Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Referendum is better way to resolve secession issue

On Thursday, the people of Scotland get to vote on secession. They will decide whether to remain a part of Great Britain, and the British, who conquered Scotland centuries ago, will go along with their decision.

How much more civilized than the secession crisis the United States underwent 150 years ago! Suppose South Carolina and the other Confederate states had opted for a peaceful referendum on secession instead of bombarding a fort occupied by what the S.C. secessionists considered a "foreign power"? And what if newly elected President Abraham Lincoln had not taken the bait and declared, instead, that the United States would respect the decision of the Southerners to decide their own destiny and "dissolve the political bonds that have connected them with another" (in the words of the Declaration of Independence). Could a disastrous civil war have been prevented? Would other Southern states follow South Carolina's lead and joined the Confederacy? It seems likely that North Carolina, which initially rejected secession, might have remained with the Union and not lost tens of thousands of its young men and much of its wealth to four years of war.

What if this dispute had been settled by a referendum instead of half a million deaths and the utter destruction from which the South, where most of the battles were fought, did not recover for 100 years? Not everything about this scenario is appealing. Slavery would have persisted in the Confederate States, but that "peculiar institution" could not have long survived the global revulsion toward such an inhumane system. Perhaps a peaceful settlement would have allowed for compensation of slaveholders for loss of their valuable property and compensation of slaves for their generations of bondage and uncompensated labor. The expense would have been tremendous, but probably no more costly than a war that nearly bankrupted the United States and made Confederate states destitute and feeble for decades.

If political ties must be severed, surely the better, more civilized way is through a binding referendum. My Scottish and Scot-Irish ancestors might disagree, but I hope Scotland remains a part of Great Britain. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Republican economic plan flops

The new Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly was going to fix the state budget and the state's economy. It's not working out that well.

Despite boasting by Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's economy is, overall, not much to brag about. Unemployment remains high in many counties, with only the heavily populated and well educated areas around the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte enjoying much of an economic surge. Other counties in the east, mountains and middle of the state are still flirting with double-digit unemployment.

The legislature's solution of drastically reducing the length of time a laid-off worker could draw unemployment insurance and the amount of those payments has not fired up the state's economy. Backers of this change claimed the unemployed were out of work because they enjoyed being idle, not because there were no jobs to be found. The results thus far show the Republicans were dead wrong, but it's the unemployed who are paying the price for their miscalculation.

The latest refutation of the Republican economic strategy comes from the state treasury: the state's revenues are down sharply, and officials are blaming the reduction on the legislature's revamping of the income tax. Legislators cut the state income tax for everyone and did away with any semblance of a progressive income tax. Now all taxpayers pay the same, reduced rate. As a result, the state is getting reduced revenues, and that further cuts the money available for providing state services. Reducing taxes does not automatically increase job creation and spending.

The political makeup of the legislature is locked in until after the 2020 census, when electoral districts will be redrawn, so Republicans have little motivation to admit their errors and get the state back on track. The poor performance of the Republican majority's economic experiment, however, could have an impact on this year's U.S. Senate race. Thom Tillis, the GOP speaker of the House, had planned to run on his record, which he still claims has benefited North Carolina — lower tax rates, reductions in school funding and a punitive attitude toward those who are out of work. Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, has not had a stellar record, but she has not been responsible for the sinking revenues, destitute out-of-work residents and defunding of public education. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Goodbye to malls, all around

Thirty-four years ago, my family (wife and three small children) and I were excited to be moving to a city with a mall. We were moving from Danville, Va., which, despite its charms, did not have a mall. It had downtown retailers and a couple of strip shopping centers with major retailers, but no mall. If we wanted to go to a mall, we had to drive an hour or more to Greensboro or Durham.

We discovered that Wilson not only had a mall, its mall was new (open just a couple of years) and packed with a variety of retailers: Belk, Penney's, two or three restaurants, some local clothing stores, a drug store, a child-magnet toy store, a kitchen store, and a number of shoe stores. We made the mall a favorite destination, whether for the sales at Belk or the ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.

