Friday, May 29, 2009

State House approves riskier investments

The state House has approved legislation allowing the newly elected state treasurer, Janet Cowell, to diversify state retirement system investments. Less than a year after the collapse of the international financial market, North Carolina's pension funds might be invested in now-infamous mortgage-backed securities, which helped get us all into this mess. Cowell says she needs this option to maintain the fund's 7.25 percent growth rate needed for keeping the retirement system solvent. Because of declining interest rates related to the current recession, the fund is now earning around 6.9 percent. If that rate continues for five years, the retirement fund will have a $1.3 billion deficit, which will have to be made up, presumably, by taxpayers.
Thursday's House vote, which must be affirmed by the Senate, would allow Cowell to invest another 10 percent of the state's $56 billion retirement fund in riskier investments, such as timberland and mortgage-backed securities. Current law limits such risky investments to just 5 percent of the fund. She says the retirement fund is at stake, and it certainly is.
Cowell's request, and the House's approval, it seems to me, takes a short-sighted look at long-term state investments. The state's investments have done extremely well over the years, exceeding most other state retirement funds and certainly exceeding most people's IRAs and 401(k)s. But the fund lost money in 2008 as stock prices plummeted. Rather than "riding it out," as most investment advisers tell clients to do when the stock market falls, Cowell wants to leap into riskier investments that, potentially, could fall faster than stocks. They also could rise faster, but that's the nature of riskier investments.
I'm no investment expert (as my pitiful 401(k) will tell you), but it seems to me that it would be wise for the state to "ride it out" a little longer before panicking and grabbing for riskier returns. While a 7.2 percent average return is needed to sustain the retirement fund, that's an average return, not an annual mandate. Recent predictions say the recession might end by the end of this year. If so, everyone's investments will look better; if not, there still will be time to get into riskier investments.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Apple gets state deal; Wilson is ready

The General Assembly has approved some tax breaks that are intended to lure Apple Computer to North Carolina. The legendary creator of iPods, iPhones and iMacs plans to build a server facility, presumably the service its iTunes store and other services. Two weeks earlier, Wilson City Council met in closed session to discuss a potential industrial client. Council took no action on the matter.
Coincidence? Maybe. After all, Wilson County has several available industrial sites that could catch the attention of a new industry. These closed-door meetings are not all that rare, and most of them never result in anything.
Still ... Wilson has what a company like Apple wants: a super-high-speed, state-of-the-art fiber optic network that would be ideal for a server farm such as the one Apple wants to build somewhere in North Carolina, or perhaps in another Southeastern state. Apple's server farm is just the sort of high-tech industrial client the city of Wilson had hoped to attract with its gamble on a $28 million fiber-to-the-home network. Apple needs a "big pipe" to send its iTunes songs, television shows and movies to customers. Wilson's 100 MB upload/download speeds provide that big pipe, and it's already in place.
I have no idea whether there is a connection between the state's provision for tax advantages for Apple and Wilson's fiber network, but it would make sense for Apple to look at what Wilson has to offer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where are you people?

I've had just one comment in more than a week. Is anybody out there?

Sotomayor's confirmation appears likely

President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court should come as no surprise to anyone. It seemed obvious that Obama would select a woman and a minority. With Sotomayor, he gets both the gender and ethnic bonus. By all accounts, Sotomayor is well qualified and highly competent (summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law Review). Her confirmation seems assured, but the highly politicized Supreme Court confirmation battles of the past 20 years leave no room for certainties.
Sotomayor is a liberal, but what would you expect? Liberal presidents nominate liberal judges; conservative presidents nominate conservative judges (though some nominees turn out to be less than what their sponsors had imagined). Get over it. If you want one of your own on the court, elect a president who will nominate them. Political leanings, or ideological disagreement, are a poor reason to oppose a nominee, but President Obama had no other reason to vote against Chief Justice John Roberts or Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Some Republicans opposed Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on purely ideological grounds, and some will oppose Sotomayor on the same grounds.
Sotomayor will get some justifiable scrutiny over her ruling in the racial discrimination lawsuit brought by New Haven, Conn., firefighters. Her unsigned opinion failed to address the fundamental constitutional issues in the case. She ruled that New Haven could throw out the results of a carefully prepared, assiduously unbiased written test for promotion because minority applicants failed to earn promotion, but she offered no rationale or constitutional basis for her ruling. Racial preference was the only explanation for the city's action; is that constitutional? The case is now before the Supreme Court, which seems skeptical of the city's actions.
Sotomayor will also be questioned about some impolitic comments she has made. In one instance, she told a judicial conference at Duke University that appeals courts are "where policy is made." The interesting thing about the inflammatory but essentially truthful statement is that she was so inarticulate in stating it. Look at this video:

Sotomayor also said that a Latina woman could make a better judicial decision than a white male. The implication seems to be that the Constitution, far from being colorblind, means different things to different people, depending on their ethnicity and gender. That assertion is a recipe for dissolution of the union.
Despite these gaffes, Sotomayor will almost certainly be confirmed, unless an Anita Hill-type of skeleton falls out of the closet. One interesting omission I've seen in every news article and bio I've seen on Sotomayor: There's no mention of marriage. I assume she's never been married, given the omission, but the failure to say so, or to explain her personal life, seems to be a serious oversight.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Getting home is even better than getting away

After a week away, it's good to be home, where you know where the glasses and the plates are, where a spare hour can lead to some real accomplishment — a washed and waxed car, a mown lawn or a vacuumed house. It's good to be where you belong, where you fit in. It's good to escape at times, but it's even better to return to reality.
My wife's family gathered for a week at the beach last week, and I managed to join them for most of that time, enjoying that mystic place where ocean and land meet and battle for space. My exercise for the week consisted of nothing more strenuous than long walks on the beach. Too windy and cold most of the week, the chill kept us out of the water and huddled in sweatshirts and jeans  on the porch overlooking the renourished beach's high dunes. Internet access and daily newspapers available a block away kept us connected to the outside world.
In years past — our beach trips with my wife's sister's family go back 32 years — these vacations have been more isolated. No cell phones. No Internet. Often no television or news radio. We walked and sat on the beach by day and played bridge or Trivial Pursuit by night. And we read. Everyone had a book or two or three to occupy quiet afternoons.
Some things have not changed. Last week I read one book and half of another (one fiction, one nonfiction). We walked and sat on the porch or the beach. We even played one round of Trivial Pursuit (new edition). Golf or fishing enticed some; I submitted another job application. But the biggest chore of decades ago, getting little children to bed, has been changed to the difficulty of coordinating the comings and goings of dispersed children and grandchildren, ensuring the safety and enjoyment of my wife's dad and stepmother, who have been ailing and for whom this trip was designed, and keeping everyone's diverging tastes (in food, activities and sound) compatible. My sister-in-law counted 27 family members present for some part of the week, but I lost count.
It was a successful trip, by all accounts, but I am glad, nonetheless, to be home.

