Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Obama and the College Rating System"

                                                                                                                 Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Obama and the College Rating System”
May 29, 2014

The arrogance of President Obama and his Administration know no bounds. A recent example being a comment by the director of the White House Policy Council, Cecelia Muñoz, as quoted in Monday’s New York Times. The article, “Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System,” dealt with a rating system the Obama Administration is designing for the nation’s 7000 colleges and universities that receive a total of $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants.

The problems the Administration cited as an excuse for another government bureaucracy are real: tuitions are rising at rates that exceed inflation, graduation rates have been declining, student debt is a growing concern and the job market sucks. All of these problems have at their source the incompetent hand of government. Assigning another government bureaucracy to fix the problem is akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The article in the Times mentioned that many college presidents have taken umbrage with the idea that Washington is dictating a mandate that directly affects them. The president of a Virginia university is quoted: “This is a take-it-or-leave-it approach.” Ms. Muñoz countered that Mr. Obama had no patience for anyone who attempted to block the effort. “This is happening,” is the way she so imperiously put it.

Ignoring any feelings of schadenfreude at the squirming of college presidents who otherwise are so blindly liberal, it is the chutzpah of those like Ms. Muñoz and Jamienne Studley that is so disconcerting. The latter, a deputy under-secretary at the Department of Education flippantly announced that rating colleges would be “like rating a blender,” a curious but telling analogy, as blenders produce a uniform product from a variety of sources, while a university expects to produce thousands of products, differentiated by hundreds of fields of studies. While we blame these supercilious remarks on the individuals making them, they reflect the Administration.

Easy availability of student loans has allowed colleges to raise prices at a more rapid rate than free markets would have permitted. Pressure to increase funding for qualified students from low-income families has meant that those who can pay full freight must pay more. It has meant that only those in the top one percent of incomes can afford to pay full tuition. Many colleges have become bloated with administrative staffs that have grown more quickly than instructional staffs.

The decline in graduation rates is, in part, related to the above problem. Students encumbered with debt have had to drop out. In addition, the desire to send everyone to college has meant that some have gone that never should have – some for only a good time and others because of a false promise that a degree automatically leads to financial success. (Keep in mind when reading of studies showing the earning power of college graduates that statistics look backward.)

Expansion in student debt can be attributed to the ease with which government allows students to incur debt, the low interest rates government charges, and the flexible repayment schedules they offer. Student loans, in many respects, are representative of a crony-like, incestuous relationship between government and universities.

The job market is terrible, but why? An $800 billion stimulus package did not even tickle, let alone stimulate. President Obama ignored the finding of the Simpson-Bowles Commission that he had established. The economy has been held hostage to politics, as is most visible in the refusal to okay the Keystone XL Pipeline. Regulation has become more intense and, with the tax code, has been used to impede, not promote, competition and economic growth. Instead, the Administration has been focused on redistribution, and “transforming” the nation’s healthcare system.

It is not as though prospective students have nowhere to turn when considering colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report regularly rates them according to several criteria, including academics, culture, region and cost. Barron’s does an annual ranking. The “Princeton Review” looks at colleges according to financial aid and even has a sub-category for “green” colleges. The College Prowler is an on-line service that includes rankings according to comments and observations from over 140,000 students.

There is a conceit that too often proves fatal when intellectuals in government feel capable of central planning. One has only to look at societies that have incorporated such planning: the Soviet Union, before its collapse; China, prior to the move toward capitalism, Cuba and North Korea. Why should we expect the Obama Administration to provide a superior service? Look at our own recent history. In 2008, prior to the credit collapse, two quasi government organizations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, dominated the mortgage market. With the encouragement of Congressmen like Representative Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd they seduced Americans into buying homes without regard to affordability. The VA hospital system was considered the standard on which Obamacare would build, but instead is proving to be a precursor of ineptitude and fraud. Government can provide guidance, but has little in the way of operational skills.
In Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (a book written with William Bartley), Friedrich Hayek wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” No matter how intelligent, no one man or woman can conceivably make decisions that encompass the collective wisdom of thousands of people making millions of decisions. That thought captures the essence of free market capitalism. It is why democracies and capitalism do not pretend to be able to draw up five-year plans with the certainty that an autocracy believes it can. That inability to control everything, which was so vividly demonstrated by Canute, is an object lesson in humility and in the wisdom of free people acting independently. “The more the state ‘plans’,” wrote Hayek, “the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” Amen!

That same principle applies to the way in which people determine what college best suits their or their children’s needs. The last thing this country needs is a superfluous bureaucracy performing a function already being done perfectly well by the private sector. We do not need a patronizing Administration applying a one-size-fits-all standard for 7000 colleges and universities. Former Obama Homeland Security Secretary and now president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano said last December that she is “deeply skeptical that there are criteria that can be developed that are in the end meaningful.”

Attempting to replicate what is already being done better than they possibly could is a sign of an arrogant and intrusive Administration with too much time on its hands. 


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"How to Get Rich in America"

                                                                                                                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“How to Get Rich in America
May 27, 2014

Historically, there were two ways to get rich: hard work and inheritance, apart from hitting the jackpot or robbing a bank of course. Now, in a world of ethically challenged public servants, there is another way – public service.

Inheritance, for the few, is still a powerful means. Four of the ten richest members of Congress have inherited wealth. In 2012, Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, called cybercrime the greatest transfer of wealth in history. That may be true, but in 2000 the Planned Giving Design Center (PGDC) estimated that between 1998 and 2052 $41 trillion will pass from one generation to the next – the greatest foreseeable transfer of wealth in the history of the world. Nevertheless, those funds will only go to a lucky few.  

Most wealth in the U.S. has been self-made. Aspiration, inspiration and perspiration, with a dose of luck, have allowed millions of Americans to become wealthy, and a small number to become very rich. Rags to riches stories, like Horatio Alger and the Rollo Books, were once commonly read by young people, providing inspiration to succeed. For millions of immigrants, America represented the fulfillment of a dream. Unlike “the old country,” it made little difference where one was born, or what was one’s name; a desire to better one’s self through hard work was what mattered. Independence and self-reliance were valued qualities.

While money and politics have long been soul-mates, the relationship has only strengthened in recent years. Ironically, while we have become a nation that encourages dependency by providing more and more services, we have also become intrigued with wealth and with the things money can buy. We are fascinated by homes that cost over $100 million; the Wall Street Journal has a section on Thursday’s called, “Mansions.” The Financial Times has a weekly glossy magazine entitled, “How to Spend It.” A Norman Rockwell painting that graced a $0.15 copy of a 1951 edition of the “Saturday Evening Post” sold for $46 million late last year. Idiosyncrasies of the rich are regularly featured in glossy magazines, on TV and on the internet, allowing vicarious feelings of jealousy to gestate. We admire Pope Francis, but would prefer to live like New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. It is unsurprising that in such a milieu, a $174,000 a year Congressman or a $400,000 a year President would feel he or she had been left behind.

A focus on materialism permeates a bloated government bureaucracy. In the past, there were workers who would willingly give up some income for security. Government jobs fit that request. Those jobs were less responsive to economic challenges and less subject to the whims of private sector owners or managers. In that prior time, reduced risk of job loss equated to less pay.

That has changed. In the latest Forbes’ list of the ten richest counties in the U.S., six are in the Washington metropolitan area, including the two wealthiest – Falls Church and Loudon County. Besides being home to higher paid public-sector workers, the Washington area also attracts lobbyists as bees to flowers. This ability and willingness of individuals to jump back and forth between the private and the public sectors is a leading cause of cronyism, which has led to complexities in the tax code and regulation – satisfying the demands of special interests, but making everything more expensive and more complicated for the rest of us.

