Friday, June 27, 2014

"Sarajevo - 100 Years Ago"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Sarajevo – 100 Years Ago”
June 27, 2014

Actually it will be 100 years ago tomorrow at 11:00AM, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was pronounced dead. He and his wife Sophie had been shot by an assassin a few minutes earlier while on a visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a Serbian nationalist. For the next few weeks, diplomats from all major European countries scurried frantically around (like John Kerry today), in an attempt to head off what too few feared could become an inevitable conflagration. At the same time, they considered mobilization, while measuring capabilities and readiness. They secured alliances.

Diplomacy came to naught. A month and a week later, on August 4th, a day after Germany declared war on France, England declared war on Germany; thereby engulfing the continent in total war. Within the month there would be 182,000 casualties, as German troops, in a week-long battle and outnumbered almost two to one, virtually annihilated Russia’s Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg. Three battles alone, over the course of the War, saw more than 2.5 million casualties – Gallipoli, Verdun and the Somme. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, England had 60,000 casualties. By War’s end, four years later, three months and one week later 20 million of Europe’s youth would be dead, with even more millions injured. The foundations for the Second World War had been laid, causing the 20th Century to become the bloodiest in the history of mankind.

There are many who suggest that the world today is similarly positioned as it was in 1914. I suspect the differences are the more pronounced. Nevertheless, there are similarities. One hundred years ago, old empires were fading while new ones were rising. The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for some time. Its occupation of the Balkans had been absorbed by two fading empires – Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Turkish Straits, still owned by the Ottomans, were eyed enviously by the Russians. The British Colonial period was nearing an end; though most Brits could not see that happening. Germany was a relatively new country – like Italy it had been unified in the second half of the 19th Century – and since Bismarck’s time had been looking to expand east. The Slavic people in Serbia were flexing their muscles, chafing at borders arbitrarily drawn by Vienna and, to a lesser extent, by St. Petersburg. At least a dozen ethnic populations occupied the region, with three distinct religions dominant – Muslim, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. It was a combustible mixture.

Today, the world is faced with a disintegrating Middle East and rejuvenated, aggressive authoritarian regimes in Europe (Russia) and Asia (China.) Russia’s annexation of Crimea is indicative of a Russia with a bolder and more pugilistic vision. China is asserting its sovereignty in the South and East China Seas. “Authoritarian forces,” as Francis Fukuyama wrote recently in the Financial Times, “are on the move.” In the Middle East, Sunni extremists are battling Shia extremists. Extremists on both sides talk of establishing Caliphates. Both would like to eliminate Israel. Christians are being targeted by death squads. Like the Balkans, the Middle East is comprised of people from myriad ethnicities living in villages and cities that have been governed by others for hundreds of years. Like the people of the Balkans, who live in countries whose borders were decided by Austrians and Russians as the Turks retreated toward Constantinople, those in the Middle East live in places where boundaries were drawn by the French and the British in the aftermath of World War I. Many of these people have been persecuted for so long, and have been kept so poor, that they have little stake in the world as it is; so little to lose, which makes them more dangerous. War, to them, does not carry the threat of material loss that it does to us who live comfortably thousands of miles away.

It is wisdom that is wanted in world leaders. Political egos too often interfere with common sense. Certainly that was true in 1914; though other factors were at work as well.  In 1914, for too many of Europe’s youth, war had lost its horror. One can read the early poems of the British poets who marched off to war full of pride and glory, and then contrast them with those written toward the end when death, rot and rats were constant companions. Owen Seaman, in “Pro Patria,” caught that early feeling: “Because, where honour calls you, you must go.” Julian Grenfell, in “Into Battle,” spoke of “duty:” “And he is dead who will not fight; and who dies fighting has increase.” Young men marched to war, heads high, not realizing that fate would skimp on glory, but be generous with sorrow. Later, after months in the trenches, their tunes changed. Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the Armistice) wrote in “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.) In 1915, Alan Seeger, a Harvard graduate and American poet who had joined the French Foreign Legion in order to fight the Hun, sounded resigned in “Rendezvous.” “But I’ve a rendezvous with Death, at midnight in some flaming town, when Spring trips north again this year, and I too my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous.” He did not fail. Alan Seeger was killed in Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916, aged 28.

One senses this same innocence, pride and indifference to death in the young men of the Middle East who willingly commit themselves to a cause of which they are as ignorant as their English, German, French, Austrian, Russian and Italian cousins had been a hundred years earlier. One sees that same bellicosity today, which had been present in some pre-World War I leaders, in Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Egos and arrogance are as common among world leaders as they ever have been. Such attitudes too often lead countries in directions that common sense would avoid.

History is a guide, not a lesson plan. Human emotions like greed, pride, fear, hope, love, hate, anger, despair, grief and joy do not change. But conditions do. An important difference today is the position of the United States in the world. In 1914, there was no superpower. England had the strongest navy, but its colonial period was already beginning to wane. Germany had the largest army, but Russia’s was expanding. Today, the United States straddles the globe unmatched in its reach and its power. It is exceptional in history, because besides exuding power, it also serves as a beacon for freedom and generosity.

We also have the benefit of knowing what did happen subsequent to 1914. But simply knowledge of the past does not ensure the avoidances of past mistakes, for pride, hatred and fear can push aside reason, respect and responsibility.

By 1914, the Continent of Europe had enjoyed almost a century of peace. There had been skirmishes. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) France lost Alsace-Lorraine, but in general, after the Napoleonic Wars, Europe had been peaceful. While the Civil War was as close to Americans in 1914 as Vietnam is to us today, there was nothing comparable in Europe in 1914. The horror of war – the cost in human life and suffering, as well as in treasury – was not present. It was relatively easy for determined leaders to appeal to duty, pride and patriotism. Memory is an important retardant to war. In the decades following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, people all over the world understood the awfulness of nuclear weapons. Images of the devastation to those cities kept our imaginations alive to the mantra – never again! Can we say the same for those today in the Middle East who both possess such weapons (or are close to doing so) and have such a small stake in the world as it is? Does Mr. Putin understand that people can only be pushed so far before they revolt? Do memories of Nanking cause Chinese leaders to test Japan? Do those in power understand the horrors they might unleash? Do our leaders at home? Will a consequence of Arab unrest be an attack on Israel, or a blockage of the Suez Canal or the Strait of Hormuz? Could one of those incidents be the catalyst that plunges the world into war? How would we respond? How should we respond?

