Monday, September 28, 2015

"Pope Francis Visits the U.S."

                   Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Pope Francis Visits the U.S.
September 28, 2015

Francis is perhaps the best loved Pope since John 23rd. John was Pope during my generation’s coming of age – 1958-1963. His predecessor, Pius XII, had been seen by many as stern and too accommodative to the Nazis during their occupation of Rome during World War II. John, in contrast, smiled; he was charismatic and he moved the Church into the present.

What sets Pope Francis apart, besides his beatific countenance, are his simplicity and his love for the poor. In stooping to kiss the wheelchair-bound young girl at St. Patrick’s in New York and the boy with cerebral palsy in Philadelphia, he showed his love for the less fortunate.

In his talk before a joint session of Congress, like the true Jesuit he is, Pope Francis threaded the needle of political partisanship with ease, parceling out comfort and chastisement in roughly equal doses to both sides of the aisle. To the Right, he spoke of the sanctity of life – from its inception. To the Left he talked of climate change and income inequality. (As to the latter, I wonder if Pope Francis, in his youth, had read A Gentleman of Leisure, a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, written in 1910. Wodehouse has Jimmy Pitt say: “Besides, a burglar is only a [practicing] socialist. Philosophers [politicians] talk a lot about the redistribution of wealth. The burglar goes out and does it.”)

In that talk, Francis highlighted four Americans, two of the iconic variety and two lesser knowns, with more questionable curricula vitae. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King are recognized as major forces in American history, with universal appeal. However, in mentioning Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert, and Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, the Pope retreated, in my opinion, to ideology. Dorothy Day, along with Peter Maurin, was a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She fought for labor, at a time they needed support, and she believed in social justice. But she was also an anarchist, pacifist and redistributionist. In the 1950s, in decidedly less than pacifist prose, she wrote about the need to overthrow “…this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system…” She was a supporter of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. Typical of many on the Left, she was enamored with what ruthless men said, rather than considering what they did. Despite one of two Cistercian Orders having fallen victim to Chinese Communists, Merton flirted with Communism, as a member of the Young Communist League.  In elevating Ms. Day and Father Merton to the same podium as Lincoln and King, the Pope failed to heed Mark Twain’s admonition: “Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly so often.”

At the United Nations, the next day, Pope Francis spoke of the need to maintain a dialogue among nations; that its purpose is to serve the common good; and that it must do this while adhering to the rule of law – with its limitation on power. He avoided the troubling truth that many of the UN members are states without human rights – intolerant states that treat women as chattel, with a few committing Christian genocide. Instead, he highlighted man’s responsibility for the environment in which he lives – that a “true right of the environment” does exist. He pointed out that man “can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable.” He omitted any mention of natural evolutionary changes. He added: “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.” He blamed the industrialized West. He assumed that the misuse and destruction of the environment are “also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion” – that it is the “thirst for power and material prosperity [that] leads to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” It is curious that Pope Francis would not acknowledge the role nature has played in climate change over millions of years – the relevance, for example, of the Milankovitch cycle, a theory that states climate change is due, in part, to the earth’s elliptical orbit, the tilt of the planet’s axis and its changing direction. Man has certainly influenced climate, but the flood that made Noah famous was not a consequence of coal from West Virginia. Perspective and science should be permitted into the realm of environmental ideology. The Pope played to the political elite.

Leaving the UN, Francis traveled to Our Lady Queen of Angels in Harlem, a Catholic school that serves 295 mostly Black and Latino students. Before the assembled members of the UN, the Pope was serious, but in front of the children in Harlem he was joyous; he was in his element. That visit, if the expression on his face revealed his inner soul, may have been the highlight of his trip. The school visit was followed by a tour through Central Park and then the celebration of a mass at Madison Square Garden.

On Saturday, the Pope flew to Philadelphia where he spoke at Independence Hall. He spoke of the religious tolerance that place represented. He talked of the value that immigrants have brought to America and the importance of their cultural traditions. At the Vatican-arranged World Meeting of Families Festival, he emphasized the crucial role played by families. Off-script, he added: “The family is like a factory of hope, a factory of Resurrection.”

Like all of us, the Pope is a product of his environment, in his case Argentina and the political and economic upheaval that encompassed that country from his birth to the present. Six years before he was born, seven decades of civilian, constitutional government came to an end when a military junta took over in 1930. This was early in the Great Depression that gripped the world. Argentina has what is known in economics as “comparative advantage.” Their soil and weather favor agriculture. The country is rich in natural resources. By 1913, Argentina was the world’s 10th wealthiest nation, when measured by per capita income. Thirty years later, when Juan Peron seized power, the rule of law was abandoned and property rights curtailed. The wealth of the country fell into the hands of special interests. Corporate/government cronyism has prevailed since. This was the capitalism Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew as a young priest.

We can only hope that the Francis’ visit to the U.S has allowed him to see the fruits that a democratic, free-market capitalist society offers, especially to the poor and underserved. Perhaps he is fearful of corporate special interests gaining too much power? That is obviously a risk. But what if a subtler, more insidious risk comes from within – from a bloated government already restrained because of debt and unfunded obligations, and via a President who does not feel constrained by the law he has sworn to uphold?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Should STEM Be Our First Priority?"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Should STEM Be Our First Priority?”
September 24, 2015

The short answer is ‘no.’ At least, that is my opinion. We all agree that STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are vital to the world we live in. But today’s emphasis on those four disciplines presumes knowledge about the future that is impossible to know. New industries will start up in the next fifteen to twenty years. Students who have specialized in STEM subjects may have an advantage today, but who among us knows what jobs will be in demand ten or twenty years from now? Some businesses will produce products and provide services we cannot envision today. Twenty-five years ago, did most educators anticipate the revolution in marketing that was a consequence of the internet? Was it more important that Jeff Bezos understood differential calculus, or was his success a product of being able to conceive of and conceptualize a form of selling to consumers that had never before existed?

The purpose of education, beginning with the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (what my parent’s generation knew as the three ‘R’s), is to stimulate the mind – to encourage the quest for knowledge, to learn to challenge and question, to appreciate the joy of learning. A liberal arts college is not a trade school. It is an incubator for ideas. College should provide a forum that allows students to ingest and process myriad ideas. There are guidelines for graduating seniors, but there are no roadmaps, as each life lived is different and job opportunities tomorrow may be in areas we cannot conceive of today. A good education should help young people learn to maximize their strengths and to understand and compensate for their weaknesses. It should help enable them to adapt to a changing environment. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the average person will have about ten jobs during their working life.

