Friday, April 1, 2016

The Month That Was - March 2016

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was
 March 2016

                                                                                                                                         April 1, 2016

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold;
when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade.”
                                                                                                       Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
                                                                                                       Great Expectations

You know you live in New England when you awake on the morning of the vernal equinox and the ground is covered with snow! But as Mark Twain (who lived in Hartford, Connecticut for seventeen years) once said: “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

It wasn’t only the weather that was out of sorts in March: The Republican race for President took a nastier tone, as the wives of Trump and Cruz were invoked in petty and mean ways. Not to suggest that wives have ever been immune from the scurrilous behavior of their husband’s opponents. Rachel Jackson was called an adulteress and a bigamist. She died of a heart attack, after her husband was elected but before he was inaugurated. Florence Harding was accused by the press of poisoning her husband. Eleanor Roosevelt was reamed by southern newspapers for associating with Blacks. Life magazine referred to Mrs. Truman as “payroll Bess.” It was widely believed that Mamie Eisenhower had a drinking problem. Nonetheless, one hopes for civility; unfortunately, rudeness sells better than decency.

But it was the persistence of Islamic terrorism – seen most vividly in the horrific bombings in Brussels, where the dead were so mutilated that identification was difficult – that defined the month. Brussels received the most attention in our West-centric world, but Islamic attacks in the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa occurred, literally, daily – including the killing of 70 on Easter, near a children’s swing in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan. Slipping in bathtubs may kill more Americans than terrorists, but that is effectively a tautological argument used by an Administration that refuses to put the qualifier “Islamic” before the noun “terrorist.” According to a report recently out from the nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism, the number of people killed annually by terrorists has increased eight-fold since 2010. While Mr. Obama took pride in the killing of ISIS financial chief Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli (and I would rather him dead than alive and free), one cannot help but think how much better it would have been had he been captured, made to talk and then executed. Collateral damage would have been less and we might have learned something that could help prevent future attacks.

In an attempt to divide further an already fractured Republican Party, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Judge Garland would seem qualified for the position, but he is no Antonin Scalia. He is a moderate. He is a man who interprets the Constitution more liberally than did Justice Scalia. It would be like replacing a Mastiff with a Golden Retriever. It is not that Mr. Obama prefers moderates like Judge Garland – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are better examples of his leftist leanings – but he would prefer to trap Republicans in the quagmire he has concocted. In a closely watched case concerning First Amendment rights (a re-hearing of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education), the Court split evenly 4-4.  They therefore left in place a decision by a lower court that stated public sector workers had to pay union fees for collective bargaining and political support, even if they chose not to join the union and/or disagreed how their dues would be spent. It was a win for unions and a loss for First Amendment advocates. The decision would have been 5-4 in favor of the appellants had Antonin Scalia been alive.

Ben Carson dropped out of the Republican primaries, as did Marco Rubio, adding currency to Billy Joel’s lament that only the good die young. Michael Bloomberg said he would not run, claiming he would siphon votes from Hillary. Holding their nose, many mainstream Republicans, like Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham, decided to support Ted Cruz. Keep in mind, Senator Graham not long ago observed that if someone shot Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, no Senator would vote to convict the shooter! It is a fear of Donald Trump that is driving these endorsements, not love for the Texas Senator. Despite sweeps in three states last weekend – Alaska, Hawaii and Washington – by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton holds what appears to be an insurmountable lead. Not only is she ahead in superdelegates, but California and New York, with their Hollywood and Wall Street money, will probably fall into her column. But, her corrupt past may still catch up to her. Bryan Pagliano, a State Department staffer who helped set up Ms. Clinton’s private e-maul server, was granted immunity by the Justice Department, as part of its criminal investigation into the mishandling of classified information. However, it seems likely during this time of political animosity and uncertainty, that Attorney General Loretta Lynch will not be permitted to indict Ms. Clinton. Mr. Obama, no fan of the Clintons, has too much to lose if Republicans regain the White House.

Showing that corrupt politicians know no borders, look at Brazil. In an example of one hand washing the other, leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing possible impeachment for improperly moving money around in an attempt to hide budget shortfalls, essentially provided her mentor and predecessor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, immunity. She named him to her cabinet. Mr. da Silva, a highly popular president, has been embroiled in a scandal that syphoned millions of dollars from contracts with state oil company Petrobras. President Obama traveled to Cuba, the only Communist dictatorship remaining in the Western Hemisphere. Performing “the wave” at a ball game in Havana, while Belgian police were scraping the remains of Islamists victims, including four Americans, from the walls of the Brussel’s airport, was a display of tonal deafness, as was doing the Tango a couple of days later in Argentina. While Mr. Obama was hobnobbing with Raul Castro, Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, the largest Marxist terrorist organization in the world. In Nicaragua, leftist Daniel Ortega, enjoying the amenities of dictatorship (beachfront homes and expensive cars), is once again consolidating power. Repealing term limits has allowed him to run for a third term. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was withdrawing the bulk of his men and his bombers from Syria. Keeping Bashar al-Assad in power and getting a seat at the table in future negotiations was his goal.

