Friday, February 27, 2009

Basketball is no longer a non-contact sport

The News & Observer is reporting this morning that Duke basketball player Nolan Smith is out of the lineup indefinitely as a result of a concussion suffered in a game. Smith is not the first basketball player to suffer a brain injury this year. UNC All-America Tyler Hansbrough suffered a concussion in a game and missed practice as a result. Oklahoma star Blake Griffin suffered a concussion in a game against Texas and is still out of the lineup, the last I read.
Does this strike anyone (besides me) as contrary to the basic rules of the game Dr. Naismith invented?
Basketball was intended to be a "non-contact" sport, one in which skills, not brawn, would prevail. Fouls would be called for the act of placing your hands on an opposing player to impede his progress or interfere with his actions. The ball could be slapped away, but a foul would be called if you slapped a player's hands or forearm instead of the ball. It was a finesse and tactics game, at least into the 1960s. Since then, basketball has become more and more violent.
In college basketball today, opposing centers routinely push, shove, knee, grab, pull, elbow and swat at each other to gain position near the basket. Shoulders and elbows are used by offensive players to gain operating space against a defender. Defensive players push, lean against, grab and shove ball carriers. The flagrancy of these tactics has grown in recent years. In some games, television commentators praise the officials for "letting them play" instead of calling fouls for the mayhem beneath the basket.
Sooner or later, someone's going to get hurt. Oops! Someone already has. A number of people have. Basketball isn't like football, where concussions are to be expected by the physical violence and speed of the game. Football players wear protective helmets and pads. Basketball players don't because basketball is supposed to be a non-contact sport. This year's concussions are just the latest evidence of a game that has gotten out of hand and could easily lead to tragedy.
NCAA officials, college coaches and game officials had better rein in the violence before basketball turns into hockey without the skates.

Newspaper's closing looks like domino falling

A venerable newspaper has bitten the dust. The Rocky Mountain News published its final edition today after 150 years of publication. The fear is that this is just the first of many dominoes to fall.
The news out of the newspaper business isn't good. Advertising revenue is declining. Fewer people are subscribing. Profits are down. Losses are up. Employment is down sharply, by half in some newsrooms. Americans are losing the reading habit and deceiving themselves into thinking they can keep up with the important news of the day by watching a few minutes of television's entertainment-oriented, shallow newscasts or by searching the Internet for the few topics they find of interest in their insular lives.
The decline of newspapers is a sad day for news junkies and former journalists like me, but it is also a sad day for American democracy. Newspapers are the essential nutrients of democracy. Without them, without the investigative capabilities of a well-funded newsroom, without the broad-ranging array of local, state, national and international news, without the community-building knowledge base of shared experience and concern, democracy is in jeopardy. Thomas Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be." It is because newspapers provided the free expression and the knowledge that inoculated against ignorance that the Founding Fathers instituted the First Amendment.
A recent New York Times column addresses the importance of newspapers to the success of democracy and the prevention of corruption, both in the United States and around the world.
Despite the danger to society that the financial decline of newspapers portends, Americans, except those who own newspaper stock or depend on newspapers for their paychecks, are blithely ignoring the collapse of fundamental reporting and watchdog journalism.
Readership of news is actually on the increase; it's just that fewer Americans are reading newspapers in print. Internet aggregators are posting links to newspapers' reporting and providing this information free to readers. The aggregators profit from ads on their Web sites, which owe their popularity to the news they provide, but the newspapers receive no added revenue from the eyeballs their efforts attract. If newspapers keep losing ad revenue to Internet aggregators, they soon won't be able to finance the reporting that is as essential to readers as it is to the aggregators.
A variety of solutions have been proposed to solve this dilemma, ranging from charging for access to newspaper Web sites to higher charges for printed newspapers to financing newspapers through philanthropic foundations. I don't know what the solution to this dilemma is, and I don't expect to return to the newspaper business where I spent most of my life, but I do fear for what will happen to society and to democracy if the Rocky Mountain News is just one of many falling dominoes.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Goldsboro shows off preservation strategy

The city of Goldsboro turned out its top brass for a presentation to an entourage from Wilson Wednesday afternoon. Mayor Al King, City Manager Joe Huffman and Police Chief Tim Bell were all on hand as Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. executive director Julie Thompson presented a series of slides showing Goldsboro's amazing success in turning abandoned properties and vacant lots into taxpaying assets while attracting millions of dollars in private investment.
Preservation of Wilson board members watched the impressive presentation jealously. POW would like to repeat Goldsboro's success in Wilson. One of the keys to their success, the Goldsboro officials said, was having everyone involved, from city staff to city council members to enthusiastic private citizens who are investing in the downtown Goldsboro restoration. If broad support is essential, the turnout Wednesday in the Goldsboro City Hall Annex was not a good omen.
Only one Wilson City Council member — Doris Jones — attended. Mayor Bruce Rose was also there, reiterating his support  for historic preservation. City Manager Grant Goings and city historic preservationist Lu-Ann Monson were there. POW executive director Kathy Bethune had invited all of the Wilson City Council members. Only Jones came; the other six council members missed out on seeing the benefits Wilson's neighboring city has reaped from a philosophy of preserving, reusing and renovating historic properties.
Bethune had also invited Wilson County Manager Ellis Williford and all seven county commissioners. None attended. Wilson County has been indifferent or hostile to historic preservation, so their absence was not surprising.
Thompson and Huffman said that in talking to civic groups about Goldsboro's preservation efforts, they do not talk so much about the public good involved in preserving the city's historic architecture and neighborhoods. What they emphasize are the economic benefits of the program.
Like other cities (including Wilson), Goldsboro had been intent on demolishing abandoned, dilapidated housing. In 2005, the city appropriated $100,000 for demolitions, but the city planner estimated it would cost $1 million to demolish all the boarded-up houses. The shock of that number prompted the city to take a different tack. The city put $100,000 into a revolving fund that would option or buy historic properties and market them to new owners with historic preservation covenants in the deed. Seeing the success, the city added $50,000 to the revolving fund. Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. marketed the properties through Preservation North Carolina, which options and sells historic properties throughout the state and has had phenomenal success in places such as Edenton Mill Village, where old mill houses worth $26,000 in 1997 are now selling for 10 times that. Scores of essentially worthless properties and vacant lots have now been returned to the tax rolls, generating millions of dollars in taxes.
DGDC and PNC have preserved and sold dozens of houses. DGDC now "controls" (not necessarily owns but has the right to market with protective covenants) 28 houses, Thompson said, just from the city's $150,000 investment. DGDC, a nonprofit tax-exempt corporation, options or buys properties; the city takes no ownership role, although it does pay DGDC's four-person staff.
In addition to preserving historic properties, DGDC has worked with Self-Help Credit Union to build low- to moderate-income "infill" homes on the lots where houses had been demolished. These houses are built from historic designs that complement the existing older homes, creating a consistent neighborhood streetscape. These infill properties have added additional millions in property values on lots that had been essentially worthless.
In 2007-08, Goldsboro's program generated about $6 million in public investment and $10.4 million in private investment, Thompson said. This kind of success has brought statewide attention to Goldsboro, which has restored (with public and private money) the downtown Paramount Theater (which is older than Wilson's Edna Boykin Cultural Center) and the historic city hall. The restoration of City Hall with its rooftop gilded statues and the construction of the City Hall Annex cost Goldsboro about $11 million.
Goldsboro is far from being finished. The old city train station will be restored to its past glory and is to be used as a stop on a planned commuter rail line that will take riders to Raleigh. Center Street, where a railroad track once ran down the middle, is to be renovated to create a broad pedestrian path in the median and wider sidewalks on each side.
In December 2007, my wife and I toured Goldsboro with her father, who had grown up there in the 1920s and '30s, on DGDC's Christmas homes tour. The restored private homes gave me some insight into what a good historic preservation program can do. Wednesday's presentation explained the finances and administration of this effort.
The Wilson participants at Wednesday's presentation were impressed and enthusiastic. It seems obvious that this strategy is transportable, that it can work in other places, including Wilson. The key, as several Goldsboro speakers emphasized, is getting public officials behind it. As Mayor King warned, "Don't listen to the nay-sayers." He said he had been repeatedly told that the city should "just bulldoze" the historic City Hall, but city management and elected officials ignored the vocal minority. City Hall's restored grandeur and the annex's seamless connection to the old building proves the nay-sayers wrong.
Wilson has a similar stock of historic buildings and vacant lots that Goldsboro has. Wilson can do what Goldsboro has done, if public officials get behind it. Unfortunately, the solitary Wilson City Council member (one out of seven) who attended Wednesday's presentation does not bode well for Wilson's capability.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Decouple utility fees from nonprofit funding

