Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Zoning in Oriental

I previously mentioned proposed changes to our zoning ordinance. I just transmitted the following e-mail to the town manager:

"Dear Bob,
I just came across a School of Government handout prepared by Professor David Owens of the Institute of Government concerning Published Notice for Hearings on Rezonings and Zoning Text Amendments. On rereading that handout, I wonder if the notice published May 18 in Pamlico News and the week of May 26 in County Compass meets the requirements of NCGS 160A-364. The relevant portion of Professor Owens' handout says "the notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the community once a week for two calendar weeks,...." The wording seems to imply that the notice would be published in the same newspaper. I assume you checked with the Town Attorney on this point.

More to the point, Professor Owens explains, "The notice must be sufficiently detailed to allow citizens to discern what is being proposed and whether they would be affected." He goes on to say, "The notice should clearly indicate: (1) what property is potentially affected; (2) the nature of the proposed regulation; and, (3) the time and place of the public hearing." Arguably, the notice as published only meets requirement (3).

Before addressing the substance, it seems to me that, if Article XV concerning amendments to the GMO is so deficient and confusing as to require amendment, the hearing on this amendment should be held separately. Any amended version of Article XV should then be followed in considering the other amendments.

I believe the public notice is inadequate in the following respects:
Article IV: Table of Permissible Uses - The proposed amendment introduces three new or modified categories of uses - Religious institutions including associated residential structures and buildings. Taken together with other amendments, this will affect other property owners; Travel Trailer/RV; Residential Nursing Care Institutions.
Readers of the public notice will have no idea that these measures are under consideration.

Article VI: Development Standards for Section 80 - introduces standards for town houses, exempting them from minimum lot width, minimum lot size and setbacks.
This is a significant new departure, to which the public notice calls no attention.

Article VIII: Signs - This is a complete rewrite. It is almost impossible from the version published on the town's web site to ascertain which provisions of the proposed ordinance are new. I notice the draft requires new signs to comply with the building code of the town. I have been unable to find a copy of the Town of Oriental's building code.

Article XV: Amendments - I believe this draft should be considered first. If changes are adopted, the procedure as amended should be used for considering the others. Even though it is possible to access a very helpful compilation of the suggestions incorporated in the proposed amendment, it is not possible to tell from the published notice what is being proposed and how it would affect individual citizens.

Article XVI: Word Interpretations and Basic Definitions - The major innovation here is to provide definitions for a townhouse and a townhouse development. It is not possible to tell this from the public notice. There are significant issues associated with the adoption of this amendment in conjunction with the proposed amendment to Article VI.

I believe we have time to do this right.

Monday, May 30, 2011

War Movies

Every Memorial Day we are treated to war movie marathons. They invariably include the good, bad and ugly.

Since Leonard Maltin is an unreliable judge of war movies, I thought I'd give my thoughts on some of the movies screened this weekend.

Pearl Harbor. This 2001 movie is full of special effects, an unlikely love story and totally inaccurate depictions of the war. The computer graphics scenes of the attack on Pearl Harbor include among the ships attacked, several Aegis cruisers (vintage 1980's), Knox class frigates (vintage 1970's), and several other anachronisms. Since the scenes were obviously computer generated, I don't know why the producers couldn't have used accurate graphics. The Doolittle raid at the end of the movie borrowed heavily from images in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," but totally distorted the events. Not historically accurate. If you want to see an accurate portrayal of the attack on Pearl Harbor, watch "Tora, Tora, Tora."

If you want to see an accurate portrayal of the Doolittle raid, watch "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo." The technical quality is high, the story is accurately told, and for a movie filmed during the war, there is a minimum of chauvinistic propaganda. I think this is the best WWII movie filmed and released during the war.

Midway. Fairly accurate. Includes some unnecessary dramatic conflict. Would be improved by the removal of Charleton Heston's grimacing. Drags at times. Pretty accurate concerning the events of the battle, including the intelligence that made it possible.

A Bridge Too Far. Great Movie. [Leonard Maltin didn't like it much.] For a British movie, it follows author Ryan's negative portrayal of the British Army leadership pretty faithfully. Filmed at many of the actual sites of the events. If you happen to be traveling to Europe, a visit to the Airborne Museum in Arnhem is worth a side trip.

The Devil's Brigade. Mildly entertaining variation of the theme of nonconformist officers and men confounding their hidebound superiors.

The Best Years of Their Lives. One of the best war movies ever. And it all takes place after the war. If you haven't seen it, do so.

These are just some movies I happened to catch this weekend. There are other good war movies, but I'll save them for later.

Decoration Day

We call it Memorial Day now. It had its origin as a day to decorate the graves of those who fell in defense of the Union.

It was about the Civil War.

It has morphed into a more universal day of recognition of those who have given their lives in the service of their country in any war.

But we shouldn't forget the beginning, in Charleston, SC in 1865.

Here is the story.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

NC Education Budget and Seed Corn

I mentioned a while back that cutting education for North Carolina's young people was like eating your seed corn. The consequences can last for a long time, indeed.

We now know the budget proposed by Republicans in the NC Senate would cut the budget for public schools, community colleges and universities by more than $1.1 Billion.

We can't afford cuts like that.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Graduation Season and Job Prospects

I'm on the road this week and next week for graduation season. It's inspiring to see the shining, expectant faces of new graduates ready to take on the world.

