Friday, July 29, 2011

Jihadists of the right in Congress

Osama bin Laden always said he wanted to destroy America's economy (presumably to set it back to the seventh century, when Islam began). While he never achieved that goal in his lifetime, he'd probably take some pride in the work of the Tea Party conservatives in Congress. These yahoos are so determined to make their point about government spending that they're willing to risk economic catastrophe for the federal government, state and local government, domestic and foreign investors, car makers, home buyers and ordinary consumers. Enough of them are willing to allow a historic government default on its debt that they are rejecting not only the Democrats' proposals to raise the national debt ceiling but even their own party leadership's plans.

Call them "enablers" of al-Qaida or "fellow travelers" or whatever the operative phrase is in this post-Cold War world. They are making themselves the jihadists of the right wing. They can destroy the American economy without blowing up any skyscrapers or hijacking any airplanes, but their impact on the economy could be worse than anything that happened 10 years ago on 9/11. They even share some traits with the Islamic terrorists who wish to destroy us economically or any way they can — zealotry for their cause, unwillingness to compromise, contempt for their opponents and blind allegiance to their vision for the world.

The American military finally got bin Laden, who had threatened to destroy America. Now this country faces destruction from another group vowing to "save" America by pushing it off an economic cliff.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

'Why now?' is the question at Chapel Hill

The question I have about UNC's firing of head football coach Butch Davis is not "Why?" but "Why now?" Chancellor Holden Thorp said there was nothing new in the year-long NCAA investigation of the football program, just cumulative damage to UNC's reputation as a quality educational institution that plays by the rules. So he chose to fire Davis a week before football practice begins.

Why now? Although Davis asserted his innocence in a written statement issued after his surprise dismissal, UNC had grounds to fire the coach a year ago. That was when it was revealed that assistant coach John Blake, whom Davis had hired and supervised, was acting as an agent in an unseemly scheme to connect UNC players with a sports agent friend of Blake. The bad situation unraveled from there. The NCAA investigation happened upon academic problems with a tutor hired by the university, and about a dozen players were withheld from one or more games. A couple of players' actions were so egregious that they were banned from college football. One player's lawsuit against the NCAA led to the revelation that he had heavily plagiarized a term paper, and the student Honor Court had failed to discover the obvious violations. You can complain with some justification that NCAA rules are too picky and its disciplinary actions too inconsistent, but the activities revealed by the NCAA probe and news media investigations have been embarrassing to the university. That cumulative embarrassment apparently is what led Thorp to fire Davis.

But in the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday's announcement, Thorp and athletics director Dick Baddour had repeatedly vouched for Davis, missing every opportunity to hang the responsibility around the coach's neck. By reversing himself days before practice begins, Thorp has not only shown himself to be inconsistent, but he has badly damaged UNC's ability to field a competitive team. And if Davis is responsible, so is Baddour, who selected Davis and started UNC on this path of embarrassing surprises.

The football scandal at UNC goes back further that Wednesday's announcement or last year's NCAA probe. The university's decision to hire a big-name coach with Football U. and NFL experience paved the way for the embarrassment UNC is trying to purge now. Under Davis, venerable Kenan Stadium has lost its iconic and charming tile-roofed field house to be replaced by fancy wrap-around lounges for well-heeled donors. Die-hard fans had hoped Davis would bring top-five national rankings, even a championship, to Chapel Hill, but that hasn't happened. Davis has brought a megalomaniacal super stadium, some talented teams and exciting games. But his four years as head coach will be remembered mostly for the embarrassment of the NCAA and academic investigations.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coming next week: financial cataclysm

Six days from a fiscal cataclysm, Speaker of the House John Boehner can't keep enough of his GOP colleagues in the fold to pass his own legislation to raise the debt ceiling. Over on the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid has thrown in the towel and is offering a half-hearted bill to raise the debt ceiling in return for some ephemeral spending cuts and no increases in revenue.

I watched President Obama's and Boehner's Monday night addresses — Boehner's live and Obama's via the Internet — and thought Obama came across more genuinely. Boehner made his political points but wasn't entirely honest in talking about a "bipartisan" House proposal and accusing Obama of wanting a "blank check." Boehner probably fired up the right wing while Obama was seeking a broader appeal, and he likely succeeded. His call for compromise was one most Americans would welcome, and although he couldn't resist parroting the Democrats' catch phrase about the rich paying their "fair share" of taxes, Obama's overall point was well taken. Obama was on much sounder ground and more persuasive in arguing that all Americans should share in the sacrifices necessary to get our fiscal house in order — the wealthy should feel the pain just as much as the poor who lose federal services or the middle class who pay more for college loans.