Wilson City Council has a proposal to terminate a program that has dogged council for years. If the plan is approved, the city will eliminate its contributions to the nonprofits by 2012. One of these nonprofits, the Arts Council of Wilson, would receive funding through the city's General Fund in recognition that the Arts Council operates a youth theater program that had been part of the city's Recreation Department.
This proposal from City Manager Grant Goings would get the city out of the business of funding nonprofits, but it will not eliminate the criticisms, as can be seen by online comments at Some critics go apoplectic at the thought of funding the Arts Council or any arts-related organization. But funding of the arts in some form — programs, facilities or public art — is common among N.C. municipalities, which see these appropriations as beneficial to the community.
To understand how City Council got into this dilemma, a little history is necessary. Years ago, City Council made a business decision to impose a $10 late fee on utility bills paid after the due date. The late fee, despite its being a sensible and ubiquitous business policy, caused an uproar. (Try paying your credit card late and see what the penalty is!) To quell the criticisms, the city announced it would give away the late fee revenues to nonprofits. Thus, a standard business revenue stream became a charitable donation — and a political football. Council had difficulty each year dividing up the nearly half-million-dollar pool of late-fee revenues.
Who could blame City Council members for wanting this political hot potato taken off their hands?
Decoupling late-fee revenues from nonprofit funding should be the first step in fixing this simmering controversy. Late-fee revenues should be deposited in the utility fund and blended with all other utility revenues. Nonprofit funding, art funding, charitable funding should be based on merit alone. The city has no obligation to fund these services in the way the county, for example, has a legal obligation to operate a heath department. However, there is no legal barrier to the city funding nonprofits if it finds the nonprofit's services in the public interest and worth the cost.
I would suggest that the city (and county, if it's willing to go along) distinguish between local institutions that contribute to overall community assets and those charities that provide a worthy service. I would include in the first category the Boykin Cultural Center, the Arts Council, N.C. Baseball Museum, Imagination Station and the Round House Museum. These are assets that attract people to our community and contribute to the quality of life. Governmental funding is appropriate as a supplement to private donations and as a base for grant requests. The Tourism Development Authority should recognize the value of these assets and provide an annual revenue stream to them. Each attracts people to Wilson more consistently than the occasional events or interstate billboards in which the tourism group has invested the county's lodging tax.
Other nonprofits, which provide valuable services, might also receive some public funding. Wilson OIC, the Wesley Shelter, Hope Station, WCIA and other groups would fall in this category. But City Council is ill-equipped to judge which groups are most deserving or most in need of funding. If the city or county wishes to make contributions to local  charitable services, the decision of who gets how much would best be left to an organization such as United Way, which is geared to making those decisions and requiring financial statements that show both need and effectiveness. (And, by the way, to the critic at who claimed there were multiple six-figure executives at United Way, that might be true in some places, but not at Wilson County United Way.)
However the city spends its tax and enterprise fund dollars, there will be critics (many of them sadly misinformed or spewing malevolent disinformation). The city must decouple utility late fees from its nonprofit funding, then find a fair and defensible means of distributing the funds the people and their elected representatives find appropriate.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Men at work endure the cold

I spent the entire day Monday doing something I really didn't want to do — standing in a freezing wind while helping build a wheelchair ramp. I was one of a five-man work crew of volunteers, and all of us complained about the cold, even as we sawed, aligned and screwed together the boards that would make up the ramp. There was also the digging in the rocky soil of trenches into which the 2x6 supports for the ramp/boardwalk would fit.
The temperature was in the 20s when we began, and it didn't rise a lot throughout the day. The biting wind seared our faces like a fire and made every bump or misstep painful.
Still, we labored on to try to complete the job because the ramp was needed. It would provide mobility to a man whose infirmities confined him. Had the task been a backyard project at home, I would have postponed it until a warmer day. But when four other people are struggling and enduring with you, you're willing to endure more.
At the end of the day, I was grateful for any amount of warmth as I sought relief for sore muscles unaccustomed to chopping rocks out of the ground or twisting 2-inch screws into treated wood. The effort expended during that long day exceeded any aerobic exercise or weight training I have pushed my aging body through these past few years, and it strained muscles not used in bench presses or abdominal crunches or running. The invigorating feeling at the end of a good workout was missing as I drove home last night, replaced with the lingering shivers and a cloak of overall fatigue.
Even after all that, the job is not complete. I'll be back again today, hoping for less wind and more warmth. And at the end, the satisfaction of a job completed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Stimulus today, federal debt tomorrow

News reports today say that President Obama has rediscovered the federal budget deficit, and he's going to promise to do something about it. Good for him.
There has been little discussion of the budget deficit or how our grandchildren will repay all this money as Congress has debated the stimulus package. We are now looking at annual budget deficits in excess of $1 trillion! Remember all the grief Ronald Reagan took when deficits under his watch reached $100 billion? Several times that amount has disappeared into the banking system in the past six months, and no one seems to know where it has gone.
Obama says he wants to cut the deficit in half by the end of his current term. If that promise sounds familiar, it should. George W. Bush expressed the same wish, and I seem to recall Reagan and George H.W. Bush making the same or a similar promise. Funny thing about cutting something in half: You can cut by half for 50 years, and you never quite get rid of it. Still, it's a starting point.
Few economists fault Obama's push for federal spending to bolster the feeble economy. Now, they say, is not the time to worry about deficits. But we will need to worry about deficits sometime, and Obama deserves some credit for bringing up the topic now. After spending trillions of dollars salvaging banks and boosting the economy, cutting the deficit will be difficult.
Obama is calling a meeting this week to discuss long-term budget problems, which includes the long-term insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. Democrats, whose campaign rhetoric denied any problem with Social Security's finances, have to tackle this issue. George W. Bush's futile effort to shift SS investments to the stock market never got going, and all Americans are now grateful for that, since the market has lost nearly half of its value in the past year or so. The federal deficit is greater than usually acknowledged because Social Security revenues now mask the depth of the deficit.
The nation's long-term fiscal health depends upon finding a solution to the Social Security and health care problems. The federal debt has now topped $10.8 trillion, which is more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product of around $14 trillion. Annual payments on that debt are around $500 billion, nearly as much as the Defense budget. As a nation, we cannot sustain this forever. Obama is right to address the deficit issue now and to think ahead about how we are going to get our spending back into balance and thereby provide for the economic growth we and our grandchildren will need.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wilson gets double dose from Our State

