Friday, February 25, 2011

Federal authority debate was settled in 1865

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has put a damper on the state's new legislative majority's efforts to exempt North Carolina from the federal health care reform. In a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue, Cooper points out that state legislatures cannot "pick and choose which federal laws the state will obey."

The Republican-led General Assembly has followed the lead of some other GOP-majority legislatures in passing a bill stating that North Carolinians cannot be required to purchase health insurance or pay into a federal insurance fund, as required by last year's health care bill. That requirement does not go into effect until 2014, but some legislatures are getting into line early to oppose the law. Some states are also suing the federal government, claiming that the health insurance requirement exceeds the authority of Congress.

As Cooper points out, federal law trumps state laws. I thought that debate was settled in 1865. All the talk of "nullification" and state sovereignty from the 1830s met a bloody and final end 146 years ago. As to the lawsuit claiming Congress cannot require individuals to purchase health insurance, that will be settled by the Supreme Court. But it's ironic that states are suing over this insurance requirement, although most (perhaps all) states, including North Carolina, require individuals to have liability insurance on their vehicles. That doesn't seem to raise constitutional issues. States use their "coercive" powers to require individuals to purchase driver's licenses, hunting licenses, business licenses and other permits and to pay inspection fees, garbage fees and sundry other fees. Congress even requires employers to withhold income taxes and Social Security taxes when they issue paychecks. So why is health insurance the only federal (or state) mandate that raises these constitutional issues? I'll wait for the Supreme Court's decision for that answer.

The state law Cooper finds unenforceable also raises another issue: It requires Cooper to join the lawsuit against the federal health care law. As the late Richmond County Sheriff R.W. Goodman used to point out to county commissioners, one constitutionally established body (i.e., county commissioners) cannot order around another constitutionally established body (i.e., the sheriff). "I am a constitutional officer," Goodman used to remind commissioners. Cooper, the attorney general, holds an office created by the state constitution, and, as such, he is on an equal footing with the General Assembly. Legislators cannot order him to do anything. They can cut off his funding; they can make life difficult for him. But they cannot order him to do things he doesn't want to do. He is their constitutional equal, not a subordinate. The legislators themselves can join the lawsuit they love or file friend-of-the-court briefs on the side of the plaintiffs, but they cannot order Cooper to do so.

Maybe legislators should read that constitution they say they're defending.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The good news doesn't last

Some readers might remember my post last month about our battle of wits with a dog. It appeared that our battle to keep our once-sweet and disciplined dog from tunneling beneath the fence or tearing the furniture apart had ended with a truce. Little Bear was behaving herself again. But there's an update.

The acceptable indoor behavior was a mirage. We had thrown out one rug because the dog urine odor wouldn't come out, but we thought we had salvaged the other one. Then we found it damp with, you guessed it! I also found yellow liquid pooled on the sunroom couch. And, just to be certain, we found she had leaped up on our bed and soaked it, too. We'd have to keep her outside while we are gone. But she refused to stay inside the fence and managed to tunnel out every day, sometimes twice a day, leaving herself covered in mud and scratches.

Dogs, I discovered, are efficient diggers. The holes just large enough for her to wriggle through are difficult to refill. Her paws broadcast dirt in a fine pattern that can't be easily shoveled back into the hole. And although concrete blocks buried in the ground have stopped her in places, it would take me weeks of labor to line the entire fence with concrete blocks. The chicken fencing I thought would discourage her has been of little help. She chews through it.

At the suggestion of my wife and her sister, I installed an underground fence just inside our picket fence, thinking it would keep Little Bear away from the fence altogether. It didn't even slow her down. She just tunneled away, oblivious to the collar's electric shocks.

I'm open to suggestions. I'm also sort of desperate.

Children need discipline and rules

Is there an adult in the house?

In some (maybe many) households, apparently not. A recent letter to Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax exemplifies the problem. The writer complained to Hax that her in-laws criticized her child-rearing techniques, which, judging from the letter, were not child-rearing techniques at all. The writer and her husband had agreed upon "admittedly somewhat lax" rules for their two sons because the parents found the "noise and energy" to be "fun."

Since at least the 1970s, some parents have approached child-rearing with the attitude that they should preserve the chaotic, free-spirited, disrespectful anarchy of 2-year-olds. Their concept seems to be that children are born perfect and are only constrained and limited by societal rules and expectations. Therefore, these parents banish rules, etiquette, respect for others (especially elders), self-restraint, compassion and helpfulness from the home. It's "Lord of the Flies" for toddlers.

What children need from their parents is not freedom of expression but discipline, order and orientation into society. Children are not born knowing that they should be kind to others and respectful of elders (including their parents) any more than they are born knowing how to tie their shoes. These are learned responses, and if they are not learned early in life, children will have increasing difficulty as they grow older. Elementary schools will expect them to be considerate, to not talk out of turn, to sit quietly at appropriate times and to obey teachers and others in authority. Middle and high schools will expect them to be responsible and self-disciplined and to complete the work assigned to them. Colleges and careers will expect them take on greater responsibilities. Those children who have been reared on the "wilding" theory of child development will have enormous difficulty adjusting to the realities of the world outside of their free-spirited, responsibility-free home.

