Thursday, December 20, 2012

The one gun control measure we can all agree on

The gun control debate is in full force following the Newtown, Conn., massacre. But there is one restriction on which we can all agree.

Deep in Wednesday's Observer was a notable comment that we need to amplify. Ken Rinkor is the vice president of Tactical Arms Manufacturer Inc. in Huntersville. The family-owned company makes AR-15s, the kind of semi-automatic rifle Adam Lanza used in Newtown. Rinkor worries that his company could go out of business if assault rifles are outlawed.

Yet Rinkor supports a ban on sales to the public of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Lanza used large-capacity magazines to fire multiple rounds without having to reload.

"Frankly, I think there's no need for anybody to have such ... magazines, 20 or 30 rounds. It makes no sense at all to have that large of a magazine, even for personal protection," Rinkor told the Observer.

Doesn't that just about settle it? It's a common-sense step. And if one of the nation's biggest defenders of the AR-15 rifle says high-capacity magazines should be banned, who is to argue with him?

One other note on the gun control debate: How lame is it that one of North Carolina's U.S. senators, Republican Richard Burr, won't make any comment about it? The Observer interviewed members of the N.C. congressional delegation about how to respond to the Newtown tragedy. Republicans Richard Hudson, Robert Pittenger, Renee Ellmers and Patrick McHenry weighed in, as did U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat. Burr did not respond to a request for comment. North Carolinians are used to Burr being less than visible, but is it asking too much for him to tell his constituents his thoughts on one of the most horrifying tragedies in U.S. history?

Taylor Batten

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Earth to Tea Party, come in Tea Party

As Democrats and Republicans come closer to a last-minute deal on the fiscal cliff, the voices from La-La Land intrude to remind Republicans that no compromise is acceptable., which bills itself as the nation's largest tea party advocacy group, sent out a press release today vowing to "primary" -- yes, they use it as a verb -- any Republican who supports House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" legislation. That bill would raise taxes on people making more than $1 million a year. The Club for Growth and the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation have also come out against "Plan B."

"Not one dime in new taxes, not one nickel in new spending, and for the love of God and the future of our country, not one red cent in new debt," blustered spokesman Bob Adams. "What's at stake here is nothing less than the future of the Republican party as a viable conservative political force."

Adams and spokesman Niger Innis say they'll try to dethrone Boehner and recruit candidates to run against any Republican who votes for Boehner's plan.

We don't want to give these folks any more credit than they deserve and it's entirely possible that congressional Republicans will ignore them and their silly petitions. They should, since Adams and Innis appear to be living in another world. They missed that tax rates are going up for everyone on Jan. 1 absent a deal. Boehner's plan to raise taxes only on those making more than $1 million a year prevents tax hikes on more than 99 percent of America. Besides, the Boehner plan is going nowhere; there's no indication President Obama and Democrats will agree to the $1 million threshold.

The tea party, which cost Republicans control of the Senate, continues to marginalize itself.

Taylor Batten

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The NRA re-enters the debate

After four days of near silence on the Newtown shootings, the National Rifle Association announced moments ago it will have a news conference Friday "to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

The full statement: 

The National Rifle Association of America is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.

Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting.

The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.

The NRA is planning to hold a major news conference in the Washington, DC area on Friday, December 21.

Details will be released to the media at the appropriate time.
The timing allows for passions to calm and funerals to finish, which helps prevent the NRA's words from appearing side-by-side with the grief from Newtown. But the announcement of a "major" news conference is an acknowledgment that the NRA needed to catch up to the gun debate, that Newtown is having a greater impact on the country - and therefore Washington - than previous mass killings. 

Peter St. Onge

Fair, balanced, and quiet on guns

We try to steer clear of media critiques here at O-pinion; our readers are more than capable of sorting out which news outlets serve them best. But New York Magazine had a fascinating item Monday on an interesting divide between News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch, who has taken to Twitter to call for stricter gun control, and his television network, which apparently was trying its very best not to talk about it.

