Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"The Lessons of Ferguson"

                                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Lesson of Ferguson
August 26, 2014

The right to protest may not be specifically found in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights; though the rights to freely assemble, petition and speak are integral to the Bill of Rights. However, peaceful protests are embedded in our culture and history and manifested by those like Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King. Both men, while demonstrating for causes in which they strongly believed, were vigorous in their emphasis on, respectively, civil disobedience and peaceful marches.

On the other hand, violent protests that are destructive to private property undermine the rule of law, without which no democratic nation can survive. Keep in mind, the American Revolution, which was a violent protest, had as its aim the overthrow of a tyrannical government. Is that the goal of looters in Ferguson following the tragic death of Michael Brown? Is that the purpose of those who would encourage them, like Reverend Al Sharpton who advocates a “no snitch” policy and who has been known to conjure racial incidences for purposes of self promotion? Is that what some members of the press want, those who are more intent in advocating than reporting? Was that the goal of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon who essentially convicted police officer Darren Wilson, in spite of an absence of evidence?

Every day, on average, between 40 and 50 people are murdered in the U.S., about half of whom are African-American, despite the fact they make up only 13% of the population. Ninety percent of them are killed by fellow African-Americans. In fact, murder is the leading cause of death for young Black men between the ages of 19 and 34. While excess force by police, including militarization, is something that all citizens should guard against, Black-on-Black killings have proliferated; yet little attention is paid. The question for which we should be seeking answers is: why have we allowed this state of affairs to grow and to fester?

President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” is a laudable initiative aimed at addressing this problem. He stated its goal last February when he announced the program: “We must find what works and build on that answer.” But we know the answer – a decent job. And a good job requires a decent education, with an emphasis on moral judgment. Education, a moral sense, pride in one’s community and a job will do more to eliminate petty crimes, and the violence that often ensues, than all government entitlement programs combined. Since the majority of jobs in the U.S. are created by small and mid-size businesses, government should play a positive role in making the environment more conducive for entrepreneurs and businesses, through simplifying the tax code, and by easing or eliminating cumbersome and unnecessary regulations. Local governments, community leaders and civic organizations can combine to promote better schools, universal values and a sense of pride in one’s self, family, community and country.

It has become popular to deride the concept of the nuclear family – a mother, father and children. Such families are seen as old-fashioned and failing to fit the mores of the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan world in which we imagine ourselves to be – a place in which we view ourselves tolerant of and sensitive to all those who are different, whether in race, culture, sex or creed. Most of that tolerance and sensitivity has made us a better people; but when we become tolerant of the intolerant and insensitive to the will of the majority we let down the moral shroud that envelops us. We have become tolerant of gays and transgenders (which is good), but intolerant of traditional families. We are tolerant of Muslim extremists (which is bad), and deride as out of touch those who choose to live by Christian values. We are empathetic to the Michael Browns, but less so to the Darren Wilsons.

Common values allow us to live civilly among others. A good education permits us to live more enriched lives, including the prospect of a good job. People are more likely to be law abiding when they have a job and assets to protect. Unemployment in Ferguson is 13%, about double the national average, while household net worth is $10,000, a third less than the national average. What are needed are policies that encourage job creation, which starts with education and a strong moral sense.

Among intellectuals, the media and many politicians, moral relativism has replaced moral absolutism. These people have no problem providing financial aid to those in need (especially through government transfer payments), yet, swaddled in hypocrisy, they lock themselves within gated communities. The poor are no more than an abstraction to these coastal, supercilious liberals who attend benefits open to Hollywood’s and Hampton’s elite, while posting “selfies” on Facebook to show that they care. Poverty is known only vicariously. They claim sensitivity to racism, but ignore the role a degraded moral code has had on behavior.

In 1950 only 9% of Black families with children were headed by a single parent. Today, over 70% of Black children are born to unwed mothers. In addressing the root cause of the tragedy that unfolded in Ferguson, we should begin by reevaluating our attitudes toward traditional values. Black unemployment is double that of whites. Among the young, the situation is worse. Only 28% of Blacks between the ages of 16 and 19 are employed, down almost two percentage points from five years ago. These are national averages. The situation in Ferguson is more dire. Time spent constructively leads to less destructive behavior.

Ferguson, Missouri is part of St. Louis County. It was founded in 1855 when the Wabash Railroad went through, on its way from Chicago to St. Louis about six miles to the south. Its motto: “Proud Past; Promising Future.” The suburb was situated, according to one description at the time, “in one of the most beautiful districts in St. Louis County.” Ferguson was home to hall-of-famer and St. Louis Cardinal slugger Enos Slaughter. General James (Jimmy) Doolittle, Medal of Honor winner and the man who commanded the first raid on Tokyo in April 1942 lived for a while in Ferguson. Like many Midwestern cities, Ferguson has lost about 40% of its population over the past forty years. About 67% of the population today is African-American versus just over 50% fifteen years ago. Twenty-two percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Importantly, as has been widely reported, only 6% of the city’s police force is African-American. And, significantly, only 12% of eligible voters voted in the most recent elections. Consequently, political power rests with the White minority who control five of the City Council’s six seats.

