Monday, August 29, 2011

Rocky Mount, Wilson weather storm

I spent almost all of Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Rocky Mount as Hurricane Irene blew through eastern North Carolina. Unlike some members of the response team, I was able to spend the night in my own bed each night, although the days were long. Observing damage and emergency response in both Rocky Mount and Wilson gave me an opportunity to compare the two.

Rocky Mount seems to have suffered more damage than Wilson did from the hurricane's high winds. Both cities had trees down in the road and a widespread power losses. Rocky Mount reported more than 15,000 customers without power at one point Saturday. Late Sunday, large areas of that city were without power, and many intersections had no working traffic lights, which made travel a little more scary. At my home in Wilson, we lost power for less than two hours on Saturday, and our Greenlight service also stayed on. The highest power outage total I saw in Wilson was less than 4,000, and all of the stoplights I encountered on my commute were working (admittedly, this is a small sample).

Wilson utility crews did a phenomenal job following the April 16 tornado getting electricity restored in only four days to areas that were obliterated by that storm, and it looks like they've done a good job again. Somewhere in my neighborhood, I've heard a generator humming, but it appears that only a few people have had to resort to gasoline for electric power.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Apple computers, Steve Jobs and me

I've been using Apple products since the mid-1980s, only a few years after the first, boxy little Macintosh came out. I've personally owned five Macs (three bought second-hand) over the years. In fact, I had some experience with an Apple IIe computer that I used in taking a BASIC programming course in about 1981. I've always enjoyed the intuitive, simple interface of the Macs I've used. Jumping from a Microsoft DOS-based computer at my office to the Mac's graphical user interface with point-and-click selections and simple commands in the early 1990s was like going from doing algebra in Roman numerals to using a calculator.

When the newspaper I was editing faced a decision on a new production system in the late 1990s, it was at Apple's low ebb. Some forecasters were saying that Apple would soon be bankrupt or would get out of the computer business altogether. It's recent innovations (remember the Apple Newton?) had flopped, and its personal computers had performance and reliability problems. I remember calling a trusted consultant who advised sticking with Macs; he thought Apple would dig its way out of that hole.

Did it ever! Only a few years later, Apple introduced the iMac, which took the computer world by storm. Following quickly were the iPod and iTunes. By the time he iPhone and iPad came along, Apple's ascendancy to the top of the innovations market was complete.

I have no doubt that the credit for this remarkable turnaround belongs to Steve Jobs, the Apple founder who left the company only to return years later to resurrect his baby. Jobs has demanded creative thinking, simplicity of design and reliability. I am writing this blog on a Mac that is about 10 years old but still reliable (although slow by today's standards). At work, I now use a Windows computer, which I have become accustomed to and don't think much about its differences. But occasionally some task will emphasize to me how comparatively simpler and more intuitive Apple's interface is.

Steve Jobs announced Wednesday that he was stepping down as Apple CEO. He has had serious health problems, including pancreatic cancer, for years. The news can't be good for Apple; one doesn't replace such an innovator so easily. I hope the culture that Jobs created at Apple will live on and that Apple will continue to create dazzling new products that make me say, "Wow!" and "I want one!" I just wish I could afford more of those toys. I might start by replacing my old Mac.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tea Party attacks the bird problem

Here's where we're headed:

Tea Party officials today urged Americans to stop feeding birds at their homes. Two hundred Tea Party members held a protest at a local hardware store, urging that sales of bird feeders and bird seed be banned.

"Americans are running the risk of creating a generation of soft, dependent, lazy welfare birds," spokesman I.M. Looney warned. "The strong, self-sustaining, independent, entrepreneurial birds on which this great nation was founded are being enticed into dependency by the handouts of a few well-intentioned bleeding hearts who don't realize what they're doing to the bird nation. Our research shows that birds have given up foraging and are becoming increasingly reliant on handouts from homeowners. They're changing their diet from worms and grubs and grass seeds to organic sunflower seeds piled in overly generous amounts in bird feeders at fully a third of American homes. We're even seeing evidence of inter-generational dependence as parent birds pass on to their chicks the habit of relying on handouts from humans."

