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  • Our Election System is Broken

    North Carolina experienced a smooth election kickoff last week. Just kidding. That is no longer the North Carolina Way. Instead, filing for candidates for everything from dogcatcher to U.S. Senate was set to begin Monday morning, with state legislative and U.S. congressional candidates lining up to vie for seats in new maps drawn by the N.C. General Assembly following the 2020 Census. With caravans of congressional and state House and Senate candidates converging on election boards, a three-judge N.C. Appellate Court panel essentially told them to turn those caravans around. It halted filing for those races due to lawsuits saying the new districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. Later that day, the full 15-member court, to paraphrase “The Price Is Right’’ host Bob Barker, overruled that move and told candidates to “Come on Down!” And thus, the Herald reported in last week’s edition, which rolled off the press around noon on Wednesday. Well, Wednesday wasn’t over. Later in the day the N.C. Supreme Court ordered an end to filing for everyone, and moved the 2022 primary from March 8 to May 17. The court says the delay will give the state time to settle lawsuits regarding the new maps, and ordered the judges in those cases to make rulings by Jan. 11. Of course, there’s no telling if that will actually settle things, as the map issue seems destined to ping-pong around every court proponents and opponents can find. “Anything’s possible on Opening Day and in North Carolina redistricting,” said Chris Cooper, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute. “We’ve been down this road before and we’ve seen the suite of outcomes — from the court throwing out maps and starting over, to the court saying the maps were just fine as they were. Sometimes the court splits the difference and says that the maps aren’t fair, but it’s not under their purview to decide whether they should be fair or not. Any of this is possible. There’s no doubt that the current maps are better for the Republicans than the Democrats, the question is whether the court will decide that they meet a legal standard of gerrymandering.” Cooper says the timeline for the election should come into focus, quickly, in January. “It seems like the court is trying to move quickly. The hearing will take place by January 11. We can safely assume that no matter the outcome, there will be an appeal, but I would expect that appeal to be filed and heard quickly. Another way to approach the question is to move backwards-mail balloting should start 50 days before the election, which would put it at March 28 (or April 1, if the State Board moved it to day 45, which they technically have the ability to do). Candidate filing needs to end at least 21 days before that, which would put it at around March 7. So, put all of that together, and it seems likely that we’ll have the ‘final’ maps by the end of February at the latest. But, lest we get too excited, ‘final’ just means ‘final’ for 2022. As to what we could expect in 2024, your guess is as good as mine.” This guessing game is one we’re playing in pretty much every election in North Carolina, and it does a huge disservice to voters, who after all are the people who matter the most in elections. Litigation over redistricting resulted in delays to all or some of state primaries in 2002, 2004 and 2016. New maps were ordered to be drawn in 2016 and 2019. This jerking around of the electoral calendar impacts even the folks who have the time to figure out their new district lines and field of candidates to choose from. Average folks who are busy with their jobs, their kids, their church and their lives can easily miss those details and other important information such as the deadline to file, etc. There’s a fix for this: independent, non-partisan commissions that split up maps fairly and let the voters choose the politicians, not the other way around. These commissions have been tried with success in a number of states. It’s worth a try. As is, the number of non-competitive races, featuring districts weighed heavily in favor of one party or another, have reached an appalling number in North Carolina. The result means many seats are barely even competed for; who wants to mount a challenge against an incumbent flush with cash sitting on a built-in 10-point lead? The result also is entrenched politicians who can go to bed at night confident they really don’t have to bother listening to their constituents. That’s not the way a representative system should work. And it has a corrosive effect on service to the people, which is the whole point of a government. We’re paying a price for years of this. And that price, as Bob Barker might say, is wrong. This article originally appeared in the Sylva Herald.

  • Cawthorn’s expulsion would have to take a path that’s rarely used

    A chorus of calls for the expulsion from Congress of 11th District U.S. Congressman Madison Cawthorn, R-Hendersonville, has arisen in the wake of this weekend’s report in Rolling Stone that Cawthorn and six other GOP Representatives – Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Louie Gohmert (Texas) Paul Gosar (Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) – allegedly coordinated with the Jan. 6 rioters prior to the assault on Congress during the certification of Joe Biden’s 2000 election victory. The report didn’t establish direct ties to the violence of the day. Still, in an era where once-hypothetical questions seem to push close to reality every day, it’s worth asking if Cawthorn’s tenure is in peril. This isn’t the first time Cawthorn has faced such a c all. In January, following the riot, NC-11 Democratic Party District leaders said his expulsion was necessary under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which reads, “No Person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the U nited States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.” That last line – two-thirds vote – likely means Cawthorn has nothing to worry about in the politically polarized Congress of 2021. Expulsions have been rare over the history of the country, but they have happened. The first instance was the expulsion of Democratic-Republican Sen. William Blount of Tennessee in 1797 for treason and conspiracy to incite a rebellion of Cherokee and Creek Indians to help the British conquer West Florida, then under Spanish control. In 1861 a slew of Senators and Congressmen, all Democrats, were expelled after President Lincoln’s election and the subsequent secession of Southern states. Among them were North Carolina’s U.S. Senators, Thomas Clingman and Thomas Bragg. After that it was all quiet on the expulsion front until 1980, when Pa. Democratic Rep. Michael Myers was expelled following a bribery conviction in the Abscam scan dal. In 2002 Ohio Democratic Rep. Jim Traficant was convicted on charges including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion and expelled. (He tried twice to regain his seat, including a run from prison). Earlier this year Rep. Jimmy Gonzalez, D-Calif., fielded a resolution to expel Rep. Greene of Georgia for being complicit in planning and inciting the storming of the Capitol. More than 70 Democrats backed that resolution, but it didn’t gain the backing of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. And now, in Cawthorn’s case, the expulsion calls have arisen again. A statement from Cawthorn’s office described the Rolling Stone account as “complete garbage.” Cawthorn faces a host of challengers headed into the 2022 primary, including from some in his own party. One potential Democratic challenger, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine-Beach-Ferrara, issued a press release in the wake of the Rolling Stone article saying, “If this report is true, Madison Cawthorn should be expelled from Congress… I’ve already calle d on Madison Cawthorn to resign but since he won’t, he should be expelled.” Chris Cooper, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, said expulsion “happens, but it’s rare. The process begins when someone drafts a resolution to expel. It is then referred to the House Committee on Ethics. The committee would then conduct an investigation and take a vote. If they recommend expulsion, the resolution would then go to the House floor where they would need a two-thirds vote of the full House of Representatives; there is no need for Senate buy-in. At that point, the Governor could call for a special election to replace Cawthorn.” Cawthorn’s predecessor in the 11th District, Mark Meadows, who served as former President Trump’s chief of staff, has been subpoenaed by the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot. This article originally appeared in the Sylva Herald.

