Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Burrowing into Books - Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings

                                                                                                                                     July 26, 2017

“Uneasy Money”
P.G. Wodehouse

He was rather a melancholy young man,
with a long face, not unlike a pessimistic horse.”
                                                                                                P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)
                                                                                                Uneasy Money, 1917

Laughter, it is said, keeps one young, and what better place to find humor than in the books of P.G. Wodehouse. One can never read too much Wodehouse, nor re-read one’s favorites too often. He wrote over a hundred novels, dozens of short stories, along with scripts and screen plays. He teamed up with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern to write lyrics for Broadway shows like “Oh, Boy!” “Have a Heart” and “Leave it too Jane.” In fact, the year Wodehouse wrote Uneasy Money he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

While Wodehouse never went to University – his schooling ended with graduation from Dulwich College in 1900 – he was well read, especially in the classics. Wodehouse used Jeeves, a valet for Bertie Wooster who ate fish and whose forehead bulged, as his fount of knowledge, particularly when speaking to the hapless Wooster and his friends. In the Clicking of Cuthbert, Wodehouse placed himself next to Leo Tolstoi. His character, the “great” Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff speaks: “No novelists anywhere any good except me. P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.”

Uneasy Money is one of Wodehouse’s early novels, written in 1917. It was the second novel he sold to the “Saturday Evening Post,” cementing his relationship with that magazine, thus always one of Wodehouse’s favorites. As he writes in its preface, it had given him a “…minimum of trouble, the golden words pouring out like syrup.” It came before his better-known works: the stories of Jeeves and Bertie, and the Blandings’ series, with Lord Emsworth and his “Empress of Blandings,” an enormous black Berkshire sow. Uneasy Money which mainly takes place on Long Island, was written while the author was living there.

Lord Dawlish, or Bill to his friends, is a young man of large stature whose principal assets are a pleasing personality and a good game of golf. While amiable, he had low self-esteem: “He had always looked upon himself as rather a chump – well meaning, perhaps, but an awful ass.” Wodehouse describes him: “As a dancer, he resembled a Newfoundland puppy trying to run across a field.” He is engaged to a beautiful young actress Claire, but she doesn’t want to live on a shoestring. Without giving the story away – too convoluted for a short review anyway – Bill, by chance and due to his prowess at golf, inherits a million dollars, but feels the need to discover who the rightful beneficiaries were, thus his embarkation from London to New York. Bill admits to having little knowledge about the new world: “He knew there had been some unpleasantness between England and the United States in seventeen-something and again in eighteen-something, but that things had eventually been straightened out…Of American cocktails he had a fair working knowledge, and he appreciated ragtime. But of the other great American institutions he was completely ignorant.”

As in all his novels, the ball of twisted twine eventually untangles. The right young men get matched with the right young women. The sun shines. Peace and love prevail. And the reader, like the characters we have come to know, sits back contentedly in the knowledge that all is well.  For Wodehouse, like his lovable character Uncle Fred, knew his job was to “spread sweetness and light.” This he still does, even from beyond the grave.

Read Wodehouse, any of his books, and you will smile all day long! J

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Term Limits Revisited"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Term Limits Revisited”
July 23, 2017

Will Rogers once said, it is not the original investment in a Congressman that counts; it is the upkeep.”
                                                                                                President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

Daniel Webster spent a total of 27 years in the Senate and the House and served as Secretary of State for three Presidents. So, he knew whereof he spoke when he once warned: “Now is the time when men work quietly in the fields and women weep softly in the kitchen; the legislature is in session.” Today, his words sound dated and, perhaps, sexist, but his meaning resonates. Congress can be dangerous to our health. Webster understood power – its benefits, its temptations, its iniquity.  To the good, it is a means to improve society; to the impressionable, it is an aphrodisiac; to opportunists, a venue for harm.

It is true that our representatives no longer represent us as they once did. Demographics prove the point. In 1800, there were 32 Senators and 106 House members, representing a population of 5.3 million people, or one for every 38,400 people. By 1900, the population of the U.S. was just over 76 million. We were represented by 90 Senators and 357 members of Congress, or one representative per 170,000 residents. Today, with a population of 321 million, 100 Senators and 435 House members, each member represents, on average, over 600,000 residents. Our representatives are less representative. However, the adaption of social media and changes in communication and travel should mean they are not isolated, that they should be able to better understand and be more responsive to the needs of the people. Somehow, that doesn’t seem true. They live, it appears, as secluded as the gods once did on Mt. Olympus.

The arguments used to support term limits tend to congregate around the idea that our representatives are out of touch; that party affiliation is more important than the wants and needs of constituents; that cronyism has become endemic and costs of campaigns, along with the time required to raise funds, take their toll. Term limits would encourage more active participation, and representatives would be freer to use judgement rather than heeding the demands of lobbyists. Term limits would promote fresh ideas and empower more quickly new arrivals to the Senate or the House. There are times when Congress absolves itself of laws it imposes on constituents. Ruth Bader Ginsburg made that point: “One might plausibly contend that Congress violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers when it exonerates itself from the imposition of laws it obligates people outside the legislature to obey.”

