Friday, March 28, 2008

Column for March 27, 2008

Santa, and Bunnies, and Fairies! Oh My!

One of the great joys of my life lately has been that I have become the "big brother/adult male role model" type for a five year old. I have been blessed to have been doing this since just before Christmas. So far, I have experienced Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter with this tot's family. His grandmother and mother have been very happy to have a man in this little guy's life. His own father abandoned him and his mother a couple of years ago. This family has worked hard to instill values into this little guy. He has been getting a lot of reinforcement from me for over three months, and I hope I have the opportunity to continue in this role for some time to come. He and I have been spending a lot of time playing, teaching, and traveling together.

One thing I am not willing to do is to cross the boundary of teaching something different from what his family teaches him. There will come a day when some things will need to be explained to him with which I may perhaps be able to help. Like I said, I have spent Christmas and Easter already with this tyke. Therefore, I have seen the whole Santa Claus and Easter Bunny thing just recently. Since I have not had children myself as yet, I have not had the ability to exercise the decision to teach about these characters or not in my own family. Since the family to which I refer believes in allowing a child to have these fantasies, I am not about to contradict this practice, since it is not my place, but I do have my personal beliefs about these things.

My parents perpetuated the myths of the Tooth Fairy (with a five year old, we have not yet had to contend with that one), Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. I believe that I shall not perpetuate it to the next generation of LaPlantes, should there ever be direct descendants from my branch of the family tree. Personally, I do not want to tell a child about omniscient, omnipresent, mythical beings which I later have to explain do not exist. I have a hard time with the idea that I will have to instill my values into a child, and tell him or her about an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, supreme being and creator who actually does exist after ascribing some of those attributes to a myth. That is my personal conviction, however, and I put it out there for others to consider, without condemnation whatever your choice or belief shall be.

Some day in the distant future, someone will have to explain to this tyke that he will have to pay income taxes to a corrupt governmental system that is far from its original intent and according to laws that do not require him to do so. Someone will have to explain that Social Security will most likely not be available to him when he wants to retire. Someone will have to explain to him that a national debt (now over ten trillion dollars) will be upon his back and the backs of others his age. Someone will have to explain why the best candidates for office do not always get elected. Someone will have to explain to him that there are those who do not have the same values as he has been taught.

His mother and grandmother have worked hard to instill into him the idea of work and reward, even at this young age. There are those who do not believe in that principle. He is going to be angered as I was just last week when I was in the check out line at Wal-Mart. Ahead of me was a woman checking out, paying with WIC (Women, Infants, and Children government hand out) vouchers. Here she was dressed in a work suit. She had a cell phone with a wireless headset, and had just purchased one of the best toasters and best quality cookware in the store. They were already in her basket, paid for. Then she bought the most expensive juices and baby formula in the store with WIC vouchers. This little guy will eventually see that there are those purposely milking this country dry at his expense. Personally, I would like to take an inventory of luxury items such as televisions, cell phones, video game systems, and high end automobiles owned by those who receive government assistance.

I hope to be able to explain these and many other things about growing up to be a man to this tot. Certainly, a five year old can not be taught about economics, welfare, or the unfairness and complexities of life. As much joy as I get from having befriended this tot and his family, I am almost depressed about what his generation faces. There are some hard truths ahead which are perhaps harder to swallow than the fallacy of the Tooth Fairy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Column for March 20, 2008

If done right, and responsibly, the streetscape plan would be nice

I watched with interest the short presentation on the proposed streetscape plan for Selma at the last Town Council meeting. This is not a new plan. Basically a three year old plan has been recycled for consideration. For those familiar with the project, Smithfield just underwent a similar streetscape project. To their credit, Smithfield's downtown district does look a lot better than it used to.

Personally, I like planned neighborhoods with business districts nearby that have nicely planned streets. I also like things places such as South Pointe Mall in Durham and the new North Hills in Raleigh. They are very attractive. Those looks, of course, come with a price. For Selma, the proposed plan would be about $1.5 million. Personally, I do like the idea as well as the price tag and believe it to be worth the price. I find it to be a good investment in the town on several levels. I have sat down and pondered the pros and cons of having such a project in Selma. I have contacted people involved in the Smithfield project so that I can have more input for my thought process. Here are my concerns, including both pros and cons.

For the pro side, there would be an obvious benefit as to the aesthetics of "uptown" (just because you call something "uptown" as opposed to "downtown" does not change its character. A rose by any other name...yadda, yadda). The sidewalks would look better, the streets and crosswalks would look better, and the traffic lights hanging on a wire would be replaced by a better system. There would be more town pride, and we may realize more visitors to downtown in the long term. I spoke with one of the coordinators for the Smithfield project, and he said that as yet, there are not quantifiable increases in the business volume in their downtown as a direct result of the project. Is it still a worthy idea? I believe so, provided that we do it properly.

