Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The other "third rail of politics"

The late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once called Social Security the "third rail of politics" — meaning anyone who touched the program risked instant death, at least politically. If O'Neill were still around, he might say the same thing about Medicare.

It was Medicare, apparently, that turned the tables in Tuesday's election in upstate New York, where Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election in a traditionally Republican district. Hochul's campaign emphasized her opposition to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program — instead of the government paying directly to providers for the health care of Medicare recipients, Ryan would reduce costs by giving vouchers for recipients to purchase their own health care in the private sector.

What is interesting is that both parties have recognized that the current Medicare program is unsustainable. Some type of reform is necessary. President Obama took a lot of heat because his health care program required cuts in Medicare reimbursements to save money. Republicans screamed. President Bush had proposed cuts in Medicare reimbursements, too. Democrats had screamed. Tuesday's election indicates that we may have reached a point at which no one can afford to reshape Medicare, and both parties see Medicare changes as an invitation to attack the other party. This will lead to an impasse in which Medicare costs outgrow taxpayers' ability to pay for the program.

Then what?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Smart guy, but his foot is in his mouth

I've always thought that Newt Gingrich was a smart guy. He taught college-level history, and his revisionist history of the crucial battle of the Civil War, "Gettysburg," is surprisingly well-done. His 1994 "Contract with America" was a brilliant piece of political showmanship that helped the Republicans win the House for the first time in decades. He has also made a point of thinking creatively about America's political problems. He has been useful as a devil's advocate, often looking at problems from a different viewpoint and offering creative new approaches.

None of this suggests that he should be president of the United States. In addition to his sharp, creative mind, Gingrich has had a wide streak of self-righteousness, and, unfortunately, his self-righteous streak might be more character-shaping than his intellect. He has also made a habit of saying what he's thinking before fully thinking it through and, thereby, saying some outlandish things. Take, for example, his rejoinder after catching some flak after criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan: “Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood.”

And now, sanctimonious and short-tempered as ever, Gingrich is claiming the $250,000 to $500,000 he and his third wife (count 'em) owed Tiffany's is just a normal, everyday payment for a "frugal" couple who live within their means and always pay on time. The Washington Post digs into the debt a bit and finds more than gold dust.

Gingrich is a smart guy, but he shouldn't be president. And with his foot in his mouth like that, it will be hard for him to keep in the running.

Friday, May 20, 2011

After 1967 war, Israel had another option

If only history would offer a do-over, one of the world's most troublesome dilemmas might have been long-ago resolved. Unfortunately, history offers no mulligans.

President Obama's Thursday speech, aiming to respond to Arab demands for more democratic governments and to reset the Arab-Israeli conflict brought to mind a missed opportunity, perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the 44th anniversary of which we will celebrate next month, Israel looked invincible. Facing invasion from all sides by a coalition of Arab armies, Israeli Defense Forces struck first, pushing Syria off the Golan Heights overlooking northern Israel, shoving Jordanian soldiers back to the Jordan River, and halting their rout of Egyptian forces only at the Suez Canal. It was perhaps the most convincing military victory of the century. There was unrealistic talk that the Israeli Army was so good it might defeat the United States or the Soviet Union. The Arab nations that had planned to annihilate Israel from the map of the world were humiliated, and Israel celebrated what looked like a final victory over their adversaries.

Israel, as conquering armies usually do, held onto its newly captured lands. Israel reunited a divided Jerusalem and declared it, not Tel-Aviv, its new capital. Israel claimed former Jordanian territory all the way to the west bank of the Jordan River and openly discussed annexing the area as its rightful claim. Israel held power in the Gaza Strip, a narrow tract of land populated by entrenched refugees from an Arab-Israeli war two decades earlier. And Israel controlled the vast Sinai peninsula all the way to the western bank of the strategically and economically important Suez Canal. Israel, a tiny country, had multiplied its territory several-fold in just six days. Who could blame the Israelis for gloating a little?

But Israel's holding onto the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the Sinai gave rise to the next episode in the Arab-Israeli conflict — the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an era of Arab terrorism and the demands for a separate Palestinian nation, the so-called two-state solution. Although Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt (returning the Sinai) and Jordan, its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has engendered the terrorism-backed demands for a separate Palestinian state.

What if Israel had pursued a different course? What if Israel, instead of occupying the territories it had won fair-and-square, had chosen instead to pull back its armies and give back the lands it had conquered? Had Israel returned the West Bank (or at least substantial portions of it, keeping only East Jerusalem) to Jordan and turned over Gaza (along with Sinai) to Egypt, the Palestinian problem of the last 44 years would have been Jordan's and Egypt's, not Israel's. The West Bank had been captured from Jordan. Why not give it back, in return for a peace treaty? Likewise, Gaza could be given to Egypt to govern, along with all of Sinai. Palestinians such as Yasser Arafat could clamor for Palestinian independence, but their fight would be with the Arab rulers of Jordan and Egypt, not with Israel.

