Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Month That Was - January 2019

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – January 2019
January 31, 2019

January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow.”
                                                                                                Sara Coleridge (1802-1852)
                                                                                                “The Months,” 1834

At our youngest son’s rehearsal dinner, his older brother – with the all the weight that eight months of wedded bliss had brought – offered advice: The key to a happy marriage, he said, is selective hearing. It is selective reporting that concerns this essayist. Mainstream media has gone from a trusted source of unbiased news to proselytizing for the political Left or Right, but mostly the Left. Opinions, which were once relegated to the editorial page, have migrated to the front page and became news. The reader is left unsure as to what is fact, what is fake and what is opinion. It is a trend that has accelerated as social media has gone mainstream. We have become two camps, divided by a hatred that grows ever bitter. Like the Biblical Joshua, we warily approach those we don’t know: “Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?”

Compounding the problem has been an abundance of data. In 1982, Buckminster Fuller introduced the Knowledge Doubling Curve. He noted that knowledge doubled every hundred years until 1900, when a linear growth in knowledge transitioned to exponential growth. By 1945 knowledge was doubling every twenty-five years. Today, estimates are that it doubles every twelve months. The curve will steepen. But wisdom does not stay pace with knowledge. We no longer question assumptions or listen to contrary opinions. We read and hear what supports our views. Thus, we grow apart. Political correctness and identity politics have hardened positions. A tsunami of information is not all that inundates our lives. As we grow older, we are encouraged to stay active, to fill every hour – play tennis, golf, learn to paint, travel abroad, attend an aerobics class, and check Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for ephemeral messages. We are told health and longevity depend on it. But that leaves too little time to think, to read, or to take a solitary walk and quietly ponder issues that have perplexed man for centuries. Idleness need not be idle.


The above serves as a prelude to a month that did not take time to smell the roses – except for those furloughed by a shut-down government. It was that, with all its consequences – intended and unintended – which monopolized domestic news, while a hesitant and bumbled Brexit dominated international news. The vagaries, inefficiencies and pitfalls of democracies served to delight schadenfreude-infected autocracies, like Russia and China? But what person who has ever tasted the sweetness of liberty would not prefer the imperfections of a Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi or Theresa May to the efficient but brutal Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping? Would those in Turkestan, Somalia or Guatemala prefer to live in socialist Russia, China and Venezuela, or in capitalist Japan, Switzerland and the United States? When we complain and demonstrate against our democratic institutions, we should be reminded of Martin Luther King, whose January 15th birth we celebrated on the 21st. He was a man who battled oppression and fought for love and understanding. In 1967, a year before he was assassinated, King spoke: “Let us be dissatisfied, until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everyone will talk about God’s power and human power.” His wish of fifty years ago remains just that, a wish.

The shut-down reflected the dysfunction created by polarized politics. But it did provide some lighter moments, though perhaps not as intended. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has the right to invite (or disinvite) the President to give his State of the Union before a joint session of Congress, in a moment of petty pique, said the President was not welcome – the first time, I believe, this has happened. (The State of the Union was later rescheduled for Tuesday, February 5). Mr. Trump retaliated, telling Ms. Pelosi: “Due to the shut-down, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels and Afghanistan has been postponed.” While Mr. Trump’s words were school-boyish, he was right in that those who could end the shut-down should not be flying around the world on the taxpayer’s dime. Later, Mr. Trump’s attempt at reconciliation was rejected by Ms. Pelosi before it was offered, while Senator Schumer strangely accused the President of “hostage-taking,” in regard to his DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) compromise. Mr. Trump took responsibility for the shut-down in December, but the inflexibility of Democrats has made them complicit: “Intransigence, thy name is politics,” as someone once said, or should have said! 

The federal government spends annually $4.4 trillion, or roughly $12 billion a day. The $5.7 billion Mr. Trump requested was about 0.014% of the $420 billion that the government would normally have spent over the 35 days of the shut-down. It is not the cost, but is it immoral? I think not. Both Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein live on Presidio Terrace in S.F., a gated community with a guard at the entrance.

