Monday, March 25, 2013

Repealing Corporate Welfare: Step One

March 25, 2013, 8:50 a.m.

The Journey of a Trillion Dollars

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." 老子 (Lao-Tsu), Tao Te Ching, ch. 64 (c 531 B.C.; numerous translations). [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

Ain't it the truth? We've all confronted the impediments to taking that "single step" as we first try all the alternatives procrastination offers. If our goal is to begin a routine that includes a daily walk, it's literally true. But it's equally true of any other undertaking, from remodeling a kitchen, to getting out of Afghanistan, to . . . reducing our national debt.

The Democrats and Republicans in Washington are seemingly suffering from ideological immobilization. Republicans fear that if taxes are increased the tax-and-spend Democrats will just squander the money on bigger government and more wasteful giveaways. Their Grover Norquist famously said he'd like a government small enough that he "can drown it in the bathtub." Meanwhile, Democrats fear that free range feral Republicans will ultimately leave us with no solution for our surfeit of poor children other than Jonathan Swift's suggestion that we eat them. ("I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . .." Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public" (1729).)

One is reminded of Jerry Seinfeld's experience at the rental car counter: although he had a reservation, no car had been reserved for him. (Clerk: "I know why we have reservations." Seinfeld: "I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.")

Here's a video of the bit:


That is to say, I think that when it comes to our Washington officials' consideration of the observation that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," they know how to figure the distance of their journey, they just don't know how to take that single step. And that first step is really the most important part of the journey.

I understand their dilemma. Being honorable men and women, they know that if you take hundreds of thousands of dollars in "campaign contributions" from someone in business, you have a moral obligation to reciprocate, to meet your donor's expectations of reward in the form of generous grants of taxpayers' money. Indeed, as I documented in 1996, the average rate of return they had reason to expect at that time was something between 1000-to-one and 2000-to-one. The official gets $100,000 -- to avoid prison, he calls it a "campaign contribution," the donor calls it an "investment" -- and in return the donor expects $100 million in one form or another. Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Sunday Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2. (Presumably this is a fluctuating market, and I don't know what the return on such investments is these days; but there's some current evidence coming a few paragraphs from now.)

The return can take a variety of forms: subsidies, price supports, tax breaks, government contracts, public land, bailouts, or tariffs -- among others.

Although this flood of taxpayers' dollars involves far more than anything spent on children, the elderly, the poor, and working poor -- or other programs benefiting the 99% -- for those members of Congress and senators who would like to be re-elected, it's politically easier to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Food Stamps expenditures than to welch on their bargain with major donors.

So it would be politically unrealistic to suggest Congress turn off the spigot.

What, then, should be their "Step One"?

It needs to be something that takes not one dime from America's biggest corporations and wealthiest campaign donors. It's simple, really. Just ask the Congressional Budget Office and IRS to first, identify all the special interest tax breaks throughout the Internal Revenue Code that those campaign donors have paid lobbyists to obtain for them. Some may benefit a single individual or company, others an entire industry, or perhaps all businesses. Don't worry at this point about the other systems for passing taxpayers' money to the bottom line of for-profit enterprises -- the subsidies, price supports, government contracts, public land, bailouts, or tariffs mentioned above. Just look for the specially designed tax provisions that reduce what would otherwise be the beneficiaries' tax liability.

Do not reduce the benefit -- for now. Just take that list of tax benefits out of that darkened, locked lower left hand desk drawer, and put it under the light on the table. Identify the beneficiaries. Identify as accurately as possible the dollar benefit each receives from their special tax break.

Publish a document in hard copy and online containing this information. Hold a news conference to explain it to journalists and bloggers.

That's all. You want to know what is "Step One"? That's Step One.

There's an accompanying reading assignment that goes with this lesson: Christopher Rowland, "Tax lobbyists help businesses reap windfalls; While Congress fights over ways to cut spending and the deficit, generous breaks for corporations pass with little notice," The Boston Globe, March 17, 2013.

The Gazette's Erin Jordan has already brought this approach to Iowa's sales tax. Erin Jordan, "Report: Iowa lost $3.9 billion in sales tax breaks in 2010; Breaks up 62 percent since 2005," The Gazette, March 23, 2013.

And I, among others, have written about the results of the same approach being applied locally in the form of TIFs. Nicholas Johnson, "Like Death and Taxes, TIFs and TIFing Seem Here to Stay," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 3, 2013, p. A7, embedded in "Tough TIF Talk," February 3, 2013. For links to a sampling of many other prior TIF discussions, including the text of a column and blog entry regarding the taxpayer subsidy of a previous Moen project, along with footnote documentation, see "TIF Towers; Giving TIFs the Sniff Test," April 9, 2012 (which includes Nicholas Johnson, "Moen TIF Proposal Just Doesn't Pass the 'Sniff Test,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 5, 2012, p. A7).

Illustrative excerpts from Rowland's article:
"Lobbying for special tax treatment produced a spectacular return for Whirlpool Corp., courtesy of Congress and those who pay the bills, the American taxpayers.

By investing just $1.8 million over two years in payments for Washington lobbyists, Whirlpool secured the renewal of lucrative energy tax credits for making high-efficiency appliances that it estimates will be worth a combined $120 million for 2012 and 2013. . . .

The return on that lobbying investment: about 6,700 percent.

These are the sort of returns . . . the sorts of payoffs typically reserved for gamblers and gold miners. . . .
"It’s not about tax policy, it’s about benefiting the political class and the well-connected and the well-heeled in this country," said Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. . . .
A smorgasbord of 43 business and energy tax breaks, collectively worth $67 billion this year, was packed into the emergency tax legislation that avoided the so-called “fiscal cliff.’’ . . .
Whirlpool officials said the tax breaks help the company retain jobs, but in recent years, it has closed refrigerator manufacturing plants in Indiana and Arkansas. . . .
In the absence of meaningful change, corporations like Whirlpool continue to pursue the exponential returns available from tax lobbying. The number of companies disclosing lobbying activity on tax issues rose 56 percent to 1,868 in 2012, up from 1,200 in 1998 . . ..

