Friday, Nov. 16, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, November 16, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Bringing together a divided America: Congress poised to pass bipartisan criminal justice reform
It is not often in the United States that there is genuine evidence of what is rightly described as a bipartisan agreement on major legislation. When you're saying bipartisan in the United States, you are talking at the national level about agreement on a matter of major importance on the part of the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership. When you look at the partisan divide in the United States, and you look at the deep ideological and worldview division, there are very few issues on which Republicans and Democrats can agree. When that agreement takes place, especially as it was evident this week at the White House. Well, that requires some kind of explanation. The issue must be truly urgent.
That's the case with criminal justice reform in the United States. It has been building as an issue over the last several decades. What's really interesting is that both on the right and on the left among Democrats and amongst Republicans, there has been a growing understanding that our federal criminal law system and the Senate says handed down the population of our prisons that it has created a problem that must be addressed. Now, it's also interesting to note that coming from the left and coming from the right, there were different original concerns. On the left, there was the concern that prison sentences at the federal level required minimum sentences were simply too severe. On the right, there was the concern of vast prison overpopulation, leading to a budget reality that so much of the United States government taxation was going to support the prison industrial complex.
You had different originating concerns, but over time, common concerns also arose. The most important of these common concerns is a disproportionate impact of these minimum sentences and judicially required sentencing guidelines upon minority populations in the United States. The disproportionality is reflected in the fact that amongst both liberals and conservatives in the United States, there is the recognition that the impact of these guidelines fell differently on the African American population, than upon the majority white population.
Another increasing common concern is the question raised by the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Mikado, in which we are reminded that the punishment should fit the crime. As we seek justice, we should seek a judicial system, and we should seek sentencing guidelines in which the punishment would do the greatest approximation of human justice fit the crime. The realization has come over the last several years that so many of these mandatory sentences actually never in the first place corresponded to the crime. But political history was made on Wednesday at the White House when President Donald J. Trump indicated that he is going to support bipartisan legislation that will offer the most comprehensive criminal justice reform in recent American history.
Nicholas Fandos and Maggie Haberman reporting for the New York Times, tell us President Trump through his support behind a substantial revision of the nation's prison and sentencing laws, opening a potential path to enacting the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation. The tentative legislative package we are told, developed by a bipartisan group of senators called the First Step Act, built on a prison overhaul bill already passed overwhelmingly by the house by adding changes that will begin to unwind some of the tough on crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s that incarcerated African American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders.
The story also continues as President Trump stated, quote, "In many respects, we're getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals, of which unfortunately, there are many." But the President went on to say, "But we're treating people differently for different crimes. Some people got caught up in situations that were very bad." Very importantly, President Trump urged Congress to send him a bill as soon as possible that he will be able to sign. This turns out to be an issue of crucial timing. Because what the President was doing on Wednesday was calling for the present Congress to act before this Congress comes to an end. That's just a matter of a few weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged this when he pointed to the fact that the Senate and that means eventually in coordination with the house, will have to act quickly if Congress is able to get this legislation before the president before the Congress itself expires. This is a crucial moment in American history. And Christians thinking by the Christian worldview should understand that we have a deep investment in this story. We have a deep investment in justice. In recent American history, there is indeed a history to this question. That New York Times article mentioned that tough on crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those are being not reversed, but reformed in this proposed legislation.
Why did that tough on crime movement come about in the 1980s? Well, that's an important story. It has to do with permissive and liberal laws of the 1960s and the 1970s that had ended in scandal. The nation had a skyrocketing crime rate. Furthermore, there were lenient sentencing guidelines that simply did not provide adequate justice or an adequate deterrent for wrongdoing. It was an answer to that sense of lawlessness documented with crime statistics that lead political leaders, including then President Ronald Reagan to propose a tough on crime approach. What's really interesting is that President Trump, a Republican president unquestionably conservative on these issues, and republican conservative senators and members of the House have joined with Democrats in this proposed legislative reform.
How did that happen? Well, again, it happened because you had Republicans who eventually convinced the Democrats that they were never going to go backwards on the tough on crime legislation. But they were open to reform. And furthermore, you had Democrats who persuaded Republicans that there was a racial disparity and that there were basic issues of justice that needed to be addressed. In one of those rare moments of bipartisan agreement, the Republicans and the Democrats and the House came together, that legislation is the New York Times was passed already, overwhelmingly.
