Monday, January 30, 2017

"Media in an Anxious Democracy"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Media in an Anxious Democracy”
January 30, 2017

Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they choose to turn their back on the fire
and burn their behinds, they will just have to sit on the blisters.
                                                                                                Abraham Lincoln

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
                                                                                                Martin Luther King, Jr.

Spending five days in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, as we returned from Florida, was a reminder that partisanship, as bad as it is today, was far worse 156 years ago. But we cannot be complacent. Democracies are fragile; free people depend on the rule of law and adherence to civil behavior. While it was their right, sixty-eight Congressmen sitting out Mr. Trump’s inauguration did not help unify a nation after a fractious, but decisive election. Women marchers wearing pussyhats and using profanity lacked decorum. For Madonna to use the “f” word on CNN and to say that she’s “…thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House” was offensive and reckless.  For protesters to hang Trump in effigy and to loot stores and burn cars was criminal. Civil disobedience is a right of free people, but these actions showed disrespect and did little to bind the wounds of an anxious nation. How have we gotten to this place?

There are multiple answers, but no easy ones. One thing, however, that does accentuate and differentiate today’s feelings from past cycles is the ubiquity of news, or what purports to be news. We know more about Presidential candidates than ever, some of which is true, but much that is false. Thomas Carlyle, a 176 years ago, wrote of the press as a “fourth estate” – a critical adjunct to democracies. They inform the public and serve as feedback to government. They provide facts and offers opinions. They are as essential as are legislative bodies. But when reporting is biased, they fail in their responsibilities. And, with over 80% of reporters self-identifying as liberals, that is what we have today. The press helps polarize the people.

With 85% of Americans connected to the internet, most get their news from on-line sources and television, places where news is delivered in snippets and always with a political bent. According to Pew Research, less than 10% of 18-49 year-olds get their news from print media – still the best source – despite the bias in papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The New York Post.

Mainstream news media, because of proliferating social media, is searching for relevance in a changing world. Like so many industries, they have become victims of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. Mr. Trump has an uncanny ability to put the press, like his political opponents, on the defensive. He has called them out for the prejudices they express, and diverted them into fact-checking outrageous, but harmless, allegations like the numbers who attended the inauguration – “alternative facts” according to Kellyanne Conway – leaving little time to investigate, report or comment on real news. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why the media despises Mr. Trump. His tweets render them superfluous.

Nevertheless, it is easier to criticize the press than to reform it; though humility and honesty would be a starting point. News is ubiquitous. Buckminster Fuller’s “Knowledge Doubling Curve” suggests that the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every thirteen months. For a front page editor to decide what stories to run is no easy task. Yet, there is little question that news articles have become indistinct from editorials. Separating truth from fiction is difficult for readers and viewers. Making matters worse, our schools are spending less time teaching students American history, failing to provide them an understanding of our nation’s past and its current civic institutions. Consequently, young people (and many older ones as well) are unable to put today’s events into perspective.

That anxiety of our leaders in Washington was not allayed by President Trump’s Inaugural. When he said “…today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it to you, the people,” the crowd on the mall erupted in applause, but from the indicted sitting behind him the response was tepid. He later added, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” One could almost feel Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Paul Ryan wince (Democrats appeared nonplussed), while his supporters cheered. It is the hubris of the elite that was his target, as much as the politics they profess.

Mainstream media called the speech divisive. That it was, but not in the way the Obama Administration had been: The latter had divided us between rich and poor; white v. blue collar; gay/transgender v. straight; men v. women; Black v. Hispanic, and both v. White; Muslims, Christians and Jews against one another. Mr. Trump emphasized the divide between Washington and Main street. He took on the establishment, represented by politicians of both parties, mainstream media, bankers, big business, the entertainment industry, the teacher’s and other government unions. He clearly pointed out that their interests are in opposition to that of the people: “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

Will politicians heed Mr. Trump’s call for unity? I hope so, but I do not have high expectations. The new President reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, as Jefferson Smith going to Washington to tilt with a corrupt and “swampy” Congress. Mr. Trump is not only up against Democrats, but against many in his own party, along with thousands of bureaucrats and lobbyists who collectively have made Loudon, Fairfax and Howard the three richest counties in the United States. He is up against mainstream media, which seeks a raison d’etre in a world passing it by. The elite – politicians, media, lobbyists, entertainers – have much invested in the status quo. They will fight to preserve what has served them well. Consider, for example, the number of politicians who have used public office as a springboard to private wealth. It is little wonder Mr. Trump won.  One reason that Democrats are so incensed with Mr. Trump is that, in important respects, he has usurped their model, like inviting private sector union leaders to the White House three days after taking office. Democrats have become the party of the establishment, apologizing for the elite and ignoring the needs of working men and women – unless, of course, they work for government.