Our allies must trust us; they rely on us. When we precipitously exit those countries in which we have fought militarily, but in vain, we often abandon those who aided us. It happened in Vietnam. It happened to Dr. Shakil Afridi in Pakistan, after he helped finger Osama bin Laden. It is happening in Iraq today. It will likely happen in Afghanistan. Those are the refugees who should be permitted entry into the U.S., not Central American immigrants for whom we have no obligation. If our word is not good to those who have aided us in the past, why will anyone trust us in the future?

The security of the world today is largely reliant on the United States – our strength and how we exercise it. There will always be bad people, and bad people take advantage of weakness. It is our defense capabilities and our adherence to universal moral principles – right versus wrong, respect versus disdain, honor versus blame, faith versus denial – that will help keep us and the world safe. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” is a statement generally attributed to British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey in 1914. Responsibility for keeping lights lit in 2014 rests primarily on our shoulders.


There is no reason why the civilized world today has to follow the path the civilized world took one hundred years ago. I don’t think it will. But greedy and egotistical people do stupid things. Certainly none of the political leaders in Europe in 1914 ever thought they would cause the harm they did. But, to not recognize the danger signs – to allow bad people to take advantage of good ones, to let evil prevail – is to risk going down that same road.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Elite Public High Schools Should Remain Elite"

                                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Elite Public High Schools Should Remain Elite”
June 25, 2014

Substituting one wrong for what is perceived to be another wrong, makes little sense. Requiring New York City’s elite public high schools to use demographics as one standard with which to measure a student’s admissibility is wrong, even it furthers the goal of diversity. It has been pointed out by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NAACP and others that the students who make up New York City’s nine select public schools do not reflect the demographics of the entire school system; thus they discriminate. It is true; the student populations in these special schools do not look like the demographics of the New York City public schools. But they are not discriminatory, at least not in the sense suggested.

The city of New York has nine selective public schools. It is mandated by state law that students at the three oldest schools – Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech – be admitted solely on how well they do on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Five of the other schools require the exam, but also look at other criteria, such as grade point average and extra curricular activities. (The one specialized high school that does not require the exam is the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.) The exam lasts two hours and 20 minutes and is administered to eighth and ninth grade students. From about 150,000 students in those two grades, between 25,000 and 30,000 take the test. In the fall of 2013, 5,096 were admitted to one of the specialized schools. Given that selective schools educate less than 2% of the student population, they do discriminate.

Stuyvesant High School, which is located on Chambers Street in Manhattan, began life in 1904 as a manual training school for boys. Today it is the most coveted of all the specialized high schools. Of the 3,292 students enrolled in 2013-2014, 73% were Asian, 22% Caucasian, 2% Hispanic and 1% African-American. In contrast, the ethnic make-up of the city’s 1.1 million public school students is: 40% Hispanic, 28% African-American, 20% Caucasian and 15% Asian. In all nine select high schools, only 12% of Hispanics and African-Americans were enrolled, despite representing 68% of all public school students. The schools do discriminate, but they do so based on intellectual ability, not on ethnicity or economic background.

If the purpose is to discover raw talent, regardless of race or creed and even knowing that some children are better at taking tests than others, is there a better way? All other determinants – class rankings, grades, extra curricular activities – lend themselves to subjective qualifications. Mayor de Blasio has oddly suggested that attendance be included as criteria. Despite calls for “fairness” and “equality,” the schools have been successful. That can be seen in the fact they have produced at least fourteen Nobel Prize winners. The Bronx High School of Science, as an example, has produced more than twice as many as any other high school in the United States.

Dumbing down elite schools, so they mimic the demographics of the city makes little sense. Creativity, technological advancement, exploration and experimentation have always depended on the few who have the ability, the drive and the aspiration to succeed. Those qualities will be in even greater demand as the world shrinks. Lowering admission standards, once begun, is virtually impossible to reverse.

The Mayor and those who support him, like Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation who wrote an op-ed on the subject in Monday’s New York Times, would be better off to spend their time focusing on the problems confronting the other 396 public high schools in New York City. Instead of kowtowing to teacher’s union demands, politicians should be concerned with the education of a million public school students who are not so fortunate to qualify for a seat in an elite school. A successful democratic society is dependent on an educated electorate. It is knowledge, not some means of contrived equality that helps individuals and society to thrive.

Apathy on the part of parents, self-serving demands on the part of teacher’s unions and political correctness on the part of politicians, school boards and the media are the enemies of our children. Problems with public schools are not limited to New York City. In my part of eastern Connecticut, the Superintendent of Public Schools in New London was recently fired. Dr. Nicholas Fischer had imposed a minimum 2.0 GPA to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities. He implemented a comprehensive teacher evaluation system. During his five-year tenure, the number of economically disadvantaged New London High School students attending college tripled. The high school was awarded a bronze medal by U.S. News and World Report. Seventy percent of New London’s elementary and middle school students showed progress in reaching or exceeding state standards. Dr. Fischer placed the school system on a path to become the state’s only magnet-school system. The improvements he implemented came despite a 10% increase in students, and, most remarkably, with budgets that had remained frozen for most of his tenure. His problem: He considered the school board to be dysfunctional and he upset the unions.

Of all the resources our cities, states and nation have, the one we should not waste is the intellectual abilities of our talented young. While standardized tests may have faults, designed appropriately they are blind to race or creed. Their sole purpose is to seek out the exceptional and gifted child and to give that child a step up. Most of the children attending New York City’s specialized public high schools have financial needs. (Like most big cities, the children of New York’s moneyed elite attend private schools.)

Fairness and equality have their place in civilized society and before our laws. As Americans, we are protected equally under the law. But we are by no means equal when it comes to genetics, dedication or aspiration.  If we want the very gifted to rise, elite schools must remain elite, segregated by intellectual capability but integrated in the sense that acceptance is color blind. To artificially design a system that lets into these schools children less talented, but who bring with them a more diverse demographic, is to deny acceptance to others more gifted who would be left behind because of space constraints. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Even now, not all who are deserving can be accepted. Should we deny even more who have the talents to realize their dreams?

Nelson Mandela wrote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Let elite schools remain elite, even if they are not diversified according to the dictates of those who would have us all become Eloi, but let us work on improving the schools for the other 98% – the needs of  the students should always precede the demands of the unions. That should be the focus of Mayor de Blasio and his cohorts.

