Monday, December 29, 2014

"One Man's Education"

                  Sydney M Williams
                  December 29, 2014

A Note from Old Lyme

“One Man’s Education”

“You are always a student, never a master.
You have to keep moving forward.”
                                                                                                                Conrad Hall (1926-2003)
                                                                                                                Cinematographer

The end of the year is a good time to reflect on subjects we deem of particular importance. Education, along with stability at home, is perhaps the most critical requirement for future success. I want to offer my own experience and to provide some additional thoughts. In public schools, administrators too often put students and parents second to demands of unions. They are, for example, reluctant to approve options available to the well-off. Vouchers and charter schools are inimical to their interests. In colleges and universities, political correctness has driven out the concept of liberalness – the importance to confront differing opinions. Walter Lippman once wrote: “When genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work.” With ten grandchildren in school, education, especially its promises, is close to my heart.

Too often, our high schools are considered successful if 80% of their students graduate on time and matriculate. The fact that many seniors may be illiterate and/or innumerate seems of little concern. Any number of colleges and universities – for profit as well as not-for-profit – have sprung up to accommodate the growing supply of students, most of whom must borrow the cost of tuition, and many of whom are unqualified. They have been told that a college degree – not education – is critical to success.

What has been lost in this mechanical process of sloppy manufacturing has been learning how to think. Too often, high school students graduate in need of remedial training. College seniors, in turn, graduate unprepared for the real world. I recognize that condemnation is broad; it ignores hundreds of good schools – public and private – and tens of thousands of even better teachers. But, as a generalization it stands; for learning should be pleasurable, solid and provocative.

I am sensitive to this issue because of my own experience. While I grew up in an educated household – my father, like his father and both his grandfathers, were alumni of Harvard – I never took advantage of the opportunities offered …or I did not until I was twenty-one, after I met the woman who became my wife. I blame only myself. I did have a few teachers in school and in college who tried to reach an unreachable boy. I remember those few fondly, and some of what they taught did stick, in spite of my best efforts to remain impervious to their attempts.

As a youngster, I liked to read. I loved Greek and Roman mythology, and read the Scribner classics. I read and enjoyed books of less importance, like the Hardy Boy series. By the age of fourteen, I had read Carl Sandburg’s two volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, and memorized the Gettysburg Address. About the same age, I became the youngest member of the high school debating team. But around that time I became rebellious; so when I went off to boarding school – Williston Academy in East Hampton, MA – I was in no mood to study, or behave as I should.

After barely graduating, I scraped my way into the University of New Hampshire. I recall a professor of algebra handing back an exam, telling me it was the lowest mark he had ever given, but also noting that I had scored one of the highest marks ever recorded on the university’s math entrance exam. After two years of dissipated living, I left. I worked, met Caroline, joined the army and returned to college. With less than a year to go in college, Caroline and I married.

Looking back at those pre-Caroline years, I regret not having had a positive interaction with teachers and professors. But my mishaps provided lessons. First, my wife and I worked to ensure our children would have positive school experiences, which they did. Second, I established a personal reading curriculum. Generally, I read about 35 books a year, divided roughly equally between fiction and nonfiction. For the past fifteen years, I have maintained a record of the books I have read. I collect and read a fair amount of P.G. Wodehouse and it is easy to forget titles read. Additionally, the list allows me to more easily recall what I have read and which books I enjoyed most. In terms of fiction, besides Wodehouse and my daughter-in-law Beatriz’s novels, I prefer mysteries and classics, like Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Character studies in great literature provide clues to human behavioral responses. Biographies and history help us understand the manifestations of that behavior.

Writing ‘Thoughts of the Day’ requires staying abreast of current events. Most days I read six papers, as well as numerous publications and essays sent me. While I am not a fan of the editorial page of the New York Times, it is like perusing enemy dispatches as a friend put it. We should know what the other side thinks. A reason we are polarized is because most people tend to read and watch only that which supports their beliefs. And college graduates tend to mimic what they have been taught in our “liberal” universities, institutions where open forums have become rare. 

A baby is born with an empty brain, but with an insatiable appetite for learning. Watching my grandchildren grow from infancy to childhood to early teens, I have been amazed at how fast they learn and how rapacious is their desire. The role of a teacher is to keep inquisitiveness alive. The role of the school is to support teachers. There are few jobs more critical than that of the one charged with encouraging and channeling curiosity, in a bid to satisfy the quest for knowledge. As children get older, other interests intercede and distractions appear. Students must understand the consequences of decisions. Einstein said, “Education is…the training of the mind to think.”

Learning is fun and exciting. That flame should never be doused. It is incumbent on all of us to continue our own education; to inspire our youth; to inculcate the desire to learn; to question; to think; to seek answers, even where none may be found. In spite of my criticism of our educational system and despite how poorly our students do in international competition, no other country comes close to ours in terms of creativity and innovation. Something is working.

It is telling that one of the more successful TV series is called “How It’s Made.” Over the past dozen years this Canadian company has documented the process behind 1,200 products, from pantyhose to race-car engines. Young people want to learn. School administrators could learn something from watching this program. Education should encourage aspirations and allow us to think independently. As we roll into 2015, our New Year’s resolutions should include: don’t stop learning and don’t stop thinking!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!





Monday, December 22, 2014

"Obama's Christmas Gift to Castro"

                  Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Obama’s Christmas Gift to Castro”
December 22, 2014

“The Obama administration is ushering in a transformational era for millions of Cubans who had suffered as a result of more than fifty years of hostility between the two nations;” so opined the New York Times last Thursday in applauding Mr. Obama’s “historic move on Cuba.” Certainly, talking is better than not, and the benefits of trade tend to be mutual, but I had no idea that the people of the United States were responsible for the repressive conditions under which most Cubans live. I, obviously naively, had always thought that the absence of the rule of law, the suppression of free speech, the poverty, the jailing of dissidents had something to with the communist government the Castro brothers had imposed on their Country fifty years ago. The opinion leaders of the Times apparently believe differently. We Americans, according to them, share in the blame.

