Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas was the most magical time

Driving to a 9 p.m. Christmas Eve service and seeing the steady stream of cars along the streets, I was struck by how incredulous I would have been to see such a scene when I was a small child. Surely, no one worked Christmas Eve night. No one had places to go or things to do. Christmas Eve was a magical evening when a jolly old elf would fly through the sky and drop in at every house around the world to leave gifts. This annual miracle would defy laws of physics and economics, which only served to prove just how magical this night was.

We were always in bed early and up long before dawn the next morning. The morning dark was always cold and almost always clear and bright, the heavens reflecting the magical nature of the night. A fire would roar in the fireplace in a living room redolent with the smells of cedar and citrus and chocolate. An excitement that was too much to bear filled the house and its five children who had awaited this moment breathlessly for months. We would all pile into a car and travel through the still-dark morning to my grandparents for breakfast, where cousins and aunts and uncles would greet us and share our excitement and joy.

A living room filled with toys and treats for five children could only be achieved by magic, a magic mixed with religion and love, so the entire night and following morning, it seemed to me, was a magical moment, the most magical time of my childhood. Everyone I knew celebrated Christmas, and it seemed beyond comprehension that some children somewhere might not awaken Christmas morning to treats and toys. We lived a homogeneous life and were all white Protestants, and most of the people we knew were devout church members. All of us participated in church Christmas pageants and hung lights on Christmas trees and wrapped presents and sat down to Christmas feasts, and we were sure that life had been this way since 1 A.D., or at least since St. Nicholas filled his first stocking.

A world where there are gifts enough for every child and time enough to deliver them to every home around the globe was a magical world. And we never doubted the magic, for we had seen it happen. So this year, when I went to bed about the time Santa should have been finishing his Eastern Time Zone deliveries and arose just at dawn, I missed the wonder and the magic of a simpler, more trusting time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where is my Christmas spirit?

"The Christmas cards have all been sent," Karen Carpenter sang more than 40 years ago, and, indeed, we have mailed our cards this year, and the house is decorated with greenery and lights and whimsical statuettes of angels and elves. The wicks are blackened on three candles in the Advent wreath. But we've forgone the traditional Christmas letter we've occasionally indulged in. We won't recount the year that saw so much unhappiness and grief.

In this last week before Christmas, the holiday seems more distant than imminent. The season changes when young children are no longer in the house with their infectious excitement. I recall my mother complaining that she just couldn't get into "the Christmas spirit" for her favorite holiday. I know the feeling.

It's easy to think you've seen it all before after about the 50th or 60th rendition of this holiday. The stress of so many things to do and so much to take care of dims the brightness of holiday lights. And this year has tempered holiday joy with unexpected tragedy.

We will gather with family and wrap our arms around the people we most want to be with on Christmas and on every other occasion, and we will fight against the temptation to think, "I'll be glad when it's over." Instead, I'll be glad for every happiness these dark nights and chilly days can bring me. And for Christmas, in all its varied meanings.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What will we do about gun massacres?

President Obama, speaking before a grieving crowd at Newtown, Conn., said America is not doing enough to protect its children, and that must change. He received a standing ovation after his speech.

But talk is cheap. What will change? What will we do about the easy access to deadly firearms with nearly unlimited firepower? What will we do about the mentally ill who suddenly flash before our collective eyes in tragic rages?

The massacre of 20 first-graders at idyllic Newtown could be a tipping point. It could move the needle of public opinion. It could shame the members of Congress who have sold themselves and their integrity to the gun lobby. It could bring about sensible restrictions on gun purchases and the types of firearms and ammunition available to the general public.

It is not necessary to repeal or revise the Second Amendment, which guarantees a "right to bear arms." But no right is absolute. Free speech and free press do not ban legal protections of privacy and recourse for defamation or libel. Religious freedom does not permit the sacrifice of human life. Gun ownership cannot be banned, but sensible restrictions can be imposed on gun purchases and the types of weaponry available to private citizens.

National and state sovereignty — and civilized society — require that government holds a monopoly on the use of deadly force. Weapons available to private citizens must not equal or exceed the power of those held by the army or police. Private citizens' right to bear arms does not extend to anti-aircraft missiles, heavy artillery or attack helicopters. As part of our contract with the government we elect, we expect the government to protect us from "all enemies, foreign and domestic." We do not have to rely on our own six-shooter or Glock or AR-15. The police have superior firepower and are authorized to use it to protect the public.

Congress should consider again an assault weapons ban, including a ban on high-capacity magazines, such as those used by Adam Lanza. Armor-piercing bullets and body armor, which would give individuals an advantage over police, should be banned. Combat weapons should likewise be restricted. And no firearms should be sold to anyone with a history of mental illness or violent actions.

And America must do something about its mental health system that allows people with violent rages to walk the streets and unleash their fury against the innocents, even little children. Not all mental patients are violent — only a minuscule number are dangerous to others — but everyone with mental illness should get the help he needs to live a non-disruptive and, if possible, productive life. Until we do a better job in treating the mentally ill, we will all suffer.

The Second Amendment absolutists will rage against sensible limits on gun ownership and sales, but when they do, let them explain to the parents of Newtown why their right to buy and use guns is worth more than the life of even one 6-year-old.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Charitable deductions and college sports

One of the elements supposedly "on the table" in budget negotiations between the president and the speaker of the House is the charitable deduction. This "tax expenditure" will cost the federal treasury about $230 billion over five years, so it's a low-hanging fruit for revenue seekers. Negotiations have turned to how to change the deduction — eliminate it entirely or place a limit on how much in charitable donations a taxpayer can deduct.

Having worked for two 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt charities, I can tell you that revoking the charitable deduction would be devastating to every charity from your local church to the Cancer Society or Heart Association. Charities rely on individual and corporate donations to meet their budget. Without a charitable deduction, much of that revenue would dry up, and I have no doubt that many charities would go out of business.

There may be some simple ways, however, to increase federal revenue without having a deleterious impact on charitable activities. One change to the IRS code could not only increase federal revenue but could also improve higher education and reduce the corrupting influence of big-time intercollegiate athletics.

Simply eliminate the tax-exempt charitable status of athletic booster clubs. Boosters can now give millions of dollars (as a Duke alumnus did recently) to their alma mater's athletic program and claim a tax deduction. Giving to the Rams Club or Wolfpack Club does not contribute to the educational mission of the university. In fact, these athletic donations probably harm the university's mission of educating young men and women. Such donations skew the university's role by encouraging outlandish coaching salaries and lowering academic standards to accommodate athletics.

If you want to support your alma mater, you should give to the university, not to the sports team that represents the university, and the nation's tax code should make that distinction clear. Taxpayers should not subsidize intercollegiate athletics by having to make up the revenue lost when booster club donations are deducted from taxable income.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Promise of jobs is still alluring

Every day this week I've watched a parade of people pass by the front door of my office on the way to an office next door, where a company is hiring. That's right, hiring! Count this as an economic indicator: There are still an awful lot of people looking for work in this economy.

The company doing the hiring is not a big, famous corporation. It's a small outfit providing services to other companies, and judging from some overheard conversations between the job applicants and the staff vetting the applicants, the company is not paying high wages. The numbers I heard were only a little above minimum wage. Yet the parade of applicants seemed never-ending. The quiet corridor in front of my office has become a busy thoroughfare.

Some of the applicants look as if they are entirely unfamiliar with what a time card or pay stub looks like. Others show up in coat-and-tie and are carrying copies of their resume in their laptop bags. The competency range of applicants is obviously wide. I take that as an indicator of just how broad and deep this recession is. The unemployed range from young men in serious need of some job readiness training and simple social skills to middle-aged, middle-management types.

This parade goes past my office even as the state plans to sharply cut the state's unemployment insurance program, which has run up quite a debt to the federal government during four years of job losses. The maximum jobless benefit will drop from over $500 a week to $350 a week. I have some familiarity with this system. Unemployment benefits got me through nine months without a paycheck. Without those benefits, which I earned during 46 years of full-time work, I would have had to dip into savings to pay the mortgage, and I was one of the fortunate ones who had cautiously hoarded savings for just the sort of emergency I faced. Others would have gone bankrupt or homeless without unemployment insurance.

