Friday, June 29, 2012

Health insurance mandate survives

What is surprising in Thursday's health care decision from the Supreme Court is Chief Justice John Roberts' key role in it. He became he swing vote, cobbling together a five-vote majority on the premise that the penalties in the health care bill are actually a tax, and Congress has full authority to impose a tax.

The health insurance mandate, which at least four justices were ready to forbid, had never bothered me. The mandate did not seem to be breaking new ground. After all, states have statutory mandates for car insurance and other matters. Congress has frequently imposed mandates on states for a variety of causes. And a federal mandate has been in effect for 75 years requiring workers to contribute to Social Security. A similar mandate is required to (partly) fund Medicare.

Seen in this light, the court's decision is not so significant.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

NATO has a "fine mess" on its hands

"Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into," the catch phrase of Laurel and Hardy comedies, could be the new slogan for NATO.

NATO is in one "fine mess" thanks to Syria's shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane because Turkey, you see, is a NATO member. According to the NATO charter, any attack on any NATO member constitutes an attack on all NATO members. Anyone care for a war with Syria? Turkey has invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter, which establishes that one-for-all, all-for-one principle, but so far no other NATO member has declared war on Syria or countered Syria's belligerent action. With any luck or sanity at all, that won't happen.

Which raises the question of what is NATO good for, anyway. NATO was founded as a military alliance to protect western Europe against the Soviet military threat. The Soviet Union ceased to exist 20 years ago, but sensible proposals at the time to disassemble NATO were rejected. NATO, in fact, expanded by taking in some of the newly independent former Soviet republics. As for Turkey, an Asian, Muslim nation on the Mediterranean, what connection does it have to the North Atlantic or the European democracies NATO was created to defend? Expansion of NATO simply exposes the members to military commitments in places where NATO has little interest and no business.

This "fine mess" exposes the fallacies of NATO's existence.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The show must go on!

Theater of the American South enjoyed its most successful season this year, but the festival celebrating Southern theater and culture now faces an uncertain future. Founding director Gary Cole has announced that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and must step down as the festival's mentor and organizer.

Cole's departure, while understandable given the seriousness of Parkinson's, is a devastating blow to the festival and to Wilson. Cole had taken TOAS from a far-fetched idea to a well-recognized reality in a few short years. He picked Wilson, with its Edna Boykin Cultural Center and its history of support for theater and the arts, as the home for his new festival. It could have gone to any town in the South. Wilson's assets and its proximity to Cole's home in the Triangle made Wilson a good choice, and local residents have embraced the festival with pride and joy.

Keeping the festival on its upward slope without Cole's constant nurturing will be a difficult proposition, but Wilson must step up to keep the festival going. Corporate sponsorships will continue to be needed, as will ticket buyers. Public support, in the form of excitement and year-round vibe, will also be needed. The Arts Council of Wilson will naturally be a centerpiece of this effort, but the Arts Council cannot do it all. Barton College's successful theater program and the Wilson Playhouse troupe should lend a hand to bolster TOAS.

Theater of the American South, which brought hundreds of out-of-town patrons to Wilson this year, is just one of several good things happening in downtown Wilson. The Wilson Whirligig Park project is under way with Vollis Simpson's old whirligigs being refurbished and readied for installation in a downtown park. Once completed, the park will be a unique (in the true sense of the word — one of a kind) tourist attraction that will make Wilson stand out. Preservation of Wilson is beginning to take off, finding buyers from across the country for several deteriorated or abandoned houses in older neighborhoods. These new residents are fixing up houses and adding to Wilson's diversity and culture.

Together, these trends point to a brighter future for Wilson, but Theater of the American South is a key component that must not be allowed to wither.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Immigration ruling leaves issue unsettled

It's true, as the initial news reports indicated, that the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down several provisions of the controversial Arizona immigration law. But the lynchpin of the Arizona statute — the right of state and local law enforcement to inquire into the legal status of anyone detained for a criminal offense — remains intact.

The court's decision is not a complete victory for either side. It emphasizes, as if more emphasis were needed, the utter failure of the federal government to do the thing that the Obama administration had claimed as its sole prerogative in defending the law: securing the borders and enforcing immigration policy. Federal authorities have done little to prevent illegal immigration, resulting in an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in this country. Congress has not only failed to create effective legislation to regulate immigration, its members have kowtowed to the growing illegal immigrant (mostly Latino) population. One need look no further than President Obama's politically timely executive order last week barring deportation of most illegal immigrants who came here as children.

The United States has been dancing around this issue for more than a generation. A one-time amnesty for illegals in the 1980s was supposed to solve this problem, but the problem has only grown worse, and now the lobbying is for an even broader amnesty. Those who follow the rules and try to immigrate legally are left to look like fools when the rule-breakers are allowed to shift the rules and even change the nomenclature — they're not illegal, just undocumented.

The Supreme Court's eagerly awaited decision does not settle the matter. It will take an act of Congress for that — it will require Congress to act for a change.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jury's verdict might not end doubts

The evidence against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky seems overwhelming, but his defense attorneys are gamely trying to portray him as a guy who was a little odd but no child molester. The jury is likely to get the case this week and will decide whether the evidence against him of sexual abuse and rape of young boys is sufficient for conviction.

