Monday, April 3, 2017

"The Month That Was - March 2017"

Sydney M. Williams

                                                                                                                                         April 3, 2017

The Month That Was – March 2017

Indoors or out, no one relaxes
in March, that month of wind and taxes.
The wind will presently disappear,
The taxes last us all the year.”
                                                                                                Ogden Nash (1902-1971)
                                                                                                “Thar She Blows,” Versus, 1949

In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer confronts Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March,” he warns. In 44BC, the Ides foretold the death of Caesar. In 2017, they portended a difficult month, domestically and globally. Creating further mistrust among already polarized Americans has been a rash of “fake” news, which I define as not just news that is blatantly false, but news that is based on innuendos and half-truths. One example: A week ago, a column in The New York Times carried the headline, “Amid ‘Trump Effect,’ Fear: 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applications.” It was half true. The survey found that 39% of responding institutions did see a decline in applications, but 35% saw an increase and 26% had no change.  

The allegation that Putin interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Donald Trump is predicated on the likelihood that Russia did try to interfere in the election. It should not surprise us. Interference in elections is something competing nations do. However, the implication that Putin would have preferred Trump, an untested politician and a man characterized as volatile, stupid and xenophobic, is nonsensical. It is unlikely he would have preferred Mr. Trump to Mrs. Clinton, a woman he knows – and perhaps dislikes – but who he had been able to use for his benefit. Think of Russian ties to the Clinton Foundation and Russian purchase of U.S. uranium assets, with help from the Clintons. Consider the Podesta brothers. It makes no sense that Putin would have preferred the unknown to the known.

The assertion by Mr. Trump that Obama wiretapped him has been met with derision and disbelief. While it appears far-fetched, intercepted communications among the Trump transition team were uncovered in an investigation into links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald Trump, at least according to an article in The New York Times by Michael Schmidt, Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo on January 19, 2017. The article begins: “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications…into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump.” Further on, they add, One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided by the [Obama] White House.” Are we now witnessing the uncovering of a massive ‘cover-up’?

In 2013, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid detonated the nuclear option for all judicial nominations, other than for the Supreme Court. Would it be surprising if current Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell invokes the nuclear option for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch if Democrats filibuster? Polarization has poisoned our politics. It has made us less civil. Would Republicans treat an incoming Democrat President, in four years or eight years, with dignity or with disdain?

At the end of the month British Prime Minister Theresa May sent a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk formally beginning the separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Korean Peninsula became dangerously unstable. An election in Holland further advanced the nationalist cause, even though Leftists took heart that Geert Wilders’ gains were less than feared.

Congressional Republicans failed to muster the necessary votes to repeal and replace ObamaCare. That was a disappointment for Mr. Trump, a man who prides himself on his ability to negotiate a deal. The legislation, while not perfect, would have been the first step in a three-step process. It never had support of Democrats, and it alienated the Freedom Caucus who want repeal before replacement, regardless of the uncertainty or pain some healthcare consumers would have experienced. But, I suspect that this was not Trump’s Waterloo, and that predictions of Republican losses in 2018 are premature. There is a theory that states a loss may be healthy. Too much success leads to arrogance, and a sense one can do no wrong. Pride is a vice; humility a virtue; though you wouldn’t know that to watch our tax dollars at work. Anthony Trollope, in his novel Framley Parsonage, wrote: “When a man has nailed his fortune to his chariot wheels he is apt to travel about in rather a proud fashion.” The loss may cause the Administration to re-think the process of legislation – that collaboration is better than unilateralism. Keep in mind, early in his Administration, President Reagan, the “amiable muddler who based Reaganomics on the belief the economic pie, has three halves,” was treated with the same disrespect as Mr. Trump. Only later was Mr. Reagan recognized as a transformative President.

Of course, inter-Party cooperation assumes partnership is still possible in a politically antithetical world. The dust up between Representatives Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes tells us the Parties are poles apart. Also, one wouldn’t call Democrats’ reaction to President Trump’s first address to Congress respectful. Recall the gaggle of “ladies in white” who, stone-faced, sat on their hands during his speech? More positively, President Trump did have a series of meetings with foreign leaders: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon and Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq.

In other news internationally, North Korea launched four missiles into the Sea of Japan. Reaction was swift. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that nothing was off the table, including a military strike. Mr. Tillerson’s insistence that a “new approach” was needed was pooh-poohed by a press grown weary of hearing the same words from previous administrations. But with North Korea fast approaching the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles – missiles capable of reaching mainland United States – new steps will have to be taken. The Country is a rogue state, with little to lose in a major confrontation.