If this impasse continues and we get to next Wednesday with no debt ceiling bill in place, we will all regret it. America's credit rating will fall, and interest rates will rise. Our payments on the national debt will rise, and that will create even more federal debt or dismembering cuts to federal spending, including Social Security. Interest rates on mortgages and consumer loans will also rise, and that will throw us back into a deeper recession as home sales and car sales collapse. Business loans will be more expensive, and that will curtail jobs. The dollar will fall, and that will mean higher prices.

To the freshman Republicans who have vowed not to raise the debt ceiling, no matter what, and have fought any inclination Boehner might have to compromise, I can only ask: Are you happy yet? If all of this transpires, Democrats will be able to run in 2012 under the slogan "We're not crazy!" Of course, remembering Democratic congressmen Weiner and Wu, Republicans can counter with "We're not perverts (or at least haven't been caught at it)."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The end of the shuttle era

The shuttle has landed for the last time. What now? And what of 30 years of shuttle flights?

The space shuttle was an engineering marvel for its time, but one has to wonder in retrospect whether its purpose, its reason for being, was ever thoroughly thought through. The shuttle was touted as a "space truck," an orbiting vehicle that would make manned space flight affordable, reliable and frequent. On all three of those criteria, the shuttle flopped. It turned out to be many times more costly than NASA had imagined; it was plagued by glitches and fatal flaws; and it was never able to come close to the optimistic turn-around time NASA had promised. Instead of multiple launches per month, the best the shuttle could do was a launch every few months.

The bigger problem with the shuttle was its purpose. If it was intended only for placing satellites in low earth orbit, it was an expensive and dangerous waste. Traditional rockets could do that job, as they had for decades, much more cheaply. The shuttle made sense only as a service vehicle for the International Space Station. Over its 30 years, the shuttle made multiple trips to the space station to haul up components and astronauts to live there. Space walks were necessary to put all the parts of the ISS together, and NASA solved the many engineering problems involved in zero-gravity construction work. The space station still orbits, but the shuttle will no longer service it.

The space station has been the focus of U.S. space flight throughout the shuttle era. While much scientific research has been conducted there, it has not advanced space exploration. Arguably, the Hubble Telescope (sent into orbit and repaired by shuttle crews) has done more for scientific knowledge than the space station.

Now NASA is at a turning point: What do we do now? If we aim for a return to the moon or a far more ambitious trip to Mars, the space station is of no help. Maintaining the ISS will be a costly burden that will deplete funds that could go to the next interplanetary exploration. Imagine where NASA might be if Congress had shot down the space station proposal and directed all of that money toward a Mars mission or permanent moon base.

With Congress' focus on the national debt and annual budget deficit, NASA will hard pressed to find the federal funding needed for any long-range, ambitious projects. Even keeping the hulking ISS in orbit might be more than a tighter federal budget can support.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ethical scandals hurt journalism

The fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is still falling out. Top news executives in Britain and the United States have resigned, along with the commander of Scotland Yard, and at least one News Corp. executive has been arrested.

It's a sad commentary on the state of journalism, but subterfuge is not unknown in the news business. More than a decade ago, the Cincinnati Inquirer faced a phone-hacking scandal of its own, along with a multi-million libel suit brought by Chiquita, the target of an extensive investigation by the newspaper. Even the beatified Woodward and Bernstein stepped over the line in their Watergate investigation. In "All the President's Men," they tell of finding the names of grand jury members in a courthouse filing cabinet and attempting to contact the grand jury members — an absolute no-no in the criminal justice system. The judge read them the riot act, and Woodward and Bernstein went on to look elsewhere for their next scoop.

With newspapers struggling to just survive today, the ethical issues that were all the rage 25 years ago have faded as topics of discussion at news association gatherings. In the 1980s, newspapers were adopting strict ethics codes as a means of garnering public confidence. Some codes were so restrictive that a reporter risked being fired if she accepted a flower or a soft drink from a news source. When I was a newspaper editor, I tried to focus on the bigger issues — identify yourself as a newspaper reporter, tell the truth, don't reveal confidential information, double-check any controversial statements, be accurate, don't embellish the facts you're given, attribute all information to its source, don't give even the appearance of prejudice.