The focus on STEM courses has come to the fore because of the political concern over rising income inequalities and because we know that jobs have gone begging for lack of qualified applicants. The emphasis is understandable. But, besides presuming to know an unknowable future, it presupposes an equality in students that does not exist. Ability, aspiration and dedication are qualities that differ among all of us. While the work done by Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry in the late 1970s on Left Brain-Right Brain theory has been largely dismissed, there is no question that people vary in their abilities in regard to logic, numbers and rational reasoning. Schools and colleges (and students, of course) need to focus on each individual’s talents. The opportunity to study STEM courses should be available to all, but so should the opportunity to study English and Philosophy.

While I don’t believe a college education is necessary for all, research suggests that it can increase social mobility. A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco showed that children who are born into the poorest fifth of income distribution are six times as likely to reach the top fifth if they graduate from college. I also believe that learning and knowledge leads to greater happiness, an often overlooked but important advantage of education.

However, the assumption that universal college education will magically reverse income distribution is a myth told by politicians who live in a world of sound bites. There is a pyramid shape to all of our lives. Every business has one chief executive. Our country has one President and each state has one Governor. There is a hierarchy in our schools and colleges, just as there is in the military. It is true in all human endeavors, just as it is in the animal kingdom. Who has not heard of alpha dogs or queen bees? Who has not witnessed the lead duck in a V-formation as they migrate south or north? There will always be a few leaders and many followers.

We hear calls for more equality in terms of outcomes. But that is a siren call of populism, rather than a realistic policy recommendation. Are income and wealth spreads too big? Who’s to say? The gaps may be wider than forty years ago, but history shows the spreads are nowhere near as wide as they were 100, 300 or 500 years ago. History also shows the gap is far wider in Communist and totalitarian regimes than in democracies. We cannot all be rich, and we will not all be poor. I never ran a company, but, as grandparents, my wife and I now sit atop the apex of our family pyramid – a position we achieved, not because of “fairness,” but because of mutual love and longevity. And, yes, it was something to which we aspired.

The more important area of focus should be ensuring that colleges remain classically liberal. Ironically, the biggest threat comes from those institutions that consider themselves most liberal, an example being the University of California. According to Heather MacDonald, in the magazine City, the regents of the UC are devising “principles against intolerance,” to protect the University’s core principles of “respect, inclusion and academic freedom.” Those principles would seem to be ones with which all reasonable people would agree. But, as Ms. MacDonald wrote, “Any university run as a meritocracy will be naturally inclusive of anyone who brings intellectual talent and rigor to the institution.” “Respect,” as she noted, “is ordinarily earned by intellectually solid research.” Any university that bars from speaking those of differing ideas is, definitionally, intolerant. In fact, what the University is doing is erecting roadblocks that would inhibit speech and behavior when they are deemed antithetical to the beliefs of the institutions’ administrators and professors. For example, using the term “America is a land of opportunity” is considered a racial microaggression, as it is seen as an attack on certain “victim” groups.

“Trigger warnings” have become a favorite of the Left. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell wrote an op-ed, “Why I Use Trigger Warnings.” She wrote: “The idea [for trigger warnings] was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma, like military combat, child abuse, incest or sexual violence. People, then could choose whether or not to engage with this material.” The problem is that in living our lives we do not always have that choice. We must be able to confront the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. The horrors of the Holocaust leap from the pages of Babi Yar. It may offend, but in its words are universal lessons. Huckleberry Finn may have language that some find offensive, but in ignoring it students are deprived of a moral story told with action and humor – a slice of life in mid 19th Century America. Are we better off to be comforted, but ignorant?

The first priority of education should be to ensure graduates have the ability to think independently and to reason out problems. History and literature are the best manuals in understanding human behavior. Education should prepare youth for a future unknown.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Politicalization of the Fed"

                      Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Politicalization of the Fed”
September 21, 2015

“Permit me to issue a nation’s money and I care not who writes the laws,” so, allegedly, once said Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). Last week, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen took advantage of falling commodity prices, turmoil in markets, an anemic recovery in the U.S. and weakening economies overseas – especially China – to leave the rate on Fed Funds at the zero to twenty-five basis points where it has been since December 17, 2008. She also cited a lack of inflation and concern that a stronger dollar would further inhibit economic recovery at home.

What she did not mention was the effect of higher interest rates on debt owed by the federal government and, thus, its fattening impact on the deficit. Federal debt is about $18.2 trillion. That number excludes debt owed by state and local governments, as well as funds owed by agencies. And, of course, it does not include future obligations of social welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Deficits in fiscal 2015 will add about $400 billion to existing debt. A one percent increase in interest rates would up the deficit by about 40 percent. Should rates revert to normal levels, the deficit would rise to a trillion dollars. Ms. Yellen is surely mindful of the salutary effect low interest rates have had on annual federal deficits.

Connecticut, where I live and which is one of the most profligate of the fifty states, announced last week that $103 million would have to be cut from next year’s budget. The headline in my local paper: “Malloy Plans Steep Cuts.” Those affected cried foul, even though the cuts amount to one half of one percent of the $20 billion state budget. It would be as though the average Connecticut family, with a house-hold income of $60,000, were told to pare expenses by $300. The explanation for the cuts could have come from the theater of the absurd. Mr. Malloy claimed that stock market losses will cut into anticipated corporate and state income taxes received. (The State had budgeted for a 7.1% increase in income taxes, an unrealistic expectation given that individuals and businesses are deserting the state. His budget still assumes a 4.4% increase in those taxes, which will prove too ambitious.) Low interest rates, without the ability to print money, are not a panacea to the financially promiscuous. They mask the problem.  

