Friday, July 31, 2009

Clunkers for Cash too slow on the draw

I guess I've just missed out on another get-rich-quick scheme, and I'm not talking about PowerBall. News media are reporting today that the government's "Cash for Clunkers" program has already run out of money.
That's bad news for entrepreneurs like me, who saw an opportunity in the federal CARS (Car Allowance Rebate System) program, which offered up to $4,500 trade-in allowances to buyers who ponied up an old, gasoline-hungry vehicle to buy a new vehicle that gets at least 10 mpg better mileage. For creative entrepreneurs, this was a golden opportunity. I was ready to launch my Clunkers for Cash program and rake in some serious dough.
You see, all that federal money jump-started the value of old cars. I figured I'd buy as many old cars as I could find, vehicles that might be worth, say $800, and sell them to people who wanted to buy new cars and get the federal rebate for, let's say, $1,800. The new owner would drag the clunker to a participating dealer and collect his $4,500 and drive away with a new car and $2,700. I'd be satisfied with my $1,000 finder's fee on each transaction. If I could do five or 10 deals a week, I'd be sitting pretty, and a lot of jalopies would be in a better place.
Unfortunately, the feds have shut down the program before I could get rich quick, but I'm sure somebody made some money in this deal.

90 years of experience out the door

More than 90 years of experience walked out of the Wilson Times this week as the local newspaper continued to pare staff, starting with those with the most seniority, experience and institutional/community memory. Larry Sullivan and Royce Goff worked in the production end of the newspaper and had been there for as long as anyone could remember. I think the correct numbers are 48 years for Larry and 46 years for Royce, who had held the title of vice president and production manager. Larry, who held many different jobs, began working there as a teenager and had never worked anywhere else.
Although both men are of retirement age, neither wanted to retire. They were forced out as the paper continues to cut payroll. Don't expect to see any announcement of this transaction in the newspaper, and I'm told that additional staff cuts are probably coming.
Readers might not notice the absence of Larry and Royce, but you can bet they will be missed by their former colleagues. Their names appeared in the paper only once a year, when the newspaper celebrated its 20-year-plus employees. That list is a lot shorter than it used to be.
Knowledge of the newspaper business, from the hot-type, letter-press days in a downtown facility when Larry and Royce started, to the computer-driven production of today, runs through their veins like printer's ink. They've lived through and adapted to all the many changes in newspaper production over the past 50 years. Few people in the country can make that claim. Both had been faithfully loyal to the newspaper and its owners from the day the current publisher's grandmother hired them. And you'll never find a more helpful, cooperative and even-tempered colleague than Larry Sullivan.
Newspapers across the country are shedding employees, and some experienced old hands are being let go at other papers, too. Newspapers are losing not only loyal employees and decades of experience but also institutional memory. This is especially important in the news end, where it's important to know what happened 10 or 20 years ago or to recognize a name in the obituaries who long ago had been a celebrated or notorious local character.
Both men, I'm told, declined an offer of a retirement party — they saw no reason to celebrate a "retirement" they didn't want. There's a cliche about "biting the hand that feeds you," but this situation is the opposite — kicking that loyal dog who had only wanted to please you and then dumping him by the side of the road because it costs too much to feed him.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Video poker wants to solve budget woes

I've known Jeanne Farmer-Butterfield a long time and always thought she was a smart woman and a skilled politician. But her latest decision on video poker makes me want to scream, "Are you out of your mind?"
The video poker industry, which we thought was dead and buried in this state, is attempting to revive itself as a solution to the state's budget problems. Legislators who didn't learn anything from the false promises of the state lottery must be loving this proposal. Video poker supporters, who are the people who own video poker machines and are making enough profit to pay lobbyists to push this deal through the General Assembly, say reviving video poker could bring $500 million a year to North Carolina. Their message: Video poker — it's good for the economy. Farmer-Butterfield should know better.
Any legislator tempted to believe the promises of the video poker industry need only ask their neighbors in South Carolina what a great asset video poker was to that state before a state Supreme Court ruling killed the nascent industry. In the couple of years that video poker was legal in South Carolina, video poker casinos popped up like fireworks stands in June or South of the Border billboards. Rural hamlets near the N.C. border became home to grandiose new video casinos that attracted gamblers from all over. Billions of dollars were pulled out of the productive economy. Cases of gambling addiction crippled families and whole towns. Since the courts closed the casinos, those pastel-colored buildings sit forlorn and weed-infested along rural roads just south of the North Carolina line.
Since getting kicked out of South Carolina, the video poker industry has set its sights on North Carolina. Opposition from county sheriffs, other law enforcement officials and private citizens finally persuaded North Carolina legislators a couple of years ago to get rid of the video machines that were causing such headaches for law enforcement and such temptations for strike-it-rich gamblers.
With the state facing a budget shortfall, the video gambling folks have changed tactics again: Video poker will solve the state budget crisis and boost the flagging economy. If you fall for that, high-stakes casinos, dog racing, cockfighting and legalized prostitution will be awaiting their turn to solve North Carolina's budget and economic worries.

Education spending doesn't all go to classrooms

Gov. Bev Perdue has thrown a monkey wrench into state budget deliberations. Perdue announced that she could not support a plan by Democratic legislators to raise taxes by around a billion dollars to close a hole in the current year's budget. Many insiders saw Perdue's statement as disingenuous, considering that her own budget advisers had been involved in the legislators' negotiations.
Another part of Perdue's self-righteous announcement caught my eye. The governor said she would insist that current per-pupil spending on public schools not decline, even one cent. Education is too important ... our children are our future ... yada, yada, yada. Here's the fallacy in that high-principled-sounding defense of education: Per pupil spending includes all of the state's spending on public education, including redundant assistant superintendents for left-brain learners, directors of crayon accounting and under-secretaries of snack machines. Per-pupil spending is a convenient measure of investment in education, but all of that spending doesn't go to the classroom or benefit students. Suppose, for example, the Department of Public Instruction raised all administrative salaries by 100 percent and cut teaching positions by 20 percent. Per-pupil spending might remain the same, but the quality of instruction and the benefit to students would drop precipitously.
Perdue ran on a platform touting her graduate degree and experience in education, but this latest attempt to shore up her political base is transparently phony and won't stand up to the simplest analysis. It also won't do much to improve her statewide approval ratings, which have fallen as drastically as housing prices in south Florida.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Catering to shoppers' obese tendencies

