Monday, May 27, 2019

"American Dialogue: The Founders and Us," by Joseph J. Ellis

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“American Dialogue: The Founders and Us”, Joseph J. Ellis
May 27, 2019

The study of history is an ongoing conversation
between past and present from which we all have much to learn.”
                                                                                                Joseph J. Ellis (1943-)
                                                                                                American Dialogue: The Founders and Us

The study of history allows us to better understand – not to idolize or condemn, not to excuse or justify – the past. It provides us the ability to debate today’s issues, many of which have roots in years long ago.

As Joseph Ellis explains, the U.S. was founded on paradoxes: A Declaration of Independence was declared; a Constitution was drafted and confirmed; a government of three co-equal branches was formed. Yet slavery would be the future for African Americans; the lands of Native American Indians would be confiscated, and women would not receive the vote until 1920. These are the inconsistencies that consume Professor Ellis, and which make necessary a dialogue; for, as he sums up, “…we rise or fall together, as a single people.” He accomplishes this in four parts: Thomas Jefferson and race; John Adams and economic equality; James Madison and the judiciary, and George Washington and foreign policy. In a final chapter entitled “Leadership,” he reminds us that in 1788 four million newly minted Americans had a choice for President between George Washington and John Adams. Two hundred and twenty-eight years later, three hundred and fifteen million Americans had a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump!

Professor Ellis recently retired as Ford Foundation Chair of history at Mount Holyoke College. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation) and the National Book Award (American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson). He has authored a dozen biographies and histories about our founding years.

In this book he engages four of the founders, their thoughts at the time and their impact today. Jefferson: “While his views on race were horrific, his words on liberty and freedom are magnificent. We should know both and not let the former destroy the latter.” Adams: “Reason holds the helm, while passions are the gales.” While we strive for equality, “inequality is the natural condition of mankind.” Madison: During debates as to whether sovereignty should remain with the states or reside in the federal government: “…argument itself became the abiding solution, and ambiguity the great asset.” He was the principal author of the Constitution and, with Alexander Hamilton, the voice behind the Federalist Papers. Washington: “The myth, the monument and the mythology are so mixed together they can never be disentangled.” He was the architect of foreign policy. “He saw Europe as the past and the American frontier as the future.”

The American founding was a “collective enterprise,” with founders harboring different beliefs as to the meaning of the American Revolution and for what sort of government should evolve. “This political and psychological diversity enhanced creativity by generating a dynamic chemistry that surfaced in the arguments whenever a major crisis materialized. Diversity made dialogue unavoidable.” Given today’s focus on identity, there is irony in the diversity that emerged from founders who were all white, heterosexual (as far as we know) males of English heritage. Their diversity came to fruition in debate, formed from opinions derived from reading and were based on how and where they lived. It was from this furnace of invisible differences and visible sameness that our nation was born.

Conflict is part of the human condition and can never be eliminated. Neither can the desire for power and the tendency to abuse it,” wrote Wilfred McClay in his history of the U.S., Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.  Yet, by almost any measure the results of the Founders have been a resounding success, as Joseph Ellis tells us. For someone born in the developing world there is no other country where most would choose to live. Part of that is geographic. We are abundant in natural resources. We have no aggressive neighbors. As well, we have no landed aristocracy. We are merit based. Ultimate authority is embedded in our citizens. We are peopled with those from myriad lands and cultures. To travel to this country from afar required (and requires) aspiration, a willingness to work hard and self-reliance. Our system of government has been tried, notably during the Civil War and during the 1960s. We, the people, have prevailed, and we should again today, as divisiveness again consumes our nation. Professor Ellis quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on America: “I am full of apprehension and hope.” These thought-provoking essays provide reason for on-going dialogues and continued debate. For it is only when arguments cease and all seems settled, when silence reigns, that we should worry. 

Like us today, the Founders weighed the possible versus the ideal – “the distinction between a realist and an idealist, a skeptic and a believer.Joseph Ellis recognizes the individual flaws of the founders, but he also acknowledges the extraordinary success of what they achieved – the nation and government they built. One does not have to agree with all opinions expressed to get the value of the message conveyed by Professor Ellis – an intelligent and necessary dialogue is only possible with knowledge of the issues and resolutions that were confronted and decided upon by those who founded this nation two hundred and fifty years ago. This is a book that should be read by all who care about the political and cultural chasm that divide us today.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Dependency, not Populism, is the Enemy of Liberalism"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Dependency, not Populism, is the Enemy of Liberalism”
May 23, 2019

It is dependency, not familiarity, that breeds contempt.”
                                                                                                Marty Rubin (1930-1994)
                                                                                                “The Boiled Frog Syndrome,” 1987

The word “dependent” derives from the French adjective “pendant,” which means “hanging,” as in “avec les bras pendant”(with arms hanging).We use the word to describe a piece of jewelry that hangs from a chain necklace, a pendant that is dependent on the chain. As well, we cannot forget that the opposite of dependence is independence. Populism is defined as being popular with the people. Its antonym:elitism.

Is democracy in decline? Polity, a widely-used resource in political science, recently determined that only thirty-three countries were fully consolidated democracies. This was a decline of two from a peak in 2006. One of the two was the United States, which was docked, according to a Pew Research report, by two points in 2016 for “an increase in factional competition.” They did not define “factional,” though certainly our politics have become divisive, nor did they point out that “competition” is a positive trait of liberal governments and free market economies. (Belgium was the other country, which saw a decline because of alleged “deepened divisions” between French and Flemish-speaking communities.) Freedom House has also written of a global decline in freedom over the past dozen years, with 113 countries having seen a net decline during that time, versus 62 countries having had a net improvement. Their report, which is available on line, shows that the United States began its decline in 2010 and has continued to do so.  

