Monday, August 31, 2009

No longer holding out for a teaching job

The 2009-2010 school year is under way, and that's bad news for me. When I was laid off last fall, I held out the possibility of a new career in teaching in the public schools as my "hold card." If no better opportunities came along, I could always go into teaching, a profession that had interested me as a college undergraduate 40 years ago. I contacted the state Department of Public Instruction, filled out the state teacher application form, sent in certified copies of my college transcripts, rounded up professional and personal references, applied to the Regional Alternative Licensing Center for an assessment of courses I would have to take to be fully licensed via the state's lateral entry system for non-education majors, attended a workshop for lateral entry applicants, and diligently monitored job openings in the five school systems to which I had sent my state application.
I even held out some hope that I might be hired at the beginning of 2009, when the new semester began. I interviewed for one high school English position that looked like an ideal situation with a Feb. 1, 2009, starting date. That position went to a teacher who came out of retirement.
As summer arrived with still no job in sight, I turned again, more seriously to teaching positions. Unfortunately, the state was slashing its budget and local school systems were laying off teachers, not hiring them. Still, a few positions popped up. I applied for positions teaching English in high schools, middle schools and alternative schools. My 30-plus years of experience as a newspaper editor was analogous, in many ways, to teaching English. I can't tell you how many times I had to explain to new reporters the importance of pronoun-antecedent agreement, subject-predicate agreement, pronoun case, parallelism, clarity or other nuances of good writing. I also had some college-level teaching experience on my resume.
But with the tolling of school bells last week, my last, best hopes for a teaching job have evaporated like the early morning fog at a bus stop. I had no illusions that teaching would be easy. I would have to complete eight courses in three years in order to earn a license. My daughters, both of whom taught in public schools, warned me that classrooms and students have changed a lot since my day. But I still was interested in giving it a try. The right position could be challenging and exciting. It would mesh with my love of literature and writing. And state benefits would be nice to have.
This morning, I checked the Web sites of area school districts again. The only English jobs within commuting distance are ones I have already applied for. Classes have begun. Positions are filled. A teaching job, my "hold card," looks more and more like a joker.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy Jr. delivers eloquent eulogy

I believe this speech Saturday afternoon by Edward M. Kennedy Jr. is the finest eulogy I have ever heard. Certainly, it was moving and emotional and left many a tear in the eyes of the mourners at Sen. Ted Kennedy's funeral. For all the tradition and pageantry of a Catholic funeral, the personal memories are what makes a fine memorial service. President Obama and younger son Patrick (a member of Congress) also delivered eulogies, and many words have been written about the man who was Ted Kennedy, but no one told his story better than his elder son. There is a short conclusion to this portion of the eulogy, also on YouTube.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Can't we be civil to each other?

A few comments about blogs, mutual respect and civil discourse. First, thanks to Ginny for her recent comments chiding some commenters for their insulting language and lack of civility in their comments on this blog. She was offended by commenters who couldn't express their opinions without using terms such as "freaks," "morons," "stupid," etc. I had allowed those words to get through, but I had rejected some comments that were even less civil (if you can imagine).
Subsequently, I was criticized by a commenter going by the name of "jamally" for "selectively allowing nasty comments." I suspect "jamally" was the person who posted an anonymous comment saying that a deceased public figure was now burning in hell. That comment was too much for me, more offensive than the name-calling that I had cringingly allowed. I wish Blogger's software would allow me to edit out offensive portions of comments while leaving the civil opinions, but it doesn't.
The nasty comments on this blog — and the even nastier comments that often appear on major newspapers' news articles — testify to the loss of civil discourse and mutual respect in this country, especially regarding political issues. The spread of the anonymous Internet culture has contributed to this. Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, some people feel comfortable saying whatever vile, insulting remarks that come to mind. Cable television has also contributed to this cultural shift. To feed the 24-hour news monster, stations turn to discussion groups, always pitting true believers from opposite sides against each other. At times, tempers flare and opinions give way to insults. Such nastiness infects all of society. This goes back a long way. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal famously got into a shouting match while offering commentary on the 1968 presidential campaign.
Two people can disagree and remain civil and respectful. Upon this principle is built the American tradition of democratic debate and compromise. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats have hardened their positions and often portray their opposition's position as the embodiment of evil, even when their differences are slight. Ted Kennedy, who has been lauded this week for his skills at compromising with the opposition, was also guilty of demonizing people he opposed, such as Robert Bork. His opponents' portrayal of George W. Bush as a satanic idiot has been matched, maybe surpassed, by Barack Obama's opponents' portrayal of him as a Muslim ineligible for the presidency. Can we no longer accept our presidents as honorable people with whom we disagree? Must we also think of them as malevolent?
Disagreement can be civil. I offer this example by commenter MP, who strongly disagreed with my post about prosecution of CIA agents over detainee interrogations. His response was rational and directed to the issue itself, and he achieved the goal of argumentation: making his point. I agree with him to a large degree. The United States must uphold its humanitarian principles, even in matters of espionage and interrogation. My concern is that the United States should not prosecute its employees in 2009 for actions the government itself authorized in 2004.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tomatoes are ripening on the window sill

For perhaps the first time in decades, we have tomatoes ripening on the kitchen window sill. The sight of them takes me back to my childhood, to the house where I grew up, where in the summer there were always a few tomatoes sitting on the kitchen window sill, slowly turning from firm, mottled green to bright red and succulent. Those tomatoes came from the backyard garden that was as much a part of the changing of the seasons as the extended daylight or the breath-sucking heat in the pre-air-conditioning South. Tender, young tomato plants would be dropped into small holes made by a hoe in the furrows of plowed ground. A dipper full of water would moisten the soil that would be scrunched up around the tender, green stem. In a month or two, leggy tomato plants would begin bearing their fruit, in a long row between the prickly okra and the butterbeans. The reddening fruit would be laid upon the window sill for final ripening, conveniently accessible whenever someone wanted a sandwich for lunch or a side of vegetables at supper. The extra tomatoes would be scalded, peeled and canned into Mason jars by my mother, providing tomatoes from the garden all winter long.
The three fat tomatoes on my window sill today come from cast-off tomato plants my son and his wife had no room for in their yard, so we found a couple of corners of our flower garden to plant them. Three of the four plants turned out to be cherry tomato plants, and I've gathered handfuls several times to garnish a simple salad. The fourth plant has borne heavy, sandwich-size tomatoes that have tended to burst through their skin as they ripened. We took to bringing the tomatoes inside while still green and intact so that they would ripen without bursting. It has worked and, at the same time, has reminded me of the miraculous transformation of fruit from too-green and too-firm to just right without any connection to its source of nutrition or water. Light streaming through the window (not even direct sunlight in this north-facing window) ripens and colors the tomatoes until they are ready to eat, providing one of summer's consummate pleasures — a fresh-from-the-garden tomato sandwich.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The last Kennedy brother is dead

