Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Month That Was - March 2019

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – March 2019
March 31, 2019

March is the month God created to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like.”
                                                                                                            Garrison Keillor (1942-)
                                                                                                            Wobegon Boy1997

March is when we move from winter to spring. We had days with temperatures in the single digits and others when the thermometer approached seventy. Mark Twain once wrote about spring, “I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” Perhaps we weren’t that extreme, though it did snow here in southeastern Connecticut on the third full day of spring. And there were days when Robins must have thought they came north too early. March is when the clocks advance by an hour – an anachronism from a time when family farms were ubiquitous, and more daylight hours were important. In 1920, 27% of the U.S. population lived on farms. Today, 2% do. So, why do we still change our clocks?


The month blossomed with news, if not with flora. A terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand; the release of the long-anticipated Mueller report; the fatal crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 in Ethiopia; the fifteenth (or was it the sixteenth?) announced candidacy for the Democrat nomination for President; Brexit; a college admissions scandal that rocked Hollywood, Wall Street, law firms and some of our top universities; Nicolás Maduro gained traction in Venezuela, with help from China and especially Russia, while Juan Guaidó’s wife Fabiana Rosales visited the White House; President Trump acknowledged the reality of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and he issued his first veto (sustained) over Wall funding; the ISIS Caliphate in Syria was defeated; China enlisted a deeply indebted Italy into its Belt and Road Initiative; friends in high places, and hatred for Trump convinced the Cook County State’s Attorney to drop charges against Jussie Smollett for a feigned racial attack.


Three events during the month said much about modern American culture – none of it positive, which should give us pause. The first was the revelation uncovered in the college admissions scandal, a scandal that said a lot about the values of so-called elites – how they lied and cheated to get their children into top colleges. Many of the accused are the same who are contemptuous toward ‘deplorables,’ their attitudes toward guns, God, immigrants and transgenders. The second was the reaction of many Democrats and much of the media to the Mueller report, which exonerated President Trump and his campaign team from any Russian collusion – their refusal to admit they had been wrong. The third was the Jussie Smollett affair, which saw a perpetrator rewarded for lying and evading personal responsibility.

While the William “Rick” Singer college admissions scandal will likely fade from the front pages, it should not; for it says a lot about us as a society and, should, therefore, continue to command our attention, especially the sense of entitlement displayed by elites. Universities fired culpable coaches; but did nothing to excuse the acceptance of a squash court for an otherwise unqualified candidate; they have never clarified why diversity of appearance (ethnicity) is more important than diversity of ideas. Colleges have taken advantage of a societal and government-induced demand, where society says college is for everyone, no matter the interest, the cost and no matter how little is learned. Government has guaranteed student loans, which give universities the ability to raise prices at double the rate of inflation. The consequence is that half of all students fail to graduate within six years yet are saddled with debt – an amount, collectively, approaching $1.5 trillion. In a collection of his sermons Strength to Love(1963), Martin Luther King wrote “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” The most elite of our universities would be better off instructing the basics, teaching wisdom and debating ideas, rather than protecting students from “hateful” speech and fostering victimhood. As Yuval Levin wrote during the month in National Review, no society is without elites. Ours now come from merit, but when rules get broken, society breaks down. Personal responsibility, not entitlement, should come with success, just as restraint, not pride, should come with victory. An honest university would forego some federal funding in exchange for more independence and would worry less about rankings in the annual “U.S. News and World Report” and more about creating an educated graduate.

For two years, Democrats in Washington told the American public that Mr. Trump colluded with Russians to win the 2016 Presidential election. House Intelligence Committee leader Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) repeatedly said they had “proof” that Mr. Trump colluded with Mr. Putin. So, where is it? Former CIA Director John Brennan called Mr. Trump’s actions “treasonous.” Will Mr. Brennan be held accountable for his comments? James Clapper said that Watergate “pales” beside the Trump-Russia allegations. Has he apologized? Congress still feels the need to for their own investigation, as though Mueller’s team had been sitting on their hands for the past two years. Mr. Mueller completed his work with the help of nineteen lawyers, forty FBI agents and 500 witnesses. He issued 2800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants and spent thirty million tax dollars. Does Congress need to do more? Where is the acknowledgment from the media and Democrats that they were wrong in their wilful accusations? 

Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation brought 34 indictments, but none for collusion with Russians, which was his mandate. The report suggested no more indictments. Any possible claims that Mr. Trump or his team obstructed justice was left to Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both of whom said there were no charges worth pursuing. The truth is that the media, Democrats and some Republicans just don’t like Mr. Trump. After all, they are denizens of the swamp he promised to drain. They especially don’t like his character, and, certainly, he is no paragon of virtue. But, is he any worse than Hillary Clinton, his opponent in 2016? She lied about Benghazi, sold 20% of our uranium holdings to the Russians in exchange for a $145 million donation to the Clinton Foundation and hired opposition research firm Fusion GPS to find incriminating evidence against Mr. Trump, which, unverified, was accepted by FBI Director James Comey. Is Mr. Trump’s character worse than Mr. Comey’s, John Brennan’s, James Clapper’s, Andrew McCabe’s, Peter Strzok’s or Lisa Page’s? Is it worse than that of Eric Swalwell (D-CA) who repeated his claim this week that President Trump is an agent of the Russian government? To support his claim, Mr. Swalwell used false data about sanctions, Syria and NATO. Is Mr. Trump’s character worse than that of Jussie Smollett, the darling of the #HateTrumpMovement, who has yet to accept responsibility for the perfidious trick he pulled? Is it more flawed than those in the media who never investigated the alleged Obama-Clinton collusion with the Justice Department and FBI, those who reported what they wanted to believe? As one report put it: “Pursuing legal challenges against Mr. Trump has become something of a sport among Democratic attorneys general over the past two years…” Democrats have seemingly borrowed the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Joseph Magats, Cook County prosecutor, dropped sixteen felony charges against Jussie Smollett who was arrested for faking a racially motivated ‘hate’ attack. Both Chicago’s Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were disgusted with the outcome, the latter calling it a “whitewash of justice.” The dropping of the case was not due to lack of proof or of innocence. It was attributed to a text message sent from Tina Tchen, once Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, to Kim Foxx, Cook County State’s Attorney. Ms. Tchen is a friend of the Smollett family, so used her influence.


Elsewhere, President Trump’s issued an executive order denying federal funds to colleges that suppress student free-speech rights – an understandable wish, but one that makes the Executive the determinant of acceptable speech, which I find unacceptable. The month saw four more candidates throw their hats into an already-crowded 2020 Presidential ring – Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, 46, former House member from Texas; Bernie Sanders, 77, Senator from Vermont; Jay Inslee, 68, Governor of Washington, and John Hickenlooper, 67, former Governor of Colorado. They join eleven already-announced candidates. The list is expected to grow. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses will be held February 3, 2020, and the first-in-the-nation primary is tentatively scheduled for February 11, 2020 in New Hampshire. The Democratic National Committee chose Milwaukee for their July 13-16, 2020 Convention. Ronald Sullivan Jr., a black Harvard Law school professor and dean of Winthrop House (an undergraduate residential dorm) was protested by Winthrop House residents who said they no longer “felt safe” with him in charge. The reason: Professor Sullivan agreed to join the Harvey Weinstein criminal-defense team. As Heather MacDonald wrote in a Wall Street Journalop-ed, student agitation could have been an opportunity for a lesson in the values of Western democracy…”that a lawyer who defends someone accused of a crime doesn’t thereby condone [the] crime…he is upholding the principles that all defendants, even guilty ones, have a right to legal representation and that the state may criminally punish someone only after proving his guilt in a rigorously contested adversarial process. History shows that without such a requirement, state power slides toward tyranny.” Harvard administrators took the easy and politically-correct way out, siding with students, whose ignorance was palpable. Thus, they worsened the divide and ignored the fact we are a nation of laws.    


