Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court resuscitates health care act

The U.S. Supreme Court, to the surprise of many, validated the Affordable Care Act Thursday. The 6-3 decision held that it was not the intent of Congress to limit subsidies for health care premiums to only those states with state health exchanges. Residents of states without exchanges, who had to go to the national health exchange to get coverage, would continue to receive subsidies under the ACA. Chief Justice John Roberts provided a key vote and wrote the majority opinion.

Ironically, then-Sen. Barack Obama had voted against Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court. Now Roberts has twice saved Obama's signature legislation. Three years ago, Roberts' perception of the statutory penalties for not buying health insurance as a tax saved the ACA.

Republican opponents of the ACA immediately jumped on Thursday's decision, declaring that the ACA was "broken" and would have to be repealed in its entirety. None of the GOP spokesmen explained how the legislation was "broken," which seemed to be an odd description considering the millions of people who have signed up and who are receiving health care insurance because of the 2009 legislation.

Republicans may get their chance at repealing the bill if they retain control of Congress and can win the presidency. Congress has taken dozens of votes to repeal the act, but none of them have taken effect because they could not pass in the Senate or because President Obama would veto the repeal if it ever passed Congress.

A controlling majority in the Senate and continued control in the House could make it possible for repeal legislation to pass after the 2016 election. If voters put one of the dozen or more GOP presidential candidates in the White House, then the ACA could be repealed without threat of veto.

But would GOP leaders really go that far? Already millions of Americans are depending on the ACA for health care coverage. Repealing the act would revoke their health insurance, and that would certainly pose a political risk for the party responsible for taking away a benefit Americans want and need, especially if the GOP has no alternative legislation — only a vitriolic hatred of "Obamacare."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Murders and unintended consequences

If Dylann Roof intended, as has been reported, to start a race war with his coldly calculated murders of nine welcoming members of Emmanuel AME Church last week, he sure got that wrong. Talk about your unintended consequences!

Not only did the heartless murders not spark a race war, they sparked a renewed unity among the races and local pride in Charleston, S.C., in the wonderful, forgiving and loving people he gunned down inside a church. Interracial crowds cried and hugged and mourned. Thousands of people joined hands in a chain of unity that stretched across the Cooper River on the Arthur Ravenal Bridge. Charleston has demonstrated how a community can unify and answer hatred and violence with love and forgiveness.

Roof now faces the death penalty, even as the survivors of those he murdered are expressing their forgiveness even as they mourn. His crime also had another consequence: a new consensus that the Confederate battle flag, which Roof had hugged and waved in his online postings, should be removed from its places of honor and even from all public places or from retail trade nationwide. The flag has very quickly become a symbol of hatred and racial violence and not, as some supporters have claimed, a symbol of sacrifice and a memorial for soldiers who gave their lives in a lost cause.

If Roof's crime results in the banning of the Confederate battle flag — a flag that never was adopted by the Confederate States of America — it will be a fair judgment on the killer's hatred and all that he represents. The banning of a flag, however, will not bring back the respected and adored murder victims or heal the emptiness in so many families and among so many friends. No amount of reform or unity or forgiveness will bring back those lives, and for that, Roof must pay.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Legislators want to kill driver education

I protested decades ago when North Carolina eliminated straight-drive transmissions from driver training. Student drivers go to drive automatics, which I said turned driver education into "steering education." The hardest part of the course — starting out without choking down or rolling backward on a hill — had been eliminated. I lost that battle and can now acknowledge that it makes little sense to teach a skill that is unneeded in 98% of the cars on the road.

But now the General Assembly wants to eliminate driver ed. I can't see how that improves things. If you think 16-year-olds are going to learn driving skills and good habits through osmosis, you're wrong. Driving is not all that difficult most of the time, but it does require some skills and some learned habits. Younger drivers who haven't developed the experience and good habits end up in accidents, sometimes fatal ones.