Wilson gets a double dose in the March issue of Our State magazine. Two articles in this outstanding magazine feature Wilson prominently. Wilson is one of the "11 Perfect Weekends" featured on the cover, and a culinary feature on barbecue entrepreneur Ed Mitchell cites his Wilson roots.
The weekend getaway to Wilson is a baseball weekend, featuring the city's historic Fleming Stadium and its adjacent North Carolina Baseball Museum. It's a nice portrait of the city's love of baseball, beginning with sports advocate and hot dog king Lee Gliarmis. Writer Chris Gigley of Greensboro suggests a hot dog at Dick's Hot Dog Stand, owned by Gliarmis, both for the cuisine and for the photographs that cover the landmark restaurant's walls, then a trip to circa 1938 Fleming Stadium. The stadium, as Wilson residents know, was refurbished by the city in the 1990s to provide a home for a college summer league team, the Wilson Tobs, but it still retains the charm and close-up seating of old ballparks. The Baseball Museum gets a few paragraphs, but no mention of plans to expand the museum and no photos of the museum or its exhibits.
While you're in Wilson, the writer suggests, take a side trip to Kinston or Zebulon for more baseball. The Kinston Indians play in the 1949 Grainger Stadium, and the Carolina Mudcats play in modern, new, downright extravagant Five County Stadium. The near-major-league-quality Five County Stadium features a white-linen restaurant, Cattails, on its top deck.
The infobox with the story suggests staying at the Whitehead Inn, the city's only B&B — a natural choice for a travel magazine that garners lots of B&B ads. It also suggests checking out the cuisine at Parker's Barbecue (naturally) and Bill's World Famous Barbecue and Chicken. I thought the old Bill's Barbecue was now named Bill Ellis Barbecue. Maybe I'm behind. But the writer is definitely behind in recommending Inner Banks Market, which has been closed for about a year or more.
If you're going to suggest Wilson restaurants, you shouldn't overlook JAC's Grill, Fifty-Fifty Lounge or Quince for fine food, or Sylvia's for traditional down-home cooking. Or Griff's, Beefmastor or Rocky's for traditional steakhouses. Or Silver Lake or Worrell's for seafood.
And speaking of food, the other Wilson story is about Ed Mitchell's ascent as a barbecue chef. Bob Garner, who did a series with WUNC-TV on North Carolina barbecue and wrote a book on the subject, tells Mitchell's story of being "discovered" by the New York Times' Calvin Trillin and of his setbacks as he expanded his family's former neighborhood store into a big restaurant on U.S. 301. Mitchell is now expanding his legend in Raleigh, where he operates The Pit at 201 E. Davie St. (919-821-3098).
I ate at Mitchell's Wilson restaurant several times before it closed in a financial and legal mess a few years ago, but I haven't been to his Raleigh restaurant. Mitchell is an engaging, friendly guy who is as good at public relations and promotion as he is at barbecuing. His current fame and success are based on more than the taste of his barbecue. In his overalls and cap, he also looks and acts the part of the good ol' hometown boy who's just a natural-born pork cooker.
I miss Mitchell's restaurant in Wilson, but I wish him well in the big city.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Retirement dreams crumble before reality

When my 401(k) statement came in the mail earlier this year, I refused to open it. I knew the balance would be nauseatingly bad. I didn't need more bad news. I had not gone online to look at my statement since last July, before the credit crisis sledgehammer battered all investments. That was when I took the advice of a couple of former colleagues who were more experienced investors and closer followers of the markets than I and converted some of my cash account into an Asia-Pacific fund on the sage advice that Asian markets would do well even when U.S. markets were down.
Today, half the money I put into that fund is gone. Bravely, I called up my account this morning to see how bad the damage was. From the peak of my retirement investments, which I had built up over 20-some years of sacrificial, consistent saving, I had lost about a third of what I had. Even through the end of last year, knowing that my paychecks were coming to an end, I kept saving, thinking that, with the market down, I'd be buying cheap.
Now, with no more money coming in and no more money going into my 401(k),  I'm no longer "buying cheap." I'm just watching my investments dwindle, and with them the financial security I had hoped to gain for retirement. When 401(k)s and IRAs were first marketed in the early 1980s, the television commercials touted the possibility of retiring as a millionaire. Given the double-digit interest rates at the time and 30 or 40 years to invest, such a scenario seemed plausible. More of a realist, I never thought I'd reach those lofty levels, but I did hope that my persistent savings and investing luck might lead to a nest egg of as much as $500,000. After the tech bubble and NASDAQ collapse around 2000 wiped out about a third of my funds, I recalculated my dreams and hoped I might reach $300,000 by the time I reached retirement age, and I seemed on track to achieve that, or come close to it.
But last year's worldwide market collapse and the loss of my job has shattered even that downgraded dream and forced me into a new reality. Today, after looking at all the negative returns from every fund in my account, except cash, I surrendered and transferred a large chunk of what was left in stocks and bonds to a cash fund. The cash fund won't stay ahead of inflation, paying maybe 2 percent, if that, but a tiny increase is better than a big decrease.
My experience is multiplied by the millions as American workers have been led to believe that 401(k)s and IRAs would provide for their retirements, supplementing the Social Security checks that will provide for a subsistence existence, at best. Defined-benefit pensions, which once dominated American corporations, have largely disappeared, replaced by individual investment accounts. Only governments and a few large corporations are still offering pensions; the rest of us are left at the mercy of the stock market.
For people my age, there is little time for the market to recover its losses, and the lost income while the market tanked might never be recovered. The golden age of retirement has passed. I have already conceded that, once I find a job, I'll need to work well past my usual retirement age. Millions of others in my age cohort are reaching the same conclusion.
The 1980s promise of retiring a millionaire has been replaced with the reality that, for many of us, retirement will never happen.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Something's missing from online news

Since leaving the newspaper business, I've been reading more news online because I don't have access to the print editions of some newspapers, and I've dropped one of my newspaper subscriptions. Although free online news is seen as the monster devouring newspapers, with one popular news Web site dedicated to proposals to save newspapers, my experience has been that you miss an awful lot by reading news online, even when you're reading from newspaper Web sites.
Online reading has one huge disadvantage: You read only what you're looking for, not what you happen to stumble across. A print newspaper reader usually starts at the front page (OK, in some cases at the Sports front) and reads sequentially through the paper, opening up each page in succession. Some pages contain news the reader is interested in or is searching for. Some contain nothing of interest and are quickly flipped through. Other pages include interesting news that the reader was not anticipating or that he was not aware of. The beauty of a daily newspaper is that these serendipitous moments are informative and enlightening. They broaden our perspectives. They make us better informed on a wider variety of topics. They might even give us insight into ideas or perspectives we've never thought about. Your chances of finding serendipitous moments in an online search are largely nil. The strength of online search engines is that they find what you're looking for. That is also their weakness; sometimes what you're looking for is not what you need to know or what you'll find most interesting.
Online reading also denies readers access to most of the advertising in the newspaper. I've discovered that grocery stores' weekly fliers are available online; I don't have to buy a newspaper (or go to the store) to see what's on sale. But I still prefer to hold the fliers in my hands and compare prices, not flip from one supermarket Web site to another. Ads printed in the paper, known as ROP (run of press) ads, are another missing element in online newspapers. Web sites carry annoying advertisements, but not as many as are in the paper, and these print ads are often informative. And they're less intrusive and annoying than online ads. They announce new products, new businesses, new prices, etc. The Readership Institute has recognized that newspaper readers actually want to see the print ads because they consider them informative and helpful, just as the news stories are.
Surveys indicate more and more people are getting their news from online sources. Too bad. They don't know what they're missing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Arts Council, City Council taking risks

