Friday, January 31, 2014

"Poverty and the Relevance of Marriage"


 

     Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“Poverty and the Relevance of Marriage”

January 31, 2014

 

Taped to my shaving mirror is a saying; “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” That simple homily is true, but its message has been lost in the narcissism of today’s world, and in the concept that social justice should not distinguish between the sexes.  We see the absence of the former in the vapidity of Hollywood and in other displays of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have described as defining deviancy down. We see the promotion of the latter by those in Washington who see the state as the arbiter of equality and fairness.

 

Fifty years after President Johnson’s war on poverty, the poor are still with us. It is unrealistic to believe that poverty will ever be completely eradicated. For one, government statistics do change as a determinant. In fact, many of today’s “poor” would have been considered middle income fifty years ago. The important thing is allowing the poor the opportunity to advance. Apart from the eyes of the law and God, people are not equal. They never have been; they never will be. Despite primping for hours in front of the mirror, I will never look like Cary Grant, nor will I ever have the physique of Michael Jordan; I will never have the mind of Einstein, or the money of Warren Buffett. Not only are unlike in our inherited traits, we vary in our aspirations, work ethics and determination. We are who we are. But we can always work to improve.

 

Poverty remains a serious concern. One antidote is marriage. According to Census data, 41.3% of female-only households with children under 18 lived in poverty in 2011, while only 10.9% of married couples with children under 18 did so. In terms of unemployment, 6.6% of those married over the age of 18 were unemployed. At the same time 17.3% of those separated, divorced or widowed were unemployed. Of those never married, 17.7% were unemployed. Marriage is not always possible, but it should be encouraged, not dismissed. While correlation does not mean causation, those statistics cannot be ignored.

 

Forty-two percent of all babies born in the United States are to unwed mothers. Young adult women between the ages of 18 and 29 produce 75% of those births, while only 8% are to teen-age mothers. Education makes a difference. Fifty-one percent of young women with only a high school degree give birth to a child out of wedlock, while only 8.3% of college graduates do.

 

The problem is not new. Marriage has been in decline for the last several decades. According to the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) survey 51% of American adults were married, compared to 72% in 1960. Trend setters in Hollywood have created an environment where single parenthood is deemed socially acceptable and, in fact, heroic. It may be for a few of the very wealthy, but single motherhood has not been good for the poor. We have reached a sad point when marriage is deemed obsolete by 39% of Americans.

 

The real question: Why has marriage become so unattractive to so many? As one cynical blogger put it, marriage is “redundant;” it is like “the decoration on a wedding cake.” There are those who see ballot-box victories for same-sex marriages rendering archaic the definition of marriage as being the union between a man and a woman. Others argue that a ceremony and a piece of paper is no guarantee that togetherness will endure. Marriage is not needed, they claim, to legitimize a relationship. There are no guarantees, but statistics show that children are better off in a two-parent household and that marriage lessens the chances of living in poverty. There are some who blame the decline in marriage on the high divorce rate. But the divorce rate has stabilized (albeit at a high rate) in the last two decades and has, in fact, declined in the past decade among wealthier Americans.

 

Attitudes toward marriage are reflective of our culture. The Left, searching for issues to galvanize their base, have been using a fictitious “war on women.” Their claim is that Republicans want to return to the 19th Century (or perhaps prehistoric times), in terms of men’s treatment of women. At the same time, they are willing to accept the sexual cravings of someone like President Bill Clinton, who had the morals of a billy goat and treated a female intern as a sex object.

 

When Democrat women lie about their past, like Elizabeth Warren and Wendy Davis, their transgressions are ignored. When Republican women show strength of character like Sarah Palin, they are demonized, trivialized and insulted. In Ms. Palin’s case, mainstream media chose to ignore the fact that as Governor of Alaska she single-handedly took on the big oil companies and won. There is a “war on women,” but it is engaged by those on the Left who see every female who supports conservative causes as a turncoat. Their vilification may be working in much of the media and among coastal elites, but it is not working across most of the country. In the past fourteen years 18 women have been elected governors, 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats. Currently five states have women governors, four of whom are Republicans. In their bid for the women vote, the Left has emphasized dependency and downplayed respect and responsibility. They see women as victims. The attitude of the Left can be seen in the video, “The Life of Julia.”

 

It is obviously true that the ideal of the traditional family can never be achieved by all. But its decline has reached levels that are shocking, at least to this geezer. In 1970, 79% of all American adults (those over 18) were married. Today, the number is 52%. In part, that difference reflects the fact that people are older when they marry. In 1960, the median age for a first marriage, for both men and women, was early 20s. In 2011, the median age for women was 26.5 and for men, 28.7. But the decline in marriages is more a consequence of our culture and the moral fiber that connects us, and is responsible for the unnecessary poverty that encompasses too many of our citizens.

 

There is no question that women should receive the same pay for the same work and there is no question that male chauvinism persists in some quarters. But we cannot forget that the principal biological purpose of any species is its propagation. For humans that means children, and statistics suggest that a household consisting of a married mother and father is best for raising them – and best for the parents. Mr. Obama is an exception in that he is the successful product of single motherhood. But it should be lost on no one that he and his wife have chosen to raise their two daughters within the confines of traditional marriage. In this regard, theirs is an example worth emulating.

 

I have been fortunate – nearly fifty years of marriage that has produced three children and ten grandchildren. Marriage requires effort. It requires a commitment not known to those who simply cohabit. It has its ups and its downs; it has tears and laughter. It is a wonderful and fulfilling institution. When I think of what might have been and then look at my wife and see what is, I am in sync with that old French saying, “Vive la difference!”

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"The State of the Union"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“The State of the Union”

January 30, 2014

 

More than anything, the State of the Union is a chance to see and be seen. Even those on the Republican side of the aisle vie for seats on the aisle, so their constituents can see them shaking hands with the President they have vowed to oppose. It is an opportunity for this President to use the soaring rhetoric, which is his greatest strength, and to bask in the applause of those who fervently admire him, as well as from those who despise him, but who do not to appear small-minded.

 

The Constitution, in Article II, Section 3 states: “He [the President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The founders would be appalled at the imperial extravaganza that annual message now entails. In the last few decades this event, of a republican country, has assumed the trappings of the royal Court at Versailles in the years just preceding the French Revolution.

 

Mr. Obama is fond of his voice, so he speaks for a long time, giving little consideration to the overweight and out-of-shape Congressional members and others who are required by custom to be there, and who must leap from their seats every minute or so, exhausting themselves as though they had been in a spinning class. They look like the teenage girls who once did the same thing for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. The difference is that the girls’ enthusiasm was real, while what we see from our comfortable seats in our homes is often feigned.

 

While “inequality” may be the word “du jour,” there is nothing in our society that so defines inequality as the spectacle of smug politicians preening for the cameras that continuously stream videos into the homes of those who wished they had voted for the other guy.

 

We never learn very much, if anything, from State of the Unions. What we want is the tweetable answer given to the question posed by Daniel Webster from his grave, according to Stephen Vincent Benét: “Neighbor! How stands the union?” “Rock bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible,” was the only answer acceptable to the spirit of Mr. Webster. What we get today is a cornucopia of trite and stale preferences. All are geared for applause and sound wonderful in the telling, but most are impossible to achieve. I only wish we were “copper-sheathed, one and indivisible.” We aren’t anymore.