A little bit of inflation the Fed finds desirable. Am I too much of a cynic if I suggest it is because it allows them to pay back today’s loans with tomorrow’s less-worthy dollars? Since the Great Depression, politicians have warned of the devastating effects of deflation – an excuse the Fed uses to justify keeping rates low. Deflation, we have been conditioned to believe, leads to Hoovervilles, men selling apples and brokers taking swan dives out of windows on the corner of Broad and Wall.  Deflation is bad when incomes fall faster than prices of goods and services. Yet, as James Grant reminded us in his most recent Interest Rate Observer that is not always the case: “In England, between 1800 and 1913, real GDP more than quintupled even as consumer prices dwindled; the basket of merchandise that cost £2.25 in 1800 cost £1.60 in 1913. Keep in mind, that period included the Napoleonic Wars, a time that saw British debt soar to 250% of GDP.” More pertinently, those years included the Industrial Revolution, which brought disruptive change to millions, costing jobs and driving families off farms and into cities. Yet, employment grew, as did standards of living. Today, technology is changing our lives in similar ways, eliminating jobs in many industries and putting downward pressure on the pricing of goods and services. What we can see are the jobs being eliminated due to technology. What we cannot see are the jobs that will be created because of technology. Examples are Amazon and Uber, each going after politically entrenched businesses, while providing goods and services that benefit consumers. Consider, as well, the opportunities Charter schools provide inner-city children, despite objections from teachers’ unions and push-back from their political gophers.

We cannot plan for every contingency, whether good or bad. Government’s response should be to give people more freedom to innovate and experiment, to succeed or to fail. People need confidence, not about the future which is always unknown, but in the belief that their freedom will not be taken away, and that regulation and taxes will not provide too steep a hurdle. The price of money is important, as is knowing that inflation will not diminish its value. At this point in the cycle, it is fiscal reform not monetary ease that is wanted.

The Federal Reserve is supposed to be independent from political interference. It is comprised of twelve Reserve Banks, with a headquarters in Washington. The twelve Reserve Banks elect or appoint their presidents. There are seven members of the Board of Governors who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They serve 14-year terms. The President designates and the Senate confirms two members of the Board to be Chairman and Vice Chairman, for four-year terms. The primary responsibility of the Board is the formulation of monetary policy, which is done through a twelve-member Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). The FOMC consists of the seven board members and five presidents of the twelve Reserve Banks, the latter on a one-year rotating basis. The board sets reserve requirements and shares responsibility with the Reserve Banks for discount rate policy. Those two functions plus open market operations
constitute the monetary tools of the Federal Reserve System.

The Fed was critical in 2008, when the credit crisis threatened to undue our financial system. The first quantitative easing program was announced in November 2008; a month later the Fed reduced rates to zero. Then, less than four months after President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the economy came out of recession. What allowed the economy to recover was a combination of Fed actions, coupled with the confidence people felt with Mr. Obama in the White House. The recovery that emerged arrived before the economy could feel the effects of the so-called stimulus plan. In contradiction to the myth that has been told, Mr. Obama inherited an improving economic and financial situation. The mess in which we now find ourselves is of his making, not his predecessors.

Low rates have allowed the federal government to increase its borrowings without the inhibiting effect of normalized interest rates. Since federal government spending accounts for about 23% of GDP, and with state and local spending bringing the total to about 35% of GDP, the question arises: is government too big to tame? We better hope not.

Mr. Obama has put us on the well-trodden path toward democratic socialism and the limit that route brings to economic freedom. We need to get back to the one from which Western democracies have strayed – the path that leads to greater opportunity and reward for individual initiative. One step would be to release the Fed from the bonds of politics.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"A Nation of Laws or a Nation of Lawlessness?"

     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Nation of Laws or a Nation of Lawlessness?”
September 17, 2015

Congress, composed of popularly elected representatives, is charged with passing laws. It is the job of the President to “faithfully” carry out those laws, whether he (she) likes them or not. It is the Supreme Court alone, based on cases brought before it and using judgment and precedence, which decides whether a law meets the standards set forth in the Constitution. No one, not the former Secretary of State, not even the President is above the law. Justice is (or should be) blind.

When Kim Davis, the Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple because it violated her religious beliefs, she broke the law. She spent five days in jail. While the right to worship as we please comes from our Creator, we live among others who may not share our beliefs. Society functions when it adheres to laws, not passed down from God, but made by men and women. When Michael Brown walked into a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri and stole some cigarillos, he broke the law. When he resisted arrest, he broke the law. When he attacked the arresting police officer, he was shot. Despite enormous pressure from the White House, a grand jury decided not to indict and the Justice Department declined to bring criminal charges against Officer Wilson. Justice prevailed, but because of attempts by public officials to evade the legal system Wilson’s life was forever changed.

This is not to suggest that all laws are good. Some are not. And people can and do effect change. Peaceful protests and civil disobedience are embedded in our culture. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau published, “Civil Disobedience.” Decades later Martin Luther King defined it as the active, public breaking of the law to bring about a change in law or public policy. Both men broke laws they felt unfair or wrong. Both served some time in jail. Neither whined about their treatment, and both used peaceful means. Abolition began as a protest movement. It culminated in the Civil War and achieved its end on January 1, 1863 when Lincoln issued the Proclamation Emancipation. The women’s suffrage movement began in the middle of the 19th Century and was finally realized with the passage of the 19th Amendment on May 19, 1919. The Civil Rights Act, the consequence of decades of protests, ended legal segregation with its passage in 1964.

While the examples cited above show that bad laws can be amended, it should be kept in mind that while there have been 11,539 proposed amendments to the Constitution only 27 have been enacted. It is a laborious process, requiring a two-thirds majority in Congress and approval by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States. It was not designed to be easy.

The foundation of our Country rests on laws and rules of behavior. The system is designed to maintain order and protect us from tyrannical leaders – a quaint notion in today’s world where many students don’t learn American history – but one that greatly concerned those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. Without laws we would first descend into chaos and then fall victim to a leader who amassed too much power.

Yet, there are indications that lawlessness has increased. As President, Mr. Obama sets the tone. In July 2009 Harvard Professor Henry Lewis Gates was accosted by Cambridge police who had been alerted there were two African-American males breaking into homes. Preemptively, Mr. Obama said the police “acted stupidly.” He later had to apologize and sat down for a beer with Officer James Crowley and Professor Gates. Two and half years later, an African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot by George Zimmerman who was performing “neighborhood watch.” Again, before the facts were in, Mr. Obama claimed racism: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”  A jury found Mr. Zimmerman innocent and the Justice Department found no case of civil rights violation. The situations in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland brought similar responses – prejudging both cases before facts were available. The man responsible for faithfully executing the laws should not be seen as prejudging the accused. Even when the accused are found innocent, their reputations have often been destroyed.