Now, just hear that for a moment and recognize how rarely it has been said in recent American history that the House of Representatives passed anything of substance overwhelmingly? Now, also, the Senate is poised to do the same. If President Trump's urging is followed by Congress, then Congress in concert will act quickly before the expiration of Congress in just a matter of weeks to get this legislation before the president and the president in what I've already said was a historic move indicated he will sign the legislation.
The broad consensus behind this legislation is also reflected in the New York Times article, I quote, "The changes have attracted a broad and unusual range of supporters, including the billionaire brothers, Charles G. And David H. Koch on the right. And the American Civil Liberties Union on the left. Conservatives see an opportunity to begin to cut into the high cost of the nation's growing prison population. Liberals have long opposed the current sentencing laws for what they see as having unfairly incarcerated a generation of young men, particularly African American men for drug and other non-violent offenses."
Now, my only correction to that is that the concerns are actually more broadly held on both the right and the left, that is reflected here. That's important for us to recognize. This kind of legislative compromise, this kind of unity would not come about if they were simply two different sets of concerns. This has come about because there is no one urgency in Congress to recognize that all of these concerns are legitimate. It's important to recognize that the argument about tough on crime sentencing is basically over in the United States. It's over because the American people are not going to tolerate a high crime rate. But at the same time, there is the understanding that some of the laws, some of the guidelines that were adopted in the '80s and the '90s did not have their intended effect. They instead had a disproportionate effect. Furthermore, here's where Christians understand a fundamental issue, they did not serve the cause of justice.
You have to love the way this story was reported in the New York Times. Here's a headline for you in Thursday's edition of the paper, "An issue that unites the left, the right, the Koch's, a Kardashian and Trump." That's amazing, especially in the New York Times a list that includes left, right, Kochs, a Kardashian and Donald Trump. The reporters of this story Shaila Dewan, and Carl Hulse, also point to this unique bipartisan agreement. They stay, "It is a cause that is made for strange alliances. Including the Liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative Koch brothers, law enforcement groups, Kim Kardashian and now President Trump. Who on Wednesday endorsed the bill that would improve prison conditions and lower some sentences."
The next paragraph is absolutely crucial. "The view that punishment is too harsh and rehabilitative measures too scares is broadly supported in public opinion polls. Especially as crime has hovered at a 20 year low. That popular support, " says the Times, "has translated into political backing." Mark Holden who leads the Koch Industries work on criminal justice issues said, "Out in the real world where people live, it's not even controversial anymore." That's also from a worldview analysis really, really interesting. Because it's not just the left and the right, it's not just Democrats and Republicans, it's not just the Koch brothers and Kim Kardashian, it's actually law enforcement and those who are the advocates for convicted criminals.
Now, when you have those two groups together, you've got something in worldview significance, more important than just a political alignment. This tells us that those who are pressing for the sentencing and those who are on the receiving side of the sentencing are in a rare agreement that the sentences are not right, that reform is necessary. It tells us something about the health of the American political system. Even in this time, the partisan division, even when many people are questioning whether or not Congress can act, and the relationships between the branches of government are operational. Well, here's evidence that they are. It's a harbinger of hope and America's political scene. But it's also a reminder of the fact that on big issues like this, Congress is never willing to get far out in front of the American people.
The real change and the perception of this issue didn't take place, first of all, in Congress, it took place first of all in communities all over the United States. Congress isn't so much leading in this respect, as it is recognizing the leadership of the American people. Now, also, the leadership of the President of the United States. But as we think about the Christian imperative that the punishment fit the crime, and that our society reach the closest approximation of justice, outsider comment made to National Public Radio by Holly Harris, she's executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Organization, she said, and I quote, "Judges now have more discretion to deviate from those mandatory minimums when they think the punishment would not fit the crime."
That puts very important discretion in the hands of judges who can now to a greater degree than before if this legislation is passed, make certain that the punishment actually does fit the crime.
Sovereignty, subsidiarity, and the future of Europe: What the Brexit deal tells us about the prospect of the EU
But next, we turn to another story with huge worldview implications, most of which are simply not acknowledged in the mainstream media coverage. We're talking about the world's messiest divorce in history. It's actually not between a husband and a wife, it is between Britain and the European Union, the so-called Brexit. British voters voted quite unexpectedly in the views of the political elites early in 2016, to leave the European Union for Britain to declare its economic independence and to leave the union that had so characterized Europe in the post-war period.