The average income of a federal employee at $81,704 exceeds that of his counterpart in the private sector by 60%. Benefits for federal employees’ amount to 39% of income, versus 30% for the average worker; the implication is that government workers make about twice that of their private sector counterparts. That should raise alarm bells among those seeking equality. There has developed a symbiotic relationship between unions representing federal employees and elected politicians. Collectively, unions are the single largest source of campaign funding (almost all of which goes to Democrats); so elected representatives do little to rein-in runaway salaries and benefits negotiated by public sector union leaders.

But the best new way to become rich, without luck or too much effort, is to be elected or appointed to high office. What prompted these musings was an article that appeared in the business section of last Wednesday’s New York Times, that spoke to the fact that Ben Bernanke can make in a few hours speaking “to bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry” what he made in a year as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and that “he is following a well-trodden path…” His fees for speaking range from $200,000 in the U.S. to $400,000 in Asia, according to the Times.

The question that immediately comes to mind is why would anyone pay that much money to hear Mr. Bernanke say something he has said before in a public forum? Or will Mr. Bernanke now speak more candidly, making statements he could not have done publically? Perhaps the sponsor feels it is money well spent for the entertainment and publicity value? Maybe the fee is a form of payback from those who benefitted from Mr. Bernanke’s time in office? I hope not. I don’t pretend to know; the fees just seem excessive.

Ex-members of Congress have long morphed into lobbyists, exchanging governance for salesmanship – making introductions and peddling influence instead of formulating policy. We cannot begrudge their desire to fatten their wallets and to own the private planes on which they rode as guests in their previous lives. Nevertheless, cronyism by definition benefits the few at the expense of the many. The proliferation of cronyism is one of the biggest challenges we face and the single biggest argument for Congressional term limits.

Many politicians take advantage of the opportunities private enterprise offers, even as they knock capitalism in speeches promoting equality. The most hypocritical examples in recent times have been the Clintons and Al Gore. Al Gore, who sits on a few corporate board seats, made a fortune by generating frightening scenarios regarding global warming and the evil of fossil fuels. Has he cut back his personal carbon footprint? Not by a long shot. For $500 million he sold his money-losing TV news business, Current TV, to Al Jazeera, an oil-funded Mid East media company. In the thirteen years since President Clinton left the Presidency it has been estimated that he earned over $100 million. Other Presidents, like the Bushes, and Carter and Ford made money writing books, dispensing advice and making speeches, but none on the scale of Bill Clinton – just as none have so craved the limelight.

Government is filled with bureaucrats who no longer see public service as public service, but as a means of getting a higher-paid job. They seem to have little understanding that the money they take home is money paid in taxes by working Americans. They have even less understanding that benefits they have been promised, and for which they feel entitled, will become obligations of the children and grandchildren of today’s taxpayers. Unlike a worker in the private sector whose job hinges on the purchase of a good or service that a client must purchase, “revenues” for government is the mandatory payments of taxes by fellow citizens.    

Cronyism and crooked politicians have always existed. Any operation the size of government that has the ability to hand out millions of dollars will assuredly attract the dregs of society. But the concept of using one’s years of public service as a stepping stone for personal wealth is relatively new. When offered corporate board positions once he had left the office of President, Harry Truman stated: “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.” Mr. Truman’s remarks reflect a respect for high office that too often seems missing from today’s narcissistic occupants.

It makes little difference whether one becomes a mid-level bureaucrat at State, a programmer at HHS, a postal worker, or a government contract employee one’s income and benefits will greatly exceed comparable jobs in the private sector. If one is elected or appointed to high office, no matter one’s time in grade or the job one does, one’s financial future is secure in the knowledge of the ability sell influence and introductions. And it can be done without the misgivings that characterized more moral men like Harry Truman or Calvin Coolidge who viewed high office as a sacred trust,  not as a stepping stone toward financial independence.

Such jobs are dependent on a steady flow of tax dollars. The ability to tax is integral to government, yet there appears little understanding on the part of most government employees (including those elected) as to the inverse relationship between tax rates and economic growth. Should we continue along the path we are traveling, government will overwhelm the private sector; change will be forced and living conditions will decline.

We live in “me” world, one in which materialism takes on a role greater than concepts such as morality, civility and respect. It is a world in which public service, for the sake of doing good, is rarely undertaken. Public service today connotes a ticket to wealth. How to get rich in America? I would still recommend aspiration, inspiration and perspiration, but increasing numbers see richer futures in working have for government or going into politics.


Friday, May 23, 2014

"He's Mad as Hell!"

                                                                                                                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“He’s Mad as Hell!”
May 23, 2014

…So said Jay Carney about his aloof boss President Barack Obama on Sunday. Curiously, those were the same words used by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, in testimony before the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee last week. General Shinseki indicated he was mad at the allegation, that if “they are true, they’re completely unacceptable to me, to veterans.” If? Where has the General been? Come to think of it, Mr. Obama used the qualifier “if” when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday. Where’s the outrage!

This is an Administration supposedly led by the “smartest guy in the room” and is allegedly comprised of Washington’s version of Master’s of the Universe.” Yet, the whole crowd bears remarkable resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman who chose not to worry because he chose not to know. It is amazing how Mr. Obama has learned of each scandal from the press, whether Fast and Furious, the IRS, the NSA and now the VA. (The White House created the Benghazi cover-up, so Mr. Obama would have a hard time convincing people that he learned of that scandal from the press.) Like all Presidents, Mr. Obama is kept insulated, but, as President, he sets the ethical tone.

Problems at the VA did not originate under Mr. Obama, and he certainly did not just learn of them last month from CNN, as claimed. In 2008, his transition team was alerted to scheduling and wait-time problems, and Mr. Obama promised to improve conditions. On Tuesday, Fox News reported the American Legion found a 2010 memo from a top VA official referring to “inappropriate scheduling practices” as “gaming strategies.” In 2012, a “Wildly Important Goals” program was implemented at the VA, which assured veterans needing medical care they would receive an appointment within two weeks of a request. Since the stated goal could not be achieved, hospital administrators created a paper system that had veterans wait 6-20 weeks before their name would be entered as having requested an appointment. Once the calendar was freed up, the patients name was entered electronically into the queue, creating a record indicating that the actual appointment was within two weeks of having been requested. It was a scam that was unethical in its intent and dangerous to patients. Typical of this Administartion, the purpose was to high-light goals achieved regardless of means employed.

Last week’s public dismissal of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Veterans Affairs for Health was supposed to calm the waters, but Dr. Petzel who is 70 had already announced his retirement and was simply staying on pending his replacement. Asking Petzel to go a few days early should not satisfy Congress who are looking for the person (s) responsible, and will certainly not appease a public that has become increasingly infuriated. General Shinseki, who as Secretary of Veteran Affairs is a member of Mr. Obama’s Cabinet, is the one who should step down, despite his storied career as an army officer. He is a combat veteran of Vietnam and four-star general who served as Army Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Nevertheless, he has served as Secretary of Veteran Affairs since January 2009 and it is difficult to believe that the standards he set and the moral leadership he displayed (or lack thereof) were not instrumental in what has been happening within the VA hospital system. While cabinet secretaries serve the President, they also have an obligation to the people.

