Leader Blues

Monday, July 31, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Internet disputes

The Morning News, Springdale—Every-thing’s up to date in Arkansas this week, with a pair of high-tech news items grabbing our attention. We’ll admit to being less than savvy on technical matters. It’s the arcane lure of writing that keeps us here, not the daily interfacing with infernal machines. We’re writers — not information technicians. But we’re writers with a highly developed sense of curiosity. We see things that pique our interest and we must explore them, even when they sometimes devolve into arguments over bits of technical gibberish beyond our capacity to decipher.

That’s why we’re fascinated with the Internet and all that goes with it. Normally, Internet-related news items have datelines from far-off places, like Silicon Valley or Bangalore. If government gets involved Washington is another common source of tech news. So when we saw Texarkana as the site of a story involving a legal dispute over Internet advertising we had a more parochial interest. What could those folks in Miller County be up to? It seems less technical than it might have been. It’s essentially an argument over who counts the number of “clicks” or visits to a company’s ad on the Internet and how those clicks determine the cost to the company doing the advertising. We were a little bit disappointed. While we’re sure it’s of vital interest to the advertisers and the folks they’re doing business with, it’s basically an internal squabble, too dry a subject to generate much popular angst.

But the second story made up for the routine of the first. It seems someone had taken to slandering the good name of Pine Bluff on the site of the Internet encyclopedia “Wikipedia” and city officials and boosters decided to fight back. It seems someone, apparently anonymously, edited a section of the Web site to include some cutting remarks about Pine Bluff’s mayor, the city’s supposedly failing economy and otherwise criticizing the town’s social amenities. Offending entries were apparently noted and deleted on two occasions by an employee of the local chamber of commerce, who naturally felt stung by the criticism. Now, that’s the kind of action we like to see. This is the Internet, no Marquis of Queensberry rules observed here. Defend yourselves at all times. Shake hands, go back to your computers and come out deleting.

Some people express surprise or hurt feelings over bad behavior on the Internet. They may have thought the Internet business community would operate with an entirely new set of rules that everyone would agree to and abide by.
It’s possible they really bought into the notion of a utopian community linked together on the World Wide Web where everything would be sweetness and light. We never did. We’re not surprised by allegations of bad behavior or sharp practices. We’re not surprised that people might try to make a buck or propagate their own version of “the truth” about Pine Bluff or any other subject.

Yes, the Internet is new and different in many ways. But it’s still operated by people, just like everything else in this world, and those people are subject to the same passions and prejudices we’ve always fallen victim to. That’s why the old Latin phrase “caveat emptor’’ is still valid. Even in Arkansas.

Insurance law targets Wal-Mart

Texarkana Gazette — A federal judge last week overturned a Maryland law requiring large employers to spend 8 percent of payroll on health care for employees or pay the difference in taxes. The law targeted Wal-Mart, the huge Arkansas-based retailer. Wal-Mart is the only employer in Maryland that is large enough to fall under the law. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz correctly reasoned the law would put an undue burden on Wal-Mart. But there is a larger principle involved.
States are looking for ways to reduce Medicaid spending — in Maryland alone it runs about $4.6 billion a year — and businesses that employ a lot of low-wage workers are an obvious target. If the state can force a business to pay more in health care costs, the state saves money. And if, as in Maryland’s case, the law also provides for confiscatory taxes on any difference, the state can rake in some needed revenue. Wal-Mart, of course, is the employer wearing the biggest bull’s-eye.
In other words, it’s legislated extortion. Whatever one thinks of Wal-Mart’s employment practices, and the chain has more than its share of critics, health insurance is a benefit, not a right. A worker is entitled to be paid for hours worked, including extra pay for overtime, and there are wage and hour laws in place to protect workers.

But benefits are, for all intents and purposes, given at the employer’s discretion as a way to attract and retain good employees. One can argue all day about what a responsible corporate citizen should do, but the truth is no state should be allowed to compel an employer to offer a specific benefit. Benefit mandates that affect larger employers are bad enough, but once states get a taste of decreased spending and increased revenue, there is little doubt they would try to pass the costs of Medicaid farther along, to smaller businesses. Such burdens could drive many out of business. The judge’s ruling was good for all businesses, not just Wal-Mart.

Fort Smith could get U.S. Marshal Museum

The Baxter Bulletin, Mountain Home — Arkansas could be the new home of the U.S. Marshals Museum, it was learned Monday. Fort Smith and Staunton, Va., are the two finalists for the museum to commemorate the U.S. Marshal Servicee.A traveling exhibit created for the service’s bicentennial set down roots in 1991 at Laramie, Wy., but in 2003 it was closed and the exhibits put into storage. Since then, the Marshals Service has been looking for a new site. Fort Smith would be an excellent location for the national museum considering the city’s history and connection with U.S. marshals. It was from Fort Smith that Judge Isaac Parker dispatched deputy marshals to keep the peace in the 74,000 square-mile Indian Territory during the late 1800s.

Those were the days when, for many people, the Wild West started just across the Arkansas line in what would become Oklahoma. Judge Parker’s marshals faced a formidable task, possibly the most formidable any in the Marshals Service had to deal with in the 19th century. According to a National Park Service publication on the Fort Smith National Historic Site, U.S. marshals working out of Fort Smith were authorized to “make arrest for murder, manslaughter, assault with intent to kill or to maim, attempt to murder, arson, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, incest (and) adultery” — a wide range of offenses in a wide-ranging territory. More than 65 marshals working out of Fort Smith died in the line of duty. While most marshals were white, the Fort Smith force was considered one of the most integrated on the frontier with Indian and African-American officers. Using such a mixed group of marshals was believed to have been efficient and effective in carrying out the federal court’s responsibilities because of the multicultural population of the territory. Yet as daunting as their task was, the marshals based at Fort Smith played a key role in bringing law and order to a wild frontier.

Not only does Fort Smith’s own history make it an appropriate site, but so does its central location in the country. The city is relatively accessible to much of the nation, possibly more so than Virginia or the museum’s previous location in Wyoming.
Fort Smith being only a couple of hours from the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock — which is becoming one of the most-visited presidential libraries — would be a plus, too. Fort Smith is an appropriate location for a national museum honoring not only those U.S. marshals who served the federal court there, but all those whose work with the Marshals Service through more than two centuries has advanced the cause of justice in America. ...