Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Moore's film (again) ignores facts

Michael Moore was on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" Tuesday promoting his new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story." In the few minutes I listened, I was not surprised to hear an ill-informed, distorted rant against the free-enterprise system. It's what I've come to expect from Moore.
That wasn't always the case. When his first big film, "Roger and Me," came out on video, I watched it eagerly, at least for the first few minutes. By the end, however, I discovered that Moore is an abrasive, disrespectful, myopic shill for disproved socialist ideology. Yes, the film chronicled the sad decline of the automotive industry and the impact of decisions made by overpaid executives on the workers who had built General Motors. But Moore's confrontational, egotistical, sanctimonious style diminished the impact of that message. By the end, I felt almost as sympathetic toward Roger Smith, the GM CEO Moore was chasing, as toward the laid-off workers.
The film was successful, allowing Moore to make more highly politicized films, such as "Sicko" (about health care) and "Fahrenheit 9/11" (blaming George W. Bush for the 2001 terrorist attacks). In his newest film, Moore claims that capitalism is to blame for all the world's ills. He marshals a bunch of statistics to prove his point but conveniently overlooks any facts or figures that will contradict his preconceived notion.
In the NPR interview, Moore lamented the good lifestyle he had growing up as the child of a GM worker. His father's single income provided for the entire family's needs, including health care and pension. What happened to this utopia, according to Moore, was that Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich and ruined an idyllic existence. His solution is sharply higher taxes (90 percent marginal rates) and public ownership of corporations to prevent the accumulation of obscene wealth. The inconvenient facts Moore ignores include:
• High marginal tax rates were not first cut by Reagan but by President Kennedy.
• Each time those high marginal rates were cut, the government ended up with more revenue. It worked for Kennedy, and it worked for Reagan. Allowing people some incentive to make more money creates more wealth for the investor and for the government in the form of greater tax revenue.
• It's true that taxes have been cut for the wealthy, but taxes can't be cut for wage earners at the bottom of the scale because they are already paying no federal income tax. In fact, they are getting money from the government in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit and other forms of assistance, including subsidized health care, child care, housing, etc. The bottom 50 percent of taxpayers pay only about 3 percent of all taxes while the top 1 percent of earners pay 37 percent of taxes while taking in 19 percent of all income.
• Bad public policy and wrong corporate decisions are only partly to blame for the loss of Moore's idyllic worker's paradise. There was also international competition. So long as GM, Ford and Chrysler were competing only among themselves, they could afford to produce shoddy vehicles and pay overly generous wages and benefits. But when VW, Toyota, Nissan and others began offering more reliable and cheaper vehicles, consumers largely abandoned the U.S. vehicles.
• The problems Moore blames on a capitalistic system are really failures of American public policy. The United States has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and from a lender nation to a debtor nation. If U.S. tax policy rewarded domestic manufacturing and discouraged imports, things would be different.
A caller to the program agreed with Moore's assessment of the evils of capitalism, but he said Moore didn't go far enough. To achieve a true social democracy, the caller said, we must eliminate money altogether. Moore agreed with the caller but said his incremental step would be more achievable.
That exchange reminded me of the professor who taught a sociology class I took around 1970. He extolled the Swedish system, which taxed all income at around 70 percent and provided everyone's needs, from health care to housing to jobs. Within 10 or 20 years, he predicted, America would eliminate the need for money. Stores would just be open warehouses, and everyone would go in and pick up what they needed and walk out without paying anything. A student had the impudence to ask what would prevent people from greedily hoarding items, from cleaning out the store for themselves. Oh, don't be silly, the professor replied; people in an enlightened system wouldn't do that.
Yeah, right!
Capitalism is an imperfect system. It requires some democratic regulation to prevent foolish risks that can cause a collapse. It requires tax policy that rewards investment but prevents accumulation of and inheritance of excessive wealth. But capitalism recognizes human greed and harnesses that impulse to provide the greatest upward mobility, the greatest innovations and the greatest overall wealth of any system in existence.
Stringing crime scene tape around Wall Street makes a cute joke, but don't count on Michael Moore to solve our political, medical or economic problems.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Here's to the land of the longleaf pine

I spent a good chunk of Monday and will spend more time today raking up pine straw, which has been falling like long, brown snowflakes in the autumn breeze. Since moving to eastern North Carolina nearly 30 years ago, I have come to appreciate the useful qualities of the needles of the longleaf pine tree. Those needles have served as mulch, border and walkway at various times in my yard. I have volunteered to rake other people's yards in order to get the pine straw. I have filled my car trunk with bales of commercially gathered pine straw and divided the bulk into loose mulch wherever needed in the yard.
Some time back, I encountered a neighbor who was raking pine straw out of the street near his home. I asked if he was cleaning up the neighborhood. No, he said, he was saving the $4.50 per bale it costs for commercially available pine straw. What falls in the street is clean, cheap and easy to rake, he said.
Eastern North Carolina was once covered by longleaf pine forests, and early settlers took lumber, turpentine and pitch from these forests. The tar in the Tar Heel State originated in these pines. Old lumber — heart pine — from these trees is still treasured. Few of the majestic trees remain. Modern tree farms plant faster-growing varieties, and many longleaf pines in residential areas were broken by hurricanes or cut down by homeowners nervous that the big trees would fall on their houses.
I wouldn't call the pine a particularly pretty tree. It lacks the majestic spread of a mature oak or the autumn colors of a maple or a dogwood. But they grow tall and resilient with deep roots that help them survive drought and winds. And every fall they bestow on the ground around them a blanket of pine needles that can be raked into useful shapes — plant bed mulch, walkways, lawn borders, flower beds. Other trees have prettier leaves, but those leaves aren't as useful as pine needles. The oak, maple and dogwood leaves have to be raked off the tender lawn but aren't very useful as mulch. Piled by the curb, those leaves will be sucked up by the city's vacuum truck and turned into the rich, conglomerated mush of compost, which is good for plants but not much to look at.
Meanwhile, I'll still be raking pine needles from the lawn, driveway and street.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Criminal justice for NFL stars

I'm sorry, but I just don't see the sense in sending Plaxico Burress to prison for two years because he accidentally and stupidly shot himself in the leg with an illegal pistol. The National Football League star receiver went to prison last week, 10 months after a pistol he had tucked into his waistband slipped and discharged while he was in a New York City nightspot. He was wounded in the leg; no one else was hurt.
Burress, one of the heroes of the N.Y. Giants' Super Bowl victory, has been suspended by the NFL and will spend the next two years in prison. New York City's firearm laws are unforgiving: Owning an illegal weapon brings an automatic sentence of jail time. That Burress could be so stupid as to carry a loaded gun casually slipped into the waistband of his pants is unbelievable. He's had no rational explanation as to why he did such a thing. Testimonials from his ex-teammates and others indicate that Burress is a good and responsible man, a husband and father who was clearly devastated to be leaving his family behind. But he did a foolish thing and now will pay for it.
Compare Burress' sentence, and his crime, however, to Michael Vick's. Vick, a star quarterback, has just returned to the NFL after serving less than two years for financing and operating dog-fighting enterprise. Vick knowingly spent his fortune to train dogs to fight, financed dog fights, and callously killed dogs that were not good fighters. He was sentenced to 23 months — less time than Burress got — for his crimes. Vick was not injured in the commission of crime, as Burress was, but Vick was forced into bankruptcy (which was probably a good thing for him).
The big difference in the two incidents was that Burress was the only person hurt by his actions; Vick took part in the killing of fighting dogs, and the money he threw around encouraged others to be involved in dog-fighting. The societal damage in the Vick case was much greater. I have no doubt about Vick's remorse and regret, and I don't disagree with the NFL's decision to let him continue his career. He has served his time and (I hope) learned his lesson. If justice were equal, Burress would pay a fine, face a suspended sentence, lose a substantial portion of his seven-figure income, and be suspended by the NFL for a period of time, on top of his serious leg injury. But in New York and other cities, possessing a firearm, even if never used, is more serious than wantonly killing dozens of dogs and promoting illegal dog-fighting.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A quiver full of them