A Grand Jury has been convened, the racial composition of which roughly matches that of St. Louis County, though not that of Ferguson. Nevertheless, to infer it is racist if it does not vote to indict, as CBS News has done, is to pour gasoline on a fire that has already burned out of control. The Grand Jury will either exonerate or indict Officer Darren Wilson. A young Black man was killed by a White police officer, in a tragic event. Witnesses with ulterior motives have produced conflicting reports. Prejudgments, insinuations and character assassinations have swept through Ferguson like the mighty Mississippi. They should play no role. It is not helpful to the legal process when politicians jump aboard a case like this, not for clarification, but for opportunism. It sounds like a story from the Old Testament when demands are made that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCullough be recused because his father was shot and killed by an African-American fifty years ago. Histrionics should have no role. We live under the rule of law. It must be allowed to play out.

We will never put to rest all our prejudices. We will never eradicate all poverty and ignorance. We cannot halt all killings. But we can make them less likely, with a cultural shift. We can resurrect a moral sense. We can improve our educational standards. We can focus on finding jobs. And we can implement the “broken windows” method of fighting petty crimes.

In the end, it is the emptiness of lives lived unfulfilled that leaves those who live them mired in despair. We need to provide hope, but in substantive ways that allows those without to become independent and self-reliant, considerate of others and responsible for all they do. We must do our utmost to substitute positive values for the destruction of violence. That should be the lesson of Ferguson.


Monday, August 18, 2014

"Liars, and the Media's Responsibility to Expose Them"

                                                                                                                                 Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Liars, and the Media’s Responsibility to Expose Them”
August 18, 2014

That politicians lie is to be expected; that people believe them is unfortunate, but understandable. But, that a free and independent press ignores them is reprehensible. On September 9th 2009, speaking before a joint session of Congress, newly elected President Obama laid out his healthcare plan. In doing so, he claimed that illegal immigrants would not benefit from his plan. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) indecorously called out:  “You lie!” The media attacked him as a pariah. For his transgression, Mr. Wilson later apologized. Nevertheless, while ObamaCare theoretically disallows illegals to sign up, states have found ways, such as the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to get around the law’s supposed restrictions. 

In reading Hillary “We were dead broke” Clinton’s well-publicized interview in The Atlantic, I wrote a note to myself: “Why do I read this bilge?” Ms. Clinton’s words, carefully parsed, are filled with prevarications and ambiguities. As Mark Twain wrote in A Tramp Abroad, “An honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.” The same could be said for a woman in politics. Interviews that politicians grant (such as Hillary’s) and books that they write are obviously self-serving and politically motivated. They would more accurately be called “infomercials.” The rationale behind lying during political campaigns is that no agenda may be pursued unless one gains office. In the world of politics, the ends justify the means. All dictators, from Caesar to Hitler felt the same.

Small lies, like other seemingly unimportant transgressions, inevitably lead to big ones. Like children who test parents, politicians test their constituents with little lies. If not called out on the small, harmless ones, they matriculate to those more substantial and more damaging. Elizabeth Warren’s claims of being of Cherokee and Delaware heritage were obviously bogus – even amusingly so. Supporters avow they did no harm, though her acceptance as an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard deprived a true Native American of a job. However, in lying about something so basic, how can we trust her on matters more substantial? Does she have no sense of honor? Did not the editors of The Boston Globe detect a flaw in her character that might have consequences for one in a position of public trust? Have we become so cynical that we overlook such fabrications with an off-handed gesture that all politicians lie, so, as Hillary Clinton once asked, what difference does it make?

It does make a difference. Unanswered questions regarding Benghazi, the IRS, Fast and Furious and spying on reporters and people have made a difference. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi, and no one has been brought to justice. The IRS deliberately targeted conservative organizations, yet no one has been tried, let alone gone to jail. American firearms were delivered to Mexican drug cartels by an arm of the Justice Department. At least one was used in the killing of an American agent. Using the NSA for political purposes has deepened the cynicism that exists between people and their leaders. Like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, what you see is not what you get!

Mainstream media does a disservice to its viewers and readers when lies go unchallenged. However, the media had no qualms about repeating the mantra that Bush lied when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, despite most politicians believing the story at the time. Saddam Hussein had, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, used chemical weapons on his own people, and likely still had them. Did Bush, with access to intelligence sources not available to others, know for a fact that his claim was false? I don’t know. There has been no proof either way. It is possible that Mr. Hussein, decent fellow that he was, destroyed what weapons we know he once had. But it seems more likely that he delivered them to his fellow thug, Syrian president, Mr. al-Assad.

The media have become partisan advocates, instead of independent journalists. It occurs on both sides of the political aisle, but is far more pronounced on the Left, as they dominate most of the media. Blogs, talk radio and cable TV have widened the chasm. That lack of balance is enhanced because of the role played by universities, and the instructors who seemingly prefer one-party rule. The consequence has become one of exaggerated differences, polarizing both the actors and the audience. Civility has been lost, along with unfiltered data that would help the electorate make well-informed decisions.

