The wonders of them all: Troubling puzzles, troubling times

In this Feb. 18, 2015 photo, a container ship is docked at the Wando-Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Jim Newsome, the president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Ports Authority announced Sept. 14, 2015 that the agency has embarked on an ambitious plan that will see the Charleston Harbor shipping channel deepened, a new container terminal open and other improvements to port infrastructure by 2020. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

As someone who likes to keep abreast of the news, I am often puzzled (Pennsylvania Dutch would say “It wonders me”) by much of what I read, watch and listen to. It’s almost as if my friends in the media no longer believe anyone out there can possibly question what is fed to them as revealed truth sent either by Heaven or The Associated Press.

Here a few things in the news in the past six or so months that wonders me:

The purchasing power of the dollar. Remember the big flap stirred up by China when it devalued its currency by 2 percent? How does this differ from the stated policy of the U.S. Federal Reserve to shoot for and maintain an inflation rate of 2 percent? (I would argue the real rate of inflation is already much higher than that). Are not devaluation and inflation two sides of the same coin, insofar as they impact holders of currency? What they both do is reduce purchasing power. Savers are penalized, debtors rewarded — redistribution by other means.

In theory, China’s devaluation makes Chinese goods less expensive in international trade, and thus easier to sell. U.S. inflation, again in theory, makes its exported goods more expensive and harder to sell. Winners and losers? Of course. But not for the poor and middle class consumers of domestically produced goods in both countries, the very ones politicians and practitioners of the dismal science say they most want to help.

Port expansion and harbor deepening. Huge, some would say obscene amounts of money are being budgeted and spent to expand Charleston’s port and deepen its harbor. The same is occurring all over the world to accommodate the new “Panamax” super-sized cargo ships being built to replace existing fleets of somewhat smaller (but still very large) vessels. Is this a wise undertaking when there are so many other valid claims on the world’s wealth? What about crumbling infrastructure unrelated to ports and harbors? Who benefits? Who loses? And heaven forbid, what if we are again involved in a world war? Wouldn’t it be better to have many smaller ships carrying troops and war material than a relatively few giant Panamax ones (manned by ridiculously small crews, I might add)? Doesn’t anyone remember World War II and unrestricted submarine warfare? Think it couldn’t happen again?

The pending court-martial of Bowe Bergdahl. Why has it taken so long to bring Bergdahl before a court-martial to face charges of desertion and misbehavior in the face of the enemy? Ordinarily, it would take at most a few months, not a few years.

Has political pressure been brought to defer trial until after President Obama leaves office? Have senior officers in the chain of command, courting favor from the White House, exerted undue influence in this case? Are they responsible for its numerous delays? How the Bergdahl case has been handled cannot be conducive to the maintenance of good order and discipline within the armed forces of the United States. It smells to high heaven.

Who gets the blame should a government shutdown occur? Conventional wisdom says that if Congress sends a budget to President Obama that does not provide funding for Planned Parenthood, he will veto it, even if that should cause a shutdown of non-essential government services. The blame, we are told, would fall entirely on Republicans in Congress, not on the Big Democrat in the White House.

Planned Parenthood is the biggest provider of abortions in the country, perhaps in the entire world. It receives about $500 million every year from taxpayers, despite duly enacted law prohibiting federal spending for abortion. Supporters of Planned Parenthood insist this money is spent only on other services it provides fostering “women’s health.” Few on either side of this controversy would dispute that at least some of these programs serve useful and desirable ends. Money, however, is fungible. There is no practical way within any organization to separate funding for federally sanctioned programs and those that are, in law, illegal.

The exploding cost of completing I-526. I am not going to get into the pros and cons of where the money originally budgeted for I-526 should be spent. The Post and Courier’s take on this is clear, and I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I do wonder, though, just what has caused the cost of completing I-526 to escalate so dramatically, particularly in the last two years, to the $720 million currently projected.

Wages for working middle and lower classes, those who would be employed in construction, have fallen. Costs for most building materials have declined, thanks largely to the huge increase in domestic oil production brought about by fracking. I assume most right-of-way acquisition already has been negotiated. So where are the estimated additional hundreds of million dollars going? To settle lawsuits?

Did those who estimated earlier costs cook the books to make the project seem affordable? Or have those who made current estimates seem larger done the same to make it seem unaffordable?

The magnificent Ravenel Bridge was completed on time and under budget. Why can’t similarly large infrastructure projects in the Carolina Lowcountry end the same way? What is it we’ve forgotten how to do?

It wonders me.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.