Saturday, October 31, 2009

Easley consequences: criminal and political

The state Board of Elections found plenty of wrongdoing in the Easley for Governor campaign and voted Friday to turn the matter over to state prosecutors. The board also imposed a fine on the Easley campaign committee, which is reportedly dormant and might never have to pay the fine. In a week of hearings, board members heard about unreported airline flights, donations routed through the state Democratic Party to avoid contribution limits and reporting requirements, freebies for the governor and work done to private property paid for by campaign donations. They also heard the two-term former governor assert his innocence and rebut the sworn testimony of a close associate.
The Easley matter is far from over. The board appears to have uncovered enough evidence to justify felony charges. Federal prosecutors are also reportedly looking into Easley's activities, including his wife's hiring and extraordinary pay raise at N.C. State University. Two questions remain:
1. Is there enough evidence to convict Easley or others in state or federal court?
2. What will be the political fallout from this mess?
In 2008, Democrats got a pass on the shenanigans of party leaders and elected officials. Although former Speaker of the House Jim Black was in federal prison for trading illegal campaign contributions for legislative action and lesser officials were imprisoned or fined, voters elected another Democrat as governor and gave Democrats an unstoppable majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. The turnout for Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Jimmy Carter did it in 1976, helped ensure the Democrats' success, but Obama will not be on the ballot next year.
If Republicans can produce viable candidates who will offer an alternative to the usual insider favoritism and flouting of laws and regulations that has been exposed by the Board of Elections hearings, Republicans can make substantial gains in 2010. Gov. Bev Perdue has seen her approval ratings plummet, and Democrats won't have Obama to lead the ticket next year. Republicans will have a real chance next year, but the party has a record of blowing opportunities. Internal fighting and demands for ideological purity have crippled Republicans in the past. Let's see if they can take advantage of the golden opportunity Easley and other Democrats have provided them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hello, Paycheck, it's been a long time!

There are few things in life more affirming than the first paycheck from a new job, especially after a year of job hunting. Payday is always everyone's favorite day of the week or month, but it's a joy that you get used to and that loses its luster in repetition. Go for several months without that repetition, and notice how much more lustrous a payday seems, even though the size of the paycheck might not be the same as the one you once earned.
Two weeks into a new job, I'm still trying to find the day-to-day routine. After spending more than 30 years hurtling headlong toward a daily deadline, I find the less hurried, less anxious pace an extraordinary change. After I was laid off, I adjusted to a largely self-determined routine with the luxury of time to write. This blog received up to an hour of attention each morning, then I could turn to spinning fictional tales, which were personally rewarding, even if not marketable.
I miss the time I had for writing, the characters and the plots, but getting a paycheck is rewarding in its own profoundly affirming way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lobbying is all about the wrong issue

Today's News & Observer story about Blue Cross/Blue Shield's lobbying against a public option in health care reform legislation should not surprise anyone. I received an automated telephone call asking me to look for an item in the mail that would include a post card to send to Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) urging her to support health care reform that strengthens Americans' right to traditional health care, or something slyly misleading to that effect. I threw the mailing in the trash.
Health insurers have been sending a lot of mailings this year urging support for Hagan's decision to let Americans keep their health insurance, yada, yada, yada. None of the mailings clearly stated that the true purpose was to oppose a publicly run health insurance option. I can't imagine how many millions of dollars have gone into this lobbying campaign. As angry insurance clients in today's N&O story have angrily realized, these are your health insurance premiums at work.
As the health care debate drags on in Congress, I am increasingly concerned that the debate is not about health care but only about health insurance. Reforming health insurance gives us an improved health insurance program, but it will be a system still plagued by the unintended incentives and consequences of the current system. In an earlier post, I recommended a David Goldhill article from The Atlantic, which advocated more radical reform of the health care system. If only health insurance is reformed, people with health insurance can still be bankrupted if the cost of treating a chronic illness exceeds their insurance company's lifetime cap.
While Blue Cross/Blue Shield and 100 members of the Senate nibble around the edges of a problem, they are ignoring the big picture. We need a national consensus that health care might not be a "right" (it's not mentioned in the Constitution), but it is a "public good," the same as education or parks. Health insurance is a huge industry, but it is standing in the way of essential reform that will make health care accessible for all.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New career begins with one week