  • Tribute to Bob Gabordi

    Robert Charles Gabordi, former editor of the Asheville Citizen Times transitioned on Thursday, October 21, 2021. Bob was survived by his wife Donna, their children and grandchildren. Bob came to Asheville in 2001 and led the newsroom for the next four years. He joined the Citizen Times during a period of time when morale was low and the newspaper was suffering due to large budget cuts directed from our corporate leaders. As we searched for a new leader for the news team, corporate news executive Phil Currie identified Bob as a person who could get the newsroom going in the right direction. I recall Bob and Donna coming to our home where we introduced ourselves and began the discussion of what needed to be done to right the news ship. Those who knew Bob knew that he had great passion about his work and the news team. We knew he was the right person for the job when Bob put up a tent at his home in Arden and invited the entire news team to come for a meeting. I’m not sure what took place at that meeting, but I do know Bob made a connection with the staff, and we were off and running with our new editor. Bob was a believer in hiring people who were good and many who were young but had potential. The list of his hires is extensive and someof them followed him to his other editor positions in Melbourne and Tallahassee, Florida. Bob made a connection with the community with his candid and honest weekly column where he created a dialogue with readers, responding to questions and explaining coverage decisions. Bob was also engaged with technology and was the first editor at the Citizen Times to require adding email addresses to bylines so readers could contact reporters and columnist directly. In addition, Bob was not only a great editor, he was a great leader. When things got tough, he stood before the newsroom and talked straight about any issue. He celebrated success, and he had no problem giving someone the business if they did not meet his high standards. What I admired most about Bob were his values and his commitment to his faith, his loving family, his friends, his news team and the communities he served. Bob loved children as he coached little league in Asheville, coaching a diverse group of kids after long hours at the newspaper. The man was committed! He was a champion of hiring the best talent and giving people an opportunity, as evidenced by his hiring of current editor of the Citizen Times, Jewell Walston. Bob hired Jewell as the first woman as sports editor of the newspaper. She may have been the only Black female running a daily sports department in the nation at that time. Bob was fearless. I recall a visit he and I paid to former Sheriff Bobby Medford, who threatened to jail our reporter Ton ya Maxwell. Bob did not back down from the pressure of the sheriff and continued his investigation into corruption by Medford. He was feisty and operated without fear. You can read more about this encounter in Bob’s book and his commitment to journalism; “The Truth: Real Stories and the Risk of Losing a Free Press in America.” The work that was done during Bob’s four-year tenure is exceptional, as evidenced by the Citizen Times newsroom being awarded prestigious awards from the North Carolina Press Association and the parent company Gannett. The awards included Most Improved Newspaper, a first-place award for Public Service and a Gannett Gold Medal Award for journalism excellence, which represented being one of the top five newspapers in Gannett. Bob was a man who made a difference, and he will be missed by his family, friends, and those of us who were blessed to work with him. Joann and I send our love and prayer to his wife Donna and all of his children and grandchildren. Rest in Peace Bob! Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary. This article originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

