Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Month That Was - May 2018

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – May 2018
May 31, 2018

As full as spirit as the month of May,
And as gorgeous as the sun in midsummer.”
                                                                                                Henry IV, Part I
                                                                                                Williams Shakespeare

What a month! The anti-Trump venom persisted…and worsened. It came into sharper focus with the news that the FBI, under the Obama Administration, had inserted Stefan Halper as a spy (or informant, as the New York Times euphemistically called him) into the Trump campaign – ‘Operation Crossfire,’ as it was dubbed – “benign information gathering,” as James Clapper put it[1]. This is in addition to the dubiously obtained FISA warrants to surveil the Trump organization. Not since Lyndon Johnson spied on Goldwater in 1964 has the FBI been so blatantly used for political purposes. But, where is the outrage over the use of government to silence the opposition? Incredibly (and fortunately), it is having little effect on Mr. Trump’s policies here or abroad – like the tax bill, deregulation, North Korea, Jerusalem and Iran

As for the latter, the EU is upset over Mr. Trump’s failure to recertify the Iran nuclear deal. Only a people who viewed Mr. Obama’s Iran deal through the commercial lens of their largest companies would be so unconcerned with a rogue nation that has used its new-found wealth to fund militarization and terrorism. Only a people protected by their big brother in North America would not fret about the nuclear ambitions of Iran.(Despite the EU having a slightly larger economy, the U.S. spends more than two and a half times what the EU does on defenseand a big slice of that spending is in defense of Europe.)

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Consider the month’s news: The spiking of the Iran nuclear deal (a deal which Mr. Obama realized the Senate would never support); setting a date (possibly) to meet with Kim Jong-un, and re-locating (finally) the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Curiously, but not surprisingly, the Left derided all three decisions. Nancy Pelosi criticized the President for meeting with Mr. Kim and then criticized him for renegotiating the terms. The movement of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was accomplished, but both Iran (financial sanctions and a new deal) and North Korea (denuclearization of the Peninsula) remain works in progress. The Left is in denial: How does an outsider, a boorish, unprincipled ignoramus, with dyed-blonde hair, accomplish what sanctimonious political elites could not? 

North Korea released three American hostages and blew up tunnels at its Punggye-ri testing site. (Admittedly, that site was probably unusable.) To protest the opening of the U.S. Embassy, Hamas (and Iran) showed their true colors, sending (paid) demonstrators to their deaths in Gaza. Iran fired rockets at Israel’s Golan Heights from bases in Syria, which were knocked down by Israel’s superior technology. Later, a number of Iranian bases in Syria were destroyed by Israel’s air force. Trade wars spurted, spluttered and spurted. Republicans in Congress took issue with Mr. Trump’s decision to rescue China’s telecom company ZTE. But, we must remember that Mr. Trump, like the fox to Congress’s hedgehog, is playing multiple hands with China – North Korea, relations with Iran, a laser attack from an air base in Djibouti and military bases in the South China Sea. Congress, playing to special interests and the media, like the hedgehog, takes on one issue at a time.

Nicolas Maduro’s re-election in Venezuela was fore-ordained and will worsen the condition of its people. Following imposition of new sanctions, the U.S. Envoy in Caracas was expelled. In a surprise, Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition was the big winner in his country’s Parliamentary elections. Mr. al-Sadr was strongly anti-American during the 2003 invasion but is now strongly anti-Iran. Shia terrorist groups Hezbollah and Amal were the big winners in Lebanon’s election. Ninety-two-year-old former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defeated his former mentee, current Prime Minister Najib Razak. The latter has been embroiled in corruption charges. This was the first defeat for the Barisan Nasional coalition since Malaysia was untethered from Great Britain in 1957. In Italy, President Sergio Mattarella’s decision to reject the attempt of two rival populist parties – 5-Star Movement and the League – to form a government was applauded in Brussels and y the liberal media, but it risks democracy in the Eurozone’s third largest economy. In a decision that could have come from Lewis Carroll, Syria was named president of the United Nation’s Conference on Disarmament. For virtually the entire month Hawaii’s Kilaueu’s volcano on the Big Island has been spilling lava, releasing toxic gasses and erupting molten rocks. 

