Friday, July 30, 2010

Two cases do little for First Amendment

Two recent news stories piqued the interest of this Erstwhile Editor: the publication of thousands of pages of raw, highly classified military reports from the Afghan war and the posting of a decades-old video that cost an Agriculture Department employee her job. Both incidents raise First Amendment issues, but I'm afraid neither does the First Amendment proud.

The Pentagon is investigating the leaking of the classified war reports as a possible violation of espionage laws. These are "military secrets" in the literal sense. Of more concern is the possibility that enemy forces might learn the identities of informants who have assisted NATO forces. This release puts innocent people and friends of the government in jeopardy.

This release to Wikileaks has been compared to the Pentagon Papers case, but the analogy does not fit well. The Pentagon Papers consisted of an in-depth study by an outside consultant (the Rand Corporation) of the conduct of the Vietnam War. This week's release is raw combat reports by junior officers in the field. It is information, but it is not balanced or digested; it does not present a "big picture," just a series of vignettes of the war. Its value to historians might be considerable many years from now, when perspective and consequences are clearer, but now it is just snippets of information, and it is information that could "aid and comfort" the enemy. The World War II admonition that "loose lips sink ships" applies here. It is doubtful that this raw information promotes the education of voters, serves the public interest or enhances the principles behind the First Amendment. Although I spent 30-plus years advocating for greater openness in government and more information for taxpayers and voters, there are some limits to these principles, especially in wartime.

In the other case, Shirley Sherrod lost her federal job after a conservative blogger posted a heavily edited and misleading portion of a 30-year-old speech she gave. The edited tape gave the impression that Sherrod was biased against a white farmer who had come to her for help. The full tape, as well as that farmer's own testimony, shows that, on the contrary, her speech was about non-discrimination and accepting people of all races as equals. Sherrod is now suing the blogger for libel. If she can show that the blogger acted maliciously, deliberately distorting her views, she might have a case. Regardless of how the lawsuit comes out, this incident should not be viewed as "journalism." Deliberate distorting of facts is not journalism. Although news sources too often claim they were misquoted or incompletely quoted, those complaints are nothing compared to Sherrod's situation, in which her point was turned 180 degrees by selective editing.

It's said that hard cases make bad law, and these two cases make poor examples for supporters of the First Amendment.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arizona immigration ruling isn't last word

A judge's ruling Wednesday voiding key parts of Arizona's immigration law sets up an interesting dynamic. Although vocal public interest groups and the Obama administration have lambasted the law, which requires police to ask people about their immigration status whenever there is reason to believe they may be in the state illegally, polls show most Americans support the law. Arizona is going to appeal, and the case seems likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The ruling was greeted with jubilation by protesters in Arizona, who had organized public challenges to the law, hoping to overwhelm police and create embarrassing public incidents. Opponents of the law also rallied and partied in Mexico, whose government has vocally opposed the law and has blatantly encouraged its citizens to illegally cross the U.S. border.

The Associated Press story about the court ruling quoted by name people who admitted being illegal immigrants. They expressed relief that they wouldn't have to deal with a law that could get them sent back to their native country and seemed unconcerned that being identified as illegal immigrants would have any consequences. The attitude of some illegal immigrants that "we're here and you can't do anything about it" is what galls many Americans who support Arizona's efforts to enforce U.S. immigration laws, which are flouted with impunity by millions of people. With so many Americans supporting a crackdown on illegal immigration, politicians up for election this year might be cautious about their support of public and private efforts to overturn the Arizona law. It's unlikely that the case will reach a final resolution before the Supreme Court before the November elections. Immigration could be a major issue in many elections across the country.

Images of people celebrating their dodging of immigration laws are not likely to play well with many voters.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Not what I would have wished

"My service did not end as I would have wished."
—Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at his retirement ceremony

I can empathize with McChrystal, who was forced into retirement after Rolling Stone magazine published some indiscreet and embarrassing quotes from the general in command of forces in Afghanistan and his aides. One does not rise to the level of four-star general without a lot of hard work, intelligence and dedication. His retirement is bittersweet, but he has no one to blame but himself.

I empathize with McChrystal because my newspaper career did not end "as I would have wished." In my case, there was no embarrassing incident, no error of judgment, no policy disagreement I can blame for my layoff nearly two years ago. Rather, there was a series of events, including my boss' determination that drastic change, including change of staff, would improve the newspaper. Other events include the dramatic slide in advertising as a result of economic downturn, a shift toward online readership and a cultural decline in print readership.