 

What we got last night was over an hour of lines designed for compassion and applause. Like his predecessors, Mr. Obama is an expert at making his arguments with emotive language and stage props. We had a recently healed young woman and a wounded warrior. We received a laundry list of “accomplishments,” which were generally literally true, but disingenuous in their incompleteness: 8 million jobs added in the past five years, but no mention of the loss of 10 million jobs; for there are 2 million fewer people employed today than when Mr. Obama took office; the deficit, it was noted, has been cut in half, but it is still larger than under any other previous President.

 

A year ago the President laid out an aggressive agenda: “Investments” in education, manufacturing, infrastructure and renewable energy were on the list. He called for immigration reform, tax and entitlement reform and gun control. We didn’t get any of the “reforms” nor did we get control of guns last year. What we got last year was 57 laws passed by Congress, the fewest in history according to Voice of America, and 21 Executive Orders signed by the President, according to the American Presidency Project. When one thinks about it, Washington was designed by the founders to be gridlocked. The passage of legislation was deliberately made difficult.

 

In an election year, with a President showing little interest in working with his Congressional counterparts and with a Congress increasingly recalcitrant, we may get fewer laws passed this year than last, but we will likely get more executive actions. Dan Pfeiffer, assistant to Mr. Obama, said the President would use the speech to announce executive orders he can issue without Congressional approval, to test the boundaries of executive authority using the power of the “pen and phone.” He did so with the largely meaningless announcement that all companies that contract with the federal government must pay a minimum wage of $10.10. (I say “largely meaningless” because very few individuals would be affected.) Sadly, we keep moving toward imperial leadership, something over which we once fought a revolution.

 

From the lofty ideals requested a few years ago, we heard requests of a “small-ball” nature. The lead editorial in today’s New York Times is headlined: “The Diminished State of the Union.” Other than an announcement that he is using his executive authority to create “myRA” accounts, there were no new initiatives. The myRA accounts would be automatic enrollment accounts for employees without access to a workplace savings plan. We heard much of the same litany from previous SOTUs: closing Guantanamo; tax reform (when he chose to ignore his own panel’s recommendation); immigration reform (but his way, not the piecemeal approach that Republicans have offered); climate change (“it is a fact”); new trade agreements (something on which he has continuously dragged his feet); universal Pre-K education: infrastructure spending (but no mention of the Keystone Pipeline); downsizing the military (“we must move off of a permanent war-footing”); federally funded research; natural gas (but no mention of why fracking on federal lands has not been allowed); inequality in incomes, wealth, between the sexes and marriage, and raising the minimum wage. The Affordable Care Act did not get mentioned until forty minutes into the speech. (The President no longer refers to it as “ObamaCare.”) Not surprisingly, there was no mention of its troubled roll-out.

 

The speech was described by pundits as small potatoes, upbeat (which it was, as Mr. Obama speaks well), predictable and harmless. The biggest applause of the evening was when Mr. Obama acknowledged Sergeant Cory Remsburg, a badly wounded U.S. Army Ranger. He received a two-minute standing ovation. It was well deserved, though ninety or so seconds into the applause, no one seemed to know when to stop, and Sergeant Remsburg was beginning to look embarrassed.

 

I take exception to the term “harmless.” It is never harmless when the response to any President that he is assuming more powers is unbounded enthusiasm. His statement that he was eager to work with Congress, “but whenever and wherever I can take steps without legislation I will do so,” drew enormous applause. It reminded me of old newsreels of fascist and national socialist speakers whipping their listeners into a frenzy. I found the moment chilling. And I found it troubling when one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers concurs. The editors of the New York Times wrote this morning: “Taking the offensive by veering around Congress is a move long overdue.” Have they really thought through the consequences of that statement?

 

As is often the case, the people are ahead of Washington. Fewer and fewer people tune in to the State of the Union message. A year ago the Wall Street Journal commented that the roughly 33 million who tuned in was “just slightly higher than your average first-run Seinfeld episode two decades ago.” The entire spectacle has become an imperialistic anachronism. It is time when the president should heed the advice of Thomas Jefferson when, more than two hundred years ago, he decided the annual message should be delivered in paper form to Congress. His example was followed for more than 100 years, when that most imperial of Presidents, Woodrow Wilson decided to give the speech in person. What Jefferson did could be done today and made available to the people on-line. It would save millions of dollars and prevent the risk of having so many government officials under one roof at one time. None of us would be worse off for not having to listen to it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Who is the Extremist?"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Who is the Extremist?”
January 27, 2013

We live in a in a pluralistic country. New York State, with a population of about 19.6 million people encompasses people from across the political, economic, social and religious spectrums. Governor Cuomo acted like an elitist and nativist when he said that “extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay…have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” He may be Governor, but does that give him the right to say who New Yorkers are? No matter where one stands on those issues, the Governor’s declaration was extreme. When Mayor de Blasio provided support: “He was absolutely right to say what he said,” it meant that he agreed that intolerance, when expressed by Mr. Cuomo, is perfectly okay.

One is reminded of Senator Barry Goldwater’s famous admonition: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Certainly Governor Cuomo was not defending liberty. He was doing the opposite. Those words of Mr. Goldwater might be amended: ‘While tolerance of intolerance is no virtue, intolerance toward those with whom one disagrees is a vice.’ That lack of tolerance is especially meaningful when it is expressed by public servants. New York City is a polyglot city in a polyglot state and nation. Our leaders, who are elected based on their stands on issues, are expected to represent all the people. They should seek unity, not promote division.

Here is my personal take on the three “extreme” conservative positions Mr. Cuomo finds so offensive. On the first, I have mixed feelings. I very much support the right of a woman to have control over her own body, but at the same time it seems inescapable to me, from a scientific perspective, to suggest that life begins at any time other than at conception. If not then, when? Abortion is a serious matter. A few years ago, the idea was that abortion should be “rare, safe and legal.” That seems a sensible balance. In terms of assault weapons, I have no personal interest in weapons. (In truth, I do own an old flintlock that I bought 45 years ago for $75.00) The last time I fired a weapon was in the army, fifty-two years ago. But I appreciate the importance and relevance of the Second Amendment and I recognize that many enjoy the sport of hunting. Tight gun controls in cities like Chicago and Detroit have not prevented shootings. While we may disagree on the subject, I see no reason to impose my values on them…and no reason for gun advocates to impose theirs on me. We should be able to live harmoniously. I am not sure what is meant by anti-gay. Prejudice, without reason, is immoral and against the values I have tried to instill in our children, but if the meaning is meant to disparage traditional families, I believe they are wrong. Research supports the idea that children brought up in families with a mother and father have better chances of success. While a two-parent household is not always possible, it should be the goal, and certainly should not be disparaged.

What I don’t like is intolerance, whether it is uttered by radical Islamists or by people like Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio or Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Cuomo may claim that right-to-lifers, gun advocates, or anti-gays are intolerant. Some of them are, but so are many on the contra side of these issues. Imitating them, in terms of expressing extreme views as did Mr. Cuomo, does little to further civil debate. There is enough intolerance in the world as it is. The last thing we need is a political leader driving the wedge deeper into the chasm that divides us.

Accusations of extremism, which have been largely responsible for the division that divides us, have become more acute under Mr. Obama. On October 31, 2008, he declared, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming America.” Why would he say that? Some might excuse it as simply campaign rhetoric in the last days of a Presidential campaign. Perhaps that is so. But it disturbed me at the time and still bothers me today. While we have flaws, we have been the most liberal and tolerant nation in history. Political leaders should ensure that does not change. We can always become better. But there is, and there never has been, any country as welcoming to peoples from all over the world, nor as free, as ours. If Mr. Obama had said he wanted to improve on what we have, I could have accepted that, but that is not what he said.