Throughout history, governments have bent toward liberalism, but never in a straight line. Change is the one constant in all aspects of our lives, and it affects our political systems. Democracy requires constant vigilance, as there will always be those whose lust for power exceeds their respect for values embedded in human rights. Both political parties agree that democracy is at risk, if not in decline. But they disagree as to the cause The media, which is aligned with the left, sees decline as a consequence of a rise in what they term the “far” or “radical” right: In Europe, this would include political parties like National Rally in France, Lega Nord in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Freedom Party in Austria, Brexit in Britain, Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland and Sweden Democrats in Sweden. In the U.S., it is conservatives in general and Donald Trump’s “army of deplorables,” specifically. 

In contrast to the left’s infatuation with “right-wing populism,” the right cites deliberate policies of dependency as cause for a decline in democracy. In an essay written immediately after the Democrat National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012, Thomas Sowell wrote: “Although thebig word is ‘compassion,’ the agenda on the left is dependency.” It is not just government that is at fault; culture has played a role. While it is instinctive and right to keep safe the weak and the helpless, we have become overly-protective as parents. The freedom I had to roam as a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s is quite different from that granted my grandchildren. Colleges and universities protect students against “hurtful” speech, and they provide “safe places” when words become uncomfortable. In speech, we are warned to be more “woke” and to use gender-neutral pronouns. In terms of Islamic terrorists, we have become tolerant of the intolerant. Welfare has been extended beyond the truly needy. This is not to advocate anarchy, or for a culture absent of mutual respect, but we should never forget the fragility of freedom, how difficult it was to gain and how easy it can slip away.

Populists” refers to those popular with the public, yet has become a term of derision, used by the left to describe those they neither understand nor like. Last weekend, The Wall Street Journalpublished an article by Hoover Institute senior fellow and Stanford professor Larry Diamond titled “The Global Crisis of Democracy.” Professor Diamond assigned blame for the decline in democracy on a “…wave of populist authoritarians from Hungary to the Philippines.” He included in his list of “populists” Donald Trump, who has “insulted U.S. allies and befriended Vladimir Putin.” Nowhere in his essay was any acknowledgement that Mr. Trump had placed tougher sanctions on Russia than any of his recent predecessors, nor was there was any mention that Mr. Trump had tried to convince our European allies to share a greater percentage of the costs of their own defense – a reasonable request, not an insult. 

While independence is wanted, we are all dependent in myriad ways. Young children are dependent on mothers and fathers; the elderly are dependent on care-givers. Husbands and wives are mutually dependent, as are owners, employees and customers of businesses. Students are dependent on teachers and teachers are dependent on the taxes, tuitions and gifts. In the 18thCentury, Adam Smith saw dependency in his theory on the division of labor, where the sheep farmer was dependent on the weaver and the weaver dependent on the milliner and the milliner dependent on the merchant. Such dependencies are mutual and beneficial to individuals and society. But when dependency is imposed where no need exists, it is akin to servitude, for it deprives the individual of self-reliance and self-respect. There is pride of accomplishment that comes from work that is missing in dependency on “Big Brother,” a condition clearly (and frighteningly) portrayed in President Obama’s video, “Life of Julia.”[1]It is independence in non-material ways we value most highly – to think, opine, speak, vote, write, assemble and pray – the freedom to live as we choose, as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others.

As much as dependency has played a role in the decline of freedom, it is also the “deep state” that concerns conservatives – an embedded army of powerful, unelected (and thus unaccountable) bureaucrats. In the U.S., think Lois Lerner and the IRS, and “Spygate” – no longer a conspiracy theory – that is now being exposed by Attorney General William Barr. A more tightly regulated economy requires more lawyers to write legislation and more enforcers to ensure that new laws are obeyed[2]. Because these people make their living within an ever-expanding bureaucracy, it is natural for them to support bigger and more intrusive government, and they do. Ninety-five percent of federal employees’ donations of over $200.00 went to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, according to Federal Election Commission records.

No one wants to see a prosperous society ignore the needs of those unable to care for themselves, but there is a point beyond which compassion foments addiction. Democrats have done much to secure this base. Roughly twenty-two million Americans work in federal, state and local government – fourteen percent of the workforce. Approximately forty-four percent of American workers pay no federal income tax and, according to the Mises Institute, more than half of Americans receive more in transfer payments than they pay in taxes. In short, a growing base of those dependent on government make defending liberties and advocating for smaller government increasingly difficult. 

No one wants to end up as H.G. Wells’ Eloi, who lived a life of ease on the Earth’s surface, while the Morlocks worked and lived in darkness underground. For it was the barbaric and ruling Morlocks who harvested and ate the dependent Eloi, who had lost their independence, including the ability for self-defense. In her book All About Love: New Visions 2000, Gloria Jean Watkins(writing as Bell Hookswrote on the same theme:“It is this dependency that became, and is, the breeding ground for the abuse of power.” Amen.

[1]See Thought of the Day, “Julia’s World,” May 9, 2012.
[2]According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the total cost of U.S. federal regulation in 2017 was two trillion dollars, roughly $6,100 per person or ten percent of annual GDP.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

"Things and Joy"

Sydney M. Williams

Essay from Essex
“Things and Joy”
May 16, 2019

“I looked around the rooms I did not see as rooms,
but more as landscapes for my emotions, a biography of memory.”
                                                                                                Anne Spollen
                                                                                                The Shape of Water

My wife and I have always been collectors, not for investment, but because something struck our fancy:a painting, an old English tea caddy, an antique desk, for example. I have bought old books and Caroline old china. We have politically incorrect knick-knacks, wooden snuff boxes and cast-iron doorstops. Amidst the books and papers that clutter my built-in desk are two dozen photographs, an old Wall Street cartoon and the paper ticker, embedded in Lucite, of a trade I helped facilitate many years ago. On the walls of our small library, where seven hundred books have found a home, hang forty-five framed paintings, photographs, drawings and letters, most having to do with family. Collections, as someone once said or wrote – or should have if they did not – are little more than reflections of the collector. Look at our walls and bookshelves, I tell our grandchildren, and you will learn something of us.These are walls that talk.

