The Month That Was February 2014

by Sydney Williams “The most serious charge that can be […]

Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

by Sydney Williams

“The most serious charge that can be brought against

New England is not Puritanism, but February.”

Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970)

American writer and environmentalist

Snow, cold weather, the Olympics and the deaths of celebrities were the main takeaways for the month of February. The month lived up to Joseph Krutch’s characterization. The blizzard of February 11-12 caused massive traffic jams from Atlanta to Boston. California had a drought, followed by mud slides. Twice, our flights to Florida were cancelled. Most schools in my neck of the woods have had seven snow-days this year, all of which must be made up before the little darlings are released in June. Even today, February 28, the thermometer read ten degrees.

As remarkable as many of the individual athletic feats were, the Olympics, in the opinion of this duffer, have become too commercial. Worse, we and other nations pay our athletes for the medals they receive – and then, of course, tax them. The opening and closing ceremonies have little to do with the spirit of amateur Olympics. Instead, they are an advertisement for the mythical wonders of the host country. Even in today’s world of outlandish excess, $51 billion is a lot of money – two or three times what the previous two Olympics combined cost. And with all that money, reports were that toilets didn’t work! Putting that $51 billion in perspective, Russia’s GDP per capita is roughly one fourth of ours. Modesty does not define this age.

The month began with the ascendancy of Janet Yellen to the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. With her assertion that the economy was sluggish, markets sensed that tapering would cease or be done at a slower pace, thereby assuring that asset prices would continue to rise. The month ended with the scowling, scolding and outrageous Harry Reid calling out as liars poor souls who had lost their insurance because of ObamaCare. He sounded like an ill-tempered Senator McCarthy pouncing on Army Secretary Robert Stevens. If only some Democrat Senator, with the moral courage and innate decency of a Joseph Welch, would call him out. But the blood lines of politics seem stronger than decorum and respect. One must presume that Mr. Reid has no conscience; else he would have faded away in shame.

The month was not good for celebrities, in that five never made it to the end of the month. Sadly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an extraordinarily talented actor, died of a drug overdose. While marijuana and cocaine are different, addiction is common to both, something that I hope those who are rushing to approve the legalization of the former keep in mind. Drugs are a choice, not an illness. Addiction is a condition that can be treated, but only with the willingness of the patient. Shirley Temple Black died at the age of 84. Her cheerful smile, her voice and her amazing dancing helped lift Americans’ spirits during the dark days of the Depression. The ‘stair dance,’ with Bill Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” is one of filmdom’s most memorable scenes. Sid Caesar’s death at the age of 91 brought an end to one of America’s greatest comedians. In 1982, Mel Brooks (no slouch when it came to comedy) called Mr. Caesar “the funniest man America has produced to date.” Filmmaker and comedian Harold Ramis died during the month. He co-wrote one of my all-time favorite films, “Animal House.” Other movies of his included such comedic classics as “Meatballs,” “Stripes.”, “Ghostbusters,” and “Groundhog Day.” And, finally Maria von Trapp, the third child of Captain Georg von Trapp (and who was “Louisa” in “The Sound of Music”), died at age 99.

Violence in Venezuela and Ukraine moved Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran off the front pages, even though the killings in Syria, which have been averaging about 5000 a month, far outnumbered those in Ukraine and Venezuela. Russian troops landed in Crimea. We can be assured, if nothing else, that Russia will not give up Crimea. The Peninsula has a large Russian population and is home to their Black Sea Fleet. The UN finally got upset with North Korea, calling for a full-fledged investigation into human rights abuses – something my ten-year old granddaughter could have told them two years ago. An unabashed North Korea responded by firing missiles along the South Korean border. “When the cat’s away…or, as in this case, AWOL…”

It was disclosed during the month that the FCC, last May, had proposed an initiative: “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs.” The idea was to determine how editors and station owners decide what stories to cover, and was the public receiving “critical” information. It was essentially the first step in a blatant government scheme to control the press. The public became aware when FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on February 11th disclosing the plan. FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, subsequently cancelled it. Nevertheless, it is frightening that the government felt comfortable in proposing such an inquiry in the first place. Who told them to do so? Why did they feel the necessity? Never in the history of the Country have the people had such ready access to so many sources of news and opinions. A free people do not want to be told what papers to read, radio stations to listen to and TV news programs to watch. A free press is elemental to freedom.