Whirlpool had plenty of company on New Year’s, including multinational corporations with offshore investment earnings, Hollywood companies that shoot films in the United States, railroads that invest in track maintenance, sellers of energy produced by windmills and solar panels, and producers of electric motorcycles.

Their special treatment is a fraction of a broader constellation of what the federal Joint Committee on Taxation estimates will be $154 billion in special corporate tax breaks in 2013, contained in 135 individual provisions of the tax code.
Note: The two reasons the "return on investment" reported by Rowland is different from my 1996 projections are that (1) he is reporting only what the companies pay their lobbyists, not all of their political expenses (most of which, for many companies, are the campaign contributions), and (2) he is only talking about the payback in tax breaks, thereby excluding the trillions of dollars over 10 years paid to corporations through the other funnels described above.

Rowland was recently a guest on Tom Ashbrook's "On Point" program. If you'd like to listen to the two of them, and others, discuss the issues, here's access to that audio: "Big Corporations Lobbying for Big Tax Breaks," March 19, 2013.

When it comes to politicians transferring taxpayers' money to for-profit companies (much of the time in exchange for campaign contributions), the practices and consequences are similar, whether it's local TIFs, state sales taxes, or federal corporate income tax special treatment. The first steps to reform are also similar: public disclosure of what's going on. How much money is at stake? Who's getting it? Why; based on what rationale? And ideally, in exchange for what (in the form of campaign contributions and lobbying activities)? Once all of that is well known, by the public, the media -- and the legislators themselves -- if the public finds it acceptable, well, that's democracy for you. But the public cannot even address the question so long as it's in the form of essentially invisible tax breaks rather than debated appropriations of giveaways openly arrived at.

If only Congress' journey of a thousand miles could begin with this single step.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thinking About War -- Before Starting One

March 20, 2013, 8:00 a.m.

Iraq: What Were We Thinking? We Weren't Thinking

This week marks the tenth anniversary of our ill-considered, ill-fated, unprovoked, unproductive, super-deadly, super-expensive, preemptive war of choice in Iraq.

Remember the lines from the Viet Nam War song, "War. What's it good for? Absolutely nothing"? (If not, click the link and read them.)

Unfortunately, the Iraq War was "good for" considerably more than "absolutely nothing." In addition to the hostility we created among Iraqis and throughout the Muslim world, thereby accelerating the recruitment efforts of al Qaeda, the destabilization of the Middle East, the tens of thousands of dead and disabled men, women and children, disrupted families and businesses, orphaned children, billions of property damage, and destruction of centuries old cultural artifacts from this "cradle of civilization," there is also the addition of some $2 trillion to our nation's mounting gift of debt to our grandchildren (after we've properly paid our wounded and surviving veterans for the rest of their lives). [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

Among all the regrets over which we should be grieving this week of remembrance, is that all of these consequences not only could have been predicted, they were predicted.

Although as Maritime Administrator I played some role with regard to sealift to Viet Nam, I claim no expertise in matters of war strategy. I have never been a member of the Staff to the Joints Chiefs of Staff, a member of the faculty of any of our war colleges, nor an author of any of "The Pentagon Papers."

My point is not that my early insights are evidence of my brilliance. Indeed, quite the opposite. My point, my question, is if these questions were so obvious to me, with no expertise in the strategy of war, or responsibility for launching an Iraq War of choice, why were they not even more obvious to those who had that expertise and responsibility? And if there were those within government who shared these concerns, as I assume there must have been, why were they rebuffed or overruled by their superiors?

Anyhow, here on this tenth anniversary, as we mourn their decision, is a republication of a column I wrote ten years ago:

Ten Questions for Bush Before War
Nicholas Johnson
The Daily Iowan, Guest Opinion
February 4, 2003, p. A6

As a university community we don’t just “support” or “oppose” the war in Iraq. We value data and reasoned analysis. We ask questions.

Put aside the nukes in North Korea. Put aside the emotionally charged arguments. Not that they’re irrelevant. But just consider these 10 questions you might want to ask your public officials, academic colleagues, any presidential candidates you happen upon – and yourself.

1. Al Qaeda is alive and well, just over the Afghanistan border and in 60 countries. Why start a new war before resolving the last? How is "homeland security" improved by diverting focus from Al Qaeda?

2. Global Muslim support is essential to a successful war on terrorism. Threatening war with Iraq increases Muslims’ hatred – and terrorists’ recruiting. What benefits from war in Iraq exceed the costs of increased terrorism here?

3. Iraq war or not, our arrogant, go-it-alone saber-rattling has squandered valuable post-9/11 global good will. Our worldwide economic, democratic, military and human rights efforts require allies. How does alienating them serve our national interest?

4. President Bush says Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction. The President may be wrong; but especially if he's right, why fail to heed the CIA's warning: Saddam's most likely to do so only if attacked?

5. The administration’s inherited budget surpluses have become deep deficits. War with Iraq adds billions to our grandchildren’s national debt. Why abandon our relatively low-cost policy of containment? Why now? And, if so, why not increase taxes to pay as we go?

6. The Administration’s policy of global military domination and preemptive wars reverses 200 years of American policy, violates international law, the UN Charter, NATO Treaty, and possibly the U.S. Constitution. China could use the theory to justify attacking Taiwan. How is national security improved by setting back 50 years of progress in international relations?

7. Once the dogs of war are unleashed, there’s no controlling where they go. If we let the dogs out, minimally we lose Middle East stability. Worst case, we start World War III. How does risking either serve our interests?

8. What’s “war” in a city? We can level Baghdad, as we did Dresden and Hiroshima. That’s lots of “collateral damage.” We can send in ground troops. But even a weakened Hitler was able to kill the 10,000 Russian soldiers who tried that strategy in Berlin. What military strategy makes a Baghdad war “winnable” – with acceptable levels of civilian and U.S. casualties?