Looney noted that there was even evidence of environmental degradation as worms and grubs become overpopulated and dropped sunflower seeds litter the landscape. "Not that we give a damn about the environment, though," he said.

The bird-feeding problem even touches the economy, he said, because people are spending exorbitant amounts on gourmet bird seed that has no benefit to the economy. When taxpayers buy seed to feed birds, it's like throwing money down the drain because birds do not participate in economy. "All that money just goes in the beak and out the tail, and all you get is bird poop on your car," Looney said. "Anyone can see that's an economic detriment." If it weren't against the Tea Party's core principle, he said, the party might call for a bird seed tariff to discourage wasteful bird feeding.

The Tea Party called for a program aimed at weaning birds off of seeds left in bird feeders and reteaching them the foraging techniques that used to come natural to birds. "Do we want an America where all the birds are strong and independent, able to take care of themselves, or do we want an America where birds are sitting around on their fat tails chirping for another handout from the welfare state?" Looney concluded.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

President always gets blame for economy

The caller to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" last Thursday was dripping with sarcasm about the man in the White House he referred to as "Barry" or "this administration." The caller said he had decided to cancel a planned expansion of his business because of the economic ineptness of "this administration," which, he said, had never had to meet a payroll or look at a monthly P&L statement. "This administration" had never had a real job, never managed anything, he said.

The president, no matter who he is, gets the blame for a lousy economy or plaudits for a good economy, despite the fact that the president has little control over the economy. Congress controls spending. The Federal Reserve controls the money supply. The president, most often, is left to a role as a cheerleader when the economy needs a boost.

The critical caller got me to thinking, though, about presidents with business experience vs. those without it. In the past 50 years, only a handful of presidents have had meaningful business management experience. Jimmy Carter ran a family peanut warehouse business. George H.W. Bush was in the oil business in Texas. George W. Bush helped manage a baseball team for a while. All three of these men saw the economy turn sour on them and got the blame.

Presidents who had little or no business experience fared better in the economic sweepstakes. Bill Clinton's only occupation has been politics, except for a brief stint practicing law after losing an election; Ronald Reagan was in the acting business, but as an employee, not a decision-making manager; Richard Nixon practiced a little law but mostly practiced politics; ditto for Gerald Ford. Lyndon Johnson claimed to be a gentleman farmer and executive, but his only real interest was politics. All five of these presidents enjoyed better economic results than "this administration" is experiencing today, but their better fortunes could not have been the result of their business management experience.

Economic upswings and downturns are almost never the result of presidential action. They are usually the result of factors beyond a president's control, such as the bursting of the housing bubble and the international debt crisis that plague us today. A president can have some influence over the economy, as Franklin Roosevelt did in his first term by pushing stimulus spending and reassuring the public, or as John F. Kennedy did by proposing a dramatic cut in the maximum tax rates. Even then, however, Congress must act to approve a president's proposals.

Whenever the economy founders, from whatever causes, "this administration" will always get most of the blame.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Historic home will soon be gone

I may be the only one who thinks so, but I think it's a shame that efforts to save the home of former Wilson Mayor and County Commissioner John Wilson have fallen flat. Preservation of Wilson is handing the property back to United Way, which received the property after Wilson's death. The United Way will almost certainly raze the house to create more parking.

The house on a tiny lot behind the United Way building, 509 W. Nash St., intrudes into the United Way parking lot and is, quite frankly, an eyesore. It was an eyesore the last several years that Wilson lived there because he never made repairs or renovations to the old cottage and allowed the house to nearly fall in around him. He lived there nearly his entire life.

Despite what you might think of Wilson — and most people considered him a slightly loony eccentric — he held political office from the 1950s, as mayor, into the 1980s, as county commissioner. His tenure was not progressive or transformative like the terms of long-time Rocky Mount Mayor Fred Turnage, who died recently. Wilson was a true believer in all manner of conspiracy theories, from European bankers controlling U.S. presidents, to United Nations' secret "black helicopters," to abundances of oil secretly hidden away to drive up prices and so on. You never knew when he might interrupt a board meeting with an off-the-wall observation about international intrigue.

