The Briefing 12-08-16

The Briefing 12-08-16

The Briefing

December 8, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, December 8, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Understanding TIME Magazine's choice for Person of the Year, Donald J. Trump

One of the most interesting questions in terms of the media and popular culture at the end of every year is the choice that Time magazine will make for its cover story Person of the Year. Big news was made yesterday when Time announced that Donald J. Trump, the President-elect of the United States and soon the 45th President, was going to be the Time Person of the Year. Nancy Gibbs, Times editor, explained that in this 90th edition of the Person of the Year,

Time “named the person who had the greatest influence, for better or worse, on the events of the year.”

According to Time, the choice for 2016 in that light was relatively easy, and that choice was Donald J. Trump. One of the most interesting things to note in this is the role that the Time cover story has played in terms of Western history, or at least for the last 90 years going back to 1927 when the first Time Man of the Year, as the cover story was known then, was Charles Lindbergh. Time was in effect making amends for the fact that it had failed to put Lindbergh on the cover after he had flown across the Atlantic. Trying to come up with a way to make up for that journalistic lapse, Time decided to come up with a category of Man of the Year and then to name Lindbergh the very first honoree in terms of that cover. But honoree is not exactly the right word, because Time magazine is not always attempting in any sense to honor the one who is featured on the cover. As a matter of fact, Time magazine in the person or man of the year cover has featured persons including Adolf Hitler in 1938. Why would Time magazine put Adolf Hitler on the cover of the magazine as Man of the Year? It was not in any sense to honor Hitler, but rather to recognize, as Time’s editor said then, that no one was making a more decisive impact on the world than Adolf Hitler in the year 1938, tragically, indeed horrifyingly so.

The choice of Person of the Year by Time has not always even been a person. We need to note that back in 2014, Time identified the Person of the Year as the medical fighters against the Ebola virus. Sometimes it’s not even a person; it’s persons. And furthermore, sometimes it’s not even human, as was the case when Time magazine declared the computer the Person of the Year. But in choosing Donald Trump Time obviously has something of a challenge of interpretation on its hand. Thus, Time ran a major explanation entitled,

“The Choice”

when Nancy Gibbs tells us,

“For those who believe this is all for the better, Trump’s victory represents a long-overdue rebuke to an entrenched and arrogant governing class; for those who see it as for the worse, the destruction extends to cherished norms of civility and discourse, a politics poisoned by vile streams of racism, sexism, nativism. To his believers, he delivers change—broad, deep, historic change, not modest measures doled out in Dixie cups; to his detractors, he inspires fear both for what he may do and what may be done in his name.”

Now one of the most interesting things to think about here is not just the fact that Time magazine has chosen Donald Trump as Person of the Year. In one sense, we have to recognize that as almost inevitable. Who else could have been chosen for this? Well, more on that in just a moment. But the second thing we need to note is the rationale that Time has employed and also the kind of after-the-fact explanation that Time now believes it must give. This is an interesting, interesting moment for Time because in choosing Donald Trump as Person of the Year, there will be many detractors who will simply say that they are opposed to Trump politically.

And yet there can be no questioning that Time is right that Donald Trump has single-handedly reshaped the American political landscape. Time magazine frankly needed no editorial justification in terms of its historic decision making in the person of the year cover. Viewed in terms of that historical perspective, there really was no choice but that Donald Trump deserved this particular recognition. But you also have to note that Time magazine couldn’t resist editorializing even as they were led to make this decision. At the end of that article by Times editor entitled “The Choice,” she wrote,

“For reminding America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year.”

The actual content of the cover story is by reporter Michael Scherer, and the article is not likely to incite nearly as much interest as the fact that it is the cover story. Most Americans will remember nothing of the journalistic content of the article. They will remember the cover story, and they might well remember some of the cover photographs that have become fairly iconic in terms of the American memory. If there is any one word that seems to fit both the content and the context of this article, it is the word change. As Nancy Gibbs explained, by almost 2 to 1, voters cared about who could deliver change. They cared most about that question, and in that category, she writes, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 69 points.

