Of Cunning through the Ages and Timely Resistance

Colliseum

Readers of The Book of Mormon are familiar with a dangerous style of political leadership that, especially in the first century B.C., repeatedly challenged the freedom of the people.  The society at the time was governed by judges, popularly chosen.  It had only recently evolved from a monarchical system with hereditary kings.

Some preferred to return to monarchy, with themselves as monarch, aided by their cronies.  Others, a bit more subtle, preferred a strongman government, with themselves as strongman, again aided by their cronies.  There were always ready cronies, who believed in promised shares of power from those who flattered them.

Ancient though the model was—and there were plenty of similar models, in Rome of the Caesars and elsewhere—it is not alien to modern times.  Caudillos, dictators, ayatollahs, the names vary, but the program is much the same.  A strongman who governs of, by, and for himself and his chums.  With few exceptions, it has been the model of government in Latin America since independence from Spain, with perhaps only Chile graduating out of it so far.  (There were hopes in the 1990s for Argentina until the Peronists took over again.  Perhaps new President Mauricio Macri will be different.  So he promises and so many hope.)

Consider the following passages from The Book of Mormon, and see whether they sound uncomfortably familiar.  Is this not akin to a model today being offered—at its logical core—by some presidential contenders, Democrat and Republican?

Example One—Sherem:

And he preached many things which were flattering unto the people. . . And he labored diligently that he might lead away the hearts of the people, insomuch that he did lead away many hearts. . . And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech. . . (Jacob 7:2-4)

Example Two—Nehor:

And it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of Alma in the judgment-seat, there was a man [Nehor] brought before him to be judged, a man who was large, and was noted for his much strength.  And he had gone about among the people, . . . declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.  And it came to pass . . . that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.  And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart . . . And it came to pass as he was going, to preach to those who believed on his word, he met a man . . . and he began to contend with him sharply, . . . but the man withstood him, admonishing him . . . and [Nehor] drew his sword and began to smite him.  (Alma 1:2,3,5-7,9)

Example Three—Amlici:

And it came to pass . . . there began to be a contention among the people; for a certain man, being called Amlici, he being a very cunning man, yea, a wise man as to the wisdom of the world . . . Now this Amlici had, by his cunning, drawn away much people after him; even so much that they began to be very powerful; and they began to endeavor to establish Amlici to be a king over the people. . . .  And it came to pass that the people assembled themselves together throughout all the land, every man according to his mind, whether it were for or against Amlici, in separate bodies, having much dispute and wonderful contentions one with another. . . . Amlici did stir up those who were in his favor to anger against those who were not in his favor.  And it came to pass that they gathered themselves together, and did consecrate Amlici to be their king.  Now when Amlici was made king over them he commanded them that they should take up arms against their brethren. . . (Alma 2:1,2,5,8-10)

Example Four—Korihor:

And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that . . . every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime. . . .  And he did rise up in great swelling words before Alma, . . . accusing them of leading away the people after the silly traditions of their fathers, for the sake of glutting on the labors of the people. (Alma 30:17, 31)

Example Five—Amalickiah:

And Amalickiah was desirous to be a king; and those people who were wroth were also desirous that he should be their king . . . And they had been led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people. . . . he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people . . . to destroy the foundation of liberty . . . (Alma 46:4,5,10)

Common demagoguery, flattery, playing upon the fears and passions of the people, supporters attracted by the promise of power, opponents met with anger and violence, vague action plans, simplistic solutions to persistent problems . . . it is all there.  And it is all here.  Then as now, freedom and civilized society were in jeopardy—and preserved only by the united action of those who knew the responsibility rested upon them and could not be defaulted to another.

Of Losers and Presidential Candidates

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Photo Credit:  Oscar Keys

In the early Autumn of 2008, the presidential election was vying for attention with the onset of financial panic—the latter aggravated by the unwise policies of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who repeatedly spooked the markets and drove investors to the sidelines.  At that time I published a blog post about the Democrats’ nominee for president, Barack Obama, “Of Con Artists and Presidential Candidates”.  I refer to that not because I take pleasure in being right about the calamities that followed, but because we are faced yet again with the potential election of a con artist as President of the United States.  I am not sure that we can stand in the White House a consecutive fomenter of calamities, though I hold to my great confidence in the resilience of our Great Republic.  As with ancient Rome, it will take a lot for the barbarians to overrun civilization, but the process is terrible.  In the end, it was repeatedly bad government that gave the Goths, Huns, and Vandals the victory.

I need not catalog the list of Goths, Huns, and Vandals that civilization faces today, but it starts with radical Islam, and mullahs of Iran, the mentally-disturbed dictator in North Korea, and the current would-be czar of Russia.  Not a one of these should pose a serious threat to the survival of the United States, and not a one of them would have achieved the level of danger that it poses today, were it not for the bad leadership of our nation (little relieved by any appreciably better leadership among most of our allies).

