Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It's a budget negotiation, not a political campaign

On Friday, the law of the land says sequestration begins, imposing across-the-board cuts on federal spending (while leaving some spending categories untouched). Just how bad the consequences will be is being debated by the talking heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, but both parties seem to agree that sequestration is a painful remedy for Congress' inability to match its spending "wants" with its taxation "needs."

Despite this looming deadline, which some economists and President Obama say could be horrific, there is little movement on Capitol Hill to avoid sequestration. Inter-party talks appear to be non-existent. Voices of reason and negotiation are drowned out by partisan rants.

President Obama has been talking a lot about the hazards of sequestration this month, but he's talking to the wrong people. Obama is treating sequestration — and, by extension, the federal budget — as a political issue, not a fiscal responsibility or budgeting issue. He's flying around the country (5,000 miles by one critic's count) urging voters to complain to their congressional representatives. His tactic of trying to shame Congress into action does not appear to be working.

Obama is known to admire President Lincoln and has sometimes invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy. But perhaps he should look to another president, who was skilled at getting things done on Capitol Hill, even if he wasn't as charismatic as Kennedy or as eloquent as Lincoln. Lyndon B. Johnson was the Master of the Senate, who could push legislation through the often paralyzed "World's Greatest Deliberative Body." As majority leader, Johnson enjoyed unparalleled success in controlling the flow of legislation and ensuring that the party's legislative agenda was carried through to success. As president, he worked behind the scenes to persuade members of Congress to approve the legislation he supported.

Johnson realized that popular support is nice to have, but what you really need is 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. Obama would do better if he would leave the campaign soapbox and sit down with congressional leaders to work a deal that will meet the approval of both sides.

I've been reading Robert Caro's magnificent four-volume (with a fifth volume yet to come) biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro's books are not likely to turn the reader into a Johnson fan, but you cannot help but marvel at his legislative skills. Perhaps the books would be good reading for President Obama.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Road trips on 1985 and today

In 1985, my wife and I loaded our three children — 13, 9 and 6 — into our Dodge K-Car and set off on the longest road trip of our lives, more than 1,000 miles round-trip, with stops to see Washington, D.C., my wife's brother in New Jersey, my brother in upstate New York, and my wife's sister in Erie, Penn. We not only survived the trip, we enjoyed it and got to see what other regions of the country are like.

I thought of that trip this weekend as I drove more than 400 miles in two days to relax (briefly) at the family lake house and to see our 7-year-old grandson compete in a swim meet. The driving was uneventful. The 10-year-old car performed gave us no trouble, and other drivers on the road did not frighten us (as has happened too many times in the past). I arrived home feeling exhausted from the intense concentration high-speed interstate driving requires, but the contrast between a road trip today and one less than 30 years ago is startling.

When we set out in 1985, we packed a satchel full of cassette tapes that we could all listen to. Our oldest daughter brought her own Walkman to play her own tapes through a headset because she didn't like our taste in music. We also packed a songbook my wife had knitted together from scraps of song lyrics — children's songs, mostly, that we all could sing when the children grew tired of counting cows or finding specific words on billboards or other highway games meant to relieve young passengers' boredom.

We followed a route provided by AAA, marked on a map mailed to us after we submitted a request well in advance. We followed our relatives' careful directions to find their homes, whether in an urban area or in a vast forest.

We still carry road maps in our cars but seldom refer to them. We have a GPS device that will give directions to wherever we want to go, and our cell phones will provide the same service. Had we been delayed or been confused by the directions, we had no way of contacting our hosts. Today, we provide regular updates of our progress along the way via our cell phones. If we're delayed, we let our expectant hosts know. If we miss a turn, we can immediately correct the error. If we have a breakdown, we can call for help and let our hosts know what has happened. The anxiety of waiting and worrying when a traveler still has not shown up an hour after they were expected is a thing of the past. We call them and find out where they are.

As we consider another road trip, I'm thankful for the unimaginable (in 1985) advantages of cell phones and satellite navigation. The contrasts are almost as great as the stories my grandfather told me of driving a Model T for hours through muddy, narrow roads with few places to stop along the way in the 1920s. But the road still is long, wearying and exhausting.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Seasons change and chores loom

Nineteen degrees this morning reminds me that it's still winter. Despite the crocuses popping up in the natural areas and the daffodils blooming beneath the azaleas, it's still February, and February can be viciously cold.