Some politicians worry that too-generous unemployment benefits simply encourage people to idly suck up federal tax dollars. But being unemployed is embarrassing, emasculating and deeply depressing, no matter what the circumstances. Unemployment insurance is essential to a nation surviving an economic downturn. Don't worry about subsidizing idleness; people want jobs. Just look at the parade going past my office door.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bibles are getting harder to find

Last week I went out to buy a Bible for a dedication gift. I had no idea it would be so difficult.

Since Wilson's only dedicated bookstore, Books A Million, closed months ago, I knew I would have to go to a discount or department store to buy a Bible or any other book. I headed for Target, which I knew had a books section. There were books in the book section all right, ranging from children's books to "Fifty Shades of Gray," but no Bibles.

I told my wife of my dilemma, and she said I should go to Wal-Mart. She had seen Bibles there. So I paid my first visit to Wal-Mart in many months and found the book section, such as it was. But the selection of Bibles was pitifully limited. Refusing to give up, I remembered where I had seen a Christian bookstore and went there. Over to one side, an area overwhelmed by the inspirational books, inspirational cards, decorations, signs and what-not, I found the Bible section. The store had a relatively large number of Bibles, nearly all of them of the King James translation or a modern paraphrase version. After looking over the selection, I selected a hardbound copy and bought it.

The experience left me wondering whether Bible sales were down. It seemed to me they'd have to be. With the demise of big-box bookstores and community bookstores, there are simply fewer places to buy a Bible. And obviously the big-box discounters aren't pushing Bible sales. I looked for some statistics to back up my theory, but I found none. The people who track bestsellers don't track sales of the Bible or the Koran. Some estimate that more than 6 billion copies of the Bible have been printed and sold, but the statistics seem a little squishy. What I hoped to find was an annual comparison of Bible sales over the past 20 or 30 years. Surely, someone must be counting, but Google could not help me with that.

Nevertheless, I came away with the strong impression that Bible sales must be declining and that those that are sold are likely from outlets catering to the religiously zealous. The average consumer could shop for weeks and weeks and never see a Bible on a shelf. It's little wonder that biblical illiteracy is rampant with few Americans able to understand biblical allusions or metaphors. Bibles are not mainstream consumer products any more.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Words finally come for my brother

In the days since I received the text from my niece — "they're taking him off life support" — I have been unable to write about the untimely death of my brother Bill. Heart surgery is no splinter removal, but I never expected it to end like this. I was nowhere near ready for my oldest sibling to die.

Bill with his granddaughter Shelby and daughter Kelley, background

My mind swirled with lost opportunities. Although we had been separated by many miles for most of the past 50 years, we were brothers, joined by common interests in history, cars, genealogy, family stories and other topics and by a profound appreciation of the paramount importance of family. Years ago, as he approached "normal" retirement age, we talked of taking a tour of Civil War battlefields together, along with his elder son, and I proposed an itinerary along the trails our great-great grandfather had followed to his death at the Third Battle of Winchester. Alas, his work schedule did not allow the time away, and he wasn't ready to retire. "I'm the type who has to know where his next dollar is coming from," he told me once to explain why he wouldn't retire. And he used his income to financially help his four grown children. Others depended upon him. When I told him in an email four years ago that I had been laid off from my job after 29 years with the same company, he responded, "What's mine is yours. Just tell me what you need." I never needed to ask for money, but I was deeply moved and humbled by his offer.

I remember the early morning when he woke me up to say goodbye as he left home to join the Air Force. For years afterward, the Air Force was my juvenile ambition. Later, when I had joined the Coast Guard and entered Officer Candidate School, we had another common interest. Less than a year into his Air Force stint, he rode a Trailways bus home from Biloxi, Miss., and the whole family drove to Charlotte to meet him. The bus arrived hours late, and it seemed so awkward for him to squeeze into the car with the other six of us, in part because the Air Force had changed him and in part because, at that moment, he seemed more like a guest than a brother.

A year later, when our sister, age 17, was killed in a car crash, our minister, working through the Red Cross, located him at his Tampa duty station and gave him the news by telephone. He asked, I gathered as I listened to the pastor's half of the conversation, whether the rest of the family was injured. They were not in the car, he told him. The next day, Bill drove up the driveway in his girlfriend's Mercury and came into the house, where our mother once again burst into tears. He gathered her and my younger sister and me into a hug and squeezed rare tears out of my eyes. A month later, he would marry the woman who had bravely accompanied him to meet the family she would join. At our sister's funeral, Bill, our mother's firstborn, sat with an arm around our mother as we bade farewell to her firstborn daughter.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed later that year 50 years ago, his Air Force wing was moved out of Florida to put more distance between them and Cuban missiles. As an electronics technician working on B-47 and B-52 bombers, he was a key component of the power that forced the Soviet Union to back down.

Bill left the Air Force for a job at IBM, and he regularly praised the company where he worked long, irregular hours, and missed the birth of his first child because he was far away in an IBM training course. The distances between us made visits of more than twice a year rare and difficult. His family grew to four children, but his dedication to his job never waned. He occasionally urged me to seek employment at IBM, but I saw myself as a writer or a newspaper editor, and my preferences leaned toward small towns and small companies instead of the corporate world where he flourished, rising in IBM and then moving into banking after taking early retirement from IBM. His last decade was spent at Bank of America, often traveling from his Florida home and maintaining a grueling schedule and boasting of his long hours, pre-dawn to late-night.

When a scary collapse sent our parents to a nursing home, his job took him often to Charlotte, where he would set aside time to visit them in the nursing home, less than an hour away. I also made the trek to visit them, a nearly four-hour trip each way for me. I admired Bill's resolve to sit with them for long hours, even though their dementia and uncommunicative manner left us sitting through long, uncomfortable silences. I would visit for as long as I could bear to sadly see these once-vibrant and compassionate people rendered to their new state, and I would make the long drive back home deeply depressed by it all. But Bill never missed an opportunity to sit with them, even in silence.

His compassion was evident again when Karen, his wife, was diagnosed with cancer. True to form, he told us little, but it was evident from the sketchy information we received, that she was dying. When the news finally came, it was three days before the family was to gather in Charleston. We had worried about what would happen to that planned reunion. They wouldn't leave her behind, but she could not travel. No travel plans had changed. Bill had no hesitation — the whole family would gather in Charleston. Two weeks later, we attended Karen's funeral and watched solemnly as Bill climbed the ladder to slip Karen's ashes into the columbarium. He kissed the urn before slipping it into the niche.

When he was hospitalized with what was called a "mild heart attack" and awaited surgery, I asked him by telephone, "Was this your wake-up call?" "Maybe so," he said. The conversation was brief; he sounded tired and nearly breathless. I expected he would have his ailing heart repaired, regain some energy and stamina, and finally decide to retire. That Civil War battlegrounds tour loomed. A few days later, I received the cryptic text, and I laid my head on the breakfast table feeling as if I had been hit in the heart by a sledgehammer.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A modest sacrifice for everyone

The president has proposed an opening offer. Congressional Republicans don't like it. The "fiscal cliff" is getting closer, and we're all looking more and more like Thelma and Louise at the movie's end.

Neither the president's proposal nor anything from the Republicans truly solves the problem of uncontrolled deficit spending, which has produced a $16 trillion debt. The Paul Ryan plan doesn't get us to a balanced budget in the foreseeable future. Obama does not have a balanced budget in his crystal ball. The Bowles-Simpson plan does not achieve a balanced budget. Even Warren Buffett suggests that it would be OK if we could just get our revenues to 18% of GDP and our spending to 21% of GDP — but we'd be borrowing 3% of GDP every year.

No one seems to be asking the American people for sacrifice. Obama wants higher taxes on the wealthiest, and it's true that they have fared far better over the past decade of rising debt than the remaining 98% of us. But no one is asking everybody to give something for fiscal solvency.

