Monday, May 21, 2018

After another mass shooting, some suggestions.

Another school shooting. Ten dead in Texas to pile on the corpses of other mass shooting victims this calendar year. America again faces the anguish of senseless death, the loss of life too young, the calls for legislative action that never comes.

The Santa Fe high school shooting last Friday differed from most school shootings in the choice of weapons used. This time, the assailant, another angry misfit, did not choose a military combat weapon like an AR-15 of an AK-47. This time, the killer used a shotgun and a .38 caliber revolver — weapons that are common in U.S. households for hunting and personal protection.

Friday's murders emphasize that special weaponry is not required to produce horrific killing. A shotgun is a superior weapon in close quarters. A police chief once advised me that the best home protection firearm available was a shotgun, which does not require good aim to be effective and can take out multiple threats with one blast.

Although I can see no reason why civilians should have military combat rifles, it is obvious that the choice of weapons is not at the heart of America's problem with mass shootings. Here are some things that need to change if America is ever to get hold of its mass murder problem:

• Change the violence culture. Motion pictures and video games glorify violence and killing. Unstable, immature young men transfer the killing culture of video games to real life, apparently unaware that killing people is different from killing pixels on a video screen. Ratings of age-appropriateness on these video games are ineffective. The entire plot based on violence and murder must be eliminated. Even if these plots do not result in mass murder, they have to affect users' perception of the world and of people. The plots of popular movies have morphed into violence by "super heroes," suggesting that a "super hero" is needed to right wrongs or save the world. Practical solutions, empathy, compassion, peaceful mediation are not addressed. Some will cry that government cannot infringe on "freedom of expression," but courts have found that "shouting 'FIRE' in a crowded theater" is not protected by free speech. Recipes for mass violence and murder should not be protected free expression.

• Improve mental health outreach and monitoring. Today's teenagers are more troubled, more angry, more delusional than previous generations. The teen years have always been difficult, but today's teen years are more likely to be angry and violent. Teens can be taught to control their anger and their impulses.

• Examine family life of troubled teens. The absence of a father in the home is an indicator of likely problems. Divorce, death and other life events can also throw emotions off balance. Providing counselors and parental figures for these teens would be a worthwhile investment for society.

• Halt the sale of combat weapons to civilians. This should include the combat rifles, bulletproof vests, more deadly ammunition (such as hollow point bullets) and "bump stocks" or other devices to increase rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons. The Second Amendment (which, like all freedoms, is not absolute) would continue to protect ownership of firearms that are needed for hunting, home protection and target shooting.

• Examine the impact of the loss of religious education and faith-based humility. Disrespect for teachers, peers, elders and others has made younger generations more frightening and less teachable than their forebears. Instead of a culture of "what's in it for me?" or "I want mine," consider the impact of reciting the words, "You are dust and to dust you shall return" or "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Governments cannot favor one religion over another or work to convert school children, but the world's great religions agree on certain principles, such as humility, love, compassion and charity. A decade ago, schools were teaching "self-esteem," so they should be able to teach humility and compassion without establishing a particular religion.

America's gun violence problem involves more than guns; it involves people, young and old, who see mass killings as a solution to their troubles and a chance at celebrity. NY Times columnist David Brooks recommended that all news media refrain from running the names or pictures of mass killers, thereby denying them the celebrity so many of them sought. Let's try a multi-faceted approach that addresses not just schools and not just guns but the entire culture of violence and emotionally troubled young men.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

You can bet on it

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a federal ban on sports gambling is unconstitutional, a ruling that opens the floodgates to gambling on college and professional sport, and, presumably, on high school and middle school sports.

Officials estimate that $150 billion is spent annually on illegal sports gambling, and states are eager to get their hands on that kind of revenue. Thanks to ESPN, "March Madness" and other influences, college and professional sports have become America's favorite pastime. Legalized gambling on college football and basketball and on professional teams could further distract American minds toward sports fanaticism. Some sports leagues are eager to win a share of the gambling revenue their teams generate (although most are already phenomenally profitable). Other leagues are urging caution. Legal gambling could forever change the nature of the entertainment the leagues represent.

