Tuesday, December 26, 2017

As 2017 comes to an end, looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly

The Good:

We will start 2018 with strong economic performance numbers from 2017. Looking at some key economic factors, we find the following:

The stock market - The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up over 32 percent since November 2016. On November 30 this year, the Dow closed at over 24,000 points for the first time, and has continued to rise in December, closing at 24,726.65 on December 20. The Dow has achieved dozens of new closing highs in 2017. And for the first time in its 121-year history, the Dow gained 5,000 points in a single year.

Unemployment – Standing at 4.8 percent in January, the U-3 unemployment rate of 4.1 percent on December 1 is at a low not seen in years, and the Federal Reserve is expecting that number to drop below 4 percent in 2018. The more dependable U-6 seasonally adjusted rate has dropped from 9.3 percent in November of 2016 to 8.0 percent last month.

Gross Domestic Product – GDP in the first quarter of 2017 was a paltry 1.2 percent, but grew in the second quarter to 3.1 percent and to 3.2 percent in the third quarter.

Retail Sales - The economic forecasters at the Commerce Department had predicted that November’s retail sales would increase by 0.3 percent, but were embarrassed at the actual increase of 0.8 percent, a miss that amounts to three-quarters of a billion dollars of economic activity.

Tax cuts - The new tax rates passed by Congress will give individuals, families and businesses more money to spend.

Welch & Forbes, LLC in its December “Economic Outlook,” had this to say: “The news on the economy had previously been good, but it just got better. … Consumer confidence is at a 17-year high, unemployment is at a 17-year low and businesses are flush with cash amid improving profits. Banks and other financial companies are doing especially well as they have accounted for two-thirds of the increase in third-quarter U.S. corporate profits.”

The Bad:

North Korea - The North Korean despot and his continued effort at developing nuclear weapons and rockets that can reach the USA and many of its allies raises tensions around the world.

Israel - Formal recognition by the United States of the ages-old reality that Jerusalem is indeed the capital of Israel has been met by objections, and violent demonstrations against the U.S.

Russian interference investigation - The investigation into supposed Russian “collusion” in the election has generated a year of Congressional investigation, and now months of a special counsel investigation that have come up empty. The only charges so far have had nothing to do with the Russians, the reason for a special counsel being appointed, and have already cost millions. This is a harmful distraction to the administration.

These events and activities do not bode well for positive effects on the country.

The Ugly:

Some FBI agents and Department of Justice employees appear to allow political concerns to affect their sworn duty to the American people, apparently believing that their idea of who ought to be president is more important than the decision American citizens made at the polls.

Two FBI agents, Peter Strzok and his mistress Lisa Page, who were assigned to the special counsel’s team investigating Russia, had texted with each other during the 2016 campaign about protecting the country against Trump.

Interestingly, Strzok, had also led the FBI’s Clinton email investigation, and softened language in documents that had accused Hillary Clinton of criminal behavior.

In August of 2016, Strzok referred to an idea that appears to be intended to thwart Trump’s election during a meeting in FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s office. “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” he texted to Page. In the August 15, 2016 text, he said, “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”

Earlier that month, on August 6, Page had texted Strzok: “Maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from that menace.” He responded, “I can protect our country at many levels.”

And, there are more such texts.

Strzok was demoted or transferred to Human Resources from the special counsel’s investigative team.

Each of us has the right to their opinions, so this may be evidence of criminal intent, or may not be. However, even the most enthusiastic Democrat and/or liberal ought to understand and agree that this is not what the work that employees of the federal government, especially the FBI, are hired for.

There is also the question of whether the fake Trump dossier – the research for which was partly funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, according to The Washington Post - was used to persuade the FISA court to issue wiretapping warrants against certain members of the Trump campaign and/or transition team.

Just how deep does this misbehavior of federal officials go?

All things considered, next year might be a very good one, or not.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Yet another misguided effort to destroy our country’s history

It’s been more than a year since the movement to cleanse America’s past began, as the idea of erasing unpleasant, unpopular aspects of our history is now the way some try to make things better, and includes removing statues and memorials of America’s Founders and notable personalities of the War Between the States.

The reaction to America’s period of slavery is the prime impetus for this mania to destroy history. But as manias often are, this one is ill advised and will do great harm to future generations.

One of the most important of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, is a target of the movement to cleanse the past by removing statues and other reminders of those days. Jefferson is recognized by the crowd bearing the cleansing equipment for one thing only: he was a slave owner, and therefore unqualified for any attention or actual appreciation.

But like nearly all of them, Jefferson had many positive things to his credit, among them intelligence and wisdom. And his ideas of the value of history are right on the mark and deserve consideration.

Regarding history, Jefferson wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14,” in 1781, "History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views."

Calling it “one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon,” The California NAACP now backs a movement to have Francis Scott Key’s anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” removed as America’s National Anthem. 