Here's a modest proposal: Consider raising everybody's income tax rate — individual, corporate, capital gains, all of it — by one percent, or even half of one percent. Make it affect everybody, sort of. Those who pay no federal income tax — and that's a substantial portion of the population (just ask Mitt "47%" Romney) — would have to pay more. One percent added to zero is still zero. But the higher rate would be there, and it would apply to everyone. Obama's focus on increasing tax rates for the wealthiest is not a formula for balancing the budget. His tax increase would bring in less than $1 trillion over 10 years, but we're spending $1 trillion more than we earn every year. The middle class is going to have to pay up if America is ever going to get out from under the debt it rang up fighting two unbudgeted foreign wars, bailing out banks and providing for people who lost their incomes in the Great Recession.

Yes, we should cut spending, and in a bloated federal budget, there are plenty of places to cut. Here again, the pain should be shared. All federal programs should have to sacrifice.

If we begin with the premise that closing the budget deficit is a top priority, we will find a way. If this is just a political tit-for-tat, we'll crash at the bottom of that fiscal cliff.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Now I do text, on occasion

Nearly four years ago, I announced in this forum that I had obtained a new phone that added one function to the digitally ancient phone that I had been using: I could take pictures. I went on to say that I used a cell phone regularly as a phone, but I just didn't quite understand texting. You've got a phone in your hand, but instead of speaking, you type a message on that tiny little keyboard. I just didn't get it.

OK. I was wrong. Two phones removed from the one I announced in that earlier post, I now text. I do it nearly every day, although not all day long, as some users seem to do. I'll text my wife at the end of the workday with a cryptic message, such as, "Going to the gym?" or "How soon are you leaving the office?" I get a reply, usually within minutes, and neither of us has to interrupt our routine to actually speak to each other. I get it now. A quick text can be more efficient than an actual call. You can ignore a text if you're in the middle of a conversation on driving a car or having surgery. And you can reply at your convenience.

This transition in my thinking came about after my former employer decided I should have a company "smart phone" so that I could be accessible 24-7. I thought my personal cell phone provided that oversight, but apparently not. And I worried about dumb me with a smart phone. For a while I carried two phones, sort of like a two-pistol gunslinger, one on my right hip and one on my left. But keeping up with two phones and keeping them charged got to be annoying, so I dropped the personal phone (the one I had just obtained in that previous post) and gave out my official company phone number to family and friends. I'm not back to a personal cell phone, and I'm using about a 20th of the 1,000 texts per month I'm allowed in my plan. But I've joined the modern world and admit that I was wrong four years ago. Sometimes, a text makes more sense than a phone call.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Conference changes destroy rivalries

I've said many times that I'd prefer to see the Atlantic Coast Conference contract back to its pre-1971 size of eight geographically contiguous universities with intense and natural rivalries rather than morph into a 12- or 16-university conference that dismisses the rivalries and traditions that had made the conference great. But, lo, the almighty dollar is wielded by television networks, and the universities and their conference follow blindly the scent of money, even to the organization's demise.

The conference, led by my UNC classmate John Swofford, had attempted to inoculate itself against the hazards of being forgotten because of its small size and relative weakness in football by expanding and bringing in universities that had reputations as football powerhouses (or at least respectability). But with the departure this week of Maryland, the flaws of that strategy are revealed. In this new era of made-for-television spectacles, maybe rivalries and tradition don't matter any more.

As if intercollegiate athletics didn't have enough problems already, the expansion of conferences and the swapping of teams between conferences threaten the very foundation of college sports — the loyal fans and the natural rivalries that have developed over the past 100-plus years of college football and 100 years of college basketball. Will Maryland fans really care about a game against Wisconsin when they're denied their annual tiff with neighboring Virginia? Who, other than Alabama and Notre Dame fans, will travel 800 miles to see their favorite team play a conference foe? These expanded conferences are trying the patience and wearing down the loyalties of the fans who, despite the power of television, are necessary for college sports to survive.

Nate Silver, the guy who became a legend by crunching the poll numbers with uncanny accuracy earlier this month, has examined the numbers involved in Maryland's switch to the Big Ten, and it's not pretty. Even in an age of interstate highways and air travel, geography matters. The Big Ten has always been a Midwestern conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference has always been a, well, Atlantic Coast conference. But no more. Conference names have dissolved into meaninglessness. It no longer matters if the Big Ten has 16 teams or the Big Eight has 12 teams. Who can blame the fans for feeling confused and ignored?

Blame the universities for letting their athletic departments do whatever brings in the most money. If university presidents would just say no to the headlong rush to get another sports-related dollar, we could eliminate the Thursday night football games, the 9 p.m. local time weeknight basketball games, the shoe and clothing logos stamped on uniforms, and the rampant exploitation of athletes unprepared for and perhaps incapable of college-level academic work.

Maryland's move to the Big Ten won't solve Maryland's fiscal problems, and it won't appreciably help the Big Ten. The ACC's expansion from a compact, four-state alliance to a Caribbean-to-New England-to-Midwest gerrymander makes no sense. This was sensible: South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia and Maryland — natural rivalries, football parity, basketball excellence and academic standards.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sex lives of the military

The barrage of commentary about the David Petraeus affair offers a full circle of opinion, from shock and disgust that such a widely admired and respected figure would engage in sordid adultery to sympathy toward service members who are torn from their families and sent to remote, isolated locations where constant danger and lonely boredom intersect. The latter perspective reminded me of the far less prolonged and less isolated experience I had in Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.

OCS combined the fundamentals of basic military training with some sophisticated education on navigation (the old way, without GPS), international law, weaponry, military organization and leadership. Part of the educational strategy is to crush individuality and create a team concept, where every man (there were only men in those days) would take care of his shipmates. Many of us left families behind. All were forbidden contact with wives or girlfriends for the first week and had only restricted contact after that.

For a bunch of 22-year-olds, isolation from the opposite sex was one of the more severe challenges. I still remember conversations with my colleagues about the women who served in the mess hall. These civilian employees were not great beauties, and they had almost no interaction with the officer candidates standing in the chow line. Very few, if any of us, would have given these women a second look in the first couple of weeks of OCS. But by the third month, several of us jokingly agreed, the women behind the steam table looked a lot better than they had those first weeks.

For soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors on year-long deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, the civilian women or the female soldiers in unflattering camouflage uniforms had to begin looking more and more attractive as the months wore on. Americans should not be so shocked if their service members, facing hardships unfathomable to most of us, suffer lapses in judgment. Such submissions to carnal desires have been part of the military life since the days of Odysseus. Wartime deployments have always been accompanied by rises in prostitution. Although the Uniform Code of Military Justice still makes adultery a criminal offense, the law cannot change human nature. 

General Petraeus has disappointed his admirers and other officers have violated their code of conduct by engaging in extra-marital affairs on lonely, hazardous deployments. Americans should not be so shocked or so judgmental about service members seeking comfort and companionship in a cruel and dangerous place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wilson wins fight for future

After years of litigation, accusations, secretive meetings and angry exchanges, the end seemed anti-climactic. Sanderson Farms quietly announced that it would not build a huge chicken plant in southern Nash County. 

The announcement comes as a relief to Wilson city officials, who had fought the chicken plant in court over a three-year period, spending somewhere around a million dollars to stop the slaughterhouse from threatening the city's water supply with its effluent. Also relieved were Nash County landowners along the N.C. 97 corridor, including a number of homeowners on the peaceful Tar River Reservoir. They saw the chicken plant as a threat to their homes' value. Opponents also saw the huge plant's voracious appetite for thousands of chickens an hour as another threat — farms to grow all those chickens would create their own odor and pollution.

The fight was over a chicken plant's potential pollution, but it was about more than that. It was about the future of this region. Wilson County has worked assiduously for years to develop an industrial base that will provide high-paying, reliable jobs for a growing population. Pharmaceutical companies fit that bill, and beginning with Merck in the early 1980s, Wilson has courted drug makers and other high-tech firms.

Adjacent Nash County's courtship with a chicken slaughterhouse threatened the clean water the pharmaceuticals coveted, but it also threatened a trend toward better jobs and more cultural amenities. The low-paid workers in the chicken plant would not support the local restaurants, the Theater of the American South, the Arts Council, art studios, Barton College and other attractions that depend on the support of local residents.