Famous (or infamous) Presidential lies have become an entertaining part of our national dialogue. They include a plethora of lies: from “I am not a crook” Nixon, to “I’m a nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer” Carter, to “Read my lips,” George H.W., to “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton, to “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it” Obama. We may smile, but they signal a loss of a moral sense in our democracy. “The whole aim of practical politics,” H.L. Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it, with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Chicanery is endemic to politicians. Power is the aphrodisiac that drives most to seek political careers. Therefore, honesty is seen as an unnecessary impediment, which will be either misinterpreted or used to one’s disadvantage. The instincts of politicians along with advice from their advisors say they must promise something to everyone, in spite of innate contradictions. The electorate is sliced and diced into the smallest possible segments. Inevitably, they run into the buzz saw of realism, as Mr. Obama has discovered in Russia, the Middle East, and with the problems he has had with unions and environmentalists on both sides of the divide over the Keystone XL Pipeline. In serving one master, one alienates another. Little gets done, and the country is left in a backwash of confusion. In trying to maneuver between the rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, Mr. Obama risks sailing over the falls.

President Reagan certainly used deceit when he thought necessary, as we know from the Iran-Contra Affair. But he had a redeeming feature in that he came to office with four, simple to understand and principled, goals: reduce growth in government spending; reduce marginal income tax rates on labor and capital; reduce regulation and reduce inflation. One could agree or disagree with him, but there was no doubt as to where he stood. He achieved the last three. His failure to achieve the first was largely due to his decision to put an end to the Soviet empire. That required an increase in defense spending. But it worked. Three years after Mr. Reagan left office the “Evil Empire” was no more. Unfortunately for the nation, however, since Reagan left office taxes have risen and regulations have become more numerous. Official inflation has remained subdued, but the metrics used to measure it have become more accommodative to a benign outcome.

The failure to be honest on the part of politicians is rooted in a belief of many that people are unwilling to hear an unpleasant truth (for example, unaffordable entitlements will inevitably lead to Dollar debasement) and that they are incapable of understanding its consequences. It is a supercilious attitude, born of chauvinism. Their attitude toward the people is not unlike that of Mr. Tulliver toward his wife in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss:  “The possession of a wife conspicuously one’s inferior in intellect, is, like other high privileges, attended with a few inconveniences… with the occasional necessity for using a little deception.” Deceptive politicians may prove successful in the short term, but the harm they cause over the long term is irreparable. Like Mr. Tulliver’s family, people suffer from the arrogance of their leaders. New York’s late Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said: “While everyone is entitled to their opinions, no one is entitled to his own facts.”

To succeed politically – and in the best interest’s of the country – one must be willing to compromise. But good political leaders have principles to which they adhere. They may be conciliatory and they must compromise, but should never be ambiguous. In too many cases voters get only to decide between a mountebank and a charlatan. While the odds against are one in a million, the media should play a far more responsible role in separating fact from fiction. The people would benefit. But it is more likely we will continue to suffer the lies; however, we will not do so in silence!


Thursday, August 14, 2014


                                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
August 14, 2014

A sensitively written op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff, in Sunday’s New York Times, had the title: Is a hard life inherited? Mr. Kristoff relates the story of a childhood friend who has had a hard life. His mother died after choking on a bit of bacon. His father left home. This all happened when he was five. With his three siblings, he was raised by a grandmother, growing up in a “ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage.” Despite having a “first-class” mind, he was suspended for truancy in the 8th grade, drifted through life in a haze of alcohol and drugs, while fathering two illegitimate children.

Mr. Kristoff’s point is that events beyond his friend’s control determined the man he became, and that there are steps society can take to help prevent such personal tragedies. He writes that a good teacher or mentor would have made a difference. Mr. Kristoff rues the loss of union jobs that might have created incentives for prudent behavior. He cites a higher minimum wage and a better education as steps that could be taken, but the starting point, he claims, must be empathy.

Empathy is indeed an endearing quality, but I suspect the problem has as much to do with shifting attitudes of behavior. As a society, we have embraced moral relativism. We have become more permissive. We have become hedonistic. Despite the proliferation of birth control and the general acceptance of abortion, the number of children born out of wedlock has soared. In 1965, less than 10% of all births were to women out of wedlock. Today it is 41%, and the numbers continue to rise. In 1965, the percentage of White children and Black children born to unmarried women were, respectively, 3.1% and 24%. Today, those numbers are 18% and 72%. “Shotgun” weddings have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Granted, about 58% of single-mother births are to cohabitating couples, many of whom will marry. Nevertheless, a moral sense has been lost.

While Mr. Kristoff’s childhood friend may have suffered from problems impossible to readily treat, the issue Mr. Kristoff raises is one of priorities. He suggests empathy as the first line of defense, an important component, but not sufficient, in my opinion, to address the problem. Keep in mind, changes in the way we live have caused us to become disconnected from our community, as Robert Putnam detailed in his book, Bowling Alone. Suburbs are less personal in nature than villages. More women work than ever before – and both men and women work longer hours – leaving less time to volunteer. In cities, fund raising extravaganzas have replaced the more democratic concept of volunteering one’s time. In national political campaigns, raising money via $30,000-a-plate-dinners – afforded only by the few – has replaced grassroots efforts of door-to-door solicitations. We give of our money, but not of our time. The contagion of computers and hand-held devices has distracted us from the time necessary to participate in our children’s schools. We have become more self-absorbed. We have turned over most of the care for the indigent to public officials, blindfolding the rest of us to our communities’ needs.

