Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Trump's Opportunities and Priorities"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump’s Opportunities and Priorities”
January 15, 2017

It matters enormously to a successful democratic society like ours that we have three branches of government,
 each with some independence and some control over the other two. That’s set out in the Constitution.
                                                                                                 Sandra Day O’Connor
                                                                                                 Former Associate Justice, Supreme Court

The modern administrative state…blurs the separation of powers and the system
 of checks and balances, and has become an unaccountable fourth branch of government.
                                                                                                 Elizabeth Slattery
                                                                                                 Legal Fellow, Heritage Foundation 

As President, Donald Trump will have many chances to help the nation. His ego and his mercurial disposition may interfere, but opportunities abound. He can help the economy get back on track and, in doing so, help lessen income and wealth inequality that have risen the past eight years. He can help re-build the Middle East and, with a show of strength, help repair relations with Russia and China, which are necessary for long-term global growth. He can help reverse the polarization that has divided our nation, so that we will be able to judge people “… for the content of their character” (as Martin Luther King once said), not for their race, sex or religion. Such tasks should be doable, assuming Mr. Trump’s temperament doesn’t intervene, or the Left does not erect roadblocks. 

His most important priority, however, should be to restore democracy – the inherent freedom a liberal, democratic-capitalist republic requires. It is the fount from which all opportunities rise. For eight decades, an expanding administrative state has eroded principles of government laid out by our Founders. In times of war, national security interests allowed Presidents to assume powers alien to our precepts of liberty: Lincoln and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; Wilson and the Espionage Act of 1917: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the internment of 80,000 Japanese-Americans. But war-time powers lapse when hostilities end. More insidious has been the trend, since the Progressive movement of the late 19th Century, toward increasing the power and reach of the federal government at the expense of Congress, individuals and states; and, within the federal government, the expansion of the Executive over the Congress. 

Can Mr. Trump reverse this trend, or at least slow it? I don’t know, but I hope so. Expectations are low. He will enter office despised by those who oppose him – a group that includes opinion makers: mainstream media, educators, Hollywood harlequins and political and business establishment-types from both Parties. Their candidate, Mrs. Clinton, was defeated by a man they scorned. Mr. Trump has none of the goodwill extended President-elect Obama in early 2009. Today, Mr. Obama scores high on personal approval ratings, but, keep in mind, his policies helped defeat Democrats. Even the generally sober David Brooks depicts Mr. Trump as a man who is “inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.” But, if Mr. Brooks and his ilk are right, how do they explain his business success? How did he win a Presidential primary that took out 16 other Republican candidates and beat a woman who has been around politics her entire life? And how did he do so while spending less than half the amount of money she spent? Mr. Trump will not get the “honeymoon” usually accorded new Presidents. But conservatives understand that Mr. Trump has provided them the best opportunities for change in a century.

Examples of government overreach abound. There are over 300 administrative agencies that control myriad aspects of our lives, from the environment, retirement accounts and healthcare to daycare, public radio and the internet. They range from regulating the toilet seats we sit on to the size of soft drinks we consume. Laws, which were once grounded in principle, have become laws based on policies. As well, agencies have become substantial sources of government revenues. According to a Wall Street Journal report last March, big banks, since the 2008 mortgage crisis, have paid out $110 billion in fines to the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Ironically, these fines were paid by roughly 100 million innocent shareholders, which include owners of mutual funds and retirement accounts. In 2015, the DOJ collected $24 billion and the EPA collected $205 million in fines. 

As the branch of government designated to write laws and levy taxes, Congress has abrogated its Constitutional responsibilities to agencies like the SEC, CFTC, EPA and CFBP (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) – agencies run by unaccountable political appointees, but with limited autonomy. For example, the head of the VA cannot fire its employees. The attraction of such agencies to Congress is that they allow them to take credit when it serves their purpose and to avoid blame when it does not.

(Restoration of the filibuster, as well, should be on the agenda. The Senate was designed to be a deliberative body, to slow things down. In an illuminative exchange, George Washington allegedly once asked Thomas Jefferson why he poured his tea into a saucer. “To cool it,” was the response. Washington then explained: “We pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it. A filibuster encourages bi-partisanship; avoiding a filibuster requires cooperation. If opposing Parties do not work together, nothing gets done. Senator Mitch McConnell would be wise to restore the filibuster.)