Many thousands of journalists in newspapers, magazines, broadcast and online news lost their jobs over the past decade as fiscal realities slaughtered news jobs. Locally, about half the news staff is gone, and most of those individuals feel, like McChrystal, that their lifetime of dedication to the newspaper did not end as they would have wished. The layoffs were without ceremony, even without acknowledgment in most cases. The jobs just disappeared.

When I had planned ahead just a few years ago, I envisioned a long process of selecting and training my replacement and perhaps continuing to work on a part-time basis as a columnist or editorial writer, as some older colleagues had done. I imagined a retirement ceremony at which I could thank coworkers for their support and loyalty. Instead, I have embarked on a new career, where I will not build up the decades of seniority I once had and will not get the send-off I once assumed was inevitable.

General McChrystal, several years younger than I, will enjoy a lucrative retirement befitting a four-star general (an exception is being made to the usual tenure rules to allow him to keep all four stars and their higher retirement pay). Three-hundred people attended his retirement ceremony at Fort McNair. I will continue working.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sports agents just part of problem

When Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who'll do anything to win, calls somebody a pimp, you know things are getting bad. Saban used the epithet to refer to unethical sports agents, and the NCAA is conducting an investigation of possible payoffs by sports agents to football players at the University of North Carolina and the University of South Carolina.

Sports agents' abuses, however, are just the latest manifestation of the fundamental problem underlying college athletics. The once-simple and low-key sports programs have become big business — very big business. The Atlantic Coast Conference recently signed a multi-billion contract with ESPN to televise basketball games. Coach Saban at Alabama makes more than $4 million a year, plus incentives, and Alabama fans probably think he's worth it. In a couple of months, any cable or satellite TV subscriber in the country will have a choice of more than a dozen college football games every Saturday, and that doesn't count the Thursday night games, which were added purely to satisfy television demands.

This latest scandal ironically comes just after Bill Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system, celebrated his 90th birthday. Friday has spent a good deal of his retirement time advocating for reforms in college athletics. The Knight Commission, which he co-chaired, pushed for reforms and a diminished stature for college sports, to no avail. The commission worried that athletics were dictating policies to academia, and academic standards and ethics were suffering.

When the NCAA finishes its investigation and hands out its penalties, much will be blamed on sports agents, but the real blame lies with universities that get caught up in the hype of college sports, build ever-more-grand football stadiums and basketball arenas, and allow television contracts to dictate schedules, game times and everything else. The blame also lies with alumni and fans who lavish money on athletic programs through booster clubs and capital campaigns, and with Congress, which treats donations to these booster clubs and athletic campaigns the same as donations to tax-exempt academic causes.

If you've ever listened to Andy Griffith's classic "What it Was Was Football," you know that college football has not always been big business, but it has always been fun. Less lavish programs in less grand facilities with more emphasis on area competition and less on national championships would be just as competitive, just as much fun and just as much a source of pride as today's grandiose and ethically hazardous College Sports Inc.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New widgets on this blog

Dear Readers: This blog has added a couple of widgets. One allows you to "share" a post. The other allows you to "like" a post. If you don't want to post a comment, you can try the new widgets.

Street protests have their limits

I'm in general agreement with the protesters in Raleigh who are opposing the Wake County Board of Education's new policy of "neighborhood schools," which abandons the board's long-standing policy of attempting to balance school populations socio-economically. But I'm dismayed that the opponents of this policy shift appear to be intent on disrupting school board meetings rather than concentrating on ways to minimize negative impacts of the new policy.

The ultimate solution to this problem lies not in street protests but at the ballot box. It was an election last year that ushered in this change, and the new policy is unlikely to change until a new election replaces the determined and narrowly focused board majority. Protests and civil disobedience have a long and honorable history, but they also have their limitations. Unless protests garner widespread public support, they are almost certain to fail. Although a lot of individuals and organizations are opposing the new school assignment policy, I do not see — from this distance — a groundswell of public outrage.

The protesters are fighting an uphill battle. A lawsuit would be unlikely to succeed; Supreme Court decisions have eliminated busing for racial balance in Charlotte and other school systems. It's hard to imagine a court ruling that a socio-economically balanced classroom is a constitutional right. I agree with the protesters that a diverse student population better prepares students for the world that awaits them in adulthood, and I am convinced that schools dominated by poor students are at a disadvantage in parental activity and financial support. But this is a policy issue, not a constitutional issue, and policies are decided at the ballot box.