The New York Federal Reserve found itself unexpectedly complicit in one of the largest bank heists of all time – the cyber theft of $101 million. Funds belonging to the central bank of Bangladesh, and held at New York’s Federal Reserve Bank, were wired to one bank in the Philippines and another in Sri Lanka. The theft remains unsolved. The European Central Bank (ECB) lowered its rates by ten basis points to a negative 0.4 Percent. They increased bond purchases from 60 billion Euros a month to 80 billion. And, in a bid to supercharge the economy, Mario Draghi said they would pay banks 40 basis points if they actually made loans with the money! At a U.S. Federal Reserve meeting, the decision was to stay the course, but a crumb was offered to stock and bond market bulls: no further rate increases are likely soon. An article in The Economist suggested that American companies’ profits are too high. What is needed, they claimed, is a good dose of competition. I don’t disagree, but the problems, in my opinion, stem from a tax code whose complexity benefits large businesses and regulatory practices that grant power to the government and which stifle competitive start-ups. While 2% inflation – the Fed’s target – doesn’t sound like much, Jim Grant noted in last week’s Observer that that rate erases $62 billion of annual purchasing power from America’s money stock – M1! The Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index was out. In every year since 2000, the index has fallen for the United States, with the largest declines in quantitative measures underlying our legal system and property rights. Nevertheless, stocks looked at this mad world, liked what they saw, and rose 7% for the month, at least as measured by the DJIA.

Elsewhere, the State of Connecticut, short about $220 million on its current budget and having chased away General Electric along with scores of wealthy individuals, considered what else they could tap. Connecticut Senate president, Democrat Martin Looney, living up to his name, proposed a bill that would tax Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment. Yale is a haven for liberals and progressives; so Mr. Looney must have thought the college would be easy pickings. But Yale balked. It is one thing for a progressive to be liberal with someone else’s money; it is quite another when it is one’s own. (Governor Rick Scott immediately invited Yale to move to Florida!) Courts were generous when it came to awarding “Hulk” Hogan $115 million in the “gawker” suit and, more deservedly so (at least in my opinion) when it awarded Erin Andrews $55 million in her suit against pervert Michael David Barrett and the Nashville Marriott hotel. For the first time in Iditarod Race history, two dog sled teams were “attacked,” when a man on a snowmobile intentionally drove his vehicle into two teams, killing at least one dog.  In a heart-rending, politically-correct decision, a California court, operating under the Indian Child Welfare Act, removed six-year-old Lexi from her foster parents, with whom she had been living happily for the past four years, and sent her to a family on a Choctaw Reservation in Oklahoma – a place she had never been. The reason: she is 1/64th Choctaw. One of her 64 four-greats grandparents happened to have been of that tribe. (I would guess that neither the judge who made the decision nor the plaintiff’s attorney could name any – not to mention all – of their great-great-great-great grandparents. Could you? Anders Behring, a Norwegian nutcase and killer who murdered 77 people five years ago, is suing his country. He claims solitary confinement violates his human rights. This is a man who snuffed out the lives of mostly young people, and who now lives in a three-room suite that includes a treadmill, refrigerator, DVD player and a Sony PlayStation. Whatever happened to dungeons?

Seventy years ago, on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, delivered what became known as the “Iron Curtain” speech. It was a prescient warning of the Cold War that was to come: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” I only wish he could have lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But I am glad he never saw the rise of a newly aggressive Russia and the failure of the U.S. to set an exemplary example for liberty and freedom for the world’s oppressed and impoverished. On an ignominious day, March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam. For the South, the war did not then end. In the following year, 80,000 South Vietnamese troops and civilians were killed, the bloodiest year for the country that had been embroiled in a civil war against a Communist insurgency for two decades. Also, in the wake of our leaving, between two and three million Cambodians were killed in a genocidal massacre by Cambodian Communists between 1975 and 1979.

The beloved Nancy Reagan died at age 94. Aubrey McClendon, former chairman of Chesapeake Energy, committed suicide at age 56. Lloyd Shapley, a winner of the Nobel Prize for contributions he made to game theory, went to his maker at age 92. (His father, the astronomer Harlow Shapley, once had a house in my hometown of Peterborough, N.H.) Patty Duke, a child actor, Oscar winner and sufferer of mental illness brought about by child abuse and drugs, died at 69. Joe Garagiola, an unforgettable sports announcer, but so-so catcher during nine years of pro ball, died at age 89. Also dying was Hungarian born Andy Grove who led Intel for many years. He was 79. And Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, died at age 70. Two men that I knew died during the month: John Gutfreund, chairman of Salomon when I was with them in the 1980s, and Bob Cooney who was my boss at Wertheim more than forty years ago.

Welcome to April, the month that, appropriately begins by honoring fools, but which, with its showers, will bring May’s flowers.   

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