Which returns me to con artists.  At least three of the prominent presidential candidates have built their campaigns on the effort to con the American voters.  For the most part, our popular media are buying and supporting it all, either for its good copy or for its entertainment value, hard to tell.  I refer to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.  The greatest, or worst, of these is Donald Trump.  Hillary wears so many masks, one wonders whether she even knows who she is.  Bernie is the foremost in promising trillions of dollars in government freebies that could never be delivered, since trying to do so would collapse the economy—you have to pay for that stuff somehow, and the dollars will not come from economic decline.  Donald Trump, like our current president, is a classic demagogue—the bane of democratic government—saying whatever he may to stimulate and feed upon the failures, fears, and frustrations of significant segments of voters.

Donald Trump offers no discernible philosophy of government beyond bluster and hubris.  From his personal history one can find that he thrives—when he thrives—by networking cronies, including government officials whose favor he courts to support his “business” plans.  Pretending to be an outsider, he has lived by being a consumate courtier, a classic insider.

Is he a conservative?  Then why do his ideas so often turn to big-government solutions?  Does he believe in the Constitution? Constitutional constraints would get in his way.  The unifying theme of his shoot-from-the-hip ideas is an action platform of presidential dictatorship, with anyone who opposes them or him labeled as enemies, losers, or idiots.  He surely feels like the kind of person our Constitution was written to protect us from.

While Donald Trump does not often mouth the word “change,” (perhaps because that would make his likeness to Obama too apparent) he is clearly offering the same “change” formula as candidate Obama served up in 2008.  Obama’s “change” in 2008 was really more of the same of the tried and failed tax-and-spend programs of government control over our lives.  Donald Trump pretends to something new, to change government, when in fact his plan is all government, and government controlled of, by, and for his cronies.  That was the same way he ran his businesses.  He offers you his business model as a model for government.  Do not take the deal.  We will all be losers.

Of Caricatures and Reality

Dirt&Grass

Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Lies

It was a long commute home today.  I think that most people are all out of vacation days, and perhaps saving up what they have for the Easter holidays.  Almost everyone went to work, and a lot of them chose to go home at the same time and on the same roads as I.  In the slow motion on the expressway there was ample time to think and muse.

Among my musings, and considering the ongoing presidential campaign, I imagined a conversation with one of the leading Democrat candidates.  I will refer to the candidate as Burning Cynders, to preserve anonymity.  I will leave it to you to imagine whether this reminds you of anyone.

WAA:  I understand that you want to buy votes with my money.

Cynders:  I don’t buy votes.  That’s what my opponents do.

WAA:  You just promise them free stuff, like free college tuition and free healthcare, to be paid for out of my pocket.

Cynders:  Everyone has a right to an education.

WAA:  And apparently you claim the right to pick my pocket to pay for it.  Sounds like you have learned how to buy votes with other people’s money.

Cynders:  It’s called leadership.  Someone has to stand up for people who are not as fortunate as you are.

WAA:  You don’t make me feel fortunate at all.

Cynders:  You are fortunate to be able to help your fellow man.

WAA:  You mean, I am fortunate to have you help yourself to what I have earned so that you can give it to your cronies.

Cynders:  Giving to cronies is what my opponents do.  I want to give the money to young people so that they can get an education.

WAA:  You, personally, are going to give the money to each of the wannabe students?  You will be very busy.  It’s a big country.  You may find a lot of hands stretched out.

Cynders:  I certainly hope so.  And I will have plenty of people who will help me, who will administer the programs, people who believe in what I am trying to do.

WAA:  That’s wonderful.  So you will give the money to them, and they will make sure that some of it gets to the students to pay for their free education.  Sounds like the happy marriage of cronyism and vote buying.

Cynders:  No, these are real patriots, people who really understand what America is all about.

WAA:  America is about free handouts?  And taxing successful people to pay you and your cronies?  Are the professors and school administrators working for free to help provide this free college tuition?

Cynders:  Of course not.  We need the best to teach our children.  They deserve the best, and we need to invest in the best.

WAA:  But I thought that you said that education is a right.  How can these professors make merchandise of the students and their rights by insisting on being paid to honor those rights?

Cynders:  The professors have a right to be paid, and paid commensurate with their ability and skill and knowledge.

WAA:  And commensurate with their connection to you and your plan.  I apparently have no right, except to let you pick my pocket to pay them so generously.  Sounds like more of your cronies.  I could never vote for you on such a plan.

Cynders:  You don’t have to vote for me.  You just need to work and make a lot of money so that I can use it to . . .

WAA:  To buy the votes of the people to whom you want to give all the free stuff.

