Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dear Reader of Thought of the Day

Sydney M. Williams

                                                                                                                                         April 4, 2018

Dear Reader of Thought of the Day,

Due to time constraints associated with a book to be published in early 2019, I must suspend my Thoughts of the Day, at least for two to three months. I am sorry for this and will miss the opportunity to put my spin on people and events. I will, however, continue to write “The Month That Was” and the short, monthly essays on readings I have enjoyed. But this new book takes precedence.

It will be titled “Dear Mary: Letters from (and to) Italy, January 1945-July !945. It will be published by Bauhan Publishing of Peterborough, New Hampshire, who published my previous essays: “One Man’s Family” (2014) and “Notes from Old Lyme” (2016). The new book will consist of about 100 letters, written by my father and mother along with a few from his parents and his siblings. The letters cover the months my father was in Italy with the 10thMountain Division, better known as the Ski Troops. It will include an introduction and commentary, added color and context to the story the letters tell.

The War was the defining experience for people of my parents’ generation and letters were the means by which they communicated. My mother and father had been married for six years and had three children, with a fourth on the way, when he was drafted in March 1944. At 33, he was older than most draftees and older than most junior officers. Age was an advantage, though, in terms of perspective and in staying alive.

While much has been written of the horrors experienced by those who served in combat, less has been written about those left behind – the loneliness and anxiety; the dread of a telegram, phone call or visit by the military; the need for stoicism; the importance of a happy face for the sake of children who could not comprehend what was happening. These letters represent but a sliver of what happened to millions of people in similar circumstances, but the story they tell is universal. Most every adult had someone – a son, brother, father, uncle, daughter, sister, niece – who served during the War. The population in 1940 was 132 million, about half were under 18 or over 45. Nineteen million served in the military including 350,000 women – almost 30% of the available population. There are myriad stories, but the love, fear and doubt expressed by my parents, as well as their faith and trust in God and in their families were common to all.

My job is to go through those letters, ensuring they have been transcribed accurately. The letters must be sequenced; so that it appears, at least to the extent possible, that my mother and father are speaking to one another – raising and answering questions. Introductions and commentary must be written, to ensure that people, places and events mentioned are explained and made clear. 

I have no idea how much time this will take, but the writing of essays, which take only a moment to read, take hours to compose – about twenty on average. I also do not want to ignore my wife or miss seeing my children and grandchildren. Something had to give. Sadly, it was the TOTDs, but I should be back in harness by summer. Next Tuesday, Caroline and I leave for nine days in Europe – six in Rome where we will meet up with one son, his wife and children – and then three blissful days in London. 

Best regards,

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"The Month That Was - March 2018"

Sydney M. Williams

“The Month That Was – March 2018”
April 1, 2018

One swallow does not make a summer,
but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.”
                                                                                                Aldo Leopold (1887-1949)
                                                                                                American writer and conservationist

March came in like a lion and maintained its “Big Cat” status for most of the month – four Nor’ Easters here in Connecticut! Only in its last few days did the month begin to resemble a member of the ovine race, and then more of a ram than a lamb. The month saw persistent, unprecedented attacks on Mr. Trump, like Joe Biden who threatened to beat him up (imagine two septuagenarians going at it!); andJohn Brennan who alluded to Trump’s venality and moral turpitude (talk of the pot calling the kettle black!).And then there were the gale-force winds of a morally deficient porn star “Stormy” Daniels, a temptress, certainly, but more a squall than a tempest, in her claim of being defamed.

It was not only gusty weather and blustery verbiage from Washington that made the month roar like a lion. Wall Street’s bears, who had emerged from hibernation in February, continued their selling in March. Islamic terrorists persisted in the killing and maiming of civilians in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Pakistan, India, Yemen, Niger, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and France. Gun violence at home and deadly fires overseas found their way into the month.

