If not now, then health care reform may never pass
This country must pass health care reform that accomplishes two major objectives: providing coverage for everyone and controlling skyrocketing costs. I believe that the bill must include a public option for those who are now uninsured. And just like automobile insurance, anyone who enters the workplace must be required to have health insurance, either from their employer, their own private plan, or from the public option.
Conservatives and liberals alike agree that our health care system is not sustainable in its present form. Employee-sponsored health care premiums doubled in the past nine years, rising three times faster than wages. American families spend more on health care than we do on food or housing. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if costs keep increasing at the current rate, 25 percent of the nation’s economy will be tied up in the health care industry by 2025.
The fundamental questions for those advocating reform is how can we cover those who now don’t have access to care while controlling costs in an industry where price has become irrelevant? When is the last time you asked your doctor how much a test, an operation or a drug was going to cost?
According to The Wall Street Journal, the current system of employer-provided benefits “has divorced the consumer — the patient — from the real cost of services. It encourages excess spending, runaway lawsuits, defensive medicine (doctors ordering unnecessary tests and procedures out of fear of being sued), and huge malpractice premiums.”
This is a complex issue, and understanding it has become even more difficult amid the tidal wave of misinformation that is circulating. It’s unfortunate for those of us who believe health care reform is critical that this debate is occurring during an economic crisis that has forced unprecedented government intervention into private industry. Both the outgoing Republican administration and current Democratic administrations supported government taking new and expanded roles to stave off a long-term economic disaster. Intervention to rescue the banking and automobile industries, along with Obama’s stimulus package, have further fueled the long-running fear of too much government intrusion.
The health care problems, however, can’t be solved without government intervention. Government is already the major player in the industry through Medicaid and Medicare. But here’s the truth — Obama does not support a government takeover of our health care. That’s not even being discussed and is a complete distortion of reality.
What he does want is a public option for insuring the 45 million people who currently don’t have health insurance. That option is the best chance for controlling insurance premiums, which in turn will prompt the insurance industry to work with health care providers to keep costs down.
There are other major problems on the other end of the healthcare spectrum that must be resolved as part of reform. Many who have insurance are denied coverage or reach their caps when they face serious problems like cancer or heart problems. Also, changing jobs with a pre-existing condition can be devastating, often leading to a denial of coverage or skyrocketing premiums. A plan for affordable portability of coverage must be included in any reform measure that is passed, along with measures that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage just when it is needed most.
Although I think the public option is necessary, compromises can be found. Some are suggesting allowing the insurance companies to develop low-cost plans for those who currently can’t afford care. This plan includes a trigger for a government option to come into play only if the private companies can’t get the job done. The public option is better, but a compromise that earned some Republican support might be the best possible solution — and the only way to get a bill passed.
One issue that hasn’t been discussed much as part of this health care overhaul is personal responsibility. We can’t cut our health care costs substantially if Americans continue to suffer from chronic conditions that are preventable.
Our children are suffering from an obesity epidemic. Many of us eat too much and exercise too little. Go to any middle school in the country and observe the children. It is a sad thing to see so many who are obviously on their way to a lifetime of battling obesity.
I don’t have a problem paying taxes to provide health care for a working mom who has a full-time job that pays just above minimum wage and doesn’t offer healthcare benefits. I do, however, have a problem paying for those who cause their own health problems by eating badly, not exercising, and perhaps smoking. I’m not sure how it can be done, but we must encourage lifestyle changes that could substantially reduce total healthcare costs.
Healthcare reform has discussed by nearly every administration since World War II, and we have yet to make meaningful headway. Congress has made more progress in the last six months on this issue than ever before, and citizens need to encourage their lawmakers to finish the job.
Florida’s loss likely means our gain – and challenge
It’s always a little embarrassing to look on another’s misfortune and discover that you may be the beneficiary of their problems, but it does happen.
And so I read a story about Florida’s economic woes and couldn’t help but see a bit of a silver lining for us in North Carolina and in the mountains.