Mr. Obama emphasized that point when he mistakenly inferred that the United States had been a colonizer of Cuba, rather than its liberator in the Spanish-American War. He spoke on Thursday, with words directed at the Cuban people: “Others have seen us as a former colonizer, intent on controlling your future. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism.” While it is true that the Cuban Constitution, until the early 1930s, included an “intervention” clause,” Cuba was never colonized by the United States. It was true, though, that American companies like United Fruit operated in Cuba, with advantages accruing to shareholders at the expense of Cuban employees, and the Mafia, an American institution, made Havana an open city in the post-World War II era. So, why does Mr. Obama twist and exaggerate history for his own purposes? Why does mainstream media not call him out?

Headlines in the media and comments from some in the columnists have said that our isolating of Cuba has not worked. It is time, they said, to try something new. I agree, it is time to try something new. Communism has not worked. Will opening the doors to American tourists and American businessmen and women rid the country of its legacy of dictatorial suppression? I don’t know. It seems doubtful. But I agree, why not try? Will business or individuals invest? I suspect not, or at least not in any meaningful way, absent the rule of law. Why not try democracy and give all Cubans the right to own property and permit them to speak freely? Why not let the people freely elect their leaders? If Raúl Castro is to be believed change may be slow in coming. On Saturday, he gave a wide-ranging speech. “We won the war,” he declared. David defeated Goliath is the way he put it. He said the changes need to be gradual to create a system of “prosperous and sustainable communism.”

Cuba has not been isolated in the world. It is not, as President Obama alleged at last Friday’s news conference, “hermetically sealed.” It has relations with 160 nations, and it provides civilian assistance workers, mainly medical, to more than 20 nations. Nevertheless, trade with nations like Canada, Germany and Spain, not to mention mentoring nations, like China, Russia and Venezuela, have done nothing to improve the lives of the people. Cuba is a member of the united Nations and, believe it or not, a lead country on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which says more about the United Nations than Cuba. Yet, the government persecutes those who disagree. It is a persistent violator of human rights. It sponsors terrorism and foments anti-Americanism across Latin America.

At Friday’s news conference, Mr. Obama said, “I want to work with this new Congress to get things done.” Yet, the President missed an opportunity to both work with Congress and improve his chances of permanently changing America’s policies toward Cuba. Why did he not seek to co-opt the three U.S. Senators of Cuban heritage, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)? Why did he not consult the four Representatives of Cuban heritage in the House – two Democrats and two Republicans? I suspect the answer is that his ego would not let him share the stage. Yet, if he had, he might very well of helped restore civility and bi-partisanship to Washington, and he would have ensured the smooth passage of any new legislation regarding Cuba. Most former Presidents would have done so.

Instead, it was Pope Francis who played a key role, perhaps hoping to reprise the part played by Pope John Paul II in helping to bring down the Iron Curtain. Cuba, once a Catholic nation, has been on the Vatican’s radar since Fidel Castro took over. Their five-decade failure to exorcise the atheism of Cuban leaders has never diminished their desire to do so. Pope Francis, by all accounts, is a good and kindly man, but I find it troubling that the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics recently chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Unlike Mr. Obama who did meet with the Dalai Lama at the White House, Pope Francis seemed to be concerned he would offend China’s communist leaders.

In this season of Christmas, it is worth considering a recent study by Cornell University, which compared happiness derived from gifts of a material nature to those they called experiential – the gift of an experience – a dinner out, theater tickets or a trip. They found the latter provided greater happiness. Perhaps that is what Mr. Obama had in mind during this Pentecostal season. The Castro’s, since seizing control in 1959, have argued that the poverty their people endure is due to the monster that is the United States. Raúl Castro accepted Mr. Obama’s gift and declared victory. There is, however, a catch. If life for Cubans does not improve, it will be harder to blame the Goliath to their north. If life does improve, will they credit their northern neighbor? I suspect we know the answer.

……………………………………………………………………………..


I do hope your Holidays will be enjoyable, that you will be able to spend time with family and friends, and I wish you the very best for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Is Sense Coming to Congress?"

                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Is Sense Coming to Congress?”
December 18, 2014

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The White Queen was responding to Alice’s disbelief as to her alleged age. In today’s world, with its unfunded (or poorly funded) pensions, we are asked by corporate CEOs, union leaders, politicians and pension fund trustees to believe another impossible thing – that everything is hunky-dory in the world of pension and health obligations to retirees. Additionally, they seem blasé about the achievability of 8% per annum growth, when calculating expected returns. 

Nevertheless, it is possible that a crack has appeared in that veneer. Congress may be concerned. Buried in the spending bill just passed by Congress and signed by the President was a provision that would permit benefit cuts for retirees in multi-employer pension plans. It is true that multi-employer pension plans represent only a small percentage of plans covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), but the news is welcome for anyone concerned with fiscal responsibility. There are an estimated 1,400 multi-employer plans in the U.S., covering about 10 million people. Such plans, which can be carried from one employer to another, are common in industries such as construction, trucking and mining, where employees are typically members of a local union that, in turn, is part of a national one. The plans are jointly managed by unions and employers. The plans are guaranteed by the PBGC, and therein lies the rub. The PBGC, in its annual report, noted that its projected long-term deficit for multi-employer plans had widened to $42 billion from $36 billion a year earlier, despite hefty returns to stock and bond markets.