Monday, May 25, 2009

This is the day to remember the dead

Today is Memorial Day, and many workers and students have the day off. Few, however, will pause to remember the true reason for the day, which began shortly after the Civil War as Decoration Day, an annual remembrance at which graves of fallen soldiers were decorated by their survivors or descendants. The day evolved into Memorial Day, a date to remember all of America's war dead.
It also evolved into the "official" beginning of the summer tourist season. At a North Carolina beach last weekend, the number of people and the amount of traffic leaped dramatically on Friday. The price of rentals also leaped as this beginning-of-summer holiday approached.
There has been a temptation to focus on World War II casualties and veterans on Memorial Day. This "Greatest Generation," the title of Tom Brokaw's book, forms the foundation of veterans organizations across the country, partly because there were so many of them and partly because they were of a generation that naturally gravitated toward fraternal organizations.
But Memorial Day is not about World War II; it is about all of America's wars, including the current ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is not about veterans; they have their day on Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Some media encourage this misconception, as the Wilson Times did recently in a series of vignettes about World War II veterans, all of whom survived the war. (Call it "round up the usual suspects" journalism.) This day is not a memorial to them; it is not the day to honor them. It is the day to remember their comrades, and all the comrades of all the veterans of all of America's wars — the ones who did not come back to join the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars or to salute the flag at local Memorial Day observances across the country. This is the day for remembering those who gave, as Lincoln said, "the last full measure of devotion" to their country.
Today, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and other members of a congressional delegation, will stand at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, and remember Americans who gave their lives. He will be surrounded by those who did not return, those we honor today. Sunday afternoon, the public radio program "Bob Edwards Weekend" replayed interviews with military surgeons and medical personnel from Vietnam as the program celebrated Memorial Day. Despite the heroic efforts of military surgeons at tent hospitals (think of "M*A*S*H") many of the patients died. The war dead of other wars often get slighted in America's adoration of World War II casualties and survivors; World War II was the last war that found Americans truly united in the war effort, and it was a war that involved nearly every American family in some way. But today also honors the war dead of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those earlier wars — World War I, the Spanish-American War and all the rest.
Today, I will remember the uncle I never met, my father's youngest brother. He was 19 years old and had left a pregnant wife back at the mill village where he grew up. A sniper ended his life Sept. 22, 1944, in southern France in a town that was supposed to have been secured. He was hastily buried there, and after the war his body was shipped home for reburial. His mother, my grandmother, could not put him in the grave without opening the casket for one last look at her baby, dead then more than a year. It was a decision she regretted the rest of her life.
Uncle Glyn's death was also, as Lincoln told a mother two generations earlier, "so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." Today we honor all those sacrifices too terrible for words.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

New realizations about unemployment

Count another side effect of extended joblessness: realizations. Charles de Gaulle famously said that "cemeteries are full of indispensable men." In this market, everyone is dispensable. A job market that makes applications as futile as lottery tickets also forces job seekers to face reality. The reality is that this situation could drag on forever. Employers can afford to be especially picky. They can require all sorts of credentials, education and certification that, during better employment, could be picked up on the job. Being able to do the job is not as important as ideally fitting the description of the desired candidate.

And it's not just the job market. Friends and acquaintances will assure you that you won't have any trouble finding work, but those assurances fade after a few frustrating and futile months.

Eventually, you begin to question all your assumptions as they bump into hard-earned realizations. The assumptions that all those hours, all those nights, even an extra job that you worked, were worth it to provide for your family no longer seems safe. The assumption that your children would forgive a demanding work schedule and not interpret it as lack of involvement in their upbringing seems less certain. Skills and capabilities earned over a lifetime are worthless if they can't bring you employment. The confidence that love would be sufficient to sustain you founders like all of the confidence you once had. Your role as a "good provider" collapses when you're laid off. And then what are you? A dependent, the same role you had as an infant? It is at least a job for which you qualify.

That's the ugly reality of an unemployment rate in excess of 10 percent. Millions of people are facing an ugly reality.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

California voters say no, no, no, no

California voters said no to a series of ballot propositions that would have helped bail the state out of what is probably the worst budget mess in the country, with the possible exception of the federal government's. Tuesday's vote leaves California officials with no easy way out of their budget crisis. The state that has exemplified a carefree lifestyle will have to face a fundamental fiscal reality: You can't spend more than you make year after year and never expect to pay the price.

States across the country are having budget problems this year (North Carolina is certainly among them), but California, because of its years of borrowing for operational experiences and excesses of irresponsible spending, is in a special category. California is facing a $21 billion deficit -- yes, billion! -- a deficit that approximates North Carolina's entire budget. But the state's voters were unimpressed. They voted down all but one measure (barring public officials' pay increases during a deficit year) aimed at whittling away at the deficit. Voters were determined to make elected officials face reality and begin the hard task of balancing expenditures to revenues.