In Baltimore where it appears that the police did use excessive force, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made a bad situation worse. In the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray, she ordered the police to “give those who want to destroy space to do so.” It seemed irrelevant to her that what would be destroyed was the rightful property of another. It is when politicians ignore the constraints of law and when they surrender to mobs that lawlessness and anarchy flow.

It is our leaders’ disregard for laws that lie behind this concern of our nation falling into lawlessness. The law creating the Affordable Care Act required states to set up exchanges. When some refused, the Administration, not Congress, rewrote the law to suit their purposes. When Mr. Obama wanted to make recess appointments, he simply declared Congress not in session.  The Supreme Court later ruled 9-0 that he was wrong. In sanctuary cities, local governments refuse to uphold the law. They do not permit municipal funds to provide resources or comply with the enforcement of federal immigration laws. They claim to be acting humanely, but the real motivation is political. The Lois Lerner case exposed a lawless plan to give extra scrutiny to those groups opposed to Mr. Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. Hillary Clinton is lawlessness personified. She lied about her use of a private e-mail account and the server on which it was based. She lied about what happened in Benghazi, and she wants us to trust her to be President?

America is a remarkable achievement. There are many reasons for its success: its isolation, which meant the Country was unlikely to be invaded. Its size and abundant natural resources meant it could expand and become wealthy. But the real reasons were the men and women who came to these shores from myriad places and cultures. They were a people willing to leave behind cities, friends and families to find a new life free of persecution. Those who became leaders were usually classically schooled, coupled with common sense. They understood history and governments. They understood what worked. They knew that a healthy and cohesive society had to be based on laws; else anarchy would prevail and, from the ashes, bad men would rise.

We should keep in mind the larger picture, as we ponder the mistrust of police. No one will claim there are not rogue cops. The undercover policeman who took down James Blake outside a New York hotel comes to mind. But they are the exception. The profession is dangerous. In 2014, 126 police officers were killed. It is true that Blacks are disproportionately victims of crime, but those crimes are committed overwhelmingly by other Blacks. The cops are in minority communities because they and the people know that lawlessness undoes civilization.

Monday, September 14, 2015

"The Bush Tax Plan"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Bush Tax Plan”
September 14, 2015

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” That must sum up the way Jeb Bush felt after releasing his detailed tax plan. Serious voters want specifics of candidate’s proposals. An obsequious Press is less interested in disseminating news than in taking sides – flattering their favorites and condemning their opponents. An example was a headline in last week’s New York Times, a paper that thinks of itself as the nation’s newspaper: “Jeb Bush’s Plan is a Large Tax Cut for the Wealthiest.” The headline was misleading. The largest percent decrease in taxes would accrue to the median taxpayer; the lowest to those in the highest bracket.

It is not my purpose to defend Mr. Bush’s proposal, or to argue that it is the best alternative. It is to point out that it is a serious proposal and more important than listening to the antics of Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton. The plan reduces the number of brackets and limits deductions; it addresses behavior the current system encourages. It is detailed. Other candidates should follow suit. Keep in mind, taxes affect behavior. Yet most analysts, when measuring the impact of a tax change, wrongly use static (as opposed to dynamic) accounting to calculate the effect

In respect to the current tax system, it is not that the wealthy do not pay their “fair” share; it is that the system is too cumbersome. It favors those who thrive on complexity and it encourages non-economic behavior. In terms of “fairness,” according to a Pew Research study using 2014 data from the IRS, the top 2.4% of all income tax filers (those earning above $250,000) paid 48.9% of all federal income taxes, while the bottom 45.9% of tax filers (those earning less than $30,000) paid 1.7 percent. Special exceptions, allowances and exemptions for favored individuals and businesses abet the cronyism that is rampant in Washington. A 70,000-page tax code guarantees full employment to tax lawyers and accountants. The code is loved by those who benefit from its complexity, but it is a nightmare to the majority of Americans who must navigate its illegible tables and indecipherable language.

In terms of Mr. Bush’s plan, on the corporate side, it would reduce the stated corporate tax from 35% to 20%. (Keep in mind, the effective tax rate on profitable U.S. corporations, according to Americans for Tax Fairness, was 12.6% in 2010.) Complexities serve the wants of large businesses and wealthy individuals. Simplicity is the enemy of tax attorneys. Bush’s plan would eliminate interest payments as an expensed item, which favors debt versus equity financing. It would allow for the expensing of capital investing, which should encourage economic growth. S-Corporations, LLCs and partnerships would continue to pay taxes under the personal tax code. However, the pass-through rate would drop from 39.6% to 28%. The corporate AMT (Alternate Minimum Tax), which requires calculating tax liability under two sets of rules, would be eliminated. The plan would impose a one-time tax of 8.75%, payable over ten years, on the $2.1 trillion stashed overseas, which would allow those funds to be brought back to be invested in U.S. projects. And, to discourage “corporate inversions,” the plan would no longer tax corporations’ international profits, placing U.S. businesses on a footing equal to their international competitors.

As mentioned complexity favor large companies. Small businesses, historically the life-blood of job growth in the U.S., do not have the same ability to reduce taxes as do large ones. Additionally, many pay a higher nominal rate, as they file under the individual code. According to the Citizens for Tax Justice, fifteen Fortune 500 companies paid no tax in 2014, despite generating $23 billion in profits. While I cannot vouch for those numbers, thousands of lawyers and accountants work to ensure the limiting of tax obligations. The current system has not worked. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) suggests that in 2014 corporate taxes (excluding payroll taxes) accounted for 10.6% of federal tax revenues. In the 1950s that number ranged between a quarter and a third of all federal tax revenues. A report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shows that inflation-adjusted GDP, since 1980, has risen 149%, while inflation-adjusted corporate tax receipts were higher by 84.5%.

