Monday, March 30, 2015

"Certainty and Uncertainty - Trust in Government"

                        Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Certainty and Uncertainty – Trust in Government”
March 30, 2015

“In this world, nothing is certain, except death and taxes:” A line usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin and with which it is difficult to argue; though I can state categorically that I am certainly the son of my mother. On the other hand, certainty in opinions is usually associated with a mule-like stubbornness, or unquestioning obeisance – neither a characteristic we would like to think of as being ours – but ones common among the political and pontificating classes, the latter of which I admit to being a member. Curiosity, openness and skepticism are as proper antonyms for certainty as uncertainty.

“We live in uncertain times…” is a quote from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1938 autobiography, The Summing Up, and has become boringly ubiquitous. Mr. Maugham likely got the idea from the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times,” with “interesting times” being a euphemism for war. We certainly live in an interesting time. The world is dangerous, manifestly more so than it was six years ago when our newly elected President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he had done, but for what the committee was certain he would do. That Mr. Obama has made the world more dangerous adds to uncertainty, raises cynicism and is, in part, responsible for the diminishing trust in our leaders and institutions.

It is interesting to observe how the roles played by certainty and uncertainty have swapped over the past several decades. When I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s most people were certain government could be trusted. After the Soviets detonated their first Atomic Bomb, in the summer of 1948, MAD, or mutually assured destruction, became an unwritten policy for peace. The Cold War was called “cold” for a reason: While there was combat in places like Korea and Vietnam, the two super-powers never militarily confronted one another. Despite having to periodically dive under our school desks, people instinctively felt that commonsense would prevail: that neither country, no matter how heated the dialogue, would be the first to launch Atomic weapons. Both nations had a stake in the world as it was. Polls in 1960 showed that 70% of Americans trusted their government; providing a patina of certainty over what was an uncertain world. Today that patina has been stripped bare, with only 20% of the population trusting government, giving rise to uncertainty. A recent Gallup survey noted that dysfunctional government – not jobs or Islamic terrorism – was the nation’s number one problem.

What made us uncertain, in those far-away days, were mundane factors that today we accept as certainties – like not getting a flat tire on a long drive, how to survive a hot summer’s night when there is no breeze, or whether hot water will flow from the bathtub spigot marked ‘H.’ A small, but significant segment of the population could not be assured of shelter or food. Racial segregation made the lives of African-Americans decidedly uncertain.

Technology was critical in removing many of those uncertainties and for that we owe thanks to the creativity and innovation of the human mind. The Supreme Court and landmark Congressional legislation in the 1950s and ‘60s improved lives for African-Americans and women. And governmental entitlements removed other uncertainties; though there has been a price for the latter – an increased sense of dependency for one. Additionally, in assuming that government will protect us from life’s challenges, we have become less committed to our communities, as Robert Putnam showed in his book Bowling Alone. We have become more self-centered (but not more capable), as can be seen in our love affair with “selfies.” We protect our children against failure by rewarding them for participation, not for victories. We shun responsibility. Dependency has replaced self-reliance.

Ironically, governmental intrusion did not lead to more trust in Washington; but it has generated more certainty on the part of its proponents. The “Life of Julia” was created by those who were certain that what they were doing would be good for the people, but the consequence was less trust in the benevolence of government; so the video was pulled. The same was true of that insufferable man-child, “Pajama Boy,” poster boy for the Affordable Care Act. Trust in government declined as its reach became more pervasive. In part, I suspect, that is because the more important government becomes to the economy, the more vulnerable it is to corruption and crony capitalism. The United Nations, according to a recent article in the New Yorker, estimates that corruption adds a ten percent surcharge to the cost of doing business “in many parts of the world.” That is true for the United States; though perhaps at a lower cost – but perhaps not? According to the World Bank, the U.S. ranks 41st in terms of enforcing contracts and 46th in starting a business. Complexity in regulation and the tax code, which lead directly to crony capitalism and corruption, adds to uncertainty and decreases trust.

Education plays a role. In the past few years, with the cost of education rising and job opportunities declining, STEM programs (the study of science, technology, engineering and math) have become the rage. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are united in attempting to get young people trained in some utilitarian field, to provide some certainty in terms of making a living. Practicality, it is assumed, is more critical to one’s financial success than is the study of dead poets or philosophers. There is some measure of truth in what they say, but the study of philosophy, for example, is not designed to make one a philosopher. It is meant to help conceptualize, to compare and to contrast, to think independently. Writing in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Christopher Scalia, a professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, wrote that in terms of unemployment graduates with degrees in the liberal arts were not statistically worse off than those with degrees in mathematics or the sciences. But they have learned something different and important. The professor quoted Thomas Jefferson who understood that a study of the humanities is linked to the vitality of a democratic government and the survival of a free people.

From uncertainty can spring a healthy skepticism, that allows us to question and to grow; or it can generate doubt, which may emasculate experimentation and advancement. Uncertainty that stems from a lack of trust, as regards our government, is damaging, to the nation and to us individually, for it vitiates confidence. We can never banish uncertainty, any more than we can foresee the future. Nor should we want to. While blind certainty in government is the path to despotism, restoring trust in government is a goal worthy of a free people.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"A Melting Pot Becomes Multiculturalism"

                      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Melting Pot Becomes Multiculturalism”
March 23, 2015

E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) is the phrase on the Great Seal of the United States. It was adopted (appropriately), by Congress in 1782 as the fledgling nation’s de facto motto. It held that position until 1956 when Congress enacted a law that designated “In God We Trust” to be the official motto for the U.S.