  • Science, not politics, protects threatened resources

    The political divide over global warming sometimes feels like the vax/anti-vax divide: science vs. politics. Seas are rising and warming. This intensifies storms and aggravates erosion and pollution. We can argue about who’s responsible and why, but our oceans, by most scientific accounts, are warming. This not only plagues those living or earning a living on the coast. Even if you’ve never swum, caught a crab, waded, or enjoyed the view of the Atlantic—any ocean, anywhere—you’re an affected stakeholder on the planet. Here’s what stakeholders could do now: Submit comments by Oct. 21 on the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s draft update to its Coastal Habitat Protection Plan to defend and restore coastal habitat and fisheries. The draft recommends nature-based solutions to revive wetlands. It addresses water quality through envir onmental rule compliance and wastewater infrastructure. It aims to map and monitor coastal habitat to protect submerged aquatic vegetation and improve water quality. Find out more, including how to comment, here. Even if you don’t “believe” in climate change, these sensible efforts can ameliorate ailing fish stocks and water quality. In 2012, North Carolina lawmakers banned the state from basing policies on the latest scientific predictions of sea level rise, after N.C. Coastal Resources Commission forecasts showed levels could rise by 39 inches over the next 100 years. Lawmakers’ action was significant enough for a TV moment. “I think this is a brilliant solution,” comedian Stephen Colbert said that night. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.” But three years later, in 2015, a new report looked out 30 years, not 100 years into the future, a more acceptable time frame, certainly to those whose livelihoods—watermen, coastal property owners, developers—if not terribly useful to infrastructure planners. Even climate change deniers know weather challenges when they see them: intensified storms, like Matthew and Florence. The latter amassed $17 billion in damages. Algal blooms. Mountain mudslides. Killer summer heat. Rain-wrecked crops. Warming waters may not all be traced to climate, but heat exacerbates pollution’s effects and worsens the population-related effects: overbuilding, overfishing, over-trashing, over-pollution. In 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80 addressed climate change with strategies for marine fisheries, water infrastructure, air quality, and more. The weather playing the dramatic role is not specific to the coast. Hurricanes that start at the back end of nowhere can pack notoriously long, wide, often erratic and destructive punches miles from the N.C. coast. Already, myriad coastal projects are in place and working, r eports Carolina Public Press, efforts that preserve shorelines, including oyster habitat, an essential ecosystem. Fisheries management, as some species decline, or fish migrate north, seeking cooler seas, may be controversial. But they often succeed. Such environmental pro blems are characterized as “tragedies of the commons,” which refers to a resource everyone uses, but no one owns. The air, the oceans, and public lands are sometimes poisoned and overused/abused until ruined. We own these resources together. Let’s treat them right. Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. She writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information,

  • Saving democracy with fair representation and elections

    The results of the 2020 Census Count depict a nation that is diverse and segregating itself based on geography and race. There can be little doubt that is impacting the toxic political divide we see in America. The states located along the coast and in urban communities are seeing the largest population growth. Related to this expansion is the congregating of ethnic groups, with rural areas becoming whiter and more coastal and urban areas blacker and browner. The largest Asian population is in California, New York and Texas with large numbers in New Jersey and Washington. The African-American population continues to migrate to the Southeast, with the states of Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia accounting for 72 percent of the total population. Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group, have moved beyond the border towns in California, New Mexico, and Texas to locations throughout the nation, with significant population growth in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. Keep in mind the Latinx growth is from Mexico, Cuba and other Central and South American countries. A comparison between the number of Democratic black and brown voters and the number of Republican black and brown voters makes it pretty easy to see why Republicans want to suppress their votes. Nonwhites make up forty percent of Democratic voters, but less than 20 percent of Republican voters. Voter suppression laws and gerrymandering (a redistricting tactic used to set electoral district boundaries to favor the party in power) already impact representation to the point that the minority of voters rules the majority of voters in many counties and some states. Both political parties have used redistricting strategy to their benefit. However, technological sophistication has turned an always nefarious and undemocratic practice into one that facilitates authoritarian rule. Equally ominous for democracy, voter suppression laws have been passed by at least 18 state legislatures including Georgia, Texas and Arizona. A great number of Republicans claim along with the former President and his allies that the election was stolen. They aim to influence future elections by suppressing the vote with myriad strategies that favor Republicans. Major change is coming our way if they are successful. In North Carolina, voter suppression is alive and well with Senate Republicans passing Senate bills 326, 724 and 725 all designed to suppress or limit voting rights. This includes limiting absentee ballots, requiring IDs to vote in person and prohibiting county board of elections from using donations to support local elections. North Carolina judges struck down the voter ID law writing that it “was motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African American voters.” In Georgia SB 202 has limited the Secretary of State’s role on the Board of Elections, taking away monitoring and oversight of state and local elections. What can be done to stop this onslaught on voting rights? Obviously, it will not be done by members of the Republican party who support former President Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. This is about unabashed power and control over the nation for potentially decades. The most promising answer lies in the Freedom to Vote Act introduced in the Senate by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Joe Manchin and several of their colleagues after they spent the summer meeting with voters and election officials in states around the country to fin d out what they need from a federal level election overhaul. According to Klobuchar’s office the legislation “…elevates the voices of Americ an voters by ending partisan gerrymandering and helping to eliminate the undue influence of secret money in our elections.” The bill would establish nationwide standards for ballot access and would mandate that states follow specific criteria when drawing new district lines to reduce partisan gerrymandering. And it requires the disclosure of donors to so-called “dark money” groups. To become law, ten Republican senators will have to support the bill. We can only hope there are ten honorable Republicans in that august chamber who will abandon their party’s authoritarian impulse and vote to preserve the most fundamental right on which our nation was founded, the right of the people to choose those who will govern them. With a country torn by partisan politics and growing more diverse by region every year, if we are to preserve our democracy, we need fair elections that include all eligible voters. Our future weighs in the balance. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

