Full steam ahead

03Grad’Tis the season.

Not the season of Santa Claus but of something far better for many of us — graduation from high school, college and beyond. These are occasions of pride in accomplishments, high expectations for the future and both individual and family celebrations. They bring moments of relief at what has passed, and hopes for the future, with nagging touches of anxiety thrown in as well. They are gifts to ourselves for the rest of our lives. In short, graduations are both rites of passage and life markers.

More than ever, nontraditional students are walking in caps and gowns in graduation processions. They are generally older people who, for whatever reasons, did not complete their educations, and people returning to school for additional degrees and certifications. For the most part, though, graduates are young people just dipping their toes in the real world of careers and adult relationships. Their lives are ahead of them, and it is traditional that graduations come with advice from family, teachers and commencement speakers who have labored hard to come up with original thoughts.

My graduations are long behind me, but I do remember some of the advice I received that has served me well over the decades — both in work and in personal life.

Education is the key to self-sufficiency. If you are lucky, you will find a partner with whom to pool your earthly resources, but make sure you can support yourself. There is nothing in life like your own paycheck.

Get to know yourself, trust yourself and enjoy your own company. Even with a large family and a wide circle of friends, the truth is that no one — not your parents, your siblings, your partner or your friends — will take every step of life with you. You will be happier and more successful if you appreciate yourself and your abilities.

You may wind up not working in the fields you studied in school, but your education will enrich your life in other ways. It has almost certainly sparked your curiosity about the world and taught you how to find out what you want to know about it, which will be a blessing all your life.

Outstanding commencement speakers are much in demand, of course, and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court is a rarified office indeed. Our nation has had 45 presidents, including the current White House occupant, who with one exception were eligible for one or two terms. Our chief justice, on the other hand, is appointed for life or until he or she resigns, and only 17 men have served in that capacity. John Roberts, our current chief, is 13 years into his tenure, and unlike our president, he is a deliberate man who chooses his words carefully and delivers them calmly.

Roberts has surely made more than a few commencement addresses, and The Atlantic recently reported on one of them. Two years ago, Roberts addressed his son’s ninth-grade class of all boys at a private school in New Hampshire. The chief skipped the traditional “congratulations and good luck” route and gave the boys his thoughts about how to behave as an American, particularly an American of privilege and as a citizen of the world.

Said Roberts, “I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.” And, this. “I hope you’ll be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others.” He continued. “Understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”

And, finally, Roberts acknowledged the privilege of the boys, including his own son, and told them they were good boys and left them with this. “You are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged before you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here. My advice is, don’t act like it.”

Godspeed to all graduating this season, and I wish you a speaker as wise as our chief justice.

New downtown parking fees lack thoughtful planning

02DowntownThis week our publisher, Bill Bowman, yields his space to Dr. Hank Parfitt to address the city’s new $10 parking fees that affect downtown during home baseball games at Segra Stadium.

As a downtown resident, property owner, business owner and longtime activist for downtown revitalization, I am excited about the new baseball team and stadium and the Prince Charles development. I applaud our city council for having the vision and for working determinedly with each other to support these projects. I have enjoyed watching the Woodpeckers. It is a good brand of baseball, and it is a delight to see young families having a fun night at the ballpark.

However, the new parking fees are driving away business. Most of us accept the fact that paid parking in some form will be a necessity downtown. A parking study conducted for the city by Walker Consultants in 2018 recognizes the complexity of the problem and suggests a comprehensive array of measures requiring money, time and coordination with downtown stakeholders. Unfortunately, the city jumped to a single solution and slapped a $10 fee on the city lots before the first pitch was thrown in Segra Stadium.

Well, guess what? Baseball fans are not stupid, and they quickly figured out how to avoid the paid lots. Did anyone seriously think it would be otherwise?

On a recent baseball night at game time, I drove around and did a car count. The fans had already taken every free parking space except for the county courthouse lot, which is not within reasonable walking distance of the stadium or most businesses. The majority of the paid lots were nearly empty. And baseball fans had it finely calculated as to which lots were worth paying for. All the parking in the huge Med Arts lot was $10, but the spaces on the Russell Street side farthest away from the stadium were empty, while the Hay Street side close to the stadium entrance was full.