Here are a few lines from that article:
“Already, (Florida’s) hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted ‘halfbacks’ moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years ....
“Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.”
Now most of us who live in the mountains don’t want a huge influx of new retirees or even young families. In fact there are many who say there is nothing positive about our region becoming the “New Florida.”
The point is we don’t want to become the new Florida. This recent economic slowdown has provided time to re-assess the dangers of unchecked growth. Many of us, this newspaper included, are committed to fighting for progressive planning measures so that when growth comes we can protect the landscapes, mountain ridges, streams and small towns from losing those qualities that make this area so special. We don’t want the crime and sprawl that make it so easy for Floridians to run from.
That said, there is certainly the reality that our economy here in Western North Carolina has gone stagnant. Too many of our residents are worried about their jobs and their families.
So if Florida’s allure as “the” retirement and relocation spot in the East is fading, there’s little doubt the coastal areas of Georgia, South and North Carolina, along with the mountains of WNC, stand to take its place. There really is no other place in the eastern part of the country that has the amenities to fill that role. It won’t happen overnight, but I suspect the next 10 to 20 years will see change in this region that many of us could never have imagined. On the one hand, it is exciting to live in what promises to be a vibrant region for the next couple of decades, while on the other hand this prospect should put us on guard.
Those of us in the media have an obligation to our communities to keep the growth issues out in the public arena. Striking a balance between inevitable growth while nurturing and improving the wonderful lifestyle we now enjoy won’t be easy, but it can be done.
I’ve been reading some essays by William F. Buckley Jr. — who died in 2008 and is generally regarded as the godfather of the modern American conservative movement — and was left bemoaning how political discourse has withered to such a state of pathetic, inane screeching and labeling.
It also left me pondering another more important question: is it possible to combine some of the tenets of conservatism and progressivism into one coherent political philosophy? That’s something I want to explore in some columns in a few upcoming issues.
Many of my liberal friends and many of my Republican friends are likely foaming at the mouth at such a proposition. But Buckley was a master of big ideas, not small labels, and therefore his conservatism has about as much in common with today’s Republican ideals as night has to day.
Many of the ideas I would associate with the progressive movement — which acknowledges the need to take steps to re-form government (and, therefore, society) in order to deal with today’s realities — can find a home in a school of thought that also cherishes the eternal verities of faith, truth and family, along with a love of country. Such a philosophy must exist without succumbing to the Fox News method of brandishing these verities as weapons against political opponents (especially those who hold dearly to the separation of church and state).
So I’m going to research some of the real-world outcomes that such a school of thought would lead to, and see where it comes out.
Most of those over 40 are probably very familiar with Buckley, though anyone who enjoys political philosophy would do well to read him. My mother-in-law, Lee Sullivan, passed along a memoir written by Buckley’s son about losing his mother and father. That led me to one of Buckley’s books of essays, Let Us Talk of Many Things. Years ago I read a couple of his books about sailing, another area in which he was quite accomplished.
Upon his death in 2008, The New York Times said this: “Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America.”
Aside from starting the influential conservative magazine the National Review and hosting “Firing Line,” an early talk TV show known for its great debate of ideas, he was a prolific writer. As someone who has personally answered the late-night phone calls from irate, sometimes inebriated, readers at the many newspapers I have worked at over the years, I can’t help but have an affinity for a guy who penned a 2007 book called Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.
Schools vs. prisons is an easy choice
Haywood County’s 1930’s-era minimum-security prison was kept open for another year by our ever-diligent legislative delegation in Raleigh. They saved about 45 jobs and cheap labor for roadside cleaning by keeping the relic open. Meanwhile, Haywood County school supporters were forced to muscle a table through the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart — about a quarter mile as the crow flies from the old prison — because they needed to rattle the can for spare change to try to save teacher’s jobs.
The Haywood County effort to save school jobs is something being replicated, I’m sure, in other places throughout the state as school systems learned they were one of the big losers in this year’s state budget. In Haywood County, that loss was about 32 positions. In Macon County the total was about 14 and in Swain it was three jobs.
