Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"The Month That Was - October 2017"

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was
“October 2017”
October 31, 2017

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.”
                                                                                                A Boy’s Will,1915
                                                                                                Robert Frost (1874-1963)

October 24th marked the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia. The rise of Communism gave birth to the world’s deadliest ideology – far worse than Nazism and Fascism, in terms of the number of people subjected to imprisonment, terror and death. Yet does the world associate Communism with evil commensurate with its history? I think not. In the Soviet Union alone, subtracting the number of Soviet soldiers and citizens killed in World II, an estimated twenty million were killed by Stalin. About forty-five million were killed in China by Mao Zedong. Between seven and ten million Ukrainians died during the Soviet-inspired “Holodomor,” in 1932-33. Approximately two million Cambodians – almost a third of the population – died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Millions were killed in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, East Germany, Rumania, Bulgaria, Ethiopia and other places. Communism killed as many people as died in the two world wars of the last century. As Bruce Thornton, classicist and Hoover research fellow recently put it, its history is a “…road to utopia [that] runs over mountains of corpses. Today, it is not Communism that concerns us, but its half-brother Socialism. Despite its failure in places like Venezuela and in Europe where unrestrained Muslim immigration has created segregated neighborhoods and increased government dependency, it has become popular in the U.S. among followers of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

During the month, elections were held in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and a re-run, in Africa (Kenya). Elections in Austria and the Czech Republic moved both countries to the right, meaning people are still concerned about terrorism, immigration and economic growth. Sebastian Kurz will become, at age 31, Europe’s youngest leader, when he assumes the Chancellorship of Austria. In the Czech Republic, Andrei Babis, former finance minister, populist and billionaire businessman, won a “thumping” victory, as Prime Minister-designate. The Catalans declared independence, and Spain’s parliament granted Prime Minister Rajoy powers to enforce union. Catalonia has simmered a long time. In 2006, Madrid promised the region increased autonomy. Four years later – amidst recession and financial crisis – they reneged on that promise. This is a story of disillusionment with bureaucratic and distant administrative governments run by elites. While immigration was pivotal in Brexit, the bigger problem is politicians who are deaf to the people they represent and who are unaffected by the policies they promote. We are witnessing a backlash against hypocrisy, arrogance and authoritarianism, in Brussels, Madrid and other capitals.  

In Japan, Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won its third landslide victory. Abe, an ally of the U.S. and a friend of President Trump, is an advocate for more defense spending. He benefitted from North Korea’s militant rhetoric and an improved economy. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif returned as Prime Minister and as head of the Pakistan Muslim League two months after being disqualified on charges of corruption. In Argentina, President Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal Party increased its seats in both the legislature and the senate, while former president Christina Kirchner’s Justicialist Party lost seats. A re-run of August’s race in Kenya was won again by current president Uhuru Kenyatta.

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces took back the Al-Omar oil fields – Syria’s most productive – from ISIS forces, fields that had been captured in 2014. Elsewhere, Islamic terrorists persisted in their work. Almost 400 people died in Somalia, when separate truck and car bombs exploded, the work of al-Shabaab militants. In Marseilles, two women were stabbed to death by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar.” The assailant was shot dead. At least seventeen died in Cameroon, in two provinces bordering Nigeria. In all, over 700 people died during the month at the hands of Islamic extremists. Good news came toward the end of the month, when 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon said his country would return to “moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” It should be remembered that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

A Chinese Communist Party’s recent meeting positioned China’s President Xi Jinping as “pre-eminent leader,” with added powers and no successor, something not seen since Mao Zedong. It ends a period of collective leadership. Following an illness that infected U.S. embassy personnel in Havana, fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from their embassy in Washington. The Iran nuclear deal was not re-certified by President Trump, as required every three months, but sent to Congress for ratification.

Fifty-eight people were killed and 489 wounded by a lone gunman in Las Vegas. Almost immediately, anti-gun politicians politicized the tragedy, ignoring the fact that it is the person pulling the trigger who is at fault, not the weapon. Nevertheless, a question: how was Stephen Paddock able to buy so many high-powered rifles legally in such a short period? Technology today is such that red flags should have been raised when he purchased the third, fourth through eighteenth assault rifle. Was he planning on arming a regiment? The internet should allow for a repository of gun-purchase information available to all legitimate gun dealers. General John Kelly’s sterling defense of Donald Trump’s call to a bereaved Gold Star widow was politicized by a callow member of Congress with no sense of dignity or respect. The condemnation of Harvey Weinstein’s despicable behavior toward women set off a deluge of accusations against other men, including a ridiculous accusation that 93-year-old, wheel chair-bound, ex-President George H.W. Bush misbehaved toward a young woman.