Here's my advice to the school policy opponents: Drop the massive resistance. Opt instead for persistent, thoughtful and respectful reminders to the school board majority that there is a better way to assign students. Then work with the school board to incorporate as much diversity into the "neighborhood schools" concept as possible. Exactly where you draw the attendance lines for a "neighborhood school" can make a huge difference in diversity. Encourage the school board to maximize diversity without abandoning their rallying cry of "neighborhood schools." Next, monitor student performance under the new policy compared to the old policy, and begin organizing for the next school board election. Turn out the vote, and do what you can to change the policy you don't like.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A personal endorsement for jobless benefits

Today's news is all about how the Democrats in the Senate are going to garner enough votes to pass an extension of unemployment benefits. Republicans have fought the proposal because, they say, it will make the gargantuan budget deficit even worse.

The Republicans' concern for the deficit is one I've shared for decades and continue to share today. But my experience last year with the unemployment insurance system made me a big fan of, and forever grateful for, this "safety net" for people who are out of work through no fault of their own. When my brief severance pay expired, I signed up for unemployment and managed to make house payments with my unemployment benefits. Without that monthly direct deposit into my checking account, I would have dipped deeply into household savings and despair. Depression is a natural consequence of losing a job, having your routine and lifestyle wrenched out from under you. A government check to allow the unemployed time to search for a job, perhaps learn new skills and keep a roof over their heads does the individual and the economy a world of good. How much worse would consumer spending be if the unemployed had no income at all?

Jobless benefits cannot go on forever, but this recession has been especially brutal. People have been unemployed longer this time than in any previous post-war recession. An extension of unemployment provides benefits to the individual and to the economic recovery. This program can mean the difference between financial stability and suicide. The budget deficit looms and must be addressed, but not at the expense of the worst-injured casualties of this recession.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Andy Taylor never made that kinda money

"Who knowed?" Andy Taylor said during an interview at Mayberry Manor Retirement Home. "Here I was doing the best I could with only one patrol car between me and Barney, and only one bullet for Barney's gun, just two jail cells — one of the most likely occupied by Otis. Who knowed I coulda been makin' six figures like they pay the High Sheriff down to Wilson County.

"Here I find out Shurf Gay's makin' a hunderd 'n forty-four thousand a year, but I'm just ashamed to say what a paltry little salary I made when I was sheriffin'. I can tell you it won't much, though. Why, I didn't even have air conditioning in my house. Had to sit out on the front porch in the evening to get cool and live with my aunt to make ends meet. And when I took Opie fishing in Myers Lake, we didn't have no fancy rod 'n' reel. We had an ol' bamboo pole with a string and a hook on the end.

"If'n I'd been makin' $144,000 a year, I coulda give some of it to my deputy. Barney mighta been able to afford better accommodations when he took off for Raleigh on the weekend. He wouldena had to stay at the YMCA. He coulda got hisself a room at the Marriott if'n he was makin' a third what the shurf in Wilson's a-making.

"Now, I understand that Shurf Gay's been in office a long time, and those annual raises, they tend to add up after awhile, but it still don't seem quite right that he was makin' that kinda money while I was just strugglin' along. I mean, in Mayberry, we didn't have no big black SUVs or SWAT teams or nothin'. It was just Barney and me. Shoot, we didn't even have drug dog, not that drugs were any kinda problem in Mayberry, you understand, but we mighta liked havin' a dog to tag along with ol' Barn.

"I understand that sheriff's salary cannot be reduced by the county board during an election year, and I guess that's reasonable. If I was a younger man, I might want to move to Wilson and file for that high-payin' job myself. But I'm doin' all right here at the Manor, so I reckon I'll stay here. I hear the state Highway Patrol's lookin' for a new commander, and that would be a fine job. However, it prob'ly wouldn't pay as good as sheriff of Wilson."

My tie wardrobe hangs forgotten behind door

One of the ties on my tie rack behind the closet door fell to the floor recently, and I wasn't sure it was worth the effort to pick it up. For nearly 40 years, I wore a tie to work almost every day, but I've now succumbed to the more casual work wardrobe — a sport shirt with casual slacks. Even the winter sport coat has given way to the casual jacket or zip-up fleece.