Business people have known for a long while that these are unprecedented times. Now local and state governments have finalized their first annual budgets since this recession wrapped its ugly arms around the country, and it’s a picture that is as confusing as it is frustrating. What is happening is this — taxes are being raised while at the same time costs (teaching jobs) are being cut.
So the conundrum is obvious. Should our legislators be fighting to keep open a little, inefficient prison at this time, when state studies have shown these little prisons to be more costly per inmate? It’s easy to juxtapose these two budget outcomes to argue that cutting wasteful government spending is very difficult, even in the face of what was a $4 billion state budget shortfall this year.
The point here is that it is almost impossible for lawmakers to vote for the greater good of the state in the face of pressure from constituents in their own district. The prison is a particular line item, and two similar prisons from the 1930s in Gates and Union counties are slated for closing after lawmakers finalized this year’s budget. Closing all three would have saved the state about $3.4 million a year, according to a state budget analyst quoted in several news stories.
School budgets for each county aren’t line-item expenditures. Lawmakers approve a huge dollar figure for public schools, and then it is doled out based on the number of students in each county.
Last week we editorialized that cutting funding for an after-school program for middle schools students — another of this year’s budget decisions — was a poor decision.
My friend John Sanderson, a former principal and teacher in Haywood County, makes the same arguments for cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes in the lower grades.
“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” he told a reporter for this paper last week.
As citizens and as a society we have responsibilities that include paying for prisons and schools. And it is not as simple as an either-or equation, because lawmakers weren’t in Raleigh weighing whether it was better to keep school classroom sizes down or whether to keep a prison open. Unfortunately for all of us — and the lawmakers — it is not that simple.
But our choices are telling. As constituents, there has never been a more important time to get involved and let lawmakers know how you feel. At the local, state and federal level, changes are under way. When there is no money, then the spending choices become ever-more important.
And there seems to be more discussion about politics and spending, priorities and values, and those things important to our country. Liberal and conservative groups are getting together to discuss issues and get their opinions out. That’s all good.
On this one, though, the choice is easy for me. I’d take schools over prisons any day. Priorities, priorities.
A few moments – and 10 days – to celebrate cultural understanding
The end of this year’s Folkmoot USA, some of the acquaintances I made during the festival, and my own ongoing interest in all things political has led me along one of those idealistic wanderings that I’ve often tried to swear off. It’s cliché, I know, but I kept coming back to the truth that we should spend more time celebrating what we all have in common instead of fighting over what we disagree about.
A book I recently read probably contributed to the imaginary dance with what could be, as opposed to what is. I had little time to read in April and May, and so spent a long time getting through the popular Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. A book that should have taken a week at most to read sat on my nightstand for nearly two months as I pecked away at a chapter here and a chapter there.
This book has become required reading in many schools, and for good reason. It’s the true story of a mountain climber who almost died attempting to conquer K2, only to be saved by the villagers in one of the most isolated areas on earth. He came away with the notion that these people living in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and their children — especially the girls — deserved an education.
Despite all our preconceived notions of Islamic fundamentalists, the very conservative village elders throughout the region welcomed Mortenson. As they saw how their children were empowered, and how Mortenson had no agenda except that of educating children who otherwise might not ever learn to read and write, they embraced the American and his simple goal of helping kids in these remote areas.
I thought about that book as this year’s 10-day Folkmoot international festival got under way (In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I am president of the Folkmoot board and have been a fan of this festival since I first arrived in Waynesville in 1992). Folkmoot doesn’t do anything as significant as building schools, but it has thrived for 25 years for many similar reasons, I think. Folkmoot touches lives on so many different levels.
When we begin planning for each festival, Folkmoot is a local event for almost everyone involved. Each of these groups was back home in their own country, trying to figure out how much money they needed, which members would be coming, when they would leave, and all those many preparations that go with international travel.