But what if the world isn't ready for them?

I've been concerned for some time about the effects of increasingly sophisticated automation on top of offshore outsourcing on job prospects for Americans. Not long ago, I called attention to data showing the present recession has hollowed out jobs in the economy formerly filled by our great but diminishing middle class.

Is this a temporary phenomenon caused by the present recession? Or is it something more permanent - a structural change affecting everyone's future.

Right now, I think our economy is being made worse by austerity measures being pushed by [can I call them fools?] in the capitols of the world. But what of the future? We are said to be in a recovery. But statistics seem to show that the percentage of Americans who are employed is at a historic low, and newly created jobs aren't appearing quickly enough to increase that percentage.

I just came across a sobering blog discussion of the long term effect of automation here. The author criticizes my two favorite macroeconomists for failing to address this problem.

I think it is a fair criticism.

I played a modest role about twenty-five years ago in a project intended to replace skilled technicians with an artificial intelligence program aboard US Navy ships. It had great potential to reduce the education and training required for maintenance technicians.

Next week I will travel to the graduation ceremony for our oldest grandchild at one of America's finest Universities. I worry that the kind of development I worked on years ago may affect his prospects and those of his younger brother.

The issue of how we can make a prosperous future for our descendants in the face of these rapid technological developments needs the urgent attention of our best economists.

Did the Luddites have a point?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

2011 Municipal Elections

Did I mention that Municipal Elections in North Carolina will be held November 8, 2011?

In Pamlico County, all of our municipalities hold non-partisan elections.

If you have an interest in public policy issues and think you can make a positive contribution to town government, you should think seriously about running for office. Not because government is easy, but because it is hard. In a democracy, we depend on people stepping forward and taking responsibility for public policy.

If you want to be on the ballot, though, you have to file as a candidate.

Candidate filing begins at the Board of Elections office at the Bayboro courthouse, at noon on July 1. The filing period ends at noon on July 15.

Think about it.

Reflections on Zoning: I

Oriental's Town Board has scheduled public hearings on Tuesday, June 7 for proposed amendments to five articles of the town's Growth Management Ordinance (GMO). The GMO is our zoning ordinance, and any amendment thereto must be adopted in accordance with procedures spelled out in North Carolina General Statutes. The procedures require a public hearing that is adequately noticed in a newspaper of general circulation.

According to the planning board report explaining the amendments, "in recent years, there have been suggestions that changes have been initiated too often, costing the town too much money in advertisement. The Planning Board decided last summer that it would review parts of the GMO and submit a group of recommendations only once or twice a year in an effort to defray [sic] advertisement costs."

My first comment: beware of the passive voice. "There have been suggestions." By whom? Under what circumstances? Has the Town Board adopted such a policy?

Perhaps there was a groundswell of support for this idea, but I never heard it. I only know of one person who suggested such a procedure. I opposed the idea when she first raised it, and I still think it is a bad policy. In my view, it is better to act when the need for action becomes apparent.

The town should be careful to make sure that lumping a number of amendments together doesn't become a means of discouraging full examination and discussion of the proposals or even worse a means of railroading them through the process.

There is a problem with this particular grouping:
Article IV: Permissible uses by District;
Article VI: Development Standards for Specific Uses;
Article VIII: Signs;
Article XV: Amendments;
Article XVI: Word Interpretations and Basic Definitions.

The problem is, that the only reason to amend what we have is to correct deficiencies and problems with the existing text. Indeed, the Planning Board Report, in its discussion of Article XV says: "Several defects in the current ordinance need to be corrected. The language is inconsistent. The process is confusing and, in some instances, unworkable. Differing perspectives of the appropriate end result of this process need to be balanced and melded into something that will satisfy town authority, petitioner and public.

So we are going to use the existing, admittedly defective, procedure, to amend all five sections of the GMO?

This makes no sense.

Let's first amend Article XV and then, at some future time amend the rest.

Doesn't that seem logical?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rapture II

I checked at The Bean this morning. No reports of anyone missing in Oriental. Certainly no empty suits have been found.

It just occurred to me: maybe no one here met the eligibility criteria.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


I checked my usual news sources this morning. So far as I can tell, the rapture didn't happen yesterday.

So are we back to business as usual?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

NC Legislature on Elections Week of May 16

Three bills on elections have cleared State House of Representatives committees and are calendared for a vote:

H366, Special Election Dates (provides for municipal special elections to be held at same time as statewide primary or general election);

H638, Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act;

H658, Change Early Voting Period.

H366 seems reasonable.

H638 is a mystery. I don't recall any concern expressed by North Carolina voters that electors might vote for someone other than the candidate they are pledged to. Such a vote has been very rare in US history, though it appears not to be prohibited by the US Constitution. In any event, even if adopted into NC law, it may well be unenforceable under the US Constitution. The mystery is why this particular model legislation appears on the list of acts advocated by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), over eighty percent of whose funding comes from corporate sources. What is the problem to which this is the solution?

H658 isn't much of a mystery. It shortens the period of "one-stop" or early voting in North Carolina, reducing the calendar period for one stop by a third. It also abolishes any one stop voting before 10:00 in the morning. Its supporters claim the act will shorten election campaigns and save counties money. How this would shorten campaigns is a mystery. Campaigns start when potential candidates first announce their intentions, and continue until election night. Nothing in this bill reduces that period.

