Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Burrowing into Books - Sense and Sensibility"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

“Sense and Sensibility”
Jane Austen

                                                                                                                                     March 29, 2017

“…and because they were fond of reading,
 she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical.”
                                                                                                            Jane Austen (1775-1817)
                                                                                                            Sense and Sensibility, 1811

Jane Austen sits among a select pantheon of English writers when it comes to craftsmanship of the language and an understanding of human nature, especially matters of the heart. Her stories and precise choice of words make for pleasurable reading.

As in many of her books, Austen pits opposites against one another, ergo sense and sensibility. Elinor represents “sense.” She is clear and sound; she is reasonable and has good judgment. As the oldest daughter (age 19) of a recently widowed mother, she helps hold the family together when they are forced to move. The middle daughter, Marianne, age 17, is “sensibility.” She is more emotional; quick to form opinions; in love with love and given to outbursts. She wears her heart on her sleeve.

Both girls, along with their younger sister Margaret, are intelligent, well-bred and well-read. Their father died young, so they and their widowed (and impoverished) mother move to a cottage on the estate of a distant relative. The story, which takes place over about a year, twists and turns, in plot and venue, between the countryside and London. And, of course, we discover that Elinor is vulnerable beneath her exterior of reason. She falls in love with and then fears she has been jilted. Ultimately, this confusion is unraveled and she marries. Marianne, early in the novel, falls in love with John Willoughby, and then is summarily abandoned. Nevertheless, she has difficulty seeing him for the scoundrel he is. In the end, though, reason intercedes and she marries an older (35) friend of her father’s family – a man who had fallen in love with her at first sight, but who, at first, had to suffer his beloved’s infatuation with Willoughby. So, in the circuitous manner of human behavior, sense comes to Marianne and sensibility to Elinor.

Jane Austen died a spinster, at age 41, in 1817. This, her first book, was published anonymously by “A Lady” in 1811. Three more novels were published during her life and two posthumously Her father, a descendant of wealthy wool merchants, had fallen into poverty. He was the rector of a parish in Hampshire County. Her mother was the daughter of the rector of All Souls College at Oxford. Austen wrote about people she knew – the British landed gentry, both the wealthy and those who were not.

It is easy to get caught up in the web Jane Austen weaves and in the lives of her characters. She writes with insight and humor. Not only do we learn manners and customs of late 18th and early 19th Century English gentry, we come to understand them in a way that is as pertinent today as it was 200 years ago.

Monday, March 27, 2017

"The President's Budget and Other People's Money"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The President’s Budget and Other People’s Money”
March 27, 2017

The proof of liberal virtue is generosity with other people’s money.”
                                                                                                            George Will (1941-)
                                                                                                            Political Commentator

Spending other people’s money dates back centuries. It was Aristotle who allegedly said, “Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves and politicians. All need supervision.” John Randolph, a Virginian planter and Congressman between 1799 and 1833, once wrote: “…that most delicious of all privileges – spending other people’s money.”

This attitude is common to both political parties, but more so for Democrats, the party of ‘big’ government, than Republicans. In his 2007 book “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservativism,” Arthur Brooks noted that liberals are less likely to give to charity than conservatives, despite average incomes 6% higher. They claim to be generous, but with tax payers’ money – not their own.

Nobody denies the right of government’s need to spend. A nation must defend itself. It must ease commerce through roads, bridges, tunnels and ports. It educates its youth. It has a moral obligation to ensure the well-being of its poor, elderly and those unable to care for themselves. Citizens understand, so pay taxes…willingly in most cases. But politicians should keep in mind the enormity of the responsibility that is theirs, and remember they are servants to the people. They must acknowledge the labor that went into taxes paid, to treat the money they spend with respect. (Total government spending, including federal, state and local, represents about 36% of GDP.) In the modern welfare state, the line between capitalism and socialism has become blurred, reminding us of Margaret Thatcher’s wisdom: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

The President’s recently submitted $1.065 trillion budget is a blueprint of where he would like the country to go. The 2018 budget proposed by Mr. Trump was limited to “discretionary” items. He did not address the 70% of the budget represented by mandatory spending, which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, earned income and child tax credits, SNAP and certain expenses in Defense, Agriculture, Education and Veterans Affairs – safety nets mislabeled “entitlements.” To place Mr. Trump’s 2018 proposal in perspective, President Obama’s 2016 budget totaled $4.1 trillion, of which $1.15 trillion (28%) was discretionary. If one included, as one should, interest expense of $283 billion as a mandatory item, then “true” discretionary spending represented just 21% of the 2016 budget – not a lot of wriggle room, when the goal is to increase defense spending (a discretionary expense) by ten percent.