While we are a God-trusting people, in my opinion E Pluribus Unum more accurately reflects our citizens. We are a nation of immigrants – a pluralistic country – a people that have arrived from all over the world. In 1664, when the British acquired Manhattan from the Dutch, there were 18 languages spoken on the Island. In 1776, when colonists first met in Philadelphia, there were over 40 languages spoken in Pennsylvania. The Founders, all of whom spoke English, avoided any reference to language in the Constitution. It was only in 1906 that English-speaking ability became a requirement for naturalization. (It still is, unless one gets an exemption or waiver.) Nevertheless, immigrants continue to arrive. At the Julian Curtis Magnet School in Greenwich, which four of my grandchildren either attend or have attended, over 50 languages are spoken. More than 200 languages are spoken in New York City today, and half the households in the City speak a language other than English. Collectively we are a polyglot nation.

Yet, despite these ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences the United States became a melting pot. Importantly, it was civil society, not government that made that determination. The term “melting pot” derived from the concept that, as a heterogeneous people, we were to be dumped into a giant crucible, to be stirred and then fused until we reappeared as homogeneous, with a distinctive American character.

Multiculturalism emerged for a number of reasons. There are those who felt we had surrendered too much individuality. Instead of a melting pot, the preferred metaphor became a salad bowl or a mosaic.  In part, this emergence reflects a natural desire for people to hang onto the customs, heritage and language of the country of their birth – a healthy habit, within reason. But it also allows politicians to use identity politics, in which differing sectors – African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Italian-Americans, etc. – become compartmentalized, classifying them as minorities, so eligible for benefits and preferences. Multiculturalism is favored by the sanctimonious who believe in relativism – rather than a universal moral sense – that it is wrong for society to impose on new Americans values that could be alien to those they had known in their home countries. The consequences, intended or otherwise, include a loss of patriotism, a return to a segregated “separate but equal” system, an increase in divisiveness, dependency, and a (generally) growing distrust of government. Not only are we divided by ethnicity, but also by race, religion, age and sexual orientation. We are no longer “unum;” we have become “pluribus.”

What prompted these musings was an article in the March/April edition of “Foreign Affairs,” entitled, “The Failure of Multiculturalism.” While the author Kenan Malik of The International New York Times focused principally on Europe, some of what he wrote had applicability to the United States. “An ideal policy,” Mr. Malik writes, would be to “marry multiculturalism’s embrace of actual diversity, [with] assimilation’s resolve to treat everyone as citizens…” The “guiding assumption throughout Europe” (as it is in the United States), Mr. Malik wrote, is that “immigration and integration must be managed through state policies.” Yet, he noted: “Integration is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form.”

As a nation, diversity has strengthened us. Most of us are ethnically diversified. We have ancestors that go back to multiple countries. Our integration, as Mr. Malik observed, has been a function of civil society, not a consequence of government mandate. We should acknowledge with pride the strength of our common heritage – not only the genetic portion, but the forces of history that have helped mold us all. Our language is English. Not knowing English usually condemns one to destitution. New arrivals need understand we are a nation of laws, based on English law but ones which are dynamic and evolving. Our legal system has served us well for over two hundred years. There are other legal systems, and it is not to say that ours is perfect. But it would be a serious mistake to incorporate Sharia Law into ours. When people come to this country they do so in large part because of our system of justice, not despite it.

It is important that all citizens understand our government: the Constitution, federalism, our system of checks and balances, and the responsibilities of citizenship. They should know the names of our nation’s institutions, the Founders and their roles. I weep when I see interviews with college students who are clueless about civic affairs and know little of our nation’s history. As Americans, that history is all our history, regardless of when we or our ancestors arrived.
Metaphors can be limiting. America is not a crucible that spits out robots, and we wouldn’t want it to be. However, we are a melting pot in the sense that we are a place where a German may marry a Scot, a Muslim a Buddhist, a Vietnamese an Italian, a Jew a Catholic or an African-American a Dane. America is also a mosaic, but one where the emphasis should be on the whole, not the parts. While we should respect our myriad cultures, multiculturalism can be socially disruptive, as can be seen in the ascendancy of radical Islam around the world. At home, multiculturalism can be narcissistic, and it does promote politics of identity, rather than ones of ideas. Our diversities are important, but they should not be used to divide us, as politicians and elitists are wont to do, but should serve to unite.

As one who enjoys history and is interested in genealogy, I believe we should have knowledge of whence we came. Knowing our origins, while speaking and reading the language of our ancestors, allows us to better understand ourselves. Education informs; thus making us more productive citizens. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are, at the same time, Americans, most by birth, but some by choice and others because of their parents. We should all understand that part of being an American means knowing the laws, customs, culture, history and language of our mutual heritage. The Country is not well served by those who are indifferent to its past, or who come with the intent of radically changing what has worked so well for so long. That does not mean that our customs are immutable. They have and they do adapt. While we are a melting pot, we are also a dynamic people. But any change should be thoughtful and glacial.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Obama - An Extremist?"

              Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Obama – An Extremist?”
March 19, 2015

In his 1964 acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…” In that same speech Mr. Goldwater issued a warning more meaningful to today: “Those who seek absolute power [read: extremists], even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth…they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies.” Seven years later Saul Alinsky, the “father of community organizing” and whose work influenced the young community organizer Barack Obama, published “Rules for Radicals.” Its opening sentence: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what is to what they believe it should be.” On October 30, 2008, candidate Barack Obama said: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming America.”

“Radicalism” is defined by Merriam-Webster: “The opinions and behavior of people who favor extreme change, especially in government.” There is no question that what Mr. Alinsky was advocating was extremism. However, during the 2008 campaign only a few “extremists” and “racists” brought attention to the radicals who had influenced Mr. Obama as a young man. Nevertheless, the names and the numbers are legion, and include among others Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, Saul Mendelson, Dr. John Drew and Professor Charles Ogletree.