This furor arose from three lines in the third verse of Key’s 1814 poem that he wrote about the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. How many could recite any of the other verses, or even knew the song has more than one verse? And if you are looking for “the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black” song in the country, would three short lines in the third of four verses that hardly anyone knew existed really be the worst, or be worth all this hoo-hah?

At first glance, however, one might believe those three lines in the verse are racist. But, as with many controversies, a first glance is far less than is required.

Here is the text of the third verse, with those lines forming the basis of the objection highlighted in italics:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

However, informs what those lines really meant to the author at the time they were written.
Francis Scott Key describes the British as arrogant and boastful in the lyrics “that band who so vauntingly swore.”
He is venting his anger at the British with the "foul footsteps' pollution" lyrics inferring that the British poisoned the ground on which they walked.
But the poison and corruption had been washed away by the blood of the British.
The lyrics "the hireling" refers to the British use of Mercenaries (German Hessians) in the American War of Independence.
The lyrics "...and slave" is a direct reference to the British practice of Impressment (kidnapping American seamen and forcing them into service on British man-of-war ships). This was an important cause of the War of 1812.
Francis Scott Key then describes the Star Spangled Banner as a symbol of triumph over all adversity.

This is why context is important. Things do not always mean what someone thinks they mean, and by doing just a little research, the true meaning could have been discovered, and this particular tempest in a teapot could have been avoided.

The NAACP misinterpreted these lyrics, and assigned a completely false meaning to them. And therefore, its reaction is not appropriate, and there is no reason to seriously consider removing The Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem on that basis.

However, even if the premise had been correct and the Anthem did contain racist language, America’s era of slavery, which began in the Colonies, ended a century and a half ago. Further, its lyrics represent a valid and beneficial historical record of a battle in an important event in America’s history.

“But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future,” as David Crabtree wrote in the articleThe Importance of History” on the Gutenberg College Website. “Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems.”

This is why we must preserve history, and learn from it, rather than destroy it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

When the rights of one person conflict with the rights of another

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” So reads, in part, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The amendment forbids government from acting to promote or establish any religion, and from acting to discourage or ban religious behavior. In essence, government should have a hands-off policy where the practice of religious activities, or abstinence from them is concerned.

No constitutionally guaranteed right is absolute, however, and practitioners of a religion who commit felonies – such as assault, robbery, homicide, rape, kidnapping, etc. – or misdemeanors because of their beliefs will suffer the same consequences as other law breakers.

When religious beliefs come up against other rights, however, problems may arise. One such issue is whether a religious person can be, or should be, forced to do something that is against his or her religious beliefs when not doing so would result in the violation of the rights of another person or other persons.

The United States Supreme Court is currently dealing with just such a case. The Court has before it the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The Court must decide how the religious rights of the baker stack up against the couple’s right to equal treatment under the law.

But should someone have his or her rights denied because they are in conflict with someone else’s rights? It is a sticky issue.

A gay couple that has previously been a customer of Mary’s Delights bakery asks her to bake a cake for their wedding, but Mary says that homosexuality goes against the beliefs of her religion and therefore she cannot participate in this wedding by baking the cake. Mary suggests they find another baker for the cake. Perhaps Bob’s bakery? Bob has baked cakes for gay weddings before, she said.

But the couple feels their rights have been violated. Gay marriage is legal and they believe that by refusing to participate in their marriage, Mary has discriminated against them, so they take action against Mary.

However, discrimination is a common and natural part of living; people discriminate against things and people everyday. They choose to buy an SUV instead of a pickup. Or vice versa. We order seafood instead of a steak. We decide to order a cake from Mary’s Delights instead of Joe’s Bakery.

Do we not occasionally see a sign on the entrance to a commercial establishment that reads: “No shirt. No shoes. No service?” Isn’t that discrimination against shirtless or unshod people?

All of these are matters of discrimination, which is merely a matter of making conscious choices of one thing over other things. It is a question of degree, and even then not every act constitutes actionable discrimination.

Years ago, businesses not infrequently had signs on their doors or windows reading: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” The right of the proprietor to control their business was unquestioned. If they wanted to serve only black people, or only white people, or only Christians or Muslims or atheists, why is that wrong? Or if they want to not serve blue-eyed blondes, or short men, why is that wrong?

As long as services are available to everyone through some provider, why is it necessary that every provider be required to serve everyone?

Carried to its illogical extreme, the owner of a French restaurant could be accused of discrimination by people whose heritage is from another country because the restaurant doesn’t serve German, Scottish, Italian or Mexican food.

America is founded on principles of freedom and guaranteed rights. We have the right to vote for whomever we choose, and to not vote for other candidates. We have the right to associate with whomever we like and to not associate with those with whom we choose not to associate.