Says writer Gabriel Sherman:

According to sources, David Clark, the executive producer in charge of Fox’s weekend coverage, gave producers instructions not to talk about gun-control policy on air. "This network is not going there,” Clark wrote one producer on Saturday night, according to a source with knowledge of the exchange. The directive created a rift inside the network.  
A few folks didn't get the memo to shush, including FOX News Sunday host Chris Wallace, who talked about the issue on his program with guests. Murdoch, too, felt compelled to say something. “Terrible news today. When will politicians find courage to ban automatic weapons?" he tweeted over the weekend. But at the network, Clark's weekend dictate seemed to have ruled.

The divide shows the raw, powerful impact Newtown initially is having on the gun control debate. It's possible, as Sherman diplomatically speculates, that FOX was trying to keep its coverage focused on the human tragedy until after the victims were buried. (A courtesy the network didn't apply to the September deaths of four U.S. officials in Libya.) It's also possible that FOX honchos, like so many quiet gun advocates right now, preferred not to entertain a debate on guns with passions so hot against them right now. (The NRA has gone "on lockdown," Politico reports.)

But a news organization is obligated to report on the big news of the day, not what its heart thinks the news should be. Each day, media outlets try to sift through all that's happening and make those choices - and each of us sometimes gets it wrong. But willfully denying your viewers coverage of the debate everyone was having? Even the boss knew better.

Update: According to Politico's Dylan Byers, Murdoch's other outlet on the gun issue might be the New York Post, where the editorial board opines today that weapon technology has rendered the Second Amendment "obsolete." 

Peter St. Onge   

Thursday, December 13, 2012

N.C. great for business? Yes, really

Gov. Pat McCrory, busy introducing key administration members today, probably didn't hear the good news/bad news about North Carolina this morning: Forbes magazine ranked the Tar Heel State the fourth-best in the country to do business, based on factors including business costs, labor supply and growth prospects.

What's the bad news? The ranking doesn't fit with McCrory's narrative that our state's brand is tarnished in the eyes of businesses who might think of locating here. That was a constant theme of the McCrory campaign in 2012, and he summarily dismissed several business rankings that had N.C. in the top 10.

McCrory says businesses are turned off by high taxes and overregulation in North Carolina. Forbes has a different take, ranking our state as second best in Business Costs and third best in Regulatory Environment. How did Forbes reach these numbers? Through legitimate research, not anecdotal gloom and doom.

For the Business Cost rankings, Forbes incorporated Moody's Analytics cost of doing business index, which includes labor, energy and taxes, and factored in the new state tax index from the Tax Foundation that looks at the tax burden on businesses across different industries. 

For regulatory environment, Forbes says it looked in part at the regulatory component of the Freedom in the 50 States report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which "considers labor regulations, health insurance coverage mandates, occupational licensing, the tort system, right-to-work laws and more." 

In other words, this wasn't taking a poll of business owners and calling it a day. 

We think our new governor has some good ideas about taking an efficiency-minded look at regulations, and like him, we think tax reform for individuals and businesses is long overdue. But McCrory and legislators shouldn't approach each of those tasks with the notion that North Carolina is a terrible place to do business. That's fiction. 

Peter St. Onge

No, the overhead baggage bin is NOT full

Flying is hard. Harder than ever, maybe. There are longer, more invasive security checks. There's the 3 oz. rule. The fees. Add to that the uncertainty of winter weather, and you might begin wondering if a really long Skype to Grandma might be sufficient for the holidays this year.

(No, Grandma, we don't really wonder that.)

Now, US Airways has added one more peeve to the pile: The Empty Overhead Bin. In an effort to streamline the boarding process on fuller flights, the airline is telling some passengers they must check carry-on bags and leave them in the jet way because the overhead bins are full. But when passengers arrive at their seat, they find overhead bins with plenty of room, even after everyone has boarded.