The grandchildren gather for a photo, Sept. 26, 2009

"[Children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the [children] of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them."
Psalm 127

Friday, September 25, 2009

Old college transcript embarrasses me again

I applied for a job this week that required that I include my college transcript with my application. Digging through my job applications file folder, I pulled out my last copy of my transcript, wondering what possible value a potential employer could find in the grades I made 40 years ago. I paused long enough to scan through the list of courses and grades and once again felt embarrassed that I had been so slack in my youth.
I could understand the C's I got (and was pretty grateful for) in the required math courses. My high school math preparation had been poor, and the university was going through a transition in math requirements, which stuck me in calculus my first semester on campus. I recalled a couple of other courses that were arduous, and I earned C's in them. But I also saw C's in courses that should not have been difficult. Even some writing courses, which should have been my strength, ended in C's. I did get A's and B's in other writing courses, but the C's in two writing courses are inexplicable to me. I recall little about those courses, what articles or stories I handed in or why I had failed to reach my potential. It's particularly embarrassing.
Last week I read an intriguing article about how the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communications was changing its curriculum in the midst of head-spinning changes in newspapers and other media. One paragraph in the story noted that the school required students to maintain a 2.9 grade-point average.
It's a good thing such a standard was not in place when I was an undergraduate. I and most of my fellow journalism students would have been banished from the building. The average undergraduate GPA, if I remember correctly, was well below 2.5 at the time. I remember being told that the state's highly rated law schools required a minimum 2.5 GPA. Now, I suspect 3.5 is closer to that threshold. I graduated thinking that my B-minus average was respectable, at least. I took some pride in having no grade below a C. Grade inflation has made the grades of my generation disreputable, and I can take some comfort in that.
But a perusal of my old transcript still leaves me embarrassed. I was capable of better work, but I had fallen under the influence of older students whose philosophy was, "You get the same diploma with a 2.0 as you do with a 4.0, so why work yourself to death? Have fun!" And I did. I took a couple of courses on a pass/fail basis simply because that allowed me to slack off in those courses. Skipping a class on a cool fall afternoon or a warm spring day was a manifesto of student rights in those heady days, never mind that you might miss some valuable learning.
About a decade after graduation, I returned to college classes at Atlantic Christian College, primarily because I wanted to take advantage of my GI Bill educational benefits before they expired. Although I was working full-time and was married with three children, I found more time to concentrate on studies. I was also inoculated from the allure of comely coeds and the appeal of pickup basketball or football games. I took eight courses and earned seven A's and one B (in math-heavy Statistics). I'd like to think that those grades are more of a testimony to my abilities as a student, but I also recognize that those later grades don't cancel the under-achievement from an earlier decade.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Candidate forum takes unexpected turn

The Wilson City Council election just got more interesting. The odd-year political season had just settled into its usual dull tradition when candidates from other districts took over what was supposed to be a candidate forum for District 5, one of the rare hotly contested district races. But it was Bill Darden and George Pope from Districts 7 and 6, respectively, who got the most publicity from the forum. Darden asked the audience to ignore news reports about his problems that led to his house arrest. Then Pope told the audience that he didn't like the city he was seeking to govern. "I did not want to be in Wilson, but I was not going to let them run me off, either," he said, according the Wilson Times.
Let's see if I've got this straight: "My fellow citizens, I don't like it here, but vote for me anyway and I might stay." Hmmmm. At least it's a different strategy.
Perhaps Pope was trying to outdo Councilman James Johnson III, who lashed out during a council meeting earlier this month at citizens who come before City Council with complaints. "We have the same angry people at every meeting making the same stupid comments," he was quoted in the newspaper. That "stupid" comment led to a nasty letter to the editor that accused City Council of ignoring the concerns of poorer east Wilson.
Johnson has an advantage over Pope, however. Having been re-elected in 2007, Johnson, who represents District 4, won't face voters for another two years. Memories are short, so chances are the "stupid" comment won't be a factor in 2011.
The real losers this month were the interested voters of District 5, who came out to hear candidates' views, only to have their district forum hijacked by candidates who are not on their ballot.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The tug of history and nostalgia

The Boggan-Hammond House in Wadesboro

I was born and raised in Anson County, about 40 miles east of Charlotte and 10 miles from the South Carolina border. When I finished high school, I was eager to leave there and have been back only for visits, which have grown quite rare since my parents died. None of my siblings stayed in the poverty-stricken area, either.
Nevertheless, the mooring lines of experience, sentiment and nostalgia still tug at my heart, and I pause on my occasional visits just to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the place that once was so familiar. Those sensory stimuli once were my whole world. All four grandparents and nearly all of my aunts, uncles and cousins lived in the area, and none of us wandered far from home in those days. Even now, I can drive down a country road and be suddenly overwashed by a lost memory by a house or a turn in the road.
Since leaving the place more than 40 years ago, I have come to better appreciate its history. Anson was one of the first counties of North Carolina, originally stretching from the Pee Dee River on the east to the Mississippi or (depending on whom you ask) the Pacific on the west. From it was carved all of the westward counties along North Carolina's southern border.
That long history (the county was founded in 1749) has become a source of pride for remaining county residents as the once-dominant cotton mills have all closed and more and more county residents have taken jobs requiring long commutes to Charlotte. I joined the Anson County Historical Society to keep up with what is going in the area that gave me birth and nurturing. For a county with so little wealth and so few residents (around 25,000, about the same number as 50 years ago), the Historical Society is surprisingly vibrant and ambitious. The society owns, if I'm counting right, five historic buildings, including the oldest house in Wadesboro, a medical museum, an office building and a "museum of early America."
The society's latest newsletter (which, by itself, is a big undertaking) issues a plea for $135,000 for the repair of the Historical Society's restored but badly deteriorating properties. The low wealth of residents and the high costs of repairs make this plea a desperate one. The founders and foot-soldiers of the Historical Society are aging and dying. It seems possible that the entire association could expire.
The Anson County Historical Society has a Web site and is a 501(c)3 corporation, making gifts tax deductible. The address, if you're interested, is 206 E. Wade St., Wadesboro, NC 28170.