The downtown sidewalks, I might add, were basically deserted because our regular customers stayed away.

The $10 fee is clearly not working for businesses — nor is it working for the city. Empty paid lots don’t make much money for city coffers, yet the city has to pay more to McLaurin Parking Company, which manages the paid city lots, for the added staff. And it isn’t working for the Woodpeckers. The key to sustained attendance is for fans to see a bustling downtown when they come to a game and for every member of the family — not just the diehard baseball fans — to have a complete, enjoyable evening that might include dinner and a little shopping as well as baseball. That was the whole idea of putting the stadium downtown in the first place.

City staff doesn’t seem to realize there is a problem. In Tuesday’s Fayetteville Observercity traffic engineer Lee Jernigan said there is plenty of free parking downtown. Of course there is — all taken by the baseball fans. The city manager’s solution is to give employees a break and charge them only $5 to give them “some real options … in the interim until we can come back with a larger and more comprehensive parking management program late in 2019 or 2020.” OK, but why didn’t they just hold off on the $10 fee until they could “come back” with that plan?

Staff is apparently tone-deaf to the consequences of the $10 fees, so I ask the elected representatives of our city to consider rescinding them for a year. That way, all types of paid parking can be considered as part of an overall strategy that is implemented over the next year with thoughtfulness and deliberation and input from all stakeholders. At the very least, open up all the underutilized paid lots now and set some aside for customers and some for employees.

State must face reality on roads

05roadsAt a recent North Carolina Department of Transportation committee meeting, my John Locke Foundation colleague Joe Coletti offered this blunt assessment to state policymakers: our system of road financing isn’t sustainable.

“There simply isn’t enough money to do it all,” Coletti told the committee. He observed that the amount of gas taxes collected per mile traveled is lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was a generation ago. Our cars get more miles to the gallon, for one thing, so a per-gallon tax can’t keep up. And a growing, albeit still small, share of our cars are electric or hybrid vehicles for which the gas tax is obviously inadequate as a means of charging drivers to use government roads.

There’s really no doubt that we will have to move eventually to a system that charges drivers according to mileage and vehicle weight. Such a system should also vary the price according to time and congestion, just as utilities charge more for electricity during peak hours.

Getting from here to there will be tricky, however. Tolling new roads or lanes can be unpopular, at least at first, as policymakers in North Carolina and elsewhere have discovered. For the entire road-andstreet system as a whole, a GPS-based mileage charge could get the job done. But it would invite even more public scrutiny.

Of course, no system for funding transportation is free from major challenges. Raising gas and car taxes angers the public, as well. Dipping into general revenues, from sources such as sales and property taxes, may be more salable politically but has the obvious defect of severing the relationship between the cost individuals impose on the road system and the price they pay to use it. It is inequitable and inefficient.

Coletti’s point is not simply that we have a mismatch between tools and tasks. More broadly, we have a mismatch between means and ends. Because North Carolina and other states rely so much on transfers from the federal government, for example, and those federal dollars come with lots of strings, we end up using scarce dollars to build new roads rather than maintaining our existing ones, even though the latter ought to be the higher priority.

And the truth is that while transportation investment can be productive, it isn’t infinitely valuable. No matter how we pay for new roads, some of the ones currently on North Carolina’s wish list are unlikely ever to be built — and we should be okay with that. The extent to which their long-term benefits, expressed as greater mobility or safety or economic development, will exceed their long-term cost is unclear.

Just as most other valuable things do, roads have diminishing marginal utility. When North Carolina built its first true statewide road network in the early decades of the 20th century, the payoff was gigantic. During successive waves of road-building — during the interstate boom, for example, and the belt-andconnector program enacted during the administration of Gov. Jim Martin — the benefits also exceeded the costs, although not by as much.