9. Assume the improbable: a war that’s quick, cheap, decisive and contained. What then? Why will Saddam’s successor be better? How can he prevent civil war among Iraq’s factions, let alone Middle East chaos? Our man in Afghanistan is still under attack even in Kabul. Why will our man in Baghdad do better? What will it cost us to rebuild Iraq? Will we keep bases there forever? Or will we abandon Iraq for wars elsewhere – as we’ve done in Afghanistan?

10. Iraq sits atop the world’s second largest oil reserves. How much of this proposed war is about oil? How will U.S. occupation of Iraq affect the interests of U.S. oil companies -- and consumers? Which campaign contributors profit from this war?

Washington hasn’t, yet, provided satisfactory (to me) answers to these and other questions. Maybe we can find them in Iowa City.
As it happens, the lessons from this disaster go far beyond governmental decisions about war, and the consequences for Defense Department appropriations and their impact on our national debt.

"What were you thinking?" we sometimes wonder about (or ask) teenagers. Occasionally, we're even wise enough to put that question to ourselves. And the most honest response is often, as with our War in Iraq, "We weren't thinking."

Although the questions are different, decisions regarding our choice of career, college, spouse or partner, apartment or house, automobile, entrepreneurial business, exercise regime, hobbies and volunteer activity, and more, are also subject to a similar kind of rational, analytical thinking our government should have used before going to war in Iraq -- even if the consequences for getting it wrong are far greater from war than from our personal failures to think before acting.

The Small Business Administration reports that a full 50% of all new businesses fail sometime within five years. At least one of the reasons why, perhaps the most important reason, is the failure to take seriously the necessity of a "business plan" and the thinking that goes into it -- including the failure to use what the Small Business Administration makes available for free to all budding entrepreneurs as the step-by-step instructions for creating such a plan.


For my additional pre-war thinking in columns throughout 2002, see

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

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

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

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conducting Trials in Mainstream & Social Media

March 13, 2013, 3:45 p.m.

The University of Iowa's Self-Defeating Policy:
Standing With Arms At Our Sides When the Cow Pies Are Flying

Ideally, lawyers would try their cases in court, not in the media. I would not advocate that the University of Iowa have anyone run to a microphone the minute a case is filed against it. Nor would I suggest a policy permitting any and everyone affiliated with the University to talk to reporters about the University's pending litigation.

My concern relates to those instances in which the lawyer suing the University exercises no restraint in putting the most favorable view of the plaintiff's case in the media, while the University both (a) silences those most directly involved, forbidding them to speak to the media, and (b) simultaneously refuses to designate anyone else as a spokesperson.

Two stories came to my attention this morning, along with one from earlier in the week, that prompted my re-thinking this aspect of the University of Iowa's litigation policy.

One came by way of Facebook from an outstanding former law student of mine, Mark Lambert, who went on to serve as a commissioner of the Iowa Utilities Board, among other things. Tanner Colby, "Regrettable: The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi,", March 12, 2013. I express no opinion about the validity of either Woodward's book, or Colby's critique. But what Colby is asserting, and providing anecdotes to support, is that Woodward's presenting factually accurate information, while omitting or minimizing contrasting information, produces a misrepresentation of the life of John Belushi. Colby suggests that this helps to explain the recent flap between Woodward and the White House's Gene Sperling. Jonathan Chait, "What the Hell Happened to Bob Woodward?" New York, February 28, 2013. (This involves a distinction between two related legal doctrines: "defamation," which involves communicating harmful, factually inaccurate information about someone, and "false light," information that, while accurate, creates an unwanted false impression.)

The point, for purposes of this essay, is that even factually accurate information, if publicly distributed and left unanswered, can be presented in a way that is destructive of the reputation of an individual or institution.

The second story involves "two high school football players [in Steubenville, Ohio, about to] go on trial on charges of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer." Erica Goode and Nate Schweber, "Case Already Tried in Social Media Heads to Court," New York Times, March 13, 2013, p. A13. The reason this story is of relevance, as its headline suggests, is that "The case first came to light through Twitter posts and a photo on Instagram. And the defendants, Trenton Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who have pleaded not guilty, have already been accused, prosecuted, defended and judged guilty or not by their peers and strangers in blog posts, YouTube videos and entries on Facebook, Twitter and other sites."

There can be restrictions on the media's reporting of trials, and lawyers' "trying their cases in the press." But those restrictions can sometimes be overreaching and other times ineffective. See e.g., "[I]n Britain, because of loopholes in the law and pressures from modem media technology, harsh restrictions on the press unacceptably impinge on freedom of expression . . .. In the United States, courts have powerful tools with which to guarantee fair trials without sacrificing First Amendment values; but trial courts often fail to deploy these protective measures . . .." Joanne Armstrong Brandwood, "You Say 'Fair Trial' and I Say 'Free Press': British and American Approaches to Protecting Defendants' Rights in High Profile Trials," 75 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1412 (2000).

The balance that the law tries to strike, as that quote suggests, is between what we call a "free press" and a "fair trial." The media have a constitutional right to report on the public's business, including what's going on in its courts (First Amendment's "freedom of speech, or of the press"). On the other hand, the parties to litigation, at least in a criminal trial, have a right to "an impartial jury" (Sixth Amendment). Moreover, I believe that the law should recognize that pre-conviction assertions can also constitute a form of punishment, and that damage to one's reputation can constitute a significant financial and emotional loss. See e.g., "Sebring's affaire de e-mail: Spotting the Issues; Was This Really an "Email Policy" Resignation?," June 14, 2012; "Sebring's Emails, Part II; How Private Emails Become Public Records," June 24, 2012.

What is relevant from the story earlier this week involves quotes from a colleague. Brent Griffiths, "UI professor speaks about College of Law's discrimination lawsuit," The Daily Iowan, March 11, 2013, p. A1.

Because so far as I know the University Administration's gag order on faculty includes me and has not yet been lifted, I deliberately will not go into the details of the law suit in question: alleged facts, testimony, legal issues, procedural questions, verdicts, judge's rulings, or possibilities of appeal. What I will say, in order to make this blog essay understandable, is that someone who is actually employed by the law school, but was passed over for a different position, sued with a contention that she was rejected for the second position because of the political affiliations and ideology of the faculty. (I was not involved in any way in this faculty interview process, evaluation of her past academic record and interview/presentation, or ultimate decision.)