In hindsight, Israel would have been better off giving back its captured territory than keeping it with all of the turmoil and terror it brought. But hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

'Shiloh Rules' proves the past is still here

My review of "Shiloh Rules," which opened last Friday night at the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theater at Barton College as part of the Theater of the American South:

“The past is not dead,” William Faulkner famously said. “In fact, it’s not even past.” Doris Baizley’s “Shiloh Rules,” the second installment of the 2011 Theater of the American South, proves Faulkner’s point: The past is always with us.

How much more with us could the past be than among a group of Civil War re-enactors on the Shiloh Battlefield National Park? “Shiloh Rules,” which opened Friday night, brings together six women — two Union re-enactors, two Confederate re-enactors, a Park Service ranger and a merchant of Civil War history — on one stormy night before the re-enactment of the decisive 1862 battle. All six women wrestle with history and identity and try to make sense of their callings.

Lighting director Liz Droessler, scenic designer Chris Bernier and sound designer Chris Droessler take full advantage of the “black box” style of the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theater at Barton College. The audience flanks the stage on three sides, and entrances and exits come from all directions. Artillery fire, thunder and lightning are real enough to make audience members jump. Chirping crickets set the opening scene.

Jane Holding as enigmatic Southern refugee Cecelia Pettison stands out among uniformly strong performances by the entire cast. Pettison is more of an anachronism than a re-enactor, a woman firmly planted in the 19th century with an 1860s view of the world. Holding’s Southern accent is pitch-perfect, a drawl that never drags as she scathingly berates the Yankees who “come down here to kill our loved ones.” Her “Well, I declare!” could have been uttered by many audience members’ grandmothers. The characters and cast are left to wonder whether Cecelia is some sort of ghost or spirit. “Modern does not exist for her,” says the Widow Beckwith, a woman who has found a way to make a living off of “living history.”

Pettison’s counterpart is Clara May Abbott of the Massachusetts Soldier Aid Society, convincingly played by Mary Rowland, who is coaching Meg Barton, played by Hilary Edwards, on the fine art of re-enacting — and planting one’s brain in 1862. Edwards’ offstage scream is enough to silence a rebel yell. Likewise, Pettison is teaching Lucygale Scruggs, played by Leanne Horton Heintz, to ignore everything she knows that happened after 1862.

Into this schoolroom of historical fantasy comes the Widow Beckwith, played by Bonnie K. Allison Gould, and Park Ranger Wilson, played by Barbette Hunter. Officer Wilson tries to enforce the 21st century rules while 1862 is happening all around her. Widow Beckwith finds ways to bend the rules to her commercial benefit. Things get out of hand just as Officer Wilson is trying to enforce the rules against overnight camping on the battlefield. The characters confront a past that is never really past with all its racial overtones, cultural differences and violence, sparking some angry words and some scary moments as they play by Shiloh Rules.

These serious aspects are leavened with large doses of humor about the anachronisms of re-enacting events that happened 150 years ago. The re-enactment gets out of hand, just as the real fighting did 150 years ago. The result is powerful and enjoyable theater that combines serious social issues about the ways we perceive history with entertaining humor lines. “Shiloh Rules” fits well into the theater festival’s focus on the Civil War as the conflict’s sesquicentennial begins.

—Hal Tarleton

Monday, May 16, 2011

Social Security is part of the deficit now

This year's federal budget deficit is projected at around $1.4 trillion, and that number is getting the attention of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Even the most liberal of economists agree that deficits of that magnitude are unsustainable. The United States' credit standing might be in jeopardy if serious efforts to reduce the deficit are not undertaken quickly.

All that is old news, but one aspect of the deficit is not getting much attention. Part of the deficit consists of shortfalls in Social Security funding and the nation's obligation to repay money borrowed from the Social Security Trust Funds. In 2010, Social Security benefits exceeded Social Security taxes by about $49 billion. That's a tiny percentage of $1.4 trillion, but it's a factor in the overall deficit that had been projected for decades. Had Congress acted 10 or 20 years ago, this shortfall could have been avoided relatively painlessly.