Travelers are seething, quietly and not so quietly. Some are filling the friendly skies with frustrated tweets. Some are offering helpful, detailed suggestions on how US Airways can end the Empty Overhead Bin annoyance. A member of the O-pinion family, who's experienced EOB a few times this year, watched once as a woman snapped pictures of the empty bins and angrily posted them on Facebook.

So what's going on? We asked US Airways spokewoman Michelle Mohr, who helpfully explained:

US Airways has created a formula based on extensive study that takes into account the aircraft type, number of customers booked on the plane and average number of carry-on bags that our customers bring along to determine at which point during the boarding process we should begin checking bags at the gate.
So as passengers hand over their boarding passes at the gate, the agents begin counting down. There's also supposed to be communication about the overhead bins between those agents and flight attendants on board, Mohr says. "It's not an exact science, but works well in helping our agents know when to check bags," she says.

Mohr says the airline receives few complaints about EOB, but an informal, unscientific O-pinion poll of air travelers shows it's probably more of an issue than the airline thinks. It's also a problem that airlines brought upon themselves by charging fees for checked bags, which in turn encouraged more passengers to stuff belongings into carry-ons that fill those overhead bins. That, of course, led to passengers wandering up and down aisles looking for a whiff of bin space to cram their roll-away, which led to departure delays, which brings us back to that whole air-travel-is-hard thing. 

So understand this: US Airways isn't intentionally trying to irritate its customers with the overhead bin formula. (Although, we should note that it might yield yet another revenue stream - the airline is offering priority early boarding, for a fee.) Our plea, on behalf of all passengers: Keep refining. Free the overhead bin space. Make travel easier. Grandmas everywhere are depending on it.      

Peter St. Onge

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On school choice, CMS gets a C-

An intriguing new Brookings Institution report on school choice gives Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a middling grade in its Education Choice and Competition Index for 2012. In the report released Tuesday CMS came in 47th of 107 districts nationwide. That ranking earned CMS a C-.

Coming in at No. 1 was Louisiana's Recovery District, the school district system set up in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina obliterated many of its school districts that had been failing. It is composed of 113 autonomous schools in 14 districts across Louisiana. Given the charter school characteristics of the Recovery District, it's no surprise that it tops this index, and gets the only A. New York  City is second with a B+, followed by Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Houston, Orleans Parish (in New Orleans), Milwaukee, San Diego, Baltimore City and Dade County (Fla.) rounding out the top 10 and getting either a B or B-.

But there's something striking about that list of top performers. Most of them tend to be laggards academically. On the National Assessment of Education Progress, NAEP, also known as the "nation's report card," several of the school districts lanquish near the bottom in terms of academic performance or progress. And on NAEP, CMS is considered a stand-out for its students' academic progress.
At grade 4, NAEP math scores released this year for Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Hillsborough County (FL), Houston, Jefferson County (KY), Miami-Dade, and San Diego were higher than for large cities nationally. At grade 8, scores for Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Hillsborough County (FL), Houston, and San Diego were higher than the scores for large cities nationally. Only Houston and San Diego made the school choice top 10. Jefferson County and Boston both came in at 41 with a C-; Austin came in at 89 with an F.

But the aim of the school choice list was not to find districts with good school choice options that were also good academically. There are some, to be sure. Wake County comes in 16th. But the authors note explicitly that low scores don't "necessarily mean these are bad districts... they vary in how well they are managed and the performance of their students on achievement tests." The criteria for scoring well on this index places more weight on the availability of choice options than on academic performance. Those options include charter schools, magnets, vouchers, virtual learning and the like. The authors, including senior Brookings fellow Grover Whitehurst, the principal author, who worked in education policy in President George W. Bush's administration, are upfront about their advocacy for school choice. Through this index, they say they want to identify "areas in which policies can be changed to expand choice and competition." "A fundamental rationale for school choice is its effect of creating a vibrant marketplace for better schools," they say. "There is evidence tha it presently does so but its effects are muted by administrative and legislative requiremens that reduce choice and buffer schools from the effects of competition."