There is an asymmetry between declamations of those on the far Left and those on the far Right, which is disturbing. The former often express a visceral hostility, which is intended to marginalize their opposition in the style of Saul Alinsky. One only has to recall the demonization of Sarah Palin in 2008 or the vilification of Mike Huckabee last week – in both cases taking words out of context and relentlessly belittling them. Likewise, Bush lied; Obama tells falsehoods. Lies and false statements are too often ignored by mainstream media when they are uttered by those on the Left. Lies about Benghazi and the IRS are examples. Elizabeth Warren’s lie about her heritage was another. So was Wendy Davis’s lie about bringing up her children as a single mother. Conservatives would have been scalded for making such false claims.

We are truly, as I wrote above, a polyglot nation. People have emigrated to these shores from virtually every nation on earth. We are more racially and ethnically diverse than any other nation. Intermarriage between races, ethnics and creeds has made us a unique people, unlike any other nation. A hundred or two hundred years from now the genetic differences between us will be even less. From the start, the United States was unique in its outreach to people from all lands. E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) was the motto recommended by the committee Congress appointed on July 4, 1776 to design the Great Seal of the new United States. The founding fathers provided an explicit plan for government. But implicit, in what they said, wrote and did, was a moral code, or a sense of values, if you will. Over time that moral code has changed, reflecting input from new immigrants. However, many of the lessons taught by the founding fathers have as much relevance today as they did 238 years ago – our essential rights embedded in the Bill of Rights; checks and balances, inherent in the Constitution; property rights; the rule of law; the emphasis on the individual; the separation of church and state, but with an emphasis on the importance of religion and God. An American culture should keep what is best from our past and gradually improve it by adding what is best from other cultures. Tolerance and respect for those of differing opinions are near the top of those lists.


The concept of fundamentally transforming a people and a nation is extreme. Standing up and speaking out for ideas in which one believes is a right provided from our founding. It is not extreme. What makes someone an extremist is not so much their beliefs; it is the adamancy with which they proclaim them and the total disregard they have for those of differing opinions. Extremism can be seen in the deprecation of elites toward their political opponents, and their inability to engage in debate. It was Governor Cuomo who was the extremist; it was not the conservatives who offer differing opinions.

Friday, January 24, 2014

"It Didn't Have To Be This Way"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“It Didn’t Have To Be This Way”

January 24, 2014

 

There is a scene in the movie “Lone Survivor” that says a lot about the character of American soldiers and about the attitudes of many at home. It is the point, early on in the movie, when a reconnaissance mission of four Naval Seals dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan is compromised by the appearance of an elderly goatherd, a teenager, a young boy and a tribe of scavenging goats.

 

The four Seals grab the three, hold them, and then debate their fate. They conclude there are three options. One, they could tie them up, but, as one soldier noted, they would likely be eaten by wolves. Two, they could kill the three men, but scruples interfere. Besides, as another notes, can you imagine the field day CNN would have once they learned that American soldiers had murdered three defenseless civilians! Three, they could let them go and try to reach the top of the ridge – and the ability to radio for help – before the 100 to 200 Taliban in the village came after them. They take the third option, and the consequence is that the teenager rushes down the mountain, the Taliban go after them and, over the next day and a half, three of the four men die and sixteen fellow Seals are killed when the rescue helicopter is shot down with a man-portable surface-to-air missile. The consequence of letting the goat herders go: nineteen of twenty Naval Seals dead, all because of a fundamental respect for life inbred in American servicemen.

 

The bombing and shootings in a Kabul restaurant a week ago was a reminder that we may run, but we cannot hide from the fact that fundamental Islamists terrorists remain intent on killing us and all who accept our values. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the terrorist organization he led, al Qaeda, is like the Hydra of Greek mythology. When one head was cut off, two would grow in its place. We may all wish the War on Terror were over, but it isn’t and it likely won’t be for years. Al Qaeda is not in retreat. In fact, it is in resurgence in a volatile Middle East, as can be seen in Syria.

 

We can argue about the justification for the invasion of Iraq. There will always be those who find any war unjustified, many with good reason – the mother of a boy shot, or the young wife whose husband is blown up, or the child who will never see her father again. There are others who are simply pacifists by inclination. But most of us would agree that the world cannot be left to tyrants – that freedom is worth the price of war. The Second World War is generally cited as a just war. Nazism and Fascism were universally condemned. Since then, however, we have had a difficult time deciding what is justified and what is not.

 

We all realize that the men who attacked us on 9/11 and who steered those planes into buildings were members of al Qaeda. They were trained in Afghanistan and harbored by the Taliban. Our first troops, in response, were sent into Afghanistan within weeks. The Bush Administartion decided the enemy was ubiquitous, and as complex as he was illusive. The 9/11 attackers came from multiple countries in the Middle East, mostly from Saudi Arabia. President Bush argued that anyone who harbored terrorists should be considered an enemy. One who did was Saddam Hussein. The decision to invade Iraq received widespread support from both political parties and from a coalition of about forty countries. When weapons of mass destruction were not found, many detractors of Mr. Bush claimed that he had lied or misled the people. Yet, it is known that Saddam had used chemical weapons on his Kurdish subjects, especially in the city of Halabja and that somewhere between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds were killed. In 1981, the Israelis were convinced he was close to developing a nuclear weapon, so they bombed the facility at Osirak. Human Rights Watch estimates that in his years in power, Saddam Hussein killed between 70 and 125 Iraqi civilians per day. He did so for almost 20 years. We can disagree as to whether his removal was worth the 4,486 American lives it cost, but there is little question that the world is a better place without him. There can also be no debate that when Mr. Obama took office the war had essentially been won and that a primitive form of democracy was beginning to take hold – but one that relied on our continued presence. Our leaving Iraq prematurely has allowed al Qaeda to regroup and return. 

 

In Afghanistan, our military is arguing that we need a complement of at least 10,000 U.S. troops to stay on. If not, they suggest we pull out altogether. Into that vacuum will flow Taliban and al Qaeda forces, for their war against the West will persist. If we pull out before the Karzai government is ready, it will mean that the 2,309 American soldiers who have been killed there (1,943 under President Obama) will have died in vain.

 

President Obama is adamant about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and relieving both countries of an American presence. It is a political message that plays well in a country worn down by twelve years of fighting. But is it shortsighted in the broader scheme of things? In an ideal world, we would all love to have no need for a police force, but even the smallest village in America needs a policeman. We instinctively understand that man and human nature are imperfect. When we choose to live in communities, we must adhere to certain rules, else anarchy reigns. Whether we like it or not, there is no other country that can assume that role. It would be nice if an international body such as the United Nations could do so, but they have proved inept or driven by too many competing factions to do so. It is left to us. If we don’t, terrorists will have free rein and, as nations that harbor or cater to terrorists get hold of nuclear weapons on other weapons of mass destruction, the need for our services will only intensify.

 

When Tom Brokaw termed the World War II generation the “greatest” generation, he did both past, present and future generations a disservice. It is not that they were not great people who came together in the Country’s (and the world’s) hour of need 72 years ago. They were. They responded quickly and bravely. But my father and those like him who served in combat in that war (perhaps 10 million men and women) never thought of themselves as unusual, heroic or great. They considered it their duty to serve their country when and where asked. Most would have preferred to stay at home, but they did what they were requested to do; it was seen as a price of citizenship – to help ensure that future generations could live in peace. Unlike today, it was an army overwhelmingly conscripted.

