Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019

Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019

The Briefing

January 16, 2019

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

It’s Wednesday, January 16, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Brexit fallout continues: Historic defeat in Parliament as vote fails and Theresa May faces no confidence vote

By any measure, the biggest headline news with worldview implications is an international story today. Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered the biggest defeat of any sitting Prime Minister by Parliament in recent British history. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to come up with any precedent in living memory. Theresa May was responsible for negotiating what has been called the Brexit. That is the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It was just barely two years ago that the British people shocked the world and shocked the British political elites across party lines by voting narrowly for Britain to leave the European Union.

There are some massive issues for us to think about here. In the first place, the biggest issue, especially for Christians looking at this story is the importance of a nation as a unit and the danger of a nation surrendering its own sovereignty. The argument can be made that the nation state is a fairly recent development measured by centuries in human experience, and in that sense, it’s true. It’s true, however, that the nation state emerged out of the breakup of ancient empires, including the Holy Roman Empire, and so what we are looking at is the development of the nation as the representation of a people generally designated by language and a common culture, and at least for the last three or four centuries, but especially the last two centuries, what has constituted a nation is a political claim, which was a claim to national sovereignty.

The United States of America in its very founding vision was the establishment of a nation, a new nation, as the revolutionaries recognized, a nation that made a claim to its own sovereignty. The American Revolutionary war was a demonstration of what it meant for Americans to assert sovereignty and Britain to deny it, but as we look at the world today, we are the witnesses to an increasing process of what has been known more recently as globalization.

Throughout most of the 20th century, it was referred to as the formation of a new international order. This was an understanding that world peace and stability required greater communication, greater arrangements, foreign policies, economic entanglements between nations, treaties and trade agreements. All of this was one of the great achievements of the 20th century and was understood to be an important bulwark in order to preserve world peace after the two cataclysmic world wars of the 20th century. There was no representation of that kind of multinational project than what is now known as the European Union.

The idea for some kind of pan-European international organization that would function as a confederation goes back to the time shortly after the European Enlightenment, but the urgency became very clear in the 20th century, especially in the ruins of World War II. The European Union has been a very important factor on the European scene. One of the big questions in the beginning is how the United Kingdom would or would not engage with and perhaps join the European Union, but over time, both major parties in Britain, the Labor party and the Conservative party, basically reached a consensus that Britain should be a part of the European Union, but here’s where we have to understand that that required a significant surrendering of national sovereignty. That’s the price for any of the member states to join the European Union. It included what was previously known as the European Common Market, and what happened in the big picture is that what had been a national process of establishing trade rules and national laws, even fishing regulations, gave way to those decisions being made over and over again by bureaucrats in cities outside the nation.

For example, in the European Union, so many of the biggest decisions are made in the city of Brussels, and in that sense, Brussels became the great symbol to many in the United Kingdom of losing or forfeiting national sovereignty. This had been a tension point ever since the 1980s. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously known for her commitment for Britain to be in the European Union, but her grave concern that the price of Britain’s membership would eventually become too high. It was tensions over the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union that actually led to Thatcher’s toppling by the leadership of her own party. Now, a new British Prime Minister faces a very similar moment.

As Stephen Castle and Ellen Barry reported yesterday for The New York Times, Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a humiliating defeat over her plan to withdraw Britain from the European Union, thrusting the country further into political chaos with only 10 weeks to go until it is scheduled to leave the block. That means the European Union. The 432 to 202 vote to reject her plan was the biggest defeat in the House of Commons for a Prime Minister in recent British history.

A little bit of civics here is important. We have to remind ourselves that Britain is a parliamentary democracy. In a parliamentary system of government, the majority party establishes the Prime Minister, who then heads the government, and in heading the government, conceivably, can never lose a vote. That’s because by the time an individual becomes Prime Minister, that same individual is the leader of the party that has a majority in the Parliament, so you would think that would mean the Prime Minister could never lose. So how do Prime Ministers ever lose votes in a parliamentary system? There are only two ways.

The first is that a so-called free vote is allowed. This is generally on a matter of lesser consequence, in which the Prime Minister allows members of her own party to vote according to conscience. That is usually when the majority knows that it will maintain a solid majority, even though there may be just a few defections.

The second way a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system loses a vote is catastrophically. That’s what happened yesterday. That’s when there amounts to a revolt from within her own party. It can be argued that a parliamentary system of government is more efficient than the constitutional Republicanism represented in the United States of America, but this is also a reminder of the fact that the American system offers the enormous advantage of long-term stability. The kind of instability or chaos represented in Britain right now is impossible given the separation of powers and the constitutional order of the American experiment, but there’s another big worldview issue here for us to think about.