Yes, after 54 weeks without a job, I have completed one whole week back in the working world. Such transitions are not easy. I keep reminding myself that the chores I've been performing around the house now have to wait until the weekend (unless, of course, the weekend is spoken for). Having whole weekdays to do such work can be habit-forming.
One week is hardly enough time to develop a routine, but I've spent the week looking through files, reading manuals, meeting people and generally trying to figure out how best to do this job. It's a process not that different from other transitions to new jobs, except that I haven't done this type of job before, and it's been almost 30 years since the last time I went to work for a new employer.
My first week on the job, I've met a few of the volunteers, who are the strength of the organization. I've read the employee manual. I've driven the company van to Kinston and parked it without running into anything. I've hung a few personal pictures and plaques on the office walls. I've tried to get used to the computer system and the phone system, and I've made plans to relocate the computer so that I can use it without twisting my spine or bumping my knees. I've scheduled at least one meeting and greeted lots of people.
And I've fielded numerous e-mails, notes, voice mails, visits and phone calls from people wishing me well in my new career. That response has been especially gratifying after a year of unemployment, when it's easy to lose focus and confidence. I'm glad to be working again, and I am especially appreciative of those who have expressed delightful joy at the news.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obama's vote-buying at the senior center

If a politician proposes to give an extra, unearned $250 to each member of America's highest-voting age group, is it vote-buying or just pandering? President Obama's call for a $250 federal check to be written to every person on Social Security is a disappointment to followers who thought he was not the politics-as-usual type. It may also be a disappointment to a cohort who will not get a vote for a long time — our grandchildren, who will be required to pay for this $13 billion in additional federal borrowing.
Obama says his one-time payment is meant to make up for the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment in this year's Social Security checks. Since 1975, a COLA has automatically been added to Social Security checks each year, based on the rate of inflation for the preceding year. This year, inflation was essentially flat; therefore, no COLA attained.
But, oh, the outrage! The federal government could not allow senior citizens to go a year without a pay raise! The government could, however, allow senior citizens to receive a 5.8 percent pay raise (as it did last year) while other Americans were seeing no raises, pay cuts or job losses. Since Social Security recipients received that generous adjustment, prices for most products have actually fallen. By making the COLA automatic for Social Security and congressional pay, Congress has avoided embarrassing annual battles over pay raises. It's the easy way out, but if the COLA is fairly calculated and if it is allowed to go down as well as up, it's fair.
Politicians and senior advocates like to talk about people who are living on a "fixed income," but since 1975 Social Security has not been "fixed." COLA increases have come every year, like clockwork, a benefit few workers in private industry have enjoyed. Some pensions and investments retirees depend on for income are "fixed," but Social Security is not in that category. Its benefits increase with the cost of living.
Obama's transparent appeal to elderly voters will have the primary effect of pushing the already-soaring federal deficit to a higher level. The president calculates that the consequences of spending more than you have (higher inflation, a weaker dollar, higher taxes in the future, perhaps even a lowering of the federal government's credit rating) are worth it in order to keep older voters happy. And the people who'll have to pay for this generosity aren't eligible to vote yet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting sick is never any fun

It wasn't enough that my wife would have to suffer from the loss of her full-time houseboy and yard man when I got a job after a year of unemployment, but she came down with a nasty case of the flu on Friday, the day before her older brother was getting married. As a result, she'd be the only immediate family member to miss the wedding.
That might have been the worst thing about her sickness, but the fatigue, fever, congestion and general yucky feeling was a close second. She initially discounted the headache and congestion as just another change-of-season cold, but it quickly became apparent this was something else. And it came at a particularly busy time on her job, which made matters even worse.
The exact nature of the illness remains unclear: Was it plain old seasonal flu or the new and scarier swine flu? When I was in for a checkup last month, my physician said authorities weren't doing tests any more in most cases. You treat both kinds of flu the same way, so why bother? My wife didn't go to the doctor because there's not much an M.D. can do for a routine case of the flu. Bed rest, plenty of liquids, fever reducers — no need for a prescription for that regimen.
I haven't come down with any symptoms yet, and I certainly hope I don't. When I was at the doctor's last month, I got a flu shot — the regular kind — so maybe I'll avoid getting sick if what my wife had was seasonal flu. If I get sick, it might mean that it was swine flu, or H1N1. But there have been some suggestions that people of a certain age — born before 1950 — might have immunity from H1N1. I fit that cohort. So it may be that, if I don't get sick, it won't prove a thing.
I hope I avoid whatever that nasty bug is and, even more, I hope my wife recovers quickly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This blog has served its purpose

