Thursday, January 31, 2013

An education is about more than a job

Gov. Pat McCrory wants the colleges supported by North Carolina taxpayers to concentrate on educational fare that will win jobs for students. The state should judge and fund higher education based not on "butts in seats" but by "butts in jobs," the governor says. Liberal arts majors, he said, should not be subsidized by the state.

As a liberal arts major, I should be offended. As a liberal arts major, McCrory should feel offended by himself.

Higher education is more than vocational training, although the journalism courses I took (for half of my two majors) provided a sort of vocational training. I learned to write basic news stories; to edit news copy; to write opinion pieces such as editorials and literary reviews; to avoid libel, invasion of privacy and other legal pitfalls. I learned a lot more on the job, but I can't imagine a vocation where you wouldn't continue learning on the job. My other major, English, prepared me to write well, to do research, to appreciate great literature that has stood the test of time, to think about the important issues of life, to better understand people and what motivates them.

The business majors I knew seemed less prepared, it seemed to me, for a career. They crunched numbers, they learned about management theory and economics, the "dismal science," which seems to reverse course with each new theory or trend. The good students in this major, of which McCrory would approve, would go into a management training program at some bank or corporation and learn some practical skills they missed in the classroom.

Higher education should prepare students for a career, but it also should prepare them for life. A good liberal arts education can do both. Knowledge of people, which is learned in the liberal arts, can be a manager's best asset. An appreciation of art, literature, philosophy and religion can give meaning and light to one's personal and business life.

It's true that academic majors have proliferated in the past generation to include many impractical, perhaps even useless, majors, such as "gender studies," "women's studies," or "racial politics." These narrowly focused majors are not the broad-based overview of a traditional liberal arts education, and, as has been seen in UNC's Afro-American Studies Department, they can lead to academic fraud.

What critics of higher education often miss is that education is not limited to four years or six or eight. Learning is a lifetime commitment. A good college education will prepare a student to continue to learn for decades after the diploma has been hung on the wall. The vocational training that aims only at getting a job fails to prepare for change in an ever-changing world.

Imagine McCrory's dream world where students learn specific job skills. Our universities could have been teaching some students how to repair typewriters, others how to develop photographic film, and others how to take dictation. And today they'd all be jobless because the jobs for which they trained have disappeared.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wilson murder case is news Down Under

A phone call from Australia, of all places, took me back nearly 24 years, to one of the most notorious murders in Wilson history. A television reporter in Australia was looking into what causes women to commit murder, and she stumbled across the case of Patricia Jennings.

I can't answer the question of why Patricia Jennings tortured and murdered her 80-year-old husband, but the jury didn't have to have that answer to convict her of first-degree murder and sentence her to death. Nearly 24 years later, she is still on death row, and her conviction is still under appeal.

Most murders come to the newspaper's attention when it shows up on a police report or the call is heard on the police scanner. The Jennings case came to our attention when a caller (probably anonymous, but I don't remember) told us police had surrounded a room at the Hampton Inn. I sent a reporter to check into it, and we were told someone had died there a day or two before. Only later did we learn that the death was being treated as a homicide, and it would be one of the strangest homicides the town had ever known.

According to reports we heard and later testimony at trial, Patricia Jennings called 911 from the motel room, saying her husband had passed out. When EMS arrived, she reportedly greeted them at the door wearing a black negligee and brown cowboy boots — really! Bill Jennings' corpse lay on the floor, already cool and stiff. The medical examiner would determine he had been dead for hours.

The really sordid stuff came out at trial, which was covered by Elaine Conger, who had just arrived at the Daily Times. I had been at the paper nine years and had been editor for two. I was nervous about assigning a reporter I didn't know well to such a huge and sensitive story, but Elaine did a great job and put in a lot of hours taking down all the sordid details. Testimony dealt with torture allegations and descriptions of blood splatters on the walls and wounds to the poor man's private parts. We called some editorial conferences to talk through how detailed we should be with some of the testimony. In most cases, we decided to be pretty explicit in order to describe just how horrid the murder was.

I assigned reporters to follow up on Mrs. Jennings in subsequent years. I would remember her every time North Carolina executed an inmate, wondering when her time would come. Stephanie Creech did a long piece on the 15th anniversary of the murder, which may still be available in the online archives. The original coverage happened before archives were digitized. Mrs. Jennings refused to be interviewed by our reporters.

Somehow, the Jennings story made its way to Australia and intrigued a TV reporter there. The last email I received said the show's producer had decided to drop the Jennings case because it was still on appeal. So Australian audiences will likely be spared the gruesome details of this case, and I can tuck it away in my memory once again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A new Obama attitude for a second term

President Obama's second inaugural speech is being hailed as decidedly ideological, perhaps even a signpost toward more liberal policies to come. I watched the speech and thought it was a good but not great speech — blessedly short (unlike too many big speeches) and far-reaching in its scope. It struck me as a more political than a statesman-like speech, one that laid out policy ambitions foremost but also aspired to the great national ideals of this country.