The legislators' plan is to have parents substitute for driver ed teachers. That's not a good idea. Many parents have developed bad habits or have simply forgotten the subtle skills needed for safe driving, and they will teach bad habits and mistaken thinking to their children.

Legislators have been trying to cut the costs of driver ed for years. While wasteful spending is never a good idea, quality driver ed costs are not wasted. Those costs are paid back in reduced accidents and highway deaths. Formal driver education is a necessity in a state where millions of cars are on the road, speed limits hit 70 mph on many highways, and other drivers aren't always observant, skilled or rational.

Driver education is an investment in the health and well-being of citizens. Isn't that what state government should be doing?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Murders revive flag controversy

One result of the heinous murders at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston last week has been a re-igniting of the debate over the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol in Columbia. We thought that debate had been settled in 2000, when the flag was removed from the capitol dome and placed at a Confederate memorial nearby.

But the Charleston murders and a photo of the accused killer holding a Confederate battle flag had sparked the controversy again. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, has strongly recommended ridding the capitol grounds of the flag followed 150 years ago by Confederate troops. This year's GOP candidates have mostly danced around the renewed controversy.

It should be obvious to everyone that there is no cause-and-effect between the flag in Columbia and the murders in Charleston. But there is a link between yahoos who wave the obsolete flag and racism. Southern secession was all about slavery, and about state sovereignty and northern industrial dominance — all factors that worried the southern aristocracy. That line of thinking, as well as the self-delusion that southern agrarian life was purer and better than industrial capitalism, was defeated in four years of bleeding and destruction.

The flag on the capitol grounds is different from the statue of Silent Sam at Chapel Hill (dedicated to UNC students and alumni who died in the war) and the scores of similar statues on courthouse grounds across the South. The statues are memorials to men who died in defense of their homes and families and reminders of the devastating toll the war took on every family in the South and most families in the North. Racism was a big factor in the war, but few of the front-line soldiers of the Confederacy would have given their lives for racism, and only a small minority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves.

But the flying of a battle flag of the Confederacy on the state capitol grounds makes no sense, especially knowing that that very flag has been misappropriated by hate groups. If it is the Confederacy one wants to memorialize, the national flags of the Confederacy would be more appropriate and less controversial.

Removing the battle flag from its esteemed site in Columbia would make a statement that the Civil War is over, and the state of South Carolina honors all of its citizens, those who still lament the sacrifice of some great-great-great grandfather and those who lament the enslavement of their ancestors. Squeamish politicians are right — the flag is a state issue. The state should recognize the unnecessary divisiveness of the flag and remove it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In Charleston, the ultimate inexplicable

The news out of Charleston, S.C., this week can only leave you shaking your head in disbelief. Gun violence has grown so frequent that it fails to shock us the way it should. Deranged gunmen, crazy people, the mentally ill, the disassociated, the misfits of society take up firearms and kill people for no rational or even irrational purpose. They just do it.

But even in these times, the Charleston murders were different. They occurred in a church, a historic church, a landmark in place, architecture, history, religion and community. The shooter had gone to the church to attend a Bible study and prayer session. He participated in the religious gathering for an hour, and then he pulled out a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and shot nine people with whom he had been studying Scripture and praying — or at least pretending to.

It's a cliche to say that mass murders like this one are inexplicable, but this one is even less explainable. Indications are that the shooter was driven by racial hatred, but what kind of hatred, no matter how feverish, could drive someone to gun down nine people who had gathered in peace and reverence and welcomed him into their circle of believers? How can one interact for an hour with a small, welcoming group and then calmly shoot them down, pumping multiple bullets into each worshiper? This is incomprehensible.

Hatred for people unlike yourself can be a powerful urge, and the shooter apparently hated all African Americans, though he had no apparent incident to cause this hatred. Even bigots can simmer in their misplaced hatred without ever resorting to cold-blooded murder. Even religious disbelievers can insult and disparage the faithful without killing them.