Those faculty who testified at the trial obviously took a different view of the process and decision. And without getting into the procedural niceties of the case, the plaintiff was unsuccessful in the trial court.

The case attracted national as well as local attention by the media. Because the University Administration insisted that neither the law school dean nor any member of the faculty say anything to the media, and because the plaintiff's attorney was not similarly restrained (the judge denied a motion that he impose a "gag order" on the attorneys), the media's stories were entirely one sided. The media repeated the plaintiff's assertions of her opinions, and in some instances stated as facts matters that could be, and were, contested in the trial.

In fairness to the reporters covering the story, there was little more they could have done. The University had silenced the only people who could respond, while simultaneously refusing to designate a spokesperson to fulfill this role on a daily basis. As the Daily Iowan story, linked above, put it:
[University of Iowa College of Law Professor] Herbert Hovenkamp said he backed the judge’s decision against Teresa Wagner but said while the UI’s policy of maintaining silence during the case was “not irrational,” it resulted in some frustrations from faculty members, and it was not unique to the university or Wagner’s case.

“One consequence of [the silence] is the media tend to get one side of the story when one side speaks a lot, and the other side is kind of barred from speaking,” he said. “There’s a reason for [the policy] … several hundred people work for the university, and they’re afraid for a kind of free-for-all.” . . .

[The plaintiff] pointed out his [Professor Randy Bezanson's] time as clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, a Minnesota Republican who was nominated to the court by then-President Richard Nixon and became the author of the Roe v. Wade decision. However, Hovenkamp believes this portrayal is unfair.

“Since [the Roe decision], Bezanson has been not an abortion scholar but a First Amendment scholar,” Hovenkamp said. “He is the last person on the planet who would ever exclude somebody on the basis of their beliefs.”
There is good reason for any large corporation or other institution (the University of Iowa has about 30,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff) to restrict who can talk to the media about sensitive issues, especially during an investigation or litigation. But there is no reason to gag-order all 45,000. My suggestion would be that deans of colleges, and department executive officers, with a bit of training, consultation with the relevant University administrators, lawyers and publicists, and a heavy dose of common sense, ought to be perfectly capable of handling this role. If the Administration doesn't trust the competence of its deans and DEOs to handle it, it can appoint some other spokesperson -- or as many schools do on such occasions, have the president of the institution present its public face and story.

Here's an illustration of how the big boys handle this challenge. Google, with 37,000-plus employees, is roughly the size of the University of Iowa. "A group of Google’s competitors, including Microsoft and Yelp, had been lobbying the government for several years in an effort to prod federal officials to go after the search giant on antitrust grounds. Google dominates the Web search space, with about 70% market share." Sam Gustin, "In Major Victory, Google Dodges Federal Antitrust Lawsuit with FTC Deal," Business & Money, Time, January 2, 2013. Google agreed to some minor changes, the FTC dropped its two-year investigation, and there will not be the "high-profile lawsuit" (by the FTC) Google's rivals had hoped for.

Those who track such things closely believe that a significant factor in the outcome was that while Google management instructed its 37,000 employees not to talk to the media, it also designated a spokesperson who tracked the proceedings day by day, hour by hour, leaving no Microsoft allegation without response. In fact, the linked story concludes with an instance in which Google's spokesperson was available "late Wednesday" for the reporter. Microsoft had said that day that Google "continues to block Microsoft from . . . access to YouTube." The Google spokesperson was able to knock that assertion out of the park with detailed examples, thereby retaining Google's favorable position in the media -- and the marketplace.

If this were just a matter of leaving a dean and her faculty members "to twist slowly in the wind" (as John Ehrlichman said to John Dean regarding L. Patrick Gray III during the Watergate events) that would be bad enough. But there is an institutional reputation at stake here, and it is not just that of the Law School. The failure to put forward any version of our story in response to media-distributed allegations, reflects adversely on the University as a whole. It affects the University's ability, as well as that of the Law School, to attract new faculty and students. It affects what the people of Iowa, and their elected legislators, think of their "state universities."

Sadly, law suits are filed and fought in the media as well as the courtrooms. However much we may regret it, that's the reality. We may be admonished by the Bible, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." King James Version, Matthew 5:39. But I don't think Jesus was defending himself or others in court at the time. Whether it is one's own reputation that is at stake, or even more so if it is the reputation of another for whom we are responsible (as was the case for the Administration on this occasion), if demeaning allegations are being flung about in the media like cow pies at the State Fair, they need to be answered, honestly, but firmly and effectively.

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Johnson County Can Lead Incarceration Reform

March 8, 2013, 8:00 a.m.
"If not now, when? If not us, who?"
-- Rabbi Hillel
“We’re using prisons and coercion as a way of substituting for the failures of other institutions in our society — the schools, the fact that we’ve got large concentrations of minorities in the center of the city, and the fact that we’re waging a war or drugs that is really a reflection of deep problems in the society . . .."

-- Professor Glenn Loury, National Academy of Sciences Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration

Failure of U.S. Penal Policy

Our Opportunity

The Human Costs

The Financial Costs

The Opportunity Costs

Social Costs and Racial Bias

Causes: Unnecessarily Long Prison Terms

Causes: War on Drugs

Follow the Money: The Prison Industrial Complex

Reform Proposals

Johnson County's Challenge


Johnson County, Iowa, residents have both the opportunity and the necessity to take the lead in reforming U.S. jail and prison policy and practice. [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

We have the opportunity because the county wants a $40 million-plus "Justice Center" -- for which read, among other things, more jail cells. (Rejected by the voters once, it will be coming back for another vote.) We have the necessity because what America, and Johnson County, are now doing isn't working. Like our approach to health care, we are spending more and getting less than almost any other country on earth.


As the quote from Professor Loury, above, points out, we are using jails and prisons to serve a variety of purposes and house a variety of people -- to protect the public from those with a propensity to violence that threatens others and themselves; to house those whose primary "crime" is unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy, alcohol and drug addiction, or mental illness; to punish those whose crimes do not involve violence in the past and are likely to do so in the future; those who just need to sober up overnight; and those awaiting trial.

