Sunday, January 19, 2020

"Uncommon Common Sense"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Uncommon Common Sense”
January 19, 2020

Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.”
                                                                                                Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
                                                                                                Literary Remains, Volume 1
                                                                                                Edited Henry Nelson Coleridge, 1836

At some point in the mid 1950s I attended a party at Dr. Edwin Land’s summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I was fifteen and Dr. Land’s thirteen-year-old daughter was my girlfriend. I found myself listening to three or four learned men trying to define horse sense. There was no unanimity. Having grown up with horses, I knew they were not the most intelligent of animals, but I also knew they had enough sense to seek shelter when it rained and come to the barn when hungry for grain. They had (and have) common sense. Horse sense and common sense are born of the same mother, though I was too intimidated to say anything 65 years ago. Webster’s agrees. Horse sense is defined: “the ability to make good judgements.” W. C. Fields also agreed, when he said that “horse sense is a thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” Besides providing a horse laugh, there is a lesson in that adage.

Coleridge was right. Wisdom is the exercise of common sense. Wisdom is rare, especially in politicians who choose political correctness (the world as they would like it to be, not as it is), identity politics (segregation over unity), and victimization (the passing of blame rather than the assuming of responsibility). Common sense bases judgements on empirical evidence, on “self-evident truths,” as Robert Curry wrote in his book Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World. Meanwhile, politicians appeal to emotions, not reason, for example getting attendees pumped at rallies, which common sense says is a reason not to allow early voting.

Facts,” as John Adams is supposed to have said, “are stubborn things.”  Nobody in Washington seems to worry about deficit spending even in a period of economic growth, yet last year’s deficit of just under a trillion dollars is equal to $3,000 per person. The published national debt is an obligation of $80,000 for every man, woman and child in the nation. When one adds in the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security, per person debt rises to $380,000. Facts tell us that our population is aging – that the number of workers is shrinking, while the number of retirees is expanding. Yet, the six candidates for President in last week’s debate in Iowa were interested only in programs that would add to the deficit, add to the national debt and add to unfunded liabilities. Even the Republican Party, the party supposedly of thrift seems to care little about running a fiscally responsible administration. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: “How did we get so stupid so soon?”

Listening to those candidates in Iowa talk about the economy, one would conclude prospects are grim for lower income folks and depression is around the corner. They claimed things have worsened for lower income workers since Mr. Trump took office. Yet facts tell a different story. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is the lowest in fifty years. Employment for Blacks and Hispanics is the highest on record. Last year, income gains for the bottom tenth of workers rose faster than income gains for the top ten percent – something that never happened during the Obama years. Net worth gains for the bottom half of households have risen 47% since the 2016 election, according to the Wall Street Journal. U.S. GDP, in the first three years of the Trump administration, has risen 30% faster than it did during the last seven years of the Obama administration. And, take the Trump Tax Reform Bill: When Democrats shed crocodile tears over the unfairness of the Bill, were (are) they thinking of the 20% reduction in rates for median households, or were (are) they really concerned that deductions for state and local taxes were limited to $10,000? Keep in mind, for plutocrats in California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – those making two million dollars – the limit has cost each $100,000 or more. Between Democrats and Republicans debate, whose policies have done more for working people, and which party is appealing to common sense and which to sensibilities, as Jane Austen might have asked?  

Or take the killing of Qassim Soleimani. Here was a man that all facts demonstrated had been implicated in the deaths of thousands of Americans and even more Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Lebanese and even fellow Iranians. Yet, the Left found it more palatable to see him as a martyr, a Martin Luther King, or, at a minimum, an Iranian politician deserving of respect. His death became a rallying point to curb the ability of the American President to respond to imminent, or even not so imminent, threats. And what about the problems of illegal immigration, border walls and sanctuary cities? There are, by some estimates, thirty million illegals in this country. And there are those who do not see this as a problem, financially, socially and culturally? Does it not make sense to control immigration? It is not a question of not wanting immigrants. We need them for the jobs they perform  and for what they offer the Country. We need, in my opinion, more legal immigrants. But should not all of us want to control the process? A wall may not be the only (or even the best) answer, but it won’t increase the flow of illegals. Sanctuary cities break federal law. Would it be okay if a city in Idaho or Texas broke federal laws regarding the carrying of firearms? Or should mayors and governors enforce only those federal laws they like? Should judges be allowed to make laws, or should that be the responsibility of legislatures, or a referendum voted on by the people? Was not our government, a nation of laws, set up on the principle of three independent branches, with clear and distinct responsibilities – a legislature to enact laws, an executive to administer them and a judiciary to interpret them. Each branch serves as a check on the other two. Common sense says that the answers to these questions are not complicated. The problem is, as Will Rogers once said, “Common sense ain’t common.”