Through five employers over four decades, I wore a tie from my enlarging collection every day. In summer heat, I might leave the suit coat or sport coat behind, but I always wore a tie. I didn't feel dressed for work without one. Even when the casual trend infected my recent employer, turning Casual Fridays into Casual Everydays, I continued to wear a tie because it seemed to go with the job. But even bankers, once the paragon of business fashion with their dark suits, white shirts and neat ties, began to adopt a more casual style. Some opined that the more casual attire made customers more comfortable, but I was never convinced of that explanation. It seemed to me, if I was going to entrust my money to someone, I'd prefer someone who looked like he was headed to Wall Street, not to the ninth fairway.

Nevertheless, casual attire took over almost every aspect of life. What used to be called "Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes" disappeared even from church pews. Some ministers abandoned formal robes or suit-and-tie for the casual look as they exhorted from the pulpit. Fine restaurants that had once required jacket and tie before admitting any male customer changed their policy to "no shirt, no shoes, no service," ending the entire concept of elegant dining.

My collection of ties still hangs in my closet, but I save a few minutes each day by not having to decide which tie to wear and then tie it. And I'm comfortable now in my sport shirts, especially in this summer heat. I even dress casually for church in summer. But there are times when I feel under-dressed as I try to make a good impression on some important person while dressed as if I'm headed for the beach. At least I'm not wearing flip-flops to work.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Happy 500 blog posts to me ...

Five Hundred. That's the number of blog posts I've written since Oct. 7, 2008, less than a week after I was laid off from a newspaper career spanning more than 30 years. I was one of thousands of journalists turned out by newspapers, broadcasters and other news media as revenues tanked in 2008. I started the blog as an outlet for my opinions and a means of keeping in touch with folks who had read my ramblings for years. This is the 500th entry in Erstwhile Editor, the blog that took up where my former Downing Street blog left off (and was summarily killed by the newspaper that had encouraged me to write it; it no longer exists in cyberspace).

To mark this occasion (I won't call it auspicious), I thought I'd look back at my blog posts, relive some of the news events or emotions that prompted those posts, and share with the few readers still turning to this blog on occasion some of the more memorable posts. I thought I'd compile a sort of "best of" the first 500 blog entries by Erstwhile Editor. But after spending nearly an hour just looking through the three months of entries in 2008, I decided covering the entire 22 months of blogging might be more ambitious a project than I want to tackle tonight.

Those first 91 entries in 2008 set the tone I had promised in my first post — random thoughts and analysis about politics, newspapers, literature, family and life. I wrote a good bit at first about being laid off. It was a new experience for me, but I was determined not to be bitter or vengeful. I found some quiet beauty in the solitude of an empty house during the workday. And I found some awkward moments when people expressed shock that I was no longer at the paper. But after several weeks, I fell into a new routine and had to remind myself not to get too comfortable. Losing a job, even with the support of family of friends, is traumatic, and I wrote about that, too. I gradually became accustomed to a new role with my wife as the breadwinner.

I also wrote about the profession I had given my working life to. I was sad, both personally and professionally, about the demise of newspapers. I still read the newspaper daily, but the news from the world of journalism was not good in 2008. Both national newspapers and local publications ran into trouble at the end of 2008. And while it seemed everyone else was getting a stimulus or a tax break, newspapers weren't.

But one unexpected topic got a lot of my attention at the end of 2008. My best friend from high school was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor a few months before I was laid off. I drove nearly 400 miles in one day to see him, bedridden by then, and share memories. Later, unexpectedly, I received the dreaded news. Days later, I drove down for the memorial service and shared more memories with people I'd lost track of over the years. This blog took a turn I had not expected when I started, but I wanted to write about life, and death is part of that. I attended another funeral during those last months of 2008. It was sad but uplifting and inspiring, setting just the right tone for a requiem for a man of faith.

I followed the 91 posts of 2008 with 294 in 2009. I slowed down a bit when I took a job near the end of that year (after a year out of work), but I've still managed to write 500 blog posts in less than two years. I never had pretensions or great hopes for this blog, and it has lived up to low expectations. It was little more than an outlet for my thoughts and opinions. In that regard, 500 posts and 22 months later, it has served its purpose.

The estate tax revenue that got away

Thank you, George Steinbrenner, for demonstrating the idiocy of U.S. estate taxes — or the lack thereof. Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, died of a heart attack Tuesday, leaving an estate estimated by one source of $1.1 billion — that's billion with a "b."