All the latest health reports agree that obesity is a growing concern in America. The Land of Plenty has become a land of lack of restraint and nonstop consumption. Earlier this week, RTI researchers reported that obesity adds significantly to the nation's health-care costs, which is a major concern as Congress attempts to create a universal health-care system. Obesity adds nearly $150 billion annually to health care costs, and obesity treatment's share of health care costs is growing.
Obesity is a two-fold problem: Over-consumption of calories and lack of exercise to burn those calories. Eating too much (especially of the wrong foods) and failing to exercise lead almost inevitably to unhealthy weight gains.
Lately, I've been wondering if society isn't "enabling" the plunge into obesity. Advertising touts the enjoyment of food. Restaurants serve large meals with double an adult's daily caloric needs (and all-you-can-eat buffets are even worse). City planning discourages walking and practically forces people to use cars to get to places. Children spend their days planted in front of a television or video game, often consuming snacks nonstop, resulting in a frightening spike in diabetes among children. Elevators discourage use of stairs, which are often hard to find. Too many people see abdominal fat as a normal and inevitable eventuality.
And then there are the electric-powered shopping carts. All the supermarkets, home-improvement stores and discount stores have them. Presumably, they are meant for disabled shoppers who cannot walk or who can't push a cart and wield a walker or cane at the same time. But I've noticed that most of the people who use these powered carts do not appear to be disabled except by their own weight. Packing on an extra 100 pounds certainly makes it more difficult to walk. Those pounds also put extra stress on hips, knees and ankles, leading to pain and, often, expensive joint replacements.
But here's the catch: the more you sit and the less you walk, the more weight you're going to put on. Providing electric-powered carts for people who need the simple exercise of walking only "enables" more obesity. Stores are not going to eliminate the powered carts, nor are they going to say, "Sorry, ma'am, but you need to walk; it'll be good for you," even if doing so would be in the customer's best interests. Losing excess weight is difficult, and the more you weigh (and the older you are), the harder it gets. It will take a lot of walking, plus some hard-to-muster self-restraint to work off 50 pounds. Nevertheless, walking when given the opportunity (in an air-conditioned facility with a level floor) would be a good, though not painless, first step.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This is worthy of "breaking news"

Barton College's announcement that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has reaffirmed the Wilson college's accreditation nearly hides the blockbuster in that reaccreditation: SACS has upgraded Barton's status, meaning Barton can now offer graduate-level courses. That change could be huge for Barton.
There's no indication in the announcement that graduate programs are imminent
, but it would make sense for Barton to offer graduate courses in at least a couple of fields
— business and education. BB&T has a couple of thousand employees in Wilson. An MBA from Barton could enhance a young banker's status and improve chances for promotion. Other businesses in Wilson might also take advantage of MBA classes, particularly if offered through the college's innovative Weekend College program. A master's degree in education is a ticket to better pay and potential administrative jobs for teachers. Teachers who now travel to Greenville or Raleigh for a master's degree could avoid a lot of commuting by matriculating at Barton. Again, Weekend College would fit many teachers' schedules. There may be other graduate programs — MSW, M.Div., MSN, etc. — that would be in demand.
Graduate programs would serve the community but would also elevate Barton's status. It's a tough market for small, private colleges competing against less expensive, taxpayer-subsidized, state-supported colleges and universities. Any enhancement a private college could tout would be an advantage.
Norval Kneten, Barton's president, is a pragmatic visionary who has led Barton with his eyes fixed on long-range goals, not just the next semester. He has inspired faculty, alumni and community supporters, and, no doubt, much of the credit for Barton's enhanced SACS status owes to Kneten's leadership. Barton's importance to the Wilson community is difficult to measure. Culturally and intellectually, Barton's scholars, writers and artists raise Wilson above its farm-market roots, so the college's fortunes are interwoven with the city's.
Considering Barton's importance to the community, I'm amazed that the Wilson Times has not trumpeted the news Barton announced Monday. You'd think it would be worth "breaking news" treatment.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gratuitous insult ruins a good comment

My post Friday about economic recovery, unemployment and the minimum wage generated a lot of comments, for which I'm grateful. It actually generated one more comment that was rejected, regrettably.
Several commenters tossed around pros and cons of the minimum wage. The rejected comment added to the discussion the fact that an additional 70 cents an hour or $28 for a 40-hour week is not the entire cost to employers. Payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) costs employers another 7.65 percent of wages, and government also demands more in unemployment insurance, etc. Valid points, but to those valid points this anonymous reader added an insulting remark about the alleged ignorance of a previous commenter, who was not anonymous.
Because Blogger software does not allow me to edit out offensive portions of a comment, I had two choices: I could allow an anonymous reader to insult another reader who had the integrity to use his own name, or I could reject the comment. I chose the latter.
This episode has given me cause to think again about requiring registration to comment on this blog. That might discourage some commenters, which I don't want to do, but it might be the best alternative. It is a guiding principle of journalism that anonymous personal attacks should not be allowed. I think it's a good idea for blogging, too.

Farmers market conjures delicious memories

My wife and I came home from the Wilson County farmers market Saturday morning with tomatoes, peas, peaches, blueberries and one more thing — okra. We would share the tomatoes, peas, peaches and blueberries. The okra was for me alone. She doesn't like okra. Never did. Never will. Whenever the matter is raised, she uses the S-word to describe it — slimy.
I, on the other hand, grew up in a household where okra was on the table several times a week and where a row or two of okra spread their broad, notched leaves and upright, fuzz-covered pods in our garden each year. My mother would hand me a bucket and a kitchen knife when I came home from school and tell me to cut her a mess of okra for dinner. She would clean the seed pods and slice them into half-inch cylinders, which were dipped into flour and fried in an iron skillet coated with bacon grease. Fried okra is a delicacy, crispy on the outside and soft and moist inside — not slimy. Mother's fried okra was battered with flour, not the corn meal I find at the few restaurants serving fried okra. I think the flour presents more of the okra's flavor.
In my mother's kitchen, okra could also be used for flavoring vegetables. Three or four pods of okra cook in a four-quart pot full of Crowder peas gave the peas a fresh, spicy flavor more vibrant than the usual fatback or ham seasoning. Okra was an integral ingredient in my mother's incomparable vegetable soup, a soup that, defying conventional culinary theories, contained no meat stock, consisted entirely of tomatoes, white corn, butterbeans, okra and a flour-based thickening. It was so good, I used to eat leftovers cold and congealed right out of the refrigerator. I have tried to duplicate that soup, but I cannot match its flavor.
Saturday afternoon, I shelled the peas we had bought, and on Sunday I cleaned and sliced the okra, rolled the slices in all-purpose flower and fried it in a small skillet. The result was a dinner that, while not perfect, was delicious, and not at all slimy.
On Sunday afternoon, with the temperature above 90, my wife and I decided to avoid the heat and lie down and read in our bedroom. Each of us, side by side, absorbed in a novel, lost track of the time until we realized the afternoon was gone and the shadows had stretched across the back yard. The afternoon was a reward for having caught up on household and gardening chores, and it obeyed that commandment about a day of rest. If there is a better, more relaxing or more economical way to spend a hot summer afternoon, or a cold winter winter Sunday or a rainy afternoon any time of the year than lying in bed with a book and a companion with her own book, I haven't found it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Signs of economic recovery will not help everyone

