Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Not Ready for Prime Time

In the last week of 2009, an Islamic terrorist riding in a plane toward Detroit, Michigan, attempted to obtain access to 72 virgins by setting his genitals on fire. That fortunate failure provided a fitting conclusion to a year in which no one quite seemed to know what they were doing.

That is not to say that everything that occurred this year was negative. Most notable for the history books: the January inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States. A couple of months later, David Souter resigned his position on the Supreme Court, and President Obama nominated the first Latina (a wise one, according to her own observation) to the court. After a minimal amount of Republican grousing, she was easily confirmed.

Some of the President's other appointments didn't fare so well. His Secretary of the Treasury was only confirmed after confessing non-payment of taxes. Another nominee -- for HHS -- withdrew after acknowledging that he had fudged on his taxes, too. Some other nominees had problems due to seemingly radical views, and some withdrew, though since the New York Times never noted them, it must not have happened. Vice President Joe Biden helped stifle any unreasonable panic over the swine flu by going on television and advising people not to fly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton screamed at an African student who accidentally said President Clinton when he meant President Obama, and she was rarely heard from again.

While the Secretary of State largely disappeared, foreign engagement did not, as President Obama responded to the priority of domestic concerns and the economy by travelling overseas more than any President in American history in his first year. When he went to the Netherlands to try to win the 2016 summer Olympics for Chicago, the American media swooned, wondering how the selection committee could give the appearance of impartiality while choosing the windy city. They managed. They chose Rio de Janeiro instead. He also made a trip to Norway to accept a Nobel Prize awarded for no discernible reason. A visit to Copenhagen for an international conference on climate change resulted in a nonbinding treaty of questionable value.

Of course, the big issues this year were the economy, as a recession continued into the middle of this year, and health care, the reform of which became the priority of the President and congressional Democrats. Even before his inauguration, the President called for passage of an economic stimulus bill and then trusted congressional leadership to come up with it. They rushed through a bill with $800 billion worth of favors for Democratic constituencies and assured the nation that the "shovel ready projects" would keep unemployment below 8%. At year end, unemployment is above 10%, and most economists don't expect much improvement over the next year. The stock market dropped dramatically and then improved dramatically, but the economy remains in precarious condition, with economists divided over whether 2010 will see a double dip recession or modest gains. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke insisted before Congress that he will be able both to keep inflation under control and not hinder the recovery. Some believe him. Meanwhile, the President's budget office projects $9 trillion in deficit spending over the next 10 years. The current year's budget projects deficit spending in an amount nearly equal to the entire budget the last year of the Clinton administration. In protest against the spending, "tea parties" broke out across the nation. The dominant media, showing an unusually low level of class, at first ignored them and then referred to them, on air, with a slang vulgarity.

President Obama announced a rush to pass health care legislation in January, then set a deadline before summer recess, another deadline before Thanksgiving, and another one for Christmas. In August town halls, opponents of health care reform voiced their disagreement loudly and sometimes coherently. Republicans praised the disruptions. Nancy Pelosi, channelling Richard Nixon, called them "unamerican." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared principled opponents of his bill to opponents of abolition.

Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away after a battle with cancer. While outsiders thought of Sen. Kennedy primarily as a doctrinaire liberal, those who actually work in Washington knew him as a tireless negotiator in pursuit of his primary objectives. The health care debate was worse for his loss. On Christmas Eve, the Senate passed a 2,000 page bill with no cost controls and a fictitious faith in $400 billion in Medicare savings. Negotiators are now set to reconcile differences in House and Senate bills, a process that will probably extend into late winter or early spring.

The courts again decided an election, ruling that Minnesota had elected Al Franken to the Senate. Another court ruled that Rep. John Murtha had a constitutional right to defame soldiers in the conduct of his office.

Not all inanity occurred in Washington. It was a bad year for zippers. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford found his soulmate in Argentina, and Tiger Woods found a new use for a scorecard. Neither of their wives were amused. Back in Washington, Sen. John Ensign had a similar problem. Both Sanford and Ensign had famously been a part of a Christian "accountability group" that seems not to have been terribly effective.

While most state legislatures focused on budget problems, some found time for other pursuits. In New York, an attempted coup of the new Democratic senate leadership rendered the body nearly impotent for a couple of months. The Republican controlled Tennessee legislature responded to double digit unemployment in the state by focusing on laws permitting guns in restaurants and parks. In Texas, scores of uncontroversial bills failed to pass when Democrats effectively shut down the House of Representatives to prevent passage of a voter ID bill.

The news business grew a year older and was worse for the wear. Walter Cronkite passed away, as did Robert Novak. Their replacements are the likes of Katie Couric and Sean Hannity. Anyone who wishes to deny a belief in the inevitability of progress need look no further.

When an army psychiatrist -- a Muslim who turned out to have radical sympathies -- shouted, "Allah ahkbar," and went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood, the media raced to press with stories about the need to help stressed out psychiatrists.