    Here’s a little tale of our times: On July 5 in East Hartford, Conn., the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team took the field for a match against Mexico. Before the game started, Pete DuPré, a WWII veteran, played the national anthem on a harmonica. Some members of the U.S. squad turned their backs on DuPré while he played. The outrage meter cranked up to 11 almost immediately, with videos posted to YouTube and various sites condemning the action, led by a Facebook page called Hold the Line, which captioned the scene as “A DISGRACE TO AMERICA! … Who agrees we need to keep the woke OUT of the Olympics??? #HoldTheLine.” Cable TV picked it up, and it was soon a story almost impossible to avoid across social media. Until it turned out to not be true. What actually happened is the soccer squad already had a deep and warm relationship with DuPré. Some had met him on a trip to Normandy beaches in 2019; he’d played the anthem for them that year before the final World Cup game, and after the incident in July of this year, they signed a game ball for him and individually thanked him. The reason some turned their backs on him was so they could face the flag, which is what one is supposed to do during the anthem. There was a tidal wave of outrage for a day, a few fact-checkers weighed in with the real story, and a few of the places pushing the wrong story backed off, sort of. The prize-winning comment on cable was the sentiment that it was sad people would believe the tale to be true but understandable since such tales were so widespread. Wonder who’s spreading such misinformation in the first place? where you’d get such a presumption in the first place? It’s a real head-scratcher. There’s a tale like this Every. Single. Day. Some are annoying, some are downright dangerous, such as the deluge of COVID misinformation we’ve seen since we first heard that word. Some narratives say it’s a hoax, some dwell on where it started, some say the pandemic really isn’t that severe, a lot of those folks would’ve died anyway, some dismiss the death rate as really not very high. Four or five million dead worldwide doesn’t look that serious when you realize there are 7 billion people on the planet. Heck, there were 97 people on the Hindenburg and only 35 died, so what’s all the fuss? Well, here’s part of the deal: Somebody has to clean up after all that manure, and it’s usually a reporter. Reporters are busy people. Checking this stuff out is time-consuming, and every minute spent figuring out Bat Boy doesn’t really exist is a minute spent not covering city hall or Congress or the next war we appear to be blundering into. Further, the correction isn’t what most people hear. It’s the initial accusation that burrows into the mind. Some of this misinformation is innocent. Some is plain old mean-spiritedness. And some is sinister, sown by actors intent on turning us against one another and destabilizing our very democracy. We don’t appear to have any good solutions here in the U.S. It might not hurt to turn to Finland for a helpful strategy. While we’re mud-wrestling over what to teach in public schools, there’s a lesson we could learn from that Nordic country, which has been teaching children for more than a decade how to spot misinformation and propaganda from kindergarten on up. There’s a reason Finland did this. Its people were overwhelmed with online trolls raising hysteria about the real Finland being destroyed by immigrants, its heritage in peril, that it should exit the EU, etc. etc. Divisive stuff, that did its job of dividing. As with our social media, a lot of the trolling online originated in Russia, as does a lot of the trolling in the United States. Unlike the United States, Finland shares 832 miles of border with Russia, and Russia has a habit of destabilizing neighbors and driving tanks across those borders. Thus, the response to educate its citizens, which seems to be working well. It’s an example we should at least study. The amount of effort debunking malicious nonsense is wildly disproportional to the effort needed to spread the lies in the first place. Reporters can’t do it alone. They need help. And America can only work if it has an informed citizenry. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Incidentally, look that up and you’ll see it attributed to Mark Twain. There’s no proof he ever said it. Pays to do a little research. Jim Buchanan is a longtime mountain journalist