Russian interference in last year’s election became more complex. Robert Mueller indicted Paul Manafort, a former campaign chairman for Mr. Trump, and Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates. They were charged in a 12-point indictment, including conspiracy to commit money laundering. Also, it was disclosed that Hillary Clinton and the DNC paid $12.4 million to the Washington Law firm, Perkins Coie. The law firm then used the money to pay the Washington research firm Fusion GPS to hire discredited, retired British spy Christopher Steele. He, in turn, paid unknown and unidentified Russians to tell stories about Mr. Trump, in reckless disregard as to whether the stories were true or not. Specifically, who in the Clinton campaign and who at the DNC authorized those payments remains a mystery. Fusion GPS has refused to testify. The United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence began investigations into the 2013 purchase by Rosatom, a state-owned Russian uranium company (and a contributor to the Clinton Foundation) of Canadian-based Uranium One, which produces 20% of the U.S.’s uranium – a deal approved by the Obama Administration, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

A budget resolution was passed by both houses of Congress that allows a tax bill to be approved with a simple majority. That vote is expected by the end of the year. The Supreme Court began a new term with a full complement of nine justices. Issues will include the right of a baker to refuse to supply a wedding cake to same-sex couples and the right of a federal employee to refuse to pay union dues. In a speech at Harvard, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke, amid catcalls, of how school choice for the poor and disadvantaged empowers families, creates room for healthy diversity and is consistent with historic aims of public education. Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard, explained that President Trump’s “calm before the storm” comment was a message to North Korea and Iran.

Despite Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, U.S. GDP grew at 3% in the third quarter, surprising most economists. While most markets were calm during the month, the Bitcoin price soared 40%. In October, Goldman Sachs reported they would trade the crypto-currency. But trading an instrument is not the same as recommending it. Volatility and liquidity are what traders want. October 19th marked the 30th anniversary of “Black Monday,” a non-event this year. Amazon asked states and municipalities to bid on a second headquarters. Warren Buffett, whom it is better to watch what he does than what he says, bought a controlling stake in Pilot J Travel Centers, the owner of truck stops – sellers of coffee, food and fuel. The market’s calm bewilders me, but tech stocks are on fire. Pay Pal’s market capitalization now exceeds that of American Express. The market capitalization of Apple is greater than the combined values of General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney and Dow/DuPont. The Senate voted relief to banks from class-action lawsuits, which have always been a boon to trial lawyers and meaningless for individual plaintiffs. Jerome Powell, a current Fed Governor, is expected to be named Fed Chairman.

In other news, an imperious EU Parliament asked British Prime Minister Theresa May to fire Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The U.S. (finally) dropped out of UNESCO, citing an anti-Israel bias. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, reputedly by ISIS. (American GIs serve in 150 countries.) Despite such weapons proliferating, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  The Nobel Prize for literature was won by the Japanese-born, British author, Kazuo Ishiguro. NASA reported that signals reached Earth of two collapsed stars that smashed into one another 130 million years ago. Nigerian terrorist, Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the “underwear bomber” filed suit in the U.S., claiming his jail conditions are too tough.

Fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, California, killed forty-two, destroyed 8,400 structures and created $1 billion in insured losses. A group of protestors supported by Antifa said they wanted to “deface” Columbus Day. Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist with the University of Chicago. won the Nobel Prize for economics. The Boy Scouts of America, which has seen membership drop 40% over the past 45 years, said they will now admit girls. A “hostile” take-over? The opioid crisis was declared a National Emergency by the President. Vietnam veteran and medic, Captain Gary Michael Rose was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery during a just-declassified operation in Laos, in September 1970. In an example of beautiful irony, the group behind the “Fearless Girl” statue on lower Broadway in New York agreed to pay $5 million, to settle claims by 305 women employees that their pay was unequal to men in similar positions. With fears of white supremacists on campuses and an absence of common sense, a Michigan State student misidentified a shoelace for a noose. Heritage High School in Wake Forest, North Carolina joined a chorus of politically-correct schools. They will no longer name a valedictorian, citing unhealthy competition among students. And “Lulu,” a young black lab, flunked the CIA’s explosive detection “puppy class,” indicating labs may be smarter than their reputation.

Antoine Domino, better known as “Fats,” died at age 89. His recordings of “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t It a Shame” are among my favorites. Succumbing at the same age was Robert Guillaume, unforgettable to millions as “Benson.” And, I lost a good friend, amateur actor, author, former Wall Street Journal editor and fellow Drones Club member, Ned Crabb.

We move on to November, the month in which we celebrate the bounty of our harvests, and during which we prepare for joyful, though commerce-fixated, holidays.


Monday, October 23, 2017

"A Political Philosophy"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Political Philosophy[1]
October 23, 2017

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when
 they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than
 generally understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”
                                                                 John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
                                                                 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936

In universities, we were exposed – at times through the lens of prejudicial teachers, but ones with less bias than today – to the writings of political philosophers, from Socrates to Locke to Marx. We glimpsed the ancient Greeks and Romans. We read history and surveyed the Bible.  We grazed on the works of economists, like Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. While most of us did not study these philosophers and economists in detail, they were, at least, unmasked for our inspection. We were taught to think – to reason for ourselves – to determine what principles would help guide us past the Scyllas and the Charybdis’ we were bound to encounter. Today, too much focus in our universities is on issue-specific, special studies that pass as education.