She then goes on to say,

“This is his next test. The year 2016 was the year of his rise; 2017 will be the year of his rule, and like all newly elected leaders, he has a chance to fulfill promises and defy expectations.”

Intelligent Christians thinking of a biblical worldview have to think about this in terms of the impact of popular culture on politics and the impact of politics on popular culture. The two really cannot be separated. You jump from the election early in November to Time magazine’s cover story in December and you understand that they are both a part of the same unfolding story.

But as inevitable as Time magazine’s choice actually was, also as inevitable are the questions that now come. Now that Donald Trump has been elected, what exactly is he going to do? As was reflected in that statement by Time’s editor, you really can’t know that in December 2016. Even all that we are noticing in terms of the transition, when the point is made and policies discuss, all of this will pale over against the political realities that will unfold during the year 2017 and then beyond in the Trump Administration. After Christmas, we will become focused on the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, and then and only then will we come to know what Donald Trump actually will do as President of the United States. Until then, we have mostly hints, but we also have the massive political consequence of the changes in the political landscape that his election has announced and also that produced his election.

Part II

What might have been: Hillary Clinton and TIME Magazine's runners-up for Person of the Year

We also had some massive questions about what might have been and, interestingly enough, it seems that Time magazine can’t resist asking some of those questions as well. One of most interesting twists in this tale is that Time has decided to tell us who were the runners-up for Person of the Year in 2016. They include Hillary Clinton, The Hackers, President Erdoğan of Turkey, the CRISPR Pioneers—that is the new genetic manipulation technology—and then the artist and musician Beyoncé.

Charlotte Alter, writing about Hillary Clinton, is reflecting the fact that Time magazine and others in the mainstream media before the election were absolutely certain they would be speaking about Hillary Clinton as the President-elect and as the 45th President of the United States. They were absolutely certain that they would be right now writing about the incoming Hillary Clinton Administration, and there was every reason to expect that Hillary Clinton would have been on the cover as Time’s person of the year. That was not the case, however, she was the first runner-up.

Charlotte Altar, writing the article about Hillary Clinton, says,

“Winners get to write history. Losers, if they are lucky, get a ballad. Hillary Clinton made history for three decades as an advocate, a First Lady, a Senator, and a Secretary of State, but she will now be remembered as much for what she didn’t do as what she did. A female candidate in an election that didn’t hinge on gender after all …. She’s the woman who was almost President, she is what might have been and what will yet be.”

When it comes to Donald Trump, it appears that Time magazine’s editors couldn’t keep themselves from editorializing in a sense, basically offering what amounts to a warning both about Donald Trump and seemingly to him as well. But it’s also interesting that Time magazine doesn’t resist editorializing in a completely different sense and also a sense that deserves our attention about what might have been when it comes to Hillary Clinton. Just imagine these closing lines from Altar’s column,

“In her 1969 commencement address to her class at Wellesley College, Clinton called politics “the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” In this, she has succeeded. Like an American Moses, she was an imperfect prophet, leading women to the edge of the Promised Land. Now it’s up to another woman to enter it.”

Now to state what should be abundantly clear by now, we have a comparison here between Hillary Clinton and Moses. Let’s just say that it takes a certain stretch of the imagination to recast Hillary Clinton as Moses.

From a Christian worldview perspective, there is one final note we need to mention in terms of Time magazine’s Person of the Year that comes down to this: there are many people in the modern world who suggest that individuals really do not make that great a difference in terms of the culture, the society, or the history, that history too often is the record of supposedly great individuals at the expense of the rest of humanity. But there’s another symbol here present in this Time magazine person of the year cover story that individuals do undeniably make a difference. Just to make the issue clear, it would make a great deal of difference whether or not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States. Otherwise, there is no meaning to Time magazine’s decision first of all to have an edition with the Person of the Year on the cover, and then to make that an essential issue of Time magazine’s mission.

What we’re looking at here is an affirmation of the fact that individuals do matter, that individuals as moral decision makers really do matter, that world history is not just the unfolding of events, but events that are shaped by human beings. And in order to understand that best, you can actually only operate from a biblical worldview of humanity. Time magazine may not be certain why it is so important to have a person of the year issue, but at this point, this is where Christians have to understand that the key word there really is person. And only the biblical worldview affirms what human personhood really means. But that’s a story bigger than any edition of Time magazine.