Interesting notion. I'm not so sure based on this index that the evidence is clear on that score. But take a look, and do some comparisons with studies that focus on academic achievement and progress, and judge for yourself.

Speaking of academic achievement, check out the new Trends in Mathematics and Science Study released this week that looks at international achievement in math and science. In a breakout of several states in this country, North Carolina makes a good showing in comparison to other countries and the United States as a whole. In 4th grade math, only education systems in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan did better. Students in Finland, Northern Ireland and Belgium didn't do mesurably better than N.C. fourth graders. And N.C. students bested a slew of countries including the U.S., Russia, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Australia and so on. Eighth grade N.C. math students were only bested by korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan and Massachusetts (in the U.S.). N.C. 8th graders bested Florida, Colorado and Connecticut in the U.S. and several other countries including Finland,England, Italy, Israel, Norway, Chile, etc.

Asian countries still dominate but U.S. students, particularly in N.C. are making gains. See the whole list at the TIMSS site.

Posted by Fannie Flono

'No' to Helms building; thumbs up to McCrory

A new Public Policy Polling survey is good news for incoming Gov. Pat McCrory. He has a high favorability rating among N.C. voters with 53 percent having a favorable opinion of him, and just 25 percent with an unfavorable view. That's a stark contrast to outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue's marks as she exits the governor's mansion. Only 35 percent approve of her job performance while a whopping 52 percent disapprove.

The Republican-controlled legislature has nothing to crow about in that regard. According to this poll, about the same percent - 51 percent of voters - disapprove of its performance. An even lower percent approve - just 15 percent. The rest - 34 percent - aren't sure of its performance. And by party, the voting public gives higher unfavorables to Republicans; 51 percent have an unfavorable view of N.C. Republican lawmakers and 33 percent have a favorable view. Of Democrats in the legislature, 45 percent of voters have an unfavorable view to 38 percent with a favorable of their performance.

The legislature has some work to do to restore public confidence in their work. McCrory's leadership could help in that regard, given the favorability he enjoys going into office even among Democrats - this poll shows 33 percent favorable ratings to 35 percent unfavorables from the Dems. He scores well with independents as well - 50 percent favorable to 31 percent unfavorable. But the poll also shows voters aren't keen on how McCrory's handling his transition. They don't agree with his decision to remain employed at Moore & Van Allen: 51 percent think that McCrory's continued employment at a law firm that lobbies the state represents a conflict of interest to only 31 percent who think it is not. And 54 percent think he should resign his job immediately; 25 percent don't. Even independents have problems with his decision: 51 percent think its a conflict while 36 percent don't, and 54 percent think he should resign immediately and 36 percent don't.
This editorial board didn't see it as a problem during his transition. But clearly, McCrory has to be careful not to start off an image in the public's eye of not caring about what they view as conflicts. He should move quickly in tying up loose ends with his employer, and as soon as possible sever ties and focus on his new job which will be more challenging than he can imagine.

The PPP poll took aim at the naming of a federal building after Jesse Helms controversy, and those surveyed were clear: Only 31 percent of North Carolinians think the Post Office in downtown Raleigh should be renamed after Jesse Helms; 48 percent said no. African Americans were most adamant, with just 14 percent favoring to 61 percent opposed. But even white voters were against it - 44 percent, with just 36 percent in favor. Even among Republicans there's only 44 percent support for it, while 60 percent of Democrats oppose.

What do you think?

Find more poll results at the PPP site.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mayor: Can't wait to watch the Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx stopped by the Observer this afternoon to talk with the editorial board about the streetcar and his capital improvement plans. Foxx is clearly frustrated with a City Council that he says has 11 members who know with great certainty what they don't want but includes almost no one who knows what he or she does want. Foxx says he's worried that Charlotte is following "a recipe to become Atlanta" if it doesn't pull off a robust long-term transit plan.

