Monday, January 15, 2018

"Government, Compassion & Charity"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Government, Compassion & Charity”
January 15, 2018

Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
                                                                                                            Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Year-end is when requests arrive to support myriad causes. Some are of no interest or are fraudulent, but most are from organizations we want to help. Most of us have to make decisions, as our pockets are not bottomless. Nevertheless, the exercise is cathartic and feelings of altruism add to a sense of well-being.

For more than eighty years, safety nets have been a structural part of federal budgets. Now, they dominate spending. According to Pew Research, entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, veteran’s benefits, unemployment compensation, etc., accounted for 67% of 2016’s $4 trillion budget. We are a compassionate people, and politicians are especially so when it comes to other-people’s money. The dispensing of largesse is a popular way to win votes, and nobody is more expert at this than Washington politicians. But, as Margaret Thatcher once warned, we risk running out of “other-people’s” money. Removing the cookie jar (or making it more difficult to access) – what adults must do – is unpopular. Those who have grown dependent on government – and millions have – lend credence to a modern-day interpretation of that post-World War I song: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” It is right to be compassionate. It is not charitable to foster dependency.

President George W. Bush once said, “I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservativism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” The first part of Mr. Bush’s explanation is agreed to by all. The second is ignored.

What happens when compassion becomes charity? Government should mirror its people. But it is devoid of feeling. Its purpose and responsibility is to create, administer and adjudicate laws, ensure the rights and property of its citizens, provide defense against enemies at home and abroad, and to ease commerce via treaties and through the building and maintenance of roads, bridges, and ports. It should provide youth a basic education. It should ensure a safety net under those who because of age or infirmity are unable to care for themselves. Compassion is healthy, as it reflects the people, but federal deficits, a crumbling infrastructure and a depleted military suggest politically-motivated hearts are bigger than fiscally-responsible heads. Charity is distinct, and best left to individuals and to private, non-profit organizations.

This is not to be critical of Mr. Bush. His post-Presidency has shown him to be a decent, empathetic man, especially in his treatment of soldiers wounded in wars to which he committed them. I look at his book, Portraits of Courage, and marvel at how he captured despair and bravery, sadness and joy, grief and relief. He wrote in his introduction: “I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage.” What greater devotion to his country can a former President express?

There are those who argue we are a nation of equals, and we are, before the law and in our rights as citizens. But that notion becomes convoluted by those who feel compassion requires outcomes to be equal, despite inherent and unalterable differences. We have myriad talents and aspirations. Some are more intelligent, more dedicated, with greater ambitions. Some more athletic, and others willing to work smarter and harder. A few are born with limited skills and opportunities. A free society allows people to achieve what they can, within the law and with deference to civil behavior. A compassionate society ensures that those unable to care for themselves will not be forsaken. But we should not encourage recipients of government largesse to become dependent. Throughout history, inequality becomes exaggerated during times of rapid innovation, as happened during the industrial revolution and as is happening now, with innovative new technologies. However, over time, these “creatively destructive” changes benefit all society. In the U.S., we partially compensate for different outcomes through the provision of services to aid the needy, aged, infirm, and those born with conditions that prevent the realization of dreams. We fund those costs with an income tax that is the most progressive in the world. But, we are not the same, nor can we ever be.

At his son’s graduation from the 9th grade at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire last June, Chief Justice John Roberts spoke: “From time to time, in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice…I wish you bad luck, again from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.” Roberts words might have been taken from the Gospel according to Luke: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” He was right about justice and the role luck plays in our lives.

He was speaking to a people who are the most magnanimous on earth – not because of government entitlement programs, but because of the nature of its people. As a percent of national income, no nation comes close to the U.S. in the generosity of its citizens. According to the IRS, Americans gave away $373 billion in 2016, to 1.5 million registered non-profits. That amount does not include hundreds of millions in cash contributions that millions give to the homeless on city streets, or the millions placed in collection plates in houses of worship. It does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars in non-itemized donations. It does not include volunteerism, Kickstarter, or Go-Fund-Me. According to the latter’s web site, $5 billion has been raised in contributions from 50 million people. Other countries have more lavish welfare programs, but our citizens’ generosity is unique in the annals of nations. We take pride in self-sufficiency, and we recognize the dignity that is attributed to work and the independence that self-sufficiency brings. Nevertheless, in a world tilting toward selfies, the Chief Justice’s wisdom was refreshing.