Including military, part-time and contractors, between nine and ten million people rely on the federal government for their living – that is, they depend on you and me, the taxpayer. Approximately 800,000 government and contract workers went without a paycheck, obviously a hardship for those affected. But they represent about six-tenths of one percent of all Americans employed, so the impact on the economy and on most of our lives was negligible. While the media and Democrats called the shut-down the equivalent of Armageddon, busses, trains and most air flights were unaffected. The closing of LaGuardia for a few hours because air traffic controllers refused to show up for work changed the calculus. But there were no food shortages or problems with drug approvals. Road crews worked. Social Security checks and Medicare and Medicaid payments were made. Allegedly, there were delays in IPOs, but that did not affect many. Fewer government employees traveled to Davos. Is that a hardship? Perhaps for affected Congressional or Administrative personnel who like their subsidized travel, but not for you or me. This is not an argument that the shut-down should have continued, but to point out that our federal government includes a lot of waste and a superfluity of workers. A positive consequence could be that some cost-cuts will be permanent. But that seems unlikely. The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal workers, is a major contributor to Democrats. It ended, for a three-week reprieve, on January 25th. My prediction: the “wall” will be built, most likely by executive order.


Nancy Pelosi was re-elected Speaker of the House, becoming only the second person to be so honored. The Russian investigation moved relentlessly onward, helped by a media anxious to witness the fall of Mr. Trump. The New York Times, headlined a frontpage story: “F.B.I. Investigated if Trump Worked for the Russians.” The article suggested that the FBI, in coup-like fashion, decided on their own to investigate a duly elected President, to determine whether he “was knowingly working for Russia…and against America’s interests.” Investigative reporters had apparently no interest in knowing who might have been behind the FBI taking such unorthodox actions. This despite the fact, as was mentioned late in the article, that “no evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.” It is the job of Congress to investigate the President, not the FBI. Not to be outdone, BuzzFeed, a Left-wing internet media company whose mission is “to find or create viral content,” claimed that Mr. Mueller was in possession of information that proved Mr. Trump directed his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Moscow in 2016. That outrageous claim was refuted by the Mueller team. It is not just that investigative reporters want to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, the Leftist media hates Mr. Trump with an intensity unknown since Nixon. If investigative reporting is truly their milieu, why have they not looked into the more obvious collusion between the Clinton campaign, the Obama Administration and Christopher Steele, with the FBI and CIA in 2016? Because it is political influence they seek, not the truth.

The 2020 Presidential campaign began. Thus far the following Democrats have announced: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Kamala Harris, Representative Tuisi Gabbard, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Representative John Delaney, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Unannounced but possible candidates include Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Terry McAuliffe. In age, they range from 37-year-olds Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Buttigieg, to 77-year-old Bernie Sanders. Four are septuagenarians: Sanders, Biden, Bloomberg and Warren. Most are way left of center. They see Mr. Trump as vulnerable, and certainly he has the media against him. But, at this point, he has the economy in his favor. Therefore, expect to hear a lot about the fragility of the economy, from effects of the government shut-down, trade wars with China, the impact of Brexit on the European economy, global debt and rising interest rates. Democrats will do what they can to frighten consumers. Bloomberg news, with Mr. Bloomberg in the wings, will emphasize the negatives. Questions persist, though. When will Democrats coalesce around one candidate? Will a more centrist candidate emerge? It is too soon to answer these questions, but the DNC may find maintaining order, with young progressives expressing socialist leanings, to be an encumbrance on a path toward electoral success in 2020.

The month saw the 45th March for Life in Washington, D.C., and the third annual Women’s March. The latter was marred because of close ties of its leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour to Nation of Islam founder, anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. Perhaps 10,000 participated in Washington D.C., according to the National Park Service, but was well-covered by the networks. In contrast the March of Life, with an estimated 100,000 in attendance, was largely ignored by the media, at least until a two-minute video went viral. The video posited Native American elder Nathan Phillips as trying to intercede between teen-age boys from Covington Catholic School who were, according to Phillips, taunting a group of Black Hebrew Israelites. Mr. Phillips went nose-to-nose with one boy, while banging his drum in his face. Not bothering to check, the New York Times and the Washington Post took Nathan Phillips at his word. Only later, did they apologize. A two-hour video showed a different story: Mr. Phillips and the Black Hebrew Israelites appeared to be the instigators, and elder Phillips was not the Vietnam veteran he claimed to be.