North Carolina has a constitutional mandate to balance the budget, which means the state cannot borrow to meet operational expenses. But Tar Heel legislators have not been entirely responsible. They increased spending by double-digit percentages for years in a row while the state's economy was booming. Now that North Carolina is in even worse shape than the nation as a whole (at least as measured by unemployment), officials are trying to make huge cuts in the state's spending. But in a scenario reminiscent of California, the state employees' and teachers' unions are protesting a half-percent cut in annual salaries -- a temporary furlough meant to avoid layoffs of state personnel. Elected officials have also avoided the kind of sharp cuts that will probably be necessary (and prudent) for the state's long-term economic health. Antiquated or redundant programs are not being eliminated. The state has two separate and costly preschool programs -- Smart Start and More at Four -- with no plans to combine them or even merge budgeting. The state's costly roads system remains a political swamp, where political interests trump transportation needs.

It's been said that California in the country's experimental laboratory, and programs that begin in California slowly roll eastward from the Left Coast. If that's true, all states could wind up with the financial crisis and political stalemate California is facing now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

For older workers, unemployment is harder

I ran across an acquaintance last week and discovered we had something in common: Each of us had been "let go" by our employers less than a decade before our anticipated retirements. And we certainly are not alone. In this current recession, millions of the unemployed are workers past middle age, laid off at a time when their thoughts and their aims were turning toward saving toward and budgeting for retirement. Now, instead, we are beating the bushes for companies willing to hire people of a certain age.
I've talked to a number of unemployed friends and acquaintances. Each has had stories to tell about being ignored or dismissed when his age became apparent to potential employers. One friend advised me to remove all references to age or dates from my resume. He had done that and had managed to get his foot in the door for interviews. But he also was convinced that at least once, one look at his gray hair changed him from a potential hire into a failed applicant. Thus far, I have kept dates in my resume because I think my years of experience are valuable, but it is beginning to appear that, to many potential employers, experience is a detriment.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 makes arbitrary job discrimination based on age illegal, but don't think the law eliminates age discrimination. I've been told that these lawsuits often drag on for years, even decades and can consume a plaintiff's life. And it is up to the plaintiff to prove discrimination, usually not an easy thing. Of all the people I know who've thought they were discriminated against because of their age, who were laid off or had their position eliminated while younger, less experienced employees in similar jobs were kept on or who were fired and replaced by a younger worker, only one actually filed suit against his former employer. In that case, he won a confidential out-of-court settlement that he couldn't tell me about except to say that he was satisfied with it.
Whether victims of discrimination or victims of economic changes, older workers face serious difficulties. Many have burdensome mortgages or children in college. Some are caring for both children and parents. Younger workers tend to be more resilient and more mobile, with fewer roots in a particular community, making them available for more jobs. The older, well-planted unemployed have a different perspective. As my jobless acquaintance told me last week, it's difficult fighting the frustration and genuine depression that comes when, after a lifetime of self-sufficiency, dedication and proven value, you find that no employer wants to hire you and few will even offer you an interview, regardless of your skills and abilities.

Burr is not as easy a target as Democrats think

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper will not run against Sen. Richard Burr next year, leaving Democrats without a high-profile candidate to complete the sweep of prime state elective offices. Cooper made the announcement last week, disappointing Democrats, including (apparently) President Obama. Former Gov. Mike Easley, who is under investigation by state and federal authorities, is not likely to recover in time to challenge Burr, if he wanted to.

The assumption among Democrats is that Burr is highly vulnerable. Knocking off Burr could ensure Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and Burr's approval ratings are lower than Elizabeth Dole's were at this stage of the campaign. But Burr is a deceptive and easily underestimated politician. Few people gave him much chance in 2004 against the better-known Erskine Bowles, but he won handily.

Burr is unusual among politicians in that he is incredibly unassuming. Most politicians travel with an entourage of handlers and hangers-on. I met Burr in 2004 when he was traveling alone from town to town, driving his own aging personal car and chatting with reporters and editors in an unassuming and modest way. He was well-versed on issues without being confrontational or doctrinaire. Since his election to the Senate, Burr has followed the same strategy. He spends congressional recesses traveling the state (unlike Elizabeth Dole, who seldom worked the state during her six years in office) and meeting with the small groups that he is so comfortable with and that invariably find him so appealing and impressive.

Given that methodology, it is surprising that Burr's name recognition and approval ratings are so low. Some would claim that Burr's retail politicking is an anachronism in an age of wholesale political strategies -- television commercials, direct mail and digital networking. If the Democrats can come up with a viable candidate, 2010 could be a showdown between Burr's old-style, personal and county courthouse campaigning and the wholesale campaigning used by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which early on tarred Dole as an aging, disconnected, out-of-touch and aristocratic politician.

But Democrats would be mistaken to underestimate Burr. He will not go down as easily as Dole.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Two theater patrons upstage Zelda

