Monday, July 28, 2014

Job applicant shows why unemployment remains high

The hefty young man approached me as I rounded the corner in the hallway to my office.

"That hiring place, they not here no more?" he asked.

"You mean The Budd Group (a human resources agency with an office next to mine)?" I answered. He was standing beside the door with the sign noting "The Budd Group." He nodded.

"They closed?" he asked.

"Their schedule is on the door," I said, pointing to the sign about four feet away. I looked at the sign. "It says they're closed today."

"When they gonna be open?" he asked.

The schedule on the door gave hours for the next day. I pointed it out to him, and he walked away.

I see quite a few job seekers coming down the hallway, looking for a job. Sometimes, they will stick their head in my office to ask about jobs when the HR folks next door are not in. Many of them, but not all, are in the same classification as the young man with all the questions — clad in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, a classic "dress for success" style — and lacking in basic grammar and speaking skills.

In a city with chronic unemployment that often runs nearly double the statewide jobless rate but with vacancies that can't be filled at major high-tech industries, my hallway conversationalist is an example of why so many are jobless and so many quality jobs go unfilled.

Education is the key, politicians keep saying, and it's true. But education begins long before kindergarten. Learning to speak clearly with correct grammar begins early in life, and so does the habit of ungrammatical, slurred half-sentences. Reading — such as reading that sign on the office door — is an essential skill that too many dropouts never developed. It's obvious that reading is not a talent many of these job seekers have. And that human resource agency now takes applications only online. If you can't find your way from power-on to double-click to QWERTY, you won't get a job.

And there's little anyone can do to make up for what you should have learned 10 or 20 years before.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Building a tourism industry on shifting sands

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus calls a man who builds his house on the sand "foolish." But if he has government-subsidized flood insurance and other disaster insurance and can make money on increasingly scarce and increasingly coveted waterfront property, maybe he's not so foolish.

This National Geographic article does a good job of explaining the dilemma of coastal development in an age of sea-level rise. The topic is especially volatile in North Carolina, where beachfront property and the associated tourism industry drives the state's economy. Down at the beach, where fishing is not as profitable as it once was, beach rentals, beach stores, restaurants, and beach real estate constitute a multi-billion dollar business. It's no wonder that people get upset when scientists talk about abandoning the Outer Banks to let the barrier islands reconstitute themselves as they migrate westward.

But the rise of the sea, the narrowing of beach fronts, and the shifting of the sand islands seem inevitable. One does not have to have a long memory to remember beaches that were far wider than they are today. At many beaches, the protective dunes have disappeared, and porches or entire houses are falling into the surf.

The photos accompanying the National Geographic article are especially convincing: The beach is moving beneath our feet and beneath the pilings that support the houses we like to rent and enjoy. The photo of N.C. 12 following Hurricane Irene, which severed Hatteras Island in five places, shows the futility of maintaining a major roadway built on shifting sands.

When I traveled to the Outer Banks a few months ago, I traversed the temporary bridge that carried automobile traffic over an inlet that had not been there a few years ago. As I drove, the ocean poured beneath the raised road, and the wind blew away the protective dunes. Looking out at the ocean and the salt spray mixed with sand that churned the air, I had no confidence that the highway could win its battle against the sea.

North Carolina is defined in part by the Outer Banks, jutting out like a too-prominent chin into the Graveyard of the Atlantic, making a prodigious target for hurricanes and tropical storms traveling from the Caribbean northward. Beaches provide the only reliable economic engine in eastern North Carolina, where tobacco and pine trees no longer drive the economy, small towns wither and unemployment is often twice the state average.

North Carolina cannot afford to abandon its beaches, but as the National Geographic's graphic shows, a one-meter rise in sea level will sink long stretches of the Outer Banks, changing the state's shape. The state's role should not be to simply rebuild N.C. 12 each time a storm rolls over it but to find ways to help the tourism industry adjust to the changes that surely seem inevitable. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

'Botched' executions

Another "botched" execution, and more cries to make execution illegal or at least more "humane." But making executions more "humane" is what brought us to this situation in the first place.

Executions are as old as civil government. Prosecutions have generally offered an ultimate punishment for the most heinous of crimes. From medieval tortures leading to deaths to the more humane reforms such as the guillotine, firing squads, hangings, electrocutions or the gas chamber, society has sought a way of making execution more palatable. Execution by the guillotine or by hanging was often accompanied by large crowds at mid-day in the town square. It was a public spectacle, and these methods were far less painful for the condemned criminals than earlier methods, which involved such torturous means as drawing and quartering (in which the condemned is literally torn apart, limb from limb until their quartered portions bleed out).