Check back here later tonight for the editorial board's full take on the plan and the debate surrounding it.

In the meantime, a couple other Foxx nuggets:

  • He looks forward to people coming uptown to watch "the Charlotte Hornets." The NBA's Bobcats are considering taking back the name that flew to New Orleans with former owner George Shinn.
  • Asked to describe his relationship with Gov.-elect, and former Charlotte mayor, Pat McCrory, Foxx said: "Well, I'll send him a Christmas card." Foxx later allowed that he was perhaps not the best envoy to bring Charlotte's biggest concerns to McCrory, but that other leaders in Charlotte are equipped to do that. Will McCrory send Foxx a Christmas card back? "That's a good question," Foxx said.
-- Taylor Batten

$484,000 for a state trooper? Not in N.C.

North Carolina has its budget problems, and some folks want to cut state workers or their pay. But at least we're not California.

A new Bloomberg News report out today analyzes payroll data of 1.4 million public employees in the 12 most populous states, including North Carolina. It found that California "has set a pattern of lax management, inefficient operations and out-of-control costs." Bloomberg details how California employees' salaries, overtime and lump-sum payouts for things like accrued vacation have spiraled into the stratosphere compared with other states.

One example Bloomberg cites: "While more than 5,000 California troopers made $100,000 or more in 2011, only three in North Carolina did, the data show."

So where does North Carolina rank? Among the 12 most populous states, North Carolina is right in the middle, ranking 7th for average pay per state employee ($41,878). That puts it behind California, New York, New Jersey and the union-heavy Midwestern states of Illinois and Ohio, as well as Michigan. North Carolina's average pay is a good bit higher than southeastern counterparts Virginia, Georgia and Florida. North Carolina's overtime pay is the second lowest in the Bloomberg study.

North Carolina appears to have a lot of state employees for a state our size. I crunched the data on the number of state employees per capita in the 12 largest states. North Carolina has one state worker for every 117 residents (using 2010 Census data and Bloomberg's job totals). That ranks North Carolina fourth highest among the 12 most populous states, behind only New Jersey, Virginia and New York.

Bloomberg tells of a California employee who got $609,000 for accrued vacation, a state psychiatrist who made $822,000 and a trooper who collected $484,000 in pay and pension benefits.

Nothing like that in North Carolina. Check out the Observer's database of state employees' pay here. It lists North Carolina's highest-paid employee as Larry Wheeler, the director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. His salary is listed as $289,432. (The Bloomberg study and the Observer database do not include university employees.)

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, December 10, 2012

Poll: S.C. voters want Sen. Stephen Colbert

We think this is funny, but we're not sure it's supposed to be: 

A Public Policy Polling survey of South Carolina voters shows that comedian Stephen Colbert tops the wish list of who South Carolina voters would like Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint as a replacement for the departing Jim DeMint.

Haley, with an appropriate wink, already has nixed that possibility.

The PPP survey had no such tongue in cheek. Colbert, who got 20 percent of the nods in the PPP survey, was followed by Tim Scott at 15%, Trey Gowdy at 14%, Jenny Sanford at 11%, Henry McMaster and Mark Sanford at 8%, Jeff Duncan and Joe Wilson at 5%, and Mick Mulvaney at 4%.

Haley, who ranks 35th in popularity among the 43 sitting governors PPP has polled, might want to consider appointing a potential threat to her job. Says PPP's Tom Jensen: "Jenny Sanford ...really could probably get elected to office if she wanted to. 44% of voters have a favorable opinion of her to only 25% with a negative one and her popularity holds true across party lines. She's at 48/21 with Republicans, 43/31 with Democrats, and 39/26 with independents."

Peter St. Onge

Police cameras in high-crime areas? Yes

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe will explain today to Charlotte City Council his department's plans to use more than 500 wireless cameras, license plate readers and advanced sound technology, some of which were purchased with the $50 million the city received to enhance security for the Democratic National Convention.