With an understanding that “Big Brother” will be there when we need him, we have forsaken personal responsibility. Immediate gratification has replaced looking to the horizon. We protest for the right of women to receive free birth control, but ignore the fact that single-motherhood (which has increased, despite a proliferation of myriad birth control methods) too often leads to poverty, drug use and crime. We march for gay rights, yet statistics tell us the surest way to reduce a child’s chance of living in poverty is to have her, or him, raised in a traditional family.

None of this is meant to condemn women’s rights or gay rights. I am neither sexist nor homophobic. People should be free to live the lifestyles they choose. But, in regard to children, we need a renewed emphasis on the importance of family. We need opinion leaders (especially those idolized by the young) to speak to the value of two-parent households – a father and a mother. Forty-five percent of all children living with single mothers live in poverty, versus 13% of children living with both parents. Using statistics from the U.S. Census, the Heritage Foundation determined that being raised in a family with a father and mother reduces a child’s chances of living in poverty by 82%. Marriage is the best antidote to poverty. It should be celebrated, not trivialized or demeaned.

We will never to be able to solve every problem, help every addict, or fix every broken home. It may not have been possible to help Mr. Kristoff’s friend without very expensive professional assistance. But we should provide all people the tools to make their lives better, and I don’t mean increasing transfer payments or expressing empathy. I mean teaching children values in schools that can be brought home. Show them by example. It is only right that President Obama and Mayor De Blasio address NOW (National Organization for Women) and LGBTA (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender Alliance). But, as they do, they should also note that they have entered into traditional marriages, because of love for their spouse and for the sake of their children.  

Young people from time immemorial have looked for heroes, to those whose lives they would like to emulate. In years gone by, we looked to professionals in our communities, lawyers and doctors, athletes and firemen, druggists and merchants, teachers and policemen. Today’s youth is more likely to look at the entertainment field, including the culturally void like gangsta rap. They watch their sports heroes, many of whom set good examples, but some that do not. Shocking audiences has always been a way of getting attention when one is on stage or the field, but that’s where it should remain. Instead, the behavior of many entertainers has become more abhorrent off-stage than on – and promoted extensively by the media. Young people are vulnerable and easily influenced, not realizing, or ignoring, the fact that money protects their idols. In attempting to imitate lives they can never lead, they too often destroy their own.

Millions of people, like Mr. Kristoff’s friend, are in need. A few may just be “bad seeds,” beyond redemption. But most can be helped. Schools that emphasize values, as well as skills, are critical. A return to some form of national service – whether military or civilian – would add purpose to a young person’s life. Encouraging personal involvement in one’s community would help. Empathy is important. But our biggest priority should be to emphasize the importance of marriage, its focus on the future, the commitment it takes and the stability it provides our children. People point out that a good marriage requires luck. It does, but it also demands hard work and selflessness.

We should think first of children, for they are our priority, our legacy and our nation’s future.


Monday, August 11, 2014

"Common Core - Too Many Questions"

                 Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Common Core – Too Many Questions”
August 11, 2014

God knows that too many of our students are not getting the elementary and high school education they deserve. In international tests, they perform poorly. Remedial classes have become common in colleges and universities for entering freshmen. We all know of some graduates of the nation’s top universities who can neither write a grammatically correct sentence, nor speak coherently. We also know there has been a collapse in moral standards, in the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Yet, we also know that youth is our most valuable resource – our nation’s future.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that 50.1 million students were enrolled last year in the nations 98,800 public schools. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we spent $10,615 per student, or approximately $530 billion. An additional 5 million children are enrolled in private schools, costing parents approximately $100 billion. Education is a big business, as it should be. Two questions: Are we getting our moneys’ worth? Will Common Core help?

The concern regarding Common Core is: can schools mold 55 million young people, so as to raise standards for all? Or will conformity of input lead to mediocrity of output?  A perhaps even more critical question: should this happen? Is conformity in teaching protocols a good thing? Each child is unique, with varying degrees of ability, aspiration and work ethic. No two school districts are comparable. Are teachers not better employed trying to extract the best from each individual child? Will Common Core lead to a national curriculum (perhaps politicized?) rendering home schooling, Charter Schools and private schools superfluous? Is less competition a good thing?

In the same survey cited above, the NCES estimates that there are roughly 15.1 pupils for each full-time-equivalent teachers. According to a 2012 report from the Pioneer Institute, $15.8 billion of taxpayer funds have been spent on Common Core. Would not that money be better spent on hiring additional teachers and on paying excellent teachers substantially more?