The inevitable day has arrived when Edward M. Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers, has died. Since his diagnosis in May 2008 of a brain tumor, the nation and his Senate colleagues have known this day was coming.
The Washington Post is running a long and thorough obituary, one that, no doubt, has been in the works since last year, or before. Ted was the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, and by most accounts, the least responsible, mature or gifted. But on his shoulders fell the burden of a father's great ambitions for his sons. Joe would die a war hero in an aerial mission gone wrong. Jack would achieve the pinnacle of success he inherited from Joe, only to be assassinated long before his potential was fully realized. Bobby would also die from an assassin's bullet just as he was about to make his own mark on the country. The burden of tragic fate and family honor, not to mention the welfare of his brothers' children, sat heavily on Ted's shoulders at a young age.
Ted, despite his youthful indiscretions (such as getting kicked out of Harvard for cheating and his failed marriage), might have turned the Kennedy magic and the memories of his martyred brothers into political gold had he been less reckless in his personal life. Following a July 1969 beach party, he drove off a narrow bridge at Chappaquiddick, Mass., and killed a young woman. Some evidence indicates Mary Jo Kopechne survived the wreck but drowned in the car Kennedy abandoned in an effort to save his own life and reputation. That incident cost Kennedy any chance at the 1972 and 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, but it was his 1980 challenge of sitting Democrat Jimmy Carter that ended his presidential ambitions. Kennedy's attitude of privilege and inevitability doomed his prospects and also contributed to Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan.
That loss also had a profound and beneficial effect on Kennedy's career: He settled down to being a good senator without the dagger of presidential ambition hanging over his head. He concentrated on being a legislator, one who would accomplish change by sponsoring and shaping legislation. His fingerprints are on most of the significant legislation of the past three decades, and both Democrats and Republicans laud him as an effective advocate who was willing to compromise to achieve his goals. In this respect, he accomplished more than either of his brothers in their tragically shortened careers.
Ted Kennedy has also been, for most of the past 30 or 40 years, the straw man of conservative commentators. "Kennedy Liberal" is a redundancy. Kennedy, who was born into fabulous wealth, advocated for the least fortunate and inevitably saw a government program of some sort as the solution to the world's ills. Even as the national mood turned more conservative, he wore the "liberal" label proudly. He never achieved the universal health care program he had sought for decades, but he inched the nation toward that goal with Medicare, Medicaid, the Family and Medical Leave Act, COBRA, SCHIP and other incremental legislation. He worked for all of the civil rights legislation since the 1960s, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it was his endorsement last year that helped ensure the election of America's first African-American president.
Kennedy was both the liberal demigod of the left and the embodiment of insulated, impractical and unrealistic nanny government to critics on the right. History will likely remember him for the imprint he left on the nation's laws, an enduring and profound legacy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

CIA prosecution would set dangerous precedent

The U.S. Justice Department appears to be headed down a path President Obama has said he didn't want to follow. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that he was appointing a special prosecutor to look into interrogation tactics used under the Bush administration. The previous administration had investigated the matter and concluded that no prosecution was warranted. Obama has said America should be looking forward, not replaying divisive old issues.
A new administration that prosecutes the previous administration over what are essentially matters of judgment sets a dangerous precedent. The possibility that CIA agents will be prosecuted for following the orders of their superiors and the advice of the U.S. Justice Department leaves the U.S. intelligence community vulnerable to political whims.
For the sake of national security, the Justice Department had better back away from any prosecution of CIA interrogators. Prosecuting interrogators who used harsh techniques has been pushed by some liberal Democrats who see another opportunity to isolate and embarrass the Bush administration. Besides embarrassing the Bushies, this course could harm the CIA and set a dangerous precedent for future politics.
In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, when everyone expected additional terrorist attacks on American soil, U.S. intelligence agents and soldiers were doing everything possible to uncover and stop the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. Justice Department officials gave a green light to harsh techniques, including "waterboarding," which gave detainees the false impression that they were being drowned. Whether these techniques provided information that otherwise would not have been available remains a topic of debate. Subsequently, the Bush administration abandoned waterboarding and similar techniques, and the Obama administration has officially forsaken torture as a means of gathering information.
But prosecuting CIA agents for what they did at the direction of the administration then in power can only have bad results. Those agents did not set policy; they merely carried out policy at the direction of policy makers. Top Justice Department lawyers in the Bush administration declared harsh interrogation techniques to be legal, and while this policy comported with Bush-Cheney desires, there is no evidence that the attorneys were dishonest in their opinions. Other attorneys see matters differently, which is not unusual. It is as if President Roosevelt had lost the 1944 election, and a new administration, disagreeing with war policy, decided to prosecute B-17 crews for killing German civilians on their bombing runs.
Advocates of prosecuting Bush administration officials and agents are proposing that political differences be criminalized, a strategy that would cripple progress in Washington forever. Obama was right: Let's look to the future, not the past.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Health care reform: a personal need

News and Observer political reporter Rob Christensen wrote about health care reform in Sunday's column in an unusual way — he provided first-person testimony about why reform of the health insurance system is needed. I recommend the column to everyone involved in the health care reform debate, including those who have carried signs proclaiming "Hands Off My Health Care."
Christensen's point is that even those of us who have good health insurance and are satisfied with our coverage are only one pink slip, one uncovered procedure or one pre-existing condition away from financial disaster. Because health insurance is tied to employment for most Americans, losing a job (and there are millions of us in that position now) can mean loss of health insurance as well as loss of income, and that situation can easily turn a middle-class lifestyle into bankruptcy. Our system of having employers pay health-insurance premiums came about by accident. When wages were frozen, unions discovered they could bargain for health-care benefits even if they couldn't bargain for raises. The unions' triumph turned into a nearly universal expectation that employers would provide health insurance. It's an illogical and inefficient system. After all, employers don't pay your homeowner's or car insurance premiums. Tying health insurance to jobs discourages job changes, and people without jobs find it hard to get competitively priced coverage.
The health care shouting match, which is substituting for civilized debate, raging across this country often overlooks the simple situations Christensen describes. Advocates for health care legislation often cite the 47 million uninsured in this country, and opponents tout their fear of changing a system they find satisfactory. But the greatest danger in the current system lies in the disaster awaiting anyone of modest or comfortable means who loses his job or whose employer drops or limits health insurance coverage.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cash for Clunkers, Rest in Peace