It would be impossible, as well as a mistake, to shut down all agencies that have been created over the past century and more. But it would be wrong to do nothing. Repealing the most outlandish, reducing the regulatory burden and slowing the expansion of government should be a priority of the Trump Administration. Doing so will help drive economic growth. In his farewell speech, President Obama spoke of the threats to our Constitution. He was right, but I wish he had taken his own advice. I wish he had lessened, not tightened, regulations. I wish he had sought bi-partisan compromise, not arrogantly shunned the opposition, like when he shut off Eric Cantor: “I won.” When government enfolds us in cocoons, such as Julia’s World or The Pajama Boy, the trade-off is a loss of personal responsibility and, ergo, freedom. We ask government to protect us from evil perpetrated by others, but when government protects us from our own mistakes we don’t learn. It is not that government is bad. It is that a free society must recognize the difference between government that is necessary and government that is abusive in its pervasiveness. It is as though President Kennedy asked: “What would you want your country to do for you?” The road we are on is fraught with risk – we could turn into a nation of Eloi, with government bureaucrats playing the role of Morlocks. It is a path toward authoritarianism, which could emerge from either the Right or the Left.

Nevertheless, politics can surprise. Most were surprised in November. Mr. Trump may be different than the cartoon character portrayed. It took the strongly anti-Communist Richard Nixon to open the door to China in 1972. Will the the pre-judged “authoritarian” Donald Trump be the President who reduces the reach of the Executive and who returns power to the people and the states? I don’t know, but it’s possible. Legions of establishment-types are determined to see him fail. But, anybody with an understanding of history knows that a political system is at risk when power accedes, as it has over several decades in the U.S., to an ever-increasing number of unaccountable administrative agencies and to an ever-stronger Executive. Trump’s opportunity is to reverse this trend. I hope he does.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"The Hidden Life of Trees"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

“The Hidden Life of Trees”
Peter Wohlleben
                                                                                                                                    January 14, 2017

What we see is always a brief snapshot
of a landscape that only seems to be standing still.
                                                                                                Peter Wohlleben (1964-)
                                                                                                The Hidden Life of Trees

Earlier this month “Pioneer Cabin,” a 150’ tall sequoia, fell over. Like all living things, trees die. Sequoias are among Earth’s largest and longest-living organisms. This tree was no exception. Its obituary provided details: It was 33 feet in diameter, weighed between 2.5 and 3 million pounds and was estimated to be over 1000 years old. But what you would not have known, unless you had read Peter Wohlleben’s book, is that “Pioneer Cabin” had been able to communicate with other trees, care for its young, ward off dangers and feel pain. In 1889, a tunnel was cut out through the sequoia’s middle, an excision that the author of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” would have disapproved.

The author manages a forest in the 2,000 square-mile Eifel park, located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany’s west. Much of the region suffered as armies marched through during World War II, and for much of the post-War period it was among the poorest states in West Germany. But it has a lot of trees.

Mr. Wohlleben writes of the mutualism of different species and the symbiotic lives they live, among other trees, insects, mosses and rodents. He speaks of their adaptability to changing climes. Specific trees live in specific climates, and they migrate as temperatures change. Peter Wohlleben writes how three million years ago today’s native beeches existed as they do now. But, during the ice age, to survive they had to march south, over the Alps to the Mediterranean. Some species, unable to make it over the mountains, died out. Those that survived, as the ice receded, slowly made their way back, and are still doing so.

Mr. Wohlleben is learned about trees, and he makes them anthropomorphic in a manner both respectful to his subject and appealing to the reader. “Trees,” as he writes, “live their lives in the really slow lane.He began his career as one who looked upon trees as a commodity, but now looks upon them as living things who protect their young, combat disease, bind up wounds, live social lives (preferring their own kind) and compete with other trees for sunlight, food and water. He writes: “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.” He concludes: “I am convinced we intuitively register the forest’s health.” One closes the book knowing one has met an intelligent, civil and compassionate man.

As I age, my life moves to a slower lane; so the feeling of kinship with trees is felt more deeply. The time I have gained has allowed me to appreciate how awe inspiring nature can be. Peter Wohlleben makes the woods come alive, if not with the sound of music, at least with the harmony of our interconnectedness. And, of course, trees gave their lives so that this book could be published. That act, in my opinion, was a selfless sacrifice – and reflects another debt we owe these magnificent sentries.

Monday, January 9, 2017


Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
January 9, 2017

What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends,
 and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world;
 to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors,
 and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.
                                                                                                         Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
                letter to his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, 1864

There is, perhaps, no better metaphor to describe the failure of the West in terms of a Middle East foreign policy than the tragedy that is Aleppo, its consequence for the people of Syria, and the refuge crisis it unleashed on Jordan, Turkey and Europe. It opened the door for Russia, emboldened Iran and further divided and already divided Middle East between Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and Shiites by Iran.

The bombing ceased in mid-December, but atrocities continued as Bashar al-Assad’s forces swept through former rebel strongholds in the eastern part of Aleppo. The battle for the city began a month before President Obama proclaimed on August 20, 2012: “…that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Thirteen hundred tons of chemicals were subsequently removed, but not before Syrian helicopters launched at least two attacks using Chlorine gas, a chemical first used as a weapon by the German army in the First World War during the Second Battle of Ypres. We allowed that “red line” to become a sea of blood.  