A Chinese proverb that has pertinence says: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  We cannot feed all in the world who are hungry. We cannot provide sanctuary for all who have been forced to emigrate. We cannot protect every person against the ravages of nature, or the bestiality of mankind. We cannot protect every forest, river and stream, nor clean up every ocean and pond. Like individuals, options must be weighed. We can help educate people. We can show the advantages of democracy and liberty through the example of our lives and our government – of how freedom, which can never be taken for granted, is illusive and worth defending. We can call out those who repress their citizens, and support those who revolt against tyranny. But we must acknowledge that behind the empathy we offer is a free people and the free-market capitalism that allows us to be charitable. We should be compassionate, but we must measure economic costs, less we become a nation and people in need.

The Left must understand that charity is individually driven, and that making people dependent is not charity. The Right must recognize that government reflects the compassion of its citizens. Both sides must realize the necessity for economic growth. Both must know where compassion ends and charity begins. In 1 Corinthians, in the King James version, the Apostle Paul speaks: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” He wasn’t addressing the Roman Senate (or the U.S. Congress); he was speaking to the people.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The Joy of Grandchildren"

Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
“The Joy of Grandchildren”
January 14, 2018

I love music of all kinds, but there is no greater music
than the sound of my grandchildren laughing.”
                                                                                                Sylvia Earle (1935-)
                                                                                                American marine biologist and author

On a recent visit to the home of my youngest granddaughter, I noticed a hand-written sign posted on the door leading from the mudroom to the kitchen: “Manicure, one cent.” Feeling the least a grandfather could do was encourage entrepreneurship, I consented to having my nails painted. Despite pleas that my nails not be varnished in some garish color, and the offer of a dollar bribe, I soon found myself with ten fingernails decorated as though they were Joseph’s multi-colored coat. A few hours later, and a penny and a dollar short (the dollar was accepted, but not honored!), I walked into our home with my hands in my pockets, thinking of Ogden Nash: “when grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.”

Not everyone is fortunate to have grandchildren, so we count ourselves among God’s chosen. As grandparents, we see in our grandchildren the promise and risks of the future – we dream of the places they will go, the people they will meet. We think of the loves and losses, joys and sadness, laughter and tears they will experience. We know they will learn from failure and that they will derive satisfaction from success. We know they will come to understand that work brings dignity and pride, and that they will have the chance to do those things we tried, or didn’t do at all.

While our lives lie in the past, theirs are the future. We have memories; they have the promise and mystery of the unknown. We look backward, sometimes cynically, through scrapbooks in the mind; and then we look forward, with hope, through the eyes of our grandchildren. In their genes they carry our DNA, which ensures that a part of us will live forever, or at least as long as they and their progeny procreate.

Caroline and I have ten grandchildren. They are the issue of three sets of parents – all of whom were married within a twelve-month period – June 14, 1997 to June 20, 1998. Grandchildren (six girls and four boys) began arriving in 2000 and the wave did not stop until 2008. There was only one year – 2007 – when the stork didn’t deliver a new package. Today, two of them are high school juniors and three high school sophomores. The rest scale down to the fourth grade.

Time goes by faster as we age, so the speed with which they left behind cribs, diapers and Santa Claus has been startling. One moment they looked up to me, as the fount of all wisdom. Now, they look down at me, and kindly ask if they might help me with my iPhone. It seems only yesterday I was pushing them in a stroller. Now, I hurry to keep up. Was it only a decade ago, I was reading bed-time stories? Now, they want to discuss quantitative physics, the New York Giants offensive line and the situation in Ukraine.

Like all grandchildren, mine like to hear stories – what it was like in the “olden” days. Former Poet Laurette (and New Hampshire resident) Donald Hall wrote about haying with his grandfather in the 1930s: “Even more I loved the slower plod back to the barn. My grandfather told story after story with affection and humor.”[1] Mine like to hear what it was like to grow up in the 1950s – music we listened to, books we read, games we played, clothes we wore, food we ate, schools we attended. They want to understand what it was like to live without computers, fast-food restaurants, iPhones, or Amazon. They ask questions, as I did of my grandparents, trying to understand what it was like to live in a different time. While attention spans can be short – perhaps because of boring and interminable responses! – I know they hear me, just as I heard my grandparents sixty and seventy years ago. What is difficult to comprehend is trying to foresee the stories they will tell their grandchildren, seventy years hence. Will their childhoods seem as primitive to their grandchildren as mine is to them, and my grandparents were to me?