  • Stripping the $300 jobless benefit robs workers and economic recovery

    Even though Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation that would have killed additional federal pandemic unemployment insurance (UI)—legislators claimed the extra money would have given unemployed people incentive to avoid work—that doesn’t mean the fight is over. The legislation would have punished workers, but, more importantly, would have cut $72 million — $300 multiplied by 240,000, the number of people receiving UI—every week in federal funds that would have further stimulated North Carolina’s economy. Carolina Commentary has covered, in a previous editorial, the benefits of unemployment insurance, which exceed costs by nearly a 2:1 ratio. As the labor market transitions from extreme disruption to a post-pandemic jobs rebound, we should strap in for a bumpy ride. A fraction of the unemployed may opt out of work hoping to find better jobs: higher wages and benefits, a location near transportation and affordable housing, or safer working environments. Unemployment insurance allows those without jobs to explore certifications, education, or training to improve productivity. Public health risks and worry about caregiving responsibilities, especially among women, are rampant and real. They’re stumbling blocks to economic recovery. Child care has constricted the return of mothers to the labor market. Childcare centers are struggling to find workers. Many have closed. The money people receive doesn’t sit in a bank account. People spend it. The money fuels aggregate demand, which plummeted during the pandemic. The “moral hazard” effects of unemployment insurance are well studied. The term moral hazard describes a public policy that encourages risky behavior; the risk in this case was presumably about failing to take a job because of a short-term cash cushion of $300. Researchers, however, have found unemployed workers in general value re-employment even with more generous UI benefits. Some employers, especially in hospitality, as restaurants reopen and business booms, have reported labor shortages, but some find ways to attract workers. The 5th Street Group, a N.C. restaurant firm, raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and offers a “Tip the Kitchen” plan by which customers tip kitchen staff. The firm matches those gratuities up to $500 a day, according to news accounts. The firm says it isn’t raising menu prices: Anticipated savings from reduced turnover and training will offset costs. Other businesses could consider hiking pay. The “disincentivizing” amount of $300 in expanded benefits that some policymakers think is generous enough to restrain labor market recovery has had only slight effects. Economists, most recently from the San Francisco Fed, have studied this moral hazard. Using data from the Current Population Survey, their analysis found only a small fraction of UI recipients would refuse an offer to return to work at their previous pay. The CARES Act’s original $600 weekly UI supplement expired in July 2020; since late December, federal legislation has added $300 per week in payments, through Sept. 6, 2021. Based on prior research, the $300 supplement likely reduces job-finding rates by no more than 3.5 percentage points (0.035), write San Francisco Fed economists Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau and Robert G. Valletta. They offer perspective: “One straightforward way to think about that number is that each month in early 2021, about seven out of 28 unemployed individuals receive job offers that they would normally accept, but one of the seven decides to decline the offer due to the availability of the extra $300 per week in UI payments. This implies a small but likely noticeable contribution to expanded UI generosity to job-finding rates and employers’ perceptions of worker availability in early 2021.” In other research, economists have found that post-pandemic workers are re-evaluating their lives. They may need to change jobs, for example, to find safer working conditions. North Carolina’s jobless rate was 5% in April compared to a pandemic high of 13.9% in March 2020. Economist John Connaughton of UNC-Charlotte’s Belk College of Business forecasts the state will add nearly 200,000 jobs in 2021, an inflation-adjusted increase of 5.3 percent over 2020. If there’s any moral hazard going on, it’s among lawmakers who feel overly cushioned by power and influence enough to rob others of opportunity. The legislation would have punished workers, but, more importantly, would have cut $72 million — $300 multiplied by 240,000, the number of people receiving UI—every week in federal funds that would have further stimulated North Carolina’s economy. Carolina Commentary has covered, in a previous editorial, the benefits of unemployment insurance, which exceed costs by nearly a 2:1 ratio. As the labor market transitions from extreme disruption to a post-pandemic jobs rebound, we should strap in for a bumpy ride. A fraction of the unemployed may opt out of work hoping to find better jobs: higher wages and benefits, a location near transportation and affordable housing, or safer working environments. Unemployment insurance allows those without jobs to explore certifications, education, or training to improve productivity. Public health risks and worry about caregiving responsibilities, especially among women, are rampant and real. They’re stumbling blocks to economic recovery. Child care has constricted the return of mothers to the labor market. Childcare centers are struggling to find workers. Many have closed. The money people receive doesn’t sit in a bank account. People spend it. The money fuels aggregate demand, which plummeted during the pandemic. The “moral hazard” effects of unemployment insurance are well studied. The term moral hazard describes a public policy that encourages risky behavior; the risk in this case was presumably about failing to take a job because of a short-term cash cushion of $300. Researchers, however, have found unemployed workers in general value re-employment even with more generous UI benefits. Some employers, especially in hospitality, as restaurants reopen and business booms, have reported labor shortages, but some find ways to attract workers. The 5th Street Group, a N.C. restaurant firm, raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and offers a “Tip the Kitchen” plan by which customers tip kitchen staff. The firm matches those gratuities up to $500 a day, according to news accounts. The firm says it isn’t raising menu prices: Anticipated savings from reduced turnover and training will offset costs. Other businesses could consider hiking pay. The “disincentivizing” amount of $300 in expanded benefits that some policymakers think is generous enough to restrain labor market recovery has had only slight effects. Economists, most recently from the San Francisco Fed, have studied this moral hazard. Using data from the Current Population Survey, their analysis found only a small fraction of UI recipients would refuse an offer to return to work at their previous pay. The CARES Act’s original $600 weekly UI supplement expired in July 2020; since late December, federal legislation has added $300 per week in payments, through Sept. 6, 2021. Based on prior research, the $300 supplement likely reduces job-finding rates by no more than 3.5 percentage points (0.035), write San Francisco Fed economists Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau and Robert G. Valletta. They offer perspective: “One straightforward way to think about that number is that each month in early 2021, about seven out of 28 unemployed individuals receive job offers that they would normally accept, but one of the seven decides to decline the offer due to the availability of the extra $300 per week in UI payments. This implies a small but likely noticeable contribution to expanded UI generosity to job-finding rates and employers’ perceptions of worker availability in early 2021.” In other research, economists have found that post-pandemic workers are re-evaluating their lives. They may need to change jobs, for example, to find safer working conditions. North Carolina’s jobless rate was 5% in April compared to a pandemic high of 13.9% in March 2020. Economist John Connaughton of UNC-Charlotte’s Belk College of Business forecasts the state will add nearly 200,000 jobs in 2021, an inflation-adjusted increase of 5.3 percent over 2020. If there’s any moral hazard going on, it’s among lawmakers who feel overly cushioned by power and influence enough to rob others of opportunity. Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. Betty Joyce Nash writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com

