The Great Disappointment

Top Stories of 2012

Having dealt with the fifth and fourth biggest stories of the year in separate articles, I will now count down the top three stories, drawing on the extensive coverage I have given them this year.

#3 • The Bubble-Bursters

I almost selected as the third most important story of the year the ongoing collapse of the global warming hysteria and the rise of Henrik Svensmark’s alternative theory that the sun and cosmic rays determine global temperatures.

But notice the word “ongoing.” This was just the slow continuation of a big story that has been moving steadily forward since 2009’s “Climategate” scandal. Yet there were a few significant milestones this year. Much of my commentary on this ended up at RealClearPolitics after being published in my own newsletter, and since they’re not up yet on my new site, I’ll refer you to RCP.

Early in the year, there was Fakegate, in which a scientist from the warmist camp forged a document in an attempt to discredit global-warming skeptics. The real scandal was how many other so-called “scientists” justified the fraud by declaring that it is OK to lie in a good cause. Which is an inversion of the most basic principles of the scientific method.

Meanwhile, I hailed Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark as the real “Galileo of global warming,” the independent scientist who makes a great new discovery, only to be opposed by the authority-worshipping establishment. I reported on some big new additions to Svensmark’s theory which help explain the entire history of the Earth’s climate on a geological scale.

Most recently, in The Tracinski Letter, I noted evidence of philosophical dissension in the environmentalist ranks, as well as what seems to be a key acknowledgement of Svensmark’s theory in an upcoming United Nations report.

All of that was very interesting, but instead I chose as the third biggest story of the year the higher-education bubble. After all, the global warmists, as one department within the universities, are just a subsidiary of the collapse of the universities.

I’ve been writing about the higher-ed bubble since the summer of 2010 and also saying a few things, a bit at a time, about how this could cause people to rethink the very nature of higher education. What changed this year was the rapid emergence of a series of strong challengers to the traditional universities, often backed with Silicon Valley venture capital.

In my biggest statement on this trend, I declared that this story dwarfed one of the other big stories of the time, the $100 billion Facebook IPO.

[I]f you can build a $100 billion company by using the Internet to replace the college yearbook—imagine what you can do if you use the Internet to replace college.

After looking at several of the new challengers, including one backed by the brand name of a prestigious traditional university, I concluded:

I don’t know if either of these new business models—MITx or Coursera—is going to become the new model for higher education. Maybe both will be. But a lot of people are now at work on this problem, and they will eventually come up with the right combination to burst the higher education bubble and take down existing universities in the same way that the Internet has taken down the old newspaper publishing business….

Entrants like Coursera still look a lot like the early reaction of the print media to the Web. They took the existing newspapers and magazines and basically just put them on the Web. Similarly, a lot of these early efforts in higher education are just taking a traditional university education and putting it on the Web. But the new medium will lead to some big innovations in the whole experience of higher education—a field whose basic structure hasn’t changed all that much since the first universities arose out of monasteries in the late Middle Ages.

Specifically, I predicted the eventual decoupling of scientific/technical education from the humanities—which is particularly interesting to us because it would deprive the far-left, anti-reason, anti-individualist academic establishment of its automatic access to young minds.

In recent days, I’ve come across a few additional articles on this subject that add new information. Heather Mac Donald coins a useful new term, the “college-industrial complex.” Except that, like the so-called “military-industrial complex,” it has a lot more to do with the fusion of higher-education and government than it has to do with industry.

Better than that is a brilliant column from Victor Davis Hanson on the many “paradoxes” of the modern university, including “the illiberal nature of allowing highly paid faculty to indulge their curricular fantasies at the expense of indebted students who pay a great deal for a great deal of nothing.”

This is one of the top stories I’m going to be returning to in 2013, following up on the “bubble-bursters,” the innovators who are attempting to build a cheaper and better alternative to traditional university education.