On the individual side, Mr. Bush’s plan would take the seven tax brackets and reduce them to three – 10%, 25% and 28%. Married couples with two children, with incomes below $38,600, would pay no tax. The plan proposes some radical changes. State and local taxes would no longer be deductible. The deductibility of state and local taxes means that low-or-no-income tax states like Texas, New Hampshire and Florida subsidize high-income-taxed states like New York, California, Connecticut and New Jersey. Why should they? Mr. Bush would eliminate the favorable treatment of “carried interest,” a benefit to a small number of highly compensated private equity and hedge fund managers. The personal exemption phase-out (PEP) would be eliminated and the standard deduction would be raised, in the case of married filers, to $22,600 from $12,600. Pease, or the limit on itemized deductions for high-income tax payers, would also be eliminated. It would be replaced with a limit on the value of all itemized deductions, with the exception of charitable gifts, to 2% of adjusted gross income. The AMT, a bane to taxpayers and a boon to tax preparers, would be eliminated.

The Bush plan is a step toward addressing a corrupt agency, as well as resolving an unnecessarily complex system. It would boost economic growth. Not everything in the plan is to my liking. I would prefer a simpler system – a flat tax, with no deductions, including charitable gifts. The American people are generous and I suspect most charitable groups would survive. On the other hand, as has been revealed by the exposure of “charitable” organizations like the Clinton Foundation and Super PACs, some are fronts to maintain a lifestyle or to promote self-serving and/or political causes. The inheritance tax would disappear. The Bush proposal would reduce rates on investment income. In my opinion, since capital investments were taxed when they were income, it is wrong to tax their fruits. Mr. Bush would eliminate the requirement of seniors paying their share of the payroll tax. I would not. Social Security is bankrupt, or close to it. I would prefer to see the payroll tax extended – albeit at a lower rate – on all income.  

Government spending represents about 22% of GDP. Financing that spending is the obligation of the American taxpayer. The collection agency is the IRS. As we learned in the Lois Lerner saga, the Agency has become corrupted for political purposes. Learning the specifics as to how each candidate plans to finance his or her government should be a primary focus of the campaigns. Mr. Bush has made a start; it is a plan worth debating. The others should follow.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"The Refugee Crisis - And Our Responsibility"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Refugee Crisis – And Our Responsibility”
September 10, 2015

That there is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions in refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and numerous African nations for Europe cannot be denied. That the causes of these flights are an insurgent, ISIS-run Islamic Caliphate that now controls territory In Syria and Iraq larger than Great Britain, ruthless dictators like Bashar al Assad in Syria and Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan, and Islamic terrorism throughout the region is also undeniable. And we know that Islamic terrorist organizations will not let this crisis go to waste. They will insert terrorists and martyrs among the fleeing refugees, thereby increasing risks to the West.

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) have said there were 14.4 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014, a 25% increase from 2013. Almost all have come from the Middle East and Africa, chased out by fear, famine and pestilence. Additionally, the number of internally displaced persons is put at 38.2 million. The situation has worsened in 2015.

The photograph of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach near the town of Bodrum this past week tore at the heart strings of those in the West. It brought a personal element to one of the greatest human tragedies in recent times. This boy, with his Velcro sneakers and red shirt, could have been our son or grandson. In fact he was Syrian, trying to reach Europe when the boat he was on capsized, drowning him, his five-year-old brother and his mother. His father, Abdullah, alone of the family survived. But will that knowledge effect they way we treat the causes of this migration from Hell? Will we finally admit that those being tortured, killed and chased from their homes are not a consequence of “violent extremism,” but are victims of Islamic terrorism? Will we reconsider the role we have played in abetting this horror?

In the past five years, four million Syrians have fled Bashar al Assad’s regime. Another seven million are living in the country, but displaced from their homes. Two hundred and ten thousand have been killed in the five years since the “Arab Spring.” This is the country where President Obama drew a “red line” in the sand two years ago, and then walked away when it was crossed. Will Aylan’s death change the way we perceive our responsibilities to the world and will it alter the hypocrisy of the West’s tolerance of the intolerant?

The truth is that we bear much of the blame for the unwinding we are seeing in the Middle East. We abdicated our responsibility. After invading Iraq in 2003 – an action supported by both Houses of Congress and the UN, but one that can be debated today – we ignominiously left prematurely in 2011, letting the country fall into anarchy. We supported the Arab Spring in Egypt, which caused President Hosni Mubarak to resign. Now, four years later tens of thousands of Egyptians are dead. A February interview by NPR suggested that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is worse than Mubarak. While “leading from behind” and without Congressional or UN support, we deposed Libya’s leader, Muammar Gadaffi, with no plans for a replacement. We refused to uphold a “red line” we had drawn in Syria. The Taliban has not gone quietly into the night, as forecast. The Council on Foreign Relations recently noted: “The Taliban has outlasted the world’s most potent military forces and its two main forces now challenge governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” And, in appeasing Muslims, we have left Israel isolated.

Why has the West allowed this to happen? There is a belief among the West’s elites that we are not our “brother’s keepers.” There is a perception that we must exorcise the sin of colonialism. The map of the Middle East was drawn by Western nations in the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was done with no regard to the tribes who had lived there for millenniums and without concern (or even knowledge) about the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. There is no question of the West’s culpability. But, we cannot sit back and atone for all the wrongs done. We cannot let the process unfold in a way that thousands more will die and millions more will be displaced. We must try to protect the innocent by adhering to universal moral laws that says it is wrong to torture, kill, rape and plunder. If we simply walk away, saying it is not our affair, the crisis will worsen. More blood will be spilt and Europe, already swamped assimilating existing Muslims, will become more troubled.

Like Parkinson’s Law, the void we leave when we abdicate responsibility gets filled. The Russians will increase their presence, or the Chinese will jump in. Will the Middle East be a safer place with Vladimir Putin swinging the night stick? Will peace-loving Muslims, Israelis and what few Christians are left in the region be better served with a beat walked by Xi Jinping?  The United States abrogated its responsibilities as the world’s policeman. And, sadly, it has led to the exodus of millions of refugees.

“Western elites,” as Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently, “deny their own exceptionalism.” Our exceptionalism is not a function of race or religion, or brains and brawn; it is a consequence of ideas. It is the belief in consensual government, the rule of law, equality, religious freedom, free markets, individual liberty and success based on merit. These are beliefs unique to the West. But they incorporate rights that are God given and are therefore universal. Defending them is an obligation of those who have them. If we don’t, we risk losing what freedoms we have.