There are still valuable roads and lanes to build, to be sure, and I’m happy to report that state policymakers have done their part to move such projects forward. North Carolina is spending hundreds of millions more a year on road construction and maintenance than we used to because state legislators and governors of both parties cooperated to reduce dramatically the transfer of gas and car taxes to nonhighway purposes.

But no reform of our financing system, no matter how carefully designed and skillfully marketed, can generate enough revenue to fund all desired roads at a cost that won’t provoke intense opposition from taxpayers. As Coletti put it, “because there is never enough money to do everything that everyone thinks should be done, the state needs to identify the core needs for transportation funding.”

Thus, policymakers must set firm priorities and stick to them. In many cases, the right answer will consist not of “how to” but, simply, “no.”

The Scotts — too much for one column

13Kerr ScottThe Scott family. Too much for one book. Too much for one column.

Five years ago, in “The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott: The Squire from Haw River,” Julian Pleasants chronicled the exceptional life of the only governor of North Carolina who proudly called himself a liberal. Kerr Scott was North Carolina governor from 1949-1953 and U.S. senator from 1955 until his death in 1958. He broke the hold of a conservative Democratic Party establishment and opened the door for the progressive administrations of future governors Terry Sanford, Robert Scott and Jim Hunt.

Missing from Pleasants’ excellent book was the story of the entire Scott family and its role in North Carolina political life. Former Raleigh News & Observer political reporter and columnist Rob Christensen takes up that task in “The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys.” He follows the Alamance County farm family beginning with Kerr Scott’s grandfather, Henderson Scott, 1814-1870, a slave-holding farmer. After the Civil War, he became active in the Ku Klux Klan and was briefly jailed as a result.

Henderson’s son, Robert, 1861-1929, continued the family farming tradition. He spent almost a year in New York state to study modern farming methods. Then, after transforming his own farming operations, he shared his expertise throughout the state, earning the nickname “Farmer Bob.” Active in politics, he served in the state house and senate and unsuccessfully ran for commissioner of agriculture.

Robert had 13 children, including two important political figures: Kerr, 1896-1958, and future powerful state legislator Ralph, 1903-1989. 

Christensen does a good job of reviewing and supplementing Kerr’s political career as covered in Pleasants’ more detailed account. He describes how Kerr defeated the favored gubernatorial candidate of the conservative wing of the party in 1948. When in office, he adopted a liberal program of road building, public school improvement and the expansion of government services. Hard-working and hardheaded, direct and plain-spoken, he appointed women and African Americans to government positions and disregarded criticism of his actions. Then, when elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954 as a liberal in a campaign managed by future Gov. Terry Sanford, he nevertheless joined with fellow Southerners to oppose civil rights legislation.

Christensen’s greater contribution to the Scott family saga is his account of the political career of Kerr’s son, Bob Scott, 1929-2009. Young Bob grew up on Kerr’s dairy farm and, like his father, became active in farmers’ organizations, working in political campaigns, including Terry Sanford’s 1960 successful race for governor. By 1964, at age 35, Bob was ready to mount a statewide campaign for lieutenant governor. But two senior Democrats, state Sen. John Jordan and House Speaker Clifton Blue, were already running. Christensen writes, “In some ways Scott had broken into the line.”

Nevertheless, with the help of powerful county political machines, Bob won a squeaker victory in a primary runoff over Blue. Bob used his new office to run for the next one, giving hundreds of speeches each year and eating meals of “razor thin roast beef, seventeen green beans, a wad of mashed potatoes and apple pie the density of lead.”

Meanwhile, Christensen notes, “The growing white backlash against racial integration gave Scott reason for caution.” He won the 1968 Democratic nomination over conservative Democrat and later Republican Mel Broughton and African American dentist Reginald Hawkins.

The results of the presidential contest in North Carolina marked what Christensen calls “the breakup of the Democratic Party.” Richard Nixon won; George Wallace was second, and Hubert Humphrey was third.

Nevertheless, in the governor’s race, Bob faced and beat Republican Jim Gardner. 

The mountains of bitter controversies in the areas of race, labor, student unrest and higher education administration he confronted are too much for this column to cover.

We will continue in a later column.

