Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Race, testing and hiring: It's complicated

Only a week after dodging a racially charged controversy in a Voting Rights Act challenge, the Supreme Court on Monday grabbed the high-voltage issue and declared that fear of a racial discrimination lawsuit is no reason to discriminate on account of race. The case involves New Haven, Conn., firefighters who studied for and passed a promotion exam, only to have the city throw out the professionally designed test because no African-Americans passed the test.

The court ruled, 5-4, in favor of the white firefighters, who claimed they had been discriminated against on account of their race. Given the facts of the case, it's hard to conclude otherwise. The city had a consultant design a promotion exam that would be racially/culturally neutral. Firefighters took the test. Upon discovering only white firefighters qualified for promotion and fearing a racial bias lawsuit by minority firefighters who scored lower on the test, the city of New Haven threw out the results and declared that the exam would not be used in the promotion process. No one denies that the city's decision was based on race.

The fundamental problem lies in civil rights law. Federal law prohibits not only "disparate intent," i.e., deliberate discrimination on account of race, but also "disparate impact" — anything that affects racial groups differently. Although New Haven had no intention of discriminating against minority firefighters, its promotion exam, professionally designed and carefully cleansed of any racial or cultural bias, did have a disparate impact. The city found itself in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

The court's majority focused on the fact that, once the test results were in, the city's subsequent reactions were based on race. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and three colleagues argued that disparate intent and disparate impact are complementary and, therefore, New Haven' actions were justifiable. It's hard to imagine how the city could create a new exam or promotion process without risking disparate impact.

Civil rights law has led to an exponential complication of the hiring process, especially in large corporations and governments. Each step of the process must be carefully vetted for any possibility of racial or cultural bias, and only tangible, documentable evidence can be used as a basis for hiring. New Haven's promotion test counted for 60 percent of the promotion consideration, for example. But, generally speaking, people are not hired to take tests; they are hired to perform tasks, manage others or delegate responsibilities. Tests might give an indication of occupational knowledge and familiarity with management processes, but it's hard to design a test that assesses one's work ethic, interpersonal skills, work demeanor and ability to get along with others. Those attributes often are the difference between success and failure in any job. I once told a somewhat under-qualified job applicant that if I hired her to be a reporter, I could teach her to write, but I couldn't teach her to work. To learn to write, she would have to be a hard worker, and that's an attribute neither I nor a college degree could grant her. She assured me she would be a hard worker; I hired her, and she did very well in the job as she worked hard at learning to write. Had I gone entirely by the applicant's experience and test scores, I probably could not have hired her.

A good hiring decision sometimes comes down to a gut feeling, the positive impression that someone makes in an interview, but it's impossible to defend a gut feeling against a claim of bias.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Unemployment rate keeps on climbing

Yes, I've been away, not from home but from the computer keyboard. I took the weekend off from blogging (did anybody notice), but now I'm back.
It seems I didn't miss a lot. There were no earth-shattering news events over the weekend, leaving time for a little yard work in the heat and a little relaxation with my wife. Oh — and a quick trip to Chapel Hill to help our daughter continue unpacking from her move.
At the end of last week, the state released unemployment figures for May: 13.6 percent of the Wilson County work force is unemployed. The Wilson Times reports that the county's jobless rate has not been so high since the 1990s, peaking above 14 percent in 1993. Because unemployment is known as a trailing economic indicator — i.e., rehiring doesn't begin until after the economy has turned around — you have to wonder whether the jobless rate has peaked. Although there are some glimmers of hope in the economic numbers, there has been no clear evidence of a sustained upswing. It's conceivable that Wilson County's jobless rate could rise further, maybe even reaching 15 percent (a level already reached in neighboring Edgecombe County) before this is all over.
Scotland County, where my daughter lived until this month, again leads the state in unemployment with a rate of 17.2 percent. That number is approaching the jobless rate in the Great Depression. Although no reliable figures are available, it has been estimated that unemployment during the 1930s ran around 25 percent. My parents, who grew to maturity during the Depression, used to wistfully recall the days when "nobody had any money."
Modern unemployment statistics are known to underestimate the true level of unemployment. The official unemployment figures each month count the number of people who are out of work and actively looking for jobs. (Look at me: I'm a statistic!) But there are others who have given up on finding a job or who have settled for less of a job than they wanted and were qualified to hold. During a prolonged downturn like this, many frustrated unemployed workers give up on "finding" a job and decide to "create" one by going into business for themselves. That's viable for many people, but few new businesses turn a profit at the outset, so the unemployed-turned-entrepreneurs often face months, even years, of struggling through little or no income as they try to get their new businesses off the ground. And the failure rate for new businesses is daunting — as high as 60 percent or more, depending on how the rate is measured — so entrepreneuring can be tougher than job hunting. And any new business started in this economy is born with a severe handicap.
I'm now nine months into my life of unemployment, a stretch many times longer than I had ever imagined. This experience has given me a new empathy for the people behind the unemployment statistics and a new appreciation for unemployment insurance. I'm still in the market, still looking for that new career that will give shape to my weekdays and a new mission to my labors. I'm looking for my new vocation, a term rooted in the Latin word voca, or voice. A vocation is a calling, and, like millions of other people behind the statistics, I'm waiting to hear from mine.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sad, sad life, and two sad deaths

Sad. That's the word to describe not just the death of Michael Jackson Thursday afternoon but also the life that preceded it. He was one of the great musical talents of his era, but his bizarre lifestyle and self-indulgent, self-destructive habits tarnished his amazing musical accomplishments.
I'll admit, I was not a huge Michael Jackson fan, but after I gave my oldest daughter his 1982 "Thriller" album (an LP, which we must still have somewhere), I listened to the music and was entranced. The album was a creative tour de force. The public had come to know Jackson from his sappy, predictable (but very popular) Jackson Five tunes, such as "I Want You Back." Michael, 10 or 12 years old, was cute as could be, but the songs were fixed in the same old groove. "Thriller" was different, a creative wonder that deserved its accolades and phenomenal sales. It was as monumental as "Sgt. Pepper's" or "Born in the USA." Michael followed the album with a dance video that has been credited with (or blamed for) creating MTV.
But then there was his personal life. Married to Elvis' daughter and then to a nurse he met, he also had a fascination with young boys, which led to both a civil lawsuit settlement and to criminal molestation charges (he was acquitted). His Neverland ranch was a child's playground owned by a multimillionaire man. Those were just weird affectations, but his plastic surgeries and his skin lightening were as bizarre as his denials that he had done anything to make himself look more Caucasian. I can't bear to look at recent photos of Jackson and compare them to the earlier photos of the cute, normal-looking teenager of his earlier life without wondering what could have driven his self-destructive alterations. His nose, his chin, his eyebrows and his skin are all altered, turning himself into a Frankensteinian mutation with the skin tone of powdered sugar. Because Jackson denied surgically or medically changing his appearance, we'll probably never know why he did it.

The other celeb
rity death Thursday was Farrah Fawcett, whose fabulous face, body and hair made her an icon of the 1970s. Her "big hair" can be seen in styles lasting through the 1980s, but nobody ever matched her flowing tresses. Fawcett became a star in an insipid television series that had more to do with the looks of the stars — Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith — than with the plots, which were all predictable and cliched. "Charlie's Angels" created the "T&A" genre of television shows, which had a long run. Fawcett left the show after one year, at the peak of her popularity, but never achieved the level of celebrity and admiration that the show had given her. She won some praise as an actress, particularly for "The Burning Bed," but she never was a consistent star.
But, oh, her pictures! The iconic, best-selling poster of her in that clingy red swimsuit with that brilliant smile a
nd all that thick, bouncy hair will forever represent the feminine ideal, circa 1977. She was a beautiful woman who had the courage to pose for Playboy at age 48, proving that older women could still be beautiful and sexy. Later she pulled back the veil of privacy to document her fatal struggle with cancer, showing the disease in all its cruelty.
Goodbye, Farrah. Goodbye, Michael. It's a sad day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mark Sanford makes public feel his pain