What happens if the jury acquits? Unfortunately for Sandusky, he has no chance of getting his "good name" back. No jury verdict or appeals court ruling will allow him to be what he once was, a respected football coach. This is the nature of infamous court cases. O.J. Simpson was acquitted by a jury of charges of murdering his wife and her friend, but the public has never been convinced of his innocence. More recently, former Sen. John Edwards was acquitted of violating campaign finance laws, but the evidence presented at trial and in the news media persuaded the public that Edwards was guilty of the most disgusting behavior even if he did not violate campaign finance laws.

The courtroom's carefully controlled environment focuses the jury on the facts entered into evidence, but the court of public opinion gathers information from many other sources, not all of them reliable. Sandusky might go free — we'll see in a few days — but he'll never be considered innocent, regardless of the jury's ruling.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A homebody, still

I was accused recently of being "just like" my parents. It was not meant as a compliment. The trait being critiqued was my readiness to go home from a weekend away. My parents, who died six years ago, could never relax and unwind while visiting at our house, though we tried to make them feel at home and would allow them to follow whatever schedule or pursue whatever activity they desired.

In their defense, they used to talk about my uncle, my mother's sister's husband, who was perfectly willing to take long road trips wherever my aunt wanted to go, but once he arrived at his destination, he was ready to turn the car 180 degrees and head home again. His attitude allegedly was: Here it is; you've seen it; now let's go home. My parents at least were willing to stay a night or two before turning around.

There's no question that I enjoy being at home. I like sleeping in my own bed, preferably with my wife by my side. I rarely sleep well in a strange bed, no matter how luxurious the accommodations. And I worry that something might be going wrong at home — a fire, a burst water pipe, a burglary, a falling tree. But I also enjoy going places and seeing things and enjoying life and places with other people. I enjoy those things enough to endure a few restless nights and some anxiety over whether the house is OK, did I turn the oven off and is the dog being properly cared for.

No matter how much I enjoy getting away, however, I still enjoy returning home. Only during one stretch of my life did I dread returning home. It was when we lived in a second-floor condominium in Danville, Va. We would go to my father-in-law's house on Lake Norman and spend a glorious week swimming and relaxing and playing with the children. The return to Danville, to our little condo and to my stressful, oppressive night-shift job, was torture.

Since escaping that situation, however, I can wholeheartedly agree with Dorothy: "There's no place like home."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

State Senate vs. science of rising seas

The Republicans who took over the General Assembly two years ago aren't doing North Carolina's image any favors. The latest public relations embarrassment is a bill that orders the state not to listen to scientists who have studied and have predicted rising sea levels. The scientists predict a rise in sea level of 39 inches, but the GOP-controlled state Senate has said, no, the sea level can only rise 8 inches by the year 2100.

Well, that's not exactly what the bill says, but that's the way it's being interpreted in national media. North Carolina, once proud of its status as a Southern state that was not as bad as Mississippi and not as backward as South Carolina, now finds itself as a political King Canute bravely ordering the sea: "Thou shalt not rise."

This was not a necessary fight. What the Senate has ordered is not a limit on sea level but a limit on the state's planning to deal with sea level rise. Who knows who's right: Will the sea rise 8 inches or 39 inches over the next 90 years? Either way, the rise will be a major problem for coastal North Carolina. An abundance of caution (isn't that a conservative value?) would recommend planning for the worst-case scenario, not the best-case scenario.

The state has done a pretty poor job of coastal planning as it is, without taking into consideration predicted sea level rise. Every time a hurricane strikes the Outer Banks, Highway 12 gets overwashed or severed. The north end of Topsail Island is an invitation to destruction with its multi-story developments standing foolishly on low, flat shifting sands. Other beaches are similarly vulnerable. The barrier islands are not capable of sustaining major development, and all those beachfront houses are buildable only because the federal government subsidizes flood insurance and assists in rebuilding infrastructure wiped away by storms.

The end of this century is a long way away, and by then, maybe no one will remember the state Senate's brave stand against science. But by then, all those beachfront houses, hotels, roads and bridges might be washed away. An orderly plan for dealing with a worst-case rise in sea level might have mitigated some of the costs and the damage.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Unions overreach in Wisconsin

Tuesday's steel cage death match in Wisconsin did not go well for the labor unions that had staked their futures on kicking Gov. Scott Walker out of office. Walker prevailed in the recall election by a fairly comfortable margin. Day-after commentary blamed the Democrats'/unions' loss on the avalanche of out-of-state conservative money that flowed into the state.

But a simpler education is simply this: The unions overreached.

Walker was elected on a platform of balancing the state budget and requiring state workers to pay more of the costs of their health care and retirement benefits. With a Republican legislature behind him, he succeeded, despite a Democratic walkout that delayed the action. After that, the unions and Democrats decided to teach Walker and the Republicans a lesson: They would recall the upstarts and return the state to its liberal roots. You can hardly blame state employees for squealing at the loss of benefits, but they misunderstand the impression that many public-sector taxpayers have. For most state voters, the nearly free health insurance and attractive retirement pensions are more than an object of envy; they are a topic of bitter consternation.

Taxpayers in Wisconsin and across much of the country have griped about the salaries and benefits given to federal, state and local government employees at taxpayer expense. This anger is most frequently directed at Congress, whose members receive pay that is several times the average pay of their constituents and whose perquisites, privileges and pensions look like a Mega-Millions win to those paying the bills. Resentment is also directed toward the high pay and enviable benefits of state workers, as can be seen in the Wisconsin results. If this resentment can be organized in Wisconsin, it can be deployed in other states as well.

What Tuesday's Wisconsin results mean for the presidential race and congressional elections in November remains to be seen, but organized labor has not helped itself by pouring so many resources into a losing battle, leaving less for November's decisive campaign.