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The latest school shootings in Texas, in which ten people died, means we must re-think our response to mass gun violence. We are living with an epidemic that is expanding geometrically. The Left says curtail guns. The Right insists on adherence to the 2ndAmendment. We must think outside the box. Stricter rules regarding gun-ownership make sense and I see no civilian need for automatic assault rifles. But guns have always been common. Our home in the small New Hampshire town where I grew up was likely the only one without weapons, yet even gun accidents were rare. Personally, I am not a fan of guns; nevertheless, it is not the weapon that is at fault. It is the individual who pulls the trigger.

Wikipedia lists school and college shootings by decade. While perhaps not precisely accurate, the numbers suggest a trend. In the 1940s, there were eight such shootings, with eleven dead. In the 1950s, the number doubled to sixteen, with fourteen dead. In the 1960s, nineteen shootings left forty-four dead. In the 1970s, there were thirty-one attacks, leaving thirty-seven dead. In the 1980s, that rose to forty-one, with fifty-one losing their lives. In the 1990s, sixty-six shootings left ninety-three dead. In the 2000s, sixty-five shootings caused one hundred and eleven to die. And, in the 2010s, just through 2014, there have been 93 shootings, with ninety-one dead. If we take this contagion seriously, as we must, Congress will have to consider, besides gun laws, the role of mental health and the culture of violence that permeates our lives, from Hollywood to rock music, video games and late-night talk shows. Families and communities must be unafraid to call-out mental issues where they exist. Political correctness should be abandoned. Parents and schools must re-focus on old-fashioned rules: civility, respect, manners and decency. 

During the month Connecticut joined eleven states and the District of Columbia in approving a National Popular Vote compact, which would require each participating state to allocate its electors to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of how its citizens voted. What they want: eliminate the Electoral College. Connecticut’s vote, hasty and unwise, was taken in response to the 2016 election. Keep in mind, Mrs. Clinton’s popular victory was made possible because of only two states – New York and California. What is being implied (but unsaid) is that smaller states don’t count. Ironically, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the author of the Great Compromise, which gave Congress its bicameral structure, was Connecticut’s Roger Sherman. The Compromise ensured that small states would get equal representation in the Senate, while the House would reflect population. It is one of the fundamental elements in the checks and balances that have allowed our government to survive over two hundred years. “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” said Gunning Bedford of Delaware. “If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?” Wiser heads than those in Connecticut, I hope, will prevail.

In a case that pitted the National Collegiate Athletic Association against the State of New Jersey, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, struck down a 1992 law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibited states from authorizing gambling. The federalist in me said that was a good thing, individual states should make such decisions. The financier in me said this will help states in economic distress. However, the moralist in me said this was a terrible decision. It will encourage gambling – the belief that riches can come from little or no effort. Gambling is addictive and encourages bad behavior. It can lead to depression, criminal activities and bankruptcy. The National Council on Problem Gambling claims that 16% of Americans gamble at least once a week. Like the lottery, it will provide funds to states but do so via a regressive tax. If not accompanied by fiscal restraint, it will do nothing to reduce deficits. 

Elsewhere, domestically, Gina Haspel was confirmed as the first woman Director of the CIA. Midterm and state elections are under way. Primaries and conventions were held in Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. 

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Stocks meandered, on light volume, with diminished volatility. For the month, the DJIA closed up 2%. It is the bond market where attention should be paid. James Grant, in the May 4 issue of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer,” wrote: “For the first time since 1981, Treasuries (U.S.) have delivered a negative, inflation adjusted return over the trailing three years.” The U.S. bull market in bonds began in September 1981 when the yield on the Ten-year reached 15.68%. It troughed two years ago (thirty-five years later), with the yield at 1.39%. It closed this month at 2.8%. Like any market, prices (and yields) don’t go in straight lines, but one can infer whether one is in a long-term bear or bull market. My conclusion is that a bear market in bonds began two years ago; but tops and bottoms of markets can extend across months, if not years. Central banks around the world have become (or are becoming) less expansionary, but you wouldn’t know it when looking at yields on some European bonds. The yield on the U.S. Two-year, at 2.4%, exceeds the yield on government Ten-year bonds in Germany, France, the UK and Spain. I find it hard to believe that Europe, with its slower economic growth and more socialist ways, is more credit worthy than the U.S. However, that spread differential – undeserved, in my opinion – has strengthened the Dollar and could cause U.S.  Treasury yields to moderate in the near term, but I suspect that in ten years yields will be higher. 

