Monday, August 22, 2016

"The Peril of Ignoring History"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Peril of Ignoring History”
August 22, 2016

“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction,
 drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
                                                                                                            Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

History is not a dusty record of the past. The study of it provides a means by which we improve the future – understanding that which our forebears did well and what they did poorly. We cannot return to the past, but we should not run from it. The past helped form us, individually, as a people and as a nation.

Albert Einstein wrote about education, that it is “…the training of the mind to think.” Living in a free and democratic country, with “God-given” natural rights, it is our duty to know and understand those rights – how and why they were created – and then pass them on. In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell explains his need to run: “[God] made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” We have similar obligations.

For most of his time on earth man has been ruled by men. The concept of men being governed by laws is rare and relatively new – something that is true for the United States and other democracies, an idea that can be traced to the Magna Carta. As reported by the 2016 Freedom House report, only 13% of the world’s population live in democracies. And, according to the same source, for the 10th year in a row global freedom declined. Do American high schoolers recognize the significance of that report – how fortunate they are and how fragile is liberty? In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education suggested programs to address this lack of knowledge. Yet fifteen years later test results conducted by National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed that only 13% of high school seniors were proficient in American history. H.G. Wells wrote that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. It is, if one believes that liberty is essential to a free life. Keep in mind, its loss leads to darkness and totalitarianism. A democracy functions when the electorate is educated. Authoritarianism thrives when ignorance predominates.      

To understand those who came before us and to appreciate the rarity and vulnerability of our liberties, we must know something of the era in which those who formed our nation lived. That requires an understanding of the times. In applying 21st Century standards to 18th and 19th Century values, we can trivially pursue all that was wrong with those who helped mold our culture, society and country, but, in doing so we show ignorance. Looked at that way, why would we honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Elihu Yale, Leland Stanford, James Duke, Woodrow Wilson or John C. Calhoun? None of these people conformed solely to the values we cherish today, yet all of them helped provide institutions we esteem. We can fault all eight men. The first three were slave holders. Elihu Yale was an imperialist; Leland Stanford exploited Chinese workers; James Duke made his fortune in tobacco; Woodrow Wilson believed in the superiority of the White Race, and John C. Calhoun was a slave owner and defender of slave owners.

But George Washington guided the American colonies to freedom against the British, and served as our first President. In authoring the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote of individual liberty. James Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers, which were instrumental in getting the Constitution approved by States’ legislatures. Messrs Yale, Stanford and Duke were philanthropists who provided the funds to start three of America’s greatest universities. In his textbook The State, Woodrow Wilson advocated the use of government to allay social ills and to advance society’s welfare. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian and Yale graduate who died ten years before the Civil War broke out, did defend slavery, but he was also an advocate for minority rights. Additionally, he served as Vice President for two distinctively different Presidents – John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Of these men, we don’t have to excuse their defects to admire their positive contributions.

It has become popular on campuses to trash benefactors without considering the ideas they espoused within the context of their time. Students at Princeton have railed against the “racist” Woodrow Wilson. Those at Amherst have belittled the “bigot” Lord Jeffrey Amherst for allegedly giving Small Pox-infested blankets to native American Indians.  Students at Yale want to change the name of Calhoun College. Following marches in Ferguson and the creation of the Black Lives Movement, protesters at the University of Missouri caused the president to resign. The Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stout recently e-mailed students about the repositioning of two paintings depicting American Indians: “…a university needs to encourage a free flow of ideas…as long as we don’t foist those ideas on unaware or unwilling recipients.” The word “man” has been removed from the lexicon at Princeton. Complaints of racism and acts of micro-aggression have caused student protests at Harvard, Oberlin, Brown and other colleges. Silliness reigns.

Throughout our history student movements have been instrumental in hastening social change and behavior. One has only to look back to the civil and women rights movements of the 1960s, or the anti-Vietnam War protests to appreciate the effect they can have. But in those days – fifty years ago – students were advocating for the right to speak and be heard. Now they demonstrate to protest voices and icons that make them uncomfortable. Universities should be forums for debate, to discuss ideas, not safe places for those whose feelings have been hurt. Administrations should not give in to students at the first moment of controversy. As political correctness gathers, commonsense dissipates?