The problems with the Veteran Administration extend far beyond the forging of data to make it look as though hospitals were meeting their appointment goals. The crux of the problem lies in funding. Mandatory spending, which includes all entitlements, and interest expense consume an ever increasing portion of the federal budget, effectively squeezing out money’s spent on defense and other discretionary items. Roughly 41% of the $163.9 billion requested by the President for the Veteran’s Administration comes from discretionary resources, the part of the budget that is being squeezed. The problem is worse because of increased demand. Medicine and technology have allowed veterans to survive wounds that would have been terminal in previous conflicts. Also, Vietnam veterans are aging, resulting in greater demand. That does not justify what was done, but indicates the scope and depth of the problem.

What started in Phoenix has not stayed in Phoenix. It has extended to at least 20 other hospitals. That still is a small percentage of the roughly 1700 VA hospitals in the system. Nevertheless, these hospitals serve those who put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can live in peace. This scandal has been a long time gestating. More than two years ago (and, inconveniently, in the election year 2012), Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a Veterans Affairs emergency room physician, warned Sharon Helman, incoming director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, that the Phoenix ER was overwhelmed and, thus, dangerous. Dr. Mitchell was told she had “deficient communication skills” and was transferred out of ER. In September 2013, Dr. Mitchell filed a confidential complaint intended for the VA Office of Inspector General, a report that ended back at the VA. Dr. Mitchell was then placed on administrative leave. Other Phoenix doctor’s complaints were filed with the VA Office of Inspector General, including one by Dr. Sam Foote, an internist, who, in October 2013, wrote of data manipulation and the death of patients. Foote retired and became a whistle blower. Finally, on April 9 of this year, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs spoke before a Congressional hearing of the problem at the Phoenix VA. On May 1, General Shinseki placed Sharon Helman and two others on Administrative leave. On May 21 President Obama publically addressed the issue.

In an attempt to seize the moral high-ground, Mr. Obama, somewhat imperiously (and certainly disingenuously) said on Wednesday: “it is important that our veterans don’t become another political football.” Everything in Washington is politics. Forging records was putting politics ahead of veterans. Calling to account those who have acted criminally is trying to make right something that was wrong. If that is political, sobeit. This unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions is a deadly, infectious disease that has permeated our society. As repugnant as such behavior is – and such behavior knows no Party – it has become far worse under this President. Mr. Obama spent his first term blaming everything that went wrong on Bush. Since the House has been under Republican control, his inability to advance his agenda is now the fault of intransigent Republicans, along with his nemesis, Fox News. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this desire to escape responsibility on the part of our leaders has trickled down to an increasing number of Americans who have fallen into the dependency trap.

This Administration has been scandal prone, but has proved to be Teflon-like in their ability to weather scandals. But messing with our veterans has upset even the New York Times, which noted yesterday, in an editorial entitled “Troubles With Veterans’ Health Care,” “…the buck stops with Mr. Obama.”  Whether the President assumes full responsibility and whether he is truly “mad as hell” remains to be seen. But I hope he is mad, because the rest of us are.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Trigger Warnings"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trigger Warnings”
May 21, 2014

Trigger warning: This essay was written by one who feels no need to check his gender, race and class, and who does not apologize for offending readers who may suffer feelings of inferiority due to racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, or other issues of oppression.

For more than a decade, feminist blogs and forums have used the term “trigger warning,” or simply “TW,” to alert victims of sexual abuse that they may want to avoid certain articles or pictures online. While concerns about trigger warnings have been around for a while, what prompted the recent spate was a disturbing letter from Dylan Farrow, adoptive daughter of Woody Allen, accusing him of sexual molestation when she was seven years old. The letter was printed in the New York Times on February 1. Six days later Mr. Allen wrote a denial, claiming her memories were “implanted” by her mother, Mia Farrow. I have no idea who is telling the truth and that isn’t the purpose of this note. What was interesting is that following publication the blogosphere became inundated with tweets – varied in terms of where responsibility lay – but consistent in that all suggested the letter should have been preceded with a “trigger warning” label, the contents might prove sensitive to those who had experienced such molestation.

The desire to protect children against depictions of violence and explicit sexual encounters is endemic to parenting. At the same time, fascination with the forbidden is as old as mankind. Nevertheless, despite hands thrown in the air in despair, generations of young have matured into emotionally healthy adults – or, at least, reasonably so. Our fathers and grandfathers (and mothers and grandmothers, in some cases) returned from the Pacific and Europe following World War II, having witnessed brutality on an unprecedented scale. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was then called “battle fatigue” or “combat neurosis.” Many returning vets had trouble adapting, but most did not. They simply chose not to speak of what they had seen. Could modern psychiatry have provided better tools that would have allowed these people to live more productive lives? Perhaps. However, those returning vets helped power the American economy become the biggest and most powerful in the world. They were instrumental in the passage of Civil Rights legislation. They helped lay the foundation of a society richer and more inclusive than the one they inherited. Tom Brokaw dubbed them the “Greatest Generation.”

With exceptions like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, most literature and films in the immediate post-war years avoided the violence and gore that war begot. Sex was handled demurely. Emotional issues like race and homosexuality were shunned. The country was prudish and protective, and even censorious. There were a few on the fringe, however, who argued that the bloody sights of battlefields, the viewing of internment camps where hundreds of thousands had been brutally killed and the watching millions of displaced persons wander homeless across Europe was a dose of realism necessary for a generation of younger Americans to understand the brutality that man can inflict on man.

While pornography had always been around, beginning in the ‘60s, attitudes toward violence and sex began to change. Movies like “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “Clockwork Orange,” “Psycho,” “Lolita” and “The Story of O” introduced violence and graphic sex that hitherto had been banned. While my grandparents would have been shocked and my parents would have frowned, our sensitivities were not irreparably harmed; we survived and most did not become rapists or murderers. 

Today’s trigger warnings are not completely completing the circle. Trigger “warners” are not outlawing violence and sex, but their progenitors feel that viewers and readers must be warned, not just against violence and sex, but about racism, classism, cissexism, ableism and, according Oberlin College, “other issues of privilege and oppression.” (Cissexism, for those not in the know, is discrimination against anyone who is transgender and ableism for anyone in a wheelchair.)

We have come a long way from ratings and rules that were based on decency, respect and commonsense. Wellesley College students have objected to a lifelike statue of a creepy, sleep-walking man in his whitie-tighties because “it has triggered memories of sexual assault amongst some women.” Does this mean that the lasses of Wellesley should not be allowed into the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David? After all, David is more threatening, since he has just killed Goliath, or is about to.  Wellesley’s statue suggests a drunken Harvard freshman groping his way back to Cambridge early on a Sunday morning. He doesn’t look like a rapist and it sure doesn’t look like art. It just looks ridiculous. Wellesley students would have a good case if their objections were aimed at the Trustees who had wasted money on such an absurd sculpture.

Being respectful of others should be second nature to a civilized society. But when we allow a few college-student wackos to demand “transformative justice,” to determine what speakers will address graduations, and what courses should be preceded with a “trigger warning,” have we not placed the inmates in charge of the asylum? At Rutgers, an opinion piece in the student newspaper demanded that trigger warnings be affixed to works of great fiction: Huckleberry Finn depicts slavery; The Great Gatsby has scenes of misogynistic violence; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway discusses postwar traumatic feelings and suicidal inclinations; Moby Dick, a peg-legged captain; The Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitism. All such books, in the opinion of the writer, should come with warnings, but not Fifty Shades of Grey?