Social Security has always worked by transferring wealth from workers to retirees. Since 1983, Social Security had built up a huge surplus to meet projected obligations when the baby boom generation began retiring. That day of reckoning is upon us, and Social Security revenues are no longer sufficient to pay promised benefits. Moreover, the billions of dollars that had been borrowed from Social Security have to be repaid, and those notes are coming due. For years, Social Security revenues have obscured the magnitude of the federal budget deficit as those excess revenues were spent for government operations. Those borrowed funds would have to be repaid through higher taxes, but no plan was in place to produce those revenues.

Now, America has a crippling budget deficit and no plan to balance the budget. Even Rep. Paul Ryan's austere budget proposal would only reduce the deficit over the next deficit; it would not produce a budget surplus, like the one we had in 2001. Contrary to what some politicians are claiming, Social Security is part of the deficit problem because its obligations exceed its revenues and the money borrowed from Social Security has to be repaid from other taxes.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Troubador finds accompaniment in Wilson

(This review was published in the Saturday edition of The Wilson Times.)

The last time Bill Schustik was in Wilson, he stood alone on the Fike High School Auditorium stage and performed his American Troubadour show for subscribers to the now-defunct Wilson Concert series. That was about 25 years ago. He’s back, and this time his solo act has a choir and some musicians to back him up.

Schustik kicked off the 2011 edition of Theater of the American South Thursday night with a look back 150 years with his “The Civil War in Song and Legend” show. Although Schustik has been performing as a one-man show through much of his career, he chose to involve some local talent in his Theater of the American South performance. He proved that he “plays well with others,” especially the St. John AME Zion Unity Choir whose soloists Toshika Smith and Jean Jones provided a nice contrast to Schustik’s rich baritone. Jones’ soprano filled the Boykin Center on “Let My People Go” and “Motherless Child.” The 17-member choir under the direction of local musical legend Bill Myers sang harmony as well as lead vocals, giving Schustik’s troubadour act a new dimension. Young singers/musicians/dancers dubbed The Many Thousand Gone Youth Chorus also added to the show, especially with their toe-tapping drumbeats.

Myers, playing flute and melodica, and other local musicians supplemented Schustik’s talent on a variety of instruments, including guitar, banjo, harmonica, dulcimer, drum and jaw harp. Abby Dorfmann on the fiddle stood out among these skilled supporting musicians, and also sang a haunting ballad.

Last night’s performance was originally pitched as a one-man show, and it’s obvious that Schustik can hold the stage by himself. As he moved confidently from one instrument to another and from one musical style to others, this self-described troubadour conjured songs of yore and the history of a nation. As talented as a storyteller as he is as a musician, Schustik taught Civil War history by telling personal stories of the men and women who lived through it or died in it. And the Civil War facts he subtly teaches are, as Mark Twain might say, “mostly true.”

At times Thursday night, the mood was as much like the 1960s as it was the 1860s. Schustik’s rendition of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” brought back memories of the late folk singer Josh White on the “Hootenanny” television show 50 years ago. And his “Cumberland Gap” could have been sung by the New Christy Minstrels or by the Limelighters. Schustik’s style is clearly lost in the sixties of both the 19th and the 20th centuries.

He guided his embarrassingly small opening-night audience through the Civil War playlist of raucous, boastful, longing and mournful songs, telling the story of songs each side in the war adopted as its own. He told of Julia Ward Howe writing new words to a military marching song to create “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; of the contradiction of Shiloh, a biblical name meaning “place of peace” where 20,000 perished; and of the poignancy of the empty chair at the table and soldiers’ wish to “perish nobly.”

At the end of the two-hour show, the audience stood reverently as Schustik sang the little-known latter verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience continued standing and clapped their hands to the beat as Schustik and the entire company sang “This Land is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie song written long after the Civil War, but a poignantly perfect fit to close this show.

—Hal Tarleton

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Some parents miss the higher calling

In this post on her blog, my wife reminisces about her baptism and about the little baptism service book that she has treasured for years. The stilted language derived from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer seems quaint and dated now, but the verities are undeniable: Parents' greatest responsibility is to nurture their children, not only physically but spiritually. "Given to God" is the title of this baptismal service, affirming that parents have a duty to present their child to God in humble thanks for the miraculous gift God has presented to them.