#2 • Red States

The second biggest story of the year is how government on the state and local level has been moving in the opposite direction as government on the federal level—at least, for most of the country. While states like California and Illinois dig themselves deeper into the (literally) bankrupt big-government model, huge swaths of the country now have Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures which are taking on key big-government constituencies—mostly notably, the public-employees’ unions.

In June, I noted Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful defeat of a recall election intended to oust him from office as punishment for limiting the power of the unions.

The Wisconsin vote reflects a national shift in favor of controlling government spending….

It is clear that a large segment of the political center has decided that runaway government spending and debt is the crucial problem of the day and that it has to be reined in, and they are willing to support any political leader who attempts to do so.

Wisconsin is the bellwether for that cultural-political shift, but it is not the only example. Two less-heralded votes on Tuesday were held in California, where voters in San Diego and San Jose—hardly bastions of conservatism—approved referendums cutting back on benefits for government employees. In San Jose, the measure was approved by a 70%-30% margin.

The trend in Wisconsin is very significant because this is the birthplace of Progressivism, the ideological basis of the leftist welfare state. Equally significant was the more recent vote to make Michigan—a state owned and defined by its unions—into a “right-to-work” state, significantly curtailing the unions’ government-granted monopoly on labor.

I cited these examples in grasping for reasons to hope after President Obama’s re-election.

This is where that county-by-county electoral map is relevant again. In that sea of red, representing all of the places that rejected President Obama’s direction for the country, there were not enough votes to tip the presidential election—but there are enough votes to dominate state and local governments, which have significant power to block and counteract the policies of the federal government.

Consider, for example, the impact of Obama’s proposed income tax hike, which would increase the top marginal rate for high earners from 35% to 39.6%. That’s a 4.6% increase, but it’s smaller than the savings a high earner could achieve by moving from California, where the top state income tax rate is 10.55%, to Texas, which has no income tax, or from New York, with its top rate of 8.97%, to Florida, which also has no income tax….

[W]hile President Obama heads into his second term, Republican governors continue to dominate on the state level….

There has been some wild talk about how the bitter ideological conflict of the Obama Era will lead to a civil war or attempts at secession. But the civil war and the secession are already occurring in a (thankfully) more civilized form, as the country divides into regional blocs on the issue of limited versus unlimited government.

This is another big story to watch for the coming year, as the states serve as laboratories for the conflict between big government and small government—and the states produce the new leaders we will need to take on President Obama’s legacy on the national level.

#1 • The Great Disappointment

The top story of 2012 is obviously the re-election of President Obama.

Advocates of limited government had hoped to make President Obama’s first term a temporary aberration, and there was abundant evidence—the rise of the Tea Party movement, the Republican sweep in the 2010 elections, the continued unpopularity of Obamacare, and some of the state-level victories I mentioned above—to think that this result was likely. You will have to pardon me if I decline to link back to my predictions of a Romney victory in November. But like the Millerites in the 19th century, we were in for a Great Disappointment.

As I argued, this means that the country’s big turn to the left is not a temporary aberration but will be a long-term trend.

This election signals the end of an era, a roughly 30-year political-cultural trend that we can call the Reagan era after the man who was swept into office by it and stood as its advocate and then as its symbol for so many years.

This era was a 30-year period, from roughly 1978 to 2008, which saw the general advance of the political right—and the cause of small government, free markets, and constitutionalism—from irrelevance to widespread influence….

When Obama was first elected, amidst of wave of bailouts, re-regulation, union payoffs, and central planning, I described what we were going through as “20th Century Lite.” We have been told to forget all of the lessons of the 20th century—the lessons the intellectuals refused to learn—so we were going to have to go through them all over again, but hopefully on a smaller scale and an accelerated timeline. I had hoped that Obama would be the new Carter, who would bring this recapitulation to a quick end and kick off a new Reagan revival. Now we know that won’t happen. The worst case is that Obama will be a new FDR, who will wreck the economy but still be re-elected and viewed as a savior. More likely, he will be the new LBJ, who triumphantly extends the welfare state but in doing so sets it up for future collapse.