  • China a formidable competitor

    The world’s two leading economic nations are moving toward a potentially devastating confrontation over the Island of Taiwan. China considers Taiwan to be part of China, whereas Taiwan sees itself to be an independent nation. The United States has a military commitment to defend Taiwan based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which provides a legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the two countries, and commits the U.S. to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability. On May 10th, Rep. Ken Buck, (R-Colo.) introduced a resolution to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s continued peace and their mutual strategic interests. “We cannot allow China’s dangerous threats against the people of Taiwan to go unnoticed… and the U.S. must hold the Chinese government accountable,” Buck said. A recent Pew Research Centre survey this year found nine in 10 Americans viewed China as a competitor or an enemy while a majority were in favor of pressuring Beijing on human rights and economic issues. Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese have expressed dissatisfaction over what they perceive as US efforts to prevent China’s rise as an economic, military and technological powerhouse, according to Maria Siow of the South China Morning Post. For 20 years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has provided Congress with an annual report on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These reports have assessed the contours of China’s national strategy, its approach to security and military affairs, and potential changes in the PRC’s armed forces over the next 20 years, among other matters. The most recent report says that China’s strategy aims to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. The goal is framed as a strategy to place China in a position of strength, prosperity and leadership on the world stage. The strategy has three key prongs; to advance overall development and economic growth, to strengthen its armed forces and to take a more active role in global affairs. This sounds much like the historical strategy of the United States. North Carolina is a significant contributor to America’s defense strategy according to The North Carolina Military Affairs Commission (NCM AC). With Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine and Army bases in the state. The largest base is Fort Bragg, with over 65,000 service members and civilian employees. It is the largest U.S. Army installation in terms of population in the nation and it is home to the Army’s Rapid Response Force, consisting of Special Operations and Airborne Forces, Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the U.S. Army Forces Command and the U.S. Army Reserve Command. The United States has maintained a stellar military operation, which many have called the best military in history. With an all-volunteer military and state of the art technology, the United States has led the world with a motto of “Peace Through Strength” coined by then President Ronald Reagan. Former President Reagan’s foreign policy, known as the Reagan Doctrine was the support of freedom for people around the world. During his tenure, Reagan’s administration grew the U.S. Army by two divisions in addition to developing new weapon systems including the Strategic Defense Initiative, branded as “Star Wars” to defend against nuclear attack. The United States has for the most part maintained an effective and mobile military that has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has American soldiers positioned in countries around the world. In January 2020, former President Trump’s military budget was $740 billion, an increase of $100 billion over former President Obama’s 2017 budget. Approximately 15% of America’s discretionary spending goes to defense. The United States spends more than the top 10 nations in the world on its military. Those nations include China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korean and Brazil combined, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. There is nothing we Americans value more than our freedom and we are willing to pay for it, with treasure and lives if necessary. As we look to the future, Americans must keep in mind the ever growing economic and military power of China. The Chinese are known for playing the long game and are projected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2028, according to a report published by CNBC. As tensions rise between China and the United States, North Carolinians will be at the forefront for military readiness as the competition between the two superpowers intensifies in the coming years. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Keep voting easy and cheating hard for North Carolina voters

    In late March, lawmakers in the North Carolina Senate began debating a bill that would move up absentee ballot deadlines, forbid elections boards from accepting private donations for certain purposes and establish a fund to identify and assist voters needing a photo ID. This bill, introduced by state Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican, seems relatively benign compared to the new election law Georgia just passed or to many being promoted by Republicans around the nation. More than 250 bills have been introduced in 43 states to restrict access to voting, according to a tally by the Brennan Center. The controversial new Georgia law imposes new identification requirements for mail-in ballots, curtails the use of drop boxes, blocks the use of mobile voting vans, allows electors to challenge an unlimited number of voters and makes it a crime for third-party groups to hand out water of food to voters standing in line. In fact, no bill that limits the ability of qualified voters to cast their ballots can be considered benign, unless it addresses an obvious source of voter fraud. And there’s no evidence of voter fraud in North Carolina’s 2020 election or anywhere in the nation. State and federal elections officials and experts in the private sect or declared the election “the most secure in American History,” despite claims to the contrary by defeated former President Donald Trump. North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, told an interviewer in March that he expected “you’ll see some legislation” related to voting before the legislative session’s filing deadline. Berger wouldn’t give details, according to a WFAE report, except to say Republicans would try to limit the State Board of Elections’ ability to change voting rules. But it seems unlikely that the Republican-controlled legislature will propose voter suppression bills as aggressive as some that have been introduced this year. One reason is that they don’t have enough votes to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The second is that it turns out their own voters were some of the biggest beneficiaries of reforms that make voting easier adopted in North Carolina over the past two decades—and from emergency measures added because of COVID-19. In a joint commentary, Bob Hall and Rick Henderson wrote: “We are liberal and conservative leaders with decades of experience at policy organizations. We often disagree, but after looking at data from the 2020 election, we agree on this: North Carolina’s unique mix of procedures made voting easy and cheating hard, and helped produce a record turnout despite a deadly pandemic.” Hall is the former executive director of Democracy North Carolina. Henderson is former editor of the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal. They determined that more Republicans than Democrats used same-day registration, more Republicans than Democrats successfully used provisional ballots because they were in the wrong precinct or had not updated their registration, and a bigger share of registered Republicans than Democrats voted on the last Saturday of early voting (a day legislators had cut but restored in 2020 with extra hours). They also found that expanded recruitment of poll workers and federal funding allowed counties to open larger voting places and helped Republicans vote safely in person and vastly outnumber Democrats. Democrats dominated mail-in balloting, they determined, largely because President Trump vilified the practice. Still, 200,000 N.C. Republicans voted by mail, thanks in part to a “cure” process that let voters submit missing information to validate their eligibility. That would suggest, in North Carolina at least, the restrictive bills Republicans are pushing around the nation would do as much harm their own party as to the Democratic Party, which makes it a risky and potentially counterproductive enterprise if the goal is to win elections. That argument is bolstered by a recent poll by Carolina Forward, a grassroots policy organization, that shows majority support for automatic voter registration and for ending gerrymandering, the practice of gaining unfair advantage by manipulating the boundaries of election districts. The poll, published April 5, found 56 percent of North Carolinians strongly or somewhat support automatic voter registration for all eligible voters, 4 percent are unsure and 40 percent oppose it. When it comes to ending gerrymandering, 65 percent agree and only 11 percent oppose. The remainder said they were unsure. The nation just held the most secure election in its history, despite a raging pandemic. Republicans are being disingenuous when they claim that the new l aws they’re pushing are intended to make elections more secure. They are, instead, the latest iteration of poll taxes and litera cy tests intended to disenfranchise Black and minority voters. As New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, reducing the number of polling places and forcing voters to stand in long lines functions as a poll tax. But this time, such laws could backfire. Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Political identities are redefining us and burying other identities we share