 

Today, at a time when our military is comprised solely of volunteers, most Americans have little understanding of what is demanded of those who serve. What we have today is almost tantamount to a mercenary army, hired to ensure our safety at home by ridding terrorists abroad. We see images brought to us daily of mangled bodies, victims of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IED), most of whom are innocent civilians caught up in a war not of their making, but one increasingly blamed on an American presence. But those who live in those countries know differently. It is a war brought about by evil forces who cannot abide the freedom America represents. We send our young men and women to help bring civility and decency to the majority of the people. We must also stay and help them forge the rudimentaries of democracy. We owe it to the people and to ourselves.

 

And we must be increasingly cognizant of the lives our combat soldiers lead – the closeness of their bonds, the fright which is a daily part of their lives, the obeisance to a chain of command that is alien to most Americans, and the idea that they are combating forces that have no allegiance to human dignity, and that they must do so while upholding the values Americans hold most dear. It is almost beyond belief that four Naval Seals who had been witness to acts of cruelty beyond description, such as beheadings and genital mutilation of young women would opt for decency. They understood the chances they were taking. What other country produces such men?

 

In the interest of being able to say he ended both wars, President Obama risks losing all that these men and women fought for. How can we ask future generations to fight wars when the lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq teach us that our leaders may abandon missions when it becomes politically expedient to do so? Those nineteen Seals died in the service of the United States and, in fact, in the service of all who aspire to be free. A touching and telling moment in the film is toward the end when Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, is saved by a Pashtun village tribal leader. According to a tenet of Pashtunwali, hospitality and asylum should be provided all guests seeking help. The village leader did so at great risk to himself, his son and his villagers, recognizing that retribution by the Taliban would be likely. But it also suggests that the desire for freedom is universal. What will happen to that village and its occupants and to hundreds of other villages across Afghanistan once we prematurely exit the field?

 

The title of this piece comes from a song of that name. The refrain goes:

 

It didn’t have to be this way;

You know it didn’t have to be,

But it’s the end of the line

So goodbye.

 

If al Qaeda takes root in Iraq, as it appears that they are, and if the Taliban regroup in Afghanistan, as seems probable, the fault will be ours. We sent 6,795 soldiers to die in those countries to rout out those who precipitated 9/11 and to lay foundations that democracies might emerge. The purpose was selfless. It doesn’t have to end this way.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Smoke 'em if You've Got 'em"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“Smoke ‘em, If You’ve Got’em”

January 21, 2014

 

While I am no expert, having only once experimented with marijuana, it is common knowledge that pot, like cigarettes, is generally inhaled – unless, of course, one is President Clinton. It is also common knowledge that it is addictive and harmful to one’s health.

 

It seems ironic, therefore, that a number of politicians, especially those that spend an inordinate amount of time protecting us from ourselves, are changing their minds as to the legalization of pot. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have approved marijuana for medicinal purposes. The allegation of the States’ is that pot works synergistically with opiod painkillers to improve the quality of pain relief and reduce the number of pills needed. Nevertheless, under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 substance and is deemed to have “no medicinal value; it is dangerously addictive and holds a high potential for abuse.”

 

Less than three weeks after Colorado and Washington state decided to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes, the acting surgeon general, Dr. Boris Lushniak, released a study that greatly expands the number of illnesses that cigarette smoking is said to cause. While marijuana and tobacco are different – the latter contains nicotine and the former cannobinoids – both products contain benzyprene, which is the tar in both tobacco and cannabis. Nicotine contains carcinogens and cannobinoids repress neurotransmitter release in the brain, impeding one’s ability to respond. Typically one inhales pot more deeply than tobacco and holds it in one’s lungs longer, creating the potential for respiratory problems.

 

Dr. Lushniak’s study, of course, was aimed at the tobacco industry. Studies on the effect of cannabis have been far less extensive, as pot, until recently, has been a banned substance. The Surgeon General’s report found that the negative effects of tobacco include “vision loss, tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, impaired immune function and cleft palettes in children of women who smoke.” With that as a guide and as more studies are conducted on the effects of marijuana, it is hard to imagine that more ill-effects will not be found.

 

What is known about marijuana is that it is addictive and that it, like alcohol, impairs judgment and motor coordination, and contributes to accidents. We know that that cannabis causes the heart rate to increase by 20% to 100% and the effect can last up to three hours. We know that heavy smokers of marijuana have poorer physical and mental health, and that young people who smoke pot are more likely to drop out of school.

 

It seems incredulous that many of those who would put the tobacco industry out of business support the legalization of pot. Even more absurdly, most do so because of its alleged medicinal benefits. Keep in mind, in the 1950s (only a decade before the Surgeon General required that every pack of cigarettes carry a warning level) doctors were often seen in ads touting the health benefits of cigarette smoking.

 

Cigarettes are legal in every state; though smoking them is banned in most public places like offices, retail outlets and restaurants. They are even banned outdoors in some localities, and will be in one’s home should the “nanny state” have its way. Marijuana is illegal in most states; though meets the approval of many who would ban cigarettes. Weed is politically correct while smoking is not. Rubes from the mountains of West Virginia, the bayous of Louisiana and the flat-lands of Texas smoke cigarettes. Coastal elites smoke pot. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), marijuana is the most common illicit drug used in the United States. The NIH, in a December 2012 article, noted that more teenagers today smoke marijuana than cigarettes.

 

It is not a new-found libertarian sense that has converted eminent Americans (like President Obama, Governor Cuomo or Senator Harry Reid) to favor the legalization of pot. It is doubtful that they truly believe there are health benefits to marijuana. They are certainly not libertarians. The reason for their conversion is simply cynical, political expediency.

 

First, Mr. Obama’s personal rankings have dropped precipitously, in large part be cause of the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare, but also because of the lies he told to get the Act passed. At risk is Mr. Obama’s relationship with the young and his desire to keep control of the Senate and perhaps bring the House into his orbit in 2014. While polls suggest that the broad electorate is evenly split regarding legalization, youth favors such a move 58% to 42%, according to a recent Gallup poll. Second, a New York Times column last fall reported that minorities have been disproportionately jailed for the crime of dealing and possession. This is an issue, the Times suggests, that requires a “transformative” President. Legalizing weed would solve that dilemma. Third is the plethora of scandals that imperil the President and, by association, the Democrat Party – Benghazi, the IRS, running guns into Mexico, and of course the lies about ObamaCare. Anything that detracts from such stories is encouraged.

 

Finally, politicians’ are changing their minds because of the dollars involved. The legal selling of marijuana for medicinal purposes is a $1.8 billion industry. Expectations are that it should quadruple by 2018. Those numbers understate the potential for the industry. Alaska and Oregon are likely to approve the sale of pot for recreational purposes in 2014, according to a recent issue of Rolling Stone. California and five other states are expected to do the same by 2016. Wherever money is, look for politicians.

 

How important is this issue? We have far bigger problems. Despite ground-breaking technological advances in communications and social media, and increased oil and gas production, the economy is limping along at half-speed. It risks being snuffed out by a government bent on increasing regulation and taxes wherever and whenever they can. According to the newly released 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, the United States has fallen from 10th place to 12th. Another thing, we have either abandoned, or are about to abandon, those places in the Middle East that breed terrorists and terrorism. With our eye off the ball, one should expect an increase in terrorism. We have an educational system that has done a lot for unionized employees, but distressingly little for our children, especially those in inner cities and in poor, rural parts of the country. We have a healthcare system that needs repair, but which government efforts have worsened. There is a lot on our plate. The legalization of pot, while dear to the hearts of some, does not measure up to the far more important issues we confront.

