2012: A Year in Review

DanSheaAn outsider looking in takes a look back.

It was mid-July when I read an article in the Boston Globe detailing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) latest fiscal disaster. I was taking my lunch break at the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation (OCABR), discussing the news with my coworkers. One of them noted that I was always eager to hear the latest reports and consider what they meant on the larger stage; given the surge in online commentary, she couldn’t believe I didn’t have a blog of my own. Then I remembered that I did have a blog, though it had gone unused since 2010. I logged in that night, took another look at the MBTA numbers, and started writing.

Twenty-five articles later (as of January 1, 2013), Outside(r)LookingIn is the creative and journalistic outlet I never knew I’d needed. It’s helped to conquer the stress of university, the demands of co-op, and the incredible hardship of loss. Articles have been re-blogged across WordPress and tumblr and even published on PolicyMic. Who knows, maybe The New York Times will be next — OK, maybe not, but you get the idea.

Thank you to everyone who’s joined me on this journey, I hope you’ve all enjoyed (or at least tolerated) the ride as much as I have. And I hope you’ll stay with me as we see what’s next for Boston, the nation, and the world. Until then, here’s what 2012’s brought us; every story, how it seemed then, and the way it looks now.

Articles marked with an asterisk (*) concern the 2012 elections.

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BOSTON

T is for Tragedy: “The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operates the first of its kind, the oldest subway system in the United States. That’s what those charming tour guides and duck boat drivers are happy to make known when passing by North or South Station. Step away from one of the system’s hubs, however, and it’s easy to see the statement for what it is: hardly a boast, far more a confession.”

In review: What a difference a year makes! Or not, as the unfortunate case may be. The MBTA remains mired in fiscal difficulty, contemplating fresh fare hikes and service reductions to spur Beacon Hill to action. Governor Deval Patrick has outlined bold investments in statewide transportation, but only time will tell if cash alone can stabilize the indebted subway system. For now at least, T still stands for tragedy.

 

Corporate Culture War: “Boston has enjoyed — or suffered, depending on who you ask — nearly a decade of Thomas Menino’s mayoralty and the occasional controversy that entails. Most recently, the Mayor’s comments on a proposed Chick-fil-A expansion across from Government Center have sparked nationwide debate on the company’s political activities. It’s hardly surprising; the Georgia-based fast food chain has faced criticism for its ardent opposition to LGBT rights for years… But in an election year, nothing so easily weaponized goes unnoticed.”

In review: Mayor Menino won the day, forcing Chick-fil-A to withdraw plans for a location in downtown Boston. But the corporate culture war rages on; a shareholder recently warned Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, that the company’s outspoken support of same-sex marriage was hurting its stock prices. The response? “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.”

 

Clash of the Titans (*): “Republicans celebrated Senator Scott Brown as the critical ’41st vote’ in their effort to stop 2010′s health care reform law. Likewise, Democrats cheered Professor Elizabeth Warren for crafting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) following the 2007 financial crisis. Now competing candidates for U.S. Senate, each has tried to convince Massachusetts voters that the good of the Commonwealth comes before their personal or partisan ambitions. But in the first of four planned debates, neither distinguished themselves as a voice of reason amid strangling congressional gridlock. This one’s a wash.”

In review: Their first debate may have fizzled, but Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren soared in their later clashes ahead of November’s congressional elections. Brown, who ultimately lost re-election in a surprise electoral landslide, wasted precious airtime on a “native heritage” issue that voters never acknowledged. Warren, meanwhile, forced her opponent to explain inconvenient Senate votes that doomed his “politically independent” image. Buoyed by her far superior ground game, the election was over before it began.

 

Democracy in Action (*): “Most of the electoral tension this time of year concerns the presidency or Congress, the ‘big ticket’ issues voters will decide come November 6th. But it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only things on the ballot. Alongside state and local representatives, there’s also the matter of ballot questions. Massachusetts voters will face three this year, all attracting significant controversy while promising substantial change. The Commonwealth provides short explanations of each measure and the consequences of a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, but it’s no substitute for research ahead of time. Luckily, there’s still time to study up.”

In review: Bay Staters approved two of the three ballot questions up for consideration in the November elections, legalizing medical marijuana and strengthening the state’s “Right to Repair” laws. Somewhat surprisingly, the “right to die” initiative allowing assisted suicide failed 51-49% — a mere 62,000 votes. Expect the issue to return soon enough, as such a slim margin of defeat all but ensures proponents will be back for a second try.