As all the planning comes together and we are just a few weeks away from the start of Folkmoot, those of us in Western North Carolina also begin to get excited about this festival. I know my own children — Liam, Hannah and Megan — are a font of questions and queries about who’s coming, when will they arrive, what shows will we go to, how old are the dancers and on and on and on. By that time they are already learning about all these countries, saoking up knowledge without even knowing it.
As Folkmoot gets under way, we have close to 300 performers from all over the world housed with local guides, spending the day with bus drivers and volunteers, and interacting with Americans from many different socio-economic levels and age groups. It’s my hope that they leave with a better understanding of our values and firsthand experiences of our hospitality, thanks to those interactions and the audiences they perform for. And these performers also share much with us, offering a glimpse of their own culture, and doing so in many different ways.
We invite the different groups here for this festival and, after spending time with people from countries they have never visited, they leave. Again, we hope when they depart they do so with the realization that we are all more alike than different; that when we celebrate each other’s culture we foster a better understanding of this complicated world. That’s the simple message of Folkmoot we want to send home with these wonderful performers.
By my estimates, during its 26-year run Folkmoot has brought a total of more than 7,500 performers to these mountains to share their dance, their music and their heritage. A minimum of 2,600 volunteers and employees has been associated with Folkmoot over those years. Around 250,000 to 300,000 spectators have been to ticketed events over the 26 years of the festival, and that doesn’t include the huge audiences at each Parade Day and International Festival Day.
By any one’s count that’s a huge helping of international goodwill that we here in Western North Carolina are responsible for. Here is Folkmoot’s mission statement: “Folkmoot USA promotes world friendship and celebrates cultural heritage by hosting the North Carolina International Folk Festival and other programs for residents and visitors.”
I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of this international festival that Western North Carolina has embraced so generously, but let us at least revel for a few moments in the fact that Folkmoot is indeed a unique and inspiring event.
Cherokee could do better regulating bear zoos
“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”
— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks
The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.
According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.
The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.
Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.
The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.
The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.
Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.
No we aren’t becoming socialists
Don’t you just love how words and labels take on a life of their own in the ideological debate that helps shape public policy. The give-and-take of real debate is important — as it helps us find a middle ground upon which to govern — but the word play often gets comical.
My, uhhmm, favorite in this current political climate is the claim that we are becoming a socialist country. The fear is that the trifecta of bank bailouts, red-ink stimulus packages and corporate handouts is sending us down the path of no return, and that soon the government will own even more private corporations. Now, as the politicians try to find a way to provide health care for every citizen, the cry is getting even more common.
As a New York Times writer put it a couple of months ago, “socialism” has replaced “liberal” as the “go-to” slur among conservatives who love to hear themselves talk.
It’s not just at the national scene that this accusation is getting tossed around. At the Tea Parties protesting higher taxes it was claimed that the country is changing, but in the wrong way. As the different groups around North Carolina protested spending at the local level, you could read about accusations that even county governments were becoming socialistic, whatever that means.
“Once the government owns GM,” a man was saying the other day in the locker room at the gym, “there’s no turning back. We’ll have to buy more private companies because no one else is going to want to buy them.”
And that’s really the crux of this new front in the ideological war. In this country, particularly since FDR and the New Deal era, government has taken a strong role in addressing our social problems. Most of these programs were aimed at the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. Those of different political stripes argued over how to administer the programs and how much should be spent, but there was general agreement that the less fortunate deserved government help.
But now it’s not just the needy we are helping. No, this time we step in and help rich bankers and U.S. autoworkers making $60,000 per year, all in the name of saving the economy. Before blasting Obama about all this, let’s remember that it was the previous administration that jumped into the fray by approving the initial bank bailout.
Then along came Obama and the tab to the banks grew, along with the approval to help the auto industry and the larger package of stimulus spending. And now, there’s a chance this government largesse will extend to California and maybe another state or two who are drowning in red ink.
But just what defines socialism, if that is indeed where we are headed? According to Newsweek, European democracies spend on average 47.1 percent of their country’s gross domestic product, while in the U.S. the figure is 39.1 percent. I don’t know what an economist would say, but it seems we still have a ways to go in a strict economic sense before we resemble those governments we love to hate in Europe.