    Richard Burr gave North Carolinians reason to be proud of its senior U.S. Senator when he voted to convict in the impeachment of Donald Trump because he chose to vote his conscience rather than toe the party line. By doing so, he represented the state with integrity. For his vote, the N.C. Republican Party, his party, chose to censure him. They censured him not for some moral or ethical transgression, but for doing what he believed was right despite enormous pressure to do otherwise. Republican representatives and senators from other states who defied party orthodoxy suffered the same fate. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who voted to impeach Trump, not only got censured by his state party, members of his family wrote a letter calling him a member of the “’devil’s army,’ (Democrats and the fake news media).” The vitriol contained in the family letter Kinzinger received from cousins and other unnamed family members is an appalling display of the fracture in many families across the nation. Because he could not countenance an armed insurrection, incited by Trump, against a co-equal branch of government, his cousins, Greg and Karen Otto, accused him of betraying his Christian values. “How do you call yourself a Christian when you join the ‘devil’s army’ believing in abortion!” they demand to know. And then there’s Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, one of several Republican members of Congress who objected to certifying the results of the 2 020 election. Six of his nine siblings appeared in an ad for his opponent in the election and since the insurrection, they’ve called for his removal from Congress. Countless books and commentaries by social scientists and pundits have attempted to explain how we got to this place with such passionate feelings and irreconcilable differences that members of families have turned against one another or simply no longer discuss politics for fear of creating unbridgeable estrangements. One of those books is Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized.” Klein is a columnist, editor, cofounder of Vox (an explanatory news organization) and a self-described liberal. He points out that both the Democratic and Republican parties were more ideologically diverse until the 1960s, and that acted as a moderating influence on pol arization. But when the Democratic Party embraced Civil Rights, it alienated Southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats who had been part of the party since Reconstruction. “Still, at the moment of rupture, the parties remained blurred. It is remarkable, from our current vantage point where everything cuts red from blue, to see a debate that polarizes the country without splitting the parties. But that was the case with the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Klein writes. The Democrats held majorities in both houses and the presidency, but 80 percent of House Republicans supported the bill while only 60 percent of House Democrats did. In the Senate, rather than go through the normal committee process, where powerful Southern Democrats would have killed it, President Lyndon Johnson worked out the legislation with then Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican. Southern Democrats filibustered the bill, but Dirksen corralled 27 of the 33 Republicans to break the filibuster. The bill could never have passed without Republican support, but Democrats get the credit, in part because Barry Goldwater, who became their 1964 presidential nominee, voted against it and proceeded to run on a state’s rights platform. The Democrats, who needed the Southerners to pass the New Deal and other national legislation, had accommodated their opposition to anti-lynching and other civil rights legislation. But the Civil Rights Act changed that. In 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party. North Carolina’s Jesse Helms followed in 1970. Klein writes that Bill Moyers, who served as a special assistant to Johnson, recalls Johnson saying, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” the night he signed the Civil Rights Act. The realignment resulted in parties where there are no longer Republicans who are more liberal than some Democrats or Democrats who are more conservative than some Republicans. Because that ideological diversity within parties no longer exists, party identification becomes stronger. Our political identities are polarizing our other identities and becoming mega-identities, Klein says. He quotes Lilliana Mason who, in her book “Uncivil Agreement,” wrote: “The American political parties are growing socially polarized. Religion and race, as well as class, geography, and culture are dividing the parties in such a way that the effect of party identity is magnified… A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store… Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies.” Klein uses the title of Will Blythe’s 2006 book “To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever” about the rivalry between Duke and the University of North Carolina basketball teams to illustrate the power of the emotional rivalry between groups. “Human beings evolved to exist in groups,” Klein writes. “To be part of a group, and to see that group thrive, meant survival. To be exiled from a group, o r to see your group crushed by its enemies, could mean death…” As Sen. Burr and other Republicans have learned, breaking with the group by undermining its message brings your loyalty into question and carries the risk of ostracism. What’s most distressing about this is that the very thing about American life that should be one of our greatest strengths is becoming one of our greatest threats. We are not participating in politics to solve problems but to express who we are. And in expressing the mega-identities we’ve come to inhabit – conservative, gun rights, pr o-life Republicans vs. liberal, gun-control, pro-choice Democrats – we’ve forgotten the man y things we have in common and the ways in which we are part of overlapping groups – teachers, parents, volunteers, firefighters, musicians, football fans, neighbors, siblings. Most importantly, we’ve forgotten our most important mega-identity. We are all Americans. If we could but overcome the threat we feel from our fellow citizens – in many cases our own friends and families – we might recognize the strength to be found in the differences we all bring to the table and learn to use that rich resource to solve problems. Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Misinformation can literally kill you