As for saving money by reducing the one-stop period, I can't speak for other counties, but don't believe it will save money in Pamlico County. I am concerned that the bill, if it becomes law, may have an adverse effect on Pamlico County voters and also add to the County's cost of administering elections. I am particularly concerned about the effect on planning for 2012.

While it might seem that shortening the period of one-stop voting inevitably reduces expenses, in the case of Pamlico County this is unlikely. We have already begun preliminary planning and budgeting for the 2012 election cycle. The budget our Director of Elections has submitted to the County Manager includes funding for the 2012 primary and possible runoff primary elections. Our board has determined, based on experience in 2008, that we can manage with a single one-stop location so long as the one-stop period remains as before. If H-658 becomes law, we will have to reexamine that decision and may find we need to add another one-stop site. If that becomes necessary, it could increase our one-stop expenditures by at least 50%.

In our county, the interest of voters in one-stop has grown by leaps and bounds in each election from 2006 on. In 2008, roughly two-thirds of Pamlico County voters cast ballots during one-stop (4,527 out of 6,834 voters). Of the one-stop voters, a little over five percent made use of same-day registration, often to update their information already in the system. Reduction of one-stop voting period will inevitably increase the number of voters on election day, making for longer lines and a less relaxed voting experience. We may also have to increase staffing at some of our larger precincts for election day. This would add expense.

A further concern I have is the bill's stipulation that one-stop voting be conducted either from 10:00 to 6:00 or from 11:00 to 7:00. This will reduce, by law, our daily hours of operation. In Pamlico County, we typically conduct one-stop voting from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. In our experience, this schedule fits well with the needs of Pamlico County voters. Our heaviest hours are usually the first two hours after opening, the period either side of noon, and the last two hours. It would be helpful for county boards of elections to be authorized to tailor their hours to the needs of their voters.

Over the past two decades, I have taken part in "get-out-the-vote" efforts in several states. Of all the systems I have seen in action, North Carolina's is the most helpful to candidates and political parties. In Pamlico County, we make one-stop voter information available to the parties daily after the polls close. This allows the political parties to update their voter lists each day and reduces the challenge to them of getting voters to the polls on election day. Increased one-stop voting thus benefits everyone involved in the election process.

Egotism and Music

About a month ago, the New York Times reported on a new academic study examining whether in recent years popular music has become more self-centered and egotistic. The study, by psychology professor DeWall at the University of Kentucky, examined lyrics from 1980 through 2007. The abstract described the object of the study:

"Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular U.S. song lyrics.
By DeWall, C. Nathan; Pond, Richard S., Jr.; Campbell, W. Keith; Twenge, Jean M.
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Mar 21, 2011, No Pagination Specified.
American culture is filled with cultural products. Yet few studies have investigated how changes in cultural products correspond to changes in psychological traits and emotions. The current research fills this gap by testing the hypothesis that one cultural product—word use in popular song lyrics—changes over time in harmony with cultural changes in individualistic traits. Linguistic analyses of the most popular songs from 1980–2007 demonstrated changes in word use that mirror psychological change. Over time, use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased. These findings offer novel evidence regarding the need to investigate how changes in the tangible artifacts of the sociocultural environment can provide a window into understanding cultural changes in psychological processes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2011 APA, all rights reserved)"

I have noticed the same phenomenon in church hymns. Recent hymns seem more self-centered and far less centered on the deity.

Friday, May 20, 2011


I just discovered the web page for the Onion's horoscope.

My favorite is the horoscope for Aries. Too bad I missed being Aries by a day.

Left Behind

I gather from reading Doonesbury [should that be renamed "Doomsbury?"] that sometime tomorrow the rapture is supposed to happen. If I have the right idea, the faithful are supposed to be whisked away to paradise while the rest of us stay here.

I gather that two novelists, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, have written sixteen best-selling novels on this theme.

I have just one question.

Where did they put their money?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Election Rigging, Texas Style

In case you had any doubt that the nationwide Republican effort to pass restrictive voter ID laws is intended to obstruct voting by Democrats, take a look at this article in the Dallas Observer web site. And watch the You Tube video.

Debbie Georgatos, running for Chair of the Dallas County, TX Republican Party, makes it clear that the purpose of voter ID is to "prevent Dallas County from becoming a super-blue-hole," drawing an analogy to the black holes in space and implying that the only reason Democrats win is voter fraud.

By the way, I voted in Dallas County in 1992. The system in use then was vastly better than the one in use in Florida in 2000. Fraud is not a problem. Not in Dallas County nor anywhere else in Texas; not in North Carolina either or anywhere else in the United States.

Which doesn't mean there is no rigging of elections. One means of election rigging is selective voter suppression, which is what voter ID is all about. Another way is to redraw election districts in favor of the party with the pen. That is going on in North Carolina as we speak. Both parties do it. It is perfectly legal, so long as the new districts comply with US and North Carolina Supreme Court decisions and Department of Justice requirements. Another technique is to harass and intimidate voters and election officials.

If you want to steal an election, though, the least likely approach is to have individual voters impersonate some legally registered voter. Not only is it a felony if you get caught, it can't possibly be done on a scale great enough to affect an election. Voter suppression has a much greater chance of success. Republican movers and shakers know this. Voter ID is an expensive, disruptive effort to suppress votes.