As editor of the local paper during Wilson's final decades, I was often bemused by his wild theories and sometimes challenged him to document accusations he made in letters to the editor. He read articles from fringe publications that claimed all sorts of Nazi/Communist/international banker conspiracies to rule the world. When I told him I doubted the veracity of some of these charges and asked why they never appear in any mainstream publication, Wilson always had a ready answer: "They're afraid to publish the truth." Only the periodicals to which he subscribed had the courage to tell the truth about the Bildeberg gang, the Trilateral Commission, the Swiss bankers, the oil fat cats and so on, he claimed. Still, he was an unceasingly polite and courteous man.

He never seemed to have a job. Once, when asked about his occupation in an election campaign interview, he responded, "Now that's a good question." I assumed he received enough inheritance to live on, but not enough to keep his house repaired. He hoarded those fringe publications, along with other reading material, in stacks all over his house, which he heated with a wood stove fueled by rolled-up newspapers. He drove old cars or rode a bicycle and never passed up a free meal. He was a character we're not likely to see the likes of ever again.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Parents have a responsibility, too

A letter to the editor in this morning's N&O addresses a seldom-discussed public policy issue: the responsibility of parents to raise their own children. The letter pertains directly to Judge Howard Manning's ruling that the state is obligated to provide preschool for North Carolina's children. Manning's reasoning is that the state constitution requires the state to provide a "sound basic education" for all children, and that, he says, includes preschool that will prepare them for kindergarten.

There's no question that many children arrive at kindergarten woefully unprepared. Ask any elementary school teacher. Over the years, I've repeatedly heard of preschoolers' homes that contain not a single book of any kind. (Of course, there is a television that is on 20-plus hours a day in many cases and feeds a $100 a month cable bill.) Some children arrive at kindergarten having never been read to, having never turned the pages of a book, never learned words by looking at pictures, never pointed at letters and pronounced them, never recognized one-digit numbers or counted. It's tragic and shameful, but is it the state's fault?

The letter writer has a good argument that it's not the state's fault that parents are irresponsible or incompetent. Too many children are born into single-parent homes, and too many mothers are barely out of childhood themselves. Too many do not have good role models as parents, and too many never learned the joys of reading and learning. At least one charitable organization I'm aware of (St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Wilson is a participant) buys books for children who do not have any in the home, but that's not a total solution to the problem.

It's not the children's fault that their parents are too irresponsible or unprepared to nourish them intellectually and encourage their innate curiosity. Preschool programs can help these children and perhaps turn them away from a pathway toward failure. But it's not the state that set them on a path toward failure in the first place. The problem did not begin in kindergarten or in preschool. It began in the home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book spreads blame for economic collapse

Financial markets are reeling, and it's not just from Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. bonds. The wheels are coming off the economic bus all around the globe — national debt crises in Europe, stagnating markets in developing countries, famine in Africa, and the lingering aftermath of the housing crisis in the United States.

The best explanation of how and why our economic foundations began crumbling is found in "Reckless Endangerment" by Gretchen Morgenson and Justin Rosner. The subtitle is "How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon." The authors trace the beginnings of the 2008 economic meltdown to the 1980s and '90s, then walk the reader through the incompetence and corruption that steadily increased the danger factors until the whole flimsy structure collapsed.

Morgenson and Rosner find plenty of blame to spread around. Greed and ambition play major roles as Fannie Mae, the guarantor and financier of most mortgages, became increasingly politicized and self-serving, cooking the books to maximize executives' bonuses and making political contributions to powerful members of Congress who obediently did Fannie Mae's bidding and ignored the fiscal hazards. Almost all members of Congress ignored the warning signs of endangerment and corruption and blindly supported Fannie Mae and its cousin Freddie Mac as they made increasingly risky investments and put the national mortgage structure in danger.