 

Regardless, it is an event likely to happen. The Volstead Act of 1919, banning alcohol, was the dumbest Constitutional Amendment ever passed. It did nothing to stop drinking liquor, wine or beer. The products became more expensive. The Act increased crime, left thousands dead and promoted cronyism between rum-runners, local politicians and retailers. So, legalizing pot may make sense. It won’t make any difference in my life, other than increasing the possibility of being killed on I-95. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind the health risks of cannabis. But none of this has anything to do why so many leftist Democrats have changed their minds about legalizing marijuana.

 

In 1962, while in basic training, Platoon Sergeant Billingsley would periodically call a break. “Smoke ‘em, if you’ve got ‘em,” would be his offer, if not his command. Almost everybody smoked in those days, especially “grunts.” I would light up one of my unfiltered Lucky Strikes and my buddies would do likewise. Today, we have an increasing number of establishment figures saying the same thing to young people across the States of Colorado and Washington, and, increasingly, across the Country: “Light up! It’s legal.” Will the PC police that ban tobacco allow pot? Or will it be seen as an inherent right and a social good, but a health hazard? The future is unclear, but at this point there is less concern about the negative consequences of cannabis than there is about tobacco, despite both being addictive and bad for one’s health. There is greater interest in diverting attention from the rollout of ObamaCare and the scandals and attempting to improve the poll numbers.

 

It is ironic, and in fact patronizing, that politicians that advocate for the public interest, that are consumed with protecting us from almost everything, from soft drinks to trans-fats, from hotdogs to Big Mac’s, should promote the legal selling of a product known to be unhealthy. “Smoke ‘em, if you’ve got ‘em.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

"A Deteriorating Culture & Double Standards"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“A Deteriorating Culture & Double Standards”

January 17, 2014

 

The Country is increasingly divided. We have the 1% and the 99%; the 50% that pay federal income taxes and the 50% that do not. Income and wealth gaps have widened, but so have gaps between the educated and the uneducated. Inequality is said to be the issue of the day. Congress is polarized and has become increasingly ineffective. Media bias is blatant and contradictory. Perspective is lost in a sea of partisanship. Responsibility sinks as dependency rises. Not only do we opposite sides on issues, we never listen to the other person. If one is skeptical as to the causes of climate change, one is a “denier,” while proponents, who put most of the blame on man, are also “deniers” for ignoring an ever-changing Earth. Supporters of legalized pot are the same who want to ban smoking. Criticism has become vitriolic, instead of constructive. You are with me, or you’re against me. Fair is when we agree; unfair when we do not. Empathy, humility, civility are traits lost in an age of the “selfie.”

 

A double standard exists when it comes to the media. Mainstream media holds conservatives to far tougher standards than they do those on the Left. The IRS scandal centered on conservative groups that were singled out for extra scrutiny during the spring of 2012. According to the Media Research Center, ABC, CBS and NBC’s respective evening newscasts devoted 17 times more coverage, in the first 24 hours, to Bridgegate than it did to the IRS scandal during its first 24 hours – and 44 times more coverage in a week than in six months following the IRS’s revelations. Incredibly, a Democrat-led Justice Department chose an Obama contributor to lead an FBI investigation into allegations against the IRS. She concluded there was no culpability. This finding came despite the fact that many conservative groups were neutered in the months leading up to the 2012 election. One person, Lois Lerner, has been put on paid leave, which means taxpayers are still paying her salary. No one else has been held responsible.

 

As for Benghazi, a bi-partisan commission found that the attack was avoidable, that fault lay with the State Department and that al Qaeda affiliates were responsible, yet the only person punished sixteen months after the attack has been the producer of a video that had nothing to do with the incident. There have been no apologies, no firings and no resignations – and little curiosity on the part of mainstream media.

 

In contrast, besides attracting much more media coverage, a Democrat-controlled New Jersey Legislature will be investigating the political shenanigans that caused a four-day shutdown on two lanes leading from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge last September. I have no interest in condoning what happened, but perspective is needed. Bridge and tunnel lane-closings are common heading to New York. However, people were inconvenienced for what appears to have been a childish act of political retribution. Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, refused to endorse a Republican governor, Chris Christie, in his bid for re-election. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” is the “smoking gun.” The e-mail allegedly came from the desk of Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly. It was apparently sent to David Wildstein, a Christie high school classmate and assistant to the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee. Ms. Kelly was summarily fired on January 9th by the governor when it was found she had lied to him about any involvement in the lane closing. Mr. Wildstein resigned. Mr. Christie, in a press conference that lasted almost two hours, claimed no prior knowledge of his administration’s involvement. He apologized profusely, apologizing first to the people of New Jersey, and then: “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee and I apologize to the members of the state legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some people on my team.” His 107 minute news conference lasted until the last question had been answered. Assuming he is telling the truth, his apology and forthright behavior are in stark contrast to our “Teflon-protected” President.

 

It should come as no surprise that politicians reward friends and punish enemies. Patronage is as old as politics and is practiced in every society everywhere. But that is no reason to excuse bad or illegal behavior. At bottom, the President and the Governor (and their aides) are both creators and victims of a culture which is self-centered, blindly aggressive and extremely biased. It reminds me of trading floors in the 1980s. But, it is one thing to be super-competitive in business; it is quite different when the culture of our society is at stake. Such posturing has lead to the radical polarization of views. It has become a “my way, or the highway” attitude that gradually wears down civil behavior. Taken to extremes, it will destroy our Country.

 

If this trend is to be reversed – which will prove difficult, if not impossible – it must begin at home and in schools. A solution should be easy, however. It is so obvious that it could have been offered by Lucretia Hale’s “lady from Philadelphia.” Yet, the likelihood for change seems slight, because of “political correctness.” Studies show what commonsense tells us – children that grow up in two-parent homes do better than those in single parent homes. There are notable exceptions, President Obama being the most obvious. But statistics show that children raised with a mother and father fare best. I am essentially indifferent regarding same-sex marriage, but the emphasis in Washington and in our State Houses should be on traditional families and values for the sake of our children. Out-of-wedlock births and broken homes contribute to inequalities.

 

Catering to teacher’s unions, as Mr. de Blasio is doing in New York, also puts poor children at a disadvantage. When the Mayor and his team reduce or eliminate charter schools, they hurt the poor and the disadvantaged. Mr. de Blasio can send his children to any school he chooses, but most City residents cannot. Their only option is neighborhood schools. There is a reason why acceptances to charter schools bring cheers to those that have won spots and tears to those denied. Pontifications to the contrary, arguments against charter schools are based on the fact that most of them operate with non-union staff. Additionally, bilingual schools do children a disservice. Multiculturalism may be a fine goal, but English is the language of the United States. Those that don’t learn it are at a permanent disadvantage. Commonsensical answers would work.

 

We should not be shocked that politicians reward friends and punish enemies. It is common and perhaps only fair to retaliate against one’s political opponents, but the consequence should never inconvenience people. Nor should laws be broken, or cover-ups allowed. Standards should be universal. While we may not be able to remove editorializing from reporting, we should all understand the difference. The press has an enormous responsibility. Passion in editorials is okay, but news should be served in a disinterested manner. We should support differences of opinion in Washington – it is through debate that the best decisions are made – but when conflict denigrates into battle, polarization is the consequence. We should be vigilant about anyone desiring more power, regardless of political affiliation. Our government is dependent on the rule of law and adherence to civil rights. But our society is reliant on a culture of civility and an understanding that a moral sense transcends all cultures and values.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Back to the Future?"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“Back to the Future?”