Pamlico County Education Budget

At last night's meeting of the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners, Dr. Coon, Superintendent of Education, presented a report on next year's budget.

The report was not only grim, but also uncertain. The bottom line is that the county's education budget for the coming year will be down to what it was in 2005. There will be layoffs. Some programs will be terminated. Class sizes will increase and many teacher's aides will be laid off. For the fourth year in a row, teacher salaries will decrease. On top of that, teacher take-home pay will be reduced $2800 to $3200 for health insurance deductions. Other staffing positions will be eliminated.

There is no way these reductions can help but reduce the quality of education in the county.

The new North Carolina state legislature has decided to reduce funding for education at all levels well beyond the governor's recommendation.

Even so, the situation need not be so dire if the US Congress would reestablish the stimulus program, and this time set it at a sufficiently high level to do some good. Not that the ARRA stimulus didn't create jobs and prevent others from being lost - it just wasn't big enough to create adequate demand to counter the effects of the Great Recession. And monetary policy can't help, since the short term interest rate is at the zero bound. Can't go lower.

What is really going on here? Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, calls attention to a study by two Dartmouth economists and explains:

"This is hugely important for macro-policy debates because it suggests that more stimulus would provide a further boost to the economy and reduction in unemployment. This means that the only reason that we are sitting here with 25 million people unemployed and underemployed is that the politicians in Washington are too intimidated by the Wall Street deficit hawks.

The deficit hawks have used their enormous political power and control over the media to shut down any further discussion of stimulus. They have managed to completely dominate public debate with their brand of flat-earth economics. They are using the crisis that was created through their greed and incompetence to reduce hugely valued public benefits, like Social Security and Medicare. And, now they are using the crisis that they have created for state and local governments to destroy public sector unions.

This looks really awful because it is. Our nations' leaders are deliberately inflicting enormous pain on tens of millions of people to advance their political agenda. This new study helps to prove this fact."

The leaders he is referring to are overwhelmingly Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures and governors' mansions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Where Do All These Bills Come From?

The newly elected North Carolina legislature has pursued a frantic pace of new legislation.

Some observers have charged that the new legislators have no idea what the effect of their proposed legislation will be. That may be true.

Normally, anyone taking a new job spends a little time getting to know the ropes. Not these legislators.

So where are all the bills coming from? Did you ever hear of ALEC? That is, the American Legislative Exchange Council. You thought you elected your local candidate to the state House of Representatives and the state Senate? Actually, you elected ALEC.

How do I know? I have been following the bills introduced in the legislature, and I have looked at the ALEC web site. Here is a link to ALEC's model legislation. Just read ALEC's models and compare them to the bills introduced by the new legislators. Most of them are ALEC bills.

So who is ALEC? The nationwide voice of corporate interests seeking to get their way through uniform acts by all of the state legislatures. Their aims have nothing to do with North Carolina. Do they have the public interest at heart? Not Likely.

Here is a good backgrounder.

Brown v. Board of Education

Fifty-seven years ago today, a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States ruled that "separate but equal" schools are inherently unequal and violate the equal protection of the laws provided by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Let us celebrate.

Freedom Riders Documentary

The documentary on the 1961 freedom riders shown last night on public television revealed to the current generation the heroism of an earlier generation who fought to make this a better country for all Americans.

The documentary also showed the level of organized violence by the Klan and others, in collusion with law enforcement officials in Alabama and Mississippi. It took intervention by the federal government to protect citizens against state governments in the south in those days.

Governor Patterson of Alabama and Governor Barnett of Mississippi, like Arkansas Governor Faubus before them, paid no attention to decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justification of "states' rights" was nothing more than a defense of the right of states to oppress a significant percentage of their own citizens and to deny them the rights of all Americans. It was a deplorable time in our national history. North Carolina under Governor Terry Sanford was, by comparison to Alabama and Mississippi, an outpost of freedom.

Let us never forget.

Remember Gary Hart and the Seven Dwarfs?

In 1988, there was an open primary for presidential nomination in both parties.

Among democrats, the leading candidate at the outset was Gary Hart of Colorado, pursued by seven other democrats. The press began calling the field "Gary Hart and the Seven Dwarfs," the implication being that the other candidates were lightweights

Who were the other candidates? Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and eventually Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton; Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, currently Vice President of the United States; former Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts; Reverend Jesse Jackson of South Carolina (and Chicago); Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, later Vice President under President Clinton and winner of the popular vote in 2000; Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri; Senator Paul Simon of Illinois. Not a very lightweight field, after all.

Now we have the Republican field for 2011. Three more putative candidates withdrew over the weekend. So far, it looks like there may not be seven contenders for the Republican nomination this year.

Pundits keep seeking an explanation. I hope they succeed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Freedom Riders

Fifty years ago, May 4, 1961, seven blacks and six whites left Washington, DC in two commercial buses enroute to the deep south. Their aim: to challenge segregation of facilities used in interstate transportation.

Monday night, May 16, 2011 at 9:00 pm, Public Television will broadcast a documentary about the event.

These young people showed remarkable courage and their peaceful, non-violent challenge transformed America.

We should all be grateful.

I strongly recommend everyone view the film.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Governing is Prediction

My last post called attention to W. Edwards Deming's observation that management is prediction.

