Thursday, February 27, 2014

Military supporters doom budgetary sensibility

The negative reaction to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's proposal to cut back the size of the Army offers little hope that the federal budget can be brought under control. The reaction to Hagel's plans to shrink the peacetime Army comes shortly after Congress had second thoughts about another plan to reduce the size of the Pentagon budget. In that one, Congress has acted to rescind a budgetary rule that reduces the rate of growth in military pensions for working-age military retirees.

It makes no sense for the United States to maintain an Army sized for major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan when the United States has pulled out of those conflicts. Hagel's downsizing, however, affects military bases, some of which will be reduced in size or eliminated, and weapons procurement, which affects congressional districts where weapons are manufactured. The reaction on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts across the country has been highly critical. These military proponents apparently would have the United States become a modern-day Sparta or Prussia, maintaining an oversized military and tempting leaders to engage in military adventurism. President Eisenhower tried to warn us about the "Military-Industrial Complex." They forget that for most of its history, the United States maintained a very small Army. Before the Civil War, the Army was a small fraternity of career soldiers. Before World War II, the U.S. Army was puny. Only after World War II set the United States at the head of Western democracies and the stabilizing force in the Cold War did the Army maintain the force required for a continuing global presence.

The change of heart over military pensions is indicative of the canonization of military service. These days, in a reversal of the shameful shunning of military personnel in the Vietnam era, anyone in uniform is declared a "hero." Even commissary clerks and accountants who've never heard a shot fired in anger, are thanked for their service and declared heroes. "Hero" has been devalued.

Military retirement allows service members to retire after 20 years with a full, lifetime pension entirely funded by taxpayers. That means, for some people, retiring at 38 years of age and collecting a pension for 40 years. The rules change, which Congress at first accepted, reduced the rate of annual cost-of-living increases for working age (up to 65) military retirees. Nearly all of these men and women hold down civilian jobs and use their military pensions to supplement their regular pay. The guarantee of a pension after 20 years remained; only the rate of annual increases changed. The budget change would have allowed them to continue this practice, but their monthly pensions would not increase at as fast a rate.

This is a small pinch of the funding flood, but if Congress does not have the willpower to make this small adjustment, it has little hope of getting the entire budget deficit under control.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Filling the Olympics' 24-hour news cycle

The Sochi Olympics are over. The athletes performed. The winners stood on podiums and accepted their medals. There were exultations and disappointments — the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" in the television cliche, but there was no terrorist attack, and the accommodations and competition venues held up throughout the fortnight of events.

Who would've thought this just three weeks ago as the world's sports entertainment media descended on this Black Sea resort? All the talk at the time was about the likelihood of terrorism in this tumultuous region and the appalling lack of modern conveniences in the hotel rooms set aside for the news media.

Blame the 24-hour news cycle for this deceptive anticipation and stoking of anxiety. When you're sent to a far-off site at great expense to report on the opening of the Olympic Games, you have to report something, event if there is nothing of consequence to report. So the prelude to the opening of the Olympics was all about how Islamist extremists in the region could infiltrate Olympic security and turn the games into a tragic act of terrorism and how the lodging was not up to New York City or London standards and how the Russian president was exercising his totalitarian instincts at Sochi.

Over the next two weeks, none of these preludes segued into the symphony of the Olympics. The games went well, despite some disappointments and some complaints, as are common at all Olympic games. The weather at Sochi was warmer than expected, but the athletes dealt with the warmer temperatures that turned the snow at some events slushy or icy. Whatever the conditions, all of the athletes had to deal with it more or less equally.

The 24-hour news cycle that turned the build-up to the Olympics into an epic of fear-mongering also turns a simple college football game into an all-day extravaganza. The ESPN Game Day crew arrives half a day before the game and talks and talks and talks about every imaginable aspect of the two teams, the players, the coaches, the cheerleaders, the university administration, the weather, the tradition, the history, ad nauseam. Whatever you do, you have to fill the 24-hour news cycle, even when there's not much there in the way of news.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cable broadband needs more competition, not less

The cable television industry doesn't need less competition. It needs more.

That is my complaint against the Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable. Cable TV prices are rising, and the monthly bills I nearly gagged over when I heard about them (as a relatively happy broadcast TV viewer 25 years ago) are now merely routine or even on the cheap side. A lot of factors are driving the rise in cable bills, but lack of competition is clearly one.

My other complaint is that both of these cable behemoths have fought tooth-and-nail against competitors, such as municipal cable systems. When the city of Wilson took the bold move of establishing a fiber-optic cable system with fiber to every residence, the big cable companies screamed. They threw the full weight of their lobbying and political power behind legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly that would have either banned municipal ventures into cable and Internet or would have placed severe restrictions on cities' abilities to launch or complete a cable system. Wilson and other municipalities fought back, but the clout of the cable giants was too great. After a three-year fight, legislators passed legislation limiting municipal systems to those cities that already had a system under way. So Wilson is one of the handful of cities offering high-speed broadband and cable TV services, along with the other utilities most cities provide. (Full disclosure: I am a Wilson Greenlight customer.)