While the provision will certainly be challenged by affected pensioners, it is also possible that this may be a prelude to addressing all pension obligations, and acknowledging that more realistic return assumptions must be used. Take, for example, Social Security. It is common knowledge that, in its current form, it is not sustainable. Thirty-one years ago, President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in order to avert its insolvency, collaborated in getting the retirement age raised gradually from 65 to 67. Today, if the President and Congress were able to introduce means testing, change the calculation for CPI and raise the retirement age from 67 to 70, the program would remain viable. If they do not, it will not.

Politicians express the Christmas spirit year round, in that they promise and give. But, like the prodigal son, they express little concern about cost, and no one person wants to be the Grinch. Nevertheless, there are moments when it feels that the country is racing toward a concrete wall. Debt and obligations pile up, and the only panacea Congress and the Administration (with a compliant Federal Reserve) seem capable of is to keep interest rates as low as possible on our country’s rapidly accruing debt, and to raise taxes – fees as they sometimes euphemistically refer to them. It is a game that, left unto itself, will end badly.

We are a consumer-driven economy. What we want, we want now. The concept of saving is as dated as galoshes. It is an Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” attitude that ignores an on-rushing future. One consequence of our behavior is a lack of preparedness for retirement.

But all that has begun to change. The private sector, with its eye necessarily on the bottom line, has moved away from defined benefit plans toward defined contribution plans, thereby putting much of the onus on the individual. Government and union plans have been slow to adopt. But they will have to. The money is not there. Responsibility for saving toward retirement will increasingly fall on the individual, a responsibility largely avoided for the last seventy years.

There are those who feel the average person is incapable of doing so. I disagree, but I also understand that the transition will be difficult. It will take time. It must include provisions to assist in savings, and, concomitantly to reduce incentives to consume. IRAs and 401Ks are a good first step, but these programs will have to be expanded. We have 10,000 people reaching retirement age every day. In terms of Social Security, the number of workers per retiree dropped from forty-one to four between 1945 and 1965. Today, it is under three. By 2030, it is projected to be two. The future is here. While I feel badly for the deceived and affected workers in multi-employer plans, it is good that Congress belatedly recognized the problem and has attempted to address it.

A consequence of government divided by partisanship has been a rise in populism. Populism is manifested on the Right with the Tea Party and with Senators like Paul Rand and Ted Cruz. On the Left, it is embedded with President Obama, and now Senator Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, the latter as its newest standard bearer. On both sides, individuals have stirred populist passions, but I suspect they are whistling in the dark. When it comes to selecting the next President, it is my guess that the people will decide on a governor. Governors do not get the national press of bloviating Senators, but they have had experience in actually running things. And voters – listen up, Jonathon Gruber – are not stupid.

This may be only a Panglossian fantasy on my part, but I believe it likely that the new, Republican-dominated Senate will prove to be more effective and less partisan than that run by Harry Reid. (Admittedly, that is a low bar.) For the last several years unilateralism, in terms of major legislation is concerned, has prevailed. That never works, no matter the ideals such legislation may reflect. Democracy is messy. Making laws, as Bismarck once noted, is like making sausage. The process belies the result. Partisanship is fine on the fringes, as it keeps everyone alert and honest. Those like Senators Warren and Cruz serve a purpose, but you wouldn’t want one in command of the ship. We have had that experience these last six years, with a Leftist, uncompromising, partisan President who had no prior executive experience. We have lived the consequences. My guess is that the people, in 2016, will choose someone with governing experience.


It is too soon to know if the inclusion, in the recently enacted spending bill, of the provision that forces leaders and constituents to face up to the peril of promises that can never be fulfilled. But it seems to this observer that such inclusion may signal a change for the better. We shall see.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Senator Feinstein - She Stoops to Slander"

                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Senator Feinstein – She Stoops to Slander”
December 15, 2014

War is never pretty. In fact, as General Sherman (who would have known) once declared, it was Hell. In the history of the 87th Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, the regiment in which my father served in World War II, Captain George F. Earle wrote that after Nazis pretended to surrender and then killed their intended captors, “Company C (my father’s company) took no further Prisoners of War.”

In an act of war on September 11, 2001, a group of nineteen Islamic terrorists killed three thousand people in three strikes against the U.S. Further attacks were widely expected. Americans responded, including the CIA, which was charged with interrogating captured enemies to gather intelligence on what else was being planned. Senator Diane Feinstein said at the time, “We have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do, to protect ourselves.” When 9/11 mastermind Khalid sheik Mohammed was captured, and it was suggested turning him over to nations known to use torture, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller replied: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned.”

Politics is not pretty either. The report that Senator Feinstein released last week was partisan – it was written by the Democrat staff of the Intelligence Committee, with no input from the Republican staff. It was based on the premise that the CIA had acted immorally. The data collected and the arguments used were phrased to fit its predetermined conclusion. The report did not provide context, in that it omitted the fear that permeated the country in the weeks and months following the attack. It concluded, in contradiction with others, that “torture” did not produce any actionable intelligence. The report did not acknowledge that the CIA, and other agencies, had been successful, in that the subsequent thirteen years have been absent any more mass domestic attacks. Its timing was auspicious. It was released after the election and shortly before Ms. Feinstein will have to relinquish her leadership position on the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was also released on the same day Jonathon Gruber – the MIT professor who believes most Americans are stupid – testified on Capital Hill. While the investigators sifted through six million documents, they neither conducted interviews with alleged perpetrators, nor did they speak with Directors of the CIA or with any Deputy Directors. They claimed they could not; they said the Justice Department was conducting its own review, which was false, as the Justice Department, in 2012, had exonerated all those accused. Most disturbing, according to former Democrat Senator Bob Kerrey, the report contained no recommendations. And, it cost taxpayers $40 million.