The letter to Hax raises another issue — the diminution of grandparents' roles. In other societies, village elders were respected for their experience. All grandparents have experience in child-rearing, and their opinions should be respected. Grandparents may not be current on the latest baby gadgets, online resources or nutritional advances, but they know a lot about comforting a child and teaching manners — skills that do not change from one generation to another.

My wife and I are blessed to have wonderful grandchildren who are being reared with the appropriate combination of love and discipline, by parents to know that "to love" is "to discipline." You can see that I found Hax's response a bit too considerate of the mom's undisciplined approach. This episode is more than a disagreement between parents and grandparents over parenting styles; it is a gamble with two little boys' futures. Parenting is the hardest job anyone will ever have; not disciplining and teaching children amounts to playing hooky from the most important job in life.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Will Egypt find 'same as the old boss'?

There is a lot of celebration in Cairo over the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and Washington and other Western capitals seem pleased, too. The Egyptian military establishment, which has been touted in news reports as a stabilizing force and a greatly admired institution, has taken over the governing powers.

Better dial back the ecstasy just a bit. Egyptians and Americans with any memory at all will remember that the military has been in the place before. After all, all three of Egypt's previous rulers have come out of the military. Mubarak, as he reminded his countrymen before resigning his office, was a military officer. Anwar Sadat, his predecessor, also came out of the military elite. And before Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a military officer before becoming president. Each of the three was innovative and forward-thinking in his own way, but all three ruled as dictators, not fairly elected choices of a free electorate.

All three men were autocratic rulers presiding over despotic, corrupt regimes. It seems unlikely that the military that produced three despots who ruled with iron fists for nearly 60 years would suddenly produce, or give way to, a democratically elected administration. It seems more likely that the protesters in Tahrir Square will have traded one ex-military authoritarian ruler for another.

We can hope for a better outcome, for the kind of democracy that the peaceful protesters demanded, but until we see evidence to the contrary, the safer bet is for another ruler in the mold of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Time creeps in a waiting room

I spent the day in hospital waiting rooms Thursday accompanied by many of my wife's family and the breath-sucking anxiety that goes with hospital visits. In the unrelentingly long wait for news from the surgeons, I watched a horde of people in the same position as we were — waiting, waiting, waiting for some news of a loved one recently wheeled away on a gurney. Hope for the best outcome is written on faces beside the fear of the worst. This high-soaring and death-diving of emotions leave human bodies exhausted, and the exhaustion is evident in every small gesture.

The anxiety hacks at fragile emotions emotions like a pick axe in hard clay, cleaving out chunks of well-mannered facades. A woman in the fourth day of her mother's stroke ranted like a mental case over being asked whether her mother had a living will. We had never met but were thrown together in the tight quarters of a hospital waiting room, so I heard her angry accusations. It's probably a routine question asked of all patients, I thought, but I would not risk the woman's wrath by saying so.

While the ill populate the secret recesses of hospitals' labyrinths, the loved ones, kin and friend, sit idly in public showcases — waiting rooms where strangers crowd together, avoid eye contact and watchfully observe the way others handle anxiety. They scurry in animated urgency while others doze in exhaustion both physical and emotional. A hundred strangers coped with the wait last Thursday, scattered along a corridor longer than a basketball court. They read, they napped, they talked, they watched. But mostly they waited while beyond the wall of windows, the morning sun turned to midday and then to late afternoon glare. Tempus fugit? No, time crept so slowly that clocks and time lost their meaning. And as time slowed down, anxiety spiraled upward.

The hospital offered newspapers and magazines, television, hot coffee, comfortable chairs to ease the discomfort of the people waiting. But the hospital could not bring restore time's normal, 60-seconds-to-the-minute pace. The day stretched longer, the chairs became less comfortable, the reading no longer diverted attention. As the sun neared setting, the waiting ended for some, and the crowded space opened up before the day of waiting finally ended.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One small step for state budget writers

The big fireworks have not begun yet in Raleigh as legislators and the governor take a slow, deliberate approach to cutting into a $3 billion-plus budget shortfall. The new Republican majority is determined to close the gap without a tax increase, and that will not be easy — or painless. Both Governor Perdue and GOP legislative leaders swear they want to protect education, but it won't be possible to balance the budget without squeezing the state's largest budget category.

Here's one simple thing the General Assembly can do: Eliminate the provisions that have allowed retired teachers to return to the classroom. These retirees are receiving generous state pensions (few taxpayers in the private sector even know what a pension is), and they get a state salary on top of the pension. When this "double-dipping" was first allowed, it made a modicum of sense, but no longer. Just a few years ago, the state was worried about a shortage of teachers. A rising school-age population and mandated reductions in class size made it seemingly certain that North Carolina would not be able to find enough teachers to fill the classrooms. So legislators allowed retirees to return to work, and double-dip.