OK, I had my fun with my June 24 blog post about South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's admission of an affair with an Argentine woman. But if you watched the video (a short version of the 20-minute press conference is included on my blog post; the longer video is even weirder) or read quotes from Sanford's rambling monologue, you know this is more than just some quickie sexual fling. Although Sanford did something about as stupid as any sitting governor can do (Mike Easley, make a note), the guy was truly anguished. He was tearful. He seemed to be madly in love, in a teenage kind of way. Even hard-hearted reporters and political commentators felt sorry for the guy. And a surprising number of people commenting on the Columbia State newspaper's Web site defended the guy and recommended that he run off to Buenos Aires to be with his True Love.
This reaction is based largely on a reading of emotional e-mails exchanged between passionate lovers Mark and Maria, which the State obtained last December and published after the governor's apology-laden news conference Wednesday. (No one has explained to my satisfaction why the newspaper waited so long to go public with the e-mails.) The e-mails are passionate, romantic, somewhat explicit and so filled with longing that they would fit in a Nicholas Sparks novel. They are almost painful to read. If you're looking for theme music to accompany them, I don't know whether it should be "Lara's Theme" from "Doctor Zhivago" or "Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts.
While many commenters at The State online defended Sanford and urged him to follow his one True Love ("life is too short" was the rationale), another commenter had the more mature perspective. "Love is not an emotion" this person wrote. "It's something you DO every day, day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not. When you stop (in a marriage) is when things go awry." (If you're interested, the commenter is Solow, who posted 6/25 at 1:15 p.m.)
It's easy to make comparisons to the long list of other politicians who have been felled by their lusts in recent years. Sen. John Ensign apologized for his affair just last week. N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer decapitated his political ambitions by frequenting prostitutes. John Edwards admitted to an affair with his campaign's videographer. Long ago when I worked in Washington, Rep. Wilbur Mills lost his powerful post by falling for an "Argentine Firecracker."
There seems to be some connection between the adulations and egotism of political life and the need or desire for sexual adventure. Presidents FDR, JFK, LBJ and Bill Clinton all had documented affairs, but only Clinton's was publicly known during their lifetimes. And you don't have to be American. Just look at the mess Italy's Silvio Berlusconi finds himself in. Recent escapades, including Sanford's, have been compounded by a stench of hypocrisy as the adulterous politicians have been defenders of traditional morality, marriage and fidelity. Sanford and Ensign were known as family values types. Spitzer, as attorney general, prosecuted public figures he deemed immoral. Edwards touted himself as the perfect loving husband and father.
Sanford gets some credit for being genuinely contrite and remorseful. He stood and answered questions, he went into details. He rambled on about the meaning of life, and he apologized to his wife, his children, his staff, legislators and everyone else he could think of. And he humbly admitted that what he had done was "wrong, period." That's a rare admission for any politician. I'll give him credit for that.
But if Sanford's political ambitions are not completely snuffed out, and he runs for another office, I suggest his theme song be "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?"

Days are shorter, but summer lingers on

On our 6 a.m. walk this morning, my wife noticed that it was not as bright as it had been. Well, we are past the summer solstice, I said. After six months of steadily longer days, daylight is shrinking again. The sun is rising incrementally later and setting slightly earlier each day. Tomorrow's sunlight, according to Weather Underground, will be 15 seconds shorter than today's. Although the solstice is past, we still have many sunny days ahead — and much hot weather.
In my wife's garden, the blooms are prolific, and these colors will last a few more months before the chilling frost that accompanies longer nights will send the flowers into hibernation. The daffodils and azaleas that first heralded spring's arrival a couple of months ago have folded their cards now, but they have been replaced by a variety of blooms whose names I can hardly keep track of.
But I do know the name of the hydrangeas, whose colorful and intricate blooms are a source of fascination and whose thirst for water keeps me alert to early signs of wilting. Our hydrangeas are doing well enough to make me want more, to see them grow to head-high and to flourish with innumerable blooms. There is a simple satisfaction in growing things. My parents thought toiling in a garden was worth it only if the garden produced edible results; mere flowers, no matter how beautiful, could never compete with a succulent tomato, a mess of butterbeans, a bushel of sweet corn, or a pod of okra. Beauty was not a goal; survival was. But I have been granted the great luxury of time to stop and smell the flowers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

North Carolina: still humble but not apologizing

I had long ago heard North Carolina described as that "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit" (Virginia and South Carolina), but I never fully understood it until South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford explained it all to me Wednesday, when he returned from his quick jaunt to South America.
You see, we here in North Carolina had a guv-nuh was a bit old fashioned. He was interested in money. He wanted to take everything that wasn't tied down and fly off on fun vacations with his best pals, who were doing business with the state, and get his wife a lucrative job at N.C. State University. He also liked to drive other people's automobiles. The News & Observer got into quite an uproar about Guv-nuh Mike's excesses, and the U.S. attorney is subpoenaing everybody with a state government e-mail address. But Guv-nuh Mike was just going after a little money.
Guv-nuh Mark Sanford, on the other hand, was getting laid! Not only that, he was doing it with a foreigner, when, it has been pointed out, he could have helped the state economy by having his affair with a home-grown mistress. (What's he got against South Carolina women, anyway?) To top it off, after he finally had to confess that he wasn't hiking the Appalachian Trail (although he apparently did get a little exercise) and confess that it was all about the sex, he had the temerity to lecture the press and the whole darned state of South Carolina about morality and responsibility and forgiveness and sin and family and any darned thing else that happened to fall out of his confused mind.
(This might be a good place to ask that troubling question: What is it about Republican politicians? They can't stop playing around all the while they're preaching "family values." Sen. John Ensign just confessed to an affair last week. It's not all Republicans, though. Democrat Eliot Spitzer of New York found himself in a mess last year, too, and no one has forgotten Bill Clinton's interest in women of all types.)
We North Carolinians thought we had a pretty good scandal going with Mike Easley's free trips and his coastal real estate deal and his cars and his wife's $170,000 a year job, but we weren't even close. South Carolina just couldn't abide the thought that North Carolina would exceed South Carolina in something, even if it was a political scandal. So Mark Sanford, out of a sense of obligation to his state's pride, had to make up a cock-and-bull story about hiking when he was actually involved in a different verb altogether. And then he had to get caught in it and apologize to everybody he'd ever known.
We North Carolinians can at least take some pride in the fact that Mike Easley hasn't apologized, and he doesn't show any sign of doing it any time soon. Sanford might have had more fun doing what he did, but Easley is simply too humble, in keeping with state traditions, to confess to anything.

Bullying will be a crime without punishment

By the narrowest of votes, the N.C. House has agreed to criminalize bullying by adolescents. It's an odd piece of legislation. State policy already requires each and every public school system in the state to have an anti-bullying policy. And although the legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Bev Perdue's signature, makes bullying against the law, it does not establish any punishment for violating the law. In addition to outlawing the behavior, it requires teachers and other officials to report bullying incidents.
The major point of contention in the bill was its listing of behaviors or circumstances about which a student might be bullied. Opponents, mostly Republicans, wanted the bill to outlaw bullying, period. Their version would apply to anyone who might be bullied for any reason. Supporters of the legislation, mostly Democrats, wanted the bill to specify those classifications of people against whom bullying would be outlawed. It's a pretty comprehensive list:
"Race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation or mental, physical, developmental or sensory disability or association with a person who has or is perceived to have any of those characteristics."

That sounds pretty comprehensive, but maybe some status, disability or identity yet unimagined might be discovered in the future that wouldn't be covered by the law. This legislation is primarily symbolic. It adds no punishment for bullying. It repeats established state policy. Supporters of the bill insisted on including "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" with race, color, etc. as conditions that might lead to bullying. The primary purpose of the bill seems to be to establish those criteria as being on an equal footing with other discriminatory targets and to maintain a record of bullying based on those criteria.

I have some experience with bullying from way back when bullying or being bullied was a rite of passage into adolescence. As a skinny, shy kid, I was a frequent target of bullying by stronger, meaner boys. I hated being picked on and tried several strategies, from passive resistance to fighting back, to combat the bullies, but none worked very well (especially fighting back). Nevertheless, I made it through those formative years without too many scars on my psyche, as did my contemporaries, most of whom were also bullied by someone at some time.