This is true of government as well.

Ideally, both elected officials and civil servants would take into account during policy deliberations some prediction of the effects of the policies. But how can the public follow the issues and know what are the intended or probable outcomes of government measures?

We have prognosticators. Pundits. Professional explainers and predictors. Some write for newspapers and magazines and some talk on television. Surely the most influential of these pundits are the ones whose punditry is most accurate, right?

Not Exactly.

Recently a group of scholars in Public Policy at Hamilton University decided to examine the accuracy of prognostications by professional prognosticators, with interesting results.

This was not a ground breaking study. A more comprehensive twenty-year study of political and economic forecasting was summarized by Philip Tetlock in his book Expert Political Judgment. Tetlock's study was based on predictions by 284 experts on political and economic trends, and a subsequent analysis of the accuracy of the predictions. His findings:

-Extrapolation using mathematical models does better than human prediction
-Education and popularity increase the predictors' confidence but not their accuracy
-Prognosticators overpredict change and underpredict the status quo
-Extremists predict worse than moderates
-Some people predict better than others, even outside their area of expertise
The Hamilton study was more limited in time and scope, but focused on contemporary prognosticators. The most accurate prognosticator in their study was Paul Krugman of the New York Times. The least accurate was Cal Thomas. In general, they found that liberals were better prognosticators, especially if they had no law degree.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Management is Prediction

"The theory of knowledge helps us to understand that management in any form is prediction."

-W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics

Other Deming observations:

Knowledge is built on theory;

Use of Data requires prediction;

There is no true measurement without an operational definition;

Information is not knowledge.

Oh, That's Just a Theory!

It's often the case that people unfamiliar with or resistant to scientific undertakings dismiss peer-reviewed research by saying: "that's just a theory." As if it were an unsupported guess.

I have even said something like that myself: "I have a theory" about something. What I mean to say is, "I have a hypothesis."

A hypothesis is more than a guess. It is a supposition based on familiarity with the subject, experience, or deep thought. A proper hypothesis must be testable.

The point of testing a hypothesis is to disprove it. No hypothesis can be proven. It can only be disproven. If a proper test fails to disprove a hypothesis, the next step is to try another test. Collect more data. Give the problem more thought. Examine whether we have a case of coincidence or one of cause and effect.

Then take all the data collected, observations made, and develop a theory. The theory must be compatible with all the observed data. The theory should also be testable. If the tests fail to disprove the theory, then it may be adopted as the best explanation available, but no theory can ever be proven. It is the job of scientists to reexamine accepted theory in light of new knowledge, new methods of measurement and observation.

Theory is the best you get. There is never final certainty.

Silence on the Line Explained

Blogger has been down the last couple of days. I need to do a couple of new posts to catch up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Interdependent World

Bad news for China?

Harold Meyerson in today's Washington Post writes about China's bad economic news and what it may mean for us and Europe. In brief, the answer isn't simple. Worth reading.


"An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's. "

Will Rogers

I think Will was too kind to the economists of his day. As of his death in 1936, none of the neoclassical economists had figured out how it came about that the economy had stabilized at a low utilization of economic resources. It took John Maynard Keynes to figure that out, and his General Theory wasn't published until after Rogers' fatal airplane crash at Point Barrow.

Here is what Keynes had to say about economists:

But apart from this contemporary mood, the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

I'm not convinced that even Keynes got this right. The power of vested interests, when coupled with the writings of defunct economists, amplified by "voices in the air" heard only by madmen in authority, can be very powerful, indeed. Present concerns about the nonexistent "debt crisis" and the imagined specter of "inflation" and "bond ratings" are examples. It's like relying on Elwood P. Dowd's conversations with Harvey for economic advice.

Even in Keynes' day, the intellectual influence of defunct neoclassical economists on policy led the Roosevelt administration to prematurely attempt to balance the budget in 1937, setting off a second dip of the Great Depression.

I was there.

It took five more years and immense war spending to dig out of that hole. Let's not go there again.

On Cooperation

"Competition leads to loss. People pulling in opposite directions on a rope only exhaust themselves: they go nowhere. What we need is cooperation. Every example of cooperation is one of benefit and gains to them that cooperate. Cooperation is especially productive in a system well managed. It is easy to make a list of examples of cooperation, some of which are so natural that we may not have recognized them as cooperation. Everybody wins."

W. Edwards Deming

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Don't Eat Our Seed Corn

Folks who didn't grow up on a farm may not get the allusion to seed corn. Let me explain.

Back in the olden days (before hybrid seeds and genetic engineering), farmers harvested their crops and set aside some of the harvest to use as seeds for the following year's planting. Even in hard times, they would never eat the grain set aside as seed. If they ate the seed corn, it would extend and intensify the famine into the next year.

Something like that is going on in Raleigh this year as the state legislature is pushing drastic cuts in education programs, layoffs of teachers and diversion of public school resources to charter schools and even private schools. That may even be worse than eating seed corn, because the effects may last for a lifetime of the students affected.

"Why should I care?" you may ask, "I have no children in school."

Such an attitude would be foolish in the extreme. All children in school are our children. They are the ones whose contributions to Social Security taxes and Medicare funds will be used to support us in our old age. Even for those who don't need Social Security to survive, retirement plans depend on future productivity increasing the value of factories and enterprises and expanding our national wealth and the value of our stocks and bonds. Who will labor to cause that increase?