But it is in the politicization of our changing climate where common sense is most needed, yet it is where it has been abandoned most ardently. Michael Moore and Al Gore made fortunes predicting catastrophes that never happened. Admittedly, there is a small coterie who do not believe that man has any affect on climate. But man is not the only cause of climate change. Why, for example, did global temperatures decline during the 1940s when the world was engulfed in the spewing of toxic gasses from bombs and vehicles during World War II. (According to a May 2007 edition of NewScientist, global temperatures dropped 0.02 degrees during the decade.) There are millions of people in our ivy-coated universities and colleges who do not seem to understand the power of nature. They appear unaware of the way in which the world has changed over millions of years, of tectonic shifts that have caused continents to shift, mountains to rise and shorelines to move – all long before man began spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Consider the energy produced from volcanoes, like the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington that produced energy equal to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Or think of the fact that one average hurricane crossing the Atlantic produces the energy equivalent to approximately half the electrical generating capacity of the planet. Nature is still more powerful than man. Common sense says we shouldn’t live in the path of hurricanes or within the range of volcanoes, yet populations living in coastal areas continue to expand at a rate 50% above the national average. And, we should not forget, technology has improved conditions in the U.S. Since 2005, carbon emissions have fallen 14% while GDP has increased 50%. Why? It had nothing to do with the 2015 Paris Agreement. The reason had to do with technology– fracking and horizontal drilling that allowed cleaner natural gas to replace oil and the capture of carbon emissions from coal plants. Energy from solar and wind will continue, and we should encourage their expansion, but today they contribute less than ten percent of our energy needs.

My point is not to argue that climate change is not real. It is and always has been. Evidence suggests the Earth is in a warming period and storms, it is claimed, are more frequent. It is the politicization of the issue that has put emotion above reason. We should focus on the elimination of pollutants not because that will affect temperatures, but because a cleaner environment is healthier and more pleasant. To believe that man can halt the increase in temperatures or cause the oceans to stop rising is to believe the sun revolves around the Earth.

If the Earth continues to warm, and to the extent natural causes are in part to blame, are we not better off to focus on adaption than seeking blame? The Country, and ultimately the world, will move away from fossil fuels, but the move should not come at the expense of economic growth, as is happening in Europe where they have not only placed their economy at risk but also their security. Energy independence has empowered the U.S., made it safer and allowed us to face global tensions with more confidence. Consider the difference between the U.S. and Europe. With North Sea wells drying up, Europe imports its energy needs from Russia, the Middle East and Africa. Yet, we read that the amount of shale gas in Europe is thought to exceed that in the U.S. As well, they have given up on nuclear power. Is it not realistic to believe that European energy companies would be more environmentally friendly than those in Russia, the Middle East or Africa? It is a lack of common sense that prevents them from tapping their own resources and building nuclear power plants. A lack of energy independence has made Europe hostage to a hostile Russia and a volatile Middle East and Africa. In the meantime, with an aging and shrinking populations, their economies have been anemic since the 2008 credit crisis.

My father used to tell me to never argue with a dope, because a passerby could not distinguish one from the other. Thomas Paine is alleged to have said something similar: “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” Politics is the search for and the exercise of power. As it has descended into a morass of emotionalism and away from reason, it has made our lives increasingly divisive. Our universities should be bastions of search, reason and debate. Instead, they have become advocates for passion and histrionics. The same can be said about our media. The search for truth and sense has been abandoned. “Common sense is not so common,” Voltaire reminded us in his A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary. The responsibility of educators and pundits should be to make common sense more common.                                                                                                


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"A Look Back to the Past Decade"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Look Back to the Past Decade”
January 14, 2020

Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does
will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.”
                                                                                    Attributed to Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006)
                                                                                    French journalist and philosopher
In his 1961 work, A Study of History (a study of the rise and fall of twenty-three civilizations), Arnold Toynbee concluded that civilizations die from suicide, not by murder, brought on by a decline in the moral fiber of society. When a New York Times reporter compared the killing of Qassim Soleimani to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Left never blinked, despite the implied insult to the Reverend King, his family and followers. When the West fails to defend the genocide of Christians in Africa, but are supplicant to Muslims who murder them, does that reflect a moral stance or a fear of retaliation? “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage,” spoke Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the Harvard commencement in 1978. The decline in moral courage has worsened over the past forty-two years. We in the West are more prosperous than ever before, yet we are filled with discontent: If we are black, we are victims; if we are white, we are supremacists; if we are Jews, we are subject to anti-Semitism; if we are Asian, we suffer from reverse discrimination. Unemployment, including minority unemployment, is the lowest in fifty years, and 2019 year-over-year wage growth was the highest for low-wage earners. Yet few of us seem happy with who we are. Perhaps because family has been subordinated to the village and the state?