It could be that Mr. Obama outgrew such youthful indulgences. His attendance, even for twenty years, at Jeremiah Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, does not necessarily mean he believed the hate Mr. Wright preached for America. Nevertheless, the Communist Party campaigned for him in 2004 when he ran for the Senate, and Mr. Obama, in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father,” wrote of the influence of Frank Marshall Davis, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, during the ten years he mentored him.

In his 2012 book, “The World America Made,” Robert Kagan argued that there is nothing about democracy and the liberal international order it has created that ensures it will survive. Other superpowers have risen and fallen, from the Greek, Roman and Chinese empires to those of Spain, France and England. History suggests that the same fate, at some point, faces America; for it is not written that America will persist eternally. But Mr. Kagan warns that America need not and should not decline by committing preemptive superpower suicide. We remain the richest and militarily most powerful nation in the world. To remain so, he writes, is a choice.

What are Mr. Obama’s goals for America? In his claim that he wants to “transform” the Country, did he mean from one whose power and prosperity he feels have destabilized the world? He has reduced military spending. Nations are in constant geopolitical motion. Europe continues in decline. China, Russia and Brazil are in ascendancy. None of them have the means to threaten the United States, but it is certainly possible that liberal democracies are at risk as authoritarian regimes like China and Russia gain power and prestige. The world has benefitted by trade, and, since 90% of world trade moves by sea, one can conclude that the world has been the beneficiary of America’s control of sea lanes. Should China wrest domination of the South China Sea – through which 25% of world trade moves – will the trade routes be as secure for India and Japan?

Domestically, Mr. Obama divided the electorate and scorned the opposition. Racism has worsened. He ignores laws he doesn’t like. Partisanship in Congress serves his purpose, as it makes that body ineffectual. Mr. Obama has extensively used Executive Orders (EOs) and Presidential Memorandums to enact laws. While he boasts that his use of EOs has been less than his predecessors, he never mentions Memorandums, which are virtually identical, but with the benefit of not having to cite the law on which they are based. The overhaul of the immigration system was done through a Memorandum. The EPA has become a semi-autonomous body, enacting and enforcing laws that have, as the New York Times put it last May, “the chance to transform the nation’s energy sector and, at the same time, his Presidency.”

It begs credibility to believe that Mr. Obama does not represent the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party. He is forced by circumstances, at times, to play down the middle, but his heart and his agenda are elsewhere. It is personal power that motivates extremists. It makes no difference from which side of the political aisle they emerge. Keep in mind, there was little difference between Hitler and Stalin. Those on the right wrap themselves in religion and nationalism; those on the left claim to focus on perceived inequalities and the rights of workers. Both sides are interested in dividing the electorate, finding someone or some group to blame for their failures – for example, the one percent or Jews. Extremists on both the left and the right use red herrings to divert attention from their true intentions – personal power.

It is difficult to believe that a Republican with such a litany of extremists in his or her background would have been allowed to be so casually investigated by the media, no matter his or her race or sex. The Left tend to be credulous, especially when it comes to people who fit their preconceptions of what should be. They want symbols. It is the cover, not the book that interests them. It is condescending. The idea of an African-American President was important, less so the ideas he professed. The concept of a woman President is viewed through the same lens. Conservatives have faults, but they have never been so blatantly obvious, at least in this regard. In 1969, Israel elected Golda Meir as Prime Minister, not as a woman, but because she was the person whose ideas best fit the mood of the people at the time. Ten years later, the same was true in England when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. Why can’t Americans look at candidates without regard to race or sex? Criticizing Obama does not make one a racist, anymore than judging Hillary makes one a sexist. Why does the Left find it necessary to bring affirmative action into the electoral process? It is patronizing.

Extremists are most dangerous when they are not seen to be so – when they are not closely scrutinized, and who insidiously and seductively, insert themselves into the mainstream of our political system. I worry that that is what happened with Mr. Obama. Mainstream media, academia, late-night-show hosts, Hollywood and crony capitalists are infatuated with Mr. Obama, with no tolerance for healthy criticism of the man and his ideas. I hope I am wrong. But, as I see it, his wish to “transform” America has incited division, between Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor and Black and White. It has increased entitlements (including ACA), widened inequality and worsened partisanship. Abroad, he has alienated our allies and befriended our enemies. Mr. Obama has elevated dependency and made us less safe. That is his legacy – a consequence of extremism.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"A Way Forward: Restore Confidence"

                       Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Way Forward: Restore Confidence”
March 16, 2015

Barack Obama has declared “inequality to be the defining issue of our time.” I don’t disagree that inequality is an issue – over the past several years low income families have slipped further down the scale, middle income families have lost ground, while those at the top have done very well. But inequality exists in every society; to argue it is “the defining issue” is political hyperbole. Keep in mind, that there is far more equality in democracies than in autocracies, be they right-wing dictatorships or left-wing communist regimes. What determine civil and fair societies are not differences in wealth, but the ability and ease, based on meritocracy, to move up and down the income/wealth scales.

We face, as we all know, a number of issues: Islamic terrorism; the likelihood Iran will get the bomb; the rise of China and Russia; the decline of America’s relative importance; cronyism; the dismal record of too many of our schools; growing dependency; the size and complexity of government; a lack of civility that stems from a culture of narcissism. But the defining issue of our time – if I were to pick one – is a lack of confidence in the future. We are told that we are responsible for what is wrong in the world; we live for the moment, with no knowledge of the past and little regard for the future; that lack of confidence can be seen in the cynicism of people toward government, institutions, businesses, families and their own futures. Its consequences are manifested in low birth rates and delayed marriages, moral relativism, eroding civility, a lack of conviction regarding America’s role in the world and subpar economic growth.