The Arts Council of Wilson's decision to decline Wilson City Council's gift of the Edna Boykin Cultural Center might have been the only option it could afford to take, but it was still a risky decision. City Council, hastily and without real discussion, voted last month to hand the historic theater over to the Arts Council, which had been managing the theater since its reopening in 1996. The circa 1919 former vaudeville theater, with its restored plaster work and new seating, has been host to numerous concerts, Playhouse plays, Theater of the American South and other events. Accepting the deed would have meant accepting responsibility for insuring the public venue and maintaining/repairing it. The costs the Arts Council would be accepting are unknown.
The Arts Council's risk, of course, is that its snub might anger City Council, which has a stranglehold on the group's finances. City Council contributes $100,000 annually to the nonprofit, in part to cover the expenses of a youth theater program the city used to provide through its recreation program. Additional Arts Council funding comes from grants and membership dues. The group has a broad and enthusiastic membership, constituting a potentially powerful political force. The city also owns the Wilson Arts Center, the former BB&T headquarters office that was given to the city by the bank.
So while the Arts Council's refusal of the theater deed was a risky decision, forcing the deed onto the Arts Council would be risky for City Council. Wilson has a growing, statewide reputation as an arts haven in eastern North Carolina, and the Arts Council enjoys faithful support from a broad array of city residents, ranging from funky artists to wealthy benefactors.
Pushing the deed transfer makes little sense for City Council. It risks offending a large voting bloc while saving little money for the city. Including the Boykin Center on the city's umbrella insurance policy amounts to a tiny fraction of the city's expenses. Even if substantive repairs are needed in the future, the city's long-term outlay would be relatively small.
The only group benefiting from this controversy is the vocal anti-arts, anti-downtown, anti-Wilson malcontents who submit their tirades anonymously to online forums, including this blog's comments section. Let's hope City Council won't put them in charge.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In cyber age, I have no "friends"

I was on my university alumni association's Web page a few months back when I noticed a link to "My Page." I clicked on it and discovered the alumni association's in-house version of a social networking site, a Facebook or MySpace limited to alumni association members. On "my page" I found the message: "You have no friends."
I had to go to have the alumni association tell me that? And how did they know?
Of course, the "friends" the page referred to were not "friends" in the usual sense; that is, people you talk to face-to-face, confide in and call upon for advice and help. These "friends," of whom I have none, are the people who sign up to share your thoughts, photos and whatnot on social networking sites. I declined to get  involved in the alumni association's network, chose no "friends," and did not offer myself as a "friend."
A few years ago, I assigned a young reporter, fresh out of college, to do a story on social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace. To my amazement, the young reporter was not familiar with either network and struggled with the assignment. We old geezers in the newsroom had assumed everyone  in college spent half their time on Facebook or MySpace. That's what recent adulatory news stories had indicated. Since that time about four years ago, Facebook has expanded beyond its college campus corral and is accepting members who do not have collegiate e-mail addresses. This has opened the network to older people who are using Facebook to reconnect with childhood, high school and college friends. They're "friending" (a new verb the social networks have launched) their old friends and catching up on their children and grandchildren. (Sometimes they also "unfriend" people they decide aren't worth keeping up with.) MySpace, meanwhile, has been in the news as an alleged haven for sexual predators and has signed an agreement to eliminate those dirty old men masquerading as teens.
My wife has recently posted herself on Facebook and has "friended" some high school classmates and reconnected with old friends (old in the sense of aged) from when we were young parents. She occasionally points out to me the comments or photos of people I know or knew, and she has frequently suggested that I, too, join Facebook. A reader of this blog even suggested that if I were on Facebook, I could promote the blog and gain more readers.
I'm still resistant. For all the joyful connectedness that social networking promises, I still find it artificial, especially for those folks who lay claim to hundreds and hundreds of "friends." Even the most extroverted and interdependent among us can probably claim no more than a dozen or so "real" friendships, not hundreds and hundreds.
And though I would enjoy retaining connections to high school classmates and others, I haven't made the leap into the ocean of connections in social networking, where I might drown in the sheer numbers. Reconnecting to high school classmates? I recently did that at a funeral, and it was real, not cyber.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The sentence is in; the case is over

Superior Court Judge Milton F. "Toby" Fitch has given James Johnson, who entered an "Alford plea" this morning, a prayer for judgment continued for his admission of misprision of a felony in the 2004 murder of Brittany Willis. Johnson, who has been out on bail since the charges and bond against him were reduced a year ago, is free to go. By admitting the evidence could convict him of misprision of a felony, Johnson was admitting that evidence existed that he delayed reporting of a felony.
That admission will not satisfy some critics who were convinced that Johnson not only was an accessory after the fact of murder, the charge he faced had he gone to trial this week, but actually had a larger role in Willis' kidnapping, rape and murder. But Johnson's admission should disillusion some of his staunchest defenders, who asserted he was a hero for pointing police toward Kenneth Meeks, who is serving a life term after pleading guilty to the murder. The case against a third suspect, Julian Deans, remains to be adjudicated.
Judge Fitch went out of his way to pronounce the seriousness of a prayer for judgment continued when he handed down the sentence. It cannot be appealed and cannot be expunged, he said. It will hang over Johnson forever. But any defendant who ever asked for a PJC probably didn't see it as quite so serious as Fitch claimed.
Except for the loose end of Julian Deans, who was never seen as a major participant, this case is over, and Johnson's light sentence implies Deans' case will disappear quickly. It will now be up to the divided community to resolve that the court system has spoken, and it's time to for division and antagonism to end. Kenneth Meeks will spend the rest of his life in prison. James Johnson will have to live with the knowledge of what he did or didn't do. And the community will have to try to heal the wounds of a cruel, senseless murder and deep, caustic division.