Some have called it a "civil rights speech," and it had that element, with mentions of seminal events in the struggle for the civil rights of women, black Americans, and gays. But it also had allusions to the historic moments of the past, from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention to the Civil War. Obama embraced the principles that guided the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, but he warned that the principles of those great moments must not leave a nation stagnant, mired in the world of the 18th or 19th century. While standing by our historic values and principles, America must address modern issues that would never have occurred to Washington or Lincoln, he suggested.

The speech laid out an itinerary of liberal causes, from gay rights to climate change, but did not forsake negotiation or compromise on these issues. While making clear his objectives, the president did not list any non-negotiable demands. He clearly sees his election victory as an opportunity to be more liberal (let's use the "L-word" and not euphemistic "progressive") in his second term.

As the crowds go home and the inaugural platform is torn down, we will see whether the more assertive Obama can find a way to deal with a divided Congress to achieve his goals and also to fix the runaway national debt and chronic budget deficit.

Friday, January 18, 2013

State GOP proposes dangerous tax plan

The new legislative leadership is ready to go boldly where others have feared to tread — into the hazardous, murky arena of tax reform. Unfortunately, the Republicans running the N.C. General Assembly aren't planning reform, they're planning revolution.

GOP leaders say they want to abolish the state income tax, both individual and corporate. They would replace the tax that brings in the majority of the state's revenue with a broad-based sales tax on everything, including currently untaxed services and food. Eliminating the state sales tax on food was one of the signature achievements of the legislature during the 1990s. Then Rep., now Judge Milton Fitch Jr. of Wilson led the fight to abolish the sales tax on food. The sensible argument was that food is a necessity, and for low-income residents, the food tax is a heavy and unequal burden. Eliminating the tax on groceries (residents pay only the 2 percent local sales tax at the supermarket) gave an instant boost in disposable income to the poor.

Now legislative leaders want to abandon that approach, which helped those in need throughout the state. Not only would they re-impose the state sales tax on food, they would raise the total sales tax rate from 6.75 percent to more than 8 percent. This hike in the sales tax rate is necessary to replace revenue from their goal of eliminating the income tax, which they argue is too high. N.C. rates are higher than most neighboring states, and GOP legislators say that hurts economic development. But a higher sales tax hurts the economy by discouraging purchases of all kinds.

What they are truly proposing is a massive shift of the burden of financing state government from the more able to the less able. The sales tax is widely recognized as a regressive tax: Its burden lies heavier on the poor, who spend a larger portion of their income buying the necessities of life. The state income tax is only slightly progressive (higher rates for higher earners), but it at least places its burden more equitably on the better off. Only a handful of states go without an income tax, and for good reason. The income tax applies directly to earnings, taxing people in proportion to their earnings. The sales tax may seem equal, but it shifts tax burden to the lower-income, who will pay a far higher portion of their income on taxes than will higher-income earners.

With comfortable majorities in the Senate and House and one of their own in the Governor's Mansion, Republicans might be able to get what they want. North Carolinians, especially those who are not well off, had better hope that cooler heads, such as Gov. Pat McCrory, will prevail. Reform the income tax. Make it simpler and fairer for all. Reduce rates incrementally if at all possible. But don't crush struggling workers with the burden of supporting a disproportionate share of state government expenses.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shut down Congress first

When the Newt Gingrich House of Representatives shut down the government in the 1990s, Gov. Bill Clinton won the war by partially closing down the government. One of the first departments he shut down was National Parks. Irate Americans rebelled against the GOP saboteurs who were denying their access to public parks, and the battle was quickly over. Clinton could have withheld funding from Agriculture or Transportation or Commerce, but nothing would hit home with constituents like locked gates at public parks.

Now, as Republicans contemplate another government shutdown over debt limits, President Obama might try a similar but different tactic. Instead of shutting down National Parks, if he is forced to curtail spending because of GOP intransigence over the debt limit, Obama should sequester all spending on the legislative branch of government. That would mean NO salaries for members of Congress, their staffs, their district offices back home, their heat and lights in their offices, and their many perquisites of office.

Let's see how long they will hold out when their paychecks are withheld and their offices are dark.

Monday, January 14, 2013

American religious allegiance declines

Religion is going out of style in America. That's about the only conclusion one can draw from a new Pew Research Center study reported by NPR. And while some might see this as nothing more than an evolution in American thinking, it is profoundly more than that. It is a change in thought, action, concern and affiliation.

Leaving aside the assertion that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" (an argument that has a rational foundation but is not strictly correct), religion, and especially the Protestant form of Christianity, has had a profound influence on American thought and institutions. Some of America's greatest educational institutions, including its oldest college, Harvard, were founded by religious groups. Not that long ago, church attendance was an expectation in many areas. I well remember editing press releases from a major bank that included the church membership of ever vice president, junior executive or banking officer promoted by the bank. It was essential information, from the bank's perspective, showing the employee's involvement in the community.