Bullying, especially in its cruelest and most violent forms, should be forbidden, but some teasing should be expected among immature children. Without some exposure to hurt feelings or unkind actions, how will they be prepared for the greater cruelties of circumstance they will find in adult life?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Court gives Voting Rights Act a reprieve

The U.S. Supreme Court dodged a valid constitutional issue Monday, and the civil rights establishment dodged a bullet. The court ruled, 8-1, that a utilities service district, which did not exist in 1965 but was nonetheless subject to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, could ask to be exempted from the law. Therefore, the court need not decide whether the Voting Rights Act's punitive provisions were constitutional.
This narrow ruling saves the VRA from a constitutional test that it almost certainly would lose. The challenge to the 44-year-old law by the Northwest Austin Utility District created a perfect vehicle for testing the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. It seemed clear at oral arguments that a majority of the court doubted the constitutionality of the law, but the court's conservatives, except for Justice Clarence Thomas, were reluctant to strike down a law that has transformed American elections (see Barack Obama, 2008). It seems likely that this reprieve for the VRA was the work of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion signed onto by conservative and liberal justices.
Section 5 of the law presents several problems. The law singles out several electoral districts (whole states or individual counties, mostly in the South) for special treatment. These electoral districts must pre-clear any changes in election laws or procedures through the U.S. Justice Department. This singling-out conflicts with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the very clause upon which much civil rights legislation is based. The law also usurps the authority of the states to determine their own election procedures, as specified in the Constitution.
The most glaring problem with Section 5 is that it pretends nothing has changed since 1964. The affected jurisdictions are those where minorities were under-represented in voter registration in 1964. When Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 35 years in 2006, it did not re-examine voter registration to determine which jurisdictions were discriminating against minorities. It used the 42-year-old voter statistics from 1964. Anyone who thinks electoral politics in the South has not changed since 1964 is disconnected from reality.
With its diplomatic decision not to rule on the constitutionality of an iconic landmark of civil rights, the court has given the Voting Rights Act a reprieve, but Congress should take the hint and revise the VRA. Its provisions for ensuring fair and open voter registration and voting should remain, but its pre-clearance provision should be revised to reflect current conditions, not the long-buried statutory segregation of the 1960s. Pre-clearance was designed as a means of punishing those states and other jurisdictions that refused to open the voting process to minorities and that built fanciful new obstacles each time an old obstacle was struck down. At the time, such punitive measures were probably justified, but they aren't today. Those jurisdictions are now electing minority sheriffs, commissioners, legislators and members of Congress. In many cases, minorities now control the reins of power.
The VRA includes a "bailout" provision for jurisdictions that are no longer discriminating, but that provision has been narrowly interpreted. Wilson County is subject to pre-clearance, and when I asked 25 years ago why the county, which had elected minorities at-large, did not apply for bailout, I was told that the procedure was hopeless and any effort would be futile. Since 1965, I have read, only 17 jurisdictions have successfully sought bailout.
The VRA, which has been called the most effective civil rights legislation in history, today has a primarily symbolic purpose. If Congress wants to keep that symbol in place, it must revise the law to comply with the Constitution and with simple logic before the Supreme Court has another opportunity to consider the law's constitutionality.

Monday, June 22, 2009

More reasons to hate moving

Helping my daughter move to a new house in a new city over the weekend reminded me of why I said, six years ago, when we moved into our current home, that I would never move again. And my wife and I were only involved in the easy part, after the furniture was delivered.
It's amazing that we are such a "mobile society" when everyone says they hate moving. I've yet to meet anyone who said they liked it or enjoyed it, and it's easy to see why. The part that's not drudgery is torture. Even with the help of professional (and I use the term loosely — "paid" or "hired" might be better adjectives) movers, my daughter and son-in-law were left with a house that was more chaos than home. It was par for the course on moving day. It was hard, if not impossible, to find a place to sit down. The kitchen might as well not exist because almost everything associated with kitchen-ness was in a box stacked somewhere in the kitchen or dining room.
Over the two days of the weekend, we emptied and broke down scores of expensive moving boxes and stacked several feet of packing paper taken from those boxes. (My daughter had the brainstorm of offering the old moving boxes on CraigsList and got a couple of takers for the first couple of batches of empties.) We rearranged furniture, found lamps and light bulbs, decided where to stash cookware, food and other small items, and ate out (or takeout) every meal. When we left late Sunday, you could walk in at least three rooms. The computer and phones were hooked up, and it was possible to cook (as well as walk) in the kitchen.
Moving is a good motive to live simply. The less you own, the less you move, and the less you have to move, the less of an ordeal moving is. And we all move. I've looked at resumes of people who have moved every two years and wonder, "How do they stand it?" I turned down a military career largely because I didn't want to move every couple of years and because I wanted my children to grow up in one place, just as my wife and I had. We nearly achieved that goal. After our oldest was 8 years old, we never moved again until the kids were grown and gone. And my next move will be involuntary or at least non-cognizant.

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's not age discrimination if you can't prove it

Forget about winning an age-discrimination lawsuit if you get laid off in this lousy economy. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a plaintiff has to prove that age discrimination was the singular cause of a job action. That sets an almost impossible standard for plaintiffs, no matter how blatant the discrimination might be.
I've talked to a number of people who were certain that their age was what prompted their layoff or change in job or pay. None of them had filed a lawsuit because they knew how difficult it is to prove age discrimination. You almost have to uncover a written memorandum stating "Joe is too old for this job; let's replace him with someone younger." If you lose a job or a promotion to a younger, less experienced, less qualified applicant, it's still difficult to prove that age discrimination was the reason for the snub. A discrimination suit can drag on for years. As one attorney told me, "it can consume your life." Few victims of age discrimination want to go through that ordeal. They'd rather just "move on" and try to find a new career. This economy makes moving on harder to do.
Age discrimination has been a particular concern in this recession, and age discrimination claims are rising. Millions of baby boomers, approaching retirement, tempered by decades of solid experience, have found themselves laid off as companies reduce payrolls. The seniority of these workers make them tempting targets for penny pinchers. Their experience and seniority come with higher pay rates. Replacing them with younger, lower-paid workers might be a good fiscal decision, but it's also age discrimination — you just have to be able to prove it.
Five members of the Supreme Court made that even more difficult Thursday. The majority ruled that age must be the sole motive in the discrimination if a plaintiff is to succeed. The plaintiff in this case had won a $47,000 judgment at trial, but the court reversed that. You can be certain that the legal fees have exceeded the size of the judgment, which is now canceled.
Interestingly, the oldest member of the court, John Paul Stevens, 89, wrote the dissenting opinion. He said the five-member majority (Thomas, Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Kennedy) had displayed "utter disregard" for precedent and the intent of Congress in passing the age discrimination law. The minority (Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter and Breyer) said that if a plaintiff can show that age was a factor in the job action, then the employer must show that he had legitimate other reasons for taking the action.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., compared the case to the Lilly Ledbetter sex discrimination case from last year, which infuriated Congress and led to corrective legislation. Age discrimination is rampant, perhaps exceeding gender or race discrimination, but plaintiffs have a very hard time proving this discrimination. Five members of the Supreme Court just made matters even more difficult.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tourism needs a good plan, not a "brand"