January 15, 2014

 

In 1919, upon returning to the United States after meeting with Vladimir Lenin in Petrograd, Lincoln Steffens said to Bernard Baruch, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Today his apparent naïveté seems incredulous. But at the time such sentiments were commonplace. The Great War had changed society beyond recognition. Most of Europe was destitute, with the land laid barren by four years of war. Entire villages and cities were destroyed. Debt was overwhelming. New maps had been drawn, creating countries where none had existed. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917, as revolution came to Russia. A little more than a year later he and his family were murdered.

 

It was not unnatural to blame the old guard for the devastation their policies had placed on the common man. But the Russian Revolution had little in common with the American Revolution. A monarchial, totalitarian system was replaced with a dictatorship of the proletariat. Brutal men took charge and implemented even harsher means of maintaining order. It took until the death of Joseph Stalin before the magnitude of the horrors of what the Communists had wrought on their people became public. Even today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still unknown how many political prisoners died in the Gulags, or how many millions more died of unnecessary starvation in Russia and its former satellites, but the total is in the tens of millions. Yet, there are those today in the United States that would have us follow the same disastrous track as did the Soviets following their Revolution in 1917.

 

Like many others, I read the piece in Rolling Stone over the weekend written by Jesse Myerson. Like many others, my initial reaction was one of being appalled. While he calls for a “just, fair society,” a concept that appeals to all of us, his means of achieving it are not dissimilar to the practices of the Bolsheviks in 1917. His solutions include: guaranteed jobs, universal incomes, community ownership of private property, collectivized wealth and state-owned banks. Intelligent, well-off, educated Americans like Lincoln Steffens, William Bullitt and Walter Lippmann traveled to the new Soviet Union in the aftermath of the War and revolution, and they liked what they saw. Mabel Dodge and Frances Perkins were likewise seduced by the words and promises of men like Lenin – ideas that sounded great, but in practice proved willfully brutal.  

 

These Americans were not wild-eyed crazies. They were misguided. They were sons and daughters of the establishment. John Reed, William Bullitt, Mabel Dodge and Lincoln Steffens were born to wealthy parents. Reed and Lipmann were graduates of Harvard. Bullitt graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. Lincoln Steffens was a graduate of the University of California at Berkley and Frances Perkins graduated from Columbia. Two of them, William Bullitt and Frances Perkins, served in the FDR Administration. Walter Lippman was a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and became an ardent “New Dealer.” Yet they all fell for the lure and promise of Communism.

 

It is not that Mr. Myerson does not have a legitimate complaint. The economy, as he so eloquently puts it, “blows.” He is correct when he writes that his parent’s generation (that’s me and people a few years younger) has left his generation – the millennials – an “economic hellhole.” We have bequeathed a level of debt that, unless extraordinary steps are taken soon, will ultimately collapse our economic and political system. But his “five economic reforms” have a déjà-vu feel to them. Some are remarkably like the recommendations brought back by those who traveled to the Soviet Union in its early years. These men and women returned, inspired by a future they claimed “that works.” Except it didn’t. And, unlike those who succumbed to the siren calls from Russian revolutionaries in the post-World War I years, Mr. Myerson has the advantage of history, of knowing how poorly their policies fared and, worst, the horrific means that were employed in demanding allegiance.

 

Mr. Myerson does not encompass his recommendations in the cloak of Communism – he is too smart for that – but rather in the trappings of a benevolent “big government.” He suggests that “a universal basic income, combined with job guarantee and other social programs, could make participation in the labor force truly voluntary, thereby enabling people to get a life.” He does not define “get a life” and provides no recommendations for paying for such idyllic outcomes. Nor does he speculate as to the negative effect such policies would inevitably have on the economy. There is no reference to the fate of H.G. Wells’ Eloi. Keep in mind, throughout modern history it has been individual brains, aspiration, creativity and effort that have driven economic growth. Harnessing that drive is critical to success. Impediments lead to subservience. He proposes the communal ownership of land and property, ignoring the fact that the right to own property is a fundamental bedrock of American liberty. He suggests the creation of a sovereign wealth fund – a concept that has some merit, in my opinion. But he then takes a good idea and turns it into an absurdity, or worse. His fund would buy up all stocks, bonds and other assets from the private sector. The income from such a fund would be used to pay “dividends to all permanent residents, in the form of a universal basic income. Who would pay? With no profit motive, who would invest?

 

While Mr. Myerson strikes me as unusually naïve (and poorly versed in U.S. and world history) some of his recommendations have been considered by conservatives and have some merit. For example, sovereign wealth funds exist in Texas (created in the last half of the 19th Century) and Alaska (since 1976), not exactly homes to coastal elites. Texas uses the money to help fund education and Alaska actually pays dividends to residents.

 

The concept of providing a subsistence income to all citizens is being considered in Switzerland. The idea is that in providing an income of 2500 Swiss francs ($2800) a month to all citizens, the country could eliminate all welfare plans, including unemployment payments and state financed old age programs. Those programs in the U.S., as in Switzerland, are cumbersome and costly to run. (The idea of a universal income was first suggested by Sir Thomas More in early 16th Century England.) Importantly, as the income would not be lost when a job is obtained, the program would not starve aspiration. It is a concept that has been considered by conservatives, as it would reduce bureaucracy and eliminate social welfare plans. It is worthy of debate.

 

Mr. Myerson’s idea of a public bank in every state is, again, not a new idea. North Dakota has such a bank. The purpose, however, is not to channel money “toward its most socially valuable uses,” but toward small business people with smart ideas. Fond as he is of the word, Mr. Myerson also believes that Wall Street “blows.” While I have been critical of much of what happens on Wall Street, I tend to choose less colorful, adjectives. The Bank of North Dakota for seven years – 1993-2000 – was led by current Republican Senator, John Hoeven. But, instead of competing with local and national banks, the Bank of North Dakota partners with them.

 

The current economic situation is frustrating, especially to millennials who feel let down by a President they broadly supported in 2008 and again in 2012. Mr. Obama’s attempt to create a European-style welfare state has been a colossal failure. Detroit is an example of the welfare state being overwhelmed with the reality of broken promises. Ironically, Detroit pensioners are looking to eleemosynary institutions, funded by private capital, to bail out their pensions. Income and wealth inequality have expanded over the past five years. An extended period of low interest rates has caused asset prices to soar, but has done little if anything for job growth. An emphasis on renewable energy sources and a refusal to drill on federal lands have kept oil and gas prices higher than they need to have been, causing anguish among America’s neediest. The same has been true for corn prices, stemming from the ill-advised Bush decision to use corn-ethanol as a gasoline additive. Higher prices for fuel and food have acted as a regressive tax on the Country’s poorest.

 

GDP growth, for the past five years, has averaged two percentage points below the average of post-War recoveries. Over five years, that amounts to almost $1.5 trillion. There are two million fewer workers employed than in 2007. The labor force participation rate of 62.8% is at the level it was in 1978. Minorities and the young have suffered the most over the past five years. The age group 16-25 has seen the largest drop in employment, with employment lower by 1.8 million people. Black unemployment, while down from 17% in 2009, is still at an unacceptable rate of 12%. Empty promises have turned out to be just that – empty.

 

The President and young liberals like Mr. Myerson are more focused on issues like same-sex marriage, free contraception and government hand-outs than they are in trying to resolve the biggest challenges of our time – the disintegrating family and the explosion in out-of-wedlock births, and the contribution those trends are adding to inequality, economic hardship and social dysfunction. These people think of freedom in economic terms, rather than in classical liberal terms. Equality in incomes and the right to healthcare are equated with the right to free speech. The first two would be nice, but the last is imperative to freedom. There is no question about how poorly the current economic environment has hit millennials like Mr. Myerson, but there are lessons to be learned by remembrances of things past.

