Monday, November 13, 2017

"Moderation in the Realm of Politics"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Moderation in the Realm of Politics”
November 13, 2017

Moderation in all things, especially moderation.”
                                                                                                Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

When considering moderation in politics, we must differentiate between outcomes and process – ideologies versus behavior. The French political philosopher Montesquieu claimed humans naturally migrate toward the center – that policies are best that accommodate the greatest number. On the other hand, Adam Smith, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, suggested it is moderation in social interactions, regardless of political opinions, which allow people to relate to and understand one another.

Most Americans believe in a mixture of government and personal independence – an equilibrium allowing the country to prosper, while preserving the obligations society demands. Politics is the search for that balance, but it is a Sisyphean struggle that never satisfies everyone. Polarization is today’s political nemesis. Mainstream media argues that extremism, especially from the right, has made people yearn for moderation. As well, blame is laid on social media that gives expression to myriad views and inspires populist politicians to take advantage of the resulting (seemingly) broken system. Blame is also attributed to media outlets like C-SPAN, venues for posturing politicians playing to their ideological bases.

Those desirous for moderation in politics often hark back to the 1950s, a period seen as relatively quiet – a time of normalcy, to borrow a word from the 1920s. But that era of uniformity, in the long history of our country, was atypical. The number of newspapers had declined, and was still falling. Talk radio did not exist. Television was in its infancy, with only three network television stations, each with fifteen-minute or half-hour news segments. There was little difference between John Chancellor of NBC, Walter Cronkite of CBS and John Daly of ABC. There were no forums for alternative views. We were trapped in a monolith, with little option but to conform. But that is not as it always was. Pamphleteers and writers of broadsheets, in the early years of our republic, provided thousands of people the opportunity to vent individual opinions, much like bloggers today.

Five years ago, David Brooks wrote: “The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping opposite sides balanced…that most public issues involve trade-offs.” But he added, “Being moderate does not mean being tepid.” I agree. It is not moderate outcomes we need, but moderation in the way we present and debate ideas – we should be civil, but should never underestimate the rarity and value of freedom. It is fundamental to our being, as Senator Barry Goldwater made clear when he declared in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In the years since Goldwater spoke, our government has become more bureaucratic and, consequently, less free. Those who support more government search for opportunities that give breath to their desire for more bureaucracy. We saw it in the last Administration, from the environment to healthcare to education. The internet, its ubiquity, the memes it creates and its unwitting promotion of extremism, is another example. Claims that Russia hacked our election has given legitimacy to the demand for more regulation of the internet and social media. “The Economist” jumped into the fray this past week, with a title story sub-headlined, “Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis.” The article referenced the disinformation campaigns of Vladimir Putin’s Russia into Ukraine, France, Germany and the U.S. They quoted officials from Facebook who claimed that Russian-paid ads reached about 40% of our population. But, keep in mind, Facebook has said that Russian ads added $100,000 to revenues last year, while total fourth quarter 2016 ad revenues were $8.81 billion. In the scheme of things, Russia was not that important to Facebook. Social media has allowed millions to express themselves, some in polarizing fashion, with many – perhaps most – making unsupported allegations. But, legitimate opinions, based on facts and solid work, are also expressed. (I could not write and publish as I do, without the internet.) Separating fact from fiction is difficult. In 1971, the economist Herbert Simon warned: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” With knowledge doubling every twelve months, the amount of data readily available has vastly increased and methods of communication are more varied and numerous than forty-six years ago. But, we restrict it at our peril.

Attempts to control or regulate social media lead to bigger concerns. Who, for example, will watch the watchers? Could not this become Orwell’s Big Brother in Oceania? The problem is not dissimilar to attempts to control campaign finance spending. Those in favor may be well-intentioned, but consequences are not always as intended. Well-funded candidates with smart lawyers find loopholes. I am not an anarchist, but I do know that every regulation imposed diminishes someone’s freedom. As a paid-up citizen of the U.S., I appreciate the need for government and regulation, but I also know that authoritarianism can descend from a bureaucratic administrative state.

In his recent book, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in the Age of Extremes, Aurelian Craitu, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, wrote that Plato defined moderation as “the virtue that allows us to control our passions, emotions and desires.” He noted that democratic institutions depend on politicians acting with “self-restraint, common sense and moderation;” yet “we live in a world of hyperbole and political intransigence.” In such a world, “moderation appears as a bland, incoherent and undesirable virtue,” unlikely to succeed in a political campaign. (Think of Mitt Romney – smart, decent, but unexciting.)