Is there a universal code of behavior? If there is (and I believe there is), and we see it being violated, shouldn’t we attempt to correct it? Should not a college president hold onto universal morals, not simply those that are au courant? Do we, as a free people, have a responsibility to encourage freedom in other countries? Is democracy exportable? It has become common to claim we have no right to interfere in the affairs of other nations. We have been conditioned by events in Vietnam and the Middle East. But isn’t that what we did in Japan and Germany after the Second World War, and in South Korea after the Korean Conflict? Do we not still have troops in their countries? Are not their people better off for our having given not only our blood and treasure, but also for having instructed them on the merits of freedom and democracy? Were Germans who murdered six million Jews, or Japanese who brutalized their captives less barbaric than ISIS today? If our enemies of 75 years ago could be redeemed, why not Iraqis today?

Political correctness, as endorsed by Washington, reminds one of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. To be afraid to connect radical Islam with terror, or to be fearful of freely investigating black-on-black crimes imperils those one claims to want to help. The first is not necessarily xenophobic and the second is not definitively bigotry. For Americans to accept unquestioningly the gradual assimilation of power by the President through use of executive orders, and the concomitant emasculation of Congress’ authority, speaks to a failure to understand our history, its institutions and the merits of liberty. It is easier to do an apology tour for a previous administration’s foreign policies and to blame police, than to explain the historical significance of liberty, or to ask the question: Why have black-on-black crimes proliferated?

The study of history allows us to better understand the world and its problems, and to seek possible solutions – to put things in perspective. Education is the gateway through which we march toward freedom. There is a gate-less fence that encircles places like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. We cannot let that happen here. We must not let our children be ignorant of their and their country’s history. She or he who lets open the door of knowledge furthers freedom. He or she who does not sanctions servitude.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Brexit - The Dog That Didn't Bark

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Brexit – The Dog That Didn’t Bark”
August 15, 2016

Gregory (Scotland Yard): “Is there any other point to which you you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
                                                                        “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: Silver Blaze,” 1892
                                                                        Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

Brexit, like the Trump phenomena in the U.S., was, at least in part, a consequence of elitist politicians, along with corporate and banking CEOs. Together they have constructed a crony capitalist system that works for them, but not for those they claim to represent. In granting extraordinary salaries and benefits to public union employees, they have assured themselves of money and support from that sector as well. (In America there are about 22 million government workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – 10% of all registered voters.) Western democracies no longer fit Lincoln’s description of the United States, when he spoke at Gettysburg in 1863: “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

President Obama has been right to point out that there is “one percent and a ninety-nine percent,” but it is not just the rich versus the poor that is the problem; it is also those that use government as a springboard for personal wealth and power, and the rest of us.  The former move back and forth from Congress to K Street, from corporate offices and Wall Street to Administrations. Such movements were not unknown in years past, but never have corruption and arrogance been so widespread. Think of the Clintons, and then recall what ex-President Truman said, in response to an offer of a corporate board seat: “You don’t want me. You want the office of the President, and that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it’s not for sale.” And the same can be said for Congressional seats, Cabinet posts and Ambassadorships. The concept of service is but a distant memory. Political correctness is ubiquitous, and risks First Amendment rights. A lack of border control has caused immigration to become a wellspring of terrorism, instead of a fount of cultural diversity. It has brought multiculturalism, instead of pluralism. A recent McKinsey study noted that stagnant incomes bother people more than inequality. People in England, like the United States, are tired of the hypocrisy and lies told by politicians, alienated from those they represent.

In the late 1940s, after thirty years of depression, oppression and war, Europe was determined to find peace and prosperity. NATO was created to provide a common defense against a menacing Soviet Union. The European Economic Community (EEC), better known as the Common Market, came into being a dozen years later to foster trade and boost commerce. Both worked. But like all organisms, a desire to grow caused bureaucrats in Brussels to over-extend their reach. It is a truism: As governments get bigger they consume more space and encompass more people. And leaders become isolated from those they lead.

Left unchecked, this is a trend that will have dystopian conclusions. Like the ancien regime of pre-revolutionary France, those in charge, along with those who feed off government, care foremost about their own affairs. How else, for example, could you explain America’s Affordable Care Act, which does not apply to those who conceived and implemented it? Why does compensation in government jobs exceed similar work in the private sector by thirty percent? Why are Congressional retirement benefits so generous and vest after only five years? Does someone whose retirement plan is based on defined benefits understand the needs and concerns of those on defined contribution plans?

Like their American counterparts, European politicians and bureaucrats lead a coddled life, with their lives having little in common with those they represent. The cultural challenge brought about by unrestrained immigration affects the poor and middle classes, not those who opened the gates. Politicians and bureaucrats in London and Brussels have grown comfortable with a system that has treated them well and that has protected them against the vicissitudes of the market place. Knowing that Brexit would be personally uncomfortable they did all they could to scare the electorate, even going so far as to enlist President Barack Obama in their cause. In his “no man is an island” speech last April, with then Prime Minister David Cameron by his side, Mr. Obama warned that exiting the E.U. would have “dire economic consequences,” and that an England outside the European Union would, in terms of trade with the U.S., have to go “to the back of the queue.”