There were, during the past decade, trends that might be a cause of this despair. While none began in the Twenty-teens, they accelerated over the past ten years. All stem from a desire for power, a sense of political correctness and identity politics coated in hypocrisy, and a belief we should apologize for the success we have had, individually and collectively. We were told we didn’t build the business we built. We tear down statues that represent our history. Hashtags rule and victimization reigns. In colleges and universities, the humanities have been attacked as representing only dead white males who promoted exclusivity. We are told to be inclusive, but not when it comes to political opinions. Where, for example, is the diversity of ideas promoted by a racially and sexually diverse slate of Democrat candidates for President?

Four trends come to mind: The increasing estrangement between bureaucratic global institutions like the United Nations and the European Union and the nation states that compose them; the aging of populations, especially in Western nations and Japan; the decline of participation in organized religion, and the curtailment of free speech. The consequence has been disillusionment and partisanship, fueled by supercilious entertainers and journalists whose readership and viewership are in decline.

Our democracy is predicated on the principle of representative self-government. A concerned and knowledgeable voter is assumed. When America’s Constitution was written in 1787, it was a revolutionary document, even though democracy had been invented in Athens in the Fifth Century BC by the statesman Cleisthenes. The idea that people could govern themselves was, nevertheless, a radical concept in the 18th Century, as Athenian democracy barely survived a century before morphing into rule by the elite.

Today there are those, including me, who fear a similar fate for our democracy. We see the rise of non-representative global institutions like the United Nations and the European Union, both staffed with appointed bureaucrats, unaccountable to the people of the nations they represent. This Orwellian world was anticipated by Margaret Thatcher in May1992. A few months after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, she wrote an article for The European: “Experience has taught us that the best system under which to live is a democracy where members of parliament are seen to be accountable to the electorate.” She assured her readers that she was as idealistic about Europe as federalists: “We are,” she wrote, “just less federal.” Today, the European Commission and Parliament employ over 55,000 people in Brussels, Luxembourg City, Strasburg and Frankfurt. Parliamentarians from the twenty-eighty countries in the EU impose taxes and write laws, which affect the domestic affairs of individual states. So, the question arises: Will bureaucrats in Brussels preserve democracy in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Warsaw, or will they drift, as they have, toward rule by non-elected elitists?

The United Nations has expanded its responsibilities beyond its Charter, signed in June 1945. Its original purpose was to be responsible for maintaining peace, developing friendly relations and achieving international cooperation among nations. It has grown from 51 nations, with a staff of 300 in 1945, to 193 nations and a staff of 44,000 today. It has instituted campaigns for issues like “sustainable development goals,” “climate change,” “sexual violence in conflict and “preventing sexual exploitation and abuse” – all worthy goals, but should misogynist autocrats in Syria tell Danes how to behave toward women? Should Muslim clerics in Iran preach religious tolerance to Israelis? Should Chinese dictators educate Americans on environmentalism? Should Macau and Luxembourg lecture Mali and Burundi on agriculture and water rights? Bureaucrats, justifying their jobs, have created a quagmire that mocks its original purpose. Departments like the Human Rights Council, with a membership that includes representatives from Libya, Venezuela, Somalia and Pakistan – all violators of human rights – are more concerned with equality in representation than with the promotion of human rights.

Demography is destiny” is a quote generally attributed to the 19th Century French philosopher of positivism Auguste Comte (1798-1857). It holds that the future well-being of a nation is dictated by births and deaths, immigration and emigration – that a shrinking and aging population leads to economic stagnation and eventual decline. The example of Japan suggests those trends can be mitigated – at least for a while – by the use of debt. But ultimately such a nation is left with fewer and older people to pay off ever-increasing financial obligations. The CIA, in their The World Fact Book for 2017, lists 224 countries by total fertility rate (TFR) – the average number of live births to a woman over her lifetime. For a population to show an increase, a number of 2.1 is needed. Of those countries listed, 106 show a TFR of below 2.1. With the exception of Israel, no Western, wealthy or democratic nation is replacing its population through births. This is a worrying trend for anyone who believes that it has been the liberal ideals and ideas of the West that have given mankind democratic governments, individual liberty and sustained rises in standards of living. TFRs in Europe and the U.S., for example, were about 3.8 in 1950; today, they are 1.6 and 1.7 respectively. The median age in Europe in 1960 was about thirty-three. Today, it is forty-three. In the U.S., the numbers have gone from twenty-nine and a half to thirty-eight. Lyman Stone, writing in the January 2020 issue of National Review, wrote that the global decline in births over the past decade is a function of concern over wealth and housing. Low birthrates suggest pessimism for the future. The consequences will be felt not only in terms of slower economic growth, but in rising risks to the preservation of democratic institutions and, in fact, the physical safety of the people.