Great leaders exude optimism. They cause people to perform beyond their expectations. These leaders highlight mutuality’s; they don’t accentuate differences. They do not divide people into culprits and victims. They see strength in diversity. They are unabashed that we have the fortune to live in the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

In the United States, the two greatest leaders of the 20th Century were men from opposite ends of the political spectrum – Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. What they had in common was optimism. While I do not believe FDR’s domestic policies helped extract the U.S. from the Great Depression, I do know his fireside chats gave hope to millions. Others will disagree as to the effectiveness of Reagan, but everyone knows that his sunny disposition was a blessing for a country that had been humiliated overseas by the Iranians and, devastated at home by an economy rendered dismal by high inflation and riddled by recessions.

As the most powerful nation on earth, we have a responsibility to ensure peace in the world, but we should do it on our terms. That means we should not subsume our moral convictions. While we should admit mistakes, there is no reason to be ashamed of our successes. No form of government is perfect, but the world is fortunate that it is a democratic America that has risen to the pinnacle. There is no other nation so just or so selfless, and there never has been one. Ask any of the unfortunate souls that lived within the confines of the Soviet sphere for four and a half decades. Over the past 100 years, thousands of young American men and women have given their lives so that millions of people in other lands might live freely. In return, the United States asked for neither economic advantage nor territorial gain. It should fill us with pride, not cause us to cringe in shame. Imagine the world, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, if there were no America! Success breeds enemies, but we should take satisfaction in our heritage, not apologize for our actions.

Nevertheless, we must address our slow economy, with its decades-low labor force participation. Keep in mind that more than a million people get added to the labor force every year. The reasons for the economy’s subpar performance are myriad, but would include an aging population; excessive consumer debt when the financial crisis hit; a decline in productivity as measured by growth in GDP per capita; an increase in government’s share of the economic pie; burdensome rules and regulations, and a tax policy that promotes cronyism, encourages consumption and favors debtors over investors.

Some of the steps that could be taken would be to simplify the individual tax code. Regulation and rules should be made easier to comply with. Congress should lower and simplify (or perhaps eliminate) the corporate tax rate. Cronyism is one of the biggest problems we face. Our complex tax laws are a result of successful lobbying efforts on the part of special interests, generally the biggest and wealthiest companies – those able to hire the best lawyers. While the 35% stated federal corporate tax rate is the highest in the developed world, the effective rate is closer to 15%. Why not bring the rate down to 15% and allow no deductions? If the tax were eliminated the need for K Street lobbyists would shrink. The amount of money in politics has reached absurd levels. Federal laws like McCain-Feingold do not work. Remove the incentives and ensure complete transparency in all political gifts, whether given directly to campaigns or through PACs. The best answer would be to implement a simpler tax code, enact fewer and understandable regulations and impose term limits, thereby reducing the value of Congressmen and women to lobbyists. Return financial power and incentives to individuals and businesses.

“You Can’t Go Home Again” was the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, in which his character George Webber realizes that you cannot go home to the “escapes of Time and Memory.” Nor more can we set the clock back sixty years. Government cannot be the engine it was in the 1950s. We cannot afford it. In that earlier decade and the next, highway construction, mass transit, defense and space were government-sponsored catalysts to growth. Today, when interest expenses are included, two-thirds of the federal budget consists of mandatory items, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc. That leaves only a third for discretionary items: defense, infrastructure, salaries, national parks, education and international affairs. The mandatory component has been rising as a percent; it is unlikely that trend will reverse. Going forward we must accept the situation as it is – an acknowledgement that individuals and private businesses, not government, will have to provide the spark for growth. It may require a willingness to give up some state-sponsored comforts – entitlements – that we have come to expect as our due.

In terms of inequality, we need schools that focus on students, not unions that keep bad teachers in classrooms. In terms of culture, we need a return to civility and the acceptance of a universal moral sense. In terms of leaders, we need men and women who bring optimism to their offices – those who will restore confidence that the future should be embraced, not feared.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Hillary - Coronation, or Capitulation?"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Hillary – Coronation, or Capitulation?”
March 12, 2015

Despite our republican heritage, we Americans have a love affair with royalty. We flock to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. We adored Diana and love the idea of the royal family. We are, perversely, attracted to dynasties. Bushes run wild; Clintons would like to. This love affair with royalty and dynasties knows no Party. Americans quickly accepted “Camelot,” as the proper term to define the thousand days of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency.

But Camelot, like Brigadoon, Shangri-La and El Dorado are mythical places where facts have no place – where there is room only for one’s imagination to determine how a time and a place should be remembered. That sense of escapism suits Bill and Hillary who live in Clinton-land, a place unbounded by rules that apply to the rest of us. They are, in their minds, entitled to be treated differently – to run roughshod over those who disagree with them, to ruthlessly get what they want and then, if laws have been violated, to deny and to obfuscate: “Everybody does it.” “It depends on the definition of is.” “It is not technically illegal.” “What difference, at this time, does it make?” “I fully complied with every rule I was governed by.” The Clintons have found that stonewalling works. People eventually tire of scandals. Most media dresses the Clintons in Hans Christian Anderson’s “Emperor’s new clothes” – nothing to see here! – so abets their cause.

Of the two, Bill is the more exculpatory. He has a roguish charm that beguiles; so is excused for his transgressions – a bad boy, but an endearing one. He is charisma personified. He smiles, looks you in the eye, grips your right hand, while with the other removing whatever he can from your wallet. He is, perhaps, the most magical politician of our age. Most of us, had we done the things he did, would have disappeared into the mists of shame, or would have been ridden out of town on a rail. Nevertheless, he remains, bigger, richer and omnipresent as ever. Over the past few years, business cronies and governments – many so poor that the majority of their people live in deep poverty – have paid over $100 million just to bask in his presence. Unlike Harry Truman, with Mr. Clinton the Office of the President has been for sale, and at a fancy price.