The last major streetscape project in Selma, as I understand it, was 50 or so years ago. Sidewalks were laid and oak trees planted along the streets. Since I live on the west side of Selma, I can mainly speak for what I see on my side of town, since that is where I walk, drive, and spend time the most. The sidewalks are torn up, uneven, and trees diseased and unkempt. Roots have grown up, trees grown into the path of travel both on the roadways and sidewalks, and even block the views of traffic getting onto the main roads from driveways and side streets. Basically, the nice idea was executed but left to languish in the mire of malaise and neglect.

The current project will have beautiful sidewalks. I live just two blocks from edge of the proposed work. I can not walk my dog around the block without tripping over uneven and broken sidewalks. Some areas of town have no sidewalks at all. In that regard, the town should be more concerned about liability of sidewalk surfaces than it was over the liability of an old water tower a year and a half ago. I would hate to see the trees and sidewalks of the new project fall into the same state of neglect and disrepair as the last major overhaul. If we as a town are going to commit to such a project, we need to obligate ourselves to long term maintenance and planning.

Another thing that bothers me about the project is the proposed method of funding. I have written previously about my disdain for using federal government loans, especially the USDA program, for financing. Sure, the loans are low interest and available. The same USDA project has also helped fund almost putting Howell Theater out of business by funding the construction for the Dickinson Theater near Factory Stores. Yup, your tax money helped about kill a local business. Never mind the fact that nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government given the power to lend money to towns. What do a movie theater and town sidewalks have to do with agriculture or the USDA, anyway? We as tax payers pay for the original funding to the end up in Washington, DC. Then, we as taxpayers fork out to pay the loan back at the local level. Every time you buy a movie ticket at the 10 screen theater, you are helping pay yourselves back as taxpayers.

I am not keen on obligating the town and our future generations for the next 40 years to pay for something that only costs $1.5 million. If we plan things correctly, we should be able to fund a lot of that ourselves. I don't care if we have to be creative and offer the opportunity for people to donate money to supply the bricks for the sidewalks or buy the trees. I will gladly pay for some bricks my own self. This is, after all, my town. I am sure that people can, for the right price, purchase vanity bricks with the names of donors in them for all to see and walk upon. People could purchase memorial stones (such as the stars on the sidewalks of Hollywood) of prominent Selma citizens past and present. For that matter, I don't care if the new traffic light poles look like giant Coca Cola bottles or Butterfinger candy bars, as long as they are not purchased with taxpayer money. OK, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.

It was suggested that a special local tax be levied to fund the project, but I am certainly not fond of increased taxation, and I am not sure that such a tax would help in Selma, considering the difference between our town's business district and that of Smithfield, where the tax did help fund their project. If I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would perhaps choose the USDA funding that I so abhor.

Either way, if we are to have a streetscape project, we truly need to get creative with financing, we need to have long term commitment to maintenance of the project once complete, and perhaps we need to look at taking care of the last major project and fixing its issues for the sake of aesthetics and liability before tackling a new one. To me, the last part makes sense and I feel it would perhaps be a wiser use of tax money. It would also contribute to making Selma "A Charming Place to Be". Sure, a new streetscape project would certainly do that, and I support the idea of a new project. However, I also hate to do so at the expense of previously abrogated responsibilities.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Column for March 13, 2008

Why not just call it what it is?

Just the night before writing this column, I had an excellent dream. I dreamt that the head of a governmental agency at a local county decided to charge a fee for a service on top of its customary, nominal charge. That move caused a lot of anger and protests amongst the public, since people understood that the additional fee for service was just another way of passing a tax increase without having a formal increase voted on and passed by the elected officials for that county. Now that was actually a pleasant dream to me. The idea of recognizing that the fees associated with government services for which we already pay with our tax dollars are just another form of taxation was an epiphany to many people in my dream. The idea of so many people having such a revelation, however, would be just a dream, I fear.

Calling something by another name does not negate the impact or reality of the thing. For instance, I looked at my fuel bill recently. There was a fuel surcharge for delivering propane. It does not take over $3 worth of diesel fuel to deliver a few gallons of propane along a route. However, bury that charge as a line item surcharge rather than jacking up the rate per gallon, and the cost may be hidden in the lines on the bill that show taxes charged. Just call it what it is, a rate hike.

I remember getting into a rather tense discussion with a pastor and his staff at a Triangle area church which I used to attend many years ago. As a matter of fact, I used to be on part time staff there. I was paid a paltry $300 per month for my work there. I do not say paltry in that I was disappointed in the rate of pay. Rather I say that I had asked to work free, as my labor of love to serve my God. The pastor insisted on paying for my labors, and I acquiesced. During this time of employment, I got to see the monthly budget for the church. Both the pastor and his wife were employed at this fairly large congregation which taught along the lines of many televangelists you may have seen over the years. There were numerous checks written to the two of them each month.

Whether the check was for a housing allowance, a car allowance, an insurance allowance, salary, etc., the bottom line is that all checks were to them and went into their checking account. To me, that is income, regardless of how the IRS categorizes it. If it is money coming in, it is income. On my job, I get one check and out of it I have to pay my housing, my insurance, my transportation expenses, etc. Ergo, each check to them, in my humble yet most accurate opinion, is in fact income. Call it what it is. It is money coming in, therefore, income. That pastor and his wife were taking home (not before taxes, mind you) in excess of $100,000 per year. I do not begrudge anyone earning that amount at all. I do, however, have a problem with not admitting that it is what it is, income.