The collecting of “things” has become passé,in an age of helicoptering parents who prefer the bustle of in-town living to the placidity of rural life. Collecting can be a selfish and solitary avocation, for it is only the self that wants pleasing. Experiences, in contrast, are usually shared. Experiences, of course, are often memorialized in things: photos, mementos or souvenirs of places and sights visited. But, do we take time to savor last years’ trip, or are we too busy planning next years’ expedition? This is not to argue against experiences, especially with children and grandchildren. God knows I love them, but perspective is wanted, and balance is needed.

Has the pendulum swung too far from “things”? Who, we are asked, would want ‘brown’ furniture in their living room, pieces of junk in the family room, crockery in the pantry, dusty books on shelves and old paintings on walls? Well, we would. But the furniture are antiques and the junk, curios. The crockery is, in fact, Meissen, the “dusty old books” include first editions of Through the Looking Glassand Huckleberry Finn, and the “old pictures” include a few Connecticut impressionists. While recognizing that changing habits are to be expected, there is a compulsivity toward the “doing of it now” that possesses our ego-obsessed culture, which is troubling, making those like me feel like dinosaurs in an age of Twitter. 

Life is more than collecting “things” and even more than experiences. InThe Second Mountain, David Brooks writes of his climb toward faith: “Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes from offering gifts. Happiness fades; we get used to the things that make us happy. Joy doesn’t fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude and hope.” There is wisdom in those words. There is so much about the world we do not know and cannot understand. While there are some who claim that all climate change is due to man, I feel humbled when a thunderstorm passes through, a winter storm brings devastation, or the sea churns in enormous, potentially destructive waves. The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory tells us that the average hurricane generates and releases energy equivalent to almost two hundred times the electrical generating capacity of the planet. There is no question that man has affected our climate, but he is not the only – and probably not the principal – cause. It makes one realize there are forces greater than man. I am filled with wonder of the natural world, gratitude for being alive, and hope for a future that is free and peaceful for my grandchildren.

But is a joyful life simply a belief in God, helping others, or witnessing nature’s mysteries? Perhaps? However, in my opinion joy comes from striking the right balance between work, home, play, faith and community service. Joy stems from being happy with one’s self. Certainly, the absence of bad luck plays a role, but it is mostly about walking the line between compulsion and dedication; a willingness to work hard, but not at the expense of ignoring one’s family. The Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr comes to mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”  When I skied, there was joy in fresh powder on the Bolshoi Ballroom at Vail. Having given up skiing, I find joy in walking alone through the woods and in putting words on paper. Joy comes from the pleasure of giving back to one’s community some of what one has gained. I get joy in our infrequent visits to church. And I get joy in looking at things we have collected over many years – a photograph of me and my sister, each holding our dolls, taken around 1943; a painting my wife did while a student in Boston in 1959; a wooden Christmas Tree ornament bought in Germany on our honeymoon in 1965; a Henry King Taylor painting “Carrying Out the Anchor” bought in Haddam, Connecticut in the late 1960s; a family history discovered at Boston’s Goodspeed’s in the 1970s; a signed copy of Midstreamby Helen Keller, and numerous pieces of sculpture and drawings by parents, children and grandchildren.

It is said that “enough is enough,” and that probably applies to this essay. But what does it really mean? Are your demands the same as mine? Life is not (or should not be) a competition. We are here for a moment, and then, like all living things, we die. Are we remembered? Looking at what we have collected, I see history and the memories they evoke. A drawing of my father as a child and a silhouette of my mother in her riding habit at age twelve make me think of their childhoods and of how the world has changed. I recall once an Aunt coming to our home in Greenwich, seeing a chest that had belonged to her mother, my grandmother. She said how pleased she was to see that piece, well-loved as before, but in its new home. My wife and I feel the same way, seeing things we once owned now gracing rooms or walls in the homes of our children. Each carries a memory; each tells a story, one we relate, and which may (we hope) be passed down to future generations. History is more interesting when personal. “Things” help pave that way.

In defending things,I am not belittling the experience of a bungee jump in Costa Rica, serving a meal at a soup kitchen, or renewing one’s faith. I am suggesting that, in this trip through life, which we are all fortunate to be on, never be embarrassed because you chose a silver cow creamer over a trip to Disney WorldIt is finding the right balance.Self-help books are of little use, as we each find balance in different ways. In life it is the trip, not the destination, that is important. David Brooks finds joy in different ways than do I, and what is optimum for me will be different from what is right for you. There is no right or wrong way in the search for joy, only what is most comfortable and what brings peace and comfort, whether it is renewed faith, a sunset on an island beach, or a P.G. Wodehouse first edition.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"The Golden Hour," by Beatriz Williams

Sydney M. Williams

  May 14, 2019

Burrowing into Books
“The Golden Hour,” by Beatriz Williams

“‘The golden hour,’ Wilfred waves his hand at the sun, “…that’s when everything looks
 the most beautiful, just before the sun sets. This luminous air turning everything to gold.’”
                                                                                                            Beatriz Williams
                                                                                                            The Golden Hour

Good historical fiction, when thoroughly researched and well written, serves a purpose straight history cannot. It allows the reader to see events within the context of the time and norms then present. Doing so allows the reader to better know the era. When real people mingle with fictional characters, it helps better understand the behavior of the former. Beatriz Williams has become a master of setting a stage, populating it and providing the dialogue that helps illuminate our often forgotten past

In The Golden Hour, we get a taste of what genteel life in Europe was like before the world descended into the abyss of the Great War, and we get to live through the destruction brought on by the Second World War, when not even the sunny Bahamas were spared the darkness of that time. While this story is primarily about two women, Elfriede and Lulu, born forty-odd years apart in different worlds, it is also about a real murder in the Bahamas that occurred seventy-six years ago, and which remains unsolved.