We called on CMPD in October to explain to the council and the public how it will use the technology. At the time, council members told the Observer they hadn't even been briefed on CMPD's plans for all the gadgetry it had. Today's meeting, at 4 p.m. at the Government Center, is a good first step.

There are two issues here. First - are the cameras and other equipment worth the price? Until recently, most of the evidence was anecdotal, but the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute studied three cities that used cameras in downtown and high-crime areas. The results: In two of the cities, Baltimore and Chicago, the analysis found enough crime reduction from the cameras to declare them worth the investment. In the third, Washington, the conclusion was maybe - there was significant crime reduction in areas that had surveillance, but researchers weren't certain how much other factors might have contributed.

The second issue is more delicate: The cameras are most sensibly used in areas that have high-crime, but civil rights leaders worry that means they will be concentrated in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods. That's probably true, and that's a good thing. Police already devote a higher level of resources to those communities. Surveillance technology is one more crimefighting tool for the places that need them most.

Monroe's job today is to calm legitimate concerns about the technology by outlining a policy that addresses the cameras' potential to peek into private spaces and encourage racial profiling. The City Council shouldn't be a passive participant in this process. In Washington, the council designed guidelines on technology use after consultation with the public, the ACLU and the American Bar Association.

The cameras are a promising tool, but they will be most effective if everyone has a voice in how they are used - and an understanding of how they will not be.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jesse Helms and the 'University of Negroes and Communists'

Did Jesse Helms ever call UNC the "University of Negroes and Communists"?

That line has been attributed to the late longtime U.S. senator for many years by many sources. John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, says it is "a fabrication."

I included the reference in a column last Sunday opposing the idea of naming a federal courthouse in Raleigh after Helms. Dodd called and emailed me to say the quote "has zero basis in reality." Dodd says he can find no evidence that Helms ever said or wrote it.

"It's one more in a long, false list of made-up 'quotes,' out of context half-truths and deliberate mischaracterizations that have entertained the Senator's enemies over the years," Dodd wrote.

Many sources that have cited the quote over the years attribute it to an editorial or editorials Helms delivered on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, where he opined on-air in the 1960s. WRAL included the reference in its obituary of Helms, which has been on its website for more than four years. Monday, the station removed the reference after Dodd complained.

The quote and its attribution to Helms has been around for decades. Among those who have included it in their reporting on Helms: CBS News, Newsweek, The Nation, syndicated columnist Richard Reeves, the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, conservative commentator Michael Graham, the Observer (by many different reporters and columnists), Yahoo!, Mother Jones, the Florida Times-Union, the South Bend Tribune and countless blogs. Some citations say Helms "once called" UNC that. Others say Helms "repeatedly" or "frequently" used that moniker.

Some references cite Helms' on-air editorials. Others say the phrase emerged years earlier, in fliers circulated in the race-tinged 1950 U.S. Senate race between Willis Smith and Frank Porter Graham. Helms was Smith's publicity director.

For many long-time North Carolinians and Helms observers, the phrase, and Helms as its author, is something they've heard for as long as they can remember. But no one seems to be able to point to the original source material.

Did Helms say it? Or did someone make it up long ago and it took on a life of its own? At this point, we can't say, and more research is required. What is not in question: Helms repeatedly used race to divide his constituents and the country. His bigoted comments and actions inflamed racial tensions for decades, and he never apologized for that.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On least corrupt scale, U.S. ranks 19th

There's actually something called the Corruption Perceptions Index, and the United States ranks 19th. And that's good. In fact, the U.S. is perceived as even less corrupt this year than last year when it ranked 24th, notes the Weekly Standard.