I began this blog Oct. 7, 2008, a few days after being unceremoniously laid off by the newspaper for which I had worked for 29 years. There was little comfort in knowing I was not the only one being shown the door, nor was there any comfort later when more former colleagues were also dismissed. As the "about me" section says, I started this blog to fill my need to write and to express opinions. Although I'm still waiting to be recognized as a "blog of note" by Blogger or to reach triple digits of "followers," I have filled my need to write. Posting to this blog has shaped the start of my day as I checked headlines, thought about life and pondered what it means to be an unemployment statistic. I have attracted a few readers. The (invisible) counter I use says about 2,000 unique visitors per month look at this blog. That's not an impressive statistic, but it's something.
One of the important aspects of blogging is simply showing up. You need to blog daily, or more often, to give your audience a reason to keep coming back. With more than 350 posts in just over a year, I've been here almost every day, and I've enjoyed it. As I told students when I was teaching English many years ago, writing helps you to think. Organizing your thoughts and putting them down on paper (or the computer screen) forces you to think about your assertions and defend them. That process, day after day, has been an outlet and a learning process for me.
I'm happy to report that my 382 days of joblessness end Monday. I begin a new job, a new career, a new schedule, a new focus, a new commitment and new responsibilities. Although I have no intention of abandoning this blog, it will have to take a lower priority. I might not be posting early each morning. I might not be posting every day. If that weakens its impact and reduces its audience, it can't be helped.
I started this blog to help me keep in the practice of writing every day while I searched for a new job. Having found a job, I have less need for this blog. Several people have told me they read this blog regularly. I hope they will continue to do so — and to understand if my posts are less frequent. I've enjoyed blogging and plan to continue doing it as much as I can.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We've become a nation of voyeurs

I guess I missed it, or most of it, anyway. I was not sitting in front of the television Thursday eagerly devouring every tidbit of the drama as authorities in Colorado chased a homemade helium balloon that was thought to harbor a 6-year-old boy. But apparently thousands, maybe millions, of viewers were anxiously absorbing the drama. And scores, perhaps hundreds, of journalists were feeding the insatiable 24-hour news cycle with the latest exaggerated drama.
I heard reports on the radio (NPR) as I traveled Thursday afternoon, wondering at the strangeness of this tale and the inflated importance of this incident.
Cable news and other "new media" outlets were supposed to expand our choices of news sources and make us better-informed. Instead, they have turned us into a nation of voyeurs. In the process, we have lost all concept of the dimensions of importance and newsworthiness.
Assuming — and this is not beyond doubt — that this balloon trip was not a melodrama scripted by publicity-hungry parents, that the family really did believe the 6-year-old really was trapped in the high-flying balloon (he was later found hiding in the attic), this was a localized incident. It was important to the parents, other family members, relatives, neighbors and friends. For a handful of people, it was life-or-death suspense. For the rest of the nation, its only significance was curiosity — or voyeuristic delight.
This voyeurism is not new. American newspapers turned the Lindbergh kidnapping into a national soap opera, but at least that involved someone who had achieved something, a true national hero. Today's news channel soap operas more often involve people who are "famous for being famous" or cast members of an unrealistic "reality show."
Yes, a child's life was at stake. But how many children across the nation died Thursday? Some died in tragic accidents that did not involve a backyard helium balloon. Some died from illness. Seventy-six U.S. children, according to the last count I saw, have died of swine flu. Each death was a tragedy from which their families will never fully recover. The average news consumer had no more stake in the fate of Falcon Heene than in the fates of thousands of other children in jeopardy across the country. The news trucks with their big antennae and tearfully sincere reporters cannot be at the scene of every tragedy, so they magnify one dramatic moment into a national crisis.
Meanwhile, four American soldiers died in Afghanistan, two U.S. warplanes collided during training, Congress is moving toward passage of a health care bill American consumers know little about, millions of Americans are out of work, nuclear-armed Pakistan might be at the edge of civil war, Iraq is growing more violent as Americans withdraw, many thousands of Americans are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure, and Iran continues its effort to gain nuclear capability.
But, oh wait! Falcon Heene is safe and sound; he'd been hiding in the attic all along. Aren't we glad?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

55 years ago, Hazel came to visit

Who remembers 55 years ago today? That was the day Hurricane Hazel tore through the North Carolina and South Carolina coastline and mauled its way across the state. Almost every house on some stretches of beach was blown into a new location or turned into scrap wood. I once stayed in a house that, the owner swore, Hazel's winds had moved about a mile up the coast at Cherry Grove, S.C., without disturbing a dinner plate hung on the wall.
Hazel's eye passed directly over Wilson. Folks who lived here then (I didn't) still tell stories. Among the stories are the tales of destruction. Nash Street, called one of America's most beautiful streets, was never the same, I'm told. The tall trees that had canopied the street were uprooted, and those big willow oaks remaining are a pale remnant of what had been there before.
When I went to work for The Wilson Daily Times 29 years ago, some staff members still recalled the effort to get a paper out that fateful Oct. 15, 1954. Electricity was out all over town, but the county fair — or what was left and not blown away — was in town, and publisher Elizabeth Swindell commandeered generators from the fair carnies to run her printing press. An Oct. 15, 1954, edition got out, but it was not printed until the wee hours of Oct. 16, and some of the references to "today" and "yesterday" were confused. When we published a Centennial Edition of the paper in 1996, we managed to find an original copy of that paper, although its front page had a hole torn in it. That Centennial Edition (which, unfortunately, is not available online) contained the full story of the heroic effort to get out a paper, despite all of Hazel's efforts to the contrary.
That hurricane was the "storm of a lifetime" for Carolinians until Hugo in 1989, Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999 set new standards for damage, destruction and flooding.
On this anniversary of Hazel, let's be thankful that this year we haven't had to batten down the hatches even once because of a threatening hurricane. Hallelujah!