These very schoolchildren.

One of the most pernicious ideas abroad in the land is that children and their parents are "customers" of our schools and that the school systems must compete for their favor. The truth is that we are all recipients of the value provided by effective school systems.

Good schools attract intelligent and capable parents to come here. They attract businesses to our state. Schools are a valuable economic multiplier. We let them languish at our collective peril.

Let's make our schools even better, instead of starving them for resources.

Candidate Filing

Overheard during and after last Tuesday's meeting of Oriental's Town Board of Commissioners were a number of negative comments about the board.

For those who were surprised, dismayed or annoyed, you should know that Tuesday, November 8, 2011 is the date of municipal elections. Oriental also has absentee voting (including one-stop) starting in October.

But to run, you need to file. Candidate filing begins at twelve noon July 25, 2011 and ends at twelve noon August 12. It is also possible to run as a write-in candidate.

For details, call the Pamlico County Director of Elections, Lisa Bennett, at 745-4821.

Power to the Powerful! Wealth to the Wealthy! Blame to the Blameless!

Writing for Slate magazine yesterday, Eliot Spitzer described what he calls the "Republican war against the weak."

It is a multi front war, led by many generals. Republican governors against unions. Legislators against consumers. Judges against individuals and for corporations.

The truth is that the struggle of the wealthy and powerful against what used to be called the common man has been a feature of American politics from the beginning. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, though, it looked for a long time like the New Deal and its subsequent enhancements had permanently evened the tables. Well into the 1970's, Republican efforts to undo the New Deal and its regulatory and safety net features failed.

In the past thirty years, however, as memories of the depression faded and claims were made that we are now so smart we no longer need regulation, Republicans began to make serious inroads into the protections that had worked so well for so long.

"The unifying theme," Spitzer says, "is an assault on the weak. The power of individuals, each of us feeble in isolation, to act collectively and hence stand up to the powerful is being eviscerated. Those who already begin behind are finding the few legal protections afforded them under attack. A critical element of the Republican agenda has become increasing the legal power of those who already have power, and diminishing the power of the weak."

But Spitzer misses the boat on at least one matter. When he tries to explain why these efforts are wrong, he says: "if we are upset at the outcome of an election, we don't take away the right to vote of those who defeated us..." Yet all across the country Republican legislatures and governors are doing just that. They are introducing changes to election law clearly intended to discourage poor, elderly, handicapped, African American, Hispanic and first time voters from voting.

There are currently 41 bills in the North Carolina legislature that will, if adopted, modify election law and practice. The majority of the proposals would impede both voters and candidates. The bills appear to be part of an attempt to rig elections in favor of Republican candidates.

There are at least a half dozen proposed amendments to the North Carolina Constitution with the same apparent aim.

And we don't yet know what will be attempted with legislative redistricting.

It should be an interesting legislative session.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Amending Oriental's Zoning Law

Of all of Oriental's ordinances, the most consequential by far is the Growth Management Ordinance (GMO). The GMO has the greatest effect on the look and feel of the town, the value of real estate, the possibilities of real estate development, and the opportunities for the town's growth.

North Carolina General Statutes rightly provide explicit rules for initial adoption of a zoning ordinance and its subsequent amendment. The goal of these rules is to foster an open process and provide members of the public meaningful opportunities to make their views and wishes known.

In discussions about zoning, we hear frequent admonitions that we must be friendly to business - after all, businessmen and real estate developers invest a lot of money in their projects.

It is worth remembering that, for most of our residents, their home represents the largest investment they will ever make. Maintaining the value of that investment as well as the look and feel of their neighborhoods is often of supreme importance to them.

The town's planning board, made up of volunteers, has significant responsibilities to advise the town's board of commissioners on zoning matters. They are, in effect, the substitute for what, in a larger municipality would be the town's planning department. But they are an advisory board. Both NCGS and our GMO make it clear that the board of commissioners is not bound by the planning board's recommendations.

The Town Board is, after all, the governing body.

Last Tuesday night's kerfuffle between the planning board and the town board shouldn't have happened. In one case, the town board rejected the request for a public hearing on a proposed new section 88. In another case, the town board tabled a motion to schedule a public hearing for a seven-page (single-spaced) complete rewrite of Article XV of the GMO, so that board members would have time to compare the proposed draft with what exists now.

There is a widespread misconception that "tabling" a motion is a back door means of killing it. Not so. Properly used, tabling a motion is appropriate whenever the proposal is seen as not quite ready for a vote (as in not being understood by the board members) or it may even provide an opportunity to build stronger support for the measure. In any event, I believe it is inappropriate (except in case of a quasi-judicial proceeding) to schedule a public hearing on a draft ordinance unless a majority of the board has reviewed the draft and is comfortable putting it before the public. Those conditions did not exist last Tuesday.

I have a number of problems with the draft amendments, including the form of the amendments as put before the town board. I will have more to say about that later.

In the meantime, anyone with an interest in Oriental's GMO, including anyone for whom an amendment might at some time in the future jeopardize any provision of the GMO of personal importance should read the proposed amendments here.

All interested citizens should be sure to attend the public hearing now scheduled June 7.