 

The People’s Seat (*): “’With all due respect,’ then-candidate Scott Brown replied in a January 2011 debate, ‘it’s not the Kennedys’ seat and it’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.’ The reply became his mantra, borne out when he stunned the Commonwealth’s political establishment to win the title of first Republican Senator from Massachusetts since 1953. Not two years later, a humbled Brown again invoked the phrase that  propelled him to national attention. Elizabeth Warren, he said, ‘has received the high honor of holding the people’s seat.’ … Having returned a liberal Democrat to the post less than a term after Brown’s upset, what does that mean for ‘the people’s seat’?”

In review: Months into her first term as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren has already made waves and headlines alike. A fiercely intelligent populist, she’s torn into banking CEOs, regulators, and the Federal Reserve for “rigging” America’s financial system against the middle class. Where Scott Brown often kept low key, Warren has come out swinging. There’s little doubt that her allegiance lies with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but then again, she never claimed otherwise.

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NATION

Romneyshambles (*): “…A new front in the war for the White House was opened this week as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrived in London just prior to this year’s opening ceremonies. Reportedly planning to visit Poland and Israel in short order, Team Romney clearly hopes to reinforce an argument that President Barack Obama has betrayed vital U.S. allies in favor of better relations with Russia and the Middle East, respectively. It’s a plan sure to resonate with conservatives, but it’s already off to a rocky start.”

In review: Perhaps Mitt Romney had hoped to emulate the European leg of Sen. Obama’s first presidential campaign, addressing a thundering Berlin crowd before fawning international press. Whatever his idea, the first and only foreign trip of his campaign flopped miserably. Romney never toppled the President on foreign policy, though he and congressional Republicans certainly tried. Can anyone say, “Benghazi”?

 

Going Postal: “First, some statistics. If the United States Postal Service (USPS) were a private corporation, it would rank in the top fifty on the Fortune 500. Employing over half a million Americans, it’s the second-largest civilian employer in the nation following Walmart. The agency handles roughly 40% of the world’s mail volume, processing almost 170 billion pieces of mail annually. And it was designed to be self-sufficient; the Postal Service takes no tax dollars and operates entirely on its nearly $70 billion revenue. If it sounds too good to be true, it is — USPS carries a debt load approaching $15 billion, though it turned a profit in the early 2000s. So what went wrong? Quite a bit.”

In review: They say things get worse before they get better, and things have certainly grown worse for the U.S. Postal Service. An unprecedented USPS default did nothing to spur congressional action, forcing the agency to consider more drastic measures like ending Saturday deliveries. Now that got Washington’s attention. Both houses of Congress have since approved language which would require USPS to continue weekend service despite its ever-mounting debt and maxed-out credit lines. Legislators failed, of course, to propose any alternatives. Fiscal responsibility at its finest.

 

Game Change 2.0 (*): “‘Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate’ has left the building. In selecting Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, the former Bay State governor has taken a very real political risk with serious implications for his campaign. Romney has long been characterized for his inability to relate, his relatively centrist stances, and his tendency to flip-flop on major policy issues. Ryan couldn’t be more different, renowned on the right for his everyman demeanor, staunch conservative credentials, and unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility. After Sarah Palin’s vice presidential implosion four years ago, a noncontroversial choice was expected. Given his history, Paul Ryan is anything but.”

In review: Paul Ryan’s star rose and fell with surprising speed, even by Washington standards. His presence on the 2012 Republican presidential ticket failed to prevent Barack Obama’s reelection, and the onetime Tea Party darling seems to have been shelved in favor of senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. He wasn’t the game changer the GOP needed, but neither was he a national embarrassment a la Sarah Palin. Defeated, Ryan has returned to Congress  to spearhead the Republican budget process. His latest proposals? Exactly those which voters rejected in the November elections.

 

A Tale of Two Cities (*): “Tampa, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina. As Republicans and Democrats (and more than a few independents) tune in for each party’s national convention, the host cities themselves brace for the spotlight. The site of each event is highly strategic, demonstrating a commitment on  behalf of the party to the people and needs of the state. While early nominations were often held in politically ‘safe’ cities, times and strategy have changed. More recent conventions have moved to battleground states or ‘enemy’ territory in the hopes of swaying the local electorate. It’s a smart tactic, but it also reveals many party officials’ perceived electoral strengths and weaknesses. Twenty-twelve is no different, and both sides have their work cut out for them.”