Horrific shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand dominated international news. A certified nut case, claiming roots in white supremacism, murdered fifty-one Muslims as they gathered for Friday morning prayers. While the attacks were despicable (and made more so as they were filmed and put on social media), perspective is needed. During the first two weeks of March – and virtually unreported by mainstream media – two hundred and fifty men, women and children were killed in fifty-five attacks in a dozen countries on five continents. All killed by Islamic extremists. Among the dead were 120 Christians in Nigeria, slaughtered by Boko Haram. To a parent, spouse, sibling or child, every person’s death is a tragedy. Not the color of the skin, the race or the religion of the victim makes any difference to loved ones left behind. It is death that is final. In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”  And what was true for Donne four hundred years ago is true for all that value human life today. An Ethiopia Airlines jet, a Boeing 737 Max 8, went down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 aboard. As this was the second crash of this plane in six months. all 737 Max 8 and 9 planes were subsequently grounded. While such tragedies are sobering, we should keep in mind that over 100,000 flights take off around the world every day.

Britain staggered toward the exit. On the 12th, Parliament voted to reject Theresa May’s second negotiated proposal. The next day, Parliament voted not to leave the EU without a deal, and on the 14th, they voted to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit process.  The latter was granted…conditionally. If Mrs. May’s new proposal (the third) would be acceptable to Parliament, departure will be delayed until May 22nd. If not, Brexit will occur on April 12th. On the 29th, the day Britain was supposed to leave the European Union, Parliament voted to reject Mrs. May’s third proposal, so April 12thnow seems to be the date. But there will be at least one more attempt. However, a “no-deal” Brexit has become more likely and Mrs. May’s days appear numbered. It is a shame, and consequences are unknown. What should have been a clean and respected divorce has become a Marx Brothers farce, except no one is laughing. Theresa May has not represented her constituents well and European leaders have become bureaucratic grandees. Emmanuel Macron struts around like a Bantam rooster, while Angela Merkel is but a shadow of the leader she had been before letting in a million migrants in 2015. The concept of an economically and militarily united Europe is a good thing. But too much centralized control and an abandonment of voters’ wishes, threaten to destroy what had been achieved. Already, we have seen a backlash from Eastern Europe, nations that know better than those in the West what it is like to live under authoritarianism.

Germany passed a budget that limits defense spending to no more than 1.25% of GDP. She did this, inexplicably, as Russia and China have become stronger and NATO has become weaker. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell criticized the decision: “NATO members clearly pledged to move toward, not away, from 2% by 2024,” an accurate observation which upset German officials. That European unity is crumbling could be seen as Italy signed onto China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project, becoming the first member of the Group of Seven to do so. She joins other European nations like Greece, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Poland, Hungary and Portugal. As the New York Timesput it, “There is growing concern …that China has arrived in Europe not as an economic collaborator, but as a conqueror…” It should be a reminder that the world never sits still – not in terms of its climate and not in terms of its geo-politics. Everything is always in flux. U.S. backed fighters, along with the Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) declared military victory over ISIS in Syria, with the destruction of the village of Al-Baghuz Fawqani. That ended a four-year battle against ISIS. However, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains at large. ISIS is an outgrowth of al Qaeda. Like the mythological Hydra’s heads, expect new groups to form. Nevertheless, four years ago their caliphate in Syria-Iraq was home to eight million people; now it is gone. But, like the Phoenix, it is not dead. 


Markets were relatively calm during the month (the VIX, a measure of volatility, declined 46% in the first quarter), at least until March 22 when the yield curve inverted, with Three-month Treasury Bills yielding 2.48% versus the 10-Year Bond at 2.44 percent. That day the DJIA dropped 1.8%, the first time since February 15ththat the DJIA closed up or down more than 1.5 percent. (By the end of the month, stocks had recovered that loss.) If extended, an inverted yield curve can be a predictor of economic recession. But as one wag suggested an inverted yield curve has anticipated twelve of the last five recessions. Adding to concerns, new job growth of 20,000 was below expectations and the lowest since fall of 2017. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, in a speech on March 21, said the Fed had finished tightening, at least for the time being.