Many of the problems parents encounter today could be avoided if they fully appreciated their responsibility to guide their children spiritually as well as physically, academically, culturally and emotionally. There is no more solemn responsibility, no greater task, no greater honor than the privilege of raising a child miraculously formed by God's plan. Too many parents see their parental responsibility as getting out of the way so that a child can "find himself" or "express himself" in his own unique way. What the church of the era when "Given to God" was written knew was that children are not born perfect and in danger of being corrupted by the world. They are, instead, born as blank slates, or (more contemporarily) as unprogrammed computers. Children need discipline and social skills that usually do not come naturally. They also need spiritual guidance, which won't come to them if their parents follow the plan of one young mother I overheard. She was going to avoid church until her son was 12 or 15 and then let him decide whether he was interested in attending church. I'm betting he's never darkened a church doorway.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yard trees are blowin' in the wind

I recently passed a house in the neighborhood with a front yard that looked like a lumber yard. A half dozen or more huge pines had been cut, leaving tall, straight tree trunks lying askew all over the lawn. I had no way of knowing whether this was an effect of the April 16 tornadoes that uprooted and splintered trees all around Wilson or simply a landscaping decision. I do know that each time there's a powerful storm that topples trees, more healthy trees that survived the winds are sacrificed by homeowners as a preventative measure. We saw it happen in 1996 and 1999 after hurricanes Fran and Floyd, and I have no doubt that many homeowners, having seen trees that crashed through roofs last month, are contemplating getting rid of the trees in their yards.

Call me crazy, but I don't see the logic in destroying perfectly healthy trees to avoid what might happen sometime in some future storm. Although Hurricane Fran toppled hundreds of trees in Wilson, thousands of other trees withstood the same winds. The reward for such persistent strength should not be a chainsaw. The tall pines I saw lying horizontal recently were probably 50 years old or older. They cannot be replaced for at least 20 years. A snap decision to cut down a tree cannot be reversed for a generation, and some trees thrive for hundreds of years if allowed to grow unimpeded.

As to the idea that trees present an imminent danger to houses and other structures, I have a theory: Trees withstand wind better if they are grouped together. An isolated oak or pine is more likely to fall or splinter in a strong wind than a tree that has other trees nearby to buffer the winds. Homeowners who take out all but one or two trees might have been better off to leave the trees to stand together against the wind.

Dead or diseased trees have to be removed. I've had to remove two tall pines from my lot in the past few years because they had died. I hated to do it. I hate to take out trees (and not just because it's expensive) because I know I cannot replace them, and I will not see their beauty or enjoy their shade again in my lifetime. Homeowners who have a real phobia about winds should consider planting smaller trees, such as dogwoods and crape myrtles, that withstand winds well and don't do much damage even if they do fall.

Trees are treasures to be cultivated and enjoyed. They gobble carbon dioxide and replenish the oxygen in the air. Their leaves provide cooling shade in summer and compost through the winter. Their branches provide natural climbing gyms for young boys. Their towering heights inspire and amaze us. Their fall colors leave us in awe. They are focal points for landscaping.

Sometimes trees fall, causing damage or injury, but those incidents are rare. We should not cut down healthy trees for fear of wind just as we should not blow up the family car for fear of a traffic accident.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

But what about the principle?

The city of Wilson is touting its victory in the General Assembly — a bill restricting municipalities' right to build fiber-optic networks exempts Wilson and other cities that already have such a network in place. Having escaped the noose tied by the big cable companies and compliant legislators, Wilson is abandoning the principle that all municipalities should be allowed to serve the best interests of their residents.

Wilson and other opponents of the cable law had marshaled an impressive array of supporters for the concept that provision of high-speed Internet is a 21st-century utility, as essential today as electricity was a century ago, when scores of cities got into the electricity business because the big utilities were not interested in serving small towns and rural areas. Wilson boldly gambled on the broadband future in 2007, when it established its Greenlight service, offering an Internet connection with speeds several times faster than any available through commercial cable services. Corporations such as BB&T, which processes millions of check and credit card transactions through Greenlight's high speed data service, supported the city's objections to the restrictions. Also lining up with Wilson, the N.C. League of Municipalities and other opponents of the cable company monopoly protection bill were high-tech entities such as Google. These companies know that the best advances in technology come through an unfettered market and that a competitive market is best for the customer. If our legislators had bothered to ask any Greenlight customer or customer of any other municipal broadband service in North Carolina, they would find enthusiasm for the service (full disclosure: I am a satisfied Greenlight customer).

Wilson might believe it has won its war against the politically powerful cable companies, even if it did have to abandon principle and allow the majority of the state's residents to miss out on this opportunity. But the cable companies have been defeated before — on the principle of allowing competition and "Internet freedom" — only to come back the next year with another restrictive bill. This time, Wilson's Greenlight service is protected, but next year, compliant legislators might do the cable companies' bidding again by introducing legislation to nibble away at Greenlight's franchise and then nibble again and again.