Overseas, Brexit, as mentioned above, dominated the news. Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal went down to a resounding defeat in the House of Commons, 432-202, the “worse legislative defeat for a Prime Minister in living memory,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Mrs. May did, however, survive a no-confidence vote by a margin, however, that gave her little confidence – 325-306. Alternatives, at this point, include: the remote possibility of Parliament passing and the EU approving a new plan; a “no Brexit” that would mean the March 29 deadline be extended, which would require unanimous approval of all 27 EU members and perhaps a new referendum; and a “hard Brexit,” where the UK exits without a plan. But they would be independent and free to make bilateral trade agreements. While that possibility may be the riskiest, it is the one that most closely matches the will of the people in 2016. Seventeen million (52%) Brits voted to leave the EU, and they did so against the wishes of the government, mainstream media and even over the meddling of then U.S. President Barack Obama.

In a recent op-ed in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman wrote about the 27 EU members: “…the internal divisions pulling them apart are less powerful than the external pressures pushing them together.” His point was that commercial and security issues are more powerful than competing national and cultural values. But Rachman’s views do not explain Brexit. Britain has long been an outsider to the Continent. She is “maritime,” as Charles De Gaulle once said. Her parliamentary system is older than any on the continent. Liberal ideas in the UK have a longer history than they do in Germany, France, Italy and Spain. It was not until 1973 that she joined the European Union, sixteen years after the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community. Britain’s legal system differs from the Napoleonic Code that guides much of Europe’s civil law. Britain kept the pound when the Euro was introduced in January 1999. She favors decentralization. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel want to strengthen European institutions. They want, as Henri-Bernard Levy recently wrote, a sovereign super-state with ever-expanding powers. But Europe, as Churchill once said about India, “is a geographical term,” not a united nation.

In a world dominated by the U.S. and, soon, China, Europe, rightly, sees strength in unification. But, the bitterness of the fight between Brussels and London displays weakness. A friendly divorce would have been better for both, as they have common interests in liberal governments, free trade, the movement of citizens and a common need for mutual defense. The Brexit vote was close, but it wasn’t unambiguous. Remainders never accepted their loss and European bureaucrats never wanted separation to be easy, for fear it might tempt others. An offer from the Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, for example, to help resolve the dispute over the Irish border was rejected by Ireland and Germany. Europe is a global power in terms of economic strength, but they are culturally diffuse and militarily weak. Is a European army the answer, as M. Macron wants? Could they afford one, given their welfare system? A free nation or union of nations must be able to defend itself, but does Europe have the will? And how do they resolve cultural differences? Brexit was always iffy, in that Prime Minister Theresa May, who succeeded David Cameron following the Brexit vote, had voted to Remain. Her ambivalence about carrying out the mandate was half-hearted. Nothing, for example, during the past two and a half years was done to establish post-Brexit trade agreements with the U.S., China, Japan and former Commonwealth countries. This lack of focus on the part of Ms. May and pettiness on the part of the EU has put both at economic and military peril. Economies are anemic, debt is ballooning, and a recrudescent Russia lurks to the East.

In a disputed election, Felix Tshisekedi was named president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The charge: collusion between Mr. Tshisekedi and the current (former) president Mr. Kabila. Forty percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and the Church’s 40,000 observers determined that opposition candidate Martin Fayula had been the winner. A court challenge is underway. However, the Southern African Development Community, composed of fifteen African nations, confirmed Mr. Tshisekedi’s election. The dispute between Greece and Macedonia was resolved, with the parliaments of both countries agreeing to a U.S. backed plan that changes the name of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia. Mr. Trump said he would meet in February with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.


