Monday, May 25, 2020

"How Much is One Trillion Dollars?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“How Much is One Trillion Dollars?”
May 25, 2020

It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency
 and sloth. Enormous efforts and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.”
                                                                                                            P.J. O’Rourke (1947-)
                                                                                                            Parliament of Whores, 1991

Congress is tossing around trillion-dollar relief packages, as we might a car or student loan, or a loan from Aunt Sally. A trillion is a big number, difficult even to conceive. Five thousand round trips to the sun would amount to less than a trillion miles. A trillion hours is greater than 100 million years, which would take one back to the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs roamed the earth. A stack of a trillion one-dollar bills would reach 67,866 miles into the sky. The earth contains seven and a half billion people, a big number but less than one percent of a trillion

Here in the land of make-believe, the Democrat-led House of Representatives just passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act. A month earlier, Congress passed, and the President signed, the $2 trillion CARES Act. Combined, that Five trillion exceeds the 2020 federal budget. It exceeds, in current dollars, what we spent to conduct World War II. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” is an ancient adage. However, do American taxpayers fully comprehend the size of the obligation to which Congress has committed them, their children and grandchildren? Senator Everett Dirksen (1896-1969 – R-Il) is alleged to have said: “A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Here it is, two generations later, and we’ve upped the ante a thousand-fold. In a time of crisis, Americans should not be parsimonious, but we expect our representatives to be prudent and respectful about spending money that is not theirs. To use this money to bail out profligate states and extend already generous benefits to public employees should not be the purpose. America needs to get back to work.

Government generates no income. That is hard to believe, given the lifestyles and the prodigality with which politicians toss money around. Government takes from taxpayers, and it borrows on behalf of those same taxpayers who are legally committed to pay it back. With a median annual household income in the U.S. of $63,000, and assuming a four-person household, the proposed borrowing for COVID-19 and its economic fallout amounts to just under a year’s income for the average household. And, that $5 trillion is on top of total federal debt of $22 trillion, growing at a rate of $1 trillion a year. Unfunded pension and health benefits compound the debt problem for the American taxpayer. Depending on the discount rate one uses, unfunded liabilities approach $50 trillion. Where will the money come from? There are only three answers: one, growth in GDP, which requires free markets, rule of law and limited but sensible regulation; two, higher taxes, which inhibit economic growth, and/or three, a depreciated dollar, which will reduce future living standards.

This is not to suggest the economy does not need a boost. It does. Individuals who have lost jobs and businesses threatened with bankruptcy, especially the thirty million small businesses who have less access to public funds, need cash infusions. In fact, the economy could use a domestic version of the Marshall Plan. But Congress and the Administration must also address run-away entitlements and the inflated incomes and benefits of public sector workers. Government can only raise revenues from individuals and private sector businesses. There is a limit to what they can take, without stalling the economic engine.

Hard truths about our financial situation are not part of the lexicon of politicians, especially during elections. The offer of “free stuff” is their preferred message. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is an appropriate aphorism for today’s Washington-bound politician. As a percent of GDP, Federal debt has doubled since 2000 to over 100% today, about where it was at the end of World War II. The growth in federal spending, and the concomitant debt and deficits, are fueled by entitlements, which are mandatory items in the federal budget, while, ironically, defense spending – necessary to maintain our freedom – is treated as discretionary. When one throws in interest expense (abnormally low now, but that will not always be the case), mandatory spending exceeds seventy percent of the federal budget. It is understandable why infrastructure is crumbling, and our high schools are, globally, less competitive.  Most important, on this Memorial Day weekend when we remember and honor those who died so we could live in freedom, the growth in mandatory spending constrains what can be spent on defense. Without a strong military, our nation will crumble, and our liberties will be lost.

But back to the number of a trillion. How much is $1 trillion? A lot. Perhaps to microbiologists and astronomers, with an estimated 37.2 trillion cells in the average human body and with an estimated sextillion stars in the universe, a trillion is no big deal. Even for some naturalists, a trillion doesn’t generate awe.  E.O. Wilson, the Harvard myrmecologist and author of The Social Conquest of Earth, estimates that there are 10 quadrillion ants on the planet. But I would rather Congress not hear these numbers, as they may look upon them as aspirational when prudence is preferred.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Letter to President Trump

Sydney M. Williams

President Donald J. Trump                                                                                         May 22, 2020
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 37188

Dear President Trump,

This is an open letter written to ask: Would you speak to the nation about the virus we have confronted and the economic consequences of the response? I have read the speeches you gave in Warsaw in 2017, London in 2019 and at Davos this past January. Those were speeches that resonated with audiences. In the midst of this pandemic and economic slump, people need your leadership.

The country is fractured. COVID-19 has been politicized and has widened an already-deep divide. People are frightened. The lockdown has scared them further – lost jobs, a shrunken economy and collapsed financial markets. Reported economic numbers are backward looking, so will appear bad even as recovery takes hold. No one knows when or if a vaccine, or even a therapeutic, will be available. Nevertheless, people need confidence that tomorrow will be better than today, and they need it said fairly and honestly. They need to know that jobs will be restored, not just for the incomes necessary for food and shelter, but for the dignity a job provides. The desire to be independent is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. They need to know that shops, schools, restaurants and theaters will be re-opened safely. They don’t want platitudes. They want the truth, which gives rise to courage, pride and morale.

And they need to know that while the economy is being addressed those most vulnerable to the virus are being looked after. The American people are smart and empathetic. They need to be told the truth – that, like any virus, this one cannot be totally eradicated, but it can be managed.