The cash-for-clunkers program is coming to an end after a $3 billion outlay of taxpayer funds for several hundred thousand vehicles that were in running condition but burned more gas than Congress thought vehicles should. The program has been proclaimed in Washington as a huge success, so huge that Congress tripled the initial outlay for the program.
The program allowed anyone with a working, insured vehicle of a certain age and getting 15 miles per gallon or less to trade it in for a new vehicle getting at least 4 mpg better mileage than the trade-in. Uncle Sam would subsidize the trade-in at a rate of up to $4,500 (if the new car got 10 mpg more than the old one). For drivers of older-model SUVs and other gas guzzlers, it sounds like a good deal. A 10-year-old gas guzzler will probably never again command $4,500 at trade-in.
But there are also long-term costs. The buyer will need to pay for the new vehicle. Let's assume the new car costs $20,000. With your inflated-value trade-in you'll still owe $15,500. If you pay that back over five years (not unusual for car loans these days) at 6 percent interest, you'll be making payments of nearly $300 a month. Over the term of the loan, you'll pay $18,000 for that vehicle, plus the $4,500 from Uncle Sam, and pay a total of $2,500 in interest. If you cut the term to three years, you'll save about $1,000 in interest, but your payments will be much higher.
But aren't you saving on gasoline? Yes. At the current cost of gasoline (about $2.50 a gallon), you'll save $800 a year, if your trade-in got 15 mpg and your new car gets 25 mpg. If gasoline goes to $4 before your loan is paid off, you'll save $12,800 a year. That will get you three or four monthly payments on your loan. Your bottom line will be an expense of $14,000 ($18,000 in payments minus $4,000 in gasoline savings). You'll need to keep the vehicle four more years (until it's 9 years old) to get a positive return on investment when your savings on gasoline exceeds your outlay for the purchase.
Advocates of the program point to recall of GM workers to fill orders for new cars as a positive result of Cash for Clunkers. That's good, but it might be only a temporary reprieve for the auto industry. It's likely that Cash for Clunkers increased current demand by attracting buyers who would have ordered cars next year or the year after. If we see a sales dip in the next couple of years, it might be because thousands of buyers are paying off their "clunkers" loans. The retirement of older gas-guzzlers will pollute the planet less and reduce dependence on foreign oil, advocates say. That's true, but the impact will be minuscule in the big picture.
I have been unable to take advantage of the clunkers program. My 15-year-old car is old enough to be a clunker, but it still runs well and gets over 30 mpg on the highway. And then there's the issue of making those monthly payments — or even getting a loan when you're unemployed.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This area was the death of Rome

On the same day that I listened to a "Great Courses" CD lecture about Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," coordinated bombings in Baghdad killed 95 people. The recorded lecture seemed poignant because Gibbon had attributed the fall of the greatest civilization in the ancient world in part to Rome's problems in the Middle East. Rome had spent untold riches and lives in fighting the Persians (present-day Iranians) on the edge of the empire.
The lecturer also pointed out that, like modern-day Americans, Romans of the second and third centuries could not imagine that their dominant position in the world — militarily, commercially and culturally — would ever end. And yet it did, because of a variety of factors, including the public's loss of confidence in and respect for its elected leaders and its spending on futile wars in a volatile region far from home.
Here's where you insert the Santayana quote about failing to learn from history.
The Iraqi government says it will reinstate security measures it had allowed to lag, but it will not bring American troops back into Baghdad to assist the apparently incompetent Iraqi security forces. Americans want out of Iraq, after spending more than $1 trillion and the lives of more than 4,000 Americans there in an ill-conceived effort to make this volatile and divided country into a model democracy.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, an election is being held today, but the Taliban is warning that it will kill anyone who votes in the election. The election is expected to reassert the authority of President Hamid Karzai, but his central government controls only small areas of the country, which has been called "the graveyard of empires." More U.S. troops are pouring into Afghanistan in hopes of salvaging that country from the warfare it has endured almost nonstop since the Soviet invasion in 1979. New commanders and new strategies are being tried there, but American voters are growing disenchanted with this latest foreign war. The Obama administration wants to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida, but that effort is showing little progress so far.
Bogged down in two countries of the deadly Middle East, the United States is risking its fortunes in a part of the world that Gibbon tells us was the death of Rome.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This is a job you don't want

After 10 months of unemployment, I want a job pretty badly, but I've found a job I definitely don't want. The job title is "climber," and Gerardo Torres Saavedra has it all to himself.
All to himself is also the description of how he works, about 100 feet above the ground at the top of a tall pine tree. Gerardo is the climber for Batts Tree Service and Landscaping. This week he has been at the very top of several pine trees in the front and back yards of the Lemaire residence on Clyde Avenue. On a walk one afternoon I stood mesmerized by the tiny image of a man at the top of that pine tree, and my stomach turned somersaults when he sawed off the topmost 8 feet of tree and the remainder of the tree, which he was hanging onto, swayed back and forth as the tree gave up the weight off its crown. Sorry I didn't have the camera, or a video camera, when that happened. I caught these photos of him later, as he worked on a different but no smaller pine tree.
The climber
works with a safety harness, some ropes and spikes that dig into the tree. And you couldn't get me to do that for any price. Gerardo seems nonchalant about the task, even in 90-some-degree heat. While he's up there, he handles a roaring chain saw, which is clipped to his belt, and some ropes that ease the cut branches to the ground. There's nothing between him and a greasy spot on the ground than his safety harness and his skill.
These photos were taken with a 55 to 200 mm lens, so that gives you some idea how high up he was when the 200 mm lens could zoom no closer than this. Here are some other photos to give you an idea of just how high up he was. Keep in mind that these are not wide-angle views; they're telephoto.
Tree climber is not a job for me.

Studies show families can't keep up with insurance costs

On the same day the New York Times was reporting that Democrats in Congress might give up on efforts to create a bipartisan health care reform bill, a couple of lobbying groups were reporting some numbers that you'd think would make Republicans as well as Democrats rush to sign up for health care reform. Families USA and Action for Children North Carolina were reporting that health insurance premiums had risen five times as fast as wages since 2000.
Despite all the choreographed protests at town hall meetings, where people held up signs shouting "Hands Off My Health Care," "No Pubic Option" and "No Socialized Medicine," the fact is health care in America is spiraling out of control. Private insurance is a complicated and often illogical and cruel system that picks and chooses which patients and which conditions it wishes to cover. At the same time, as the Families USA study shows, the cost of health insurance to both families and employers is rising so fast no one can keep up. At least some of the indignant protesters at these town hall meetings were motivated by misinformation about the health care reform legislation, such as the blatant lie that allowed billing for physician counseling about advanced directives into "death panels." Others ludicrously proclaimed their opposition to governmental health care while carrying Medicare cards in their pockets.
The costs of the labyrinthine private insurance system (paid mostly by employers) is on an unsustainable trajectory and is hurting American competitiveness against other economies where health care is not so expensive or such a burden on employers. Legislation is needed to simplify the system, increase competition (or switch to a single-payer system, which would be even harder to achieve politically than the modest reforms being proposed) and ensure coverage for the poor and chronically ill.
You'd think that the 535 people we elected to Congress could see this need and work together toward a reform that would benefit individual constituents and the country as a whole. But it looks like partisan politics and the power of lobbying money might prevail again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beauty queen is also a comedy queen