As the shooter goes to trial and likely is sentenced to death, he might explain his actions in some other-worldly, amoral rationalization of monstrous evil, but he can never make sane people understand why. Why would he take the lives of nine good, peaceful, faithful, helpful, kind people?

For 25 years, my family has been annual visitors to Charleston, a beautiful city that deserves its top tourism rankings, a city of beautiful architecture, wonderful restaurants, walkable streets and a warm, soothing charm. We have walked past Emmanuel AME Church and admired its architecture, though we did not know the full history of the church. The people of Charleston we encountered, black and white, were welcoming, helpful and joyous. There was no detectable racial tension, and the outpouring of citywide grief after this shooting testifies to the biracial brotherly love in "The Holy City."

After a crime as heinous as this, how can state legislatures and Congress not crack down on gun violence, the overarming of private citizens and the culture of violence seen in movies, video games and other venues? No other civilized nation in the world will allow this kind of violence to go unrestrained. America is unique in its frontier history and its Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to "bear arms." But no constitutional right is absolute — the right to a free press is tempered by privacy and libel laws; the right to religion does not allow human sacrifice — and the right to bear arms should not include a free ticket to wanton murder and a hands-off attitude toward repeated firearm massacres.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Climate change or just another hot spell?

North Carolina is toasting under a heat wave that is forecast to remain blistering for another couple of weeks. Inevitably, we find ourselves wondering whether this is climate change or just another major heat wave. We've seen heat waves before, and eventually they come to an end, usually several days or weeks after our patience has given out.

But suppose this is something more than a run-of-the-mill heat wave. What if future Junes will always feature temperatures at or near triple digits? What if the unrelenting solar radiation cooks our lawns and our shrubs to a crisp? What if the lush regions of the East Coast grow increasing arid until the region is no longer able to support the dogwoods, azaleas, oaks and magnolias native to the region? What if our rivers and lakes dry up? What if our green lawns and hills turn dry, brown and windblown, a creeping desertification of our world?

That's a scary scenario, and I know of no one (not even Al Gore) who is predicting such devastation in the near future. But climates have changed before. Species have disappeared in great die-offs in past millennia. An ice age that subsided only about 10,000 years ago had kept North America and northern Europe frozen solid for thousands of years, but then the planet warmed, and northern regions could grow crops, and humans could tolerate the winters. Some other species did not survive the warming climate.

Putting aside the controversial argument over whether the climate change we are witnessing in the 21st century is man-made or caused by some other source, if humanity is facing such an abrupt shift in our world, we should prepare for it and strive to limit its impact. Assuming that we cannot halt or reverse climate change, how can we adapt to it? Unlike songbirds and butterflies, we can't simply alter our migration patterns. Humans tend to build permanent housing, not temporary nests. Property rights, which are central to western democracies, would be lost in a migratory world. Once nearly uninhabitable regions, such as northern Canada, Siberia, and Greenland, might become the great developments of the future. The Sunbelt cities of Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Los Angeles might become unbearably hot and underpopulated.

This hot spell, even if it's not proof of climate change, reminds us of what the human race might be facing as it tries to survive the future.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The race you are or want to be

A local president of the NAACP has resigned because, it turns out, she isn't African-American. Not that being African-American is a requirement for the office, but it just came across as unseemly that someone would fake their own race, perhaps to gain the office she held.

For decades, a few Americans with African-descended ancestors, were able to "pass" into white society because of their fair skins and other European features. This feat repudiated the legal claim in some Southern states that any African ancestry made a person "colored" and excluded them from white society with its privileges and opportunities.

Rachel Dolezal went the other way and gained status as a leader of the NAACP. She has resigned her position but has not explained or apologized for her misleading racial switch. A news network commentator referred to her feat as "transracial," a play on the popular "transgender" moniker for people who claim to have been assigned the "wrong" gender at birth. Some researchers have supported this type of claim, insisting that gender should not be based on genitalia but on self-identity and feelings.

