Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romney should have stayed home

Mitt Romney's overseas trip had to be designed to add a bit of gravitas and foreign relations credibility to his resume. It hasn't worked out quite the way the strategists imagined.

If he never had opened his mouth on his tour of England, Israel and Poland, he might have been better off. Every time he delivered a speech or made casual remarks, it seems, he ended up with his foot in his mouth. He angered the mayor of London and the prime minister when he responded, frankly, that he wasn't sure that London was quite ready for the Olympic Games, citing some snafus regarding security. Then he upset Palestinians when he referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (the United States recognizes Tel Aviv as the capital) and then suggested that "culture" explains Israel's higher standard of living compared to the Palestinian territories. In Poland, his spokesman shouted vulgarities at the press corps, adding to the campaign's bad publicity.

In defense of Romney, there was good reason to have doubts about whether London's security around the games was adequate, but a presidential nominee should be smart enough to hold his tongue over such concerns. And it is true that culture, broadly defined, contributes to economic vitality. Culture in this sense includes such things as a tradition of bribery and kickbacks, equality of opportunity, a fair and trusted justice system, and a work ethic that includes striving to move up in the world. Israel has that; the Palestinian territories and most Arab countries do not.

Even if he's telling the truth and making accurate observations, Romney is not making much headway in this trip. As November draws near, he might regret spending time in Europe while he was losing ground among U.S. voters.

Friday, July 27, 2012

All freedoms have their limits

What is the most feared lobbying group in Washington? Not the AARP. Not the NAACP. Not Big Pharma. Not the health insurance industry. Undoubtedly, the most feared group in D.C. is the National Rifle Association.

Just look at the way left-leaning Democrats have scurried for cover at even a hint of strengthening assault-weapons laws in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., massacre. President Obama belatedly suggested that the mentally ill shouldn't be allowed to buy firearms and that rapid-fire, large-capacity guns should not be in civilian hands. Democrats in Congress ran for cover as if they were being sprayed by a 50-caliber machine gun. And the gun supporters pulled out their usual arguments that "guns don't kill people ..." and "laws don't stop criminals," and "if owning a gun is a crime, then only criminals will have guns." Yeah, we've heard it all before.

But no one is suggesting that gun ownership be banned. It cannot be so long as the Second Amendment is in the Constitution. But like all constitutional rights, the Second Amendment is not absolute, regardless of what the NRA might tell you. Freedom of the press does not prohibit lawsuits for libel. Freedom of speech does not prohibit defamation lawsuits. Freedom of assembly may be limited by a requirement to obtain a parade permit or to prohibit violent disruptions. And the right to bear arms can be limited by sensible restrictions to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people and to limit possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Gun advocates' opposition to background checks for gun ownership plays into the hands of the mentally ill and outright crazy who end up murdering people. If the right to bear arms is absolute, as some people claim, then it is all right for a civilian to own 50-caliber machine guns, artillery pieces, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs. But that right is not absolute.

The issue should be: Where do we draw the line on the right to bear arms? That's an issue that can be sensibly debated and decided based on the collective will of the people. But so long as the NRA claims there can be no debate over limits to the Second Amendment, that discussion cannot take place.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Magazines still convey the word

I was passing along a well-read back issue of the Atlantic magazine to a friend when a bystander looked at the magazine and said, "The Atlantic? I've never heard of that."

Flummoxed a bit by the remark, I could only say, "It's one of the oldest magazines in America; been around since the 1850s."

On reflection, I concluded I should not have been so surprised. The Atlantic (of which I've been a subscriber for nearly 40 years), Harper's, the New Yorker and other magazines are aimed at readers who appreciate in-depth reporting, big ideas and excellently crafted writing. Typical American information consumers are more likely to glean their news from People magazine, US Weekly or the ubiquitous television entertainment shows. More Americans know who Kim Kardashian is than know who John Roberts is, and that information distribution jeopardizes democracy, which depends on a well-informed electorate.