America's newest and supposedly most humane execution method, lethal injection, is not working out as well as planned. Several "botched" executions have led to outcries and calls for eliminating the death penalty. But these problems lead to the question: "What is really more humane?" Hanging, which snaps the condemned's spinal cord, should be minimally painful if pain can be felt at all. Electrocution likely includes severe but very brief pain before the electrical charge destroys the brain. Poison gas apparently is no more painful than lethal injection.

So what is the best way to carry out executions, if executions are to be carried out at all? It may be that earlier, less advanced methods of execution are actually less painful to the condemned person and might be reconsidered in the light of criticism of lethal injection.

As some relatives of murder victims have pointed out, no execution method compares to the tortured, grotesque, frightened final moments of their loved ones' lives. So is our concern for humane treatment of condemned killers misplaced?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Paul takes a different approach to presidential candidacy

Sen. Rand Paul is looking more and more like a presidential candidate, after less than a full term in the Senate, but he looks less and less like your run-of-the-mill presidential candidate — the ones intent on shoring up their base and getting "their people" out on election day.

Paul is pursuing a different strategy, one that has been abandoned and disparaged in the past 30 or 40 years. He is making appeals to groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Could it be that he thinks a (gasp!) moderate could win the presidency?

But Paul, whom few people would call a moderate, is really taking an even newer approach. He is appealing to stalwarts on the left and on the right. He has the revolutionary notion that the two groups have some things in common.

Paul has appealed to young, savvy technocrats by lambasting the National Security Agency and the constant spying this nation is engaged in. Paul says Americans have a right to privacy and certainly have a right to mind their own business without government snooping or interference. He has pitched his educational opportunities proposals to African-Americans, not your usual audience for Republicans. He has also appealed to died-in-the-wool conservatives with his stand against budget deficits and runaway federal spending. He has also called for less American involvement in the affairs of foreign governments. Paul sees limited government as serving both ends of the political spectrum.

An age when voters have less confidence in government and more doubts about the wisdom of foreign military interventions might be just the right time for a libertarian, which is the political description that best fits Senator Paul (whose father, Ron Paul, once ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket). Libertarians believe in strictly limited government, and that includes limits on the size of the military establishment and intrusions of government spying. If Paul can temper some of his more strident positions and gain support from both ends of the political spectrum, he could emerge as a force in the wide-open 2016 Republican presidential contest.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My ring finger is unoccupied at the moment

My wife asked me if my right hand felt naked. My whole body felt naked. All I was missing was my college class ring, which had occupied the ring finger of my right hand for 44 or 45 years (I don't remember exactly when I received it). Rarely did I not wear that ring sometime during each day, with the exception of a hiatus when I attend Officer Candidate School. I was afraid I might lose it.

The years have not been kind to my ring or my ring finger. About 30 years ago, I dropped the ring on a tile floor and the aquamarine stone shattered. I sent the ring to the manufacturer, who replaced the stone, charging only for shipping. Since then, the new stone has been nicked a few times but is still intact.

But my knuckle had expanded like a weak spot in a bicycle inner tube. Most days I couldn't get the ring over my knuckle and would carry the ring in my pocket until the knuckle slimmed down as the day progressed. But then, the knuckle stopped slimming, and I couldn't get the ring over the knuckle anytime.

I took the ring to a jeweler to ask about resizing the ring. I'd had to resize my wedding band five years ago, when I could no longer take off that ring without the greatest effort and then couldn't get it back on over the swollen knuckle. The class ring would be a bigger resizing job than the wedding band had been.

The jeweler slipped the ring into a brown envelope and said it would probably take a month to get the ring back, one size larger. Several times during the day I feel the absence on my finger and reach into my pocket for the ring, thinking I must have slipped it there for safekeeping before I remember that the ring is out for repairs.

Class rings are not the milestone they once were. In my long-ago class, most students ordered rings, some with fancy embellishments, such as fraternity letters carved into the stone. My children did not order class rings, and who could blame them? I told the jeweler that I think I paid $128 for the ring, half up front and half on delivery. Today's class rings, he said, would cost over $1,000 for the 10 carat gold type that I had worn all those years.

The ring has no monetary value for me. It's merely a reminder of those glorious years of my youthful transition into adulthood. Fading memories need all the reminders they can get.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Young adults see marriage as unimportant

A new poll indicates that marriage is not particularly popular among the younger generation — the folks that, traditionally, would be tying the knot right about now. It's no secret that the age of marriage has been increasing for decades. Earlier in the 20th century, when most men went straight to the workforce after high school and most women were wed by then or earlier, the age of marriage hoovered around age 20. With increases in post-secondary education postponing the time available for building families, and with economic upheaval making marriage and families less attainable, the age of marriage has increased into the later 20s.

It should come as no surprise that today's young adults are less enchanted with marriage and less focused on getting married. For some, marriage might seem like an unattainable dream; for others, it's irrelevant to their careers or their carefree lifestyle because, if nothing else, marriage adds duties and responsibilities to life. For some young adults, duties and responsibilities are not desirable burdens, and the pleasures of marriage and parenthood are available outside of marriage and even without the responsibilities.

