Sunday, February 28, 2016

Salaries, pensions and government service.

I've joked repeatedly in recent years that someone should have told me about government pensions when I in college or starting my career. My peers who went into teaching or law enforcement or other government service are already retired on comfortable government pensions while I continue to toil in the working world, hoping to build up enough reserves — or reduce the number of years of retirement — to make ends meet during retirement.

Government jobs are some of the few that still offer a defined-benefit pension program — one in which the retiree receives a specified amount in monthly installments from day or retirement until day of death (or spouse's death, whichever comes later). As this article in today's News & Observer shows, government salaries and government pensions are far exceeding what most people in private business or industry can attain.

The newspaper focuses on the pension for a school superintendent, whose annual salary peaked at around $250,000 and whose annual pension, according to the article, will be around $145,000. State law has been altered to create an exception to a federal law aimed at limiting the size of pensions, and it appears that county government will have to make a lump-sum payment to support the superintendent's pension, which amounts to roughly the cost of three teachers' annual salaries.

And, by the way, the superintendent will retire at age 50!

A local government employee several years announced that he was retiring because he had just discovered that he could make more money as a retiree than he could working full-time in his high-level job.

Let's consider just the salary of this superintendent. Salaries of upper-level governmental employees have been rising steadily, although salaries of the rank-and-file have not. Although a $250,000 school superintendent pales in comparison to a $3 million bank executive, a six-figure salary with a pension is still an attractive inducement.

A friend of mine likes to get incensed at school principal salaries, which can top $100,000 in North Carolina. That salary, he points out, is roughly equivalent to a Navy captain's pay — the pay of an aircraft carrier's skipper. That carrier's captain has about 5,000 people under his command, and he is responsible for a multi-billion warship armed with conventional and nuclear weapons that can sink other warships, shoot down aircraft and obliterate cities. The school principal, as hard-working as he/she may be, does not have that kind of responsibility or that kind of authority.

Consultants' salary studies purchased by local governments to justify pay raises for their top dogs may not be making the right comparisons.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Spring is not far away

Faintly, as I sit inside in the morning's first light, I hear birds singing cheerfully outside. I am reminded that the vernal equinox is just 27 days away. Spring arrives six days before Easter this year. The birds are offering an overture before the symphony begins

The winter thus far has delivered some days so cold our bones felt brittle and some biting winds that turned mild days frigid. Some snow and ice came, but not so much this year as to challenge comparisons in our memory. 

Late February is not assurance that winter is over. Snowstorms have buried us in Marches past and can do it again. But crocuses and daffodils are bravely poking their colorful heads into the chilly air, promising warmer days ahead. In this somber season of Lent, there is the promise of spring and Easter.

The sun will cross the celestial equator, and warmth will bathe our portion of Earth's sphere once again. The warmth we have pursued these past few months will blanket us and sap our energy, and we will long for a cooling breeze and the thrill of autumn colors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Majority miinority districts run full circle

Congressional redistricting in North Carolina seems to have made a full circle. Going back to the redistricting following the 1990 census, legislators have drawn congressional districts that have none of the attributes those districts are supposed to possess: compactness, contiguity and communities of interest. And so the districts were litigated throughout the 1990s. Litigants lined up again after the 2000 census, and the current, post-2010 redistricting is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most audacious of the district in all three redistricting eras was the 12th District, which has run from the Durham-Greensboro area down Interstate 85 to the Charlotte area, picking up minority voters along the way. The district in any of its incarnations cannot be said to compact, stretching some 200 miles, and it is barely contiguous, with some portions no wider than an interstate lane. As for communities of interests, that is a bit of a stretch. No visual depiction of the map of the district can elicit anything other than comedy and contempt.

Originally, the 12th was drawn to follow the federal decree that congressional districts could not dilute minority voting strength. The answer to that mandate was to draw "majority minority" districts, in which minority voters outnumbered white voters. The 12th gave a visual depiction of how difficult it can be to pull together enough minority voters to form a congressional district without also pulling in neighboring white voters.

The latest version of the 12th district is being criticized and adjudicated because critics believe it "packed" too many minority voters in majority-minority districts, thereby diluting the minority's ability to influence other congressional races. The districts drawn by Republicans, who were victorious in the 2010 legislative races, succeeded in packing Democrats and Republicans into separate districts with most districts holding a Republican majority. Thus, only three of North Carolina's 13 congressmen are Democrats.

So the arguments that led to the 1990 district maps — that minorities must be grouped into their own safe "majority minority" districts, allowing them to elect their own choice of representatives — has been turned around. In 2016 the argument is that the redistricting packed so many minorities into districts that they don't have much influence outside their two majority minority districts.