In the post-Watergate era, "investigative reporting" had a brief heyday. Some news organizations resorted to hidden cameras, disguises and false identities to pursue a story. Remember the ABC News report about repackaging outdated meat at Food Lion? I was never comfortable with the tactic of having a reporter hired as a supermarket employee and luring other employees into potentially damaging comments recorded on a hidden camera.

But these abuses of journalistic principles (and not everyone would consider them abuses) pale in comparison to tapping the cell phones or voice mail of news subjects. The News of the World apparently tapped the voice mail of murder victims and government officials. Whatever "scoops" the now-closed newspaper gained could not have been worth the cost in ethical lapses and public shame. The damage this episode has done to journalism as a whole is an even greater worry.

I've always held that journalists have a solemn obligation to live up to the protections of the First Amendment and to defend democracy by providing accurate, objective information about the workings of government. Unfortunately, many news consumers and some news executives have shamelessly measured news by its titillating gossip and shock value — aspects the Founding Fathers would not have cared to defend with a constitutional amendment.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Debt limit cannot be ignored

Some members of Congress, including presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul, say defaulting on the nation's debt ain't no big thing. They're not worried about the federal debt limit, and they're not going to vote to raise it, no matter what. By some accounts, a few dozen U.S. House members are in this group.

They can't possibly be serious! Even if, as they claim, the Treasury would have enough money coming in from taxes to make payments on the federal debt and meet a few other obligations, the ramifications of even a near-default would be enormous. America would lose its prime credit rating, meaning fewer people around the world would invest in U.S. securities, and America would have to pay more for any borrowing it did well into in the future. Consumers would see their borrowing costs escalate. Housing, already in a giant hole, would sink into the abyss. Auto sales would collapse as car loan rates would jump from near-zero interest into double digits. Businesses would have to pay more for their routine borrowing for expansions or operating capital. More jobs would be eliminated to compensate for higher interest costs.

The costs of imports would soar as the dollar falls in value. Consumers would be paying more for nearly everything and would pay more interest on every penny they borrowed. Houses might be the exception. Already faltering housing prices might collapse if potential buyers are faced with mortgage interest rates of 15 percent or more. And the government would have to pay more in interest on the $14 trillion in debt it already has incurred.

The disdainers of the debt limit crisis and other Republicans who complain that higher taxes (on anybody) would hurt the economy will get a look at what soaring borrowing costs will do to an economy. A four- or five-fold increase in borrowing costs would hurt most businesses and do more damage to the economy than the relatively small tax changes the Obama administration has proposed.

Along with all these very tangible impacts of defaulting on the national debt would come another embarrassment: The United States would find itself in the dustbin of once-proud failed nations, lumped with Greece, Zimbabwe, the Weimar Republic and others. "Solid as a dollar" would be a joke.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Remembering Betty Ford and the 1970s

I watched a few minutes of Betty Ford's funeral last night, a delayed broadcast on C-Span, and was reminded of my only partly facetious proposal in a column several years ago that someone launch a Funeral Channel, which would televise celebrity funerals along with archival video of funerals past. I still think it's a concept that seems macabre at first glance but would probably succeed.

Betty Ford's funeral proves my point. There on the front pew were Rosalynn Carter, Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. If Mitch McConnel and Harry Reid had attended the funeral, we might have a debt limit increase by now. Such are the good feelings generated by shared mourning.

I was transfixed by Rosalynn Carter's eulogy, which was obviously sincere and leavened with deep affection. Beyond her hard Georgia accent, Carter poignantly described her relationship with Ford and their mutual respect and love for each other. Carter obviously admired Ford's achievements but also admired her priorities, her support for her husband and her love of her children. It was one of the most moving eulogies I've ever heard. Later, journalist Cokie Roberts delivered an unscripted talk about the demands of being in a political family and the loss of camaraderie that used to be common when her father, Hale Boggs, and Betty's husband were opposing party leaders in the U.S. House. They were also close friends. Betty was appalled by the venom and the insults that have become part of political dialogue, she said and urged the politicians in the room to re-examine their tactics.