In my opinion, the purpose of education has five components: It should provide basic skills in math and English, from which all other disciplines flow. It should provide the fundamentals in the sciences, history, geography, literature and communications. It should teach children to ask questions, and to think and to do so critically. It should inculcate a moral sense of universal values. Most importantly, it should be fun, increasing the desire to learn, which should be a life-long pursuit. Accomplishing all this requires remarkable and dedicated teachers who should be paid well, commensurate with their abilities and results.

Many people, far more qualified than I, have written about Common Core, both in favor and against. Among those pieces, I would especially commend an op-ed by Marina Ratner, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkley. Her article, which appeared in the August 6th issue of the Wall Street Journal, was based on the experience of her 6th grade grandson who is attending public school in Berkley. In her opinion, the adoption of Common Core standards in California represents a huge step backward, which “puts an end to its hard-won standing as having the top math standards in the nation.”

The principal argument in favor of Common Core standards is that they would remove regional differences between schools, so that a fourth grader in Alabama learns the same things as a fourth grader in Wyoming. If a family were to move from Maryland to Texas, their children would easily fit into the school system. Trying to lift underperforming school districts makes sense, but doing so through conforming to national standards risks lowering the bar for better performing districts. And would not the differences still be extant? Is it not likely that a child in a Loudon County, Virginia public school would be among children of better educated parents than the same-aged child in Owsley County, Kentucky? Should children be penalized because their parents were able to move to better school districts? Isn’t that penalizing success? Wouldn’t such decisions set dangerous precedents with multiple unintended consequences? Life is not fair; it never can be, no matter how much we may wish it were, and fairness cannot be legislated. Equality before the law is a right guaranteed to all of us as citizens. Equality of opportunity is a worthy pursuit, but sadly unrealistic in most cases. Equality of outcomes is a goal of many Progressives, but is misguided as it doesn’t allow for differences in abilities, aspiration or behavior. In education, it can only be achieved at the expense of the gifted.

In implicitly urging a national curriculum, I fear that Common Core standards are another means by which the federal government is inserting its nose under tents rightly belonging to states and local governments. I inherently distrust conformity. There is evidence that suggests standards are being lowered, at least among some states, as Professor Ratner suggests. I find it telling that David Coleman, one of the main architects for Common Core has become president of the College Board, which administers the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). It seems very probable that the SAT will be changed to conform to the curriculum for which he was largely responsible.

Common Core is aimed at those families who cannot afford SAT prep classes, which, admittedly, give a leg up to the wealthier among us. Common Core standards are advertised as leveling the field – of providing every student an equal chance to do well on tests like the SAT or ACT (American College Testing). But it isn’t about improving education or even about preparing our students to compete in the global market place. If we wanted better math protocols we could have adopted those used in Japan, Singapore or South Korea. It certainly does not appear to be about boosting the prospects of our nation’s most talented youths, whether rich or poor.

The Common Core website is filled with bureaucratic (and frankly condescending) blather. It is an epistolary embarrassment. For example, the website provides a section entitled, “Myths vs. Facts,” with one “myth” being that the adoption of common standards means bringing down standards to “the lowest common denominator.” In response, the website provides opinions stated as “facts.” They explain that the standards were “informed by the best in the country, the highest international standards, and evidence and expertise about educational outcomes.” They use the words “best” and “highest” without comparisons and the phrase “evidence and expertise” without reference to the source. Professor Ratner did not find the experience of her son to be the best.

Homogenization of milk is a worthy endeavor and serves consumers well, as does being able to purchase the same McDonald hamburger in Concord, New Hampshire as in Taos, New Mexico. But I do not believe homogenizing the education process will let flower the unique and myriad talents that lurk within the minds of our youth. General George Patton once wrote: “Anyone in any walk of life, who is content with mediocrity is untrue to himself and to American tradition.” Perhaps it is my age, but my innate skepticism suggests something more cynical is afoot – the preference for an electorate that marches to the music government chooses to orchestrate.

Among some of its promoters and supporters, Common Core may seem a noble idea, but its consequences raise too many questions. It should be abandoned.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Liberty versus Comfort"

                                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Liberty versus Comfort”
August 7, 2014

There is a battle waging in Washington, the outcome of which may be far more consequential than the media and most Americans realize. On one side are those that see government as a guarantor of our God-given rights to life, liberty and property. The other side sees government as the provider of comforts and happiness of its citizens.

The first favor a government limited in its authority by the checks and balances that were integral to the founding of the federal government, and by the federalist nature of its structure which assigns power to state and local authorities. The second believe that government is Darwinian; that it must adapt to cultural and societal changes, in a compassionate way. The latter has a political philosophy that reaches back at least as far as the late 19th Century when the Progressive movement began – a movement popularized by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and was manifested in the adoption in 1913 of the 16th and 17th Amendments. The first gave Congress the power to levy and collect taxes on income and the other called for the direct election of U.S. Senators. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society strengthened the bonds of centralized government. Mr. Obama is intent on furthering that legacy. But compassion increases dependency and it costs money. Half of all Americans today are dependent in some form on government assistance. Taxes and debt have risen. The paying for promised entitlements will fall on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.