In the past 50 years, America has lost most of its aversion to gambling as a hazardous and anti-social offense against family responsibility, financial caution and moral integrity. Today, gambling in some form is allowed in almost every state. All but a handful of states sponsor state lotteries. Casinos operate in many states, either as businesses run by "sovereign" Indian tribes or as ordinary businesses. North Carolina and South Carolina in the past two decades fought off video poker, which had proved itself to be an insidious cancer against productive economy. Today, large casinos, state-sponsored lotteries, online betting and other forms of gambling hardly raise an eyebrow. Office pools for the World Series, Super Bowl or NCAA basketball are the new normal. The problem with gambling is that it is an unproductive activity. It produces nothing but winners (rare!) and losers (everyone else). Unlike manufacturing or even legal advice, gambling does not increase the availability of money; it nearly removes money from one person's pocket and put it in another person's pocket based on an outcome neither person controls.

The Supreme Court found a 1992 law banning sports betting in all states except Nevada (which was grandfathered in) went too far and infringed upon states' authority. Several states are eager to crank up their sports betting parlors and will likely be in business before the year is out. Both states and sports leagues are eager to get a cut of betting revenues.

Little attention is being paid to the potential corrosive effects on sports both amateur and professional. A missed shot or a dropped pass could swing billions of dollars in legal bets if sports gambling is legalized nationwide, and it is nearly impossible to prove that a player intentionally botched a play that could have won the game. Just one scandal could destroy the integrity of an entire league.

Consider Pete Rose, one of the best baseball players in Major League history. Rose is not in the Hall of Fame because he gambled on game results when he was a MLB manager (not a player). Major League Baseball punished Rose because his gambling defamed the integrity of the game he played so well. If sports betting is universally legalized, Rose's offense will be infinitesimal by comparison. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Trump's new slogan for 2020

As President Trump prepares for his 2020 re-election campaign, let me suggest an update for his MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan. The new slogan should be WODWWU, pronounced "wad woo." It stands for "Whatever Obama Did, We Will Undo."

Obama pushed adoption of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Undone. Obama signed the Paris Accords to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; Trump pulled the U.S. out. Obama had set an ambitious target for increasing average gasoline mileage; Trump said, "never mind." Obama initiated reforms that would reduce incarceration for non-violent federal crimes; Trump's Justice Department is going in the opposite direction. Obama established a program to allow immigrant children brought here by their parents to become productive citizens; Trump has ordered an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Obama worked with allied nations to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran; Trump has announced the United States' withdrawal, allowing Iran to return to developing nuclear weapons right away.

WODWWU, y'all!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Some thoughts on retirement

The question I get, having given up my last paying job about 10 months ago, is along the lines of "How are you liking retirement?" or "What are you doing now that you're retired?"

I have no final answer to those questions as my retirement routine is still evolving. I am liking many aspects of this stage of life. I am staying busy with projects and routine chores around the house along with some writing. My greatest revelation about retirement is that I sleep better. I had been accustomed, over a 33-year career in the newspaper business, 10 years managing nonprofit agencies and three years in the military, to waking in the middle of the night in a sudden panic and then lying awake for hours worrying about some issue at the office.

I still awaken in the night occasionally, but only rarely now in a panic over work issues. I am sleeping better than I have in many years. Credit a lack of occupational worries and pressure. It has been years since I had the recurring nightmare of being in a college classroom and realizing I had not studied for or even read the material for a big exam.

Retirement has not been as productive or as enjoyable as I had hoped. The routine responsibilities still burden me — maintaining the house and yard, paying the bills, exercising regularly, making plans for family visits, etc. I have more time now to do these things, and I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to wait until the weekend to tackle looming chores. I have the time to mow the lawn, to make medical appointments, to read, to write, to volunteer all week long. We have several bookcases full of books I have not read or want to re-read.

What I am missing is my wife's presence. She is still working, her retirement still months away. All our visions of retirement had involved the two of us doing things together — traveling, visiting family and old friends, working together on household projects. I will not feel fully retired until my companion for the past 47 years can share this time with me.

I have become closer to our dog, an old rescue we adopted about five years ago and who is showing his age. I walk him every day (weather permitting), and, as I've often said, he's the only person I have to talk to during the day.

I've taken on a few editing projects and occasionally (too infrequently) contribute some words to this blog. I've reworked novels I had initially written 10 years ago, but I've not found a publisher for any of them and, frankly, have not tried very hard to find a publisher.

As agreeable as retirement is, I am often reminded that the mortality clock is ticking, and I have, realistically, only 15-20 years (if that) remaining in this life to do all the things I have not done but wanted to do in the first 69 years. It's a sobering thought but not one that has thus far pressed me into expediency. I'll get to the bucket list items that I can, and any remainders won't matter in the end.

