Thursday, October 31, 2019

"What Has Become of Us?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“What Has Become of Us?”
October 31, 2019

Have we lost our minds?”
                                                                                    Andrew Cuomo (1957-)
Governor, New York
                                                                                    October 26, 2019

While Governor Cuomo’s exclamation was in response to the increasing number of assaults by the mentally deranged in New York City, it is one that has applicability across our political landscape, not just for the unhinged way Leftist politicians treat truants and criminals in our cities, but in most all ways political. Have we all gone bonkers? I wince at President Trump’s coarseness and grimace as he Tweets as fast as a Shetland Pony sheds its winter coat. Then I listen to anti-Trumpers and their lemming-like hatred that betrays an emotional response rather than a reasoned reaction. Seen as a threat to the comfortably established elite, the majority of Democrats wanted to impeach Mr. Trump on November 9, 2016. And I wonder: What ever happened to e Pluribus Unum?

Phrases and words: Identity politics; victimization; equality; wokeness. Identity politics is segregation by a different and more politically correct name. Real victims are ignored, while perpetrators are mollycoddled as deserving of special care for having been “victims” of society governed by old, white men. Equality has morphed into homogenization, deflating the individual to an inflated collective. The cream in our public schools can no longer find its way to the top. Wokeness is a Tesla-like vehicle for social justice warriors.

Politicians, abetted by a media that has foregone any semblance of investigative independence, to become a propaganda arm of the Party they prefer. They have given new meanings to those phrases and words mentioned above. The consequence has been a shock to the Judeo-Christian culture in which most of us were raised, when Albert Einstein once wrote, and we all believed, that “only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”

Here we are now, three years after the fact, yet a refusal to accept the outcome of the 2016 election persists. Civil discourse is a thing of the past. We have intelligence agencies that colluded against a Presidential candidate. Public schools, especially those in inner cities who keep a watchful (and jaundiced) eye on equality, teach to the lowest common denominator, which means that those who have been identified as “gifted and talented” cannot be separated, so taught differently and thus given a chance to disengage from the claws of mediocrity that entrap them. In many of these same cities, the homeless – some mentally sick, others addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and a few simply down on their luck – ply our parks and streets. Instead of offering the dignity of a job and asking proper behavior in return for food and shelter, we provide them free needles and let them soil streets, sidewalks and parks. In our desire to explain away criminal acts and civil misbehavior as a consequence of victimization, we ignore the plight of real victims. Men and women are tried in the press, without benefit of due process. The “broken windows” policy of policing, first described in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and based on the theory that if man lives in a neighborhood where property and people are respected crime rates will decline. It worked in New York City in the ‘90s and early 2000s but has been abandoned because of accusations that minorities were unfairly targeted. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: “How did we get so stupid so soon?”

We have coastal mayors and governors who tell us, in dystopian language, that we are facing imminent danger from man-caused climate change; that streets will soon be under water and fires will rage, unless we address these immediate apocalyptic climate threats, which always involve more spending. As Holman Jenkins wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal regarding the California fires: “PG&E can’t keep trees off its power lines but can supply exact numbers for how many LGBTQ workers it employs.” The coming Armageddon due to climate change is a rallying cry in political campaigns and an argument used when suing oil companies in these blue, coastal cities and states, yet the bonds these same entities issue carry little or no warnings of any climate scare. Can it be that these paragons of virtue are not so direct when it comes to the interest rate costs they would have to pay if honesty prevailed? An op-ed on this subject, written by Peter Schweizer of the Government Accountability Institute, was in this past week’s Wall Street Journal.  When a psychotic individual commits mass murder, we first blame the weapon and second cite the NRA as facilitator, yet, to my knowledge, no NRA member has been accused of mass killings. Cities with some of the toughest gun laws in the country have the most gun deaths. Gun safety, taught by the NRA, is never considered an option. Mark Zuckerberg is demonized for saying that Facebook is committed to supporting free expression, while Google is lionized for walking away from a U.S. defense contract based on ideological concerns. California has allowed the non-profit NCAA to pay student athletes. But, have they considered the negative effect on college athletic programs, like skiing, swimming, hockey, rowing, squash, softball, track and field that rely for funding on profitable sports like basketball and football? Where California goes, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey will follow. “How did we get so stupid so soon?”