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Iraq - Again?"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Iraq – Again?”
June 23, 2014

Like Groundhog Day, in the movie of that name, Iraq won’t go away. In what Friday’s New York Times curiously called “robust military moves,” President Obama is now sending 300 military advisers to Iraq to complement the 275 servicemen who are guarding the American Embassy.

My point, in this instance, is not to argue who is at fault for the chaos in Iraq. Other than one observation, let us agree to disagree, at least for the moment, as to the cause. An aspect of Saddam Hussein’s nearly 24-year reign that too often is forgotten was his wanton brutality. We know he used mustard gas, Sarin and nerve agents (all weapons of mass destruction, by the way) against the Kurds. No one knows how many of his own people he killed, but estimates range from 600,000 to well over a million. In other words, he killed his own people at the rate of between 25,000 and 50,000 a year (or 68 to 136 every day) for 24 years! In the gallery of the world’s worst monsters, Saddam Hussein stands in the front ranks.

Regardless of the cause, we are left with a mess. Syria and Iraq are in disarray. Iran is moving toward nuclear capability. Islamic extremists not only threaten Iraq and Syria, they are doing so in North Africa, as well as in such West Africa nations as Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Ironically, today Iran is being touted by some as a bulwark of relative stability in the Middle East. The U.S. has reached out to the Mullahs to aid in derailing the assault on Baghdad by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In return, Iran may be invited into the community of nations, if they forswear developing nuclear weapons. Agreeing to the latter, means one is willing to rely on trust without the Reagan qualifier of verification. 

Regarding Iraq, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say a curse on both your houses –battle it out. We don’t care. But can the United States, the world’s largest power (and the most democratic State to ever serve in such a capacity) afford to give up responsibility for global peace? Historically, it has been the threat of force, not passivity or negligence, which has preserved peace. And, like it or not, we are the elephant in the room.

In puzzling over what actions the Russians might take in 1939 as the world was preparing for war, Winston Churchill described the country as being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but,” he added, “perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” As we ponder the problem of the Middle East, it is worth thinking of our national interest as it pertains to the region. Our self-interest appears to be comprised of four distinct, but related parts: first and most critical is maintaining stability in the region; second, preventing the export of terrorism to our homeland and to that of our allies; third, ensuring that Gulf Coast oil continues to flow, and, fourth, the preservation of Israel as a free and independent nation. All are, of course, interrelated. The critical question: Will a dismembered and strife-torn Iraq affect our national interests?

That the Middle East has become noticeably less stable is apparent to all. For centuries, the region has been like a cannibal’s cauldron, simmering with morsels of humanity, ready to be devoured by those most ruthless. Throughout history, as the pot warms, one group or another – Christians, Jews, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites or Palestinians – have made it their job to stir the pot towards boiling, revolution and chaos. Most Middle Easterners have lived under imposed external tyranny of one form or another for centuries. The region was once part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire and later, part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the collapse of the latter, after World War I, new territorial lines were drawn by the British, with little regard to language, the tribes in the region, or to whether the peoples within those borders were Sunni or Shiite. Today, trouble brews throughout the region, from Syria/Iraq to Iran, from the Levant to Yemen, from Somalia to North and West Africa. Caliphates are being considered in a number of countries. Will war-torn Iraq provide more or less stability? Historically stability in the region has been achieved with strong, dictatorial leaders, and at the expense of human rights and liberty. Can it be otherwise? Israel’s democracy is indicative that freedom can survive in the region, but it is a lonely and beleaguered example. And anti-Semitism is rife in the Middle East; it is also on the rise in Europe and among certain segments in the U.S.

Most would agree that democracies are the most stable form of government man has yet devised. George W. Bush thought democracy was transferable to Arab states, but his hopes were dashed. Was he naïve or just too early? The path toward democracy is typically evolutionary. It takes time, but to assert that certain groups are incapable of self-rule smacks of arrogance and hypocrisy and is, in my opinion, prejudicial.

We do not know whether terrorism will be exported to the U.S., as was done on 9/11. But we do know that terrorists find unstable countries fertile grounds in which to breed and germinate. And terrorism is more than al Qaeda, as we know from recent experience with ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram and 55 additional Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTOs), as identified by the U.S. Department of State. Are our borders today so secure that we can prevent bad people from entering the United States? I suspect not, especially given the recent influx from Central America. It is hard not to conclude that a destabilized Iraq has increased the risk of domestic terrorism.

While U.S. oil imports from OPEC nations have declined over the past several years (as have imports generally), we still get 45% of our oil imports from that consortium, with Saudi Arabia and Iraq being the two largest individual contributors. Our dependency on the region for oil is distinctly becoming less. Nevertheless, an interruption of the flow of oil would have negative economic consequences. Obviously, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and permission to drill on federal lands would further alleviate dependency on imported oil, but that’s not where we are.

In terms of Israel, there has been, in the European Press and in papers like the New York Times, a subtle and insidious move toward blaming Israel for woes in the Middle East. Despite being Jewish, NY Times reporter Jodi Rudoren accused Israel of destabilizing Israeli-Palestinian relations, in the search for the three boys kidnapped a week ago. The so-called “unity government” in Palestine includes Hamas, the organization which most find responsible for the kidnapping. While only one of the boys is a child of “settlers,” it has become obligatory for the liberal media to mention the settler aspect of the case. I raise this point, because without question destabilization anywhere in the Middle East affects the cause of Israel. Making an ally of Iran, a country that has pledged to “wipe Israel off the map,” is indicative of the changing attitude in the West toward the region’s sole democracy and one of our most important allies.

What happens in Iraq does affect our national interests. Nevertheless, it also seems obvious that Americans are not ready to defend those interests when the consequence would be “boots on the ground.” And no political leader has emerged as willing to argue the cause. While the call last Saturday by the Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani for Iraqi politicians to form a new and inclusive government was welcome, success will depend on the willingness of Nouri al-Maliki to accede to that request. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad this morning pressing that case. It is possible that Iraqis might peacefully settle their differences, but with hatred between the tribes embedded so deeply that seems a long shot. It is conceivable that the 300 U.S. military advisers to help train the Iraqi army will be adequate to protect our interests and allow al-Maliki’s forces to defeat the Sunni insurgents, but that also seems a long shot.

The greater likelihood is that Iraq will continue to be a bubbling cauldron, as will its western neighbor, Syria. Instability will persist and give rise to more terrorists. Instability risks cutting off the flow of Iraq’s oil, especially from the southern port of Basra, which thus far has seen exports increase, as most of the fighting has been in the north and along the Syrian border. And instability raises the stakes for Israel, a country that has been losing friends.