Long-delayed case goes to trial

James Johnson's trial begins today at the Wilson County Courthouse, nearly five years after Brittany Willis was brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered. Johnson, who spent three years in jail awaiting trial, is not charged with murder. That charge was dropped, and he is now charged with accessory after the fact.
This case would have been an emotional volcano even if it had gone to trial promptly. The inexcusably long delay in getting the case before a jury has made it even more volatile. Competing vigils have been held. The state NAACP and other groups have come to the defense of Johnson, and some local residents have formed a loose association touting J4B (Justice for Brittany) bumper stickers. Just what constitutes "justice" is unstated, but presumably the group wants more than the one confession and life imprisonment already obtained in the case. Any additional punishment (if that is how justice is defined) will be in the hands of a jury. If Johnson is acquitted, I fear the J4B group will not think justice has been done. If Johnson is convicted, I fear his supporters will think an injustice has been done.
On the eve of the trial, the Associated Press (as carried by the News & Observer) botched a precede on the case, stating "Meeks told authorities Johnson had participated in the crimes, leading them to charge Johnson with murder. He remained in jail for the next three years, during which time a jury convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison." The vague choice of pronouns (who is the he referred to in the last sentence?) is confusing, but the sentence itself is wrong, regardless of the pronoun's antecedent. Kenneth Meeks, whom Johnson fingered as the killer, initially told police that Johnson was an accomplice. After months in jail, Meeks changed his story, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, the maximum sentence state law allowed because of his age at the time of the crime. Johnson has admitted helping Meeks clean evidence from Brittany's stolen vehicle.
In the past five years, I've talked to people who can't believe Johnson could have participated in this horrendous crime. I've also talked to people in law enforcement who are equally convinced that Johnson was present, at least, when Brittany was murdered. I've read a transcript of Meeks' confession, and it gives you nauseated chills. I don't know how this week's trial will come out or how convincing the evidence to be presented will be. I do know that after this is over, the people on both sides of this issue will have to live together and accept the outcome of a jury trial. That will require if not forgiveness, at least acceptance — acceptance of the fact that a young life has been senselessly destroyed and at least one young man will have to spend the rest of his life with the guilt of that reality.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

State press awards make you wonder

The North Carolina Press Association's annual awards, announced Thursday night, provide an interesting contrast. Each year, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer, the two largest papers in the state (now both owned by McClatchy, whose stock is trading at less than $1), battle for the most awards in their circulation class and for the General Excellence Award. Neither won the award this year. General Excellence went to the Greensboro News & Record. Greensboro? I'm not the only journalist, or former journalist, to be surprised by that award. One award winner told me that, if he were a Greensboro staffer, he would have grabbed the award and skedaddled back to Greensboro as fast as he could before anyone discovered that a mistake had been made. The Winston-Salem Journal took second place, and the Fayetteville Observer took third. In other words, neither Charlotte nor Raleigh placed. Fayetteville is a class newspaper that regularly betters Raleigh and Charlotte in looks, organization and day-to-day news, but on a smaller scale (it's near the bottom of the 35,000-plus circulation category). It also puts out a better paper than the first- or second-place winners.
While Greensboro N&R won its odd General Excellence award, a Wilson Daily Times staffer, Matt Shaw, won a third-place enterprise reporting award for a series of stories that transpired under Greensboro's nose. Shaw's award-winning coverage was about the legislative effort to shut White's Tire of Wilson out of the state's retread contract bidding. That effort was ultimately successful, rewarding tire dealers in the Greensboro area, but the N&R never covered the issue in any depth and never questioned area representatives' claim that they wanted to make the bid process fairer. If banning the Wilson company that had held the state contract for two decades and had won loyalty raves from customers across the state is fairer, then that's what they got. The metro papers that have Raleigh bureaus ignored this issue, and Shaw deserves his award for airing the facts. Too bad other papers didn't take notice.
State press awards, to be fair and honest, are often a hodgepodge. The year the Charlotte Observer finished second in the Pulitzer competition, its story on brown lung didn't win the state press contest. These contests are judged by fellow journalists from other states, but the quality of judging varies widely. The biggest, most prestigious contests, such as the Pulitzer, are judged by juries of selected judges, not by one individual, as in state contests. Some state contest judges are probably well-experienced and have high standards. Others are relative neophytes who don't always differentiate between great journalism and breathless prose. Each of the more than 30 years I participated in these contests, I have wondered why one story one and another didn't. I often felt that my paper's best efforts didn't win while its less outstanding entries did. Prejudice also can play a part. I always felt that the Daily Times' "Withering of the Golden Leaf" series about tobacco's decline, which won a national award, failed to win in the state because a judge didn't care about tobacco or want to read about it.
I end my years of entering state press contests with 21 N.C. Press awards during my years at The Wilson Daily Times. I won at least one state press award each year from 1991 to 2008 with the exceptions of 2003 and 2005. I also won 11 state awards while with the Hamlet News and list a total of 38 writing awards on my resume.
In the end, the awards don't really matter. They didn't insure against my being laid off, and no one (even I) remember what the winning entries were. The folks at the Greensboro N&R should remember that their award is ephemeral and won't earn them any tangible benefits.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gregg's enigmatic withdrawal embarrasses Obama

News that Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has withdrawn his name from nomination to be secretary of Commerce is a blow to President Obama's administration, no matter how the White House spins it. Obama might not be at fault in this snafu, but it transpires as an embarrassment for the White House. Gregg has become the third Cabinet nominee and the second Commerce nominee to withdraw. Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew because of a corruption investigation in New Mexico, and Tom Daschle withdrew as Health and Human Services nominee because of a tempest over his $5 million in lobbying income (though he was not, technically, a lobbyist) and an embarrassing late payment of taxes on unclaimed income.
Richardson and Daschle were the perpetrators in these embarrassments, and it appears that Gregg suffered an unfortunate reversal of decisiveness. He said he would, and then he said he wouldn't. He blamed irreconcilable differences with the administration but wouldn't get specific. His dithering makes him look wishy-washy and, therefore, not a very good Cabinet pick after all.
The problem is that Gregg was going to be Obama's offering on the altar of bipartisanship. He would leave Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the only Republicans in the Cabinet. Having a bipartisan Cabinet is certainly not a requirement, but Obama has made a mantra of bipartisanship and a new approach to politics. Now, with very little Republican support for his stimulus package and the loss of a GOP Cabinet nominee, things are looking like the same old partisan politics.
Not that it's all Obama's fault. Some Republican members of Congress have praised him for his willingness to listen to them, to consult with them and to invite them to the White House. Part of the problem may be that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi did not run for re-election on a bipartisanship platform and haven't been as interested in Republican views. It also appears that Republican leaders in the Senate and House are trying to hold together their reduced numbers to keep from being steamrolled by the wider Democratic majority.
Gregg's withdrawal is more of a symbolic loss for Obama than anything else. The president should have expected some bumps in the road along the way, even if his most avid supporters did not.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

City's deed transfer jeopardizes theater

Finally. Wilson City Council's plan to dump the Wilson Theatre (now the Edna Boykin Cultural Center) on the Arts Council of Wilson is at last getting some scrutiny. An article in today's Wilson Daily Times announces that Edna Boykin is upset about the city's plans to give away the landmark theater to the Arts Council. "The Arts Council positively cannot afford to take over the theater," Boykin told the newspaper, adding that if forced to accept the theater, the Arts Council would simply have to shut the doors.
Others, including the Wilson Playhouse, a highly respected amateur theater group, worries that if the Arts Council has to take over insurance, maintenance and other costs now covered by the city, it would be forced to raise the rent so high that arts groups, which operate on a shoestring budget, would have to find a cheaper venue.
City Council is toying with the future of the circa-1919 theater, which was magnificently restored in the 1990s and has become one of Wilson's top attractions. It was the Boykin Center that made it possible for Wilson to lure Theater of the American South here.
It should come as no surprise that Arts Council officials have been largely silent about all of this. City Council has the arts group over a barrel. The Arts Council receives $100,000 in city funding annually, and the wrong comment could jeopardize that essential funding. So of course they aren't going to criticize the gift.
Boykin isn't so reticent. The retired elementary school principal and former City Council member remains a determined adversary and has many admirers in Wilson. Thousands of Wilsonians began their education under her guidance. A longtime advocate of the arts and a generous donor to artistic and educational causes, Boykin will not sit silently while the Arts Council is saddled with huge new liabilities. She is a force to be reckoned with.
Last month's hasty decision needs to be reconsidered. If the city is determined to rid itself of the theater, which it purchased in the early 1980s to save Wilson from the embarrassment of having an X-rated theater so close to City Hall (the WDT article incorrectly says the city bought the theater in the 1990s), it must provide the Arts Council an additional infusion of cash to cover its added expenses. The arts community is grateful that the city spent $91,000 fixing rotted roof trusses traced to a leaky roof (that had probably been leaking for 25-plus years), but the Arts Council is not prepared to insure and maintain this building indefinitely.
This property transfer could also be seen as a threat that the city might give the Arts Council the former BB&T office that is now the Wilson Arts Center.
Some may argue that the city should not own properties not used for city operations, but watch out for the logical conclusion to that argument. The city owns Fleming Stadium, home of the Wilson Tobs and the N.C. Baseball Museum. Why not give the stadium and museum to the Tobs baseball club and see how well the team can insure and maintain that property?
The Boykin Center, the Arts Center and Fleming Stadium are all important assets that draw visitors to Wilson and enhance the quality of life for Wilson residents. The cheapest, most efficient way of keeping the properties operating and contributing to Wilson's culture and environment is through city ownership. Municipal ownership of museums, theaters, stadiums, amphitheaters and other attractions is not unusual. The city's annual costs, with the exception of occasional major repairs and renovations, are relatively cheap for what these properties contribute.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Besides the money, you miss the friendships