As to whether this marks the start of recession and the end of the ten-year bull market is not for me to say. My crystal ball is cloud-filled, wrapped in gauze and hidden beneath two feet of dirt. Nevertheless, I don’t sense the ebullience usually associated with the final days of a bull market. The legendary investor John Templeton once said: “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.” However, one cannot ignore our national debt whose size is masked by very-low interest rates. One cannot ignore the substantial increase in student loan debt, which hinders young adults as they make their way into the job market. Nor can one ignore the long-term implications of declining births, as measured by total fertility rates. Europe, China, Japan and the U.S. are all experiencing births below replacement levels. (Sub-Sahara Africa and parts of the Middle East are the only places in the world where births are consistently above replacement levels.) Unchecked, the consequences will be aging populations and falling economic growth.

Stocks were essentially flat during the month. Bond prices and gold rose slightly. Crude oil was up 5% and Bitcoins rose 7.5%. Levi Strauss returned to the public market after a 34-year absence and Lyft went public. The former was valued around $8 billion on about $500 million in operating income. The latter was valued at about $24 billion (and rose to $30 billion on its first day of trading), on a loss in 2018 of $911.3 million. 


For over two hundred and twenty years winning the Presidency has required winning the Electoral College. Some Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren, would like to change that, as Electoral College victory does not always equate to popular vote victory. In 2016, neither candidate won a majority of the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won a plurality (48.2%) to Donald Trump’s 46.1%. However, in the Electoral College Mr. Trump won 304 votes to Mrs. Clinton’s 237 votes. She was the fifth Presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election, the last being Al Gore in 2000. In only one instance, the election of 1876, did the losing candidate actually win a majority of the popular vote. Now Democrats have put forth a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement between states that says no matter which candidate wins a state, once votes nation-wide are tallied all its electoral votes would go to the candidate who won a plurality of the nation-wide popular vote. The Compact, which disregards the wishes of a state’s voters, would go into effect once enough states join that total 270 Electoral votes. The movement emerged in 2006. This past month Colorado, with nine Electoral votes, became the 13thstate to join the Compact. Democrats are in the forefront of this movement to surreptitiously bypass the Constitution, with states like New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington having joined, while Texas, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Virginia have not. The Compact, should it reach 270 Electoral votes will surely be challenged in courts. Our bicameral legislature, in which the people are represented by members of the House of Representatives and the states with Senators, has served the Country well for over two centuries. For one thing, abandonment would encourage minority candidates, suggesting the President could be one with just a third of the popular vote. The Electoral College is integral to our election process. It should not be abandoned. 

President Trump vetoed a Congressional effort to kill his emergency border funding bill. His veto was upheld. Gambino boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali was shot outside his Staten Island home. An “associate” arrived with a suitcase containing $45,000 to pay for the funeral. Presidential hopeful “Beto” O’Rourke admitted to having been a member of a computing hacking group – the Cult of the Dead Cow – while in Congress. This was before he had a video of his dental work placed on his Instagram account! Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) cited American Jews as being more loyal to Israel than to the U.S., saying they were driven by “Benjamins” – $100 bills. Her anti-Semitism received no reprimand from Democrat Congressional leadership. Instead, in another example of a perpetrator claiming victimhood, the House` passed a resolution condemning all hate speech, specifically including Islamophobia. In a case of sad news following dreadful news, two students from Parkland school in Florida committed suicide. The cause, we are told, was “survivor’s guilt.” And, so did the father of a young girl killed in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting.