Transparency International, a nonpartisan group made up of members worldwide, compiles the rankings of 176 countries released this week. The U.S. scored 73 out of 100 - with 100 being the least corrupt. The rankings take into account public sector behavior such as bribery, fraud, cronyism and perceived levels of corruption in countries. It also takes into account perceptions about public sector leadership, government transparency and accountability, and the effectiveness of public institutions and agencies.

The U.S. made the top 20 but trails many of the leading developed countries. In the survey it falls behind, in order, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Iceland, Luxembourg, Germany, Hong Kong, Barbados, Belgium, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Coming in 20th is Chile; 22nd is France. Spain is 30th , Italy is 72nd, and China is 80th.

Bringing up the rear as the most corrupt are Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia. Iraq is at 169th. Syria is 144th.

"While no country has a perfect score (Denmark and Finland came close with scores of 90), two-thirds of countries score below 50, indicating a serious corruption problem," Transparency International notes. "Corruption destroys lives and communities, and undermines countries and institutions. It generates popular anger that threatens to further destabilise societies and exacerbate violent conflicts," the group says.

Politicians in the U.S. might be tempted to feel smug that across the world this country is perceived as among the least corrupt. But here at home the public's view of politicians and others working in the public sector is not so rosy. Many citizens say they don't trust public officials. A Gallup Poll taken last week showed that only 10 percent of respondents said Congress has very high or high honesty and ethical standards, second only to car salespeople. An Elon University poll a couple of years ago showed that here in North Carolina, 65 percent thought elected officials look out more for their own interests than the public’s interest, 73 percent thought corruption is common among elected officials, and 67 percent thought corrupt behavior among N.C. public officials was becoming more common.

Those are not good findings. And 19th internationally shouldn't be good enough either. On a corruption scale, being No. 1 as least corrupt surely is the goal.

Posted by Fannie Flono

Will Hillary run? Are Rubio, Ryan already doing so?

Enough about the fiscal cliff, Benghazi, Susan Rice and drone strikes. What Americans really want to know is will Hillary run in 2016.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll, a majority of Americans say she should. According to the Post, overall, 57 percent of all Americans say they would back a Hillary Clinton candidacy, with support peaking among younger women. Among all women, 66 percent say they would support Clinton as a candidate for president in 2016; it is 75 percent among those under 50 and 54 percent among those aged 50 and up. Forty-nine percent of men back a Clinton bid, regardless of their age.

 The poll attributes some of the enthusiasm for another Clinton run to her popularity as Secretary of State: 68 percent approve of the job she's doing as the nation's top diplomat. None of the fallout from the embassy deaths in Libya seems to have touched her though diplomats' security clearly comes under her department's purview.

Republicans, not surprisingly, aren't so keen on another presidential bid from the former first lady: in the poll, 23 percent of Republicans would support a run in 2016; 73 percent would oppose it. Some 82 percent of Democrats would back her candidacy, with most saying they would do so “strongly.” A majority of independents, 59 percent, also support another Clinton run.

Republicans, of course, already have their eyes on recapturing the White House after a loss in November that stunned some: How could their man, Mitt Romney, lose to a sitting president who presided over a lagging economy and in whom many Americans are disappointed, they lament?

Two possible GOP candidates are already out of the blocks, some say, trying to become the party's frontrunners. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Romney’s running mate and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Both spoke at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner - Rubio was the foundation's Leadership Award recipient and Ryan was the keynote speaker. The foundation is a charitable nonprofit organization named for the late GOP congressman and Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Both spoke about the party putting emphasis on inclusion and a renewed focus on growing the middle class. It was a stark contrast to John Sununu's comments at a GOP forum on Tuesday. The former New Hampshire governor and Romney adviser atributed Romney's loss to President Obama's ability to turn out his base - people dependent on the government. Interestingly, Ryan's speech later that night seemed to repudiate such comments, noting: "Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters... Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn on the engines of upward mobility so that no one is left out from the promise of America."

Well said.