• • •
In a recent post, I complained about the frustrations of job-hunting using the N.C. Employment Security Commission's job listings. Since that time, I talked to a very helpful Job Service agent who cheerfully and professionally provided the information I needed. This morning, I received an e-mail with the contact information for jobs I was interested in. I had asked the Job Service for an e-mail instead of a less-efficient and more time-consuming telephone call (actually two calls were required). So I'm pleased to report that ESC can be helpful and even responsive to individual clients' requests. I withdraw my complaints.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama searches for another Afghan strategy

President Obama, who campaigned on the assertion that U.S. strategy had lost its way by invading Iraq in March 2003 and should have concentrated on Afghanistan instead, appears to be rethinking his commitment to Afghanistan, or at least to current U.S. policy. That policy is a fluid thing. Only weeks ago, Obama replaced the commanding general in Afghanistan with a new commander who is more attuned to counter-insurgency strategy, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Now, reports say the administration is delaying McChrystal's request for additional troops so that the entire strategy there can be reassessed.
As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported recently, things are not going particularly well in Afghanistan. More Americans are dying. Casualties are also increasing among NATO troops. The Taliban insurgency is showing greater strength and sophistication, and last month's election made a farce of U.S. efforts to bring democracy to the splintered nation. None of this should be a surprise in a country nicknamed "the graveyard of empires." Ask the British and the Russians about how difficult it is to tame Afghanistan.
The United States had every reason to overthrow the Taliban, who had sheltered and supported the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked this country on Sept. 11, 2001. Overthrowing the Taliban was not all that difficult. The population was tired of the Taliban's ridiculous bans on any amusement or pleasure (movies and kite-flying were forbidden). The horrors of that regime are beautifully chronicled in Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth, has a culture that makes it nearly ungovernable. Families, tribes and ethnic groups claim more loyalty than nationality, and corruption seems to be as deeply ingrained as the militant independence of various groups. America has already concluded that it cannot rule this disparate nation by force. McChrystal is trying to win the public's loyalty by protecting civilians from harsh Taliban reprisals, but this strategy is, at best, a slow process. The Taliban have shown a remarkable resilience and surprising military strength. The Taliban control large areas of the lightly populated country, and they are able to carry out military attacks even in supposedly secure cities such as Kabul.
President Obama would like to put the Afghan problem behind him, but he and others fear that Afghanistan could easily slip back under Taliban domination and again be a staging area for al-Qaida. Neighboring Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and the worst-case scenario is al-Qaida domination of both countries with nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.
America's best strategy might be some accommodation with the Taliban that would allow a theocratic government but prohibit terrorist activities or training. Right now, the Taliban have few reasons to negotiate. As Mullen has admitted, the Taliban have the upper hand.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New production completes triple play

Attending the Wilson Playhouse's production of "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming" provided a delightful topping for the weekend and also brought back memories of earlier Playhouse productions of the "Smoke on the Mountain" series of musical comedies. The series of country-music comedies by Connie Ray and Mike Craver has been a delightful triple-play for Playhouse and three of its most successful productions.
The first play, "Smoke on the Mountain," had to be staged in the former Tucker Furniture building in the 1990s because the Boykin Center was under repair (because The Wilson Daily Times' archive search on its Web site does not return any articles before this year, I can't find the date for this or other performances). Despite the inadequacies (including bleacher seating) of the Tucker Furniture venue, Playhouse performers managed to make the jerry-rigged site work. A terrific and talented cast of young singers made this one of the most memorable plays the amateur group ever staged.
When Playhouse returned with a sequel, "Sanders Family Christmas," a few years later (again, I'm unable to provide dates), I was eager to see the characters and hear the songs again. By coincidence, my parents were visiting us that week, and I was able to take them to the play. It was probably the first play, except for school productions, they had ever attended, and my father seemed uncertain whether he should laugh out loud at some of the comic lines. Jokes about rural Baptist churches (which he attended all his life) might have hit too close to home. But my parents, on their last visit to Wilson, really enjoyed the play, even if they didn't develop any sense of the humor in over-the-top religiosity.
One of the gags in all three plays is the horrendously bad choir at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The choir is off-key, off-beat, off-tune, and just off-ful! It was an exaggerated version of the rural Baptist choir I heard as a child. Maybe that's why my dad wasn't sure whether to laugh. The choir in the current "Homecoming" production takes awful to new heights and is the funniest yet.
One of the strengths of these three plays is the consistent central cast. Although a number of cast members changed over the years, four actors kept their roles through all three plays. Jeff and Kathy Creech played Burl and Vera Sanders, and Wayne Holland was the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe in all three plays. The Creeches' fine voices seem tailor-made for the country music, and Holland captured the slightly shady preacher character from his first cue in the original play. Ted Brna also held onto his role as Stanly Sanders, and his melodic voice and exceptional guitar playing provided some of the best music of all three plays. These four give this series a consistency and professionalism that is rare in amateur productions.
The Creeches seemed to grow in their roles with each play, slipping easily into the personas of the itinerant, scripture-citing and -quoting gospel singers with their three children. Holland began the three plays with Reverend Oglethorpe's lascivious eye on and his shiny gold tooth twinkling at June, the oldest Sanders daughter. By the "Homecoming," the reverend and the teenager have married, and they're striking out for a new church in Texas, leaving Mount Pleasant Baptist to Dennis Sanders, ("one of the twins" played by George Fletcher Duke II), who is back from the war and called to preach.
In the current production (which continues through this weekend), Angela Hutchins as June and Ashley Stith as Denise (the "other twin") lend their excellent singing voices to the play. The songs are nicely staged by director Becky Vanden Bosch, and all the actors sing well.
One can quibble that the script for "Homecoming" does not provide quite the comic energy and profound insight that the first two plays did, but it's still an enjoyable production and one that should not be missed by anyone who enjoyed the earlier plays. "Homecoming" seems to have been written to provide "closure" for audiences left hanging by "Sanders Family Christmas," which ended with Dennis headed off to war. It lacks some of the punch and character development of the earlier plays but retains the essential elements that made the earlier plays so successful.
"Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming" proves the value and exceptional quality of Wilson Playhouse productions. Fans who enjoyed the earlier two plays (and anyone who saw them had to enjoy them) will not want to miss this final episode.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Inefficient system frustrates job-seekers

I'm overwhelmingly grateful for the unemployment insurance system, which has sustained me and paid my mortgage through nine months of unemployment (following three months of idleness covered by severance pay). I really am. But I'm finding the unemployment system increasingly frustrating and inefficient.
The N.C. Employment Security Commission provides a useful and helpful Web site that allows clients to register for unemployment, file weekly certifications, search for jobs and check on the status of their claims. I use it just about every day. I especially use the Job Bank listing of available jobs, and that's where the frustrations and inefficiencies crop up.
The Job Bank listings include a job description, but it has a limited number of words or characters, so the job descriptions are often incomplete, making it difficult to know whether the job is a good fit. Clients can select the jobs they're interested in and receive a message that they will be contacted with job application information. (In nearly all cases, the name of the company or agency doing the hiring is not included on the Web site, so you have to go through the process to make an application.) A few hours after selecting the jobs, the client will receive an automated phone call from the state saying that "someone at this address" has requested job information from the ESC. The recording then tells the listener to call the local ESC office.
Twice in the past week I've followed up with a call to the ESC office and ended up in someone's voice mail. I left my name and number and requested a return call so that I could apply for the jobs I was interested in. I got no response from either message I left. I even sent an e-mail to the state ESC suggesting that it would work better if ESC would just send me an e-mail with the job information I needed. I received an e-mail reply saying that wasn't possible. Not knowing who the employer is, I can't apply for those jobs. Meanwhile, all ESC clients are required to apply for at least two jobs each week, so I've had to hunt for jobs in other listings, jobs that might not be as suitable or attractive as those in the ESC listing.
But I'm grateful for unemployment insurance. Without it, I would have depleted most of my savings by now. I just wish the job listing service could be more efficient.

