Monday, June 27, 2016

"Threats to Liberalism"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Threats to Liberalism”
June 27, 2016

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”
                                                                                                            H. L. Mencken (!880-1956)

Liberty is more easily lost than discovered. It is not generally lost in revolutions. Its demise more typically resembles the ancient method of Chinese torture and death by a thousand cuts. Like boiling a lobster, liberty’s death comes slowly, subtly, almost invisibly – unfelt by the victim. The autocracies of Lenin and Stalin arose from revolution, but Hitler emerged from a democratic election. Read Victor Klemperer’s diaries (I Shall Bear Witness and To The Bitter End) to understand the insidious nature of a country’s transformation into authoritarianism, and the helplessness of those who realized their predicament too late.

In the West, the threat to liberty is not another Hitler. Today, liberty is imperiled by the rise of the administrative state and the bureaucracy of elites that populate it. For fear of offending other cultures (and to our shame), we have stopped promoting democracies. According to Freedom House’s 2015 survey almost twice as many countries saw freedom decline as saw freedom increase in 2014 – the ninth year of such trends. Concern about the loss of liberty, however, is not new. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798. Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus in 1861. Wilson suppressed free speech during World War I, and FDR interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. In July 1914, when prohibition was being discussed in the United States, the Virginia Law Register included the headline: “The Decline in Personal Liberty in America.” In the body of the report were written words that sounded remarkably modern, if not in tone, at least in meaning: “Today…liberty is the right of part of the people to compel the other part to do what the first part thinks the latter ought to do for its own benefit.”[1] The words ‘elitism’ or ‘establishment’ were not used, but the message is familiar. These are but a few examples of how our freedoms have been curtailed during extraordinary times; they should make us more vigilant today.

This is why last week’s election in Britain was important, that a free people will resist efforts to cauterize liberty. While the favored narrative of supercilious “Remains” was that Brexit was driven by xenophobia, nativism and hate, the truth was that the 52% of the electorate who democratically voted to leave were concerned that the EU had become undemocratic, creeping toward socialism. Keep in mind, the turnout at 72% was the highest in years. Immigration, no doubt, played a role, but this vote was more significant than the establishment would like to admit. Like millions of dissatisfied Americans who see their lives managed by an elite cadre of bureaucrats in Washington, millions in England saw Brussels dictating rules by which they must abide. Sixty percent of the UK’s laws, including for example the curvature of bananas, are now created by unaccountable mandarins working out of Brussels. Those who wanted to maintain the status quo are a cadre of politicians, academics, lawyers, bankers, big business leaders, most in the media, as well as an increasing number of people grown dependent on the largesse of government. The existing system has served them well – ignored have been the middle classes and small businesses.

In Washington, it was Congress that passed the Affordable Care Act without one vote from the opposition – a Congress that then, in a spate of hubris, exempted themselves from its provisions. It has been the expansion of the EPA, Department of Energy, Homeland Security and the IRS where bureaucrats without accountability to the people affect lives, either in mandates enacted (bankrupting the coal industry), or intimidating political opponents (singling out conservative groups for special IRS attention).

The birth of the liberal state involved a long and difficult gestation, from a meadow at Runnymede in 1215 to the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1776. It evolved out of the natural pressure that exists between governed and governors. At its essence is the admission that the governed had certain natural and inalienable rights, including the right to determine leaders and to enact laws that apply equally to all citizens. As we wallow in political correctness, we should not forget – and it should not go unnoticed in Europe’s capitals – that liberalism’s foundations are based on a Christian-Judeo ethos, and they are Anglo Saxon in their heritage. The bulwarks of our democracy incorporate representative government, separation of powers, rule of law, equality under the law and property rights. To survive, democracies require civility, tolerance and respect – all alien to Sharia law and to most Muslim countries.

The rise of the administrative state has been accompanied by a decline in community organizations, as chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Its provocateur is political correctness. It has been the cause of a shutting down of free speech on our campuses. It can be seen in the modification of the traditional American family, with an increase in out-of-wedlock births and one-parent households. While wealthy Hollywood-types can afford cavalier attitudes toward such iconoclastic social conduct, such behavior for most people increases poverty and dependency on the state.

While not as terrifying as autocracies, tension is common within democracies. We may all want the same thing – a fair chance, respect, a happy life, financial success, recognition – but your aspirations may conflict with mine. For students, it is seen in the college admissions process. MacDonald’s competes with Burger King. Uber threatens yellow cabs. Religions compete for souls. If you are a businessman and I am a laborer, your desire for profit may clash with my want of higher wages. In free market economies, these strains tend to benefit the majority and, therefore, society. Our political system is designed to produce disputes, but ones that can be settled civilly – though never happily for all. The brightest students go to the best colleges. Competition improves the quality of products and prices for consumers. Negotiations between labor and management, while not always optimum, tend to benefit both. And while we do not always select wisely, our political battlefields provide opportunities for voters to consider options. These tensions reflect Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which, left unmolested by government, guides us toward improved living standards. 