Waking up to the cold, hard facts

I broke down and switched on the heat this morning after sleeping under a comforter last night. The chilly drizzle that was falling Wednesday afternoon made a quick trip a shivering experience, and the house offered little warmth on my return. Still, I chose to forgo flipping the switch on the thermostat, willing to abide a little discomfort in return for lower utility bills. But after picking up the paper from the water-covered driveway this morning, I found the indoor temperature at 67 just a little too cool for comfort.
After all, it is Oct. 15. It might not be winter yet (officially), but it is well into fall, and this week's cold rain is a reminder that winter is approaching with all of its discomforts. Reports of a colder winter ahead might thrill my daughter, who thinks she'd be happier in Canada or Norway, and my dog, who is shedding summer fur faster than she can grow a winter coat, but I'd be satisfied with the mid-60s sunshine we enjoyed last week. The global warming folks, who are a little embarrassed by the last decade of stabilized temperatures, also might not appreciate a colder winter.
I do look forward to winter, at least until it gets here, because it's a change, and change makes life more interesting. A climate, whether arctic or tropical, that never changes would be dull. By January or February, especially if we have a really cold snap or a week of gray skies and sleet, I'll be ready for spring.
At least this winter should be a little more accommodating of family budgets. Natural gas prices are down sharply, even in Wilson with its notoriously high city-owned utilities. When those winter heating bills do come, they shouldn't be as bad as last winter, even if the weather is colder than normal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weight gain is not inevitable or uncontrollable

An op-ed column in today's News & Observer complains that the state health insurance plan's higher premiums for obese clients is unfair. It is, says the writer, "tantamount to charging employees for having a heart attack or needing chemotherapy." The writer assumes that people are powerless to control their weight, in the same way they might be powerless against a genetic anomaly that causes heart disease or a cancerous tumor.
It just ain't so. Although some people may be congenitally susceptible to putting on weight, they are not helpless against this predisposition. People who are naturally shy can overcome that tendency, and people who tend to gain weight can curtail their eating. Even if your body tends to convert calories into fat, it cannot do that unless those calories are consumed. People with weight-gaining tendencies can also counter this predisposition by burning calories through physical labor or exercise. As one ages, metabolism slows down. If you're eating as much at 40 as you did at 20, and haven't increased your exercise, you're going to gain lots of weight.
Among the hazards of unemployment, I was told recently, was weight gain. Jobless people tend to ease their frustrations and depression by snacking a lot. After a year of joblessness, I have had the opposite experience. I've actually lost about 10 pounds while unemployed — and not because I've quit eating.
What I have done is reduce consumption of prepared foods. When we both worked, my wife and I tended to eat instant meals more often — microwave dinners, fast food, hot dogs, etc. Since I have the time to cook, we've prepared more meals from scratch (or nearly scratch), and we've eaten healthier. We've also paid attention to portion size. I've also exercised more, by doing yard work, walking the dog and actually going to the gym (gym membership is one luxury I did not give up as we reduced our living expenses). As a result, I'm leaner and healthier and feel better (in part because job stress is gone).
Controlling weight is not easy. Fad diets won't do it. Intermittent starvation won't do it. A commitment to eat healthily, exercise regularly and avoid snacking as part of an overall lifestyle change will prevent the common pound or two or four a year weight gain over 30 years that most people experience as they age.
My challenge, when I get a job, will be to maintain my eating habits while working in sufficient exercise in a desk-job environment. It's not easy, but it's not impossible.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Entertainers exempted from moral code