A Pew Research survey in June 2018 equated more education and greater wealth with lower church attendance. Ironically, the greater the income inequality in a nation the higher the church attendance, which explains why nations in Africa, South America and parts of Asia have greater church attendance than those in Europe and the United States. The wealthier we are and the more we know (or think we know), the less our need for God. A 2010 Eurobarometer survey showed that only 51% of Europeans believed in God. It is difficult to imagine that that trend reversed in the past ten years. In the twenty-five years between 1980 and 2005, church attendance in England declined by 40%. In France, the number of churches vandalized in 2018 was 1063 – almost three a day. While Christianity is in decline, Islam has been ascendant. According to Giuliu Meotti, cultural editor of Il Folgio, over the past thirty years more mosques and Muslim prayer centers have been built in France than all Catholic churches in the past century. While Muslims represent only 9% of France’s population (the largest percentage in Europe), more of them attend weekly religious services than do Christians. TFRs for Muslim women in Europe is about twice that of Christians and Jews. In the U.S., statistics are similar. A Pew Research survey done in October 2019 showed that 65% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, down twelve percentage points in the past decade. The losses have been evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics. What makes these figures more troubling (at least to those of us who feel that, on balance, religion has been a force for good) is the combination of declining religious beliefs with an aging population, not what one would have expected.

The First Amendment of our Constitution provides our right to free speech, along with freedom to assemble and to practice the religion of our choice. It was a revolutionary concept in 1787. Those rights have been challenged and, in times of war, abrogated. We are now living through such a period, with conservatives being denied opportunities to speak on campuses, with “hate” speech being defined as anything uncomfortable to whomever deems it so, and with ubiquitous, private technology companies imposing their own views as to what is acceptable in terms of speech and what is not. There is no question that decency and respect help society be more livable. But the risk of imposing any limitation – whether it is the Right’s concern about big tech’s preference for Leftist politics, or the Left’s refusal to allow conservatives to speak on campuses – is that it is akin to a camel getting its nose under the proverbial tent. A restriction based on a dislike for “hate” speech will lead to restrictions on other speech at odds with which ever Party is in power. We should never forget that we have the right not to listen to and not to read those with whom we disagree. Civilized people recognize that opinions differ and that it is through reasoned and respectful debate that solutions are found. The Golden Rule had its origins in the Bible, when Jesus described it as the second great commandment: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Words to live by, even though a strict obeisance might have denied comedians like Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield. That would have been unfortunate, as I believe the world would be the poorer for their absence. Nevertheless, for those who find their humor repulsive, listening is not mandatory. But the ability to laugh at one’s self is healthy in a complex, racially and religious-mixed society where humor and tolerance are needed.

Some will disagree with the list: On both sides of the aisle there are those, like me, worried about the size of our deficit – who recognize debt is an obligation, both financially and morally. Some on the Right might say that Trump Hate Syndrome has despoiled our politics. Others on the Left might claim that it has been Mr. Trump who is putting at risk our democratic institutions, including the Presidency and the Judiciary. Still others on the Left would include climate change, saying that mankind is destroying the Earth and that our time is limited, while the Right could point to the legions of Cassandras who wrongly predicted that mega-droughts and rising sea levels would bring famine and pestilence. But, in my opinion Trump is not the risk claimed, and hatred blinds the assessment of his opponents. As for those doomsayers, they have been hoisted on their own petard – the world has improved over the decade, in terms of poverty and the environment, at least in developed countries, which offer a map for developing countries.  

Nevertheless, what is troubling about these trends, if in fact they are trends, is that they offer bleak prospects for those of us – and our children and grandchildren – brought up within the wisdom from the Enlightenment that allowed freedom and democracy to blossom, which abetted economic growth that bettered standards of living, that provided moral teachings and the courage and certitude to differentiate right from wrong, good from evil – to defend the one and combat the other. Nevertheless, and to conclude on a positive note, the recent election in Taiwan and last weekend’s protests against the mullahs in Iran suggest that the desire for freedom is inherent, universal, alive and well.