Thanks to the works of Congress, dancing to the drumbeat of Republican demagogues and business lobbyists, there is no estate tax this year. Steinbrenner's heirs will pay no tax on the estate, simply because The Boss' heart choked up this year instead of last year. Had Steinbrenner died last year, heirs would have owed about $500 million in federal taxes, leaving them a paltry $600 million to live on. The estate tax expired this year, a one-year hiatus for the tax that has been around for generations, although it only applied to the country's largest estates. Last year, the tax applied only on estates exceeding $3.5 million. This year's elimination of the estate tax is costing the deeper-in-debt federal government billions of dollars.

We got into this mess because of a misleading and disingenuous campaign against what Republicans liked to call the "death tax" — a complete misnomer. The tax was not on death, which Benjamin Franklin said was one of the two things (the other being taxes) that are inevitable; it was on the estate left behind. Only the largest estates were subject to the tax. After years of gradual increases in the size of estates exempted from the tax, last year's estate tax allowed nearly all individuals and small businesses to avoid the tax. The tax applied to less than 1 percent of all estates, yet the campaign against the "death tax" implied that the tax was an offense against Everyman.

The elimination of the estate tax — and not just the one-year hiatus we are experiencing now — was the real goal of those lobbyists and anti-government wackos who beat the drums against the "death tax." Permanently eliminating the tax would not only deny the government a steady source of revenue, it would lay the groundwork for a permanent aristocracy based on inherited wealth. In today's America, it is not unusual for a family to go from working class to ultra-rich and back down again in two or three generations. Business advantages and innovations rise and fall. Work ethic or business acumen of one generation is often lost on the next or the next. The estate tax helps to enforce this natural cycle by ensuring that no one gets to coast forever on granddaddy's millions. While every parent would like to pass along the fruits of a lifetime of work, too great an inheritance can be a curse. An estate tax limits at least some of the negative impacts of inherited wealth.

Thank you, George Steinbrenner, for pointing this out. Now it's up to Congress to do something about it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

'And who is my neighbor?'

The Gospel lesson last Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke's account (Luke 10:25-37). As I listened to the reading and to the sermon that followed, I was struck by what we know about this parable and what we overlook. We all know the story of the man set upon by thieves who leave him for dead on the Jerusalem to Jericho road and how two men, highly regarded in society and religious life, pass him by. It was only the Samaritan, a member of an ethnic group despised and looked down upon by the good people of Israel and Judea, who went to the man, bound up his wounds, and arranged for his continuing care. So familiar is this story that we even call laws that protect people who try to help the afflicted "Good Samaritan Laws."

But is protecting those in need really what this parable is about? Jesus told this story in response to a question: "And who is my neighbor?" And at the end of the story, Jesus asked this question: "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" Jesus was not so concerned with helping the poor victim of crime as he was with answering the question: "Who is my neighbor?" That a helpless crime victim was helped is a sidelight to the basic question of "Who is my neighbor?"

But this parable is not the "Who is my neighbor?" parable, it is the parable of the Good Samaritan, just as another of Jesus' stories is known as the parable of the Prodigal Son, even though the story is as much about the father and the other son as it is about the prodigal. In reply to Jesus' question at the end of his story, the original questioner says the person who was a neighbor to the crime victim was "the one who showed him mercy." Jesus responded, "Go and do likewise."

So who is my neighbor? It appears to be those in need of mercy, of medical care, of assistance, of money to cover the costs of the innkeeper's care. If that is the point off this parable, then the lesson is far more profound than the obvious point that high officials sometimes lack mercy and kindness.

A preview of 2010 campaign debates

Here's a preview of this fall's political debate. "If you vote for my opponent, he/she will vote to raise the Social Security retirement age. He/She will force you to keep working to age 70! Now, I just want a simple answer, do you or do you not favor raising the retirement age?"

"No. I do not favor raising the retirement age, but I also don't favor seeing Social Security go bankrupt, and that's exactly what is going to happen if Congress does not take bipartisan action to save Social Security, which is now on an unsustainable path. Social Security promises more than it can deliver, and without some corrective action, it will go bankrupt within our lifetimes. I don't like the idea of raising the retirement age, but if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that Franklin Roosevelt never envisioned a time when an average retiree would be drawing Social Security for 20 or 30 years. Life expectancy has increased, but our expectations of Social Security have not. I favor a bipartisan approach that will look at all possible solutions to this crisis — and it is a crisis when million of Americans are depending on a program that will not be there when they retire. Those solutions have to include changing the benefits formula, increasing the age for full benefits, increasing contributions to Social Security, or some combination of all these solutions. The worst thing we can do as a nation is to pretend the problem doesn't exist. It is not going to solve itself, and the longer we put off a decision, the harsher the penalty will be on our children and grandchildren.