Kim Jong-un, President of North Korea announced his desire to meet with President Trump. The President accepted the invitation. An hysterical Left expressed disbelief. How could the loud-mouthed braggart in the White House succeed where pin-striped savants from “Foggy Bottom” had failed? Should the meeting come off, it would be reminiscent of the anti-Communist Richard Nixon going to China in 1972. For Trump is a hard-liner when it comes to North Korea. He believes in negotiating from strength. Keep in mind, the ironic motto of the former Strategic Air Command (SAC): “Peace is Our Profession.” Mr. Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, which was likely a command performance. It is stability in the Korean peninsula that the Chinese want, and the mercurial Mr. Kim’s antics have made them nervous. The mandarins in Beijing do not want a nuclearized Korean Peninsula. Two consequences of Mr. Kim’s parley with Mr. Xi: the announced visit of Kim Jong-un to South Korea and an overture made to Japan.

Elsewhere, in the Syrian city of East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, rebels were forced out after months of combatting Assad’s troops and their Russian allies. Over a thousand civilians have become casualties in fighting that is reminiscent of Aleppo. Nerve gas was responsible for the near-deaths of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. Without doubt, Vladimir Putin was responsible, even though he denied Russian complicity. Great Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats. President Trump ordered the Russian consulate in Seattle closed and told 60 Russian intelligence officers they had seven days to leave the U.S. By last Monday, more than 25 countries had acted in solidarity with Great Britain, in the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history. Russia retaliated, expelling diplomats and shuttering the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.

The autocratic Mr. Putin won re-election as President of Russia. Despite his authoritarian ways (or better yet, because of them), his margin of victory keeps increasing – this time with 77% of the vote. By the end of this term (2024) he will have served as the undisputed leader of Russia longer than any man since Stalin. The Italian election was a triumph for nationalist populism, with the Five Star Movement receiving 30% of the vote. They, with the Northern League and a handful of nationalist/xenophobic parties, will control 55% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The big losers were center-left and center-right parties, indicating unhappiness with Brussels and a failure of centrists to deal with the economic and immigration crises facing their country. Egypt’s election was marred by a car-bomb explosion in Alexandria, when two policemen were killed in an attempt to assassinate security chief General Mostafa el-Nemr. In a feigned democratic vote, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won re-election with more than 90% of the vote. Facing impeachment, Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned, elevating Vice President Martin Vizcarra.

Deck chairs at the White House were rearranged. Rex Tillerson will be replaced at State with CIA Director Mike Pompeo; Larry Kudlow replaced Gary Cohn as head of the National Economic Council, and John Bolton displaced H.R. McMaster as National Security Director. Gina Haspel, Deputy Director of the CIA, will be nominated to assume the Director’s role. If approved by the Senate, she will become the first female head of that organization. In my opinion, Pompeo and Bolton have their moral compasses pointed in the right direction. Mr. Bolton, the “bête noire” of progressives, once expressed his opinion about treaties in the form of a question: “Does it solve the problem, or does it simply make the participants feel good?” Confronting Iran and going in to discussions with North Korea, the U.S., in my opinion, is best served by those who speak frankly and who believe that peace is best achieved through strength. The Roman military historian Vegetius once said (in Latin, not English): “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In terms of the economy, Mr. Kudlow has known the President for many years. He understands him, believes in free trade and is unafraid to disagree. Ms. Haspel stands accused of water-boarding, but she was abiding by rules in place at the time. David Shulkin was ousted as head of the Veteran’s Administration. As successor, President Trump will nominate White House Naval physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson.  

Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, a man who has difficulty with the truth, was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions two days before he would have been eligible for an “enhanced” government pension, whatever that is. He was fired based on a report from the Office of Professional Responsibility, an FBI internal committee that makes such recommendations. The reason: he lied to investigators, claiming to be “confused and distracted,” regarding the investigation into Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. A disingenuous Mr. McCabe blamed his dismissal on President Trump – that he had been “singled out” after “unrelenting” personal attacks by the President. Advocating for Democrats, protecting their hides and looking for scapegoats is the principal activity of too many senior bureaucrats in Washington. Too often, those like Mr. McCabe – think of Lois Lerner – have escaped responsibility for nefarious acts.

The month had its share of violence. In a Maryland school, seventeen-year-old high school student Austin Rollins, armed with a hand gun, shot and killed sixteen-year-old Jaelynn Willey and wounded a fourteen-year old male student. When confronted by armed school resource officer Blaine Gaskill, the shooter turned the gun on himself. In Austin, Texas the FBI and local police caught up with Mark Conditt who had mailed five packages that exploded, killing two and wounding one. He blew himself up as officers approached his car.  Three women hostages were killed at a California veteran’s facility, after a day-long siege, along with the gunman, thirty-six-year-old Albert Wong.

