Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Turning Back The Clock

In my last post I quoted Winston Churchill's observations on Islam that were written in his book, The River War, about his experiences in the Middle East as a young British soldier.

No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

Today I came across an excellent article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic on "What ISIS Really Means" that provides additional context and perspective on the issue and which seems to show just how insightful Churchill was one hundred years ago.

When Churchill speaks about a retrograde force he was not kidding. Wood points out that ISIS really does want to turn the clock back some 1,400 years. They truly believe the only pure form of Islam is exactly how it was practiced by the Prophet Muhammed during his life.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
In addition, although President Obama likes to state that the Islamic State is not Islamic, that is just plain wrong.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

What is most troubling about ISIS is that its leaders and the fanatical followers who have joined the movement believe that they are playing out carefully crafted parts in a coming Apocalypse that will result in the return of the Mahdi and see Muslims conquering the world before the end of days.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

It is pretty hard to negotiate or reason with a group who believes they are following God's calling, believe it is their responsibility to extend their religion by the sword, kill all unbelievers along the way and are part of God's plan for the end of days to boot.

Read the entire article and you will quickly realize that we are not dealing with the JV team.

Control of territory is an essential precondition for the Islamic State’s authority in the eyes of its supporters. This map, adapted from the work of the Institute for the Study of War, shows the territory under the caliphate’s control as of January 15, along with areas it has attacked. Where it holds power, the state collects taxes, regulates prices, operates courts, and administers services ranging from health care and education to telecommunications.
Credit:The Atlantic

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Retrograde Force

Abraham Lincoln (born 206 years ago today) and Winston Churchill are the two historical figures I most respect.

Why? For the simple reason that the United States and Great Britain might not exist today but for the leadership they provided their countries in desperate times.

Their principles, passion and perseverance at a time when it was needed most is something that is cause for great respect and admiration. They did not flinch or falter when they were tested. They stood tall and rallied their nations when their people needed a strong leader.

Most Americans know more about Lincoln than Churchill.

Winston Churchill was born in 1874 and was an officer in the British Army, an historian, writer, artist and politician. He was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955.

While he was a young Army officer he also developed a sideline activity as a war correspondent for several London newspapers and eagerly sought out postings to active campaigns so he could be near the most battle action. He ended up seeing combat in Cuba, India, the Second Boer War as well as in the Sudan. You might say he was a well-traveled young man as most of these experiences had occurred by the time he was 26 years of age.

Churchill later also served as an officer in World War I.

After his experiences in the Sudan, Churchill wrote a two-volume book on his experiences in the Middle East entitled The River War.

This is what he wrote about Mohammedanism (Islam) in that book.

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

At the same time, Churchill admired the individual qualities of the Muslims he met as well as their bravery in battle.
Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die: Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. [5] Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

I was especially taken with Churchill's observations that in Islam...

      "No stronger retrograde force exists in the world."

Since I first became aware of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism with the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970's it always has seemed to me that the goal of Muslim extremists is to take the world back about 1,000 years.

You begin to appreciate the retrograde nature of what has occurred within Islam just in my lifetime by looking at the comparison of life in some Islamic countries between then and now.

These are photographs of Iran in the 1970's courtesy of www.nedhardy.com.

This is a picture of a female soldier in the Iranian Army in 1979.

Credit: Pakistan Defence

These are female soldiers in the Iranian Army in 2011.

Credit: Pakistan Defence

These are Afghanistan women in the 1950's compared to 2014.

These are Egyptian students at Cairo University.



We are now in an age where we see and hear about beheadings, prisoners being burned alive and young female relief workers who are taken prisoner and killed in the Middle East by ISIS.

In Africa, another Muslim extremist group, Boko Haram (which translated into English is "Western Education is Forbidden") has killed thousands in Nigeria and has caused 1.5 million to flee their homes in the conflict zone.

We also recently saw the cold-blooded murders of 11 people in Paris because of a cartoon and another four Jewish people in a kosher deli. We are still trying determine if President Obama has connected the dots yet on this "random" act.


This is how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it

: returning to an earlier and usually worse state or condition
: moving backward

You decide whether Sir Winston Churchill was right.