The Dow-Jones Industrial Average topped 9,000 at Thursday's closing after lingering in the 6,000s just a few weeks ago. Even my second-quarter 401(k) statement looked healthier, though it's a long, long way from recovering the investment I had in it 15 months ago. And with no income to invest in the 401(k), any recovery in its value will be slow and slight.
Housing seems to have bottomed out, and corporate profits are exceeding analysts' expectations. So why am I — and millions of others like me — still unemployed? The national unemployment rate is pushing 10 percent, and North Carolina's rate is holding steady around 11 percent, even though at least one economist has said the state's rate could top out above 13 percent.
It's the nature of a recession that sales and profits recover before rehiring ever begins. Owners and managers want to make sure that revenues will hold up before they add new expenses. Speaking of which, a new minimum wage law went into effect today, and that extra expense could stagger the feeble economic recovery. The wage goes up to $7.25 today, and struggling businesses will have to absorb that expense. Keep an eye on the "dollar menu" at your favorite fast-food joint. The restaurants were making little or nothing on those items anyway, but a higher minimum wage will likely result in fewer cheap items or a higher price. The additional income for low-wage earners is not likely to have a significant macro-economic impact. The $1,400 or so a full-time minimum wage worker will gain is likely to go toward basic necessities, not economy-boosting major purchases. Still, it will be a welcome change for struggling workers.
Meanwhile, North Carolina legislators seem intent on raising taxes in the midst of a recession. Although Gov. Bev. Perdue squelched Democratic legislators' new-taxes-for-everyone formula, she still favors higher taxes. More taxes will drag down any economic recovery.
My former profession has been waiting for the housing market to bottom out. Newspaper executives want to get real estate ads back on their printed pages and recover some of the revenues they've lost since the housing bubble burst. But that might not happen. This blog post by respected blogger Alan D. Mutter (Newsosaur), predicts that Realtors will forgo print advertising in the future; the loss of real estate ads will be permanent, no matter what the housing market might do, he says. Car ads, another cash cow for newspapers in their heyday, could go the same way. It's easy to hunt for cars on the Internet, both at dedicated ad sites like and at dealers' sites. If automotive and real estate ads don't come back, any economic recovery in the newspaper business will be slow and minuscule.
Not that I was job-hunting in the newspaper industry anyway.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Surprise! Candidates oppose high electric rates

Almost without exception, the candidates for Wilson City Council (and it's good to see the apparently greater interest in the council race this year) have come out against high electric rates. As they say in middle school, "Well, duh!"
Who isn't against high electric rates? Rates charged by the city of Wilson are among the highest in the state, but not the highest in the state. That honor would go, I suppose, to some other N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency city. Several NCEMPA cities charge higher rates than Wilson does, but Wilson's rates are still significantly higher than Progress Energy or Duke Power rates. A number of people, from politicians to business developers to ordinary homeowners, have complained that Wilson's high electric rates stifle business growth and place an extra tax on Wilson homes and businesses. Naturally, every candidate looking for a vote is against the city's high electric rates.
What I haven't seen from any of the candidates (or from anyone else) is a rational plan for reducing the electric rate. Wilson's higher rate owes to the interest Wilson and 31 other NCEMPA cities are paying on debt incurred in the early 1980s to buy shares of Carolina Power & Light (now Progress Energy) generating plants. Wilson is responsible for about 15 percent of that debt, the third largest share behind Greenville and Rocky Mount. Wilson's current share of that debt is just under $400 million. The debt is scheduled to be paid off in 2026.
Ownership of the generating capacity was supposed to actually reduce the city's energy costs. Instead of buying directly from CP&L, NCEMPA cities would receive their share of the generating plants' capacity at no additional cost, other than the cost of operating the generators. Wilson City Council actually set its electric rate below CP&L's rate initially but had to raise rates as debt costs increased. Several things went wrong with this rosy scenario. The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident vastly increased the cost of building a nuclear plant. CP&L's plan for four reactors at its Shearon Harris facility near Raleigh was reduced to one reactor, but its cost increased exponentially. The Shearon Harris plant is one of the units NCEMPA bought into. At the same time, interest rates soared, with the prime rate topping 20 percent at one point. The interest on the bonds NCEMPA issued became a burden for the cities. I suspect NCEMPA and member cities also failed to recognize the problem quickly and failed to cut costs or take other measures that might have nibbled into the debt.
Essentially, Wilson and its 31 sister cities in this mess are stuck. Until they can complete payments on the debt, their electric rates will be higher than Progress Energy's. While it's easy to criticize that debt and the higher electric rates, what would the critics have the city do?
• Sell its electric business? This proposal was aired during the debate over deregulating electricity about 10 years ago. The debt each city owes exceeds the value of its electric system. The city could end up with debt payments and no electric system to provide the cash flow for those payments.
• Default on the debt? Defaulting would be catastrophic for the city's financial health. Interest rates on its bonds would soar, and it might not be able to get financing for any purchases, from water lines to police cars. The city would be a leper in the municipal community.
• Cut spending at NCEMPA and its management agency, ElectriCities? That sounds like a simple solution, but eliminating ElectriCities management in its entirety would not result in any noticeable reduction in electric rates. ElectriCities might not be the most efficient operation on Earth, but it's not the cause of Wilson's higher electric rates.
Between now and the municipal election, I suspect we'll hear plenty of complaints about Wilson's electric rates, but ask the candidates how they propose to reduce electric rates. Criticizing the rates is easy; reducing them is difficult, if not impossible. There aren't any painless or even minimally painful solutions to this dilemma.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Same old solution is back: Raise taxes

North Carolina legislators, already three weeks into the new fiscal year without a budget, have a new plan for raising almost all taxes on everybody in an effort to close the state's budget deficit. A deal reported today involves an increase in sales taxes, a surcharge on everybody's income taxes and new "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol.
The deal requires legislators to go against the conventional wisdom that raising taxes during a recession is politically crazy and economically detrimental. While the federal government is passing out stimulus money to get people to spend and businesses to invest, North Carolina will take money out of the economy in order to avoid cuts in the state budget.
The proposal to raise the state sales tax rate by one cent or 0.75 cent is particularly offensive. Earlier in the session, legislators had talked about reforming sales taxes to bring services under the sales tax umbrella. Why should you pay a sales tax on a lawn mower but not on a lawn service? Sales taxes are regressive, taking a larger share of less-affluent taxpayers' income than of more-affluent taxpayers' income. Exempting services, which the wealthy are more likely to use (think of cleaning services, lawn services, legal fees, brokerage services, etc.), than are the poor. The earlier proposal was to include services and reduce the overall rate.
It's not as if the state didn't already have a formidable sales tax rate. The current 6.75 percent combined state/local sales tax rate would rise to 7.5 or 7.75 percent. Even states without a state income tax have lower sales tax rates. Florida's sales tax is 6 percent, and Tennessee's is 7 percent, but those state manage to get by without an income tax. Virginia has a 5 percent sales tax, and South Carolina's is 6 percent.
The proposal before legislators would also add a surcharge to state income taxes of 2 percent, but that would only be for two years — a temporary tax. Followers of state politics know that a promise of a "temporary" tax is as credible as "Of course, I'll respect you in the morning." We're still paying "temporary" taxes from 2001.
"Sin taxes" would also be raised, but the amount is undetermined. Once again, North Carolina's taxes on beer and wine are higher than most neighboring states, and its once-negligible cigarette tax now seems to grow each year.
All of this lends credence to Republicans' perennial complaints that North Carolina has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. The GOP, however, has been so inept at making its point and so shackled by internal bickering and ideological whackos that voters have shunned their candidates. Gov. Bev Perdue's declining approval rating may be an indication that voters are having second thoughts. If these taxes go through, and if the state's recession (unemployment is already above the national rate) lingers, Democrats will have some 'splainin' to do in 2010.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Apollo 11 is still an incredible achievement