After an election, approval for Congress typically rises. People assume that the new Congress will enact laws championed by the victors during the campaign. But, inevitably they disappoint. The 2016 election was no exception. Congressional approval rose to 39% in January, but has subsequently slipped to 20%, according to Gallup, about where it was before the election. Bickering and rancor returned. Egos prevent accommodation. Whichever party is in control follows the advice of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long: “I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite them out of my path.”

With a love for cameras and an eye on C-Span, members of Congress spend hours investigating opponents. They lean toward cronyism and have become ineffectual in terms of critical legislation. As well, it is a lucrative place to work. A study for the years 2004-2012, done three years ago by Ballotpedia, looked at the net worth (and changes in net worth) of elected officials in Washington and compared it to the average American. For the first time in history, most members of Congress were millionaires, while 50% of Americans could not afford to spend $5,000 in an emergency. During those eight years which included the “great recession,” the median American saw his net worth decline by 8%, while members of Congress saw their net worth increase by 13 percent. The “swamp” became more putrefied.

Yet, despite these arguments I have changed my opinion regarding term limits. I don’t see them as an answer to our problems. First, it is unlikely Congress would ever limit themselves. It is a will–o’–the–wisp that advocates for term limits are chasing. While the arrogance and hypocrisy of Nany Pelosi are reasons for term limits, the vigor and common sense of Paul Ryan are reasons to let the system stay. And there have been giants in the past – people like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Arthur Vandenberg and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. John Quincy Adams spent twenty-two years in the House and Senate when not serving as President, envoy to the UK, or minister to Russia and Prussia. Would the nation have been better served if these men had been forced out because of term limits?

There are additional arguments for letting the system remain: Most important, in a democracy people should be free to vote for whom they please. Also, experience has value, and the good would get tossed out with the bad. Familiarity among members should help bi-partisanship, though that has not been the case over the past several years. Critically, strong leaders in Congress can thwart a President who assumes too much power. Some believe cronyism would be reduced by limits. J. Scott Applewhite, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote a column about states that had adopted term limits, in which he suggested otherwise: “The legislators elected after term limits were imposed often lack knowledge of the details of many complex policies and turn to lobbyists for information.” The evidence is mixed as to whether term limits have been positive for the balance sheets of states. Using the 2017 Mercatus Center ranking of states, the bottom five states – Maryland, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey – do not have term limits. But, neither do three of the top five states – North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The other two states among the top five – Florida and South Dakota – do use term limits.[1]

The problems we face are broader and deeper than simply term limits. They are a consequence of a culture of relativism that has arisen out of fear of offending those whose values are different. It has emerged from the bog of political correctness that does not recognize good and evil, right from wrong. We have become a society that dismisses the concept of a “melting pot” by encouraging pluralism. We foster dependency, endangering personal responsibility and we claim multiculturalism is superior to a universal moral sense.

We live in a “me-first,” “selfie” world that places fame and fortune above tolerance and respect. We have institutionalized care for the aged and disabled, forgoing personal compassion, while freeing the individual to focus on him or herself. Style subsumes substance. We promise entitlements without regard to their cost. Many universities have eliminated (or lessened in importance) liberal arts and the classics, relaters of morals and tellers of universal truths, courses which afford students a better sense of self and provide the perspective of history. Unhealthy partisanship has replaced healthy skepticism, as biases dominate universities and the media.

Term limits for the Presidency are good, as executive power has increased since Franklin Roosevelt entered office eight-five years ago. But, as for Congress – it is for us, the voters, to responsibly elect decent people, those of character, not blowhards or those who exaggerate or lie about their heritage and history. There is much in our country that needs fixing, but term limits for Congress will not solve the problems.

[1] Party affiliation appears more important than term limits as to the financial well-being of a state. The legislatures in all five of the states in the soundest financial position are controlled by Republicans, while the legislatures in four of the five states with the worst financial conditions are controlled by Democrats.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Trump in Warsaw"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump in Warsaw”
July 17, 2017

Finally, on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted with yet another danger – one firmly
 in our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork
 and regulation, but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
                                                                                                            Donald Trump
                                                                                                            Krasinski Square, Warsaw
                                                                                                            July 6, 2017

Put aside, for a moment, the hysteria over the alleged collusion between team Trump and Russia and no matter one’s personal feeling toward the President, consider the importance of what was said in Warsaw.

Where else but in the West[1] have people and nations benefitted from the democratic concepts of self-rule, rule of law, the sanctity of private ownership, freedoms of movement, press, religion and speech? What else, other than free-market capitalism, has positively transformed people’s financial well-being, lifted them from poverty, improved their environment, and given them the means to help others? Where else have people been able to question their leaders without endangering themselves and their families?