The concern for stocks is liquidity. Increasingly, trading is dominated by machines: High Frequency Traders (HFTs), index funds and ETFs, where individual company fundamentals matter less than asset allocation decisions. The floor of the NYSE is almost fully automated, not dissimilar to the NASDAQ. The question, to which no one has an answer: what happens when a mini flash-crash turns into a full-blown panic? Ultimately fundamentals would carry the day, but the short term could be scary. Markets are based on faith, trust and confidence – characteristics of people, not machines. One answer: dividends – the ultimate return on stocks. And the IRS could treat dividends as returns of capital, which is what they are. 

The month also saw further declines in the Argentina Peso and the Turkish Lira. Currency depreciation is a concern and reflects a lack of confidence in government and its monetary policy. (The Venezuela Bolivar has fallen 90%, since Maduro came to power in April 2013.) To stem the decline, Argentina’s central bank raised rates to 40%, while the Turkish Central Bank raised its lending rate to 16.5%. The price of crude oil was volatile but flat on the month, but still on an upward path that began in January 2016. The Dollar nudged higher, driven by higher yields on U.S. Treasuries, and Bitcoins were lower by about 20%. Investment manager AllianceBernstein announced a move from Manhattan to Nashville, following other money managers, like PIMCO, Charles Schwab and Fidelity, who are opening offices in Austin, Phoenix, Denver and Dallas. High state and local taxes (and regulatory practices) arewatched by businesses. The second revision to first quarter U.S. GDP showed the economy gaining 2.2 percent.

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The number of births in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics, dropped by two percent last year, to 60.2 for every 1000 women between the ages of 15 to 44 – the lowest in forty years, giving the U.S. a fertility rate of 1.76. We were at 2.12 in 2007. While there are those who are not concerned about these numbers, lower birth rates reflect a pessimistic view of the future and imperil economic growth. Pope Francis, straying from his spiritual responsibilities, declared that financial derivatives, like credit default swaps are “amoral” and “a ticking time bomb.” This is a man not particularly fond of capitalism, which he has described as “terrorism against humanity.” All Catholic Bishops in Chile offered to resign following revelations of a sex abuse scandal. President Trump announced he wanted to form a fifth branch of the military – a space force. UK reporter Tommy Robinson was jailed on breach of peace charges in Leeds for filming Muslims charged with rape and pedophilia. Missouri Governor, Republican Eric Greitens resigned over a sex scandal. ABC cancelled Roseanne Barr’s show because of a racist Tweet about Valerie Jarret. Ms. Barr blamed Ambien. Ms. Jarrett blamed President Trump. Meghan Markle married her Prince.

Speaking at a tech conference, President Obama said, “I didn’t have scandals, which seems like it shouldn’t be something to brag about.” Has he forgotten Lois Lerner at the IRS, targeting conservatives, or letting Nakoula Basseley Nakoula take the fall for the Benghazi attack that caused the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens?  Does he no longer remember Uranium One or ‘Fast and Furious?’ Ireland voted to allow women to have abortions in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. While I agree that women should have control over their bodies, there was something unseemly about young women gloating over receiving permission to take a life.  What about personal responsibility? A male student in an Indiana high school opened fire before being tackled by seventh-grade science teacher Jason Seaman. Mr. Seaman was wounded, as was one other student. But his action prevented more casualties.

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In sports, “Justify” won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, both on sloppy tracks. He will head to New York for the Belmont Stakes and a chance at the Triple Crown. The Golden Knights (Las Vegas) and the Capitals (Washington) will play for the Stanley Cup, and the NBA Championship will pit the Golden State Warriors (Oakland) against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Death took Tom Wolfe, best known for his novel that captured the ‘80s, The Bonfire of the Vanities. He died at 88. Philip Roth – author of Goodbye Columbusand Portnoy’s Complaint– died at 85. Professor Bernard Lewis, one of the great scholars of Islam, died at 101. Richard Pipes, the leading intellectual opponent of détente and an escapee from Poland in 1946, died at 94. Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon died at 86. And I lost a good friend, former classmate of my wife and former Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, Eunice Groark. Eunice was 80.

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We approach the midpoint of the year and the year’s longest day. Like all months, it will bring good news and bad, the expected and the unexpected. Let us hope that wisdom prevails, that respect dispels disdain and crudity makes way for comity. Above all, I hope the month brings peace and good health.