It seems likely that legislators will never find the perfect balance, especially as the balancing fulcrum of race-based political power keeps shifting. It is clear, though, that legislators are no good at drawing fair electoral districts, and they should give up. Districts should be drawn by a non-partisan, independent commission with instructions to draw districts that are compact, contiguous, communities of interests and that are fair to minority voters. It would also help if districts followed county lines and natural boundaries so that voters would know what district they are in.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Halting Supreme Court nominee is a gamble

The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had hardly sunk into our consciousness Saturday before Republican leaders and presidential candidates were proclaiming that President Obama should not be allowed to nominate a replacement for Scalia. The GOP-majority Senate, they said, must not approve anyone the president nominates.

But before Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the others go too far down that road, they might want to consider what refusing to allow the constitutional nomination and consent process to take place might mean. There's an election in November, and none of the Band of Belligerents running for the GOP nomination have any assurance of prevailing against the Democratic nominee. Should the Senate refuse to allow a Supreme Court nomination by President Obama, in January they might find themselves confronted with a nominee from President H.R. Clinton or President Bernie Sanders.

Would a Clinton or Sanders nomination be more comfortable for the Republicans than an Obama nominee? Probably not. Although Obama has been the target of some of the angriest and most scurrilous attacks in recent American politics, he has usually sought to lean toward the center in his judicial appointments, selecting respected lower-court judges and law professors. Another Obama nominee would likely be less distressing to the GOP than the post-election alternative should the Democratic nominee win.

It has been rumored that President H.R. Clinton might appoint Barak Obama, a former law professor, to the Supreme Court. Or, alternatively, she might appoint another former president, a former Arkansas attorney general, to the high court. How would Cruz and Rubio like them apples?

This assumes that the Democrats will win the White House in November. There is close to a 50% chance that the Democratic nominee will win. If the Republican nominee prevails, the gamble on the court will have paid off, but at the expense of making it clear to already disillusioned voters that the Republicans care more about party politics than they care about continuity on the Supreme Court. Whoever a Republican president might nominate to replace Scalia will not be another Scalia, who was an extraordinary legal thinker who bent the trajectory of the Supreme Court over his three decades there. I dare say there is not another like him waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Handling disappointment is part of being mature

I watched the Super Bowl, pulling for the Carolina Panthers all the way, just as I had through the regular season, hoping they might go undefeated. I was badly disappointed at the outcome, but it's only a football game.

After the game, Panthers QB Cam Newton took it a lot harder, as he should have. He had a lot more invested than I or any fan did. My disappointment was a tiny flicker compared to the bonfire burning within him. Nevertheless, I find Newton's behavior at the post-game news conference inexcusable. He was sullen. He hid beneath a hooded sweatshirt. He refused to answer questions, and he stalked out. That's just not the way a person with any sense of class or decent manners behaves.

I had been a fan of Newton since his days at Auburn (my daughter-in-law is an Auburn alumna), and I appreciated his child-like exuberance and his obvious joy at playing the game. None of this, however, excuses his ill behavior toward others after the Super Bowl ended.

His response to the inevitable criticism of that behavior only made matters worse. His rationale: "I am who I am. If you don't like it, that's your problem," or words to that effect. Newton is not alone in this attitude. In fact, this attitude might be the predominant one among entire generations of mostly youthful adults. That doesn't make it any less inexcusable.

This attitude had been widely proclaimed on a number of enigmatic Facebook posts a few years ago. They went like this: "I like the way I am. I'm not going to change. If you don't like it, get over it." This attitude has become prevalent, perhaps because public schools placed a high value on "self-esteem," and many parents were so busy giving their young children positive reinforcement that they failed to ever discipline them or punish unacceptable behavior. The "back to nature" movement of the 1970s also included a notion among some that children are born perfect, and society (especially parents) must not change them and ruin their perfectness.

That's a reversal of untold generations of child-rearing efforts that emphasized acclimating the child to the expectations of society — teaching good manners, respect for others, discipline, obedience, sympathy, empathy and all the other attitudes, talents and skills society values.

It's OK to be disappointed at a loss. It's OK to grieve. But it's not OK to be sullen, disrespectful of others and even antagonistic or angry toward people who were not responsible for your disappointment.

Instead of falling back on the "I'm me, and I'm happy this way, so it's your problem if you don't like it" excuse, a role model (which Newton certainly is) could improve society by modeling the kind of attitude and behavior that respects other people and accepts a world where my own selfish interests and concerns are not the most important things.