Recession-talk increased. A December CNBC poll had the possibility of recession at 23% versus 13% a year earlier. But how much is based on data and how much is wishful thinking from those who want to depose President Trump? A good economy is important for the re-election of a President, and the current economy is Mr. Trump’s strongest card. Both Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush failed in their re-election attempts, in part because of economic downturns. The possibility of Michael Bloomberg entering the race has the folks at Bloomberg News already talking gloomily of economic prospects. The World Economic Forum in Davos, a glittery gathering of political, industrial and financial elites, was more subdued than usual. With the U.S. government shut-down, no high-ranking administration officials made the trip. Concerned about Brexit, Theresa May did not attend, nor did Xi Jinping who is facing a tough economy, nor Emmanuel Macron who is dealing with “yellow vests.” At the WEF Jair Bolsonaro, newly sworn-in president of Brazil, vowed to lower corporate taxes and make his country more open to trade. While Putin was not there, “the overwhelming mission for Russia,” as the Financial Times put it, “is to try to restore the idea that Russia is a ‘normal’ country, rather than a rogue state.” The New York Times referred to a “chill” that permeated the conference, brought on by a letter to investors from Seth Klarman of Boston-based hedge fund Baupost. Mr. Klarman, one of today’s most respected investors, forecasts a crisis brought on by global debt, social tensions and a United States receding in terms of its global responsibilities. I don’t feel qualified to respond other than to say I don’t believe the U.S. is vacating the world stage, and the rise in debt was largely due to an extended period of unnecessarily low interest rates following the 2008 credit crisis. Low rates helped borrowers and the wealthy, but hurt the poor, the elderly and savers. That situation is now being addressed by central banks in the U.S., Europe and Japan. This is not to minimize the risk of debt. In the U.S. the ratio of federal debt to GDP is the highest since World War II. The ratio will continue to expand. Transfer payments are increasing at a rate higher than overall spending. Mandatory spending, plus defense and interest expense account for about 85% of the federal budget. With the House in the hands of Democrats, it is unlikely that welfare spending will slow. An increase in interest rates is taking place, but it will be incremental. Fed chairman Jerome Powell has a monumental job.

The DJIA rose 7.2% for the month through yesterday. Despite media griping, the economy remains strong. A gauge of layoffs fell to the lowest level since 1969, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. For the week ending January 19, initial jobless claims fell by 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 199,000. That is the lowest level since November 1969, when it was 197,000 and the workforce was smaller.

The Los Angeles Rams will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Japan’s Naomi Osaka beat the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova to win the women’s title at the Australian Open. In the men’s final, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal. Mariano Rivera became the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame to receive unanimous votes.


As teachers in Colorado went on strike, those in Los Angeles settled their six-day strike. But they did so at a terrific cost; the deal, as the New York Times put it, “showed the clout the teachers’ union has with Democrats in power in this city and this state.” The settlement includes caps on class sizes, the hiring of full-time nurses for every school and librarians for every middle and high school. They won concessions on standardized tests; they imposed a cap on the number of charter schools, and they received a six percent pay raise. Will students fare better in five years? History suggests no. California’s unfunded liabilities are approaching a trillion dollars, and old residents are leaving faster than new ones are arriving. The state ranks 42nd in terms of financial health by the Mercatus Center. The New York State legislature, now with Democrat majorities in both chambers, passed a bill which will give college aid to undocumented students. Like California, New York is a financial mess. Mercatus ranks the state 41st. Its total unfunded liabilities are $422 billion, or 35% of state personal income. Like California, New York is losing population.

Elsewhere, the spacecraft New Horizons, now beyond Pluto, beamed back images of Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object twenty-one miles long and ten miles wide. It is more than four billion miles from Earth. A United Airline flight from Newark to Hong Kong stopped for a medical emergency at Newfoundland’s Goose Bay Airport. Unable to get a door shut, passengers were plane-bound for fourteen hours, with temperatures outside at negative 31 degrees. A super lunar blood moon was seen in the U.S. Johnson & Johnson joined with Apple’s watch to create an app that will allow the wearer to detect irregular heart conditions. Republican Representative Steve King was stripped of committee assignments for racial comments. Democrat Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee stepped down as Judiciary Committee chairwoman and from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for mishandling a report of sexual abuse. William Barr was nominated as Attorney General. Home prices, according to a CNBC report, were pulling back in most markets, but that didn’t stop Hedge Fund owner Ken Griffin from paying $238 million for a 24,000 square foot apartment in New York.