The Theater of the American South's Friday night opening was a one-woman show, but two women were in the spotlight before the curtain rose. Before Betsy Henderson portrayed neurotic, aging Zelda Fitzgerald on stage, Edna Earle Boykin and Carol Blake Baldwin accepted the ovations of the crowd who gathered for a reception celebrating the reopening of the Edna Boykin Cultural Center, formerly known as the Wilson Theatre.
Arts Council director Barry Page, in a voice that required no amplification, reviewed for the crowd the history of the place where they had gathered and the contributions of the two women in turning the Boykin Center into the showplace it has become. The city-owned theater had recently undergone nearly $100,000 in structural repairs. Page also cited the contributions of local attorney Woody Harrison, who led a small group that kept the theater's dream alive at a time when few people thought its transformation was possible. Donors provided food and drinks for the reception for everyone attending the Friday night production.
Boykin, a retired school principal (and once Page's boss), spearheaded city efforts to preserve and renovate the theater. She recalled the public opposition to the project as a costly boondoggle that would never succeed. As a member of City Council, Boykin got out in front of public opinion and pushed the vision for renovation of the theater, which had recently been an X-rated movie house. Boykin also made the largest private donation to the theater renovation, earning her name a place on the marquee.
Carol Blake, who has since left Wilson, kept the theater project alive in those early years as a part-time director and preservationist. She finagled volunteers and community service workers to stabilize the theater and begin its renovation, even when it had no effective heating or air conditioning, its seats were a wreck and its ornate plaster was falling. Blake and Harrison fought off the naysayers who wanted the 1919 theater sold or bulldozed.
After the recognitions and Boykin's witty comments, it was time for "The Last Flapper." Henderson faced the unenviable task of spending two hours alone on stage, reciting nonstop dialogue as Zelda's schizophrenic mind relives various key events in her life. Henderson made William Luce's script, confined to a psychiatrist's  office at Highland Hospital in Asheville, plausible. The play moves slowly at first as Henderson's extended soliloquy is interjected by announcements over the hospital's public address system. The pace picks up halfway through the first act when Zelda begins recalling and reliving her sometimes-rocky relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henderson carries Zelda's perspective through the volatile second act.
Watching Henderson's monumental challenge of recreating the nonstop thoughts of a deranged woman for two hours, I began to wonder why playwrights have so taken to one-person shows. We've gone from a minute or two of Shakespearean soliloquy (Hamlet's "To be or not to be ..." or Lady MacBeth's "Out, out, damned spot ...") to two full hours of monologue, which has to challenge even the most skilled actors and the most effective and efficient memories. Last year at Theater of the American South, Quinn Hawkesworth did an amazing job in spending two hours on stage in Lee Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies" (she had been Allan Gurganus' "Oldest Living Confederate Widow" the year before). The only thing that makes Hawkesworth's achievement overshadow Henderson's this year is that Hawkesworth also had a major role in the theater festival's other production last year, "Steel Magnolias," which ran in repertory. That anyone can remember that many lines and deliver them flawlessly,  as both Hawkesworth and Henderson did, absolutely amazes me.
The one-person show trend seems to have started, at least in my memory, 30 or so years ago with Hal Holbrooke's highly successful "Mark Twain Tonight." Other historical figures, including Harry Truman, have been portrayed in one-person shows, and playwrights seem to like the genre. But these scripts have to be a challenge for actors, and the audience is subjected to a performance that is, in essence, a two-hour lecture, no matter how well performed. I'll confess to having to fight to keep from nodding off deep into these one-person shows, and I've noted many others making the same struggle.
Shakespeare knew that good theater was about action, and that requires more than one character on the stage, so he kept his soliloquies mercifully brief. And that was long before our attention spans were decimated by news briefs, texting, Twitter and sound bites.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Volunteers make nonprofits work

In addition to searching listings of job vacancies and doing household chores, I've been keeping busy with a variety of volunteer work. Holding down a full-time job makes volunteering more difficult, and I salute all who give their time, despite the lack of free time, to make nonprofit agencies work.
This week has been particularly busy for me. I attended two meetings on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and another on Thursday. Last year, I resigned from one board because its meeting time conflicted with the meetings of another board. I had to choose between the two. The tasks associated with serving on a volunteer board are not terribly time consuming. One IRS form I was reading recently cited the hours per week of the volunteer chairman and the volunteer treasurer as two hours per week. Other board members with less time-consuming tasks spend even less time in pro bono work. But volunteers are essential. Events such as Special Olympics, Relay for Life or the Memorial Day celebration simply wouldn't happen without volunteers. A recent study put the value of each volunteer hour at $20.25. Multiply that by the millions of volunteers in this country, and you'll find an economic impact in the billions of dollars. Volunteers, as any nonprofit director will tell you, are invaluable.
But, as Ambrose Bierce reminded us, "no good deed goes unpunished." This post will likely get a comment from an anonymous critic who'll complain that the same "aristocrats" who run local businesses also run the local nonprofits. There is some truth to that. A handful of people (though I wouldn't call them aristocrats) serve on several volunteer boards. It's not because they have nothing else to do. It's because they're willing to do it, and they're capable. They show up for meetings. They do what needs to be done to solicit contributions, to set up tables at fund-raisers, to balance the bank account for an agency, to cheer on a Special Olympics athlete, to make difficult decisions about budgets and services. They give of their time. They take time away from work or family to do things that need to be done. Their reward might be a certificate or a plaque at the end of their term. Few of those mementos end up on office walls. Most go into a drawer somewhere because to post them on the wall would be presumptuous. Besides, that's not why you volunteer.
If the same names tend to appear on a number of boards, it's because those people are willing to do the work that needs to be done. A number of these are retirees, who, freed from daily work, have more time to devote to volunteer activities. Many retirees tell me they've never been so busy. Each year, boards struggle to find new people willing to fill positions being vacated on the board. Many names might be offered, but few are willing to attend the meetings and contribute to the agency's goals. Most people are just too busy, or they think they are because volunteering is not high enough on their priority list.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tobacco's nemesis sets sights on sugar, fat, salt

Several years ago, when Congress and the courts were cracking down on cigarette smoking, some defenders of tobacco warned that food would be the next battleground over behavior. They were dismissed with a chuckle.
They might have been right. Dr. David Kessler, who as FDA commissioner led the Clinton administration's fight against tobacco, has a new book and a new whipping boy: fatty, sweet food. Kessler was on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show" Wednesday and also was featured on NPR's "All Thing Considered" last week. Kessler claims America's epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes is the result of deliberate, coercive and clandestine collusion by the food and advertising industries. In his radio interview Wednesday, Kessler portrayed American consumers as helpless and hopeless victims of this conspiracy to addict them to sugar, fat and salt. He compared the brain's reaction to sugar, salt and fat to its reaction to heroin or nicotine. Consumers are conditioned to eat unhealthy foods so that the big food companies, fast-food joints and expensive restaurants can make more money off of them as they addictively return for their sugary soft drinks, their fat-dripping bacon double cheeseburger and their fat-marbled steaks.
Stimulated by the release of the brain's pleasure chemicals and manipulated by devious advertising showing healthy, happy people having fun over their sweet, fatty food and drinks, consumers are unable to resist, Kessler claims. Consumers are not responsible for their own actions. They can't resist that chocolate-covered pretzel or that 24-ounce sugary drink. They are putty in the hands of Madison Avenue and the sugar lobby. The conspiratorial industries, not consumers, are responsible for America's health problems.
If this sounds familiar, it is the argument made in lawsuits against the tobacco industry: Its sly advertising and addictive nicotine left consumers no choice but to become two-pack-a-day smokers. Personal responsibility and self-discipline, whether talking about tobacco or obesity, are not part of the equation, in Kessler's view.
Kessler is getting a lot of attention with his book despite his difficult-to-swallow leap that sugar is heroin and fat is nicotine. His theory feeds on another addiction common in modern American society: the idea that individual responsibility is not a factor in life. If you can't stop smoking, it's not your fault; blame the tobacco industry. If you can't stop eating and gaining weight, food processors, restaurants and supermarkets must be conspiring against you. If you make bad grades in school, it's not because you failed to study or work hard; it must be because the teachers don't like you or the textbooks are culturally biased. If you're not rich but other people are, it couldn't be because they worked harder, had more talent or hit the market at an opportune time; the cards must have been stacked against you.
Personal responsibility: American society is against it, and Kessler's new book feeds the culture of denial.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Call the police, and check out their statistics