 

The essayist and philosopher George Santayana once famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The farther we travel from any incident of horror the less real it becomes. That is one reason why so many have raised concerns about the NSA. The terrible events of 9/11 are fading as the years pass. By nature, we tend to remember the good, not the bad. History, though, serves when memory fails. It is history and the consequences of policies that the Jesse Myersons’ should keep in mind when making recommendations, such as the ones in the January 3rd edition of Rolling Stone. That is a future to which we do not want to return.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"And Not One Little Piggy Went To Prison"


 

      Sydney M. Williams

 

Thought of the Day

“And Not One Little Piggy Went To Prison”

January 13, 2014

 

In the case of the Justice Department versus JP Morgan Chase (JPM) re the failure to notify regulators regarding the bank’s suspicions about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, the verdict is in: Shareholders must pay fines and related costs of $2.6 billion; bank executives – no fines, no prison. Of course, to the extent individual executives own JPM shares, they are responsible for their share. However, insider ownership of the stock is 0.3% and last year management sold about $180 million of the stock. So, of the $2.6 billion to be paid out, approximately $8.5 million will be paid by management. The rest will come out of the pockets of millions of large and small investors.

 

The ability to handle fines of this size, without incurring a management crisis (JPM has now paid out about $20 billion in the past year), is attributable to the strength of their balance sheet. And the balance sheet is strong in large part because of the generosity of the Federal Reserve (read taxpayer.) It is an advantage to be too big to fail and to work with other people’s money (OPM) – gains can be privatized and losses socialized.

 

Cronyism stretches as far back as when man first emerged from his cave and assembled with other people to form a civic society. Ties between government and business go back centuries. Such links were understandable, but not necessarily right. In the New Hampshire town where I grew up, the First Selectman was often the Road Agent. Since roads, next to schools, were the town’s biggest budget item, it was not uncommon for the local construction guy to run for and be elected First Selectman.

 

Perhaps I am naïve in being surprised of the close ties that bind business to government. Character should matter, but it doesn’t seem to. The Justice Department, in allowing JP Morgan to use shareholder’s funds to foreswear criminal prosecution and private litigation over a failure to act on its suspicions as to the legitimacy of Madoff beggars belief. Suspicions had been raised as early as 1998, according to a report in last Wednesday’s Financial Times. Funds managed by the bank’s asset management arm withdrew from Mr. Madoff’s funds or declined to invest with him, while money’s for which they were custodian were not cautioned. And the bank continued to service Mr. Madoff’s business. One manager in the asset management division had warned internally that returns were “possibly too good to be true.” They were. Nevertheless, no whistle was blown alerting regulators in the U.S., despite such documents being filed in the U.K.  

 

This is not to pick on JP Morgan exclusively. Cronyism is ubiquitous in our world today. Most big banks, most multinationals and many smaller companies – for example, many of the firms operating in the renewable resource arena – regularly interact with politicians for favorable treatment in one form or another. While such ties can never be completely severed, they can be exposed and, thereby, mitigated. It is widely expected that the 55 corporate tax breaks that expired at the end of 2013 will be reinstated, just as they were a year ago.

 

Banks are of interest in any study of cronyism because they are central to a well-functioning economy. Access to credit is critical to commerce and the ability to save is essential to every individual’s well-being. It is a symbiotic relationship that rewards both partners. But, like most things financial, the business relies on confidence. And confidence depends on trust. When bank executives that are to blame for fiduciary misdeeds are able to walk away unpunished it diminishes our trust in a system critical to the smooth running of the economy.

 

Banks are typically depicted by the media as behemoths that stand astride Wall Street, itself described as a protected, self-indulgent place composed of the wealthy, managed by the wealthy who work in the interests of the wealthy. JP Morgan is indeed a large, rich bank, but, like most American businesses that are public companies, it is in fact owned by millions of individuals, mostly through mutual funds and pension plans. The Vanguard Funds, the nation’s largest family of funds which also manages the largest index fund, are the bank’s largest shareholder, with holdings in JPM of about $10 billion. I do not know how many Vanguard Funds’ shareholders there are, but I would suspect they must include a substantial portion of the 93 million Americans who own mutual fund shares.

 

Shareholders, through their director representatives, hire management to oversee their investments. In general, management at JP Morgan has done well, but less so recently. Over the past twenty years, the stock price has compounded at 8.2%, versus the S&P 500 at 6.9%. But most of the gain for JPM came in the first five years.  JPM’s price is only 10% higher than it was fourteen years ago, about the time when some executives were first getting suspicious of Mr. Madoff. In contrast, the S&P 500 is up 35% over the past fourteen years.

 

As a conservative, I deplore the trend toward increasing dependency on the state and the concomitant decline in personal responsibility. But a mark of a civilized society (something desired by conservatives and progressives alike) is accepting responsibility for what one does and says. A civilized society depends on adherence to a code of law and a code of conduct. It relies on character, a condition that is too often missing on Wall Street, Main Street, in business and in politics. Character too often is not taught in schools, nor learned at home, yet it reflects our temperament, our disposition, our nature, our personality. When we speak of people having “strong character,” we refer to qualities like morality, high ethical standards, honesty, courage, fortitude and integrity – words that are today seen as old fashioned and dated. Popular culture is more concerned about self, personal idiosyncrasies and the delightful effect of shock. We have become a self-absorbed people, interested at winning at any price and more concerned with self-praise than respect or concern for others. The taking of “selfies” defines our time.

 

Politicians are more interested in lining their pockets than in doing what is right for the country. They are consumed with a sense of their self-importance. Large banks have little interest in serving their communities, preferring to use the funds entrusted to them to turn those liabilities into assets that will enrich their executives. Their very size means that government serves as a backstop, lessening their responsibility to their owners – the shareholders. It also means they have become insensitive to the borrowing needs of businesses and consumers. Business and politicians working together means getting fat together. Who cares what is right for the nation? Is there anyone who really believes that former Vice President Gore’s greatest goal, once he lost his bid for the White House, was not to become super rich? Are there no more Jefferson Smiths, as portrayed by Jimmy Stewart?  Has everyone in Washington become Claude Rains’ Joseph Paine? Does every politician and banker pay homage to Edward Arnold’s Jim Taylor?

 

Crime without punishment leads to more crime and that is what was so wrong in the Justice Department letting executives at JP Morgan off the hook. Institutions don’t make decisions or take action. People do. When individuals do well, they should be rewarded. When they do poorly, that should be reflected in their compensation, but when they do something that is criminal or causes losses, the individual – not the shareholder or the taxpayer – should pay the price. It might be argued that no one person could put up $2.6 billion, but that misses the point. It is not the dollar amount that is important, it is the principal of doing what is right – of making an individual take responsibility for what he or she has done, good and bad. Lincoln once said: “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing.” All of the “little piggies” at JP Morgan went to market, or had roast beef. None were punished. A teaching moment was wasted. It’s a shame.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Let the Sun Shine In"


Sydney M. Williams
                                                                        Thought of the Day
January 10, 2014
 
“Let The Sun Shine In!”
 
“We’re the most transparent and the most ethical Administration in history;” so spoke President Obama on January 23rd, 2010 in Elyria, Ohio. Campaign promises are one thing; lying about what you have done is quite different. Campaign rhetoric notoriously becomes victim to operational necessities, but there is never an excuse for cover-ups or outright falsehoods. In his initial campaign, Mr. Obama promised to conduct the most transparent Presidency in history. Instead, the President has led the least open Administration in modern memory. He talks of transparency, but hides behind a curtain of deceit. In his first term, he gave 699 teleprompted speeches (more than three times the number George Bush gave in eight years – and Bush usually did not use a teleprompter), but he held the fewest number of press conferences since President Reagan.
 