    Bob Smith kicks puppies. There, you heard it once. Believe it? No? How about if you heard it 20 times? OK, you tell yourself, that’s 20 times from one source. You ask yourself if the source is trustworthy. Then it’s repeated from 20 other sources, say via a retweet or Facebook share. Maybe a couple of news outlets pick it up and repeat it, using the lazy but legally defensible practice of “we don’t necessarily believe Bob’s a puppy-kicked, we’re just sharing what was said.” Suddenly you’re seeing it all over the place; it’s only natural to think maybe there’s something to it. It burrows into your head that this Bob Smith fellow is a practiced and enthusiastic puppy-kicker and thus an irredeemably horrible human being. And you probably have questions. Why would he do such a thing? Why doesn’t anybody stop him? Who’s Bob Smith? He’s a fiction, an example, of how disinformation spreads. There are plenty more examples, sadly, in real life. How’d we get here? Part of the problem is that, once upon a time, major news outlets served as gatekeepers, filtering out nonsense stories before they reached readers. With the end of the Fairness Doctrine, rise of cable news and then the flood of social media, that gat e has been breached. Part of the problem can be found by looking in the mirror. It’s said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on. (Ironically, that quote is often misattributed to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, but in fact was apparently around well before either were born). Research published in Science magazine back in 2018 bore this out by looking at rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. It found false news reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth lagged behind, being diffused to around 1,000 people. It is convenient to think robots repeating false information are to blame, but the writers found “contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.” Thing is, it doesn’t take much source material to spread falsehoods. The top falsehood in quite some time is “The Big Lie,’’ repeated almost daily or hourly by former President Donald Trump, claiming the 2020 election was rigged and stolen (even before it h appened). After Trump’s Twitter account, and some accounts of key allies, were suspended, online misinformation dropped by a whopping 73% in a week, according to the research firm Zignal Labs. But the misinformation mill is quite robust, and new claims sprout daily, particularly regarding the election. One meme that has taken hold is that the there was evidence of fraud, but 60-some judges refused to hear it. In fact, the cases usually dealt with sta nding or harm; to keep with the puppy analogy, Trump was filing suit because someone kicked his puppy. The judges, in essence, said “you don’t own a puppy, hit the road.’’ Still, editors and political scientists across North Carolina are doubtlessly having to grapple with the “refused to be heard’’ argument. It’s a classic piece if misinformation, containing a kernel of truth wrapped in layers of falsehoods. Misinformation is a more critical issue than ever before. After all, we’re in a raging pandemic. Misinformation can literally kill you. That fact is more trouble in a time when powerful tech companies have no w, reluctantly, been forced into the role of gatekeeper. The far preferable option is that we choose to be better consumers of information. Regarding COVID-19, that information can be confusing and hard to find. That’s understandable, as it’s an entirely new dragon we’re trying to slay, and while we’ve learned a lot, there are still an awful lot of questions. Regarding politics, not so much. A grain of salt is the order of the day when you hear Bob Smith kicks puppies, one time or 200. As Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey, a former homicide detective, put it after state officials were swamped with death threats regarding the “stolen’’ election there, put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bill Torpy: “People ask the difference between working homicides and elections. “In homicide, you occasionally come across remorse.”

  • Need a new diet? This one’s a SNAP

    Protracted effects of the pandemic are laying waste to larders in households reeling from job loss and eviction threats and, possibly, illness. State lawmakers should plow more money into providing food through federal block grants known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF.) Here’s another idea: Go on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) diet. Feed the family on $396 per month, the average 2019 monthly benefit for N.C. households with children. Some 29 million of all adults in the U.S., 14 percent; 18 percent in households with children, reported that households lacked sufficient food in the past seve n days, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. (Real-time data were collected December 9–21, 2020.) In North Carolina, food insecurity gnawed at 13.9 percent of adults, well above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.4 percent over the 12 months of 2019. Eighty-fo ur percent of respondents blamed money, not worries about safety or lack of transportation. Black, Latino, and Indigenous adults were twice as likely to report food worries, 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, compared to 10 percent of White adults,. Hunger costs individuals and society. Providing resources in utero and early childhood influences health and economic outcomes later in life. Inadequate nutrition puts people at higher risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, and hepatitis. These problems increase the risk of mortality from COVID-19. And, food-insecure adults are 50 percent more likely to show up in the ER; if admit ted they stay in the hospital longer. Our best hunger stabilizing policy, our only universal welfare program, is SNAP. Benefits far exceed costs: https://www.cbpp.org/research/snap-is-effective-and-efficient finds that every spent SNAP dollar feeds $1.70 into the economy. N.C. SNAP participant numbers grew by 20 percent between February (pre-pandemic) and July/August 2020. Thirty-five percent are working families, typically earning low wages in restaurants and stores. This amounts to we-the-taxpayers subsidizing private, often highly profitable, firms that pay lower-than-living wages that include no benefits. Right now, SNAP isn’t enough. Food banks are running out of food. Feeding America estimates a shortage of 6 billion to 8 billion meals over the coming year. Time to re-think TANF’s allocations to basic assistance. North Carolina in 2019 spent $564 million federal and state TANF dollars; six percent went to provide cash assistance. (Most states spent about 20 percent of TANF funds on basic assistance for families with children; funds sometimes went to unrelated budget areas.) Funds als o can support work-related services, including child care, administration, child welfare, and pre-K. When people are forced to skip medications, rent, mortgage, car, or other payments in order to buy food, more people will need Medicaid. More people will lan d in hospitals. Poorly-nourished children suffer later in life. Hunger hit me especially hard one day when a man showed up o n my doorstep and asked for a loaf of bread. “Anything,” he said. My mom grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina and ate oatmeal three times a day during the Great Depression, she told me, after I asked why we never ate Quaker Oats. She’d puked oatmeal too many times. That week, I put my family on the ‘poverty diet’ and wrote about the experience, donating my https://m.styleweekly.com/richmond/sharing-the-pain/Content?oid=1373441 honorarium to the food bank. My children called it the starvation diet. For us it was temporary. Hunger terrifies me, not only because of its effects, but because if we can’t fix this, who are we-the-people? Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. She writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com