With all of our failings, there has never been a country like the United States. We are not without faults. We read about them every day. But we are the only nation that has both the goodness of heart, the financial resources, the force of character and the military strength to maintain world peace. We cannot do it alone, but we must assume leadership. We must publically talk of values that are universal, that are not exclusive to any specific religion or race. Our error has been that, in our desire to be seen as fair in the interest of being pluralistic, we accepted moral relativism – a belief that there are no absolute values. That is short-sighted and wrong.

To solve the refugee crisis that is flooding Europe means we must increase the number of vetted refugees we will accept, but we must also strike at its root causes – the principal one being ISIS and Islamic terrorism. We cannot wish it away. It will not disappear on its own. It is late and the monster has strengthened; we must confront it in its lair. The peace of the world depends on it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The Fed - Caught in a Catch-22"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Fed – Caught in a Catch-22”
September 8, 2015

On December 17, 2008, in response to the financial crisis, the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) lowered the Fed Funds rate to essentially zero. (The rate, which had been coming down for more than a year, had been 2% in September.) When Fed Funds were set at zero the financial crisis, which had reached its perihelion in late September-early October, was already on the mend. The recession, which had begun in December 2007, was two-thirds past. Nevertheless, Fed Funds have been kept at this unprecedentedly low level for almost seven years. The Federal Reserve has become entrapped in its own snare, with no clear exit.

On September 16-17 the FOMC will meet. It had been expected that, finally, the process toward normalization would begin. (Historically, Fed Funds generally ranged between two and five percent.) Expectations had been that the rate would be raised by 25 basis points. But, with China’s economy and markets in free-fall, with our economy chugging along in second gear, with inflation seemingly tamed, and turmoil in equity and commodity markets over the past several weeks, there are doubts as to whether they will act. Eminent economists, like Larry Summers, have warned (incredulously) against the Fed being too hasty, citing the fragility of the recovery, as well as risks to speculative markets.

While August unemployment dipped to 5.1%, the lowest since April 2008, labor participation remains stuck at 62.6%, the lowest since October 1977. Most of the jobs added, as has been true for the past six years, were part-time. The unemployment number of 5.1% is based on the 157,065,000 people in the workforce – those working or actively looking for work. It does not include the 94,031,000 (the rest of the population above the age of 16) that are not counted as being in the labor force. Annual U.S. GDP growth, since the recovery began in June 2009, has averaged about 2%, the lowest of any recovery since the end of World War II. If the Federal Reserve wants an excuse from walking away from a rate increase, there is ammunition.

Cheap borrowing costs did attract more spending, but most all has come from the public sector. Both household and financial sectors deleveraged… or, at least, increased debt at slower paces. According to a study conducted by McKinsey Global Institute, global debt since 2007 has risen by $57 trillion (or almost 40%) to about $200 trillion. The main culprit has been an increase in public sector borrowings. Globally, government debt has risen at a compounded annual rate of 9.3%, while consumer debt has compounded at 2.8%. In the U.S., household debt is below where it was in mid 2008, while federal debt has doubled. That borrowing has done little to lift economic activity. In 2008, the year of the crisis and amidst a recession, the ratio of U.S. federal debt to GDP reached 70 percent. Today, with the Country in neither a financial crisis nor a recession, it is 100%.

Low interest rates have primarily benefited the federal government: they served to mask the actual size of the deficit. That increased deficit owes its existence to poor policy decisions by the Obama Administration, along with the failure by Congress and the President to implement meaningful regulatory and tax reform. In fact, both have worsened. Taxes have increased and regulations have stiffened. The crisis was cynically seen as an opportunity. In a February 9, 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel opined: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” In other words, we were warned it was in the interest of the White House not to have the crisis resolved too quickly. And it has not been.

Instead of heeding the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a Commission set up by the President, an agenda was pursued that included a stimulus plan that Mr. Obama was forced to admit a year later “did not stimulate.” He unilaterally pushed through two significant programs designed to embed more deeply the role of government in our daily lives – ObamaCare and Dodd Frank. The consequence is that Mr. Obama has reigned over the slowest economic recovery in the post-War period. Additionally, wages have been stagnant, poverty has increased and income and wealth gaps have widened.

Over the years the Federal Reserve has played a critical role. In 1980, in raising rates rapidly, Chairman Paul Volcker induced a sharp recession, but he killed the dragon that was inflation. In 2008, working with the U.S. Treasury, the Fed played a vital role in avoiding a global, systemic financial meltdown. Left alone, it could have caused an economic Armageddon. The fact that that did not happen is testament to those in charge at the time – Timothy Geithner, President of the New York Federal Reserve; Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve; Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, and President George W. Bush. While those four also bear some responsibility for the causes of the crisis, they were the ones who addressed it at the time.

Those were a dicey few weeks – the scariest of my more than four decades on Wall Street. However, as December arrived, so did a sense of relief. While stocks were still declining and the economy was still in recession, market observers noted that the TED spread (a measurement of perceived risk, determined by the difference between one-month LIBOR and one-month US Treasury’s) had declined from around 465 basis points in October to 131 basis points at the end of the year. Additionally, high-yield bonds had begun rallying in late November 2008. The worst of the crisis, in short, was over, but monetary policy has persisted as though it were not. Keep in mind as well, the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) declared the recession over in June 2009.

The Obama Administration and the Fed (as well as Central Banks around the world) have created a Catch-22 – a conundrum with no easy answers. It will only be solved by a Fed Chairman – one with the intelligence, courage and the persuasive powers of a Paul Volcker. She (or he) will need the support of the President and Congress. The Catch-22 is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. But we cannot go on as we have. Cheap money devalues currencies. It can destroy a nation. It can lead to another Armageddon. Central banks cannot be the only game in town. Legislatures and Executives must pick up the reins. The answers lie in normalized interest rates, tax reform that simplifies, lowers rates and addresses the need for individuals to save and invest for retirement, along with understandable and sensible regulation – lessening the grip of government, while giving more freedom to individuals and the private sector.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"A Culture of Meanness"

                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Culture of Meanness”
September 3, 2015

“Meanness” is defined as unkindness, spitefulness and unfairness. It can also suggest stinginess, as in depriving students of contrary opinions and of ignoring their need to be challenged and to think independently. The word describes today’s political and cultural environment, one characterized by divisiveness between the elite who govern and the masses that are governed. When George Bush exclaimed “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” he was referring to those who were committing acts of terror or who were harboring terrorists. Now it means Republicans, or at least it does to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Unlike most countries, the United States is a nation of immigrants – we come from all places, races and religions. The heritage we share is the history of our founding, which was based on the concept that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…that governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers by the consent of the governed.” It is a heritage of ideas. Whether our ancestors were present in Philadelphia, or whether we arrived in the past decade, it is the knowledge that our basic rights do not come from government, but from a larger power, and that government is subservient to the people. It is that that distinguishes Americans. No matter our political differences, no matter whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican we share this history. We have an obligation to encourage its persistence. But today that sense of commonality seems at risk.