I stayed up too late last night watching the History Channel's docudrama on the Apollo 11 moon landing, "Moonshot." The show was less than riveting and, I thought, focused too much on the personal lives and character flaws of the astronauts, but it gave an interesting review of the lunar landing 40 years ago this week. (A good history of the manned space program is Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff.")
I stayed up late 40 years ago, too. I sat with my family to watch the blurry, fuzzy, black-and-white (my parents would not buy a color TV for another five years or so) images. I used a film camera to take a picture of the TV screen as Neil Armstrong stood on the moon. The enormity of the event — humans setting foot on another world; humans looking back on Earth from 240,000 miles away — was difficult to grasp. The world was in awe of the transcending engineering achievement.
I had grown up in what was dubbed the "Space Age." My schoolmates and I sat in an auditorium (there was only one television in the entire school) and watched rocket launches. The Mercury flights dominated the news. I was disappointed when, as the manned flights grew in length from minutes to several hours, the television networks halted their nonstop coverage, returning to afternoon soap operas while an astronaut was still orbiting the Earth.
The moon landing was the culmination of that era. President Kennedy made the outlandish promise to land men on the moon and return them to Earth by the end of the decade. That gave NASA barely eight years to pull off the greatest feat in the history of human travel. It is still incredible that America was able to achieve it. Traveling to the moon and back required giant leaps in rocketry, computers, space suits, orbital rendezvous and basic engineering. It boggles the mind to realize that America was able to do it.
That magnificent achievement 40 years ago engendered a new expression, "A nation that can put a man on the moon should be able to ... (fill in the blank)." The Apollo program succeeded because of a determined commitment to achieve a clear goal. Apollo didn't have to waste time coming up with a mission statement; its mission was to go to the moon and back before the end of 1969; no further statement was needed. Another amazing point is that the Apollo program, for all its vast commitment of national treasure, cost less over its lifetime (adjusted for inflation), about $150 billion, than a year of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This 40th anniversary has brought out the expected challenges to go back to the moon or go to Mars. There was a time when, still thrilled by the rocketry of the early 1960s, I would have agreed with those advocates of space travel. Today, I'm not so sure. NASA is clearly floundering and needs a new goal, but going back to the moon would produce few benefits, and going to Mars is a far greater challenge than going to the moon was when President Kennedy made that commitment in 1961. The primary reason for space exploration is simply that — exploration, the human desire to see what's not been seen, to go where no one has gone. I don't know that that's a good enough reason today, given the fiscal restraints Americans face.
Still, this anniversary brings back a bit of the thrill from the 1960s, an era of magnificent accomplishments in science and engineering.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A rejection is not a personal note

The 4- by 5-inch ivory-colored envelope arrived looking like a socially correct invitation or personal note. The first indication that it was something less than that was the postage meter stamp in the upper right-hand corner. Then there was the return address, with logo, of an organization that had advertised a job recently. I also noted that my name and address were printed on an address label that did not match the color of the envelope.
When I slit open the envelope, I found what appeared, again, to be a social note, neatly folded with the organization name and logo in a bright, distinctive color. Unfolding the note, I found a mass-printed rejection without any illusion of personal correspondence, just a form letter with a signature preprinted from a name in the Human Resources Department. It read: "Your resume and qualifications have been reviewed and while your credentials are certainly impressive, we have other candidates whose experience and qualifications more closely match our organization's needs. Thank you. Good luck with your job search."
The wording was reminiscent of the preprinted rejection slips sent to authors by publishers returning an unsolicited manuscript: "We regret that your manuscript does not meet our current needs." Non-judgmental. Not too harsh. Not critical. Simply a matter of a mismatch of needs.
Having been on the other side of this hiring dance dozens of times over my newspaper career, I can appreciate the awkwardness of telling people they didn't make the cut. But I never adopted a form letter (OK, I never had all that many applicants to reject, either). I always made a phone call or wrote a personal letter or e-mail. It might have said essentially the same thing the preprinted form I received said, but it was addressed to one person and was personally signed, and the language, if not oozing sincerity and empathy, was at least not boiler-plate.
In a deep recession such as this one, job seekers get used to rejection. Either applications and resumes are sucked into a black hole and are never heard from again, or a polite response informs the applicant that his/her qualifications do not match the description of the ideal candidate. Or an initial screening interview leads to nowhere. I've collected in a file the written rejections I've received (my favorite, an e-mail about an online job, said the company received more than 1,000 applications), but I have lost count of those that simply never acknowledged my application. A note rejecting an application is better than ignoring the application altogether, but, please, don't try to soothe the pain of a rejection by masquerading that rejection as a personal note. I'm not sure I'd want to work for an organization that is so disingenuous.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ruling puts superintendent in charge, sort of

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson won a court case Friday, prevailing in a lawsuit against Gov. Bev Perdue and her appointed state Board of Education chairman, William Harrison. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled that the state constitution intended that the elected superintendent should be in charge of education, that Atkinson, elected last year to a second term, should be in charge of the Department of Public Instruction.

Perdue, and Mike Easley before her, had put her own director in charge of Public Instruction, saying she wanted to make responsibilities and accountability clear. Atkinson sued to settle the issue, and Judge Hobgood ruled that, accountability or not, the state constitution cannot be canceled at a governor's whim. Attorney General Roy Cooper has indicated he will appeal the ruling, and Atkinson and Harrison said they would work on their relationship.

Regardless of how the appeal turns out, don't expect a lot of changes in public education. The constitution may put the elected superintendent in charge of Public Instruction, but it also charges the superintendent with carrying out the decisions of the Board of Education. There's the irony: The elected superintendent, a constitutional officer, is required to carry out the wishes of a board of political appointees. So who's in charge, really? Not the elected constitutional officer.

The real solution to this problem is to shorten the state ballot by appointing rather than electing public officials who do not make public policy, including the superintendent of public instruction, the secretary of state, the commissioner of agriculture and others. Only 14 states elect their chief educational officer. Thirty-six states have clearer lines of accountability and responsibility.

The governor cannot redact parts of the state constitution, but a courageous governor could lead a campaign to amend the constitution to make the superintendent of public instruction appointed, thereby clearing up any ambiguity about accountability without violating the constitution.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Intended to be a museum, it's an eyesore

Remember this place? I ran across it earlier this week when I was out shooting pictures for Preservation of Wilson. It's the last remaining section of the Wilson Collegiate Institute, which became a Confederate military hospital during the Civil War. The original building stood on Green Street, if my memory is correct (I can't find any documentation online). Built sometime before the Civil War as Wilson Female Seminary, it housed wounded soldiers, many of whom died and were buried in a mass grave in Maplewood Cemetery. In 1872, it became Wilson Collegiate Institute and educated, among others, future Gov. Charles B. Aycock and newspaper publisher Josephus Daniels, according to the city's Web site. Around 1898, the large structure was divided into six houses, and the section depicted in the photo above is the last remaining segment.
This section stood on Oak Avenue. I've been told that graffiti left by Confederate patients is still visible on the rafters. For more than a decade, a small group of Wilsonians fought to prevent demolition of the dilapidated and abandoned structure and then to move it to a more suitable location, where it could be used as a history museum. Several years ago (a Wilson Times online archives search turned up no references to this event), the unit was moved to its current location on Goldsboro Street near the CSX railroad tracks. Emilie English, a tireless proponent of preserving the old building, led a group from United Daughters of the Confederacy that succeeded against the odds to save and move the building. Unfortunately, the group exhausted its funds with the expensive move, and no efforts have been made to restore the structure. English is now in a nursing home.
The historic building is an eyesore in an area where individuals have begun restoring some of the old mansions in the Woodard Circle area. City Council Thursday night postponed a request from the Community Health Center to turn over the city's old fire station (recently used as Hope Station) to the clinic because some local residents wanted to see the old station become a museum. The building pictured here was also intended to be a museum. The Wilson Collegiate Institute is one of the more historic buildings in Wilson, but without an expensive restoration, it will be nothing more than an eyesore.
Without a persistent and determined champion like Emilie English, the building's future is far dimmer than its past.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Word gains new ground