Syria’s civil war masked the arrival of ISIS. Distinguishing between rebels who wanted out from the oppression of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial control and ISIS fighters whose aim is a despotic caliphate is difficult. That confusion aids ISIS. The year 2011 gave rise to the “Arab Spring.” Democratic-leaning forces (or, rather, different totalitarian forces) toppled the heads of Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt that spring. In March of that year, peaceful protests began in Syria. President al-Assad responded by imprisoning thousands and killing hundreds of demonstrators. Nevertheless, by July military defectors had formed the Free Syrian Army, whose aim was to overthrow the Syrian government. Civil war had come to Syria.

Aleppo is an ancient city, located in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. Before the First World War, it was the capital of Aleppo Province, which then bordered the Mediterranean. Prior to the current civil war, it was Syria’s largest city, with 2.3 million people (more than 10% of Syria’s pre-war population), and it was the country’s commercial hub. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, dating back thousands of years. Excavations at Tell as-Sawda show the area was occupied 3000 years before the birth of Christ. The city was a strategic trading center between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Mediterranean, which lies 75 miles to the west. The Province was the western terminus of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia, on its way to the Mediterranean. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, trade was diverted to the sea and Aleppo began a long decline in terms of its commercial significance.

The city is renowned for its architecture and its cultural heritage. Within the 13th century citadel are palaces from the Ottoman period, remnants of 6th century Christian buildings and evidence of even earlier Greek and Roman street layouts. Many of these structures were damaged or destroyed, with each side blaming the other. The minaret atop the 12th century Great Mosque was ruined. Just ten years ago, in 2006, the city of Aleppo was named the Arab Islamic Capital of Culture. Much of it is now in rubble.

Over five years of civil war, Syria, a nation of 21 million, has seen half its population displaced, with between four and five million people leaving the country. An estimated 450,000 have died. Jewish communities, whose history in Aleppo date back 3000 years to the time of King David, have virtually been extinguished. It will take years to rebuild, and generations to soothe the damage done to property and souls. Could the West have prevented this tragedy? Perhaps not. No one knows. But that we did not even try is condemnation enough.

In mid 2015, Russia, assisted by Iran, came to al-Assad’s aid. Russia sent warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and military advisors. Iran sent paramilitary forces and hardened fighters like Hezbollah. By late winter 2016, the tide had turned. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo were under siege, affecting an estimated 320,000 people. Syrian and Russian planes bombed supply routes and hospitals, activities illegal under international law. Over half the city’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. The West watched this tragedy unfold. In doing nothing, they strengthened Russia in the Middle East, and gave a boost to Iran. Concerns that Syria would become Putin’s Vietnam have proved, thus far, wrong – not that he would care! With little loss of life, Russia has gained a toehold in a region from which they had been diplomatically blocked for four decades. A strengthened Iran, on a glide path to ownership of nuclear weapons, threatens the region’s strongest Arab nation, Saudi Arabia, creating further instability in an already volatile area.                                                                                                                                             

For the people of Syria there may be no good answer. Their economy is in shambles. Half the population is homeless and almost half a million are dead. Those that remain are subject to the whims of a brutal dictator. ISIS infiltrated with rebels who had legitimate grievances – those that President Obama once referred to as “…doctors, pharmacists and so on.  In 2011 Libya, the West supported the rebels. We were implicit in the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of his regime. Today, Libya is a failed state and its economy is in chaos. Had we not entered the conflict, would Benghazi have become Libya’s Aleppo? Had we sided with the rebels in Syria, would the consequences have been the same as Libya – a failed state, with no clear leader? These are unanswerable questions. There are, however, three lessons we should take away: First, we have a moral obligation to support freedom fighters whose cause we determine to be just. Second, when we do interfere we must have a clearly defined strategy, with a plan for reconstruction, and recognize that that takes time, effort and money. Three, we must acknowledge that in not interfering in Syria, we opened the door for Russia, gave a leg up to Iran and provided an oasis for ISIS. In early summer 2015, after four years of fighting a civil war, Bashar al-Assad was clearly on the ropes. It was widely assumed he was losing ground around the country and, possibly, his grip on power. He owes his survival to Russia and Iran.

The ceasefire that Russia, Turkey and Iran negotiated may not hold. It was arrived at ruthlessly. War, as General Lee noted in the letter to his wife quoted above, is cruel. And Bashar al-Assad is a barbaric and merciless man who clings to power through tyranny. The world is not rid of people like al-Assad and, as long as they exist so will war, death and destruction. We may prefer to live apart from “entangling alliances,” but that cannot be in this interconnected world. We do not have to become a “Party of Davos,” but global peace is a critical for prosperity. And the West, especially the United States because of its size, resources, wealth, democratic institutions and people, must be involved. It is in our self-interest. We cannot look the other way and allow another tragedy of this magnitude to erupt.