Admittedly, the policy issues and challenges involving federal prisons differ in some respects from those involving city and county jails. But what all have in common is use of the one-size-fits-all option of incarceration, building more prisons and jail cells, spending more than we need to spend, in return for less than we -- and those locked up -- need and deserve. Creative, alternative approaches anywhere within this system can help encourage better practices elsewhere.

The statistics are stark.

America leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are incarcerated -- 743 or more per 100,000. This is a rate six times that of our otherwise comparable neighbor to the north (Canada, at 117 per 100,000, is 123rd in the world), and Communist China, at 120 per 100,000. (Japan -- which also has a zero tolerance policy toward illegal drugs -- is 59 per 100,000.) The rates are even higher in some states; Louisiana imprisons something between 800 and 1500 per 100,000. (
Others put Louisiana's numbers at 1,619 per 100,000. Maine, by contrast, is closer to 150 -- one-tenth that of Louisiana.)

That's right. "We're Number One! We're Number One!" But it's nothing to brag about. Are Americans really six times more criminal than people living in comparable countries or China -- let alone those subject to some of the world's most repressive dictators? What explanations are there for these gross disparities?

Whatever the reasons, the response needs to be a variation of the bumper sticker, "Whatever is the question, war is not the answer." "Whatever is the question, additional prisons are not the answer." We've tried that. We're already "Number One!"


Johnson County citizens and public officials now have the opportunity to set a new path, an example for the nation -- a major new direction in our approach to the populations we're now housing in jails and prisons all across this country.

Make no mistake, I sure give Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek credit for trying to promote the alternatives.
Nicholas Johnson, "Shooting Our Messengers," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 3, 2006 ("we're lucky Pulkrabek has the smarts and political courage he does. His increased use of electronic monitoring saved the county 882 jail days. Mental health and substance diversion programs also help."). But he can't do it alone.

Some county, some time, has to draw a line in the sand and say, "Enough. No more jail cells." Will it be tough? You bet. But as the opening quote from Rabbi Hillel put it, "If not now, when? If not us, who?" So long as there is always the option of just building more jail cells and prisons there's a radically reduced incentive, let alone pressure, to innovate and improve how we handle those now living there.


The human costs of our misallocation of priorities and resources is our greatest loss. The mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts who need and would benefit from treatment, do not receive it and are housed in prisons. The first offenders who once had a chance at rehabilitation, now come out as hardened criminals. The non-violent offenders who could be making a contribution to society are spending decades locked up. Prisons are the rug under which we sweep these folks, as well as many who are homeless, unemployed, or illiterate.


Those are the greatest costs. But the financial impact of this, our largest public housing program, is far from chump change. At well over $60 billion a year, it approaches the size of the recently feared "sequester." Indeed, at our present costs of roughly $25,000-to-$50,000 per inmate per year [
"The cost of a nation of incarceration," CBS Sunday Morning, April 22, 2012], we could be putting these two-million-plus inmates through college for what we're spending to keep them locked up. (There are a near quarter-million in federal prisons, near-million in state prisons, and million-plus in county and local jails -- for a 2.3 million total, which, with our 5% of the world's population is 25% of the world's inmates. If you count those on probation or parole the numbers are three times that.) In fact, given our trends to longer sentences, if these inmates could finish college in four or five years we'd save billions by sending them to school rather than to prison. And we could use the $5 billion or more we spend building new prisons on schools. (In Costa Rica I visited a former prison that had been converted into a children's museum.) And see "The Price of Prisons; What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers," Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives, March 20, 2012 (with a link to the full report of the additional costs of the jail and prison system that are often not reported).


Then there's what we call "opportunity cost" (one expenditure may eliminate the opportunity to do something else with the money). You can build schools, or you can build prisons, but you can't build both. We seem to be living that truth here in Johnson County, with a postponed proposal for a $40 million high school and a $40 million defeated "Justice Center" proposal.

Of course, I'm not seriously suggesting we empty the prisons and fill the college dorms with criminals. But expenditures on the two institutions -- education and incarceration -- are not unrelated. The more of that $60 billion we would allocate to educating our youngsters on the front end of life, the less we would need to spend on prisons during the back end of life. (As the bumper sticker has it, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.")


The numbers and percentages vary somewhat, based on source and year, but it is not an exaggeration to say that almost all of those we lock up were convicted of non-violent crimes (roughly 50% of those in state prisons and 91% in federal; individuals probably not likely to be a physical danger to society), or did not graduate from high school, or are suffering from some form of mental illness, or from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, or all of the above.

In short, as Dr. Glenn Loury puts it in the quote that heads this blog entry, "“We’re using prisons and coercion as a way of substituting for the failures of other institutions in our society . . .."

There's another failure in our society that is reflected in the fact that the U.S. "imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid." Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), p. 7. (
"United States Incarceration Rate," n. 17, African Americans are imprisoned at a rate over six times that for whites. (In 2010 this was 4347 per 100,000 of the same race and gender for African Americans, and 678 for white males.) Alexander also notes that "there are more African Americans under correctional control -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began." And see, Alfredo Parrish, "Iowa View: State needs to face up to prison disparities,", Des Moines Register, February 9, 2013.


One of the reasons we have such a disproportionate number of our citizens in prison is the length the sentences. The mandatory federal court sentence for a first-time drug offender is five to ten years. In the rest of the industrialized world the sentence would more likely be something like six months. Our "three-strikes-you're out" laws (actually, "three strikes you're in") in many states require a 25 year sentence. The average sentence for burglary in the U.S. is sixteen months; in Canada 5 months, in England 7. "
[From 1990 to 2009] drug offenders served 36 percent longer in 2009 than those released in 1990 . . .. Almost all states increased length of stay over the last two decades . . .. In Florida, for example, where time served rose most rapidly, prison terms grew by 166 percent and cost an extra $1.4 billion in 2009. A companion analysis . . . found that many non-violent offenders in Florida, Maryland and Michigan could have served significantly shorter prison terms with little or no public safety consequences.
"Time Served; The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms," Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives, June 6, 2012.