"In the beginning was the Word ..." — John 1:1

But some of us rebelled against The Word — not the Word of God Incarnate but the Word of Microsoft, the ubiquitous word processing program that, like it or not, has become a nearly universal standard for written communications in this Digital Age. When I bought a new computer eight or nine years ago, I opted to save the $100 or so the vendor would have charged for a special, discounted copy of Microsoft Word. I could get along without it. The computer came with a built-in and quite usable word processing program that was even able to open Word files — most of the time. When we bought a new, more powerful computer about four years ago, I made the same decision again: We could live without the Word.
This week I caved in and bought the home version of Microsoft Office, which includes Word, along with the Excel spreadsheet program and PowerPoint's (also ubiquitous if you go to any classroom or meeting) presentation software. I managed to catch it on sale this week and couldn't resist the possibility of saving a little money and saving some headaches. I've occasionally received e-mail attachments that wouldn't open in my word processor or that had tabular material that wouldn't tabulate in the translated version. I also realized that if I were to find any work as a freelance editor, I would almost certainly need a reliable version of Word.
Although I'm a little reluctant to admit it, I'm pleased with my purchase. No longer will I be unable to open Word attachments. No longer will I have to borrow my wife's laptop to fill out online application forms that come — you guessed it — in Word. It's the national, if not worldwide standard, and it really is impossible to resist. A few court systems, I understand, are holding out with Word Perfect, but the rest of the world is a Word world.
That hegemony is part of what made me resist buying Word. I used to kid people that every time they used Word or Internet Explorer, they were giving Microsoft founder Bill Gates another nickel — as if he needed it! I have a tendency to pull for the Little Guy, and Microsoft hasn't been the Little Guy since about 1981. Just under 90 percent of U.S. computers run on Microsoft Windows, which many experts will tell you is a power-hungry and "clunky" operating system. Microsoft's dominance is evident in the fact that even though its new Vista OS was panned by reviewers and caused all kinds of problems for users, millions of people eagerly switched to Vista because it was the latest thing from Microsoft. Some users then wanted to uninstall Vista and go back to Windows XP. (The new Windows 7, which will replace Vista in the fall, is said to be a vast improvement.)
At any rate, my resistance movement is over. I'm on board with Microsoft Office. I'll be able to read other folks' attachments and send them my attachments without converting my writing to a PDF. I'll now be computing on a level field with the rest of the world, and I'm sure Bill Gates will be happy to get the news. But I still like my Apple Macintosh computers. I can't abandon the Little Guy altogether.

Believe me, I had nothing to do with it

It happened again this week. An old friend, whom I had not seen in some time, greeted me with the question, "How are you liking your retirement?" As I have numerous times over the past nine months, I had to explain, "I'm not retired; I was laid off. I'm job-hunting." When I was laid off, the newspaper where I had worked for 29 years and where I had managed the news content for 19 years, made no announcement of my departure, or of the departure of several colleagues who were laid off at the same time. One former colleague and I joked about taking out an ad in the newspaper explaining the circumstances of our departure.
Lately, I've been thinking about taking out another type of ad, one that says, "I'm not responsible for what your newspaper looks like or for its content." As much as I disliked being laid off, that action did at least absolve me of any connection with the redesign that came a few months later. Not many people have been thrilled about the new look or news emphasis. The letter to the editor that ran Wednesday is the first public condemnation I've seen. Although the paper ran a thank you to readers who had praised the redesign, everyone I've talked to has expressed disgust or exasperation with the redesign. And, unfortunately, I still run into people who think I'm still working there. For them, let me make it clear: I had nothing to do with it!
Now, let me get back to "enjoying my retirement."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

City Council incumbents like status quo

Wilson's municipal election will have at least four candidates in District 5 and at least two candidates in District 7. If, however, you live in District 6 or District 3, you might find no choice on the ballot (only the incumbents in those two districts have filed thus far). And if you live in Districts 1, 2 or 4, don't bother going to the polls; you can't vote.
That's the dilemma of single-member-district voting and staggered terms. District 5 is one of the more affluent districts, so it has attracted a surplus of candidates while a less affluent district, such as District 6, attracts fewer challengers. District 3 is also an affluent district but is not yet contested.
A push for minority representation on City Council produced this situation. Although at-large voting had elected two African-Americans to City Council (A.P. Coleman and Gwen Burton), the federal Voting Rights Act favors majority-minority districts, which virtually guarantee minority representation, and the city switched to single-member districts in the 1980s. Three districts are white-majority and three are black-majority with one district, District 6, closely divided between the races. The only official elected citywide is the mayor.
Wilson is nearly evenly divided by race with minorities holding a slight edge in population. But changing back to at-large elections is politically unfeasible. Although some council members will say privately that they'd like to see at least some at-large districts (Raleigh, for example, uses a mixture of at-large and single-member districts), there has never been a serious effort to change the election law, which would have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
A change to three at-large districts and four single-member districts (two white-majority and two black-majority) would increase voter clout and offer candidates more options — they could seek either an at-large or a district seat. My guess is that, depending on which candidates run, Wilson would end up with four white and three black council members, the same split we have now, but a black-majority council would be possible. The biggest advantage to this scenario is that the at-large candidates would have to appeal to both black and white voters. (Changing to concurrent rather than staggered terms — i.e., every seat is contested every two or four years — would give voters a chance to turn out the entire council in one election.)
That's not going to happen, least of all this year. The three challengers in District 5 are good news for incumbent Donald Evans. An incumbent enters an election with an advantage in name recognition and electoral experience. A challenger has to give voters a reason to not vote for the incumbent. When multiple candidates divide the anti-incumbent vote, guess who wins. If, however, those three District 5 challengers were scattered among at-large districts, one or more of them might win.
Until four members of City Council see an advantage in changing to at-large elections, change will never happen. Because district elections work to incumbents' advantage (see above), that's not likely to ever happen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Judge strikes a blow for dress standards