This strangling of potential competitors and a monopolistic merger should not be allowed, but Washington seems incapable of stepping in. The cable companies have plenty of lobbyists in Washington, too.

As other new competitors arise, such as Google's plans for fiber networks in various cities, the lobbyists will have to work overtime to protect the TV-Comcast monopoly. And taking on Google and other software moguls will be more difficult than steamrolling a few upstart municipalities.

Another threat to the cable companies is the shift of TV watching to the Internet as more and more consumers give up cable because they can get what they want to watch over the Internet, right to their big, flat-screen "smart" TV. This threat will affect the municipal cable providers and the Google fiber networks, too, but it is the cable companies that have the most to lose.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Duke deal with cities could be a game changer

This could be a game-changer the likes of which eastern North Carolina has not seen in generations. If negotiations between Duke Energy and 32 eastern North Carolina municipalities are successful, those towns would suddenly become competitive in electricity costs with other areas of North Carolina.

For 25 years, 32 eastern North Carolina municipalities, including Wilson, Rocky Mount, Greenville and New Bern, have charged higher electric rates to their customers. The rates vary, but all are substantially more than the rates charged by corporate energy providers such as Duke. This costly disparity is the result of a bad bet made in the late 1970s, when it appeared that an energy crisis loomed — one that might make it impossible for municipal power systems to buy wholesale electricity. Towns and cities that sold electricity to their residents, as they also sold water and sewer services, persuaded voters to approve a law that allowed them to join together and buy a portion of Duke's and then-Carolina Power and Light's generating capacity. This ownership would guarantee them access to the electricity their consumers needed. The cities would jointly float tax-exempt bonds to pay for the $3.5 billion deal.

The law was approved, the negotiations fell into place, and the cities congratulated themselves for avoiding a catastrophe. But another catastrophe shattered the congratulatory celebration. The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear plant frightened regulators, insurers and Congress. Suddenly, the cost of building new power plants increased exponentially. CP&L cut the size of its planned Shearon Harris nuclear plant from four reactors to one, but that one cost more than had been estimated for the planned four.

And the bargain the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency (the 32 cities in eastern North Carolina that had banded together for the deal) suddenly had a losing proposition. Not only had costs increased, but interest rates soared into double digits. The municipalities faced back-breaking interest charges on their bonds, and the price of their electricity leaped upward.

The 32 cities and towns were trapped. They could not get out of the deal. They could not declare bankruptcy without ruining their ability to finance other municipal operations. And neither the state nor the federal government was willing to bail them out.

With the merger of Duke and the former CP&L, Duke Energy is willing to discuss a buyout of the municipalities' share of the generating capacity. If Duke is willing to buy out the cities' remaining debt, electric rates could drop to a level comparable to Duke's. The immediate impact would be a boost to businesses and industries that would like to be in Greenville or Wilson or Smithfield but are frightened away by the high electric rates. Residential rates could drop by 30 percent, making these towns more attractive to retirees and others.

The municipalities would retain their electric distribution systems and would respond to power outages, but they would buy their electricity wholesale from Duke. If the towns succeed in negotiating a wholesale price that allows them to match Duke's residential and commercial rates, all of North Carolina would be on a level playing field for the first time in decades.

And that would be a game changer for industrial development in one of the poorest areas of the state.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rain, sleet, snow but no mail

"Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow ..." You know the rest, but apparently the U.S. Postal Service has forgotten its unofficial motto.

We have received no mail at home for the past two days, and today, when I went by the Wilson Post Office, the counter was closed, and there was no mail in the post office box. Oh sure, there was snow on the ground, and yesterday afternoon the roads were a bit dicey, but today the streets were wet but not slippery by the afternoon, when I was out. The Postal Service couldn't be bothered.

Our morning newspaper was delivered both days, although it was not in the driveway at the usual 6 a.m. hour. It did arrive, however. The U.S. mail? It didn't make it.

The Postal Service has its problems, and I tend to be sympathetic about some of the problems. But it's little wonder that the Postal Service has problems when its employees abandon ship with every snowfall. In contrast, I felt enormously sympathetic toward a Food Lion clerk Wednesday afternoon at the height of the storm. The checkout line was long with people stocking up on snowstorm supplies (including cigarettes). They were all on their way home, and she wasn't. It showed in her face. She didn't want to be there, but she was on the job. You couldn't say that about postal employees.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

North Carolina sinks to bottom in public education

No doubt, many conservatives will explain the excoriating criticism North Carolina received at the Emerging Issues Forum this week as just another liberal, Democratic rant. After all, the Emerging Issues Forum was founded by Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

But it's hard to dismiss the criticism of the downward slide of North Carolina's commitment to public education. Teacher salaries, once near the national average, are now ranked 46th in the country. Teacher morale may be at an all-time low, ground to bits by the pressures of constant student testing, new curricula, greater administrative scrutiny and stagnant pay. Certified teachers are fleeing the state's public schools.