Not all disrespect is based in racism

American political debate is in danger on two fronts. On one, the level of civility and mutual respect has deteriorated to the point that congressional "town hall" meetings become shouting matches and a member of Congress calls out "you lie" during a presidential address. On the other, some commentators assert that any criticism of America's first African-American president is motivated by racism. Former President Jimmy Carter, who says his upbringing in Georgia has taught him to recognize racism when he sees it, is the latest to see racism behind critics of President Obama.
For defenders of this president, who carefully avoided racial politics in his presidential campaign, the racism card is an odd assertion. No one doubts that there are some lingering racists in this country who oppose Obama first and foremost because of his color. But that doesn't make all of his critics racist. Obama's risky positions on health care, missile defense, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, the federal deficit and other controversial matters will attract critics who disagree with him. To suggest that all of those criticisms are founded in racial discrimination belittles the genuine policy disagreements that roil American politics. Rep. Joe Wilson's "you lie" shout-out was uncouth, disrespectful, uncivil, undisciplined and embarrassing, but I've seen no reason to blame Wilson's lack of manners on racism, unless you believe that being from South Carolina or being a Republican is indisputable proof of racist beliefs.
"Racism" is a harsh epithet, almost the equal of "child molester," that shouldn't be weakened by overuse or misuse. To ascribe any policy differences with this president to racism diminishes the meaning and venality of the word.
Harsh criticism of presidents and their policies is not a new phenomenon. Critics of George W. Bush went beyond critiques of his disastrous policies and got personal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Bush a "liar" and a "loser." Disrespectful? Yes. Venal? Yes. Racist? No. Bill Clinton also attracted a coterie of venal critics of his personal life and family. George H.W. Bush's critics portrayed him as a rich, smiling idiot. From the time he was California governor, Ronald Reagan faced harsh criticism who belittled him as a petty actor and then criticized his acting. Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for his "homely" children and his rural pastimes. Franklin Roosevelt called out his critics when, he said, they had even begun criticizing "my little dog Fala." None of these criticisms, as harsh and hateful as they were, were based in racism.
Obama, like his predecessors, will face harsh, unfair criticism. Critics will be unkind, disrespectful and uncivil, but we should be careful about blaming bad manners on racism.
Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who might have been the first African-American president if he had wanted it, had this to say in a New York Times interview: “The issue there is not race, it’s civility. This is not to say that we are suddenly racially pure, but constantly talking about it and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to our public dialogue.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Video captures Acorn offering assistance

If you haven't seen this video of a couple of Acorn employees doing their dead-level best to accommodate a purported prostitute and her pimp in a scheme to bring 14-year-old Salvadoran girls to the United States to join the prostitute's enterprise, you've missed one of the most entertaining sites on the Web. And one of the most frightening, disgusting and maddening. Take a look:

The video was put together by a partisan Web site,, which sent a man and a woman, dressed flagrantly as a pimp and a prostitute, to Acorn offices around the country to ask for assistance in setting up a prostitution business. In this video, the Acorn workers in Baltimore were eager to help, going so far as to suggest all sorts of tax dodges, lies and subterfuge to make the whorehouse a profitable enterprise and, at the same time, avoid law enforcement and federal taxes.
But as outrageous as that video is, the real outrage is this: Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is financed by taxpayer dollars! Despite the fact that it has been charged in several jurisdictions with voter fraud, Acorn has received $53 million in federal funds and stands to receive $8.5 Billion in Obama administration stimulus funds. Acorn receives money for federal housing assistance (hence, its employees could advise the pimp and prostitute on where to find housing for their underage workers), for voter registration and for other causes.
Acorn is unabashedly liberal, and the actors who exposed Acorn are unabashedly conservative, so some healthy skepticism is in order. An Acorn spokesman claimed the videos were false and threatened legal action, but Acorn fired the two employees in the video. Then Acorn claimed that had tried to trap Acorn employees in offices across the country but found fraud only in Baltimore. Then released additional videos from Acorn offices in San Bernardino, Calif., Washington, D.C., and others. Acorn employees at other offices were eager to help the budding entrepreneurs and ignore the illegality of prostitution, child sex slaves, tax fraud, etc.
Hidden-camera videos and reporters posing as someone else are always suspect, but you can't discount these videos merely because the organization that set up the sting was at political odds with Acorn. ABC News set up a sting of Food Lion several years ago, which was no less dubious than the expose of Acorn. A closer analogy was a sting set up by the Charlotte Observer a number of years ago attempting to prove that topless bars and massage parlors were fronts for prostitution. The Observer sent two "undercover" reporters, a male and a female, to these businesses and sought to catch the employees offering more than a show or a back rub. The Observer didn't have nearly as good a result as the Acorn sting. The actors who went to Acorn do not appear to be doing anything outside the parameters of investigative journalism.
Acorn has a lot of explaining to do, but so does Congress, which keeps shoveling taxpayer dollars to Acorn in the form of federal grants and pork-barrel appropriations. Want to eliminate waste and fraud in the federal budget? Start by cutting off taxpayer funding for all advocacy organizations. If Acorn, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institute wants a grant, let it come from private funding, not from the federal budget.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ten years after the Flood