Their activities reflect the eternality of sports, the enduring appeal of extra-curricular programs and the timelessness of youth: playing on the beach, swing-sets and Little League when young. And now a multiplicity of sports and activities: squash, tennis, lacrosse, horseback riding, soccer, cross-country, track, skiing and swimming. One grandson tutors students whose first language is not English. A granddaughter is an Irish dancer. A grandson plays the cello and a granddaughter the violin. Two are in school choirs. Two are accomplished artists, and one has written a yet-unpublished novel. Another volunteers at a riding academy for children with physical disabilities, and one participates in Amnesty International. Two have had summer jobs as camp counselors. We have watched our oldest granddaughter play in a New England squash tournament in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and her cousin play Lacrosse for Darien, Connecticut’s high school. I have taken two granddaughters to riding lessons, and witnessed their improving horsemanship. We have watched two grandsons wallop tennis balls, and others swim, play soccer, lacrosse, squash and run cross-country. They all enjoy being young and are beginning to experience the emotional traumas of the teen years. All ten are fortunate to be living with loving parents in stable families. All ten live relatively close to their needy grandparents.

I live vicariously through them, feeling the ball hit my racquet, the muscles of the horse beneath the saddle, the splash of water in my face, and the sliding of my skis across the snow. I think, this is why we are here.

Having grandchildren recalls time I spent with my grandparents. Mine were born between 1873 and 1888. They grew up before cars or telephones – something improbable to my grandchildren who will ride around in driver-less cars and speak into wrist-watch phones. I remember thinking my grandparents were from another age – gas street lamps, electricity-free homes, horse-drawn street cars – real-life figures that leapt from dusty text books. I knew I would learn from them, and I instinctively knew I was special to them. I loved to hear stories of cows driven down Boston’s Beacon Street, carriages on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, and life on a tobacco farm in Tennessee. Grandparenthood is to be treasured. It is a joy.

My youngest grandson made a disparaging comment about Communism. He was asked, condescendingly, by his well-read older brother: “You don’t even know what Communism is?” “Yes, I do. It’s when two people work, one for two hours and the other for ten hours, and they both get paid the same.” There was enough truth in his answer that I don’t worry about their generation. They know how the world works. As I think about my grandchildren, the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song come to mind:

“May your heart always be joyful;
May your song always be sung;
And, may you stay forever young.”

My message to my grandchildren: You will encounter storms; you will be becalmed, but, with eyes on the horizon, you will reach shore. And, take comfort in the fact that your grandparents – your perfectly correct grandmother and your politically incorrect grandfather – love you unconditionally.

[1] “Physical Malfitness,” Essays After Eighty, 2014

Monday, January 1, 2018

"The Month That Was - December 2017"

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was
December 2017
January 1, 2018

December’s wintery breath is already clouding the pond,
frosting the pane, obscuring summer’s memory.”
                                                                                                John J. Geddes
                                                                                                Author, “A Familiar Rain,” 2011

Seventy-six years ago, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into a World War that had been raging, formally, for over two years, since Germany invaded Poland on September 2, 1939. But Nazi militancy had begun earlier. They had re-armed beyond what they were allowed under the Treaty of Versailles in the early ‘30s.  They had reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 and they had annexed Austria in March 1938. A year later, in March 1939, Czechoslovakia fell. But the Allies did nothing. Eight years earlier, in September 1931, the Kwantung Army of the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria. The world was aflame when Pearl Harbor was attacked. But a giant was stirred, and by war’s end over 60 million people (roughly three percent of the world’s population) were dead – approximately one killed every three seconds!

The most consequential news for the U.S. this past month, and perhaps for all of 2017, was the passage and signing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Its support was narrow and partisan, so has been compared to the Affordable Care Act of 2010. But, there is a significant difference. The ACA was designed to give government more resources, and greater control and power. This Bill gives government fewer resources, and less control and power. Its center piece is the reduction in the stated federal corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, which is slightly below the world average. The Bill allows businesses to expense capital expenditures (investments) when occurred. As well, companies are incentivized to re-patriate about $2.5 trillion held abroad. Tax rates for individuals were lowered, albeit modestly. The deductibility of state and local income taxes (SALT), which serves to mask aggressive spending on the part of many states, including California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and my state of Connecticut, will be limited. That will negatively affect high-earners in those states. I would have preferred a simpler bill, and one, for instance, that acknowledges that “carried interest” is income. But this was the first time in a generation major tax reform has been achieved. The Bill should help boost economic growth.