If Bruce Jenner, a former male Olympic champion, can become a woman, why can't Dolezal, a former blond and fair-skinned woman, become African-American, based on her self-determined racial identity? And if racial identity is transient, what's the point of asking race questions on census forms and having race-based scholarships and electoral redistricting?

The NAACP, to its credit, proclaims that there is no racial qualification for leadership in the NAACP, and throughout its history the NAACP has had leaders who were Caucasians. The uproar over Dolezal's faking her blackness, however, shows that Americans are still sensitive about race.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The heat is upon us

The summer heat has arrived. After some pleasant mornings and bearable afternoons, the heat is upon us, and it's not pleasant.

Last Thursday, a friend and I set out in the late afternoon to erect a sign at a local intersection. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, the hottest day of the year to that date. The sign, which was much heavier than we expected, had to be manhandled into position, and then we had to dig the post holes. By the time we finished, we were both drenched in sweat and longing for a refreshing, cold drink.

It was after 5 p.m. when we finished, so I went straight to the gym, despite feeling worn out from the exertion expended raising the sign. I planned to cut the workout short, but even that proved challenging. I was dragging from the moment I stepped onto the elliptical trainer and left the gym even earlier than I had planned.

The weekend was hotter still. I mowed grass early Saturday morning, but by mid-day the heat had risen to about 90 degrees. Sunday was even hotter. The heat was unremitting, searing against your skin as soon as you stepped out of the shade. Just standing in the heat prompted a flow of perspiration that soaked your hair and your clothes and dripped onto eyeglasses, making the heat not just uncomfortable but annoying as well.

This heat is forecast to last the rest of the week. We will dodge the worst of the heat if we can by hiding out inside air-conditioned buildings and moving quickly into air-conditioned cars to travel to another air-conditioned building. Utility bills will soar, and AC units will break down from the demand.

We've grown so accustomed to air conditioning that we can no longer tolerate heat, even the relatively mild summer temperatures in the 80s. Once, I lived through entire summers without ever entering air conditioned spaces. Windows stood open to catch any breeze, and electric fans stirred the hot, damp air, and hot nights left us in bedclothes damp from our perspiration, but we managed to tolerate the discomfort. We've lost that tolerance and cannot get it back.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

School's out for the summer, but it's not the same

The school year is ending, or so they tell me. It's amazing how disconnected parents can become when their youngest child leaves public schools. Immediately, the school calendar, which had governed family activities for years if not decades, becomes irrelevant. For me, that moment came 20 years ago, when my youngest of three children moved on.

The culture of summer vacation today would be unrecognizable to the children of my (admittedly now aged) generation. We celebrated being free of school's routine and sang, "No more school, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks" as we leaped from the school bus. We had nearly three months free, completely. There were no summer enrichment programs, no summer camps, no museums, no arts classes, no day care and few, if any, trips to occupy the summer.

My siblings and I were free to wander through the fields and woods exploring all that nature and man's intervention had left. We fished in the little creek, chased tadpoles and caught turtles or terrapins, and we avoided snakes. We slept late. We played backyard baseball and occasionally arranged baseball games at the empty school field, if we could get there. We rode bicycles and explored the barn loft. We did chores, feeding the dog that mainly fended for himself and made sure the milk cow had food and water. We got out of bed long after our parents had left for work and entertained ourselves with games of all kinds. We wandered for miles across fields and hills and streams, climbed trees and built contraptions for our pretending. We were unsupervised for most of the day.

Our house was not air conditioned, but the school buildings were not either. We rarely entered buildings that were cooled in summer. The church had large windows that were opened on muggy Sunday mornings as everyone prayed for a breeze. The drug store a block from the church had a ceiling fan but no air conditioning. We learned to tolerate the heat and knew the value of a good shade tree.