Ten years ago this morning, I awoke from a fitful night, made coffee with water heated on the gas range and watched the remnants of Hurricane Floyd whip the trees surrounding our little brick home. Wisely, the newspaper I worked for had decided (at my urging) to go to press early, before the storm's fury hit. Drinking my coffee in the dark house and watching the storm rage outside, I congratulated myself on our foresight.
Three years before, we had not been so prescient. Hurricane Fran, a bigger, more powerful storm, had lashed the Wilson area throughout the night, and I lay awake, listening to the winds howl and the tree branches crashing against the roof . That morning, I rousted our publisher from his bed, meandered a circuitous route through a labyrinth of fallen trees and utility poles to the office, which was dark and eerie in the September dawn. We had no power. The phones were out. Although we had in front of us what I told the few available reporters was the "story of a lifetime," we had no way of producing the newspaper in Wilson. We managed to contact folks at the Greenville Daily Reflector, who invited us to go there to print our paper. A cobbled-together crew of everyone who could be found or who could get to the office car-pooled to Greenville with our handwritten news stories, our ad slicks and our notes. At the end of an exhausting day, we returned to Wilson late in the afternoon, a skeleton newspaper printed with news of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Wilson since Hurricane Hazel ripped through Oct. 15, 1954.
Three years later, in the aftermath of Floyd, after congratulating myself on the decision to go to press before the storm hit, I concluded that the hit from Floyd was not as bad as the hit from Fran. There were not so many trees down — although plenty of trees were lost — and I was able to make it to the office without as much difficulty as three years earlier. Power was out at the newspaper, but it was restored by mid-afternoon. Folks from the Greenville Daily Reflector came to Wilson, and we returned their favor, printing the Greenville paper here.
Reporters contacted their sources, and we began putting together coverage of the storm's impact from Emergency Management folks, the fire department, police and residents. Damage, it appeared, would not be as bad as Fran. But then the water rose.
Floyd arrived soon after a weak but lingering tropical storm had drenched eastern North Carolina. The ground was saturated, and the water began rising after Floyd dumped as much as 20 inches throughout a broad swath of eastern North Carolina. Photographer Keith Barnes snapped the memorable photo of barbecue king Bill Ellis in a small boat, looking like a frightened version of Washington Crossing the Delaware, as he rescued an employee who had been stranded in his restaurant when flood waters swirled around him. In the background, the roof of Bill Ellis Barbecue is barely above the floodwaters. The little valley where the restaurant stands had become a lake comprising hundreds of acres along Forest Hills Road between Tarboro Street and U.S. 301. Homes and businesses near creeks were flooded up to 6 feet deep, or even more. On Sunday afternoon, after the waters had receded, I visited a house on Park Street, where residents were carefully peeling soggy family pictures from a photo album in a living room where the water mark was about 4 feet up the wall.
Three years earlier, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had provided grants to the city for police and fire overtime, for replacing utility poles that had been blown over and for cleaning up the hundreds of tons of debris blown about by the winds. After Floyd, FEMA provided grants for buying flooded houses and demolishing them, leaving vacant lots along streets near creeks that are barely a ripple now but were gushing torrents 10 years ago today. Interstate 95 and Interstate 40 were both submerged following the storm. Large portions of Rocky Mount, Tarboro and Greenville were under water. All of Princeville disappeared under the flood. Thousands of homes were flooded and bought by FEMA. Fifty-two people died. It was a storm of if not biblical proportions, then certainly big enough to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Let's hope so.
I still get an uneasy feeling when I hear the wind blow and see trees sway or when the rain pounds on the roof the way it did 10 years ago. The memories remain fresh, despite a decade's passing. I'm still proud that the news operation I directed never missed a day of publication and put forth a gargantuan effort to provide readers detailed information they needed. Of all the news I covered in a 33-year newspaper career, none was more important, more exhausting or more difficult than two hurricanes, three years apart, each beginning with the letter F.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Before dawn, they're headed to work

It's dark now at 5:45 a.m. as my wife and I begin our daily, 30-minute walk. At the neighborhood meeting last night, a number of residents expressed concern about the inadequacy of street lights and dark shadows along some stretches of the neighborhood streets. Although there are some areas that are darker than others, I haven't found the darkness to be that much of a problem. Nor have we been bothered by the speeding or reckless drivers some residents complained about last night. At 5:45 to 6:15, we have the streets pretty much to ourselves.
There are a few walkers and runners along the dim streets, and a handful of cars, too. We wear light-colored clothing and walk on the left so we'll be visible in the headlights of oncoming cars. Thus far, I've forgone the reflective vest that hangs beside the dog's leash and the flashing red clip-on light my son gave me years ago when I sometimes jogged in the dark. On the Ides of September, the sky is dark and the stars are bright, and the streets are mostly vacant.
What has surprised me the most in the several months we've been taking this morning walk is the number of people who are up and leaving for work before 6 a.m. For years, I awoke at 5:30 and left for the office before 7 a.m., and I thought I was the Early Bird. Relatively few people were on the roads at that hour, and most houses I passed had cars still parked in the driveway. But on my morning walks now, I see a fair number of people leaving home before 6, starting their day long before the sun rises. The eastern horizon is just beginning to show a rosy glow at that hour, and stars are still clearly visible. Most houses are dark. I'm guessing that most of these early risers are commuters, headed to Raleigh or Greenville or some more distant workplace, but a few are just getting an early start on the work day, beating the staff to the office and getting ahead of the game.
These are the Morning People, the types who are too eager to stay in bed or are too energized by the prospects of the day to let their mind rest until dawn. When I applied for a job as editor of a morning paper (with a workday that began in the afternoon and ended after midnight) more than 30 years ago, I was asked if I was a night person or a morning person. I responded that I thought a person trained himself to be the type he needed to be in the circumstances, and that's largely true. But I found I really missed the morning when I came home from work at 2 a.m. and slept until 10 or 11. The early morning is such a quietly refreshing and invigorating time, an ideal time to walk the dog and watch your neighbors head off to work earlier than you'd ever imagined.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Barton opens new theater with "Drift"

Barton College's new Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre, which opened over the weekend, gives Wilson a new theatrical experience. The premiere of Jeremy Schonfeld's "Drift," gave patrons a glimpse of what the new theater might mean to Barton and to Wilson.
This "black box" theater presents drama in a new setting. There is no stage, per se. This arrangement gives actors and directors unlimited options. The action can take place almost anywhere within the confines of the warehouse-like venue. Seated in the second row last night, I was close enough several times to reach out and touch the actors; at other times, the actors brushed against me as they exited. The intimacy of the experience affects how the audience sees the play.
For "Drift," the band, led by Schonfeld himself, was part of the set, occupying the right side of the stage area, and Schonfeld (on keyboard) was as much a part of the play as were the eight actors. A minimalist set was accentuated by front-projection and rear-projection screens, which were part of the scenery. Slides projected on these screens included photographs from character David's broken marriage, including the door to his apartment. Moving boxes provide a motif for the divorce. Think "Scenes From a Marriage." There is a smiling little girl and a scenes from a happier time. The setting is obviously New York or some big metropolis, far removed from Wilson.
The play is a musical, with Schonfeld writing all the songs, but the 90-minute production might be called an opera; only a handful of words are spoken without musical accompaniment. Lyrics were not included in the playbill, but some of the songs, such as "Your Daddy Loves You," are powerful and emotional. Schonfeld directs a powerful band that gives the play a hard-driven sound typical of recent musicals. Christian Campbell as David and Andrea Schulz Twiss (wife of Barton theater director Adam Twiss) play the schismed couple with a sadness that is palpable as they examine why their love drifted away. Melvin Tunstall III, who previously appeared on the Barton stage in "Violet," uses his powerful voice to lead a supporting cast.
A lack of balance between the vocalists' and the band's amplification levels made some lyrics hard to hear as the band overwhelmed the words. Let's hope the sound is better balanced when the play continues Wednesday through Sunday before moving to the Kennedy Theatre in Raleigh Sept. 23-27.
Broadway actress and singer Lauren Kennedy makes her directing debut with this play, and she shows an imaginative sense for staging and presentation. The production is fast-paced and uses the cast members' movements and voices well.
"Drift" is, at its core, heart-breaking, but for Barton College, this opening is anything but sad. Barton officials were obviously delighted with the $4 million facility and its nearly unlimited potential for entertainment and education. Large signs outside the theater presented the theme: "Think Theatre. Think Barton."

