Arguing over the Recession, and other interesting moments

Last night, a star-studded group (for Charlotte) gathered on the McGlohon Theatre stage with guest moderator Charlie Rose for Levine Museum of the New South's "Southern Roots, Global Vision." Rose asked the questions in an hour-long program. Providing the answers were Wachovia's Ken Thompson, Cynthia Marshall of AT&T, Tom Nelson of National Gypsum, Bob Johnson, Charlotte Observer Publisher Ann "I (heart) Charlotte" Caulkins, and BofA's Amy Woods Brinkley.

There were the typical boosterish comments, particularly from Caulkins, but also some interesting moments. Chief among them: Thompson calling the current recession the worst since the Depression and predicting it would be late 2009 before we pulled out of it, Brinkley disagreeing with him, Johnson taking ribbing from Rose and the crowd, and Marshall's impassioned pleas to improve local K-12 education. Best panelist of the night? Johnson. Worst? Caulkins. More after the jump.

I was surprised by Bob Johnson's thoughtful, astute answers. Perhaps not surprisingly, since he does not live here, he was the only panelist who tried to answer every question directly and did not attempt to cloak his words with "Charlotte is great, but…" PR speak (actually, perhaps this is unsurprising, given his recent overly candid remarks to the paper). When Rose asked him if this was a good place for African Americans to live, he replied, in part, "for a city that is so focused on business, I don’t detect the same level of enthusiasm within the African American community. And that’s a concern to me." Later, he said, "You mentioned Atlanta was the city too busy to hate. Sometimes you get too busy to include." He went on to say that Charlotte seems to lack a support system for minorities who have good business ideas and potential, but need investors (that speaks to his comment about the lack of enthusiasm for business in the African American community). I don't know how much of that is or is not accurate, but I applaud him for saying it.

Later, he observed that "Charlotte needs a living downtown." When he said that, a couple panelists looked at him askance, as if to say, "have you seen our downtown?" But I think that's an interesting perspective. Johnson doesn't live here, and his frame of reference is New York City and Washington D.C. When he looks at Charlotte's downtown, he sees that we still have plenty of work to do.

Ol' Bob took some ribbing, too. Rose asked him what a sports team can do for a community, and Johnson duly answered "A sports team does more to create community spirit than anything I can think of." Rose quickly shot back, with a smile, "You mean a winning sports team." The crowd laughed and applauded at that. And when Rose talked about how major companies where struggling in this economy, Johnson quipped "I'm struggling," a reference to the fact that he is sole majority owner of the Bobcats. Rose turned to the crowd and asked, "Do you have a lot of sympathy for billionaires?" We all laughed at that, too.

Ken Thompson said that in a meeting with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, Bernanke, a student of the Great Depression, said, "This is not the Great Depression. But it’s the worst thing since the Depression." Later, Thompson said, "We’ve had recessions before, but this one is a severe one." He said he thinks it will be late 2009 before we recover. Fellow panelist Amy Woods Brinkley, global risk executive for Bank of America, disagreed. "I’m a little more optimistic that we’ll find the turn sooner," she said. "It’s a question of reestablishing confidence."

Thompson got the biggest applause of the night when he said "K-12 [education] is a real issue here, but we’ve got a great superintendent, but we’ve got to free him to do what he needs to do … we’ve got to quit bickering over very small things." That was a clear shot at the school board, and the audience loved it.

Later, Thompson quarrelled with an audience questioner. Earlier in the evening, Thompson had said that the Bear Stearns situation was not a bailout. The audience member disagreed, but Thompson replied "I'll debate you on that," and then explained that although taxpayers are on the hook for a bundle (and he bets that it will all get paid back), the potential fallout of a Bear Stearns collapse was much, much worse. The questioner said he agreed with that, but to say it wasn't a bailout "is a little disengenous." I think Ken's face got a little red there.

Finally, Caulkins. I am sure she is a very nice woman, and she is faced with a tough job helming a newspaper in today's climate. And I promise this has nothing to do with any sort of professional rivalry. But. Come. On. No matter the question, her answer was a version of "Charlotte is the best city in the country in which to live and to business." It was too much, and even a discredit to the panel, which was there to discuss the city and the region's challenges in a time of increasing globalization, not talk about how great Charlotte is. Even Rose got a little fed up, at times ignoring her answers and trying to redirect his questions to other people. It had to be tough for the many Observerites in the audience, including editor Rick Thames, business editor Patrick Scott, and editorial page editor Ed Williams, who are charged with objectively covering Charlotte to hear their boss come off like such a pollyanna. The only alarm I remember her sounding was over our disappearing green space. On panels iike these, there is always one. It's just too bad that it had to be the person who, as Rose said, "represents journalism."

The program was taped for UNC TV and will air May 8 and 10 pm and May 11 at 1 pm on channel 58.