Wednesday, March 20, 2024

It’s Wednesday, March 20, 2024. 

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. 

Part I

Senator Schumer’s Breach of Political Decorum: Majority Leader Calls for New Election and Replacement of Israeli Prime Minister

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves when we are observing a breach in political decorum, when we see something that in any previous age would’ve been nearly unthinkable, but now it’s something that’s just another headline. I’m speaking of what happened last Thursday in the United States Senate where that body’s majority leader, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, known as Chuck Schumer of New York, delivered an address in which he called for elections in Israel and for the replacement of Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now that is really big headline news and internationally so. And we need to recognize what took place there. You had a major democratic figure, a major constitutional figure as a United States Senator, a major political figure as a United States Senator who is also the majority leader there in the Senate and thus largely in control of what happens on the floor, and he is also often described in the media as the highest ranking politician who is Jewish.

When you have the majority leader in the United States Senate calling for the removal of the Israeli Prime Minister, when you have that same official calling for new elections in Israel, when you have the open statements that Senator Schumer made, this is a breach in democratic decorum. Now, just to consider what would happen if the situation were reversed, let’s say that you woke up this morning and you heard that the president of France called for the replacement of the president of the United States. Now we’re not saying that the president of France doesn’t have an opinion. We are saying that the president of France, he is to keep his mouth shut when it comes to calling for American elections. It’s not the same system, of course, ours come on predictable four-year cycles. But it’s also the case that we would be very offended if the French president called for the removal by election of the current American president.

Or for that matter, if you had the French president or the British prime minister or just about anyone else get actively involved in the political process say you had the United Kingdom or France or Germany or Poland, you go down the list endorsing a candidate for president of the United States. That wouldn’t happen. But we now have had the majority leader of the United States Senate Chuck Schumer go take the microphone in the United States Senate speaking in his official capacity and uttering words like this, “At this critical juncture, I believe a new election is the only way to allow for healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.”

Well, let’s just state the obvious. It is voters in Israel who have all the power in the world to indicate their dissatisfaction with the current prime minister or his party or the coalition. This is a matter for the people of Israel, for the citizens of Israel, and it makes no sense whatsoever for the majority leader of the United States Senate, a very prominent member of the Democratic Party in the United States for him to state that, “So many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.” How in the world does he know?

The fact is that Israelis are quite accustomed to making their political sentiments very well known. Israel is at times what to Americans looks like a fairly chaotic parliamentary system. But in this case, you are looking at the fact that in Israel, there’s actually a lot more unity on these questions than the Senate majority leader in the United States had indicated. So if there were to be some political action toppling the Israeli prime minister or even replacing his party or forcing a new coalition, there is no assurance that the defense policy of such a new government would be even slightly different than the one that is in place now. In political terms, Benjamin Netanyahu is facing some rather daunting political challenges and not just because of the military situation, but precisely because of three reasons.

Number one, he has been prime minister longer than anyone else in Israeli history. That in itself is both a political achievement and a current political liability. That’s true for anyone. There’s been in the modern age no British prime minister who has lasted so long. Just think of what it would mean to say have a president like even Ronald Reagan, a conservative hero, I mean by that, a hero to conservatives who would be in office for a matter of decades. I think it’s easy. It’s axiomatic to affirm that he would not be so popular if he had stayed in office so much longer. That’s just the way that kind of political office works. You have to make too many hard decisions, you have to make too many political enemies, and frankly, over time, the American people just get a bit tired of looking at the same image on the television screen and an electoral process where something’s coming up every four years.

And of course there are term limits on the American president. It’s a very different picture. But we are also looking at a second issue, and that is that Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister when the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas took place, and frankly, it demonstrated enormous lapses in the Israeli defense system and in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the policy of the government is very much in question. And that almost always leads to huge questions about the person at the top, the top of the coalition, the top of the government. There’s more to it than might seem to be the case if you’re looking at this with American eyes, the Israeli military is a unified military. There’s no separate navy, air force and all the rest. The IDF is a unified force and there is no question about the power of the government over the IDF.

And so if there is a failure, and let’s face it, there was a failure. If there is a failure, that leads to political consequences or at least huge political questions. On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu is counting on the Israeli people counting on him as someone who over time, not just on October 7th or even just in the response to October 7th and the war against Hamas, but over a long period of time has demonstrated that he more than anyone else can keep Israel safe. There’s a third reason, and that is that Benjamin Netanyahu is facing criminal charges on charges of corruption. Frankly, most Americans, and I include myself among them, are not in much position to judge the rightness or wrongness of those charges and to understand that they’re taking place in a very hot and often highly contested political context.