March for Our Lives was held in Washington, D.C. with rallies in cities around the country. Organizers claimed that 800,000 showed up in Washington to protest guns, which would make it the largest rally in the country’s history. The demonstration centered around students from Parkland, Florida where seventeen students were slain at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Valentine’s Day. The rally show-cased the power of youth, only marred by celebrities seeking publicity and politicians trolling for votes.

In economic and financial news, Congress passed, and the President signed, a $1.3 trillion spending bill, to take the government through the balance of its fiscal year. That’s a lot of money the country doesn’t have. “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer” reported that net borrowing in fiscal 2018 will be $955 billion and $1.083 trillion in fiscal 2019. Keep in mind, debt is increasing as interest costs are rising. This will become a ‘catch-22’ event, if not next year, at some point. The Federal Reserve raised the Fed Funds rate another twenty-five basis points, to 1.75% – still a quarter point below where it was in the third quarter of 2008. (Incredibly, the Federal Reserve kept Fed Funds in a range of zero to 25 basis points for twenty-six quarters!) They suggested there will be another two or three additional increases this year. The President spoke of placing tariffs on steel and aluminum, but later exempted all participants except for China, showing once again that it is not what Mr. Trump says that is important, but what he does. Sanctions were increased on North Korea ahead of the expected May meeting. Congress rolled back bank regulation on small banks, which have been pressured by mountains of regulation. Despite concerns ten years ago, big banks have become even bigger. Assets at the four largest banks, as a percent of national GDP, have risen from 43% in 2008 to 47% now, while small businesses have been hurt, as small and mid-size banks were unwilling, or unable, to lend. Household net worth rose to $98.4 trillion, a record. Broadcom’s bid for Qualcomm was delayed pending issues of national security. Stocks fell for the second consecutive month, down 3.7%, as measured by the DJIA. Treasury bonds rose in price and the price of Bitcoin declined 30 percent.

An Islamic attack in the small town of Trèbes, France killed five, but created a hero in Arnaud Beltrame who swapped himself for a female hostage and died as a result. Former Catalan leader Carlos Puigdemont was detained in Germany on an international arrest warrant after crossing the border from Denmark. Malala Yousafzai, who received the Nobel Peace prize in 2014, returned to Pakistan (under heavy security) for the first time since being shot in 2012 by Islamic militants. Her crime: championing education for girls. Seven U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Sixty-four people, including 41 children, were killed in a mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. A fire in a prison in Venezuela caused the death of 68 inmates. Hillary Clinton, on her “explaining” tour, spoke in Mumbai where she referred to the 63 million people who voted for Mr. Trump as dupes, racists, misogynists and/or stupid. (I guess I know where I stand!) Qantas Airways made a “giant leap forward in long-haul travel,” as the New York Timesput it, with a non-stop, seventeen-hour flight from Sydney, Australia to London.

Cambridge Analytica was called out for providing data on 50 million Facebook users to Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. (Of course, when the Obama campaign used similar methods in 2012 it was considered smart politics.) Consequently, Mark Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before Congress. Facebook and other tech companies may find themselves subject to more intense regulation. (I will have more say on this subject in a future TOTD.) Democrat Conor Lamb won the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18thDistrict, a traditionally Republican district, but one that is being gerrymandered out of existence. The hypocritical Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren told Mike Mulvaney, newly appointed head of the CFPB (Consumer Finance Protection Bureau) that she would give him “one last chance” to answer questions about his role at the bureau. In September 2010, Senator Warren was appointed by President Obama to establish the agency, something she had proposed three years earlier while a professor at Harvard Law School. The agency, as designed by Ms. Warren, is independent of Congress and receives its funding from the Federal Reserve, a condition she apparently now regrets or has forgotten.