Enforced idleness has a downside (make that another downside) besides lack of income. Folks who are laid off miss the workplace and their co-workers almost as much as they miss a paycheck.
After four months without a job, I'm beginning to understand why so many retirees regret their decision to retire or sink into depression and despair. I also understand better why stay-at-home moms, especially those who had been in the workplace before, hunger for adult conversation and contact. I'm identifying with those feelings. After spending most of my days quietly alone, conversing only with the dog, I find myself welcoming opportunities to interact with other people.
Although my Myers-Briggs personality type is introverted and I like working independently, the thing I miss the most about not having a job is the camaraderie of the workplace. We spend our working lives spending eight hours a day or more (sometimes much more) in the company of co-workers. We see more of them than we do of our spouses or children or neighbors. Only a determined recluse can avoid getting to know intimate details of their lives and sharing his own intimate thoughts, fears and worries. Your friends at work may not be your closest friends, but they are the friends you see most frequently and for the longest periods. High school and college buddies, whose friendships we celebrate at decennial reunions, cannot compare to work colleagues for long-term relationships.
A good working environment with caring, sympathetic colleagues is a barrier against mental illness, better than any occupational therapist or counselor. In stressful, difficult workplaces, co-workers often lean on each other and gain strength through shared worries and encouragement. Misery does love company, and there are few places more miserable than a stressful, frustrating workplace.
Whether your workplace is a joyful, progressive retreat or a despised, frustrating grind, you share it with others, spending the bulk of your waking hours with co-workers who understand better than anyone the joys and despairs you feel.
"Work to live; don't live to work," the sage advice goes, but you cannot avoid living in and through your work because it consumes so much of your time. And when it's over, you will miss the contact, the conversations, the mutual caring and sharing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stimulus package holds no guarantees

The stimulus package that seems to be picking up some steam on Capitol Hill is a major gamble at best. Its nearly trillion-dollar federal spending package is intended to boost the foundering economy, but there is no certainty that the pump-priming, Keynesian model will work under these unique circumstances. Its only real certainty is that future generations will be paying off this debt of borrowed money.
But Congress and the president are loath to do nothing. No one wants to be accused of sitting idly by while the economy collapses. So the two different spending bills passed by the House and about to be passed by the Senate do something, but there are doubts whether they will do enough or do the right things. Republicans and conservative Democrats trimmed the Senate's spending in an effort to reduce the gargantuan borrowing, but critics say the items trimmed are among the most stimulative in the original bill — aid to states for infrastructure projects and additional aid for the unemployed.
I find it baffling that tax cuts remain in this bill. After eight years of GOP tax cutting, which contributed to record budget deficits, we're still pushing for more tax cuts? For an element of the Republican Party, tax cuts are the panacea for all problems, economic and political. While I am sympathetic to the notion of reducing government's share of the economy and agree that a severe recession is no time to be raising taxes, additional tax cuts seem at this time illogical and ineffective. Last year's tax rebates did almost nothing to stimulate the economy. More tax cuts are likely to be hoarded by wary consumers worried about their jobs as unemployment rises unabated.
After months of effort to fix the economy, the basic problem — unpaid mortgages on houses with declining values — remains. Last year's original rescue plan was supposed to buy up those "toxic assets" and allow banks to begin lending again. But former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson decided to invest the money directly into the banks themselves, not into their bad debts. But just like the consumers who hoarded their tax rebates, banks hoarded the federal cash and tried to ride out the downturn. New Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner is promising a new attack on those "toxic assets."
One tax cut in the Senate package has been called the $15,000 house flipper bonus. In an effort to stimulate the real estate market, it would provide a $15,000 tax break to anyone who buys a house. You don't have to be a CPA to figure out that you can buy any old house, sell it the next week for $5,000 less than you paid and still come out $10,000 ahead. Let's hope this example of wrong-headed legislating doesn't make it into the final bill.
Congress is eager to get something done, and most Americans are all for taking action to fix the economy. Unanswered questions remain: Will this package be enough? Will the economy take the medicine that is being offered? Will this unimaginable amount of money be spent wisely? Will the economic stimulus do enough good to offset the inevitable pain of having to repay this money in higher taxes or higher inflation in years to come?
Nobody really knows the answers to these questions now.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Future of newspapers gets new insight