Part III

Follow the money: Why are soda taxes gaining wider acceptance?

Next, a pair of stories that take us to the intersection of economics and morality. Here too the Christian worldview is absolutely essential. The New York Times ran a front-page cover story just a few days ago entitled,

“Soda Taxes Gain Acceptance, City by Revenue-Hungry City.”

Anahad O’Connor and Margot Sanger-Katz wrote,

“For more than a decade, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other beverage companies have fought mightily against efforts to tax sugary sodas, defeating more than three dozen such proposals around the country. But this month, voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, Calif., as well as Boulder, Colo., stunned the industry by approving ballot measures in favor of soda taxes. Cook County, Ill., followed a few days later, bringing a soft-drink tax to Chicago and surrounding areas. They are joining Berkeley, Calif., which passed a tax two years ago, and Philadelphia, which passed one in June, bringing to seven the number of American communities with soda taxes. With that public momentum, a soda tax may be coming to a city near you.”

Well let’s take a step back from this for just a moment. The push for the taxation on sugary drinks began under the auspices of a campaign for public health. At the very head of that was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who famously established a policy that was later reversed by the courts. The argument here is that taxes can be used as a disincentive to what will be classified as unhealthy behavior, in this case, drinking too many calories in the form of sugary drinks. Those sugary drinks, by the way, have been extremely popular with the American people, but those sugary drinks have also been more popular with certain segments of the American public than with others.

But the story here that makes it to the front page of the New York Times eventually reveals quite honestly that the major issue now behind these soda taxes is not even a rationale about public health. It is simply about municipalities that are looking for tax money.

As the Times article says,

“Advocates say the recent sweep represents a watershed moment in the fight for soft-drink taxes. Once viewed as measures likely to find support only in largely health-conscious cities like Berkeley and Boulder, soda taxes have emerged as a bountiful revenue source for cash-strapped local governments to fund early childhood education, public safety and deficit reduction. Soda tax advocates say they believe more cities will now consider their own taxes on sweetened beverages to combat obesity and to finance local programs.”

Now notice how cleverly those two things are put together. What’s the worldview implication here? Follow the money. That was the admonition of former U.S. Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee during the Watergate hearings back in the early 1970s when he gave us a principle that applies not only to electoral politics and its controversies, but also to everyday life. Follow the money. Jesus put it this way, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We have a very important link here between morality and economics, and it’s not always a pretty sight.

The arguments for and against the taxation of sugary drinks and sodas began as an argument about public health, but it also began as a largely elitist argument about public health. There’s not an accident that the first municipality mentioned here is Berkeley, California. To state the matter another way, it’s really telling that there so many people who want to tax sodas, even as they’re sipping on their high calorie lattes or wine coolers. It’s very easy to look down one’s nose in cultural condescension once you’re in the coffee shop drinking your cappuccino in Berkeley, California while trying to charge all the rest of those people who are ordering sugary sodas.

But we also need to note that so quickly the New York Times is basically accepting here that the public health argument is something of a ruse just in order to get to the tax income that these municipalities really, really want. And by the way, these taxes may appear to be quite small. They’ve been indicated in some places as being one penny per ounce. But add that up. One can of soda is 12 ounces. That’s 12 cents. Multiply that times six and you come up with the fact that there’s actually quite a bit of money at stake here, and money hungry cities are now on to that fact.

I found particularly interesting an argument attributed by the Times article to John Arnold. He’s identified as a hedge fund billionaire who invested heavily in the Philadelphia and California campaigns to approve the taxation of sodas. According to the Times, Arnold became interested in soda taxes for what are described as public health reasons, but also believes soda taxes have advantages over other ways to raise municipal money. His statement was this,

“Do you do it by increasing sales taxes or increasing income taxes, or can you find ways, like through soda taxes, where you get an added benefit of improving the health at the local level in addition to raising money?”