Nothing is permanent. Individually, we are not. As a species, we will die off. Governments are no different. At some point our democratic-republican form of government will collapse. If we come to rely on it too much, if we allow political correctness to substitute for a culture that has provided us the wherewithal to live freely, if we fail to appreciate the rarity of what we have, it will morph, at some point, into a less liberal state. That is why I applaud the vote last week in Great Britain. It took elites by surprise. The voters ignored economic threats by David Cameron, George Osborne and Barack Obama, and they rejected the condescending, gratuitous op-eds in The London Times, The New York Times and The Financial Times and on the BBC. Knowingly or unknowingly – and I believe it was the former – they realized that liberty is too valuable to be bought off cheaply. Theirs was a leap into the unknown, but it was done with knowledge that the path they had been on was leading to a darker place.

As citizens of democratic nations, our job is to sustain life – our own, our species, our planet and the special, but endangered, form of government we have inherited, which we now enjoy and that we should want to pass on, as intact as possible, to those who come next.

[1] In the case of prohibition, liberty did ultimately win, when in 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"Lessons from Orlando" - Sydney M. Williams

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Lessons from Orlando”
June 20, 2016

“I can hear you; the rest of the world can hear you,
and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from all of us soon.”
                                                                                    President George W. Bush
                                                                                    Amidst the ruins of the World Trade Center
                                                                                    September 14, 2001

“In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another.” So spoke President Obama in the hours after the Islamic-induced slaughter at the Pulse, a club in Orlando that caters to LGBTs. He sounded more like a 1960s counterculturist than the leader of the free world. Mr. Obama prefers to talk of guns rather than admit we are at war with radical Islamist terrorists’ intent on destroying our democratic values and gutting our Christian-Judeo culture by terrorizing and killing us. He searches for euphemisms to describe those who would kill us – anything to avoid the use of “Islamic” when discussing Islamic terrorists. It is Political correctness that prevents Mr. Obama from speaking honestly about the enemy we face. Xenophobia, he implies, is the natural condition of conservatives, as are Islamophobia and homophobia. He is right that we should not blame all Muslims for the actions of a few thousand, but he is wrong in ignoring the role played by the Muslim religion in abetting the rise of of Jihadist terrorist organizations around the world and inciting “lone wolfs” to carry out what they believe to be instructions from their god.

The proper response to such killings, according to Mr. Obama, is better gun control. He points out that assault rifles were used in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado, as well as in Orlando. But he avoids the fact that France and Belgium have far stricter gun laws, yet those did not prevent attacks with similar weapons in Paris and Brussels. He does not explain that explosives were used in Boston by the brothers Tsarnaev, or that a kitchen knife was used to behead Colleen Hufford in Moore, Oklahoma, or that a hatchet was the instrument in the attack on four police officers in Queens, or that a jeep driven by Mohammad Raza Tehri was the weapon at UNC when nine students were injured. According to Mr. Obama, guns are the problem, not the people who pull the triggers, nor the culture of hatred that breeds and reveres violence.

After the attack, Donald Trump’s saying “I told you so!” was offensively self-congratulatory. His suggestion we temporarily ban all Muslim immigration was illusory; it elevated religious discrimination while doing nothing to ferret out Islamic terrorists already among us. Keep in mind, Oram Mateen was born in New York to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan. However, the Left’s instinctive and immediate reactions to Mr. Trump’s comments were counterproductive. We should profile people based on race, age, sex and looks. We should be more careful as to who we let in. We should be mindful that so-called mainstream Muslim organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and the Muslim Brotherhood have done little to suppress the deliberate inciting of young Muslim men. We should be more vigilant of Mosques, especially those known to be incubators of terrorism. For example, Imam Muhammad Musri, chairman of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and who stood with law enforcement officers in Orlando during their first press conference, is a member of a mosque that was used for a fund raiser that collected $55,000 for Hamas. Given his associations, it was not a surprise that Mr. Musri said to Mr. Trump: “Shame on you for using this tragedy to divide us.” But, who is divisive? Mr. Trump, for the words he uses? Mr. Obama, for diverting attention from Islamic extremists to a culture of too many guns? Or is it the deadly actions taken by Islamic terrorists, no matter how they were radicalized?

Over the last several years, multiculturalism has replaced pluralism, with devastating results. The concept of pluralism recognizes diversity, but subordinates it for the good of the whole. It allows us to maintain our myriad heritages, but also permits us to act together as Americans, regardless of backgrounds. Thomas Sowell recently noted that the commanders of American troops in both World Wars, Jack Pershing and Dwight Eisenhower, who led our troops against German Armies were of German heritage. They may have been German-Americans, but when called to duty they were Americans. Identity politics, a consequence of multiculturalism and political expediency, is undermining that strength and polarizing the people.