It was the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, an American-born, Canadian gold mine owner who became a British citizen and then moved to the Bahamas in the late 1930s for tax reasons, that provided the nub for the story. We get to know the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII and now Governor of the Bahamas, and his wife, the Duchess of Windsor, formerly the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. The fictional heroine of the story is Lulu Randolph, an attractive young widow, a columnist for “Metropolitan,” a New York society magazine. Lulu describes the Windsors and the era, “…I imagined I might discover some clue to the essential mystery of them – the Windsors I mean – this exquisitely dressed pair of sybaritic bigots who had the power to fascinate millions…” But back to historical figures: we meet Sir Harold Christie and Mrs. Gudewill, a wealthy Canadian and her daughter Marie who is a friend of Harry Oakes’ daughter Nancy. We get to know Nancy and her husband Alfred de Marigny, who was initially charged with the murder, but then released. Beatriz’s purpose is not to solve this decades-old murder, but it serves as a focal point. It amplifies her characters, embellishes her story and makes the reader wonder about this island mystery.

We are transported from Nassau in the early 1940s to a clinic in Switzerland in 1900, back to the Bahamas, then to Germany, London, Florida, Scotland and back to Switzerland, and to the same clinic but under different circumstances. Following the birth of her son Johann in 1898, Elfriede was sent to a Swiss clinic, suffering from what we now know was Postpartum Depression. She has been there two years when we first meet her. Returning to Germany, she finds it a challenge to attract the love of her now three-year-old son. “Certain wars are best won by centimeters, stealing tiny parcels of ground from your opponent who looks elsewhere, until one day you are in possession of the whole.” That sentence serves as a metaphor for this novel, which comes to resolution as Beatriz unwinds the skein that had held it together, in an exciting and unpredictable way.     

The relationship between mothers and children play a big role in the story – between Lulu and her mother who is always offstage, between Elfriede and her three children and between the nurse Charlotte and her three children: “Mothers know, don’t they?” Lulu thinks back on her mother. “They gave birth to you and suckled you and tended every inch of you. They can peer straight through your eyes and part the drapes of your soul.” There is a lot of truth embedded in that observation. The pace quickens as the story unfolds, becoming crescendo-like as it reaches its denouement, with an end that this reader did not anticipate.

Like Anthony Trollope’s characters, Beatriz’s have a tendency to reappear in other novels. One of the main characters in this book Elfriede von Kleist appeared offstage in Along the Infinite Sea, a novel in which her son, Johann, played a role. Readers of The Golden Hourare left hoping to learn more in future novels of those we meet briefly in this one, especially Johann, Ursula and Margaret.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

"Capitalism - Mobility, not Equality"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day 
“Capitalism – Mobility, not Equality”
May 6, 2019

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings.
The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”
                                                                                                Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
                                                                                                In Parliament, October 1948

Capitalism is under attack. Democrats are fearful that their comfortable Washington lives may become subject to an investigation now that the Mueller investigation expired without a crime. The best defense, it is said, is a good offense, and that is the strategy being pursued by Democrats. One such attack is a renewed focus on income and wealth disparities – the “inherent vice”of capitalism, as Churchill noted. Doing so justifies their predilection for income redistribution. Inequality has become falsely synonymous with capitalism. Even some on the right have become fearful of defending capitalism. No one denies that income and wealth gaps exist. But, are today’s unusual? Most important, do they interfere with social and economic mobility? 

While our two fundamental documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution say we are created equal and are provided equality under the law, neither says anything about equality of outcomes. The French, though, did in 1789, and they got a reign of terror, the dictatorship of Napoleon and a restoration of the Bourbons, before, eventually, falling into democracy. The Russian Revolution was supposed to bring equality, but it brought one of the harshest governments to which man has ever been subjected, and the Country remains unfree, with inequality higher than in western democracies. Inequality is the natural state of man. You are taller and better looking than me. My imagination may be more fertile, but you are willing and able to work harder. You have ambition; I am satisfied with the status quo. It is not the purpose of liberal societies to effect equal outcomes. Government should help ameliorate capitalism’s worst aspects of inequality, but to kill the goose today is to eliminate the prospect of eggs tomorrow. Equality of outcomes is only a promise of authoritarian regimes. The purpose of a fair and liberal society is to provide equal opportunities and to ease social and economic mobility – principally through education – by which the aspirant and talented can achieve success, whatever their backgrounds. 

Capitalism can only survive within the context of freedom – freedom from unnecessary and unreasonable regulation; freedom to operate under the rule of law, yet within its constraints; freedom to own, buy and sell property in free markets. It is not coincidental that the industrial revolution coincided with political liberalization. We can argue as to which came first, but together they unleashed unprecedented economic growth, which has done more to eradicate poverty than any other system. 