Historical revisionists are common, especially among the political class who wish to be remembered in ways favorable to themselves and unfavorable to their political opponents. The report and its summary have been treated as Gospel by Left-leaning media. But it is cloaked in a mantle of false sanctimony. It shows the CIA as a rogue group who regularly tortured prisoners, lied to the President and Congress about what they did, and accomplished nothing in terms of preventing further attacks, or helping to capture or kill other al Qaeda members. (A headline in the New York Times expressed that sentiment: “Portraying a Broken Agency Devoted to a Failed Approach.) Like most reports and bills emanating from Congress, this one, at 6000 pages, was designed not to be read in its entirety. 

The report was political. The November elections were a setback to Democrats, who see themselves as the responsible Party. Senators Schumer and Warren have since split from the President on specific issues. Democrats are anxious to seize the high moral ground. Senator Feinstein came to the microphones on Tuesday, dripping with condescension and mad as Hell; she scandalized the Agency in a manner reminiscent of Senator Frank Church’s committee forty years ago. It took a generation for the Agency to refurbish its image after that witch hunt. Whether Senator Feinstein’s fury was feigned or real, she claimed to have been misled by the CIA. She said they operated illegally and lied to President Bush. Her accusations have been denied, and her report only aggravated the partisan divide.

Congress is charged with oversight of the CIA. U.S. law requires the Central Intelligence Agency to inform Congress of covert activities. The law allows the briefings to be limited, in certain sensitive cases, to a “Gang of Eight.” The latter consists of the four top congressional leaders, as well as the four senior intelligence committee member. The CIA did just that in September 2002, and did so regularly over the next few years. But the CIA cannot be totally transparent. By definition, it operates in the murky world of spies, cloaks and daggers. It must, if it is going to do its job. Were there rogue CIA employees who took too much license? Were there a few who seemed to enjoy inflicting pain on others? I am sure there were. But to declare that the CIA is the moral equivalence of Iranians, North Koreans, Nazis, Communists, al Qaeda or ISIS is to blaspheme an agency that has done a great deal to keep Americans safe. Following the release of Senator Feinstein’s report, George H.W. Bush, who was Director of the CIA in 1976-1977, was quoted: “[CIA employees] are among the finest people serving in the U.S. government – whose selfless and dangerous work, always behind the scenes, went unheralded.”

America is different from other nations. Torture should be avoided, but semantics are important. The word “torture” should be defined carefully. The Bush Administration was careful to get Justice Department Authorization for the enhanced interrogation techniques they employed. What the CIA did to captured al Qaeda terrorists may fit some people’s definition of torture, but it is far different than that experienced by those like Lieutenant Louis Zamperini at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.

We cannot and should not forget what happened on 9/11. Fear causes people to act irrationally. Perhaps the soldiers in my father’s Company did act improperly after the German’s deadly trick atop Mt. Belvedere in February, 1945. But when we judge them, it must be done in the context of the time. In the aftermath of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, a badly injured Pentagon, and the remains of United Airlines Flight 93 scattered across a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania people were scared. It was a fear that permeated all Americans – the threat of an Anthrax attack, the possibility of a similar attack on the West Coast. Was there some over-reaction by the CIA when enemy combatants were captured? Almost assuredly so. Were their reactions excusable? Perhaps not. Were they understandable? Absolutely. Were they deserving of this partisan, scandalous report? Not at all.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Racism, Prejudice and the Rule of Law"

                       Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Racism, Prejudice and the Rule of Law”
December 11, 2014

Racism is the belief that innate differences among different races determine individual outcomes. As a belief, it has been discredited. As practice it violates an individual’s civil rights. Like prejudice, its persistence reflects society’s moral turpitude.

Prejudice can be defined as preconceived opinions that are not based on reason or experience. It cannot be corrected through legislative actions. Prejudice is cultural and usually ingrained. It comes in many flavors. There are xenophobes, misogynists, anti-Semites and racists, among others. Such feelings are primarily a function of ignorance, but they also reflect a culture that lacks empathy and mutual respect. As a society, we need greater emphasis on family values. We need parents, teachers and others in authority to set exemplary examples. The banning of discrimination and the prosecuting of racists will not, unfortunately, eliminate prejudice.

For political purposes and personal gain, public figures and the media have inflamed the anger following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the alleged choke-hold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. The two cases were similar in that both involved black men killed by white cops. Both accused men resisted arrest, a violation of the rule of law. They were alike in that Grand Juries found no evidence to indict either policeman. But the differences are marked. A video shows what appears to be an unnecessary rough (and deadly) take-down of Mr. Garner. Mr. Brown apparently attacked the arresting officer, while Mr. Garner resisted attempts to be handcuffed, even though he had been arrested for the same misdemeanor before. (The police cannot determine which laws to enforce, no matter how minor the infractions may seem.)

While laws banning discrimination have been enacted, there is no question that prejudice and racism persist; though less overtly than fifty years ago. Tolerance should be encouraged, but it cannot be mandated. It must be learned, as must honor and fairness. Respect must be earned. All should be aspects of our cultural makeup. These are values we inherit from our parents, and should be integral parts of our school’s curriculum.