 “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.”
                                                              -Winston Churchill

Hat tip to loyal reader JWA for pointing me to this Churchill history.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Millennial Squeeze

I have written before that when the history of the Obama era is written, I think one of the ironies that historians will focus on will be the level of support that younger voters provided for Obama that will clearly be seen as having been against their self-interest when viewed in the fullness of time.

Voters do not typically vote against their self-interests. That is why the unions and government workers who believe in big government and big spending typically vote for Democrats.  It is also the reason that small business owners and investors who are concerned about high taxes and government regulations vote for Republicans. It is why young voters in the Vietnam era voted for Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern and why generations of African-Americans voted for Republicans after the Civil War.

Obama carried two-thirds of voters aged 18-29 in 2008.  He carried this demographic with about 60 percent of the vote in 2012.  When you consider the following it is hard to understand why.

We know the obvious. Over $6 trillion in national debt has been added in the Obama years.  The President's budgets over the next two years look to be more of the same. His recent budget submission to Congress projects another $500 billion in debt for next year and does not even attempt to balance the budget over the next ten years.When Obama leaves office these young voters will be inheriting almost $20 trillion in federal debt that they will have to pay for from future taxes.

Student debt over the Obama years has increased from $640 billion when he took office to over $1.2 trillion today.  That's right, student loan debt has increased an average of $100 billion per year since Barack Obama took office. He not only has doubled the federal debt while in office, he has also presided over a doubling of student loan debt.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama will not be responsible for paying the interest and principal on these debts. That will fall largely on the Millennial generation, those born between the early 1980's and early 2000's. The very voters who overwhelming voted to put Barack Obama in office---twice!

This generation has already had its challenges. The first Millennials were just trying to enter the workforce in substantial numbers when the Great Recession hit in 2008. Millennials are struggling with a tougher employment outlook than older generations. Workers 25- to 34-years-old have an unemployment rate of that is almost one-third higher than Americans between 35 to 44, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

They also have an estimated savings rate of negative 2% according to The Wall Street Journal which cited a study by Moody Analytics. This compares to a 3% savings rate for the 35-44 age group and 6% for those between 45 and 54.

You might think that young people have always struggled with putting money away. However. Moody Analytics found that 25-34 year olds were saving 5.2% in 2009. The weak job market and increased student debt are clearly responsible for additional pressure on the pocketbook of the Millennials.

However, I came across another interesting factor that seems to be at play in raising havoc with Millennial budgets that you don't hear about---the changes in spending patterns of Americans. And those changes in how people spend their money have been particularly disadvantageous for younger people.

This is a chart from The Wall Street Journal that shows changes in spending patterns for Americans between 2007 and 2013. Spending pattern changes take account of both price increases but also behavioral adjustments required due to rationing limited income sources.

Overall, income for Americans was up only 0.2% between 2007 and 2013, but total spending was up 2.3%.  This is a chart that graphically illustrates the middle class economic squeeze.

However, when you look at the spending categories that have had the largest increases, you particularly see just how poorly the last six years have been to Millennials.

What are some of the spending categories that are most important to this age group?

Education                  +22.9%
Rent                           +26.0%
Cell Phones               +49.1%
Internet                      +81.3%

You add in the requirement to buy health insurance under Obamacare  (+42.1%), which a good number of this age group were not purchasing before, and you can readily see the financial stress the Millennials are under.

When you look at some of the categories where spending has been reduced, most were of no benefit to this age group whatsoever.

Residential phone       -30.7% (never had one)
Household textiles      -26.5% (using stuff that their mother gave them)
Homes owned             -11.5% (no house, struggling to pay student debt,
Major appliances          -8.3% (living in basement or comes with apartment)

Unfortunately, the worst is apparently still to come for the Millennials.

What are they going to do when faced with much higher taxes and interest costs to pay for all the debt that has been accumulated during the administration of Barack Obama?

I don't envy their future. They are on the hook for $18 trillion and counting in federal debt. They are the hook for many more trillions in public sector pension costs for state and local  workers. They are on the hook for over $1.2 trillion in student loans that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. More than 1 in 2 is underemployed.

The poor economy and low interest rates are keeping millions of Baby Boomers in the workforce and blocking their career advancement. They almost certainly will pay much more into Social Security and Medicare than they will ever get out of it. Or they will end up caring for Mom and Dad somewhere down the line.