[1]I wrote that Halper was a spy; that is an opinion; however, one based on extensive reading and strong belief.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Burrowing into Books - "The Last Chronicles of Barset," Anthony Trollope

Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT 06426

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

                                                                                                                                        May 24, 2018

“The Last Chronicles of Barset”
Anthony Trollope

But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city,
 and the spires and towers have been before my eyes,
 and the voices of the people known to my ears,
 and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.”
                                                                                                Anthony Trollope
                                                                                                The Last Chronicles of Barset

A good friend once suggested that story-tellers, such as Trollope, have an immortality that transcends time and place. The narrative, the creation of the author, replays in the reader’s consciousness, and can be done so long as the tale is allowed to be retrieved. Trollope’s characters and venues, figments of a 19thCentury imagination, can be visited and discussed, as they file into the consciousness of 21stCentury readers. “Last Chronicles” was written 152 years ago and Anthony Trollope is buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, yet time and distance do not hinder its immersion into our minds.

As the title makes clear, this is the last of the six books that comprise the Barsetshire novels; the quote above comes from the final paragraph. This is the story of Josiah Crawley, the impoverished perpetual curate of Hogglestock parish. He is accused of a crime he did not commit. Crawley’s memory fails him – he cannot recall the circumstances as to how he came into possession of the questioned twenty pounds. He is also a man of his time, a gentleman who believes in honesty, fortitude and the need to be accountable for one’s actions. Mr. Crawley is indicted, and a trial is set for about four months hence. Loving her husband but in despair, Mrs. Crawley feels he derives a schadenfreude-like pleasure in his own misfortune. “A consciousness of undeserved woe produces a grandeur of its own,” she says to her friend Lucy Roberts. It is a story that pokes fun at the Church of England and displays the contrasts of wealth and poverty that reside perversely (but naturally) within it.

The plot is compounded when the Archdeacon of Barchester Theophilus Grantly’s son, Major Henry Grantly, falls in love with Grace Crawley, oldest daughter of the Crawley’s. Given Victorian standards, she feels she cannot accept him as long as her father is under suspicion. The plot thickens when we learn that the obnoxious Mrs. Proudie, wife of the milquetoast-like Bishop of Barchester, is determined to destroy the implacable Mr. Crawley. “Peace, woman,” Mr. Crawley counters her accusations. Trollope writes, surely with a smile on his face: “The bishop jumped out of his chair at hearing the wife of his bosom called a woman. But he jumped rather in admiration than in anger.”

There are plots within plots and subplots within sublots, as in all Trollope novels, like the unfortunate circumstances of his good friend Reverend Francis Arabin, Dean of the Cathedral at Barchester and his wife traveling abroad, when their witness would ease the travails of Mr. Crawley. We meet again characters we have known from earlier books, like the whimsical and frustrating Lily Dale, the eminent Dr. Thorne and the gentle Septimus Harding, former Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, whose death scene is among the most evocative I have read. “He has no suffering, no pain, no disturbing cause. Nature simply retires to rest.”

We live in a frenetic world, where style is more substantive than substance, where celebrity is celebrated more than character We live at a polarized time when identity politics divide our society and where violence, meanness and foul language permeate our culture. In this environment, a reader could do worse than escape into a Trollope novel, and the “spires and towers” of Barsetshire. Readers can become acquainted (or reacquainted) with “the voices of the people known to my ears.” Reading Trollope provides relief in a troubled and tempestuous time. He offers perspective when moral clarity is clouded by the exhalations of sanctimonious hypocrites, braggarts and nay-sayers.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Burrowing Into Book - Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings

                                                                                                                                          May 8, 2018

“Enlightenment Now”
Steven Pinker

For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death,
 health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want,
 freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering,
and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
                                                                                                            Steven Pinker
                                                                                                            Last sentence
                                                                                                            Enlightenment Now

The Age of Enlightenment extended from the late 17thCentury to the early 19th. It built on the studies and writings of Galileo, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, RenéDescartes and Baruch Spinoza. It encompassed writers, thinkers, scientists and essayists, from Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot and Thomas Jefferson. It inspired revolutions in America and France, and ultimately gave way to the Romantic period of the 19thCentury.