For President Obama, this could have been a teachable moment. However, his instinctive reaction was to see these tragedies as part of a larger pattern of racism. The questions he should have addressed include: Why are 75% of black babies born out of wedlock, when we know two-parent households are the best tickets out of poverty and away from a life of crime? Why is the murder rate of young black men (90% of whom are killed by other young black men) almost ten times that of whites and Asians? Why have blacks, who make up 13% of the nation’s population, been responsible for the deaths of 42% of all cops who were killed in the line of duty? Mr. Obama should be focused on the issues that have caused black crime to soar, especially black-on-black.

The second lesson the President should emphasize is the importance of the rule of law. No nation can exist without laws and without them being enforced. That does not mean that all laws are fair, or just. But we cannot have individuals, be they law-enforcement officers, the President or simply citizens, deciding which laws should be obeyed and which should be ignored. That way leads to anarchy. Similarly, while there are bad cops, most are brave, public servants doing necessary and, at times, dangerous jobs. The President should explain that it is not racist to enforce laws. Selling single cigarettes is a crime. Should it be? That is not a question for the police. Certainly, owners of convenience stores that sell tobacco do not like the selling of untaxed cigarettes outside their shops. The State of New York doesn’t like the illegal selling of cigarettes either. In 2011, the State collected $1.7 billion in tobacco taxes. If a law is trivial or unjust, there are legitimate ways of getting it changed.

In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, many well intentioned legislators made the conscious decision to compensate African-Americans for years of having had to live under humiliating Jim Crow laws. But, in doing so, they unwittingly increased dependency on the State, and they lowered cultural and moral standards. Welfare programs had the unfortunate effect of encouraging out-of-wedlock births and single-parenthood. A culture that emerged of political correctness and moral relativism encouraged such behavior. Children born without fathers are at an enormous disadvantage, yet people in authority don’t encourage marriage. Universal values, like respect, honor and morality, have been abandoned in favor of ones that promote the ego of the individual – Selfies characterize this era.

The concept of “broken windows” – a system that relies on personal responsibility and which says that if small problems are addressed, larger ones are less likely to form – has been abandoned by those like New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, supposedly allies of African-Americans.

Besides the breakdown in the family and in cultural standards, public schools are being run more for the benefit of teachers and administrators than for students. This is especially true in the nation’s poorest inner cities. Wealthy families have the option to use private schools, which have proliferated in the last forty years, while inner city children – the poor (and especially the black) – have been consigned to failing schools. Even the option they once had – Catholic schools – have largely disappeared, victims of unions that did not want the competition. Charter schools and voucher programs have been vilified by so-called liberals, because they do not have the backing of unions.

Mr. Obama, as everyone knows, came to the White House with a unique opportunity to improve attitudes toward race, but also to address those factors that have caused blacks to lose ground economically – schools, the importance of the family and the necessity of gaining self-respect through self-reliance. He has not done so. Racism is more rampant and income gaps have widened. The victims are those he professes to care for. It is the saddest legacy of his Presidency.

Years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, my paternal grandmother – a wise woman who spent six years studying public health at MIT during the late 1890s – told me that racial prejudice would not be cured until we were all of one color. As a committed believer in Darwin, she felt certain such an event would happen, but it would take many generations. A few years ago, I wrote an essay, “We Are All Kin.” It was based on the mathematical certainty that we are all related. I concluded it: “It is on the differences in political philosophies that our discourse should be focused, not on the color of our skin, our gender, our religion, or the country from which our ancestors hailed. After all, we are kin.” That should be the message of our President.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Climate Change - Rising Decibels"


                   Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Climate Change – Rising Decibels”
December 9, 2014

Billingsgate Island once comprised fifty acres and was home to thirty homes, a school and a lighthouse. The island was part of a chain off Wellfleet on MassachusettsCape Cod. In the early 1940s, Billingsgate Island, like Atlantis before it, disappeared under the sea. In 1872, erosion was first noticed. By 1912, the island’s residents had left and the lighthouse abandoned. Today it is but a sandbar at low tide. Its sinking beneath the waves was never thought of as a “man-caused” disaster; it was seen as a manifestation of the power of “Mother Nature.”

Thousands of representatives from 190 nations descended on Lima, Peru over the weekend for the 20th “Conference of Parties” to discuss measures that UN negotiators hope will lead to a legally enforceable global climate pact in Paris next year. The goal of this UN sponsored meeting is to keep global temperatures within 2° Centigrade (3.6° Fahrenheit) of the pre-Industrial period. To achieve that end, all fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – would have to be phased out by 2050. In many respects, the gathering is reminiscent of Bill Murray’s “Ground Hog Day,” except for the costs and the fact it dispels more hot air and other waste products into the biosphere.

No one but an idiot would claim that man has had no effect on climate. But, also, no one but a numbskull would say that natural factors like continental drift, volcanoes, ocean currents and the earth’s tilt have had no impact. Thus, we should be able to place “climate deniers” and the most mulish of climate-change advocates – like, for example, the New York Times and Al Gore – outside the room, so that an intelligent conversation and debate can be had within. Unfortunately, the decibels of the discourse on this subject have risen to such levels that there are very few left to quietly and civilly discuss climate change and to debate what actions man should take to limit emissions, but also to prepare for a changing future. In his 2007 classic, Cool It, Bjorn Lomborg made the same point: He asked: “Why [has] the debate over climate change stifled rational dialogue and killed meaningful dissent?”

The unknown in the equation has always been: How much of the change in climate is due to man and how much is due to nature? What about storms, droughts, floods and fires? Have their frequency increased? Has man been responsible? The truth is no one knows. Words like “most” or “a lot” should not satisfy. We should strive to live in a cleaner environment – and history suggests that that is the natural tendency of man, as he becomes wealthier. But we must also be prepared to adapt to a climate that can change regardless of our efforts to control emissions. A storm destroyed the Mongol fleet in the Sea of Japan in 1274. Another one dumped several feet of snow on New York City in the “Blizzard of ‘88” – 1888 that was. Katrina slammed into New Orleans in late August 2005. Was the fault man’s, God’s, nature’s, or some combination of all three? Climate has changed over the millennia; it will do so in the future, no matter the steps we take today or tomorrow. Coral Davenport, writing about the UN negotiators in the New York Times, noted: “Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans” (Emphasis mine). I retort: If man does not adapt, he is doomed.