However, almost 2 out of every 3 of them has no one to blame but themselves. They had a choice to make for their future but were more enthralled with "cool" than with "competent".

It is something I don't understand. It is something that I don't think history will understand. For the sake of their own future, I hope the Millennial Generation will soon understand what is happening to them and demand real change.  It is their only real hope to create their own history. If not, they will just pay for ours.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Beware the Herd

I always taught my children to be wary of following the herd.

You often feel better and more secure in conforming and not sticking your head out from the crowd. However, the crowd you are following can sometimes be heading in the wrong direction.

This was demonstrated a few years ago in a research study at the University of Leeds conducted by Professor Jens Krause.

The study showed that it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd's direction - and that the other 95 percent follow without even realizing what is going on.
Professor Krause, with PhD student John Dyer, conducted a series of experiments in which groups of volunteers walked randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a few received instructions regarding where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one or intentionally influence anyone.
The findings in all cases revealed that the informed individuals were followed by the others in the crowd, forming a self-organizing, snake-like structure (or flock of sheep, take your pick). 
"We've all been in situations where we got swept along by a crowd," said Professor Krause. "But what's interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren't allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn't realize they were being led by others at all." 
This is consistent with the observations of sales and motivation consultant, Cavett Robert, who I have quoted in these pages in the past.

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” 
                                                                       – Cavett Robert

This is the fundamental principle of the law of social proof. The fact is that most people are significantly influenced in their behavior by looking at others.

Most people want to conform. They don't want to stand out in a crowd. They are very comfortable in going with the flow. That type of human behavior works well when you have moral, ethical leaders. As a result, society functions well.

It does not work well when the leaders and initiators are evil. This has been proven over and over and over again throughout history. Some imitators imitate. However, most of the 95% become invisible. They keep their heads down and they just stay quiet so as to not rock the boat.

I am sure that most of you have also seen this famous quote that is attributed to Sir Edmund Burke.

"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
                                                                           -Sir Edmund Burke

However, Paul Rosenberg of the Casey Daily Dispatch places all of this in a useful context by pointing out that evil, by itself, is inherently weak and does not replicate easily. It only flourishes when the good let themselves be led astray. People obey when they should be objecting.

Yes, there is a time when good men and women must stand up for what’s right, even when it involves risk, but that moment comes only after evil has already been well established and is powerfully on the move.
Fighting evil may be an essential thing, but it isn’t the first problem—it matters only after thousands or millions of mistakes have already been made. And if those first mistakes had not been made, great fights against evil wouldn’t be necessary.
Let’s begin with a crucial point: Evil is inherently weak.
Here’s why that’s true:
Evil does not produce. It must take advantage of healthy and effective life (AKA good men and women) if it’s to succeed. Evil, by its nature, is wasteful and destructive: It breaks and kills and disrupts, but it does not produce and invent. Evil requires the production of the good in order to do its deeds.
How much territory could Caesar have conquered on his own? How many people could Joe Stalin have killed with no one to take his orders? How many people could Mao have starved to death without obedient middlemen? With duteous followers, however, evil rulers killed some 260 million people in the 20th century. The truth is that evil survives by tricking the good into doing its will. Without thousands of basically decent people confused enough to obey, evil would fail quickly.
The great tragedy of our era is the extent to which evil has been successful in convincing people to service it. Good people having yielded their wills arm evil, accommodate evil, and acquiesce to its actions.
Hannah Arendt summarized it this way:
"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."
People end up supporting evil because they don’t want to make up their minds at all. They want to avoid criticism and vulnerability, so they hold to the middle of the pack and avoid all risk.
These people wouldn’t initiate murders by themselves, but in the name of duty, loyalty, unity, and/or the greater good, they cooperate with evil and give it their strength. But each plays a small part—none of them stretches so far that they’d have to contemplate the final effects of their actions.
In the 20th century, however, the actions of such people led directly to the murders of 260 million people. And they did this precisely by avoiding decisions… by merely obeying.

A few useful questions to ask yourself.

Are you leading or following?

Are you following your own conscience or someone else's?

Are you more concerned with fitting in than standing up for what is right?

Are you obeying when you should be objecting?

I dare say that if every good man and woman asked these questions more often, the world would be a much better place to live.