 The Republicans who took over the legislature in 2009 and gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure their predominance for a decade or longer have gleefully shoved public education over the guardrails. Class sizes have increased, the Teaching Fellows program has been scrapped, master's degrees no longer improve pay, tenure has been eliminated, pay has been frozen, and charter schools and vouchers for private education are reducing the amount of money available for public schools. It's no wonder that national education experts are mourning the decline of North Carolina's once-exemplary educational achievements.

A neutral observer would have to admit that the progress under Democratic legislators and governors was not all for the improvement of the state. Many Democrats were more interested in pleasing the teacher unions and gaining their election-day support than they were in being sure Johnny could read. The N.C. Association of Educators made their interests clear in questionnaires sent to legislative candidates. The questions were all about teacher pay, teacher benefits and teacher job security and not about improving education.

But what the Republicans have done in setting a new direction for education (take that, NCAE bullies!) is jeopardize the lives of North Carolina's children and the critical infrastructure that had lifted North Carolina off the bottom of the economic ocean. An increase in starting pay for teachers, as Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders proposed this week, will not correct the problems they have created. For North Carolina to revive its educational reputation from the morgue, a whole new attitude will be needed in the Legislative Building, one that declares that public education is not the enemy; it is the best hope for the state's children and its economic future.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Old books bring back memories

The rows of tables stretched the length of the convention center, row upon row like a parading army of troops, and the straight rows added into the dozens filling the space that could accommodate an ice hockey rink with bleachers. On each table books stood neatly vertical, their titles easily legible to the scores of people walking, reading, pausing and remembering.

I spent only a short time walking the rows of books, never even venturing into the fiction, helpfully alphabetized by author's last names. Instead, I perused the several tables labeled "History" and "Biography." As in a high school reunion, I recognized many old friends and paused at the memory. There were Watergate books, and I marveled at how long ago it had been since the nation was absorbed with Dean, Haldeman, Erlichman, Sirica, and all the rest. There were books chronicling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And memoirs, like John Dean's "Blind Ambition" and Henry Kissinger's advice on diplomacy or Russell Baker's "Growing Up," and historical biographies on Churchill, Andrew Jackson, and so many others.

When they were new and the reviewers praised them and they made the New York Times bestseller list, these books were conversation starters and opinion shapers. Now they stand on end, going out the door for a dollar or two because the library has declared them surplus, and most of the people who read the reviews, as I had, and wanted to read the books everyone was talking about had done so. So many books; so little time, as the bibliophile's aphorism goes. But others among us had wanted to read these books, had read or listened to quotes from the authors and compared reviewers' comments, but had never added to the bookseller's figures by actually purchasing the books when they were listed in the top 10 lists.

Now they are relegated to the indignity of jutting their binding faces into the eyes of strolling shoppers, their page ends against plastic table tops, with no hint that once these books were the topics of national conversations and the objects of popular praise. Some of the authors are dead. Some of their characters have disappeared from the news and are forgotten.

Even the medium, printed books, words on paper, has slipped behind digital media in popularity. Our books are now no more than binary code, a language that goes unspoken and unheard. Even the weightiest tome has no heft in its digital format, a format that lacks the feel of printed pages between stiff covers and the intoxicating aroma of paper pulp and ink.

After spending far longer than we had intended at the library book sale, my wife and I left with an armful of books on paper, their heft weighing down my arms. We add them to the scores of books lining the living room bookcases, the bookcases upstairs, the pile of books lying beside the bed and the books stashed in the attic because we couldn't bear to send them away. Someday, we think, we will take down these books and re-read them or share them with friends, offer them to grandchildren, or simply hold them happily again.

The books in the long rows at the convention center struck me as one more affirmation that life is short, and moments, even heartfelt moments launching national conversations, are fleeting. One moment's greatness devolves to the hard-luck indignity of a one-dollar sale.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Olympics are on; the world yawns

The Olympics are on, and I'm not watching. I'm typing on a computer keyboard instead. Of course, it is only the winter Olympics.

The Olympics lost their idealistic glow long ago at Munich, when the world discovered that nothing is pure and simple; nothing exists without political influence; international camaraderie has its limits. Much of the pre-games coverage has dealt with the inadequacies of the hotel accommodations for the media and with the threat of terrorism. Few, other than other media personnel, care that much about their hotel accommodations. But the threat of terrorism should concern everyone.

Sochi lies in a strife-torn region, where terrorist groups plot and plan. But where on earth is there not the threat of terrorism? Even the Atlanta Olympics and the patriotic Boston Marathon were marred by a terrorist bombings. Olympic security has been clamp-down tight ever since the Munich tragedy, and every large gathering of people anywhere in the world now must take extreme precautions against terrorism. That is the world we live in. The most serious question this year may be whether any world so battened down for security and so worried about terrorist threats can maintain the Olympic tradition.

Whether terrorists strike at Sochi or not, the question will remain relevant.