Our so-called "War on Drugs," which has even less to show for its efforts than our War on Afghanistan, has accelerated imprisonment for drug offenses from 40,000 in 1981 to roughly 500,000 in 2010 -- the cause of about two-thirds of the increase in federal prisons since 1985.


When the Washington Post's
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating the Watergate story, the source they dubbed "Deep Throat" advised them, "Follow the money." It may be good advice on the prison story as well.

Are there individuals who are personally profiting from locking up the mentally ill and addicts, increasing both the numbers in prison and the length of sentences for non-violent offenders? You bet there are: those who contract to reduce their labor costs by using prison labor, construction companies building the prisons, those who sell the furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services for prisons. This is sometimes characterized as "the prison-industrial complex," defined by Eric Schlosser as "a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need." "Prison-industrial_complex,"

And let us not forget the prisons-for-profit industry, and the sheriffs who make extra money with payments from the state for housing prisoners -- as in Louisiana. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a very thorough and well-researched eight-part series a year ago on the problems within Louisiana's prison operations that make up much of the driving force behind their highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. Louisiana Incarcerated: How we built the world's prison capital; Sheriffs and politicians have financial incentives to keep people locked up, May 13-20, 2012. Here are some excerpts:
"We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You have to . . . run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs," said [Louisiana's LaSalle Corrections' executive] Clay McConnell, 37. . . .

More than half of the state's 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck. . . .

Prison operators, who depend on the world's highest incarceration rate to survive, are a hidden driver behind the harsh sentencing laws that put so many people away for long periods. . . .

The state spends $182 million a year to house inmates in local prisons. [R]ural sheriffs and private investors reap the benefits . . ..

Annual profits in good years range from about $200,000 for an average-sized operation to as much as $1 million for parishes with several prisons. . . .

In the past decade, LaSalle and the McConnells have donated about $31,000 to campaigns, including $10,000 to Gov. Bobby Jindal and numerous contributions to north Louisiana state legislators. LCS and its owners have thrown much more cash at politicians -- about $120,000 since 1999.
Cindy Chang, "North Louisiana family is a major force in the state's vast prison industry," The Times-Picayune, May 14, 2012.

The Louisiana legislature addressed the state's high rates of incarceration with some
"bills aimed at tackling some of the key factors driving the increase, including long sentences for nonviolent crimes and large numbers of offenders being sent back to prison for violations of parole or probation. [But they were passed and signed] only after the most important parts -- the ones that would have actually reduced prison sentences -- were removed under pressure from sheriffs and district attorneys. . . . Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time -- by far the nation's highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened."
Jan Moller, "Prison sentence reform efforts face tough opposition in the Legislature," The Times-Picayune, May 16, 2012.


It's not like there aren't ideas for reform out there, including many in place. There are. See, e.g.,
Alfredo Parrish, "Iowa View: State needs to face up to prison disparities,", Des Moines Register, February 9, 2013; "Prison Population," The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives; "Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration," Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy of Sciences; "Iowa Prison Population Forecast: FY 2011-2021," Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, Iowa Department of Human Rights, November 18, 2011; "Iowa Prison Reform," Iowa Public Television, January 18, 2008 ("We want the legislature to consider several things before they consider expanding capacity, and some of those things are what we’ve been talking about: the community-based corrections; the drug courts; other alternatives to long-term incarceration, mental health treatment, mental health counseling, and focus on that; as well as education."); and this morning's Orlan Love, "Remote prison camp again on budget chopping block; Supporters: Closing Luster Heights a disservice to state," The Gazette, March 8, 2013, p. A1.


If our beautiful, historic architectural gem of a courthouse needs some renovation, fine. Do it. I'll help pay for it. But let's not confuse that need with the proposed additional jail cells.

Those who see more jail cells in Johnson County as the only solution point out that we're spending something like $1 million a year housing inmates elsewhere. Assume that's true. But doesn't that mean the $40 million-plus they'd spend today (plus possibly increased staffing costs over the years) would be enough to cover the costs of moving and housing our jail inmates elsewhere for another 40 years? Is there not rational hope and possibility that by then America will have come to its senses and, like Costa Rica, have empty prisons and jails converted to other purposes? How many alternative solutions might be funded with that $40 million?

During World War II, the Navy's Construction Battalions (dubbed "Seabees") expressed the pride they had in their creative approaches to problem solving with the motto, "The difficult we'll do right now; the impossible will take a little longer."

Whether coming up with adequate alternative approaches to additional jail cells is "impossible" or merely "difficult," are we really saying that progressive Iowa City, located in the "creative corridor," "city of literature," home of one of the world's great research universities, inventions and entrepreneurial success stories, has no one who is capable of coming up with creative alternatives to expansion of America's "prison-industrial complex"? I certainly hope that won't be our response.

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Self Help for a Helpful University

March 1, 2013, 11:00 a.m.

See also on this topic: "Are the Iowa Universities' Stations No Longer 'Educational," April 2, 2013; "War On Sabbaticals Casualty of Iowa Public Radio; Universities Should Use Their Stations to Tell Story," December 13, 2010; "Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio; IPR's 'Enhanced Underwriting,'" November 19, 2010

A University That Wants to Be Helpful . . .
One of the things that we’ve spent some time with ... is looking at pockets where we may be less favorably viewed, and that’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time and attention. A lot of them are west.

I need to do the best job I can to deliver a message that says we are a university that wants to be helpful to the entire state.

-- University of Iowa President Sally Mason
"U of I's Mason on Other Topics," Des Moines Register, February 11, 2013
. . . Back In Its Own Backyard
Oh, you can go to the East
Go to the West
But someday you'll come
Weary at heart
Back where you started from

-- Billy Rose, lyricist, "Back in Your Own Backyard" (1928); Lyrics from
As interpreted by Dean Martin:

You can probably understand why a blogger who went to the East (Washington, D.C.), went to the West (Berkeley, California), and 30 years ago came back where he started from (Iowa City), and then named his blog "FromDC2Iowa," would perhaps choose those lyrics.