Before having the [temporary?] good sense to shelve the idea pending further debate, Oberlin College codified trigger warnings into its teacher guide, telling professors to avoid “triggers” in their classrooms, “triggers being anything that might cause trauma.” The University of Michigan, George Washington University, UCSB and other schools are seeing similar requests from students, who seem intent on extending their time at university before making there way into the real world. As a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin said: “If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified.”

As of yet, no student has suggested blacking out film clips of 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, but this desire to live in a cocooned world of intellectual, emotional and physical comfort is a dangerous form of escapism. The real world cannot use trigger warnings against unpleasantness, a fact today’s students, in the comfort of their colleges and universities, should understand.


Monday, May 19, 2014

"Strength in Diversity...of Ideas"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Strength in Diversity…of Ideas”
May 19, 2014

Democrats brag their Party is comprised of people from myriad and diverse backgrounds. They are, but then, for the sake of political convenience, individuals are compartmentalized into easily defined subgroups that are monotheistic in terms of thoughts. For example, if one is poor one must think like a poor person; if one is Hispanic, one must act Hispanic; if one is Black, do not think like a conservative; if one is a young, twenty-something female, one must behave like all other young, twenty-something females; if one is old, one must conform to the wants of the aged; if one is of the “99%”, one must stand against the venomous one percenters. Democrats assume that a young, Black, female conservative must be demented or brainwashed. Such attitudes may fire-up the electorate, but they are insulting to the individual and sanctimonious in the assumption that people cannot think for themselves.

The Republican Party, despite detractors’ claims, also includes people from across the spectrum. But, more important, it tends to be polytheistic in ideas and opinions. That gives it, at times, the cacophonous look of an asylum, but in reality it provides a forum for the sharing and free expression of ideas. But, for such apostasy the Party gets ridiculed by mainstream media. Tea partiers are racists, evangelicals are anti-gay, Midwestern blue-collar workers are narrow-minded and prejudiced, dopey, old white men are prejudiced, dopey, old white men.

Liberal Democrats – at least those in the highest elective offices – believe in a government of the elite by the elite, for the masses. It is only the elite that have the intelligence, empathy and sophistication to understand the needs of the less fortunate. “I feel your pain,” Bill Clinton might say to a medley of suffering poor, as he reaches for a plate of fried oysters and heads out to make another $200,000 speech. “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” called out Barack Obama in rock-star fashion at the University of Missouri in late October 2008 to youth influenced by Mr. Obama’s charisma, but unconcerned as to his use of the word “transforming.” Recently, Black Democrat Representative James Clyburn chastised Black Republican Senator Tim Scott for not voting the color of his skin, inferring that Mr. Scott was an “Uncle Tom,” implying that he does not have a mind of his own and ignoring the fact that Mr. Scott represents all the people of South Carolina. Trust us, these political leaders are saying, just don’t ask us to explain.

Democrats claim to be liberal, but what is liberal about college students refusing to hear speakers that have views contrary to their own? Might not the students at Rutgers, Brandeis and Smith College have learned something from women like Condoleezza, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christine Lagarde? What moral turpitude the president and trustees of these universities expressed in giving in to a few students’ intolerant demands!

Colleges have become liberal incubators of group-think: Women, stand here; Asian students over there; gays and lesbians in this corner, Blacks here and Hispanics in the center. White, heterosexual male? You must check the privilege that allowed you to be born the way you were and you must demonstrate remorse toward all those who were not. Shakespeare has given way to women’s studies. The study of classical Greece has been replaced with classes on transgenderism. Diversity is good, but not when people are placed in control-think pens. It is the diversity of ideas that we should celebrate, not the manufactured diversification that is a consequence of affirmative action. (I supported affirmative action in its early days, as I felt, as did many of today’s conservatives, that the unfair treatment of African-Americans for so many decades needed to be rectified. But that was more than fifty years ago and we have come a long way.) We need open debate and respect for the individual and we must encourage all people to think independently, consider the opinions of others and to accept responsibility for the decisions one makes and the actions one takes. The problem with group-think is that it stills the free flow of idea, and it breeds segregation and antipathy toward those with whom one disagrees.  

We see the same illiberal sense in the U.S. Senate. Singlehandedly, Harry Reid is in the process of destroying the world’s greatest deliberative body. Like a hissing cat, he spews venom. Is it right to turn the Senate into a vehicle that condemns free speech and pillories those who disagree? For years the Koch brothers have used their vast financial resources for political purposes, but also to make the world a better and more pleasant place. It has to be expected that people with such resources, no matter their ideology, will support causes that benefit them and/or their businesses. But the Kochs have done far more. They have supported museums, hospitals, schools and colleges with millions of unrestricted dollars. Have George Soros, Tom Steyer or Warren Buffett done as much? The Kochs generally operate quietly, behind the scenes. Senator Reid has single handedly made them public – an enemy to those on the hard Left, but an example of generosity to others. It is Mr. Reid’s vitriol that is so unseemly. There is not the same level of meanness on the Right toward those like Mr. Soros and Mr. Steyer.

Certainly Republicans can be discordant and managing them is akin to herding cats, as John Boehner well knows. One might argue that Republicans are polysemous, in the sense that they represent a broad diversity of ideas. Republicans have had a harder time enlisting groups like Hispanics, Blacks, gays and young, single women because they don’t compartmentalize them. They consider each person an individual capable of thinking and deciding for herself or himself. The concept of going after the “Black” vote, the “Jewish” vote, or the “Twenty-something” vote is degrading to the individual being targeted. Are not concepts of liberty, justice and responsibility more important? How do we best grow the economy and increase employment? How do we ensure the safety of people without infringing on their basic human rights? Such an approach is more respective and, frankly, more liberal, because it values ideas over the color of one’s skin, one’s sexual preference, or one’s creed. But it is a concept harder to sell because it appeals to the intellect, not to the heart.

The emergence of two organizations over the past few years demonstrates the sharp contrast between Democrat and Republican. The Tea Party was a grass-roots response to what was seen by many as government overreach manifested in enormous deficits – first by George W. Bush and then by Barack Obama. Occupy Wall Street was a contrived response by the Democrat elite to what appeared to be favorable treatment of Wall Street and banks versus Main Street in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. More cynically, it was a jealous response to the success of the Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street gave rise to the plight of the 99% and was the genesis of today’s “inequality” message. It received favorable press from mainstream media, but because it was not a “grass-roots” organization it has largely faded away. On the other hand, and much to the consternation of mainstream media who have done their best to trivialize and demonize them, the Tea Party persists. Their success, as Stephen Moore recently recounted, can be seen in shrinking federal deficits, a function of decreased spending imposed by House Tea Party members.

It is impossible to imagine a Republican Senator talk of introducing a Constitutional Amendment to limit free speech, as did Harry Reid last week, in endorsing limitations on campaign spending. (I happen to agree that there is too much money in politics, but I believe the answer lies in term limits and in full disclosure of all those who contribute to campaigns or PACs. Legislating limits doesn’t work. It favors incumbents and provides opportunities for smart lawyers.) Keeping constituents properly categorized allows Democrats to appeal to specific cliques. It simplifies the process and avoids the complication of having to respond to individuals whose ideas may differ from those with whom they have been grouped. Black conservatives drive liberals crazy. They cannot understand how such a person could argue against the interests of their group. Democrats forget that thoughtful people think independently. While their heritage, sex, color and creed influence their thought processes, fundamental concerns regarding liberty and personal responsibility take precedence.

We are individuals. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child; it takes the love and care of a mother and father. Of course we need the public schools that government provides, but maternity and paternity are positive influences that should be encouraged. Laying off responsibility breeds indolence. Likewise, it takes individuals with smarts, grit, sweat and tears to build a business. Granted the entrepreneur gets help along the way, but the motivational drive to succeed is personal. “You didn’t build that,” is as demeaning as it is erroneous.