But it is Hillary who concerns us today. Where Bill takes to politics like a billy-goat to nannies, Hillary must be scripted and stage-managed. She is not relaxed; in fact she is not even likeable. She is smart, but awkward in unfamiliar situations and ones she does not control. She is also relentless, merciless and vindictive. A prime example was her throwing to the wolves the innocent, though delusional, Egyptian-born Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who had produced an anti-Islamic video, “The Innocence of Muslims.” She claimed the video caused the attack on Benghazi. She knew differently, but truth did not matter. It did not fit her story line. Columnist Eugene Robinson typifies the Left’s reaction. Recently he wrote that the Benghazi scandal has been gone over with a magnifying glass and that “there is no there there.” What he misses is that the lie has been exposed, and yet there is no sense of shame, no apology. Susan Rice lied when she went on TV, explaining the cause was the video. So did the President. And so did Hillary Clinton. We can ignore the truth, but that says as much about our character as hers.

According to the BBC’s “ethics guide,” lying is “one of the most common wrong acts that we carry out.” They suggest that a lie has three essential features: it communicates some information; the individual intends to deceive or mislead, and they understand that what they are saying is not true. Quintilian, the First Century Roman rhetorician, famously declared that a liar must have a good memory.  In his epic poem “Marmion,” Sir Walter Scott wrote: “O what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” While lying is common (we are all guilty of telling lies), there is such a thing as public trust, and some lies are just ridiculous. Why, for example, did Hillary Clinton claim to have come under fire on a runway in Bosnia? “I remember coming under sniper fire…we ran with our heads down to get into vehicles to get to our base.” She was not alone; others were with her, including the committee that greeted her on the tarmac. She had to have known that the lie would be uncovered.

It is the regular practice of deception, of operating in the grey zone over several decades that is most worrisome about the Clintons, especially as they function in what we once quaintly called ‘public service’: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, the Rose law firm billing records, the suicide of Vince Foster, commodity trading, a “vast, right-wing conspiracy,” Benghazi, the acceptance of funds from foreign governments by the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State, and the questionable use of a private e-mail account with its own server while serving as Secretary of State. These activities speak to her character, and not in a flattering way. In 1994, David Wells wrote a book, “No Place for Truth.” In it he wrote a sentence that is more relevant today than when it was written twenty years ago: “In our postmodern culture which is TV dominated, image sensitive and morally vacuous, personality is everything and character is increasingly irrelevant.” Yet character is what differentiates good people from bad, the virtuous from the immoral, those we can trust from those we cannot. J.P. Morgan once said he first looks to a man’s character.

Hillary’s press conference on Tuesday, following her speech at the UN on gender equality, was classic Clinton-speak. She listed four things she wanted the public to know – all self-serving: that she opted for a private e-mail for “convenience;” that the “vast majority of her e-mails went to State Department employees; that she had responded with 55,000 pages of e-mails, after “we” went through an exhaustive survey, and that she had taken the “unprecedented” step of asking the State Department to make public those e-mails. What came out in the questioning was that the server will “remain private,” so will not be available to any third party investigator, and that she had deleted the 32,000 e-mails “she” deemed private.

It has long been my opinion that Hillary will not run. There is no question that she would like to be President (and surely feels it is her due). However, the prospect of running and losing would be more devastating to her ego than not running at all. Her ambition and sense of self are far greater than we can imagine. She once lost to a man for whom she appears to have only minimal respect and the idea of losing to some thick-headed, insensitive, rube-like Republican would be more than she could bear. At the end of 2012 Ms. Clinton suffered a stomach virus. She fell, hit her head, suffered a concussion and subsequently developed a blood clot on her brain. While all the facts about her fall were never released, it conveniently delayed her appearance before the House committee investigating Benghazi. Expect something similar.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Decline of the Family and Its Consequences - Sydney M. Williams

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Decline of the Family and Its Consequences”
March 9, 2015

There is a tendency in Washington to miss the forest for the trees; the result often being different from what was intended. An example was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which, in the words of Thurgood Marshall, stated that the Constitution should be “colorblind.” Brown overturned Plessy v. Fergusons (1896) “separate but equal” doctrine. While that was the right decision, an unintended consequence was that Brown led to affirmative action. The “colorblind” nature of the law was considered by some as too constraining on minorities. Today some conservative African-Americans, like Jason Riley, Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, claim affirmative action has done more harm than good. Others see it as a new form of discrimination.

Changing mores have likewise affected attitudes toward the family. Cultural changes and laws now ensure that women have control over their own bodies and most states allow gays to marry. Both movements have merit, and I support them. But a consequence has been a decline in the nuclear family. There has been an increase in cohabitation, one-parent households and the number of children born out of wedlock. Data from the Census Bureau confirms those trends and shows that poverty is most common in single-parent families. Forty-five percent of children living with a single mother live below the poverty line, as do twenty-one percent of children living with a single father. In contrast, only thirteen percent of children living with both parents do so. Are correlation and causation the same? Empirical studies suggest that they are.

Retreat from marriage is a fact. In 1980, 78% of households with children were married couples. In 2012, that number was 66%. Of children living with only a mother in 2013, 48% had a mother who had never been married. A 2014 study by W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and Robert I. Lerman of the Urban Institute documents the links between family structure and financial well-being. Wilcox and Lerman assigned an “intact-family premium” to those who were raised by their own biological or adoptive parents. Among all married adults who were themselves raised in two-parent homes, the annual average “family premium” was $42,000 compared to their counterparts who were raised in single-parent families. Statistics regarding the deteriorating concept of the family are startling; we know that single-motherhood is a fast road to poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percent of people in poverty – six years after the recession ended – is higher than it has been at any point since the early 1990s. And the Census Bureau’s numbers show that female households, with no husband present, have almost six times the poverty rate as do traditional households with a married couple.