"In the beginning was the Word," the Gospel according to John tells us, but the Word, the printed word, has become less integral to our information regimen than is the quick audio quip, the viral video or the spectacular photo. Even those consumers who read tend to read in snippets found in the 25-word factoids of USA Today, the "trending" insights of CNN or the 50-word briefs of Time magazine. There's no more obvious an example of where American information consumers have gone than in the ESPN horde of channels. Fifty years ago, die-hard sports fans immersed themselves in the minutiae of athletic statistics and devoured colorfully written game stories in newspapers and magazines with great sports writers. Today, ESPN provides not only an unending access to sports events but also a relentless blather about events, athletes and gossip. Talking about something, though, is not the same as writing about it or reading about it.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that an intelligent contemporary would have never heard of the Atlantic. It and other magazines like it are anachronisms, conveyors of thoughtful, well-crafted words in a world of sights, sounds and trending videos.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Penn State economic powerhouse

The NCAA did not kill Penn State football with the dreaded "death penalty," which would ban the PSU football program for a year or more. But the NCAA did impose a harsher penalty than it has ever imposed before — a $60 million fine, a reduction in scholarships, cancellation of football victories and other penalties.

But Penn State's crimes are more egregious than any ever disclosed before in a NCAA football program. Penn State, and in particular sainted coach Joe Paterno, had covered up and swept under the rug a pattern of pedophilia by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who has been convicted of abusing 10 young boys.

The penalties imposed on Penn State football should dampen the enthusiasm of PSU fans, who chant "We are ... Penn State." That chant is no longer a boast; it's a confession. The punishment will do more than penalize the university's football program. As at other major-college football powerhouses, Penn State football is an economic microcosm in itself. The NCAA estimated that football generates $60 million annually for the university. Add to that the hotel stays, the restaurant meals, the souvenir sales, travel purchases and all the other economic activities that go into major college football, and the impact of the NCAA sanctions will cause an autumn recession in central Pennsylvania. Happy Valley won't be so happy anymore.

The Penn State situation emphasizes both the need to rein in college athletic programs and the difficulty of limiting any activity that is so large and is depended upon by so many people inside and outside of collegiate athletics. The hypocrisy of Division I universities exploiting unpaid athletes in order to enrich the universities and the all-powerful NCAA has been abundantly chronicled. But imposing sensible limits and fairness toward athletes battles the economic reliance of so many enterprises outside the university system that reform has remained stalled for a generation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

One writer's disappointment

Whenever I read an article like this one, I am struck by an overwhelming mixture of envy and remorse. Since high school (a very long time ago), I have wanted to write ... and to write and to write. For too many years, I had assumed I was only a step or two from literary success. If only I could find the time to write. If only I could get away from the distractions and responsibilities of home life. If only I had a computer, which would make revision so much simpler. If only I could get a publisher or an agent to look at my work and take it seriously.

I am still in that purgatory of having written but never succeeded, never overcome the barriers. For years, I excused myself for not feeling like sitting at the keyboard in the evening after slaving over a keyboard and words all day at the newspaper editor's desk. Even when it seemed a bitter injustice in the form of a job layoff gave me the time to write and I spent hours each day working on novels, I never found that agent or that publisher who thought my work was worthwhile.

I am buoyed by the remark included in most writers' success stories about how difficult it is to be published by traditional publishing houses these days, but it still does not assuage the disappointment that I never became what I had fully expected to be 45 years ago. Instead, I have become something I never foresaw: a most fortunate husband and father and proud grandfather.

I could add to that list: failed writer. But not yet. I'm still writing, still trying to carve out the time, to buckle down, to get it done, to say something worthy of being read. Still trying after all these years.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Academic embarrassment is worse

The news just keeps getting worse for the University of North Carolina. The NCAA has vacated the football team's wins for the past two seasons and declared the Tar Heels ineligible for post-season play this year. And today's paper brings the news that superstar Hakeem Nicks' records at Carolina are being erased, or at least asterisked, because Nicks was involved in the same academic scandal that has tarnished so many other football players.