Parliamentary democracy is always a bit more loud, vocal and dramatic than what we have here in the United States, but that’s to say just as a political fact that those three issues are all hanging over Benjamin Netanyahu. But you know what’s not hanging over him? The threat of the United States Senate, or the majority leader of the United States Senate. And the situation got more complex when the President of the United States, Joe Biden, said that he basically is in agreement with Schumer.

Something’s going on here. It’s very unusual for the White House or the president of the United States to respond to a foreign policy statement made by a United States senator, even the majority leader of the United States Senate. It’s actually supposed to happen the other way around. So you have to ask the question, why did it happen this way? It’s because it gives the White House plausible deniability. It gives Joe Biden plausible deniability, “I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.” But now that it’s been said, you know there’s something to it. I would describe that not only as political manipulation, but political cowardice. It’s also very instructive to look at the actual language used by the American Senator Schumer. He said, “As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders, and we should let the chips fall where they may.”

But said Schumer, “The important thing is that Israelis are given a choice. There needs to be a fresh debate about the future of Israel after October the 7th.” You know who can successfully demand an election in Israel? The very voters for whom Senator Schumer declared himself speaking. This is not calling for the possibility of an election. In Israel, that’s a given. This is external pressure from a United States senator, in this case, the majority leader of the United States Senate Democratic Senator from New York, Charles Schumer. It is direct political pressure. It represents a political threat by the American government or by the Democratic Party in terms of Senator Schumer and President Biden. It is an open threat to Israel and it is a call for political change in another nation, another democratic nation. And that’s not only a breach in decorum, that is just flat wrong. To ask yourself how wrong? Just ask yourself the question, what if the Israeli prime minister turned around and said “The way towards world peace is actually Americans in the election coming up in November, unelecting Joseph Biden.”

I think the White House would have a very adverse response to that, but nonetheless, that’s where we stand, and at least from this side, we ought to understand what’s going on. But there’s another dimension to this and that is why? Why is this taking place? Why would Senator Schumer have even made these comments? Why would the president? Why would the White House double down on these comments? Why would the escalation of tension between the White House and the Israeli prime minister become more and more public? Why? It is because of political pressure on the White House, on the Democratic Party from the activist Left in the United States, which has largely taken up the Palestinian cause and which quite frankly for a long time has hated Israel. 

So that is in the big picture, what’s going on here. And so this wasn’t an accident, and frankly, this is what’s so important. It’s not primarily about what goes on in the politics of Israel. This is about the politics of the United States of America. Senator Schumer’s not primarily concerned with political losses in Israel. He’s afraid of political losses to his party in this country in November. The same thing for President Biden, and he is in an interesting vice because the Democratic Party has been reaching out to the expanding Arab vote, largely an Islamic vote in the United States and in places like Michigan, which is going to be a swing state where a very thin margin could give victory to one candidate or the other. Well, the opposition to President Biden because of his support for Israel over time, this has been building, and so this gives the president an opportunity to say, “Hey, I took my swing against the Israeli government.” It gives the Democratic Party the chance to say, “Hey, Senator Schumer’s the one who had the nerve to stand up and call for Israeli elections.”

We need to actually understand what is taking place. We also need to understand the intended audience. Here’s what’s really important. The intended audience, at least the biggest intended audience for Senator Schumer’s comments, are not living in Israel. They’re living in swing states in the United States. That’s a big story. One final word on this story, the Israeli prime minister did respond by saying that Senator Schumer’s comments were “totally inappropriate”. At least one line from his response deserves repeating on this program. He said, “That’s something that Israel the Israeli public does on its own,” meaning calling elections. He concluded, “We’re not a banana republic.” That statement has a long and controversial history in American politics, but just about everyone who heard what the Israeli prime minister had to say understood exactly what he meant.

Part II

Do We Really Want to Live in an Economy Where People Only Work 30 Hours a Week? Examining Senator Sanders’s 32-Hour Work Week Bill

But next, evidently today is the day to talk about United States senators, but the next senator of our concern, not Chuck Schumer, rather Bernie Sanders, officially an independent, he’s also been registered as a democratic socialist. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hey, we’re talking about Bernie as in the campaign slogan, “Feel the bern.” Well, in this case, Bernie Sanders identified as a democratic socialist by his political tradition. He’s decided to show us what that looks like. And so in recent days, he has initiated legislation in the Senate to force by means of a revision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the reduction of a 40-hour work week in the United States to a 30-hour work week, and as he went on to say, without a loss in pay. So here’s the deal, Bernie Sanders is saying American workers, and of course this means hourly workers, should now be expected to work a 30-hour work week and get paid for what? Well, today’s 40-hour work week. Who in the world wouldn’t be for that? I mean, this is democratic socialism at its most democratic socialist.

