Thursday, July 30, 2015

Discomfort over Planned Parenthood video

In the wake of a series of damning videos, Congress is taking up legislation to eliminate federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

Whether the secretly recorded videos are accurate portrayals of private conversations or are misleading, connivingly edited ambushes is an issue that will be hashed out over the weeks and months to come. But the impact of the videos may be greater than the $528 million in federal money Planned Parenthood receives or the future of Planned Parenthood.

These videos — more are said to be on the way — expose a practice of harvesting fetal body parts for research laboratories. The discussions on the videos show a focus on money and a lack of humane concern for the very human body parts that are being discussed. The videos reveal abortion in a way that would make almost anyone cringe. The practice is a business, not a medical procedure, in much the way that slavery was a business to its practitioners, not a demeaning and inhumane categorization of humanity.

The right to an abortion and America's comfort level with abortion practices have waned in recent years as medical advances have made premature babies viable earlier and earlier in the gestation process, which makes late-term or even mid-term abortions look more like infanticide. State legislation and court decisions have pruned back a more expansive right to abortion without eliminating abortion altogether. That compromise leaves absolutists on both fringes surrounding a broad middle ground of uneasy discomfort.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The irony of state policy on sales taxes

There is a good deal of irony in the governor's vow to veto a bill that would distribute the state sales tax differently, sending more of the tax money to counties based on population and less to counties based on point of sale. Gov. Pat McCrory accused the legislation of being more "tax and spend policies of the past" — a fourth-degree insult in Republican circles — that would "cripple the economic and trade centers" of the state.

The legislation would change the way the sales tax is distributed. Now, most of the revenue goes to the county where the money is spent. If approved, the new rule would distribute more of that revenue — but not all of it — to counties based on population. The result would be more tax revenue for struggling rural counties and somewhat less for metropolitan areas, where rural residents often go to shop. The Charlottes and Raleighs would lose revenue; the Griftons and Taylorsvilles would gain. Current distribution is skewed in favor of urban counties.

The irony is that North Carolina and many other states have campaigned for years to require online and direct-mail retailers to return sales taxes to — note this — the states where the buyer lives. North Carolina has been largely successful in this. Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of online retail, now disburses sales taxes to North Carolina when N.C. residents make a purchase.

McCrory has supported this sales tax principle, that the buyer's residence should determine where the sales tax goes, and retailers should be required to charge sales tax for whatever state in which the buyer resides. With a hodge-podge of state and local sales taxes to keep track of, this requirement is a challenge to online retailers.

But when it comes to sales taxes charged by brick-and-mortar stores in North Carolina, McCrory is now saying the buyer's residence should not matter: the point of sale should determine where the sales tax money goes. This favors the large cities and urban counties and hurts the decaying rural counties, where downtowns are filled with vacant storefronts and failed businesses because they can't compete with the glitzy style and mind-numbing variety of shopping experiences in urban areas. The state accommodates this demolishing of rural businesses by building ever-more express highways from rural counties to urban centers, where rural residents now spend most of their money.

If the residence of the buyer is relevant to nationwide online retailing, it should be relevant to in-state retailing as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Newspaper design aims at wrong audience

It seems fitting that this one-thousandth post to this blog should be about newspapers. After all, this blog grew out of a newspapering career. I began writing a blog at the urging of one of the many consultants who worked their way through the newspaper I edited. After being laid off, blog and all, by the newspaper, I began blogging on my own.

The newspaper I read every day, the News & Observer of Raleigh, has redesigned itself, and my initial reaction was, "please don't." Although the N&O had famed newspaper designer Mario Garcia create the redesign, it includes most of the flaws I complained about each time in my 33-year newspaper career that we went through a redesign. My complaint with newspaper designers is that they are more concerned with creating a pretty design than with communicating information to readers. Although it's nice to impress readers with the beauty of your design, what readers want is information. If they want art, they can go to a museum. Great photos used well attract readers and can tell a story visually. Many of the great news events of our history are remembered in photos — Neil Armstrong standing on the moon; Jackie Kennedy reaching back to pull a Secret Service agent aboard as the presidential limousine rushed a fatally wounded president to a Dallas hospital; the World Trade Center collapsing into rubbish — but a newspaper is both visual and linguistic.

The bright colors on section fronts serve no useful purpose while wasting space. The full-column photos of columnists also waste space. For generations, newspapers have relied on half-column mugs to identify columnists (and newsmakers). The N&O redesign changes the standard "head and shoulders shot" to a "head and elbows shot."

The bigger pictures and bright colors, along with multiple subheads and pull-outs, are aimed at attracting the youngest audience, the millennials, who every survey shows are not readers and won't be readers of print. As one of the first newspapers to get aboard the digital bandwagon, the N&O has succeeded in building a digital audience, and I use the web edition of the N&O when I'm out of town or the paper is late. I like the digital edition. Trying to make the print edition more like the web I don't like.

An earlier redesign of the N&O also turned me off. Instead of a standard four sections per day — front (main news section), Triangle/State, Sports, and Feature — the N&O merged the local section with the main news section, with the result that some clearly second-tier news made the front page. For subscribers who don't live in the Triangle but depend on the N&O for state and national news, this is distressing. It also leaves just three sections to the paper, and the section size is widely skewed. The Features section is now barely large enough to carry the comics. What is at stake here is not some effort to better serve readers; it's a simple means of saving costs, regardless of the readers' preferences.

I expect to be a newspaper reader until I die, but it appears I'll have to settle for newspapers designed for generations other than my own, despite the fact that the 65+ demographic is the fasted growing segment of the population.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A quick verdict in notorious murders

The jury in the Colorado theater shooting trial didn't waste any time in returning a verdict Thursday: Guilty of mass murder.