What makes Mr. Trump’s chance for success a possibility is that his age and personal achievements suggest no further career ambitions. He is rich and has notoriety, unusual even in our age. There is the probability that cuts to regulation and lower corporate taxes will boost economic growth, thereby reducing individual fears. He has surrounded himself with successful men and women of strong character, people from banking, industry, the military and eleemosynary institutions – individuals with independent opinions and thought. That they are willing to disagree with him has been apparent in Senate confirmation hearings. For the most part, these are not “yes” men and women who will blindly press forward the President’s agenda, but independent-thinking decision makers who will do what they believe to be right.

Some stress is good. It sharpens minds and makes us more conscious of events around us. But too much stress can be disruptive and counterproductive. We may have to “sit on our blisters,” as Lincoln opined; but let us hope it does not lead to “bitterness and hatred,” as Martin Luther King warned. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Trump has the answers to get us back on track. I hope so.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Trump's Opportunities and Priorities"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump’s Opportunities and Priorities”
January 15, 2017

It matters enormously to a successful democratic society like ours that we have three branches of government,
 each with some independence and some control over the other two. That’s set out in the Constitution.
                                                                                                 Sandra Day O’Connor
                                                                                                 Former Associate Justice, Supreme Court

The modern administrative state…blurs the separation of powers and the system
 of checks and balances, and has become an unaccountable fourth branch of government.
                                                                                                 Elizabeth Slattery
                                                                                                 Legal Fellow, Heritage Foundation 

As President, Donald Trump will have many chances to help the nation. His ego and his mercurial disposition may interfere, but opportunities abound. He can help the economy get back on track and, in doing so, help lessen income and wealth inequality that have risen the past eight years. He can help re-build the Middle East and, with a show of strength, help repair relations with Russia and China, which are necessary for long-term global growth. He can help reverse the polarization that has divided our nation, so that we will be able to judge people “… for the content of their character” (as Martin Luther King once said), not for their race, sex or religion. Such tasks should be doable, assuming Mr. Trump’s temperament doesn’t intervene, or the Left does not erect roadblocks. 

His most important priority, however, should be to restore democracy – the inherent freedom a liberal, democratic-capitalist republic requires. It is the fount from which all opportunities rise. For eight decades, an expanding administrative state has eroded principles of government laid out by our Founders. In times of war, national security interests allowed Presidents to assume powers alien to our precepts of liberty: Lincoln and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus; Wilson and the Espionage Act of 1917: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the internment of 80,000 Japanese-Americans. But war-time powers lapse when hostilities end. More insidious has been the trend, since the Progressive movement of the late 19th Century, toward increasing the power and reach of the federal government at the expense of Congress, individuals and states; and, within the federal government, the expansion of the Executive over the Congress. 

Can Mr. Trump reverse this trend, or at least slow it? I don’t know, but I hope so. Expectations are low. He will enter office despised by those who oppose him – a group that includes opinion makers: mainstream media, educators, Hollywood harlequins and political and business establishment-types from both Parties. Their candidate, Mrs. Clinton, was defeated by a man they scorned. Mr. Trump has none of the goodwill extended President-elect Obama in early 2009. Today, Mr. Obama scores high on personal approval ratings, but, keep in mind, his policies helped defeat Democrats. Even the generally sober David Brooks depicts Mr. Trump as a man who is “inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.” But, if Mr. Brooks and his ilk are right, how do they explain his business success? How did he win a Presidential primary that took out 16 other Republican candidates and beat a woman who has been around politics her entire life? And how did he do so while spending less than half the amount of money she spent? Mr. Trump will not get the “honeymoon” usually accorded new Presidents. But conservatives understand that Mr. Trump has provided them the best opportunities for change in a century.

Examples of government overreach abound. There are over 300 administrative agencies that control myriad aspects of our lives, from the environment, retirement accounts and healthcare to daycare, public radio and the internet. They range from regulating the toilet seats we sit on to the size of soft drinks we consume. Laws, which were once grounded in principle, have become laws based on policies. As well, agencies have become substantial sources of government revenues. According to a Wall Street Journal report last March, big banks, since the 2008 mortgage crisis, have paid out $110 billion in fines to the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Ironically, these fines were paid by roughly 100 million innocent shareholders, which include owners of mutual funds and retirement accounts. In 2015, the DOJ collected $24 billion and the EPA collected $205 million in fines. 

As the branch of government designated to write laws and levy taxes, Congress has abrogated its Constitutional responsibilities to agencies like the SEC, CFTC, EPA and CFBP (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) – agencies run by unaccountable political appointees, but with limited autonomy. For example, the head of the VA cannot fire its employees. The attraction of such agencies to Congress is that they allow them to take credit when it serves their purpose and to avoid blame when it does not.

