Is It ‘Brain Drain’ Or ‘Brain Exchange’?
Buffett Rhetoric Persuasive Or Simply Insulting?

Today I start with an effort to debunk two widely held but demonstratively erroneous misconceptions which have received recent headlined attention locally—and in one case nationally as it was based on statements made by widely-known and respected multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett of Omaha.

The first myth which got prominent attention in Nebraska was the too-often-repeated assertion that, as the news story put it, Nebraska has a “longtime ‘brain drain’” (which, the story said, has at least temporarily been reversed by “people with degrees fleeing from worse-off states” finding new opportunities in Nebraska).

The second myth involves my longtime friend Warren Buffett’s contention that “the rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.”

Buffett’s blanket indictment of “the rich” was part of his encouragement of President Obama and Congress to increase taxes on “the rich” (or the “very rich” as he also characterized his targets). 

First, a look at the “brain drain” issue.

I believe we should be talking about a “brain exchange,” taking into account the brainy people who move into Nebraska from other states.  We should also stop overlooking the brainy people who are born and educated here and continue to live here as well as the native Nebraskans who return to their home state after career starts in other states. 

We ‘Import’ Brainy People, Too

As to the brainy people who move into Nebraska and take executive positions which lead to the expansion of Omaha-based businesses, providing thousands of job opportunities in our state, a few examples:

Mike Harper who moved from Minneapolis and built Omaha-headquartered ConAgra into a food-processing and distribution giant.   Chuck Durham who moved from Iowa to build Henningson, Durham and Richardson.  Dick Bell, who came from South Dakota to make HDR an even more widespread and respected engineering and architectural firm, nationally and internationally. 

Moens Bay, a native of Denmark, who furthered the growth and diversification of the Valmont firm, founded by the late Bob Daugherty. 

Dan Neary, native Iowan, who has shown remarkable ingenuity in finding new productive uses for the resources of Mutual of Omaha, which South Dakota native V. J. Skutt had built into a firm with a solid national reputation. 

Kay Orr, an Iowa native, who moved to Nebraska and became the first Republican woman elected to the governorship of any of the 50 states.  (She was, incidentally but importantly, a very good governor, in my opinion.)

Ken Stinson, a Notre Dame alumnus who came to Omaha from California and headed the Peter Kiewit Sons’, Inc. construction company.  Lee Simmons, a native of Arizona, who has spent 40 years in Omaha building and managing our world-class Henry Doorly Zoo.

Dr. Hal Maurer, a native of New York, who since 1998 has served as chancellor of the internationally known and still-expanding University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Many Other Examples Could Be Cited

Before switching to examples of native Omahans who left and began promising careers elsewhere, then brought their “brains” and their abilities back to Nebraska, let me stress this point: 

I am offering only some outstanding examples of persons whose careers refute the “brain drain” fable, I realize that in offering a relatively few examples, I leave out others who could well be cited.  Those names that I mention in the various categories are meant to be representative examples, not anything approaching an all-inclusive list.

Among those who left to start careers in other states but returned to put their brains and energy to work in important jobs in their native state: 

David Sokol, born in Omaha, now CEO of two Berkshire Hathaway-owned operations, Mid American Energy and Net Jets.  J. B. Milliken, native of Fremont, now president of the University of Nebraska system.  Terry Fairfield, born in Kearney, who came home to head the University of Nebraska Foundation.  Harvey Perlman, native of York, returned to head the University of Nebraska College of Law and is now chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Walter Scott, a native of Omaha, who returned from a variety of important Peter Kiewit Sons’ executive positions in other cities to become PKS CEO (and continues to build a record as one of the most generous philanthropists in Nebraska history).

Those Who ‘Stayed Home’ Have Contributed, Too

Finally, an often overlooked category when the subject is “brain drain”:  Native Nebraskans who never left but built successful careers in their own state, careers which in most instances produced a good many jobs for their fellow Nebraskans and a great many dollars of philanthropic expenditures both from corporations they headed and from their personal resources. 

Some of those who stayed: 

Peter Kiewit, who made Omaha his home all his life and built a widely-respected construction company which provided a good many jobs both in Omaha and around the country.  Kiewit saved his hometown newspaper from being sold to ownership based in New York and left the bulk of his fortune to a foundation which has donated more than $530 million to worthy causes, primarily in Omaha and the rest of Nebraska.

The late Bob Daugherty, whose legacy will live long after him through continued success of the Valmont company he founded and the charitable foundation which he leaves behind. 

George Haddix, an Omaha native who attended North High School, Doane College and UNO and in recent years has given millions of dollars for important building projects at each of those three schools.

Howard Hawks, native of Carleton, Nebraska who has built Omaha-based Tenaska into one of the largest independent power producers in the United States.  (Hawks has also has rendered distinguished service on the University of Nebraska board of regents and in other civic leadership positions.)

Susie Buffett, who has remained in her native Omaha and done a splendid job of generous support of good causes, including those providing early-childhood educational opportunities.