But what does "back in our own backyard" have to do with the University of Iowa's problems?

Because I can imagine how Jon Stewart would describe the UI dilemma on "The Daily Show":
"You're what? You're trying to figure out how to get the University's story to the people of Iowa and their elected representatives?!" And then, mugging, raising his voice, and looking incredulous, But you OWN a statewide radio network that blankets the state with 21 frequencies, broadcasts 24/7/365, reaches 200,000 opinion leaders, and is worth tens of millions of dollars!! Why aren't you using THAT?"
(The FCC's Web site lists the licensee for WSUI-AM as THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA and for W0I-FM as IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. Bear in mind, these are licensed to be "educational radio stations," with the special privileges that status carries. [Photo credit: WSIE-FM.]

WSUI, originally 9YA, was one of the first radio stations west of the Mississippi when it began broadcasting 100 years ago this year, in 1913. Ironically, it was soon doing what I am now advocating -- using the facility to bring information about the University to the people of Iowa. WSUI was also an early innovator in the use of educational television, video broadcasting from the University's classrooms in the 1920s, if I recall correctly. "Early History of WSUI." And see, "Statewide Iowa Public Radio Service," Engage the Audience: Iowa Public Radio Annual Report, 2011, p. 11, and "About Us," Iowa Public Radio.)

In fairness, we've tried everything to get our message to Iowans except for using our own radio stations. We hired an extraordinarily well-paid Vice President for Strategic Communications. We have a Faculty Engagement Corps, a traveling busload of faculty sent out to discover that there is more to Iowa than "the People's Republic of Johnson County" -- while demonstrating for our fellow Iowans how human professors really are. We have a Web page, numerous publications and news releases.

We've even tried commercials during our football games:

An irony you may have missed in that fast moving bit of video is the fraction-of-a-second portrayal of one of Iowa's most distinguished, accomplished, and energetic professors: Dr. Jerald L. Schnoor. (Among a great many other things, Jerry holds a chair in the College of Engineering, is a professor of both Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Occupational and Environmental Health, Co-Director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, Researcher in the Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing, and Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.)

Why the irony? For two reasons. (1) Unlike the University itself, Dr. Schnoor is using radio broadcasting to serve the people of Iowa; and (2), because the University's use of its own radio network (for university purposes) is lying fallow, he has had to use a loose network of over 200 commercial radio stations to carry his broadcasts.

I sometimes listen to the radio in the middle of the night. On one occasion, when I'd already heard the BBC's news two or three times, I started scanning the commercial stations and caught one of his one-minute "programs." When I asked him about them, he was quick to credit Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom for his early participation in the idea, and journalism students who help with production. But it's Professor Schnoor's voice and energy and commitment to the environment that radiate along with those broadcasts.

Now in its fourth year, recent items included "No Plastic Bag Ban for Iowa City," January 7, 2013; "Drake University Aims to Become a More Sustainable Campus," January 14, 2012; "Des Moines Gets Greener," January 21, 2013; Governor proposes plan to reduce [Iowa's impact on the Gulf of Mexico's] dead zone," January 28, 2013; "Sierra Club complaint leads to cleaner air in Iowa," February 4, 2013; and "University of Iowa Uses Local Pine Trees as Biofuel," February 11, 2013. This project's Web site, where you can find both audio and transcripts of the programs, is "On the Radio," Iowa Environmental Focus. (The home page for Iowa Environmental Focus, of which "On the Radio" is but one of many projects, is Iowa Environmental Focus: Environmental News and Analysis with an Iowa Focus, A Project of the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has its own story well worth telling.)

But it is not the point of this blog entry to discuss environmental policy, Dr. Schnoor, the Iowa Environmental Focus activities, or the content of recent broadcasts from its "On the Radio" project. The point is that this project is proof that Iowa's state universities not only can, but in the case of Iowa Environmental Focus already are, demonstrating, with radio, what it means to be, in President Mason's words, "a university that wants to be helpful."

To "deliver a message that says we are a university that wants to be helpful," or to run 30-second commercials during football games reminding viewers that the University of Iowa is engaged in at least some additional activities elsewhere than in its hospital or on the football field -- and that, by the way, we really think we're a pretty great university -- is not going to cut it. It's not messages, or commercials, or information and brags (e.g., "About Iowa", and "Facts at a Glance"), that the University needs to win the hearts and minds of Iowans -- any more than our drone strikes are winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and Afghans. ("Home Grown Drones," February 16, 2013.)

As Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics to My Fair Lady's song, "Show Me," put it (albeit in a somewhat different context):
Never do I want to hear another word
There isn't one I haven't heard
. . .
Say one more and I'll scream

Sing me no song, read me no rhyme
Don't waste my time, show me
Those Missourians to the south of us are not the only ones who say, "show me."

So, let's show 'em. What do we have to show? How about starting by our reviewing one of our Web pages that is already available but seldom viewed, with its seven categories of "Resources for Iowans"? Better yet, the expanded "A-Z Resources for Iowans" list of over 140. Almost every one of those is a story to tell, along with some specifics as to how Iowans can go about benefiting from it.

I've posted on this blog my own evaluations of Iowa in general and the University of Iowa in particular from time to time; portions of them may also be of some use in explaining how we can be, and are, helpful to the rest of the state. They may also be helpful in providing those UI faculty, staff and students who come from out of state (or whom we are urging to do so) additional insight into their new home. "Taking the Bloom From My Rose; Another Perspective on Stephen Bloom's Iowa," December 16, 2011; "'We're Number One!' What's Your City's Ranking? And Why Rankings Are Silly," December 22, 2011; "What Do You See . . . When You Look at Iowa," December 27, 2011.

A few years ago I urged the University to abandon its old black-and-white "news releases" for a full-color Web page/email delivery more like what the big boys use in the 21st Century. I doubt that suggestion had any impact on anyone, but we now have a format more to my liking -- and hopefully that of other Iowans and the news media. Of course, much of the University news in "Iowa Now" is by, for and about UI faculty and students. But not all. It wouldn't require that much additional effort, staff and money to pluck the stories of relevance to all Iowans, those describing the help we're offering them and how they can get it, and put them into an additional "publication" we could send to the county weeklies all across the state.