We are a nation of peoples from all over the world. We represent every nation, race and creed that exists. As our Great Seal proclaims, out of myriad individuals we have created one nation. We are individuals, not political voting blocs to be pampered or catered. The compartmentalization of people is convenient for politicians, but is dangerous for our long term success. There is strength in diversity, but it is in the freedom of thought and the diversity of ideas that the steel that is our nation’s resolve becomes tempered and strengthened.  


Friday, May 16, 2014

"Inflation in the Offing?"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Inflation in the Offing?”
May 16, 2014

I am not an economist, so the following observations should be considered in the context that they represent only the thoughts of a casual observer. But I have read, as have most of you, Milton Friedman’s explanation of inflation, that it “is always and everywhere a result of excess money growth.” The monetary base has expanded exponentially – from $949 billion in September 2008 to $3.9 trillion in March 2014, according to data from the St. Louis Fed. Can inflation be far behind?

It has long seemed commonsensical when looking at markets to take note of extremes, especially when one’s analytical capabilities are as limited as mine. The extraordinary high prices people were paying for technology stocks in the late 1990s was such an example, as was the complacency that descended on equity markets in late 2006 when the first signs of the mortgage problems were beginning to sprout.

Today, when we look at markets, the extremes appear to be in interest rates, where an investor gets paid a measly 2.55% for holding Ten-year Treasuries, versus almost 4% at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 and 7.8% twenty years ago; in the extraordinary increases in the Fed’s balance sheet over the past five years from under a trillion dollars to $4.2 trillion today, and in the $2.5 trillion of idle reserves sitting on bank balance sheets, up from just over $800 billion just before the credit crisis.

These are extraordinary changes, the consequences of which have yet to be felt. (And, of course, we will only know their full effects in hindsight.) But they are worth considering. Treasury rates are lower than they have been at any point during my 47 years on Wall Street, other than last summer when they were 100 basis points lower. According to Sidney Homer’s A History of Interest Rates, at no point did Treasury rates in the U.S. get as low as they did last July when the rate on the Ten-year momentarily dipped under 1.4%. Counter intuitively, rates have fallen as Treasury borrowings have increased. Between 2006 and 2013, combined Federal budget deficits have amounted to $6.7 trillion. One reason rates have stayed low – probably the principal reason – is that the Federal Reserve has financed over $3 trillion of those borrowings.

Aggressive central banks and low interest rates are not just U.S. problems. Spanish and Italian bonds are now priced to yield 2.9% and 3.0% respectively, making U.S. Treasuries look relatively cheap. Bonds have been in a bull market for over thirty years. Perhaps that bull run ended last summer. I don’t know. The only conclusion one can safely conclude is that there is an unhealthy level of complacency in bond land, with expectations favoring deflation, not inflation.

The expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet to $4.2 trillion has served to keep interest rates abnormally low, masking the real cost of government’s expansion. While such easing may have been justified to help jumpstart the economy in 2009, especially housing, it has allowed government’s interest payments to remain abnormally low and has fueled asset price appreciation. In 2013 the average interest rate on U.S. federal debt was 2.4%, which would compare to 6.6% in 2000. The interest cost paid in 2013 amounted to $222 billion, but that calculation does not include debt owned by government agencies, such as Social Security. If one applied the average interest cost of 2.4% against the $17.3 trillion in total federal debt, the amount owed would equal about $415 billion. Stated interest costs of $222 billion represented 6.2% of federal spending in 2013 would compare, according to Pew Research, to 15% in the mid 1990s. The reasons for the decline can be explained by a decline in rates, but more importantly because outlays have risen 39.4%, principally due to increased entitlement programs. Mandatory spending, which includes interest costs, continues to take a bigger and bigger portion of federal outlays. The effect is to limit the options the country has when it comes to programs like defense and infrastructure. When interest rates rise, which they will at some point, the squeeze on discretionary spending will only get worse.

The positive economic effects of the Fed’s expansionary increase in its balance sheet by over $3 trillion was largely offset by a contraction in potential bank lending, as $2 trillion has been added to banks excess reserves. The consequences have not been pretty. Retirees have had to take more risk, as interest rates are unusually low. While unemployment has come down, the main explanation has been the withdrawal of workers from the labor force. The promotion of the Affordable Care Act, while the economy was still in recession, reflected Mr. Obama’s preference to put redistribution ahead of economic growth.  

Idle reserves sitting on bank balance sheets reflect a lack of corporate investment. In October 2008, then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke authorized the paying of 25 basis points on reserves, as a means of helping banks steady their balance sheets, while reducing their incentive to lend. The effect has been to increase the monetary base, while keeping a lid on inflationary pressures. When the crisis hit in September 2008, excess reserves amounted to about $830 billion. Today they exceed $2.5 trillion, which means that the Federal Reserve is paying banks approximately $5 billion annually for doing nothing, for banks borrow from the Fed at essentially a zero interest rate cost.

It is the consequence of these three areas of excess and their unwinding that, in my opinion, raise the prospect for future inflation. With $17.3 trillion in debt that continues to mount, albeit at a slower pace than had been the case, it is in the interest of the borrower (in this case the federal government) to repay that debt with cheaper dollars, or, to put it more crudely but more accurately, to engage in currency debasement. Dollar depreciation is inflationary; it has been made worse by the fact that low interest rates hurt the thrifty and the elderly. The Dollar Index has declined by about one third since it peaked in the months following 9/11, from 120 to 80.

Tapering, or the gradual unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet, has begun, with the Fed reducing purchases of Treasuries and mortgage backed securities by $10 billion a month. In other words, their balance sheet continues to expand, but at a slower rate. If issuance of Treasuries and mortgage backed securities continues at the same rate, the effect should be to gradually raise interest rates, which, all things being equal, should have an inhibiting effect on inflation.

Excess reserves held by banks are included in the monetary base; thus their expansion leads one to recall Mr. Friedman’s admonition regarding the causes of inflation. However, once those funds enter the economy through loans inflation is likely to tick up. So, like the Fed’s tapering, the release of those funds into the economy must be done at a controlled pace…if that is possible. Demand begets demand, and banking is a competitive arena; so they will get released, if we want to see further and more rapid economic growth. At some point the Fed will stop paying interest on reserves – they had never done so before 2008 – or they will have to increase interest payments, to deter lending, as rates begin to rise.

There is no question but that Washington is concerned about inflation; otherwise, why would they have changed the way it is calculated? Current Fed Chairwoman, Janet Yellen, has admitted that the Fed does not have a good model for inflation and she tends to rely on the Phillips Curve, which states that there is a tendency for inflation to rise when unemployment is low, and to fall when unemployment is high. Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan felt that the Phillips Curve was unreliable, according to Allan Meltzer of Carnegie Mellon, and preferred Milton Friedman’s dictum mentioned in the first paragraph – that inflation is always a result of excess money growth relative to the growth of real output.

Money growth, whether measured by the monetary base or M2, has increased substantially above the rate of real GDP growth, thus far without leading to inflation, oh has it? Certainly, the Fed’s policy of keeping interest rates low has had the effect of causing asset prices to rise – oil, equities, bonds, gold, gasoline, education and food commodities are all higher than they were five years ago. In the month of April, wholesale food prices rose 2.7%. Is that an omen?