Progressives have been successful, in large part, because their job is more pleasant. It is easier to play Santa Claus than to teach dialectics. A government that takes from the few and gives to the many will generally win the support of the majority. A new study recently released by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) looked at tax returns for 2010. The study found that the top 40% of households in 2010 paid 106.2% of federal income taxes. The bottom 40% paid -9.1%. The latter number is negative because on average those households received $18,950 in myriad government transfer payments.

Bruce Thornton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, recently published a book, Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents, in which he warns against “moral busybodies.” He writes: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” It is the gradual but insidious assumption of responsibility for the well-being of its citizens that increases dependency of the people, while strengthening the hand of government.

From our perspective, as citizens of a country that has been free for more than 200 years, it is difficult to imagine what life would be like without liberty. Technology has brought improved conditions to millions of people, and government has played a role in broadening the reach of that largesse. But human nature does not change. Power is an aphrodisiac to those who exercise it. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 48, power is “of an encroaching nature.” Ambition, not patriotism or altruism, is what drives most people to seek office. The great lesson from our Founders is that they understood the corruption that power brings to those who exercise it. They were victims of the imperial British crown; thus they revolted. England wanted the colonists to pay for those hired to repress them. The motive of the Founders “was not,” as Bruce Thornton wrote, “to create utopia, but to protect the freedom of all from the dangers of concentrated power, whether embodied in the majority or a minority.”

Society today has little interest in the larger philosophical issues we should be addressing. Instant and constant connectivity mean that we live mainly in the present, with little knowledge of the past and less concern for the future. On the most recent release of high school civic and history tests conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 22% of high school seniors scored at a proficient level or above on the civics test and a mere 18% were proficient in U.S. history. These are scary statistics for a nation that relies on knowledgeable voters. “The cornerstone of democracy,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”

“Selfies” define our time. The “me” generation has come of age. Hollywood sets a moral standard that is adopted by our youth with no regard to the consequences. A highly paid star decides to become a single Mom; so imitators, without her financial means, follow suit. We have lost our moral sense. There are no standards. Single mothers with dependent children have the highest rates of poverty in the nation. Yet we never hear Progressives call out this unfortunate and unnecessary circumstance. A woman’s right to her body is defended (as it should be), but what about her role as a wife, mother, daughter or sister? And what about men? Should they be absolved of responsibility in the bearing and rearing of a child? We are all individuals, but we are also integral cogs in the wheel of the societies in which we live. When people become self-absorbed they lose a sense of their role in the broader community. Society suffers.

Acknowledging that man was imperfect, the Founders chose to create a government in which the assumption of power by an individual or a party would be difficult to attain. So they instituted a system of checks and balances. Further, they created a federalist form of government by giving authority to state and local governments – institutions that were closest to the people. The Founders understood that limited government (though they didn’t use the term) is based on the principle of self-government – that individuals are responsible and self-reliant. They wanted a federal government to be just and serve to protect the rights of its people. They had no interest in efficiency. A “do-nothing” Congress would not have been seen as necessarily a bad Congress.

Progressives see checks and balances as unnecessary drags on the efficiency of government. Charles Blow, writing in Monday’s New York Times, laments the fact that the 113th Congress has enacted only 108 “substantive” laws, as though quantity of bills passed was more important than quality. President Obama commonly harangues Congress for failing to do “the people’s business,” ignoring the fact that the purpose of government is to ensure that the people can fairly, legally and fearlessly pursue their own self-interests, including business interests.

While the trend is ominous for freedom, we should take some comfort that there are those who are manning the barricades to prevent this descent into centralized authoritarianism. Whether one approves of their tactics or not, the rise of the Tea Party is indicative that millions of Americans sense the country is moving in the wrong direction. Teachers’ unions have come under pressure to put the students ahead of teachers. While President Obama is using executive orders to assert Executive authority, Republican governors like Jan Brewer, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christy, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Sam Brownback, Nikki Haley, Susanna Martinez and others have been working to reassert states’ rights.

Nevertheless, it has been the gradual concentration of power in Washington and especially by the Executive branch that is concerning. Of the fifteen Executive branch cabinet departments, six have been added in my lifetime – HHS, HUD, Transportation, Energy, Education and Homeland Security – and three additional ones during the course of the 20th Century – Commerce, Labor and Veterans Affairs. While cabinet heads must be confirmed by the Senate, they report to the President. The IRS, which has become a political tool of the Administration, is not an independent agency. It is part of the Department of the Treasury. Additionally, there are another thirty or so supposedly “independent agencies,” including the CIA, SEC and the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), whose heads are nominated by the President.

Adding to the ideological battle are the opposing views toward achieving fair and robust economic growth. On one side are the believers in decentralized capitalism, and on the other, those who consider authoritarian, centralized capitalism the best antidote. The former proved successful for 200 years, but has been blamed for the financial crisis of 2008, and are said to be responsible for widening inequality in incomes and assets. Statism is praised by Progressives as being more egalitarian and better suited for the challenges of the 21st Century, often citing China as an example of success. While Mr. Obama does not espouse a centralized economy, his policies lead in that direction, as does his rhetoric, with its denunciations of the one percent – we versus them. He singles out the Koch brothers as evil incarnate, despite their out-sized philanthropy toward education, hospitals and the arts. Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that the Soviet Union (and China pre-1989) incorporated central planning to disastrous results. Also left unsaid is the fact that the policies pursued by the Administration have led to widening income and wealth gaps. Any student of history knows that there is no question but that it has been decentralized, democratic capitalism that has been responsible for raising living standards around the world. Plutocracy is the inevitable consequence of statism.