People have the right to invest thousands of dollars in their businesses, but if they are religious, they can be forced to violate the tenets of their religion, and their right to religious freedom can be denied, in this case only because someone wants to force them to acquiesce to their wishes rather than go find another baker.

It is no accident that the First Amendment guarantees the right to religion, free speech, a free press, to peaceably assemble, and to petition for a governmental redress of grievances. It is because these were thought to be most important of those basic rights by the Founders. And, it is no accident that first among those items in the first of the amendments is religion.

The American character has been such that when things don’t go the way we want or expect, we work around the problem, whenever possible. So when one service provider is unable or unwilling to accommodate our wishes, we simply find another one who will fill the order. A baker with a religious objection to supporting a gay wedding should not be a problem for anyone. And it should not be a matter to be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Or of any U.S. court.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

High crimes and misdemeanors? No. But some very odd courtroom occurrences

Last week was certainly interesting. With a high profile guilty plea, and a surprising not guilty verdict, among other things, it was quite a week.

Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration, then briefly as President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, on Friday followed predictions that he would plead guilty to one count of making false statements to the FBI about conversations he had with Russian officials during Trump’s period of transition to the presidency.

This has gotten the Russia-obsessed left all excited in its so-far frustrated grand hopes of showing that Trump should be impeached for interfering in the election. This incident, however, will not satisfy those desires.

As a transition team member, Flynn’s talking to representatives of foreign governments is not illegal, and in fact is routinely done. Sorry, Trump haters, it is not evidence of collusion in the election.

Given all of that, why did Flynn lie about what he discussed with the Russian ambassador? Who knows? He hadn’t done anything illegal, and could simply have declined to talk with the FBI. It’s a mystery. A report in National Review, in fact, says that Flynn’s lies were so small and insignificant a crime that the FBI didn’t think it would prosecute him. And then, the FBI already had transcripts of Flynn’s discussion with the Russian ambassador, so why question him? Could it be they did it in hopes of trapping him in a lie?

A source close to Flynn said that said the investigation has taken a toll on his family’s financial condition and has been emotionally draining, and that he pled guilty to end the process, according to a Fox News story. Following the guilty plea Flynn agreed to cooperate with the FBI’s continuing investigation.

The news of the plea spawned an ABC News story that Flynn would be testifying that he was directed by then-candidate Donald Trump to reach out to Russia during the campaign. As you can imagine, this story created some crazy reactions. The Dow Jones Industrials took a 300-plus point drop. And, Trump-hater Joy Behar on ABC’s “The View” delightedly told the TV audience that, “ABC News’ Brian Ross is reporting Michael Flynn offered full cooperation to the Mueller team and is prepared to testify that as a candidate, Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians! Yes!” Her excited announcement drew enthusiastic responses from her co-hosts and the studio audience.

Unfortunately for all those Trump haters, it was “fake news.” Ross’ report was incorrect, which ABC finally acknowledged after eight hours, and later suspended Ross for his incompetence.

Moving from that fake news to an incomprehensible jury verdict in a tragic death: on a pleasant San Francisco evening a couple and their 32 year-old daughter walked leisurely on Pier 14, when the daughter fell to the ground. Seriously injured, she begged her father, “Dad, help me!” as he held her in his arms. He couldn’t help her and shortly thereafter Kate Steinle was declared dead of a gunshot wound.

At the time the gun went off, it was in the possession of an illegal alien who had been previously deported five times, and had seven felony convictions. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate’s answers to police questions had at least two very different accounts of what happened, but he said the shooting was an accident. One account held that he simply found the gun, which had been stolen from a federal law enforcement officer’s car a week earlier, under a bench wrapped in a tee shirt, and that the weapon accidentally discharged. Another account claimed the gun accidentally discharged. Three times. Another had him shooting at seals in the ocean. The shot, or one of the three shots, ricocheted off the ground and hit Steinle.

CBS News reported “Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was homeless in San Francisco when he shot Steinle. He had recently completed a prison sentence for illegal re-entry to the U.S. when he was transferred to the San Francisco County jail to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge. 

“Prosecutors dropped that charge,” the CBS report continued, “and the San Francisco sheriff released Zarate from jail despite a federal immigration request to detain him for at least two more days for deportation. The sheriff's department said it was following the city's sanctuary policy of limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities.”

Zarate was charged and tried for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, assault with a semi-automatic weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was found not guilty of all but the possession charge.

A person who was in the country illegally for the sixth time and had seven felony convictions was breaking the law by handling a weapon, during which time that weapon (accidentally?) discharged and killed an innocent person.  That is pretty much the definition of involuntary manslaughter.

Many people bear some responsibility for this tragedy. First, Zarate; then, in no particular order, the sheriff; those operating and supporting sanctuary jurisdictions; and the defense attorneys, who put saving their client from his just rewards above their duty to achieve justice.