Certainly, capitalism has abuses, but should an alien have looked at the world in the late 18thCentury, then again in the late 19thCentury, the changes he would have seen would have been astonishing – steam power, the telegraph, electric batteries, telephones, railroads, photography and autos – products and services that benefitted all people. Changes have been more dramatic since. Creative minds and a willingness to take risk are necessary ingredients for individual and societal advancement. Capitalism is at its heart. 

Joseph Schumpeter taught us that creative destruction is a natural consequence of advances in technology. Old jobs are lost, and new ones gained, but transitions are never smooth. Life is a continuing and changing process. It is the reason why a fundamental education is critical. Our lives are different from those of our parents and grandparents. Our children and grandchildren will enjoy products and services we cannot even imagine. As technology advances, and industry and services change, so must government and the regulatory bodies we rely on. Government must play a role but should not create dependency. People must be free to experiment and take risk, for it is from them that new products and services arise.

Capitalism is, and always will be, a work in process. It is not broken. It is the wave of multiculturalism and its accompanying stepchildren – identity politics, political correctness and relativism – that have shaken the foundation of free markets. Capitalism requires an independent and innovative spirit, not one harnessed by dependency on the state or tied to forces we are fearful of offending. Whether it was political malice or ignorance, something prompted the 29-year-old Congresswoman from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tell a Timereporter last month: “An entire generation, which is now one of the largest electorates in America, came of age and never saw American prosperity. I have never seen that, or experienced it, really, in my adult life.” Was she serious? Did she compare her upbringing to those in other nations, especially those in Socialist countries she admires? Does she not realize that the “Greatest Generation,” those who went to war seventy-eight years ago – with over 400,000 giving their lives – were children and young adults during ten years of Depression? An 18-year-old soldier in 1942 was five years old in 1929 when the stock market crashed, and a depression descended. That was the generation that never saw prosperity as children. 

As this debate rages through the millennial classes, perspective is wanted. Income and wealth disparities are indeed wide, but we should consider the past. Both measurements were greater in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Depression and the Second World War acted as levelers. The 1950s was a time of rebuilding incomes and wealth lost over the prior decade and half. Private sector unions ensured that working Americans, especially those in manufacturing and basic industries, were paid good wages. Combined with exceptionally high tax rates on very high earners, those factors assured more egalitarianism in terms of incomes. A stock market that took twenty-four years to recover meant that wealth, too, was more equal. But, do we want to undergo a ten-year Depression and a world war to again achieve the equality we saw then? And, keep in mind, those years of recovery – the 1950s and ‘60s – culminated in the 1970s, a decade of high inflation, weak economic growth and a stagnant stock market.

As well, it should be remembered that it is common, at least in the United States, for those who have achieved extraordinary financial success to give back much of what they have reaped. Their generosity can be seen in our schools, universities, hospitals libraries and museums. We see their names attached to foundations established to help the less fortunate at home and abroad. Without them, the burden on taxpayers would be higher and the quality of our lives would be lower – less art, less music and less theater.

In the late 1990s income inequality peaked, due to the proliferation of option-grants during a decade in which the stock market saw its sharpest increase in history – a heady, technology-driven market that ended in a three-year bear market. Option grants, of little value in a bear market, have been largely discontinued. The credit crisis of 2007-2008, a crisis for which government deserves as much blame as banks, caused a big decline in stocks and a sharp, 18-month recession. The anemic economic recovery that followed did not lift all boats equally. Yachts rose but skiffs stayed moored on a sandbar of dismal economic growth. Unemployment declined, but workforce participation rates remained low, and wage growth for low-and-middle income earners was negligible. Persistent low interest rates helped boost stock prices to record levels. Wealth and income gaps widened during the Obama years.

Recent increases in wage growth and in total employment, especially among low-and-middle income earners,are helping the income situation. Stocks have continued to rise, though have been essentially flat for six months. While income and wealth gaps are wide, they remain substantially below where they were a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, a Pew Research survey taken last fall speaks to disparities that were higher in 2016 than forty-five years earlier. The size of the middle class declined from 61% of households to 52%, between 1971 and 2016. Lower income households increased from 25% to 29%, while upper income households increased from 14% to 19%, indicating that the principal effect has been greater polarization. There was virtually no change in those numbers during the Obama years. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump’s policies of reducing taxes and easing regulation will increase the middle class. Early indications, however, are positive. Annualized GDP growth, during Mr. Trump’s first two years, is fifty percent higher than during Mr. Obama’s eight years – three percent versus two percent. Unemployment is down, workforce participation has increased, and we have seen the best wage growth in a decade. 

Three steps can lead to reduced inequality: Simplify the tax code – complexity benefits the wealthy and multinational corporations. A flat tax would be best, or, at least, as flat as possible.  Second, reduce regulation to the extent possible. I am not a fan of regulations but recognize their importance. John Adams got it right: “…the invisible hand of the market place required the visible hand of government to regulate its inevitable excesses.”[1]But regulations should not be used to empower federal bureaucracies. And third, and most important, expand school choice. Admittedly this means taking on powerful teachers’ unions, but our children are worth it. More should be done with charter schools and voucher programs; for it is only through competitive education options for those in public schools that we can invigorate aspiration, foment respect for others, encourage a willingness to work hard and provide the knowledge necessary to succeed. Wealthy families have the option of expensive private schools. Middle-income and low-income families do not. We should not plow the snow for our children, but we do need to give them the tools to clear the road ahead.