This was a declaration that Britain intended to exercise and to assert its national sovereignty. But that, of course, led to a huge array of the most complicated questions ever confronted in modern politics. How in the world would a nation like the United Kingdom, which has been so integrated into the European Union exit? The word Brexit, as it became popularly known, was actually a clever political neologism. It was a word coined out of the blue, a combination of Britain and exit, thus Brexit.
It is really important to notice that the political elites first of all in Europe, but also in the United Kingdom were absolutely confident that the voters in the UK would never vote to leave the European Union. But that's exactly what they did. This then precipitated to the biggest political crisis in modern diplomatic history. How would the United Kingdom leave the European Union? That's still an unanswered question. It was declared earlier this week that the British government under Prime Minister Theresa May had reached a Brexit agreement with the forces in Brussels that are responsible for the European Union. It had to be a negotiated exit. This is how complicated the situation is.
Britain had been integrated into the immigration laws, integrated into the border laws, integrated into the economic policies, integrated within the custom system of the European Union. In essence, the European Union that came out of the ashes of the Second World War was an attempt to limit the sovereignty of those European states that would join the union and create a new super national authority, the European Union.
Now, as Christians, we need to pause for a moment and recognize there is a huge problem here. That problem is a violation of the principle of what is called subsidiarity. It's always good for Christians to be reminded of this principle. Subsidiarity is a basic principle of Christian theology, deeply embedded in the biblical worldview. It tells us that truth and reality and health subside at the most basic unit possible. If that sounds abstract, let me clarify. This means that the greatest unit of meaning is in the smallest unit of structure, which is to say that marriage is actually the centerpiece of civilization. Marriage is not healthy because the civilization is healthy. A civilization is healthy because marriage is healthy.
Marriage, the union of a man and a woman creating a family as that man and the woman have children, that creates the unit of greatest importance to the civilization. The functioning of healthy families is something that is so indispensable that no government at any level can alleviate what is missing if the family is broken. That's a pathology that is radically demonstrated in American society, and in so many other societies today.
Subsidiarity also tells us that the most important government action is not at the highest level possible, most abstracted from the real lives of people, but rather at the closest level possible. That's to say, a city government is more likely to be responsive to people, than a supranational authority The United States is more likely as a government to be responsive to its people, than would be the United Nations. This is a basic principle. It's written into our constitutional order in the system of federalism that marks our constitution. It's also important to recognize that the intellectual elites both in Europe and in the United States, increasingly have rejected subsidiarity. They have instead argued for a certain kind of internationalism.
In the views of so many, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, bigger is always better. A global authorities better than a national authority, a national authority as far better than a state authority. That we need to note is not only the reversal of the constitutional logic of the United States, it is also the reversal of that basic Christian worldview principle of subsidiarity.
When British voters in early 2016 voted so unexpectedly for Britain to withdraw from the European Union, the arguments were extremely important, and they were generally very straightforward. European leaders argued that Britain could not leave, it must not leave. Because in so leaving it would leave the entire European project. Most major British political leaders in both major British political parties also opposed Brexit. So, this was a populist revolt that in so many ways, was matched by the populist revolt in the United States in the 2016 presidential election. Those two events Brexit in early 2016, the presidential election in the United States at the end of 2016, those really formed the year of the great uprisings in both Britain and the United States.
But Britain's uprising, the Brexit vote, set into play a series of events that clearly is not over. But there's a deadline, that deadline, March 29, 2019. That's a hard exit for the United Kingdom, and that might appear to be the easiest solution except it's not. It's extremely complicated. Britain is so interwoven into the European Union, its policies, its economics, its politics, its policies going all the way down to regulations about produce and weights and measures. Furthermore, the very important issues of customs and trade, all of these are so deeply intertwined that it is not easy for just one partner to walk out of this relationship any more than it's easy for one spouse to leave a marriage.
The metaphor of divorce in this case is almost entirely appropriate. It's messy. Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to win the support of her cabinet in the middle of this week, only to have her cabinet undermined by two very prominent resignations in protest by those coming from a conservative side who argued that this is a compromise, a further compromise of British sovereignty because under the proposal of the British Prime Minister, Britain would continue to lack control over its own trade and customs, processes and policies. That is indeed a very important infringement of sovereignty.
So, what's the principle for Christians? Why would Christians in the United States care about this? There's a huge lesson, the lesson is this: once you surrender sovereignty, it is extremely difficult to get it back. Once you compromise subsidiarity, it is extremely costly to clarify it. There are many in the political elites in the United States who would prefer very clearly to have more federal authority than state authority, more state authority than local authority, and even more authority in international entities above the United States of America. That's a very dangerous argument. We do live in a global community, but we're really not a global community. We are a community of nations, but what's really important is to recognize that the existence of the nation state is itself a protection for human dignity and human rights around the world.