I can remember Jeanne Robertson (her name was Swanner then) from 1963, when she won the Miss North Carolina pageant back in the day when it meant something. Beauty pageants were as popular a television fare as football games. If I remember correctly, her talent involved a ukulele, but she was most noted for her height — 6-foot-2. She did well as the Miss America pageant but didn't win. I watched that pageant, too, intrigued by a beauty queen half a foot taller than I and only a few years older.
I had not thought about her much since then until 2001, when, as a member of the North Carolina Press Association board of directors, I met her when the Press Association named her its North Carolinian of the Year. Now, if that was a big deal (and we ink-stained wretches tried to convince ourselves that it was), she gave in return far more with a half-hour comedy return that left us all in stitches. You could say we all looked up to her.
Jeanne Robertson popped up again when someone sent my wife a link to a YouTube video of one of her performances. I watched it, recalling that hilarious routine she did eight years ago and laughing out loud at this new story. I should have known she'd be on YouTube. Everything is on YouTube.

The interesting thing about Jeanne Robertson, other than her height and her history and the way she has maintained her beauty queen stature and sense of style, is that her humor is strictly clean and realistic. Too many of today's comedians can't be funny without being profane or worse. Sexual or scatological humor can be funny, but so can Robertson's stories of Southern traditions and observations of people being themselves. I once laughed so hard at a Robin Williams monologue that I fell out of my chair. Robertson can be just as funny, but in a way that you can watch with your parents or grandchildren. Her routines remind me of Bill Cosby's funny stories about growing up, stories that people from all walks of life could identify with.
Jeanne Robertson didn't win Miss America, but she's done more with her talent and experiences than most beauty queens you can name.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pubic protest goes public

You can't read it from this strategically cropped photo from the News & Observer, but the top line of the sign that the young woman in the little black dress is holding reads "No Pubic Option." (There's no "L" in that middle word.) You don't have to take my word for it; you can see the entire sign in the N&O's photo gallery (it's picture No. 2), and that version of the picture is the one that ran on the N&O's front page Friday.
The photo accompanied a story about protests outside Sen. Kay Hagan's Raleigh office by people opposed to health care reform proposals before Congress, especially, it seems, anything that involved a "pubic option." Other people at the protest held signs that say "If you didn't read it, don't sign it" (sounds like good advice) and "Where's the birth certificate?" (maybe she ended up at the wrong protest). But the woman with the "No Pubic Option; No Single Payer; No Socialism" sign is the one who intrigued me. Eschewing the usual jeans-and-T-shirt dress code of street protesters, she was there in her little black sleeveless dress with a deep-V neckline (sunglasses dangling from the lowest part of the V) and an American flag in her off hand. She doesn't look like the type who'd want to take away your pubic option, but sometimes looks can be deceiving.
If elected officials like Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer and David Vitter can exercise their pubic option, then, by golly, average Americans should have the same option! And I'm just as curious as the woman in the picture about where Kay Hagan stands on the pubic option.

We are SHOCKED that UNC is top-heavy

The News & Observer this morning has a less-than-startling report on the bloated bureaucracy at the University of North Carolina. Administrative positions are multiplying as fast as numbers on a TI-34 scientific calculator. Administrative salaries and budgets are growing like cultures in a petri dish. Grades aren't the only things that are inflating on campus.
Administrative jobs have increased 28 percent while instructional jobs have grown 24 percent (a graphic accompanying the N&O article apparently reversed these two numbers) while enrollment rose 13 percent. These administrative jobs with long and impressive titles (under-assistant vice chancellor for social networking and prevention of binge drinking) carry huge salaries, usually more than $100,000. As a result, the general fund budget grew by 43 percent from 2004 to 2008. A chart accompanying the article indicates just how top-heavy the university administration has become. UNC-Greensboro, for example, went from five to 21 assistant vice chancellors in four years. UNC-Chapel Hill grew its staff from zero assistant vice chancellors to 14 in the same period.
All of these positions are presumably held by able and hard-working folks, but the proliferation of titles and the increases in salaries are taking the university's focus away from its primary mission of educating the young people of North Carolina. The trend is all too common. General Motors didn't raise its per-vehicle cost only by paying high wages to its assembly-line workers; it also built a bureaucracy of highly paid white-collar workers. The trend is especially pernicious in government, where there is little or no budgetary restraint from price competition or revenue limits. Public schools across North Carolina face a similar trend. Teacher salaries have stagnated, but principals, assistant superintendents and superintendents earn salaries four or five or even more times the average teacher's pay. These central office bureaucrats are, of course, "essential" to good education (and to some extent, it's true that schools have to have a large staff to keep up all the state and federal reports they are required to file), but they provide little if any "return on investment" for the student in the classroom.
A friend of mine who regularly rants about the high pay of educational bureaucrats likes to compare a school superintendent's responsibilities and pay to a U.S. Navy captain's. A superintendent might earn $250,000 in state pay, local supplements, car allowances and other perquisites and be responsible for 2,000 employees and a $20 million budget. The captain of an aircraft carrier (pay grade 0-6) with 25 years of service makes less than $112,000 and is responsible for a $1 billion (or more) ship plus a couple of dozen aircraft at $5 million apiece and the lives of a crew of 5,000. He also has the responsibility for safeguarding, and launching if necessary, nuclear weapons that can obliterate large chunks of this planet. (A Navy captain with dependents would also receive about $21,000 a year in housing allowance and subsistence, plus another $5,000 or so for an assignment afloat. But that still doesn't add up to what a county school superintendent or a university provost can make.)
Anyone who looks at what society pays movie stars and other entertainers compared to what we pay teachers, nursing aides, day-care workers or stay-at-home moms would conclude that our priorities are all wrong. Universities that grow assistant chancellors faster than they grow classroom professors and that pay these administrators far more than those doing the teaching have their priorities all wrong, too.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Funerals that celebrate life