Tenured Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School was dismissed from teaching a required course to first year law students, because her opinions were at odds with those of the administration and some students, students who are supposed to be there to learn, not instruct. It was announced that Netflix is in discussions with former President Obama to produce a series of “high-profile shows” that will, according to the New York Times, “provide him a global platform after his departure from the White House.” Whatever happened to the standard set by George Washington, and followed by most ex-Presidents – with the notable exception of Bill Clinton – to disappear from the limelight after they leave the Presidency? “The Shape of Water” won best picture at the Academy Awards. The story involves a young woman having sex with a sea monster, which says a lot about our culture. As an example of mindless political correctness, Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts, is asking professors and others to no longer refer to their students as women. A case before the Supreme Court, “National Institute of Family and Life advocates v. Becerra” is about compelling pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free information about abortions. 

“March madness” crept into April, when Notre Dame will play Mississippi State for the women’s NCAA title, while Michigan will play Villanova for the men’s. Baseball’s opening day came at the end of the month, with 28 of the 30 major league teams in play. The newly-signed Yankee Giancarlo Stanton hit two homeruns! In Alaska, Joar Ulsom of Norway won the 1000-mile Iditarod race, from Anchorage to Nome in nine days, thirteen hours and one minute…and sixteen exhausted dogs.

Death claimed Peter G. Peterson (91) who went from the chairmanship of Bell and Howell at age 36, to White House assistant, to the chairmanship of Lehman Brothers, back to the White House, to chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, and finally to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His concern was Democrats habit of over spending and Republicans excessive use of tax cuts. Death took Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist who was Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, and the author of A Brief History of Time. He had an early-onset of a rare motor neuron disease, which gradually paralyzed him over many decades. He once offered two pieces of advice to the young: “One, remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.” Professor Hawing died at 76. Linda Brown also died at 76. Her name will forever be associated with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court racial segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Ms. Brown was nine years old when she was barred from attending the all-white public Summer school, a few blocks from her home in Topeka Kansas. “I didn’t comprehend color. I only knew I wanted to go to Summer,” she later explained. Her death is a reminder that progress, while sometimes painfully slow, does march on. Rusty Staub, the beloved Mets icon, died on baseball’s opening day, at 73.

We move on to April, the month when taxes come due, but also a month of firsts: when turtles first appear, when song-birds first return to their summer homes, when lilacs first bloom and the month when lawns first have their seasonal haircuts. It is also the month my wife and I celebrate 54 years of marriage.

Monday, March 26, 2018

"One American's View of Europe"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“One American’s View of Europe”
March 26, 2018

But the problem is not social democracy as such, but rather the
 perception that the center-left has forgotten the fundamental values.
                                                                                                Mette Frederiksen
                                                                                                Leader, Social Democratic Party of Denmark
                                                                                                Financial Times, March 12, 2018

These thoughts are those of an observer, not an expert. They reflect my reading of current events, which convince me that the people of Europe are vulnerable to a loss of basic rights. My concern is for the kind of omniscient government James Madison warned against in Federalist No. 47. I appreciate the success the international system in Europe has had in the years since World War II – how it avoided wars that devastated the first half of the Twentieth Century, how it largely eradicated the poverty and disease that are war’s accompaniments, and how it helped democratize former totalitarian states. Nevertheless, there is no alpha and no omega to history’s timeline. The “deep state” that is the EU grows larger and more intrusive. As well, bad men and women lurk on sidelines, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to seize power. It is the threat of authoritarianism that concerns, no matter whether it emerges through an individual or via the state, or whether it comes from the Right or the Left.

Something is wrong in Europe. If today’s EU were so desirable, would Brexit have happened? If the EU is such a positive factor, why do administrators in Brussels feel a need to punish the UK for leaving? Why do they rail so aggressively against those who disagree with their concept of union? Why have populist parties risen, like Podemos in Spain, the Five-Star movement in Italy and the Freedom Party in Austria? Consider the political malfunctioning in Germany and Poland. The glue that binds the Union has weakened. Why?

Bureaucrats in Brussels have become more autocratic, in terms of demands on member states. For example, it is estimated that between 60% and 65% of laws, regulations and directives governing the British people were made in Brussels. London and other democratic capitals have become vassals to the EU, in terms of borders, trade, rules, regulations and laws. On the other hand, disintegration of the Union, it is feared, could lead to the nationalist policies that helped start the First World War, the depression that followed and the Second War. No sensible person wants to re-create another period similar to 1914-1945.