Whatever our differences, there are things we do know and about which we should all agree. We know that climate and the Earth are not static. Growing up in New Hampshire in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a common adage: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes!” We also know that man, as a species, blossomed after the Industrial Revolution. It also does not escape observers that the most fervent defenders of climate change are those nations that are the richest, and within those nations, individuals who are the wealthiest. We have ours; now people in China, Africa other developing nations, and the poor within our own borders want theirs. Extremists, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere in the developed world seemingly ignore the benefits that fossil fuels provided. We are far richer in comforts than anything our grandparents could have imagined, and a good part of the reason has been the abundance of cheap fossil fuels. It is why the Chinese did not “agree” to anything in their recent meeting with Mr. Obama, so widely touted by the liberal media. They are not stupid. They said they “intended” to cap emissions “around” 2030. They did not say they would.

The single most important consequence of the Industrial Revolution was the extension of life. Between the time of Christ and the year 1800, Earth’s population tripled, reaching one billion. It only took 160 years to reach three billion. And, if Pew Research is right, it will take less than 90 years to triple again. When one looks at a chart of the Earth’s population, the line appears almost flat until 1800 when it moves up exponentially. The reason: the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution raised standards of living for millions. It allowed us to travel and communicate far more cheaply. The coal and oil that were produced and converted to energy allowed manufacturers to build better housing, produce cheaper clothing and provide more abundant food items, all at lower prices. It extended lives. Yet in parts of Africa, the situation remains dire. A woman born in Sierra Leone in 2004 can expect to live to be 36; a man born in Zimbabwe, in the same year, might reach 38.

There were (and are), of course, downsides to industrial development. Life is a balance between good and bad. Many of the jobs created by the Industrial Revolution were monotonous, dangerous and involved very long hours. In early days, they incorporated child labor. As in all of life’s endeavors, not all fared equally. Fossil fuels used to generate power to operate factories did release greenhouse gasses. Nevertheless, apart from a few nuts, no one wants to return to life in the 18th Century. Additionally, we must keep in mind that, while carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it is also a necessity for the metabolism of plant life, through the process of photosynthesis.

In that regard, when one looks at photographs taken in the last quarter of the 19th Century of New England, one of the most notable features is the absence of trees. Forests were denuded for fuel. Today, flying from New York to Boston, one marvels at the extent of the woods along one of our most densely populated corridors, a visual manifestation of nature’s resurgence and of the need for greater amounts of carbon dioxide. As societies become wealthier, things inevitably happen regarding the environment: Emissions become reduced; rivers, oceans and streams become cleaner, and better land management allows for re-forestation. It is economic growth that should be our focus.


I am not against gatherings such as the one in Peru. It is always better to talk than to not. But I am against hyperbole born of hypocrisy. It is not only the earth’s temperatures that need cooling; it is the rhetoric of the participants and the media that covers them.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Europe - On the Mend?"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Europe – On the Mend?”
December 4, 2014

In speeches before the European Parliament and the Council of Europe a week ago, the Pope (the first non-European Pope) struck a chord among many when he spoke of feelings of angst that have descended on Europe. A sense of decline is what many seem to feel – that the world is no longer Eurocentric, that the future is Asia, Africa and the Americas. The Pope spoke of the negative aspects of secularization and the lack of spirituality. Nevertheless, he was not negative on the prospects for Europe. He criticized what he called the aloofness of the elites and the institutions they have created that are perceived as insensitive to individuals. He asked for a return to those values of faith, human dignity and fundamental rights that have historically characterized Europe, but which now seem to be waning.

The ghosts of the first half of the 20th Century pervade the thinking of some in Europe today. As well, Europe is experiencing an unwelcome infusion of Islamists and the segregation they bring, and the continuing consequences of the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The ghosts cause one to recall the nationalistic competitiveness in arms, goods and empires that led to the Great War that killed almost 30 million people between 1914 and 1918, of the unrealistic reparations made on Germany that were in part responsible for that country’s hyperinflation in the 1920s, rearmament in the 1930s and their desire for revenge. Those, along with the Depression, were factors leading to the Second World War. The recent increase in Islamists has given rise to xenophobia, while the effect of the slow recovery has provided a sense of unfairness captured by Thomas Piketty.

In emerging from the destruction of World War II, Europe embarked on the idea of a unified Europe, with democracies embedded in social welfare programs, while leaving the cost and burden for defense to NATO, which meant that Europe’s defense became the responsibility of the United States. Social welfare meant reduced work hours and increased benefits, which functioned as long as the numbers of young expanded at a rate greater than the elderly. However, self-centeredness, later marriages, smaller families and better healthcare gave rise to an aging population, with the elderly becoming the fastest growing sector. A shrinking population has meant higher costs on fewer people, which could only be paid for with more debt and/or higher taxes. In turn, that has meant the private economy has become a smaller part of the continent’s GDP, ergo slower economic growth – a noose that gradually cuts off circulation.

