Alphabetical rankings: The United States’ national shame

US ranking

As if Americans – beset by murder, mayhem and political strife – haven’t had enough bad news lately, there’s this staggering bit of misfortune:

Of 196 countries in existence today, the United States ranks 182nd in the world alphabetically.

This, despite the fact that the US has an abundance of natural resources, top-notch health care, one of the highest literacy rates in the world and is one of the longest-existing modern democracies.

Now, we Americans could stand around and play the blame game, but the simple fact is we should all be embarrassed. Ponder this: There are but 13 countries the US ranks ahead alphabetically, and they include such political basket cases as Uzbekistan and Yemen.

Consider those nations that have outpaced us in the ABCs: Cuba, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau and even Kyrgyzstan, where citizens struggle daily to even spell their country correctly.

Sadly, even after years of conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is still classified behind both of those nations alphabetically, despite pouring billions of dollars into military efforts.

As has been noted, it’s time for Americans to take a long, sobering look at this country, and how it ended up all the way down at No. 182.

If we’re ever going to remedy this deplorable situation, we have to act now. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for future generations. As always, think of the children!

(HT: Clickhole)

Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

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Why one 19th century SC paper urged readers to vote for blacks

Orangeburg County Courthouse

There is no doubt that judging the past by present standards is often poor practice with regard to history.

While many actions of the past were wrong then and remain wrong today, others that we consider egregious today weren’t so clear cut when they occurred.

And sometimes there are cases where historical figures do, more or less, the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

As the mid-term election of 1886 rolled around, Reconstruction in South Carolina had been over for a full decade. However, Democrats, who had “redeemed” the state from Radical Republicans 10 years earlier, weren’t taking any chances. Elections were still spirited affairs, rather than the perfunctory events that they would later become once Democrats had fully consolidated their hold on power in the state.

In 1886, South Carolina had one black congressman, Civil War hero Robert Smalls, and would send two more to Washington before the end of the century. All were Republicans.

While anti-black sentiment among whites in the state had not yet hardened into what it would become under Gov. Ben Tillman’s racially divisive policy, ex-slaves and their descendants were undoubtedly considered second class citizens by both white elites and non-elites.

Still, as the 1886 election neared, at least one South Carolina newspaper urged voters to put prejudice aside and vote a straight-Democrat ticket, even though the ballot contained two black candidates.

The Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote in a Sept. 30, 1886, editorial that democrats needed to place party first:

We hear a great many men say that they will not vote for a negro for office if put on the Democratic ticket. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of the action of the convention in deciding to put two negros on the ticket, we emphatically say that it is the duty of the Democrats of the County to vote for the entire ticket as nominated by the primary, negro and all. The very life of the party itself depends upon its purity and a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, and a rigid and uncompromising discipline. One who obeys the party mandates, and supports the nominated ticket, regardless of his personal objections or animosities for those who compose it, deserve party confidence and can alone be trusted to keep up and preserve the organization. When the action of the party convention is rebelled against, and the ticket scratched or openly opposed, it will not be long before the party itself will go to pieces. Our advice to all Democrats is to vote the ticket straight, whether the ticket as a whole suits their views or not. In this way alone can the unity and ascendancy of the Democratic party be maintained.

The piece was signed by J.L. Sims, editor and owner of the publication.

It should be noted that 19th century American newspapers were often mouthpieces for one political party or the other. That the Times and Democrat urged its readers to vote a straight Democrat ticket likely wasn’t unusual.

Any credit Sims might have gotten for urging readers to vote for the two blacks on the Democratic ballot was greatly diminished by his second sentence, in which he essentially calls into question the S.C. Democratic Convention’s decision to include two African-American candidates on the ticket.

It’s unclear who the two candidates in question were or how they fared in the Nov. 2, 1886, election.

What is clear from South Carolina history is that as time went on and segregation became entrenched in all aspects of life, there would be little reason for editors such as Sims to urge voters to cast ballots for blacks on the Democratic ticket.

The powers that be made certain such episodes didn’t happen again.

(Top: Old postcard showing Orangeburg (SC) County Courthouse, built in 1875. It served the county until 1928.)

Connecticut determined to pluck every feather from golden goose

Connecticut_State_Capitol,_Hartford

If one wanted to chart a course for steering a state onto the shoals, look no further than Connecticut.

Twenty-five years ago, the Nutmeg State had no state income tax and served as tax refuge for many New York City workers.

Those days are long gone; last week the Connecticut legislature again raised state income tax rates, with the top marginal rate set to rise to 6.99 percent.

Of course, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised during his re-election campaign last year that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s the same thing he said in 2010, a year before he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike.

The thing is, it’s not like Connecticut is growing like gangbusters and can afford to bleed its citizens dry.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

The Journal added that Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of state residents would migrate if they could.

If all of the above weren’t bad enough, lawmakers also made permanent a 20 percent surtax on Connecticut-based companies’ annual tax liability – a tax on a tax – which would be figured on Connecticut companies’ world-wide income, rather than what they earn in the state, according to the Journal.

Consider some of the corporations headquartered in Connecticut: Aetna, Cigna, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Praxair and Xerox.

Why would any of the above stay in Connecticut when faced with this kind of competitive disadvantage?

No doubt economic development officials in low-tax states such as Texas and Florida are giddy with anticipation at getting a shot at landing the likes of a GE or Pratt & Whitney.

