Monday, May 4, 2015

The Month That Was - April 2015

                 Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                             May 4, 2015
                                                                                                             
The Month That Was
April 2015
(A month of Remembrance)

“The first of April is the day we remember
what we are the other 364 days of the year.”
                                                                                                                Mark Twain (1835-1910)

As will be true for the next eighteen months, Presidential campaigns dominated the news. In the week-ago weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, political commentator Michael Barone noted we had better get used to long election cycles. “We ain’t going back.” That won’t change unless both Parties adopt the coronation method used by Democrats this season. Mainstream media will look into every dark recess – going back to pre-natal days – of every Republican candidate’s past. Whatever dirt they discover (and even some that will have been manufactured) will be prominently displayed. Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, talk radio and others will return the favor by revealing secrets of Democrat candidates. Vice sells better than virtue. We will learn more of indiscretions than accomplishments.

This April was no different than most months, in that it was chock full of news, some of it even important: The earthquake in Nepal, and the more than 7,000 who have died. The fact that Yemen, Syria and Libya are becoming failed states. Iran continued to taunt the U.S., despite desperate attempts by the Obama Administration to complete a nuclear agreement. The Taliban gained more ground in Afghanistan. The race riots in Baltimore highlighted Black alienation and concerns about police. The problems in inner-cities, however, are more grounded in dysfunctional families and an education system that has failed their youth. Hillary Clinton announced that she had deliberately destroyed the server on which she had deleted more than 30,000 e-mails. Oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. The NASDAQ, after a lapse of fifteen years, reached new highs. These stories and others represented important news, yet the most widely watched television program in the U.S. was Diane Sawyer’s two hour interview of Bruce Jenner. Transgenders are people too, and we all wonder why a man would prefer to becoming a woman after 65 years of urinating from an erect stance. But this focus on trivialities and personal quirks, at a time when the Middle East is imploding, East Asia at risk of erupting and our schools failing our inner city youth, seems misplaced. It says a lot about the way we live and our sense of priorities. Restoring morality in a pluralistic society will be a Herculean task.

April was a month of remembrances. In April 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States. One hundred and fifty years ago Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox. General Grant, sometimes known as the “Butcher,” was magnanimous in victory, allowing Southern soldiers to keep their swords, weapons, and horses. Five days later, on April 14, Lincoln was shot. One hundred years ago, marked the start of the Armenian Genocide. (During the month, Pope Francis became one of few world leaders to refer to those killings as genocide.) It was also in April 1915 that French, British, Canadian forces began what would become known as the 2nd Battle of Ypres. By its end, there would be 120,000 casualties, many of whom died of chlorine gas. It was also this battle that prompted Lt. Col. John Alexander McCrae, a Canadian, to write “In Flanders Fields,” a poem still read every Remembrance Day.

“…if you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

The amphibious assault on the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli began on April 25, 1915. The campaign lasted eight months. By its end, when the British finally evacuated the peninsula, there were 350,000 casualties, including 110,000 dead. Particularly hard hit were forces from Australia and New Zealand. Blame for the debacle fell on Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The 1981 Australian movie “Gallipoli” starring Mel Gibson etched that tragic and failed assault into the minds of millions.

Seventy years ago, on April 30, Hitler (finally) committed suicide. The full horror of what had happened to Europe’s Jews was revealed in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in April 1945. In the Pacific, the 82-day battle for Okinawa began on the first of April. By its end, 12,500 Americans were dead, along with an estimated 110,000 Japanese. It was on April 30, 1975 that the United States pulled out of Vietnam, leaving Saigon to the Viet Cong Communists. In the aftermath of our ignoble retreat, thousands died, including those who had sided with Saigon’s government. Our hasty (and frankly craven) evacuation added new terms to our lexicon: “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.” In Cambodia more than a third of the 5.7 million in population were killed by the Communist Pol Pot and his black-clad soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. We may debate as to whether we should enter wars, but when we leave precipitously disaster inevitably follows. Consider the experience of Germans, Japanese and South Koreans, in whose countries we still have troops today. Compare them to the people of Vietnam and Iraq, who we had pledged to help but whom we abandoned to an unknown but almost certain horrific fate.