The verdict should not have been a surprise. The accused, James Holmes, was captured at the scene. He was wearing his murderous terrorist outfit, still carrying weapons used in the massacre, and still living his macabre dream. His only defense was that he was mentally ill. That defense had worked in other infamous murder trials, but not in this one.

I wrote in April that two trials would determine the future of capital punishment in this country, but I did not have the foresight to include the trial of James Holmes. This verdict, too, will set a precedent. The rejection of the mental illness defense shows a sophistication of the Colorado jurors, who recognized that mental illness, while debilitating and even destructive, does not normally provoke murderous rampages.

Whether Holmes should get the death penalty for the taking of 12 lives is yet to be decided, but if the jury has rejected the "innocent by reason of insanity" defense, it might be willing to let the punishment fit the crime. Executions are clearly on the wane in America, but the death penalty is part of America's sentencing traditions. Only in the last 100 years or so have Americans doubted the appropriateness of the death penalty, which once extended in some states to first-degree burglary, kidnapping and rape, and not just murder. The reversal of some capital sentences because of new evidence has given the public cause for doubt. In this case, however, there is no doubt about the defendant's culpability for the crime, only whether execution is appropriate punishment.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Cut taxes and cut taxes again

Just a year after revamping the state tax code and reducing the state income tax by 0.25 percent, Republicans in the N.C. Senate want to cut taxes again, by another 0.25 percent. Gov. Pat McCrory counsels his GOP colleagues to give last year's tax cut time to determine its full impact on the state's economy and taxpayers, but the Senate leadership seems determined to cut taxes again.

Isn't a tax cut the panacea for all political, governmental and economic problems? 

If a tax cut every year is the solution (whatever the problem might be), where does this strategy end? If cutting taxes is the answer, what then is the ideal level of taxation? Zero?

Staunch libertarians have asserted that nearly all government functions can be replaced by free enterprise and free, untaxed citizens. If you are concerned about crime, get together with your neighbors to hire a neighborhood police force. You'll also need to hire prosecutors, judges and prison guards. And, as U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis asserted not long ago, sanitation standards can be be eliminated; just post a notice in the restaurant that the staff is not required to wash hands after using the bathroom. "Caveat emptor!" Free citizens who do not want to contract food poisoning or worse will protect themselves, and offending restaurants will eventually go out of business.

So if lower taxes are good, and still lower taxes are even better, no taxes must be best. Coming soon to a legislative chamber near you.

Friday, July 10, 2015

No more laughter for a comic hero

Say it ain't so, Bill! America's favorite dad can't be a serial rapist!

But unfortunately, sadly, shockingly, distressingly, he's said it's true. In a deposition 10 years ago, Bill Cosby, a man I've admired and laughed with for decades, admitted to obtaining pills — quaaludes — for the purpose of having sex with female victims. The comedian had denied the allegations for years, even as the accusations piled up against him. I couldn't believe Cosby, the stand-up comic, television star, commencement speaker and social critic, could be guilty of these actions.

My memories of Cosby go back a long way, about 50 years. I was in high school when I or my sister obtained one of his comedy LPs. I memorized his monologue about Noah — "This is the Lord, Noah!" — and replayed it for my friends. His humor was always simple, connective and based on everyday events with which people from various walks of life could identify. His routines were about growing up, about strict upbringings and wild and crazy friends and football played in the street, and the shenanigans young boys get into. America identified with him and laughed with him. When he created his own TV show — "The Cosby Show" — he expanded his audience and his appeal. He showed Americans, black and white, the lives of upscale urban couple who happened to be African Americans, raising children in the modern world. The show was a huge hit and added to Cosby's aura.

Later, he became a social critic and commencement speaker. He critiqued the out-of-wedlock birth rate, the unspellable, African-sounding names with which some black mothers tagged their children, and the young adults who have little ambition or drive and often have no jobs. These criticisms brought the wrath of the NAACP and other groups but also won him support from conservatives.

When his son was cruelly murdered by highway bandits, he had a nation's sympathy. After all, he was "America's Dad."

But his admission that he not only betrayed his wife for sexual hook-ups, he drugged women to get sex, has made him a pariah. Sad. One of his first comedy albums was titled "Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow." Not any more.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Silent Sam gets lost in another battle

"Silent Sam," the statue at the University of North Carolina memorializing UNC students who fought in the Civil War, has become a rational extension of the movement to purge the South of all remnants of the history of secession and of the hundreds of thousands of deaths expended to keep the United States together.

The statue of a soldier has been defaced with spray paint labeling the soldier "murderer," along with "KKK" and "Black Lives Matter." There have been recurring calls over the years to take down the statue, but the statue, which is beloved not for its connection with the Confederacy but for its generations of connection with the campus, still stands. It's likely more students have known Silent Sam for his legendary firing of his musket each time a virgin passed by than for his Civil War connection.

When this debate over Silent Sam arises, the reason for his existence is ignored. Sam was not erected as a symbol of white supremacy or slaveholder economics or as a reminder of the so-called "Lost Cause." Sam came to stand on the UNC campus because North Carolinians, particularly those with a UNC connection, sought to honor the students who laid down their books and took up weapons as the state seceded from the Union and supplied troops to the nascent Confederate States. Fifty years after the Civil War, the scars of that conflict were still palpable — an economy that had never recovered from the utter destruction of a merciless invading army, and the memory of so many lives lost. Every North Carolina family knew the pain of losing a father, brother, uncle or cousin to the war. A handful of these were slaveholders and fought, at least in part, to extend slavery, but the vast majority had no stake in the slave economy; they only knew that their nation (North Carolina, a sovereign under the Confederate system) was at war.

Silent Sam is harmless. Misleading accusations about him and festering hatred of a bronze idol are not harmless. Let him stand, as a memorial to men who died honorably and as a joke that students love to tell. Harmless.