“The high marginal rates are bad enough, but it is an astonishing overreach to tax corporations headquartered in your state based on their worldwide income,” according to the Coyote Blog. “This leads to a huge double taxation problem for any company dumb enough to stay.”

(Top: Connecticut Statehouse, Hartford, Conn.)

Inquirer’s demise a sad reflection on state of print journalism

philadelphia inquirer sign

Anyone who has followed the print journalism industry over the past decade has witnessed its unmistakable decline.

Metro papers in particular have been hard hit as technology has revolutionized not only information distribution, but advertising, as well. The collapse of classified advertising coupled with the dramatic increase in online readership has resulted in the newspaper industry deteriorating precipitously in recent years.

Consider the Philadelphia Inquirer: 25 years ago it had 700 employees, dispatched journalists around the globe regularly to file stories and boasted daily circulation of more than 500,000.

Today, the paper fields barely 200 employees, has pulled back its coverage dramatically and seen daily circulation shrunk to a little more than 160,000.

“The Inquirer used to send reporters and photographers to South America and Africa,” said photojournalist Will Steacy, whose father was an editor at the publication and who has closely followed the paper’s decline since 2009. “They once sent a guy off to study the fate of the black rhino for six months. Now no story gets done that involves much more than a half-hour drive from the city. Otherwise it is mostly wire stories.”

As the British newspaper The Guardian notes, the Inquirer once had a reputation for both holding local government to account as well as breaking big foreign stories.

“ … it was the Inquirer that uncovered, for example, the full truth behind the OPEC oil blockade of 1973 that was causing panic in Philadelphia and beyond, by dispatching its reporters to examine the shipping lists of Lloyd’s of London and to interrogate dock workers in Rotterdam and Genoa,” according to The Guardian.

Today, in what is perhaps a sad reflection on both the industry and those that it serves, the Inquirer, at least based on its website traffic, appears beholden to lowest-common-denominator stories.

“The stories that receive the most clicks on philly.com,” Steacy suggests “are weather stories, celebrity stories, sex stories. I guess best of all is a celebrity sex story with a good weather angle… ”

The last bit fits all too well with musician Paul Weller’s wonderfully crafted line: “The public wants what the public gets.”

19th century farmhouse recalls fiery days of secession

Calhoun County 2015 035

Nearly 200 years old, the Keitt-Whaley-Pearlstine House sparkles amid the drab brown landscape of late winter in central South Carolina.

The large white two-story clapboard structure features six columns, first- and second-story porches, gabled roofs and touches of Greek Revival style.

Built in rural Orangeburg County, in what later became Calhoun County, near the Old State Road that ran from Columbia to Charleston, the structure’s interior features multiple fireplaces, some with hand-carved mantels with multiple cornices, according to the SC Department of Archives and History.

But for all the architectural appeal of the plantation house, its history is just as interesting.

Constructed between 1820 and 1825 for Dr. and Mrs. George Keitt, the Keitt’s son, Laurence, was born in the house in 1824. He would go onto become one of the South Carolina’s most ardent secessionists.

After serving in the South Carolina General Assembly while still in his mid-20s, Keitt was elected to the US House in 1853. He would be re-elected twice more.

Stephen Berry, writing in Civil War Monitor, described Keitt as the “Harry Hotspur of the South.”

“Keitt … was a Fire-Eater par excellence. Legendary for staging ‘pyrotechnic’ displays on the floor of Congress, Keitt paced his desk, scattered papers before him ‘like people in a panic,’ and pounding ‘the innocent mahogany’ until pens, pencils, documents, and even ‘John Adam’s extracts shuddered under the blows.’”

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Why ‘most corrupt’ title may not fit Mississippi

welcome to mississippi sign

Determining America’s most corrupt state is not unlike trying to ascertain history’s most prolific forger: In the latter, the counterfeiter too skilled to be caught remains forever unknown, while in the former, the most dishonest state is one that has tolerated and even declined to prosecute dishonest behavior.

That’s not the argument that Mississippi officials are putting forth to dispute a recent study that ranks the Magnolia State as the most corrupt in the US, but it would make sense.

Instead, Mississippi officials are arguing that the study by two public policy researchers – Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong and John L. Mikesell of Indiana University – fails to take into account the state’s recent anti-corruption efforts.

The pair looked the rate at which public employees in each of the 50 US states had been convicted on federal corruption charges from 1976 to 2008 to determine which state was the most corrupt in the union, according to Fortune magazine.

They concluded that Mississippi had the highest ratio of public workers who were censured for misuse of public funds and other charges. The researchers looked at the hard numbers – federal convictions – to control for differences in spending on law enforcement and the rigor of state corruption laws, according to Fortune.

But Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering argued in an interview with Fortune that the study relied on old data and didn’t take into account the state’s anti-corruption efforts.

Pickering contended that many Mississippi laws have changed since he took office in 2008, with the state legislature putting an investigative arm into the state auditors office.

What makes just as much sense, however, is the idea that truly corrupt states – think Nigeria, Liberia or Russia – simply decline to prosecute corruption.

It’s not unlike the purported actions of law enforcement in bad areas of certain metropolises, which, often at the request of politicians, underreport crime in order to either create a false sense of security or to give the impression that crime is declining.

Put another way, if every county in your state but one chooses to ignore speeding laws, is it fair to label the one that enforces the law – provided it does so justly and impartially – a speed trap?

Those caught speeding may not be happy, but that doesn’t mean the county following the rules should be singled out as the problem.

Does Mississippi have challenges? Yes. Is it the only one? No. Is it the worst offender? Probably not.