"Branding" is one of those buzz-words that every consultant worth his Blackberry will talk about incessantly until the next buzz-word comes along. There's always another word coming along. "Paradigm" was a good one. "Continuous improvement" was another (actually two).
The Wilson County Tourism Development Authority has jumped onto the branding bandwagon, no doubt thanks to some prodding by a consultant or two, and will spend $35,000 to create a new "brand" for Wilson. The authority will pay the money to a Raleigh consulting firm that, no doubt, will pitch a variation of the brand it had created for some other sucker ... I mean, city. The Tourism Development Authority has problems, but branding is not one of them. Before it spends a dime on branding, the Tourism Authority should solve its more serious problems:
1. The authority is spending thousands of dollars for a "visitors center" that is nothing more than a rented storefront next to a cigarette store at Interstate 95 and U.S. 264. Think about the name of the place: "Visitors" implies the customers want to "visit," not just travel up and down I-95. "Center" suggests the joint should be at the "center" of something. The only thing this location is in the center of is traffic, and you know how people love to visit traffic congestion!
2. Lack of promotion. Wilson, despite what you hear from the nay-sayers, has some attractions. Its barbecue restaurants are famed all over the East Coast. Its collection of bungalows and other historic homes could attract preservation tourists if promoted properly. The North Carolina Baseball Museum plays to the widespread nostalgia and love of what used to be called "America's Pastime," but, like other attractions, it's not well-promoted. Wilson's arts community is impressive and growing. One resident's suggestion that Wilson promote itself as "the City of the Arts" would take some work but was plausible. It was ignored by the Tourism Development Authority. The Round House Museum is a unique institution that could attract ethnic tourism, but it needs good promotion. Wilson's Civil War and Revolutionary War histories are so ignored that few longtime residents are familiar with them. Wilson was the site of a Confederate hospital. General Cornwallis camped here on his way Yorktown, and British cavalry (under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton) fought a skirmish at what is now the N.C. 58 bridge over Contentnea Creek near Stantonsburg. Historical tourism is a growing trend, but you have to advertise it.
3. Billboards. The Tourism Development Authority is investing money in billboards on Interstate 95. Even if these billboards were effective, which they are not (the 'What, Where, When' is non-sensical and too wordy for speeding motorists to read), the money could be better spent in other places. Ads in travel magazines (including Our State and Southern Living, which have travel features) would attract people who are actually interested in visiting unique, charming or interesting places and who are not just pedal-to-the-metal down I-95 to get to Florida.
4. An ineffective Web page. The county's tourism Web page is not just ineffective, it's awful, and a lot of the information there is out of date. What is there is not attractively presented. The site hasn't been redesigned recently. It needs redesign badly, and it needs a new designer, someone with an appreciation of what a Web site can do and what makes one attractive. In this century, a good Web page is essential, and Wilson County tourism doesn't have one.
The Tourism Development Authority has focused on all the traffic on I-95, as if each traveler were a potential visitor. They aren't. The authority's focus needs to turn to Wilson County's attractions — arts, houses, museums, history, etc. — and spend money getting those attractions known by more people. To promote those attractions, the authority must first establish a visitors center near those attractions (and no, the Smokers Palace is not an attraction).
If the Tourism Development Authority doesn't change its focus and begin touting the histories and places that will actually attract visitors, the only brand it will have is one word: Dumb.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

He who counts the votes rules the country

One of the last of the old time county sheriffs/political power brokers told me a long time ago that he didn't care who voted, as long as he got to count the votes. He was being a little bit facetious and a little bit revelatory. The old sheriff, now deceased, would appreciate the situation in Iran, where the ruling authorities announced the results of last Friday's election just two hours after the polls closed. You should remember that the voting was done on paper ballots with no automated machines or computers to count the vote. I'm told that the last time Wilson County voted on paper ballots, in the late 1970s, the results were not in until dawn the next morning. Heck, even with a new, fully automated, fully compliant (with the Help America Vote Act) computerized voting system, Wilson County can't announce winners in two hours. By the way, last week's Iranian election involved millions more ballots than Wilson County's elections.
The problem in Iran is that much of the public doesn't believe the authorities' count of the votes. They believe their opposition candidates won. They believe their grassroots political movement has ousted fundamentalist, jingoistic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, replacing him with a president who offers more personal freedom and economic opportunity. The photos of the post-election opposition protests are incredible and frighteningly reminiscent of the 1979 Iranian rallies that ousted the Shah and installed the ruling theocracy.
There is a disconnect, however, between the opposition's righteous protests and reality. Ahmadinejad, despite all his confrontational anti-Western rhetoric and Holocaust denials, is not the true ruler of Iran. He is, essentially, a puppet of the true rulers, the Shi'ite clerics who actually run things in this theocratic society, where every law and every policy must be approved by a council of theologians and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Imagine a world where everything President Obama did and every law Congress passed had to be reviewed by Pat Robertson.
The Guardian Council has agreed to recount a limited number of ballots, but that does not satisfy presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The opposition is certain that legitimate ballots have already been destroyed.
Even if Ahmadinejad is ousted, which seems unlikely, real change in Iran won't come until the absolute power of the ayatollah and Guardian Council is broken. The possibility of that happening any time soon is nil. The best Western interests can hope for is a moderation of the ruling clerics' hard line toward international opinion and Western culture. The people on the street, many of whom are younger than the 30-year-old Islamic Revolution, care more about economic opportunity and freedom than they do about nuclear weapons. But the ruling clerics are going to continue to count the votes, and that's where the power lies, as any old county sheriff will tell you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's a long drive to a dead end

I drove to Raleigh last week to interview for a job with the state. I thought it went pretty well. I had the experience required to do the job. I answered all the questions and provided writing samples. Today, it looks like I won't be asked back for a second interview. The agency was going to wrap up initial interviews Monday morning and make a decision on finalists immediately after that. Looks like I didn't make the cut.
When I told my wife that, she said she wasn't sorry. She wants me to get a job, but not one that involves two hours of commuting each day. I wasn't looking forward to the commuting, either, but I was willing to do it in order to get a job, especially a fairly stable and lucrative one with the state.
So today I am back to Square One: No job prospects on the horizon and an increasing sense of frustration and futility. There is little comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone.

Will the true Shakespeare please stand up?

I first heard of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, in an extensive Nov. 24, 1974, Washington Post article. As an English major, I should have known about de Vere, the nobleman who, a convincing body of evidence shows, wrote the Shakespeare plays and sonnets.
I've kept the 1974 newspaper article, plus a few other clippings, tucked between the pages of my collegiate "Complete Works of William Shakespeare." Recently, I've been reading "Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the man who was Shakespeare" by Mark Anderson. Anderson's thorough review of de Vere's tumultuous life is a thoroughly researched and sourced biography that links events in de Vere's life to the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare. He cites numerous characters in Shakespearean plays that were obviously based on the personalities and prejudices of various friends and relatives of de Vere. A number of sonnets appear to be commentary on documented events in de Vere's life.
The authorship of Shakespeare's plays has been in dispute for almost as long as they have been performed, and various writers have been suggested as the true author, but de Vere has been singled out in the past two centuries as the logical and evident author of the greatest body of literature in the English language. De Vere, at one time an intimate of Queen Elizabeth's court, a member of the House of Lords, a one-time resident of Italy (where several Shakespearean plays are set), an acknowledged poet under his own name and a brilliant scholar familiar with the classical works on which Shakespearean plays are based, had the education, experiences and opportunity to write the plays.
The man from Stratford on Avon known as Shakespeare had none of those qualifications. While de Vere had private tutors, access to one of England's finest private libraries and a university education, it cannot be proven that Shakspere was even literate. His (disputed) signatures spell his name in various ways — Shakspere, Shaxper, Shagspere — and there is no record of his attending any school. De Vere was a courtier in Queen Elizabeth's court, a nobleman, a peer in the House of Lords, a sailor with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada; he was intimately familiar with court intrigues that are prominent in Shakespearean plays. There is no record of the man from Stratford attending the queen's court. De Vere spent years in Italy and fell in love with the country. He lived in or visited Milan, Venice, Genoa, Padua and Verona, all of which receive mention or are the settings of scenes in Shakespearean plays. The man from Stratford apparently never left England and likely spoke in a Warwickshire accent that made him unintelligible to Londoners.
The problem Stratfordians face is explaining how anyone with so little education and so little exposure to the world could have written any of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. They can only attribute the inexplicable to a miraculous literary storm. Any student of literature knows that authors, willingly or unwillingly, place their life experiences in their writings. Dickens' novels were influenced by his life as an orphan. Flannery O'Connor's short stories are colored by her strict Catholic faith. Hemingway's novels reveal his obsession with manliness and romance. Faulkner's novels are firmly fixed in Mississippi. Yet, the Stratfordians contend that this uneducated man from Stratford could write gloriously and convincingly about the world of English nobility he had never known and about places he had never seen.
Anderson's massive tome explains why de Vere would be reluctant to attach his name to the plays and sonnets and why he would allow the pirated publication of his works without asserting his rights. (Shaksper of Stratford was notorious for filing lawsuits but never claimed that the pirated plays were his own.) He also offers a simple and persuasive explanation for the Stratfordians' major argument against de Vere, that he died in 1604 before all the plays were written (he shows that the plays were likely written before 1604, not after).
The acceptance of the authorship of de Vere has been been growing. Kenneth Branagh, the British actor who once aimed to film all of Shakespeare's plays (his "Hamlet" and "Henry V" are grand), is a recent convert to the de Vere side. Actor Derek Jacobi is another. Sigmund Freud was convinced that de Vere was the rightful author. Orson Wells, John Gielgud, Mark Twain and others have questioned the orthodoxy of Stratfordian authorship.
There is even a De Vere Society that is dedicated to celebrating the true author of English literature's most creative and influential author. Why do most academics cling to the man from Stratford? This has been accepted doctrine for centuries, and careers (and a tourism industry) have been built on Stratfordian authorship. But any objective review of the history of the two men shows that de Vere, not William Shaksper, is the logical author.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Razor blades shouldn't cost so much