The argument — whether one is conservative or liberal — should not be about labels. Those labels — like “socialism” — make arguing the nuances of important policy more difficult, kind of like demonizing the opponent rather than matching wits against them. What we should be worrying about is just how much government intervention is necessary, and what is the wisest way to spend our depleting federal and state resources.
Way back in March, President Obama had this to say during an interview on this subject: “By the time we got here, there already had been an enormous infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system. The fact that we’ve had to take these extraordinary measures and intervene is not an indication of my ideological preference, but an indication of the degree to which lax regulation and extravagant risk taking has precipitated a crisis.”
Both the private sector and the government failed us in this crisis. Now as a country we have to find some middle ground between the wealth production that comes with a freewheeling private sector and unfettered capitalism, and the proper role for government oversight and stiff bureaucratic regulations.
The government has a role in helping us out of this mess. How large a role is still being debated, but that intervention has nothing to do with socialism.
It won’t be easy, but I don’t think there’s much chance we’ll become a socialist country in the process.
The new frugality is an old idea
There’s talk all over about America’s newfound love affair with frugality. What Time magazine has dubbed the Great Recession is threatening the American consumer culture, pundits and writers say, forcing us to re-think whether we need the biggest plasma screen television or the newest and greatest cell phone.
But it’s not just the gadgets that we’re re-thinking. Read the newspapers and news magazines and they also tell you that we’re eating out less, going less often to the high-end grocery stores, keeping the old car longer and putting off repairs to the house.
This may be new lifestyle for many, but not at my house. My wife has always been the “bring it back down to earth” person in our family. She enjoys nothing better than catching me or one of our children talking about how we “need” to get one of those or we “need ” to do that. “Need?” she’ll ask, eyebrows raised. OK, scratch that.
My wife’s point is this: for too many of us, what we “need” and what we “want” seldom diverge. They are one and the same, and so gadgets and other stuff piles up in closets and under beds as we gobble up everything the retailers throw at us.
Who knows whether this new emphasis on frugality is a fad or a permanent change, but it is interesting to note how lifestyle choices like these ebb and flow with the economic times. I’m old enough to remember the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo of the early 1970s. Price spiked, lines formed, and all of a sudden the country’s consciousness about energy and where it came from were all over the news.
Then came the late 1970s and early 1980s and inflation, job losses and more focus on our energy. Both presidents Nixon and Carter tried to raise our awareness of the country’s need to change its policies, but even during those bad economic times Americans didn’t embrace a radical new lifestyle.
But there was a rising consciousness of what was happening. Those times did signal the start of a concerted, mainstream environmental movement. The idea of using less, recycling and saving energy became commonplace, even though we didn’t all embrace it. The 1960s subculture had fomented into a fringe movement that now had advocates all the way to the White House. I remember some guy in Fayetteville who taught at the college near our house, and we’d see him riding his bike to work even in the winter.
That memory came back to me last week when we wrote a couple of stories about farmers and retailers. One story was about the growing popularity of biking to work again. Companies like Mast General Store even pay their workers to bike, figuring the benefits to the environment and their employees’ health are worth the investment.
The other story we wrote was about Whittier farmer William Shelton who has begun selling his products to individual families in addition to maintaining a wholesale business. Sign up for a share and you’ll get fresh vegetables each week from his farm.
Many growers are doing this, but Shelton is the first we’ve heard about who has been on the farm for several generations and has changed his business model to connect with the growing demand for local food. The markets also influenced his decision. Farmers like Shelton find it hard to compete against huge corporate farms and foreign competition.
And so he and others have decided to sell their food to people like you and me, counting on our desire for fresh and tasty food rather than the bland vegetables available in our grocery stores. These growers are also counting on the fact we, the consumer, will work harder to get our food. The large retailers are awfully convenient, but — just like biking to work — the benefits of eating local food go beyond taste to helping create the kind of community that most of us want to live in.