As significant for economic growth has been the rolling back of regulations. For example, an apple farm in upstate New York, according to The New York Times, is subject to 5,000 rules. The repeal of Net Neutrality was a victory for free markets. The Act had nothing to do with neutrality and everything to do with regulation. It re-categorized broadband from Title I to Title II under the 1934 Communications Act, which meant carriers would be regulated as public utilities. Its elimination was a win for competition and the promise of 5G wireless, which may obviate the monopolies and duopolies of cable and fixed-line carriers.

Elsewhere domestically, the Mueller investigation suffered credibility issues, as anti-Trump bias was shown to be prevalent with a number of Mueller’s senior personnel: Bruce Ohr, Peter Strzok, Andrew Weissmann, Jeanie Rhee and Andrew McCabe. Increasingly, it looks like the collusion that should be investigated was that between the Clinton campaign and the FBI, rather than Russia and the Trump campaign. The Santa Barbara County wildfire in California became the State’s largest. Governor Jerry Brown said such fires are the “new normal!” Late in the month, the Northeast and Midwest of the U.S. were subjected to a prolonged arctic freeze. President Trump signed an Executive Order substantially reducing acreage in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a tract of land so-named on December 28, 2016 by President Obama. Mr. Trump’s decision caused an uproar about separation of powers. However, National Monuments are created by Presidential edict, while National Parks are established by Congress. Doug Jones beat Ray Moore for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Whether this proves good for the citizens of Alabama remains to be seen, but it was good for the nation and especially for the Republican Party. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court backed the President’s travel ban from six predominantly Muslim nations. ISIS-inspired Akayed Ullah, a U.S. citizen and native of Bangladesh, was badly hurt when his suicide vest detonated prematurely on a Times Square subway platform. There were no other injuries.

President Trump announced that he would do what the three most recent Presidents promised but never did – move the U. S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. The anti-Israeli (and anti-US) bias of the UN was shown in a ceremonial vote condemning the U.S. decision, which passed 128-9, with 35 abstaining and 21 not participating. Voting with the majority were China, Russia, most EU nations, and such bulwarks of democracy as Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Iran and Venezuela. I am proud that Nikki Haley is our UN Ambassador. She was the first female governor of South Caroline, is the daughter of immigrants, and is a staunch defender of liberty. Guatemala announced it would move its embassy to Jerusalem. The Czech Republic and nine other countries are in discussions with Israel to do the same. An ISIS Caliphate in Syria is over, but in December over 400 people died in about 60 Islamic terrorist attacks.

A 2018 “red alert for the world” was issued by the Secretary General of the UN. Finance ministers from the five largest EU countries warned that the Republican tax proposal would flout international agreements. (They must fear a more competitive U.S.) Brussels dissed Poland’s judicial overhauls, triggering a never-used sanction procedure, a “nuclear option,” – the final stage of which would be the suspension of Poland’s voting rights within the EU. The dispute is over the appointment and removal of judges, with Warsaw claiming the need to purge judges appointed during the country’s Communist past, and Brussels arguing that doing so violates separation of powers. In a New York Times article last month, Liz Alderman wrote of how Europe’s thirst for cheap labor has fueled a boom in “disposable workers” – her words. EU rules allow citizens to work anywhere within the 28-nation bloc, but there are no requirements that contracts be written in a language understood by the employee, and there are no requirements that minimum wages be paid or that overtime matches that of the country in which they are working. (The EU has become less and less democratic. It serves its largest members, Germany and France, at the expense of its southern and eastern members. The Euro has provided Germany with a cheap currency, while giving southern and eastern European countries an expensive currency.)  In my opinion, Britain is wise to exit the Union.

During the month, President Trump made a major foreign policy speech, which Arthur Herman of the Hudson Policy Institute suggested may usher in a new era of global stability – something at odds with conventional thinking. Chile’s former president Sebastián Piñera defeated center-left candidate Alejandro Guillier who had been backed by the outgoing Leftist president Michelle Bachelet. The shift to the right saw the Ipsa stock index jump seven percent. Separatists won the majority of elections in Catalonia, indicating concerns with Madrid remain. In a replay of the failed 2009 Green Revolution, protests broke out in Iran, with twelve people killed, so far. Further sanctions were imposed on North Korea.