The folks in Nash County touted the 1,000 jobs Sanderson promised, but those jobs might drive away tomorrow's pharmaceutical companies and high-tech companies that expect cultural amenities. Would 1,000 jobs at $20,000 a year make up for the loss of 500 jobs at $50,000 a year? Nash County's leaders were setting their sights low and betting on an economic development model that might have worked in the 1950s but won't work today. I wrote about this jobs-at-any-cost mentality in August.

Wilson officials were condemned in some corners for sending $1 million to oppose a neighbor's vision of economic development, but they were on the right side of the wave of the future. Their investment succeeded in stopping an industry that would have changed this area — both Wilson and Nash — for the worse: Low-paying jobs, increasingly immigrant labor force, rapid turnover and minimal investment in the community. The future will see the fight against Sanderson as money well spent and a war worth fighting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A no-longer reluctant veteran

On this observance of Veterans Day, I take a certain pride in being among those who are recognized today. At church yesterday, at about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (the time of the original Armistice Day ending World War I), I stood when the pastor asked all the veterans in the congregation to stand.

For all the pride I feel today, I was a reluctant veteran. If the rest of my generation were honest, I suspect a majority of them would have to admit that they, too, were not eager to join the ranks of America's military.

As I approached the end of my college years, my hometown draft board took notice and sent me a demand to show up for a draft physical. My draft number, from the first Vietnam War draft in 1969, was 29. There was no question, short of some political miracle, that I would be called up and required to serve. I passed the draft physical and could find no legal way out of raising my right hand and pledging to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

On the day after my draft physical, as I walked across campus from class, I came across a Coast Guard recruiter who was signing up applicants for Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. Given a choice between Coast Guard OCS and a quick post-basic training trip to Saigon, I signed up. A few months of tests, interviews and background checks later, and I raised my hand to serve in the Coast Guard. Because of the over-subscription of qualified officer candidates, I was deferred from the fall OCS class to the February class, but I was safe from the draft in the interim.

My Coast Guard career took me from OCS to Washington, D.C., where I was assigned to answer "congressional inquiries," letters from members of Congress asking about Coast Guard personnel. These inquiries were usually prompted by letters from upset mothers, the gist of which was, "My son enlisted to guard the coast, so why is he on an icebreaker (or on a river in Vietnam)?" Answering the letters was not difficult, and I soaked in the excitement of being in the nation's capital through the 1972 election and the Watergate scandal. I also came to admire my colleagues and superiors, particularly the gruff, no-nonsense captain who was my first boss. Before my tour of duty was over, he had been deep-selected for rear admiral and later became vice-commandant of the entire Coast Guard. He was the most skilled manager I've ever known and could easily have succeeded in business or academia, but he chose, like many others I came to know, to serve in uniform.

I left Washington to return to civilian life, eager to begin a career in journalism and to settle down in a quiet, small town with my family, far away from the noise and crowding of a big city. Many times since then, I have regretted my decision to decline the offer to remain in the officer ranks and stick around until I qualified for a pension. My wife points out that our lives would be quite different if I had stayed in. A long afloat assignment would have been inevitable after I had spent three years ashore, and who knows where the Coast Guard might have sent me over the next 20 or 30 years.

My military service did not involve combat or extraordinary danger, but it did help shape me and my outlook on life. Like most veterans, I like organization, discipline and commitment. I may have been reluctant 40 years ago, but I am glad — and take pride in the fact — that I served in uniform. I learned from that experience, perhaps as much as I learned from four years of college, and I think today's young men and women, with no pressure from a military draft, miss an opportunity that could benefit them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Contrast: Romney and McCrory

A couple of thoughts about the presidential election and, from the Republicans' point of view, what went wrong? Republican candidates were up against a president whose popularity had waned significantly while long-term unemployment remains painfully high and jobs are scarce. President Obama should have been vulnerable, but he ended up with more than 300 electoral votes.

Contrast Mitt Romney's performance with Pat McCrory's. Both Republicans had been running for the offices they failed to win in 2008 for the past four years. Both were up against unpopular incumbents, although N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue was far more unpopular than Obama, so unpopular that she decided not to embarrass herself by running for re-election and stuck Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton with the task of slowing down McCrory's drive for governor, the office he lost to Perdue in '08.

McCrory won Tuesday by about 10 percentage points in a state that Obama closely contested, losing by a couple of percentage points. The distinct difference was that McCrory ran as an optimist, pragmatic fix-it man who promised to make government work better while Romney had trouble finding his message. The Republican primaries forced Romney to move to the right and to say things that would haunt him in the general election, when he could be his more moderate self. But fear of alienating the right wing base of the party kept Romney strait-jacketed into a persona he didn't quite fit.

Second thought: What if all the millions of dollars Republican financiers spent on television advertising had been invested instead in grassroots political organizing? Looking at the electoral maps and exit polls, it's clear that Obama owes his win in large measure to an effective ground game. The Democrats got their voters to the polls! Just look at the turnout of young, African-American and women voters — all keys to the Democrats' success.

Some Republican advisers have become convinced that television ads can sway voters, but most ads just turn off voters. Electronic media have not replaced basic door-to-door, block-by-block politics. Those millions of television dollars spent in more effective ways might have saved the election for Romney.

Four more years of more of the same?

After all this, we're back to where we were: Barack Obama is president; Democrats control the Senate; Republicans control the House; nobody is on speaking terms. After a very divisive, partisanship-above-all-else campaign (and I'm talking about both parties and both ends of the political spectrum), we are no closer to solving the great problems that confront us. Nothing that happened on election night signifies any hope of breaking the partisan logjam that has prevented compromise over the great issues of the day.

Something has to give. President Obama won his second term in a hard-fought, swing-state-by-swing-state trudge. He can't claim much of a mandate, despite a good margin in the electoral vote. Democrats hung onto the Senate, but they owe their success more to the stupidity of Republican opponents than to the persuasiveness of their own ideas. Republicans held onto the House, but several of their tea-party freshmen were rejected. Nevertheless, Harry Reid will rule in the Senate and John Boehner in the House, and neither appears any more eager to compromise than they were day before yesterday.

Unrelenting partisanship has been bad for the country. Polls show the public detests the aggressive antagonism in Congress. The public is willing to give-and-take, but party leaders see every vote in Congress as a rallying cry for their loyal demographic groups or a noose to hang around the opposition. A pox on both their houses.

This has to end. The nation has a debt of $16 trillion, approximately equal to the annual gross domestic product. The federal budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, piling on more debt. Social Security and Medicare are built on unsustainable bases, but compromise solutions are blocked by both parties.

More immediately, the nation faces the "fiscal cliff" of sequestration and tax increases on Jan. 1. This long-building consequence won't go away. Congress has to act, and to act, both parties must compromise.

But the public just elected the same group of leaders who have led us to this precipice. Where do we go from here?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ohio's electoral votes will decide election

Eleven days before the election, the outcome is beginning to take shape. The election will be close; that seems to be the one thing most everyone can agree on. President Obama appeared to be on a track to a convincing Electoral College victory a couple of months ago, but that's no longer the case. Mitt Romney's campaign has been revitalized, and he seems to be getting into a groove. He has even take a whisker-thin lead in national polls.

But the nationwide polls don't mean anything. The popular vote doesn't determine the election; the Electoral College does. And momentum, as one pundit put it this week, doesn't count; votes do. Romney seems to have the momentum, but, unless things swing dramatically, he doesn't have 271 electoral votes.

It appears more and more likely that the election will be decided in one state — Ohio. No matter how you do the math, it's next to impossible for Romney to win without winning Ohio. He can win Florida, which he very well might, but he'd still need Ohio to put him over the top. Obama badly needs Ohio, too, but he's significantly ahead there, according to the polls. Obama could lose Ohio and still win, if he took Florida, Virginia and a few other swing states. His electoral total is bulked up by the big electoral votes in California and New York, where he's not even being contested. Romney will carry Texas and a lot of smaller states, but he will need Ohio, even if he wins Florida.