One of the worldview lessons to learn from this is that government at every opportunity will seize every opportunity to try to find a new source of taxes using whatever argument is most available, and perhaps most persuasive at the time. Rarely do you see, however, in an article that appears in the front page of the New York Times a fairly open acknowledgment that the argument has shifted, shifted from morality to mere money.

Part IV

Why is Big Alcohol worried about the legalization of marijuana? Follow the money.

Also speaking about the intersection of economics and morality, the Financial Times, a major London newspaper, registers the fact that there are many alcohol beverage companies that are now quite concerned about the fact that they may lose market share to newly legalized marijuana. The Financial Times writes,

“This Thanksgiving, Californians may have been tempted to include an additional ingredient in their pumpkin pies. Marijuana was legalised in the US’s most populous state this month, reflecting a mellowing of social attitudes towards the drug.”

They then wrote,

“Alongside the presidential election, five states voted on whether to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, with Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, voting in favour, along with California. But one sector is watching the spread of legalisation with a degree of trepidation: the $200bn US alcohol industry.”

They then summarize,

“Though alcohol and weed might seem eminently compatible to some, a number of brewers fear cannabis as a competitive threat, with some industry groups going as far as contributing funds to anti-legalisation campaigns.”

Well where’s the intersection of morality and economics there? It’s right at the center. Here you have the open acknowledgment reported in a London newspaper that several major U.S. alcohol beverage companies decided to invest in campaigns against the legalization of marijuana, not for moral reasons at all, but simply because they were afraid of legalizing marijuana would lead to the loss of their own market share. One of the rare open acknowledgments of this argument was made by Boston Beer Company, the largest craft brewer in the US with brands that include Samuel Adams and Angry Orchard cider, according to Financial Times.

The company said,

“It is possible that legal marijuana usage could adversely impact the demand for the company’s products.”

This according to a regulatory filing from February of this year. According to the Financial Times,

“The Massachusetts-based brewer added: ‘We also believe that impacts the craft beer industry.’”

The most interesting section of this article is where several in the beverage alcohol industry indicate that their concern that marijuana—now get this—just might not be safe. According to the Financial Times,

“The Beer Institute, representing mainly the big brewers, makes clear that it regards marijuana as the new kid on the block, and emphasises the potential risks of its use.”

The Financial Times article ends fairly frankly by citing Henry Fisher, identified as policy director at Volteface, who said,

“If cannabis is legalised, its price would decrease and people would have a choice of two legal options.” meaning alcohol or marijuana.

As he also said,

“This indicates that if cannabis consumption were to rise in a population — which it is expected it would do upon regulation — alcohol consumption would decrease.”

Once again, the really interesting aspect of this is simply following the money because it leads us to some very interesting arguments, arguments in this case that have to do with the fact that one industry is concerned that another industry may encroach upon its own profits. And in this case it’s the alcohol industry that’s concerned that legalized marijuana might encroach upon its market and thus its profits. And the interesting thing there is that here you have representatives of the beverage alcohol industry saying, “Let’s not rush too fast into the legalization of marijuana. We’re not sure that it’s safe.” That’s actually an interesting intersection point with many others who share the very same concern.

But I raise these two stories not so much merely to point to the issue of soda taxes and municipalities or to the cannabis and beverage alcohol industries, but to the larger issue, which from a Christian worldview perspective comes down to this: you can’t talk about economics without talking about morality.

The greatest of all modern economists, Adam Smith, made this abundantly clear in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations, where Smith makes very clear the points that when you’re talking about money, you’re talking about what matters most to individuals. You are talking about transactions that require a moral relationship between at least two persons, a buyer and a seller, transactions that reveal not only an economic reality, but a moral reality as well. And of course by the time you add the larger picture of the intersection of economics and morality, you see where true priorities are reflected, regardless of what is said in terms of what is spent.

That’s true for every family. It’s true for every church. It’s true for every organization and institution. It’s true for every level of government. And it’s true for all of us. Eventually “follow the money” becomes a principle applicable not only to politicians and not only to the issues we see in the headlines, but to our own bank accounts and our own financial records and to our own priorities where “follow the money” points not just to the headlines, but to the mirror as well.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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