From Mr. Obama’s narcissistic (and political) reckoning, the killing of Americans by radicalized Islamists should have been a thing of the past. Osama bin Laden was killed five years ago, and that should have been the end of it. In a Washington, D.C. speech three years ago, Mr. Obama said that future terrorists’ activities would be “localized threats” in faraway places. Two weeks ago, at the Airforce Academy, he boasted how he had put aside fifty years of failed policies by using diplomacy not war to make the world safer. Yet the last five years have seen an increase in Jihadism at home and abroad. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, more than half of the estimated 140,000 victims of terrorism since 2000 have been killed in the past four years, with the vast majority murdered by radical Islamists. We have witnessed the emergence of ISIS from the ashes of Syria, Iraq and Libya. There have been untold horrors committed by Boko Haram in North Africa. We have seen an emboldened Hamas in Palestine, a revitalized Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a resurgent and aggressive, terror-sponsoring Iran. We note the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the re-birth of al Qaeda in many parts of the Middle East. What is Mr. Obama smoking!

The President is a gifted rhetorician, but he has been less adept at fighting Islamic terrorism. In contradiction to his assertion in Colorado Springs, his policies have not worked. Global incidences of terrorism have increased, in frequency and in intensity. There is no question, the job is difficult. And there are many reasons for the increase. Besides the obvious that they despise all we stand for, one reason is the refusal by Mr. Obama to call the enemy by its name. Could we have fought the Germans in World War II, with the intensity we did, absent the terms “Hun” and “Nazi?” Or the Japanese by the decidedly un-PC names of “Nips” and “those little yellow bastards?” Our enemies have always been equally unflattering when referring to us. Words have uses. A second reason for the rise in terrorism has been the spread of political correctness, which promotes multiculturalism at the expense of national unity and in contravention to our original national motto – E Pluribus Unum. Political correctness has meant a decline in our Christian-Judeo culture, with its respect for and tolerance of others. We know that that each of us is different. We know that we come from different places. We know we are of different colors, religions, shapes and sizes. We know we have different abilities and aspirations. We know we are not perfect. But we also know we are Americans. We should honor and respect our individual heritages, but recognize that which unifies us – the spirit that is America. It is that that has been lost, and unless we re-kindle a belief in our national identity, we will continue to split ourselves into millions of dissonant parts, until putting us back together becomes too monumental a task.  

Our fight is not only with the “lone wolf” who kills innocent people; more importantly, it is with a culture that breeds hatred and contempt – a culture that is homophobic, misogynistic and intolerant of all who do not comply with its laws. It is especially deadly to Jews and Christians. Radical Islamists cannot abide a culture that permits freedom of religious expression, treats women as equals and respects minorities, including gays. It makes no difference to the dead (and it should not to us) whether Omar Mateen was acting alone or under direction from ISIS leadership. He was obviously mentally unbalanced, and we know he was inspired by radical elements of Islam. Just admit it, and let’s work harder to prevent recurrences.

Monday, June 13, 2016

"Connecticut, Wherefore Art Thou?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Connecticut, Wherefore Art Thou?”
June 13, 2016

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
                                                                        Mark Twain (1835-1910)
                                                                        “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” – 1889

Connecticut is one of the country’s most beautiful states. The people who live here once felt they were favored by God. (And some still do!) Its beaches, hills, world-renowned universities and well-regarded public schools are attractions. There was a time, not long ago, when it was seen as “little Switzerland” for those commuting to New York City – an income-tax-free haven between the heavily-taxed states of New Jersey and New York. Its history, in terms of European explorers and settlers, goes back four hundred years, to when Dutch sailor Adriaen Block first explored the mouth of the Connecticut River. By the 1630s, the first English settlements were established in Windsor, Hartford, New Haven and Saybrook.

I do not praise Connecticut just because I was born in New Haven seventy-five years ago and have lived in five different towns over the past fifty-one years, or that my ancestors were among its earliest settlers; it is meant sincerely. From the hills of Litchfield County, to the beaches in Southeastern Connecticut, the state offers a variety of leisure pursuits: kayaking on the Connecticut River’s estuary; rowing on the Thames; rafting on the Housatonic; horseback riding in Fairfield County; hayrides in Windham County; hiking the nearly 3000 acres of protected land in Lyme, and paddle boarding along Connecticut’s 618 miles of coast.

The state encompasses distinct urban areas – Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford – along with 15,615 farms, which work 233,000 acres. Almost 20% of its 3.6 million acres are in some form of conservation – always a bi-product of wealth. In terms of geography, the state is the Union’s fourth smallest, but, in terms of population (about 3.6 million), the 29th largest. Even with GE’s departure to Boston (and the loss of an estimated $600 million in tax revenues), it is still home to 16 of Fortune’s 500 companies.