Khalid Masood, a home-grown Islamic extremist, using a car and a knife, killed four and wounded forty in an attack in London near the houses of Parliament. The term “lone wolf” is misleading, as people like Mr. Masood, who act alone, are radicalized by others, either on-line or in mosques. The attack was a reminder that the West is not exempt from the violence of Islamic extremism. An influx of Muslim migrants and Islamic attacks are having a political fallout in Europe. The Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs, in a report just released, surveyed 10,000 people in ten countries: Should all further migration from mainly Muslim countries be stopped? Fifty-five percent said yes. Turkey’s relations with Europe frayed during the month. Referring to April’s referendum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Europeans to allow Turkish ministers to address the 4.6 million Turks living in Europe regarding upcoming elections. Elections in five India states gave a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Marine Le Pen met with, and sought an endorsement from, Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The battle for Mosul in Iraq bloodied civilians as the month ended.

Consumer confidence (put out by the Conference Board) was the highest since December 2000; though Consumer sentiment (based on a University of Michigan survey) was slightly below expectations. Margin debt, an indication of investor confidence, rose to record dollar levels, totaling 2.5% of market capitalization. The DJIA, for the first time since the November election, was modestly lower for the month; though for the quarter it was up 4.6 percent. Snapchat went public in the largest IPO ($24 billion) since Facebook’s in 2012. The February jobs report showed an increase of 235,000 jobs, with 298,000 added in the private sector. Unemployment rose to 4.7%, as more people returned to the workforce. The Federal Reserve raised Fed Funds rates for the third time, to one percent. The Treasury yield curve flattened for the quarter, with Three-month, Six-month and Two-year Treasuries falling in price, while Five-year, Ten-year and Thirty-year Treasuries rose. The U.S. Dollar Index fell about 1.5 percent.

One of the sillier news items was the foofaraw made over the “Fearless Girl” statue in New York City, sculpted by Kristen Visbal and installed on March 8. “Fearless Girl” is facing down “Charging Bull,” a statue erected in 1987, in wake of the largest, single-day stock market correction since 1929. The purpose of “Charging Bull” was to show the strength and resilience of the capitalist system and of all the American people. Arturo Di Modica, its sculptor, wants “Fearless Girl” removed. Supporters of identity politics claim “Fearless Girl” stands for womanhood against male power. The State Department approved the Keystone Pipeline, something they had done six years ago, before construction was blocked by the Obama White House. Mr. Trump’s Cabinet has still not been fully approved, but one factor is already noticeable – a dearth of lawyers that would make Shakespeare happy. As of this writing, only three lawyers are in the Cabinet. That would compare to the four previous Administrations where lawyers comprised between 40% and 70% of appointees. Trump haters are not limited to elites, pundits and Democrats. “Snoop Dogg” released a video, “Lavender,” in which he aims a handgun at the head of a clown dressed as Mr. Trump. We are supposed to laugh when he pulls the trigger and out pops a red and white flag that reads “Bang.” He joins other celebrities, like Madonna and Adam Pally, who find the idea of killing the President amusing. The posting of nude photos of female Marines was a violation of privacy, and Marine Commandant General Robert Neller faced a grilling at a Senate hearing. But the real fault lay with the Marines, in allowing such photos to be taken in the first place. The lesson: the internet is a public vehicle. Whatever gets put on it – words, photos or videos – will likely find itself in disreputable hands. Connecticut women’s basketball win-streak ended at 111 games, when they were defeated by Mississippi State 66-64 in overtime.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the Huron Report which tracks China’s wealthiest people, the 200 richest Chinese lawmakers are worth more than $500 billion. It pays to be a politician in China, even more than the U.S. At the UN, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley boycotted a weeklong session of the Human Rights Council. According to UN Watch, in the decade since inception, the Council has condemned Israel 18 times, more than any other country – a list that includes such blatant violators of human rights as North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Gambia, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Venezuela, not to mention China and Russia. All these countries, according to the UN, respect human rights more than Israel! A 221-pound gold coin, the “Big Maple Leaf,” was stolen from the Bode Museum in Berlin. Astute German authorities said they suspected more than one person was involved! In a gruesome death, an Indonesian farmer died after being swallowed whole by a python.

The grim reaper was busy. Chuck Berry died at 90. He was Rock ‘n Roll to those of us who were teen-agers in the ‘50s, with hits like, “Johnny b. Goode,” Maybelline” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Roger Wilkens, a champion of civil rights for five decades, died at 85. Jimmy Breslin, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, died at 88. Lynne Stewart, lawyer for radicals, succumbed at 77. And David Rockefeller, the last of John D. Rockefeller’s grandchildren died at 101. He had studied economics with Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard and Friedrich Hayek at Oxford – two of the clearest-thinking economists of the 20th Century.

March entered, frigid and blustery. It departed amid rain and wind, not like a lamb, but like a Billy Goat. “April,” as Shakespeare wrote in one of his Sonnets, “hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” It sure did for me, when, on April 11th, fifty-three years ago, I married the lovely woman who is still my bride.

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