The House voted to raise the debt ceiling “without conditions,” depriving Democrats of an issue in November, but permitting reckless spending to persist in the present. Total federal debt is in excess of $17.4 trillion. It is projected to be over $20 trillion by 2020. The problem is entitlement spending. For example, in 2010, 21% of the U.S. population was over the age of 65. By 2035, according to the CBO, that number will be 36%. Social Security payments accounted for 20% of the federal budget in 2010. They are expected to be 30% by 2035. Where will it end? Until drastic changes are made to entitlements, or until taxes across the board are raised substantially on all Americans – not just the one or ten percent – we are headed for bankruptcy, or, at a minimum, rapid dollar depreciation.

Auto workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted 712-626 against joining the UAW, depriving union leaders of perhaps $500,000 in dues. It came as a surprise, as management had remained neutral, but it showed overwhelming commonsense on the part of the workers who had only to look at Detroit to see what union leaders are capable of producing.

The Keystone XL Pipeline was given a passing grade by the State Department but, at month’s end, the President had not signed off. On the one hand, he must weigh the contributions he receives from his well-heeled environmental base. On the other, he should consider those who need the jobs the Pipeline would provide, what lower-cost energy would mean for consumers, and the greater independency our nation would have with oil flowing freely from Canada.

Mt. Gox, one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, collapsed, which caused almost half a billion of real dollars to evaporate. This morning Bitcoins were selling at $587.31, less than half their all-time high reached last December. Bitcoins have always seemed a product that should carry a warning label. One may live in a virtual world, but pain, suffering and loss of real money are all aspects of the real world.

Mayor de Blasio was in the news, not just for speeding and running red lights, or for refusing to march in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, but for closing three charter schools (which suggest union demands are more important than opportunities for Blacks and Hispanics) and for requiring ID cards for all residents – not citizens, one should note. “A brilliant idea,” breathlessly opined the New York Times, regarding the ID cards…as long as identification is not required for voting!

President Obama launched ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ a program designed to help young minority men. Two hundred million dollars, from nine foundations, will help fund it.

It is a program he expects to continue following his Presidency. While I applaud the initiative, it seems too bad that he has not used his time as President to do more for young African-Americans. Mr. Obama’s siding with the teacher’s unions in Washington, DC, against the voucher program a few years ago, deprived thousands of poor minorities of a better education. His silence on Mayor de Blasio’s decision to side with unions against three additional charter schools in New York is another example of hurting the very people he pretends to help. The consequences of his economic programs can be seen in the unemployment numbers for young African-Americans – 30%, which is more than twice the average for young Whites.

An organization called the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, in conjunction with scientists at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, claimed to have perfected a technology aimed at eliminating genetic diseases. The process involves combining the DNA of three people – two women and one man – to create a child. The FDA is exploring the issue. There is nothing new in genetic modification, but this process, while potentially helpful from a medical basis, raises ethical questions about the possibility of allowing disease-free “designer” babies. It is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s quest for the perfect Aryan child.

Speaking of DNA testing, the skeleton remains of Richard III were sent to a laboratory this month after being disinterred from under a parking lot in Leicester, England. The act of grinding up some of his bones might determine his hair and eye color, but also the cause of his curved spine and what diseases he was combating when he died during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Other than satisfying the curiosity of a few people, what purpose is gained?

Following an unhappy month for stocks in January, markets rebounded in February. After beginning the month with a 2.3% loss, the market made up all the ground that had been lost on that day and in January. The S&P 500 is now up 0.6% for the year. Overall market volatility remains subdued, with the VIX closing the month at 14.0 and with February having only that one day when the DJIA traded up or down more than 1.5%.

Writing these pieces, I am amazed as to how much news there is in one month! I am less surprised by the idiocy and mean-spiritedness of those whom we elect to serve our interests in Congress, and there is nothing comparable to the blind allegiance of Leftist media for those they worship without question.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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