies Opportunities; Initial Report Provides Few Specifics," The Gazette, June 11, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents Expect to Save $30 to $80 Million a Year in Efficiencies; 17 Opportunities Identified as Having the Most Potential," The Gazette, June 16, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents' Longer Efficiency Report Lists 175 'Improvement Opportunities;' UI Hosts Public Forum Wednesday" The Gazette, June 17, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Board of Regents Consultant: There Could Be Job Adjustments, Consolidations," The Gazette, June 18, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regnt Task Force to Discuss Longer List of 'Opportunities' for Universities; Implementation Will Be Monitored, Officials Said," The Gazette, June 24, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents Could Approve Spending Money on Efficiency Review; Contractor Expected to Present 'Sourcing and Procurement' Strategies," The Gazette, July 29, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa's Public Universities Get $220K Bill Without Receipts from Consultant Firm; Iowa Regent Says Board 'Should Go Back and Review This,'" The Gazette, August 5, 2014, p. A1

Vanessa Miller, "Deloitte Projects Savings for Iowa's Three State Universities at $193 Million; Regent Concerned About Disadvantaging Iowa Companies," The Gazette, August 6, 2014, p. A1

Editorial, "Regents Should Seek Receipts," The Gazette, August 6, 2014, p. A8

Vanessa Miller, "Iowa Regents to Require Expense Receipts from Deloitte; Change Comes After Gazette Report on $220K Expenses to Date," The Gazette, August 7, 2014, p. A1

Vanessa Miller, "Regents' 'Transparent, Inclusive' Meetings Remain Closed; Open Meetings Proposal Could Cover More Advisory Groups," The Gazette, August 10, 2014, p. A1

MacKenzie Elmer, "Academic Review of Regents' Universities Delayed," Des Moines Register, August 21, 2014

Vanessa Miller, "Mason's Chief of Staff to Lead Efficiency Review of Iowa Universities; Braun Taking Leave of Absence for Temporary Role," The Gazette, August 22, 2014, p. A1

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

From Earmarks (D.C.) to TIFs (I.C.): America's Fascist Economy

July 15, 2014, 3:55 p.m.
TIFs -- Therrre Back!!
"The people who own the country ought to govern it."

-- John Jay; Frank Monaghan, John Jay, chapter 15, p. 323 (1935).

I like Marc Moen -- including many of his architectural and other ideas for Iowa City.

What I don't like is the City Council's infiltration of the efforts of Iowa City's entrepreneurs, start-ups, established businesses, and capitalism generally by picking and choosing which for-profit enterprises they will infuse with taxpayers' money.

Today's Press-Citizen reports that the Council's latest give-away is going to Marc Moen in the amount of $14 million!! That's a little rich even for the members of Iowa City's City Council. Mitchell Schmidt, "Committee Approves Chauncey Funding Model; Recommends That City Council Back $14.1M TIF Request, Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 15, 2014, p. A1 [Credit for photo of proposed building: Iowa City Press-Citizen.]
Here are some relevant numbers. According to the 2010 census Iowa City contains 67,862 people, 27,657 households, and 11,743 families. Divide $14 million by those numbers and you get: $206.30 per person, $506.20 per household, or $1192.20 per family. Is there the remotest possibility that if the question of making those gifts to Moen from every Iowa City resident was put to a vote that it would ever muster a majority of support?
For nearly a decade I have been writing in newspaper articles and blog essays about the problems with TIFs, providing lists of the categories of their objectionable consequences -- why these transfers are bad for taxpayers, consumers, competitors of the recipients, the general economy, neighboring communities and governments, among other reasons. One column, from this past April, may be a useful summary: "Tussling Over TIFs: Pros and Cons."

A list of 39 of those prior columns and essays can be found in "TIFs: Links to Blog Essays."

Earlier this year I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column essentially throwing in the towel, revealing my misunderstanding regarding transfers of taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises from earmarks in Washington to TIFs in Iowa City:
"Like 'Amazing Grace,' I was blind, but now I see: We don’t have a capitalist system. We probably never did. So how should we describe our economy? The word 'fascism' carries too much baggage from World War II -- dictators, suppression of opposition, aggressive nationalism, and even racism. 'Fascism' doesn’t describe America today. But from Washington, D.C., to cities, counties and states all across America, in terms of an economy, ours is the economy of fascism."
"TIF Apology."

Whether in Washington, Des Moines, or Iowa City, our elected officials, like Italy's Benito Mussolini 70 years ago, love to intertwine government and business into a kind of fascist economic whole within which, in our time, they can give our money to for-profit businesses. Who wouldn't like to get the credit (plus campaign contributions, and the virtually guaranteed re-election they make possible) for spending other people's money?

And the citizens, taxpayers and voters go along. They may support the idea of TIFs, they may not be paying attention, they may understand and oppose them but figure it's fruitless to protest, that the deck is stacked against them. The net result is the same: the officials are re-elected, and taxpayers' money continues to flow to the relatively wealthy and for-profit businesses.

To make matters worse, Iowa City's TIF-lovers now propose to add disrespectful insult to economic injury, by raising the sales tax (disproportionately borne by the poor and working poor), and shifting most of the income from this sales tax increase to property owners in the form of reduced property taxes -- thereby softening any possible political opposition from them to the TIF giveaways.

Council members' governing principle is similar to that of John Jay (1745-1829), as expressed in the quotation with which this blog summary began: "The people who own the country ought to govern it." Delete the "ought to" from that line and it pretty well describes governing in America today, whether nation, state -- or Iowa City. And those who own Iowa City are the members of the business community and, as in John Jay's time, the property owners.

But until the Council exercises the candor to place Jay's quote over the entrance to the City Hall, openly and candidly acknowledging what they are doing, I will continue to protest the hypocrisy of the community's TIF-funded fascism.
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