There are many reasons for the decline in traditional marriages, and government is not blameless; in fact it has been complicit. A culture of dependency fostered by government has meant that many aspects of life have increasingly become the responsibility of the state rather than of families. Most of us have no desire to return to a time when the burden for the care of the sick and elderly fell solely on the family. But there is, at some level, a tipping point where dependency becomes a debilitating hindrance. As women entered the workforce in the 1960s, the demand for daycare increased. Medicare and Medicaid have become ubiquitous. We cannot imagine life without them. But dependency on government is a slippery slope. When we assign a particular function to the state, we lose some measure of independence. And government being government, bureaucracies get built. The right of Pre-K education has become a political issue, as we saw in the 2013 mayoral election in New York City. Where does it end? During the 2012 Presidential campaign, the Obama team produced a video, “The life of Julia,” which showed the cradle-to-grave experience of a woman – a frightening, dystopian world, in my opinion.

But the decline in traditional families has not been the fault of government alone. Young people need heroes and heroines – people to look up to and whose behavior to emulate. There was a time when these exemplars came from history, literature, or from the field of sports. Most, then, emphasized virtue and helping others, along with the need to study, work hard and play fairly. But consider our culture today – movies, video games and rap music that celebrate drugs and binge drinking. Many, if not most, extol licentious behavior and encourage violence. They belittle tradition. Hubris and narcissism define our age. We live in a time of “me,” exemplified by social media, You-tube videos, Selfies and “beta” marriages.

In an article a few years ago, Paul Vitz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at New York University, wrote about the decline of families. Some of his findings were sobering when we consider the correlation between marriage and poverty. His studies showed that children of divorced and single parents are less likely to get married, and if married, more likely to divorce than those from two-parent households. He noted that (not surprisingly) cohabiting couples are less committed to marriage. He also found that cohabiting women are five times as likely to suffer ‘severe violence’ as married women and are more likely to have extra-marital affairs.

There will always be examples of incompatibility and divorce must remain a viable option. Marriage is not a magic elixir that will cure poverty. It requires sacrifice, as well as producing joy. Regardless of the ubiquity of birth control methods, unwanted pregnancies will persist. We will never live in a world devoid of single parents, and society must be accepting of changing attitudes toward gay marriage. In most families, a stay-at-home parent is not financially feasible, despite its obvious attractions. But we would be profoundly remiss if we ignored the lesson in the fact that odds favor the child brought up in a traditional, two-parent household.

What can we do? While we should not stigmatize unmarried mothers or gay couples, we should extol the good that a traditional family brings to children and to society. I am reminded of my second-grade teacher who instructed us in brushing our teeth. She emphasized the backs of our teeth, cleaning the gums and brushing the difficult-to-get-at teeth, like molars and premolars. Finally I raised my hand: what about the front teeth? Sometimes the obvious deserves attention. We seek equitable treatment for single mothers (which is only fair), but our tax laws penalize marriage and parenting. They should be changed. We (rightly) condemn discrimination against gays, yet we stand idly by as the nuclear family retreats. As politicians have sliced and diced the electorate into smaller and more manageable pieces, they have ignored the traditional family. Inequality is indeed an issue, but it is a symptom. One of its causes – the decline of the family – is what needs to be examined. President Obama is an example. He shows support for myriad fringe voting blocs, but speaks little about the life he lives – as a father, with a wife and two daughters – a life we should all admire. He just doesn’t talk it up the way he should. There is no easy panacea, but these are some of things we can do.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Benjamin Netanyahu - The Speech"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Benjamin Netanyahu – The Speech”
March 5, 2015

Political speech is about leadership, which looks to the future. It is about conquering hearts and minds. Great political leaders must have the vision to look through the detritus of the present to a preferred path to the future. They must have the knowledge to inform, the eloquence to energize and the ability to persuade their audience. Such individuals and their speeches are rare. We think of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in 430BC and Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, or Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 and the power of his Second Inaugural in 1865. We remember Churchill in June 1940, when England stood alone in the hours at a time Europe had gone dark. And we should also recall the less-well-known speech that same month when Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Zionist activist and soldier, spoke to an overflow crowd at New York’s Manhattan Center of the need to raise a Jewish army to combat the “giant rattlesnake” that was Nazism.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech may not have risen to those lofty levels, but it was a good one. Mr. Obama’s hissy-fit raised its notoriety. It was gracious, and powerful in the clarity of its admonitory message. He presented his vision in vivid and frightening detail, as he should. He began by thanking America for backing Israel, and especially America’s Presidents, “from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.” He thanked Congress for the “Iron Dome,” which protected millions of Israelis from thousands of Hamas rockets last summer.

But his purpose was to speak against the deal being negotiated by President Obama, which would peremptorily lift existing sanctions against Iran on the expectation they would join the “community of nations;” so voluntarily give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mr. Netanyahu talked of the long history of the Jews and Iran. He spoke of the Persian viceroy Haman who, 2,500 years ago, plotted to destroy the Jewish people only to be thwarted by a “courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther.” He observed that the militant Islamic regime has been in power since 1979, and that the threat they pose Israel and the world is potentially apocalyptic. He fears that the treaty being drafted “that’s supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation would instead spark a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet.” He spoke of how Iran and ISIS are “competing for the crown of militant Islam…Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the entire world.” He went on: “In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel.” He pointed out that Iran increasingly dominates Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. “The enemy of my enemy,” in this instance, “is my enemy.”

With the exception of some obvious and expected rudeness – Nancy Pelosi was seen turning her back, at least once during a standing ovation, and later claimed the speech “brought tears to her eyes,” as “he insulted the intelligence of Americans” – Mr. Netanyahu was well received. His forty minute speech was interrupted forty times by applause. Reaction was as expected. It was praised by most Republicans and by several Democrats, like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. It was dismissed by Iran. Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar said: “I don’t think it carried much weight. They’re trying to derail the deal.” It is true that Mr. Netanyahu is trying to derail what he sees as a “bad deal” – a bad deal for Israel and the West, though not for Iran. The speech was termed ‘lecturing’ by some and ‘condescending’ by others – though the accusatory tone of the latter was itself condescending.