After the vote, there was a sense of incredulity, expressed not only by politicians but by their media partners. Why were polls so wrong? How could people do the unexpected? Why didn’t the electorate listen to their betters? The academic and banking establishment leapt into the melee, forecasting recession if not depression: The British Pound would sink, financial markets would collapse and chaos would ensue. One commentator in the Financial Times suggested five possible outcomes, ranging from London becoming “Detroit” to the City becoming “Shangdon,” with foreclosed properties snatched up by foreign buyers.

Immediately after the vote, markets did fall. The Pound dropped 10% from where it had been a week before the vote. (While it had rallied in the days going into the vote, it had been in decline for two years) Since dropping, it has stabilized. The Bloomberg GBP Investment Grade European Corporate Bond Index is 4% higher than where it was prior to the vote. (Admittedly, bonds were helped by the Bank of England’s $100 billion asset purchase program.) The FTSE 100, however, is 8% above where it was before the vote. On July 23rd, the Financial Times, which had been an adamant voice for “Remain,” headlined their lead editorial: “Brexit fears of market contagion look overdone.” While that appears obvious, it seems that many in England and on the Continent still hope for collapse, to vindicate their prior views and to set an example for other nations considering vacating the European Union.

As much as anything, and similar to the Trump phenomena in the U.S., the Brexit vote expressed disillusionment with the status quo: big government, with bloated and distant bureaucracies, financed with high taxes and suffocating regulations that protect favored businesses and industries and which impair competition. The consequence of the status quo has been slow economic growth and increasing disquiet. The establishment’s answer to stagnating wages and diminishing productivity is more of the same – demand-side economic policies that rely on government spending, and on Central Banks to assure the continuance of cheap money. What have been ignored are fiscal reforms and reliance on the private sector.

I do not want to trivialize the difficulties of leaving the European Union. One doesn’t walk away and shut the door. Borders will require increased security. The processing of Residency Rights will have to be expedited and simplified. (The existing document is, according to one source, 85 pages.) New trade agreements will have to be negotiated. Uncertainty lingers for the 10% of the City’s workforce that are non-British EU citizens. The UK may no longer have automatic access to the European Investment Bank.

But the reaction of markets, as the dog in Doyle’s short story tells us, suggest exiting is feasible; and if the lesson is that the people are once again in charge and the bureaucrats are put out to pasture, the future should be better than the past. Democracies have many benefits, but one thing they are not is efficient. Technocrats like efficiency, but in the long run, free markets, the give and take in debates, and classically liberal ideas do more to better lives than all the “smart” people tucked away in Brussels, London and Washington.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump”
August 8, 2016

The Seven Social Sins, as given in a sermon by Frederick Lewis Donaldson
 at Westminster Abbey, London, March 20, 1925

“Wealth Without Work
Pleasure Without Conscience
Knowledge Without Character
Commerce Without Morality
Science Without Humanity
Worship Without Sacrifice
Politics Without Principle”

The above quote seems appropriate when meanness and partisanship have replaced respect and collaboration, when cronyism substitutes for service. Nowhere are these characteristics so apparent as with the two candidates our major parties have chosen as their standard bearers.

It is why so many despair at our options. The world is a dangerous place. Capitalism, which has done more to lift people out of poverty over the past two hundred years, is under siege. Western economies are underperforming. Political correctness is pervasive. Divisiveness is ubiquitous: between rich and poor, black and white, Muslims against Christians and Jews, liberals versus conservatives. The list goes on. And who have we nominated to address these problems? A loud-mouthed real estate developer and TV personality and a scheming, duplicitous politician whose lies and corruption exceed anything we’ve seen.

Mrs. Clinton does not want to make the campaign about issues. She would rather highlight her opponents stream-of-conscience, unrehearsed rants and talk of his alleged “unfitness for office.” Mr. Trump does not want to talk of issues either. He would rather play to the miasma of discontent that envelops so much of middle America, and emphasize the “crookedness” of his opponent.