For those whose blood runs Carolina blue (and I'll spare you the number of relatives over three or four generations my wife and I have who attended Carolina), the NCAA sanctions, the reversal of winning seasons and the banned-for-life players are nothing compared to the embarrassment of the academic scandal that apparently was interwoven with the athletics scandal. It's not just athletes getting impermissible help in writing papers from a too-helpful tutor. It's the faux classes reserved for football players, classes where those on the roster didn't have to attend and didn't have to do any class work to get their A's that would guarantee them eligibility to continue the fraudulent title of "student athlete."

Universities can survive the embarrassment of a sports program that falls off the tightrope of the NCAA's picayune rules. The embarrassment at Carolina goes much deeper. These allegations go to the heart of what a university is — a place of academic inquiry and intellectual rigor where the best students excel. UNC has allowed its aspirations of athletic prowess to undermine its hard-won and deserved reputation for academic excellence.

I have no doubt that UNC-Chapel Hill provides a solid, rigorous and valuable education. Its undergraduate and graduate programs are highly rated, and its alumni are fiercely loyal. But the few exceptions made to accommodate enrolled athletes who were not prepared for or qualified for higher education eats away the foundations of a 223-year-old institution.

UNC's hallowed halls rang with the debate of academic excellence and freedom long before college football and the NCAA ever existed. UNC will survive this self-inflicted stab in the back, but the scar from this wound will not fade for many years, and that is the embarrassment all Carolina alumni must bear.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I voted in the primary runoff

I have joined the 1 percent — not the 1 percent whose income is higher than the other 99 percent but the 1 percent (or maybe 3 percent, give or take) who voted in Tuesday's runoff primary. I was one of the very few North Carolinians who wore an "I Voted" sticker all day.

I had no strong feelings about the runoff races. For me, there was only one contest on the ballot — for the Democratic nomination for commissioner of labor, a Council of State office that I have frequently argued should be appointed by the governor, not elected by voters who know little or nothing about the candidates. (The federal government does all right by having the president appoint the secretary of state, secretary of labor, secretary of education, etc.)

Still, I voted. I did so because it is a right and a privilege. I voted because I always vote. I try to never miss an opportunity to vote. In more than 40 years of voting, I've never voted a "straight ticket" ballot. I always assumed there were good men and women on both sides of the ballot, and I tried to pick those good people, regardless of party affiliation.

I voted without having to show an ID, but had I been required to show a picture ID, I would have gladly complied. After all, I show an ID when asked to cash a check, use a charge card or register at a hotel. Voting is as important as any of those actions. I recognize that some people might not have picture IDs, but that barrier can be overcome. Besides, anyone who is so disconnected from society as to not have an ID or to not know they need to get one in order to vote probably is not connected enough to make an informed decision about voting.

I voted. I'm one of the 1 percent or 3 percent or whatever it is.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Biggest Loser? American nutrition

How bad is America's obesity problem? It's so bad that it has become entertainment. It's a popular television show (I confess I've never watched and never want to watch it) that holds auditions for people who compete for the opportunity to be forced to lose weight.

A TV show isn't necessary. The obesity problem is all around us. Take a look around at almost any public venue, and you'll see people waddling on painful knees and ankles, hauling weight that is 100, 200, 300 pounds more than the human skeleton was designed to carry. Even in exercise facilities, you'll see folks who are as nearly as wide as they are tall, but you usually don't see them for long. They quickly tire of their routine of five or 10 minutes on an exercise bike and pumping 10 pounds of weight on the bench press and give up on losing weight through exercise.