As the fortunate citizens of this great nation, we have equal rights, but we are in no way equal, nor can we ever be. When luck is dispensed it is not done so evenly, any more than is talent, ambition or a work ethic. We should never forget that free market capitalism has done more to reduce poverty and raise living standards than any other system yet devised. Since equality of outcomes is an impossible dreamwe should assure that social and economic mobility continue attainable. It has been in the past and is today, as can be seen by the flocks of billionaires from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Mobility is a two-way street. My own history is exhibit ‘A.’ Three of my four sets of great-grandparents were part of the 19thCentury’s “Gilded Age.” But time, a few bad decisions and the generational multiplier took their toll. I was raised in a fashion quite different even from my artist parents. We were nine children in a four-bedroom, two-bath New Hampshire farmhouse, with no central heatYet, we survived happily.  

[1]As quoted by Joseph Ellis in his new history, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

"The Month That Was - April 2019"

Sydney M. Williams

The Month That Was – April 2019
May 1, 2019

Elections should be held on April 16 – the day after we pay our income taxes.
That is one of the few things that might discourage politicians from being big spenders.”
                                                                                    Thomas Sowell (1930-)
                                                                                    Economist and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institute

It wasn’t so much the release of the Mueller report – that was expected, as were its contents, at least by people like me – it was the reaction of Democrats, and others with TDS (Trump Derangemnt Syndrome), which showed that hatred for the President supersedes concern for liberalism. The report stated that no member of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to sway the 2016 election. The report also said that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges of obstruction against the President. A bill of clean health, presented by a man who was no fan of the President, should have been reason to move onto other issues:immigration, healthcare, defense, taxes and debt, even Socialism, if that’s what the people prefer – issues on which reasonable people disagree and that are of importance to us all, to our democracy. Instead, the left is playing to its extremist base – pursuing any avenue, including impeachment, that can hamper the President, in his quest for re-election. The Mueller investigation was initiated by Democrats, but it is a game on which there are two sides. In the next few weeks, Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to issue his summation of possible abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by top officials in the Obama Administration, and the role played by the Steele Dossier, which was compiled on behalf of Fusion GPS and paid for by the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. Personal hatred for Mr. Trump has been the driving force and the division it has caused will not soon be remedied  

That Robert Mueller was a biased investigator could be seen in his gratuitous observation that the special counsel’s report “does not exonerate” Mr. Trump. It is not the function of a prosecutor (or a special investigator) to “exonerate” anyone, or even offer opinions. His investigation was to gather facts and determine whether charges should be brought. If evidence of wrong-doing was there, an indictment from a Grand Jury would have been sought, or the impeachment process would have begun. If not, he should have said nothing. We live in a country under the rule of law, where an accused is innocent until proven guilty. With not enough evidence to charge Mr. Trump with a crime, Mr. Mueller’s job was done. Mr. Trump and his campaign did not collude with the Russians. It is odd that the mainstream media did not revel in the fact that while Russia attempted to interfere in our election, they were unsuccessful. That should have been reason to celebrate. It apparently was not. Calls for impeachment grew louder. The Pandora Box being opened by those like  Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) will reverberate down through the years and will come to haunt those who believe a desired end justifies any means, legal or illegal, ethical or unethical.


Christians had a tough month. More than 250 people – “Easter worshippers,” as Barack Obama fatuously called them – were killed in Sri Lanka, most while attending Easter services at Catholic churches. ISIS took responsibility, along with a local Islamic militant terrorist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Among the dead were four Americans. As a percent of the population, this attack was larger than the ones on 9/11. What made it worse were reports that officials in Sri Lanka had warnings that such an attack was imminent and apparently did nothing. In Egypt, forty Coptic Christians were killed on Palm Sunday. Over 300 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since February, including half a dozen children on Easter. An April 23 article in the Washington Post, put it this way: “Estimates of how many Christians are killed yearly around the world because of their faith vary widely, from thousands to the tens of thousands, but it is certain that at any hour of the day, a Christian somewhere is being martyred. Much of this violence, though, occurs in places the Western media typically overlook.” The French were quick to not blame terrorist groups for the fire in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Nevertheless, it is ironic that a cathedral that stood for over 800 years was burned in an age when technology has made fire prevention better and response times faster. The question now is how should the cathedral be rebuilt? We live in an age of what Pope Benedict XVI, in 2005, called the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive.” We live in a secular age, at least those of us of the Judeo-Christian faith, when cathedrals are no longer symbols of transcendence, but are tourist attractions. As Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote, the contemporary West is one of “…dismantlers. We topple statues by night and rename streets, squares and buildings…to virtue-signal our angst over our postindustrial superiors.” In an age of multiculturalism, religion is seen as naïve and boorish.

Elections were held in Ukraine, Israel, Turkey, Slovakia, Finland and Spain, and a military coup occurred in Sudan. Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old actor with no political experience, will become the next president of Ukraine, as he garnered 73% of the vote in an election against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election (his fifth term), with the Likud Party winning the majority of votes in poorer districts. This victory will assure Mr. Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party appeared to have lost local elections in Istanbul, causing the authoritarian Mr. Erdogan to dispute returns. Slovakia elected its first female president, the pro-European Zuzana Čaputová. The election was, according to the Wall Street Journal, “a striking, if isolatedpolitical shift for Central and Eastern Europe.” In Finland, the Centre Party of outgoing Prime Minister Juha Sipilä saw its support decline by a third to 13.8% of the vote. The Social Democratic Party (center-left) scored 17.7% of the vote, while the far-right Finns Party received 17.5%. Chairman of the Finns Party Jussi Halla-aho received the most votes of any candidate for the Eduskunta, Finland’s Parliament. A snap election in Spain saw the Spanish Socialists Workers Party, led by Pedro Sánchez, increase their number of seats to 123 from 85 in the 350-seat parliament; so despite claims to the contrary, Mr. Sánchez will have to form a coalition government. The big loser was the liberal-conservative People’s Party, which lost 71 seats and now has 66. The right-wing Vox Party picked up 24 seats, their first since its founding six years ago. An April 29 article in the Wall Street Journalnoted: “…today’s Europeans feel weak allegiances to any party – coupled with alienation from technocratic political elites.” Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, who had been in office three decades, was forced out by a military coup. Indonesia announced it would move its capital from Jakarta to an, as yet, undetermined city on a less-populated island.