Here you have the United States senator who’s been an activist on these issues for years, who says, “Now’s the time to force this by national legislation.” I did mention the Fair Labor Standards Act that was put into effect in 1940. Now, let’s just remind ourselves that’s a long time ago, so we are 16 years from that being a hundred years ago. The 40-hour work week has become very standard in the American economy ever since 1940, and it was standardized by the federal government through this act, and it was standardized over against some claims made at the time of what the right number of hours should be. Some of them were as low as about 30 at the time, back in 1940. I mean, who knew what the real number should be? But 40 hours appear to be just about right, the famous nine to five, five days a week.

And of course then with the Fair Labor Standards Act also requiring pay for overtime and other things, it became a game changer in the American economy. It was also a great stress in the American economy. It did take, honestly, something like World War II, and you’ll recall that the United States entered World War II just a year later, 1941. It took something like that and the vast infusion of military industry and mobilization of soldiers and all the rest for all of this to make a great deal of sense. America came out of World War II as an economic powerhouse, and the 40-hour work week was a part of that. It was built into the American system, but what would it mean to cut 40 hours to 30 hours? Bernie Sanders points to what he calls the radical increase in productivity in the American economy. Now, is that right or is that wrong?

Well, it is absolutely right. A massive increase in productivity. By some estimations, you’re looking at well over a hundred percent increase in productivity, certainly in certain industries, and he’s saying, “Look, where are the workers gaining from this?” They have increased productivity. The American workers never produced more per unit, per hour, per day, but where is the benefit going to the American worker? Now, I’m just going to argue that for a moment, a bit of economic and moral sanity needs to prevail here. The main benefit the American worker has out of that is a job, and that’s the first thing to say back to Senator Sanders. The first reason why you don’t tamper with this is that it would inevitably lead to a reduction in the total number of jobs. A second thing you might want to say is, “Bernie, do you read your own headlines?”

Because we are very clearly facing a challenge to America’s labor force with the automation revolution and now artificial intelligence. So are you telling companies that they should have even more incentive to turn to the machine age, to automation, to high technology, to artificial intelligence, to replace human beings? Because you know what? Technological machines do not charge by the hour. Artificial intelligence never takes a bathroom break and they never call in sick. I’m just saying we are honestly looking at a situation in which we know we are in a transitioning economy, and it’s not transitioning towards more jobs, but fewer jobs, just the right time to make the proposal to force the American economy into a tailspin by simply cutting out 25% of the work week. There’s another very interesting thing that Bernie Sanders says here.

He says, “Oh, we can do this. We can do this. The bad old bosses have been pocketing all the money. The shareholders been pocketing all the money. We can put this in the hands of the American worker.” He doesn’t mention pay, by the way. He says the pay increase has not been commensurate, but again, it is very important for us to recognize that he went on to say this is something that has worked well for economies elsewhere. He gave two examples. One of the examples was European nations that have cut the work week. He doesn’t mention that some of them are having to visit the entire equation. He also doesn’t mention that it is putting those nations and their economies at risk and in some cases, into approaching what amounts to a fiscal cliff. So in France, you have the situation that the French government has cut hours, offered all kinds of assurances to workers. It can’t pay for those assurances including the pension plan at the current pension age.

You may recall that the French president had to back off of a reform proposal because now, people like Bernie Sanders come along and say, “It really doesn’t matter. It will work. Trust me.” I mentioned that he also pointed to something else, and that was to academic studies saying that this could work and pointing to, for example, the experience under COVID-19 where the economy experience shifts saying, “Look, you can cut hours and not cut productivity.” It might be true that that would apply in certain businesses, certain jobs in certain industries, but when you look across, say, industrial America, unless you want to make every one of those jobs endangered, this doesn’t make sense. Those companies can take those jobs elsewhere. Those jobs can use the automation revolution to reduce the number of net jobs that they offer, the number of human beings they actually employ. But from a worldview perspective, there are some other huge questions here.