Bruce Lauritzen, chairman of The First National Bank, whose 40-storied downtown headquarters building symbolizes the bank’s importance (as well as the Lauritzen family’s importance) to this area both economically and philanthropically. 

‘Greater Nebraska’ Makes Major Contributions

Jim Young, a UNO graduate, who has given new vitality to the Omaha-headquartered Union Pacific Railroad. 

John Gottschalk, native of Rushville, who moved to Sidney where he owned and published a newspaper and served as mayor before coming to Omaha to work for The World-Herald, which he headed for 19 years as publisher, today still actively involved in civic leadership jobs and philanthropy at the local, state and national levels.

Duane Acklie, native of Norfolk and now living in Lincoln, who built one of the largest trucking companies in the nation. 

Mike Yanney, native of Kearney, who from an Omaha base became one of the leading developers of commercial connections between the Soviet Union and United States and founded the America First securities investment firm. 

Dr. Michael Sorrell, who moved from the general practice of medicine in Tecumseh to become one of the nation’s leading specialists in internal medicine and is credited with being an important driving force in bringing the University of Nebraska Medical Center to national and international recognition for its excellence.

Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, Creighton University College of Law graduate who has served with distinction for 24  years as executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

Dick Davis, whose career in his home state has included football stardom both at Omaha North High School and the University of Nebraska and the building of a successful business career as an insurance executive.  Davis was the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce “Business Person of the Year” in 2000.

Nebraska Base Can Offer National Opportunities

Brenda Council, an Omaha native, who worked as attorney for the Union Pacific, was elected to the City Council and currently serves as a state senator. 

The Simon family of Omaha, who built “Omaha Steaks International” into the best-known quality meat label in the world.

The Seacrest and Abel families of Lincoln and the Hunt family of Blair, who produced both significant economic and philanthropic benefits for their communities.

Jan Stoney, who was CEO of the five-state Northwestern Bell telephone company and was the Republican nominee for the Senate seat that Bob Kerry won in 1994. 

Marian Andersen, native of Lincoln, first woman and first non-Lincoln resident to serve as chairman of the University of Nebraska Foundation, first woman to head the Midlands Chapter of the American Red Cross, vice chairman of the National Public Broadcasting System and vice chairman of the American Red Cross.

(Marian is a good example of the fact that a good many people have found that a Nebraska base can be a launching pad for a career of significant service nationally and even internationally.)

Then, of course, there is native-son Warren Buffett himself, whose business acumen, known and respected around the world, has brought favorable attention to his home town and brought wealth to many Berkshire Hathaway shareholders including Omahans who give generously to a variety of good causes.

In a special category: Émigré Rose Blumkin and her descendants, whose brainpower and hard work built a nationally-known business – the Nebraska Furniture Mart – which provides employment to a good many people and a very large selection of furniture and appliances at attractive prices.

Brainy Nebraskans Include No ‘Trickle Down’ Examples

I believe that the life stories of the persons whom I have listed above are strong evidence that Nebraska does not suffer from a “brain drain.”  They can also be cited as disproving the accusations which Warren Buffett has leveled at “rich” Americans. 

A large percentage of the Nebraskans I have named have worked hard to produce economic opportunities for a great many other Nebraskans, a process which has had the added effect of making them wealthy enough to pay the top tax rate in the federal income tax table and still give generously to benefit their less wealthy fellow citizens. 

They don’t believe in “trickle down” philanthropy.  They give directly—and generously—to causes which directly benefit their less wealthy fellow citizens.

Warren’s criticism included the suggestion that the “rich” are not concerned about the deaths of American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan, since at their country clubs they get no word of the arrival of the body of a serviceman killed overseas. 

I would suggest that wealthy Americans are as concerned as any others about young Americans dying in what is becoming to be known as “Obama’s war” in Afghanistan as our NATO allies grow increasingly disillusioned about the chances for victory there.

Implicit in Buffett’s rhetoric was the suggestion that the “sacrifice” he wants from the “rich” or “very rich” is acceptance of higher federal income taxes.

Advocacy of higher taxes is a reasonable political position but, I believe, is better advanced by reasoned argument than by insults. 

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‘Cheap Shot’ Photos Are Bad Journalism

It isn’t often that former President George W. Bush gets better treatment in The New York Times than does President Barack Obama.  But take a look at the two pictures which, on different days, got prominent play in The Times.

Bush looked as if he needed a shave, but Obama looked as if he needed a shave and some kind of a sedative.

My journalistic standards for fair treatment of people in the news would dictate that neither one of the pictures be published.  In Obama’s case particularly, it is hardly objective journalism to play a game of cameraman “gotcha” with anyone in the news, unless it is essential to tell a story or accompany a story.  Obama’s struggle to put his “lame duck” legislative agenda through Congress could have been told either with a different photograph—there is certainly no reason to show him in a happy mood these days—or in the language within a news story.

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