Have we become too complacent regarding the outlook for inflation? John Maynard Keynes once wrote: “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” I am uncertain, but suspect complacency. We do know that the dollar has depreciated for twelve years, that ultra low interest rates benefit debtors (like the government) and harm creditors, that government has changed the components of the CPI and that the essentials – food and energy – have risen the most. We also know that such increases are regressive, affecting the poor far more than the wealthy. Vigilance is warranted.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Three Cheers for Inequality"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Three Cheers for Inequality”
May 14, 2014

There are few political requests so obviously insincere as the call by those on the Left for equality. Certainly, those like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid consider themselves superior. They expect the masses to rely on their and government’s wisdom. It is hypocrisy at its worst. The same could be said for mainstream media. Do you really believe that the editorial staff at the New York Times considers itself inferior to, or even the same as, those at the New York Post?

Democrat leaders generally accept inequality when applied to their intellectual, moral and empathetic traits. But, they also accept inequality when it comes to their individual wealth. Otherwise, why would Al Gore, an outspoken foe of fossil fuels, sell his “dismal-rating-achieving” Current TV (words from the Washington Post) to oil-funded Al Jazeera for $500 million? Why do politicians like Harry Reid become rich after years earning modest salaries in Washington? Why do those like the Clintons and Gores chase dollars with such fervor once leaving office? Hint: it is not a desire for equality.

All Americans, including “hard-hearted” conservatives who are targets of Mr. Obama’s sarcasm and Harry Reid’s venom, believe in equality of opportunity and equality before the law. In the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s use of “equal” implies that our laws should treat everyone equally, and not favor a few as was true in England at the time. He was not suggesting that everyone should be equal in terms of income or wealth, or in any other material, physical or intellectual way. He knew they weren’t.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité was the motto of the French Revolution, not of the American. The founding fathers wanted self government. George Washington, when offered a monarchy, rejected the concept and the title, as it would create an aristocracy alien to the principles of the American Revolution. Wealth and position should be determined by merit, not birth.  The French Revolution, which advocated equality, introduced a ‘Reign of Terror’ for twelve years that included guillotining 16,500 unfortunate souls and murdering another 30,000. The First Republic ended with the ascension of Napoleon in 1804. Napoleon was not exactly a model republican. France, now in its Fifth Republic and for all my fondness for the Country, has not been exactly a model of stability.

Besides five Republics, France in the past 222 years has had two empires, a 34-year Bourbon restoration period and for four years was occupied by the Nazis. The United States, with its emphasis on personal freedom and a government of limited powers (with what power it has spread equally between three separate branches) functioning under the rule of law, has been far more stable than France, despite the latter’s greater emphasis on egalitarianism.

Equality in terms of income and wealth, at least in the last hundred years, has come closest to parity in nations that have adopted Communism. But that is because everyone, with the exception of Party leaders, is poor. A good example in our Hemisphere is Cuba, among the poorer countries in the Americas. China’s recent economic success has been largely based on allowing greater income inequality, motivating workers by paying them based on productivity. Even today, however, to garner great wealth one must be a member of the Party, which is limited to about eight percent of the population. Members of China’s Communist Party have more in common, in terms of birthrights, with aristocracies than with democracies.

The reality is that the success of any entity, be it a family, business or government, is based on the concept of exceptionalism – of individuals and institutions. Abilities vary in unequal ways. Intelligence, aspiration and diligence differ from one person to the next, as do physical strength, character and looks. It is the differences, not the similarities that drive change. Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction is only possible in societies that allow individuals with special talents to create products and services the market demands. These are products and services first imagined by unique individuals, produced by skilled workers and sold by incentivized people. Compensation in our strongest companies is based on productivity, not on years of service. It is the belief in equality of outcomes that has led to so many problems with unionized teachers.

Inequities in income exist in all fields. Can you imagine what the Yankee line up might look like if all players were paid the same? CC Sabathia is paid 60X the average for a major league player, and 2400X the average for a minor league player. Most Hollywood stars, despite vocal protests for liberal causes, live lives in which they flaunt the fruit of their unequal incomes and wealth. But why should it be otherwise? Do not such incentives give us the best ballplayers and the most talented entertainers? The same is true in the field of money management. Limited partners in hedge funds care about the net returns to their investments, not the amount of money a skilled manager makes. Should carried interest be treated as ordinary income? I don’t know. It doesn’t affect me, so I don’t care.

Where I agree that some complaints have merit is in public companies where cronyism between directors and management can cause mediocre executives to be paid extravagant amounts, at the expense of shareholders who own the business. Ironically, much of that excess has been an unintended consequence of a rule imposed by the Clinton Administration to cap the deductibility of executive compensation at a million dollars. While the rule applies to salary, bonuses and stock grants, it does not apply to stock options and non-equity incentive plans that meet the IRS requirements for “performance-based” compensation. A consequence was the granting of millions of options – keep in mind, options are dilutive to existing shareholders – early in a bull market that allowed a few executives to make hundreds of millions of dollars. The injustice of some of these compensation schemes only became obvious when the tech bubble burst in 2000.

The danger to populist rhetoric calling for equality in incomes and wealth is that it risks destroying the very factors that allowed this country to become wealthy. Rewards for superior performance, whether in academics, sports, entertainments or business, are integral to success, not only for individuals, but for society. We can see the contra side in the poor performance in too many of our schools where teacher compensation is too often based on longevity and in many government bureaucracies where employees are not incentivized to provide superior service. Unions and/or time-in-service, not merit, determine incomes.

Those who are pushing the politics of inequality are getting support from colleges and universities. Once fountains of ideas and committed to the concept of diversity of thought, these institutions are creating a generation of Eloi. Instead of capturing the meaning of the phrase on the Great Seal of the United States (E Pluribus Unum), they are choosing to exchange the strength of a melting pot into many multicultural hegemons, each, conveniently, representing a specific bloc of votes.

America has thrived because exceptional people have been allowed to rise. Equality is fundamental to the way we are treated under the law and should be present in the terms of opportunities, but controlling outcomes by reducing incentives will destroy the fabric that has made this nation great. That statement is self evident; even to those calling for greater equality. For most of them consider themselves above average. Attempts to homogenize us will destroy us. Some people are aspirant; others work harder. Some people are suburb athletes; others great entertainers. Some have unusual quantitative skills; others, a capacity with words, paints or music. Outcomes will invariably be unequal. Could government help moderate differences using the tax code? Of course, but should they? Is it not likely that the medicine will be worse than the disease? Higher tax rates inhibit economic growth, because control of the marginal dollar gets taken from the consumer and given to government.

We measure success in myriad ways. To some it is the money or possessions accumulated; to others it is the pleasures life provides, and for others it is the family raised. There is no right or wrong measurement, other than doing something that makes one happy. What we are not is equal in any of these traits, talents or wants. It is those differences that are worth celebrating, both because of the value such special characteristics in others bring us, whether watching a ballgame or attending the theater, and because it is that uniqueness of the individual that has allowed us as a nation to grow and to prosper.

So, three cheers for inequality!


Monday, May 12, 2014

"Connecting the Dots"

      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Connecting the Dots”
May 12, 2014

What do Benghazi, the IRS scandal, climate change, the Administration’s neglect toward increasing Islamic terrorism and proliferation of Sharia law (until the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls), Senator’s Harry Reid’s perpetual haranguing of the Koch brothers and Monica Lewinski all have in common? They all reflect a decline in civility and a rise in moral turpitude, especially on the part of Democrats in Washington. They represent a theme that runs rampant through the Left’s behavior.