During that same time frame, the church congregation gave thousands of dollars in cash to the pastor and his wife as love gifts for pastoral appreciation celebrations. The congregation gave money for birthday, anniversary, and Christmas gifts each and every year. Some gifts were very expensive. Here I was in one of the lowest income years of my life after a lay-off and the church elders were pushing for more and more monetary gifts to send the pastor and his wife on an all expense paid vacation. Three times, the church leaders twisted the arms of the parishioners for more money to send the couple on a vacation, while they were already earning plenty of money with which to pay for their own trip. Many congregation members were shamed into giving when they could not afford to pay their utility bills or feed their own families. By contrast, I said that I was in a money crunch and I called it like I saw it. The couple was making six figures a year and they can afford their own doggone vacation, thank you. This of course, went over like the proverbial turd in a punch bowl, and my employment was short lived from that point forward.

I learned a lot from that incident. People who wish to squeeze money out of you are willing to change the name of what it is that they are doing and resent someone calling it what it really is. Whether it is a charlatan trying to pry money from your wallet, a utility company wanting to find a way to get more cash each billing cycle, or a power and money hungry bureaucracy, people will lie, obfuscate, and play semantics to get what they want. They resist heavily those who wish to speak the truth.

My encouragement is that all would be blunt and bold enough to call it like it is. Call a tax a tax. Call a lie a lie. When facing the upcoming elections, see past the rhetoric of "change". Call taxation, socialism, and amnesty plans exactly what they are. When dealing with businesses, governmental agencies, and organizations, call their actions as they truly are and do not allow semantics to dissuade you from the truth.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Column for March 6, 2008

So, the free market system actually works? Ya' think??

Just as expected, the free market system is thriving and beating out old, ineffective governmental regulation and subsidy. I read with interest the article in last week's paper about the increase in tobacco business for local farmers because the quota system has been abolished. Tobacco acreage in the county has increased 46%, according to the article. The headline said, "Quota gone means local farmers grow more tobacco". Upon reading that obvious line, I said, "Nooooo...ya' think???" It is not the writer I was questioning, but the obviousness of the outcome so stated.

There are a few things for which government regulation is appropriate and necessary. Primarily, these areas deal with business ethics. Make no mistake, the mantra "You can't legislate morality" is totally false. The same people who use this phrase or battle cry the most are the very ones who wish the government to regulate morality most. Quite often it is to protect their own aberrations, but the same government that protects the individual freedom is sometimes the one that protects from incursion. A great example are the Enron and WorldCom scandals. About the only protection that citizens have is government regulation in such cases.

The absence of regulation, however, has great effect when it comes to innovation. A great example is that the local cable company offers an alternative to the monopoly telephone company for home phone service. The service via cable is reliable, good quality, competitively priced, and a great value, considering the calling features and unlimited long distance plan that comes with the service. Had this been an even more heavily regulated concept, there may not be an alternative to the technology of the turn of the 20th Century.

The same free enterprise spirit allowed by governmental regulation is conversely hurting that same industry. All television signals must convert to a digital format rather than broadcast analog by the end of February 2009. That is less than a year away. A lot of telecom, cable, and broadcast companies will end up charging more money to accommodate the government regulations being imposed for a change to newer technology. The industry had thus far been driven by consumer demand and cost effectiveness. Now, millions of television viewers will be left without broadcast television because of a government regulation that in effect has made the televisions in millions of homes obsolete. Sure, television is a luxury, not a necessity. However, government power has been exercised to the chagrin and cost of many.

Had tobacco growers been allowed to simply grow all the tobacco they wanted and sell to whomever they wanted in years past, there would have been no reason for a quota system, much less a quota buy out. We as tax payers forked out millions of dollars to buy out the quota system only to see the tobacco business grow after the government control was scrapped, thus benefiting the farmers twice. The same should be done for all other crops in this nation. The free market system must be allowed to determine how much corn, soy, turnips, whatever, are grown, not government regulation and interference. We should never pay farmers to not grow crops or incentivize the growing of other produce.

It is precisely government regulation that has gotten us the boondoggle of ethanol use and implementation in this country and thus the created market and demand. Few people would voluntarily use ethanol as a fuel, considering the cost, the miles per gallon, and the scarcity of the product. A few pinheads thought that benefits would fit some Utopian plan and therefore we should all pay the price for the vision of a few charlatans. This is not to mention the idea that corn producers would benefit greatly and lobbied for the governmental interference. Without such interference, corn farmers would be forced to compete on the world market for their produce and/or change their crops. However, forcing the sword of government regulation is easier than actually competing and working harder at the expense of all others.

If people can not compete in a given field of endeavor, then they need to either change professions or learn to compete rather than get the government involved. Those who can compete should be unshackled in order to be able to partake of the free market system. That is, after all, what made us the most powerful nation on the face of the planet, most likely in all of history. We are actually committing national suicide slowly but surely in many ways.