So the election will likely be won or lost in Ohio, and right now, Obama seems to have the advantage. Both candidates have recognized the importance of Ohio and are spending their last days of campaigning there. Voting intentions can change, and polls can be flawed, but if the polls are right, Ohio will give the election to Obama, even if Romney wins the popular vote. (Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election via Florida in 2000.)

I predicted early on that Romney would take North Carolina, and recent campaign activities seem to confirm that prediction. Candidates are no longer making appearances here and are even pulling back on ads in North Carolina — actions that hint that the campaigns think the N.C. results are a foregone conclusion. N.C. Democrats are in such disarray with the Jim Black and Meg Scott Phipps scandals, Gov. Bev Perdue's unpopularity and untimely backing out of a re-election bid, and the GOP-ordered redistricting that the state's Republicans have a clear advantage. Regardless of which way Ohio swings the total electoral vote, North Carolina's electoral votes seem to be securely in Romney's column.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bad politics AND bad theology

Just when you think Republican candidates will run out of stupid things to say, along comes Richard Mourdock. What he said in a candidate debate was "Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

Mourdock will pay the consequences for the insensitivity of his remark and for the political foolishness of saying something days before the election that you know will raise the ire of large portions of the electorate. No matter how sincerely you hold this belief, a smart candidate will keep his opinion to himself until after the election.

Mourdock's remarks are not only politically suicidal, they are theologically unsound. God does not "intend" rape to happen. Just because something happened, it does not mean that the "something" was God's will. If you accept Mourdock's theology, then it was God's will that Hitler killed six million Jews, Mao killed untold millions, Hurricane Katrina killed hundreds, and Lee Harvey Oswald killed Jack Kennedy. This is the same distorted theology that prompts well-meaning Christians to say to a grieving parent, "It was God's will." A loving God does not intend for His children to suffer and grieve. Tragedy is not his intention for humanity.

Mourdock ignores the doctrine of free will. God gave it to humans. Humans use their free will, oftentimes to do foolish or evil things. 

If you accept Mourdock's reasoning that God is responsible for everything that happens on Earth, then we should be putting God on trial for murder, not the 15-year-old gang-banger who shot up the neighborhood playground. Must've been God's intention, right

Bad theology. It's a bad enough that stupid politicians say stupid things, but they shouldn't blame it on God.

Fifty years ago, annihilation avoided

Fifty years ago this week, my fellow eighth-graders were jolted out of our adolescent invincibility and apathy by the realization that we might all die with only a few minutes' warning. The Cuban Missile Crisis transfixed us in a way that is hard to imagine today. Every newspaper and television network provided constant coverage of the crisis and the anxiety in Washington and Moscow.

Two PBS programs last night reminded me of just how close we came to nuclear annihilation. Even President Kennedy did not know how close we came. The Soviet Union's missiles in Cuba were equipped with nuclear warheads that could reach U.S. cities in minutes and obliterate them. Kennedy and U.S. military commanders assumed the warheads had not yet been added to the missiles. Four Soviet submarines headed to Cuba were equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes. One submarine came within a hair's breadth of launching its nuclear torpedo against U.S. Navy ships that were harassing and tracking it. If that weapon had been fired, the United States would have had to respond, and then the Soviet Union would have had to counter. The result could have been the elimination of human life in the northern hemisphere.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the finest hour of John F. Kennedy's short-lived presidency. He won immediate praise as the crisis was disarmed, but Americans did not know just how close we had come to nuclear catastrophe. Kennedy's solution was to quietly and secretly work a deal with the Soviets, assuring them that he would not invade Cuba and that he would remove obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey. Our youngest president stood up to the strong push by older, more experienced military personnel to strike Cuba immediately and take out the missiles before they could be launched. Had he followed that advice, a nuclear exchange was probably inevitable. Kennedy survived the crisis by being tough — quarantining Cuba with U.S. ships — and by being quietly willing to compromise and negotiate.

Because of Kennedy's skilled handling of the situation, we did not all die. But 13 months later, Kennedy himself was dead.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The importance of family gatherings

Last weekend, I did something quite rare for me: I flew to a distant city and returned two days later. Waiting in line to board, I tried to remember just how many airplane flights I had taken in my life — about a dozen was my initial estimate, and my counting and memory came close to that number. So I am not accustomed to flying and still feel a bit disbelieving and unnatural when the wheels lift off the runway. And the feeling of being packed like sardines in a narrow aluminum tube is still strange and a little claustrophobia-inducing to me. Still, my wife and I made our trip of some 400 miles in about an hour, did not fall from the sky and did not get arrested or too humiliated by the Transportation Safety Administration personnel. On Sunday, the process worked just as well in the opposite direction.

We did this because we are growing older and with age comes wisdom — the wisdom of knowing just how important family and family events are. We attended a wedding of the son of my wife's first cousin. This cousin, though not estranged by any means, was not exactly close. For most of their adult lives, my wife and he have lived 1,000 or more miles apart. He and his family visited our home 30 years ago; we have never visited his. The groom, this cousin's son, probably could not identify either of us in a lineup. Still, it was important to attend this wedding.

It was important because the only times we had seen this cousin or his wife or his son recently were at funerals. The wedding provided a reason for cousins to gather without there being a burial involved. The wedding rites were fittingly brief, but the conversations and the laughter were long. Six of the eight first cousins in my wife's family attended the wedding. They buried the ninth cousin two months ago, which gave the surviving cousins greater impetus to gather this time, on a happy occasion. These cousins have recognized, a bit unexpectedly, that we are now the Older Generation. It is our grandchildren who are scurrying all about, getting to know their cousins; it is our children who are supervising cooking, drinking and play. We have taken the roles of our parents, filling the vacuum their deaths have left — cautious, careful and nostalgic.

One of my regrets in life is that I did not attend the funerals of several aunts, uncles and cousins who died and were buried far from where I was living. I had plenty of excuses: We didn't have the money to go (which was very true) or we had to work and couldn't get away. But if you grasp the importance of family, you know that neither money nor time can substitute for the relationships you build with those with whom you share DNA and memories and love.

I did attend the wedding of one uncle, a gentle, faithful man who loved to laugh. I drove eight hours to the funeral and back in one day. This uncle once told me, "All we have in this old world is family." Spend all the time you can with your family; you won't get a second chance.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A vote for George McGovern

I will admit it: I voted for George McGovern in 1972. And I don't regret it. Given a choice between earnest, sincere, principled McGovern and devious, conniving, paranoid Richard Nixon, I stand by my choice. McGovern died Sunday at age 90.

Which is not to say that I agreed with McGovern's entire platform or that the world would be better today if he had won. McGovern had one central issue: End the Vietnam War. For millions of supporters, that was all that mattered. The war had gone on far too long, killed far too many people and represented a detour from American principles. Lyndon Johnson had dragged us into that war, which proved to be his undoing, and Nixon had shamelessly manipulated the war issue to win the close 1968 election. McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, had seen war close up, and he knew the Vietnam War was wrong from the start.

Beyond the war, McGovern's platform was a hodge-podge of liberal ideas. I blanched at the announcement that McGovern proposed sending every American a monthly check, establishing a guaranteed minimum income. McGovern apparently had never assessed the fiscal costs or the social impact of such a policy, but he never repudiated the idea. Only later, when he had left the Senate and was running a small business did he admit that he wished he had known the difficulties businesses faced. His overwhelming 1972 loss was a repudiation of his economic and social agenda, not his Vietnam policy. He also hurt his campaign with bone-headed strategy, such as his handling of the Tom Eagleton affair. McGovern's victory forever changed the Democratic Party, which required racial, age and gender quotas for convention delegates. Along with the rise in state primaries, these rules took the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses. It was McGovern's party committee that created the rules that gave him the nomination.

In 1972, I was a young Coast Guard officer assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division in Washington, D.C. I rode to work in a car pool of Nixon supporters and tried not to argue politics on our 20-minute commute. It was the experience of working in Washington and observing the inefficiencies and outright waste of government resources that turned me toward fiscal conservatism and made me forever dubious of political promises. I was shocked, in my youthful naivete, at the extent of McGovern's loss, carrying only one state out of 50.