Either way, 20th Century Lite is not going to be a small diversion. It’s going to be heavier and last a lot longer.

While I got my election prediction wrong, I did get one thing right fairly early in the year, during the Republican primaries. In January, I described the awful primary season as evidence for the Republican’s “lost generation.”

The major candidates, the ones with the most political experience, money, and endorsements, are those who have established themselves as national-level political figures over a period of many years. And how did such political leaders establish themselves over the past few decades, in the post-Reagan era? Largely by doing something other than being staunch, principled advocates of the free market….

The deeper cause of this trend is ideological. The Republicans have a long history of me-too-ism when it comes to the welfare state, which is rooted in philosophical me-too-ism. Like the left, they grant the premise that self-interest is evil and that the individual needs to be sacrificed for the greater good of the community. Yet the Republicans are also influenced by the traditional American culture of individualism, the ideas of free-market economists, and of course the growing influence of Ayn Rand’s individualist philosophy, a fact that became indisputable last year when we saw how many of Ayn Rand’s fans on the right flocked to see the Atlas Shrugged movie.

But because this individualist strain of the right is not firmly ideologically established, it tends to assert itself only in times of crisis. This strain of the right becomes dominant only when the free market is under attack by a rapid and sustained push for government control of the economy, as it was in the 1970s under Carter, in the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and today under Obama. When there is not an openly acknowledged crisis of the free market—as during the decade and a half between 1994 and 2009—then politics is dominated by something else that is a crisis (such as 9/11) or which substitutes for a crisis (presidential philandering).

So you can think of the current crop of presidential candidates as representing the GOP’s lost generation, a group of political leaders who came to prominence at a time when the party had lost its focus, its will, and its ideological moorings on economic issues.

So I argued that we have to go back to ideological basics and make sure that we are prepared when the opportunity comes to reverse the country’s current direction. Unfortunately, the opportunity is likely to be a new crisis. And since we live in an era of lurching from one crisis to another, I don’t mean just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crisis. I mean a big crisis. Like Bondmageddon.

As I wrote shortly after the election:

The Obama Era was launched by one financial crisis and will inevitably terminate in another, even bigger crisis. The contest is no longer about how we can prevent this second crisis. It is about how we can warn about it and explain it, so that voters will be prepared to understand why it happened….

In this election, America basically chose the road to a Greek-style debt crisis in which runaway entitlement spending, supported by chronic borrowing, suddenly becomes unsustainable and the whole system collapses. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were at least considering entitlement reform, but instead voters chose a leader who has pledged not to touch the entitlement state. And while he proposes to fill the gap with higher taxes on ‘the wealthy,’ this is inadequate and counterproductive—it may well neutralize any increase in revenues by suppressing economic growth. So for at least another four years, we are going to continue with the status quo: slow-to-nonexistent economic growth, trillion-dollar annual deficits, a massive new burden of welfare and ‘disability’ payments for the permanently unemployed, and continually growing middle-class entitlements.

We will stay on this road until it hits its dead end. When we reach the end, we have to be intellectually prepared for it. We have to be ready to explain it, we have to be already shouting about it from the rooftops, and we need to be ready to offer alternative solutions to the crisis.

The same holds true, as I wrote a few days ago, with foreign policy.

With voters choosing gridlock between a far-left president and a Tea Party-influence House of Representatives, I expect that for the next few years not much new will be done for good or ill. (As of this writing, it looks like the latest “fiscal cliff” compromise is just another attempt to kick the can down the road for a few more months.) So we are simply waiting for a new crisis.

That will not be very much fun, which is why I am planning a change of direction in my coverage for 2013 to address some areas of our culture where important things are being done and where there is a lot happening that really is fun. Stay tuned for more about that in the next edition.


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