With this bill to restrict Internet access, the new Republican majority in the General Assembly has demonstrated its commitment to big business over the interests of individual consumers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cold War strategies still affect policy

The "Arab Spring" continues, and Osama bin Laden is dead, but little attention is being paid to the ways the Cold War created and cultivated the authoritarian regimes that dominate the Middle East. During the Cold War, every developing nation was a battleground between communism and capitalist freedom. Africa, South America, Europe and Asia contained philosophical battlegrounds, where advocates of Marxism and capitalism competed for the hearts of the population and, especially, for the allegiance of the leaders. In many nations, the United States reluctantly supported cruel dictators because they were anti-communist. The battles for allegiances were especially strong in the Middle East, where strategic locations and vast reserves of oil made these nations important to both sides in the global struggle.

America installed and supported the Shah of Iran and supported the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. In Egypt, the Soviet Union wooed and won the support of Abdul Nasser, but the United States was able to persuade his successor, Anwar Sadat, to change sides. U.S. support continued for Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who was finally forced from office after decades of brutal repression. How different the history of the Middle East might have been had the United States not been focused on fighting communist expansion at all costs? With global communism consigned to "the dustbin of history" (in Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase), the United States is willing to support protests and insurgencies in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya without fear of turning these countries into mortal enemies.

The United States this week took out its primary mortal enemy of the post-Cold War era, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Even though bin Laden has no allegiance to Marxism, his rise began in the U.S. support for Afghan fighters opposing the Soviet Union — support born of Cold War containment strategy.

The Cold War, which the United States won with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, ruled U.S. foreign policy for almost half a century and continues to affect U.S. policy today, 20 years after global communism collapsed. The Arab dictators, whom restless Arab populations have begun to rebel against, and the Islamist terrorism that opposes Western secularism, can be traced back to Cold War decisions. In containing communism successfully, we have developed entirely new problems.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In bin Laden killing, give credit to Obama

I have watched, with some chagrin and amazement, the lack of respect for President Obama displayed by the birthers, tea partiers, racists and the rest. Admittedly, disrespect for elected officials, including presidents, is not unique to Obama (George W. Bush was the target of frequent vitriol), but it seems more accepted and less related to policies with Obama.

In the aftermath of the assassination (you can't call it any less) of Osama bin Laden, the Obama detractors were quick to give credit to Bush, the guy who vowed to bring bin Laden to justice but never got around to it. On Facebook, Bush fans/Obama detractors posted Bush's statement about bin Laden's death, ignoring the fact that bin Laden was located and killed two years after Bush left office, and the order to execute the mission came from Obama. After bin Laden's death, Obama did one more thing: He telephoned Bush and former President Clinton as a courtesy to tell them the news first. Both former presidents had made their unsuccessful attempts to capture, kill or cripple bin Laden.

Bin Laden's death sparked celebration among many Americans and not a few foreigners, including some Arabs. One can argue that killing is wrong, even in an act of legitimate self-defense or justifiable vengeance, but the vast majority of Americans are glad bin Laden is dead. What is difficult to understand is why some Americans won't give the president who issued the orders credit for the success of this mission.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead at last

The death of Osama bin Laden is one of those rare moments of nearly unmitigated rejoicing. A celebration of death goes against our nature, but in this case, as with the death of Adolf Hitler, a death brings closure and, in a word used by both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, "justice."

Bin Laden's assassination — that is the honest description of his demise — places a cap on America's decade-old rage over the 9/11 attacks, which Bin Laden instigated and planned. Bush had promised to avenge those attacks by tracking down Bin Laden and his associates, but he took a detour through the quagmire of Iraq and lost sight of his promise to bring bin Laden to justice. Obama will get the credit for ordering the operation that killed bin Laden in a firefight inside his Pakistan compound, but the intelligence personnel who had tracked the wily bin Laden for nearly 10 years and carefully planned the surreptitious attack deserve most of the credit for this success.

Bin Laden's death gives a glimmer of revenge and justice to the thousands who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks and other al-Qaeda crimes, but it does not eliminate al-Qaeda. Without the charismatic bin Laden, al-Qaeda might lose some followers and financial support, but it will remain a thorn in the flesh of Western civilizations and a threat even to Islamic nations. The greatest benefit of this assassination might be the elimination of bin Laden's periodic videotapes promising doom for all who oppose him and thumbing his nose at the concerted efforts to find and kill him. At least we won't have to see those any more.

While clearly pleased with this achievement, President Obama still has his hands full in Afghanistan and Iraq, where al-Qaeda-inspired or -allied insurgencies continue their war against U.S.-allied governments. Militant Islamist perceptions will not die with Bin Laden and will continue to endanger the world economy until the financial and political support for this philosophy is buried along with its most prominent proponent.