"No, I do not favor raising the retirement age, but I recognize that there are some things that are worse than that, and I certainly hope my opponent doesn't favor insolvency for Social Security and destitution for those who are counting on it."

Monday, July 12, 2010

A 50th anniversary worth celebrating

On the 50th anniversary of its publication, I've been rereading "To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee's description of life in the segregated South seen through the eyes of a child. The novel has been called the best novel of the 20th century, and I'm not sure I could argue with that assessment, although there is plenty of competition. Rereading it for the first time in perhaps 40 years, I am struck by its utter and beguiling simplicity. Lee gives Scout, the child narrator, an inimitable voice and a juvenile insight that can be more profound that any adult's. Scout's sentence structure is simple, but her vocabulary and understanding are not at all childish.

The most memorable portion of the plot is the concluding rape trial, but the trial is only one aspect of life in this small town. With childish fascination, Scout looks at a great many aspects of her hometown and finds meaning and insight far beyond her years. She portrays the diverse manners of race relations and the humiliating horrors of segregation through the eyes of a wondering child. Her father, Atticus, is one of the great, moral characters of American literature.

The novel was made into an Oscar-winning movie with Gregory Peck, in his greatest role, as Atticus Finch. But the movie, as good as it was, could not express the simple sincerity that Scout's narrative gives the novel. If any novel should be required reading for every American, perhaps this is the one.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Innocent until proven guilty? Well, yes

Every so often during my three decades as a newspaper editor, I would field complaints that the newspaper should not have reported an arrest (usually for prostitution, drunk driving or similar offenses). "People are innocent until proven guilty, ain't they?" Well, of course, I would respond, but we only reported that they were arrested, not that they were guilty. (One of the hardest lessons I had to teach new crime reporters was not to assume or imply that an arrestee was the "perpetrator." It remains one of the most common errors I see in some publications.)

Now the N.C. General Assembly is taking this empty argument to the issue of personnel records. Even though North Carolina has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation regarding release of information about taxpayer-paid personnel, legislators seem poised to make matters even worse. An amendment offered by Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat once thought to be an open-government liberal, would keep secret any personnel actions until after a state employee is convicted of a crime. Her argument, that state employees who have not been proven guilty or who have not exhausted their appeals should not have their reputations sullied by public exposure, is the same argument I used to hear from mommas of drunk drivers ("It'll just kill his grandma if this goes in the paper; I know it will!").

I suspect the State Employees Association of North Carolina union has its fingerprints on this revision to a bill that was meant to open up the state's secretiveness over employees who have been disciplined, demoted or fired. If legislators approve the Ross amendment, it will be a sad day for taxpayers who would be denied the facts about the people who supposedly work for them. Maybe next year, legislators will make it illegal to publish the names of drunk drivers or guys caught in prostitution stings until after they go to trial (and plead to a lesser offense) and exhaust all their appeals.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

School marm Perdue issues a warning

Well, Bev, you really got 'em skeered now. Yessiree. Those state troopers who have been taking out their testosterone on young women, both motorists and Highway Patrol secretaries, using their state phones to send titillating text messages, drinkin' and drivin' (no doubt just for research) and cozying up to politicians in hopes of a plum promotion are on notice now.

Yessir, one more violation, and you'll ... you'll frown at 'em and tell 'em that was a no-no! "No, no, no! You can't take your pants off while on duty." "No, no, no! You can't get caught drivin' drunk. Perception is reality, and if you are perceived to be drunk, well you just might be drunk, and then I'll have to call a press conference and tell the whole state that I'm disappointed in you, and you wouldn't like that, would you?"

I'm sure what really skeeers 'em is having to sign this new ethics pledge. Why men who fool around with other men's wives and beat their dogs and pull political strings and wiggle out of drunk driving arrests fear nothing more than having to sign an ethics pledge. I'll bet they're all quaking in their spit-shined boots. And all this talk about "zero tolerance"? They've gotta be sweating that one. After all, they've seen what "zero tolerance" means in Raleigh; it's the rough equivalent of "you better not get caught, but if you do you better have a good excuse."