It's easy to forget the Ford presidency, which lasted only a couple of years. In one sense it was a minor footnote to history, but in another, it was a great achievement. After six years of the paranoid, conniving, suspicious, insecure Richard Nixon, good ol' Jerry Ford was such a breath of fresh air! The Washington Post (I was a subscriber at the time) published a front-page picture of the bathrobe-wearing new president retrieving the morning paper on his front porch. Before Congress, he proclaimed himself to be "a Ford, not a Lincoln," and the country found a comfort that had been impossible with Nixon. Ford was probably not a great intellectual or a creative thinker or "policy wonk." Lyndon Johnson dismissed him as having "played football without a helmet." He was an amiable politician, the kind of guy you vote for because you like him, and he had a very successful career, even if you don't count his appointment to vice president or his presidency.

Betty Ford's outspoken candor and honesty contributed to the aura of her husband's presidency. Like her husband, she had no pretensions. She didn't mind speaking her mind, and she was brave enough to expose her own vulnerabilities. Her death at age 93 reminds us of the good times in the 1970s when problems seemed huge but are forgotten today.

The Funeral Channel could provide that comforting nostalgia.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My second-floor bedroom fitness plan

When my wife and I were house-hunting eight years ago, hoping to take advantage of absurdly low interest rates, we had several criteria: a two-story house with a master suite downstairs, a screened porch and a brick exterior. We got none of those, but we love our house and wouldn't dream of moving.

In the years since, I've had time to ponder whether the second-floor master bedroom might force me into a different home in the coming years or whether the several-times-a-day climbing of the stairs might provide the exercise and flexibility I will need as my muscles and joints age. I go up and down the stairs a half-dozen times on most days. When I'm home all day, that number doubles or triples, depending on what I'm doing. Most days I'm in enough of a hurry to run up the stairs and skip down the stairs. So far, so good.

The agent who first showed us this house told us that there were plans available to add a master bedroom on the ground floor on the far side of the sunroom. If money were more plentiful, we might consider such an addition, but money is not going to be plentiful, so we have to settle for what we have. If my mobility falters, I will simply have to gut it out and climb the stairs like a toddler or convert the sunroom into a sickroom.

But I'm counting on the daily climb up the stairs to maintain my leg strength, core muscles and flexibility. Casual observations suggest to me that people who give in too easily to their aches and pains are the ones who develop early mobility problems. So it's up the stairs for me, with as much velocity as I can muster, but I promise to keep my hand on the rail going down so I don't lose my balance and topple head over heels to the bottom.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Redistricting ridiculousness

The silliness of modern, computer-age redistricting battles is pointed out in an article in today's News & Observer. The ridiculous convolutions of new congressional districts are illustrated in the article: One person in Sampson County is in the Third District while everyone else is in the Second District; three residents of Wendell are the 13th District while all of the other 5,842 town residents are in the First District.

The slicing and dicing of electoral districts are a product of the computer age (mere humans would find such distinctions difficult to carve) and a Supreme Court decision that requires "zero deviation" from the standard derived by dividing the total state population by the number of congressional districts. This year, that number is 733,499. Seven of the 13 proposed districts hit that number exactly (the N&O article has a typo in the next paragraph in referring to five other districts that are one person short). Computers make such preciseness possible, but there are a couple of fallacies here.

1. The population totals (and the 733,499 figure) are based on the 2010 census, which was taken a year ago. Think no one moved during that time? Think no one died? Think no one was born? An instantaneous census is not possible, so redistricting is always going to be based on outdated data.

2. When these new districts are approved, they will be in effect for 10 years (unless court challenges change them). Do you think the population will remain fixed for 10 years? Dream on. Congressional districts are inherently unequal because regions of the state do not grow (or shrink) at equal rates. As soon as districts are implemented, they are unequal. The Constitution demands equal representation, but equal representation based on decennial censuses is a myth.

Congress, state legislatures and the courts should aim for something less than perfect, knowing that perfection is impossible. Districts should be approximately equal, say within 2 to 5 percent, an acceptable deviation knowing that census data is already outdated. Districts should also be contiguous, compact and cohesive and should follow natural or political-interest boundaries.