In financial markets, stocks rose modestly for the month, but provided the year with their best performance since 2013. The bull market is now nine years old. Nobody can predict its end. But, as one investment advisor recently wrote, “…be careful what you buy.” In the U.S., the value of IPO’s (initial public offerings) doubled in 2017, after 2016’s ten-year low. Volatility, measured by the DJIA rising or falling more than one and a half percent in a single session, fell to record low levels. In 2017, there were only two such days. To put that in perspective, 2016 had that level of volatility on nineteen days, and in 2008, at the height of the credit crisis, the DJIAs rose or fell by more than one and a half percent on a hundred days. A dangerous complacency? Perhaps, but consumer confidence is at a 17-year high (or just below, as it fell modestly in December) and unemployment is at a 17-year low. During the month, the Federal Reserve raised Fed Funds rates by 25 basis points to 1.5%, double what it was a year ago, with the consequence being a yield curve flattening. During the year, the yield on the Three-month rose from 0.46% to 1.39%, while the yield on the Ten-year fell from 2.48% to 2.43%. Bitcoins began the month at $9,872.15, reached $19,597.75 on December 17, and closed at $14,405.00. (Keep in mind, they began the year at $976.65.) Are they a fraud? I don’t know, but they have no intrinsic value. I don’t own any and would not. Goldman Sachs announced on December 7 that they would clear Bitcoin futures’ contracts, “for at least some clients.” A $69 billion CVS proposed merger with Aetna was announced, which will result in the latter’s CEO having a $500 million pay day! The Dakota Access Pipeline has increased oil production, and reduced oil-train traffic, a bane for Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern, but a boon for the environment. A strong Holiday shopping season and a boost in November jobs suggest fourth quarter GDP growth will come in above 3%. If it does, it will be the strongest consecutive period of economic growth since 2007. Interest rates in Europe remain low: At the start of the month Portugal issued 1.3 billion of five-year, floating-rate notes with a yield of 1.1%. Given their reported consumer price inflation of 1.4%, the buyer is getting a negative return of minus 30 basis points, before taxes. Do we have any bridges for sale?

In other news, Russian election officials barred opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running in next year’s election. In Australia, Chan Han Choi, a native of South Korea, was arrested for brokering the sale of missiles and missile components to North Korea. Fifteen UN peacekeepers (all from Tanzania) were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo by “militant extremists.” Playing God has consequences. Efforts to save the Sumatran tiger is negatively impacting the Sumatran elephant, and requiring the need for more protected forests on Indonesia’s largest island. Uber is the disruptive technology the establishment hates most. It is anti-union. The European Union’s highest court ruled that the company, which owns no cars, is a transportation company, not a technology platform, so subject to myriad rules and regulations.

A Gallup Poll showed millennials are growing skeptical toward capitalism and favorable toward socialism. A failure to check sources, along with a visceral hatred for President Trump, have given legitimacy to White House charges of “fake” news. According to a report in The New York Times (which excluded itself from any culpability) examples of fake news have been seen in stories published by CNN, ABC and “several news outlets, including Bloomberg and The Wall Street journal,” The Times also commented – oddly – that the tax bill risks “overheating” the economy. For the second year in a row, life expectancy in the U.S. fell. The drug overdose epidemic was blamed. An apartment building fire in the Bronx killed twelve. A daughter was born to a couple from an embryo frozen twenty-four years ago – the oldest to result in a live birth. And, sadly, twenty-four horses died of smoke inhalation in a barn fire in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Death appeared. The infamous Christine Keeler died at 75; corporate star from the 1980s William Agee at 79; M&T Bank chairman Bob Wilmers, who I knew slightly in the 1960s, at 83; Olympian Bill Steinkraus at 92; Author William Gass at 93; John Anderson, 1980 Presidential candidate, at 95, and King Michael of Romania at 96. Also dying in December was a good friend, John Willson, an expert on Theodore Roosevelt.

December ends with the Christmas season, the most joyous time of the year, even if many of us no longer celebrate its religious aspects with the fervor we once did. Nevertheless, we should not forget its origins, nor its enormous impact. Two thousand years after His birth, Jesus is celebrated by almost a third of the Earth’s population. His message was (and is) one of peace and love. He encourages generosity and fosters the relieving of suffering. But, we know that we (and it) are fallible, that envy, greed and disloyalty entice us. We know that Christian nations were, in part, responsible for the horrors of the last century’s two world wars. But we also know that it was Christian-Judeo nations who stood up to the evil of Nazism, Fascism and Communism. A steep price was paid, but ultimately the good guys won. As we leap into the New Year, I wish you the very best, that peace may reign and that we may voice our opinions without rancor or fear. And I thank you again for your readership.