If this is the 15th, then I've made it. I've made a disposable razor last 15 days, half a month. This little battle is my personal combat against the ever-rising costs of shaving. Since I first applied a razor to my face some 45 years ago, I've seen the cost of a simple replacement blade increase at an accelerating rate.
The original safety razor with disposable blades goes back to nearly the beginning of the previous century. Those double-edge blades were economical, effective and, generally safe. Unfortunately, you can't find them any more. This was perhaps the first business model in which the money was in the consumable element (the blades), not in the product (the razor) itself, which manufacturers could afford to give away. But razor manufacturers weren't satisfied with selling those simple blades. Schick patented a sleeker, more maneuverable "injector" blade. Wilkinson Sword created the "bonded blade." Gillette, the industry leader, created the double-bladed razor, one with two blades that claimed to provide a closer shave. In 1975, "Saturday Night Live" parodied the multi-blade razor with a fake commercial touting a triple-blade razor.
Now the joke's on us. Gillette has a five-bladed razor. Schick has a four-bladed razor. There are even razors that have a battery in the handle so that the blades vibrate as you shave. The result of all this innovation (or consumer gullibility) has been ever-increasing costs of shaving. I've sought ways to fight back by buying house-brand or off-brand razors and blades. I'm steadfastly refusing to buy the latest razor with a battery in the handle. But any replacement blade you buy, even for an obsolete razor like the one in the back of the vanity drawer, will cost you around $3 a shot. The state-of-the-art replacement blades run close to $3.50 each, even if you buy the larger packages.
So I've resorted to buying disposable razors. It makes no sense that an entire razor with a fixed blade or blades should cost less than a disposable replacement blade for a higher-quality, long-lasting razor. But it does. Disposable razors can be had for less than $2 each. The trick is to make them last as long as higher-quality replacement blades. Fifteen days is my standard. Good-quality, brand-name replacement blades (the $3 to $3.50 kind) can easily last two weeks, so I can change blades twice a month. Making disposable razors last that long is a challenge. It's obvious that the blades the manufacturers put into disposable razors are not on a par with their first-quality replacement blades, no matter how many blades might be in the cartridge.
I read recently that old-timey straight razors are making a comeback, largely for financial reasons. A good straight razor might cost $200, but it will last a lifetime, the article said. Disposable blades will cost more than that over a lifetime. But I'm not sure I want to apply a blade like that to my throat. As for electric razors, I've tried a couple but have never been satisfied with the closeness or the comfort.
Today, I've made a cheap disposable razor last 15 days. But my face and skin have paid the price. I may have to surrender and cough up the $3-plus for first-quality replacement blades, but I'm not going to use a razor with a battery in the handle.
I wonder how long I'll have to wait for a six-blade razor.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

North Carolina needs technical training programs

News that one of Wilson Community College's signature programs, heavy equipment operator, might be in danger from state budget cuts is the culmination of a steady retreat from industrial/technical training as North Carolina's community colleges focus more and more on the college transfer curriculum. Heavy equipment operator, though it trains people for important jobs that are much in demand and well-paid, involves the potential of getting dirty on the job. North Carolina's 58-campus system would much prefer to provide students a dirt-free step toward a four-year degree.
Like many other N.C. colleges, Wilson Community College has dropped the "technical" from its name. Important technical training programs, including heating and air conditioning, tool and dye, and earth-moving equipment have either disappeared or have been put on an endangered list. We cannot be a nation of white-collar workers shuffling paper from office to office. Someone has to build houses, weld steel, repair engines, wire buildings, install and repair water and sewer fixtures, service air conditioners and furnaces, and so forth. The state's technical institutes used to provide training of that sort before the public and educators developed an aversion to getting their hands dirty.
Wilson Community College's heavy equipment operator program is expensive, as budget writers have noted, but it is popular and much in demand. Its graduates are needed across the state, and it is the only public school in the state offering this curriculum. Eliminating technical trades from community colleges will hurt North Carolina's ability to fill jobs that are essential to modern life.

Friday, June 12, 2009

FDA gets into growing, marketing tobacco

Thursday's vote to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco is a watershed event, even though it has been a long time coming. Although the lopsided 79-17 vote in the Senate to let the FDA decide how cigarettes are made and marketed indicates a widespread distaste for smoking, the benefits of this seismic shift may not materialize, and the economic cataclysm critics have predicted could.
I'm not a smoker and don't like to be around people who are smoking. I own no tobacco stocks, and I don't subscribe to the theory that people have a "right to smoke" when that "right" disturbs the rights of others to smoke-free air. That said, I fear that FDA regulation of tobacco might be ill-advised. Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan of North Carolina proposed an alternative — creating a separate federal office to regulate tobacco. The FDA, they said, is already overburdened and not entirely successful in trying to assure the safety of food and medicine. They have a point.
Perhaps of greater concern is what FDA regulation will do to tobacco consumption. Supporters say it will reduce smoking. But if the FDA cuts the nicotine in cigarettes, smokers who are addicted to nicotine will smoke more, not less, to get their nicotine fix. Some have predicted a black market will develop for old-style cigarettes with plenty of nicotine, and organized crime will benefit from the nicotine prohibition.
Tobacco growers fear that the FDA will ban the farm chemicals they use to keep their tobacco free of insects and other pests and to ensure a hardy, productive crop. Fields around Wilson are turning green with newly planted tobacco, which will stand four or five feet tall with broad, bright green leaves in a couple of months. Tobacco is sensitive to a variety of diseases and pests. Without proven and long-used farm chemicals, those wide green fields of healthy tobacco could be yellow or brown. The new legislation could get the FDA into the farming business, with disastrous effects on the income of farmers who have invested millions of dollars in specialized tobacco planting, harvesting and curing equipment.
The legislation also increases taxes on the most-heavily taxed commodity in America. States facing budget deficits are likely to increase their own cigarette taxes. At some point, if it hasn't already, taxation of tobacco will reach a tipping point. Cigarettes will become so expensive that sales will fall to the point that tax revenue, despite higher rates, will decline. Reducing cigarette sales is one of the aims of the legislation, but achieving that goal will deny state, federal and local taxing authorities the revenues they want.
Let's face it, even without FDA regulation, cigarette smoking is in rapid decline in this country. Once as common as sweet tea at a church social, cigarettes are now banned from most indoor gatherings. Office workers are forced outside to feed their habits. Cars are no longer equipped with cigarette lighters and ash trays. Ash trays have disappeared from homes and offices. Even North Carolina, which grows more tobacco than any other state, will ban smoking in all restaurants. Those who persist in the "nasty habit" must do so furtively, almost shamefully. Smoking is withering away. FDA regulation might speed up its disappearance from polite society, but the once-stylish habit is on its way out anyway. Federal regulation amounts to kicking a dying horse.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Commenting on this blog and on the news