It is the ability to think independently that is critical for democracy. Today, that is at risk. STEM programs help with jobs, but a vibrant democracy depends on a broadly educated electorate. For most older American, the concepts of personal liberty and economic freedom, along with a legacy of democracy and respect for institutions, are deeply ingrained. These beliefs have kept us free and democratic. Yet, youth today seems less critical, less challenging of their teachers. They believe what they hear and read in the mainstream media and on social media. The threat to democracy comes not from coarse, loud-mouthed people like Mr. Trump, but from subtle, cavalier politicians who surreptitiously insinuate themselves into our minds under the guise of doing good. To me, the biggest risk to our country is from within – elitists on both coasts, in the media, academia and in Washington, who use the threat of populism as justification for plutocracy.

Politics is an empirical process. Ours has changed over the past two hundred plus years, adapting to differing conditions and mores. The President is more isolated and more powerful. Congress has not expanded in line with the population growth, and has ceded responsibility to the Executive. Today, the judiciary (at least, those who are not activists) and local government most closely resemble what the Founders envisioned. Politicians, regardless of Party, exude an arrogance that sets them above those they represent. Many are hypocrites, spouting promises, with no intention of upholding them; passing laws, while exempting themselves; beholden to lobbyists and special interests, rather than the people; pledging prudence, but practicing profligacy. They use identity politics, which are counter-productive to assimilation and unity, leading, as they do, toward pluralism – a salad bowl instead of a melting pot.

Beware dogmatism born of ignorance. Like all self-respecting pundits, I see things I like and things I don’t. I have beliefs, and I have doubts. I do not believe climate skeptics are deniers, or that extremists come only from the Right, or that Francis Fukuyama was correct in proclaiming that the fall of the Soviet Union represented the end of history. I do not want to be lectured to by a supercilious Al Gore on climate – a man who made millions, while frightening gullible innocents. I do not want to be instructed on morality by cocky, ethically-challenged late-night hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. I do not want to be preached to by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton on civility in politics, when they look upon conservatives as gun-toting, Bible-thumping “deplorables.” I do not want to listen to anti-Trump rants from sanctimonious Ivy League professors, hiding behind ivory towers. I don’t like duplicity or hypocrisy. I don’t like those who invoke identity politics, and I don’t respect those who use public fame to generate private wealth. I do not believe that any country, government, system or political party is perfect, but I do believe ours comes closest. I do like a sense of humor, civility and respect. I also believe that citizens have the responsibility to be conversant on matters of public policy, or, at least within reason, and that they should always exercise their right to vote. While unions have served a useful purpose, in recent times public sector ones have become more interested in preserving jobs and benefits, regardless of the costs to taxpayers. As well, in impeding progress by delaying or denying innovation, they have become advocates for the status quo.

We learn through discussion and debate, not propaganda-filled lectures. Life is a constant learning process. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, science has altered the lens through which we view the world. Religious faith had to be reconciled with Darwin’s findings. What had been certain gave way to doubt. But doubt led to creativity, and to improvements in living standards. Before the Industrial Revolution, our forefathers could predict what life would be like for their descendants. Afterwards, they could not. Today, we cannot foretell how our grandchildren’s lives will differ from ours, but we know they will.

The importance of reading political and economic philosophers, like Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Paine and Ricardo, is not to discover the answer one has long sought, but to provide a base of knowledge, to challenge one’s beliefs, to ensure one can argue cogently. We do not have to be disciples of a particular school of thought, but we should understand why we think as we do. We should be able to debate and defend our positions. Most importantly, we should be prepared for whatever lies ahead, and to ensure the survival of that that which is (and what we hope always will be) most important – freedom.

Authoritarianism emerges from ignorance and propaganda. Ignorance is born when students are encouraged to seek safe places, where they will not be exposed to arguments they find uncomfortable. Consequently, they are uninformed of alternative views. Most professors preach from the same political handbook. In the 2017, (William F.) Buckley Free Speech Survey, 93% of respondents agreed that there is educational value in listening to and understanding views and opinions that are contrary to their own. Yet 30% of the students believe that physical violence can be justified to prevent someone from using “hate” speech or making racially charged comments. A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Professor Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University noted that parental behavior has become “increasingly guarded and safety focused.” He worried that such attitudes, taken to extremes, delay personal independence. He found that “today’s teenagers and young adults are less likely than those in past generations to engage in a range of activities that involve personal independence, such as working for pay, driving, dating and spending time without adult supervision.” In a recent speech, former President George Bush noted: “There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young.” That would be a death knell for freedom.

We learn through reading, experience, mistakes, pain and fear. We do not want to unnecessarily expose children to risk, but if we want future generations to value freedom, as Mr. Routledge concludes, “we need to restore our faith in them.” Learning to handle disappointment and failure is part of growing up.

My advice to the next generation: Read as much and as widely as possible, but don’t rely on social media. Let commonsense be your guide. Remember, no one – parent, teacher, professor, economist, philosopher, pundit or politician – has all the answers. And be humble; we are all fallible.

[1] On March 14, 2016, I wrote a piece titled, “I Believe…” On May 29 of this year, I wrote “Things I Think About.” This can be read as an extension of those two pieces.