Authors shine at Literary Festival

The thing that surprised me most about the N.C. Literary Festival was that it wasn't more packed than it was. Seats were available at all the events I attended, and the streets, restaurants and parking lots were not jam-packed, as they are on football weekends. For those of us who attended, however, the weekend was a delightful smorgasbord of words and the authors who arrange them beautifully.
I had attended the last Literary Festival in Chapel Hill in 2002 and was eager for this reprise. I was not disappointed. Although I did not attend any of the ticketed keynote events and confined my visit to Saturday only, the day was fulfilling and intellectually nourishing. I missed John Grisham, poet James Applewhite (who grew up in Stantonsburg and teaches at Duke) and performances of Lee Smith's "Good Ol' Girls" and Clyde Edgerton's "The Bible Salesman," but I heard readings by some authors I admire and discovered at least one new author who was a serendipitous surprise.
Sessions focused on the milieu of North Carolina history and the literary portrayal of that history. I was particularly interested in the session on Southern Mills, which featured Michael Chitwood, whose "The Weave Room" is a collection of poems about a textile mill. Ron Rash, whose "Eureka Mill" is a painfully honest look at a textile mill through a poet's eye, was featured in a separate session with Lee Smith about Southern storytelling. In the mills session, I discovered Barbara Presnell, whose poetry in "Piece Work" captures the voices of textile mill workers.
In a later session, former state poet laureate Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan (author of "Gap Creek" and "Boone") and young poet Jesse Graves read poems that evoked the uniqueness of the Southern experience. I found myself wanting to devour all the words in all the books that were for sale in tents outside the lecture halls, but I reminded myself of the stack of books already standing by my bedside and aligned on bookshelves that I have vowed to read. And I wanted the story told of life on the mill villages that had marked the transition from the agrarian South to the cities of the New South. In the early 20th century, nearly all North Carolinians had a common experience either on farms or in mill villages. I asked Chitwood if he knew of any great novels about textile mills, and he mentioned the late Doug Marlette's "The Bridge" — a good but not great first novel that deals with memories and denials about a violent union campaign at a mill. Doris Betts (who also spoke at the festival) wrote "The Scarlet Thread," which is set in a textile mill but is out of print. The setting is ripe for some great novelist.
We bought Rash's "Serena" and Presnell's "Piece Work" but did not buy either of Elizabeth Edwards' books, "Saving Graces" and "Resilience." Her session, the last one of the day for my wife and me, packed the sanctuary at University Methodist Church. Edwards spoke openly and frankly about the loss of her teenage son, Wade, in an automobile accident and admiringly about her father, a Navy officer and athlete who suffered a debilitating stroke but exceeded doctors' dire prognosis. She also spoke in general terms about having "my life explode on the pages of tabloids" last year. She was already at work on "Resilience" when her husband's sordid affair became tabloid fodder, and she told her editor she couldn't continue the project. But then she realized this painful episode was relevant to her theme of "Resilience," and she included her reaction to the personal crisis. Edwards is my UNC classmate (though I've never met her), and I have wanted to read her books but never got around to it. Her calm honesty and wit in tragic circumstances make me want to read her books even more.
This Literary Festival may have packed too much into too short a time, but for the hundreds, maybe thousands, who attended, it was a delight for the eyes and ears. Literature is an art of equal standing with music, painting or sculpture, at least as capable of expanding the mind and inspiring the soul. On Saturday, Chapel Hill became a museum to North Carolina's contributions to the best of this art.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Good veto kills legislative secrecy bill

Congratulations to Gov. Bev Perdue for vetoing a bill that would make documents related to legislative actions confidential. Perdue's first veto was a good one, if only for symbolic reasons. Legislative leaders have not decided whether they will convene a special session to try to override the veto of the bill, which passed unanimously.
North Carolina has generally good public records laws. The preamble to these laws states that all governmental records of any format belong to the people of North Carolina. The law makes some exceptions, such as medical and student records, but the principle of open records is a sound one. Transparency and access to records discourage governmental favoritism and fraud. State laws require local government meeting minutes, memos, correspondence, e-mail, deeds, judgments, complaints, directives and so forth to be accessible to anyone who requests them.
But the legislators who passed these laws also exempted themselves from most public records and open meetings laws. Unlike city councils or county commissions, for example, legislative committees can close their meetings to the public whenever they feel the urge. The bill Perdue vetoed would have closed access to legislative working papers, including written requests from constituents, inquiries by legislators and legislative proposals addressed to representatives. Perdue is absolutely right that "These are the people's documents."
Perhaps the most egregious part of the bill was the provision that would make releasing the documents legislators want to hide a criminal offense. Under current law, there are no criminal penalties for violating the public records or open meetings laws, so this would be a significant change. Executive branch employees could be charged criminally for releasing those documents, but legislative employees would face only civil complaints.
In the wake of all the political scandals involving Jim Black, Frank Ballance, Mike Easley and others, transparency should be a priority issue in statewide campaigns. If Democrats want to avoid it and Republicans' hearts aren't in it, voters should demand that candidates take a stand: Are you for governmental transparency or are secret documents and back-room deals the way to get things done?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Secretary of state tries for Senate

Elaine Marshall, the North Carolina secretary of state, not the English professor at Barton College, is running for U.S. Senate, hoping to unseat Republican Richard Burr in the 2010 election. Since winning the secretary of state office in 1996, Marshall, a former state senator, has proven herself to be an able and innovative manager. She has had no trouble getting re-elected to her job after initially embarrassing Republican Richard Petty, who thought he could cruise through the 1996 election on the strength of his celebrity. Although her post is not widely known, Marshall has been widely acknowledged as an exemplary public servant. She upgraded services and computer technology in the secretary of state's office, dragging the entrenched, out-of-date office (thank you, Rufus Edmisten) into the computer age.

But is that good enough to beat Burr? Democrats have been salivating over the prospects of defeating Burr, who is seen as weak and vulnerable. This time, in 2010, he won't be riding the coattails of a Republican president, and his name recognition and approval ratings have been low. But Burr is an unusual and deceptive politician. He may be the most unassuming major office holder in North Carolina. During the 2004 campaign, he traveled alone, driving his own car and keeping his own schedule. There was no press secretary, no chief of staff, no chauffeur, no scheduler, no jacket-holder, no security guard and no hangers-on in his campaign swings. He was refreshingly unpolitical and straightforward. Although political advisers say this style of "retail politics" no longer works in an age of mass media and "wholesale politics," Burr seems comfortable with this simple, one-on-one style, and he is remarkably effective at it.

As good an administrator as Elaine Marshall is, she has not impressed me as an inspiring, highly motivating stump speaker. Marshall would probably make a good senator. She's smart, and she has the skills needed for persuasion and compromise. But it's hard to imagine her firing up the Democratic base for what will inevitably be a tough fight against an incumbent.

Marshall is also an at least part-time resident of Wilson. She is married to Wilson attorney Bill Holdford. Both Marshall and Holdford had been widowed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

One more innocuous speech

Ho hum. The president delivered his speech to an auditorium full of high school kids Tuesday, and the world didn't come to an end. Children in schools across the country interrupted their school day to watch the speech. I doubt that the speech did most of them a world of good, but I also doubt that any were harmed by the experience. My oldest grandson, in a public preschool in Charlotte, watched the speech.