And it's easy to see how this epidemic started: the all-you-can-eat buffets (a good place to find the obese among us), the 32-ounce soft drinks, the triple-decker hamburgers, the super-size fries, the high-fructose corn syrup that seems to be in nearly ever food product on the supermarket shelves. It's an epidemic that strikes across ages and economic levels. There are little children who can fit Santa's role (a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly) and old people whose knees have given out from carrying all that weight. Teens and college students, who should be the most active cohort, have their share of waddlers. Older Americans at fast-food restaurants have difficulty fitting into the booths and chairs made for leaner customers. The wealthy have access to the most nutritious and the most fattening foods, but the poor, including those whose diets are subsidized by the government, are often obese, too. Some are obese at the same time they are poorly nourished because their diets are heavy in fats and sugars and light on nutrition and vitamins.

What can be done? New York's ban on super-size soft drinks probably won't work, although these giant drinks (sometimes consumed three or four times a day) are part of the problem. Even accounting for differences in metabolic rates, the fundamental problem with obesity is over-consumption of calories (especially "empty" calories) and lack of exercise. The human body is a machine that converts fuel (food calories) into energy, which is either expended in work/exercise or retained as fat. Some food choices appear to alter the body's ability to use energy (chemically sweetened "diet" drinks have this deleterious effect, according to some research), but the fundamental problem is consumption vs. expenditure of energy.

Shows like "Biggest Loser" are a reminder of how pervasive the problem is, but it's no solution to a lifetime of bad habits.

Monday, July 16, 2012

After the election, the big tax debate

Four months before the election, President Obama seems to have grasped an advantage with his attacks on Mitt Romney's honesty and trustworthiness. The Obama campaign last week asserted that Romney was guilty of either (1) laying off American workers by shipping jobs overseas during his work at Bain Capital or (2) falsifying securities documents, which is a felony. This sort of personal attack is bad enough by itself, but coming from the campaign of the guy who pledged to usher in a cooperative, bipartisan attitude in Washington, it's shocking. But Obama has stood behind his campaign's accusations.

Romney got rich by raising money for big deals that sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. If that's a crime; he's guilty. If American voters don't want that background in their elected leaders, they have the option of opposing Romney.

A more interesting decision might come a month after the November election. According to news reports today, Democratic leaders may be willing to allow the Bush era tax cuts to expire at the end of this year rather than allow the tax cuts to continue for all income levels, as the Republicans prefer. Obama and congressional Democrats have opposed extending the tax cuts for Americans making more than $250,000 a year.

If Democrats can hold their coalition together, all they have to do is stop the Republican plan to extend the tax cuts. With a Senate majority, Democrats can prevent the extension. Without new legislation, the Bush tax cuts would end on Dec. 31.

There are worse things that could happen than seeing taxes return to 2000 levels — a time when the federal government was running a surplus instead of spending about a trillion dollars a year more than it takes in. The ingenuity of this plan is that it reshapes the debate. Once tax rates return to the level before the Bush cuts — cuts that were intended to give the budget surplus back to taxpayers — tax debates revert to what are the optimal tax rates for all income levels. That's a debate the Democrats can win. Higher taxes will hobble the economy, but reducing the federal deficit will benefit investments and benefit the economy. It's not likely to be "a wash," but keep in mind that we were paying these tax rates in the 1990s, when the economy was booming through most of the decade.

This tax debate could be more interesting than the election itself.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A sterling reputation is lost forever

A good reputation is such a fragile thing. We preach this lesson to our children: Beware of who your friends are; don't be seen hanging around with the wrong crowd; don't do things you wouldn't want to read about in the newspaper; make your mother proud.

Joe Paterno had a good reputation, the best reputation in all of college football. But he had one friend who was not good, and Paterno valued that friendship and his own reputation and the reputation of his college above the safety and health of dozens of children. Now Paterno is dead and can no longer defend himself as his reputation is torn to shreds by revelations that he urged Penn State University to sweep child abuse under the rug, all for the good of the school and for his own good reputation. As a result, his reputation has been not just tarnished but repudiated.

A good reputation is a difficult thing to build and an easy thing to lose.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

That hot spell, long-term

A week of 100-degree temperatures has left lawns in this area brittle and dusty. Shrubs and trees show the stress of lack of rain. A promised cool front seemed to fizzle out last night with barely enough rain to moisten a tissue, despite some threatening thunder.