President Obama was not particularly charitable in his criticism. He said there was nothing new and it offered no alternatives. (He did not listen to it, having hastily arranged a teleconference with European leaders regarding Ukraine, but he claimed to have read it.) Keep in mind, Mr. Netanyahu, who had been warned against releasing any details regarding the negotiations, specifically mentioned that all facts he used could be found on Google. Mr. Obama’s dismissal of the speech as offering no alternatives, suggests he did not peruse it; he must have skimmed it. (His criticisms appeared to mimic Tweets from David Axelrod.) Mr. Netanyahu said that sanctions should be extended and intensified – that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program should not be lifted “as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and the world.”  He said that before lifting the restrictions the world should demand Iran do three things: stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; stop supporting terrorism around the world, and stop threatening to annihilate Israel. He added: “If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires.” Toward the end, he added, “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

While there may have been no new information in the speech, the dire situation faced by Israel and the world was placed in a context that was new, at least to most Americans. Mr. Netanyahu noted that sanctions are having an impact – that the deal is more important to Iran than to the West. He noted that Iran is in a position of weakness. The price of crude oil, for example, is half what it was a year ago. He pointed out the two major concessions the deal creates: first, the vast nuclear infrastructure Iran possesses would largely remain in place, so that the “break-out time” to create a bomb would be a matter of months. The second concession is that all restrictions imposed on Iran would expire in ten years. Mr. Netanyahu said that no deal should have a sunset provision, noting that a decade may be a long time for a politician, “but it’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation.”

Mr. Netanyahu came to a country weary and skeptical of war, and one already in partisan divide, but made worse by Mr. Obama’s treaty proposal with Iran, a treaty negotiated in secret and that would be signed without consent by the Senate. The Obama Administration did its best to belittle the Prime Minister. His minions tossed out disingenuous scree, such as claiming the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner was “a breach of protocol,” or that the speech would “create a rift between Israel and the United States” – that it would be destructive They feared Mr. Netanyahu would first inform and then sway public opinion to the risks of negotiating a bad deal.

To the extent the speech changes the dynamics of the negotiations with Iran, which I suspect it will, it will rank among the best. The threat Iran poses is a threat against the culture of liberty. Democracy is a high-maintenance form of government. “Some of our rights may be inalienable,” wrote Roger Kimball publisher of the New Criterion recently; “none is without a price.” Shortly after 9/11, Benjamin Netanyahu observed that the attack was a salvo in “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” We ignore a nuclear armed militant-Islamist regime in Iran at our peril. We have now been duly warned, thanks to Mr. Netanyahu. Let us pray his words are heeded.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"The Month That Was - February 2015"

                    Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                March 2, 2015
The Month That Was
February 2015

“February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.”
                                                                                                                                                Dr. J. R. Stockton

For those of us in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states, February seemed longer than twenty-eight days. March, which in three weeks will welcome spring, arrived just in time. Temperatures in the single digits, with piles of snow that while beautiful appear will never melt, defined our days and nights. The wind whistling across the river left drifts as high as the stockade fence that separates us from our neighbor.

But the world does not center on Old Lyme. It was – dare I call them what they are? – Islamic terrorists that dominated the news this month. Boko Haram, which persists in abducting and killing, has found a use for the school girls taken last spring – remember those ridiculous hashtags “Bring back our girls?” In northeastern Nigeria, several girls as young as ten were fitted out with explosive vests and made to walk into crowded markets. The vests were detonated, disintegrating the child and killing many others. A Jordanian pilot, captured last December by ISIS in Syria, was caged, doused with gasoline and then burned alive. Two people in Copenhagen were killed by an Islamic “lone wolf,” one at a “free-speech” symposium and the second outside a synagogue. The killer was shot. Knife-wielding, 6’5” ISIS Insurgents in Libya marched twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians along a beach preliminary to sawing off their heads. The victims were killed solely for their religion. Toward the end of the month, ISIS kidnapped 70 Assyrian Christians, including women and children. Their fate is unknown, but the likelihood is that they are already dead, either burned or crucified. The month ended with some good news as well as bad. Three Central Asians (residents of the U.S.) living in Brooklyn were arrested for conspiring to join ISIS, the purpose being to carry out terrorist plots against the U.S. And Austria passed a law which would ban the use of foreign funds for financing mosques, Imam’s and Muslim organizations. The law would also require that Muslims living in Austria submit to Austrian law, not Sharia law. That law should become the standard for the West. On the other hand, al Shabaab threatened to blow up the Mall of America outside Minneapolis.

The refusal to call these killers Islamists reached a level of ridiculousness when Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, stated that “violent extremists” operating in Syria and Iraq wanted to build an Islamic state; but, loyal to his President, he would not place the adjective Islamic before the noun terrorists. People can be smart without having good judgment. Mr. Obama may be smart, but he displays little wisdom and he exercises poor judgment. If his disastrous policies persist, he will leave his successor a mess that will take years to repair.

Elsewhere overseas, the alleged peace treaty in Ukraine was almost immediately violated. The outcome was not surprising, as Vladimir Putin is seemingly operating without any opposition from the West – fear of Mr. Putin seemingly exceeds European leaders’ confidence in Mr. Obama. (At home, Mr. Putin has a more direct way of dealing with adversaries, as Boris Nemtsov discovered.) Mr. Obama’s desired treaty with Iran, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s disagreement with it, is the real issue behind the rhetoric about Mr. Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress this week. The presidential election in war-torn Nigeria, which pits the current President Goodluck Jonathon against the former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, was delayed for six weeks. Markets responded positively when Greece’s international bailout was temporarily extended. The key words were “temporarily extended.” “Having your cake and eating it too” is a proverb not limited to the English. Satellite images obtained by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, show the size and scope of China’s building and land reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands, a contested area of the South China Sea. Buildings and airstrips can be clearly seen. Estimates are that the facilities on Fiery Cross Reef alone could become a military base twice as large as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean where the U.S. Navy operates a Naval Support Facility. The world remains a “hairy” place.

