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?