Early in his book, into which he squeezes 75 charts in 23 chapters, Professor Pinker quotes the American columnist Franklin P. Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the ‘good old days’ than a bad memory.” That is his thesis. Despite the horrors of the 20thCentury and the Islamic terrorism we are now experiencing, the world has evolved for the better. And credit is owed to the Enlightenment, which, after thousands of years with little progress, unleashed a cascade of science, reason and humanism. The consequence was a healthier, wealthier and more humane world. Its positive effects Professor Pinker shows through charts that depict the remarkable increase in life expectancy, the decline in undernourishment, the dramatic increase in global GDP per capita and the subsequent reduction in extreme poverty. As well, the Enlightenment brought democracy, greater equality, and improvements in the environment, safety and quality of life. These changes are quantified in a series of easily-readable charts and descriptions.

In Part I of the book, Pinker outlines the ideas of the Enlightenment; in Part II, he shows that they worked. Part III is a defense of those ideas and ideals – that they are as important today as they were when conceived. We should not let them dissipate in political emotionalism. The message is that progress and humanism are based on science and reason, which in turn are products of democracy, freedom, capitalism and affluence.

As in any book of this nature, questions arose: At what point does governmental social welfare spending and the debt it requires impede economic growth? Does government assistance interfere with individual creativity? Is it better to teach people to fish than give them a fish? To that, Pinker would answer, yes. Can an all-encompassing, all-powerful administrative state morph into autocracy? If the world is growing more liberal and more secular, what explains the rise of illiberal Islamic caliphates? Professor Pinker writes of totalitarianism shrinking, but one wonders, is that correct with governments in Russia and China becoming more despotic. What is the future for the people of Venezuela and Nicaragua where Socialism is dying an ugly death? He dismisses religion in a way I found uncomfortable, for, while science has explained many mysteries, it has not explained all. For example, from whence did the energy and matter, which comprised the microscopic particle that produced the “Big Bang,” emerge? Religion, from my understanding, does not require scientific proof and can co-exist with science. Besides, religion, when it is not imposed by the state, serves to comfort those who are fearful, sick, dying or simply feeling hopeless and in need of love’s salvation. 

But my disagreements with the author and his politics that percolate beneath the surface were minor. Professor Pinker’s story is a herculean effort to explain why the present is so much better than the past – that progress has indeed changed our lives for the better, that fond memories of the past belie hardships endured, that a failure to see how far we have come deprives youth cognizance of their fortunate inheritance. And he does so in a readable and enjoyable way. Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist (and best-selling author) at Harvard. Another of his books, Sense and Style, which was published in 2014, is, in my opinion, a book all aspiring writers should keep within arm’s reach. 

Enlightenment Nowcovers a lot of ground. It takes time to digest, but the effort is worthwhile. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"The Month That Was - April 2018"

Sydney M. Williams

swtotd.blogspot.com

“The Month That Was – April 2018”
May 1, 2018

A gush of bird-song, a patter of dew; a cloud and a rainbow’s warning,
Suddenly sunshine and perfect blue – an April day in the morning.”
                                                                                                Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921)
American writer, poet

When in Rome, as the saying goes, do as Romans. Caroline and I spent a few days in Rome during the middle of the month, and one thing Romans don’t do is read a lot of English-language newspapers. I was, however, able to read the New York Times International Editionmost days, but no doubt missed some of the news. For that I apologize.

“…suddenly sunshine and perfect blue…” After a cold and wet April, some sunshine appeared in the past week, at least here in the northeast. As well, the month provided signs of optimism – perhaps only visible to those of a cheerful disposition. And, this despite on-going concerns: the Islamization of European nations like Belgium and France; the threat to liberty that comes from an expanding, unaccountable European government in Brussel; the risk of protectionism; the confluence of expanding government debt and rising interest rates; and the threat to democracy from those who persist in using all means possible – including nasty innuendos and circumventing civil liberties – to end, or at least stymie, the Trump Presidency.