A year later, I would follow intensely the Washington Post's reporting of the Watergate scandal, stories that confirmed my skeptical view of Nixon, and I would see the mood of Washington change when the humble, earnest Gerald Ford took over.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

'Town Hall' misses and stumbles

I've never cared for the "town hall" debate format, and last night's entertainment did not change my opinion. The format emphasizes personality and an ability to connect with strangers rather than examining important public issues.

Regardless of my opinion, the format seems firmly planted in the American political landscape.  President Obama pretty clearly won last night's debate, but it was not so much because of his performance as it was Mitt Romney's weak showing and stumbles. The two candidates exchanged some sharp challenges and displayed more than a little irritation. Obama, however, seemed more comfortable while Romney got flustered and irritated by some of the comments by the president, who clearly enjoyed needling the challenger.

Neither candidate addressed the big issues they've been avoiding throughout most of the campaign. Neither has produced a coherent, passable deficit reduction and debt elimination plan. Despite his adamant insistence that his tax-cut proposal will reduce the deficit, Romney's plan doesn't seem plausible to most economists or to me. He failed, however, to point out that Obama doesn't have a workable plan either. If they were honest with the public and with themselves, they would admit that cutting the deficit will be painful. We've been spending wildly and will have to pay the piper. We will also face painful changes to Social Security and Medicare, which are headed toward insolvency.

Romney seems determined to cut taxes, even though tax cuts during wartime has helped get us into this mess. And Obama's claim that he would use money not spent on wars to rebuild American infrastructure ignores the fact that the wars were financed by borrowed money, so his spending plan would require more borrowing and more debt.

Both candidates flubbed the question on equal pay. Obama referred to the Lily Ledbetter Act, which Congress passed overwhelmingly and is the law of the land, as is the Equal Pay Act. And then he went off on a tangent about health care and contraception. Mr. President, the question was about equal pay!

But leave it to Romney to create the latest social media sensation with his story about getting "binders of women" when he was governor of Massachusetts. The question was about equal pay, not about job opportunities. What both men should have said was something like this: "It's true that women earn less than men, despite federal laws that prohibit discrimination on account of gender. But the gap between men's and women's pay is narrowing and will continue to narrow. More women than men are earning college degrees, and the recent recession resulted in more men than women being laid off, so that gender pay gap is likely going to disappear. At least some of the pay difference is the result of career or lifestyle choices. Many women interrupt their careers to care for young children, and this results in a loss of potential earnings. This, too, is changing as more and more men are staying home while their wives work. Some women have been reluctant to pursue some highly compensated vocations, but that, too, is changing. Pay discrimination is illegal, and it is being enforced, and as society changes and society's expectations of women change, the pay gap will continue to narrow and will probably disappear completely."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Bill Friday's handshake

Someone asked if I was going to the funeral today in Chapel Hill, and I said no, but I'd like to. I'd like to pay my respects and show my admiration for a man who was the greatest North Carolinian of his generation, William Friday. The president emeritus of the University of North Carolina did more for this state during the 20th century than anyone I can think of, and he did it while retaining the respect and admiration of almost everyone in the state.

He was ever the perfect gentleman and always the advocate and defender of education and ever the critic and enemy of ignorance and poverty. Friday could have had any number of jobs, including political offices (governor and U.S. Senate), if he had wanted them, but he saw his calling as leading the University of North Carolina through its most tumultuous years. And when he retired in 1986, he remained in the center of North Carolina civic and educational life, maintaining a university office and interviewing people weekly on UNC-TV.

I was a student at UNC in roughly the middle of Friday's tenure as president, 1956-1986, and I knew him only as the presiding officer at ceremonial events and the calming voice in times of crisis. I did not formally meet him until many years later, after the publication of William Link's biography, "William Friday: Power, Purpose & American Higher Education." Link and Friday spoke at Barton College's Friends of the Library event in 1995 or '96, and Jim Hemby, then the Barton president, introduced me to Friday (Hemby had worked under Friday during a sabbatical). Shaking my hand, Friday exclaimed, "Oh, I know Hal Tarleton!"

I smiled and brushed off the greeting, assuming Friday probably said that to everyone he met. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps he did know my name and face. For three or four years in the 1990s, I was a member of a panel of newspaper editorial writers who appeared on UNC-TV's "North Carolina This Week" program. Friday was likely a regular viewer of the show since he was also a UNC-TV personality, and perhaps he did remember me from that show.

I'd like to think so, anyway.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Night sky puts on a show for free

When I walked to the end of the driveway to retrieve the morning paper a few days ago, a celestial light show greeted me. Just above the eastern horizon, the crescent moon and the planet Venus aligned on a perfect plane just a few degrees above the treeline. The moon's crescent tips pointed upward, looking like the bright rim of a water basin against the black sky.

As I turned back toward the house, I looked to the south and found Orion, the hunter, stalking game across the celestial plains, followed by his loyal hunting dogs, always just a few degrees east and south of the hunter's belt. Above and facing Orion was Taurus, with bright stars outlining the bull's horns and one additional jewel in the constellation. Directly overhead, Jupiter had settled in its wanderings between the tips of Taurus' fearsome horns.

Soon, as the morning's chill seeps into the daytime and the nights go from chilly to frigid, Orion and his dogs will confront Taurus in the evening sky. Then the winter sky show will be available for all to see, not just those who rise before sunrise. The dry, clear winter sky will sparkle with the fabled characters' bright jewels, and I will stare in appreciation as human eyes have stared — and human brains imagined — for thousands of years at the wonder of the universe displayed in points of light.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In this debate, there's no clear winner

After the presidential debate, my wife, who had gone to bed long before it ended, asked me, "Who won?" I said I thought Romney had clearly won, and I was gratified later to see that the national pundits, and even the Obama-Biden operatives, agreed with me.

The outcome of last night's vice presidential debate was less clear. It was more of a draw with both candidates winning some points and committing some errors. Vice President Biden did not commit any of his famous verbal gaffes, and he stayed aggressive throughout the night. Maybe too aggressive. He repeatedly interrupted Congressman Ryan and often came across as a spoiled bully who refused to play by the rules. His eye-rolling, grinning, and guffawing at Ryan's comments made him seem condescending and contemptuous. Credit moderator Martha Raddatz with keeping control of the discussion and asking thoughtful questions. Maybe she should be on somebody's ticket.

Ryan committed no major unforced errors, and his quiet, highly focused demeanor was in sharp contrast to Biden's chuckling and bombast. Ryan came across as what he's been subscribed to be: a smart, deliberate, organized, cerebral policy wonk. That might be reassuring to some voters, but it's not charismatic. Simply put, Biden came across as a politician accustomed to rowdy debate while Ryan came across as a technocrat who can explain complex issues but can't make them sexy.

Ryan seemed to hold his own on tax issues, about which Biden frequently rolled his eyes and threw up his hands, and he made points on the Libyan consulate murders and the administration's changing explanations. The best Biden could do was to promise to get to the bottom of it. Ryan was less convincing about other aspects of Obama's foreign policy, and Biden defended the administration well. It came down to two views of foreign policy, neither of which is provably wrong. Ryan scored some points on the jobs issue, and Biden had little but his own assurances that the economy has improved and things would be better — soon.

In one of the final questions, Raddatz challenged the two Catholics to explain how their faith affects their position on abortion. Ryan responded clearly why his faith and his experiences have made him "pro-life." Biden said he accepted the church's teachings (without personally endorsing them) but said he did not believe government should impose his views on women who do not share his position.

In the end, Ryan did not hurt the GOP ticket, and Biden did not hurt the Democratic ticket. The presidential race has tightened and will likely be decided on the basis of the next two presidential debates and on events beyond the control of the candidates.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The decline and fall of American religion

A new study finds that 20 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, a percentage that has soared dramatically in the past two decades. This is a seismic shift in American society with ramifications for politics, social policy, economics, education and ethics — in short, for every aspect of American life.