Political extremism does cause people to yearn for moderation. But, we should be careful, less moderation leads to uniformity. Many want the balance of which David Brooks wrote. But, do we arrive there with moderate-thinking politicians? Or, are we better off with those who believe passionately in their causes, but are flexible and pragmatically inclined to accept what they can? Like Stuart Little’s quest, the search for perfection in government goes on. We are a diverse nation, with multiple ideologies. We can and should debate issues, but in a forum of civility where principles are not sacrificed and where moderators (and the media) are impartial. It is compromise that is missing in Washington. When selective colleges put together freshmen classes they don’t seek the best all-round high school seniors; they look for the best musician, the best athlete, the best artist, the best math, science, history and literature students – all ‘extremists’ in their fields – to compose, in composite, a class that reflects the ideal they desire. Should not Washington have the best legislators, men and women who are principled but not inflexible?

Professor Craitu added: “An able politician…resembles a good funambulist: he or she needs balance in all respects, must be prudent, alert and quick to react…He or she must have the courage to go against the grain when needed, and should always demand the other side be heard on any controversial topic.” Self-righteousness and partisanship have become common in Washington. The moderation we need is in behavior, not policies. One should not be moderate in one’s views toward liberty, freedom and democracy.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Trump - Mean. Misunderstood, or...?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump – Mean, Misunderstood, or…?”
November 6, 2017

Because they are mean is no reason why I should be. I hate such things,
and though I think I have the right to be hurt, I don’t intend to show it.”
                                                                                                            Little Women, 1868
                                                                                                            Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

The campaign to sully Donald Trump’s reputation is without precedent. Of course, much of it is his own doing. It was, after all, Mr. Trump who created monikers like “little” Marco, “low energy” Jeb and “crooked” Hillary. Genius for inventing names, even those with a modicum of truth, is not appreciated by those assigned them. But, does such behavior suggest meanness? We read that some who have had business dealings with Mr. Trump claim to have been cheated. Some friends that I like and respect think he is mean. Others disagree. Is he? I don’t know; though those who know him best think he is not, but they may be biased. I don’t know the man. Once, years ago, I was introduced to him at the ‘21’ Club in New York – a matter of about thirty seconds, hardly enough time to form an opinion. On the other hand, mainstream media, along with coastal elites and Washington mandarins, have no qualms claiming the President to be a deceitful, undignified, crude, misogynist, xenophobic bigot. But, keep in mind, these are the same people who told us Ronald Reagan was a dumb movie star and that George W. Bush was a brainless spoiled brat. Perhaps partisanship plays a role? Unlike his Republican predecessors who either used humor to deflect criticism or who ignored such jabs, Mr. Trump fights back.

Politics, as has been said many times, is a blood sport – a game, at least in recent years, better played by the Left than the Right. But, Mr. Trump is a man who plays hard ball, just as do Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. In the absence of a return to civility, which seems unlikely, we will have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like. Both Parties would do well to re-read the proverb about people in glass houses not throwing stones, but my guess is they won’t. And the media sees what it wants to see.

Mr. Trump is a manifestation of our culture and politics. He did not suddenly appear, like a Phoenix. As Hoover Institute Fellow Victor Davis Hanson wrote last May, “Critics miss the fact that Trump is not a catalyst, but a reflection of contemporary culture.” In politics, we get what we deserve.

Decency, respect, civility have withered. Historically, our culture – the civil behavior that guides our lives – was based on our Christian-Judeo heritage. Today, we live in a changed, multi-layered society. Political correctness has replaced common sense. Church attendance is down. Each year, the United States loses about 3000 churches, and about 2.7 million church members become inactive. Bricks and mortar do not make a good Christian, or a good person; but attendance encourages reflection and fellowship – important ingredients in civil society. Manners, likewise, have long disappeared. Opening car doors for women is considered sexist, as is saying, “ladies first.” Instead, pornography, graphic sex, vulgarities proliferate. Our historical culture has been subsumed by a multi-culturalism unrecognizable to prior generations. Respect is no longer innate. It is legislated, as in California’s Gender Recognition Act, while our flag is disrespected by NFL players. Patriotism today has a negative connotation. It is confused with nationalism, yet the former demands responsibility as well as love for one’s country, while the latter infers blind obeisance.