The catalyst for the discontent has been immigration on an unprecedented scale, affecting the economy, along with cultural and democratic institutions. It is true that most refugees have a humanitarian need. They come from towns and cities devastated by Islamic extremists – principally Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in the Middle East; Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. But, it is also true that among those refugees are radicalized young men. It has been the numbers and the manner in which all were admitted that have created dissension. Keep in mind, those most affected by the influx, both economically and culturally, have been the poorest and least politically connected. For elitists in London, Paris and Berlin, migrants are more of a theoretical problem, while for those in smaller cities and towns the problems are real, adding to a sense of xenophobia. The economy, already strained from the financial crisis of ten years ago (and on-going, aging populations), has become burdened with additional costs associated with the care and security of migrants. Social welfare has been a staple of the European experience since the end of World War II. But, given demographic shifts and a rush of migrants, is it sustainable?  

Multiculturalism accelerated as millions of Muslim migrants came to live in countries noted for historic cultural monuments, institutions and mores. Again, these immigrants mostly ended up in working-class cities, like Marseilles, France (20-25% of the population); Birmingham, England (20%) and Offenbach, Germany (14%). Cultural wars have been aggravated by a spate of Islamic terrorist attacks. According to the EU Terror Report, in 2017 Europe experienced 142 “failed, foiled and completed” Islamic terrorist attacks, killing 142, an increase over 2016. The attitude of Islamists toward women and gays is alien to Europe’s culture of respect and equality. As well, anti-Semitism is on the rise, abetted by Islamic refugees. France has a population of 67 million, of whom about 5 million are Muslim. Church attendance by Christians is estimated at 11%. About 5 million Muslims now live in the Country, where mosque attendance is estimated at 40%. The ratio of Muslims will continue to expand (as will their influence), due to immigration and higher birth rates. Question: In a hundred years, will France be a Christian nation?

Sharia Law may well affect European justice systems. Brussels appears to be more interested in accommodating immigrants than caring for the needs of native populations. The result: a decline in the influence of the people, of national and local governments, and a rise in populism.

Demagogues rise from ashes of unrest and fear, fostered by economic disruption. It was the financial demands imposed by the Allies after World War I that gave rise to Fascism in Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany. They boosted the ascendancies of Mussolini and Hitler. That is not Europe today. In the seventy-three years since the War in Europe ended, Democracy and free-market capitalism have allowed people to fare well. One reason has been an increase in social spending, which has risen in France, as a percent of GDP, from about 15% in 1970 to close to 30% today. The result has been a decline in poverty, an improvement in living standards and an equalization of incomes. But, Europe has been able to do so, in part, because of a bull market in bonds, which saw interest rates decline for three decades; low levels of defense spending, as the U.S. served as back-stop during the Cold War; and demographics that, because of the War, created a surfeit of workers and a want of retirees from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. While it is too early to tell for sure, the bond bull market appears to be ending, the Trump Administration has made it clear that Europeans will have to pay more for defense, and demographics have reversed

In recent years, economic growth has slowed, as demands to sustain the social welfare state have impinged on free-market capitalism. In Brussels, bureaucracies, in accordance with Parkinson’s Law, have expanded, with no limits to their girth. An aging population has meant fewer workers supporting a growing number of retirees. (Young, working Muslims could alleviate the problem, but that depends on assimilation – more a wish than reality.) Migration has added expense and size to government. At some level (if we are not already there), regulation and government spending will manifest itself in even slower economic growth, a down-ward spiral demanding higher taxes, more spending and less growth.

Being negative as regards human progress, as Steven Pinker so eloquently observes in his latest book Enlightenment Now, has meant betting on the wrong horse. But when forces of reality (limited income) clash with dreams of social do-gooders (unlimited spending), will struggle ensue? As to the cause of Europe’s malaise, I am reminded of Walt Kelly and his comic-strip character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In Federalist 47, alluded to in the opening paragraph, James Madison wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive or judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Those words, written more than two hundred years ago, were of a man of the Enlightenment, one who understood that tyranny, no matter whence it comes or what form it takes, is incompatible with the forces of freedom and democratic capitalism.