Indicative of the idiocies of Presidential wannabes, Beto O’Rourke had a camera placed inside his mouth while at the dentist. Election officials in Texas uncovered 95,000 illegal voter registrations from non-citizens, with 58,000 actually having cast ballots. Five people were killed in a shooting rampage at a bank in Sebring, Florida. A team at the University of Illinois overcame a natural fault with photosynthesis, allowing tobacco plants to become 40% more productive. Future tests will include cotton and soybeans. The first-time pass-rate for the California bar declined over the past decade from 74% to 63%. President of Notre Dame Father John Jenkins, acceding to political correctness, covered their rare Christopher Columbus murals. He did so in the mistaken belief that appeasing extremists converts them to moderation.


In other news internationally, President Trump recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. The 37-year-old opposition leader declared himself interim president, while calling for free elections to end the repressive regime of Venezuelan socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro, who was sworn in for his second term in early January. Following Mr. Trump’s announcement, a dozen other democracies recognized Mr. Guaido. The EU gave “conditional” recognition. Maduro is supported by Cuba, China, Russia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mexico and Hezbollah. Incredibly, newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) condemned the U.S.’s decision as “undemocratic.” Inflation in Venezuela is running at a 1,000,000% rate; unemployment is 33.4%, and GDP declined 14.6% last year. More than three million (10% of the population) have fled the country since 2014. A trade delegation from China arrived in Washington, boosting hopes for a trade agreement. In search of new allies, Vladimir Putin pivoted to Africa, unsettling a region long influenced by the U.S., Britain, France and more recently China. Islam may be a religion of peace, but you wouldn’t know it from those who continue to terrify and kill disbelievers. Through the 23rd of January, more than 800 were killed, with the Middle East and Africa accounting for most of the deaths. With that news, Americans should find it disturbing that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) replaced a subcommittee on terrorism for one focused on President Trump. Paid smugglers continue to lead migrants across Mexico to the U.S. border. A dam burst in Brazil, killing 84, with 276 missing. The Mueller investigation team arrested former Trump campaign associate Roger Stone, When the FBI makes an arrest where the target is neither a flight nor a physical risk, why do over twenty agents show up pre-dawn, in full body armor, with automatic weapons drawn? Is this America?

On the other hand, the story of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was heart-warming. An 18-year-old, she was anxious to leave misogynist Saudi Arabia; so, while in Kuwait on holiday with her family she boarded a plane to Australia. At a re-fueling stop in Bangkok she got off and went to an airport hotel where she barricaded herself for six days while seeking asylum. Canada accepted her. She likes the freedom and the respect she receives but says, “It’s also cold.” Russia has built an s-400 antiaircraft missile defense system, with a potentially deadly aerial shield. It has been deployed in Syria. Prince Philip, at age 97, hit another car and rolled his, as he was leaving the gates of Sandringham House in his Range Rover. He was unhurt, but the driver of the other car broke her wrist. China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.


Dreaded, but inevitable, the Grim Reaper appeared carrying off the famed, as well as those loved by their families and friends. Carol Channing, one of Broadway’s greatest stars, bowed out at 97. Russell Baker, whose columns were always penetrating and witty died at 93. John Bogle, who did more for the small investor than any other person, died at 89. The great Yankee pitcher Mel Stottlemyre died at 77. Bill Phillips, a friend, died at 88, as did another friend Christine “Cricket” Ness at 77.


Oh! And by the way, selective hearing – that along with great doses of love must have worked. Our two sons and one daughter have all been married for over twenty years, and together they have produced ten wonderful grandchildren. But, sad to say, selective reporting has become more pervasive. We cannot expect publishers, editors and reporters to be devoid of opinions, but they do the public and the nation a disservice when opinions are not differentiated from news. The result is “fake news.” It is the publisher and the editor I blame. The first sets the tone and the second should have the responsibility of preventing opinion being confused with fact. While reporters may get pleasure from evangelizing for their progressive friends, the the Republic is the loser. Read, watch and listen as much and as often as you can, but do so skeptically.

Welcome to February!

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