To listen to howls coming from Democrats over Trump’s budget one would have thought he was the Grinch determined to starve and make homeless the poor and the elderly. President Trump’s proposal, as stated above, does not touch entitlements. It neither raises taxes nor increases the deficit. It keeps spending at the same level, diverting funds from the EPA, the State Department (USAID and Treasury International Programs), Agriculture, Labor and Commerce to Defense and Veteran’s Affairs.

As expected, reactions were hyperbolic.  Nancy Pelosi: “…President Trump has shown he does not value the future of children and working families.”  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “Once again, the Trump Administration is showing its true colors: talk like a populist, but govern like a special interest zealot.”  Representative Jim Hines (D-CT): “…all kinds of pain will be felt around the country…”

On January 20, 2009, federal debt was $10.6 trillion. Eight years later, it was $19.9 trillion. In other words, Mr. Obama, during an eight-year stretch without a recession and with a stock market up 148%, almost doubled the national debt. The cost of this borrowing has been masked by eight years of artificially low interest rates, a situation that is only now changing. Higher interest rates will add to costs, pressuring deficits and debt. In the fiscal year ending last September, the deficit rose to $587 billion, the highest in five years. Despite favorable economic tail winds, Mr. Obama did not leave the nation in good fiscal shape.

These deficits, of course, do not include the unfunded liabilities of welfare programs, for which we, as taxpayers, have responsibility. Determining the absolute level is not easy; but estimates range, from an “official” $55 trillion up to $222 trillion. Whatever number is right, it is crushingly large.

Over the past eight years, we saw an increase in spending on social welfare programs, including the Affordable Care Act, yet poverty increased. During those years and keeping in mind that a nation’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens, we saw defense spending, as a percent of GDP, decline from 5.5% to 4.4%. And global tensions rose. Consider: Chinese aggression and Russian belligerence increased. Islamic extremism persists, and the Korean Peninsula gets more dangerous by the day. Iran has become more truculent. Ukraine has been invaded. Democracies in South Korea, Japan and Israel are vulnerable, as are the Baltic States and those within the reach of China. Time moves forward, but human nature remains unchanged.

You may dislike Trump the man. You may believe the cartoon caricature that the media has created. But you cannot deny the dilemma we face – that we are living beyond our means in a dangerous and fractious world. We need to increase spending on defense. And we must rein in the administrative state, and the unprecedented powers it has given to agencies like the EPA. Unnecessary regulations have sapped the vitality of our economy, the engine that allows us to live well, securely, and to do the good we want.

The President’s budget speaks to his desire to beef-up defense and provide better for veterans, but without raising taxes or incurring higher deficits. It addresses fraud and waste in agencies where funds have been cut. It does not touch entitlements. Despite the fear-mongering, it is, in fact, modest and perhaps a bit timid given the forces we face. We cannot dismiss the spreading of violence abroad as not being our problem, nor is it compassionate to provide false expectations as to benefits that we may never be able to afford. There are consequences to living beyond our means – increased deficits and higher taxes. The first will bring higher interest rates and, ultimately, a declining currency; the second will result in decreased liberties and impediments to economic growth.

If you think the howling is loud now, wait ‘til we tackle – as at some point we must – entitlements. However, there are things we can do now to ease the burden that will become our children’s: We can raise the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare. We can means-test. We can encourage savings for retirement and health care by granting larger exemptions. What we need are serious conversations and debates, not the Ostrich-like behavior of politicians who place their childish partisan bickering above needs of the nation; nor does it help when a sycophantic media puts loyalty to favored causes and friends above real news.

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Too Much Free Time?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Too Much Free Time?”
March 20, 2017

The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother
about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation.”
                                                                                                            George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Walking into Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut a week ago, I remarked to my son how surprised my grandparents would have been with the amount of free time people have today. We were there to pick up his middle daughter (my granddaughter) who was playing soccer. The place is immense – an Olympic-size pool, two hockey rinks, batting cages, squash and tennis courts, lacrosse fields, food courts, viewing stands and, of course, soccer fields – all housed in a 465,000 SF building, on a 33-acre campus that was once the world headquarters for the hair-coloring company Clairol. Hundreds of youngsters and oldsters were using the facilities – people with extra time on their hands, something rare 120 years ago.

In 1900, when my grandparents were young adults, the average person working in manufacturing spent 60 hours a week on the job. Farmers – 41% of the labor force – had longer hours. Forty percent of working women labored outside the home, many in factories where $4 for a 70-hour week was not unknown. Others worked as servants, for even less and with longer hours. About 80% of all jobs in 1900 required manual labor. Average annual income was about $457, a little less than one percent of what it is today.