While departing the church today after a funeral, I made the comment that, in an odd way, I rather enjoy funerals. Perhaps that requires some explanation.
A good funeral — and both that I attended this week were "good" — is faith-affirming and life-affirming. The message at such services is not lamentation but celebration of a life well-lived and the promise of new life after death. The Scriptures chosen for these services are reassuring. Today, and at my father's funeral (at my suggestion), one Scripture was from the end of the eighth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans: "Neither life nor death ... nor things present nor things to come ... can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."
The hymns are likewise reassuring and faith-affirming. The hymns chosen for the funerals I attended this week included "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," Henry Van Dyke's sacred lyrics to Beethoven's symphony; "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" (the Navy hymn whose notes will forever remind me of John F. Kennedy's funeral); and "Here I Am, Lord." At my wife's uncle's funeral in December, we sang "For All the Saints," perhaps the most appropriate of all hymns for a funeral.
I came away from both funerals this week with a feeling of having been touched spiritually. Although a sad occasion, certainly, a good funeral affirms all that is good in religious faith, and it cushions survivors with the love of friends. For those relatives and friends attending the service, a good funeral is an affirming reassurance of God's love.
Some months ago, I wrote about grief and mourning, prompted by a column by Meghan O'Rourke, whose mother had recently died. Her contention was that Hamlet is such an profoundly complex character simply because he is grief-stricken. And I contended that although we take great comfort in the Scriptures read at funerals, the Bible is quite ambiguous about just what the afterlife might be like and whether we will recognize our friends and relatives in that spiritual realm.
Some people say they hate to go to funerals, but I rather like to go — at least to the good, faith-affirming ones. How much closer can one come to God than when standing so close to death?

Survey asks what's good about Wilson

I received an e-mailed survey this week that asked me for some comments about my adopted hometown. The survey is being conducted by a coalition including the Wilson Visitors Bureau, Wilson County Economic Development, the Wilson Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development. Although I often turn down survey requests (especially those on the telephone, which, I'm promised, will "only take a few minutes"), I agreed to respond to this one.
The survey sets up a scenario: You're on an elevator, and someone asks you to describe Wilson. In elevator-ride brevity, what do you say? Or you're asked, on that same brief elevator ride, why you'd want to live in Wilson, to open a business here, to retire here or to visit. Let me preface my comments by saying that I came to Wilson in 1980 having never visited the place and having never lived in eastern North Carolina. This region is quite different from the Piedmont or the mountains, and the difference goes beyond topography. It took some time to adjust to this different culture. But we've adjusted, raised our children here and have no intention of leaving.
How would I describe Wilson?
Wilson combines the best elements of a small town with those of a small city. It’s a place where you stop and chat in the supermarket or table-hop at a restaurant, and where you know the neighbors’ children. It’s also a place with a vigorous arts community, a private, liberal arts college that is active in the larger community, several excellent, local restaurants, strong, biracial nonprofit groups, a solid manufacturing base, and a rich agricultural heritage.

Why should a business come here?
Wilson’s city government prides itself on being business-friendly. City staff willingly works with businesses to accommodate their needs wherever possible. Wilson’s median income is sufficient to support retail and service businesses. Long-range thinking has provided Wilson with adequate water, sewer, natural gas and electrical capacity.

Why would someone want to live here?
Wilson is a pleasant place to live with many comfortable, walkable neighborhoods and a wide variety of housing types and styles. Public schools are good, and there are also a private school, a charter school and Christian schools. Long-time residents agree that it’s a good place to raise children, and it has a sense of civic purpose and pride with hundreds of volunteers supporting a variety of civic groups and nonprofits.

Why would someone want to retire here?
Housing costs and taxes are low compared to larger cities. The police force is excellent and helpful. Local arts and theater groups and an excellent public library provide entertainment and enrichment, and Raleigh is less than an hour away with even more entertainment and nightlife. Beaches are only about two hours away, and four golf courses are available year-round. The city’s reservoirs allow boating and fishing.

Why would someone want to visit?
Wilson has a grand collection of late-Victorian and early-20th century houses that can be viewed on a walking tour. The Wilson Arts Center exhibits area artists, and Studio One is a working studio and gallery for local artists. The annual Whirligig Festival celebrates whimsical windmill sculptures with live music, entertainment and food. The North Carolina Baseball Museum is adjacent to Fleming Stadium, one of the few remaining 1930s minor-league baseball stadiums, where the Wilson Tobs play each summer. Imagination Station expands children’s imagination, and the Round House Museum celebrates African-American history. The Edna Boykin Cultural Center, a 1919 vaudeville theater, stages comedies, dramas or musical shows most weekends. Also in the area are a Tobacco Farm Life Museum and a Country Doctor Museum.

At least that's the way I see it. I offer these opinions fully cognizant of the anonymous person or persons who like to comment on this blog and other sites deriding Wilson as a cesspool too horrid to be endured (so why doesn't he just leave?). But most people I know, across racial and economic strata, like living here and take pride in their community. In nearly 30 years of writing newspaper editorials from here, I found plenty to criticize about Wilson and Wilson County. No place is perfect, but this place has a lot going for it and some untapped potential waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What was that e-mail address again?

Ever tried to get the e-mail address of a congressman? Don't bother. Although Google, which has the answer to everything (almost), will give you a search list of sites for "U.S. House e-mail addresses," you won't find an actual e-mail address at any of the sites I checked.
What you'll find is a form: You put in your name, address, nine-digit ZIP code and type in your message. You don't actually see an e-mail address. I found this to be the case for the several N.C. representatives and senators I checked and also for some members of Congress from other states, too. Each member of Congress has his/her own Web site, but none of them I checked had an e-mail listing or staff directory. It seems to be SOP — Standard Operating Procedure. This process not only hides the e-mail address of the congressional office, it also eliminates constituents who might live outside a particular congressman's district (hence the 9-digit ZIP code). I suspect this has more to do with not wanting to be bothered by someone else's voter than with professional courtesy toward a colleague.
It's my assumption that this opaqueness is an attempt to avoid letting individual e-mail addresses fall into the hands of terrorists — or lobbyists capable of deploying millions of e-mail messages on any given issue. Whatever the reason, these e-mail addresses are a closely guarded state secret. I had hoped to contact a congressional aide I had met during my newspaper career, but congressional Web sites do not list individual staff members, much less their e-mail addresses. I know — we all know — that these people have e-mail addresses. I've received e-mail from them in the past; I've had some back-and-forth with them via e-mail. But just finding an address now involves more barricades than I care to attack.
Things at the state level are a bit simpler, at least for now. Go to the N.C. General Assembly Web site, and you'll be able to find the e-mail address for your representative in the House and Senate, as well as your Aunt Martha from Taylorsville's representatives. State legislators make no effort to hide their e-mail addresses, despite frequent lobbying announcements that list the e-mail addresses for every member of a committee or for all 170 members of the General Assembly. State officials no doubt face less lobbying pressure than members of Congress, but they also set a better example of transparency.
I understand why G.K. Butterfield or Walter Jones doesn't want to list his personal e-mail address, but why not post the addresses for the constituent services representative or the staff member in charge of specific issues? Many Americans (including me) prefer e-mail to a telephone call or a formal letter. Congress should open the door to e-mail correspondence just a bit wider.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Life's rhythms can change