As Islamic terrorists where busy burning some captors alive and decapitating others and while young girls were blowing themselves to kingdom come, President Obama hosted a three-day White House seminar: “Combating Violent Extremism.” He would like, he claims, a holistic approach that attempts to understand the psychology that causes young people to become terrorists – a lack of job opportunities perhaps? Earlier he had equated Islamic terrorism with the Crusades and the Inquisition. He blamed Christianity for slavery and Jim Crow laws. However, Christians, for the most part, admit that harm has been done in the name of Christ. But the Crusades were a defensive (and ineffectual) war, an attempt to wrest back land that had been taken over by Muslims. Inquisitions, which were a terrible violation of human rights and lasted a long time, did not result in that many deaths. And it was Christianity, not Islam, which undid slavery. In fact, estimates are that there are about 30 million slaves in the world today, many of whom live in Muslim nations.

At home, President Obama, as promised, vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline. The FCC adopted utility-style rules to ensure “net neutrality” – the classification of broadband internet access as a telecommunication service, giving the FCC the same regulatory authority they now hold over telephone calls. The FCC said they needed the authority because they claimed that most American households have only one choice, which is most often a cable company. Yet, according to Akamai Technologies and the FCC, 74% of U.S. households have at least two providers with speeds of at least 10 or more megabits per second. As Republican candidates vie for the Presidential nomination (Democrats are preparing for a coronation), the Leftist media, in their role as publicists for the Democrat Party, focused on “gotcha” moments – attempts to embarrass Republican candidates, especially when they show signs of strength. Scott Walker, who has done well in recent polls, has been exhibit A.

The Clinton Foundation, with its acceptance of donations from foreign governments, has raised eyebrows. Most damaging have been reports that the Foundation accepted funds from governments that had been recipients of American aid while Mrs. Clinton was Secretary of State – Algeria and the Dominican Republic. While the funds were surely segregated, the transactions smack of U.S. taxpayers funding a private Foundation run by a former President and a potential future President. Janet Yellen received a grilling from some Republican members of Congress, particularly in regard to a speech on inequality Ms. Yellen had made a few weeks before last November’s election – a subject not to the liking of Republican House members Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.

Stocks had a good month. The Dow Jones Industrial Averages made a new high on February 25th, closing at 18,224.57 – up 5.6% for the month. The NASDAQ, up 7.1% for the month, is now within 1.2% of its all-time closing high, made on March 10th, 2000. Fourth quarter earnings have generally bettered expectations. Volatility declined, with the VIX falling 36% during the month. However, volume remained muted, in fact declining during the month. Markets overseas were generally higher. Concerns regarding Greece’s debt eased and oil stabilized. After seven consecutive months of declines, the price of oil firmed and was actually up nominally in February. Gold, which rose in January, declined for the month, as investors switched to a risk-off mode. That willingness to assume more risk could be seen in the Ten-year Treasury, which saw the yield rise 20%, from 1.68% to 2.02%. The Dollar rose modestly. Nevertheless, fourth quarter GDP was revised down to a 2.2% annual rate from 2.6%, and the New York Times reported that the Chicago Business Barometer fell to its lowest point since January 2009.

Government creep is a given. Consider the consequences of the Affordable Care Act where annual health insurance premiums have risen 22.5% since 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, with deductibles up 32.7%. Or look at free checking at banks since Dodd-Frank. In 2009, 76% of banks offered free checking; today 38% do. Now Mr. Obama wants to look into 401Ks, a $4.2 trillion market. Are his (and Elizabeth Warren’s) intentions honorable, or do they want to insert government into this critical, generally well-run, low-cost industry?

John Whitehead, former head of Goldman Sachs, died during the month. He represented, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “the best of Wall Street and of America’s post-World War II generation.” Also dying during the month was Alex Vraciu who, as a pilot in the Pacific during the Second World War and according to his obituary in the New York Times, shot down six dive bombers in eight minutes! Jerry Tarkanian died. He had spent as much time battling the NCAA as his opponents on the court. He never had a losing season as a coach, and he eventually won $2.5 million from the NCAA for “harassment.” Prolific author Colleen McCullough, most famous for The Thorn Birds, died at age 78. Sadly, former Knick, Anthony Mason died at age 48 of congestive heart failure.

The month was not without its odd moments. A Dutch non-profit Mars One, which hopes to colonize Mars beginning in 2025, said it had received more than 202,000 applications for the 100 spots on what they hope to be the 21st Century’s version of the Mayflower, whose passengers, interestingly, had spent time in Holland. These are to be one-way tickets to the red planet. While I have no interest in this venture, which seems based more on dreams than reality, there are those I would like to see go.

There is a natural bias toward bad news. Good news doesn’t sell as well. For example, Jon Stewart’s voluntarily leaving the Daily Show at the top of his game generated no where near the press as Brian Williams received after being forced out of NBC News for being a Pinocchio. It is perhaps not the mark of a gentleman, but I did get a certain amount of joy from seeing that Leftist, sanctimonious, over-paid narcissist being chased out of his news seat.  It is amusing to watch the Left now try to coat Bill O’Reilly with the same brush that tarnished Mr. Williams. Of course, Rudy Giuliani’s gaffe that Mr. Obama may not love his country, whether true or not, hurt the former Mayor more than the current President.

The month ended in New York cold, but at least it was not snowing.