Judge Milton F. "Toby" Fitch has struck a blow for civility, propriety and respect by holding several visitors to his Wilson County courtroom in contempt of court for violation of dress standards. The standards are prominently displayed outside the courtroom. Among the banned attire are shorts, spaghetti-strap tops, tube tops, untucked shirt tails, saggy pants, bare midriffs or cleavage, and shirts with obscene or profane writing. Ringing cell phones and pagers are also forbidden.
Fitch (the accompanying photo shows him in his Masonic attire) had some visitors arrested and sentenced to a 30-day stay in jail, during which time they would wear more appropriate, bright orange clothing. The judge let the offenders go after a few hours in the pokey, but he made his point.
What's interesting in the Wilson Times coverage of the incident is the comments readers added. Several people praised Fitch for upholding standards, but a few questioned the judge's right or justification to hold these visitors in contempt. One called him a "power-hungry tyrant." Another seemed to doubt whether he had the authority to hold someone in contempt for the way they dress. Several expressed wonder at harsh sentences for courtroom attire while some convicted felons leave the courtroom with no prison time.
Judges have broad discretion over their courtrooms and can impose virtually any standards they choose within reason. Fitch was perfectly justified in holding these free spirits who think rules don't apply to them in contempt of court. The rules are posted outside the courtroom, and a basic understanding of decency and respect would inform most people that they should dress appropriately to the situation, but decency and respect are becoming rarer commodities.
Thirty years ago, on the rare occasions when my wife and I would go out for a "nice" dinner, we would dress up, meaning a coat and tie for me and a fancy dress for her. We could count on other patrons of a "nice" restaurant being similarly attired. But now, it's not unusual to see someone in ragged jeans and a T-shirt dropping $100 on a meal served by a waitress far better dressed than the customer. Every place is relaxing dress standards. I wore a tie to work nearly every day for more than 30 years, but the last few years, I was the only one in the office wearing a tie. Look at photos from baseball and football games in the 1950s. Most of the men in the stands were wearing coats and ties. Suits and ties were once known as "Sunday clothes," but churches are also "dressing down," and even ministers eschew the tie or clerical collar at many churches. One might claim that this trend is simply a transition similar to the transition at the end of the Victorian Era, when people stopped "dressing for dinner" in formal clothes. But I think it's more than an evolving lack of formality; it's a carryover of the 1960s' anti-establishmentarianism, when dignity, respect and social standards gave way to free expression, individuality and contempt for social mores.
It seems unlikely that this shift will be reversed any time soon, but if the tide is to be turned, the courtroom is a good place to begin.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tuition increase punishes community college students

Just over a year ago, two Democratic candidates for governor were proclaiming that they would make community college tuition free. Then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and then-State Treasurer Richard Moore touted their free-tuition plan as an economic and educational stimulus. Moore, in particular, had a detailed plan for where he would find the money to cover the tuition expense. Both said the plan was attainable and would benefit the state in many ways.
North Carolina politicians count on people having short memories regarding campaign promises and "temporary" taxes. Instead of making community college tuition free, the General Assembly has raised tuition, nearly doubling the charge for some classes. The computer class I'm taking at Wilson Community College cost me $65, not counting the textbook. This fall, the same class will cost $120. By some calculations, that's still a bargain, but it's a heckuva lot more than the current cost, and it will be a real hardship for some people struggling to update their job skills.
The tuition increase is in effect even though the General Assembly has not passed a 2009-2010 budget. The increase is part of the continuation budget, passed by legislators to carry the state until a full budget can be adopted. The chances of the final budget (whenever it comes) not including the community college tuition increase is probably almost nil. Legislators aren't going to want to refund money to students who have paid the higher tuition already.
Politicians give lip service to the notion that education is a top priority in the state. To prove their dedication to education, they approve expensive, useless and duplicative university buildings and programs; they mandate reduced class sizes, resulting in added costs for facilities borne by local school districts; they tout "cutting-edge" changes in curriculum (remember the Basic Education Plan?) that are abandoned after a few ineffective years; they mandate tests; they mandate specific teachings (such as a class dedicated to the Constitution); they regulate student behavior; they demand the collection of a variety of warehoused statistics.
But when it comes to an issue that could have a real impact on people's lives and on the economy — improving job skills through continuing education at community colleges — legislators see only a means of increasing state revenues from those North Carolinians least able to pay.
Meanwhile, we'll spend $25 million on a pier.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Anonymous Internet brings out nasty side of people

A reader of this blog e-mailed me recently with this observation: "One of your 'anonymous' responders is certainly consistent, negative and nasty. What a small place he inhabits -- sad."
I responded to the e-mail: "If you read anonymous (or pseudonymous) comments on various news sites, you find there are a lot of irrationally angry people in the world, and way too many of them have Internet access." My thoughts were influenced by my recent reading of the voluminous comments on the Mike Easley scandals and the Mark Sanford "hiking" trip, both of which brought hundreds of responses, many of the angry and crude.
I was also thinking of the comments that were posted on The Wilson Daily Times' online forum, which got so nasty, defamatory, insulting and uncouth that the newspaper finally killed the whole thing. The Internet has given people the opportunity to express their vilest thoughts anonymously and without fear of retribution, other than someone else's anonymous remark, and the result has been a coarsening of public discourse. Cable television's political talk shows, which seem to value caustic comment over rational analysis, may also be partly to blame. These Internet postings have, one person told me, absolutely ruined public debate. In these forums, it's the pointed, vile zinger, not carefully reasoned logic, that "wins" the argument.
This revealing of the public's dark internal anger also raises theological issues. A classic argument has always been whether mankind is basically good (i.e., formed in the image of God) or basically bad (corrupted by original sin). If you knew you could get away with it, is there anything you wouldn't do? That is a simple test of morals. On the Internet, you can get away with saying anything about anybody (although some Internet libel cases are beginning to be heard), and people are revealing their fundamental malevolence in the anonymous comments they leave.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Save us from a boost in the sales tax

Give Gov. Bev Perdue credit, as the News & Observer gave her this morning, for opening up the doors and file drawers of state government to more public scrutiny. But when it comes to budgeting, Perdue seems to be still trying to make the numbers add up.
Earlier this week, Perdue announced support for a one-cent increase in the state sales tax, raising the rate on retail sales to 7.75 percent. If that weren't enough of a surprise, Perdue also proposed raising the state income tax rate for high-income taxpayers, increasing the tax on wine and beer, and expanding the sales tax, to some services, including cosmetic surgery and limousines. Earlier in this legislative session, there was talk of a sales tax reform that would expand the tax to common services, such as lawn care, and reducing the overall rate, perhaps to around 5 or 6 percent.
Raising the sales tax is the wrong strategy. If Perdue's one-cent increase is adopted, North Carolina's tax will approach the sales tax levels of states without an income tax, which rely on sales taxes for most of their revenue. The state would be far wiser to expand the sales tax and reduce the rate. Perdue's selective and timid expansion to limousines and cosmetic surgery is hardly an effective tax policy. If the sales tax were applied to all services, including advertising, accounting fees, legal fees, lawn care, car maintenance, home repairs, etc., the rate could be significantly reduced while still collecting the same amount of money.
And North Carolina, despite this downturn, should be collecting plenty of money. The state does face a budget deficit, which might be as large as $4 billion or maybe as little as $1.5 billion, depending on how you count it. Perdue and legislative leaders aren't counting the $1 billion-plus in federal stimulus money the state expects to receive. This deficit is partly the result of spending commitments legislators made in the past few years. Last year, you might remember, legislators decided to borrow money for a variety of construction projects, which leaders said would boost the economy and inoculate North Carolina against a looming downturn. That worked well, didn't it?
Legislators should start their budgeting by putting an immediate stop to all borrowing and halting construction projects, including the new dental school at ECU and the expansion of the dental school at UNC. Better to wait longer for a dental appointment than to spend money you don't have. After halting capital projects, legislators should look for efficiencies and should eliminate programs that are no longer necessary or are ineffective. Only then should taxes be addressed. Legislators should look at ways of making taxes fairer and more effective, not simply looking for ways to increase revenue. North Carolina's taxes on wine and beer, for example, are already among the highest in the region. Expanding the sales tax to services and lowering the rate would benefit most consumers and put state revenues on a sounder basis.
But raising the sales tax by another penny? Perdue is on the wrong track.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Your car makes a statement about you