Progressives have advanced their agenda by appealing to our emotions. Their tactics are not unlike those used by the dictators from the Left and the Right who used sycophants to canonize their leaders. Mark Morford, a columnist for SF Gate and who has drunk the kool-aid, referred to Barack Obama as a rare “Lightworker.” It is not his policies or speeches; “it is his presence,” he wrote. “Lightworkers,” Mr. Morford added “are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.” Mr. Morford’s deification goes on in a frightening manner, reminding one of the Apostles of Christ. Can readers imagine the hue and cry if a columnist had elevated “W” to such glorified heights? Once we begin thinking of our leaders as immortal our nation is doomed.

“Beware bearers of false gifts and their broken promises,” was a warning about extraterrestrials from the Planet Maldek, but it is one that would apply today to those from the Planet Washington.  The state can become omnipotent, but it is not omniscient. Comfort is for the moment; liberty is for the ages.


Monday, August 4, 2014

"The Month That Was - July 2014"

                         Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                     August 4, 2014
The Month That Was
July 2014

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969.
We came in peace for all mankind.”
                                                                                                                                     Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)
                                                                                                                                     July 20, 1969

Aided by science, civilized society is supposed to move forward over time. In many respects it has. In communication, information processing, our ability to combat disease, creating better alternatives for consumers in retailing, we are light years from where we had been a few years ago. Two examples of the thousands out there: The Apple iPhone 5S has more computing power than Voyager 1 that recently left the solar system. Amazon is considering “Prime Air,” a drone-based system that will be able to deliver an order thirty minutes after purchase.

But, in other ways we have retreated. On July 20th, 1969 – two years before my youngest son was born – Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a development that was beyond the wildest dreams of one my age at the time. Three and a half years later, Apollo 17 saw the sixth and final landing of humans on the moon. Since, that lunar orbit we see on clear nights has not experienced any steps of man, small or otherwise. Government is now focused on the more mundane, providing free condoms and ensuring its citizens are happy and comfortable. In the meantime, our infrastructure is crumbling, our rights are being eroded and exploration has been left to others. We blithely live in the present with little concern or planning for the future.

Forty-five years ago, the nation was focused on what men could accomplish with technology and human will – gifts for all mankind. A robust economy was seen as necessary. Today we develop technologies that allow men and women sitting in consoles to cleanly kill enemies with no risk of self injury. Social media has become common for children over the age of six. Teen-agers spend hours on their cell phones instant-messaging and sending photos and videos. We have developed at least 26 methods of birth control, allowing pleasure without consequences. (Don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of birth control and I, too, like my pleasures unhindered. But I suspect our world has become more self-absorbed. There is less of John Kennedy’s ‘…what I can do for the country’ and more of the Barack Obama’s ‘…what the country can do for me.’)

July, like all months, was filled with the serious and the trivial, the joyful and the sorrowful. Two plane disasters occurred during the month, killing 416 people. Combined with the 227 who died on Malaysian Air 370 in March, those three crashes killed 645 people. Last year, of 3.1 billion air passengers, 173 died in crashes, suggesting the odds of being killed in a plane accident were about 18,000,000 to one.  (In contrast, an estimated 35,000 Americans were killed in auto accidents last year. The National Transportation Statistics Bureau estimates that the odds of being killed are roughly ten times greater in a car than in a plane.) Malaysian Air 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, either by Ukrainian separatists, or possibly by Russians. Either way, the missile and its launch pad were most assuredly Russian; though it is my guess the militants thought they were firing at an enemy plane, but have been unable to admit to such a stupid and tragic mistake. Air Algérie 5107, on a flight from Burkina Faso to Algiers, crashed in a remote region of northern Mali, killing all 118 aboard.

The biggest news story has been Israel’s defense against the terrorist group Hamas, which now controls the Gaza strip. Israel is not only faced with an enemy that has sworn to “wipe them off the map,” they are also fighting a PR battle, as Hamas is expert at putting children and civilians in harm’s way. (For example, the other morning, listening to CBS radio, the newscaster announced that Israel had targeted a school and some 19 children were killed. The nonchalant ignorance of the announcer almost made me physically ill.) “War is Hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman allegedly once said, and he would have known. It is easy for us sitting in the comfort of our homes to become influenced by the photos and news stories emanating from Gaza City and feel sympathy for hapless Palestinians living there. Israel is fighting for its survival against a small group of Islamic extremists who are committed, not only to that country’s destruction, but to that of the West with its Christian-Judeo heritage. With 24-hour news coverage, we must take care and not let the distraction of ignorant commentators cause us to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

The situation in eastern Ukraine worsened during the month following the shooting down of MH17. Heavier sanctions have been pressed on Russia, led by the United States and reluctantly followed by Europe, which is far more dependent on Russia for trade and especially energy. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk survived a confidence vote after his resignation (due to a failure to create a unified government) was denied. But Putin is hanging tough.