Each day, we will celebrate our gratitude for the life we've been granted, for the children, the grandchildren, the siblings and parents and friends who have shaped our lives. Despite all the disappointments, sorrows and tragedies we've experienced over seven decades, we are blessed beyond measure and are grateful for every moment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Teacher salaies are still controversial

For years, I served as devil's advocate whenever N.C. teacher salaries were discussed. For decades, as editor of a daily newspaper in the state, I chased beginning teacher salaries as a benchmark for newspaper reporters' salaries to aspire to. When I got into the newspaper business, I was making less than $9,000 a year as editor of a weekly paper. Starting teacher salaries at the time were around $13,000 or $14,000. Teachers were demonstrating for higher salaries and benefits. Journalists were getting by on their miserly salaries or finding other jobs. I was never able to get starting reporter salaries even close to starting teacher salaries. The few times I won higher pay rates for my reporters, teacher salaries would jump far higher as the state played catch-up with rising prices.

Teacher salaries are an annual topic of state politics, and teacher advocates have grown more vocal the past two or three years. One reason for this is the General Assembly's cuts in school spending. Even though teacher salaries in North Carolina have risen, they lag behind other professional salaries. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and other states have gone on strike.

As Paul Krugman points out in this column, Republican-dominated state legislatures are cutting taxes as a means of ensuring that teacher salaries can't be raised and overall school spending cannot keep up with rising costs for books, equipment, construction and maintenance. Taxes pay for state services, primarily education, transportation and law enforcement. Cutting taxes drastically will ensure that the needs of an expanding population will not be met.

North Carolina's average teacher pay is now above $50,000 — a figure unheard of in this state through all the years I tried to raise reporter salaries to the state's teacher benchmark. But $50,000 does not put the average salary in North Carolina in the top quintile of states.

There are two reasons state legislators should be more generous with teacher salaries and benefits. First, public education is the best opportunity we have of ensuring a fair, upwardly mobile society and ensuring America's leadership in the world economy. The uneducated are a burden to the economy; the educated are a creative asset. Second, children have changed so drastically in the past two generations that teaching is a far more difficult, intensive, dangerous occupation. Pop culture, absent parents, an antagonistic society, entrenched poverty, irresponsible families all combine to make teaching more difficult.

Only by training and paying teachers well, modernizing and equipping schools, and providing discipline and motivation to students who get none at home will schools be able to reach their promise of preparing each generation for tomorrow. 

Journalists, maligned by the president as "enemies of the people," will continue to suffer as among the poorest paid of college graduates. I'm glad I'm no longer fighting that salary battle.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Speaker of the House is calling it quits

Every politician trying to get out while the getting is good claims he/she wants to "spend more time with my family." In Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's case, this excuse may actually be truthful, at least in part. His children have largely grown up without him over the past 20 years.

Nevertheless, Ryan's decision not to run for re-election to a safe seat in Congress and to not continue as speaker of the House has to have been influenced by several factors: the difficulty of legislating with an impulsive, unpredictable, often angry and spiteful president in the White House; the nearly impossible task of getting a majority of House members to agree on legislation of any kind in a hyper-partisan atmosphere, the frustration of trying to work with members of the Republican right wing that wants to cripple the federal government as a means of realizing their dream of a more decentralized, unregulated society.

Ryan may also not want to preside over a congressional minority if Republicans lose enough seats, as many are predicting, to give the Democrats a majority. Who wants to be the minority leader after you've been Speaker of the House? Just ask Nancy Pelosi. Republicans have already been wounded by an unusual number of decisions not to seek re-election. Mid-term elections usually result in lost seats for the party in power.

Whatever his reasons might be, Ryan's decision will likely weaken the GOP effort to retain control of the House and the Senate, if for no other reason than the appearance that the party's leader is giving up.

Democrats are excited and optimistic about mid-term elections. They plan to run against an unpopular president and a Congress that has done little to address key issues that are priorities for many Americans. However, Democrats would be foolish to be over-confident. Few, if any, Democrats thought Donald Trump could win the White House in 2016, and gleeful Democrats are probably underestimating his support again this year. Polls and other indicators show that Trump supporters are more loyal than ever and are determined to follow their leader wherever he goes.

November's election results might hinge on Trump, but at this point no one knows whether Trump will turn voters toward Democratic candidates or will drag Republicans into an abyss.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A poll question for Trump supporters

Here's a question I wish some enterprising pollster would ask Trump's loyal supporters:

Would you support President Trump if he issued an executive order dissolving Congress and allowing the president to pass needed legislation without congressional action?

I'd love to see the results.