(Restoration of the filibuster, as well, should be on the agenda. The Senate was designed to be a deliberative body, to slow things down. In an illuminative exchange, George Washington allegedly once asked Thomas Jefferson why he poured his tea into a saucer. “To cool it,” was the response. Washington then explained: “We pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it. A filibuster encourages bi-partisanship; avoiding a filibuster requires cooperation. If opposing Parties do not work together, nothing gets done. Senator Mitch McConnell would be wise to restore the filibuster.)

It would be impossible, as well as a mistake, to shut down all agencies that have been created over the past century and more. But it would be wrong to do nothing. Repealing the most outlandish, reducing the regulatory burden and slowing the expansion of government should be a priority of the Trump Administration. Doing so will help drive economic growth. In his farewell speech, President Obama spoke of the threats to our Constitution. He was right, but I wish he had taken his own advice. I wish he had lessened, not tightened, regulations. I wish he had sought bi-partisan compromise, not arrogantly shunned the opposition, like when he shut off Eric Cantor: “I won.” When government enfolds us in cocoons, such as Julia’s World or The Pajama Boy, the trade-off is a loss of personal responsibility and, ergo, freedom. We ask government to protect us from evil perpetrated by others, but when government protects us from our own mistakes we don’t learn. It is not that government is bad. It is that a free society must recognize the difference between government that is necessary and government that is abusive in its pervasiveness. It is as though President Kennedy asked: “What would you want your country to do for you?” The road we are on is fraught with risk – we could turn into a nation of Eloi, with government bureaucrats playing the role of Morlocks. It is a path toward authoritarianism, which could emerge from either the Right or the Left.

Nevertheless, politics can surprise. Most were surprised in November. Mr. Trump may be different than the cartoon character portrayed. It took the strongly anti-Communist Richard Nixon to open the door to China in 1972. Will the the pre-judged “authoritarian” Donald Trump be the President who reduces the reach of the Executive and who returns power to the people and the states? I don’t know, but it’s possible. Legions of establishment-types are determined to see him fail. But, anybody with an understanding of history knows that a political system is at risk when power accedes, as it has over several decades in the U.S., to an ever-increasing number of unaccountable administrative agencies and to an ever-stronger Executive. Trump’s opportunity is to reverse this trend. I hope he does.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"The Hidden Life of Trees"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

“The Hidden Life of Trees”
Peter Wohlleben
                                                                                                                                    January 14, 2017

What we see is always a brief snapshot
of a landscape that only seems to be standing still.
                                                                                                Peter Wohlleben (1964-)
                                                                                                The Hidden Life of Trees

Earlier this month “Pioneer Cabin,” a 150’ tall sequoia, fell over. Like all living things, trees die. Sequoias are among Earth’s largest and longest-living organisms. This tree was no exception. Its obituary provided details: It was 33 feet in diameter, weighed between 2.5 and 3 million pounds and was estimated to be over 1000 years old. But what you would not have known, unless you had read Peter Wohlleben’s book, is that “Pioneer Cabin” had been able to communicate with other trees, care for its young, ward off dangers and feel pain. In 1889, a tunnel was cut out through the sequoia’s middle, an excision that the author of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” would have disapproved.

The author manages a forest in the 2,000 square-mile Eifel park, located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany’s west. Much of the region suffered as armies marched through during World War II, and for much of the post-War period it was among the poorest states in West Germany. But it has a lot of trees.

Mr. Wohlleben writes of the mutualism of different species and the symbiotic lives they live, among other trees, insects, mosses and rodents. He speaks of their adaptability to changing climes. Specific trees live in specific climates, and they migrate as temperatures change. Peter Wohlleben writes how three million years ago today’s native beeches existed as they do now. But, during the ice age, to survive they had to march south, over the Alps to the Mediterranean. Some species, unable to make it over the mountains, died out. Those that survived, as the ice receded, slowly made their way back, and are still doing so.

Mr. Wohlleben is learned about trees, and he makes them anthropomorphic in a manner both respectful to his subject and appealing to the reader. “Trees,” as he writes, “live their lives in the really slow lane.He began his career as one who looked upon trees as a commodity, but now looks upon them as living things who protect their young, combat disease, bind up wounds, live social lives (preferring their own kind) and compete with other trees for sunlight, food and water. He writes: “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.” He concludes: “I am convinced we intuitively register the forest’s health.” One closes the book knowing one has met an intelligent, civil and compassionate man.

As I age, my life moves to a slower lane; so the feeling of kinship with trees is felt more deeply. The time I have gained has allowed me to appreciate how awe inspiring nature can be. Peter Wohlleben makes the woods come alive, if not with the sound of music, at least with the harmony of our interconnectedness. And, of course, trees gave their lives so that this book could be published. That act, in my opinion, was a selfless sacrifice – and reflects another debt we owe these magnificent sentries.