Republicans are not immune to such uncivil behavior, but they are not as patronizing as are Democrats whose antipathy toward their opponents (and, frankly, often open contempt for their constituents) divides the electorate, especially between the haves and have-nots, but also on the basis of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation and age. Republicans are characterized as parochial, intolerant, insensitive, greedy, old, war-mongering, white, rich, male, big-business types, while Democrats see themselves as young, hip, open, charitable, peace-loving, multicultural, working people who alone are sensitive to the needs of children, single women, gays, the poor and the sick.

While it is true that Republicans have been negligent in defining who they are to minorities and the young, the depiction is a crock. There are currently five female governors in the United States, four are Republicans, only one is a Democrat. In 2012, Mr. Obama won eight of the nation’s wealthiest counties, Mitt Romney, just two. Studies show that conservatives consistently give more to charity than do liberals. In the past 100 years, the United States went to war four times – World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam – under Democrat presidents, and three times – Grenada, the First Iraq War, and the War on Terror – under Republicans. While Wall Street gave more cash to Republicans in 2012, in 2008 they gave more money to Democrats. Of the seven largest CEO political contributors in 2012, four gave to Republicans and three to Democrats. Both income gaps and wealth gaps have widened under President Obama, while unemployment among the young and African Americans has been the slowest to recover. Teen-age unemployment is at record levels. Since 2000 two million young people have dropped out of the labor force. Some of those did so because they went to college. But that has been a mixed blessing, as student loans have increased from approximately $700 billion to $1 trillion, since 2008, and jobs are scarce. Once interest rates revert to more normal levels, which they will, the pressure on the young will only intensify.

The Parties differ in that Republicans expect their constituents to be responsible, knowledgeable and independent, capable of discerning right from wrong. They feel people should be largely dependent on themselves. They believe that equality of opportunity is a birthright, but that outcomes are a consequence of aspiration, abilities, education and effort and will vary. Republicans put more faith in faith. Republicans seek a smaller government, in which workers can keep more of what they earn. Democrats want a larger, more intrusive government, one that asks not what you can do for the government, but what government can do for you. They believe that you “didn’t build this” and that it “takes a village,” not a family to raise a child. Very little press coverage was given when Black Democrat South Carolina Representative James Clyburn snidely said of Black South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott, that he “does not vote the color of his skin.” Imagine the reaction had roles been reversed? But his comments were symptomatic of Leftist thinking – that people should vote in blocs, not according to individual preferences.

While there are many reasons to be upset as to what happened in Benghazi, as much as anything the lies told about causes of the attack reflect a decline in ethical standards. They have been made worse by mainstream media which, because of political favoritism, has been complicit in the cover-up. As Peggy Noonan wrote on Saturday, any proof of a Democrat cover-up “will have the appearance of indicting the media, too.”

The IRS scandal is a blatant example of the Party in power attempting to muzzle the other by using the most powerful agency in Washington, the IRS. We have not only failed our children when it comes to math, science and reading scores, we have failed them in terms of teaching moral and ethical standards, standards that are based on our Judeo-Christian heritage and which have guided us since our nation first saw light.  

Without warning or explanation, global warming became climate change. The reason, of course, had to do with the fact that the earth’s temperature has remained roughly constant for the last two decades. So, instead of melting ice fields and rising temperatures, storms are now blamed on man. Ignoring historical changes in weather patterns over centuries and millennia, the Left demonizes man’s advancements in energy technology. Cronyism associated with fossil fuels has given way to a new cronyism associated with solar and wind companies. I do not doubt that man has had an impact. But how much of the change is due to man and how much due to nature remains unknown. There is also the question as to whether substituting fields of solar panels and oceans of windfarms will be less harmful to the environment than oil and gas. There is no doubt that fossil fuels are limited and that we must look for other sources, as we consider the half century and more ahead, but flogging disaster does little to further the search for alternatives and does nothing in terms of seeking a common ground.

Radical Islamic terrorism has been a fact of life for about three decades, but came into sharp focus after 9/11. Using such euphemisms as overseas contingency operations, countering violent extremism and workplace violence has done little to address the heinousness of Islamic extremists who mutilate women and behead enemy captives. Twitter hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls” is a welcome response to Boko Haram’s abduction of up to 276 Nigerian school girls from liberals who have trouble using the word “Muslim” when it came to Islamic extremists. For example, not a peep was heard from the masters of the Leftist universe when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was denied the right to speak at Brandeis, despite her having been a victim of Muslim mutilation.

It was good to hear Hollywood finally recognized the brutality endemic to Sharia law, with its degradation toward women, gays and minorities, in boycotting the Sultan of Brunei’s Beverly Hills Hotel. But where have they been in regard to other nations that operate under Sharia law, including nations like Egypt, Dubai and Saudi Arabia? Beheadings and amputations are still legal in Saudi Arabia. There are at least seven nations where one can be executed for blasphemy or apostasy. England has begun to incorporate Sharia law into their legal system, denying the rights of British women and adopted children of the Muslim faith in terms of legal niceties like inheritance. In the U.S., Dearborn, Michigan has adopted portions of Sharia law, and Florida Democrats are attempting to do something similar in terms of cases regarding Muslim families. Where is the outrage? We are supposedly a nation of laws that are predicated on our Constitution. Are we so fearful of jihadists that we are willing to incorporate their laws into our system of justice, laws that go against our traditions of freedom and equality, laws that violate the fundamental rights of women and gays?

Civilized societies rely on moral absolutes. They are essential to our system of government; among those is the equal treatment of people without regard to race, color, gender, sexual orientation or creed. When public officials attempt to incorporate laws that are antithetical to the basic rights of a free people they are denying those people those rights. Moral relativism is not moral, and it should not be the basis for law among a free people. Is a citizen living in Dearborn who happens to be a Muslim woman any less of an American than you or me?  

Senator Harry Reid’s despicable treatment of the Koch brothers is an insult to the office to which he was elected and a reason why the only answer to such megalomania is term limits. The right to free speech is inherent to our system. His reference to them as being un-American is about as un-American as it gets in Washington, especially when he and his family have become rich while serving the “public interest” in Washington.

Monica Lewinsky may well be the “narcissistic loony toon” described by Hilary Clinton, but that is beside the point. What happened in those rooms off the oval office in 1995 will forever define Ms. Lewinsky, while President Clinton has moved on, energized by an adoring press that chooses to overlook the fact that he has the morals of a billy goat. Looking back, the Lewinsky scandal resembles an enduring, sordid soap opera best fitted for publications like “People Magazine” or “Page Six” of the New York Post. Its importance, however, lies in the eternal truism that character matters – not Ms. Lewinsky’s character, but that of her boss. President Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world, took advantage of a star-struck intern. Monica was never the story. Bill Clinton was. And the story was one of immorality, which has been forgotten in the mists of time and with media ignoramuses who insist on reporting her behavior, not his.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, wrote, “Society is endangered not by the profligacy of the few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.” In my opinion, it is that “laxity of morals” that is the link these episodes all have in common – a manifestation that we have lost our moral compass. We have a media less concerned with uncovering the truth than with riding shotgun beside those who espouse their beliefs. We have politicians whose years in Washington have caused their moral sense to dissipate in a miasma of personal greed, an environment which makes it easier for lobbyists to buy them off and for them to become rich off of public service. We should not forget that civilized societies require civility, and an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Those are the dots that connect these episodes.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Benghazi Matters"

                         Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Benghazi Matters”
May 8, 2014

It is not enough to say that this is old material, that a special committee is a diversion, that a rehash of the events will not find the Administration culpable when previous attempts failed, that it is time to move forward, to ensure that such killings will never happen again.