Every political sector can find a villain in this book. For conservatives, it is the hell-bent determination to increase home-ownership rates during the Clinton administration. Riskier mortgage-writing rules began with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which required banks to pro-actively seek out mortgages in poorer neighborhoods and to lend to poorer borrowers. Those mortgages carried greater risk, but Congress and federal regulators ignored these risks for the "greater good" of turning lower-income renters into homeowners. But these riskier borrowers in the emerging "sub-prime" market ended up as the worst-hurt when the financial markets collapsed and mortgages went underwater. No-interest loans, no-documentation mortgages and "liar loans" became parts of the banking landscape.

Liberals can point to the slack regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as federal agencies ignored the higher risks these mortgage giants were taking. They can also point to the changes in bank regulation, eliminating Depression-era reforms that limited banks' services and the riskiness of their investments. In the post-Reagan anti-regulation climate, banks got a blank check to delve into all kinds of riskier investments. Among those investments were bundled mortgages put together by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, commercial banks and others that could be sold to investors like municipal bonds. But the sub-prime mortgages hidden in these derivatives wound up dragging down the whole package and leading to global economic collapse. Ratings agencies, such as Standard & Poor's, also share the blame because they ignored the riskiness of these bundled mortgages, awarding them AAA status when they were really junk bonds. Powerful politicians who sold their principles to bankers and others in exchange for political contributions also are responsible for the financial morass.

"Reckless Endangerment" is a sobering look at how ineffective and even corrupt our political and regulatory systems are. Even now, Congress concentrates on political gotcha battles over the debt ceiling or gay rights instead of addressing the systemic problems that are destroying our democratic process. If every American could be required to read "Reckless Endangerment," Washington might be forced to reform.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wow! We avoided default!

OK, so we beat the debt ceiling deadline by a few hours and will cut spending by more than $900 billion over the next decade. Problem solved? Not at all.

The debt ceiling agreement, which President Obama signed Tuesday, calls for a 12-member commission to cut another $1.2 trillion from the next decade's deficits. But here's the problem. Our annual deficit right now is more than $1 trillion. Cutting a trillion over 10 years amounts to cutting one tenth of the deficit each year. That's the equivalent of paying the minimum payment on a credit card that you've just used to buy a $10,000 vacation. You'll never pay it off!

The commission, to be composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, will have to tackle some spending that no one wants to touch — Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions (including military), defense spending, ethanol subsidies, farm subsidies, federal salaries and other big, popular programs — and it will have to address revenues. There is no way the United States is going to dig its way out of the hole it's in with spending cuts alone. We could eliminate the Defense Department or decimate Social Security and still not have a balanced budget. Increasing revenues will be a necessity, and the Tea Party conservatives have to realize that, regardless of how many "no new taxes" pledges they might have signed.

Revenues can be raised with minimal impact on the middle class. Tax reforms, eliminating some wasteful business deductions and expanding the tax base can generate some additional revenue. Increasing the tax rate for the highest earners can also be done without touching 95 percent of all earners. The home mortgage deduction can be modified so that it doesn't apply to vacation homes or to $1 million mansions.

Perhaps the biggest challenges will be Social Security and Medicare. These popular programs have strong lobbying support, but you cannot effectively reduce the deficit without addressing the programs that consume more than half the budget. These issues should have been addressed 20 years ago; each passing year makes resolution more difficult. Whether the solution is higher payroll taxes, higher full-retirement age, adjustments to cost-of-living increases or some combination, the issue will have to be faced.

Washington's goal should be to eliminate the budget deficit. That won't be done by a couple of trillion dollars in cuts over a decade, and it won't be done without increasing revenues. Rep. Paul Ryan's austere budget proposal does not eliminate the deficit, nor do any of the other plans currently being discussed. A balanced budget amendment will not achieve that goal without monstrous cuts in spending or large tax increases. But unless the goal of eliminating the deficit is addressed, the current $14.3 trillion federal debt will keep on growing.