But we're a good halfway through winter, and spring does lie ahead. The harbingers of spring are in the buds on trees and the aforementioned early blooms, as well as in the newly stocked home improvement stores, yearning for the warmth of gardening customers. The days are getting longer; it's daylight now past 5:30, and the sun is up before I head to work in the morning.

Still, this time of year is a time of remorse for me. All those indoor projects that needed doing, from cleaning out the filing cabinet and closets to painting the sunroom to clearing that slow basin drain, have not been completed. And soon it will be warm, spring will beckon, and all the outdoor jobs will take a higher priority. I need to change the oil in the mower, spread fertilizer and seed and lime. And the bigger jobs — painting the trim, remodeling the upper porch, sealing the deck, repairing the old well house, and so many others I cannot count them all — will soon overwhelm me through the longer days of spring and summer when I can put in a couple of hours on weekday evenings after work and still never catch up with all there is to do.

When you own a house, there's always something to do, so I must take my leisure time — Saturday afternoon basketball games, weekend trips, quiet reading and television — with a heavy dose of guilt over all chores I've left undone. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The unrealistic promise of preschool

In a column today about President Obama's proposal for universal preschool, New York Times columnist David Brooks (one of my favorites), offered this endorsement: "It's about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It's about instilling achievement values where they are absent."

Brooks sees the intent, and recognizes that it is good, but his optimism about good habits rubbing off on others seems overly optimistic. Most parents know that it is bad habits that tend to rub off on others. For all their effort at instilling good habits in their children, parents send them off to school or to camp or to other activities and see them come home with bad habits they have acquired from their new-found friends.

As much as I agree with Brooks and others that a good foundation for formal education is absolutely necessary, I am less confident that universal preschool, as it is currently structured, will cure the handicaps many kindergartners carry to their first day of school. As Brooks points out, kindergartners who arrive having never been read to, not knowing how to hold a book, not being exposed to reading material of any kind in the home, are overwhelmingly disadvantaged and are unlikely ever to catch up.

It would be wonderful, even miraculous, if a few hours of preschool exposure to other children, to books, to letters, to numbers, to rules and discipline, to order and organization would conquer the disadvantages they face at home. But the fallacy of preschool expectations and of school-based transformations in general is that preschool or school has their bodies and their minds for only four or six or seven hours a day. And then the students go home to a different environment for 18 or 20 hours a day. And that home environment might involve a lack of adult supervision, an underage mother struggling with finances and child discipline and boyfriends and her own lack of education. Some children tell stories of raucous visitors to their homes until 1 or 2 in the morning, of violence and drug use and worse.

Preschool, no matter how effective, is not going to overcome that kind of background. The largest flaw in American public education is the home students come from before they ever get to school. Until government can find a way to instill greater responsibility in irresponsible parents, greater respect for education (and teachers) in parents who disliked their own schooling, less reliance on fortune and entitlements, and greater appreciation for the value of personal initiative, disadvantaged students will remain disadvantaged. Universal preschool might salvage a fortunate few but not nearly all of an endangered generation.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Vows of love show similarities

On this day after Valentine's Day, I am struck by the similarities among proclamations of true love expressed yesterday. These are samples of such expressions published in Valentine's ads in the News & Observer:

• "I love you and our incredible life together. Forever and always ..."
• "You have been the rudder that keeps me on course."
• "You are the love of my Life. ..."
• "You're the best thing that ever happened to me."
• "My knight in shining armor ..."
• "You are my heart and the Best ..."
• "To my wife, my best friend, and the one true love of my life ..."
• "I look forward to dancing with you forever."
• "My love. My life. My joy."

 What is one to make of this? Are people so uncreative that they drag up cliches or song lyrics whenever they speak of love? Or is there something magical, transcendental and eternal about romantic love? I vote for the latter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Unemployment reform takes wrong approach

The Republicans running the show on Jones Street in Raleigh had better hope their theories are correct. They better hope that slashing the state's unemployment benefits and reducing the financial burden on businesses will result in an explosion of good-paying jobs. That has to be their rationale for cutting unemployment benefits by more than a third. The state Senate has passed the bill, and it will soon go to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk.

If the miraculous explosion in jobs doesn't occur, and if the many thousands of North Carolinians who area already out of work can't find a job, the state's economy will fall into a deep hole. Dropping the top unemployment benefit from $535 to $350 might help the state repay its debt to the federal government, but it also might make jobless residents more desperate than they already are.