Call the police. That's the advice that Wilson Police Chief Harry Tyson and other officers provided Tuesday during a meeting with volunteers from Preservation of Wilson. If you see suspicious activity, call it in. Don't hesitate. Although it might seem unimportant or inconsequential, that tidbit could give investigators the lead they need to solve or prevent serious crimes.
Preservation officials had asked for a meeting with the police to discuss the erroneous perception that the downtown historic areas have high crime rates. Not so, police said, pointing to crime maps and statistics pinned to the meeting room walls. A list of criminal problem areas did not include any of the historic areas Preservation is involved in. You can check it out yourself at the city's Web site, where crime statistics are searchable by address. Click on the Police2Citizen link and you'll get a new screen with crime data, including the actual incident reports. The data are available thanks to the department's new OSSI law enforcement software. You can also request a daily bulletin of all crime reports for that day. (A few sensitive ongoing investigations and sex crimes are withheld from public view. It's a pretty amazing development, considering the difficulty in the old days of going to the police station and copying crime or accident reports.
The point, for Preservation officials, is that Wilson's crime rate is relatively low, and little of the crime that does occur happens in the historic areas where Preservation is focusing its efforts. Downtown is one of the lowest-crime areas of the city. Homeownership is one key. Neighborhood involvement is another. More transient, mostly rental areas, even in new developments, are more likely to have crime problems. Homeowners, who have a financial stake in the neighborhood and who expect to be around for the long term, are more likely to take an interest in what's going on around them. They're more likely to call in suspicious activities, and that helps police solve and prevent crimes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One last trial over Nazi war crimes

I don't know whether 89-year-old John Demjanjuk was a Nazi concentration camp guard 65 years ago. But I seriously doubt that the international prosecutors who are revoking Demjanjuk's American citizenship and shipping him to Germany to stand trial for accessory to 29,000 murders know either. I have no problem with the prosecution of former Nazis who were participants in what might have been the worst mass murders in history (the exterminations engineered by Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong are also in the running for this honor). Adolf Eichmann, who was executed by Israel in 1962, and other Nazi "final solution" architects were clearly criminals and deserving of the death penalty.
But the Demjanjuk prosecution is troubling both because of the age of the alleged crimes — he will be facing trial for crimes that occurred 65 years ago — and because of the fluidity of the charges against him. Can anyone unequivocally identify someone from 65 years ago and describe with legal certainty events of that long ago? When Demjanjuk was acquitted of being one notorious Nazi guard, prosecutors switched accusations and said, oh, if he wasn't that guard, then he must have been this other Nazi guard. That's where the prosecution stands now.
The Demjanjuk case goes back to 1977, when the former auto worker and World War II refugee was initially accused of being a Nazi death camp guard. Demjanjuk denied being "Ivan the Terrible," but some Holocaust survivors, more than 40 years after their confrontation with "Ivan," identified Demjanjuk as the Treblinka death camp guard. Demjanjuk had his citizenship revoked and was convicted in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the Israeli Supreme Court, using newly released KGB files that identified another man as Ivan the Terrible, overturned the conviction and sent Demjanjuk back to Cleveland.
But prosecutors, seeing this as the last opportunity to charge someone with Holocaust crimes, filed new charges against Demjanjuk, identifying him as a Sobibor camp guard, not the Treblinka camp guard he had initially been accused and convicted of being. Demjanjuk was removed from his home by ambulance Monday and was being flown to Munich today. He will stand trial in Germany for a horrible crime. He will have to defend himself, if he is physically and mentally able, against evidence and memories that are 65 years old. Prosecutors, who have been stalking Demjanjuk for 32 years, hope to win a final conviction before the old man dies.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Obama isn't afraid to joke about himself

President Obama spoke to the White House Correspondents dinner Saturday night, an occasion that did not generate a lot of news or warrant widespread coverage. But I heard a mention of Obama's positive words about the newspaper industry and went looking for the speech. I found a news story about the speech and a C-SPAN video of the entire speech.
What impressed me about the speech was not the president's reference toward the end of the speech about the importance of a free and vibrant press in a working democracy. It was Obama's ease in delivering comic one-liners and self-deprecating humor. During the course of the speech, Obama made fun of:
• His use of Teleprompters (he announced he would be speaking off the cuff and from the heart, then Teleprompter screens rose noisily in front of the lectern);
• His alleged preferential treatment by political reporters ("Many of you covered me and all of you voted for me");
• The snafu over use of Air Force One in a photo shoot over New York City, terrorizing workers and incensing the mayor (Obama said his daughters had been grounded for taking Air Force One to New York without permission);
• Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel's reputation for foul language (Obama said Mother's Day is a tough holiday for Emmanuel because he's not accustomed to saying "day" after "mother").
This humor, which likely was more the product of White House writers than of the president himself, will not threaten the careers of Jay Leno or David Letterman, but it does say some things about the president. He is not afraid to make fun of himself. Most of the humor Saturday night was self-deprecating, and a willingness to laugh at oneself is an indicator of good mental health and confidence.
Other presidents, including George W. Bush, have delivered funny speeches at the annual correspondents' dinner, but few have matched Obama's number of jokes or his smooth delivery.
Obama seems more comfortable in the give-and-take with the press than his recent predecessors. I watched part of his 100-day news conference a couple of weeks ago and thought he seemed at ease with what can be an ordeal (just ask Richard Nixon). George W. Bush never seemed comfortable speaking off the cuff or matching wits with questioners. Bill Clinton was so in love with his own erudition that his responses would go on forever, or until everyone fell asleep. George H.W. Bush, like his son, never seemed very comfortable with extemporaneous comments before a large audience. Ronald Reagan was terrific with a script but sometimes wandered off into controversy when speaking off the cuff. Jimmy Carter's folksy style and attention to minute detail never played that well. Richard Nixon's hatred of the press came through at every news conference, and Lyndon Johnson's strength at manipulating legislation never worked with the press. Of all the presidents in my memory, John F. Kennedy seemed the most comfortable with press conferences. He was knowledgeable and funny, always willing to deliver a quip about himself.
Obama has not matched Kennedy's quick retorts but he seems comfortable making fun of himself and letting humor carry a serious message occasionally. Americans like a president who is not too full of himself and who is willing to risk cracking a joke occasionally. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Newspaper has the goods on governor's travels