When I was a Washington official I was a fan of Sarge Shriver, who was somehow capable of running both the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty for President Johnson. One of the very successful things he did in winning congressional support for his programs was a model I used then, and the University of Iowa could use (more than it does now) with the Iowa Legislature. The announcements of newly accepted Peace Corps volunteers came, not from his office, but from the office of the Member of Congress from whose district that volunteer came. The President, and Shriver, would of course notify ahead of time, and include, Members whose districts they would be visiting. I, or a member of my staff, would notify Members before I would be doing TV interviews, making speeches, or otherwise involved in their districts, and ask if there was anything I could do for them while I was there. (President Johnson told his presidential appointees that the most important appointment they would ever make was their congressional liaison.) Presumably, Iowa legislators would be equally appreciative of such attention, and county weeklies would (at least some of the time) be interested in running news about local residents with UI ties.

In fact, it turns out we have quite a bit of information about the University's presence in Iowa's 99 counties, available through our "Outreach" Web page. To try it out, I picked "Ida County" in northwest Iowa, because that was home for my mother's side of the family (and where a cousin and his wife still live). It's closer to Nebraska and South Dakota than Iowa City, and one of Iowa's smallest counties; with a population a little over 7,000 it ranks 92nd out of Iowa's 99 counties. And yet even Ida County is receiving services from the University of Iowa -- whether its residents are fully conscious of that fact or not.

Alumni: 80% of Iowa's dentists, 50% of doctors, 47% of pharmacists are UI educated; 80% of the 300-plus school districts have UI-educated teachers and administrators. Ida County has 62 Iowa alums, including 4 teachers/administrators, 2 doctors, 2 pharmacists, and 1 dentist. There are 19 undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Iowa from Ida County.

Health care: at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, 191 Ida County residents; from the UI Outreach Specialty Clinics and UI Home Care (a visiting nursing program), 14; and the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa performed 311 tests in Ida County.

President Mason correctly notes, as quoted above, that there are "pockets where we may be less favorably viewed, and that’s where I’m going to spend a lot of time and attention. A lot of them are west."

So what do we do about that?

Let's start by putting up some repeaters (cheap radio signal transmitters) in western Iowa, sufficient to put a signal from what is now Iowa Public Radio over the 35 westernmost counties. And don't tell me we can't afford it, when we seem to have multiple multi-million-dollar construction projects underway almost continually. We're not talking about additional studios and staff here, just some relatively cheap repeaters.

There would then be no limitations to what we could program -- except for the limitations of our own imaginations. We might start with one-minute informative pieces about those 35 counties (like the information, above, from Ida County), rotated throughout the week or month. I'm not talking about eliminating NPR programming like "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," or "Talk of the Nation" from the stations, or the Iowa-oriented news programming the talented but overworked staff is already doing. I'm just suggesting at least some one-minute bits, analogous to what Jerry Schnoor is doing, for starters. Not brags about how great the University is, or scholarship that few listeners would even understand, let alone find engaging or useful. Stories conveying information about existing UI programs and services some of their neighbors are already using, and that they might find helpful.

Ideally, what I'd like to see would be some interactive programming focused on Iowa's small towns' challenges. Bring together the expertise of the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and University of Northern Iowa with remote feeds, along with selected officials and opinion leaders from one or two towns, and broadcast the discussion over the radio. Maybe as a series; maybe as a one-off on various topics, with different experts and towns. Let the towns' people pick the topics; what would they like help with from this "helping university"? Cleaning up rivers and streams? Building tourism? Providing entrepreneurial opportunities, or jobs -- especially for the young folks now leaving town? Using streams to generate hydroelectric power? Attracting doctors, teachers and other professionals? Installing, and optimizing the healthcare, educational, and other benefits of broadband Internet access? How to make their local school boards, and administrations, more effective? The potential topics are virtually endless.

Trying to do this by involving all Iowans with conferences, travel, lodging and food expenses, would be a nightmare to organize and probably far more time consuming and expensive than anyone would find acceptable. Doing it over a pre-existing radio network is essentially incremental-cost free (aside from the time of the participants). And once the word spread, any Iowan interested in the topic could follow it with a radio in a tractor, shop, kitchen, car, while walking, or wherever else that listening -- and calling in their questions and comments -- is consistent with whatever else they're doing.

The positive impact could be multiplied further if the state's major newspapers could be encouraged to provide background material, coverage, and follow-up online and in their hard copy editions. Certainly some of the discussions could be incorporated into K-12 and undergraduate instruction.

Some say this is a lost cause. I must confess, I have been talking and writing about this for years with no indication much of anyone was even listening, let alone responding; e.g., "Public Radio's Self-Inflicted Wounds," November 11, 2008; "Commercializing Non-Commercial Radio; IPR's 'Enhanced Underwriting,'" November 19, 2010, embedding Nicholas Johnson, "The Commercialization of Non-Commercial Radio," The Prairie Progressive, December 2010, p. 2 (distributed November 17, 2010); "War On Sabbaticals Casualty of Iowa Public Radio; Universities Should Use Their Stations to Tell Story," December 13, 2010.

However, with the recent departure of Iowa Public Radio's CEO, Mary Grace Herrington, Jens Manuel Krogstad, "Iowa Public Radio CEO is Fired," Des Moines Register, February 26, 2013, this is an opportunity for the University of Iowa, and the Board of Regents, to rethink how this precious asset can be put to better use.

The point is that when a public university owns, and has access to, a statewide network of radio stations that any broadcasting company would kill to own, and it feels the need to better communicate to the people of its state, one would think radio broadcasting would be one of the first things it would turn to as at least a partial solution to its problems.

It is, after all folks, a solution that is "back in your own back yard" -- as now explained by Billie Holiday (1938):

As interpreted by Billie Holiday (1938):

You'll find your happiness lies
Right under your eyes
Back in your own backyard
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