As for 2016, it's way too early to be scoping out the next presidential election just weeks after the 2012 race ended. Yet if there's speculating, what about the specter of another Clinton-Bush face-off - meaning Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who many Republicans wanted to run this time? Could happen, though the Republicans and maybe even the Democrats might be looking to go younger the next time around.

In any case, we'd like a breather from presidential campaigning. What's needed now is some governing. A lot of critical work awaits.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fire Bob Costas? For what?

So Bob Costas appears at halftime on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" telecast to talk about the biggest news in football last weekend - the murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. Costas begins by rightfully ridiculing the "mindless sports cliche" that "something like this really puts it all in perspective." He then quotes extensively from a piece by FOX Sports columnist (and Charlotte Observer alum) Jason Whitlock. That piece includes this line, which Costas reads: "If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would still be alive today."

Cue the outrage. Not at the substance of what Costas said. At the fact that he dared soil a sports event with his gun commentary.

"You tune in for a football game and end up listening to Bob Costas spewing sanctimonious dreck," tweeted former presidential candidate Herman Cain. On Fox's Morning Show "Fox & Friends," the hosts read letters from viewers critical of Costas. On the network's afternoon show, anchor Megyn Kelly led a debate about whether Costas should be fired for his out-of-place monologue.

Except that this is what Costas has been doing for years now, including on Sunday nights at halftime. He's talked about Jerry Sandusky and child molestation. He's criticized the International Olympic Committee for failing to honor the 11 athletes killed at the Summer Games in 1972. He regularly examines topics at the intersection of sports and society, sports and culture, sports and law. Often, it's worth a listen.

The uproar this time, of course, is about Costas and gun control, not Costas having an opinion. But just in case, a tip for future viewing: Costas might talk again Sunday about an issue that's not strictly sports-related. If you don't like it, take that time to tuck your kids in, refill your beverage, whatever. The game will be back on soon enough.

Peter St. Onge


Why the fiscal cliff impasse doesn't matter - so far

Any discussion about the “fiscal cliff” back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans needs to be put in this frame: It’s Dec. 4. There’s almost three weeks to go before Congress heads home for the holidays. It’s too early for outrage about the White House proposal last week that was designed to appeal to Democrats. It’s too early for scorn at the Republican proposal Monday that did the same for the GOP base.

What’s happening now is what happens with most negotiations. Each side is in the wish list phase, declaring the items they want most and drawing the lines they say they won’t cross. This serves to both publicly reafffirm a philosophy and, more importantly, to provide a place at which both sides might later point and show how much they were willing to compromise.

For Republicans on Monday, that again involved defiant declarations about not raising tax rates – although most everyone expects GOP leadership to bend some, given the election results and the fact that tax rates will go up, anyway, if a deal isn’t struck this month. Democrats, meanwhile, are scoffing at any semi-specific suggestions of social spending reform.

“That’s just a kabuki theater,” debt guru Erskine Bowles told PBS NewsHour on Monday. “If they got to agreement – the way Washington is – too quickly, their own side would just kill them because they wouldn’t think they had negotiated hard enough. They got to go through this exchange.”

But beneath all the posturing, a framework of a serious deal might emerge. With their proposals on Social Security and Medicare, Republicans are laying the groundwork for social spending reform – not merely trims around the periphery that solve little long-term. In return, they will have to give on tax rates on the rich going up – at least a little – but that also would be accompanied by an examination of tax deductions and loopholes. Those are the baby steps of the tax reform we need.

One thing we do know about both proposals thus far: Neither comes close to the kind of savings we need to make a real dent in the deficit. Bowles has long said that the $4 trillion the Simpson-Bowles plan saves over 10 years is about the minimum the country needs to do. The most recent Democrat and Republican proposals are hovering near the $2 trillion mark.

That’s not nearly enough, and three weeks won’t likely get us much more in the way of deficit reduction. But the foundation might be built for something more, so long as neither side decides that a win is more important than a compromise.

Peter St. Onge