But nothing stays the same, including predictions about the future. Europe is Exhibit A. Its political landscape is changing. Austerity measures mandated by the European Union (EU) and the necessity that wealthy countries bailout needy ones and the requirement that needy countries adhere to rules imposed by Brussels are giving rise to anti-establishment political parties that reflect frustration with traditional, conventional ones. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (Geert Wilder’s Party that opposes bailing out its promiscuous neighbors) is now that Country’s largest party. In Spain, Podemos (a Left-leaning party, established earlier this year) is currently the largest party in the country. Podemos wants Spain to continue receiving subsidies, but they “oppose the dominating EU politics…” The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) opposes EU membership, and it is gaining strength. The Front National Party of Marine Le Pen, another anti-EU party became France’s largest party after last May’s elections. Alternative for Germany (AfD) was established last year to oppose eurozone bailouts. According to one report, the AfD “is shaking up politics with astonishing wins in recent state elections.” Centrists are losing control of their countries because of policies they have advocated, like statism, elitism and multiculturalism. The latter may be ideal in theory, but too often is a curse in practice.

However, Europe cannot be ignored. The EU, with about 7% of the world’s population, contributes about 23% of its GDP. The continent’s history is one of enlightenment. Greece was the birthplace of Western civilization; Rome was where Christianity found its first home. Europe was home to the Reformation and the Renaissance. It is a diverse place. There are forty-five countries in Europe and perhaps as many as 230 languages and dialects, twenty-three in the twenty-seven countries that comprise the EU. Because of the proximity of their neighbors, most Europeans speak more than one language, but the singularity in culture, laws and language that have bound Americans together for over two hundred years are absent in Europe.

In spite of that handicap, the concept of a United States of Europe – an idea first mentioned by Winston Churchill in a 1930 speech entitled “A United States of Europe” – remains a goal, albeit illusive. Nationalism was largely responsible for the wars that devastated the continent in the first half of the last century. The progress toward integration is slow and laborious, as it should be, but it is important to not lose sight of that goal. In my opinion, multiculturalism (no matter how well intentioned) has been the most significant cause of today’s schism between nations and cultures; but also responsible has been the attempt to put monetary union ahead of political union.

It is not just political union that must be the goal; it is an emphasis on individual freedom. People should be free to write and speak out, which they are, but also to invest and profit from their ideas. It is the spirit of entrepreneurship embedded in capitalism that would allow the continent to flourish. Dependency on the state destroys the vitality that breeds success and economic growth. When Churchill spoke, he was thinking in terms of federalism, not a supranational government.

Amidst these feelings of Weltschmerz, it was interesting to read Sarah Gordon’s column in last Friday’s Financial Times. She wrote of multinationals flush with cash, and improvements in corporate liquidity among smaller companies. Mario Draghi has introduced quantitative easing. Lower interest rates have eased concerns regarding refinancing. Oil prices are down 40%; the Euro has fallen 10% versus the dollar in the past six months. Falling commodity prices, a lower Euro and low interest rates are a blessing to European manufacturers.


Is Europe on the mend? I don’t know. The future, which is never clear, may well belong to Asia, Africa and the Americas. But the ingredients for repair are there. The evolving political scene could force changes that toss overboard old restrictive regulations and release the youthful vigor that comes with individual freedom and creativity.  While no one can foresee the future, it is true that when making predictions we tend to extrapolate our most recent experiences. The news has been mostly of discord and unhappiness; so it is unsurprising that European equity markets reflect those concerns. But we must be careful less we let history exert too much influence on how the future might unfold. It is out of ashes that Phoenixes rise.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"The Month That Was - November 2014"

                         Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                     December 1, 2014
                                                                                                             
The Month That Was
November 2014

“Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are whirling fast”
                                                                                                                Sara Coleridge (1802-1852)

A benefit of writing this piece is that it provides an opportunity for remembrance on how much of note transpires in a mere thirty or thirty-one days. This past November was no different.

The most important event of the month was the sweeping Republican victory during the midterm elections. They will now control the Senate and will have the largest majority in the House since 1930. Outside of Washington, Republicans added to their gubernatorial and legislative majorities.

The Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson consumed mountains of press. It also generated outrage among those fired up by the Reverend Al Sharpton and others who saw the lack of an indictment as the furtherance of racial injustice. The consequences included demonstrations and protests that turned violent and destroyed property, mostly of those who had scrimped and saved to open their stores, many of whom are minorities. Nevertheless, my guess is that Ferguson will be only a footnote when the history of this era is written. It wasn’t injustice that resulted from the Grand Jury’s decision; it was justice that did not conform to the preconceptions of those who had tried Officer Darren Wilson in the media. So, like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and his death will disappear from memory, a tragic and unfortunate victim of those who look for racism at every opportunity.

In other news, the President issued an Executive Order granting amnesty to millions of aliens who arrived here illegally from Mexico and Central America. The President has dared Republicans to challenge him by denying confirmations, cutting off funding or shutting down government – a challenge he expects to (and probably will) win. Apparently, breaking the law is okay if you can get away with it, just as upholding only the laws he finds convenient is okay with our President. What an example to set for our youth, especially those African-Americans who saw in the 2008 and 2012 elections the ultimate fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement!

With his poll numbers in the toilet, Mr. Obama is anxious to get good news wherever he can. He signed an agreement with China, which commits that country to do nothing for the next ten years, while imposing burdens on U.S. businesses and taxpayers. It reminds me of the promises made by royalty to their subjects of “air pudding with wind sauce.” John Kerry failed to strike a deal with Iran; so that country continues to barrel toward nuclear capability, which assuredly will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un had the temerity to condemn the U.S. for human rights violations! Putin persists pugnaciously.

