Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Month That Was - May 2016

Sydney M. Williams

                                                                                                                                          June 1, 2016

The Month That Was – May 2016

“Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May!
That lovely month where ev’ry one goes blissfully astray.”
                                                                                                                              “Camelot” 1960
                                                                                                                              Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics)
                                                                                                                              Frederick Loewe (music)

From a personal perspective, “lusty” is not an adjective I would have used, but some things in May did go “blissfully astray,” and a few provoked smiles: The man in New York’s Times Square, with a sign “Free Hugs,” who punched a woman in the face for naively believing the sign meant what it said. India reported that it was doing its bit for global warming; they are developing a feedstock that will make cows and other ruminants less flatulent. President Obama, claiming equality for transgenders, demanded that public high school bathrooms and showers be available to students based on gender identity, rather than gender at birth. (The Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, I am sure, will be exempt.)

But these are not really funny. The first reflects a lack of civility necessary for society to function smoothly. The second, a questionable government expenditure in a country that is home to the world’s largest population of poor. And the third, identity politics substituting for common sense.

On the other hand, Boris Johnson’s winning limerick about Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan’s fictional love affair with a goat was funny. London’s mayor had submitted his poem to The Spectator’s “President Erdogan Offensive Poetry contest.” The limerick, which cannot be repeated in this PG publication but which will elicit a smile from all but the most politically correct, can be found by googling “Johnson,” “limerick,” “Erdogan” and “goat.” Mr. Erdogan had asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to allow a lawsuit under some dusty 19th Century law that forbade German citizens from insulting foreign leaders. With eyes focused on Turkey’s large number of refugees and not wanting to upset its authoritarian leader, Ms. Merkel permitted the suit against German comedian Jan Bohmermann.

Jihadism, and its consequences, continued to kill people at record rates. David Samuels, writing on May 5th in The New York Times, noted that more people have died violently in the Middle East during the Obama years than during the Bush years, most of them in Syria. The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates that 470,000 Syrians have died since the civil war began five years ago, and that an additional four million have been displaced – all this from a country of twenty-two million. On May 11th, three car bombs killed 93 in Baghdad and wounded 165. Six days later a female suicide bomber killed forty people in Iraq. On the same day, another Fedayeen suicide bomber killed thirty more. Christians in Iraq and Syria are facing genocide-like conditions. Of 1.2 million Christians in Iraq fifteen years ago, only 250,000 remain. Forty percent of the two million Christians living in Syria have had to flee the country. Untold thousands have been killed by ISIS and Assad’s forces. Thus far this year, over 2000 migrants have drowned trying to escape war-torn and poverty-stricken homelands in the Middle East and North Africa, 1000 in the month of May alone. EgyptAir flight 804, on its way from Paris to Cairo, crashed, likely a result of terrorism. Yet Mr. Obama, an ironic winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, still refuses to acknowledge that Islam is involved in Islamic terrorism.

The end of the cold war prompted Francis Fukuyama to write “The End of History and the Last Man.” Democracies sprouted in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But those days seem a long time ago. The belief in global order through the spread of democracy came to an end when the U.S. left Iraq betimes, before stability could bring peace to the country. International organizations have done little to ameliorate human suffering, as Venezuela’s election to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council three years ago demonstrated. The human tragedy being played out in President Nicolas Maduro’s country has exposed the hollow promises of socialism. On May 21, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos asked Congress that he be able to rule “by decree” for six months. Political polarization, as we saw during the month, is not limited to the United States. Austria came within a hair’s breadth of electing Europe’s first far-Right leader since 1945 when Norbert Hofer narrowly lost his bid to become President. He lost to Alexander Van der Bellen, of the far-Left Green Party.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was a gesture of decency and reconciliation. It was a reminder of the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. I wish, however, that his itinerary had also included Nanking, Singapore, Pearl Harbor and Okinawa – reminders of the horrors that Japan, as an aggressor, had inflicted on mankind. Standing before the Hiroshima Memorial, Mr. Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons. Yet reductions in nuclear armaments, according to a news report in The New York Times, have been slower under Mr. Obama than any other post-Cold War President. There are many who feel that his deal with Iran will cause Saudi Arabia to join Pakistan and Israel as nuclear powers in the Middle East.

Indicative of rising nationalism and the reappearance of authoritarian leaders has been Erdogan of Turkey. He has transformed the largely ceremonial office of president into a position of centralized power. During the month he pushed out Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and replaced him with the malleable Binali Yildirim, former Minister of Transportation. Because so many of the Middle East’s refugees live within Turkey’s borders, European leaders, who want to slow the migration process, are willing to submit to his despotic terms.