Want to know the scary thing about being unemployed for months on end? I'm getting used to it.
I'm one of nearly 7 million Americans who have lost their jobs, so there are a lot of us who have been getting used to it. Many of us have been idled for months and have adjusted to this new reality.
I had been accustomed to a certain rhythm of life — arriving at the office by 7 a.m., writing a quick blog post, diving into the day's news budget, editing copy, laying out pages or supervising their layouts, talking to reporters, all leading to the mad rush toward the late morning deadline. Then there would be time to write editorials, plan news coverage, catch up with messages, attend meetings, discuss news with other editors or reporters, gliding toward a late-afternoon decision that I had done all I had to do that day, checking off items on my to-do list and knowing the other items could wait. I'd start over in the morning.
Despite not spending nine or 10 hours at the office, I've found ways to fill my day. Hunting for a job, especially in this economy, is time-consuming. One day last week, I spent an hour hunting the Internet for a job to apply to and then spent another two hours filling out the long, complicated application form. Did it do me any good? Doesn't look like it.
I'm also writing — for my own amusement if nothing else. I'm keeping house — cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning (hoping to meet my wife's standards, or at least come close) — and maintaining the yard, spreading the hot outdoor work across a couple of weekdays instead of piling it all into a Saturday. I'm volunteering with some nonprofit organizations, attending meetings, doing some legwork, writing or editing, doing some planning, driving here and there. All combined, it fills the day, but in a fluid, changeable way. Want to meet with me? I can offer any number of options almost any day of the week; most of my plans are quite flexible. I don't mind putting off mowing the grass or vacuuming the downstairs. And I can always find another hour to write.
In the first decade of our marriage, when I went to work every day and my wife stayed home with our preschool children, it seemed to me to be an excellent division of labor. She did what she truly enjoyed, nurturing the children, baking, indulging in a couple of creative hobbies, keeping the house in shape — all a part of expressing her love for our children and for me. And I went to work, often for long hours, including some nights and weekends, persuading myself that my children would, in the long run, understand my absence. Now our roles are reversed, and I am at home, but without the responsibilities of watching over young children, while she works the long hours to support both of us. I would never wish for this role — except jokingly when my wife first returned to the labor force — but I do not feel emasculated by it. I do not have to earn more than my wife to be a "real man."
But I have become used to this new, somewhat variable rhythm to my life, which is more of an improvisational interlude than a smooth melody. Assuming that I one day find a job and return to work, I will have to readjust to that fixed rhythm of life, that quickened staccato of deadlines and crises. Nine months ago, I might have adjusted smoothly and quickly to a new work environment, a new rhythm of labor, a new career. Now, the change will seem more abrupt, like a missed chord or an off beat, but I'll make the change. I am tired of being, as I've joked several times, a "kept man." I'm ready to get back in the groove.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Too much shouting about health care

Congress is in recess, and Americans are exercising their First Amendment right to "petition the government for redress of grievances." The activities at some town-hall-style forums have been less about petitioning and more about shouting down advocates of health care reform. Welcome to the realities of 21st century politics.
"Grassroots" protests are often not genuine outrage of individual citizens; instead, they are choreographed political theater created by public relations agencies and lobbying groups. This contrived upheaval of the citizenry has been dubbed "astroturf," a faked grassroots. I've followed some of these astroturf sideshows with some amusement as allegedly disinterested citizens held up protest signs reading "hands off my health care" or "no government option." Some Democrats in Congress have been shouted down at public forums by these protesters. Some conservative critics and talk show celebrities have compared health care reforms before Congress to Nazi Germany and communism.
Hyperbole is nothing new in politics, but the masquerade of "ordinary Americans" incensed over the idea of the government offering an alternative to private health insurance plans is laughable. As other commentators have noted, some of these sign-carrying protesters angry over a government health care plan are carrying Medicare cards in their wallets. The astroturfing lobbying groups and their public relations firms round up these protesters or persuade ill-informed and credulous citizens that the horror stories critics tell are genuine and try to convince members of Congress that Americans don't want health care reform.
I think most Americans would like to see changes in a health care system that is too expensive, too litigious and too capricious, leaving patients vulnerable to bankruptcy from a serious injury or chronic illness, doctors subject to ruin from an adverse legal decision and workers fearful of job loss or changes to their employer-paid health insurance. Just what shape this reform should take is subject to genuine debate, but let's distinguish between debate and shouting matches at astroturf-infected public forums or fear-invoking and misleading television ads.
The picture of individual citizens enraged over a public health insurance option doesn't make sense to me. Private insurers certainly have reason to oppose competition from a public insurer, but individual health-care recipients? They have nothing to lose and potentially some savings to gain.
There are legitimate reasons to worry about a federal health care reform. Change is always risky and not always beneficial. The cost of changes is a major concern as the federal deficit balloons into the trillions of dollars. But, if it lives up to its promises, health care reform could free up money that is now wasted in the expensive current system and free employers to be more competitive in the world market. Let's find a way to achieve those benefits without driving the federal budget into insolvency. Let's talk, not shout.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Incumbent's withdrawal creates new dynamic

Bob Thaxton's decision to withdraw from the District 6 Wilson City Council race leaves a wide-open race for the seat Thaxton held for 16 years. Thaxton, a retired Army helicopter pilot, earned a reputation as a no-holds-barred, straight-talking, cards-on-the-table type. He could sometimes be cantankerous, but you never had to doubt where he stood on major issues, and he didn't have to take a poll to decide his position.
The 6th is the city's "swing" district with a roughly equal number of black and white residents. The city has a slight majority of racial minorities. Three council districts are majority white, and three are majority black. Voters in the 6th District get to decide which racial group will hold the majority on the seven-member City Council. Blacks have held the majority for only one term since the 3-3-1 alignment was devised.
Thaxton's withdrawal means a newcomer will represent District 6. Thaxton has endorsed Logan Liles, a former Wilson County Board of Education member, but it's unclear how much clout that endorsement will hold. The four candidates still in the race are divided, it seems appropriately, equally by race. Two whites — Logan Liles and Daryl Barber — face two blacks — Brenda Avery and George Pope. The racial groups are divided into more mainstream and more controversial parts. Liles and Avery are the more mainstream candidates while Barber, who once ran for mayor and has been a frequent critic of local and national political figures in letters to the editor, and Pope, a former bombastic radio host, are the more controversial. Liles and Avery, a frequent companion of Councilman A.P. Coleman, would fit in with other council members. It's hard to imagine Barber and Pope — especially Pope, whose caustic broadcast criticism of Mayor Bruce Rose went beyond even fringe politics — going along and getting along.
Winners of this year's council race will get the task of redrawing district lines after the 2010 census. An appropriate question for council candidates should be whether they would support reforms to create some at-large council districts. With the electorate roughly equally divided by race, at-large districts should not provide an advantage to either race. A revised council with four members elected by districts (two majority white and two majority black) and three members elected at-large would give voters more options and more clout at the polls. And it would save District 6 voters from the burden of deciding whether City Council would be majority-white or majority-black.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Layoffs hurt those already hurting