Today's parents would never allow such a hazardous level of freedom, and social workers would be appalled at our freedom from supervision and lack of educational opportunities. They would be shocked at my clear memory of a sunny afternoon of the last day of school nearly 60 years ago. I had gotten off the school bus and strolled into the back yard and lay down on a lush expanse of unmowed grass. I lay there and felt the hot sun on my face, the cool grass against my back and the sunny warmth against my body and thought how wonderful it is to be a kid in summer.


Friday, June 5, 2015

NCAA lays out charges against UNC

The NCAA's notice of allegations against the University of North Carolina has been released, and although there are no real surprises, the expanse of the accusations are breathtaking. The primary allegation involves "lack of institutional control," a felony in the NCAA enforcement jurisprudence. For years, members of the academic counseling program and faculty members — faculty members! — arranged for student athletes and a few others to take classes that were shams. There were classes that never met, classes that required only the submission of a paper, which was graded by a non-faculty member with extraordinarily low standards. Papers that couldn't pass a decent high school teacher's scrutiny got A's from the generous grader, who lacked academic credentials.

This sham went on under the noses of academic administration. The African-American Studies Department and the College of Arts and Sciences utterly failed to provide adequate oversight. The AFAM department head was part of the conspiracy to give generous grades and not require class attendance in order to keep athletes academically eligible.

This is shameful, and many a Carolina alumnus feels deeply embarrassed. School pride has been grossly wounded. What punishment the NCAA might impose seems less important than the facts found in earlier investigations and the NCAA's notification. This embarrassment is rooted in the hell-bent determination to make UNC a football power, regardless of the cost. College acceptance standards have been reduced or vacated in order to sign athletes who spent more time in high school honing their athletic skills than in learning basic reading, writing, history and math. Other sports fell into the lure of easy grades, and the grotesque abandonment of academic standards emerged.

Some blame for this scandal reflects the poor preparation for college so many high school students receive. Students — and not just athletes — arrive on campus unprepared to do college-level work. Remedial education has become a major task of colleges. "Paper classes" just go one step beyond remedial education.

The university's response to the NCAA allegations is due within 90 days, but don't expect any significant mediating factors. At best, UNC can proclaim that the conspiracy has been disbanded, the major conspirators have been fired, and academics are back in control (or let's hope so).

This nightmare will not be over in another 90 days or six months. The NCAA is likely to impose future penalties in the form of scholarship restrictions, post-season bans, vacated victories or other long-term sentences. Even when the last post-season penalties are lifted, this embarrassment will not go away. We who have loved this university will continue to live with it for decades to come.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Governor's vetoes have a strategic purpose

Gov. Pat McCrory has vetoed two bills passed by the General Assembly, a legislature dominated by members of his own Republican party. The vetoes came on two bills that were pushed by Republican conservatives and opposed by liberals, including many Democrats in the General Assembly. One bill provides harsh civil penalties for employees who photograph or video activities at a job site — a bill aimed at animal rights advocates and whistle blowers who report on unethical or unseemly practices in farms and slaughterhouses but also applying to virtually any business in the state. The other bill allows state and local employees to opt out of performing marriages when the employee cites religious conviction for refusing to do the job.

What gives? Has McCrory gone bleeding heart on his GOP comrades?

Not at all. What is happening is the approach of 2016, just seven months away, when McCrory will almost certainly seek a second term and will almost certainly face a serious Democratic opponent, most likely Attorney General Roy Cooper. Unlike his GOP colleagues who can feel safe in passing bills opposed by a majority of North Carolina voters, McCrory won't be protected by a gerrymandered district that almost guarantees a Republican victory. McCrory will have to run statewide, where the electorate is more diverse and a good deal less conservative than the well-protected members of the legislature.

McCrory has been around the block enough times to know that he will need not only the conservative, GOP base but also the moderate Democrats and independent voters who hold the key to statewide elections. If he's going to win those moderate voters, he's going to have to distinguish himself from the more conservative GOP legislators. The most notable and newsworthy way of doing that is to veto a few bills.