To measure the dramatic shift, think back 50 years to the presidential campaigns and the manned spaceflight program. The religious affiliations of the presidential candidates — a Roman Catholic and a Quaker — were large issues in the 1960 campaign. The seven Mercury astronauts were quizzed regularly about their religious faith and how it affected their preparations for space flight and for potential tragedy. Church affiliation was an important aspect of a businessman's resume just a couple of decades ago. Major banks and other institutions expected their top executives to belong to churches and civic clubs and to be involved in the religious and secular institutions of their communities.

Today, religion gets little notice, and when it is noticed, it is usually in a negative light. Pin some of the blame on religious extremists who wish to impose their views on others, but more broadly, religious affiliation just doesn't matter much any more to voters or to business customers.

American religious history is not one smooth, linear trajectory. There have been various periods of religious fervor interspersed with growing secularism in the past 300 years, but the sudden rise in non-affiliation is unprecedented. Even during earlier periods of less religious fervor, church affiliation filled social as well as religious needs. Today's more insular social style and the spread of electronic social media have reduced the need for churches as a source of personal interaction and friendship.

Americans of the 21st century are among the most religiously ignorant and biblically illiterate in history. A passing knowledge of the Bible and of biblical stories was necessary to understand American literature and literary allusions, but today's generations, as studies have shown, are largely ignorant of biblical stories and biblical characters. They also have little appreciation of the role religion played in the decision making and the personal ethics of people such as Washington and Lincoln.

For many Americans of this century, Sunday is just the second day of the weekend, and churches are an impediment to residential or commercial development.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A country that's not so great

"This is the greatest country in the world."

You hear that sentiment all the time, especially during election season, and the statement comes from both ends of the political spectrum. It's a given, a cliche so expected that no one notices it any more.

But is it true? Can it be true when Congress, the highest legislative body in the country, the organization that is supposed to be setting a course for the nation, is widely described as dysfunctional? Congress still has not passed a budget for the current fiscal year. On Jan. 1, the nation reaches a deadline contrived to get the country past a crisis manipulated for political purposes. The solution was not to resolve the differences among elected representatives but to avoid taking action of any kind for several months. Recent reports indicate that Congress is unlikely to take action on this "fiscal cliff" before the deadline arrives.

Congress, by the way, is already on vacation from its appointed duties, having clocked out in September until after next month's election. Congress is in session and at work only four days a week when it is in session, and its recesses have grown longer and longer over the past several years.

In session or out, congressional leaders spend most of their time criticizing members of the other party and contriving legislation whose only purpose is to provide more criticism of the other party. Truly important legislation, such as the budget, never gets enacted or even debated. For 20 years, Congress has recognized that the nation's Social Security and Medicare systems are fiscally unsustainable. Social Security can be repaired through relatively minor changes in benefits and/or contributions, but neither party wants to face the criticism the other party will unload upon anyone who suggests corrective changes. Likewise, Medicare needs practical revisions, but political considerations keep changes bottled up.

The nation's debt ($16 trillion) presents an imminent threat to the economic health of the nation, but Congress seems incapable of dealing with the matter because both major parties are so fixed on their own political interests that they will neither adopt practical solutions nor allow the other party do it. Congressional leaders would rather win the next election than solve the country's problems. Despite the fact that Congress is one of the most reviled institutions in the country (16 percent approval rating), nearly all of the incumbents will be re-elected because computer-assisted manipulation of congressional districts give incumbents a huge advantage over challengers.

How can we call this "the greatest country in the world"?

Monday, October 1, 2012

In autumn, our lives change

In the nearly two weeks since I last posted, something has changed. The morning is dark. My walk down the driveway is now in nighttime. My eyes search for the rolled-up paper in the faint shadows of a streetlight. Stars and a bright Venus sparkle in the morning sky, or dark clouds hang like blindfolds in the sky.

Autumn has arrived. We open windows to pull the cool air inside. The dogwoods have turned from green to red and gold. Fallen oak leaves litter the lawn and driveway. The lawn has gone unmowed for two weeks, and the lapse is not apparent.

This is my favorite time of year, when the chill in the air invigorates me, when the clear sky develops a deeper shade of blue, when summer's oppressive humidity relinquishes its bodily squeeze. My thoughts turn to mountain escapes and apples and the scent of burning leaves. My mind recalls Saturday afternoons in a college football stadium and my little children, parents themselves now, giggling in Halloween costumes. The harvest celebrations of our agricultural past linger in these traditions of decorated pumpkins, Indian corn decorations and Thanksgiving. But we are as far removed from harvest fields as we are from the horse-drawn plow.

One evening soon, we will sit before the fire fueled by natural gas and imagine the aroma of burning oak and the crackle of pine knots bursting into flame. Winter will envelope us, and we will snuggle for warmth and light candles through the long hours of winter darkness as the sun rises late, rides low through the day and sets early. In the dark night we will celebrate the light and the warmth, and we will wait for the days to grow longer once again.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scandal claims chancellor, too

Holden Thorp has submitted his resignation as chancellor of my alma mater, the latest victim of a sports-and-academics scandal that seemingly knows no end. I am saddened by his resignation because I had high hopes for Thorp, 48, who was young enough to lead the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for decades. An alumnus of UNC, a North Carolina native, an acclaimed faculty member and campus administrator, he seemed ideal for the position.

I had hopes that he would restore the relationships with the town of Chapel Hill, faculty and state legislators that had been damaged under Chancellor James Moeser's reign. Moeser, an experienced administrator, was "not from around here" and did not understand North Carolina's political culture or fully appreciate UNC's history and traditions.

When Thorp fired football coach Butch Davis, I was reminded of President Bill Friday's brave and bold decision to eliminate the popular Dixie Classic, which had been a part of a basketball point-shaving scandal. Other Carolina alumni did not see it that way and wanted Davis restored and Thorp's head on a platter. My only criticism was that he should have done it earlier and should not have allowed generous severance packages for Davis and John Blake, the defensive coach who was at the heart of the sports agent scandal.

But the Davis debacle was only the beginning. News media probing uncovered embarrassing problems in the Africa and Afro-American Studies Department. Athletes were signing up for these no-show classes and getting high grades, which kept them eligible to play sports. It's clear, even as this investigation continues, that academic integrity was sacrificed for football (and perhaps basketball) needs. And that's an embarrassment for all alumni.

UNC's faculty has rallied around Thorp and asked university president Tom Ross to not accept the resignation. The professors like having one of their own, a distinguished academician and proud alumnus, running the show. But it seems unlikely that Thorp will remain in his office past June 2013. He is burned out by the crises and the criticism, and who could blame him?

Thorp made some bad decisions. He championed Butch Davis' aspirations — spending millions to close in the end of Kenan Stadium (and destroy the iconic Kenan Field House in the process) — and gave too much leeway to athletics, until the tail was wagging the dog. He trusted other administrators and was not skeptical enough about some hiring and travel decisions. In his heart, it appears to me, he's always been on the side of academics and the faculty, but he had allowed himself to get too caught up in the excitement of college sports.

The whole darned Atlantic Coast Conference and most of the nation has made that same mistake.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney's 47 percent

A few observations on Mitt Romney's latest fumble:

1. Romney is largely right that a large share of the American electorate will not vote for him and can't be persuaded to do so. But the same is true for Barack Obama.

2. It's true that many Americans feel they are "entitled" to certain benefits from the government or from charities that help poor people, and it's true that these people are probably unlikely to vote for a Republican for president. But to say that all of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes are in this broader "entitlement" category is simply wrong. The 47 percent includes retirees who don't make enough money to be taxed. It also includes a large portion of the working class who have children and large deductible expenses resulting in an adjusted gross income of zero or near-zero. And there is a small portion of that 47 percent who are quite well off — Romney fans — who have deductions, non-taxable income and tax dodges that exempt them from the income tax.

3. Just because you don't pay federal income tax doesn't mean you don't pay taxes. All working people pay FICA, the payroll tax that goes to Social Security and Medicare. Even among people who pay taxes, for some working people, the payroll tax exceeds their income tax liability. These people who pay no federal income tax do pay sales taxes, payroll taxes and (sometimes) state income taxes. So it's not like they're complete freeloaders.