This is a marked change in attitude and expectations. My late mother-in-law used to ruefully tell of how my father-in-law proposed to her. After a few dates, he told her, "I guess we'll have to get married." They had found each other; marriage was the logical and inevitable result. That expectation is rapidly disappearing. Not only is marriage no longer the expected result of a relationship, it might not even be considered.

That seismic change is foreboding. Marriage and families have been the building blocks of society and civilization for centuries. In different ways in different cultures, the civil and religious rites of marriage sealed the responsibilities of spouses and parents in a way that benefited civil society and even the economy. The vaunted "Protestant work ethic" was all about taking responsibility for supporting family, not competing with other workers.

If today's young adults avoid the bonds of marriage and its responsibilities, fewer adults will take on the burdens of parenting and civic leadership. Fewer adults will feel a need to build policies that benefit the next generation and that protect marriages and families. Without marriage and family, it is easy to live for the moment and not worry about what tomorrow might bring. Without a commitment to children and grandchildren, public education becomes less important, economic opportunity less essential, neighborhood quality less meaningful and moral conduct less desirable.

If marriage becomes archaic, society will suffer.

Monday, July 7, 2014

An honest look at the horrors of war

I have been reading Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" tracing the U.S. Army's march across North Africa and Europe during World War II. Atkinson's account is extraordinarily detailed and frank about the errors and shortcomings of some American leaders and the horrific experiences of soldiers and airmen.

In reciting the statistics, still startling 70 years later, of morbidity among Allied bomber crews — an 89 percent casualty rate (which includes injured and captured as well as killed in action) — he quotes a poem by Randall Jarrell, who was a member of a bomber crew before winning fame as a poet. These three lines capture the horrors of the air war:

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I awoke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Young men, the contemporaries of my parents, went forward to almost certain death for their country, for their families, for democracy, for their own sense of responsibility, and because their government, their families and their neighbors expected it of them. The gut-wrenching opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" is an accurate portrayal of what infantrymen faced on D-Day and on many other days throughout the war. Punching their way into Germany, Allied infantrymen went for days without leaving their stinking foxholes, which were bedroom, dining room and bathroom to the soldiers. Many went weeks or months without changing their socks or underwear. They developed trench foot, sunstroke and frostbite.

I read these accounts not because I share their experiences but because I wish to know what it took to secure the freedoms and advantages we share today.

The experiences of foot soldiers have changed little in the past 200 years. By World War II, the means of killing had been improved by machine guns, heavy artillery, aerial bombs and land mines, but the wretched lives of World War II soldiers were not appreciably different from the lives of our forefathers who huddled in trenches around Petersburg, Va., or who set out across an open field toward batteries of cannon and riflemen on the high ground at Gettysburg. All faced the likelihood of death or mutilation or, if they survived, the nightmares that put their minds back in those trenches or foxholes for decades thereafter.

Gen. W.T. Sherman's aphorism, "War is hell," does not to justice to just how cruel and inhumane war was 150 years ago and still is today.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Women will survive the Hobby Lobby decision

Women's advocates have been apoplectic about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, but they are reading more into the decision than is there. The court majority was careful to craft a narrow decision, one that applies to Hobby Lobby's highly unusual, if not unique, situation. Attorneys and judges will have a difficult time expanding this decision to apply to other, somewhat similar situations.

Much of the criticism of the decision fell into the category of religion-bashing, and that's a shame. Relatively few Americans subscribe to the Pentecostal religious beliefs of the Hobby Lobby family, but all should be able to agree that a person's sincerely held religious beliefs should be respected by others who disagree with those beliefs. Other religious beliefs, the justices said, such as prohibitions against vaccinations or blood transfusions, would not be affected by this decision. Religious conflicts have led to discrimination, violence and wars throughout history, and religious conflicts remain a powder keg within Islam and in conflicts between Islam and Christianity.

The Hobby Lobby issue would never have been raised were it not for the Affordable Care Act's retention of employer-sponsored health insurance, a system that is exceptional, if not unique, among all advanced economies. If Congress had opted for a single-payer system financed through taxes, such as Canada, France and Great Britain have, an employer's religious beliefs would never have mattered.

Critics who are claiming that women will be denied health care grossly overstate the case. The court ruled that an employer cannot be required to provide health insurance covering specific prescriptions or procedures that conflict with the employer's sincerely held religious beliefs. Female employees of Hobby Lobby can still obtain prescriptions for contraception, which was the service at issue, from any physician and can have that prescription filled. The narrowly proscribed function in the decision is that employers may not be forced to pay for types of contraception that they consider to be equivalent to murder. The government can solve the whole issue, if it so chooses, by making payments for contraception the responsibility of the federal government.