Apart from 10-hour work days six days a week, family heads had to ensure a roof overhead and the putting of food on the table, activities that consumed most of their free time. Only 2% of homes had electricity, so labor-saving devices we take for granted – blenders, refrigerators, coffee makers and toasters – were unavailable. The U.S. fertility rate in 1900 was 3.7; it is now 1.8, the lowest ever recorded here. Life expectancy in 1900 was 46.3 years for men and 48.3 years for women. Today those numbers are 76.9 and 81.6 respectively. Except for those in cities or those who could afford horses, travel was difficult. Mass transportation – trains, trollies, ferries, steam boats, and a few subway systems – was available in some urban areas. As 1899 became 1900, there were about 8,000 cars in the U.S., many of which were not much faster than a horse. All were owned by the wealthy. Free time was a luxury, unknown to all but a few.

There was a leisure class in 1900, albeit small. Then, there were greater numbers of poor and a smaller middle class than today. Fifty-six percent of families lived in poverty. Today, the number is 13.5%. Wealth was more concentrated than today. According to census reports, there were 5,000 millionaires, or about 0.00007% of a population of 76 million. The sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of the wealthy constituted the leisure class. While some of those helped build schools, colleges, opera houses, museums and provided funds to protect the environment, others did little for themselves or mankind. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, in an amusing expiation of the phenomena, has young Edward Ferrar explain his torpidity at age nineteen and why he was unfit for the military, law or the church. He concludes: “I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”

In comparing hours worked, life expectancy and time-saving consumer products and conveniences, there is a lot my grandparents would find unrecognizable today, even though they lived through a time that produced many of those changes. Today’s average household has just over two people, less than half the number in 1900. Our average workweek, at just under 40 hours, is a third less than it was. Life expectancy has risen by almost 50%. We are freer to go when and where we want, because we can afford to and technology allows it. There are 253 million cars on American roads today, almost one per person. Two percent of today’s population feeds the other ninety-eight percent. And, incidentally, many of those engaged in agriculture are illegal immigrants. The average age of retirement in the U.S. is 63, suggesting the average person will spend fifteen years in retirement. In 1900, death usually preceded retirement.

Microwave ovens and electric vacuums and have given people freedom from chores in the home. Cable TV and iPads provide entertainment, while smart phones make it easier to communicate. In 1900, in the U.S., only six hundred thousand homes had telephones. Today, there are as many cell phones as there are people – 328 million. Central heat and air conditioning add a level of comfort inconceivable back then.

But, have we lost something with our growing wealth and greater free time? In 1844, Alfred Vail, who was at the Baltimore Rail Road Station, sent a message back to Samuel Morse, who was at the U.S. Capital: “What hath God wrought?” We might ask the same question today. Has all this leisure time improved our lot? The short answer is yes, when we consider the many ways in which our lives are better – longevity, health care, comforts and communication. A college education is more widely available. Travel has widened our horizons, and time for athletics has improved our physical well-being.

But the long answer is not so straight forward. As a society (with thanks to the civil rights movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s), we are more accepting of those physically and culturally different from ourselves. But we have become less tolerant of those whose ideas do not conform to our own, as was seen at Middlebury College three weeks ago. We have gained knowledge, but have we lost wisdom? We have substituted government-centric compassion for individual caring, as Professor Robert Putnam wrote about in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Politically, we have moved away from the concept of a melting pot (E Pluribus Unum) to become a salad bowl of distinct and separable identities, and we have become more polarized. Children mature physically as fast as they ever did, but with a lessened sense of personal responsibility and accountability. There has been a rise in drug and alcohol abuse and recently in opioid usage, especially in small towns and cities. We live in an environment where the young know how to use the internet, but fail to understand the consequences of posting photos and videos that others might use to their detriment, as nude photos of female marines circulating around the internet show.

We are blessed to live in this age, where the poor live better than the middle class did 100 years ago, where our homes keep us comfortable in all seasons, where we can see who is knocking on our front door from 3000 miles away, where disease is better combatted and where labor-saving devices give us time and energy for leisure activities. Because of the time-saving products produced by those who came before, we have hours more for ourselves. We have the time to improve ourselves, in a way inconceivable to our grandparents (and their parents and grandparents). But, have we used that time wisely? Are we improving our minds, or do we spend too much time in front of video and TV screens? Are we suitably involved with our families, friends and in our communities? Individually, we must answer these questions. Work we must, if we want a roof over our heads and food on the table. Aristotle once said (allegedly!): “The end of labor is to gain leisure.” To the extent that is true, the Genie of progress has granted us our wish. We have been provided the opportunity. It is our responsibility to use wisely the free time we now have.

On balance, though, Margaret’s great-great grandparents would be pleased she is able to pursue other activities, including indoor soccer, on a cold March afternoon at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut.