Monday, April 24, 2017

"Trump - An Enigma?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump – An Enigma?”
April 24, 2017

It is apparent that almost equally marvelous concealment devices,
in one shape or another, are general throughout the animal kingdom…”
                                                            Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921)
                                                            Introduction to Concealment-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, 1909
                                                            Gerald H. Thayer

Like most animals, politicians are expert at concealing their true intentions.

Last fall, when explaining why I had voted for Donald Trump, reactions included expressions of horror and words of disbelief. While not enthusiastic, I felt justified. The two most important ingredients in a President are character and judgement. From my perspective, in neither category did Mr. Trump score well. However, his opponent, on this scale, registered far lower, at least in my opinion. And, having been in the public eye for almost two and a half decades, Mrs. Clinton’s flaws were well known. Additionally, she promised to continue the policies of Mr. Obama, which had resulted in anemic economic growth, social division at home, and a weakening of the U.S. overseas. For these reasons, I voted as I did. One of the two was going to become President. And I couldn’t vote for Mrs. Clinton.

We did not, last fall, have a choice between the blemished and the unblemished. One was a coarse, successful businessman, a political neophyte, but astute enough to recognize that Democrats had abandoned their traditional base – middle-class, blue-collar, working Americans – in favor of special interests. The jilted, therefore, became Mr. Trump’s opportunity. We knew Mrs. Clinton was a charlatan, a dissembler who had used public office for private gain. Despite Mr. Trump’s financial success in cities throughout the world, which required cultivating political elites, he campaigned as a populist. It was assumed, then, that that is what he was. As for Mrs. Clinton, her real character was revealed in her response to Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), when testifying on Benghazi before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2013. Her reaction was reminiscent of Anthony Trollope’s description of Mrs. Proudie in Framley Parsonage: “The countenance of Mrs. Proudie became darkened with black anger and the polished smile of her company manners gave place before the outraged feelings of her nature.”

Armchair psychologists have provided myriad descriptions of Donald Trump: an authoritarian demagogue; an inept, misogynistic, xenophobic buffoon; a fascist and fan of strong leaders. David Brooks went so far as to argue we are “entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim-Jong-un and Donald Trump.” Lumping Mr. Trump with those thugs is using hyperbole to augment a debatable point. Mr. Trump may not be the neighbor I would prefer, but his critics are wrong in their demagogic characterizations.

They dislike him in large part because he disrespects them. They make fun of his hair and his malapropisms – an anathema to those who rely on teleprompters, which allow disingenuous politicians to sound both judicious and temperate. Today’s technology lets speech be taken out of context. Interviewers seek not to discover who or what a person is, but to confirm predetermined biases. Little time has been spent, for example, analyzing Trump’s early years as a Democrat, or learning more of his immigrant wife. His Cabinet is criticized as being composed of billionaires, never assuming they may want to give back to their Country.

All American Presidents get tested. It is the most powerful office on earth. Enemies want to know the mettle of the individual. Allies want to understand their resolve. Mr. Trump is being tested on two foreign fronts: Syria and North Korea, and by their respective patrons: Russia and China. Mr. Trump’s initial responses have shown more steel than his predecessor’s, but have not been out of line with other Presidents.

Nevertheless, when he did respond with horror to the chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad’s Airforce on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed dozens of children, it was said he let emotion rule reason. When, within 72 hours, two U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Airbase and destroyed 20% of the 7th Wing of Assad’s Airforce, it was noted that the attacks violated his previous warnings about getting involved in a Mideast war. His condemnation of Mr. Putin as a co-conspirator in the chemical attack was met by disbelief from those who thought him Putin’s puppet. A President may not, and perhaps should not, always adhere to a campaign’s promises.

China’s President Xi Jing-ping was visiting President Trump at Mar-a-Lago when the missiles were launched against Syria. The timing, I am sure, was deliberate. President Xi is key to reining in Pyongyang.  While the media focused on misstatements regarding the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson, they ignored the fact of the proximity of the U.S. Naval Base at Sasebo, Japan, about 500 miles from Pyongyang. More importantly, Mr. Trump appears to have made headway with Mr. Xi, in terms of the risks North Korea poses. Last week The Financial Times reported that China was “…slowly coming to view its fellow Communist neighbor’s atomic tests and missile launches as a threat to its own security.”

Mr. Trump’s curriculum vitae is unique in the annals of American Presidents. He had never been in the military and had never held public office. He had been a businessman. The Trump Organization, LLC, was efficient. Like any business, it operated in favor of core stakeholders – owners, employees, customers and communities. In contrast, democracies are deliberately inefficient, so the rights of individuals will be protected by the balance between the three branches. That inefficiency may bother a man used to getting his way. As well, the President cannot bypass Congress and the Courts. Also, the main stakeholder is the citizen. Government employees, including all elected officials, are servants to the people.

Historically, American Presidents have campaigned from the fringes and governed nearer the center. That changed with Mr. Obama. He had campaigned as a centrist, but governed from the far left. Mr. Trump campaigned as a right-wing populist, but, as President, seems to be moving toward the center. As Holman Jenkins, Jr. recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Trump’s Presidency is coming into focus.” It is too early to conclude whether Mr. Trump’s selection of a cabinet and advisors and the decisions he has thus made reflect sound judgement, or suggest centrist leanings. Apart from Executive Orders, he has had few notable successes. But neither has he made an ass of himself. I remain cautiously encouraged.

So, is Trump an enigma? He is seen by some as the archetypal rich, white businessman. He is seen by supporters as having their back. He is seen by opponents as an authoritarian wannabe, a thin-skinned diva, or a loutish oaf intent on imperializing the Presidency. But I don’t think he is a mystery. The New York Times’ Peter Baker suggests he is driven by instinct, not ideology. In my opinion, he is a pragmatic man, driven by a strong (and unattractive) ego. He is not loveable – at least not to in the way Reagan or Bill Clinton were. He is a man who when presented with a problem wants to fix it. He is a man looking for answers in a complex and disjointed world. So, my answer is “no;” I don’t think he is an enigma.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"The Paris Accords Amidst Legions of Canute's Knights"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Paris Accords Amidst Legions of Canute’s Knights”
April 17, 2017

Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor wet my clothes or body of your Lord.”
                                                                                                King Canute’s order to the tide
                                                                                                Henry of Huntingdon (1080-1160)
                                                                                                Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon

The apocryphal King Canute placed his throne on the beach to demonstrate the fact that the power of kings was subservient to that of God. This is a message yet to be learned by those who believe that man can control the temperatures of earth – that man is more powerful than nature.

“Denier” is what “climate change absolutists” call those who, like me, acknowledge the fact of climate change and that man has played a significant part, but are skeptical that the precise magnitude of man’s effect is determinable, let alone dominant. “Denier” is the term used by those who profess moral and intellectual superiority to those they condemn as being in the pay of fossil-fuel lobbyists, or as being too stupid to understand what they claim is undeniable. “Denier” is what we are called, we who believe in evolution – that adaptability is key to survival – by those who, like Canute’s entourage, believe that man can compel the tide not to rise.

No reasonable person doubts man’s impact on the environment. He has dammed rivers, so that lands might be cultivated. He has developed energy sources, so that we might be comfortable in winter and summer. He has broken laws of gravity, so that we might travel through air and through space. He has built cities where marshes and virginal forests once stood, so that we might enrich our lives, form societies, educate our youth, finance our businesses, create employment, and erect museums and symphonies to exhibit the art we have created. We know we have had an impact. We also know all living things are interdependent. When one species becomes extinct, others must adapt or die; for change is a permanent feature of life.

Nations, like species, develop unevenly. With species, the ability to adjust to change is crucial. Among nations, survival is tied to liberty. Free men, living under the rule of law and with the prospect of private profit, are more willing to take risks, thus more likely to enjoy the fruits of creativity, ingenuity, perseverance and hard work. A victim and a beneficiary of the wealth created has been the natural world. We have exploited our resources, but we have allowed people to live with clean water and air.

Environmental extremists attack those who extract resources that help all, but they rarely acknowledge the benefits that industry and wealth have brought. When oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the woods of New England towns (like the one in New Hampshire where I grew up) were largely denuded, with trees used for heat, cooking and construction. Wood charcoal was used to make steel, before coal was first used around 1875. New York apartments ceased being heated by coal before the EPA was created. It has hard to imagine how we would live had fossil fuels not been discovered. We may rue the damage they have caused, but without them our lives would be absent comforts we take for granted; nor would we have the moneys they have generated, which have helped conserve our rivers, forests, mountains and beaches.

Government is important, in terms of guaranteeing basic rights, including the protection of private property and upholding the law. Government ensures the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe. But it is the private sector that has given us our most important advancements. Governments should encourage risk taking. Without industry, government would have no resources. Just as we moved on from wood, we will move on from fossil fuels – a process now underway. Markets and consumers adjust as new technologies develop. We get into trouble when change is forced on us before we and markets can adapt.