Politicians use their index fingers to sense the direction of the wind, then go with the flow. It matters not the long-term consequences of their decisions. It is winning they want. If Socialism is wanted, even if misunderstood by the electorate and the politician, then Socialism it shall be.  Yet, as Anthony Trollope wrote about politics and politicians more than 150 years ago in Phineas Redux: “The best carriage horses are those which can steadily hold back against the coach as it trundles down the hill.” Like the three blind mice, Paul Krugman, Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof (among dozens of similarly endowed columnists for the New York Times and Washington Post) chase after one another in their end-of-the-world prophecies if the Trump Presidency continues. Yet, minority employment is at record highs and overall unemployment at record lows. Even the third quarter GDP, which was expected to be slow, came in at plus 1.9 percent, better than expected, and above the average for Obama’s eight years. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) placed in charge of the impeachment inquiry (a rare event), bizarrely parodied before Congress the President’s telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – the phone call that was the basis for the impeachment inquiry in the first place.  How did we get so stupid so soon?”

As Americans, we are fortunate to live in this extraordinary country, with its democratic government, free-market capitalist system, its people and natural resources. Yet, do we appreciate what we have? Michael Walzer, a professor emeritus at Princeton, writing in the Spring 2002 edition of ProQuest, said that maybe “…the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics.” Even the poorest among us live lives of luxury (central heat, flush toilets, prepared foods and cell phones) unimaginable by our forefathers. And now, progressives put all that at risk. California is the epicenter of progressive thinking. If it were to stand alone, the State would be the world’s fifth largest economy, producing 3.5% of the world’s GDP. Its people have had a living standard as high as any in the world and it produces just one percent of global emissions. But that lifestyle is at risk, as the State insists on policies harmful to the economy, yet helpful to the wealthy – rebates for electric vehicles – while detrimental to the poor and middle classes – gas and energy prices that are the highest in the United States, zoning that forces low and middle income people into long commutes and urban public schools that pay attention to union demands rather than the needs of students of poor and middle class families. In a First World State, they today have a Third World electrical system. The Left insists that progressive states like California, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey are the future. “How did we get so stupid so soon?”

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce described a politician as “an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared,” a description which is indisputable. I look upon what we have wrought and recognize that the Founding Fathers would be aghast. I answer Governor Cuomo’s exclamative question, “Have we lost our minds?” with a resounding Yes!

Friday, October 25, 2019

"Life's Manmade Miracles & Their Debt to Capitalism"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Life’s Manmade Miracles & Their Debt to Capitalism”
October 25, 2019

Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
the brightest heaven of invention.”
                                                                                                William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
                                                                                                Henry V, Act I Prologue, c.1599

This essay was inspired by a persistent, evolutionary change in American attitudes toward Socialism and Capitalism. A Roper/Fortune Survey this past May found 43% of Americans believe Socialism would be good for the Country – a frightening conclusion for anyone who understands history. The second inspiration came from a John Steel Gordon op-ed written for the October 19-20, 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal, “How Steam and Chips Remade the World,” in which he wrote of the world-changing effects of James Watt’s perfection of the steam engine in 1769 and the development of the Microprocessor in 1971 by Ted Hoff, a young scientist at Intel. His essay is testament to the benefits of free-market capitalism.

The basic principle of profits seems to be misunderstood by legions of young people, as well as veterans of the political scene who speak in grandiloquent terms of equality, while trying to secure for themselves positions of personal power. Their motives are selfish, not altruistic. Without profits, no company stakeholder is satisfied – not workers, customers, community, taxing authorities or shareholders, Bankrupt businesses help no one, other than a few bankruptcy lawyers.

Mr. Gordon’s words struck home, in part because with age comes reflection of things as they once were and as they now are, and of what the future holds – of how better are our lives than those of our ancestors. My grandparents saw changes their parents could not have envisioned – the automobile, elevators, flight, radio, the automated assembly line, the modern flush toilet, television, the atomic bomb, polio vaccine, interstate highways. My parents saw changes their parents could never have envisioned – commercial jet travel, ATMs, personal computers, CT Scans and MRI machines, artificial hearts. And I have seen changes my parents never saw – the internet, self-driving cars, smart phones, robotic surgeries, social media, laser eye surgery. My point is not to list all technological advances, but to show how much and how exciting and how productive change has been in the past two hundred years. I wonder as to what changes my children and grandchildren will see that I shall not – advantages we cannot even envision. All of these improvements to our lives are a consequence of individuals and private businesses seeking profits. Now I worry that this dynamism will be brought to an end by those who advocate for the federalization of company charters and for a greater role of government in our lives, for example the concept of a government mandated emphasis on “stakeholders,” not shareholders. Keep in mind as well, every American worker who has a retirement plan has a stake in the private ownership of public companies. Do we really want to destroy the capital markets?

