Monday, October 16, 2017

Dragging your feet again?

"Boy, pick up your feet! You're wearing out your shoes."

That warning from my father some 60 years ago came back to me recently as I realized I was tending to drag my feet as I walked. I heard the scraping sound as the heel of my shoe met the pavement before my foot was fully extended into my stride.

When I was little kid, the concern about my stride was that shoes were expensive, and there was no point in wearing them out prematurely. Today, the concern is that the aging process may have resulted in a neurological issue known as "foot drag." When I worked for the Red Cross, a volunteer underwent spinal surgery to correct his foot drag. That's not what I want for my future.

I'm not a candidate for surgery, but I have become more conscious of my heel dragging into the ground when I step. The condition also manifests itself when my toe snags on the tread of steps as I rush upstairs. I've caught myself with my hands numerous times to avoid a far worse face to the stairs result.

I'm trying to be more aware of lifting my knees when I walk so that my heel does not drag the ground as I step forward, wearing out my shoes and worrying my father, dead 11 years. I'm also trying to pay closer attention as I stride upstairs, which I tend to do at a running pace.

All those years ago, I didn't take Daddy's criticism well. I thought he was being picky. If I did wear out my shoes, I thought, it would mean I'd get new shoes. I never imagined that 60 years later, I'd find the wisdom in his advice. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

In Defense of Taxes, Part 2

In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan famously said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He and his followers sought to "starve the beast" by cutting taxes and forcing the federal government to die from lack of funding.

It's hard to believe, however, that Reagan really thought government, on the whole, is "the problem." Conservatives had long contended that governmental regulations and federal overreach made it difficult for private businesses to operate and for individuals to achieve. But that's not the same as saying "the government is the problem." 

The federal government does many things well. We have the strongest military in the world, though sometimes military leaders (all human) make mistakes, as do civilian leaders. America is a land of opportunity, which is why so many foreigners want to come here and seek their fortunes. The recently announced Nobel prizes show that America is also the land of innovation and creative thinking. In many ways, the federal government encourages this innovation society and makes it possible for start-up companies to thrive in a competitive marketplace. Despite some screw-ups, such as the Hurricane Katrina response, the feds do disaster recovery remarkably well, whether it's the 9/11 attack or Hurricane Nate. The government ensures the safety of food, drugs, toys, travel, construction and workers. Although complaints about over-regulation are common and sometimes justifiable, America has the best worker safety and water and air safety record in the world. Our universities attract students from around the globe.

Even Ronald Reagan would not suggest eliminating the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Labor or FEMA, so the indiscriminate charge to "starve the beast" by eliminating taxes is foolhardy. Rather than the annual efforts to cut taxes at the federal and state levels, political parties should work toward a consensus about what is a reasonable level of taxation and what does the federal government realistically need to do its job. Cuts that cripple essential agencies or eliminate portals of opportunity such as education should be declared un-American.

Let budget debates begin not with a demand for tax cuts year after year but with an agreement that essential government services must be funded even as redundant or anachronistic or infringing agencies or regulations are deliberately defunded. The devil will still be in the details, but at least the debate could shift from tax cuts to funding services.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In defense of taxes

It seems to be true that nobody likes taxes. For nearly 40 years, the Republican Party has built its strategy and its appeal on promises of lower taxes and has largely succeeded with the tax-hating electorate.

But taxes, rather than a nefarious evil, are necessary. Without taxes, government on the local, state and federal level cannot function. Voter ire against taxes can easily be fired up over reports of fraud in federal contracts, bone-headed spending, such as the Internal Revenue Service's $7 million contract with Equifax to prevent hacking and fraud in IRS files. This no-bid contract came just weeks after a massive hacking of Equifax data that had endangered the financial security of millions of Americans.

Taxes need to be cut from time to time. Tax cuts can spur spending and help speed recovery from a recession. Fast-rising wages and salaries can result in surpluses in the federal treasury (but that is rare). John F. Kennedy bucked his own party to pass a massive tax reduction in 1963. Ronald Reagan's tax cuts 30-plus years ago spurred economic growth but also ballooned the budget deficit (because he didn't get the spending cuts that should have accompanied the tax cuts). Since Reagan, every GOP presidential candidate and most GOP candidates for lesser offices have touted tax cuts for whatever ailed the country.

Tax-cutting continues to be the signature policy of nearly all GOP candidates, and Democrats have learned that opposition to popular tax cuts can be politically suicidal. Like nearly all Americans, I wince each time I write a check to the IRS or look at the withholding in my paycheck, but I have to admit that I want those government services my taxes pay for. While tax cuts sound great, consider what things federal taxes pay for:

° National Defense. The United States has by far the largest military budget on Earth, but few taxpayers want to cut the military.
° Medical and health initiatives. Annual flu shots, research into causes of cancer and other diseases, epidemic controls, standards for medical professionals and facilities.
° Highways, airline safety, passenger trains, and other transportation initiatives. Without federal gasoline taxes, modern highways would not exist.
° Food safety. Federal inspectors assure that meat, vegetables and other food items are safe to eat and are properly labeled for buyer safety.
° Drug safety. Federal testing and inspections keep dangerous or bogus drugs off the market.
° Interstate commerce. Regulation of long-haul trucking, shipping, water-borne navigation and port safety are all paid for by taxes and save lives every year.
° Communications. Federal regulations provide the basis for modern communications from telephone wires to WiFi to the internet itself. Without federal rule-setting, these tools we depend upon would never have developed.

State and local taxes go to even more popular and essential services, including:
° Garbage pickup and recycling services.
° Streets, sidewalks, bikeways, hiking trails and parks.
° Regulation of development and construction to prevent annoyances such as a pig sty next door to a residence or disasters, such as a building collapse.
° Public education, paid for locally and statewide, to ensure an educated workforce and a knowledgeable citizenry who can make democracy work effectively.
° Police departments to protect individuals and property.
° Fire departments to prevent and put out devastating fires.
° Emergency medical services that improve chances for victims of accidents, heart attacks and other medical emergencies.
° Colleges and universities that open bright futures for young people, increase upward mobility and improve economic opportunities for the entire state.

Unfortunately, tax-cut fervor at the state level has led to sharp cuts in K-12 and higher education. Damage from these cuts might not be apparent for a generation but could be disastrous.

A quarter-cent decrease in the sales tax or a 0.2 percent cut in the personal income tax will hardly be noticed an individual taxpayer but can make a huge difference in the state's ability to provide services needed and wanted by taxpayers. The cumulative effect of a fraction of a tax can help all residents, including those who are not directly affected in particular government services. All benefit when services help build a caring, upwardly mobile society.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The high school reunion speech never given

Before I went to my 50th high school reunion three weeks ago, I had composed in my mind what I would say to my classmates when the microphone was passed to me in our traditional individual updates. Because I left early in order to get home to my wife, who was convalescing from a broken shoulder, I used my moment with the mic to explain why I wasn't hanging around.

Here is what I would have said if I'd had the time:

At the last several of our reunions, I bemoaned the fact that, unlike a great many of you, I had not yet retired. I blamed my poor career choices made almost 50 years ago. If I had remained in military service or if I had chosen to teach in public schools, I could have retired with a generous pension as many of you have.

Well, now i have joined the rest of you in being retired as of about 40 days ago, and that makes me think back to the best college graduation speech I ever heard. My oldest daughter was graduating from Appalachian State University in 1993, and the speaker was Orson Scott Card, the science fiction writer. He made a few remarks about careers and jobs, as nearly all graduation speakers do. But then he cautioned the graduates not to put everything into their work lives. "If your job is what you are," he said, "what are you when you no longer have that job?"

For 33 years I was the editor. When that job ended, I became the executive director of two nonprofits. Now I am no longer the editor or the executive director. My titles now are more important than those past titles. I am now known as husband, father, grandfather, citizen, child of God. I am not so much retired as taking on more important work.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Vietnam War documentary tells it straight

For the second time, Ken Burns had me transfixed. The first time was his "The Civil War" documentary. The second time was "The Vietnam War." I watched at least some of his others documentaries on baseball and jazz, but I was never addicted to those films as I had been to "The Civil War."

"The Vietnam War" is a fitting sequel to his civil war documentary, and it is just as emotionally draining and factually revealing. Long before Burns began doing his magnificent video documentaries, I had been a student of the Civil War and had read extensively about the war. The difference in his latest documentary is that I lived through the Vietnam War.

The filmmaker had no video or live interviews with participants from 1861-65, but he managed to capture the mood of the era through skilled use of 19th century photographs and sympathetic readings of letters and speeches of participants in America's most tragic war. Using David McCullough as narrator was inspired. His deep, knowledgeable voice set the tone for all of the visuals, and Burns used historians to explain the war and the people. Shelby Foote, a historian and novelist, became a celebrity with his insightful explanations about the war.

"The Vietnam War" includes video shot by news photographers and individuals. Some of the video might spark memories from evening news broadcast 50-plus years ago. Others are less well known, including video shot by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese photographers. For this war, many participants are still alive to tell their stories, and Burns and Lynn Novick found some interesting, experienced veterans of that experience to explain what the war had meant to them and to America (or to the Vietnamese). They wisely did not shy away from veterans who became disenchanted with the war or protested against the war. The participants include black and white, rich and poor, gung-ho and anti-war, a balanced presentation.

A few surprises are included, such as Lyndon Johnson catching Richard Nixon blatantly lying about interference in the peace talks (to benefit Nixon's candidacy) and a U.S. general's admission that the Viet Cong were excellent soldiers. The difference in the war, it seemed, was that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for generations or centuries for their dream of an independent Vietnam.

This latest documentary's answer to Shelby Foote, as the most knowledgeable and persuasive of the characters, is not one person but several. I found myself awed by Marine Karl Marlantes, West Point graduate Matt Harrison, Marine John Musgrave, Army doctor Hal Kushner, Navy pilot Everett Alveraz and Carol Crocker, whose brother "Mogi" did not survive the war, among others. All told their compelling stories eloquently.