Some may think that this conversation is a caricature, but it is hard to make a caricature of someone who is himself a caricature.  This is closer to reality than what emanates from such presidential candidates (there is a parallel candidate caricature for president among the Republicans).

As I said, this conversation formed in my head as I was in traffic on my way home, home from Washington, D.C.  All around me were BMWs, Mercedes, Infinitis, Lexus, Acuras, and more than the occasional Jaguar and Porsche.  These are the people, living in what have recently become some of the wealthiest counties in America.  These are the people who would be paid by Burning Cynders to administer his free programs.

Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

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There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

Of Unbanked and “Underbanked”

Speaking of banks, as I did on this page a short time ago, there are those who are concerned that too many people in the United States are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” By the former they seem to mean those who do not use any banking services, particularly who do not have any bank accounts. By the former, they mean those who obtain some banking services from businesses that are not banks. The very existence of the terms, and the way that they are used by those who use them, implies that being “unbanked” or “underbanked” is a bad thing.

I will here disclose that I have worked for banks for nearly 10 years and for all I know may continue to do so for some time into the future. Whatever bias or color to my views that this condition provides I will nevertheless try to comment from a fair and factual point of view.

My first point, therefore, is that I am not prepared to assert that absolutely everyone should have a bank account. I can easily envision the value of a bank account for most if not all people, but I concede that they should be allowed to choose for themselves and that it would be terribly wrong to force people into banks. I acknowledge that there are some alternative providers of financial services who seem to please their customers, and I do not deny that banks can benefit from good competition. Banks have a long history of drawing upon the ideas and innovations of non-banks, just as non-banks have been eager to try their hand at successful new products and services that banks have pioneered. Bank customers have benefited the most from that process, as the variety and value of financial products have expanded, and the United States has led the world in the discovery of new and useful financial services.

Having said that, the nation cannot do well without a strong, vibrant, and prosperous banking industry. Our nation and people grow as we save financial resources and invest them in improvements for the future, whether new homes, new factories, or new ideas of how to do and make things better, faster, and cheaper. That is a major part of what banks do and are all about.

Moreover, there are a lot of things we do and a lot of places we go because we know that our ability to pay and get paid—to exchange things we value less for things that we value more (the reason we buy and sell things and use money to do it)—is secure, reliable, accurate, and relatively quick. That is our payments system, and banks created it and are at the center of it.

Americans also like the idea of becoming wealthier and expect to do so. If that seems a commonplace to you, recognize that it is not so in all parts of the world, where getting by from day to day is about the most to which people can aspire, for whom poverty is a way of life that they expect to bequeath to their children. To the extent that this miserable condition is becoming less the case in much of the world, that more people are beginning to believe that they can build and improve their wellbeing for themselves and their posterity, this new-found hope for accumulating wealth is attributable to the dispersion of principles of freedom and prosperity that Americans take for granted but which are new to much of the world. The global adoption of many American principles of prosperity has been a major contribution of the New World to the Old World and to all mankind.

Now get ready for the bold but true statement: you cannot get there and stay there without banks and the services that banks provide. Banks gather wealth, safeguard wealth, allow it to be used efficiently, and apply it to building the future. That is why governments pay so much attention to banks, and also why it is so harmful when governments try to capture banks and channel their services to the personal gain of themselves and their cronies. That is also why misguided bank regulations are harmful—even if in subtle but powerful ways—to the nation and its people.

Which brings us back to the agenda of the “unbanked” and the “underbanked.” In the United States, chief causes for people remaining “unbanked” are regulations that make banking more difficult and services more expensive; cultural barriers for people who come from societies where personal banking is either unknown or where the experience has been one of banks used by local governments to harvest wealth from people to enrich the governing elites and their cronies (much of Latin America, for example); and people who for whatever reason just do not prefer to use banks. The first cause regulators can solve but have largely been resistant to solving; the second can be overcome by time and experience and is showing signs of that; and the third cause is no more of a problem than people who prefer to rent rather than own their home, to eat eggs without grits, or who do not like the New York Yankees. I do not have to understand the personal preference to acknowledge it.

The concept of “underbanked” (that government needs to help banks figure out how to serve people who may get some banking services outside of banks) I fear may be a political device to harness American banks to serve the cronies of the “underbanked” advocates. We have already seen this game with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, adopted ostensibly to ensure that banks lend to their local communities (as if bankers, unlike other businessmen, need government regulation to notice business opportunities right under their own nose). In practice, CRA has been used to coerce banks into providing loans and even grants to and through poverty advocacy agencies that tend to prosper more than the people whom they claim to be helping. The folks who fret about the “underbanked” have marvelous formulas and plans for other people’s money to solve problems about which the people to be helped seem little concerned. I have never heard of any truly “underbanked” people themselves calling for the firm hand of government to get them into the banking system; if they want banking services, they just go and get them.