In his essay, Mr. Gordon wrote, “For millennia there had been only four sources of energy, all expensive and limited: human muscle, animal muscle, moving water and air.” Fire might, perhaps, be considered a fifth source? Nevertheless, with the utilization of steam power things changed. Factories were built that allowed for the manufacture of food products, farm implements and transportation. They operated on Adam Smith’s belief in the division of labor, so that bread, candles and bricks no longer had to be made at home. One consequence was assembly line production, which provoked a decline in the price of consumables – bread, candles and bricks made in a factory could be done so less expensively and faster than at home. Assembly line production, admittedly boring work, operates more efficiently, and produces consumer goods at lower costs.

Before the onset of the Industrial Revolution life for most people was much as it had been for generations before them. Standards of living remained pretty much as they had for thousands of years. There had been some changes. War had become more deadly, with gunpowder coming to Europe in the 13th Century, yet most battles were still fought with catapults, primitive muzzle-loaded long guns, longbows, crossbows and swords. Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th Century printing press made books more available, but they were expensive and accessible to only a few. Travel by ship was limited to the wealthy, armies and trade. Few could afford a horse or small boat. Foot travel was the way most people got about.

It was not happenstance that the Industrial Revolution saw its genesis in the two countries where individuals had the greatest political and religious freedom – Britain and the United States. Democracy and free-market capitalism are born of the same parentage – a belief in the individual and his ability to function relatively freely, as opposed to a populous dependent on the State. With steam power came improvements in mining, metal fabrication, railroads, weapons, furniture, apparel. Fortunes were made by those whose talents combined intelligence, aspiration, determination, hard work, innovation, fortitude and a willingness to take risk. Income inequality, while it was not referred to in those terms, was a natural outcome. We are seeing some of the same elements today that have risen from the advent of the microchip. Enormous fortunes have been made by a few while the many have seen improvements in their daily living – from safer cars, to better communication systems, to snappier entertainment. In our love-hate relationship toward these entrepreneurs, we overlook the enormous risks they took to realize their dreams. We forget that for every success story there are dozens of failures. A good education, a bright idea does not guaranty success. Timing and luck play roles. It is unfair to disparage the successful; it is the offer of award that keep budding entrepreneurs trying. Where would we be without these foresighted dreamers, these risk takers?

It is impossible to think of the miracles that make for better and easier living conditions – everything from air conditioning, to texting, to more comfortable shoes, to the retailing of books and cosmetics – without giving consideration to the economic system that made all this possible: free market capitalism within a democratic governmental structure that celebrates the individual, honors property rights and operates within the rule of law. Why, for example, has so much of today’s technology come from America, even when many of the innovators are foreign born – many from Eastern Europe and Asia? Why have so many brilliant Chinese mathematicians and engineers emigrated from China to work in our tech companies? Why did China, then, have to steal our technology? Show me a Socialist country with similar ingenuity.

The United States does not have a monopoly on brilliant minds and aspirant individuals, but it does have a unique political and economic system that rewards success and punishes failure, but not to the point that the determined give up. Most successes are a consequence of second, third and fourth attempts. But it is also a system that recognizes and acknowledges that economic or financial equality is an impossible dream, if a country wants to continue to advance without stealing from its neighbors.

It is not government that has provided the miracles we now take for granted, but individuals. Government’s role is to ensure the sanctity of the individual – to ensure that he has the freedom to explore, invent and create, to protect her property, patents and rights. Government provides rules so that anarchy does not prevail and that there is equality before the law. This freedom is well expressed in the Constitution’s attitude toward religion, which does not provide protection from religion but for religion.  In the same way, if our society continues to provide miracles, we must be free to succeed or fail. A search for equality of outcomes is no different than Stuart Little’s search for “Margalo” – a pleasant fantasy, but a dream, nonetheless.