Involvement plays a role in the decline of religious affiliation. Not only are young people, in particular, refraining from joining churches, they are also not joining civic clubs, bowling leagues and fraternal organizations. American individuality has sparked a reluctance to get involved in anything, from churches to neighborhood associations. And that bodes ill for American politics and government. People who don't associate with groups don't feel a sense of common interests and goals; it's every man (and woman) for himself/herself). Ultimately, that attitude can destroy democracy, which depends on common interests and compromise to create majority rule.

The loss of religion (32 percent of those under 30 say they have no religious affiliation) also implies a loss of meaning to life. All religions, at their foundations, began with a search for the meaning of life. Without religion, life loses its meaning, perhaps even loses its quest for meaning. Religion attempts to answer the question of what are we, other than a collection of cellular matter, electrical connections and evolutionary product. That quest keeps the religiously observant grounded in something more than themselves. The loss of that quest is a collective loss, a loss to society, to philanthropy and to philosophy.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Partisan redistricting leads to gridlock

The ugly scenario of a deadlocked Congress such as voters saw in the recent "fiscal cliff" deadline or last year's debt limit conflagration is not likely to go away. America's political alliances have not changed that much; voters are closely divided between Republicans and Democrats and between conservatives and progressives with most voters identifying themselves as moderate. But the vituperative anger of political rhetoric has exploded in recent years.

Blame the anonymous Internet, where people can say anything with almost no consequences, or social media, where political myopia is encouraged and rewarded by like-minded followers and "friends." But also blame what has happened in Congress and state legislatures: the increasingly partisan gerrymandering of districts to protect the interests of the party in power.

In the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, the American people clearly wanted a compromise deal that would avert disastrous economic consequences. Business leaders wanted a deal, too, as evidenced by the lagging Wall Street numbers as the deal seemed iffy and the sudden jump in the Dow after a deal was announced. But most members of Congress had nothing to fear from an economic catastrophe because their constituents were not the wide middle of American political thought; their constituents were, thanks to partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, narrow special-interest adherents.

Repeatedly during the fiscal cliff talks, we were reminded that most Republican House members had more to fear from a Republican primary than from the general election. If members failed to follow the mandates of the party's right wing and the further-right demands of talk-show celebrities and campaign financiers, primary challengers would replace them.

The Constitution has always required redrawing of congressional districts after each decennial census, but only in the past generation has computer-aided mapping allowed state redistricting committees to parse districts down to the last individual voter. Computer power allows legislators to pack one district full of Republicans and an adjacent one full of Democrats, and that is exactly what has been done in most states. North Carolina's 13 districts provide a lesson in congressional partisanship. These districts are not compact; they are sprawling, wiggling along narrow isthmuses to link one partisan population center to another, spreading constituents along hundreds of miles and crossing cultural and economic interests in order to tie together political branches.

Blame both parties. When N.C. Democrats redistricted after the 1990 and 2000 censuses, they created Democratic districts that were immune to GOP threats. When Republicans redistricted after the 2010 census they exceeded the blatant partisanship of the Democrats and guaranteed their nine of the 13 congressional seats.

The result nationwide is a Congress that has more reason to follow party ideology and unity, less reason to follow constituents and virtually no reason to do what is best for the country as a whole. America is unlikely to outgrow its partisan gridlock until redistricting ruled by partisans in state legislatures is replaced by nonpartisan panels that draw districts based on common interests without regard to party alignments. Every state can change its redistricting model, but it must put national interest above partisan gamesmanship.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Over the cliff, but no crash

This fiscal cliff deal passed. That's the big thing. Had it not passed, the U.S. economy, indeed, the world's stock markets, would have been devastated. But there is something more here — something that might even raise a glimmer of hope for the future.

The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 89-8. Both Democrats and Republicans were among the eight, but the overwhelming majority included most members of both parties. It was one of the most impressive displays of bipartisan agreement this Congress has seen.

Things did not go quite so smoothly in the House, but the deal passed by a margin of 257-157. That's a comfortable margin by most standards, but the significant element here is that Speaker of the House John Boehner put aside Republican doctrine and brought the bill up for a vote despite the fact that the party caucus had opposed the bill. Until last night, the speaker had refused to bring a bill to the floor unless a majority of the GOP members were in favor of the bill. The more conservative members of the House refused to go along with the bill, which they complained gave no spending cuts in return for the higher tax rates on 1 percent of Americans. They complained that the bill actually increased deficits by $4 trillion (but only compared to what spending would have been if all Bush-era tax cuts were allowed to expire).

Boehner's decision to bring the bill to a vote, despite his own party's opposition was a heroic act, and like all heroic acts, this one carried risks. It is possible that conservative GOP members will seek revenge on Boehner tomorrow, when the House reorganizes and elects a new speaker. The Ohio congressman's decision to allow bipartisanship to trump party politics could cost him his office.

The potential reward is that Boehner's decision could set a new precedent, one in which one party is not allowed to bottle up legislation favored by the moderate wings of both parties. If that happens, the 113th Congress might actually accomplish some things and address some long-ignored problems.

But that would probably be expecting too much.