All this hype over something as innocuous as this speech? Some conservative talk-show hosts and bloggers had condemned the speech as an infringement on individual liberties, an affront to free enterprise and an insidious indoctrination into socialism. Others said, less dramatically, that the president's speech would be political propaganda. Lighten up, people!

I watched the speech last night on YouTube and found nothing offensive or alarming about. Like any speech by any politician in the long history of the world, this speech had a political element to it. President Obama told students he was working to get schools built and to provide them with books and other materials. Every politician toots his own horn sometime. But the focus of his speech was personal responsibility. He said:

"At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world -- and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities, unless show up to those schools, unless you pay attention to those teachers, your parents and grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed."

Here's the YouTube video. You can see for yourself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

That which we cannot change

Numerous times since Saturday I've reminded myself of the aphorism attributed to St. Francis of Assisi about having the grace to accept the things you can't change. The thing my wife and I can't change is the loss of a backdrop of trees that were cut from our neighbor's yard. She has blogged about it here. Our side yard ends at a board fence, but that otherwise plain and homely fence was softened and graced by the low-hanging boughs of trees that hung over the top of the fence. Those overhanging boughs provided us dogwood blossoms in spring and colorful leaves in the fall. The contrasting red dogwood and yellow sassafras leaves, along with some shiny green magnolia leaves in the background created a certain charm and framed the plantings and decorations we had placed at the edge of our yard. (The photo above was taken last fall.) In a day of work with a crew of hired hands, our neighbor took out all the trees between our fence and his house, leaving only three tall pines, which we fear will also be cut.
All of the trees that were cut were on the neighbor's property. He was within his rights to cut the trees, despite my feeble hints, after the chainsawing began, that we really wished he'd keep the trees. This Tree City USA provides little protection for trees, which add so much to the flavor of a neighborhood. A Facebook post recently complained that the city had cut down three trees, with trunks 3 or 4 feet in diameter, in one block. The city can protect trees in the utility strip next to the curb — or not. But it cannot dictate to property owners what they do with trees on their property.
Perhaps some regulation of tree cutting would be appropriate. A neighbor recently commented that she had not realized what an across-the-street neighbor's cutting of some trees in his yard would mean to her. Those tall trees had shaded her front windows from the afternoon sun. When Hurricane Fran in 1996 took out several trees in our old neighborhood, we discovered how much those trees' shade had meant to us. Suddenly our front rooms were subjected to afternoon glare, even though the fallen trees had not been on our property. Wilson now has only one major street — the 700-800 blocks of Raleigh Road — with a canopy of trees. A couple of decades ago, Tarboro Street between the railroad tracks and Ward Boulevard was canopied, but those beautiful old oaks were cut down when the street was widened. A few residential streets are canopied, but most of these trees are aging and will need to be replaced.
The city requires building permits and demolition permits, why not tree-cutting permits for trees of a certain trunk diameter or height? Even when these trees are on private property, their presence affects nearby properties.
Nothing can be done to replace the neighboring trees we lost, and I'm trying to accept that which I cannot change, but some regulation of tree cutting might save the trees that give neighborhoods the shade and charm that are so precious — and so easily lost.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Unemployment makes dismal Labor Day

Labor Day 2009 offers little incentive for celebration. This summer-ending holiday comes amid the worst economic downturn in more than half a century. The national unemployment rate is 9.7 percent. North Carolina's rate is even higher.
Since the downturn began last year, almost 7 million jobs have been lost. What is more disturbing is the fact that a third of the jobless have been unemployed for more than six months. This marks a post-World War II high. If you look at who is unemployed, the picture grows bleaker. Older workers (those who have an especially hard time landing a new job, despite federal laws against age discrimination) have been particularly hard-hit by this recession, as have male breadwinners. It's not just the peripheral jobs — the positions added when things were sailing along smoothly — that have been eliminated, it's the core jobs that make a company's clockwork tick.
And although the stock market has begun to rebound, the economy is still shedding jobs. It's supposed to be good news that fewer jobs were eliminated last month than in previous months. Try to tell that to laid-off workers.
Sunday morning, the prescribed liturgy offered this prayer in recognition of the Labor Day Weekend: "We pray that all who labor receive just compensation, that the unemployed find meaningful work, and that all employers create workplaces where justice, fairness, and equity thrive. Hear us, O God." Divine intervention: It's all we have left.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Standing at the schoolhouse door

It's a sad state of affairs when parents of public school students don't want their children to be exposed to a speech by the president of the United States. That's right, many parents (especially in Texas, apparently) are objecting to plans to have their children hear a speech President Obama plans to direct to school children. The White House says his message will be to study hard, be good students, etc.
Goaded on by conservative talk-show hosts and bloggers, some parents say they'll pull their children from school rather than allow them to hear the president encourage them to be studious and responsible. I especially liked the quote from one Texas parent who told the New York Times, "I don't want our schools turned over to some socialist movement." As his children might say, "Well, duh! This is a public school, financed by tax dollars, open to all residents and run by the state in the finest socialistic tradition."
I can't figure what there is to get riled up about, but apparently it has tripped a switch for a lot of people. The News & Observer story about this collected 117 comments as of mid-morning. Now maybe some Republicans might have a legitimate complaint if Obama were to urge children to go home and demand that their parents support the Democrats' health care reform bill, but there's no indication of that being in the works, and the speech hasn't been made yet. Taking the administration at its word (and I hope we can do that, despite all the partisanship), what is objectionable about studying hard and being responsible?
It's not just the right-wing conspiracy theorists who are objecting. The pretty mainstream state GOP chairman from North Carolina, Tom Fetzer, has raised objections. At least Fetzer is objecting to allowing politics into the classroom and not parroting the weirder complaints coming out of Texas. Heaven forbid that politics ever be allowed in the classroom! I recall two incidents from my children's public school educations. In the early 1980s, my elder daughter's teacher told her class that Ronald Reagan was an evil man bent on destroying poor Americans, and she urged them to work against him in every way they could. When my younger daughter was in a state honors chorus, my wife and I attended the chorus' performance, which was preceded by a teacher's speech urging all the parents to go back to their homes and lobby legislators for more money for the arts.
Politics in the classroom? Heaven forbid!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A must-read on health care reform