In addition to cutting the weekly benefits, the GOP-sponsored bill also cuts the number of weeks the state will pay unemployment benefits to as few as 12 weeks. This action also eliminates North Carolinians' eligibility for extended unemployment benefits paid entirely by the federal government. I wonder if any of the legislators voting for this bill have ever been laid off and struggled with the despair and desperation of losing your income, your identity and even your self-respect.

I've been where I suspect few of these GOP legislators have been. I was laid off after 29 years with the same company and looked for work for a year before finally landing a job. Unemployment benefits made the difference between an adjusted, more cautious, conservative family budget and the loss of all of my savings and perhaps even my home. Were it not for unemployment, my depression would have been chronic instead of fleeting, and my anger might have overwhelmed my self-control.

North Carolina faces a difficult task to repay all the money it had borrowed to pay unemployment benefits as the state slipped deeper into recession than most states. But to expect the sacrifice for that repayment to be made primarily by those who are already suffering and who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own is surely not the best alternative.

Maybe Republicans assume they don't need the votes of the unemployed, the poor, those living on the financial edge. But they will regret their insensitivity if the more desperate jobless drag the economy further into the abyss.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Look who's investing in newspapers

The 33 years I spent in the newspaper business were the most fun I ever had in a job, and the most challenging times and hardest work I ever did. Although I've been out of that career for five years come this fall, I still have a warm spot and an abiding interest in the news business.

So it was heartening to discover that some other people (besides me) think there's a future for print journalism in a future filled with billions of smart phones, whiz-bang tablet apps and 72-inch televisions. None other than Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha," thinks good newspapers are a pretty good investment. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway company has been spending millions of dollars buying up newspapers around the country, including most recently, the Greensboro News and Record.

Buffett is not one to throw money away on sentimentality or nostalgia, although his hometown Omaha World Herald is among the papers BH has bought. So you have to assume that Buffett thinks newspapers will make money and are good investments. Admittedly, he's buying newspapers at fire-sale prices, once-proud papers being sold at a fraction of their value of just a few years ago. And the newspapers in most cases are puny compared to what they had been in their heyday. That fat Sunday classifieds section that made the Sunday paper a pain in the back to lift, is now just a half-dozen or so pages. The classifieds have all fled to eBay or Craigslist or some other online listing. And display advertising, the ads with pictures and bold type carefully arranged for biggest impact, has dwindled away, too. Online advertisements can offer targeted advertising that matches the consumer's interest and that is billed only if the consumer selects the ad by clicking on its link. There's no way print advertising can match that. Even the coupon inserts that spill out of the Sunday paper are endangered by online or mobile options.

So why is an investor as smart at Warren Buffett buying up newspapers? Maybe it's because the good newspapers that are left after all the layoffs, trimming, cutbacks, buyouts and reductions have survived the deluge and now can be expected to retain their new niche in the information society. Although I use computers all day (including the home desktop I'm typing on now) and have a smart phone and a tablet, I still trudge to the end of the driveway every morning to pick up that print edition and savor it over coffee and a light breakfast. I can read the very same newspaper on an iPad, and I use that app whenever I'm away from home and continue to be amazed that it's an exact replica of the print edition, but I still like to hold the print edition in my hand, share the sections with my wife and toss it into the recycling bin when I'm done.

I'm hopeful, now that Warren Buffett is on board, that print newspapers will always be around because it would be a sad world — and a poorer country — without them. All those Internet sites, including Facebook, that more and more young consumers rely on for information get nearly all their news from, you guessed it, newspapers. Only newspapers, with their seemingly limitless capacity to dictate advertising prices and practices, could afford to hire the reporters and maintain the capital and foreign bureaus necessary to thorough news coverage. Television might have taken over that yoke, but TV is first and foremost an entertainment medium. A company that makes a fortune off of airing fat people on diets and handsome men wooing sexy women (or vice versa) is not going to put the necessary resources into covering a defense spending bill or a potential biohazard. The remaining newspapers are trying to maintain their obligation to inform their readers even as they pursue new means of providing that information.

Newspapers, from the New York Times to the lowliest community weekly, carry the burden of keeping the public informed. Maybe Buffett realizes that democracy depends upon an informed electorate, and, that being the case, an investment in newspapers is worth its cost.