Monday, April 29, 2013

Cable service makes less sense this time of year

I turned on the television last night to have something to occupy my mind while I polished an old pair of hiking boots. The last time the television was on was ... the final day of the Masters Golf Tournament, I believe. Later, I wrote a check for the cable TV bill (bundled with phone and broadband) and wondered why I was spending so much money on a service that gets so little use.

My son told me recently that he planned to cancel his cable during these doldrums between the end of college basketball season and the beginning of college football. It seems like a practical strategy. Our television gets a good bit of use in the fall as I watch a couple of college football games (or parts of them) almost every weekend, and during college basketball season, we almost never miss a game involving our favorite team.

But the rest of the year? We hardly use the cable service at all. The only good reason for having cable is that so many sports events have migrated to cable networks. More college games are on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports, etc. than are on the regular broadcast channels. Without cable, a fan would miss more than half the season.

Broadcast channels also have competition now from such services as Netflix and Amazon, which can be streamed to your TV by a device such as Apple TV, a DVD player or Roku. You don't need cable service for this, just a broadband service and a home wireless network.

So why am I still subscribing to cable? Probably because, with the phone/broadband bundle, it's such a good deal.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Williamsburg, ever changing as a 1770s capital

My wife and I have lost count of the number of times we've visited Colonial Williamsburg. She first went in high school, before she met me, and we went together in February 1972 as she dropped me off at Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in nearby Yorktown. Since then and since our children left our home an empty nest, we've been back we're guessing 20 times or more.

Although Williamsburg is in one sense static, stuck in 18th century when Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia and the host of such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and many others, we tell people that there is always something new there, something to learn, something to wonder at.

In the time since we began visiting, Colonial Williamsburg has changed, however, in an effort to make the 18th century more appealing in the 21st century. John D. Rockefeller financed the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg to preserve the history of the run-down little town nearly forgotten by the 1930s. What resulted was a recreation of the Williamsburg of the 1770s with its Colonial Capitol, Governor's Palace, Courthouse, Powder Magazine, taverns, private homes and gardens. It gave visitors an opportunity to step back in time and just soak in the ambiance of a colonial capital on the cusp of independence. The architecture, gardens and decorating of the revived era became popular and admired.

But looking at formal gardens and restored architecture could not keep pace with the competition by the late 20th century, and Colonial Williamsburg began looking for other ways to compete for tourists and revenue. Williamsburg's fee structure and crafts were changed, and new activities aimed for a younger audience. Activities were developed to appeal to children, and now young visitors can dress up in colonial costumes.

The latest innovation is street drama called "Revolutionary City," a daily performance of events from Williamsburg's history, such as the flight of the colonial governor from the city, or the arrival of British troops during the Revolutionary War. The actors mill about with the tourists before the play begins and engage in conversations in character. These dramas are clearly designed to attract today's tourist, who expects more pizazz for his tourism dollar. I've come to appreciate the dramas, despite a feeling that CW archaeology and history is being depreciated by simplification and mass marketing, that mass appeal is trumping pure history.

What excited me more on our latest trip was the newly finished reconstruction of the armory complex based on archaeological findings. For me, Williamsburg will always be more about the history and the opportunity to experience life in the 1700s, almost as if you were there — because, in a real sense, you are.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Obama could learn from Lyndon Johnson

I have a recommendation for President Obama's reading list. It is volume four of Robert Caro's expansive biography of Lyndon Johnson. "The Passage of Power" covers the years from 1958, when Johnson began quietly seeking the 1960 presidential nomination, to months after the Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy assassination.

The part Obama should pay close attention to are the pages and pages about how Johnson managed a legislative miracle after he assumed the presidency. President Kennedy's legislative agenda had languished in Congress after the president and his advisers ignored the advice of Johnson, the most skilled and powerful Senate majority leader of the century. Johnson had warned Kennedy's people not to send up the president's landmark civil rights bill until the budget had passed. Johnson knew, but Kennedy's less-experienced advisers never realized, that opponents of the civil rights bill would use the budget as a tool to hold the civil rights bill hostage. The budget had to pass (budgeting was more honest in those days), but the civil rights bill didn't.