The British people find themselves in this predicament because their political elites moved Britain into the European Union back in the period immediately after the second World War, and then increasingly, including monetary union of a sort, over the course of the last several decades.

How did the Brexit vote come about? It is because the previous Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron decided effectively to roll the dice, asking the British people to vote on this controversial question. What’s the problem? Democracy, on a large scale, on important issues, never seems successfully to thrive on referendums handed to the people. The plural of referendum is referenda, but, as you will see in the media, they are often referred to as referendums. This is a vote. It’s tantamount asking the people of a nation to decide an issue that the government is incompetent or unwilling to decide. David Cameron offered the British people this referendum with the absolute confidence that there was no way that a majority of voters would vote to leave the European Union, and that’s exactly what happened, and that’s why Britain is now in chaos, because there is no real system for Britain to leave.

I’ll be honest. Given my commitment to national sovereignty, I would never have supported Britain’s entry into the European Union, and I would have supported the Brexit vote. However, the big lesson here is that that vote, if anything, has probably come too late. Once a nation’s laws and trade policies, its monetary system and its economy become so intertwined with an international body, such as the European Union, it becomes almost impossible to leave, and the cost of leaving is so high as to be nearly catastrophic, so high that it is now questionable if the British people would support it.

So now you see, the British Prime Minister having suffered such a massive political humiliation, actually considering openly whether to ask the British people again if they support Brexit. That’s just following one disaster with another disaster.

What does that say about democracy when the people of a nation have to be asked twice if they really meant what they said they meant in a massive national vote? All of this may seem very remote to Americans and to American Christians trying to apply worldview analysis to a story this big, but let’s underline the fact that it is this big a story. Let’s underline the fact that sovereignty, once surrendered, is extremely difficult and perhaps overwhelmingly expensive to regain. Let’s understand that democracy requires a government and government leaders who are competent and who also have the necessary courage to lead not only also, but especially in difficult times.

As the British government right now is teetering towards a political fall, let’s keep in mind that even as a parliamentary system may be in the short-term more efficient, in the long-term, it is far more unstable, something else for Christians to think about.

Quickly, there are some other dimensions of this that ought to have the attention of intelligent Christians. One is the fact that the United States government now faces a significant challenge in understanding how it will relate to the United Kingdom, how it will relate to the European Union given the outcome of this controversy, and, in that sense, American foreign policy faces the same deadline that Britain and Europe now face.

Another thing we need to remember is the fact that something this big will have massive economic consequences, and given the way the economy works, no one can successfully predict exactly what those consequences may be.

Finally, for Americans, this is a particular warning about concessions of national sovereignty. Once sovereignty is undermined, given away, subverted, compromised, it is extremely difficult to get it back.

Part II

What’s at stake in confirmation hearings for President Trump’s nominee for Attorney General?

Meanwhile, back in the United States, big worldview implications in the drama playing out this week in the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. This concerns confirmation hearings for William Barr as the next Attorney General of the United States.

In any context, at any time, this kind of hearing would gain a great deal of attention and would be important. In America’s constitutional order, there are four members of the cabinet that have historical precedent. That includes the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General of the United States.

There’s an immediate political context, and we’ll turn to that in just a moment, but let’s remind ourselves of the importance of the role of the Attorney General of the United States. The Attorney General is called for the in the United States Constitution. The office was defined by the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same year as the origin of the US Constitution, but the Department of Justice, as we know it now, was not established until 1870. The important role of the Attorney General in the early decades of the United States was primarily to represent the United States and to offer legal advice, first to the President and then to other federal departments, but over the course of the 19th century, the importance of the Attorney General and what became the Department of Justice loomed large. That is because, as the nation grew, so did its laws, so did its challenges, and so did its need for a centralized legal and justice authority. The Attorney General of the United States is often referred to as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. That wasn’t true in 1789, but it did become true in 1870 and thereafter. From that point onward, all of those who hold the office of United States Attorney report to the Justice Department, ultimately to the Attorney General. The United States Marshall Service reports to the Attorney General, as does the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the sense of the modern Attorney General of the United States, that role as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has to do with the fact that the Attorney General of the US is responsible to embody and to represent and to lead the entire justice system. That means the investigative and prosecutorial system of the federal government. The judiciary does the judging, but the Attorney General and the Justice Department are those who bring the cases to the court, who prosecute cases on behalf of the government of the United States, and it is the Attorney General whose legal advice is generally most determinative in any given presidential administration.