The districts proposed by Republican legislators who now control the General Assembly fail to meet a compact, cohesive standard, just as the maps drawn 10 years ago by Democratic legislators failed. They sprawl all over the map, trying to achieve political advantage. The anomalies the N&O points out today merely emphasize the silliness of this exercise.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Seize opportunity to cut deficit

In about three weeks, the United States of America might default on its debts. Think about that! The richest country in the world, the paragon of democratic governments, could become a deadbeat.

The problem is not that America cannot come up with the money to pay its obligations. Its credit is good, even though it has made a habit of spending more than it takes in. This problem is more political than fiscal. Congress must approve an increase in the debt limit in order for the Treasury to come up with the money to pay the bills on time.

Republicans in Congress, particularly those who were elected last year on pledges to never, ever, under any circumstances raise taxes, don't want to increase the debt limit. They think America should live within its means. Good sentiments, but America cannot fight wars all around the globe, pay the promised benefits to Social Security and Medicare recipients, fight terrorism at home and abroad, respond to catastrophic natural disasters, maintain a space program, keep up interstate highways, pay the interest on debts already incurred, provide nourishment for the poor and all the rest without either raising taxes or borrowing money. If raising taxes — and many in Congress and the political action groups that do their thinking for them — say any increase in revenue, even if it comes from closing tax loopholes and ending unjust preferences in the tax code, is a tax increase. And any tax increase in any form is off the table.

New York Times columnist David Brooks (one of the most thoughtful and sensible columnists I've read) decries the no-tax ideology of the Republican right wing. If Republicans are unwilling to compromise, if they are unwilling to snatch the deal of a lifetime when it's being handed to them, they are no longer a political party; they are a medieval college of cardinals burning at the stake people who say the earth is round and revolves around the sun.

America's $14 trillion in debt is a real problem. Our $1 trillion-plus budget deficit is shameful. But the answer is not to force the government to implode into anarchy. President Obama is offering to go along with $4 trillion in spending cuts if Congress will agree to less than $1 trillion in revenue increases, mostly from tax reforms and closing loopholes. It's a heckuva deal for Republicans; it represents significant cuts in federal spending. All they have to do is agree to comparatively minor and relatively painless revenue increases.

I think the American people might go along with even harsher measures. Rep. Paul Ryan's highly touted deficit reduction plan, which has become an icon of the Republican Party (it raises no taxes), would not eliminate the budget deficit. The Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission did a better long-term job of reducing the deficit but still didn't put the federal government back in the black.

No politician seems prepared to boldly make the elimination of the deficit and the paying off of the federal debt a national priority. This could be done by returning to tax rates in effect before the 2002 Bush tax cuts and reducing federal spending in a deliberate and rational way. Remember that those 2001 tax rates already had been reduced from peak rates of the 1950s by Kennedy's and Reagan's income tax cuts. Who will stand before the public and pledge, "Before this decade is out, we shall pay off the federal debt"?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ernest Hemingway, 50 years later

Maybe this 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's suicide would be a good time for me to get back to reading the author I most admired as a teenager and young adult. I had veered away from my youthful fascination with Hemingway, the hard-driving, macho writer who could turn the simplest of sentences into lines of beauty. Far more than his illustrious contemporaries, I thought Hemingway's work was the epitome of good writing, and I devoured all of his major novels and particularly loved his memoir of Paris, "A Moveable Feast."

Only after I received a hardback copy of the memoir to replace my dog-eared paperback, did I re-read the book once more and find it wanting. The story of Ernest and Hadley and baby "Bumby" and F. Puss the cat, which had seemed so alluring the first time around, now seemed a bit juvenile and self-indulgent.

Nevertheless, Hemingway's terse, simple prose style has had a greater influence than any other author's on my own writing style. Hemingway honed his writing as a newspaper reporter, and I pursued a newspaper career with that thought in mind. I frequently advised young writers with Hemingway's maxim: "Write one true sentence" and then another and another.

Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner reminded me this week of Hemingway's untimely death (at my current age) and brought back my admiration and wonder of this man who, in his day, was even bigger than his fictional characters. I faintly remember the television news announcement of Hemingway's death, initially reported as an accidental shooting. At the time, I had never read any of his work. A few years later, a television viewing of the movie "A Farewell to Arms" turned me to the novel, and I was hooked.

I've not read much of Hemingway's short stories, and a volume on my bookshelf of his short fiction is now luring me. It's an appropriate way to remember him on this 50th anniversary of his death.