One is, how many hours should we work? And the answer is according to the biblical worldview, there’s not an answer to that question, but we are to be productive and we are to be working. And so you look at this and you say, “Well, I could imagine a situation that would be unjust in which people would have to work so much.” They can’t raise their family, enjoy their family. On the other hand, 30 hours leaves an awful lot of time. Over the course of the last two or three centuries, but in particular the last century, there’s been a vast increase in leisure time for most people, and so that’s something you have to factor in as well.

There’s another interesting question here, and that is, what do American workers really want? So just imagine the American workers asked, would you like to get paid for 40 hours but work only 30 hours? And that worker’s likely to respond with, “Yeah, well, that’s exactly what I want.” But there is no asking the larger question, which is you want to live in an economy in which the average worker works 30 hours a week because with all that productivity going up and all that expansion in the economy, the fact is you’ve gotten pretty used to being able to walk in the store and buy certain products at a certain price level.

You have become very accustomed say to having a house that 50 years ago when Bernie Sanders is pointing to the previous economic reality. When you didn’t have air conditioning in the house and you didn’t have a dishwasher and you didn’t have this, and you certainly didn’t have streaming media and you didn’t have the modern technological gadgets we have, if you asked the American worker, do you want to get paid for 40 hours but work only 30 hours? Well, yeah, but do you want to go without what this kind of economy produces? The fact is that that is also a part of the quality of life, and it is also a part of the economic equation. But I just want to be clear, I don’t know what is the right answer to this question. I do not have any biblical authority to tell you what is the amount of hours that should be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. I do know that when a politician comes, “Hey, I want to give you something for nothing.” What you’re going to end up with is not something but nothing.

Part III

‘We Have Capture’: Pioneer Astronaut of American-Soviet Space Mission, Thomas Stafford, Dies at 93

Finally, as we remember the biblical admonition that man knows not his time, he knows not his years. We don’t know how long we’re going to live. The passing of someone with the notoriety of Thomas Stafford who died recently in 93. That requires a bit of consideration and reflection. It is perhaps of interest to note that Thomas Stafford, having lived to age 93, lived a life in which he was very, very famous, very much a household name in the United States, but not so much for a very long time. Why are we talking about him? It is because he was not one of the original astronauts, but he was one of the quickest astronauts hired after the original seven. He wasn’t in the original seven hired for the Mercury Program, by the way, because he was an inch too tall, he wouldn’t have fit into the capsule.

The next project was the Gemini Project, and guess what? The capsule was a little bit bigger. They could hire a taller astronaut, and so they went and got Thomas Stafford, who was at that point at the Harvard Business School doing a business program. They hired him for the astronaut program, and he then became one of America’s most well-known astronauts, not because he landed on the moon. He was rather on the mission that orbited the moon and separated from the lunar module only to be reattached to the lunar module as a way of making the way forward for Apollo 11 when man stepped on the moon for the first time in 1969.

But Thomas Stafford is even better known for having commanded the American mission six years later that ended up as a massive joint Soviet and American project, and so the United States and the Soviet Union locked in one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War in the 1970s cooperated by having the American space vehicle link up with the Soviet space vehicle in a sign of cooperation among the Americans and the Soviets that was not well represented on planet Earth, but was at least for a brief time represented very famously in space.

In order to lead this effort for the United States, Thomas Stafford actually learned a good deal of Russian. When the successful link-up took place, he radioed the astronauts known as cosmonauts on the Soviet side, and said, in Russian, “We have capture,” meaning that the two vehicles had come together in a vacuum lock so that you could have astronauts and cosmonauts going from one vehicle to the other. It was a rare moment in American political history. It was a rare moment in international political history. It was a very unique development in the process of the Cold War. After six days in space and the famous hookup with the Soviet cosmonauts in their vehicle, the American astronauts returned to Earth splashing down in the Pacific, but it became a near-death experience because of the wrong flipping of a switch, the atmosphere in the returning vehicle turned noxious leading to the temporary hospitalization of the American astronauts upon their return.

Just in terms of the passage of time, there’s so much here for us to consider an American astronaut dead at age 93. By the way, he became a general officer in the United States Air Force. That is to say he received his first star as a general in 1972. Just consider that, do the math. He eventually received a second star and retired at the rank of major general in the United States Air Force. But just think about that for a moment. We are talking about someone who became a general officer in the United States military in 1972 more than a half century ago, who died just a matter of days ago.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union was a communist regime. You now have Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, but big changes took place at the end of the 20th century. That was reflected in a comment made by Thomas Stafford because he spoke of the man who had been his colleague at the same basic rank on the Soviet side. But he said about him, “We talked quite a bit. He was a big communist in the old days. Now he’s an investment banker.”

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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