The News & Observer has offered a lousy "Point-Counterpoint" of columnists dueling over the issue of David Letterman's sexual affairs with female subordinates. This is not the only ethical/moral incident that should be beyond debate, and the fact that many Americans consider this a debatable issue or are willing to give the late-night comic a free pass makes a statement about our principles, or lack thereof.
The other prominent moral indecisiveness has to do with movie director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to the rape of a drugged, underage girl in 1977. He had been in exile in France since fleeing the United States until he was arrested recently on a fugitive warrant in Switzerland. Since that arrest, many of Polanski's colleagues in the film industry have expressed outrage that this talented man should be subjected to punishment for molesting a child 32 years ago. This moral dilemma has even been lampooned in the liberal-leaning comic strip Doonesbury.
First, Letterman: The comedian's sex life would not have come to light, apparently, had it not been for an ill-conceived extortion attempt by a CBS news producer, who allegedly demanded $2 million or he would produce a play or a book or something revealing Letterman's habit of bedding his subordinates. Letterman refused the extortion demand, had the alleged blackmailer arrested and admitted a vague outline of his offenses on his late-night show.
Since then, many Letterman defenders have said that his sexual habits are nobody's business. He's not a politician, he wasn't jeopardizing national security, and nobody "got hurt," except maybe his wife, whom he wed recently after a long-term relationship. In most corporations, however, what Letterman allegedly did would be severely punished. Since the 1970s, and particularly since the 1991 sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, most corporations have established written policies forbidding sexual relationships between superiors and subordinates. Some would contend that any such relationship is, by definition, coercive. After all, the subordinate's livelihood is dependent upon the superior's good favor. Many lawsuits have been filed alleging that sexual favors were demanded or expected or that raises and promotions hinged on sexual submission.
Author Michael Crichton, in his novel "Disclosure," turned the tables on the sexual harassment debate by having a fictional female superior demand sex from a male subordinate and then file a false sexual harassment claim against him. The novel was turned into a movie featuring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas.
After claiming for years that all superior/subordinate relationships are toxic, many people are willing to give Letterman a pass because ... well, he's a comedian, and he even makes mea culpas funny, and creative types are different, and nobody's complaining ... are they? My guess is that if Letterman were the manager of a 7-11 and these affairs with subordinates came to light, he'd be fired on the spot.
As for Polanski, his defenders cite the length of time since the incident with a 14-year-old and his generally law-abiding life since then. The victim is reportedly no longer interested in testifying against Polanski; she'd rather forget about that episode. But the court record shows what can only be termed inexcusably reprehensible conduct on Polanski's part — drugging and raping a girl well below the age of consent. Obscure men who have committed similar offenses are wearing the indelible, lifetime label of "sexual predator."
I don't know that David Letterman should be fired and banished from late-night television or that Roman Polanski should spend the rest of his life in prison, but I do think society has lost its moral compass when it allows celebrities a different set of moral and ethical standards than the rest of us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Family reunions cling to memories

Each year we gather, descendants of a couple married on the cusp of the 20th century. He had never known his grandfather, a Confederate infantryman killed in battle. A small woman of proud Scot-Irish descent, she would bear 10 children. He had been among the great migration in the emerging South of landless farmers who had surrendered to what they called "public work" in the cotton mills in the late-19th and early 20th century. His eldest daughter told me once that "Poppa always thought the grass was greener just over the hill," and he moved the family often in search of better soil before he surrendered to working for wages. Most of their children would follow that migration into the mills, where the work was hard and hazardous and conditions were harsh. Hard times made them harder workers appreciative of any job that came with a regular paycheck. For them, "smart" meant diligence and industriousness, not intellectual talent.
Their whole generation is gone now, and the annual telling of stories about mill village shenanigans and about their parents, which had been the entertainment at family reunions, has been silenced. Still, we gather, widely dispersed first cousins trying to kindle the spark of memory of those 10 siblings and their parents. We strain to reconnect juvenile relationships that are as foggy as a dream, to connect faces to decades-old memories. We recount the recent events of our lives — deaths, illnesses, weddings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A few of the next generation — the great-grandchildren of my grandparents — and the next generation after that wander through the crowd like visitors to a foreign land, unfamiliar with the history, the language and the culture. With few exceptions, we will not see each other for another year when this gathering occurs again.
Still, we gather, stirring the embers of shared memory and genetics. For a few hours, the embers flicker to life, dance into flame and give off heat. We warm our cool and modern selves in that glow of century-old kindredness, a connection of blood and shared memory kept faintly aglow in the simple effort of an annual family reunion until that day comes when this generation, too, shall pass into memory.

Friday, October 9, 2009

President Obama is surprise winner of Peace Prize

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama is stunning. Only two sitting presidents had ever before won the prestigious award, and Obama was nominated within weeks after assuming the presidency. Today's announcement comes less than nine months into his presidency and before any of his lofty proposals and initiatives have proven themselves.
This award, however, should strengthen Obama's standing at home and America's reputation in the world. The Nobel committee cited two of Obama's initiatives, his reaching out to Muslims in a speech in Cairo earlier this year and his recent proposal to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. Despite the president's olive branch extended to Muslims, Islamic terrorists have not laid down their arms or halted their suicide bombing campaigns. Nor have nations joined in singing "Kumbaya" as they beat their nuclear arsenals into plowshares. This award, like some previous Peace Prizes, is based more on intentions than on results.
The Nobel committee recognizes, even if some of his countrymen do not, that Obama has changed the tone of American diplomacy. The Obama administration has set a conciliatory, cooperative, multi-national agenda in international relations, a sharp contrast from the Bush administration's go-it-alone, might-makes-right attitude. But other than greater acceptance from other nations, the results of this attitudinal change are not yet tangible. America — and the world — still has problems to solve in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Lebanon, Haiti, Guatemala, and other hot spots.
The Nobel Peace Prize will give Obama greater prestige (and perhaps more respect), but it will not make the intractable international problems any easier to solve.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Incentives can't keep Dell online