Internationally, besides the terrible news still drifting out of Nepal, Islamic terrorism continued its rampage. In northeastern Kenya, 147 Christian students at Garissa University College were killed by the Somalia-based Islamic militant group, al-Shabaab. ISIS, in a repeat of what they had done earlier to Egyptians, beheaded dozens of Ethiopian Christians working in Libya. More than a thousand Libyans, fleeing a failed state that the U.S. quit, drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Italy. On a lighter note, Mo Hai-long, an official with a Chinese agricultural company, was accused of stealing seeds from Monsanto and DuPont in Iowa, reminding me of Henry Wickham who in 1876 smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds from the rainforests along the Amazon. In Wickham’s case he got away with it or, more precisely, the British government did, as they took those seeds and started rubber plantations in Malaysia.

The race riots in Baltimore, with attacks on police and the burning and looting of neighborhood businesses, brought back memories of Watts and Detroit in the 1960s. The impetus was the death  (and now alleged murder) of young Freddie Gray while in police custody. The rioters, with some professional help, were encouraged when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake inexplicably instructed police: “… make sure that the protestors [are] able to exercise their right to free speech…we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.”  What was she thinking? With Rand Paul and Marco Rubio joining Ted Cruz in the race for the Republican nomination, we now have three junior Senators pitted against a covey of governors and ex-governors. Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on social media and then “vanned” down to Iowa to meet with small, intimate groups of “real” people. Rahm Emanuel won re-election as mayor of Chicago. Loretta Lynch was confirmed as the first African-American woman to serve as Attorney General. General David Petraeus was fined $100,000 and given two years of probation for “pillow talk” with his girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Peter Schweizer had his book Clinton Cash published, which predictably, raised tempers in the Clinton camp.

For the first time in fifteen years, the NASDAQ finally crawled above its March 9th 2000 close; though it finished the month below that record high. The biggest difference between now and then is that today the multiple on the index is about one fifth what it was in 2000. Switzerland became the first government in history to sell benchmark 10-year debt at a negative interest rate. Lucky buyers will have to pay 0.055% for the honor of owning these bonds. Royal Dutch Shell is buying BG Group for $72 billion, excluding debt – the biggest energy deal in a decade. The Euro-Stock Index, up almost 20% year-to-date, had a flat month. But in Asia the Shanghai Index had a strong month – up 18%. U.S. stocks gained nominally. While the U.S. had asked the U.K., Germany and France to not join – at least immediately – China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, President Obama denied that the U.S. had ever opposed the bank. He said he just wanted to make sure it is run “based on best principles.”  Preliminary first quarter U.S. GDP numbers were reported below expectations at 0.2%. This followed March jobs numbers of 126,000, the lowest in two years. The labor force participation rate at 62.7% remains the lowest since the 1970’s. GE went back to its industrial roots, in spinning off GE Capital and its real estate holdings. Comcast called off its proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner.

Baseball season opened in the Bronx, with the Yankees losing 6-1 to the Blue Jays. Duke and Wisconsin made it to the finals in the NCAA. Duke won 68-63. In the women’s NCAA, Connecticut defeated Notre Dame 63-53, giving Coach Geno Auriemma his 10th national title. Jordan Spieth, at age 21, became the second youngest player (behind Tiger Woods) to win the Masters in Augusta. On the last Wednesday in April the Baltimore Orioles played the Chicago White Sox before an eerily empty stadium; the first time ever in major league baseball’s history. Riots two evenings before prompted security concerns. Baltimore won 8-2.

Günter Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1999, author of The Tin Drum and once considered the moral conscience of Germany’s Nazi past, died at age 87. However, his reputation had been tarnished. Nine years ago, as he was preparing a memoir Peeling the Onion, he admitted to having been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. Victor Gotbaum, who in 1975 played a key role in helping to avert a possible municipal bankruptcy in New York, died at age 94. He was a longtime leader of New York’s largest municipal-workers union. And Gary Dahl, inventor of the “pet rock” in 1975 died at age 78. He was a validation of P.T. Barnum’s claim that there is a sucker born every minute, as Dahl made a fortune off a gullible public. While he did place his rocks on excelsior, package them in boxes with “air holes” and provide instructions for care, his cost of goods were no where near the sale price of $3.95. Later products, such as the Original Sand Breeding Kit did not do as well. “Fool me once…!”


So endeth April. Let us hope that last month’s showers in the East extend to the drought-stricken West, and also bring this month’s flowers!

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