Reflecting on the limited information I have about the most recent layoffs at the Wilson Times leads to some troubling impressions. A number of the people who were laid off either had health problems of their own or had dependents on the company insurance who had health problems. Among those names I've been told about are one former employee with diabetes and a heart condition, who probably can't get personal health insurance; a former employee with a recently diagnosed chronic disease; and a former employee with a handicapped child. Employees like that drive up group insurance rates, and that increases the employer's costs. I worry about what these people will do. Finding a job past a certain age is extremely difficult, to which I can testify, and COBRA coverage is time-limited and expensive. Some of these people will be eagerly hoping that Congress passes a health plan that will cover them, and quickly.
I have no reason to think that insurance costs factored into layoff decisions, but eliminating employees with these conditions will probably cut the company's health insurance premiums, and cutting costs is what these layoffs are all about.
Other layoffs involved people in senior management positions — people who were being paid the most. Laying off these employees saves more money than laying off the same number of lower-paid, junior employees. That's not an uncommon strategy in retrenchments, although some unions have a "last hired, first fired" agreement to protect senior workers.
Layoffs are always a painful event in any industry. In the news business, where layoffs have become common across the country recently, it's especially sad because these layoffs reduce the the news media's ability to fill its traditional "watchdog" role, leave the public less informed and give corrupt public officials greater latitude to get away with shenanigans.
Lest you get the impression that all newspapers are chopping staff by half, as the Wilson Times has done, other papers, while hurting, are not that bad off. I talked to a former colleague Thursday, whose newspaper in another N.C. city is "doing fine," absorbing a little decline in ad sales but maintaining staff and news coverage. The continuing massacre of jobs at the Wilson Times is far beyond the industry norm.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sad day for journalism and community

Sad. That's about all I can say about the news, confirmed late this afternoon, that The Wilson Times had laid off another 15 people. Second- or third-hand, I've learned the names of a number of them, though I've not seen a comprehensive list. Good people, some outstanding people. I feel very sad for all of them. This didn't have to happen.
The downturn in the economy has hurt ad sales at newspapers, magazines and TV stations across the country, but the cuts at the local newspaper go beyond an industry-wide loss of advertising revenue. Some papers have been decimated — i.e, they have lost one in 10 of their staff — but the Wilson Times, apparently, has cut about half of its staff. With the 15 cut today, payroll has slipped below 50 employees, it would appear, from a peak of around 90 a few years ago. I'm wondering whether the skeleton staff that is left can produce a newspaper six times a week. There has been no announcement about reducing publication days, but that surely must be the next step, to go from daily (six days a week) to five or fewer days a week. Cutting publication days would help the harried news staff keep up and would reduce newsprint costs, which are the second-largest expense for newspapers. When the first and second round of cuts came through, I reassured some people that, even with those cuts, the newsroom staff was bigger than when I had come to the paper in 1980. That's no longer the case. With this latest round of cuts, the news staff is the smallest it's been since at least the 1950s, perhaps the 1940s.
It's a sad day for some very loyal and capable employees, but it's also a sad day for the community. I've been accused of being "old school," and I certainly am in regard to newspapers. I believe a good newspaper is essential to a community. I was proud to be a part of a good newspaper in a good community just a few years ago. But today I'm sad that hard work and loyalty have been rewarded with layoffs. Bad decisions and unwise expenditures in the past have led to this day of reckoning, but the people who will suffer most are not the ones who made those bad decisions.

Back in the news: It's Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton is back, and this time he's doing well by doing good. The former president is freshly back from a private mission to North Korea, where he met with the enigmatic and reportedly ailing "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and obtained pardons for two American journalists who had been convicted by North Korea of spying. It's a fortuitous revival for the former president, who was last in the public eye campaigning for his wife, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Suffice it to say that Bill Clinton appears to have done a better job with the North Koreans than with 2008 Democratic primary voters.
And let's admit a deserved compliment for his wife. I, for one, thought the appointment of Sen. Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state was a bad idea. I thought her ego and independence were too big for this sensitive and ceremonial job. But she has sublimated her ego and has led the administration's efforts to mend fences around the world while keeping pressure on adversarial regimes such as Iran and North Korea. She's proving herself in this new and very different role.
But back to her husband. Bill Clinton accepted this mission at the apparent behest of Kim Jong Il, who seems to have an affection for Western celebrities. Kim reportedly turned down other emissaries and insisted on the 42nd president himself. According to at least one account, the usually ebullient and unpredictable Clinton maintained a disciplined, disinterested and business-like demeanor throughout the meeting with Kim, who behaved more like a thrilled and starry-eyed teenager. Clinton returned to the United States looking like a disciplined, credit-deflecting professional, with the pardoned and appreciative journalists.
What everyone wants to know is what does this diplomatic coup mean for relations with nuclear-armed and belligerent North Korea. No one really knows, but it's the first hopeful sign from the Kim regime in years. The Obama administration emphasized that Clinton carried no official message on what it described as a private trip. But the president and secretary of state will surely try to capitalize on any slight opening Clinton's meeting with Kim might imply. North Korea might well be the most volatile nation in the world, a bigger challenge than Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. If diplomatic efforts can take this ticking bomb off the table, it will be easier for the United States to deal with other international problems.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Legislators approve state budget — Ouch!