The profession where I spent almost my entire working life has gone through some tough times lately. My layoff four month ago from the company where I had worked for 29 years is just one bit of evidence of the upheaval in the newspaper industry, which has laid off thousands of journalists and other employees and suffered the loss of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. But the gloom and doom of the newspaper industry might finally be abating. The Newspaper Project, which was formed last month, is publicizing the many positives of the newspaper industry, including its essential and unsurpassed role as a provider of useful, indispensable information. The organization formed by former newspaper executives took out an ad recently that spotlights newspapers' value and dominance in the information business.
The organization's argument is that, sure, the newspaper industry is going through a widespread upheaval right now, challenged by new media competitors, a lack of public connectiveness and a declining reading habit, but there is no better source of reliable, accurate and complete information. Online sources, which draw heavily (nearly exclusively) from newspapers' original reporting, can't beat newspapers. Broadcast, which has an advantage in immediacy, can't surpass newspapers' ability to investigate, explain and ferret out the facts. And bloggers (including this one) can't spend the time and money needed to do competent, complete, accurate reporting. Most blogs consist primarily of personal opinions and are no better at providing essential information than "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report."
In a recent speech, USA Today editor Ken Paulson called newspapers "the iPod of the 1690s," but he pointed out that the 300-year-old technology still has lots of advantages for 21st century readers: Newspapers have editors who demand attribution from reliable sources; newspapers are fact-checked; newspapers are delivered to your doorstep every day for a price that is less than you'd tip the pizza guy; there are no pop-up ads and no viruses to worry about. What a great product!
When filling in at a Barton College journalism class last week, I engaged in a discussion with students about the future off the profession they were studying. The parents of only a third of these students subscribed to a daily newspaper. The students got much of their news online or from television. I pointed out one often-overlooked advantage of newspapers: serendipity, the pleasure of finding something good that you weren't looking for. Newspapers, which collect news from a variety of places and sources, provide that serendipity, by which readers discover things they had not been interested in before. Online searches find only the specific items being sought; there is no serendipity.
Newspapers' plight (and potential opportunity) also got some attention recently from National Public Radio in a two-part series looking into what might happen if a city's newspaper folded. The second part looked at a potential alternative to the advertising business model newspapers have relied on for centuries. The Atlantic also featured the newspaper industry in an article that suggested that major newspapers, such as the New York Times, might be forced to quit publishing because of declining revenues and high debt, and the end might come within a few short months.
The author of the Atlantic article, Michael Hirschorn, also offers an indictment of the newspaper industry for enabling its own decline by losing its focus on the essential news and information that made newspapers indispensable in the first place. "Under the guise of 'service,'" Hirschorn writes, "The Times has been on a steady march toward temporarily profitable lifestyle fluff. Escapes! Styles! T magazines(s)! For a time, this fluff helped underwrite the foreign bureaus, enterprise reporting and endless five-part Pulitzer Prize aspirants. But it has gradually hollowed out journalism's brand, by making the newspaper feel disposable. The fluff is more fun to read than the loss-leading reports about starvation in Sudan, but it isn't the sort of thing you miss when it's gone."
I have long believed that newspapers were making a mistake in copying the entertainment-oriented broadcast news strategy that aimed for "softer," "happier" news. If newspapers are to survive as print products, they will have to aim for the better-educated, more curious readers, not the lowest-common-denominator of channel-flipping couch potatoes.
The Newspaper Project raises another issue: Perhaps newspapers should be charging for online content, which is now offered for free. Aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google are selling ads beside links to newspaper articles, and newspapers are deriving no revenue from those ads. It has even been suggested that newspapers get an anti-trust exemption that would allow them to collude to set prices for online content. I don't know whether that is the solution or is even politically viable, but I'm glad to see some serious thinking and creative ideas about the future of print news. I know I never want to see the day when I can't sit down with the morning paper and dive into its wonderful variety of content.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vanishing snow brings hint of springtime

"If you don't like the weather, just stick around; it'll change." That little aphorism has been around for a long time in a lot of different places, but seldom has it been more apropos than around here the past few days. Just two days after a day in which the temperature never rose above freezing, it's warm and spring-like again. At 1 p.m., it's 62 degrees with a high predicted at 65.
Earlier this week Wilson had its second measurable snowfall of the year. That in itself is unusual. The last two years, if I remember correctly, we had no measurable snowfall. Even when we have snow in eastern North Carolina, it's frequently gone in a day or two as temperatures return to winter "normal," which means well above freezing. But a moderate day turned suddenly chilly late Tuesday, and snow began falling in some areas of the state about sunset. Temperatures stayed low enough to keep snow on the ground here until the weekend. Even now, on a day that feels like spring, some patches of snow remain in the deep shadows.
Our earlier snow two weeks ago also stuck around for more than the typical day of whiteness. Cold temperatures lingered, and a lush, beautiful snow stayed pretty for a good while.
Having seen two decent snowfalls and having worn gloves and heavy coats more than I wanted to, I'm about ready for some springtime. Unfortunately, the calendar says it's still early February, and the vernal equinox is more than a month away. We might even see a third good snow in 2009. We could also see warm days that coax the daffodils out of the ground.
I vividly recall a year when I was in college (that was way back before Al Gore discovered global warming or invented the Internet), sun-bathing on the dormitory lawn before my March 2 birthday. I also remember that same year the heavy snow that fell at the beginning of spring break a few weeks later.
If you don't like the weather ...

Friday, February 6, 2009

A lifetime in a file cabinet

I spent most of Thursday morning pulling files from one file cabinet, which would be donated to Habitat for Humanity that afternoon, and putting them in a new file cabinet. Cleaning out files is a periodic task that has to be done from time to time. I found some files that could be thrown away — instruction manuals and warranties for appliances we no longer own, packages for insurance policies that have expired, and duplicate copies of travel brochures and similar items. But what was left to be refiled tells a story about a life.
There are the expected items — tax forms from years past, credit agreements and reports, medical records, auto maintenance receipts and so forth. But there are also the less expected papers we have collected over the past 35-plus years. Four bulging folders are filled with family histories and family events — genealogical records, Civil War ancestors' service records, mementos of family gatherings and the sad evidence of my parents' decline into dementia. Another trunk downstairs contains histories and photos of my wife's ancestors. One bulging file was filled with letters, mostly from our children when they were away at school before e-mail replaced handwritten letters. I set that file aside and transferred its contents into a box that will go into the attic, where other boxes hold letters saved from earlier years from parents and friends. Two files titled "Home" hold the records of improvements and repairs to the only two houses we've owned in the past 29 years, reminding us of the countless hours of work that went into each home.
Several files contain newspaper and magazine clippings, some of them about family members and others on topics of interest to us, ranging from parenting to gardening. There are clippings of photographs of spelling bee and Quiz Bowl winners and programs from middle school awards days.
One file that made it into the new cabinet had been rescued from a box in the attic just days before — my 35-year-old military records. I found the Officer Service Record in an unlabeled box (the fifth or sixth one I opened) and carried it downstairs. Though the ink had faded and the paper yellowed, I could still read the laudatory comments on the fitness reports and the terse language of appointments and assignments. As I browsed the records, I once again felt regret that I had not remained in the Coast Guard long enough to collect retirement.
The family file cabinet is once again well-organized, thanks largely to my wife's talent for organizing and collecting. The files titled "Family History" are misleading. Everything in the cabinet is, really, family history.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Executive pay proposal rings a bell

President Obama proposed Wednesday that executives' pay at any banks receiving federal assistance be limited to $500,000 per year. That's a healthy cut — more than 90 percent — for many bank executives, who receive millions of dollars in salary and other benefits.
Obama's proposal reminded me of a suggestion I'd made in a college bull session discussing taxes and fairness about 40 years ago. I had suggested at the time that annual pay be capped at the salary for the president of the United States — $200,000 at the time. Any pay above that level would be taxed at 100 percent. My reasoning was that the president has the toughest, most important job in the United States, so it should be the highest-paying job in the country. At the time, I couldn't think of any reason why this wouldn't work. Either companies would limit excessive pay for top executives, thereby providing additional pay for R&D, worker wages and profits for shareholders, or the federal government would benefit from a surge in tax revenues from those multi-million-dollar paychecks taxed at 100 percent.
Obama's $500,000 cap is 25 percent more than the current salary for the president, $400,000,  but the rationale is the same. Why should a bank president get more pay than the president of the United States? Does he have greater responsibility? Does he work harder? Do his decisions have greater impact? Are his decisions more important nationally or globally?
With another four decades of experience and maturity, I find some flaws in my long-ago collegiate reasoning. The president's compensation amounts to more than his salary. He gets a pretty nice house to live in, transportation, health care, retirement benefits, etc.  And confiscatory tax rates probably do discourage innovation and economic risk-taking, as Republican tax-cutters have long argued. Confiscatory rates applied only to salaries and not other forms of compensation would shift compensation to untaxed or lower-taxed compensation.
Still, 40 years after I made the argument for capping salaries at the same level as the president's, it's interesting to see the new president make a quite similar proposal.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tax trouble plagues Obama nominees

Former Sen. Tom Daschle is just the kind of nominee you'd never think would have trouble getting confirmed by the Senate. He was popular, a former majority leader and a sympathetic figure to dominant Democrats because he had been targeted by President Bush in 2004 and knocked off in his bid for re-election. But Daschle withdrew his name from nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services Tuesday after his troubles with taxes were revealed. Daschle's withdrawal came the same day that President Obama's nominee for the new position of chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, also withdrew her name after an embarrassing revelation about failure to pay unemployment taxes on hired help.