A tornado ripped through southeast Alabama killing at least twenty-three. Floods in Nebraska killed three and caused an estimated $3.0 billion in crop and livestock losses. At an event in New Hampshire, Presidential wannabe Mayor Bill De Blasio brought out all of six people to his “town Hall,” apart from members of his advance team. Baseball’s opening day was March 28. The Yankees won. The Red Sox lost. A debate has been joined as to whether the census should ask about citizenship – the objective being should non-citizens be counted in terms of Congressional seats? Michael Avenatti, a Democrat favorite when he represented “Stormy” Daniels in her suit against President Trump and when he claimed Brett Kavanaugh had run a gang-rape ring when in high school (termed “serious and credible” by Trump haters), was arrested for attempting to shake down Nike for $20 million. Connecticut’s new Democrat Governor Ned Lamont and the state’s all-Democrat Legislature proposed a number of new taxes: a one-mill statewide property tax; the establishment of a statewide automobile tax of between fifteen and nineteen mills; eighty-two electronic tolls on Connecticut highways; the permitting of a third casino to allow collection of a percent of slot machine takes; a tax on sugary drinks and electronic cigarettes; the taxing of services, like haircuts, dry cleaning, legal, boat repair and accounting, all at the same rate as goods; a ten cent tax on plastic bags at grocery stores, and the permitting of recreational marijuana. The State is even considering a bill that would impose a $15.00 fee on the purchase of a dog or cat from an animal shelter. Keep in mind, these taxes are regressive, as their impact falls most heavily on low and middle-income people. Like so many Democrat-controlled states, Connecticut is in financial distress. Reducing spending is never an alternative. Increasing taxes are the only answers they know.


In other news overseas, Cyclone Idai left almost seven hundred dead, with an estimated three million people affected, principally in Mozambique but also in Zimbabwe and Malawi. Pro-democracy parties in Thailand may have won enough seats to form a majority government to replace the military junta that has been ruling the country since 2014. A cruise ship, the Viking Sky, lost one engine and began listing after leaving Tromso on Norway’s northwestern coast. Half the passengers were airlifted off the ship; the rest stayed aboard, as the ship was towed into port. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, became embroiled in a scandal, as he allegedly interfered in a corruption case involving one of Canada’s biggest companies, SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering company. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, deemed “Brazil’s Trump” by the Financial Times, visited the White House in hopes of establishing closer relations with the U.S. This is an important step in countering an aggressive China that has already established Belt and Road Initiatives with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, along with a dozen smaller countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The U.S. State Department estimated that between eight-hundred thousand and two million Muslims have been forced into “internment camps” in Communist China where they are “re-educated” “to erase religious and ethnic identities.” A European Medial Literacy Week took place in various European cities March 18-22, to develop “critical thinking by the user” and to help “counter the effects of disinformation campaigns and fake news spreading through digital media.” As to who defines what is fake and what is appropriate was not identified, but there is no question that this is “Big Brother” imposing his will on the people. A South African photographer, Rainer Schimpf, while scuba diving off the coast of Port Elizabeth, was swallowed by a whale, and a few moments later spat out.


Death struck. Charles McCarry, one of my favorite spy novelists, died at 88. Dan Jenkins, Sports Illustrated writer and author of Semi-Tough, died at 90. W.S. Merwin, Poet Laureate of the U.S. 2010-2011 and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, died at 91. And Julia Ruth Stevens, daughter of Babe Ruth, died at 102.


A culture of divisiveness, driven by identity politics and political correctness, defines our Country. One had hoped the Mueller report would have had an ameliorating effect – that people would have been pleased that, while we knew there was Russian interference in our elections, at least no candidate had colluded with the enemy. But that was too much to hope for. Lines had been drawn and Trump derangement Syndrome persists. We should be careful, lest we think this divisiveness the fault of one man. It is not. Nor did this division originate in 2016. Its recent roots go back to the 2000 election. Personal animosity is a symptom of a society where the desire for power supersedes concepts of decency, responsibility and accountability. Unfortunately, it will not end soon or easily. As individuals, the best we can do is ensure that the culture in schools prioritizes learning and behavior. If our generation cannot (or will not) provide solutions, we should ensure that future generations understand that a free nation’s success depends upon civility, education, rule of law and a strong militaryUnfortunately, these are not concepts being taught.

Welcome to April!

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