Where have honesty and respect for political office gone? Sixty-five years ago, ex-President Truman drove himself and his wife back to Missouri. When offered a corporate board seat, he declined. “You don’t want me. You want the office of the President, and it’s not for sale.” Fast forward to 2001. Since leaving the White House, the Clinton’s amassed a fortune by selling connections made possible by the Presidency. So has Al Gore, even though he had only the Vice Presidency to offer. Dozens of members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have seen elected office lead to private gain. We live in Madonna’s “Material World.” The rich and famous are idolized in the press. “Super” mansions have replaced “McMansions.” Politicians don’t want to be left out. They like the accoutrements wealth brings.

Lenny Bruce shocked audiences sixty years ago, with words in common usage today – in songs, movies and late-night comedy shows. Listen to rap musicians, look at most video games. We have become inured to vulgarity. Snoop Dogg’s new album cover shows a dead President Trump lying on a slab in a morgue, below a taste-less caption: “Make America ‘Crip’ Again” Your parents and grandparents would have been horrified at such language and images. The Left claims to be the defender of equality, yet, as we know, work place harassment has not been limited to those on the Right. Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School says the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have set back women’s rights twenty years.

A double standard has become standard. Elementary school children in Burlington, New Jersey were taught to sing praises to their “savior,” Barack Obama, in 2009. Last month in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an elementary school librarian dismissed Melania Trump’s gift: “We don’t want your books.” Do universities and a biased media affect what people think? Of course. Bill Clinton had an intern perform oral sex on him, yet his approval ratings averaged over 50%. Kathy Griffin appeared on national television holding a mask of the severed head of Donald Trump, yet he is regularly referred to as a Nazi and murderer by late-night hosts, and his ratings are in the mid-30% range. Where have standards gone? What values do these actions – and their responses – teach the next generations? What do they say about us? Is it no wonder that authoritarians in Russia, China and the Middle East see the West as a civilization in decline?

Mr. Trump is no Saint, and he was not my first choice during the primaries, but neither is he the devil. We cannot have two sets of standards – one for hypocritical, Washington liberals adored by coastal elites, the media and Hollywood, and another for the man favored by middle class families across America’s midsection.

What is needed is a re-assertion of belief in the essential goodness of our Christian-Judeo culture, with its focus on individual freedom, human rights, rule of law and respect for others. Our culture has proved superior to others, as has our system of government. We need politicians, optimistic for the future, who emphasize that democracy and free-market capitalism have been better for liberty and the world’s poor, than totalitarianism and socialism. We should be reminded that it has been these traits that have made America a beacon to the world’s poor and oppressed. We are not perfect. Like each of us, our Country is a work in progress. It constantly needs small adjustments. But we should not be ashamed of who we are.

Is Trump mean, or is he misunderstood? Perhaps he is both, but I would suggest neither. I am not convinced he is mean, or certainly no meaner than your average Washington politician. As for being misunderstood, I suspect anti-Trumpers know exactly what he is. He is an anti-establishment figure, at a time when the establishment is mired in the muck of self-righteous hubris. Mr. Trump has, as Holman Jenkins recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, a “clarion contempt” for Washington’s politicians and the swamp that surrounds them. He is a maverick, so a risk to those who feed off and prosper on a diet of hypocrisy and self-serving sanctimony. But, he is also a negotiator, so may help ward off inflexible extremists on the Left and the Right, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"The Month That Was - October 2017"

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was
“October 2017”
October 31, 2017

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.”
                                                                                                A Boy’s Will,1915
                                                                                                Robert Frost (1874-1963)

October 24th marked the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia. The rise of Communism gave birth to the world’s deadliest ideology – far worse than Nazism and Fascism, in terms of the number of people subjected to imprisonment, terror and death. Yet does the world associate Communism with evil commensurate with its history? I think not. In the Soviet Union alone, subtracting the number of Soviet soldiers and citizens killed in World II, an estimated twenty million were killed by Stalin. About forty-five million were killed in China by Mao Zedong. Between seven and ten million Ukrainians died during the Soviet-inspired “Holodomor,” in 1932-33. Approximately two million Cambodians – almost a third of the population – died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Millions were killed in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, East Germany, Rumania, Bulgaria, Ethiopia and other places. Communism killed as many people as died in the two world wars of the last century. As Bruce Thornton, classicist and Hoover research fellow recently put it, its history is a “…road to utopia [that] runs over mountains of corpses. Today, it is not Communism that concerns us, but its half-brother Socialism. Despite its failure in places like Venezuela and in Europe where unrestrained Muslim immigration has created segregated neighborhoods and increased government dependency, it has become popular in the U.S. among followers of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