The futility of a city, state or region trying to buy its way to prosperity is persuasively demonstrated by Dell Computer's latest announcement. Dell is closing down its $150 million, 750,000-square-foot plant in Forsyth County, just four years after North Carolina and local governments lured the computer maker to the state with promises of incentives topping $300 million. At the time, the $280 million in state incentives was the biggest industrial package the state ever offered.
Now it's down the tubes, along with the 950 jobs that will be lost. Dell says, unconvincingly, that the Forsyth plant can't be converted to produce the laptop computers customers are now buying. The incentives were based on creation of jobs, so the state and local governments might be able to recover incentives already awarded or refuse to pay promised incentives. The should demand the return of every nickel.
State courts have found the state's generous incentives for businesses moving into the state are constitutional, and federal courts have allowed states to compete one against the other for industries willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Although some of these incentive deals have worked out, enough have gone awry to leave a sour taste in the mouths of taxpayers. Competing businesses, paying state taxes, maintaining hefty payrolls and providing long-term jobs, have special reason to be miffed by the state's myopic pursuit of fickle industries.
Like a woman on the make, states can seduce industries into moving in with them, but a wayward industry, like a wayward husband, tends to repeat its bad behavior. There's always a better offer out there somewhere. Current U.S. trade and tax policies encourage more alluring deals from foreign countries, where workers are eager for jobs at wages less than a tenth of the U.S. minimum wage.
States need to wise up and stop mortgaging their future on the luring of some new industry that will go anywhere for the right offer, and North Carolina needs to re-examine its industrial recruitment policy. How many more industries might the state attract if its investments in individual-industry incentives were converted to lower corporate tax rates for all? A wiser policy might make it more likely that homegrown industries will flourish and create the hundreds of jobs that industries like Dell are willing to give and then take away.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Supreme Court justices seem to agree

An interesting thing happened at the Supreme Court Tuesday: Justices from both ends of the political spectrum expressed their skepticism about legal restrictions on videos. These were not just any home movies; they were videos of dog fighting, and the videos had been found in conflict with a federal law against videos depicting animal cruelty. A federal appeals court had overturned the conviction of the videographer, and the High Court seemed inclined to agree with the appellate court.
Maybe the court has rediscovered the First Amendment. Courts have long held that free speech entails a lot more than linguistic vocalization. It includes various forms of protest and artistic expression. It might even include videos of detestable, offensive behavior. From Antonin Scalia to John Paul Stevens, the justices seemed unanimously skeptical that the videos could be exempted from the First Amendment, no matter how gruesome or inhumane the scenes might be. The law was also so vague about just what is "animal cruelty," that any number of activities, from Spanish bullfights to slaughterhouse activities could not be filmed. Hunting videos would be banned, most justices agreed. At one point, an attorney tried to suggest that "killing" would be considered animal cruelty. That would be a surprise to millions of meat-eating Americans.
Justices suggested that rather than attempting to ban the filming of cruel acts — and thus run afoul of the First Amendment — Congress could specifically ban the cruel acts themselves. Dog fighting already is covered by state laws.
When the Supreme Court hands down this decision, it will likely be condemned by defenders of helpless animals, but such protests miss the mark. This case is not about animal cruelty; it is about the First Amendment right to record factually accurate depictions of daily life. When an act is not a federal crime, filming it or writing about it cannot be a federal crime, either. It's one of the few things the often-divided High Court seems able to agree on

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wake votes on issue Wilson slipped around

Wake County voters are going to the polls today in an election that the News & Observer touts as a referendum on school diversity. Candidates have staked their campaigns on whether they support the school system's diversity policy, which buses students to achieve a ratio of affluent vs. low-income students. A group of parents is backing candidates who promise to end the diversity policy and send students to nearby "neighborhood schools."
At least in Wake County there's a referendum on the matter. In Wilson County, a court-enforced racial balance policy was quietly abandoned in favor of "neighborhood schools" a decade ago. Unlike in Raleigh, where politicians and community leaders such as WRAL CEO Jim Goodmon supported the diversity policy, Wilson County's racial balance policy had few, if any, defenders. The Wilson County Board of Education extricated itself from the racial balance order, which had been imposed on Wilson City Schools in 1970 by a federal court. The order, which paired formerly all-white and formerly all-black schools for diversity, carried over when city and county schools merged. By the late 1980s, changing residential patterns had left some student bodies around 90 percent black while other schools were nearly 90 percent white. A citizen task force, which my wife was involved in, attempted to rebalance the racial diversity and eliminate the paired schools solution the court had imposed. Emotional appeals, similar to what Wake County is experiencing now, resulted in only a partial correction of the imbalances. A pocket carved out of an all-white suburban area, for instance, was assigned to nearly all-black Hearne School. Parents who vowed to make the best of the situation lifted Hearne's financial and volunteer support and resulted in dramatic improvements for the school and its diverse student population.
But moving children to another neighborhood remained unpopular, and the school board took two steps to address that issue. First, the board convinced the federal court that it had achieved "unitary status," eliminating the vestiges of a segregated dual school system. This dissolved the outdated court order. Then the board revamped attendance zones creating "neighborhood schools," with support from African-American members of the board and no outcry from the black community.
State statistics show the impact of the neighborhood schools concept on racial diversity. Those data show Barnes Elementary School is 87 percent black while Lee Woodard Elementary is 62 percent white. Federal courts have struck down reassignments based on race, but Wake County uses a more useful statistic — family income — for achieving diversity. I did not find that data for Wilson County Schools, but Census data show racial minorities are more likely to be of lower economic status.
My guess is that Wake County voters will choose candidates who support neighborhood schools over economic diversity. The neighborhood concept has great appeal, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which already lost the diversity battle, lags behind Wake County in student achievement and graduation rates. Parents might get what they want, but at the cost of falling overall achievement scores and educational quality.