The compromise of that national sovereignty is extremely dangerous. But as I said, for Christians, we understand there's more than sovereignty at stake here, subsidiarity is at stake. The European Union did come out of the ruins, out of the ashes of World War II with the promise that the violence between states that so marked the 20th century will be overcome by integrating those nations in one big entity. There was actually explicitly the hope of something like a United States of Europe to match the United States of America. But the current European Union is complicated by the fact that the kind of union that had been envisioned, well, it turns out to have been far more idealized than can ever be realized to the perplexity are so many who want to believe that we live in a simple global community. The French continue to speak French and to act French, the Germans speak German and to have characteristics to German culture. That's true across the board in Europe. And what you see right now in the United Kingdom is that the people of Britain decided we're simply going to be Britain.
Now the question is: will that actually happen even as the decision of the voters in 2016 was abundantly clear, even if unexpected?
What Amazon's plans for HQ2 can teach us about the intersection of economics and the Christian worldview?
But finally, as we're thinking about these issues and government responsibility and government intervention, well, we also need to consider another major headline this week that has bigger worldview implications than many Christians might recognize. Earlier this week, just about every major media source in the United States announced that Amazon had decided to place its second headquarters not actually in one place, but in two places. Those two places Northern Virginia, basically a part of the Washington D.C. metro area, and New York. The headline in the New York Times was this on Wednesday, “In New York and Virginia, Amazon is sold on a deal.”
What a deal it was. You are talking about the states of Virginia and New York offering tax incentives and money offerings to Amazon that will amount to multiple billions of dollars. There's no question as to why the state governments in this case offered that kind of assistance. It's because of the promise of jobs and economic energy. Between New York and Northern Virginia, Amazon is predicting about 60,000 jobs.
So, is this good news for New York? Is it good news for Northern Virginia? Is it good news for America? Well, just consider the fact that there is another amazing agreement. It showed up yesterday on the editorial pages of the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In both cases, the editorial boards of one of the most liberal papers in the country and one of the papers most associated with the business culture in this country, they both declared that the Amazon deal is a bad deal. A bad deal for taxpayers, eventually a bad deal for Northern Virginia and for New York.
How can that be? Well as the editors of The Wall Street Journal put it, the government's in New York and Northern Virginia didn't so much attract jobs, they bought them, and they bought them with taxpayer money. It's been indicated that at least in some of these cases, even as Amazon has pledged that these new jobs will pay an average of $150,000 a year, almost $50,000 of that money is going to come from taxpayers, not so much from Amazon.
It's really interesting that the Wall Street Journal, that's about the most pro-business newspaper you can imagine in the United States, and the New York Times have both condemned the deal. Why? Well, in the case of New York, they see it as a bad bargain? The New York Times editorial, New York's Bad Bargain With Amazon. In the case of the Wall Street Journal, one of the major issues here is that these governments are using taxpayer money, and they are choosing winners and losers in the economy.
What you have here is not so much capitalism as what is rightly described as crony capitalism. This is not the exercise of a free market, as in classical capitalism, this is government intervention. Government intervention to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayer money. The Wall Street Journal editors again, they're pro-business, they got right to the point, and “It's hard to blame Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for accepting what politicians give him that we wonder if he isn't a tad embarrassed? The worst actors", said the editors, "Are the politicians who pose as job creators, but are essentially job buyers."
I will argue, quite consistently that the Christian worldview undergirds a free market, what we would call free market economics, and undergirds classical capitalism. But it doesn't affirm crony capitalism. Once again, what you have here is government choosing winners and losers. There's a very dark side to this. In its ruthless competition among cities all over the United States, Amazon actually gained economic data on economic development plans from so many of these cities, which it can now use even as those cities that spent many, many millions of dollars on making their proposals, even though they've now surrendered that information and it's in the hands of Amazon.
The editors of the Journal in odd agreement with the editors of the New York Times concluded this, "These handouts to one of the richest companies in the history of the world within essentially, zero cost of capital is crony capitalism at its worst."
We started out with unexpected bipartisan agreement on criminal justice reform, and here's bipartisan editorial agreement, you might say on the dangers of crony capitalism. It's not every day you see this kind of agreement, and when you see it, you ought to notice it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For informational on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Denver, Colorado, and I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.