During the month, elections were held in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and a re-run, in Africa (Kenya). Elections in Austria and the Czech Republic moved both countries to the right, meaning people are still concerned about terrorism, immigration and economic growth. Sebastian Kurz will become, at age 31, Europe’s youngest leader, when he assumes the Chancellorship of Austria. In the Czech Republic, Andrei Babis, former finance minister, populist and billionaire businessman, won a “thumping” victory, as Prime Minister-designate. The Catalans declared independence, and Spain’s parliament granted Prime Minister Rajoy powers to enforce union. Catalonia has simmered a long time. In 2006, Madrid promised the region increased autonomy. Four years later – amidst recession and financial crisis – they reneged on that promise. This is a story of disillusionment with bureaucratic and distant administrative governments run by elites. While immigration was pivotal in Brexit, the bigger problem is politicians who are deaf to the people they represent and who are unaffected by the policies they promote. We are witnessing a backlash against hypocrisy, arrogance and authoritarianism, in Brussels, Madrid and other capitals.  

In Japan, Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won its third landslide victory. Abe, an ally of the U.S. and a friend of President Trump, is an advocate for more defense spending. He benefitted from North Korea’s militant rhetoric and an improved economy. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif returned as Prime Minister and as head of the Pakistan Muslim League two months after being disqualified on charges of corruption. In Argentina, President Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal Party increased its seats in both the legislature and the senate, while former president Christina Kirchner’s Justicialist Party lost seats. A re-run of August’s race in Kenya was won again by current president Uhuru Kenyatta.

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces took back the Al-Omar oil fields – Syria’s most productive – from ISIS forces, fields that had been captured in 2014. Elsewhere, Islamic terrorists persisted in their work. Almost 400 people died in Somalia, when separate truck and car bombs exploded, the work of al-Shabaab militants. In Marseilles, two women were stabbed to death by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar.” The assailant was shot dead. At least seventeen died in Cameroon, in two provinces bordering Nigeria. In all, over 700 people died during the month at the hands of Islamic extremists. Good news came toward the end of the month, when 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon said his country would return to “moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” It should be remembered that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

A Chinese Communist Party’s recent meeting positioned China’s President Xi Jinping as “pre-eminent leader,” with added powers and no successor, something not seen since Mao Zedong. It ends a period of collective leadership. Following an illness that infected U.S. embassy personnel in Havana, fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from their embassy in Washington. The Iran nuclear deal was not re-certified by President Trump, as required every three months, but sent to Congress for ratification.

Fifty-eight people were killed and 489 wounded by a lone gunman in Las Vegas. Almost immediately, anti-gun politicians politicized the tragedy, ignoring the fact that it is the person pulling the trigger who is at fault, not the weapon. Nevertheless, a question: how was Stephen Paddock able to buy so many high-powered rifles legally in such a short period? Technology today is such that red flags should have been raised when he purchased the third, fourth through eighteenth assault rifle. Was he planning on arming a regiment? The internet should allow for a repository of gun-purchase information available to all legitimate gun dealers. General John Kelly’s sterling defense of Donald Trump’s call to a bereaved Gold Star widow was politicized by a callow member of Congress with no sense of dignity or respect. The condemnation of Harvey Weinstein’s despicable behavior toward women set off a deluge of accusations against other men, including a ridiculous accusation that 93-year-old, wheel chair-bound, ex-President George H.W. Bush misbehaved toward a young woman.