You've really shown what you're made of, Bev. We know you wanted to be the Education Governor, just like Jim and Terry and those guys, but they didn't get to be E.G.'s by talking to subordinates like they were second-graders and then giving them a second-grade punishment. Are you gonna make Col. Randy Glover write 100 times "I must not blame the news media when my troopers get caught with their pants down"? The only thing missing at Wednesday's news conference was a 12-inch wooden ruler for slapping someone's hand. Make a note for the next news conference, OK?

We all remember that campaign commercial you ran in 2008, the one with all the cute (and ethnically diverse) school children leading cheers for Bev Perdue ("She's got a Ph.D.!"). But we really didn't think you'd try to run the state as if it were a second-grade classroom. Even a second-grade teacher should be able to recognize when the kids on Safety Patrol are arrogant and misbehaving and need to be replaced. Did you skip that class in grad school, or do you think the Safety Patrol guys are just too cute to be fired?

Bev, instead of portraying an irked school marm, you should take a lesson from another North Carolinian, who never became governor (he would have been a great one) but was a great education administrator (despite not having a Ph.D.) Bill Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system, turns 90 on Tuesday. When he had to reprimand subordinates at the university (thanks to N&O columnist Jim Jenkins for this tidbit), he would remind them, "Remember, you and I work for the people of North Carolina. All of them." I'll bet that's a better ethics pledge than the one you're asking troopers to sign, Bev.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Patrol problems indict Perdue, too

The News & Observer's latest expose on the state Highway Patrol adds to the impression of an agency run amok in cronyism, misconduct, hypocrisy, favoritism and self-protection. It's also an indictment of Gov. Bev Perdue and her management style.

Her Republican opponent in the 2008 election tried to pin a label of cronyism and scratch-my-back politics on Perdue, but the Democratic sweep led by President Obama that year carried Perdue to victory. As today's N&O article shows, Perdue has a history of seeking out proteges and providing special treatment for them. Her appointment of Highway Patrol Commander Randy Glover follows that pattern. The N&O quotes Patrol insiders saying that Glover got his position not by his own merit and achievements but by his friendship with Perdue. If that accusation is true, it wouldn't be the first time it has happened. The Highway Patrol has a long history of intervention by the chief executive. It also has had a history of sexual shenanigans, and those incidents seem to be multiplying. They are at least catching the attention of the news media more frequently. Glover himself was involved in an illicit affair earlier in his career, but he was not forced out as some troopers have been recently for lesser offenses. The N&O has documented a number of recent cases of troopers being involved in illicit sex acts or affairs, sometimes while on duty. The most recent was the case of Patrol spokesman Everett Clendenin, whose text messages on a state-owned mobile phone and directed to a married Patrol secretary bordered on raunchy.

Perdue had vowed to clean up the Highway Patrol, but by appointing a crony with disputable credentials, she has continued the long tradition of keeping the Highway Patrol outside the normal standards of ethics, conduct and promotion by merit. If she is serious about cleaning up the Patrol, she'll correct her own appointment error and appoint an outside, bipartisan commission to examine the organization, training, discipline, supervision and political involvement of Patrol employees.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Great Recession isn't over

The Dow-Jones average is teetering below 9500, and job creation is not keeping up with jobs lost. Economists and pundits are raising the specter of a "double-dip recession." Little in economic statistics or anecdotal evidence gives much hope that the economic good times are returning.

An article in the March Atlantic examines the truly frightening prospects of the long-term impacts of this Great Recession — perpetually high unemployment, whole neighborhoods turning into unoccupied slums, a weakening of marriage because of occupational uncertainties. Such a catastrophic scenario might not unroll, but it could, and there may be little the government or anyone else can do about it. The Federal Reserve can't lower interest rates to stimulate the economy because rates are already near zero. Congress' ability to "prime the pump" appears ineffective, given the lack of success of last year's $700 billion stimulus and the soaring federal debt.

There are many causes for this recession, including over-speculation in complicated new investments, an overheated housing market and a feeling of insecurity among consumers. Perhaps the most fundamental cause, however, has been brewing for decades — the loss of American manufacturing. Since the 1980s or earlier, we've been deluding ourselves into thinking that in the "new economy," we could sustain our standard of living by selling each other fancy financial investments, lawn services, hamburgers and concert tickets. A sound economy is built on creating something, not on swapping services. The American economy might not see the "good times" again until it begins making things that the public wants to buy, whether it's cars, televisions, hammers or widgets. America needs a tax policy that encourages manufacturing in America by American workers.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"The Help" helps us understand relationships

Kathryn Stockett has written an extraordinary first novel, "The Help," which has won a deserved place on the New York Times bestseller list. It is one of the few books that looks honestly at the extraordinary relationship between blacks and whites in the segregated South. The relationship was sometimes adversarial and sometimes oppressive and even cruel. But it could also be loving, kind and respectful.