In the ensuing years, Parkwood Mall expanded and added stores and kiosks. It continued to be a favored shopping destination. But things changed. Mall ownership and management changed. Maybe the owners got greedy and charged too-high rent. Some retailers left. Scary-looking, inconsiderate teens turned the mall's open space into a threatening hangout. Customers didn't like being hassled by the scruffy mall inhabitants, and crime in the parking lot rose.

The mall began its steady decline. And now it's no longer a mall. What had been Wilson's prime retail location has turned into a ghost town with only a couple of major retailers hanging on, the mall's interior corridors permanently closed.

Malls have gone out of favor across the country, so maybe Parkwood's decline is not just the result of local ownership errors. The latest owner has even changed the mall's name, to Wilson Mall. Why? A multiplex theater now dominates the former mall site, and the owners have been saying for months that they will demolish the old mall, leaving ... what? A big parking lot? It's hard to believe that these owners might be willing to invest in the property and turn it into a combination retail and residential space, like North Hills in Raleigh (formerly the management company for Parkwood Mall). The owners have allowed bank buildings, a huge failed supermarket building and a tornado-damaged detached building sit vacant and become a graffiti platform.

I have no real hopes for the former Parkwood Mall, but I still have a soft spot for really good malls, where you can go from store to store without getting wet or cold or hot, and a new storefront entices you every 30 feet. It's an era that has passed, apparently, but I enjoyed while it lasted.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Black is the new tacky

It happened again last night. I turned on the TV to catch a few minutes of the Louisville-Miami football game, and the Louisville Cardinals showed up in black uniforms, looking like the 1960s Viet Cong guerrillas in their black "pajamas," only with padding and huge bodies.

Black uniforms — and helmets, too — are the latest affectation in college sports. It's difficult to tune in to a college game any given weekend without seeing at least one team cloaked in black. It's not because all those schools have changed their school colors; it's because they think they're more intimidating in black fabric. This is the deductive reasoning of college graduates?

My UNC Tar Heels came out in black uniforms with black helmets last year — I've forgotten which game it was. I thought they looked silly and tacky. But they were just following the trend. Tried-and-true blue and white were no longer good enough for them. They had to add black. Ugly!

The Duke University basketball team has come out in black uniforms frequently the past few years, and the N.C. State team has tried the same scare tactic.

Someone ought to tell these coaches and athletic gear companies (e.g., Nike) that black uniforms and helmets don't make a team more intimidating; it makes them look silly. Leave the black uniforms to colleges that have formally adopted black as a color, such as Wake Forest. They can have the franchise on black uniforms. Blue, white, red, green, purple, lavender, whatever, should be good enough for everyone else.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seasons change

September 1 sounds like fall, even if it's not, really. Even if it's 90 degrees most days this week, the days are shorter, the nights longer, foliage a bit duller and more colorful.

I welcome fall, as I welcome most every change of season. How dull it would be to live in the tropics or in the Arctic, where seasons might loosen their grip but never change.

I cannot remember noticing seasonal change when I was a child, except that I welcomed the arrival of summer with the end of school and dreaded the return of fall and start of school. Only in college, where I could not help but notice the burst of color on campus trees as the weather chilled and then the blossoming of the azaleas and dogwoods and cherry blossoms all around campus, did I really notice and appreciate the gift of seasonal changes. When I worked in Washington, D.C., the arrival of autumn meant the departure of tourists, the easing of traffic and the disappearance of the smog that could be so thick I could not see the Potomac River from my office window six blocks away.

When I bought my first house, the blossoming shrubs and trees in the yard gave me a greater appreciation of the property, and the cool breeze as I raked leaves made the autumn a sensory feast.

Now I welcome each seasonal change, knowing that my enjoyment of these changes is limited; I have seen more seasons change than I will see in the future. I hope my thankfulness for these changes has been sufficient and my appreciation matches the enjoyment I felt.