In sports, baseball was marred by a revelation that many already suspected: A-Rod had used steroids. The New York Yankees finally won the, uh, November classic. In football, the NFL finally acknowledged the reality that concussions pose a serious health threat to players. Not hearing about the direction the winds were blowing, a college coach, Mike Leach of Texas Tech, punished and humiliated a player for refusing to return to action shortly after a concussion. The university ultimately fired him, and rightly so.

While 2009 was a difficult year for the nation, it was a good one for your humble correspondent, who managed to talk a wonderful lady into marrying him, among other good events and circumstances. Here's to hoping we all have a good 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Unprecedented Election

Much attention has been given to the fact that much of the health care bill that is about to pass out of the Senate, if enacted, won't take effect until 2014. While Republican criticisms of the delayed implementation have focused on the idea that the waiting period was designed to help paper over the fiscal irresponsibility that is taking place, ultimately they may realize that the Democrats have handed them an opportunity to gain or lose.

In short, with much of the new entitlement not yet implemented, the presidential election of 2012 will essentially be a referendum on health care reform. As the economy may be continuing to lag that far into the future, economic policy may be in play, as well. However, basically, the election will amount to an up or down vote on what will be passed after the first of the coming year.

We have never really had anything quite like that in American history. Republicans would do well to think about who should emerge as their candidate with that in mind.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

College Bowls, Toilet Bowls, and Congress

In the wake of government takeovers of domestic automobile companies and financial institutions -- and the feared takeover of the healthcare industry -- many Americans scratch their heads and wonder how it could happen. Some blame Barack Obama.

I blame Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). He's the Texas congressman pushing legislation that would regulate the way the NCAA determines its college football championship.

Well, he's not really ultimately to blame. However, the spirit that animates Rep. Barton is emblematic of the overreaching that characterizes our federal government.

Rep. Barton, who is a member of the party that claims to believe in limited government, evidently doesn't think that it should be so limited as to excuse itself from intervening in debates over how college determines its national champion. The congressman may be right in his view that the current process is senseless, arbitrary and unfair; however, it never seems to have occurred to him that it is none of Congress' business. For many in Washington, the view prevails that anything that a congressman or constituent has an opinion on is a matter worthy of government attention.

Of course, a Congress that deems it necessary to legislate how much water is required to flush toilets across the nation may consider the Bowl Championship Series to be a really big deal. Those who do can't claim to really believe in limited government in any meaningful sense.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ruthless or Witless?

A brief review of the utterances and activities of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might lead one to ask the following: does he really hold views that are incompatible with notions of free speech, or is he temperamentally unqualified to hold office in a country that values the same.

The Senate historically has styled itself as a deliberative body, but it is difficult to recall any federal office holder in recent American history that has so frequently attempted to deny First Amendment rights or stifle debate.

A couple of years ago, the Majority Leader reacted to a controversial network miniseries with a thinly veiled threat (I tried to link to the letter, which was previously on Sen. Reid's website, but he seems to have moved it or taken it down) to seek revocation of the network's broadcasting license. Last year, he wrote a letter on Senate letterhead to a radio broadcast company demanding that the company discipline a talk show host he found disagreeable and also expressed support for hypothetical legislation that would result in government management of the political content of broadcast media. Now, he is attempting to stifle debate on the most far reaching domestic issue of this generation by comparing those who disagree with his direction to advocates of slavery.

It is unclear whether Sen. Reid's actions stem from a penchant for dictatorial control or from mere witlessness. What is clear is that he should not be a United States Senator. The people of Nevada will make a determination on that next year. One hopes that they are taking notes.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Tolkien's God

Last night, I watched once again the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Watching all three of the films in the series has become a tradition for me at this time of year. Of course, the movies have nothing to do with Christmas, but a person can make traditions of whatever one chooses, and my new wife has been kind enough to go along with my choice.

In one of the more poignant scenes in the movie, Frodo says to Gandalf that he wishes that he had never come to possess the ring or given this arduous task. Gandalf responds:

So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

The movie scene parallels a similar one from the book. J.R.R. Tolkien, who was Catholic, speaking through the character Gandalf, speaks biblically in a way that many modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, do not. Mr. Tolkien rightly understands that the starting point for thinking about religion or the meaning of existence is with God and His providential purposes for creation, not with man and his quest for meaning. This theme of Providence is evident throughout the trilogy, culminating (more clearly in the book than in the movie) in a stark way in the role that Gollum played in the final destruction of the ring in Return of the King.

Mr. Tolkien also recognizes that starting out with God brings "encouraging thoughts" -- meaning thoughts providing confidence and strength in the face of difficulty. There is irony here. Those who make human beings and our felt needs central end up with a message that is far less encouraging and strengthening than those who start out with God and His purposes.

Over the last two centuries, and at an accelerating rate in more recent decades, western Christians have largely undergone a Copernican revolution in reverse. Religious thinking, both populist and academic, has tended to move God to the periphery and make man more central. Sadly, those who bemoan "secular humanism" outside the church have been among the most guilty of this conceptual change. Of course, we have moved God in our perceptions, but He in reality forever remains upon His throne. Those who believe would do well to remember this.