Government should not, in my opinion, pick winners and losers. Markets exist to test and to market new ideas, services and products, as well as to “discover” prices for consumers Nevertheless, the temptation to collude is great, as billions of dollars are at stake. Was it not hypocritical for former Vice President Al Gore, with his large, energy consuming home in Nashville, his access to a private plane and his fleet of SUVs, to make millions with his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and his speeches? And what about his sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, the part-state-owned news organization in the petroleum rich nation of Qatar? Mr. Gore has made about $200 million since leaving the Vice Presidency. What about those like Michael Moore, and the owners of the 1700 private jets who flew into Davos, Switzerland in 2015 to exploit global warming. It is hypocrisy and cronyism at their worst – private profits and public losses.  

We would all like to preserve things as they are, whether it is a moment in time, a relationship, a favorite pet, or endangered flora and fauna. But that is not the world. Over millions of years, the earth has warmed and cooled thousands of times. To assume reining in man’s excesses will lessen tornadoes and emasculate hurricanes ascribes to mankind powers Canute showed man does not have. Whether we will be able to adapt to extreme changes in temperatures is a question without answer. A more immediate concern is will man’s inclination toward hostility hasten his demise? It is why we should all be concerned with countries like North Korea and Islamic terrorist organizations, like ISIS. They have, to use a vernacular, “no skin in the game.” If our end should happen betimes, it is less likely to be because someone violated the Paris accords, and more likely because some rogue regime or group, with little to lose, pressed the wrong button.

The risk in the Left’s emphasis that man is principally responsible for weather changes is the concomitant belief that if man adheres to, for example, the Paris protocols, then all will be well – temperatures will moderate and seas will recede. But, what if climate zealots are wrong? What happens if, after man has reduced his carbon footprint, weather changes persist – the earth continues to warm (or cool) and seas continue to rise (or subside)? As temporary inhabitants of earth, we should do all we reasonably can to limit our environmental impact, but we must also be mindful that it is wealth, not poverty, that affords conservation. We tempt fate when we build in low-lying, flood-prone regions, or along coasts that are at risk of falling into the sea, or on known geological fault lines. Whom should we blame if disaster then strikes? Coal miners, oil companies, Republicans? Or those who built where they should not. We must, like all species, be responsible and learn to adapt.

There is more about nature that is unknown than known. The science of climate change is a constant and evolving process of discovery. We know more today than we did five years ago, and we will know even more five years from now. But we will not know everything. “Climate changers” refuse to believe that nature, not man, may be the crucial factor in changing weather patterns

The Paris Climate Agreement limits global warming to two degrees centigrade by the end of the century. The arrogance embedded in the precision of that demand suggests a mindset among climate apostles that reminds one of Canute’s knights – the belief that if man only reduced his carbon footprint, then oceans would recede, storms would abate, and the planet’s temperature would be limited to no more than two degrees. It is the conceit that offends. A sign inside the Old Royal Naval College in the Borough of Greenwich in London has greater pertinence: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

"Money in Politics and Transparency in Government"

I will be away traveling for two weeks, so the next essay will be published on April 24th.

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Money in Politics and Transparency in Government”
April 7, 2017

Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust.”
                                                                                                            Ivan Krastev (1965-)
                                                                                                            Bulgarian Political Scientist

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that democratic governments should be transparent. Elected leaders should be held accountable – and usually are, at the ballot box; but so should those who populate myriad agencies that have become increasingly powerful – dark recesses of the amorphous and expanding administrative state.

Total government spending – federal, state and local – accounts for more than $7 trillion. With so much money at stake, it is not surprising that corruption has become ubiquitous. It reminds one of Willie Sutton’s alleged response when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” The Capital, state houses and city halls are where the money is now. It’s no wonder that such symbols of democracy have become meccas for cronyism. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote about policemen in “A Gentleman of Leisure” in 2009, one could say about politicians today, “Some…are born grafters, some achieve graft, and some have graft thrust upon them.” Shining a light on government spending is a good thing. The public should know how their money is spent, and that has become the mission of organizations like To borrow a line from today’s news stories, it helps ‘unmask’ those who have breached our trust.