All the folks on all sides of the health care reform debate should pause and read an article in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine. With the provocative title of "How American Health Care Killed My Father," the article by David Goldhill examines the wrong-headed economic incentives and disincentives built into our current system of health insurance. It also explains why past efforts to reform this system have failed and why current efforts before Congress will also fail to control costs and improve patient care.
Warning: It's a long and complicated article. But it is shorter than the 1,000-page health care bill Congress has been considering.
Goldhill's father went into the hospital with a case of pneumonia, but it was not pneumonia that killed him. It was a sepsis infection contracted in the hospital that proved fatal. Similar hospital-borne infections kill 100,000 people a year, even though some simple precautions could prevent most of these deaths. But, as Goldhill explains, our health insurance system does not emphasize quality of care or punish easily preventable errors. In the case of Goldhill's father, the hospital that caused the infection actually made more money treating him for sepsis in the five weeks before he died than it would have made if it had simply cured his pneumonia and sent him home.
Goldhill rebuts treasured beliefs of both liberals and conservatives in the health-care debate. Single-payer governmental health care should simplify payments and save money in efficiency, but statistics show state-run medical plans in Europe also are plagued by out-of-control costs. And the current system of imposing insurers between doctors and patients is wrong and inefficient in several ways, and market-based reforms have failed.
Whatever reform is implemented will be costly, he says: "For fun, let's imagine confiscating all the profits of all the famously greedy health-insurance companies. That would pay for four days of health care for all Americans. Let's add in the profits of the 10 biggest rapacious U.S. drug companies. Another 7 days. Indeed, confiscating all the profits of all American companies, in every industry, wouldn't cover even five months of our health-care expenses."
Fortunately, Goldhill says, the money is already there in the form of health-insurance premiums and co-pays being paid by employers and employees. A typical young worker will invest $1.77 million in health care costs (some paid by his employer) over his lifetime. Redirecting that money into a system that focuses on patient care could actually improve quality of care, prevent unnecessary deaths and reduce costs.
Goldhill's article is getting some attention, such as in this NPR broadcast. It deserves more attention. President Obama, his advisers and all members of Congress should read it. Goldhill agrees that health care reform is badly needed, but the path Congress is taking, he says, will not fix the inherent problems and could make them worse.
"... until we demand the same price and quality accountability in health care that we demand in everything else, each new health-care reform will cost us more and serve us less," he writes.
His counter-proposal: Replace the current system of comprehensive health care with a consumer (patient)-driven system of catastrophic insurance to cover unpredictable chronic or major illnesses or injuries and a modified Health Savings Account to cover routine medical care. The government would subsidize HSAs and catastrophic insurance premiums for low-income residents at a cost far below current Medicaid expenses. HSA contributions would be tax-deductible and inheritable. This system would put patients in charge and would generate price competition among health care providers.
There's a lot more to Goldhill's article than I can explain here. Read it, and encourage others who want to hold forth on health care reform to do the same.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Autumn announces its imminent arrival

September announced its arrival Tuesday with a cool front, a refreshing breeze and crystal blue sky. I tore myself away from this keyboard, from hunting for jobs and from writing and went out to breathe in the crisp air with that taste of Saturday afternoon college football crowds and to do a little work in the yard. At lunchtime, I sat on the deck to eat a sandwich, feel the breeze and listen to the music of the wind chimes.
Early this morning, Orion the Hunter twinkled in a sky not quite black but not yet blue. Sirius, the dog star, trailed behind him, just above the treetops, and the temperature in the 50s found me in long sleeves for the first time on our early-morning walks. The winter sky has always been my favorite. Bright, easily identifiable Orion dominates the southward view in winter, when lower humidity clears away the haze and sets the stars ablaze against the blackest background. Orion faces Taurus the Bull's bright V shape and the faint Pleiades, whose cluster of stars becomes a collection of innumerable sparkling gems when seen through a low-power telescope. Sirius the Dog Star trails behind Orion and sets the standard for brightness — anything brighter is not a star but a planet. This morning, Venus was hanging low in the east, about 30 degrees from Sirius, its glittering brightness like a spotlight in the sky announcing the imminent arrival of the sun, which will fade all these points of light to nothingness as the whole sky turns bright blue from horizon to horizon.
The calendar says three more weeks of summer before the sun crosses the celestial equator, heading south toward the winter solstice in darkest December. But the sky and the stars and the air and the breeze tell me that autumn has arrived. It's here. The tomato plants are withering; the day lilies have gone dormant; the nandina's berries are growing red. Summer is gasping its last hot breaths, and fall — refreshing, cooling, invigorating fall — is at the threshold.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pass reforms we can agree on

September has arrived, and Congress is returning to Washington to continue its debate on health care reform and other weighty matters. While members of Congress were on vacation or canvassing their home districts, my household received an intriguing piece of mail. The colorful 7-inch by 10-inch flier on heavy paper was personally addressed to the two registered voters in our household. Its veiled message either lauded or lobbied Sen. Kay Hagan on the health care issue. "Sen. Kay Hagan is working to lower health care costs ..." one side of the flier said. "Kay Hagan Is Working To Pass Consensus Bipartisan Health Care Reform That Will Make Sure People Can Get Quality Health Care Today And In The Future," the other side said, concluding "Call Kay Hagan Today ... Tell her thanks for fighting for health care reforms we need ... ."
My reaction was "What's this all about?" Hagan, the freshman Democratic senator from North Carolina, is seen as a key vote on the health care issue. The fancy flier I received was paid for (according to the fine print on the flier) by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Families USA. PhRMA, which represents major prescription drug companies, has fought some of the proposed reforms now before Congress. Families USA has pushed for reforms that would make health insurance more affordable. It's an interesting alliance, if nothing else. Is this coalition attempting to bolster Hagan's standing and keep her from getting cold feet on reforms, or is it trying to embarrass Hagan into following its lead? The vague praise of Hagan on the mailed flier carefully avoids addressing any of the divisive issues in the health care reform proposals.
After a month among "the people," members of Congress may be no closer to agreeing on reform proposals than they were in July. Perhaps instead of a 1,000-page comprehensive reform bill, they should concentrate on passing legislation that could garner majority, perhaps even bipartisan, support. For instance:
• Make it illegal for insurance companies to cancel coverage when someone contracts a chronic or fatal illness.
• Make it illegal for insurance companies to refuse coverage for "pre-existing conditions."
• Ban all prescription drug advertising aimed at consumers, including ads for Viagra, Cialis and all the rest. Only physicians can write the prescriptions, so they should be the ones to decide what prescription best suits a patient. This would save many millions of dollars.
• Allow multi-state, interstate insurance groups, expanding the group population and spreading risk, thereby reducing costs.
• Find a way to gradually wean American consumers from employer-paid health insurance. This accidental system is illogical. You don't expect your employer to pay your homeowner's insurance or your car insurance, and you shouldn't expect employers to pay your health insurance. Involving the consumer directly in health insurance decisions would reduce costs and waste.
• Use mandates, subsidies or whatever other means that is necessary to extend health care coverage to all Americans. This can be done by federal subsidies for low-income individuals and families or by allowing the uninsured to "buy into" Medicare by paying a premium equivalent to the government's costs for providing health care for the elderly.
• Agree on a simple principle: Health care is not an inalienable right (it's not in the Constitution), but universal health care is an economic necessity. America's competitiveness against other industrialized nations is hurt by the burden of health insurance and the inordinate costs of American health care. A Benson M.D. recently made this point.
• Medicare costs can be reduced by imposing sensible limits on reimbursements. When the Bush administration proposed this, Democrats in Congress killed it. Now Democrats are proposing to pay for health care reform, in part, by trimming Medicare expenses, and Republicans are whining. A pox on both your houses.
• Health care reform cannot ignore the impact on federal spending. The national debt, driven by anti-recession spending, is soaring. That debt must be brought under control. The nation's fiscal health is as important as its medical health.
Reform is needed. Simplify the debate; pass what's possible now and remove the specter of financial ruin that can easily result from a single accident or illness.