President Obama’s visit to Vietnam suggests a more robust policy of containment toward China. It adds to the policies embedded in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-country agreement first negotiated by the George W. Bush Administration, but which has yet to be confirmed. In the first visit of a sitting U.S. President since the war ended over forty years ago, Mr. Obama expressed willingness to lift the arms embargo against Vietnam, indicating added muscle against an increasingly aggressive and dictatorial regime in Beijing.

Elsewhere overseas, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from her office when the Senate voted 55-22 to try her on impeachment charges. She was replaced by her vice president Michael Temer, who has already been implicated on charges of corruption. Brazil, which will host the 2016 summer Olympics in a couple of months, is a resource-rich country of two hundred million people whose economy did well in the first decade of this century, but which has since fallen victim of Leftist policies and political cronyism.   

In an announcement that would have seemed incredible nine months ago, the Trump campaign announced they had the 1237 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination on the first ballot. He was able to make this announcement before Hillary Clinton could do the same, despite her “coronation” being virtually unopposed nine months ago, apart from a wildly improbable, over-the-hill socialist who had to change his registration from Independent to Democrat to enter the contest. Mrs. Clinton, perhaps the most corrupt politician to seek the oval office since Richard Nixon, received more bad news when the State Department’s Inspector General criticized her use of a private e-mail account and server. In the report, they stated she had not – in contradiction of earlier claims – sought permission to use a separate account and would not have been granted permission if she had. Worse, when two officials in the record-keeping division raised questions early on, their superior “instructed the staff never to speak of the secretary’s e-mail system again.” – This according to The New York Times. In a piece of good news, which was reported in the AP as bad news, taxpayers in Los Angeles are saving $500 million. This is because 100,000 students, formerly enrolled in the nation’s second largest school district, are now in charter schools. “We are bleeding,” said Susan Zoller, a consultant to the district’s union. You may be, but students and taxpayers are better off.

After months of dithering, Fed Chairperson Janet Yellen said the central bank would “probably” raise rates “in the coming months.” Stocks were flat for the month, with volatility remaining subdued. Lipper reported that investors pulled $37.2 billion from equity mutual funds and ETFs during the month, while putting $12.4 into bond mutual funds. At the SALT (SkyBridge Alternatives) hedge fund May conference in Las Vegas, the mood of the $3 trillion industry was somber. Brimming with sanctimony, billionaire hedge fund manager Jim Chanos (and sounding like Captain Renault) declared: “The fees are ridiculous. I’m shocked they’ve stayed this high for this long.” According to the HFRI (Hedge Fund Research Institute) Fund Weighted Composite Index, the five-year compounded annualized growth rate (CAGR) for hedge funds has been 1.5%, compared to a CAGR of 11% for the S&P 500 over the same period. Understandably, fees are under attack.

Elsewhere in financial news Bayer made a bid for Monsanto. General Motors and Uber announced they are working on driverless taxis. The Obama Administration announced new labor rules that would double the annual earnings of salaried workers eligible for overtime. Like the $15 minimum wage, whenever prices and wages are set by government there are, inevitably, unintended consequences – often most painful to those they intend to help. An Australian, Craig Wright, claimed he was “Satoshi Nakamoto,” pseudonym for the inventor of the Bitcoin – a claim that was disputed by the Bitcoin community. The first revision to first quarter GDP, showed the U.S. economy growing at 0.8%, versus a previously announced 0.5 percent.

One hundred years ago the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed between England and France, which set arbitrary borders for new nations to be carved out of the Ottoman Empire. Seventy-one years ago, Germany surrendered unconditionally, ending a war they had begun almost six years earlier. And fifty years ago Mao Zedong initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an event that persecuted an estimated 36 million people and killed at least a million and a half of them – something we should remember as Xi Jinping takes on added powers.

Morley Safer, a long-time voice of “60 Minutes,” died at age 84. Alan Young, ‘Mr. Ed’s’ co-star and the voice of Scrooge McDuck, died at age 96.

The month of May includes Memorial Day. Unfortunately, parades were rained out in our part of Connecticut, but it is an important time to think of the sacrifices that so many gave that the rest of us can live freely. It is also a moment to reflect on the fragility of liberty – that that which took so much blood and tears to achieve can be taken away surreptitiously by elected officials, who use government agencies like the IRS and the EPA to intimidate dissidents, or turn compassion into dependency, all to gain personal power.

Not wanting to leave the month of May without some merriment, I note that New Yorkers can now choose from a minimum of 31 different gender identities. An exceptionally creative staff worked hours of tax-payer-paid time to come up with the list. Here are a few: “gender bender,” “two spirit,” “third sex,” “androgynous,” “gender gifted,” “demi boy,” and “genderfluid.” The latter refers to those who may feel like a boy one day and a girl the next. The list can be found on-line and all identities are protected under New York’s anti-discrimination laws. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, never underestimate the idiocy of government bureaucrats. The list, according to city officials, is not exhaustive.

But I am, and it is now time to turn our attention to June.

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