It isn't clear to me why the planning board is in such an all-fired hurry, or what the actual problems are to which these five drafts are the purported solution.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


We attended a meeting last night on redistricting in North Carolina. This is required after every decennial US census, to insure that each legislative district (and some other districts) represent the same number of citizens.

The process is highly political (meaning partisan). It is also subject to complex legal constraints. The Research Division of the N.C. General Assembly has prepared a very helpful pamphlet: "Legislator's Guide to North Carolina Legislative and Congressional Redistricting." The pamphlet makes it very clear how difficult it is just to comply with the legal requirements. Once you overlay the legal requirements with the natural desire of each political party to maximize its vote and minimize that of the other parties, the challenge becomes mind-boggling.

The reasons we have so much difficulty with redistricting are:
1. Representation is by geography rather than by social, cultural or economic affinities;
2. We have single-member districts with representation decided on a winner-take-all vote;
3. By comparison with other countries, we have few legislators;
4. We have only two viable political parties.

The truth is, the reason we have only two parties is because of the first three characteristics of our system.

Is there a better way?

I think there is. For legislative elections, I favor multi-member districts and proportional representation. It is not as complicated as it sounds. Such an approach would almost certainly introduce new political parties into the system and require parties to cooperate. It would be less likely that a single party would control any house of a legislature, thus leading to coalition building. And redistricting would become much less complex.

Based on the past couple of decades of polling by Times Mirror and the Pew Trust, it seems that our population would shake out into perhaps nine or ten opinion groupings and perhaps that many parties.

Would such a change lead to better outcomes? Who knows? But such a system works pretty well elsewhere.

I predict we will adopt such a system as soon as we can persuade pigs to fly.

Management that Works

I'm reading through The New Economics by W. Edwards Deming. That his methods get results is demonstrated by the postwar success of the Japanese automobile industry after he trained them in his system. More recently, his methods have contributed to the current success of the Ford motor company.

Every page of his book has one or more gems. Here's one:

"Reward for good performance may be the same as reward to the weather man for a pleasant day."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Oriental Zoning Controversy

There were fireworks at last Tuesday night's meeting of Oriental's Town Board even before the vote on a proposed town dock.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board considered whether to schedule public hearings on five separate amendments to the town's Growth Management Ordinance (GMO), the town's zoning ordinance. When the proposal to schedule a hearing on changes to Article VI of the ordinance failed due to lack of a motion and the motion to schedule a hearing on changes to Article XV was tabled because some commissioners wanted to read it before voting on it, one member of the planning board stormed out of the meeting and the other members present expressed displeasure in other ways.

In view of the board's actions on the two most controversial GMO amendments, the subsequent public comment period was devoted entirely to the town dock issue (previous post).

At least one member of the public, who had come to the meeting for the specific purpose of speaking out against the change to Article VI, did not speak on that subject, since the board did not act. She left, thinking that business was over.

Apparently intimidated by the planning board reaction, though, the town board reconsidered its vote to table Article XV and voted to schedule a public hearing for Article XV and Article VI as well, except for a new Section 88 exempting religious institutions from the maximum footprint limits of Section 77.

That didn't make the planning board happy either. The next day the mayor scheduled a special meeting for Friday to address Article VI again. This morning the town board scheduled a public hearing for all of the changes to Article VI, including the new Section 88.

(According to some townspeople, the new Section 88 is solely designed to alleviate a concern of the church attended by the mayor and his wife I have no idea if that is true). The truth is, it is impossible for a member of the public, by reading the five draft amendments to the GMO or by attending last Tuesday's town board meeting, to have any idea why the proposed changes were drafted, what problems they were designed to solve, or what justification exists for the solutions recommended by the planning board.

Regrettably, the emotions expressed, the misunderstanding of proper legislative procedure and the failure to have effective and transparent communication between the Town Board and the Planning Board has made a situation far worse than it needed to be. Neither did it build confidence among the public that this isn't a scheme to railroad the changes through the system.

I have some ideas about how to improve procedures that I think could go far to prevent this kind of thing in the future. I just looked at the clock, though, and decided to save my ideas for the next post.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Town Budget

I've been thinking about the budget and some of the priorities reflected therein. But let's get to first principles.

What is a town for?

To provide services to the citizens. If there were no services, there would be no need for the town.

How are the services provided? The town's employees deliver the services. The water plant doesn't operate itself. Neither does it repair itself. The water meters don't read themselves and the bills don't get in the mail by themselves. The streets and sidewalks aren't self repairing.

No employees - no services. It's as simple as that.

Last year the town board decided to balance the budget on the backs of our employees by establishing and gradually increasing a monetary contribution by each employee to purchase his or her health insurance. The scheme was to reduce the town's contribution to health insurance, but to compensate somewhat by increasing wages and salaries. Even if this modification to the pay structure resulted in a dollar for dollar compensation (one dollar increase in pay for each dollar of decrease in the town's contribution to health insurance), the burden on the employee would be greater. We would replace an untaxed benefit (health) with a taxed benefit (wages).

We're talking about employees making as little as $11.00 an hour, who are having difficulty buying enough gas to get to work and we want to place another burden on them? These are people for the most part who can't afford to live in Oriental and walk or bicycle to work. And they don't buy Priuses.

