Monday, August 1, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – July 2016

                                                                                                                                      August 1, 2016

“Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men, and so it must be daily earned and refreshed –
else, like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.
                                                                                                            Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969)

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” So wrote Thomas Paine, in the aftermath of the Continental Army’s defeat at Brandywine Creek, on September 12, 1777. Freedom is not free, and Paine’s message to General Howe was filled with the patriotism that inspires us to this day. He added toward the end of his essay: “We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free.” They did; though it took four more years. It is fitting that the month that celebrates the birth of our nation is also a time to look back and remember those who died at Gettysburg, a battle that was fought over the three days preceding the 87th birthday of the United States – a battle in a war that ensured our country would be slave-free and would stand undivided. It is a month we remember the 19,240 British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the single worst day in British military history – one battle in a war to ensure that freedom would flourish on the European Continent.

Democracy is neither free nor easy. It is a constant struggle, against those from the outside who would defeat it and from those on the inside who would impede it. At the moment, freedom’s greatest external threat are the fanatics who comprise Islamic extremists – be they ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, the Haqqani Network, Hezbollah, the Taliban or Hamas. To defeat them, we must identify them, and then puncture the ideology that has caused a religion to become a cauldron of hatred. Obviously, our greatest ally in this fight should be peace-loving Muslims. Unfortunately, they have not stepped to the plate in the numbers necessary. In the meantime, Mr. Obama’s refusal to name the enemy is reminiscent of the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative Party in Britain, in the mid and late 1930s, to acknowledge the evil embedded in Nazism and Fascism. His not doing so only emboldened the Axis. Dictators and fanatics see democracy as mushy, as it depends on the will of the people rather than on an all-powerful leader. We are seen as soft by the barbarians who lead these Islamic terrorist groups. But, what those philistines miss is that when aroused a free people fight more resolutely than others. But first, we must be aroused.

Internally, democracy is at risk when citizens become complacent, more interested in their well-being than in recognizing the fragility and rarity of liberty – when people become blindly obedient to their leaders. Democracy and freedom are also at risk when the media serves as lap dogs rather than watch dogs.

The two conventions consumed the last two weeks of the month. In both cases, the establishment circled their wagons, Democrats more successfully than Republicans, though help from the DNC failed. Politics has become less about service and more about being served. The purpose of government should be to enact and uphold laws; to protect the lives and inalienable rights of its citizens, and to do those things individuals cannot do for themselves. Instead, it has become a path to personal wealth and power for the chosen (and corrupt) few.

Everyone should have the opportunity to attend a convention, because they are fun! I did so in 1970, as an alternate delegate to the Democratic State Convention in Hartford. Platforms are debated, but their resolutions are non-binding. Speeches are lively, but don’t explain issues, or offer policy alternatives. They are often vacuous, with promises that are usually empty. While conventions once served the role of nominating a candidate (and they do offer forums for expressing differences), today they are choreographed. They are celebrations to gin up enthusiasm for the game ahead – the last three months of far-too-long campaigns. They inflate egos and deflate opponents. They are raucous, with drinking, shouting and noise making. They are payback to those who have labored with the drudgery a political campaign entails. As well they provide opportunities for the opposing Party to parse every line, to seek out errors of commission and omission – misdeeds and miswords that can be used in the nasty fight ahead – such as a few DNC delegates disrespectfully turning their backs on Medal of Honor winner, Captain Florent Groberg, or Melania Trump’s cliché-ridden four lines foolishly borrowed from Michelle Obama. Neither is of lasting importance, yet both will be used in the dogfight ahead.

The theories of “broken windows” and “stop and Frisk” policing, which many feel led to lower crime rates in the 1990s and 2000s, have been discredited by liberals. One consequence has been a recent pick-up in shootings. While murder rates are lower today than two decades ago – in part because of pro-active policing policies, such as the two mentioned above – killings in two dozen large cities are outpacing 2015, which in turn was up over 2014. In Chicago, twelve people were murdered in the week ending July 23, bringing total killings to 375 this year, or close to 50% above 2015. Thus far in 2016, thirty-three police officers have been shot and killed (ten in the month of July), versus eighteen at this point in 2015. “All lives matter” should be the motto of a unified and civil people.

England gained a new Prime Minister and Islamists terrorized Europe. Theresa May, who quietly supported “Remain,” was named Britain’s new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, replacing David Cameron. She will be responsible for leading the UK out of the European Union. The bright, but volatile Boris Johnson will serve as Foreign Minister. Representing the European Commission, in negotiations with the UK, will be Michel Barnier, “the scourge,” as the Financial Times put it, “of the City of London.” In a twelve-day period there were six terrorist attacks in Europe, ranging from the Tunisian-born truck driver who killed 84 people in Nice, to a machete-wielding Syrian refugee in Reutlingen, Germany, to a Catholic priest in Normandy whose throat was slit during a mass by two warped Islamists. The culture of France is changing. Muslims represent just under 7% of France’s population, yet Mosques play a significant role. The numbers of active religious practitioners of Catholicism and Islam in France are about the same. French Catholics constitute about 64% of France’s 66 million people. Of those, 4.5% (or about 1.9 million) attend church regularly. In contrast, about 40% of French Muslims (or about 1.9 million) regularly go to Mosques. Islam, for good or bad, is becoming pervasive in the social and cultural lives of the French.