But this is more a dirge than a paean. Connecticut ranks high in ways that speak to its potential: fourth in terms of those with a college education; fourth in terms of household income; and third in wealth per household. However, it also ranks high in ways that demonstrate it has fallen victim to greed and waste: it is first in terms of bonded debt per capita ($22.4 billion, equal to just over $6000 per individual); it ranks second – behind Illinois – in un-funded state pensions - $26 billion; it ranks second to New York, in terms of state and local tax burdens, and fifth, when total debt obligations are measured against personal income.

Connecticut lost 95,000 of its 1.4 million taxpayers, between 2011 and 2013, while 78,000 moved in. But it is the only state in the nation where those moving out have higher incomes than those remaining – $112,000 versus $101,000. Connecticut was one of only six states that in 2015 suffered a net exodus. Its population declined by over 2000. Capital is mobile and Connecticut is vulnerable. Keep in mind, the western half of Fairfield County contributes over a third of the state’s income tax revenues.

Absent economic growth, societies wither, as can be seen in Venezuela today. Sadly, capitalism is taking a beating, especially on college campuses – with students seemingly unaware of the irony of their position: that they are in college and can afford to protest because of the capitalist system. Capitalism has been the fairest and most productive economic force the world has ever known. It has given us universities, libraries, museums, parks, and environmentally protected rivers, forests and estuaries. Capitalism has done more to reduce poverty than any other system. But something has gone wrong in the ‘Nutmeg’ state. A recent document on Connecticut’s budget prepared by the League of Women’s Voters in Greenwich quoted a University of Connecticut study, which found that the state has not created and sustained net new jobs in almost three decades. Among the reasons – burdensome regulation, usurious taxes and the high cost of energy. Since recovery began eight years ago, economic growth around the country has been barely able to absorb new entrants into the labor force. In fact, nation-wide, while unemployment decreased from over 9% to 4.7%, since recovery began in June 2009, labor force participation declined to 62.6% from 65.6%. Last year, U.S. GDP growth was 2.2%: 1.6% for New England, but only 0.6% for Connecticut.

The state spends about $20 billion a year, of which a third is paid, in wages and benefits, to 50,000 state employees (90% of whom are unionized). It sponsors pension benefits for the state’s 50,000 public school teachers. Connecticut’s state workers are the best paid in the United States, and its retirees have the highest pension benefits of any state employees in the country. There is a cost. Connecticut’s deficits are projected to be $266 million in the current fiscal year, $552 million in fiscal 2017 and $1.7 billion in the following year. The latter would be about 60% higher than the federal deficit, when measured against GDP. The main problems are wealthy taxpayers who are leaving the state, spending that is divorced from revenues, and the fact that the state is contractually committed to fully fund its pension obligations by 2032, a commitment that dates back to 2008 when the state issued pension obligation bonds. In the meantime, State legislators have taken a Walter Mitty-like position, assuming personal taxes will rise 14% between 2015 and 2017, with debt service expense expanding by only 13 percent – projections divorced from reality.

What can Connecticut do? They could issue new pension obligation bonds, taking advantage of lower rates and extending maturities, thereby forestalling the day of reckoning. But is that a real answer? With the state already heavily indebted and in an environment that suggests rates may rise, what would be the costs? They could (and should) move new and recent unionized employees from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. But what about legacies? The best answer would be to adopt a pro-growth economic strategy of lower taxes and simplified regulation. The state should end corporate welfare and payments to special interests. They should eliminate the inheritance tax and reduce corporate, personal income, gasoline and energy taxes – making the state more attractive to families and businesses. They could privatize highways and prisons, and should raise the retirement age for employees from 62 to 65. They then would be able to entice immigrants from places like New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas.

A major tax and regulatory overhaul would, of course, initially worsen the state’s financial plight, as benefits would not kick in for a year or two, which is why politicians, reluctant to imperil comfortable lives and chances for re-election, fail to take such actions. But, in a year or two such decisions would result in higher economic growth, which, in turn, would increase tax receipts. Such decisions demand politicians who speak honestly to the people about problems ahead and the tough solutions necessary. Connecticut’s high taxes and onerous regulation have damaged its economy and chased away wealthy individuals and corporations like GE. Without a radical change, things will worsen. The situation is not the fault of one party. It has been a collusive effort. State leaders have forgotten, (or more likely, never heeded) Mitch Daniel’s (former governor of Indiana) maxim: ‘You, the state employee, are servant to the taxpayer.’

As the title of this essay asks, to whom should Connecticut’s politicians have allegiance – to themselves, their party, or the people? The imaginations of our state legislators may not be out of focus, as Mark Twain intimated. It is more likely they know what they are doing – that public service has become a sinecure. We, the voters, should be cognizant that they are leading us down a deceptive and dangerous path.