Elsewhere at home, Jonathon Gruber provided an inside peek as to how the Left truly considers their subjects. One result of the midterm elections was the lopping off the head of the hapless Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Mr. Hagel, a former Senator and a Republican, did have disagreements with the Administration as to troop levels in Iraq, strategies regarding ISIS, and the closing of GITMO. He added fuel to the fire when, in an interview last month with Charlie Rose, he said that budget cuts are threatening America’s military capability. Mr. Obama is now searching for his fourth Defense Secretary. Amazon and Hachette settled their dispute. While the press didn’t appear to declare either one the winner, the market anointed Amazon with an 18% increase in the shares of its stock price. The New York Times reported that the Reverend Al Sharpton owes more than $4.7 million, including $3.0 million in federal income taxes. Yet he continues to flaunt before cameras and hog microphones. Were the rest of us to act like Mr. Sharpton, we would be in jail.

The mood in Europe is sour. One consequence of difficult economic times has been the rise in xenophobia and an increase in nationalism – portents that remind one of the first half of the 20th Century. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, warned of deflation, so has introduced quantitative easing. Academics suggest the continent has lost its competitive advantage. Even Pope Francis cautions that Europe has become like “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” (The latter admonition, I found offensive, as I am married to a grandmother who, while she may not be fertile, is certainly vibrant!)

However Sarah Gordon, writing in Friday’s Financial Times, takes a more upbeat view. She notes that European multinationals are flush with cash. The Moody’s Liquidity Stress Index, which falls when liquidity improves, dropped to an all-time low in August. The leveraged loan market has returned to pre-crisis levels and deal volume is three times what it was a year ago. Brent crude prices are 37% below their peak levels and the Euro has fallen 4% from its March levels. Adding to this rosier view of Europe was, in my opinion, the month’s most momentous event – the European Space Agency’s landing of a vehicle on a comet. It was an incredible challenge, successfully completed – the chasing of an elusive, small object for ten years and over 300 million miles. It made me feel as a starry-eyed child before something incomprehensible, like when I first visited the Boston Museum of Science, or when I look up at the night sky and see the Big Dipper and marvel at who it was that noted that the North Star never moved, so could be a guide in navigation at sea.

There was, of course, much more during the month – some good, some bad and some just strange. The latter would include the announcement that Charles Manson received a marriage license from the State of California where he is incarcerated. Manson was convicted forty-three years ago for the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and six others. Beards are returning to Brigham Young University, which seems right as Brigham Young is always portrayed as hirsute. The town of Westminster, Massachusetts passed an ordinance banning the sale of tobacco. The decision suggests that it is not just Big Brother who is watching over us, but it is also “Big Mama,” “Big Papa” and “Big Sis.” The ordinance is being challenged, as it should be. After all, Winston Churchill, according to a book by Boris Johnson, smoked an estimated 250,000 Cuban cigars in his lifetime. He died two months past his 90th birthday! That reminds me of one of November’s highlights – last month Riverhead Books published the U.S. edition of Johnson’s The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London and a man many believe will be a future Prime Minister of England. It is a book all should read. It is beautifully written, fact and fun-filled by a man empathetic to Churchill and the challenges he faced. The fact Boris Johnson quotes Wodehouse is an added bonus, in my opinion.

On the macabre side, Boko Haram sent a suicide bomber into a Nigerian School where he killed 48 students. With all the media’s attention now focused on ISIS, it should not be forgotten that, despite the hashtag messages from First Lady Michelle Obama and others about freeing “our girls,” most of the school girls kidnapped seven months ago have not been released. (A few escaped.) By this time they are dead, concubines or are serving as slaves, among the estimated 36 million slaves in the world today. While we get hung up on names, Islamic extremism comes in many forms, all of which represent risks to the civilized world.

Financial markets were dominated by the continuing collapse in crude oil prices. West Texas Intermediate fell 18% during the month. At the month’s meeting of OPEC, the decision was made to keep producing, placing responsibility for the price decline on increased U.S. production. The Russian Ruble hurt both by the decline in crude oil prices and by the Machiavellian machinations of Vladimir Putin, fell 10% versus the U.S. Dollar. U.S. stocks fared well, with the S&P 500 rising 2.5%. In contradiction, given the similarity of their risk profiles to stocks, High Yield bonds continued to decline, with the FINRA-Bloomberg High Yield Index losing 63 basis points. The yield on that Index is now almost 100 basis points above where it was at midyear. The Ten-year Treasury rose in price, with the yield falling from 2.34% to 2.19%. Gold and silver were higher, while the price of copper, an indicator of global economic acitivity, was lower.

While the New York Giant’s record this year is dismal, their rookie wide receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr made what some are calling “the play of the year,” or “the best catch ever.” While heavily covered, he single-handedly caught a touchdown pass, with his upper body almost parallel to the ground – an incredible display of athleticism!

Death took Marion Barry, former long time Mayor of Washington, DC. Mayor Barry, a charismatic leader and a longtime presence in Washington. He was also quite controversial. He served six months in jail for drug possession; yet was reelected for a fourth term in 1994. He once characterized the demon he (like many of us) faced: “There is a constant battle between the Devil, which is flesh, and the spirit, which is God.”  Mike Nichols died at the age of 83. He arrived in the United States at age seven in 1939, chased out of Hitler’s Germany. By 1960 he had teamed up with Elaine May for their eponymous Broadway satirical show. Fifty-two years later he directed Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman.” P.D. James, creator of Adam Dalgliesh and one of England’s great mystery writers, died at age 94.

There were anniversaries of note. Twenty-five years ago, on November 9, the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of the Cold War. One hundred and forty years ago, November 30, Winston Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace to the somewhat nutty Randolph Churchill and his beautiful American wife, Jenny Jerome. Winston Churchill stands alone among the colossi of the 20th Century’s first half.


So endeth the month.