Stockett looks at the women who kept house and raised children for aristocratic white families in the early 1960s, just as this traditional relationship was being challenged and changed. Reading the book, I thought of Sen. Sam Ervin, who boasted that his black maid was considered a member of the family and, naturally, accompanied the family to Washington, D.C., when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate. I also thought of baseball great Ty Cobb, who when accused of racism, responded that he couldn't be racist because he had been nursed by a black nanny. Both responses now seem quaintly naive, if not blind.

I know little about the lives of white aristocrats and their relationship with black servants (my family of "lintheads" was far from aristocratic), but Stockett's fiction rings true. Using multiple narrators, she manages to get inside the minds of the black women who cared for, cooked for, and cleaned for white families, usually for very minimal wages. She reveals women who deeply loved the white children for whom they were surrogate mothers, disciplinarians and moral exemplars. But these women also chafed under the disrespectful attitudes, petty tyranny and repressiveness of some of their employers.

Stockett sets her novel in Jackson, Miss., just as the civil rights movement was gaining its stride and as segregationists were erecting more barriers to ensure the survival of their "peculiar institution." Some critics have claimed "The Help" stereotypes black women and white oppressors, but others have disagreed. I found the characters true to life and as varied as any group of personalities as you would find in any demographic group. Some white women were tyrants, some were social climbers, some were insecure, some were kind and loving. The characters, both white and black, ran the gamut of human existence.

The relationship between what was essentially two separate, independent societies, one white and one black, was quite complex. Black women could rear white children, feeding, disciplining and guiding them, but they could not enter a white home's front door. The intimacy of the relationship between women who cooked, cleaned, laundered, nursed and organized a household could not help but be intimate, but few white families dared admit how much they depended on their black maids even as they fought the societal tide that threatened that relationship.

To the extent that we remember or study the segregation era today, we usually concentrate on the legal challenges, the protests and the triumph of human dignity over Jim Crow laws and segregationist traditions. But unless we look more closely, we miss the mutual dependency and genuine friendships that existed despite the legal and social barriers. I think "The Help" is an important book for what it tells us, both good and bad, about an era happily put behind us.

Another recent book, which I have frequently recommended, also reveals the complex and sometimes contradictory relationships between the races in the South as segregation was ending. Doug Marlette's "Magic Time" is a wonderful novel that recounts the turbulent 1960s as well as the current day in the friendship between two young men, one white and one black, in a small town in the South. I highly recommend it, too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

NCDOT prefers to kill the messenger

Fresh off the news that the hard-pressed state budget, which cut spending across all state departments, actually increased spending on state ferries comes this story today from the News & Observer revealing that Department of Transportation bigwigs have fired the man hired to straighten out the ferry division. Kill the messenger, and we can all go back to what we were doing.

State legislators have known for years that DOT is a cesspool of political influence, inefficiency, ineptitude, nepotism and favoritism, but year-after-year they refuse to root out the problems. This is the department that had to repave I-40 at a cost of millions of extra taxpayer dollars, had to repave I-795 (more millions) because the paving was laid too thin, had to pay a huge federal fine because of illegal dredging by the ferry division, provided a fraudulent auto title to a friend of a high-ranking official, and had two employees convicted of contracting fraud. The Division of Motor Vehicles, a DOT entity long known as a political dumping ground, had policies so lax that illegal immigrants could easily obtain N.C. driver's licenses and has recently instituted a policy that sends driver's licenses via mail rather than handing them over in person. Mail, you see, is more "secure" in the delusional world of DMV.

Hired to clean up the ferry division, Harold "Buddy" Finch, a career Coast Guard officer, found a division reeking of nepotism and without a detailed budget. Finch told the N&O that he was informed that the division simply "received money from the state and spent it." Trying to straighten out this mess made Finch an "enemy of the state," so he was fired last month. The official reason: His boss determined that he could not "meet the expectations" of the job. Remember that whenever you want to get rid of anyone for any reason.

There's only one solution to the problems at DOT. Legislators have to demand a complete audit of the entire division, both financial and performance. They have to find out where the money is going and how effectively it is being spent. But don't expect that to happen. DOT, remember, is a political swamp, and the politicians flooding that swamp include members of the legislature.