Americans have little stomach for wars in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers are sent to fight in places most people do not know and cannot pronounce. They have less tolerance when they see thousands coming back in coffins or severely disabled. Very few politicians have the ability or the willingness to argue the case that if global peace is ever to be realized it may well require a robust and strong military presence. And the press has been almost universal in its preference for the U.S. to concentrate on problems at home.

When the U.S. defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, they left behind thousands of GIs whose purpose was to maintain order and to help those countries adopt democratic institutions. Neither country had ever experienced democracy prior, yet each adopted it. The American presence was disliked by some, but success could be seen in the democratic governments that were born at the time and the success each had subsequently, both politically and economically. There are still about 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. The same thing could be said of South Korea, which we exited in 1953 and where about 28,000 U.S. troops remain. We were not victorious in Korea, but we left behind a contingency of troops to help enforce the border and to help the country adapt principles of democracy and capitalism. On a GDP per capita basis, according to CIA data, they now rank 30th in the world. North Korea ranks 167th.

When we hear criticism of a continued American military presence in Iraq, questions should be asked: Would you rather have been born in East Germany or West Germany? Were our troops in Japan a force for good or evil? Would you rather have been raised in North Korea or South Korea? All three countries had American troops for decades. On the other hand, we never left troops in Vietnam. When the City of Saigon fell and the last Americans were helicoptered out off the roof of the Embassy in April, 1975, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps more than a million, Vietnamese were butchered by the Communists. Today Vietnam is an economic success, but a lot of people died in the ensuing months and years after we left.


I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that ultimately millions of peace-loving Muslims who live in every country in the world must stand up to the extremists. It is their responsibility to tame those who would tarnish their faith. And, I also know that the U.S. has almost always been a force for good – something we should remember as we debate Iraq and the consequences of leaving her prematurely to a fate of inevitable further destruction, imperiling us all. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

"A Capture in Benghazi?"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Capture in Benghazi?”
June 20, 2014

Contempt for the proletariat is nothing new among imperious politicians. But President Obama must think we are dumber than all get-out, when he haughtily proclaimed, as he did Tuesday: “It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible, and we will bring them to justice.” While it was good to see Ahmed Abu Khattala taken into custody, the timing of the arrest was politically auspicious.

Mr. Abu Khattala had given interviews to the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, CBS, Reuters and the Times of London. His first interviews were conducted within days of the attack – the first apparently with Elizabeth Palmer of CBS. All of these interviews were conducted in public places, with the exception of the one with Anthony Lloyd of the Times of London. That interview took place in his home over “tea and biscuits.” This is a man who, if he had been hiding, was doing so in plain sight. Despite his known leadership of the Benghazi branch of the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia, the United States only charged Mr. Abu Khattala with having played a “significant” role in the attack on the Consulate last August 6th.

In response to a question as to why it took the military so long to get a man that the media had found quite easily, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby responded: “Terrorists go to great lengths to evade capture. It can be a complicated process trying to get at them.” Really? More complicated than the job the media had of setting up cameras (even if they were not used) and microphones?  To claim that Mr. Abu Khattala could not have been taken at almost any time assumes one has the naïveté of a buyer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mr. Lloyd’s interview, keep in mind, took place last October – two months after the man had been publically charged.

Playing the poodle to President Obama, the sycophantic New York Times, in a front page article on Wednesday explained that the announcement on Tuesday ended “…a manhunt that had dragged on for nearly two years.” They went on to add that the “capture was a breakthrough.” It was only on page 11 that they reminded readers that Ahmed Abu Khattala had given an interview to Times reporter, David Kirkpatrick, a report that was in the October 18, 2012 issue of the New York Times. That interview, like many of the others, was conducted over two hours on a Thursday evening “at a crowded luxury hotel, sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments,” is the way Mr. Kirkpatrick put it.

While I don’t pretend to know all the causes of what led to the tragedies in Benghazi, it certainly appears to be a combination of ineptitude, misunderstandings and miscommunications. No good answer has been provided as to why assets were not deployed to fend off the attack, or to try to save the Americans who died trying to save the Ambassador and the compound. But it was the deliberate lies afterwards – when the “fog of war” had dissipated – that are the most troubling. Having the Secretary of State boldly lie to the families of the fallen at Andrews Air Force Base, regarding the role of the video, was chilling. Sending UN Ambassador Susan Rice to Sunday TV talk shows, to push the same story that the video was the cause, showed scorn for the American people. Now we have the Administration trumpeting the capture of a man who had paraded around the streets of Benghazi in full sight, while granting interviews to members of the press. What fools do they take us to be?

The tragedy in Benghazi might or might not have been preventable, and it is conceivable that it might not have been possible to save the men who died fighting off the terrorists.  But shouldn’t we have tried? The President rightly defended bringing home Sargent Bergdahl, regardless of the facts surrounding his capture by the Taliban. Why, then, was nothing attempted to save those Americans who died on the roof of the CIA annex fending off terrorists/attackers?

All of the subsequent events, after the attack, were driven solely by politics. Like a hot potato, blame for politicizing the tragedy was almost immediately laid off on Republicans. Certainly it is true that blunders on the part of one Party cause schadenfreude on the part of the other. But the question remains: why were Americans lied to? Perhaps Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and his committee investigating Benghazi will uncover the truth. I hope so. But rare is the politician who admits of wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, the timing of the capture was curious. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Gowdy held a press conference during which he quoted the President as having said a year ago that bringing those responsible for the attack to justice was his top priority. Mr. Gowdy reminded the press that Mr. Obama had referred to Benghazi as a “phony scandal;” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked, “What difference, now, does it make?” And that Jay Carney once said, “Benghazi happened a long time ago.” At that same news conference Mr. Gowdy shamed the media for not asking the questions he was asking. Is it not possible that the arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala was linked to the political fallout from Congressman Gowdy’s press conference? The Administration surely had to be seen as doing something.

I am pleased that Mr. Abu Khattala is in custody, but I give little credit to the President who should have done this twenty months ago. In my opinion, the military is right in interrogating him and I hope the information they get is useful. But I suspect Mr. Abu Khattala knows that American justice is quite different from what he is used to in Libya and he will tell us very little. He knows that in New York he will be Mirandized and that he will have his day in court.