The comments link at the bottom of this and every post on this blog invites you to add your perspective to what I've written here. Just what it is that incites comments I haven't quite figured out yet. Often, it's the oddest things that get comments going. I like to get comments because they affirm that someone is taking the time to read what I've taken the time to write.
Shortly after starting this blog, I began monitoring the comments — reviewing them before they are posted on the blog. I had become concerned that the comments could become nothing more than irrelevant rants, not the civil discourse I had hoped to share. Since that time, I've rejected only a handful of comments. The most recent rejected comment was nothing more than a promotion of a "Fair Tax" Web site. That comment was irrelevant to my post about the state budget and state taxes. The Fair Tax folks are lobbying for reform of federal taxes.
One recent anonymous comment took me to task for allowing a commenter to tell an earlier commenter to "get a life." Anonymous 2 thought such insults cheapened the blog and risked turning it into a tawdry tempest. Anonymous 2 asked that his comment not be posted; it was just a message to me. My problem is that Blogger, the Google software I'm using to create this blog, doesn't allow editing of comments. I can accept them in their entirety or reject them in their entirety. So I've allowed a few "get a life" type comments added to the end of otherwise relevant or thoughtful comments.
I've also received a few e-mails about this blog (a link can be found in my profile). One recent one lamented the decline of the local press. "I have canceled my subscription and so have many others," this person wrote. "At least when you were with the paper there was news."
So I've been thinking: Would Wilson support an alternative newspaper, or perhaps an alternative news Web site? By support, I mean, would local businesses spend their money to advertise on a Web site or in another newspaper? Newspapers derive 80 percent or more of their income from advertising, and it has been a loss of advertising that has created a crisis in American newspapers. News Web sites, which are proliferating around the country, have lower overhead but have more difficulty attracting ad dollars. Either way, it's a risky venture and would require strong community support. Is it out there?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Big cuts needed to close state budget gap

Legislators can't seem to find a way to close the $4 billion hole in the state budget, and recipients of state services and grants are screaming in protest over cuts that are painful but fail to close the budget gap. In the past few days, I've received e-mails at home from the state Arc, which provides services for the developmentally disabled, and from the Wilson County Mental Health Association. The MHA e-mail was the length of a short novel and included an attachment with the state budget cuts. Providers of services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled are facing stark cuts in state spending. They offer a list of horror stories that might result: children without CAP workers to help them cope with their disabilities, group homes shuttered, stable mentally ill patients being set loose and becoming homeless, loss of services causing mentally ill and developmentally disabled clients to regress, lack of local services forcing patients into costly institutions. If the MHA protest is correct, social service agencies are being asked to absorb the bulk of the state's budget cuts, a far larger proportion than their share of the state's overall budget.
At around $4 billion, the state's budget deficit is about 20 percent of the total budget, but I was told this week that rumors circulating in Raleigh say the deficit could surge to $6 billion. There seems to be no end in sight. If the deficit grows to $6 billion, about 30 percent, the pain will be unbearable.
It should come as no surprise that tax increases are being proposed to close at least some of the budget gap. You might even wonder whether the severity of the budget cuts in human services were intended to pave the way for tax hikes. It wouldn't be the first time: In Washington, it's called the Washington Monument syndrome. If cuts are suggested to the federal budget, someone says, well, we'll just have to shut down the Washington Monument. Oh no! We can't do that! We'll raise taxes instead.
A $4 billion spending cut would reduce the state's budget to its size four years ago. And while some cuts would be painful, they should not be unbearable, if they are spread evenly throughout the budget (no sacred cows, not even prisons or public schools). North Carolina's spending has grown out of control over the past couple of decades. A pause would do the state good.
Some cuts would be relatively painless. The N&O today highlights a costly state policy that requires the state to pay for expensive drugs when cheaper generics are available. When you're trying to close a $4 billion (or $6 billion) gap, it takes a lot of cuts like that.
If more revenue is necessary to avoid unconscionable cuts, legislators should look toward expanding the sales tax to such untaxed services as lawn care, accounting, legal fees, advertising, etc. and cutting the sales tax rate. "Modernizing" the tax system has been bandied about for years without any action. Maybe now is the time. And beware "temporary" tax increases. As we've seen before, these "temporary" taxes have nine lives.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Could you stand up under the pressure?

Before anyone gets too sanctimonious about the members of the N.C. State University hierarchy who resigned after being caught in the Mary Easley web, ask yourself: Do I have the guts to stand up to the boss when I know that what he's doing is wrong and that opposing him will cost me my job? That, essentially, is what Provost Larry Nielsen and Chancellor Jim Oblinger faced when word was handed down from the Executive Mansion that first lady Mary Easley would like to have a job at N.C. State, and it shouldn't be just any job.
Nielsen created a job for the governor's wife. Oblinger essentially negotiated the deal, finding a niche for Easley and getting all the right deans and department heads on board. Both men have now resigned, but their resignations are not the result of hiring Mary Easley. Nielsen resigned because the pressure to explain why he created the job and why he bumped her pay up 88 percent became too great. "I did what I was told," might be ridiculed as the Nuremberg defense, but it's a fact of life in the corporate world.
Oblinger resigned after he lied about two things: He said Nielsen's transitional pay was a standard package for any administrator going back to teaching, and he said he couldn't remember any contacts about Easley's job. It turns out Nielsen was getting an unusual three-year transition back to a professor's salary, and e-mail sent to a federal grand jury shows Oblinger had numerous communications about Easley's job, far too many for him to have forgotten.
This could have turned out differently, as University President Erskine Bowles pointed out Monday. If Oblinger had simply said, "Oh yeah, they asked me about a job for Mary Easley, and I passed her name along to the right people," he might still be chancellor. If Nielsen and Oblinger had told the governor, "If your wife wants a job a job at N.C. State, she should fill out the online application, and she'll be considered for any vacant positions along with everyone else who applies," they'd be out of a job a lot sooner than they were. If your boss says, "Hire this person" or "Don't hire that person," you either obey or you get fired for insubordination.
I've never worked at a big university, but in more than 30 years in the newspaper business, I had many occasions when I disagreed with the boss about some matter. In each case, except one, I swallowed hard and did what I was told. The one case, from 30 years ago, involved a corrupt politician my city reporter had heard allegations about. I took him off of his regular assignments and gave him a week to check out the allegations. A week later, he had the goods on one aspect of the allegations, that the politician was running a private business out of his city office on city time. We ran the story past the paper's attorneys, who signed off on it. Then the publisher decided she didn't want to publish the story. The reporter resigned in protest. I did the same. I thought getting the facts to voters was more important than my job, even though I was supporting my wife and three small children. It worked out for both of us. The reporter went on to be a big-city columnist, and I landed a job in Wilson about two months after I quit my old job.
Would I do it again? Foolishly enough, I probably would if I were still 30 years old. But at 60 and worried about retirement income and finding a new job at this age? I'm not as sure.
I empathize with Nielsen and Oblinger. It's not easy standing up to pressure from above.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Easleys' twisted tale begins to unravel