The worry, after this second record-breaking hot spell in as many years, is that this is not an anomaly but a trend toward hotter, drier summers and warmer weather year-round. Call it climate change, call it global warming, call it whatever you want; there seems to be a warming trend enveloping North America and much of the world. If this trend holds, it will mean vast changes in the way we live, the way we grow crops, the way we landscape our yards and the way we view the world.

If this warming trend continues, winter snows, already a rarity, might disappear from eastern North Carolina. Spring will arrive earlier, and pesky insects might winter over to harass us worse than ever. Water-dependent crops (think corn and watermelons and cantaloupes) will no longer be able to thrive here. Vegetables will require more irrigation, straining the water resources that are available, even as new rules forbid new dams and other measures to store water. Aquifers will shrink and dry up. The Sunbelt, which benefited from mild winters and the invention of air conditioning throughout the latter half of the 20th century, will become less attractive. Triple-digit temperatures and higher energy costs as more air conditioning battles the hotter summers will make the Sunbelt less inviting. The old Rust Belt north of the Mason-Dixon Line might see a revival as formerly forbidding winters turn less icy, less forbidding and milder.

If this trend continues, we will see a transformation of society over the next century, and a migration of people to once-colder climates that gradually become milder and more accommodating.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Romney: Avoid Veep surprises

Mitt Romney is reported to be near a decision on a vice presidential nominee. Recent history does not bode well for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. John McCain hoped to pull a rabbit out of the hat with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to fill out his ticket. She turned out to be more of a skunk than a rabbit. Though Palin could deliver a speech and appealed to conservatives, she is now seen as a disastrous selection.

George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney to be his running mate, or maybe it was Cheney who selected himself. At first, it seemed to be a shrewd choice to match the very experienced and serious Cheney to Bush, who lacked depth. But as two terms went by, it became obvious that Cheney was more in charge than Bush, and his ill temper and imperious attitude hurt the administration.

The other Bush also picked a surprise nominee, Sen. Dan Quayle, who got off to a disastrous start and never recovered. Quayle was not only not taken seriously, he was ridiculed by critics and comics. G.H.W. Bush won in 1988 despite the performance of Dan "You're no Jack Kennedy" Quayle, but he couldn't pull it off in 1992. After his term, Quayle quickly disappeared from the political limelight.

If there's a lesson for Romney here, it is that GOP nominees should avoid surprises in picking vice presidential nominees. For once, don't "think outside the box."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fourth of July fireworks on TV

The Fourth of July tradition at our house is a simple one: We eat dinner and settle in front of the television to watch "A Capitol Fourth" on PBS. The tradition prevailed for another year, this time before a more modern television on WUNC-TV's high-definition channel. Not since we had small children at home have we joined the crowd to watch the fireworks, which at that time were sponsored by Parkwood Mall. On one Fourth of July a few years ago, we drove to Fleming Stadium for a baseball game and decided to leave early to beat the crowd before the fireworks began. We ended up stuck in traffic as the fireworks exploded overhead.

Seeing the fireworks over the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, even if vicariously, seems better than fighting the crowds. In the three years that we lived in the Washington suburbs, we assiduously avoided tourism events and big crowds in downtown Washington. The Capitol Fourth celebrations did not begin until after we moved away. If I were living there now, I doubt that I'd want to fight the crowds, the traffic and the heat to watch the fireworks in person.

Television also gives me good views of the performers and clear hearing of the music. "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the "1812 Overture" make the holiday, especially as the cannon boom and the fireworks sparkle overhead.

After we turn the TV off, we hear the exploding fireworks from Fleming Stadium, about two miles away, and from the neighborhood, where there is always someone with a stash of illegal fireworks. Unfortunately, the tall trees surrounding our house block the view of such fireworks, and we are left with only the audio of this extravaganza.