Like most, I worry about the amount of money in political campaigns. There are no simple solutions. In 2012, a seat in the U.S. Senate cost, on average, $10.5 million, Four years later, the cost had risen to $19.4 million. In all, an estimated $6.8 billion was spent in 2016 political campaigns. I am not in favor of federally funded campaigns, as that would favor incumbents and impede free speech. But I am for changing election laws so that only individuals and sole proprietorships be allowed to contribute to political campaigns – with names disclosed. When businesses, unions and eleemosynary institutions contribute to political campaigns, the decisions are made by managements, not shareholders, employees, union members or financial supporters. In fact, many unwilling donors are effectively coerced into supporting someone they would rather not. I prefer contribution limits, but question whether that would violate rights of free speech. However, the glare from Justice Brandeis’ disinfecting sunlight should reduce spending on political campaigns. Transparency in this realm is a good thing, except when the information gained is used by the IRS to target those whose political philosophies are antithetical to their own, as Lois Lerner could tell us.

The quest for money has become so dire for those seeking reelection that a legislator must spend valuable hours devoted to raising funds. In contrast to past decades, today’s members of Congress typically arrive in Washington Monday evening or Tuesday morning, departing late Thursday, leaving ample time to dial for dollars. While being with one’s constituents is good, time away from Washington means relationships with other members are not developed – a factor` that has helped contribute to today’s political gridlock.

The concept of government transparency dates to the Enlightenment and, in part, led to the American and French Revolutions. It was revealed in freedom of the press, public meetings and public budgeting. Transparency allows citizens of a democracy to better control their government, reduce corruption and bribery, to understand how elected officials vote, and to protect whistleblowers. Critical to that process is a free and unencumbered press. But a press only serves the electorate when it is unbiased and independent – that they be true reporters, not apologists and supporters of ideologies, as is common today.

In recent times, with the advent of radio, television and now the internet, public meetings that historically were venues for truth-seeking have become forums for political opportunists. When a legislator questions witnesses, he is less interested in facts and more concerned about the next election. It has been said Senator Chuck Schumer never met a camera he didn’t like – and there are 99 other U.S. Senators who have the same affliction. Much of what legislators do is best done away from inquiring eyes and ears. Thus, we have seen the rise of the administrative state, peopled by bureaucrats, in agencies like the State Department, the EPA and the IRS, with no accountability to the taxpayers for whom they work. Transparency is reserved for those who thrive in the public eye – politicians who flourish on publicity. Writing in the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled “The Transparency Trap,” David Frum warned of this phenomenon: “We have had campaign-finance reform, and reform of the seniority system in Congress and endless rounds of anticorruption measures in the federal government. Calls for ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ have meant more administrative and judicial supervision. In turn, power flows to impersonal institutions (agency review boards, courts, and so on) and away from elected leaders who can get things done – and who can be punished at the ballot box for delay and disappointment.”

Little that’s important today gets done on the floors of the two chambers. Most of it is for show, as TV cameras are to legislators as catnip is to cats. They amplify the partisanship we see in Congress. When on the floor, the legislator is on stage. Her audience are not fellow members, but those who put her in office. She is less likely to work for the good of the nation, and more likely to satisfy the demands of her narrow constituency. Consider health care and the Freedom Caucus. The mission of C-Span, created by the cable television industry in 1979 as a public service, is to make government more open to the American public. However, the unintended consequence has been to put legislators in constant campaign mode, playing to the noisiest in their Parties. Public hearings were once forums for people to offer opinions, vent frustrations and to better understand issues. They still are in small towns, but in Washington they have devolved into media circuses where Representatives and Senators use their airtime not to better understand what is being investigated, but to speak to constituents at home, looking for “high fives” – free advertising for expensive elections. As Tina Brown once said, “We live in a culture of destructive transparency.”

Increased transparency in government has not translated into better government; in fact, one might argue, the opposite.  Transparency was demanded, as Ivan Krastev made clear in the rubric at the top of this essay, because people had lost trust in their government. But, has it worked? While a recent Rasmussen poll of “likely” voters saw approval for Congress rise from 11% last July to 25% in February, the number still suggests that 75% disapprove. A Pew Research survey of trust in government, conducted in 2015, showed a mere 19% of Americans trusted government, versus 73% in 1958.

Transparency is tricky. It is critical to a well-functioning democracy. But we also need understand that the making of good legislation, like sausage, requires many ingredients/opinions. A final bill never gives 100% satisfaction to all, for it requires compromise, give-and-take, and an understanding that the needs of the nation supersede individual wants. In that regard, I would like to see the cameras removed – for at least part of the time – so that legislators might work together, away from that omnipresent lens, and with less focus on raising money. They might find there is legislation they can support in a bi-partisan fashion. They might even find they like one another. After all, we the people represent ideologies across a broad spectrum – we are not bunched at the extremes. And, believe it or not, some of my best friends are Democrats!