Personally, I would rather he had been taken to Guantanamo and tried before a military tribunal. And, if justice is served, he would be found guilty and executed by firing squad – a far more humane punishment than he would have inflicted on one of ours had roles been reversed.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"The Case of the Missing E-Mails"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Case of the Missing E-Mails”
June 18, 2014

Had she written a novel about life in Washington, Jane Austen might have begun: it is a truth universally acknowledged, when information requested by Congressional subpoena could cause political damage to the party charged, that that information would disappear. On June 20, 1972, three days after operatives connected to the White House broke into the headquarters of the Democrat National Committee at the Watergate complex, President Nixon held a 79-minute conversation with his chief-of-staff, Bob Haldeman. Eighteen and a half minutes of that taped conversation went missing. In early January 1996, copies of documents that described Hillary Clinton’s work for a failing savings and loan association, and which had been requested two years earlier by a Congressional investigating committee, were discovered on the third floor of the White House. The discovery occurred “a few days after the statute of limitations expired for a variety of civil lawsuits that may be brought against professionals who fraudulently advised corrupt savings associations,” according to Stephen Labaton, writing about the incident for The New York Times.

Now we are being told that Lois Lerner’s computer crashed in the summer of 2011, permanently erasing e-mails to and from people and organizations, including the White House, Treasury, Department of Justice and the Federal Election Committee. Any involvement of the White House targeting conservative organizations, we are told, would now be impossible to prove. Ms. Lerner, we are led to believe, had to have been a lone wolf. But why did it take so long for the IRS to divulge the information that the computer had crashed three years ago? The investigation has been on-going for over a year. Even more egregious, according to David Camp (R-MI) who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the letter containing news that the e-mails had been lost also had the chutzpah to suggest Congress end its investigation. Why not? If the dog ate my homework, which I intended to hand in, why should I be punished? In fact, why not forget the whole thing? Next subject.

While not a lawyer, it is my understanding that failure to preserve e-mails can lead to a court ruling of “spoliation of evidence,” which means that a judge or a jury is instructed to treat deletions as if they were deliberate destruction of incriminating evidence. The convenience for Ms. Lerner (and very possibly the Administration) is that the e-mails that were deleted were written during the period under investigation. Equally convenient, and as noted above, the deleted e-mails were ones sent to organizations and people outside the IRS. It all suggests that the deleted e-mails very likely contained more than a “smidgeon of evidence.”

Lois Lerner who invoked the Fifth twice last year, after first claiming her innocence, has been on administrative leave since last fall. Nevertheless, last month, the House voted to hold her in contempt of Congress. On Monday night, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen will testify before Darrell Issa’s Oversight Committee and on Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee, so stay tuned. But so far, with the stonewalling by the accused common to all investigations, getting to the bottom of this scandal has been like peeling an artichoke.

When considering the seriousness of the charge that the IRS interfered in the electoral process, keep in mind that Time magazine columnist Joe Klein (far from a conservative) wrote that the IRS scandal placed President Obama “on the same page as Richard Nixon.” Using the IRS to punish enemies is a serious crime. Article II of the Articles of Impeachment in 1974 included a charge that the Administration had attempted to conceal evidence and that Nixon had caused “…income tax audits to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.” Thus far, this White House has not been implicated, but the consequences of what happened are familiar.

Keep in mind, the IRS, in an admission of guilt, did acknowledge that agents had improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status by Tea Party and other conservative groups. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has denied any corruption or intentional wrongdoing. But the question of intent is worth investigating.

In irritatingly plaintive tones, the IRS explained that 250 IRS employees had already spent 120,000 hours and $10 million investigating the issue. That’s a lot of time and money. And, was it all for naught? It seems to have been. It means we taxpayers paid $83.33 an hour to government bureaucrats to look for evidence that they now tell us they have known for a year could not be supplied because the computer ate the e-mails!

The Obama Administration has been mired in scandal: Benghazi was the most contemptible; Fast & Furious, the most duplicitous; The VA, the most despicable. But the IRS has come closest to outright criminal behavior. The New York Times, on Tuesday, described the scandal as one that has divided Republicans and Democrats. That would be their preference, as they then can blame obstructionist Republicans. But is it not the difference between openness and a cover-up that separates those who seek answers from those who would let sleeping dogs lie?

Every Administration has had their share of scandals. People who work in the political arena tend to be emotional and adamant in their advocacy. Action is more valued than contemplation. Winning is everything. There is no way that a President can keep an eye on what is happening within his Administration. Between 2000 and 2500 people work in the Executive Office of the President (versus about 35 eighty years ago!) and another 2.5 to 3 million civilian employees in the executive branch. However, most presidents surround themselves with encomiasts, from whom praise is more welcome than criticism. Since Mr. Obama cannot assume responsibility for all of those who work for him, it is imperative that he set the tone. While Richard Nixon may truly have believed he was not a crook, he certainly surrounded himself with those that were.

The IRS is the most sensitive organization there is in government. It knows more about each one of us than another agency. It knows our income and spending habits, where we live and how we invest. It knows how charitable we are and what our political inclinations are. Now, and despite its apparent incompetence and/or corruptibility, it has been asked, on top of its primary duties, to manage and regulate the Affordable Care Act. People should be up in arms. As taxpayers, we send anywhere from 10% to 39.6% of the dollars we have worked for – in many cases that amounts to tens of thousands (and in some cases millions) of dollars. Most of us willingly, if reluctantly, send in the money. What is done with our money affects us. And, if the personal information that is collected simultaneously is used for political gain that should greatly concern us. It is that trust that Ms. Lerner has allegedly broken. It is only right that the people know who else, if anyone, might have been involved.


This does not appear to be a case requiring Perry Mason, or even Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or Nero Wolf. People apparently wanted to influence the election of 2012. That was a criminal act. Who was involved? It should be easy to determine. It is only right that we get the answers. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.

Monday, June 16, 2014

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginia"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Carry Me Back to Old Virginia
June 16, 2014

The claim by David Brat, an economics professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, that his victory in last Tuesday’s primary was because God intervened on his behalf, is obviously spurious. He won because 36,000 of the 65,000 people (13% of the electorate), or 55% of those who did vote, decided in his favor. Having read a reasonable amount of history, I feel comfortable in asserting that God does not take sides in secular matters. If anything, God must be shaking His (or Her) head in embarrassment at what He (or She) created: a bunch of boobs in Washington who have become increasingly isolated from those they are supposed to represent. Too many remain closeted with their lobbyists patrons and only emerge, like moths toward a flame, when microphones and cameras magically appear.

I have no idea whether Mr. Brat will make a good Representative, or even whether he is competent. I admit to an element of queasiness when someone claims their election victory was a manifestation of “God’s acting through the people,” or who once wrote that “government holds a monopoly on violence.” Mr. Brat was referring to, in regard to the latter, the fact that our government is empowered to enforce all laws, but one would have thought that such accusations would be reserved for groups like al Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIS. On the other hand, Mr. Brat may be a perfectly sober and intelligent man; though why he seems upset with our nation being one that operates under the rule of law is beyond me. Granted, there are laws with which I disagree, but our Constitution provides ways of changing or amending laws, including passive resistance. I agree with him about the proliferation of crony capitalism and I respect his call for a simpler, more efficient tax code, one that removes special credits and exemptions.

A great deal of ink has been spilt on why Eric Cantor lost. He is blamed for favoring amnesty for illegal immigrants, particularly by talk-radio host Laura Ingraham and syndicated columnist Ann Coulter. The New York Post, somewhat waggishly, on “Page Six,” suggested “Cantor’s stunning defeat was blamed on spending too much time in the Hamptons.” It’s true that the Hamptons are a long way from Virginia’s 7th District, and they do provide “cottages” for a number of Wall Street bankers. It is said by many on the Left that Eric Cantor was done in by the Tea Party, but that seems specious as national Tea Party organizations provided very little in the way of support for Mr. Brat and gave him no money. (Mr. Cantor had a 25-1 money advantage.) One could argue that, as majority leader, Mr. Cantor’s duties as Majority Leader meant that he had to negotiate and compromise; so therefore did not adhere as close to the conservative wing of his Party as some might have liked. “Be afraid, be very afraid,” is the way John Dickerson of “Slate” put it,” a warning to Republicans on lessons to be learned from Cantor’s defeat: “Don’t fall out of favor with your activist base.”

Time will tell why Cantor lost, but I believe it has less to do with national politics, immigration or the Tea Party, and more to do with Mr. Cantor’s taking his seat for granted. Dickerson is right in his message that no officeholder should assume they are entitled to their seat. All elected officials should be responsible to the people they represent.

The Left, in particular, has made immigration a toxic issue, by conferring the term “xenophobic” on anyone who wants to tighten border security. In what to me seems willful permissiveness on the part of the Administration, thousands of immigrant children, some arriving alone, have recently entered our Country. Most have arrived from three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. I use “willful” because the numbers are up this year by multiples over the last several years. Leaving them at bus stops in Phoenix and other cities, sometimes alone, was obviously designed to create pandemonium and resentment, and conveniently creates a situation Democrats can exploit.  Exploiting children for political advantage is about as low as it gets. Peggy Noonan wrote on Friday, regarding President Obama: “Keeping immigration unresolved keeps part of his base energized and bright with grievance and drives Republicans to murder their own.”

Immigration should not be that difficult a policy. It should not be contentious. Nevertheless, politicians, especially those on the Left, take pleasure in exaggerating policy differences, rather than trying to find common ground. We are a nation of immigrants. They are the lifeblood of our economy – its aspirant and creative base. While there are a few who come for the freebies, most are here because they want to better their lives. The joy of being in America and a willingness to work hard are common characteristics of those new to our shores. Most thinking people want that flow to continue, recognizing that new blood is like recharging old batteries. Granted, there are millions of Americans without work, but many of the jobs taken by immigrants (particularly the illegals) are ones that most Americans would rather not do. At the same time, is it not also a responsibility of a free and sovereign people to protect borders? We cannot live in anarchy, anymore than we can live in isolation. Borders must be secured as a prelude to immigration reform. That only makes sense.

The most difficult question regarding immigration reform involves the 15 to 20 million illegals already here. But to resolve that question we should all agree on what we cannot do. We cannot grant them all immediate citizenship. And we cannot round them all up and ship them home. So, a middle ground must be found, some recognition that allows them to be productive parts of our society, contributing as taxpayers, but without the benefits of immediate citizenship.

But to return to the issue at hand; Eric Cantor served seven terms in Washington, rising to become House Majority Leader in January 2011. While he handily won his previous bids for re-election, his percentage margin of victory declined from 75.5% in 2004 to 58% in 2012. While an estimated $5 million was spent on his re-election, it was almost all spent on TV ads. In contrast, a little over $100,000 was spent by Mr. Brat. Despite what the New York Times would have us believe, money doesn’t buy all elections. The ads and fame provided name recognition for Mr. Cantor, but that didn’t impress voters who wanted to air grievances, or who simply wanted to see and meet their representative.

Washington is seductive. Its senior members in Congress wield great power. While the pay is high relative to average Americans, it is less than what people with their talents would earn in the private sector. Nevertheless, the job comes with many benefits, apart from the boost to one’s ego – generous expense accounts, the provision of staffs, lifetime healthcare and munificent pensions. Gerrymandering has meant that many who serve do so with little concern about re-election. Because these people have such power, they are sought by lobbyists, many of whom, because of the revolving door that is Washington, were once their compatriots.

Politics has become a career path. In many instances, it has become a family business. There are five House and/or Senate members who have been in office more than 40 years. There are another five who will have been in office forty years by the end of 2014. John Dingell (D-MI) has been in office since he succeeded his father in 1955 – before most Americans were born. Fourteen members of the current Congress have served more than 37 years. It is only natural that over so many years, relationships develop between lobbyists and members. Cronyism has bred the complexity that is embedded in our tax code, and in the regulations that guide our manufacturing, banking and service industries. It is easy for those in Congress, who live and work in this inbred cocoon of comfortable segregation, to forget that they serve at the discretion of the people.

Eric Cantor did not fit that mold. He will have served only seven terms – fourteen years; though, in my opinion, about as long as any one person should serve in such a job. His defeat came just a few days after his 51st birthday. Nevertheless, he exuded an aura of arrogance, not untypical of those who are surrounded by sycophants and who have grown accustomed to seeing their faces and their words in the media. Mr. Cantor spent more time than he should with those who provided his financing. That is the warning all incumbents should take away. Public office is not an entitlement. It is an opportunity (and a privilege) for service. Politicians should never forget they are servants of the public, and that the money they spend, whether on an office chair or a junket to China, is not theirs; it is the peoples’. Politicians serve two masters: the voters and those who finance them. But in truth, it is the voters who wield the bigger stick. Politicians are expected to use their judgment, but in such a way that it does not surprise those whom they represent. We, the electorate, must take on faith that candidates mean what they say, and say what they mean. If an office holder is true to his or her stated beliefs, there will be very few surprises. If not, he or she should get thrown out.


In defeat, Eric Cantor was gracious, as one would expect of a Virginia-born gentleman. He did not whine. He did not cast blame. He accepted defeat in the best American political tradition, and immediately made plans to resign his leadership position in the House, which he will do at the end of July. He will head home to Virginia in January. As for Mr. Brat, I reserve judgment until I understand his positions and see how he performs.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Reunion: Fifty-five Years and Counting"

Sydney M. Williams
A Note from Old Lyme
Reunion: Fifty-five Years and Counting”
June 13, 2014

“Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the Resurrection.”
                                                                                                                Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

On the 16th of June, Caroline and I drove to Easthampton, Massachusetts for the 55th Anniversary of my high school graduation. Five days later she looked at an e-mailed photograph of the eleven of us who attended. “Oh my God,” she blurted out; “they’re so old!” It’s true. We are. It wasn’t staged – that is Caroline’s comment was not staged. The photograph was obviously staged, with, for example, my photo dropped in by master photo-shopper, Andy Solomon, our class agent and an extraordinary photographer. Caroline’s was simply the reaction of someone looking at eleven faces frozen in time; faces that could well have been framed and deposited in the attic of Dorian Grey’s home. Or even faces of escapees from some nursing home for aged schoolboys, forlornly trying to recapture their youth.

Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day, as we drove the roughly hour and a half from Old Lyme, Connecticut to Williston Academy. It’s easy: just follow the Connecticut River upstream until you reach Holyoke, then head west across Mount Tom and into East Hampton. The town itself is an old mill town, of which New England has hundreds. It is located about four miles south of Northampton, home of Smith College and former home of Calvin Coolidge, one of America’s best and under-appreciated Presidents.

We arrived shortly before lunch and while we were waiting for some of my classmates to show, we struck up a conversation with a man who seemed about my age, except he was wearing (as we all were) a name-tag with his senior-year photograph, with the class year ‘44, whereas mine said ‘59. His name was Bill Armstrong and, though he now lives reasonably close, had not been back for several years. He was only one of his class to make it back for his 70th; so we asked if he would like to become an honorary member of our class – at least for lunch. He quickly agreed. Given his year of graduation, I asked him about the War. It turned out that in December of his senior year he joined the Army-Air Force, and was the only one in his class to graduate in uniform.

Bill was a spring chicken compared to John Williams, a cousin of my classmate Charlie DeRose, and a member of the class of ‘39. He was the only one of his class for their 75th. Besides being interesting, both men were delightful lunch companions. More importantly, they served to make us feel young and take the edge off of what Caroline had later so despairingly (but accurately) described.

Others from my class who attended, besides Andy, Charlie and me were Fred Allardyce (now chairman of the board of trustees), John Curtis, Phil Fisher, John Harper (a former roommate), Dave Raymond, Brewster Staples, Bob Stilson and Roy Weiner. I missed Fred and Brewster, as they were only there for dinner the night before.

It is fascinating how one’s character changes – becomes more juvenile is the way my bride would describe it – as one retraces the steps and haunts of one’s youth. Many of the buildings are new, and some of those that have lasted this last half century have been remodeled almost beyond recognition. Remembrances of what had been rushed through my memory – a cemetery where I smoked cigarettes illegally, fields on which we once played, and a wood-paneled room in the field house where teas were held following sporting events. I remember once, after a junior varsity football game, a question being asked me by a member of the opposing team – St. Paul’s School: What is Williston?  I told him it was a reform school, but not one for those who had committed capital crimes. He looked a little rattled, then walked away, one hand on his watch and the other, clutching his wallet.

I knew, of course, about St. Paul’s through friends and cousins. My grandparents, my father’s parents, had entered me in the Groton School when I was born. It was expected that I would enter the 1st form (7th grade) in the fall of 1952. But when the time came, my parents demurred. The world had changed since their youth. Ten years of depression and five of war had greatly altered the world in which they had been brought up. For one thing, it had become more egalitarian. For another, my parents had brought us up by themselves, whereas they had been raised with nurses. They didn’t want me out of the nest so young and so soon. So I stayed home and any scholarly discipline I might have had went into hibernation, not to re-emerge until two and a half years after graduation from Williston when I met the woman who became my wife.

By the time I entered high school, my parents must have been wondering if they had made a mistake in rejecting Groton. A great-grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, attended Williston in the 1850s, but their family had lost all connection. In desperation for a school, they turned to an old friend of my mother’s family, Judge Thomas Swan of New Haven, who had been a Williston student in the 1890s and later served as Chairman of their Board of Trustees. In a decision that he must have long regretted, he saw to it that I entered in the fall of 1956. The truth is I was immature and too much of smart aleck, and, with a minimal of exceptions, never took advantage of what the school offered.

It wasn’t, as I wrote earlier, until I met Caroline and my whole attitude changed that I began to realize what I had missed. About six months after we met, in the late spring of 1962 and shortly before I headed for Fort Dix as an army recruit, Caroline and I drove from Boston to East Hampton to have dinner with headmaster Phillip Stevens and his lovely wife Sarah who today, at age 95, lives in our part of Connecticut. It was good for me to see the school in that context, having grown more serious as my love for Caroline deepened.

Now, fifty-two after that dinner in the Homestead, we returned to the same building to register for the reunion. It was good fun to see some of those with whom I had spent so many impressionable years: to remember who we had been, but also to see who we had become. The visible passage of time, so obvious in a reunion of this sort, makes one realize how short is our time on this earth and how important it is to savor each moment. In life, as the philosopher said, it is the trip that is important, not the destination.


As we wandered around the campus before and after lunch, and as we visited with old friends, some of these thoughts came to mind – thoughts of what had been, of what might have been, but, most important what was and what is. While neither my experience at Williston as a student, nor Caroline’s years at Westover, had been the best, they taught us to make sure we would do whatever it took to ensure our children had positive school experiences. We did, and they did.