4. Romney's private-party comments suggest that he doesn't care much for the great unwashed masses, nor does he understand them. While some may be entitlement beggars, others are struggling, patriotic workers who are doing the best they can within the system. If he'd known his comments would become public, I doubt that he would have denigrated so many potential voters.

5. One measure of character is how one treats those people who can do nothing for you. Or how you think of people who aren't like you and can do nothing for you.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Claude Starling, 1947-2012

Claude Dees Starling, who died Saturday night, was a colleague, an explainer of Wilson history to this non-native, a lover of good puns and bad jokes, a storyteller and a genuine friend for more than 30 years. When I came to Wilson in 1980 as the new managing editor, it was Claude, along with editor John Scott, who showed me the ropes and told me the stories and warned me of the hazards in my new position. Like Hamlet's Yorick, he was "a man of infinite jest," whose stories could keep you chuckling for hours.

He was intelligent and well read but easily distracted and not well organized. He had no interest in administrative duties that were offered to him, and he saw technology the way the Luddites saw machinery. He hated each new version of software that he was forced to learn in the years after The Wilson Daily Times put away manual typewriters 29 years ago. "You have to think like a computer," I advised him, as I had advised others who railed against the arcane commands of software, but he wanted none of it. The linear, "if, then" concepts of computer codes were contrary to Claude's serendipitous nature. He liked finding things, not necessarily the things he was looking for.

He adapted, when he had to, first to tedious, DOS-based routines and later to point-and-click, WYSIWYG, GUI computers that challenged him without fascinating him. Claude had an obsessive streak, which led him to brag when I first met him, about the 10 times he had seen "Star Wars" at the theater (no home video in those days). He was so obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkein that he made it part of his email password. He would challenge new friends to trivia contests about any number of topics he knew a lot about — UNC basketball, "Star Wars," Tolkein, Civil War history, or The Beatles. He declared me "pretty good" on Beatles trivia. I played Trivial Pursuit with him a time or two, and he once refused to accept my "Never Land" answer for the correct "Never-Never Land."

He never married and rarely had a date, but he was surely attracted to women, even if women were not attracted to him. He never had children but loved them and could win their hearts in an instant because he communicated with them on their level. He was avuncular and funny. He played Santa Claus for the Arts Council a time or two, and had a great time. He was courteous, even courtly at times. He was a shrewd investor who studied the markets and made good decisions, and dozens of colleagues followed his advice.

After he was laid off and I was working for the Red Cross, I called to ask him if he would like to volunteer at the Red Cross office. He jumped at the opportunity, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, he thanked me for asking him. He admitted that he'd been bored to death in his apartment with no one to talk to. Volunteering gave him a purpose two afternoons a week, and the Red Cross got a needed but not budgeted receptionist.

All of us who loved Claude also saw his flaws and were frustrated by them because he had no intention of changing. He never cleaned his desk and would be upset when someone else, no longer able to stand it, cleaned it for him. He'd wear a badly stained sweatshirt that looked like a rag. He loved food and could describe meals with mouth-watering enthusiasm. In his final weeks, he entertained visitors with lists of the 10 or 50 best meals he'd ever had. If you asked him, "How was your vacation?" he would start by telling you about the restaurants where he ate. That love of rich food battled against his diabetic tendencies and ultimately did him in.

Years ago, I attended, along with several other newspaper colleagues, the funeral for Claude's mother. Claude arose for the eulogy and spoke with a clear, unbroken voice full of warmth, despite his grief. He began by saying that at some church occasions, you have a "family side" and a "friends side," but he wanted us to know, "you're all family today." I was so impressed that I told him after the service that I'd like to book him for my funeral.

That won't be. A few months ago, Claude told me his goal was to live to age 70, but he wasn't sure he'd make it. He nearly didn't make it to 65 and Medicare eligibility after going without insurance for months following his layoff after 41 years at the newspaper.

I wish he could have made it just another five years.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Foreign policy enters presidential campaign

This was supposed to be a presidential election built on the economy. Economic issues would triumph everything, including a war in Afghanistan that is still killing Americans on a near-daily basis. Foreign policy wasn't going to matter.

Then an American ambassador was killed by a mob in Libya, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney spoke before thinking, accusing the Obama administration of being apologetic to the Arab mobs. Suddenly, foreign policy is at the forefront. Obama's strategy of winning over Islamic leaders with compassion for their long-standing complaints and understanding for their beliefs has not reached the success he'd hoped for. Despite American intervention to help Muslims in Bosnia, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, the West Bank and other places, the United States is still despised by many who occupy the streets in Arab countries. Those who foment hatred for the United States retain an advantage and continue to pretend that the United States is the root of all evil in the world. An uneducated and largely illiterate population follow the Islamists' lead.

But Romney's world view seems destined to only make matters worse. His comments after riots in Egypt and Libya seemed to suggest that the only way to communicate with angry Muslims is to ignore their complaints and strike them down. Another land war in the Middle East, anyone? Romney complains that the United States is not being strong and forceful in the face of Arab protests. How many American lives and how much American treasure will it take to impose Romney's will on the recalcitrant Arab mobs?

Obama's strategy hasn't transformed the Middle East, but the neoconservative strategy of invading countries to impose our will didn't work so well either.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Religious outrage can't justify murder

The murder of American Ambassador Chris Stevens in a Libyan riot sparked by an amateur video raises doubts about the suitability of Libya and other Islamic nations for the community of civilized countries. Stevens, who had served in Libya through the overthrow of Gaddafi and the establishment of the new regime, was a career diplomat and, obviously, had nothing to do with the offensive anti-Islamic video that sparked the rioting that killed him. Diplomatic principles require host countries to accept and defend their diplomatic guests and their sovereign property (embassy grounds).

U.S. officials have expressed outrage at the killing — though Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attempted to criticize the Obama administration for not being harsh enough — but can do little in a country like Libya, where an incendiary mob can sweep aside all reason and sensibility. The rioters, who likely had little knowledge of democracy or the principles of Western civilization, attacked the U.S. embassy, even though the United States had no connection with the video that angered them. The rioters' outrage over a bit of video justified, in their minds, murder and destruction.

The United States has aided and defended the new regimes in Egypt and Libya and has condemned religious intolerance in all its forms. But for the Islamist rioters, the United States' very tolerance of religious diversity is offensive and damnable. Until all governments are willing to defend religious diversity and free expression of religion (and this includes U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and others), the world will be unsafe and religious people, of whatever faith, will live in fear.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Get serious about federal debt

Deficit reduction isn't getting the attention it deserves in this year's presidential campaign. Both parties are too busy trying to carve out an advantage among targeted niche voters to address the big issues like the federal debt. But the coming of the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, when the Bush tax cuts expire and the sequestration of spending that Congress agreed to earlier takes effect, should bring deficits back into the spotlight.

If anyone were truly serious about doing something about the federal debt and deficit — and neither the highly touted Paul Ryan plan nor the Obama budget results in a balanced budget, just more (but smaller) deficits and more debt — here's what I'd suggest:

Step one: Eliminate the $4 million funding for each of the party conventions. If there's a bigger waste in the federal budget, I can't think of it offhand. It's only a million bucks a year per party, but it's the principle involved. Wasteful spending should be eliminated.

Step two: Reduce congressional staffing by 25 percent over a two- to five-year period. All reductions should be at the GS 9 level or above (i.e., don't just lay off receptionists, ticket takers and security guards). As far as possible, let attrition take care of the reduction, hence, the long transition period.

Step three: Reduce White House staffing by 25 percent ... See above; same rules.

Step four: Reduce Executive Branch and Judicial Branch staffing by 25 percent ... see above; same rules.

Step five: Eliminate federal funding for charities and state agencies by 50 percent over a 10-year period with the aim of eliminating them entirely. 

Step six: If implementation of these cuts to the bloated federal bureaucracy is not sufficient to eliminate the deficit and begin paying off the federal debt, rewrite the federal income tax code to make it simple and fair with just two or three tax rates and deductions only allowed for charitable contributions and child rearing expenses. Simplify the tax forms so that an entire return can fit on one page. Set the tax rates so that sufficient revenue comes in to pay for the smaller government and for paying off the federal debt.