They're about six weeks late, but North Carolina's legislators are finally getting around to doing the most important thing we hire them to do: Pass a state budget. Don't expect a lot of rejoicing throughout the land, however. This budget will hurt everyone in the state, some more so than others.
The budget, which awaits final votes in the House and Senate, will raise sales taxes by a penny. This tax is paid by everyone, which makes some nominally egalitarian types happy, but, in reality, the sales tax is the most regressive of taxes, falling heaviest, proportionally, on those with the least income. Perhaps to correct that flaw in the state's new revenue stream, the budget also imposes an income tax surcharge on "high income" taxpayers. The surcharge starts at $100,000 in taxable income, which, while well above the state's mean household income, is not exactly "rich." A lot of two-income couples who consider themselves working class will have to pay an extra 2 percent surcharge on this year's income.
The public will feel the budget's bite in other ways, too. Legislators are cutting public school appropriations and leaving it up to individual school districts how to allocate those cuts. My bet is that the cuts will more often be sliced out of teaching positions and classroom supplies than out of central office administration. This recession has prompted a lot off workers and executives to absorb pay cuts. I doubt that any school superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals or directors of arithmetic will see their pay cut.
Also feeling the brunt of the budget cleaver will be some of the state's most helpless people. The budget cuts back on community support for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Community assistance workers make it possible for many handicapped people to live useful, near-normal lives. Taking away that assistance could well create problems that end up costing the state more money in the long run.
Although legislators did trim spending a bit — the budget passed on party-line votes, so the budget is purely a Democratic document — they left untouched what seems to me to be simple, painless cuts, the low-lying fruit of budget talks. For example, this weekend is tax-free weekend. Highly touted by retailers, this back-to-school weekend is more popular than its actual value to consumers, who get a discount of a whopping 6.75 percent on purchases that fit the state's criteria. But the sales tax moratorium costs the state about $12 million in forgone revenue. That's not enough to balance the budget, but it's a start.
I'm also amazed that I've heard nothing about the millions of dollars legislators decided to borrow last year for construction projects on university campuses around the state. This borrowing, which did not involve a taxpayer referendum, comes on top of $3 billion in university spending that taxpayers had approved a few years ago for projects that are still under construction. The state could save millions — and perhaps take a moment to rethink some of this profligate spending — by halting projects such as the ECU dental school and the expansion of the dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Those are lost opportunities to save real money without hurting anyone.
The biggest question remaining from this budget is whether voters will pay any attention. Democrats seem confident that the spending cuts and tax hikes will not come back to haunt them. Republicans hope taxpayers will remember who was in charge when their taxes were raised and teachers were laid off.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Obama tries to reform medical care

President Obama isn't getting the health care deal he had wanted before Congress leaves town for the August recess, but health care reform could still happen this year. Just what form it might take remains unclear. Count me as cautiously supportive, sort of. I don't buy the notion that health care is a "right"; it's mentioned nowhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. However, I do think a compassionate society should not allow treatable illnesses and injuries to go untreated simply because of economic circumstances.
Although I am congenitally skeptical of any new government program, I grew more sympathetic toward changes in government-backed medical care throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when the health insurance premiums I paid grew and grew while my out-of-pocket expenses for co-pays and deductibles also grew. When I took a new job in 1980, I was disappointed to learn that my new employer would not pay for my family health insurance coverage, as my former one did. The family premium at that time was $58 and change. Family coverage at the same company, but with more out-of-pocket expenses, is now around $600, I think. When my children, who are now paying for health insurance for their own children, were comparing costs last weekend, they considered a $600 monthly premium something to be envied.
America's health care system is overlapping, bureaucratic, top-heavy, insensitive and far more costly than other industrialized nations, and it's been like this for years. It looked like President Clinton would be able to push through health insurance changes in his first term, but Clinton blew his opportunity by assigning his wife to lead a secretive commission that created a gargantuan, bureaucratic system, which Clinton then presented to Congress as a fait accompli. No changes allowed! The proposal collapsed and died after attacks from left and right and from deep suspicions about the secretive, no-changes, no-debate nature of the proposal.
Obama has not accomplished what he set out to do, but his legislative strategy has greater chance of success. Obama wants a health care reform plan, and he's allowing Congress to work out the details. What will emerge will not satisfy those who want a single-payer plan that would strip away all of the insurance company profits and second-guessing, nor will it satisfy those who, out of fear of governmental inefficiency and meddling, think the current system is just fine.
Some key inequities in the current system need to be resolved. Because of the huge cost of extended care and chronic diseases, Americans are just one serious illness away from bankruptcy. People who have good health insurance coverage through their employers are afraid to change jobs and lose their coverage. Layoffs mean not just loss of income but also loss of health care benefits (COBRA helps, but it's prohibitively expensive for many people). Insurance companies can refuse to cover "pre-existing conditions" and scour health records for any disqualifying evidence. (My daughter is having to prove she never had cancer because an infertility drug she had taken three years ago can also be prescribed for cancer patients.)
Statistics I've seen recently put the cost of health care at around $7,500 per person. Economies of scale, if nothing else, should reduce that amount, and other reforms should reduce costs further. Cutting these costs will benefit the economy by improving America's competitiveness against other nations' workers, who have universal health coverage. Getting the uninsured into coverage will reduce the un-reimbursed expenses and write-offs of hospitals around the country.
There are good reasons to hope that health care reform will pass. There is even greater reason to hope that Congress will do this work wisely, without increasing the national debt and without negating the many positive aspects of health care coverage — innovations, research and technology, for example.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Conspiracy theorists never give up

Don't you just love conspiracy theorists? Less than a month after the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, which conspiracy theorists claim was faked, despite the video shot of the astronauts bouncing around in the one-sixth gravity (oh, yeah, that was filmed in Arizona!) and the retrieval of moon rocks, we have true believers insisting that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii and is, therefore, not an American citizen.
I had pretty much overlooked this national crisis until reading a Washington Post article about an effort by Republican congressmen to require presidential candidates to produce a birth certificate. But, as so often happens with news posted on the Web, the reader comments (scroll to the bottom) were even more interesting than the article itself. Despite the publication of Obama's birth certificate (it's available online through Hawaii public records) and the Hawaii newspaper birth announcement, the conspiracy theorists are insisting that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Most claim he was born in Kenya, his father's homeland.
This, to the conspiracists' thinking, makes him ineligible to be president. The Constitution requires that a president be a "natural born" citizen. That term is undefined, but it is assumed to mean that he was born a citizen, not "naturalized" through the immigration process. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bob Hope (born in England to British parents and once discussed as a vice presidential candidate) would not qualify. But because his mother was a U.S. citizen, Obama would also be a U.S. citizen. My wife has cousins who were born in Norway to her Goldsboro-native aunt and her Norwegian-born husband. Their birth gave them dual citizenship, and they could choose to which country to pledge allegiance (they both opted for the good ol' USA). Obama's status, if born in Kenya, would be the same, so he, too, would be a "natural born" citizen. John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, by the way, and all of the early presidents, up through Andrew Jackson, was born before there was a United States. They still qualified.
But, as can be seen by the scores of comments to the Washington Post article, the conspiracists are going nuts (maybe that's a redundancy) over this issue. They insist that the Hawaii birth certificate isn't valid, that the newspaper microfilm is faked and that the Hawaii Republican governor's certification of those records as legitimate is a political ploy.
As the Post article points out, some Republican officials are a bit tired of the conspiracy theorists. They think this focus on a 48-year-old birth certificate wastes time that could be better put to the more important issues of the day, such as the budget deficit, the faltering economy, Social Security's coming insolvency, health care reform, industrial policy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just to name a few. But the conspiracy theorists, God love 'em, insist that the really important issue of the day is how a vast left-wing conspiracy managed to fake birth certificates and newspaper articles and fool a majority of the American people.
Get out your tin-foil hats!