Photo: Kerr Scott

Enjoy a box of awesome

04BoxWho would not want a box of awesome? I know I do. I discovered the world’s greatest company name one afternoon while on walkabout through the wilds of Haymount. There is a company advertising on the internet named Box of Awesome. The name says it all. Buy our product and you will get a box of awesome stuff. The advertising genius who came up with this company name should win Advertising Age’s Grand Prize for 2019. I salute you, sir or madam. You have my undying admiration.

How did I discover this amazing company, you ask? To keep myself motivated while walking through the late afternoons of life, I listen to news channels, Howard Stern or the History of Byzantium podcast. The company Box of Awesome frequently advertises on the internet. The concept is brilliant in its effectiveness and simplicity. You sign up to pay $45 a month. You take a short, very simplified online version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test, which determines what sort of awesome stuff suits your personality. Box of Awesome then sends you a box full of different awesome stuff each month.

The Box of Awesome analytics formula does its magic by using your personal information you provided. Presto, the computer figures out what sort of stuff you would like to receive and then sends it to you.

It takes the worry and thought out of deciding what you want in life. Let the machine’s siliconbased analytics decide for you. In our brave new world, you don’t need free will. Determinism can be outsourced to the cloud. The computer knows better than you do what you want.

Box of Awesome digitizes impulse buying so you don’t have to think at all. The part of the brain that you used to use to make an impulse buy from the rows of candy in the checkout line at the grocery store can now safely wither away like the muscles you used to use to exercise. You do get a few days’ notice of the contents of the box. You can say no if you decide you don’t want what the computer says you want. But who is going to say no to the computer? It’s like the old Record of the Month club. You could notify RCA you didn’t want the next record, but no one ever got around to saying no before the new Burl Ives record hit your front door.

The concept reminded me of “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” a movie in which the Griswalds compete in the Pig in a Poke TV quiz show. What is more fun than getting a surprise prize? Two families compete with each other dressed up in pink pig costumes. The theme song of the show has the immortal lines: “Pig in a poke. It pays to be a glutton. Oink, Oink!/You could win all or nothing, Pig in a Poke.”

The families don’t know what fabulous prize they are playing for. Could it be a year’s supply of Johnson Turtle Wax? A Kelvinator home freezer? No one knows until the end of the show. Fortunately, the Griswalds are not playing against “Jeopardy’s” newest phenomenon, James Holzhauer, who would have squashed them into the dust like an angry elephant tap dancing on a rhino poacher. For reasons too bizarre to go into today, the Griswalds win Pig in a Poke and get a free trip to Europe.

The Box of Awesome concept also borrows from the late, great Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal” TV show. With Monty, you could trade what you had in the box for Door Number Three or vice versa. You didn’t know what was behind Door Number Three. It could be a brandnew 1968 Chevy Nova. Or it could be a set of lawn furniture.

The lure of the unknown is a great motivator and inhibitor of common sense. With a Box of Awesome, you do get to see what is in the box before it arrives, but who in their right mind is going to say no to a box of awesome stuff?

The same principle applies to the upcoming 2020 presidential election. We know what we have in Dear Glorious Very Stable Genius Leader. We don’t know what Dear Leader will do next. What kookie thing will he do to entertain us? Vote for him and find out. It’s fun to be entertained and not have to think. The Roman Emperors did pretty well for centuries keeping themselves in power by entertaining the masses with bread and circuses.

From the Democrats’ side of the ledger, we have more than 20 candidates who each are promising a Box of Awesome to the voters. Free college? Check. Green bill of rights? Check. Fresh face? Check. Ability to lose close elections? Check. Oldest president to ever be sworn into office? Check. Abolish the Electoral College? Check. It’s Pig in a Poke once again, with both sides promising the voters a Box of Awesome.

So, what have we learned today? Thinking for yourself is such an uncool, antiquated, 20th-century concept. Let the computer’s analytics decide what you want. Big Brother knows what is best for you. As our old buddy George Orwell pointed out in “1984,” when Winston says: “But it was all right. Everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” You, too, can love Big Brother.

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