Friday, December 1, 2017

"The Month That Was - November 2017"

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was
“November 2017”
December 1, 2017

“November’s sky is chill and drear;
November’s leaf is red and sear.”
                                                                                                Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
                                                                                                “Ettrick Forest in November,” 1808

November is a month for memories. We think of the Pilgrims who celebrated their first year in the New World, in 1621 – and try to make sense of the hardships they endured, all for the cause of freedom to worship as they chose. We give thanks they succeeded. On the 11th of November, we remember the 18 million soldiers and civilians who died in World War I – a day commemorated as Armistice, Poppy, Remembrance and Veterans Day. Sadly, it was a war that did not “end all wars,” but served as prelude to a bigger conflict. But, in the end, freedom prevailed. On November 22nd, 1963 at 12:30PM President John F. Kennedy was assassinated – catapulting the nation into a struggle to understand, why? For us who were young and free, it was as though we also had been struck down. And, that most iconic of American films, Casablanca, premiered in New York City on November 26, 1942 – Thanksgiving Day. It was a movie with relevance today – a story of refugees trapped by events beyond their control, with a majority of the actors and actresses, either foreign born or refugees themselves – all seeking freedom.

The beacon of freedom, more than anything else, defines the world’s conflicts. That was so this month. Some who live in democracies are unappreciative of freedom’s rarity and fragility; for others, it is a distant siren, a promise. Islamic extremists, who despise the concept of freedom – individual, religious, political and economic – were relentless during the month. According to Wikipedia, more than 600 died at Islamists’ hands. Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, a native of Uzbekistan now living in New York, drove a truck down a bike lane in lower Manhattan, killing eight cyclists. Before being caught, he shouted Allahu Akbar! God is the greatest! He had left a note pledging allegiance to ISIS. In a mosque on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, ISIS gunmen murdered 305 Sufi Muslims, a sect they consider heretical. On the Korean Peninsula, a North Korean soldier, identified only by his surname, Oh, escaped to the South, carrying with him five bullet wounds from North Korean soldiers, who shot him as he slipped across the border. What motivated Oh? Perhaps he had heard President Trump speak in Seoul of the “dazzling light” of South Korea versus the “impenetrable darkness” of the North – “the glories of freedom versus the toll of tyranny.”

Freedom, or the lack thereof, was at the center of the decision to elevate Xi Jinping last month. It is the crux of the debate between Brussels and London over Brexit – between the vision of Europe articulated by Margaret Thatcher almost forty years ago of a region based on nation-states that cooperate in trade and defense, versus the bureaucratic and liberty-challenged monolith preferred by those like Jean Claude Junker – an unaccountable and under-representative government that serves the needs of bureaucrats, not the wishes of the people – the populous. (Populism has been redefined by European politicians and media, and has assumed a pejorative connotation, to include all those – from nationalists to lovers of liberty – who threaten the comfortable lives led by arrogant elites in Brussels.) In the U.S., freedom lurks behind the debate raging between those who want government to do more, and those who would have it do less – to determine where on the spectrum, between anarchy and tyranny, one would prefer our politics to lie. Freedom is at risk in universities and colleges where conservatives are banned and debate is stifled.

Tales of unwanted sexual advances gripped Hollywood, Washington and the media. The sins of Harvey Weinstein unleashed a torrent of similar stories, some true, others fabricated; some incredulously denied, others admitted to with “crocodile” tears. The consequence, we hope, will be a society more respectful, but which will maintain due process[1]. Off-year elections proved a boon to Democrats, as they did well in state elections and won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. In a bad year for his Party, John Curtis kept Utah’s third Congressional District seat in Republican hands. Twenty-six people were shot and killed in a Texas church, including the pastor’s fourteen-year-old daughter. In Thornton, Colorado, a man carrying a handgun walked into a Walmart and shot three people dead. And in the northern California town of Rancho Tehama a maniacal gunman killed five people, including his wife. As ubiquitous as mass shootings have become, the problem is not, in my opinion, guns. It is a system that allows the mentally disturbed to purchase weapons. Border agent Rogelio Martinez was stoned to death in an attack along the Big Bend Sector of the Texas-Mexico border, abetting the call for stronger border security.

The House version of the tax bill was released, along with misinformation from what purports to be a responsible press, especially as it pertains to the deductibility of state and local taxes. Republicans would have been smarter had they explained that this bill would drive economic growth by reducing corporate and low and middle-income tax rates, but would raise taxes on high-income people living in high-taxed states.

Richard Cordray stepped down as chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency set up by the Obama Administration, which receives funding from the Federal Reserve, not Congress. It is a rogue agency, essentially the handwork of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who hand-picked its director, Mr. Cordray. It is unaccountable to Congress and designed to be independent of the Executive. It has shaken down banks for tens of millions of dollars, giving them no chance to appeal. The proceeds have been used to fund groups that support the CFPB’s mission and policies. Mr. Cordray’s resignation set off a storm between the agency, the President and Senator Warren. Before leaving, Mr. Cordray anointed his assistant Leander English as interim director. Mr. Trump appointed OMB Director Mike Mulvaney, an outspoken critic of the CFPB, for the same position. Courts sided with the President. The federal bribery case against Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) ended in a hung jury. Adding fuel to the fires that consume political intrigues in Washington was Donna Brazile’s new book, “Hacks.” In it she disclosed an agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC. In return for needed cash, the Clintons got a right of first refusal over the party’s communication director and final say on all staff.