People in all societies need a bonding agent – something that provides unity. Some, as the Nazis did, do it through militarism and nationalism. Others, like Communists, do it by forcing cohesion. Still others, like Islamists, use religion. The people of the United States, a polyglot nation of citizens who have come here of their own volition or who are descended from those who did, created that bond by emphasizing the exceptional aspects of our country: its government, its history and its people.

Now, we are told by President Obama that we are not “exceptional,” at least no more than are the Greeks or the British. The word exceptional does not mean we consider ourselves superior to Brits or Greeks, but that our history and people are singular. We are not all religious and those that are worship different Gods, but inherent in what makes America America is a belief in a power greater than man. Otherwise, by default, we would have to assume that our rights have been conferred by man. So, when we are told we are not “exceptional,” the ties that bind loosen. Not only have those been loosened, but with his memorandums, directives and executive orders Mr. Obama has rent us asunder. And he has offered no substitute to keep us together.

We read a great deal of the polarization that infects our nation, but when we read our history we find that men and women have always expressed ideas forcibly. There is nothing new in polarization. The greatest example was the Civil War. But today, unlike previous eras, the divide is between governors and governed.

Certainly, we face serious fiscal and political issues, but the real problems are cultural. Government has abetted these concerns, rather than dissuading them. From our beginnings, there have been those who fawned over government officials that controlled purse strings. Cronyism may be worse today, but it is as old as the Republic. Other issues are more recent and we see their consequences manifested in the attraction of fringe candidates: It is the culture of “identity politics,” where people are taught to become victims and where they learn that dependency is more attractive than responsibility. It is the hubristic elitism that has infected the DNA of Washington politicians, mainstream media and academia. It is manifested in teacher’s unions and the politicians they support, who care more for school teachers and administrators than for the children they teach. It is the coddling of college students that presumes a fragility of their psyche, and that ill-prepares them for the future. It is the social degradations that encourage childbirth without marriage. It is a welfare system that discourages work. It is the abandonment of religion – an unspoken arrogance that implies we have advanced to a point where we no longer have need of a greater power. It is the unambiguous assumption that man can control nature. It is the government official who caves to popular whims, rather than adhering to the rule of law. And, perhaps saddest of all, the fact that birthrates have fallen close to or below the replacement rate suggests defeatism and pessimism regarding the future.

Good men and women serve government because they believe in the ideal of service, of giving back to a system that helped them succeed. Bad men and women serve government because they seek personal power. Deciphering the difference is critical for the future of any free nation. The ability to do so requires an educated citizenry. It is why public education was so important to the founding fathers – a movement then led by my four-great grandfather, Noah Webster. A government of, by and for the people demands an electorate well-versed in current events and with knowledge of history. It requires an understanding of human behavior that can best be acquired through studying the Old and New Testaments and reading classical thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke. It has become common to emphasize the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects – and there is no question as to their importance – but it has also become popular to ridicule liberal arts. For the young, it is not just learning how things work, but it is seeing the way men and women – across all cultures – behave when confronted with malice, hatred, greed, obsession, jealousy and a host of other emotions – good and bad. Those traits can be best learned when we read authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoi and Austen. Their novels also help us anticipate change that is inevitable. Understanding the evil men can do helps prevent the rise of a Mao, Stalin or Hitler.

Has the dumbing-down of American public schools been a function of neglect, a focus on unions and benefits, or a deliberate policy decision – to keep the people stupid? Millennials are supposed to be the best educated in American history. That claim may be true in terms of years spent in classrooms, but it doesn’t appear true in terms of their understanding of our history, or the way in which our government functions, or in their lack of familiarity with great literature.

The consequence of supercilious elites in Washington and the two coasts – a group comprised of politicians, big business, big banks, big unions, the Press and Hollywood – has been a culture of meanness, in both definitions of the word. Our society has become less fair and more spiteful. It encourages exclusivity; it fosters conformity; it denigrates those who disagree and it risks giving rise to a generation incapable of making choices based on a clear understanding of their country.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Month That Was - August 2015

                       Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                   September 1, 2015
The Month That Was
August 2015

“Down the lanes of August – and the bees upon the wing,
All the world’s in color now, and all the song birds sing.
Never reds will redder be, more golden be the gold,
Down the lanes of August, and the summer getting old.”
“Down the Lanes of August” – 1923
Edgar Albert Guest (1881-1951)

Financial markets dominated the month. Puerto Rico defaulted on a bond payment, marking the first time a U.S. commonwealth had done so. In seven business days the Shanghai Index lost 27% of its value, or about $1.5 trillion. In six days, U.S. stocks fell 11%, costing investors around $2.8 trillion. Markets in other parts of the world shared similar fates. The VIX, a measurement of volatility that had spent much of the year in the mid to high teens, spiked to 40.74 on the 24th, the day the DJIA was down 3.6%. Another measure of volatility looks at the closing price of the DJIA versus the previous day. On only three occasions in the preceding four months did the index close up or down more than 1.5%. In August, that happened five times. Volatility is disquieting, but provides opportunities for traders. Investors should ride out churning seas.

The media made much of the point moves in the Dow Jones, while paying less attention to the less dramatic percent changes. Certainly, those few days were enough to wake a complacent investor from his August slumber, but they didn’t come close to setting records. Yes, the 588 points in the DJIA lost on August 24th exceeded the 508 points lost on October 19th, 1987, but to be equivalent the Dow Jones would have had to have lost 3,700 points!