Answer this quiz: Is the car you drive (a) A means of getting from point A to point B; or (b) A statement about who you are?
For too many people, and for a variety of reasons, the honest answer is (b). For some people, a shiny new car connotes a certain classy prestige. It is a statement about one's wealth and status. For others, a hybrid vehicle identifies them as people concerned about the fate of the earth and determined preserve natural resources. Still others drive gargantuan vans or SUVs that identify them as parents of several children who must be shuttled from place to place. Some people (OK, men) drive beefy, heavy pickup trucks that make a statement about their manliness and hardy blue-collar status (even if they have white-collar jobs).
For the past 13 years, I have been driving a nimble, two-seater with a manual transmission and a removable top. Its statement, I suppose, was that I was a sporty guy, or perhaps a man dealing with a mid-life crisis. But for me, it was simply a fun car to drive, as well as a practical one. Why drive around with four empty seats you don't need? And its gas mileage could nearly compete with hybrids. When I hemmed and hawed over whether to buy the car in 1996, my wife made the killer argument for the purchase: "If you don't buy it now," she said, "the next time you'll be too old." So I bought it, and I've had few regrets. Several times, I've been able to wind it out (insofar as its 86 horsepower engine would wind) on twisty mountain roads, working the clutch and shift lever as often as I worked the steering wheel.
That 15-year-old car, which I've driven more than 100,000 miles (it has 141,000 miles on the odometer), is in the shop this week, getting some body work repaired, and I've been driving a rental car the past couple of days. The rental, a Nissan Sentra, is a basic vehicle: automatic transmission, cloth seats and air conditioning. Not exciting, but quite practical. It gets me from point A to point B reliably and in some comfort. Its strong air conditioner is a delight compared to the effete AC in my Del Sol, whose black exterior and black interior soak up the summer heat like a heat sink.
This experience has made me rethink my intentions about my "next" car, if I ever get around to trading the Del Sol. (Gotta find a job first.) I had thought I'd look for another sporty car with a stick shift, another car that would be fun to drive, and, as a bonus, less likely to be stolen (car thieves don't drive stick shifts). But this week's rental has reminded me how pleasant an undemanding family car can be. Before buying the Del Sol, I drove a Plymouth K-Car for nine years and loved it. It was generally reliable, comfortable, and capable of seating up to six people. It got me from point A to point B. If the air conditioning had not died, I would have driven it several more years.
With my Honda getting its dents repaired, maybe I'll drive it indefinitely, despite its occasional leaks, its well-worn interior, its laggard air conditioning and its air bags that no longer work (they need a $750 replacement module). Driving it is still fun, especially if I can get it to the mountains.
I've even suggested that my heirs might save money by using the car as my casket when the time comes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert McNamara paid for his mistakes

The death Monday of Robert McNamara at age 93 sent members of my generation scurrying back to our conflicted memories of long ago. McNamara embodied those conflicts. He was the most prominent member of the extraordinary cadre of confident, competent and ambitious young men who joined the Kennedy administration with the firm belief that they could make government work more efficiently and effectively. "The Best and Brightest," the title applied to them by writer David Halberstam, was in many ways appropriate. They were, as Kennedy said in his inaugural address, "tempered by war," but they were also prime examples of an educational and industrial meritocracy that developed after World War II. They really were "whiz kids" who had proven themselves in academia and industry.
As it often does, hubris humbled their confidence. McNamara and his aides reformed the Pentagon, finding efficiencies in purchasing and manpower. He also helped guide America through its closest encounter with nuclear war, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But his confidence and his sense of moral authority took a beating in Vietnam. After Kennedy was assassinated, McNamara and Lyndon Johnson enlarged the war, sending half-a-million U.S. servicemen to South Vietnam to battle a slippery insurgency. As more bombs were dropped and more Americans died, McNamara lost confidence in the U.S. strategy, which was essentially to kill more Vietcong and North Vietnamese than they were able to kill Americans and South Vietnamese. Remember weekly "body counts"?
McNamara left the Pentagon in 1968 after a long talk with Johnson — he said later he didn't know whether he resigned or was fired — and spent much of the rest of his life wrestling with the mistakes he saw in his Vietnam War strategy and tactics.
The lesson of McNamara's honorable service to his country should be that even the world's best management practices, moral certitude and intellectual brilliance cannot inoculate you against mistakes. Continuing to stand by those mistakes can be costly indeed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"All day long I hear my telephone ring"*

The three-day holiday weekend is over, and it's back to work today for all the folks who have jobs. For me (and millions of others), it's back to the job listings and applications.
Being home throughout the day these past few months has taught me some things, including how often our telephone rings with solicitation calls. I'd say four or five times a day is average, with two or more calls coming from the same numbers. Although our number is on the "Do Not Call" registry, our home phone rings several times each day with calls from toll-free numbers, "unknown caller" or other unidentifiable parties. My wife and I gave in and added caller ID to our phone contract a few years ago for the sole reason of avoiding these solicitation calls. It was obvious that the Do Not Call registry was not doing the job. That federal registry has a number of loopholes in it. It allows calls from businesses who claim a business relationship with the customer. That might be no more than a bank account or a credit card, allowing the company to offer to "upgrade" your service or ask if there are other services you'd like to add. Charities are also exempted, so we get calls from university foundations, nonprofits and similar groups looking for donations. Also exempted are surveys and polls, so I've twice in recent days refused to participate in surveys when I innocently answered a call from a number I didn't recognize.
I don't see a quick or simple resolution to this situation. Congress got a lot of pressure from people who were sick of having their evening meals interrupted by telephone solicitations (this happened just as phone service was deregulated and all the companies were soliciting new business). But it's unlikely that Congress would ban political polling (they live off that stuff) or charitable agencies' requests for money to do their work.
One can only hope that these phone solicitations might die a natural death as more and more households eliminate land lines (and their listed phone numbers) and more consumers follow my strategy of refusing to answer calls from unknown numbers. If business and charitable solicitations and telephone polling fail to produce effective results, our home phones will ring less often. But these ways of reaching out to customers won't just disappear. Businesses, politicians and nonprofits will find other ways of connecting with customers.
Last week, my wife received an unsolicited text message on her phone. The new frontier?

*The title of this post is from a Supremes song from the 1960s, "Back in my Arms Again"

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yes, this is the Fourth of July

"This is the Fourth?"
—Last words of Thomas Jefferson, 1826

"Thomas Jefferson still lives."
—Last words of John Adams, 1826

Yes, this is the Fourth, the 233rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the most significant celebration of this holiday was the reopening of the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Access to the crown, with its extraordinary view of New York Harbor, had been closed since Sept. 11, 2001. At the First Fridays on the Lawn in front of the Wilson County Public Library last night, an effort was made to recognize those serving in the Armed Services or their families. Tonight, fireworks will be ignited at the Wilson Tobs game and at hundreds of other places across the state.