Russian interference in last year’s election became more complex. Robert Mueller indicted Paul Manafort, a former campaign chairman for Mr. Trump, and Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates. They were charged in a 12-point indictment, including conspiracy to commit money laundering. Also, it was disclosed that Hillary Clinton and the DNC paid $12.4 million to the Washington Law firm, Perkins Coie. The law firm then used the money to pay the Washington research firm Fusion GPS to hire discredited, retired British spy Christopher Steele. He, in turn, paid unknown and unidentified Russians to tell stories about Mr. Trump, in reckless disregard as to whether the stories were true or not. Specifically, who in the Clinton campaign and who at the DNC authorized those payments remains a mystery. Fusion GPS has refused to testify. The United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence began investigations into the 2013 purchase by Rosatom, a state-owned Russian uranium company (and a contributor to the Clinton Foundation) of Canadian-based Uranium One, which produces 20% of the U.S.’s uranium – a deal approved by the Obama Administration, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

A budget resolution was passed by both houses of Congress that allows a tax bill to be approved with a simple majority. That vote is expected by the end of the year. The Supreme Court began a new term with a full complement of nine justices. Issues will include the right of a baker to refuse to supply a wedding cake to same-sex couples and the right of a federal employee to refuse to pay union dues. In a speech at Harvard, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke, amid catcalls, of how school choice for the poor and disadvantaged empowers families, creates room for healthy diversity and is consistent with historic aims of public education. Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard, explained that President Trump’s “calm before the storm” comment was a message to North Korea and Iran.

Despite Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, U.S. GDP grew at 3% in the third quarter, surprising most economists. While most markets were calm during the month, the Bitcoin price soared 40%. In October, Goldman Sachs reported they would trade the crypto-currency. But trading an instrument is not the same as recommending it. Volatility and liquidity are what traders want. October 19th marked the 30th anniversary of “Black Monday,” a non-event this year. Amazon asked states and municipalities to bid on a second headquarters. Warren Buffett, whom it is better to watch what he does than what he says, bought a controlling stake in Pilot J Travel Centers, the owner of truck stops – sellers of coffee, food and fuel. The market’s calm bewilders me, but tech stocks are on fire. Pay Pal’s market capitalization now exceeds that of American Express. The market capitalization of Apple is greater than the combined values of General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney and Dow/DuPont. The Senate voted relief to banks from class-action lawsuits, which have always been a boon to trial lawyers and meaningless for individual plaintiffs. Jerome Powell, a current Fed Governor, is expected to be named Fed Chairman.

In other news, an imperious EU Parliament asked British Prime Minister Theresa May to fire Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The U.S. (finally) dropped out of UNESCO, citing an anti-Israel bias. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, reputedly by ISIS. (American GIs serve in 150 countries.) Despite such weapons proliferating, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  The Nobel Prize for literature was won by the Japanese-born, British author, Kazuo Ishiguro. NASA reported that signals reached Earth of two collapsed stars that smashed into one another 130 million years ago. Nigerian terrorist, Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the “underwear bomber” filed suit in the U.S., claiming his jail conditions are too tough.

Fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, California, killed forty-two, destroyed 8,400 structures and created $1 billion in insured losses. A group of protestors supported by Antifa said they wanted to “deface” Columbus Day. Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist with the University of Chicago. won the Nobel Prize for economics. The Boy Scouts of America, which has seen membership drop 40% over the past 45 years, said they will now admit girls. A “hostile” take-over? The opioid crisis was declared a National Emergency by the President. Vietnam veteran and medic, Captain Gary Michael Rose was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery during a just-declassified operation in Laos, in September 1970. In an example of beautiful irony, the group behind the “Fearless Girl” statue on lower Broadway in New York agreed to pay $5 million, to settle claims by 305 women employees that their pay was unequal to men in similar positions. With fears of white supremacists on campuses and an absence of common sense, a Michigan State student misidentified a shoelace for a noose. Heritage High School in Wake Forest, North Carolina joined a chorus of politically-correct schools. They will no longer name a valedictorian, citing unhealthy competition among students. And “Lulu,” a young black lab, flunked the CIA’s explosive detection “puppy class,” indicating labs may be smarter than their reputation.

Antoine Domino, better known as “Fats,” died at age 89. His recordings of “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t It a Shame” are among my favorites. Succumbing at the same age was Robert Guillaume, unforgettable to millions as “Benson.” And, I lost a good friend, amateur actor, author, former Wall Street Journal editor and fellow Drones Club member, Ned Crabb.

We move on to November, the month in which we celebrate the bounty of our harvests, and during which we prepare for joyful, though commerce-fixated, holidays.