Monday, October 5, 2009

District 5 race visible in yard signs

There are no scientific polls conducted in Wilson City Council elections, but the prevalence of yard signs might give some indication of how the election is going. In District 5, challenger Sam Lanier seems to have already claimed victory in the number of yard signs. His bright red signs are as common as pine cones in the Cavalier neighborhood where he lives. Lanier got off to an early start and has his signs in front of every house in some blocks.
Incumbent Donald Evans has recently begun planting his own yard signs, also bright red, but his signs are, thus far, not as numerous as Lanier's, from what I've seen. This weekend I passed one house that had both a Lanier and an Evans sign.
Evans last week sent a mailing to District 5 voters touting his experience and the many positive developments in the city during his two terms on council: Police are nationally accredited, the Fire Department's rating has been updated (saving property owners on fire insurance), the unique All-Children's Playground has been installed at Gillette Park; new businesses are moving downtown; and a new comprehensive plan is being implemented. He addresses the most-frequent complaint against the city, its high electric rates.
Evans offers a brief and not entirely clear explanation of how Wilson and 31 other eastern N.C. municipalities got into this situation. He asserts that ElectriCities was formed by the legislature in the 1960s, but, as the city's own explanation shows, that's not quite true. The legislature passed a bill in 1965 that left municipal electric systems out of the picture; municipalities formed ElectriCities to lobby against that bill. The ElectriCities we know today, and the municipal power agencies that it administers, are the result of a 1975 state constitutional amendment (approved by voters) that allowed cities to invest in privately owned utilities. At that time, rising construction and financing costs painted a bleak picture for electricity customers, and a coalition of municipalities that would provide partial financing for new nuclear power plants looked like the best solution. What looked like a win-win for everyone turned out to be a loser for municipal electricity customers. I strongly recommend the city's concise history of this whole matter here.
The most interesting angle on Evans' mailing, however, is the mailing permit. The postage paid mark on the envelope shows the mailing permit (No. 553) was purchased in Houston, Texas. That would indicate that Evans used a mass-mailing outfit in Texas to handle this job (the envelope's return address is Evans' home address).
Another interesting angle in this nonpartisan election is the partisan leanings of these two candidates. When Evans was a county commissioner, he was elected on the Republican ticket. Lanier last year posted McCain and McCrory yard signs at his home. The two most active candidates in District 5 are nominal Republicans. Two other candidates in the District 5 race — Nadia Minniti and Deanna Diamond — have taken a lower profile thus far.
In the end, this race might come down to a generational referendum. Lanier, 35, is a generation younger than Evans, 62. Youth vs. experience might sway more votes than the other issues or yard signs.

Friday, October 2, 2009

One full year out of work

It's been a year. One year ago today was my last day at The Wilson Daily Times. I never thought I'd be unemployed for three months, much less for a year. But here I am. I've survived it all — the shock, the loss of confidence, the frustration, the bouts of depression, the anxieties, the doubts about the present and the future, the feelings of hopelessness. I've also experienced the emotional support of friends and family, the recognition of strangers who had seen my mugshot in the paper and were sorry I was gone, the reassurances of loved ones and former colleagues, and the near-miraculous juxtaposition of frugality and good fortune that has allowed my wife and me to get through the past 12 months without dipping far into our savings. I told my wife recently that it's a miracle that her income and my unemployment have covered our expenses. "It's like the loaves and fishes," she said, and I agreed.
I started this blog to feed my habit of writing about things that go on around me. It's been a useful and sometimes cathartic release valve. I've also spent a lot of time writing fiction, about 200,000 words or more in various forms over the past year. Now if I could only find a literary agent or publisher ...
At least one of the co-workers who was laid off along with me has found a job. Many others haven't. This job market is tough!
People have asked, plaintively, how I'm doing. What they want to know but cannot ask is whether we're eating regularly and paying the bills. "I'm fine," I tell them, and that's true. I've become accustomed to the new routine. I'm a full-time houseboy and yard man, a part-time writer, part-time volunteer in five different nonprofit organizations, a cook and grocery shopper, a home-maintenance handyman, a dog walker, a regular applicant to jobs posted in various places, and — most of the time — a man who is transcendentally grateful for family, friends, home and life itself. Being laid off is a terrible experience, I think anyone would tell you, but life is good.
• • •
I have avoided this decision for the past year but today I felt compelled to eliminate anonymous comments to this blog. A few people, hiding behind anonymity, felt entitled to insult people or make vile comments they'd never say face-to-face. From now on, readers will have to register to leave a comment. Registration is simple, so don't be discouraged. I hope the result of this change will be not a loss of exchange of opinions but a more civil discussion.