In review: In the end, they needn’t have bothered. North Carolina went Republican, reversing President Obama’s 2008 fortunes in the Tar Heel State. And Florida, ever difficult, at length awarded the Democrats its 29 electoral votes. Neither side’s nominating convention proved a game changer, but don’t expect party leadership to give up the game itself. They’ll be back in 2016, ready to plot a new regional strategy in the hope of swaying a swing state to their side. Best of luck.

 

Strike Out: “While private enterprise has long enjoyed a ‘privileged position’ in American society, organized labor has never been so fortunate. Surging in the early 1900s, union membership and influence have waned in the 21st century despite mounting corporate power. Public sector unions in particular are targets of conservative ire, blamed for state budget deficits and lagging standards. Organized labor enjoys the support of over half the country, but a plurality of Americans (41%) say they’d prefer its influence waned further. Not helping matters is the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike this week after failing to strike a contract deal with city officials. The union claims its fighting for teachers’ rights and the good of their students, but the facts don’t add up.”

In review: The Chicago Teachers Union lost the battle, though some could claim it’s the students who’ll lose the war. Half a year after the failed Chicago teachers’ strike, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel plans to close over 50 “underutilized” city schools. The move is billed as a difficult necessity given the district’s $1 billion budget deficit, but many Chicagoans seem prepared to fight for their schools. Even in defeat, the Teachers Union remains organized and powerful; should the union throw its full support behind the movement, they may will win Round 2 with City Hall.

 

The 47% (*): “‘There are forty-seven percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,’ Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney began, ‘All right, there are forty-seven percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.’ Step aside 1 and 99, there’s a new percentage in town.”

In review: Mitt Romney’s comments ignited a public firestorm, raising the age-old stereotype of the old , out of touch Republican just when his campaign needed it least. Of course, the same could be said of every gaffe he made on the campaign trail. In many ways, this was his race to lose. Providing a constant stream of fodder for Democratic operatives, he lost it.

 

A Night to Remember: “The pollsters couldn’t have been more wrong (except Nate Silver, of course). Two presidential candidates supposedly neck-and-neck went their separate ways on Election Day, Barack Obama routing challenger Mitt Romney in a surprise electoral landslide. The Tea Party-fueled conservative machine faltered, surrendering gains in Congress while voters approved progressive ballot measures nationwide. Washington may remain divided by partisan gamesmanship, but more than one glass ceiling was shattered this Election Day. Whatever comes next, it was a night to remember.”

In review: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Fresh off his November victory, President Obama dove into an ambitious legislative agenda that promptly hit the brick wall of Republican opposition. Women have yet to make a substantial push in the Senate, and what’s left of the Tea Party fights desperately for influence. Filibusters in the Senate, GOP-controlled chaos in the House, and dysfunction all around. That night to remember is already a distant memory.

 

Roberts v. Free Expression: “Deceptively straightforward, the First Amendment’s declaration that ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech’ has long frustrated judicial efforts to balance civil liberty and social well-being. Further complicating matters, the U.S. Supreme Court routinely updates its approach to free expression as the ideological composition of the bench shifts. The Chief Justiceship of John Roberts is no exception, but his tenure has been marked by contradictory logic that at times appears driven more by partisan than constitutional considerations. Without a uniform approach to free expression, the Roberts Court’s left a patchwork of inconsistent case law in its wake to hamper the legal system — and Americans’ rights — for decades. It makes for good politics, but it’s hardly good governance.”

In review: The country holds its collective breath ahead of the Supreme Court’s summer rulings on same-sex marriage, but there’s no reason to expect a sudden turnaround. Most likely, John Roberts and Co. will do as they have before; enact whatever outcome they deem politically acceptable, constitutional precedent be damned. It may not be the worst outcome (with all the political pressure on legalization, Roberts may well move for it), but that wouldn’t make it right.

 

Silent Night: “First came Columbine, then Virginia Tech. Now Sandy Hook joins the list, the second-deadliest school shooting in American history. Twenty six are dead, twenty of them children, after a lone gunman’s senseless rampage. But as Americans turn their thoughts and prayers to Newtown, Connecticut, the call has already rung out. No national conversation is to be had, no solutions are to be discussed. The country may mourn, but under no circumstances may it ‘politicize’ this latest tragedy — but it should.”

In review: It was a surprise when a group of Senate Republicans allowed open floor debate on gun control measures proposed after the Sandy Hook shooting. It was not in any way a surprise when the Senate fell 6 votes short of actually passing those measures. Though an overwhelming majority of Americans backed the legislation (a relatively tame proposal for expanded background checks), the power of the NRA proved too great an obstacle.