So where might the town get the money to continue paying employee health insurance as before and still balance the budget? A good place to start would have been to not spend the $22,000 the board spent to hire a lawyer to investigate the previous town manager in hopes of finding a cause to fire him that would save spending the $25,000 termination pay in the contract the town negotiated and signed.

A second place to look for how to balance the budget without passing the hat to the employees is to tap into the money the water system should have been paying to the general fund (recently recalculated) but hasn't. That's on the order of another $25,000 for the coming fiscal year.

I think there are better options than taking up a collection from the workers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Problems in Civics Education

The nation's report card in civics is just in. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics education has just been released. The news is not good.

We are not doing a good job of educating our students for their role as citizens. And the scores are not getting better.

Take a look at the report card and the sample questions, and you'll see what I mean. We need to do much better.

New Town Dock Project

It was a good turnout last night at the town board meeting. Standing room only. Almost every attendee spoke during the public comment period. All but one were in favor of the project and that one wasn't vehemently opposed. The Board voted unanimously to go forward.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Protect Polluters

Monday night's County Commissioners meeting addressed, among other things, a request by Commissioner Mele for the board to pass resolutions of support for three bills now before the legislature concerning environmental regulations. The bills, attributed to drafting efforts of local real estate mogul Missy Baskerville and introduced by Senator Preston, were as follows:

Senate Bill 323, An act to create an exemption to the riparian buffer requirements for certain private properties in the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River Basins.

In brief, the proposed act "grandfathers" any parcel platted and recorded prior to August 1, 2000 from current riparian buffer requirements;

Senate Bill 324, An act to require greater notification of and ability to attend hearings for rule making.

In brief, the act amends present law to require the rule-making agency to notify the governing unit in each county and publish notice in a newspaper in each county that will be impacted by the proposed rule and to schedule public hearings within 60 miles of each county affected by a proposed rule;

Senate Bill 325, An act to provide additional requirements to apply to the adoption and implementation of any proposed administrative rule that is an environmental rule.

The most significant requirement is that at least 80% of any "stakeholder" committee created to consider a proposed rule be made up of persons employed in the private sector, residing in the city or county affected and essentially be in the industry regulated by the rule.

In a nutshell, these three bills are intended to obstruct agencies responsible for developing regulations to implement public law and delay or outright prevent them from doing their job.

Who in all this is going to represent the interest of the public?

Monday, May 2, 2011

A New Town Dock

Last Thursday's agenda meeting of Oriental's Board of Commissioners revealed that Tuesday's meeting will discuss building an additional Town Dock at the end of South Avenue.

This parcel, to which the town won the rights in a case decided by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2009, gives the public direct access to the harbor. One appropriate use of the parcel is to build a simple pier extending about 100 feet from shore, for use by transient vessels.

A recurring complaint in some circles is that Oriental isn't sufficiently friendly to business. Otherwise, some contend, we would have more businesses and they wouldn't keep failing.

I wonder how many businesses a population of 875 (latest census) can support. Even the "greater Oriental" population of 2,000 can't support many. We are at the end of the highway.

On the other hand, from 14,000 to 20,000 (estimates vary) boats cruising the East Coast via the ICW each year pass less than two miles away. That represents more than 40,000 potential customers. The best thing we can do for Oriental businesses is to attract more boats to stop here. That would be good for every business.

Last Thursday, one commissioner opposed additional free dockage, on the grounds it may compete with nearby commercial marinas.

This misses the point. Cruising sailors select where to stop based on the reputation a town has as a hospitable place. Availability of transient docks and free anchorage space is among the factors affecting this reputation. The goal is to improve Oriental's brand. The better the brand, the more boats stop. The more boats that stop, the more will come back. Some even stay.Link
As I contended almost two years ago, the question of what to do about South Avenue is about the future, not the past.

Those of you who support the new town dock project and the effort for Oriental to become even more welcoming and hospitable to cruising sailors, please come to the meeting of the Town Board at 7:00 pm Tuesday, May 3 at Town Hall. And bring other supporters.

The important competition is between Oriental and other towns along the waterway.

The Wicked Witch is Dead

The television scene of a wildly enthusiastic crowd dancing and waving flags in Lafayette Square last night across from the White House reminded me of nothing so much as the dance of the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's house fell on the wicked witch. The enthusiasm was understandable, but at the same time, there is something unseemly about it.

So I was relieved to learn that the military force that killed Osama bin Laden and retrieved his body treated his remains with respect. That is in keeping with an older military tradition.

An example of this older tradition occurred during the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish American War. The Spanish fleet, which had been bottled up by the US Navy, attempted a break out. They had not gone far when the battleship USS New York engaged the ships in a withering fire from her big guns. Spanish ships burned and sank, to the cheers of New York's sailors.

"Don't cheer boys, the poor devils are dying" New York's skipper, Captain John W. Philip, a Civil War veteran, chided his seamen.

Ninety years later, in July 1988, USS Vincennes, an Aegis cruiser, shot down Iranian Air flight 655, killing 290 passengers and crew. The aircraft was in Iranian airspace in an international civilian air corridor. A television crew on board to film the ship in action recorded the crew on the ship's bridge cheering the shoot-down. I'm sure those crew members later regretted their cheers.

War is a solemn business, not like a football game. Save the cheering for later.

At this writing, it appears our Seals successfully limited collateral damage to civilians. We should be very thankful for that.