Should we not, then, as Donald Trump suggested in his July 6th speech, ensure we have the “will” to defend those ideals? Or should we, as Lawrence Summers suggested in a recent op-ed in The Financial Times, stay silent for fear of alienating “the vast majority of humanity that does not live in what the President considers to be the West”? It was liberty, and its defense, about which Mr. Trump spoke so eloquently. “Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out…”

Krasinski Square, the sight of the failed Warsaw uprising against the Nazis in 1944 was the right venue for Mr. Trump to speak about the rarity and fragility of democracy, of how difficult it is to gain and how easily it can be lost. He talked of outsiders who wish to do us harm and of insiders, professing to do good but in truth seeking power. Poland was brutalized by the Nazis for five years, and then occupied for another forty-five years by Soviet Communists who shut down opposition and killed dissenters. It has been 242 years since we had to fight for our rights. Poles have had to do so for most of my lifetime. They understand what tyranny, no matter its origin, can do to the human spirit and to civilized society.

Over the past decade, the world has become more unstable, and more dangerous. Russia has reasserted herself from the Ukraine to the Baltic. China has threatened trade routes through the South China Sea. Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, along with the expansion of myriad Islamic extremist groups from Pakistan to Egypt, have destabilized further an already unstable Middle East, and unleashed a wave of refugees into Europe. Syria’s civil war has caused the death of 12% of its population and displaced another 50%. With its arsenal of nuclear weapons and its desire to produce a stable of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea threatens nations from Asia to the United States. This has happened within the context of a slow-growth global economy where lax immigration rules have allowed in terrorists, and where migrants perform cheap labor for industrial countries like Germany. It is a world in which excess regulation has hampered economic growth, and in which technological changes challenge traditional businesses, affecting everything from retail and communications, to banking and energy. And making things even sketchier has been the threat of cyber-attacks and the proliferation of social media. Mark Zuckerberg’s influence on our culture risks becoming more powerful than our Christian-Judeo heritage. 

When not beating him up on charges of “colluding” with the Russians, mainstream media claims Mr. Trump’s policies augur a withdrawing into a nativist fortress, pulling up the drawbridge and waiting out the storm. But that’s not what I read in his Warsaw speech: “Defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will…The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who subvert and destroy it?”  He spoke of the need for a strong defense: “A strong Poland is a blessing to the nations of Europe, and they know that. A strong Europe is a blessing to the West and the world.” “There is nothing,” he added, “like our community of nations.” These are not the words of an isolationist, or of a man who would choose to act unilaterally. These are the words of a realist, a world leader who challenges his fellow Western leaders to not falter in the face of those who would harm us. It was a speech of hope to people who understand tyranny and know repression.

It wasn’t just the threat of Islamic terrorism that Mr. Trump addressed in Poland, it was also the insidious growth of government agencies and bureaucracies, something denied by its progenitors, today’s progressive Western leaders. The danger is the one quoted in the rubric at the head of this essay: “…the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and the wealth of the people.”  These forces, Mr. Trump said, “…threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.” Mr. Trump’s concern is not unlike the one H.G. Wells expressed of in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, where he wrote of the Eloi – a people weakened by a government that provides cradle-to-grave care and who were subsequently terrorized by Morlocks. Mr. Trump quoted the Polish martyr Bishop Michael Kozal who was killed at Dachau in 1943: “More horrifying than a defeat of arms is a collapse of the human spirit.” The President’s message would have reverberated through classrooms, if students were studying history and classics, instead of politically-correct, designer courses meant to promote self-esteem.

Within this fast-changing world, many in the West seem heedless of the hurricane bearing down. Instead of addressing real concerns in Hamburg, leaders chose to issue toothless communiques designed to make them feel good. Style, to these smug bureaucrats, is more important than substance. Today’s Western leaders and bureaucrats are eerily reminiscent of the “sleepwalkers” who led Europe to catastrophe in 1914.  They remind one of Russian aristocrats, nonchalant in their obliviousness and comfortable in their servant-infested parlors, in early 1917, unconcerned about revolutionaries amassed outside their palaces. The world is changing, and they sit snug in their complacency.

It was for these reasons that Mr. Trump’s speech in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square was so needed and so important. It was a celebration of Western values, which have been side-lined, but which have brought individual liberty. It highlighted the demarcation between a subversive state, which may appear “caring” but that promotes dependency, versus one in which a free people make choices, to rise or fall based on merit, which, at times, may seem heartless, but which guarantees the liberties embedded in our Bill of Rights. A “caring” state promises the comforts portrayed in the “Life of Julia,” or offers the God-like attitudes of the British state toward little Charlie Gard. But the risks of such bureaucratic growth is the subtlety in which it endangers personal liberty. We don’t want anarchy, but we don’t want to be suffocated. We want the freedoms guaranteed us. To paraphrase William Buckley, it is, after all, the self-righteous elite who are more dangerous to freedom than a nation’s masses.

[1] The West, in this context, should be considered Europe, the English-speaking countries and Japan.