On Saturday and today, the News & Observer raised serious questions about former Gov. Mike Easley's governance, ethics and compliance with campaign reporting law. Part of the dark shadows had been illuminated already in earlier N&O reports about Easley's free use of vehicles from dealerships, his and his wife's taxpayer-paid excursions to Europe and his wife's exceptional hiring and promotion at N.C. State University.
Saturday's story revolves around Easley's use of aircraft owned by political supporters in apparent violation of campaign reporting laws and of common ethics. Interestingly, N&O reporters had pursued this story earlier, when Easley was in office, but they were stymied by his administration's ruling that release of travel logs would jeopardize the governor's security, even long after the trips were completed. Gov. Bev Perdue, to her credit, found no justification for withholding the information and released Easley's travel records.
It's hard not to think Easley had plenty to hide. The N&O uncovered a history of special treatment for the governor from owners of private and corporate aircraft. It also exposes the long-rumored accusation that Easley spent most weekends in Southport, where he owns a home. A sidebar story revealed that the state spent $72,000 on rent for a house in Southport for Easley's security detail. He was there so often, the house had to be rented full-time, and troopers racked up additional costs as a result. Check this story for one of the more revealing quotes, from Easley. Reporters at an April 10, 2008, press conference asked the governor if it were true that he was spending every weekend at Southport. "I don't get to Southport nearly as much as you made it appear that I do," Easley said. "I do try to go down at least every other weekend, at least for Friday and Saturday night. ... I just want to disabuse you of the notion that I go to Southport every weekend." But the N&O now has records showing he was at Southport for six consecutive weekends prior to his making those comments.
Today's story is about the special relationship between the Easley family and McQueen Campbell, who was appointed by Easley to the N.C. State Board of Trustees. The article implies that Campbell might have had some influence over the decision to hire Mary Easley for a plum job at State, but there is no smoking gun.
The interesting element in all of these stories is how many of the principals decline to speak to the N&O.
As you read these stories and remember the sordid history of former Speaker of the House Jim Black, former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, try to remember that North Carolina once had a reputation for clean politics. It really did.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Council gets out of nonprofit decision-making

Wilson City Council has voted to move decisions about nonprofit funding to the Wilson County United Way. It's a sensible solution — at least a partial solution — to a process born of needless guilt and embarrassment that had become a political football and a sore spot for council members. Taking the city's decisions about which nonprofits are funded out of the hands of council members and putting it in the hands of United Way officials (full disclosure: I am a member of the United Way Board of Directors) removes politics and gives the thankless job to a group more attuned to community needs and more accustomed to evaluating charitable agencies.
That said, however, council needs to go further with this change of policy. The nonprofit funding controversy grew out of council's decision in the late 1980s or early 1990s to impose a $10 fee on late payment of utility bills. The policy was a sensible business decision that any provider of services or financing (check to see what a late credit card payment costs you) would impose. But council cowered at the criticism over the new fee and agreed to give the money to local nonprofits. That set off a gold rush among nonprofits, nearly all of which were worthwhile and responsible charities. Each year council had trouble deciding which of the applicants should be funded. Some choices, such as the Arts Council and Imagination Station, were obvious. Other funded applicants failed to provide audited financial information. It was a mess.
After several convolutions, council is now ready to hand off the hot potato to United Way, which is better able to handle it. Council should make one more decision: Unlink the amount of charitable funding from the late utility payment fees. There is no logical reason why the two should be linked. The late fees are a business necessity. Nonprofit funding is a contribution to local needs the city is not otherwise addressing. Conservatives, who think charities should not receive government money, and liberals, who think government money can solve all of society's problems, will debate whether city/county/state/federal funding is appropriate, but there's no reason to tie the amount the city contributes to charity (less than half of one percent of the city budget) to utility late fees.
For its part, United Way will want to use the same standards of fiscal responsibility and transparency it applies to its allocations to member agencies in deciding who receives city money. But the city's contributions should be handled and disbursed separately from the United Way contributions from individuals and businesses. And, yes, I believe it is entirely appropriate for the city to separately fund the Arts Council of Wilson in compensation for its operation of a youth theater program once run by city recreation and for its management of the city-owned Edna Boykin Cultural Center.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Government isn't good at innovation

George Will's column today criticizes the Obama administration's taxpayer-funded control of the U.S. auto industry. The government's interest in near-collapse Chrysler and General Motors has worried many people, including Obama, who told a news conference last week that he wanted to get the government out of the auto industry.
Obama has criticized Detroit for failing to innovate, saying U.S. automakers should make hybrid vehicles as good as Japanese automakers do. But I suspect that governmental control is not the way to spur innovation. Think about it. Although American health care is the most expensive in the world and has among the least government interference, it is also the world's most innovative with leading treatment techniques and medicines.
If government had run the computer business the past 50 years, would we have desktop computers like the one I'm using to write this column? I doubt it. Don't even think about laptops or netbooks. The room-size computers that government and industry used in the 1950s to crunch their data worked just fine. Why would individuals need a computer? To store recipes? To send letters and messages to friends and family? Get real! That's what the post office and Western Union are for!
And what about the music industry? Would a government monopoly have invented iTunes? Would it even have developed the compact disc? Seems unlikely; LPs — or even 78s — served the public well enough and kept the musicians and producers happy. Digital music would seem like a waste of computing power and binary coding to most government bureaucrats. And would a government-controlled music industry have given us hip-hop or the Beatles or Elvis? Doesn't seem likely. Government disdains rebelliousness.
An infusion of federal money into U.S. automakers might be justified under today's unusual circumstances, but innovation, or the lack of it, is not a good rationale for federal management of industry.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tornadoes put news crews to the test