Yet we’re forced to make a choice. Some will vote for a third party candidate. Others will wait until 2020. Those are legitimate options, except that the world won’t wait four years. Our economy’s woes and the price that underperformance has exacted on middle class families will persist. Islamic terrorists will not abide such a timetable. One, two or three Supreme Court seats will likely be filled. China and Russia will not become less aggressive. Kim Jong-Un will not stand idly by. The poor in inner cities, left to the mercy of teachers’ unions, will have to do without school choice. With demand for entitlements increasing at rates better than economic growth, deficits will widen. And when interest rates rise, as inevitably they will, the cost of ballooning debt will be onerous. A lot more than personalities is riding on this election.

Democrats say the choice is stark, that the choice is clear. So do many Republicans. But the choice is not clear in terms of personalities. Both are narcissistic. Both have low boiling points. Mrs. Clinton speaks with a false veneer of magnanimity; Mr. Trump blusters. He is overt; she is covert. His public persona is worse than his private. In her case the opposite is true. He made snide comments about gold star mother Ghazala Kahn, for which he received front-page negative press. She called gold star mother Patricia Smith a liar, for which she got a pass. Neither is a “nice” person. Mrs. Clinton has raised the question of temperament, that Mr. Trump’s tweets show him to be unfit to hold office. Yet, Mrs. Clinton’s fiery temper is legion, enough to render her unsuitable for the same reason. Mr. Trump’s faults are obvious, hers less so. Let’s face it; neither has the disposition we would choose in a Commander in Chief. But we must deal with things as they are, not as we would wish. We must hope that whoever wins surrounds herself or himself with capable people. We must put our trust in a Congress that stands strong, and in a judicial system that reveres the Constitution. There is much to dislike with each candidate and little to like; so the decision must be made on the fundamental differences between what we might expect to be their approach to issues facing the country, which include: the economy, education, threats from Islamic terrorists, the menacing activities of China and Russia and nuclear weapons in the hands of those like North Korea and Iran. Whose Party and ideas best address these potential pitfalls?

Emerging from recession, economic growth has been the slowest since 1949. Taxes have been raised on earned incomes, capital gains and investment income. At least fifteen different taxes have been imposed to help pay for Obamacare. U.S. corporate taxes are among the highest in the developed world. Regulations that hamper innovation and protect favored industries and businesses, rather than protect consumers and promote competition, have proliferated. Inner-city schools are run for the benefit of teachers’ unions (among the largest financial contributors to Democrats). They limit choice and stifle competition from charter schools, and also from voucher programs that would make private and parochial schools accessible. (The wealthy have choices; the poor and middle classes do not.) It is the protection of the establishment – powerful teachers’ unions – against the individual – the student and his or her parents. Globally, Islamic terrorism has increased in terms of the number of attacks, as well as in the number of organizations devoted to terrorism. Multiculturalism and political correctness are shutting down First Amendment rights, in limiting or denying conservative speech on the campuses of our elite colleges and universities. China, Russia, North Korean and Iran – enemies all to the concept of liberty – have been emboldened.   

I am not happy with our choices, but I also believe that the problems we face cannot wait four years. Mr. Trump is an enigma. Admittedly, there is much we don’t know about him. He is running against the establishment, whether Republican or Democrat. Mrs. Clinton represents the establishment, as do Paul Ryan and John McCain. She, though, portrays an uncommonly corrupt version. Interestingly – and something we should not forget – Mr. Trump made his money by dealing with the establishment, a fact he does not deny. As David Frum wrote in The Atlantic last month, when it comes to the appeal of Donald Trump,people in the Acela corridor don’t get it.” Mr. Trump’s constituency is the “forgotten American,” those whose income is in line with the median and who have seen no increase in almost two decades. In their minds, debates over bathrooms for transgenders and concerns about 32-ounce drinks are frivolous. Their wants are more fundamental – good-paying jobs, decent schools and a culture that reflects the moral standards of their childhood. They see in Mrs. Clinton a woman who claimed to be “flat broke” in 2001, and who now has, because of political-corporate cronyism, a couple of hundred million dollars. It is unfair and contrary to their values. It is not that these people expect equality of outcomes: they recognize that some are more talented, some have greater aspiration, some work harder and some just luckier. What they don’t like are cheats. That’s what they see in Mrs. Clinton. They are anxious and they are angry.

So, as things now stand and as I wrote two and a half months ago, I will hold my nose and vote for Mr. Trump. He is often accused of being racist, and certainly his words are racist in tone, but there has been nothing to suggest he is racist in fact. As for the assertion he is a demagogue, it is true he appeals to emotions and many of our worst instincts. But dangerous demagogues hide behind words that negate their true intentions. Nevertheless, I may not like him, and he may self-destruct, but I see him as far better than the alternative…and possibly – just possibly –  he is a messenger of positive change.