On the last day of the month, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido called for a military uprising to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s persistent attempts – with help from Cuba and Russia – to deny his (Senor Guaido’s) legitimacy. President Trump received an invitation from Queen Elizabeth for a State Visit to England. He is expected to arrive on June 3rdand on June 6 travel to Normandy for the 75thcommemoration of D-Day. French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to abolish the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the elite, postgraduate institution that has provided most of France’s presidents, prime ministers and business executives (and from which he graduated). The school was founded in 1945 to promote “social mixing,” with acceptances based on merit not privilege. However, over the years, applicants have increasingly come from the upper classes. NATO celebrated its 70thAnniversary on April 4th. No NATO member, including the U.S., observed the anniversary. President Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, a treaty in effect since 2014 but never ratified by the U.S. Senate. Donald Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, which it is. April was the 25thanniversary of the Rwanda genocide, during which militant Hutus killed between 800,000 and a million Tutsis, including some moderate Hutus, over a period of three months. This in a country, then, of just over six million people.


Five more Democrats entered the race for President – Pete Buttigieg, Mike Gravel, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan and Joe Biden. They join fifteen already-announced candidates. Three others, Marianne Williamson, Stacy Abrams and Michael Bennet, have all said they are considering a run. Howard Schultz is said to be giving “serious consideration” to throwing his hat in the ring. Michael Bloomberg said he would not join the circus. As an American who believes in a government of the people, I love the interest. As an avid reader of the news, I look forward to the entertainment. But, as a New Englander who worries about fiscal profligacy, I am staggered that thousands of Americans have already put up $100 million to allow priggish egoists their moment in the sun. While more wannabes may jump into the pond, the next six months should see a winnowing of the field. On the Republican side, Mr. Trump has two challengers: William Weld and Larry Hogan, who both announced in April. John Kasich has not yet made up his mind. The President, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Schumer agreed to pursue a two trillion dollar infrastructure bill.


A preliminary report for first quarter GDP showed the U.S. economy grew at 3.2%, considerably above revised-upward estimates. The U.S Labor Department reported on April 24 that, for the third week in a row, unemployment claims were the lowest since September 1969, despite the fact that the workforce is twice what it was fifty years ago. Inflation is running at 1.9 percent. But not all fiscal news is good. The annual Social Security and Medicare trustees report issued during the month showed that costs of the programs will exceed income in 2020 – the first time since 1982. The difference between then and now is that then we were at the bottom of a thirty-seven-year bear market in bonds and a ten-year bear market in stocks. Now we are, arguably, thirty-seven years into a bull market in both stocks and bonds. Can markets go higher? Of course, but we are not in the early stages of a bull run. Public pension funds share a similar fate. The Wall Street Journalreported that, “according to the most recent data from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research,” liabilities of major U.S. public pension funds are up 64% since 2007, while assets are up 30%. If private retirement and healthcare plans had posted those results, the managers would have been accused of “running a Ponzi scheme,” as Dan Mitchell recently wrote in International Liberty.

The DJIA rose 2.6%, not far off its all-time high reached seven months ago. U.S. Treasuries fell slightly, with the yield on the Ten-year rising two basis points. Gold declined $10.00 and the price of Bitcoins continued to recover, rising 28% for the month. Between $400 million and $800 million worth of Bitcoins are sent daily across the network – a lot of money, but about half the daily volume of PayPal. Interest rates remain at artificially low levels. Any pressure put on the Federal Reserve to lower rates by Mr. Trump will only lead to an increase in already-too-much unproductive debt. Modern Monetary Theory argues that countries with fiat currencies – backed by the governments that issue them – can take on as much debt as is necessary to keep their economies humming. Perhaps? I am not an economist, but debt issued must be repaid if the issuer is to maintain its credit rating. The risk to the Treasury investor is not one of default. It is that the principal will be repaid in a devalued currency. Two percent inflation causes a currency to lose half its value every generation. Is the current 2.89% coupon on a Thirty-year U.S. Treasury worth the risk that too much federal debt may push up inflation rates? When we look for extremes in financial markets, we should turn toward debt markets. Encouraging further borrowings is dangerous, at least in my opinion.


A team of doctors and scientists in Israel created a human heart using a 3D printer. While the heart was made with actual human biological material, it is only about the size of a rabbit’s heart. Nevertheless, this is a step forward in the field of organ transplants. Poland announced it is considering buying Israeli gas and reduce purchases from Russia. Japan’s Emperor Akihito, the son of war time Emperor Hirohito, abdicated in favor of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. A handful of fossilized teeth and bones were discovered in the Philippines, evidence of a previously unknown human species. A direct image of a supermassive black hole 54 million light years away was photographed for the first time, using the International Event Horizon Telescope, a consortium that has radio telescopes around the world from the U.S. to Mexico to Chile to the South Pole. Extinction Rebellion, an environmental group (composed of, according to the London Telegraph, “well-heeled social parasites”) smashed the entrance to Dutch Shell’s headquarters, stripped naked in Parliament and generally messed up traffic and train service in London. On a visit to Beijing, Philip Hammond, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, praised China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Mr. Hammond also suggested the UK would scale back criticism of China’s expansion in the South China Sea. In a controversial move, the UK opened their 5G data network to the Chinese telecom group Huawei, the largest manufacturer of telecom equipment in the world. China’s BRI strategy, which now owns stakes in a dozen European ports, combined with Huawei’s mysterious ties to the Communist leadership in Beijing, represent a threat to America’s global hegemony and, thus, world peace. The cartoon published in the European edition of the New York Times, which showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind President Trump was despicable. Editors of the Times would never have allowed a Muslim or the leader of any other ethnic group, with the possible exception of Christians, to be portrayed as a dog. It was the dehumanizing of Jews in the 1930s that served as prelude to pogroms in Nazi Germany. 