Richard Nixon knew it best and said it best: It's the lying that gets you in trouble.
Heads have rolled at N.C. State University, and the rolling might not be over yet. Provost Larry Nielsen, who created the job Mary Easley wanted; Chancellor Jim Oblinger, who (it is now clear) lied about his contacts with political officials in creating the job for Mary Easley; McQueen Campbell, the Easley pal and chairman of the university's Board of Trustees — they're all gone, and they all resigned largely because they lied or misled about the hiring of Mary Easley. She was fired Monday by the university from her $170,000 a year job, which has been mostly eliminated, anyway.
It's been an incredible few weeks since News & Observer reporter Andy Curliss began looking into Mary Easley's job at State and at the travels of the First Couple on the aircraft of friends and the taxpayers. Nielsen tried to explain things away. He admitted creating the job for Easley and not opening the position to other applicants. He denied political influence. Campbell denied any involvement in hiring Easley. Then he remembered that he did corner the chancellor about Mary's interest in a job at State. Nielsen and Campbell resigned their positions. Oblinger could not remember any conversation with Campbell about a job for Mary Easley.
Curliss and the N&O stuck with the story. Today, e-mails proved Oblinger had e-mail discussions with Campbell and others about Mary Easley's job. The e-mails (which are public records) also show Mike Easley pressured NCSU to hire his wife. So Oblinger had to resign. If he had been honest from the start, he might have survived.
And now, Mary Easley has been fired. But it's not over. Easley's attorney has implied that if she were to be terminated, she would sue for breach of contract. Also, grand juries are looking into this whole mess with the Easleys (now known among some commenters on the N&O Web site as the "Sleasleys." I don't know whether criminal charges will result, but the hundreds of comments on the N&O stories show the scandal has touched a chord with readers.
Using your network of contacts to get a job is nothing new. In fact, it's recommended. I wish I were as good at it as Mary Easley. But in the Easleys' case, because Mike Easley was the chief executive of the state and "the boss" of everyone at N.C. State, his contacts might be construed as influence peddling.
Some of the comments (I read through all of them this afternoon) on the N&O stories suggest looking deeper into other possible scandals, such as the creation of an anti-poverty commission in the UNC Law School that conveniently provided a job and a platform for John Edwards' presidential ambitions (that organization was privately funded, but there should be a question about whether creating a job for a political candidate violates campaign finance laws). Another comment noted that who would have thought that appointing Mike Nifong district attorney in Durham would not be Easley's biggest mistake. The comment that stuck with me, though, was the one praising the N&O for its persistence. Curliss and the N&O, this commenter said, were far better "public servants" than any of the elected and appointed officials involved.
I think the N&O has just taken the lead in the contest for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

One speech won't change the world

President Obama pleaded with the Muslim world Friday in a 55-minute speech in Cairo, Egypt, that was widely praised by Western officials and moderate Muslims. Like all of his speeches, it was eloquently delivered and persuasively written. The problem is that moderate Muslims are not the ones making trouble in the world. At the same time Obama was visiting the Middle East, Osama bin Laden was issuing an audio recording calling on Muslims around the world to continue the violence al Qaida has sponsored against Western interests everywhere. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel, played the bin Laden tape while Obama was speaking.
Some of the reaction to Obama's speech (not quoted in the above-linked Washington Post article) showed just how far America and the West have to go to resolve the enmity felt by Muslims, especially Arabs. Obama sought to plow a middle ground, criticizing both Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli settlements, for example, but a middle ground is unfamiliar territory in this region. One Palestinian I saw quoted lambasted Obama for defending Israel's right to exist, saying the president ignored Palestinians' "right of return."
The hatreds in this region go back many centuries. Often-violent differences between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam go back to the eighth century. One speech, even one that runs nearly an hour, is not going to resolve those differences.
Obama deserves credit for attempting to improve relations between America and moderate Arabs and Muslims, but the promoters of violence and hatred will not be won over by a speech.

Monday, Monday comes around again

Don't you hate Mondays? For most people in the working world, Monday is that dreaded day when the weekend is really over. For people in the non-working world, Monday has a different kind of dread. It is the day that hits you with the fact that another week has rolled around and you still don't have a job.
It's a day when depression lurks closer and hopelessness rises in your throat. It's the day when reality confirms that you are different. You are not part of the parade of vehicles leaving the neighborhood carrying people to their jobs. You are on the sideline, watching the parade go by, hearing the quiet after a weekend of busy things to do and places to go. While others scurry off to work, you stay at home and try to fill your day with productive activities. A to-do list gives a sense of purpose. Several gardening/yard work tasks fill my list for today. Tuesday will be a continual series of meetings. The hours of each day will fill with tasks and projects, always setting aside time for the primary objective — a job.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sixty-five years ago on this date

Today is D-Day. Sixty-five years ago, thousands of Allied troops gave their lives for the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich. The few remaining survivors will remember the sacrifices made on this date. They are, in Shakespeare's immortal words, a "band of brothers ... for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." The playwright put the words into the mouth of King Henry V before the battle of Agincourt and promised that the date, St. Crispian's day, would live forever. June 6, 1944, will live forever.
Each passing year, I am struck by how recent D-Day was, World War II was, when I was growing up. When I was a child, just discovering what D-Day meant, that battle was as recent as the Clinton administration or the first Gulf War is today. On the 20th anniversary of D-Day, I watched Walter Cronkite tour the Normandy battlefield with Dwight D. Eisenhower, remembering the sacrifices of that day.
President Reagan gave one of his greatest speeches on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It's a speech worth remembering 25 years later.

Friday, June 5, 2009

When 'free money' isn't cheap

Wilson City Council has approved applying for federal grants that will provide funds to construct a sixth city fire station and to pay some operational costs temporarily. But the deal would leave the city with around $1.5 million in new operational costs, once the federal grant expires, and require a half-million-dollar investment in fire vehicles.
This is not "free money," by a long shot, but only one council member — Bill Blackman — voted against the costly gift.
Fire Chief Don Oliver had sold the grant proposals to City Council by saying the city had not built a new fire station since 1975 and then comparing emergency call volumes from 1975 and today. That approach is misleading, at best, but it did get the newspaper's endorsement. The city has built at least four new fire stations since 1975; it has simply not added any stations since then. Belated kudos to the Wilson Times for (finally) pointing out the disingenuousness in Oliver's argument in today's article, which cites some of the new stations that have been built since 1975. Wilson relocated its headquarters station on Douglas Street to a new facility on Hines Street in the early 1980s. In 1987, it replaced the Fairview Avenue station with a new one on Forest Hills Road. And in 1996, under Oliver's watch, the department relocated two stations, one to U.S. 301 and the other to Airport Boulevard. By my count, that's four new stations since 1975, leaving only one station older than 30 years.
If you look at the two most recent stations, you'll be struck by how much larger and more elaborate those are compared to the stations built before Oliver arrived. The fire department is probably better since Oliver came here from Colorado; it certainly is more lavishly equipped. Years ago, Oliver talked the city into buying a truck with a ladder that would reach to the top of the seven-story BB&T building, even though the BB&T tower is equipped for fighting fires from inside the building. (Do you think New York's fire department had ladders that would reach to the top of the World Trade Center?). The truck cost around $750,000. To my knowledge, that ladder has not been required for fighting any fire since then, but it has starred in some fire department demonstrations. The next time a fire call goes out, count the number of vehicles that respond. I've rarely seen fewer than four, even for an inconsequential electrical fire. The department has used Homeland Security grants to buy golf-cart size vehicles for ferrying people and equipment. It has taken on fire safety education for children, equipping a house on wheels for its teaching mission. Its latest (and largely unnoticed) work is converting a house adjacent to the Hines Street station as a new fire safety education facility, presumably replacing that elaborate school on wheels. This conversion has been expensive, but I've not seen any figures.
I don't doubt that Wilson has a good fire department. I can't remember the last time we had a death from fire. But City Council ought to be a little more skeptical in discerning "needs" and "wants," and taxpayers ought to be wary of "free grants" that will end up costing them $1.5 million a year or more.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Entitlements sustain more Americans today

USA Today is reporting that federal entitlements account for 16.2 percent of all income during the first quarter of 2009. That's a 19 percent jump in benefit payments compared to a year ago. For all of 2009, the newspaper says, federal benefits will total $2 trillion or $17,000 per household.
This year's percentage is the highest that federal entitlements have ever been since the government began keeping statistics in 1929. That's a long time and covers some mighty tough years. Americans are drawing entitlements at a higher rate today than they did during the depths of the Great Depression, when it is estimated that unemployment was running about 25 percent.
Unemployment accounts for a large chunk of the increase this year. Layoffs have soared, and we unemployed are grateful for the unemployment insurance cushion as we futilely search for a job in an economy that is shedding jobs like a sheared sheep sheds wool. Social Security (which is fundamentally unsustainable, anyway) is paying out more in benefits because many of the people losing their jobs in this economy are older workers. Those who can do so are collecting Social Security. Many 62-year-olds who had planned to continue working and saving for retirement have lost their jobs and have little choice but to begin collecting their Social Security at a lower rate than they had anticipated. This hastens the day of Social Security's insolvency.
Food stamps disbursements have also increased, and that should come as no surprise. If you look at the state Employment Security Commission's job listings (which I do several times a week), you'll see that the only "growth sectors" are social services and employment counseling.
This sudden and historic increase in federal benefits is certainly understandable in this worst recession since the 1930s, but it is also alarming. Sixteen percent of Americans have become dependent upon government handouts. Each American household, on average, is receiving $17,000 from Uncle Sam. Simply stated, a total of $2 trillion in taxes will be transferred this year from those who are working and paying taxes to those who are not working (most of whom would prefer to be working). I suspect that this level of entitlements is unsustainable. Congress and the Obama administration cannot delay facing the inevitability of entitlement reform — revamping Social Security and Medicare to ensure their long-term solvency and addressing the costs of Medicaid, food stamps and, yes, even unemployment insurance, upon which I and millions of others find ourselves unwillingly dependent.