Do American really know how to celebrate the Fourth? Although the Founding Fathers suggested fireworks as a means of celebrating the Fourth, the connection between fireworks and the Declaration of Independence seems lost on most Americans. Military personnel, as much as they deserve our recognition and gratitude, are not an essential part of this holiday (honor them on Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day). Even the News & Observer, which publishes the Bill of Rights each Independence Day, can't seem to understand that the Fourth of July has nothing to do with the Bill of Rights, which was not ratified until 15 years after the Declaration was signed July 4, 1776. Periodically, someone will do a survey of "ordinary Americans," asking them whether they support such things as the right of people to "alter or abolish" a government with which they disagree, or the concept that political rights are "endowed" by God. Inevitably, majorities or large pluralities of respondents oppose the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps, along with the fireworks, cookouts, retail sales and family gatherings that have come to mark the sacred Fourth, Americans should celebrate by absorbing a little education about what the Declaration is all about. Copies are available from numerous sources, including here. At every celebration in each small town, city or neighborhood, the Declaration should be read, particularly its first two and final paragraphs. In those paragraphs, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the principles of self-government and individual rights, and the signatories of the document pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." They risked everything for the principles of the Declaration.

This is the Fourth. Remember what it's all about.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A holiday and a newspaper ad

This is the holiday that precedes the Fourth of July. With Independence Day falling on a Saturday, the holiday — the day off from work — has to be switched to Friday. For me and the millions of other unemployed across the country, this is a blessing. We are like everyone else today, at least in one way: We're not going to work.

At our house, this meant a leisurely breakfast on the deck, a cool breeze blowing and a Carolina blue sky above, good, freshly ground coffee and an unusual treat for breakfast. The flag is flying out front as my wife and I attend to chores (including this one) and await the arrival of our weekend company.

Today is a good time to consider the new release from the Newspaper Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to find a viable business strategy for print newspapers. One of the Newspaper Project's projects has been a series of nicely designed ads that extol the irreplaceable importance of newspapers and the huge and multi-faceted audience newspapers deliver for advertisers. An earlier ad pointed out that more people read the Sunday paper than watched the football game on Super Bowl Sunday. Here's the latest ad from the Newspaper Project.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

When is a coup not really a coup?

I had a hard time believing what I was hearing on the radio. An NPR reporter was interviewing the Honduran ambassador (or ex-ambassador, depending on whom you believe) to the United States about the military action that sent President Manuel Zelaya on a one-way trip to Costa Rica. The ambassador, Roberto Flores Bermudez, insisted that the rousting of Zelaya from his bed by armed men and flying him to exile was not a military coup. It was a legitimate constitutional action, he said. Huh? The ambassador, who had returned to Honduras for consultations with the new government, said that Zelaya had violated the constitution and that a legal order had been issued for his arrest, and the arrest was carried out. The new government was constitutional and legitimate, he said.

Wow! I thought. That is certainly a new way to justify a military coup. The coup — few people have called it anything else — has been roundly condemned by everyone from Venezuela's socialist Hugo Chavez to Barack Obama. But it turns out that there's more to the story than can be seen at first glance. Details have begun to emerge from other media sources.

Zelaya, it seems, had sought to extend his power beyond the single four-year term allowed by the Honduran constitution. He called for a national referendum to allow him to change the constitution. Under the constitution, the president does not have the authority to call for a referendum or amend the constitution. The Honduran congress condemned his unilateral action. Honduran courts ruled that he could not hold a referendum without the concurrence of congress. Congress began impeachment proceedings. Zelaya said, essentially, "the hell you say!" and had military officers under his control confiscate and distribute ballot boxes for his illegal referendum. The Honduran Supreme Court issued an arrest order for Zelaya, who was thumbing his nose at every legal authority in the country. It was this arrest that Ambassador Flores was defending as legitimate.

Imagine, by way of comparison, if Richard Nixon had chosen to fight to the bitter end in 1974. What if he had refused the turn over the White House tapes and had been impeached by the Senate and then refused to leave office? Suppose he cited the threat of nuclear war or the delicate situation in the Middle East and ordered military commanders to protect him from insurgents at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Would the removal of Nixon from the Oval Office by a military contingent be a coup de etat? Would what Zelaya's opponents did be any different than forcibly removing Nixon?

The background of the Honduran military action has received little attention in this country, and probably in others as well. The Organization of American States has called for Zelaya to be reinstated. Honduran opponents feared that Zelaya would, like his friend Hugo Chavez, set himself up as a perpetual president, essentially a dictator who would turn Honduras into a socialist haven without the oil wealth of Venezuela, that is, a wretched "workers' paradise" like Cuba. Zelaya had been elected as a conservative but declared himself a socialist in 2007.

Zelaya's opponents botched the arrest of the president by attacking in the dead of night and spiriting him out of the country instead of holding him for trial. It's hard to know from this distance whether impeachment of Zelaya is warranted or whether he should be allowed to serve out the remainder of the one term to which he was legitimately elected, but it's obvious that this was not a typical military coup, and the United States and other countries should see beyond the initial appearances.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A new era dawns in Iraq — maybe

Today is the first day of the new era in Iraq, but we don't know yet whether it will be an era of peace and unification or of violence and civil war. As of today, in accordance with the U.S.-Iraqi status of forces agreement, American troops are out of Iraqi cities. The 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq have redeployed to rural areas, leaving urban to Iraqi police and armed forces. This withdrawal is the first step of a two-year process that is supposed to have all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Although Tuesday was a day of celebration, a national holiday in Iraq, already the violence is escalating. The Sunni vs. Shiite violence that nearly destroyed the country before President Bush ordered a "surge" in troops and Gen. David Petraeus implemented a more effective strategy on the ground more than a year ago could easily be reignited. Current U.S. commanders and Iraqi politicians say the Iraqis are capable of controlling the violence and uniting the splintered nation. We'll see.

Even though U.S. troops are pulling back from the dangers of the urban areas, Americans are continuing to die in Iraq. More than 4,300 American troops have given their lives in Iraq, and the dying is not over yet. If Iraqi forces fail to control the rival militias, Americans will have to be called in. Mortars, rockets and roadside bombs will still be aimed at Americans. Even with an anti-war president in the White House and an agreement to withdraw troops, America's bloody involvement in Iraq is not over.

It's been more than six years since U.S. troops invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein's corrupt dictatorship, an act that has been called the worst foreign policy decision in American history. By any assessment, it was a gross miscalculation. Chaos quickly ensued after U.S. decisions to bar all Baath Party members from government jobs and to disband the Iraqi Army. In a nation accustomed to bullying and government-sanctioned murder, violence quickly filled the void. The Bush administration neo-conservatives blindly initiated their democracy-planting theory while ignoring the culture and history of the region they targeted, and they refused to believe massive troop numbers would be needed to keep the peace. America has paid dearly for these miscalculations, ignorance and delusions, and so has the Republican Party.

This week's redeployment of American troops begins the process of extricating America from Iraq, but it will be a long, slow process with many hazards and setbacks awaiting.