Last week’s paper brought together several of the issues arising from this new way of thinking that this Great Recession is helping promulgate. The demise of a consumer culture changes the equation of our lives. Cheaper, faster and easier don’t add up to better. The truth is that we’ve always known this, but often it takes eating a little humble pie before we remember what our parents and grandparents tried teaching us a long time ago.
Perdue’s no-show was a missed opportunity
“Gov. Beverly Perdue probably didn’t set out to give Western North Carolina a slap in the face Wednesday.
“But we know a slap in the face when we see one, and this sure qualifies.”
— Asheville Citizen-Times editorial, April 23
Asheville Citizen-Times Editorial Page Editor Jim Buchanan — a Haywood County resident and a friend of mine — was right on target with this one. My sentiments exactly, and a sentiment shared by a whole lot of people in our region.
Gov. Beverly Perdue chose not to attend the first official event in the yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The occasion was a Governors Proclamation Ceremony and it was held at Clingmans Dome. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was there.
According to Perdue’s spokesperson, Chrissy Pearson, “The governor was invited and did give serous consideration but given the length of the trip and the potential travel cost involved she declined. It is so far out of the way and we are trying to cut back on travel.”
Perhaps Ms. Pearson didn’t get the significance of her words, but the “so far out of the way” line is a bit hard to swallow. Everyone out here knows how far we are from Raleigh (it’s about 6 hours from Clingmans Dome to Raleigh, and MapQuest estimates the fuel cost there and back at about $70). The distance in miles is significant, but it’s the attitude that can be read into the governor’s statement that is more revealing.
I could go on for thousands of words, but here are three important points about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the southwestern part of her own state that Gov. Perdue might need to be reminded of:
• The park is probably the single largest economic engine in the state, if one doesn’t consider the “beach” as one entity. Nearly 10 million people a year visit the park, and the surrounding communities depend on it — especially when times are as tough as they are now. But somehow Tennessee has laid claim to the Smoky Mountains. Most citizens of this country think of Tennessee when they think of the park, and its governor made sure he had time on his schedule to get to the ceremony. Perdue’s absence only solidifies Tennessee’s link with the Smokies and surely will help the towns on the western side of the park.
• The still-evolving legacy of the park— from a cultural standpoint — deserves recognition from leaders in Raleigh, including the governor. She could have stood on the podium and made note of how the creation of the park was controversial in its day because so many residents were uprooted from their homes and communities, their land forcibly “taken” (though they did get compensation, that’s the general phrase used). She could have pointed out that the initial skepticism about the park was heartfelt but that its creation has become a grand success, creating a jewel for future generations and a permanent gold mine for the economies in the state’s far west.
• Finally, she could have assured citizens here that this region, though many miles from Raleigh, is not “out of the way.” From a political standpoint, Perdue should know that citizens in the mountains have a long history feeling that they have been left out. A visit to this important ceremony would have helped establish that Perdue does indeed feel differently.
I’ve had the good fortune to live, literally, all over North Carolina — Fayetteville (south piedmont), Boone and Blowing Rock (northwest), Durham (central), Raleigh (central), Roanoke Rapids (northeast), Elizabethtown (southeast) and now Waynesville. All of those places are special, but not a single one has people imbued with the strong sense of place that is the norm for those here in the mountains. The creation of the park is an important component of this legacy, and Perdue’s no-show will have some saying that she just doesn’t understand that.
In the grand scheme of things, this probably doesn’t rank very high in terms of Perdue’s mistakes during her early months in the governor’s office. What it indicates, however, is that some things just haven’t changed much in Raleigh.
Nuisance debate both crass and credible
Every now and then a government proposal takes on such a vigorous life of its own that its intent gets clouded, those supporting it — or just discussing it even-handedly — get tarred and feathered and what started as an honest effort to do something worthwhile just blows up.
Such was the case with the proposed nuisance ordinance Haywood commissioners and their planning board abandoned last week. In the end, even what was good and right about this proposal just got lost in the noise.