There is another important role of the Attorney General, and this is a liaison role between the administration, that is the executive branch and Congress. The Attorney General now customarily represents the administration on the most important issues in which Congress requires advice, and, thus, you will often see the Attorney General making major announcements, participating in hearings, and especially after 9/11, the role of the Attorney General has become extremely important in the nation’s intelligence community.

You put all that together, and then you have to add the immediate political context, the fact that in the third year of the Trump administration, in our extremely polarized and politicized age, in Congress, especially when you think about the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate with the responsibility of advice and consent, this is going to be a controversial issue. It is going to be much like the confirmation hearings for a justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The televised nature of these hearings underline the political importance of what is happening, but there’s something else here that’s of interest. When you look at William Barr, he is now nominated to be the 85th Attorney General of the United States, but he’s already served as the 77th Attorney General of the United States.

President Trump, in making this nomination, reached back to an individual who was the Attorney General under former President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. This isn’t unprecedented, but the precedent itself points to how unusual this is. You can consider the fact that Daniel Rumsfeld was, at one point, the youngest Secretary of Defense in the United States. He would later become the oldest Secretary of Defense of the United States, and something very similar would happen with William Barr, being Attorney General as a very young man and, now, decades later.

The political equation is fairly easy to understand, as of Wednesday morning. It comes down to this. Republicans have 53 votes in the Senate. That’s all they will need. It also comes down to the fact that William Barr, having already served as Attorney General of the United States, under President George H.W. Bush, is going to be very difficult to derail as President Trump’s nominee to become Attorney General again, but you can count on people on both sides of the aisle using the opportunity to gain as much television coverage as possible, especially when multiple members on the Democratic side of the Judiciary Committee are expected to run for President against President Trump in 2020.

Part III

Another federal judge blocks religious liberty exemption for contraception mandate, setting up an even more high-stakes legal battle

Next, earlier this week, we talked about a federal district court judge in Oakland, California, handing down a preliminary injunction against the Trump administration’s policies, revising the Obama era, Obamacare contraception mandate, a violation of religious liberty and conscience rights, but news has now come that yet another federal judge has offered a far more sweeping preliminary injunction. The first injunction handed down by Judge Haywood S. Gilliam, Jr., in Oakland, California, affected only the 13 states that had sued the Trump administration over the proposed regulations, but the injunction handed down on Monday by Philadelphia Federal District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone affects the entire United States.

There are big constitutional questions at stake here. For one thing, there is something unbalanced about our own constitutional system when a single Federal District Court judge can offer a preliminary injunction, blocking a federal regulation nationwide. The fact that this is now becoming standard fare in modern America is a very bad sign about the state of our democratic experiment, but there’s something else here.

We come back to what we noted earlier this week, and that is the fanaticism of the secular left on the question of contraception. You would think given the news coverage that the Trump administration would be somehow denying access to contraception on the part of a sizeable number of American women. That, first of all, is not true, but the second issue is that access to contraception is not at stake in this at all. Rather, it is employer mandated coverage for contraception, which includes paying for all the contraceptives recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, including those that may cause abortion, at no cost to the woman whatsoever, but the singular fanaticism over the issue of contraception is symbolic of the revolutionary character of the left in the United States when it comes to the sexual revolution writ large. Contraception is just one very important element of that moral revolution. You could put it this way. The moral revolution, the sexual revolution, couldn’t happen and can’t go further without an absolute access to abortion and to contraception virtually everywhere, anywhere, in the United States, eventually, you can count on this, paid for by the American taxpayer.

Part IV

Teachers strike in Los Angeles effectively shuts down nation’s second-largest school system. What’s really behind this labor dispute?

There’s another huge story in the United States: teachers in Los Angeles have gone on strike. As The New York Times reported, “More than 30,000 Los Angeles public school teachers began the largest school strike in the country on Monday and the first in three decades in the district, holding plastic-covered signs on rain-drenched picket lines across the city. They demanded higher pay, smaller classes, and more support staff in schools.”

The next paragraph states this. “The strike effectively shut down learning for roughly 500,000 students at 900 schools in the district, which is the second largest public school system in the nation.” We are later told that the schools remained open, but there was very little learning going on. In one school with hundreds of students, there were only 10 adults in charge who had the legal authority to teach.

If you listen to the teachers, the big issue is that they are underpaid. The average pay for one of the teachers in Los Angeles is about $75,000, and, yet, as you look at the story, one of the complaints is that many people in Los Angeles paid $75,000 cannot afford to live in the area or especially near the school where they are assigned. That makes perfect sense. We’re looking at the fact that the areas of the country that have the greatest regulation in this sense, the greatest government control, and, for that matter, are on the two coasts, now represent the greatest income inequality with property values and costs skyrocketing, making it increasingly impossible for the middle class to survive.