Turkey experienced its first coup attempt since 1980. A faction within the military called The Peace at Home Council attempted to seize government buildings in Ankara and Istanbul. They failed and were put down by forces loyal to President Erdogan. About 300 people died during the attempt, and approximately 9,000 military personnel have been arrested. Executions will follow. Erdogan has been moving the country away from its secular roots, toward what some are concerned could be a caliphate. Turkey, a member of NATO and a fulcrum between Europe and the Mideast, is becoming less amenable to the West. China, as well, bears watching. Xi Jinping has assumed more power, while jailing or demoting his opponents. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, Mr. Xi has shifted his emphasis from an anti-corruption stance to ideological unity. The country’s growing presence in the South China Sea continues uninterrupted, threatening the third of all maritime trade that pass through those waters.

While Cassandras forecast that Brexit would bring economic despair to the British and their trading partners, financial markets begged to differ. The FTSE 100 stock index is trading 8% above where it was before the vote. Germany’s DAX 30 is trading higher, and the CAC 50 in France has recovered almost all that it lost. The Dow Jones Industrials, which lost 3.4% the day after the British vote, is now trading 2.2% above where it was the day before the vote. In other words, those who panicked and sold are out about 6% in just over a month. U.S. 2nd Quarter preliminary GDP was reported at a disappointing 1.2% rate, (versus an expectation of 2.6%). In one way the Republican platform is in sync with Elizabeth Warren, the self-proclaimed American Indian and now U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Republicans included a provision in their platform that calls for restoring Glass-Steagall, a law repealed by the Clinton Administration in 1999. Italy, concerned about contagion from loan losses at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Sienna, is trying to save that bank and others without imposing losses on small investors. As a small investor, I am mindful (and thankful) of efforts to protect me from my foolish decisions, but capitalism only works when bankruptcies (and losses) are allowed. There is no system yet devised that provides upside opportunity without downside risk. In the meantime, the EU’s executive arm is negotiating terms that would allow the use of public money to save Italy’s banks, but with no talk of the moral hazard embedded in such a decision. At least four countries – Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Japan – were able to borrow money during the month paying a negative rate of interest. The investor paid the borrower for the privilege of lending him money! That only makes sense if one believes that overall prices will decline, a prospect that seems unlikely when natural resources are limited and social welfare benefits are increasing. Why are people willing to do so? I don’t know. Why did people buy black tulips in 1637? Why did people buy shares in the South Sea Company in 1720? Why did people buy dot-com stocks in 1999?

In a decision that will be debated for years, FBI Director James Comey recommended against prosecuting Hillary Clinton, despite finding that she had checked every box required for a felony conviction. His reasoning: he found no intent on her part to harm the United States. (She simply put the U.S. at risk and made millions of dollars for herself.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg granted an interview to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, in which she made no secret of her dislike for Donald Trump. Supreme Court justices are supposed to camouflage their political preferences, or at least not be so outspoken. Ms. Ginsburg later apologized for her indiscretion, but such blatant partiality is unhealthy in our supposedly independent judicial system. Joshua Brown became the first fatality in a self-driving car when his Tesla Model S crashed into and went under a tractor trailer. Sixteen people were killed when a hot air balloon caught fire over Lockhart, Texas. After a five-year trek of 1.74 billion miles, NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit. John Hinckley, whose failed attempt to assassinate newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan thirty-five years ago, was released from the mental hospital where he has been residing, into the custody of his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Zika Virus, according to The New York Times, now “rages” in Puerto Rico.

At Wimbledon, Serena Williams won her 22nd grand slam. Andy Murray won his second Wimbledon title (the first was in 2013), beating Milos Raonic of Canada in straight sets. The doping charges against Russia and their athletes indicate how different are the Games today from the ideal envisioned a hundred and twenty years ago when the athletes who competed in the first modern Olympics were amateurs.

Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born American Jewish writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor died at age 87. He dedicated his life to ensuring that memories would never fade for the six million Jews who were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. It took him ten years to write about his experiences, but he did so when he realized that he must, that the horrors he and others experienced should never be forgotten, else they be repeated. Elaine Sargent, a cousin by marriage, died at age 83. She had been a stockbroker and philanthropist. Her leaving of a legacy of $25,000 to the bartender at Le Cirque tells a great deal about her charitable ways and her sense of fun.

July ends amid heat, humidity, thunderstorms and floods in the east and wildfires in the west; so we move on to August, the second of the two months named after Roman emperors.   

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