The ordinance started out as an attempt to protect public health and clean up some of the junk that accumulates on private property. Cleaning up junk and protecting public health are, in almost all cases, admirable goals. The ordinance would have regulated items like open sewage, refuse, old swimming pools, garbage, junked vehicles and such. It’s intent was to prevent injuries, get rid of junk and abandoned manufactured homes and to “abate public nuisances.”
As a citizen of Haywood County, I don’t have a problem with this proposal. In plain English, the law was trying to get people to keep their old stuff from causing health hazards or looking just plain ugly.
But therein lies the problem. This ordinance, stripped of all the lawyer-speak, in essence would have codified a subjective opinion — the opinion of planners and commissioners, one would assume — as to what was unsightly, unhealthy, or, in the words of the proposal, a “public nuisance.”
As has happened time and again in counties and towns throughout these mountains, opposition mounted as the debate took a detour from the merits of the proposal to a broad fight against the erosion of property rights. The wording of this particular proposal invited protest. “The following are hereby expressly declared to be public nuisances,” it read, and went on to say “outdoor storage of .... all-terrain vehicles, toys, bicycles, ....”
County board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick explained that these references needed to be taken in context to public health and safety, but it didn’t matter. County commissioners and planners had no choice but to toss out the proposal. If there were supporters who thought a re-wording might make this law more palatable, they didn’t show up. From any objective measure of public opinion, the majority of Haywood citizens were against this measure, vehemently against it. And so commissioners struck it down, as they should have.
What was disappointing in this whole affair?
Well, there was the treatment of officials on the planning board and county board. Everyone has a right to get emotional in their opposition to laws they don’t support. That’s the American way, as many have said.
But to say commissioners or supporters of this ordinance aren’t adhering to the Constitution or are somehow less than patriotic is pure bluster. Trust me, there are much more stringent ordinances in many places in this country that have withstood legal challenges. Nothing at all in this proposal was unconstitutional. Bareknuckle politics are fine, but the argument should remain against the policy proposed, not the people who might feel differently about it than you.
In addition to the petty name calling and cussing, also bothersome in this debate was the way stereotypes were tossed around as if they really mean anything. Outsiders were for it, locals were against it. Rich people were for it, working class folks against it. Conservatives against it, liberals for it. This is akin to the blather from the television and radio blowhards on both the left and right who are so quick to pigeonhole those they don’t agree with and take the easy way out of a real debate on the merits of a proposal.
Of course the good part of this episode has been the real, community debate that has taken place. Many great points have been raised. It’s been a real civics lesson for the community, messy and sometimes ugly as it was.
And the continued participation in civic affairs of this new group — We the People — can only serve to bring attention to the important issues the county board, planners and municipal officials will be discussing in the near future. Too often we in the media sit in empty meeting rooms and write stories about what we think are important issues but that no one else seems to care about. This proposal shows that people do care and that they want to be engaged in the process, and that will make for good government in the long run.
That’s a pretty damn good outcome, and it’s a good bet one active citizen group will beget another that feels a little differently. Do you think, heaven forbid, that the majority of the citizenry will actually start taking an active role in shaping the affairs of the community in which they live? Wake me up, I must be dreaming.
Pondering the future of newspapers
Much as I dislike posing the question, here it is: can you imagine a future without newspapers? Would it be a dark day or good riddance to a biased blight upon the information landscape?
Well, if you’re reading this you’ve likely got an opinion. It means you’re a newspaper reader. It’s part of your life, something you can’t imagine living without. But it’s past time for nostalgia. That warm fuzzy about holding a newspaper in your hands as a cup of coffee tickles your nostrils won’t pay the bills for printing, for staffing, and for distribution if not enough people choose to read.
Make no mistake: newspapers are in trouble. Most have heard about the closings of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News. We know that a host of other large dailies are limping along. They’re being battered by the tidal wave that is the Internet and the unexpected and lingering depth of this recession, which is slashing advertising revenues.
So what does it all mean?