After the election in 2008, Jeff Zeleny, a reporter for the New York Times who had covered Mr. Obama when he was in the Illinois State House and the U.S. Senate, presciently said: “I think in this White House, you may once again have more information about the president and administration than ever before, but I still think there will be fewer opportunities for questions and direct interaction with reporters and the president.”
 
From cronyism manifested in companies like Solyndra, to the “Fast and Furious” scandal with the ATF letting “guns walk into Mexico;” from the assassination of al Qaeda leaders (including an American citizen) by Drones, to a cover-up of the events leading to the tragedy in Benghazi; from using the IRS for political gain, to unilaterally ending welfare-to-work rules; from subordinating creditors to union employees in the auto bailouts, to Justice Department surveillance of Associated Press and Fox News reporters, this Administration has used the power of its office to still dissent and hide the truth. Woodrow Wilson wrote: “We cannot lead if the American people are kept in the dark. We cannot lead if the world does not know the principals and laws that guide us.”
 
I am not a believer that any Administration should disclose all that they do. Secrecy is important in sensitive negotiations with heads of state and even with Congressional leaders. Politicians use the airwaves to assure their base they are fighting for their cause, but they must also negotiate with those on the other side of the aisle. Plans for military operations must be kept secret, for obvious reason. Conducting meetings in the sunlight of a C-SPAN precludes the possible need for greater deliberation. While many Americans are upset with the disclosure that the NSA has the ability to listen in on private conversations and to read e-mails, in my opinion that should come as no surprise, given the ubiquitous nature of today’s communications systems. It is something that needs to be monitored, as the opportunity for abuse certainly exists. In my opinion, though, Edward Snowden is more traitor than hero. The President is charged with the security of the people. Preemption, when dealing with today’s most important enemies – Islamic terrorists and rogue states with nuclear weapons – is far preferable to retaliation following mass killings. None of us want to experience another 9/11. Our democracy relies on openness, but it can only survive if the people are kept safe. War is terrible, but enslavement is worse.
 
However, there is no excuse for not disclosing how our tax dollars are spent. It is in spending that politicians exercise power. We elect them. Theoretically they work for us, and it is our dollars they spend. Notionally, spending is the purview of Congress, but the Executive branch has enormous leeway regarding the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars. No matter who is spending the money, there is very little, if any, accountability. For example, Congress will likely extend unemployment insurance for another three months, because not to do so would mean they would be characterized as cheap and inhumane. This is especially so at a time when the economy continues to limp feebly along and much of the Country is gripped in an unusual cold wave. But little, if any, consideration or publicity is given to the source of the funds. We can rest assured that no special tax to cover the expected $6.4 billion cost will be levied, as that would make too clear the actual cost to taxpayers, even though it would only add about $100 to the average tax bill. Of course, since the top one percent of all earners pay 38% of all federal income taxes, the actual cost to most people would be considerably less. But, for politicians, why worry about something today when you can defer it indefinitely or at least until you are out of office? If the people had the option to vote on each piece of legislation, government would be considerably smaller. It would also be unrealistic, but it is an exercise each of us, as taxpayers, should think about from time to time. Money does not magically appear. My mother used to say, money doesn’t grow on trees. She was right. Every piece of legislation and/or executive order must be paid for through taxes, fees or borrowing. This $6.4 billion will be borrowed, meaning it will become the obligation of our children and grandchildren.
 
In 2012, the federal government spent $3.563 trillion and received $2.435 trillion in tax receipts and fees. (The spending number does not include the increase in accruals for the unfunded liabilities of entitlement programs during the year, nor does it contain additions to the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve and agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.) But, forgetting for the moment off-balance sheet items, the above numbers meant that we had to borrow $1.128 trillion. With the Fed keeping interest rates exceptionally low and with the Dollar being the world’s reserve currency, the United States is in the enviable position of being able to borrow at very low interest rates. Keeping interest rates low, while painful for the thrifty, is enormously beneficial to government and other creditors. However, there is a hidden cost. Despite the fact that reported CPI numbers have been benign, markets over time are rational. Interest rates will rise (as they have been rising for the past year), offsetting Dollar debasement. It is in the interest of all borrowers, including government, to pay off debt with a lower-valued currency. And that will happen. Inflation will increase or the Dollar will continue to decline, as it has over the past decade. That there are no free lunches is a lesson apparently not yet learned by Congress, the President, taxpayers or even creditors. Of course, as far as the first two groups (Congress and the Administration) are concerned, they expect to spend their sunset years living on inflation-adjusted, generous, federally-endowed retirement plans, plus payments for speeches and royalties from tell-all books. What, me worry, is indeed their not unreasonable attitude?
 
How those funds are spent is the raison d’être of a relatively new organization, OpenTheBooks.com. It was founded by Adam Andrzejewski in 2010. Mr. Andrzejewski had built a small business, which he sold, and then ran for Governor of Illinois in the Republican primary in 2010. He was endorsed by Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa – on the platform, “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” Nevertheless, he lost the race, but not his vision or his pledge to bring sunlight into the murky depths of the fiscal gibberish that passes for state and federal spending plans. His mission: “…to limit government power by placing nearly all government spending online in an easy to access manner, empowering citizens to expose and curtail wasteful practices, and ensure the more efficient allocation of government resources.” It is based on the simple, but generally forgotten fact that taxpayers own the checkbook. Working with him is a young friend, Matthew Tyrmand who serves as Director of Development & Public Relations.
 
OpenTheBooks.com is in the process of creating a system by which any person can easily find virtually all information regarding how federal, state and local governments spend taxpayers’ money. The effort was made possible by the 2006 Your Government Act, sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and – ironically – Barack Obama (then D-IL). The law requires that all line-by-line transactions since 2000 be posted online. The government’s website can be found at www.usaspending.gov. Thus far, OpenTheBooks.com has posted, in a system that provides a searchable database, over 300 million lines of government spending. Their goal is to have over one billion lines by the end of 2014. On their website they currently display virtually all disclosed federal checkbook vendor spending since 2000 (contracts, grants, loans, direct payments, insurance and farm subsidies); salaries, with five-year histories, for 2.5 million federal employees; the checkbook spending for 40 of the 50 states, and salaries and pensions for employees in 31 states. They have also listed all federal campaign donations since 1979.
 
OpenTheBooks.com is an education project of American Transparency, a 501(c)3 charitable organization. Should you have an Apple or a Droid, a free app can be downloaded. More data on the organization can be seen by visiting their website: www.openthebooks.com.
 
Unnecessary secrecy is the linchpin for the abuse of power. Transparency is its antidote. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The essential aspect of democracy is freedom of the individual, operating within the confines of law. Without laws chaos would reign and freedom and civilization would be lost. A republic, such as we have, demands an informed electorate. When information is withheld, or lies are told, the people cannot make informed decisions. No one, including politicians, is above the law. We need transparency in government to assure against abuses, while recognizing the need for security in national defense.
 
In 2002, the American Society of News Editors began “Sunshine Week.” It is celebrated in mid-March to coincide with the birth dates of James Madison, author of the First Amendment, and the Freedom of Information Act. Both came into existence on March 16, James Madison in 1751 and the FOIA in 1966. Our President and his Administartion should honor the week, as a reminder that sunshine and real transparency are necessary to the survivorship of a democratic republic.