When we talk about the Los Angeles Unified School District being massive, we mean genuinely massive. The school district itself covers 720 miles of the California coast, about 500,000 students, but the composition of those students is really, really interesting. For example, in the entire school district, about 75% of the students are Hispanic or Latino. Only about 10% of the students are either African American or white. That means that if you add the whites and the African Americans together, they represent only about 20% of the school district. Furthermore, according to some press reports, less than half of all the instruction in the LA Unified School District is in English language instruction, but the most important statement on what’s going on in Los Angeles came from the superintendent of the LA Unified School District. That is Dr. Austin Beutner. He made a major statement that appeared as an article in The Wall Street Journal. He begins with a parable. “Here’s a probably that a high school economics teacher in Los Angeles would relish under different circumstances. Farmer Bob has been growing potatoes for decades, but now the market is shifting, and Bob’s eight billion dollar business is losing nearly 500 million dollars a year. Bob agreed years ago to provide his workers generous healthcare and pension benefits in exchange for paying them lower wages. Bob’s employees have gone on strike, demanding more money and additional workers.”

What makes that so important is that it is coming from the superintendent of the district, a superintendent who points out that the Los Angeles schools, over the last three years, has spent two billion dollars that it does not have, drawing down virtually all of its reserves. He also points to something else. Over the decades, teachers in Los Angeles have made a bargain through their labor unions. The bargain comes down to this. They have accepted lower raises in pay for higher guarantees of benefits, so even though the average teacher makes about $75,000, the average benefit package, plus salary, is well over $100,000. Furthermore, when teachers in the LA Unified School District retire, they receive healthcare without any cost whatsoever until they go on Medicare and then they receive a funded supplemental insurance policy, but we now know that the LA Unified School District can’t afford the pensions to which it is currently obligated, can’t afford the benefits that teachers negotiated for in the past in lieu of greater salary increases, and now there are demands from teachers who have gone on strike not only for higher pay, the district has already offered a 6% pay raise, but also for a vast increase in additional personnel to be added in schools.

Remember that the superintendent pointed out that the school district has already, over the last three years, spent two billion dollars it didn’t have. The superintendent also understands what’s at stake. Even in liberal California, with its high taxation, there is not going to be a willingness on the part of the state to bail the LA school system out. Instead, there’s precedence in California for the state government taking control of the school district and making the hard decisions that, at least to this point, the LA school district and its teachers unions have been unwilling to make.

There is simply a matter of math here that has to be faced. You cannot spend money that doesn’t exist, not for long, and another basic fact, you cannot spend the same money twice or three times. This crisis in the Los Angeles schools is just another representation of what happens when a society gains the habit of spending money it doesn’t have and sending the bills to subsequent generations.

One other point to be made here, there are some schools in Los Angeles that are open, even with some government funding. Those would be the charter schools, and what’s also very interesting to note is that many of those who are leading the teachers strike in Los Angeles have, as the central villain of the story, not the school district, but those charter schools. Why? Because the charter school movement in California has been gaining momentum because of frustration on the part of many parents with the public schools.

The union opposition to charter schools is almost universal nationwide, and it comes down to this. When parents have an alternative, they overwhelmingly take the alternative.

The reality of the constant overspending caught the attention of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, pointing out that despite the fact that the city’s district has a 1.8 billion dollar reserve, the district is currently spending about 500 million dollars more each year than its annual revenues, “and will be broke within two years, which could prompt a state takeover and bankruptcy.”

A school district that has been in the bad habit, repeatedly, of spending billions of dollars it doesn’t have is now looking at spending even more and teachers on strike demanding even more, and as the editors of The Wall Street Journal point out, once there is a crash and burn, there will be the argument that taxpayers need to pay even more. That’s just the way the cycle works. It’s a perverse cycle, but it’s very difficult, extremely difficult, to stop it, and right now, you have about half a million school children in the Los Angeles area who are simply waiting to see how the next cycle works out.

One final thought from the Christian worldview is the understanding, the Christian understanding that there are inherent limitations upon every human endeavor. There are limitations upon government. There are limitations upon the schools. There are limitations upon school districts. There’s a limit to how much money can be extracted from the economy in taxes. There are, thus, limits as to how much government can allocate and spend. The fact that you don’t like the limits doesn’t mean that the limits aren’t there, and, eventually, when you hit the limit or you exceed it, someone’s going to have to pay the bills, and, right now, it looks like that someone is likely to be those very children whose teachers are now on strike.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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