Kim Jung-un, in preparation for a June summit with President Trump (and I suspect under orders from Beijing), agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and shut down the site of the last half dozen tests under Mount Mantap – a location many scientists suspect is in danger of collapse. Mr. Kim crossed the border into South Korea – the first North Korean leader to do so since 1953 – to meet with President Moon Jae-in. Also, leaders of the world’s largest countries met: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping. After 59 years of rule, the last Castro left office, though it is uncertain that Miguel Diaz-Canel will serve the people any better. Jobless claims fell during the month. Unemployment is at 4.1% and work-force participation is rising. After years of stagnation, there was a modest increase in hourly earnings of 0.3%. Even the stock market, following two months of declines, rose modestly. Following publication of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, op-eds appeared by Jonah Goldberg in National Reviewand Daniel Finkelstein of The London Timesnoting what every student of history should know: The world has never been richer, healthier, more democratic or fairer – a consequence of the Enlightenment: western values, self-determination, democracy, rule of law, market-driven economies, humanism, reason and science. Something to keep in mind, when we find ourselves in a funk.

In a Nashville Waffle House, James Shaw pushed back against what has become a social norm of non-interference: where fear of offending allows bad people to do harm, where universities bow to students’ unreasonable demands, and where children freely disobey parents and teachers without consequence. Mr. Shaw rushed the shooter Travis Reinking, preventing him from killing more than he had. Individuals across the political spectrum praised him, as they did Barbara Bush, suggesting that traditional values do still abound. Mrs. Bush, the wife on one President and the mother of another, was a woman of high moral character who put her family above all else. She did not have to join #MeToo to justify her independence and sense of self. Had she been born at a different time, she might have become a chief executive, but she never regretted her role. Like Mr. Shaw has become, she was an inspiration to millions of Americans, who struggle to find a moral compass in the mishmash of today’s multicultural morass.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban won a third term, gaining a two-thirds parliamentary majority. He is a concern to Brussels, who fear right-wing authoritarians rising in eastern European nations like Poland, Romania and Slovakia. It is true that these countries are governed by nationalists and that they are net monetary beneficiaries of the EU’s largesse, but they are also subject to laws made in Brussels over which they have little sway, including those that control immigration. Perhaps today’s nationalism is but a backlash against an intrusive EU? Self-examination would be useful for bureaucrats in Brussels. As well, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism throughout the EU, but especially in western Europe. This is not a re-birth of Nazism and Fascism; it is the Middle East come to Europe. France today has twelve times as many Muslims as Jews. Germany has thirty-five times more Muslims than Jews. 

Before he was confirmed as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea to prepare for the proposed meeting – possibly in June – between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un. Joined by Great Britain and France, the United States struck chemical facilities in Syria, in retaliation for a gas attack President Assad made on his own people. When red lines are crossed, push-back is critical. Emmanuel Macron visited Washington. Mr. Trump and the first lady hosted the French President and his wife at Mount Vernon. The next evening, they were given a state dinner, the first of Mr. Trump’s Presidency. M. Macron’s purpose was to dissuade Mr. Trump from walking away from the Iran deal and urging him not to abandon the Paris Agreement. Instead, he suggested both could (and should) be improved. As to whether his goals were achieved remains unknown at this point, but good feelings between the two leaders were obvious. Angela Merkel, a lame-duck in Germany, arrived a day later with the same message. Earlier in the month, to little fanfare or press coverage, Japan’s President Shinzo Abe visited Mr. Trump at his home in Palm Beach.

While the Left claims that Mr. Trump has abandoned global responsibilities and retreated behind borders, his actions suggest otherwise. The truth is that he has asked more of those with whom we share values – denied the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of authoritarian and terrorist nations; created a coalition of Arab military forces to replace (some) U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq; increased the contributions from European nations to NATO, as Putin flexes his muscles in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Baltic States, and got Japan to recognize its responsibility to help defend Asian seas against a resurgent China.

A caravan of Honduran refugees – possibly including gang members of Barrio 18 and/or MS 13 – crossed Mexico and arrived in Tijuana, which abuts San Diego. President Trump, following in the footsteps of his two predecessors, sent troops to the border; though California’s Governor Jerry Brown, taking a leaf from the Confederacy, wants to declare his state a sanctuary – independent of U.S. federal law. Nicaragua, just south of Honduras and led by Leftist Daniel Ortega, is, like Venezuela, disintegrating into social and economic chaos. Violent protests broke out when the state approved a resolution that would increase contributions by workers and employers into the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security, while reducing payouts by five percent. Center-left candidate Carlos Alvarado won Costa Rica’s presidential election.

Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan announced his retirement from the Congress, something more members of Congress should consider. After a series of dubious (and vile) accusations, Dr. Ronnie Jackson withdrew his name as nominee to head the VA. Bob Mueller said Mr. Trump was not a target. However, the DNC, wanting to ensure the investigation remains on the front pages and adding new meaning to legal frivolity, filed a lawsuit against the Russians and the Trump campaign. Scott Pruitt, EPA chief who through deregulatory decisions has played a major role in speeded-up GDP growth, became a target of an ethically-challenged Left. Teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma, following the lead of West Virginia, protested cuts to pay, benefits and school funding. The real problem is growth granted unions and a lack of fiscal stewardship on the part of legislators. Many teachers are underpaid and are consigned to over-crowded classrooms. But public-school enrollments are lower than twenty-five years ago, yet the number of administrators has increased. In the meantime, states’ debts are increasing, interest costs are rising, and budgets are unbalanced.

Preliminary first quarter GDP numbers were reported at plus 2.3% percent, slightly above the Conference Board’s estimate of 1.9 percent. The stock market, as measured by the DJIA, was up less than one percent. FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google), which, over the past two months, had led markets lower, rose in April. Bond prices were lower, with the yield on the 10-Year exceeding 3% for the first time in four years. The question for consumers, investors, policy makers and business: Does this represent a hiccup in a continuing long slide in rates, or have bond markets turned? While no one knows for sure, my guess is that we are witnessing an extended topping in bond prices. Interest-rate moves are long cycles. Rates gradually rose from the end of World War II – passing through 5% in December 1965 – to reach a high on the 10-Year in September 1981 of 15.8 percent.  The low was 1.5%, in August 2016. The U.S. Dollar rose during the month. Bitcoin prices continued their volatile ways, rising 33% for the month. Incidentally (and amusingly) Bloomberg reported that two British economists, Richard Jackman of the LSE and Savvas Savouri of a London-based hedge fund, over a two-bottles-of-wine dinner concluded that the value of a Bitcoin was between $20.00 and $800,000.00 – naming their finding the Côtes du Rhône Theory.

Elsewhere, Finland announced they would halt their trial with “universal basic income,” something Socialist Bernie Sanders wants for the U.S. The Malaysian Prime Minister dissolved Parliament, paving way for a general election on May 9. The U.S. levied sanctions against three dozen Russian oligarchs and entities. At his annual Boao Forum for Asia, held on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, President Xi Jinping promoted openness, but attendees were unable to use Google, log on to Facebook or post to Twitter. The Soar Chapel, in the English farming community of Breton, now has one member, 85-year-old Evan Thomas Jones, who is determined not to let the doors close. A bus carrying members of Canada’s junior hockey team crashed, killing fifteen. In Toronto, ten people were killed, and fifteen injured, when a crazed individual drove his van down a crowded sidewalk. In the good news category, John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth (England) reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthat an enzyme had been discovered that breaks down and dissolves polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its original chemical chains. PET is a common plastic, which pollutes the world’s oceans.

Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. The 80-year-old could spend the rest of his life in prison. “The Avengers: Infinity War,” which cost Disney $300 million to produce, set a global record its first weekend, taking in $630 million. Roseanne Barr, on the re-opening of her show “Roseanne,” told her audience: “Trump supporters are human.” The Left was incensed. The New York Times: “Roseanne just ends up normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies.” James Comey, following other public officials who have used public service to garner private profits, released his memoir, with its officious and self-serving title, A Higher Loyalty. I am a reader but will never buy or read his book.

In basketball, Notre Dame won the women’s NCAA title, while Villanova won the men’s. American Patrick Reed won the Masters Tournament at Augusta.

Death claimed, as mentioned above, Barbara Bush, “the adult in the room,” as John Podhoretz wrote. Winnie Mandela died at 82, and Lois Wheeler Snow, wife of C.P. Snow, died at 97. Linda Brown, whose name became synonymous with desegregation died at 75. Olympic U.S. ski coach Bob Beattie died at 85. Two-year-old Alfie Evans, the center of a tug-of-war between his parents and the NHS, died at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. And I lost a good friend, Harry Sedgwick, a classmate and associate of Robert Kennedy and remembered for his smile, love of people and twinkling eyes. He died at age 90.

We move on to May, the merry month whose first few days look to finally usher in Spring.