Burns and Novick did not ignore the leadership in Washington who pulled America into the war and then kept us there, despite knowing that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and unsustainable. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon knew they were fighting the wrong war in the wrong way, but they kept at it to save their egos and marks in history.

The documentary also shows how shamefully Americans greeted returning veterans. Some spoke of being spat at, bullied and shouted down profanely. That treatment of Vietnam veterans remains a shamefully disgusting black mark against the anti-war movement. Even in a horrific and wasteful war, the vast majority of American soldiers and sailors served honorably and decently.

They deserve this unflinching look at my generation's war.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Protesting the national anthem

I did not watch any NFL games yesterday. My schedule did not allow it. I have followed the disagreements over players' actions during the playing of the national anthem in news reports, so I'm aware of the controversy.

My initial reaction is that I have always objected to the use of non-political public events to promote political views. I have sat through stage productions, fundraisers, school events and, yes, sporting events that were used to promote political viewpoints. My objection is not to the political views themselves but to the exploitation of a captive audience to promote those views. The innocently trusting audience had no way of knowing they would hear a political spiel and had no way of escaping. Welcome to "bait-and-switch."

NFL players have demonstrated their objections to the killing of African-Americans by police (or associated issues) by refusing to show respect to the United States during the playing of the national anthem. Instead of standing silently, hats off and hand over heart (as etiquette prescribes), players have knelt on one knee, turned away or simply ignored the anthem. The protests began with one player and has spread to others.

President Trump greatly magnified the protest when he called on NFL owners to "fire" any player who failed to show respect to the flag. The president's disrespect of players' concerns turned other players and NFL owners against the president and multiplied the number of protesters

Although protests are protected by the First Amendment, this is not so much a legal issue as a respect issue. Football players — or teachers, entertainers or celebrities — should respect the audience that came to see them play or sing or dance. They should exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner that respects others while still getting their message across. Modern media offer multitudes of opportunities for free expression. Millionaire football players have even greater opportunities to claim the spotlight without disrupting events people have paid dearly to watch.

You would think that the powerful and wealthy NFL Players Association could find a reasonable compromise for this issue before more fans are alienated. Let protesting players pass out leaflets at the stadium; let players address issues after the game is over. The NFL could even eliminate the playing of the national anthem, which, until recently, had received little attention. The old baseball joke went like this: "What's the last two words of the national anthem?" "Play ball."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Civil War history is full of tragedy and nuance

Thanks to historian Philip Gerard for providing some historical context to the debates over Confederate monuments. Gerard's op-ed piece in Sunday's News & Observer was about a new Civil War museum planned for Fayetteville. The museum is to be housed on a historic site where a key U.S. and (later) CSA arsenal had stood.

This museum will be about more than the battles and about more than slavery or states' rights or any of the other issues involved in the war. As Gerard points out, North Carolina's Civil War history "is complicated and full of nuance." Many, probably most, North Carolinians see the Civil War as a struggle between slave-owning aristocrats on their plantations vs. enslaved African-Americans and the northern liberators who sought to free them.

In fact, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many were little better off economically than some slaves or free blacks. As N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance admitted, the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” The aristocrats could buy their way out of military service. Even among that elitist population, not all were die-hard supporters of slavery. Many North Carolinians, especially those in the mountainous western part of the state, opposed secession and fought either a guerrilla war against the Confederacy or enlisted in the Union Army.

The stated purpose of the Lincoln administration was to preserve the Union. Only near the end of the war did Lincoln add abolition of slavery to his war goals.

By the end of this ill-begotten war, the South's economy was utterly destroyed. Farms were burned, livestock was claimed as bounty of war, industrial sites were destroyed, wealth in the form of Confederate dollars became worthless. It would take the seceding states most of the next 100 years to catch up with other states in economic health.

The war settled issues that had been simmering since the founding of the republic — slavery and the sovereignty of member states. While slavery was widely viewed as evil and inhumane, it was widely practiced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The question of secession had never been settled in federal courts. The Constitution does not forbid states from resigning from the Union, and those states were less than 100 years from the precedent of the United Colonies' decision to secede from British rule.

The debate over Confederate monuments ignores these nuances and paints everything related to the Confederacy as reprehensible. While some Confederate monuments extol individuals whose views on slavery and the "brotherhood of man" may be repulsive to 21st century minds, other monuments offer gratitude for people who made America's most devastating war less awful. Among these is the monument on the N.C. Capitol grounds honoring Southern wives and mothers who endured incredible hardship, tragedy and sacrifice during four years of war, which included a strategy of destroying the Confederacy's ability to wage war, meaning the destruction of anything of value in Southern hands.

Many other monuments address the sacrifices of nameless Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a cause they had little stake in and hardly understood. Slavery hung in the balance, it is true, but slavery was not the motivation of most of these poor unfortunates.

Destruction of these monuments will not provide context for a tragic war, nor will it improve the plight of descendants of slavery and segregation.