When Johnson became president, he used his skills of flattery and persuasion to line up the votes to pass the budget, get it out of the way and move on to the civil rights bill, which he also got passed by his powers of persuasion. Getting what he wanted out of Congress meant he had to suck up to powerful senators such as Dick Russell of Georgia and Richard Byrd of Virginia. He had been sucking up to powerful men for decades; he was willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. Johnson spent little time trying to persuade the public that the civil rights bill should pass. He knew that there were only 100 men (no women in the Senate back then) who had a vote on the bill, plus 435 members of the House. He concentrated on finding those 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. He appealed, he pleaded, he squeezed, he twisted arms, he promised favors, he did favors, he did anything and everything needed to secure those votes on Capitol Hill.

President Obama has sought to win passage of a gun bill by making speeches and holding news conferences aimed at the American public. He's done a good job of persuading millions of people who don't have a vote on the legislation — some polls say 90 percent of the public favors stricter gun purchase rules — but he has failed so far in getting the votes he needs on Capitol Hill. Lyndon Johnson, who Caro shows repeatedly in his first four volumes (I've read them all), is not a particularly admirable character. But he was a master legislator, perhaps the most successful in U.S. history. He knew where the votes were; he knew how to count them; he knew how to hold senators to their promises. President Obama might learn from that kind of success.

The Boston bombing points to domestic origins

Two days after the Boston Massacre of 2013, no arrests have been made, and investigators are revealing few details of their findings. After some early hints that Islamic terrorists might be involved (a Saudi national questioned, a swarthy-looking man seen running away, etc.), it now appears that this might be a case of home-grown terrorism.

The bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killed three and mutilated others have been described as "crude" — not likely to be the work of well-organized international terrorists. The bomb type reportedly has been used by al-Qaida terrorists, but the recipe for such bombs are widely available. Anyone could have put these bombs together.

One intriguing aspect of the incident is the choice of date and location — Boston, birthplace of the American Revolution, and Patriot's Day, celebrating the Boston-area heroes of the Revolution. This suggests a possible right-wing perpetrator, someone who wanted to do harm in the name of his own distorted ideology. In other words, a Timothy McVeigh type. Most runners in the Boston Marathon are not right-wingers. They're health nuts and fitness fanatics. They're liberal-leaners who drive Volvos and drink expensive coffee. They're what the Appalachian State students used to call "granolas." Good targets for right wing terrorists.

This supposition might be all wrong. I hope we'll know soon. I hope the FBI solves the mystery and makes an arrest, whoever is responsible. The fact that there has been no claim of responsibility, such as is common in Islamist terrorist strikes, suggests that this incident might have nothing to do with the "war on terror." After some initial accounts that people were seen running from the scene of the blasts, it now appears that this might be the work of one or two deranged individuals, working alone and using crude, readily available materials — no great conspiracy, no international connections, just a few domestic terrorists trying to make a point about ... something.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Obamas set example in charitable giving

On this day when procrastinators are busily preparing their taxes, the White House has announced that President Obama and Vice President Biden have already submitted their tax forms. Unlike most 1040s, these contain some interesting reading.

What I find interesting is not how much money the president made (about half again his presidential salary of $400,000) or how much he paid in taxes. What I find interesting is how much he gave away. The president and first lady gave about $150,000 to charity, about 25% of their total income. That's a lot more than the biblical admonition to give 10% of your gross income. Having worked for two nonprofit charities, I appreciate and admire people who are generous with their worldly treasure. About 35% of Americans give nothing to charity. They keep it all for themselves. Americans earning more than $250,000 give an average of $28,110. That makes the president's $150,000 far, far more generous than his peer group, although he is well below the multi-million dollar incomes included in that group.

The people who demonize Obama in every way and as often as they possibly can won't like this report, but it's a fact: Barak and Michelle Obama are far more generous with their money than average Americans or even than far-above-average Americans, income-wise. You can disagree with Obama's policies and political choices all you want, but you have to give credit to the guy for his generosity toward charities.

He's far more generous than most presidents have been. Ronald Reagan, whom I admired in many ways, gave very little to charity (2.1% in 1982). Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush set good examples with their charitable giving and continue to work for charitable causes. Obama deserves credit for his generosity and for the example he sets for the country. If every taxpayer was as generous, proportionally, as the Obamas, charitable organizations would be rolling in money instead of scrimping to pay the bills.