Tornadoes touched down too close for comfort late Tuesday afternoon. National Weather Service warnings repeatedly interrupted the NPR news I was listening to with tornadoes sighted ominously close to my home. By the time the tornado watches and thunderstorm watches were lifted late at night, central Wilson had sustained no serious damage, but the area around Sims and Rock Ridge was really pummeled by the dangerous storms.
WRAL has a slew of pictures (some of them duplicates, unfortunately) of storm damage (see above scene on Rock Ridge School Road in Wilson County) and funnel cloud sightings from eastern Wake County to Rocky Mount. It was a scary incident.
The storms gave Wilson's new morning paper a chance to show off, but, judging from the's Web site this morning, everyone was too busy bragging about the new design to remember to update the news. When I checked the Web site for tornado news this morning, I found only one local news story that had not been in the Tuesday print edition, and it had been posted on the Web site late Tuesday. A morning paper whose Web site is not updated? That's an innovation! Even though the time stamp says the page was updated this morning (8:03 a.m.), I don't see any evidence of it. Even the "tornado watch until midnight tonight" "breaking news" was still posted this morning. The photo gallery at would have been nice if the pictures had included captions (WRAL's pictures did). Without identifications, the pictures aren't worth much.
Design (or redesign) is just the packaging. You still need news to be a newspaper — or a newspaper Web site.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Automated calls are erroneous, prompt apology

Like, apparently, a lot of Wilson residents, I received an ominous automated telephone call last night. The recorded voice warned that our utility bill was past due and, if not paid immediately, could result in our power being cut off. Less than an hour later, I was at a church meeting when the church's phone rang with the same recorded warning. My wife had already confirmed that the call to our home was erroneous. She had paid the bill by bank draft and verified that the city had collected the money.
I called the city's customer service line first thing this morning and got a busy signal. I tried again a little later with the same result. I tried a third time and heard the busy signal. Lots of people must have been calling about that threatening phone call. I went to the city's Web site and found this apology. That hardly satisfied my curiosity.
I e-mailed a contact at the city and asked: How many erroneous calls went out? Did all of the thousands of utility customers get this call? What happened to cause this glitch? Do customers who received the calls have to take any action to be sure the error has been corrected? I have not received any reply. Will city officials offer any real explanation?
These expensive automated calling systems are being sold across the country, and even cash-strapped local governments are buying them. Wilson County Schools has had a system for several years, and both the city of Wilson and Wilson County have also signed on. I've received calls about neighborhood meetings, road closings and garbage pickup. But these systems can screw up. Wilson County Schools had to apologize for one set of calls that went out late at night because the calling computer was set to Pacific Time, not Eastern Time. Now the city has apologized to an unstated number of utility customers who needlessly were threatened with disconnection of their electrical power.
Maybe automated calling systems aren't so great after all. Maybe they'd be a good place to cut the budget in these difficult times.

Yes, that is a redesign, all right

Wilson newspaper readers now have their choice of two morning papers. The Wilson Times, known for 107 years as The Wilson Daily Times, switched today to a.m. delivery and touted a garishly colorful new design that management says readers will like better. We'll see.
Today's Wilson Times front page is dominated by four headlines with accompanying photos that "tease" articles that run inside the paper. The biggest headlines on the front page are not for front-page stories. They're for 3A stories. The largest photo on the front page accompanies a story on 2A. Get your hand exercise flipping back and forth between the article and the photo that should accompany it.
The blue and the orange colors (is this the Clemson football team?) leap out of the news box at readers. Much more subtle is the paper's switch to "ragged right" type instead of the traditional justified type, in which each line of type ends at the same point. This is not revolutionary. I attended a seminar in 1981 in which the Biloxi, Miss., paper touted its switch to ragged right. I think Biloxi's ragged-right type lasted only a short while.
The Times' layoff-depleted staff put extra effort into today's edition, which has an unusually high local story count. Don't expect it every day. That front-page headline about Craven County is actually locally written, though the headline writer ignored the local angle (Flu medicines arrive in Wilson) and went for the statewide angle (though no credit is given to Associated Press or wherever the comment originated).
You'd think that the decision by local physicians not to provide free physicals for public school athletes would have warranted mention on the front page, but it was relegated to 3A. This could have a huge impact on high school sports and many hundreds of local families.
World and state briefs have been repackaged, but the packaging leaves no space for important state or national news that requires more than a brief. And three-line headlines on many of the briefs detract from the package's look. As for the roundup of small, tightly cropped AP photos from around the world? Who needs them? The space could be used to serve readers' information needs better.
The Sports front gives a hint of what's in store: Ads climbing to the top of the section fronts. Until relatively recently, no self-respecting newspaper would have allowed ads on the front page. Now everybody, even the New York Times, is doing it. The initial, fairly unobtrusive ads at the bottom of the page have given way to ads climbing the page. In the name of serving the advertiser (and collecting a premium payment for placement), newspapers are shortchanging their readers' news space.
My vote for the most intriguing aspect of the Times' redesign: The folio lines (the small type at the top of the page that gives the date, page number and name of the paper) make no mention of the paper's name or of its point of origin. Instead, it says "" In my 33 years in the newspaper business, I was always told that it was important to have the newspaper's name and hometown in the folio lines so that a clipping or tear sheet could be readily identified. Also, the only mention of the city and state from which the paper originates is in the small type on page 2A in what is known as the second-class mailing permit box. It includes the paper's street address, but it also refers to the paper as The Wilson Daily Times. The N.C. Secretary of State's Office reports that the corporate name of this company is still The Wilson Daily Times, despite what you might read on the front page.
By whatever name, the Wilson paper has cast its lot with a New York Post look and a printing schedule that competes directly with a much larger and more complete (but diminished) newspaper. Readers will decide whether it works.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Obama, Souter both get what they want