Don't rich Democrats believe in paying taxes? Daschle and Killefer withdrew, but Treasury nominee Timothy Geitner rode out the controversy over his failure to pay all of his taxes. One tax snafu might be forgettable and forgivable, but a series of them leaves a lasting impression. Daschle had failed to pay taxes on the use of a limousine. The IRS considers that income. Daschle didn't think so, but now he admits he was wrong. Killefer had failed to pay taxes on a household employee. Geitner belatedly paid $34,000 in back taxes. What is it with these people?

Obama has promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. His Cabinet nominees fit in that category. But some of these high-income Americans aren't paying the taxes they owe now under the Republican tax cuts Obama and other Democrats have been criticizing for years.

When his nomination was announced, Daschle sounded like the perfect nominee for HHS. He had been a health care leader in the Senate, and he had worked after his election defeat in advocating for universal health insurance. It turns out that Daschle, although not a registered lobbyist, made $5 million over the last four years working, essentially, as a lobbyist in Washington. I'd be happy to lose a Senate election for that kind of consolation prize. That plum job and his and other nominees' tax troubles bolster the impression that high government officials live in a different world.

After beginning his administration in admirable fashion, Obama now must backpedal to regain the high road and reassure voters that all Americans are not only created equal but are treated equal by tax laws and lobbying rules.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obama's fashion influence draws national attention

A few months ago, I suggested that Barack Obama's success could bring about a welcome change in the fashions of African-American boys and young men. Instead of the "gangsta" style, the droopy pants, the oversized T-shirts and hoodies, the gold chains and all the rest popularized by rap singers, young black men might start emulating Obama's sophisticated, Ivy League style. At least one reader accused me of racism for this suggestion.
But on Monday, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" addressed the issue, interviewing Marjorie Valbrun, author of "The New Black Manhood," about the Obama influence she has seen among young blacks, especially boys. Their sense of pride and admiration over the election of this charismatic new president has given them a new role model, one who dresses in traditional suits, wears his hair neatly cropped and exults over his love for his wife and children.
I'm glad to see this issue getting the attention it does. Presidents do influence fashions. President Kennedy's dislike of hats ended the era of hats being a required part of a man's wardrobe. Ronald Reagan's outdoorsy, Western style also influenced fashions. Jimmy Carter's populist, down-home style brought plaid flannel out of the closet. It seems likely that Obama, widely and enthusiastically admired in the black community, will influence fashions, in part because his sophisticated look is such a contrast to the hip-hop/rapper look.
He might also influence another area. Has anybody heard much about ebonics lately? Ebonics advocates claimed that the dialect heard in black urban areas was a separate language that should be recognized as such. Some proposed bilingual education for urban black children, teaching them in ebonics instead of standard English. Obama, whose rhetorical skills helped him win the presidency, is about as far removed from ebonics as anyone can be. He disproves the contention of some ebonics advocates that people of African ancestry (and his family ties to Africa are closer than most American blacks') don't deal well with European languages such as English.
We're not going to see urban street corners suddenly populated by well-groomed young black men in business suits speaking in rhetorical flourishes. A role model's influence is more subtle. If Obama's presidency succeeds, we are likely to see a gradual shift in attitudes as young people embrace this new kind of black hero.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Bowl's final minutes worth waiting for

Last night's Super Bowl lived up to its billing. The last four minutes or so were super football performances. Arizona's last touchdown drive and Pittsburgh's final winning drive were both things of beauty, turning what had been a lopsided first half into an exciting ending.
This was a Super Bowl in which I had no real favorite. My favored teams had fallen earlier in the playoffs, but I was still happy for Pittsburgh and Arizona. I had been a Steelers fan during their glory years of Chuck Knoll, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mean Joe Greene and all the rest. But I also like to pull for the underdog, and the Arizona Cardinals certainly fit that description. Kurt Warner proved again that he's one of the top quarterbacks of the last two decades. Even with different teams and different talent levels, even with being benched in favor of a younger, glitzier quarterback, he quarterbacks as if he were prenatally designed for the job. The awarding of the Walter Payton trophy, the NFL's humanitarian award, to Warner before the game started was especially touching. Warner had been ignored by the NFL, turned into a league MVP and won a Super Bowl, then benched and overlooked again before coming back this season at an age when others would have been retired. Through it all, his character has been unchanging.
So I was sort of pulling for the Cardinals, and mostly for Warner. I was glad to see him put together that last touchdown drive. But the Steelers deserved to win. That final drive and that final TD pass will be talked about for years.
Now the NFL season is over. I'll miss the excitement over the next seven months, and I'll especially miss it after college basketball closes its season around the first of April. But like the fresh fall air and the spectacular autumn colors, football will return again. Baseball has its adherents and college basketball can be exciting, but, for me, American football, with its varied strategies as complex as chess and war and its combination of graceful moves and brute force is the ultimate distraction.

More dentists won't solve financial problem

Another report on the scarcity of dentists in rural areas of North Carolina will feed the arguments of proponents of a new dental school and expanding the state's one dental school. It shouldn't.

Yes, some residents of North Carolina have a difficult time finding dental care. There are two reasons: Either the care is too expensive or there is no dentist within close proximity. Four counties have no dental practices.

But the answer to this problem is not "Crank out more dentists." The answer is to develop programs to attract more dentists to rural communities and make it financially feasible for them to practice there. Simply increasing the number of dental graduates in North Carolina will not help rural communities. Dentists will flock to areas where they can make a decent living -- places like Charlotte, Raleigh or the Triad. Rural counties, where few people have dental insurance through their employers and where many residents rely on Medicaid reimbursements for dental care, will continue to be underserved. Many rural counties are also poor counties. Large numbers of their residents rely on Medicaid for medical and dental care. But Medicaid's reimbursements to dentists, as the new study points out, is far below the usual and customary charge, Most dentists say they cannot afford to provide care at a price below their cost of keeping the office open, so they refuse Medicaid patients.

Rather than just increasing the number of dental school graduates, North Carolina should concentrate on subsidy programs for dentists who are willing to practice in rural, underserved areas. These subsidies would help dentists pay off their graduate school debt, which the new study points out often exceeds $100,000. Setting up a dental office with all the requisite equipment costs several times that amount. No sane dentist is going to invest that kind of money in a town where he can't meet his debt payments.

Rather than investing millions of dollars in a new dental school at Greenville and an expansion of the school at Chapel Hill, the state could put that money into subsidies that would make dental practices in high-poverty rural areas financially feasible. In fact, the state could save a lot of money and have a far greater impact on rural dental care. The second action the state could take would be to increase Medicaid's reimbursement level for dental care. That would make more dentists willing to accept Medicaid patients and would make dental practices in rural communities more financially viable.

As the state seeks ways to save money to plug a $2 billion budget shortfall, dental school expansions are one practical and fiscally prudent means of cutting spending without hurting services. If the state would put a portion of the planned capital investments for dental schools into a well-planned rural dental subsidy program and an increase in Medicaid reimbursements, the state would save money and improve dental care.