President Trump made a ten-day trip to Asia, visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The purpose was to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) meeting in Danang, Vietnam, where he chatted informally with Vladimir Putin. He argued for fair trade practices: “…we seek robust trade relationships rooted in the principles of fairness and reciprocity.” But, the real purpose was to garner support for further isolating North Korea. Later, Air China suspended flights to North Korea, and the Friendship Bridge, which crosses the Yalu River, was closed, if only temporarily. Perhaps in response, North Korea launched its first missile in two months – a missile capable of reaching the U.S.

Syria signed the Paris Accord, joining a list of other climate-responsible nations, like Afghanistan, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammed bin Salmon seems determined to bring his country into the 21st Century by restoring moderate Islam, limiting dependency on oil and lessening the role and influence of the royal family. Despite the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who attacked the United States sixteen years ago were Saudi citizens, the Prince spoke of his country’s fight against Islamic terrorism. He was quoted in the November 27th edition of The Financial Times: “Today, we began tracking down terrorism…We will pursue it until it disappears completely from the face of the earth…The greatest danger of extremist terrorism is in distorting the reputation of our tolerant religion.” It is a given that Islamic extremism will never be defeated until moderate Muslims join the chase. Perhaps they have. Germany still has not formed a government, but a grand coalition may be in the offing. In October, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) won just over 30% of the vote. Second, were Social Democrats (SPD), led by Martin Schulz, with a little over 20%. Failure to form a minority government had Mrs. Merkel making the case for new elections. But such a prospect worried the SPD because of fear that the far-right AfD Party, which had been third in the elections and is anti-EU, may be gaining support. In the meantime, Britain stumbles towards Brexit, hamstrung by elites in London and Brussels who have created their own form of “resistance.” Robert Mugabe resigned as President of Zimbabwe, after a terror-filled thirty-seven-year reign that caused his resource-rich country to become one of the world’s poorest. His former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man Mugabe had fired, was sworn in as President. A $10 million dollar-settlement and immunity from prosecution were offered to placate the 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe.

Jerome Powell, a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, was named as the new chairman. Third quarter GDP growth was revised up to a positive 3.3%. General Electric cut its quarterly dividend by 68%, to $0.10 per share. The current yield places the stock above the midpoint for all S&P companies, on a yield basis. Going forward, GE will focus on healthcare, power and aerospace. Softbank offered Uber, a private company, a price 30% below last year’s valuation for a 14% stake. Uber, a disruptive technology unpopular with the Left, has been a bane for unionized taxi drivers and fleet owners, the latter who benefit from regulation that limits the number of medallions. Nevertheless, progress persists. Volvo received an order from Uber for 24,000 self-drive cars, to begin production in 2019. As manifestation of the decline in cable television viewership, ESPN lost two million subscribers this past fiscal year. They are now 88 million viewers versus 100 million in 2010. The price of Bitcoins soared above $11,000. In a column in The Wall Street Journal, James Mackintosh noted that in May 2010 a programmer paid 10,000 Bitcoins for two pizzas, or the equivalent today of $7 million a slice!

The Houston Astros beat the L.A. Dodgers to win the World Series. For the first time in forty years, an American woman won the New York marathon, with a time of 2:26:53, a minute ahead of last year’s champion, Mary Keitany of Kenya who was second.

In other news, Prince Harry, fifth in line to the English crown, announced his engagement to the beautiful Meghan Markle, a mixed-race, divorced American actress. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Salvator Mundi” sold for $450.3 million at Christies. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was physically attacked by a neighbor. The release of Bin Laden’s documents show that he was still in charge and had ties to Iran. A 7.3 magnitude earthquake along the Iraq-Iran border left 330 dead. A Texas trooper was shot and killed during a routine road stop. Anthony Weiner reported to a federal prison in Massachusetts and Oscar Pistorius had his prison sentence doubled when he appealed his six-year term. The Pope made a politically sensitive trip to Myanmar. President Trump put a hold on the Department of Interior’s decision to allow the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, referring to trophy hunting as a “horror show.”  American rapper, Swoop Dogg’s new album cover showed the body of Trump in a morgue with the album’s title: “Make America Crip Again!” I don’t think Mr. Broadus likes Mr. Trump.

Actor and singer David Cassidy died at age 67. Liz Smith, queen of the tabloid gossip columnists died at 94. Jim Nabors, aka Gomer Pyle, died at 87. I lost a cousin – a first cousin once removed – Caroline Blake who died at 102, and a friend from Old Lyme, Bob Adams died at age 87. And my youngest son’s brother-in-law Tom Comer suffered a heart attack and died too young at age 54.

Today marks the first of December, the last month of the year. As we age, time rushes by at an ever-increasing pace. An hour is still an hour, a day yet a day, and a month a month. We cannot slow time down or speed it up, but we can and we should appreciate its value and extract all we can, from each minute, week and year. Despite our differences, whether racial, religious, economic, cultural, or political, and no their intensity, we should respect one another. May your holidays be merry. May love and peace reign throughout the world.

[1] I will have more to say on this subject in Monday’s Thought of the Day.

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