One would have thought, after all mankind has been through especially in the last one hundred years that people could live peacefully, intermingling, while respecting the rights of others. It is only through history that we begin to understand the futility of war – not that one can give in to terrorists – but the waste that it brings. A gift of the Founding Fathers was that they understood Machiavelli when he warned that in establishing a government one should “presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.” The founders were wary of centralized power; so designed a government that would be balanced, with each branch providing checks on the other two. Power was diffused further by giving authority to state and local governments. What we have been witnessing in Washington, in this epic clash between the House and the President, is a testing of that construct. The stakes are high.

Those who live in other countries are not so fortunate, as we have seen in the Middle East, Ukraine, China, and throughout most of Africa, South America and a large part of Asia. Newscasts carrying images of the dead in Gaza ignore the 2500 Syrians who were killed during the month of Ramadan, which ended on July 28th.     

The outbreak of Ebola in three West African nations (Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia), which has already infected more than 1,300 people and killed more than 700 of them, is expected to spread around the world; though the head of the CDC in Atlanta has said it is unlikely it will spread to the United States. Nevertheless, the first inflicted patient, an American case worker – a doctor – working in Africa, was airlifted to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The disease is extremely contagious and usually fatal. The death total rose to 729, when it was reported by the W.H.O. that 56 had died and 122 new cases were reported the previous week. Ernest Bai Koroma, President of Sierra Leone, was quoted in Friday’s New York Times: “The disease is beyond the scope of any one country or community to defeat.”

The crisis along the Mexican border sees no sign of abatement or political resolution. Humanitarian concerns are facing the reality of absorption and the question of how to deal with the tens of millions of immigrants who are here illegally, along with the millions of immigrants who are proceeding along the legal path toward citizenship. Differences between and among the political parties have raised temperatures in an already over-heated Congress and White House. Stories of impeachment, no matter their source (but which assuredly – and cynically – stem from the White House), serve only to detract from more serious matters.

In sports, LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland. Germany defeated Argentina for the World Cup in Brazil. According to FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), more than 260 million people worldwide watched one or more of the games. Rory McIlroy, only the third Irishman in my lifetime to do so, won the British Open. He was also the third youngest to do so, after Steve Ballesteros in 1979 and Tiger Woods in 2000. Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer for the men’s title at Wimbledon. Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic won the women’s.

Death claimed Olympian Louis Zamperini, subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s story, Unbroken, a book that has spent more than three years on the New York Times’ best seller list. His death had been first announced 71 years ago, after his plane crashed in the Pacific. He was 97. Actor James Garner died at age 86. Alan C. (Ace) Greenberg, former chairman of Bear Stearns died at age 86 on July 25th. He had inherited the job of chief executive in 1978 from Salim L. (Cy) Lewis who had been CEO since 1949. Over 52 years two men grew the firm into a powerhouse. In less than a decade, Greenberg’s successor, James Cayne, brought the company to its knees. Former Republican Senate majority leader Howard Baker, Jr. died at age 89. He became well known for his intense questioning of the committee investigating the Watergate break-in. He later served as President Reagan’s Chief of Staff. Senator Baker was the son of a Congressman and the son-in-law of Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Also died during the month, Ernie Ball who played in the very first Master’s with Bobby Jones in 1934. He was aged 103.

In the world of finance: The economy popped back smartly in the second quarter, with GDP up 4%. But labor markets continue strained and the housing market sluggish. Detroit expected to emerge from bankruptcy, but it now appears it may be late summer or fall before that happens. Argentina is now in “selective default” according to Standard & Poor’s, but also, if the New York Times is to be believed, “in denial.” Default or a restructuring of her debt would have the consequence of limiting trade and raising future borrowing costs. Argentina’s President, Christina Kirchner, a populist who claims to speak for the poor, has enriched herself and her family during the eleven years she and her husband served, as their country’s economy collapsed. The Dow Jones declined more than 2% on the last day of the month, marking the first time since April 10th that that index has traded up or down more than 1.5%. The DJIA closed the month 1.6% lower than it began. However, it was the high-yield end of the bond market that got smacked the hardest. The yield on the FINRA-Bloomberg high yield index rose 64 basis points, or 12%, suggesting a concomitant decline in prices. Gold and oil prices fell during the month.

Elsewhere during the month: ISIS declared a caliphate in Iraq, encompassing much of the land west of Baghdad and most of Nineveh. On July 11th, 31-year old Amelia Rose Earhart landed in her single-engine Pilatus PC-12 at Oakland International after a solo trip around the world in 15 days, with 17 stops. She made a point of flying over Howland Island in the Pacific where her famous namesake, Amelia Mary Earhart disappeared in 1937. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was released on July 11th and by the end of the month it had gross receipts of over $350 million. It is the 8th in the series, the first of which, starring Charlton Heston, was released in 1968.

The VIX, a measure of implied volatility – a measure of expected market volatility over the next 30 days – rose 46% during July, suggesting August may not reflect the “dog days” of summer. We will know in a month.