Modern advances give thieves an advantage

A story in today's Wilson Times repeats the usual advice: Lock your cars, remove valuables from the vehicle overnight, report any suspicious activity. What ought to be common sense in this day and age has been written before and has become a mantra as a series of vehicle break-ins has plagued nearly every area of the city.
At a neighborhood meeting earlier this month, Wilson Police Chief Harry Tyson expanded upon the common-sense advice he's been offering to shine some light on why vehicle break-ins have become such a problem. Since he made these comments at a public meeting, I don't think I'm compromising police work by passing along these observations. These break-ins have not been limited to Wilson, Tyson said. Police from Raleigh to Greenville have been experiencing the same problems. Investigators suspect the crimes might be the work of a single group of perpetrators. The thieves take advantage of unlocked vehicles, of course, but they also have been savvy enough to bypass car alarms by breaking out the rear window of vehicles instead of jiggling door locks, which would set off the alarm. It seems too complimentary to call thieves who lurk in dark driveways "sophisticated," but these thieves are shrewd.
Portable GPS devices, cell phones, iPods and anything that is easily removable and quickly sold have been filched from cars. The thieves have figured out a better way of fencing the material. Instead of heading to the local pawn shop or the drug dealer on the corner, this new generation of thieves have discovered e-Bay and Craigslist, Tyson said. That makes tracing the stolen items much more difficult. Detectives can check the inventory at the pawn shop but has a harder time identifying stolen goods offered on the Internet.
Wilson police are working with other law enforcement jurisdictions to solve these crimes and make arrests, but even if the current band of thieves is charged and convicted, it won't be safe to leave your laptop in your car overnight. The popularity of small, portable electronic devices and the accessibility of an eager market in cyberspace create a new paradigm for property crimes. Burglaries have always been difficult to solve, and this new environment has made police work even harder. Just as people who once never locked their doors now have to, people everywhere will have to get used to clearing their cars of portable electronic devices every night.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

New recycling law takes effect today

As of today, you can't toss plastic bottles into North Carolina landfills. Since North Carolina has had recycling mandates for more than a decade, the law seems to be years too late. Every municipality of a certain size is required to offer recycling. Wilson has provided curbside pickup of recyclables since the 1990s, but I would bet that plenty of recyclables are going into trash containers and, ultimately, into landfills.
On my early-morning walks, I pass many houses where the garbage can is at the curb, but the recycling bin is nowhere to be seen. These are not cheap tenant houses, where the residents might be poorly educated or poorly informed; these are luxury homes whose residents, apparently, don't care enough to recycle.
Despite the state's two-decade emphasis on recycling, most of what we throw away goes into landfills. WRAL reports that North Carolinians send 70,000 tons of plastic bottles to landfills every year, with only about 20 percent of recyclable bottles being recycled. (I've never quite grasped the sudden popularity of bottled water sold in half-liter or 20-ounce bottles. In most cases the water is tasty, but it's not that much better than tap water, especially filtered tap water. And the wastefulness of disposing of those plastic bottles and the $1-plus price make bottled water not very sensible. Kudos to Brita, the water-filter company, for promoting bottle-it-yourself bottled water using reusable containers.)
The state has had a tough time getting people to recycle. Penalties are rare, and mandates on manufacturers or municipalities are ignored. The newspaper industry was saddled with a recycling mandate in the early 1990s, and newspapers launched campaigns to recycle newsprint. All papers had to achieve a mandated percentage of recycled content in their newsprint. But the market for recycled newsprint bottomed out. Companies couldn't sell the recycled newsprint (a small daily generates tons of wasted or unsold newsprint every day) and even had trouble giving it away.
Successful recycling will require changing the hearts and minds of consumers or, alternatively, forcing recycling through "bottle bills" that impose a refund fee on all bottles purchased. The state and municipalities need to continuously promote the advantages of recycling and support industries that accept or reuse recyclables. Ambitious state goals of reducing the solid waste stream have not been met. We have a long way to go in recycling. Today's new law will have to be enforced if it is to have any impact.