Downtown concert attracts a varied crowd

A cross-section of Wilson turned out Wednesday night for the Downtown Alive concert featuring the Band of Oz. I had been to last year's Downtown Alive concerts, but this was my first time at the new venue, a hillside scooped out between Tarboro and Pine streets, where the old Renfro warehouse was demolished. It turned out to be a perfect setting. The hillside provided plenty of space for chairs, blankets and mingling. The stage at the bottom of the hill, along Pine Street, directed sound up to the appreciative audience. A small dance floor in front of the stage stayed crowded most of the night. Food and drinks were available from vendors. Although my thermometer read 88 degrees when I left the house, the humidity was low, and the weather was quite pleasant, especially after the sun dipped behind some clouds. I regret not taking my camera; I would have posted a picture here. The Wilson Times had a photographer there, but I didn't see any pictures on the Web site this morning (what's with that?).
It's hard to imagine a more pleasant evening in downtown Wilson. Police, including Chief Harry Tyson (in uniform), ensured good security, and Downtown Development volunteers controlled beer sales to adults while Pizza Hut, Chick-Fil-A and other vendors sold convenient food. Downtown restaurants (there are some at last!) must have done a good business as well.
Hundreds of people — I heard estimates as high as 800, but I don't know of any accurate count — attended. Attendance exceeded the expectations of downtown officials, who scrambled to keep the cold beer coming, refilling coolers as the night progressed. The audience included young mothers with kids in strollers and retirees recalling their beach music years. At one point, a senior adult line dance broke out on the dance floor. There were even some tattooed Rastafarian-types (who knew they liked beach music?). Quite a number of attractive young women turned out in their frilly sundresses and revealing tops, looking as if they were auditioning at a singles bar. Women never dressed like that when I was in the market. My wife and I noticed that there seemed to be more eligible young women than men, prompting some enticingly dressed women to dance together as the evening wore on and no men latched onto them.
Downtown Alive concerts are scheduled to continue every other Wednesday until October. Here is the schedule. If the weather and the music are as good as they were last night, no one needs to worry about downtown Wilson attracting a crowd. I know I'm looking forward to more pleasant evenings like last night.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If you think unpaid furloughs are bad ...

Raleigh held a budget hearing last night, and scores of city employees turned out to protest against a proposed budget that held their salaries at status quo. No annual pay increase. In fairness, part of the reason for the employees' anger was that the city manager, who prepared the budget, had been awarded a 4.76 percent pay increase last month.
The city employees' complaints followed on a similar protest by state teachers, who complained about a 0.5 percent cut in their pay this year. They would get an additional 10 hours off to compensate for the loss of salary. Non-teaching state employees have also protested Gov. Bev Perdue's effort to reduce the $3 billion budget deficit through unpaid furloughs of workers.
As painful as it may be to lose 0.5 percent of your pay (even some judges, who make more than $100,000 a year, said they just couldn't afford it), imagine how painful it would be to lose 100 percent of your salary. That's the situation many thousands of North Carolinians are in. North Carolina's unemployment rate has has leveled off at 10.8 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. Wilson County's unemployment is over 13 percent. Those people know what a loss of pay really feels like.
Being forced to accept a slight pay cut or being denied an expected cost-of-living increase might be painful and it might mess up your fiscal planning, but, believe me, it's nothing compared to being laid off and losing all of your income. During the final three years of my newspaper career, my employer imposed a cost-saving wage freeze. There were plenty of complaints, especially from people lower on the pay scale who were struggling to pay their bills. But I did not complain; my wife and I were getting by on our take-home, and I understood the loss of newspaper revenue mandated drastic action. The complaints about frozen pay quieted when co-workers began disappearing as the layoffs began. Frozen pay? Unpaid furloughs? They're not nearly as bad as layoffs, and state employees should remember that.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

GM's bankruptcy was 40 years in the making

General Motors, as expected, filed for bankruptcy protection Monday. The 101-year-old company is expected to emerge from bankruptcy leaner and 70 percent owned by American taxpayers. Call it TM, Taxpayer Motors.
GM, once the behemoth of American industry and ingenuity, has been in decline almost since the day my parents bought the first new car they had ever owned — a 1963 Chevrolet Biscayne with a six-cylinder engine, rough fabric seats and no options, not even an AM radio. Back then, General Motors was selling nearly half the cars sold in this country. GM brands were stepping stones with each brand — Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac — marking a higher rung on the economic ladder. GM was so dominant that the Johnson administration was reported to be considering filing an anti-trust suit against GM.
GM dominated the American market, but it was foreign competition that struck the thousand small blows that eventually bled GM into insolvency. GM followed a "we'll show them" strategy against the foreign automakers. GM was a giant; it could overwhelm the competition. When the venerable Volkswagen beetle, a car designed by the Third Reich as a practical, economical "people's car," made inroads, GM answered with a sportier-looking car that copied the VW's air-cooled rear engine, the Chevrolet Corvair. But the Corvair, which my father and brother owned and which I enjoyed driving, had a design flaw — the rear suspension could fold up under the car in hard maneuvering, causing the car to flip. It was the Corvair that launched Ralph Nader and was the prime target of his book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."
When Japanese automakers challenged GM's dominance, the company answered with the Chevrolet Vega, which had even more problems than the Corvair. The Vega, promoted in magazine ads as "Twinkle, twinkle, little car," had a habit of blowing its engine. The Vega was also a pawn in the battle between GM and the United Autoworkers. A worker at the plant that built Vegas bragged to a reporter that he had strung a loose nut between brackets inside the roof of a Vega, resulting in an annoying rattle that could only be found by taking the entire roof apart. Autoworkers got back at GM by sabotaging the product, never realizing they were also sabotaging their own futures. Later, GM sabotaged its own Saturn venture by abandoning the new brand's unique relationships with workers and buyers. The current Saturn lineup is just a copycat of other GM models made like all other GM vehicles.
To save money and boost profits, GM in the 1970s and '80s turned its cars into clones of each other. A Chevrolet Malibu is an Olds Cutlass is a Buick Century is a Pontiac Tempest. At one point, a family of clones spelled its own name: The Chevrolet Nova was also the Olds Omega, the Pontiac Ventura and the Buick Apollo — N-O-V-A. GM also made a habit of introducing a small car, then making it bigger and bigger because bigger cars produced bigger profits. The original four-cylinder Chevy II (a used 1963 version was my first car) grew into the Chevy Nova with an oversized V8. When gasoline prices fell, GM and other U.S. automakers leaped at consumers' interest in truck-like SUVs, preferring short-term profits to long-term sustainability. GM never seemed to realize that functionality and reliability, which Japanese automakers concentrated on, were a better means of retaining customer loyalty than planned obsolescence.
I remain skeptical about taxpayer-owned GM's ability to respond to consumer interests and produce reliable, desirable vehicles at reasonable prices. At the same time, I think it is essential that America regain its manufacturing base, which made it possible for the United States to win World War II as automakers turned out trucks, tanks and planes for the war effort, eventually overwhelming Germany and Japan. America's shrunken industrial base would be hard-pressed to convert to war footing today.
GM's future will depend on its ability to produce reliable, economical, functional vehicles that consumers will value. The company's Cadillac line, its new Chevrolet Malibu and its upcoming Volt electric vehicle hint at what's possible. Taxpayers will be looking for a return on the $50 billion and counting that taxpayers have poured into GM. Let's hope we get our money back.