That teacher shortage is now a distant memory. Instead, school systems are laying off teachers. When I became unemployed in 2008, I thought that if I couldn't find a private-sector job, I could always sign up to teach. But then the recession hit state revenues, and teaching jobs dried up. Since then, I know of at least two instances in which qualified new teachers were rejected in favor of retirees returning to the classroom. I'm sure there are hundreds, even thousands, of others. Allowing retirees back in the classroom makes the teaching staff older and limits opportunities for younger teachers, and that has grave implications for future staffing.

In the long term, the state should review its pensions policies. Although North Carolina does not face the pension insolvency that some other states do, its pension and retirement policies are far more generous than the private sector offers. A former Wilson police chief several years ago announced his retirement when, he said, he discovered he could earn more from his state pension than he could earn by working. State law enforcement pensions are even more generous than for regular state employees, but the entire system should be reviewed. North Carolina wants to attract and retain good workers, but it shouldn't offer benefits far more generous than those available to the taxpayers who are paying the bills.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

100-year perspective on Ronald Reagan

I never voted for Ronald Reagan, but on this 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to confess to a great admiration for the man and a belief that historians will rank him among the great presidents.

In 1980, I voted for Jimmy Carter, a good man whose first term had been disappointing to say the least. I voted for him because I thought he was a good man whose heart was in the right place, and because I was a little frightened by Reagan's fiercely confrontational rhetoric. Four years later, I had become a bit of a fan of Reagan's optimism and confidence in the American system. I had never cared much for Walter Mondale, who seemed to me an old-style Democrat wedded to the union bosses and the old solutions. But my wife couldn't stand Ronald Reagan (she had threatened to move to Australia if he were elected in 1980), so I left the presidential choice blank in 1984 as a way of "ensuring domestic tranquility."

My admiration for Reagan doubled in 1993 when he wrote a heart-felt farewell to the American people, announcing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. That short note was one of the best writing he ever produced, and it was quintessentially Reagan. In a new book, his son Ron suggests that Alzheimer's was already affecting his father before he left the White House. Historians aren't so sure. Regardless, when the diagnosis was confirmed, he faced his fate with all of the dignity, confidence, courage and equanimity that the American people had come to expect from him.

How will historians judge Reagan? Already, his star is on the rise. He has to rank as one of the major political figures of the post-World War II world. He altered the discussion of government and taxes. Unfortunately, some who now claim Reagan's mantle forget that he raised taxes, compromised with Democrats, negotiated treaties with the Soviet Union, supported civil rights legislation, called for a nuclear weapons-free world and sought practical solutions over ideological purity. History — not GOP efforts to deify a false image of him — will ultimately gauge Reagan's greatness, but from today's perspective, I think he will rank among the top half-dozen presidents, even though I never voted for him.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Remember inflation? It's back

This day of reckoning had to come. The laws of economics might not be as immutable as the laws of physics, but they can't be ignored, either. An economy built on credit, a long-standing policy of impossibly low interest rates, an expanding money supply, expanding markets in developing countries, and a federal government running budget deficits so enormous they suck up all available money sooner or later will result in inflation.

We've all seen the inflation at the gasoline pump. Careful observers have already noticed it in grocery shelves. Now the news media have begun to take notice. We're already paying more for gasoline, meat, grains, vegetables and other necessities. It's likely that the inflationary spiral will spread throughout the economy, to all foods, appliances, building materials and other products. Even consumer electronics — from computers to cell phones — which have been immune from inflation as advances in design and manufacturing made computing power cheaper and cheaper, might see rising prices. As if high unemployment wasn't bad enough.

The realization that inflation has not been abolished should prompt Congress, if it needed any more incentive, to reduce the unsustainable federal budget deficit. Budget freezes will not be enough. Congress will have to bite the artillery shell (it's so much bigger than a bullet) and actually eliminate some programs. The Department of Agriculture's subsidies for sugar, corn and other commodities cost taxpayers billions without helping consumers at all. Grain subsidies and ethanol requirements boost corporate farm profits without improving gas mileage or providing consumer benefits. The military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against in 1961 has developed a patriotic immunity while it drains America's treasury. Wildly proliferating Cabinet departments — Veterans Affairs, Education, etc. — make political statements at the expense of taxpayers while doing little to attain service goals. The United States gives away billions of dollars to state and local governments and to nonprofit agencies, as if it had billions to spare, when, in fact, it's worse off than the state and local governments, which don't have the prerogative of printing money.

Real, painful cuts will be necessary, or taxes will have to be raised sharply in order to close the budget gap and fight off the inflationary monster that threatens us all. What's worse: eliminating some cherished federal programs or seeing inflation destroy savings? What's worse: paying higher taxes or seeing inflation ruin economic security? In each case, it's the latter.