There is no question about the latter: we should not let such a tragedy recur, but neither should we allow the cover-up to go unpunished. The former represents a dereliction of duty; the latter, a fraudulent depiction of events for political purposes. A cover-up amplifies the original crime. Loyalty is a worthy trait, but when taken to extremes it becomes a defense of the indefensible. Every Administration has had incidents they would prefer never happened. Most were done not at the insistence of the President, but erroneously on his behalf, an example being a young aide like Ben Rhodes who apparently represented what he believed to be the President’s wishes in an e-mail.

Most offenses are of no great consequence, and disappear into the mists of history. But in a serious incident – as this was, with four people killed including a U.S. Ambassador – it is the cover-up that almost always proves fatal. Yet, Americans are a forgiving people. Admitting mistakes, while hard to do, is almost always accepted. In the early years of the United States, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was seduced by the wife of a political enemy. Hamilton publically admitted his guilt; so the planned blackmail attempt came to naught. People are as forgiving today as they were 220 years ago.

Until Benghazi, the best known example of a massive cover-up in my lifetime was that of a second-rate burglary at the Watergate Hotel and Office complex on June 17th, 1972. Nixon was running for re-election. By October 10th the FBI had tied the break-in to the Nixon re-election campaign. Nevertheless, on November 7th Richard Nixon won re-election with one of the largest majorities in U.S. history. In May 1973, Eliot Richardson, the Attorney General-designee, tapped Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor. The October massacre, with Nixon firing Cox and Richardson resigning, occurred on the 20th of the month. Nixon’s White House finally turned over some of the tapes in December, but with an eighteen and a half minute gap. In April 1974, still stonewalling, the White House turned aver 1200 pages of edited tapes. On July 23rd, more than two years after the break-in, the Supreme Court (which included four Nixon appointees, including Chief Justice Warren Burger) ruled unanimously that executive privilege did not apply and all tapes must be turned over. Three days later the House passed the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice. Thirteen days later, on August 8th 1974, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign. Partisanship did not mar justice, as is the case today.

While the entire episode was exhausting and expensive, it showed that no one is above the law, including the President. We could take pride in the fact that we have a system based on the rule of law and that it works. That it took 26 months from the break-in until resignation is attributable to the gradual traction a story like this takes, the seriousness of the offense, and to the deliberate, snail-like process of the laboring mechanics of government.

Investigations into what happened in Benghazi, a far more devastating episode than a second rate burglary, have aroused unprecedented partisanship and have not attracted the media attention of Watergate.

Stories like Benghazi gain momentum, as they travel from denial to acceptance. That could be happening now with the release last week of an e-mail from President Obama aide Ben Rhodes to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice urging her to emphasize the internet video as the cause of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi during which four Americans, including the Ambassador, were killed. She was scheduled to speak on five evening talk shows on Sunday, September 16th. She did so, emphasizing the role of the video in inciting violence. Two days earlier, on the 14th, our erstwhile Secretary of State despicably placed blame for the attack on “an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with.” (It has always seemed odd to me that Mrs. Clinton felt compelled to add “that we had nothing to do with,” as though some might think she did.) Mrs. Clinton uttered those words to the families of the fallen as their bodies were returned to Andrews Air Base and was said despite the existence of an e-mail sent on September 12th by then-acting assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones to top State Department officials in which Ms. Jones stated that the group that conducted the attack was Ansar al Sharia, a group connected with Islamic extremists. In other words, Mrs. Clinton had to have known the truth as to what really happened.

There are, it would seem, at least three questions that need answering: Was Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, provided adequate protection in the days and weeks leading up to September 11, 2011? Could the U.S. military have intervened in time to save some lives? Why did the Obama Administration, including the Secretary of State, insist on laying blame on an internet video when intelligence on the ground in Libya, including that from State Department officials, recognized the attack as a pre-planned military attack by Islamic militants? Protestors do not use mortars and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).

Over the weekend House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would establish a House Select Committee with subpoena power to look into the events leading up to the killings in Benghazi and the subsequent cover-up. It is expected to be a twelve-member panel with seven Republicans and five Democrats. Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and a former prosecutor is expected to chair the committee. While Mr. Boehner has been criticized by conservatives for not creating such a committee earlier, the very fact that he has moved cautiously should give some credence to the idea he does not appear to be acting injudiciously.

What is saddening about this whole unhappy chain of events is that if the truth had been told at the start – if no story had been fabricated as to the cause none of this would have happened – we would have moved on. Unfortunately concerns about the campaign dictated subsequent events. Several times during the 2012 election Mr. Obama had said Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is on the run. Somebody made the hasty decision that the truth as to what happened in Benghazi would have influenced, and possibly changed, the outcome of the election. Who that person (or persons) was remains a mystery, though Mr. Rhodes’ e-mail suggests he played a role, as did those to whom it was sent, which includes the elusive and morally challenged Jay Carney.

In my opinion, the truth would not have changed the outcome of the election. First, people respect honesty. It is unexpected and appreciated, especially when it comes from a politician. Second, people inevitably rally around the President when the Country is under attack. The attack on the Consulate, by an estimated 400 militants, constituted what most people would consider an act of war. It is possible that Mr. Romney would have tried to take advantage of a President who was unprepared for such an attack, but it seems to me more likely he would have been caught in a moral bind. Mr. Obama only dug the hole deeper as he insisted on the role of the video for the next couple of weeks. A lie, once told, takes on a life of its own making it more difficult to kill than the Lernaean Hydra.

Benghazi matters because the truth matters. Democracy is fragile and relies on trust. People must trust their leaders. I am not so naïve as to believe that people never lie. Of course they do. And politicians more easily and more frequently than most. But most lies are harmless. Nevertheless, the relationship between the electorate and those who represent them has to be based on trust. A lie gets worse as it ages, so it is always better to set the record straight as soon as possible. As a child I once threw a ball through our dining room window. My mother told me I would have to tell my father what I had done. The journey from the house to my father’s studio, a distance of perhaps fifty yards, seemed like a trek through several time zones. Head down, I slowly made my way across the backyard. When I finally opened the door of the studio and mumbled what I had done, my father seemed unperturbed. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. I sprinted back to the house, now more comfortable with a slight breeze wafting through the broken dining room window.

No one person can conceivably handle all the details of running a campaign, not to mention the job of managing the Executive Office. But leaders set the tone of their Administration. Aides are there to help carry out the specifics of an agenda outlined by the President; thus the importance of character in the person we elect, and, hence, his or her responsibility for events when they go wrong. Politicians, no matter who they may be, get harmed when aides lie on their behalf. The truth has a way of emerging, especially in this day of videos, twitter feeds, instant messaging and e-mail. “You can run,” went the old saying, “but you cannot hide.” A good Presidential assistant cannot be a sycophant. He or she must keep apprised of the long term needs of the President and the country, as well as the President’s immediate needs. The individual must not fear to be a bearer of bad news nor be afraid to recommend courses of action that may be contrary to conventional thinking.

This is the sixth piece I have written on this sorry episode, the first a week following the attack, the last on the first anniversary. The only thing that has changed has been an increase in the stonewalling by the White House that has perpetuated a lie and delayed justice to those who died that day. Mr. Obama’s aides let him down, as did his Secretary of State and UN Ambassador, but we cannot forget that the President sets the tone for his Administration. That is why Mr. Obama is ultimately responsible. The truth matters, which is why Benghazi matters.