Here's a win-win situation: President Obama gets to name a Supreme Court justice, and Justice David Souter gets to go home to New Hampshire and resume his monastic, rural life. Both the president and the unhappy justice win. Whether the country as a whole and jurisprudence wins depends upon whom the president selects to replace Souter.
To say that Souter has been a disappointment to conservative Republicans almost since the day President George H.W. Bush appointed him is an understatement. Republicans wanted a reliable conservative who would shift the dynamics of the court away from the active liberalism embodied by Justice William Brennan, whom Souter replaced. But Souter's conservatism seemed to be lodged in his distaste for change, whether it was the change from his rural New Hampshire lifestyle to urban Washington or change in the form of a shift in precedent. Souter's dominant judicial philosophy seemed to be stare decisis, the principle that once a court establishes a ruling it should stand and guide future decisions. Souter would have voted to uphold Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal" accommodations) had he been given the opportunity. It has also been said that he preferred the 19th century to the 21st.
Obama's replacement of Souter is unlikely to change the court's dynamics. The new justice, who will be approved by an overwhelmingly Democratic Senate, will be reliably liberal, unless Obama misjudges his nominee as badly as GHW Bush misjudged Souter. This nomination is unlikely to alter the course of the court. As important as Supreme Court nominations are (justices serve, on average, 26 years, but presidents serve no more than eight), this one looks less than seismic.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Here's why we shouldn't elect judges

If you want to see why North Carolina shouldn't be electing judges, meet District Court Judge Bill Belk. He could be the poster child for a rational campaign to make judges appointive, with the periodic opportunity to recall judges by popular vote.
I've already met Belk. He lived across the hall from me one year in a UNC dormitory. He was a "wild and crazy guy" at the time and let everyone know that he was an heir to the Belk department store fortune. In one memorable episode, Bill decided he should invite Tricia Nixon (the then-president's then-unmarried daughter) to the UNC-Duke football game. He persuaded me, who he said was a better writer than himself, to write the letter inviting Tricia to be his date for the game. I did it but worried that I might be picked up by the FBI or Secret Service. Weeks after the game, Bill received a polite reply  from Ms. Nixon's social secretary informing him that she was busy that weekend. Our paths crossed again in 1980 when I moved to Wilson to work for the newspaper, and Bill was here learning the department store business from the late Herb Jeffries at the local Belk store.
Since that time, Bill had some sort of falling out with other members of the family, left the family business and got a law degree. After a judge ruled against him in a divorce case, according to the Charlotte Observer, Belk filed to run against the judge and won, likely on the basis of his family name, which still stirs respect in Charlotte. Not only did his grandfather locate the headquarters for his stores there, but his uncle, John Belk, served admirably as mayor and has his name on a major city freeway.
Now Bill Belk faces potential discipline from the Judicial Standards Commission. (Read the judge's response to the discipline filing.) He has made accusations about the judicial system and has refused to resign from a corporate board in violation of state policy for judges. Would Bill Belk be appointed by any sane governor to decide court cases? Not a chance. But voters, who usually know nothing about judicial candidates, might vote for a familiar name and end up with a mess like this one.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Chrysler's circuitous path to bankruptcy

Chrysler is in bankruptcy but is supposed to survive as a brand, with billions of dollars in help from federal taxpayers and a deal with Fiat, the Italian carmaker. It's a sad day for the company that used to tout its engineering prowess and that once seemed to have a leg up on other U.S. automakers in the struggle against foreign competition.
Over the past 25 years, I've owned four Chrysler products, putting nearly 400,000 miles on their odometers. At the time, I bragged about the comfort and reliability of the Dodge and Plymouth K-cars and talked my parents into making a Dodge Spirit from Cox Dodge in Wilson the last car they ever bought. But one by one, as the cars approached or topped 100,000 miles, key components of the cars — water pumps and air conditioners, primarily — failed. Since the late 1990s, my wife and I have driven Nissans and Hondas and now own two aging Hondas, which are still running reliably.
Taxpayers bailed out Chrysler once before, in 1979, when Detroit's chronic misjudgment of consumers' desires and a huge spike in gasoline prices left all three U.S. automakers foundering. That bailout paid off. It gave Chrysler, under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, time to bring out its new generation of front-wheel drive cars and to invent the minivan, which revolutionized the vehicle market. Chrysler paid back the government loan ahead of time, but after Iacocca retired Chrysler went up the wrong path again, resurrecting its 1960s-era Hemi engines and muscle cars and building ever-larger SUVs to complement its minivans.
But even in recent years, Chrysler did not seem to be as oblivious as GM or Ford. Chrysler never made a gargantuan Expedition, and its 1990s styling on cars such as the Dodge Intrepid was ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, its merger with Daimler Benz never paid off for either entity and probably helped bring Chrysler down in the end. Chrysler dumped Plymouth, the brand Richard Petty had driven to so many NASCAR victories. Its forays into specialty cars, such as the Dodge Viper or Plymouth Prowler, didn't do much for sales of more mundane vehicles.
Still, I think Chrysler's long-term prospects, especially if the Fiat deal works out, could be better than GM's. The automaker that once claimed 50 percent of the U.S. market and was being threatened with an anti-trust lawsuit by the Johnson administration, is weighted down by too many models that are nearly identical, too much corporate bureaucracy and too little attention to customers' interests. Recent news reports indicate GM might also end up in bankruptcy. Meanwhile, foreign automakers are producing more and more cars in the United States (my family has driven two made-in-the USA Nissans and one made-in-the-USA Honda, but our Chrysler vehicles were made in Canada or Mexico) and are more closely attuned to customers' demands.
Detroit, once the heart of American industry, seems to have thrown a piston rod.