This should be a speech that is not self-laudatory and does not assign blame. It should not be a campaign speech. It should be a recognition of where we are, not of where we might have been had different decisions been made. Leave speculation to others. It should be straight forward and honest. It should praise the bravery of healthcare workers, acknowledge the successes of governors and mayors and applaud the people for looking after one another. It should state the need to continue common-sensical practices of washing one’s hands, social distancing and wearing masks when with others. But it should also recognize the freedom of the American people – that liberty is the highest goal of a free people.

As well, it should be a speech that doesn’t shy from the economic costs incurred in combatting COVID-19, that the extraordinary debt government incurred – money printed  by the Federal reserve, the appropriation of funds by Congress and expenditures by the Executive – are obligations of the American tax payer.

I know this is asking a lot, but having listened to you, I know you are equal to the task. I recognize the press has not been your best friend, but it is the people who need your words, not the media.

Best regards,

Sydney M. Williams

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"The Media - Abdication of Responsibility"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The media – Abdication of Responsibility”
May 21, 2020

Politics and the press; two cherished institutions that spoke
with tongues so forked they could double for fine dinnerware.”
                                                                                                Harlan Coben (1962-)
                                                                                                One False Move, 1998

It may be splitting hairs, but President Trump is wrong when he calls out The New York Times and Washington Post for printing “fake” news. What those papers are printing is “slanted” news, articles biased toward a leftist, political ideology. Fake news is fabricated, while slanted news is prejudiced, where a reporter selects what to emphasize, deemphasize or omit based on personal political preferences. Satire (“An obsolete kind of literary composition, in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness.”[1]) is a form of fake news. However, with the exception of good satire, both fake news and biased reporting are a disservice to readers seeking truth. It is the latter that is subtler, so more difficult to discern and address. The burden for determining what is real and what is false is the consumer’s, as reporters have abandoned responsibility to readers and viewers.

Owners, publishers, editors and bloggers can spout whatever opinions they choose. This is a free country and that is their right. But when opinions filter into news stories, and news is reported as unvarnished truth, the consequence is divisiveness and a threat to freedom, which relies on a well-informed citizenry.

Professor Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington teaches a course called, “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.” In a phone interview with Michael Rosenwald, printed in the Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2017, he said “The average American spends nearly an hour a day on Facebook. Doing what? Mostly spreading bullshit.” Whether that is true or hyperbole, I do not know, but a Pew Research Center survey in 2016 essentially confirmed the trend. It found that 14% of U.S. adults shared news they knew was fake. Other surveys support the contention that people willingly pass on information they know to be fake, if it aligns with their preconceived political opinions; for example, promoting Trump derangement syndrome has become daily fodder for the leftist media.

Fake news should make us all wary. If something seems amiss, it probably is and should be double-checked. But slanted news is a beast of a different kind, especially when it appears in so-called respectable news sources. In a free country, the press has the right to print or report what they will. That principle predates our own Constitution. In Commentaries on the Laws of England, in 1770, William Blackstone (1723-1780) wrote: The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.” Thus, while political bias in mainstream media is not “illegal,” a free but irresponsible press is subject to libel. But, more important for our purposes, an irresponsible and unaccountable press does not serve the people.

Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote to Lafayette that “the only security of all is in a free press,” anticipated the willing obeisance of a pliable media to a favored political leader. In a 1785 letter to the Dutch statesman Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, Jefferson wrote: “The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers. [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of news writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever may serve their ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.” It was a lesson understood by Lenin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, and others of similar ilk. When mainstream media and political leaders align, freedom is at risk.

One of the most egregious recent examples of biased reporting had to do with the Russian investigation that should have ended with the Mueller report. Nine reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 election and its connection to the Trump campaign. In making the award, the Pulitzer Prize Board cited twenty articles between February 9, 2017 and September 8, 2017. We now know that the reporters got the story wrong. Whether they were stupid, incurious or blinded by biases is unknown. We do know that their editors failed to confirm facts. They were advocates for a political cause, not independent investigators. There has been no apology from the Pulitzer committee, nor any Mea Culpas from the reporters. In fact, it now appears that any collusion that took place in 2016 was between Democrats and the U.S. intelligence community. Where are those same investigators?

Reporting on COVID-19 has been politicized, swathed in biases, innuendos and inaccuracies. For example, why have not investigative reporters looked into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to send post-hospital, virus-infected patients to nursing homes rather than to the U.S.N.S.  Comfort, or to the make-shift hospital at the Javits Center? The most vulnerable are the elderly with comorbidities, many of whom are in nursing homes, where about 50% of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred, a fact known since the first deaths were recorded in Washington State in February. And, what about death counts?  Are they too high or too low? Colorado’s Democrat Governor Jared Polis’ decision to call out the CDC for exaggerating death counts received limited news coverage. Early models exaggerated the virus’ virulence. Now, today’s New York Times reports a Columbia University model estimates that 83% of all deaths would have been prevented if the lockdown had occurred two weeks earlier. How can they know with such precision? If the numbers accord with the narrative, the estimate is accepted as fact. In taking hydroxychloroquine, the President was accused of ignoring science. No mention was made of Michigan Democrat, State Senator Karen Whitsett, a COIVID-19 survivor who credits the drug with her survival.

While government cannot demand a newspaper or cable news channel report honestly, people are best served when editorial comments are consigned to opinion pages and news is presented accurately and without bias. With major news sources having forgone responsibility to the public, getting correct information has become the responsibility of the people. Freedom should be foremost in our minds, and valid information is a critical part of the process. As Albert Camus said in 1957, “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” Biased reporting, with social media having joined the hunt, has become ubiquitous. It is when the press and politicians collude that democracy and freedom are at risk.

[1] Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1914), The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906, a satirical dictionary.

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