Before the stock market hit speed bumps, the price of oil began to fall. By the 24th crude futures had lost 19.6%, before rebounding in the final week to close 3.5% higher. The Bloomberg Commodity Index, which is down 13% year-to-date, ended August about flat. China concerns regarding commodities abated during the last couple of days of the month. Early in the month, China devalued its currency by 2%, reversing a trend that had been in place for several years. The Shanghai Index, which was already down 29% from its mid-June high, lost another 12% in August. However, it is still up 46% from a year ago. China remains speculative – politically, economically and financially. The Shanghai Index, at its recent May high, was 13% below where it had been in October 2007, a reminder that the news from China is not really new.

The Fed meeting next month will be interesting. Volatility in financial markets prompted Lawrence Summers to write an op-ed in the Financial Times warning against a rate increase. On the other hand, second quarter U.S. GDP numbers were revised from plus 2.3% to plus 3.7%. At some point, the Fed will have to raise rates. Doing so should help put the nation and financial markets on paths to normalcy. It is my guess that doing so will be less painful than feared.

Republicans fielded seventeen candidates in the first debate of the season. They represented a broad range of ideas, experience, character and age. Fox News, which hosted the event, divided the assortment into two groups, based on showings in the latest polls. Donald Trump, who was leading going in, came out even stronger. The polls also boosted the prospects for two other non-politicians, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Polls, however, have lost much of their predictive powers. The reasons may have something to do with the way questions are posed but, more likely, lie in technology. Caller ID has provided those receiving calls the option of not answering. Only the most adamant respond to polls. On the Democrat side, Hillary is muscling through her self-created slough of scandals. Her principal claim on the Presidency is that she is a woman and it is her due. Mr. Obama, in looking for someone to continue his agenda, finds himself caught between Hillary’s calumnies, a charismatic Socialist and a prone-to-gaffe Vice President. They’re all old and they are all white; and it’s all they have.

The EPA, which never misses a chance to condemn the private sector for despoiling nature, managed to create one of the largest environmentally damaging spills in recent memory. Working in an abandoned mine in Colorado, they released over two million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River In doing so, the EPA changed the clear waters of the river into a bright orange. Durango and Platte County were forced to declare states of emergency. It took six days before the inappropriately named Environmental Protection Agency took responsibility.

Immigration is an issue in the United States, but our problems pale when compared to Europe’s. Wars and terrorists in the Middle East and Africa have caused tens of thousands of refugees to seek asylum in Europe. Men, women and children come across the Mediterranean on small, crowded boats, and overland through Turkey and the Balkans in the backs of trucks. An article in The New York Times reports that thus far in 2015 twenty-five hundred have died in the attempt. In August, in three separate instances, 771 died. Included were 71 whose bodies were discovered in Austria, in the back of an abandoned truck. The latter were escaping ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq and had paid smugglers between €3,000 and €5,000 each.

A chemical explosion in China’s third largest city, the port city of Tianjin, killed at least 150 people, with dozens still missing. Trigana Air, an Indonesian airline and which has lost ten planes since its founding in 1991, crashed in a remote mountainous area of Papua, Indonesia killing all 54 people on board. A bomb blast rocked downtown Bangkok, Thailand’s capital and largest city, killing at least twenty and injuring dozens. Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s President, in the wake of a bumbled bail-out called for new elections in September. And the United States re-opened its embassy in Cuba.

In an act of extraordinary braveness, three Americans and a Brit prevented what would have been a mass murder by an Islamic terrorist aboard a train in France. The three men – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler – charged and subdued the would-be killer who was carrying an AK-47, a hand gun, a box cutter and nine ammo clips. A British businessman, Chris Norman, lent support. French President Fran├žois Hollande awarded the four the Legion of Honor.

This past August marked the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. On August 26th, 1920 the 19th Amendment was certified, giving women the right to vote. It was the month of August, seventy years ago, that saw two Japanese cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – obliterated by two atomic bombs, bringing an end to a war in which perhaps 60 million people died. For perspective, the world’s population in 1940 was about a third of what it is today, and today’s nuclear weapons are twenty times more powerful. President Obama celebrated his fifty-fourth birthday on August 4th, the same day my younger sister turned 71. Fifty years ago this August the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It was also fifty years ago that this writer, straight out of Eastman Kodak’s training program, went to work at the New York’s World Fair. August 29th marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That storm, 400 miles wide, hit New Orleans with sustained winds of 100 to 140 miles per hour. When it was over, it left nearly 2000 dead and $100 billion in damages.

August was the month when the anti-Kardashian movement finally took off…maybe? Good Day Orlando co-host John Brown walked off the set because the Kardashians were consuming too much of the conversation. It was the month when Democrat National Committee Chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz didn’t seem to be able to explain the difference between Democrats and Socialists. Speaking of Democrats, political correctness caused the Democrat Party to sever ties with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, at least as concerns the annual Jefferson-Jackson annual dinner. The sins of the two men, as slave holders, overcame their virtues, as visionaries and populists. Vester Lee Flanagan, a mentally disturbed former on-air anchor for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, shot and killed a reporter and camera man. Flanagan, who saw himself as a victim, had been fired. He deliberately shot Alison Parker and Adam Ward while they were on air. After posting on Facebook his filming of the incident, he took his own life.

In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali, a name Athabaskans have always used. Mr. Obama, just prior to a visit and upsetting Ohioans, made it official. In a case where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, it was reported during the month that Drones could be purchased at a kiosk in Newark Airport. It was also reported that at least fifty pilots had seen Drones in their flight paths, while landing at New York area airports! A mother panda in Washington’s National Zoo gave birth to twins. Sadly, one died, but the other seems to be doing well. Speaking of the Kardashians, Caitlyn (AKA Bruce) Jenner may face man-slaughter charges for a woman killed in a chain-reaction crash in February. A Canadian-built hitchhiking robot was destroyed in Philadelphia after two weeks on the road. And, in a classy statement, former President Jimmy Carter, now 90 years old, announced that his liver cancer had metastasized to his brain. He spoke about his condition easily and memorably, saying “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”

The “Grim Reaper” appeared on August 9th and carried off former New York Giant and sports commentator Frank Gifford at age 84. Six days later he returned for Civil Rights legend Julian Bond at 78, an age that makes me consider mortality.

So ends the “Dog Days” of summer and heralds the arrival of September – a month, because of school, that we will always associate with the start of something new.