I have the haunting suspicion that the “underbanked” advocates would if they could use banks the same way found in the abandoned societies of the “unbanked,” where banking services came through the hands of people who knew better than others and always made sure to get their cut for their benevolence. That is not really banking, and that is symptomatic of why people flee those lands. The wealth creation of such captive banks seems to be for someone else. If it happens in America, where will the people go?

Of Obama and Ethelred the Unready

As the troubled year of 2009 was approaching its final weeks I wrote a commentary, reprinted below, reflecting on how President Obama’s unreadiness for the job of President was endangering our soldiers abroad and weakening the economy at home. As we have witnessed a recovery that month after month remains so anemic that many Americans are not experiencing much of a recovery at all, as our retreat from world affairs encourages aggression by adventurers in Russia and elsewhere, and as the Obama Administration plans to return our Army to levels not seen since before World War II, it seemed to me appropriate to reprise my musings of November 2009. I also have to wonder whether the Nobel committee, which was so excited to award the peace prize to Barack Obama for promises to reduce American influence in world affairs, still considers its decision and the policy that it celebrated to have been wise and fortunate for the world.

Arguably the worst king of England was Ethelred the Unready. He was unready to rule his kingdom, he was unready to promote its prosperity, he was unready to repel the invader. The chief manifestation of his unreadiness was his inability or unwillingness to recognize reality. Reality eventually caught up with him—as it always does—and with his kingdom—as it always does for those subject to unready rulers.

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, may be working hard to earn himself the title of Obama the Unready. The evidence is accumulating.

For months, the novice commander-in-chief has been at a loss to know how to respond to the urgent recommendations of the field commanders in Afghanistan. They have been pleading to increase the troop levels. The added troops are needed to respond to increased enemy activity. Unwilling to say yes or no, the President vacillates while American soldiers die because they are stretched too thin. He seems to have forgotten that American soldiers under President Clinton were similarly sacrificed in another poor corner of the world—Somalia—only because Clinton did not provide enough troops to do the job. Rather than decrease casualties, insufficient troop strength increases casualties, soldiers who would not die if given enough support to overwhelm the enemy. This week the White House announced that President Obama is still unready to decide on troop strengths for the mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not waiting for him to make up his mind.

Also this week, President Obama gave a little speech about the economy. It was hard to miss the sense of frustration and perplexity in his remarks, made quickly as the Nobel laureate left town to seek more praise from his adoring foreign fans. He admitted that unemployment remains high, despite his economic program. He admitted that employers are reluctant to hire new people. He just does not seem to know why. His solution is to call a conference of economic talkers in December to talk about it. He remains unready to do something about his economic plans and government policies that are making it riskier for employers to take on more employees. Faced with half a trillion dollars in new taxes (many focused on small businesses), higher health care expenses from the trillion dollar “reform” program, new environmental plans to cool off the globe by cooling off economic growth, and dozens of other new plans to make it harder for businessmen to succeed, businessmen are reluctant to hire new people that they will later have to let go. All the while, the natural tendency for the economy to recover is weakened.

Consumer spending remains suppressed, while the Obama Administration and its friends in Congress pursue policies that make consumer credit more expensive and harder to get. Congress this year, with the Obama Administration cheering on, passed new credit card laws that make it difficult for lenders to have riskier borrowers pay higher rates. The result is that everyone gets to pay higher rates. Predictably, consumer credit declined by 15% in September and shows little sign of getting better. As we approach the holiday season, so important for the success of retailers, the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are busily making it tougher for banks to run their debit card programs. Expect more debit cards denied at the checkout lines. Also expect the pace of store closures, already growing faster than swine flu, to continue to grow. Seen any empty storefronts at shopping centers lately? Be ready to see more, even as President Obama convenes his economic talk show in December.

Not to forget swine flu, the Obama Administration was eager all year to pump up the worry about a swine flu epidemic, in hopes that it might frighten people into supporting healthcare legislation. In the meantime, the Obama Administration’s health officials, who are heavily involved in development and distribution of vaccines (lawsuits that plague the medical industry have driven most vaccine manufacturers out of the business), were ready to promise but unready to deliver swine flu vaccine. Expect more of the same, of promises that do not meet actual needs as government becomes even more involved in regulating healthcare. Service and speed are what most people look for when they are sick, but service and speed are not what government programs are known to provide—any government program.

It should be no surprise that President Obama is not ready for the growing challenges of being President. Like Ethelred, Barack Obama had little training for the job. Governing has not gotten easier in the thousand years since Ethelred disgraced the throne of England. It is not getting any easier for Barack Obama. Fortunately for America, we do not invest all power in a king.

(First published on November 13, 2009)