"Obama & Student Loans - Political & Predictable"

                                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Obama and Student Loans – Political and Predictable”
June 13, 2014

College tuitions continue to rise in excess of inflation. Student loans have doubled over the past seven years. Unemployment and underemployment among college graduates aged 22 to 27 stands at 45%. On Monday, President Obama signed an Executive Order expanding the 2010 “pay as you earn” (PAYE) program. In doing so, he made it clear that tuitions would continue to rise. With easier terms for borrowers, he has assured that loan volume would increase; however, terms will be easier, though not for taxpayers. And he did nothing to alleviate the employment situation.

What he did was to ensure college administrators that federal money would continue to flow, that taxes will continue to rise and that personal responsibility and thrift would not be part of students’ curricula.

While we must acknowledge the importance of a college education, we must also recognize that not everyone need go to college, nor is a college education necessary for a fulfilled and happy life. As many of today’s college graduates know, there are many jobs that don’t require knowledge of Chaucer or the Pythagorean Theorem. We should also keep in mind that while college costs have risen in excess of inflation, they have risen less than the Dow Jones Industrial Averages over the past 54 years. For example, tuition and fees at Harvard College cost $1,520 in 1960 and $42,292 in 2014 – a compounded increase of 6.3%. In the same period the total return to the S&P 500 has been about 8.5%. However, if Harvard’s tuition had risen in line with CPI (2.3%), today’s tuition would be $5,200 – such is the power of compounded returns, which are to our advantage when they reflect assets, but to our detriment when they represent liabilities.

The environment is tougher today. Starting salaries for college graduates have declined as a percent of tuition. In 1960, beginning salaries were about $4,000 – 70% above the cost of tuition. In 2013, they were about $45,000, or 6.5% above tuition costs. Life was simpler, and a moral sense was prevalent, including obligations toward debt incurred.  Expectations for the future were more open-ended in those distant days. People expected their lives to be better than that of their parents. The world was at relative peace. The economy in the decade and a half since the end of World War II was strong, and the U.S. was the unquestionable leader of the free world. On the other hand, much of the Country was segregated and women were distinctly treated as second-class citizens, particularly in terms of the workplace. That period could be termed, “the calm before the storm.”

Today many of those factors are mirror images of what they once were. Young people have concern for the future. Many have the sense that they will not live as well as their parents, yet material possessions are m ore highly valued than they were. We have become more dependent and less self-reliant. Politically, we have become polarized. We are experiencing the slowest economic recovery in the post-War period. Our role as leader of the free world is being challenged in the Middle East and in Asia. On the other hand, we have made great strides from a social perspective. The question: is this the storm before the calm, or is what we are experiencing a prelude of worse to come? I don’t know, but I do know we can never assume, we must always prepare.

In that long-ago time, there were no student loans. Most college students were either enrolled because their parents could afford the tuition, or because they were on scholarship. A few, like me in my second two years in college (I had dropped out to work and to go into the army), were able to work and go to college simultaneously. The latter path seems unlikely today, given college costs and job opportunities. The concept for student loans was born around that time. Student loans have made it easier to go to college. And I don’t begrudge them. In 1960, 45% of high school graduates went to college. In 2013, 66% matriculated to college – and high school graduation rates have risen.

Thus, while I believe a student loan program is a good thing, it has had some unintended negative consequences. First, colleges and universities have taken advantage of the knowledge that the money will be there, so have raised prices and increased their cost structures. Second, readily available funds, at relatively low interest rates and easy terms, have proved tempting to many who have been lured with the false promise that the possession of a diploma was all that was needed to assure a future of riches. Third, an unhealthy symbiotic relationship developed among liberal elites in government and their partners at colleges and universities. It is what might be called “genteel cronyism.” Liberals in government would ensure that through student loans university coffers would be filled and their classrooms packed. In return, universities would support liberal programs in Congress, and most professors have become supporters of illiberal causes. The consequence has been that some students spend four years accomplishing very little, so graduate unprepared for the workplace; and we have professors and administrators with little concept of the world apart from their ivied halls. Fourth, attitudes toward debt have changed. There was a time when debt was considered morally corrupting – that one should save before purchasing anything, from a house to a car to a refrigerator. That was, obviously, too constricting. But today, the pendulum has swung too far, and we have become too casual toward debt. There is a sense among many that we are entitled to have what we cannot afford, whether it is a vacation, a Mercedes or an education.

The Senate on Wednesday voted not to move forward on an Elizabeth Warren-sponsored bill (and Obama endorsed): the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The bill would have allowed existing student debt, whether from private or federal funds, to be refinanced at today’s lower interest rates. On the surface that sounds fine; she noted as well that a GAO study estimated that the federal government is projected to make $66 billion on loans issued between 2007 and 2012. Why did she then feel the bill needed to be accompanied by another tax? Perhaps because of the refinancing, or maybe due to the fact that 30% federal student loans are in default, forbearance or deferment? The Act would have created a fund based on a “Buffett rule” tax on “millionaires and billionaires,” which “ensures that millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share in taxes.” (Ms. Warren’s populist words are divisive and unnecessarily inflammatory, and beg the question as to what is “their fair share.” In 2011, according the Tax Foundation, the top one percent earned 18.7% of all income and paid 35.1% of all taxes. How much is fair?)

I think everyone agrees that the rise in student debt to $1.2 trillion is a potential disaster. It is devastating for students, and unfair for taxpayers who will have to bail them out. But does the Presidents Executive Order address the causes? Or will persistent, easy availability of funds simply allow colleges and universities to increase prices and encourage students to take out even bigger loans? In most areas of commerce an abundance of capital chasing limited offerings causes prices to rise. Similarly, when something is cheap it gets scooped up.

Democrats have an instinctive (and politically savvy) desire to give things to people – financial aid, healthcare, welfare, generous retirement plans, easy access to citizenship, education – but they shy away from discussing the costs of their plans, other than to suggest the “rich” will pay for it. They leave it to Republicans to play the responsible adult. Unfortunately too many of the latter have been seduced by Washington. This attitude is diametrically opposed to what President Kennedy said in his Inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”


The President, in signing the EO, was playing politics. He wasn’t righting a wrong. What he did was perfectly predictable of a man who is consumed more with reshaping America rather than with maintaining and improving her strengths and her character. Peace in the world depends on a strong America both at home and abroad, as has become so obvious in Iraq, vacated betimes by American troops to satisfy a political promise. At home, acts that increase an individual’s dependency and decrease their sense of responsibility weakens us as a people and as a nation, something we can ill-afford.