If I — or anyone else — knew the future of the information and journalism industry, it would be a Bill Gates opportunity. Figuring out how to make money on gathering and packaging information in an age when most of us are completely overwhelmed with information is proving difficult.
Here’s what I do know: the traditional printed daily newspaper business model is broken. It was built on three streams of revenue: subscriptions, retail advertising, and classifieds. Well, classifieds have gone online or to all classified papers (Iwanna, in our case). Paid home delivery subscriptions have been declining for almost two decades, and it doesn’t appear much will change.
So daily papers are left to depend on two revenue streams that will continue to decline — classifieds, home delivery — and are having to rely more heavily on advertising to pay the bills. Trouble is, many businesses that used to buy those newspaper ads are looking at alternatives to the very expensive daily newspaper rates. Those alternatives include weekly newspapers like ours, television and local cable companies, radio, direct mail, and billboards.
And, of course, the Internet.
What about papers like ours?
I tell many people that, unfortunately for dailies across the country, we are part of their problem. Free distribution weeklies with unique content like ours, Mountain Xpress in Asheville, the Independent in the Triangle, and the Rhinoceros Times in the Triad are chipping away at the advertising revenues the big dailies used to monopolize.
But we are also suffering during this recession. We depend solely on advertising revenue, and that has declined steeply. We are being forced to invent new products to help advertisers, take on smaller jobs, and generally morph into a broader media and publishing company that has a newspaper as its flagship.
For our business, local advertising is the key. Another question, then, is how will the local businesses get their information out to readers?
Google is spending millions trying to figure that out, but many businesses tell us that print advertising in a local newspaper is still their best source for getting customers in the door. As the web becomes bogged down with information — search “smoky mountains” on Google and 2.4 million entries come up, while “smoky mountain real estate” will get you 163,000 entries — many advertisers who go solely to web are finding it a “needle in the haystack” gamble.
In the future, that haystack is just going to get astronomically larger. As blogging and social networking spiral out of control, navigating the web gets unwieldy.
So local papers still have a future, and that is what many analysts are now saying. Our news and our advertising still are unique and original, stuff that in many cases won’t be found anywhere else — at least for now.
Everyone who goes online for news or turns on the televisions for news still depends primarily on newspapers. The most popular Internet news sites are papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report pick through newspaper sites, as do Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper and the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman. They put their own spin and their own reporting into it, but almost all the stories originated with newspaper journalists.
Local television news depends on a region’s newspapers for their stories. I can’t tell you how often we’ve watched WLOS reporters hit the newsstand at our office early Wednesday morning, only to see one or more of the stories show up on the news later that day. CNN has a staff of probably a dozen reporters in Washington, while the Washington Post has several hundred.
Make no mistake, those in power — whether that is in government, business, politics or wherever — will be much more insulated from public scrutiny when all the newspapers in this country are gone. No one consistently does the type of reporting we do every single day.
But what about the stories, the information we provide? How can we continue investing in those type stories as information seekers migrate toward the web?
Well, several efforts are being tried. One of the most original is for local papers to all adopt the National Public Radio format and register as nonprofit organizations. Revenues would not be taxable, and donations would be tax-deductible.
A few days ago Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, introduced into Congress the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes. Cardin argues that since newspapers are doing so badly, the government would not lose any revenue. He says the bill is aimed at local papers, not chains or conglomerates.
Another model is to begin charging for the online news. Many papers adopted this model, then switched to free access. Now many are switching back, putting a value on their news.
Could we get, say, $45 a year for people to access all our news and advertising?
Or, could we use another business model known as micro-payments, where a program is set up to charge someone’s credit card 5 cents for every story accessed on a Web site?
Or will newspapers simply go away at some point in the future?
In researching this article I came across this nugget: “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”
This particular writer, Clay Shirky, threw up his hands, admitting he did not know who would perform that function or how society would find a way to benefit from the work now done only by newspapers. His conclusion is that society needs good journalism, not newspapers, per se.
It’s safe to say we’re living in an information revolution. To the victor goes the spoils.