Brexit remains on its tortuous path, a consequence of ineptness on the part of Prime Minister Theresa May and hindered by the nastiness of bureaucrats in Brussels. “Something profoundly unpleasant has happened in Britain over the past three years,” wrote Andrew Roberts in an April 13thop-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “It can be summed up as a barely concealed dislike of democracy on the part of a considerable subsection of the elite, those who lost the referendum.” In response to Britain’s nightmare, Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, launched the Brexit Party. Julian Assange, after seven years, was asked to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He was, then, arrested by British police. The U.S. is seeking extradition for the 2010 Wikileaks release of classified documents he had received from Army Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in early 2010. Far-left British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. “should be opposed by the British government.” The Trump foreign policy team scored a win in the Hague: The International Criminal Court (ICC) dropped a decade-long inquiry into alleged crimes by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. The U.S. has never accepted the Court’s jurisdiction. While the Bush and the Obama Administrations opposed the ICC’s prosecuting of U.S. nationals, the Trump Administration took definitive steps.


Kirsten Nielson resigned as Homeland Security Secretary. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein submitted his resignation to be effective May 11. Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago. Brian Hagedorn, a conservative judge won election to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. New York City, which saw a population resurgence in the aftermath of 9/11, lost 39,523 residents in 2018, on top of 37,705 in 2017 – the first such losses in over a decade. While Yale and Middlebury, among other colleges, were denying the right of conservatives to speak, Brigham Young University was contending with students upset over an honor code that tries to balance church doctrine with the more mainstream views of their undergraduates. Two students at UNC in Charlotte, NC were shot and killed, while four were wounded, three critically. A suspect, 22-year-old Trystan Andrew Terrell, was taken into custody. While Jussie Smollett was in Hawaii celebrating his release from charges that he fabricated a racist attack, the perpetrators of that attack, the Osundairo brothers, sued him for character defamation. The Supreme Court heard a case in which no one dared utter the word at the heart of the dispute. It involved a clothing line, FUCT, which the owner said stood for Friends U Can’t Trust. Malcolm Stewart, a lawyer for the federal government, called the word, “the equivalent of the past participle of the paradigmatic profane word in our culture.” A Chinese woman, with a cache of electronic devices, was arrested trying to enter President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.  

A woman was shot and killed, and three people wounded at Congregation Chabad, a synagogue in Poway, California. The shooter was identified as 19-year old John Earnest, a student at California State University San Marcos. Donald Trump, playing to Democrats’ sense of inflated self-righteousness, offered sanctuary cities an unlimited supply of illegal (“unauthorized,” as the NY Times euphemistically calls them) immigrants. An American flag logo on the side of police cars in Laguna Beach, CA, divided the coastal city. “It feels very aggressive,” said one dopey, sanctimonious resident. The City Council decided to let the logo stand. Baylor won the women’s NCAA championship, while Virginia won the men’s. In a remarkable comeback, Tiger Woods won the Masters, his 15thmajor title and his first since 2008, Lawrence Cherono of Kenya won the 123rdBoston Marathon in 2:07:27, beating Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia by two seconds. Worknesh Defefa of Ethiopa won the women’s in 2:23:30.


Lyra McKee, a 29-year old freelance journalist and editor of news aggregator Mediagazer, was killed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland while covering unrest in the neighborhood of Creggan. Former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) died at age 87. Charles Van Doren, infamous for his role in a cheating scandal on NBC’s 1950s game show “Twenty-One,” died at 93. Richard Cole, last survivor of the famed Doolittle raid over Tokyo in April 1942 and a member of the “Greatest Generation,” died at 103.


President Trump does not fit the ideal I would prefer in a President. He is not articulate. His speech is littered with malapropisms. He appeals to emotions rather than reason. I am not a fan of his Tweets. However, I do like his policies, which have boosted the economy and especially helped minorities and working-class Americans. Sixty-five percent of Americans paid less taxes in 2018 than 2017. And I like that he has tracked entitled political establishment types to their Washington lairs and called out the media for their advocacy at the expense of unbiased reporting. Too many progressives speak in dulcet tones about opening borders to any and all and then disappear behind gated communities and homes. They promise health care for all and free tuition, without regard to costs, and they push for a guaranteed basic income without recognizing it will become a floor, not a ceiling. They recommended the ACA, which had no impact on their lives. They ignore the inevitable blowup of Social Security and Medicare, because they are not subject to their provisions. They offer policies that provide temporary relief at a cost of increased dependency. They back teachers’ unions but not school choice, and they ignore the plight of inner-city children who are ill-prepared upon graduation. Mr. Trump’s proposals are more realistic (and he, too, disappears behind the gates of Mar-a-Lago or the safety of the White House), but they align with the Chinese adage of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Most important, Donald Trump’s Presidency, perhaps unwittingly, has helped expose those like James Comey, John Brennan, James Clapper, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, high government officials who abused their positions of trust to help affect a national election. Had they been successful, their unethical behavior might never have become known. My advice as we head into the next eighteen months:patience, be skeptical, keep an open mind, listen and maintain a sense of humor; for this time of polarization, too, shall, at some point, pass.

Welcome to May.

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