Vice President Joe Biden, on the other hand, should be embarrassed by the pittance he gives to charity. On an income of $385,000, the Bidens gave $7,200 to charity. That's less than 2%, and for the Bidens, that's an improvement from some past years. The Bidens, despite making several times more money than my wife and I, gave considerably less to charity in 2012 than we did.

Although he speaks frequently of his strong Catholic faith, Biden's tax return shows he's not very supportive of his church in the way that it really counts — in the collection plate. The Bidens' return shows that they gave $2,400 to Biden's Catholic diocese in Delaware and $1,000 to the Presbyterian church Jill Biden attends. In the little church we attend (and where we give the bulk of our charitable dollars), $2,400 does not make you a generous giver. In most churches, $1,000 or even $2,400 a year would not meet the budget. The Bidens should be ashamed to call themselves church supporters when they give less than 1% of their treasure to the church.

For the record, Mitt Romney, who was defeated in the 2012 election, gave generously to his church (as most Mormons do) and to other charities.

The media — and voters — should pay more attention to what public officials do (with their money) and less attention to what they say.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spring arrives and fills our needs

April has come at last. T.S. Eliot can call it "the cruelest month," but I feel its warmth and kindness; I see the daffodils and the tulips, the new, fragile leaves budding from tree branches; I see the light that endures through the dinner hour and invites me to sit outside and breathe in this new spring.

Too often, we've been spoiled by warmth in March. In younger days, we sunbathed in early March, but this year, March came with a chill that refused to go away. Snowflakes swirled in late March in the North Carolina Coastal Plain, even if they didn't stick.

And we yearned for the warmth we'd grown to expect, and we waited impatiently for the azaleas and cherry trees to flower into reassurance. But the cold persisted, and we were daily disappointed that spring would hide from us for so long.

Now it is here, and the outdoor tasks beckon with obligations so overwhelming. For in spring, the chores we had ignored throughout the bleak, gray winter grow more insistent and must be done. Still, April is not cruel because the chores come with sunlight and brightness and warmth. It is just what we needed.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Vote IDs and vote suppression in North Carolina

Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly have agreed upon a bill to require a photo ID to register to vote or cast a ballot in North Carolina. With a majority in both chambers, the GOP seems assured of passing a bill similar to the one Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed last year.

I'm an agnostic on voter IDs. On the one hand, I see nothing wrong with requiring a voter to prove he is who he claims to be. I've heard numerous young, first-time voters express deep shock when they discover they are not required to produce an ID to cast a ballot. They had to produce an ID to cash a check, to buy beer, to rent a movie, etc. Why isn't an ID needed to vote?

The proposal before the legislature would provide some work-arounds to satisfy the objections to past voter ID bills. Non-drivers will be able to get a picture ID from the Division of Motor Vehicles for $10, and that $10 is waived for anyone saying the cost would be a financial burden. The elderly will be able to use an outdated or expired ID (hang onto your old driver's license, Granny).

Requiring a photo ID won't come cheap, however. It has been reported that compliance with photo ID rules cost the state of Georgia $1.7 million over the past seven years. There being no evidence of widespread voter fraud in this state, you have to wonder if all of this rigamarole is worth the cost. Aren't the Republicans all in favor of more efficient government and against wasteful spending?

I'll give the supporters of this bill the benefit of the doubt against arguments that voter ID bills are nothing more than vote suppression aimed at reducing the turnout of the elderly and the poor — two constituencies that are not likely to vote Republican. Let's assume that they really are concerned about the validity of the vote and want to discourage voter fraud.

On the GOP's other voter initiatives, however, I can't give them a pass. GOP legislators have also proposed reducing or eliminating early voting, limiting the number of polling places and narrowing the time available for casting ballots. These measures have only one purpose: to reduce turnout. Democrats who pushed these ballot-access initiatives have orchestrated get-out-the-vote efforts built around early voting and convenient voter registration. Instead of competing with these Democratic efforts, Republicans are trying to close off access to the polls. That, it seems to me, can be fairly categorized as vote suppression.