 

The Eleventh Hour: “The Mayan Apocalypse came and went, and we’ll all breathe easier with ‘the end of the world’ behind us. Ahead, unfortunately, lies the so-called ‘fiscal cliff.’ Coined by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the term refers to a potentially-toxic combination of tax increases and spending cuts slated for New Year’s Day. That much is common knowledge. What’s often forgotten—or ignored—by politicians and the media alike is that this is a problem of our own making. The fiscal cliff, such as it is, may prove a disastrous wound to the still-fragile American economy. Tragically, it would be entirely self-inflicted.”

In review: In the end, America went over the fiscal cliff and into sequestration. And its effect has already proven disastrous; economic growth has slowed markedly as government spending screeches to a halt. State government has been thrown into chaos as agencies scramble to prepare for further cuts to budgets already shrunk by recession. Sequestration may have been made in Washington, but it’s cities and towns which will most feel its bite. A cruel solution indeed while congressmen jet home for continued recess.

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WORLD

#NBCFail: “Talk of sport and camaraderie aside, the Olympic Games are nothing if not political. Hitler famously used the 1936 Games to promote the grandeur of the Third Reich, and Cold War-era boycotts were employed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact alike. The Beijing Games in 2008 were met with a firestorm of controversy over host nation China’s atrocious human rights record and alleged misconduct during the events themselves. Hours into this year’s Games, things were already par for the course.”

In review: Disillusionment with American media is nothing new, but the London Games put its worst side center stage. Even at the world’s most prestigious international sporting event, it’s Team USA or bust. An understandable corporate policy, considering the ratings game and ad revenue, but an abject betrayal of everything the Olympics supposedly stand for. The world will be waiting for NBC’s take come 2014, when the Winter Games head to Sochi, Russia.

 

Top of the World: “Landlocked atop the Himalayas and bordered by two of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, Nepal’s rather precarious situation should be obvious enough… Survival against encroaching powers meant the Nepali were forced to play one side against another, shirking the control of China and India — and later Britain — in an attempt to retain some measure of independence. While the strategy was effective to a certain extent, it made for poor economic policy; Nepal emerged from the colonial era free but impoverished, its ability to compete with the industrialized world virtually nonexistent. Little has changed since, and newer wounds are largely self-inflicted.”

In review: India’s electrical situation has stabilized, at least for now, but the entire system remains just one summer surge from meltdown. Nepalese development continues at a slow but steady pace, largely backed by Chinese capital while India dithers. New jobs and educational opportunities have drawn young Nepalese across the northern border to China, threatening the next generation’s appreciation for their “special relationship” with the south. New Delhi remains wary and concerned, but has yet to action. That needs to change.

 

We the People, Eh?: “Perhaps the most interesting thing about the United States Constitution is that it exists at all. America’s Founding Fathers bitterly debated its myriad provisions and protections, splitting on controversial issues of the day such as minority and states’ rights. If that sounds familiar, it may be because the U.S. boasts the world’s most difficult to amend constitution. Though national consensus has evolved on a wide variety of issues, very little of that change has been codified in the nation’s supreme law. As a result, arguments erupt and recede like clockwork with no end in sight. The ramifications this has had domestically should be obvious enough, but what may surprise is the effect it’s had abroad.”

In review: Speaking with friends in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, it’s clear that Canadians value the relative uniqueness of their guiding charter. Americans feel even stronger about their own, but dysfunction and partisanship at the U.S. Supreme Court suggest that our legal foundations are far from stable. Between paralysis in Washington and policy debates that focus more on 18th Century English than tangible modern problems, is it any wonder the world is looking elsewhere for guidance?

 

A Fading Spring: “At the height of Libya’s 2011 civil war, the city of Benghazi represented a new beginning for the West in the Middle East. As forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi began an assault on Libya’s last revolutionary stronghold, NATO intervened with overwhelming coordination and firepower. The city of some 650,000 was spared, Gaddafi’s army broken and routed. While Westerners cleared the skies, Libyan rebels advanced out of Benghazi to capture Tripoli and end the war. A year later, America is besieged in the city it once saved. Benghazi may again represent a new beginning, far more sobering than the last; the beginning of the end for the Arab Spring.”

In review: Once a symbol, always a symbol. First for Libyan independence, then for Western intervention, afterwards for anti-Americanism, and now for partisan politics. Congressional Republicans have launched a crusade against a supposed Obama administration “cover up” at Benghazi. Of what, no one can exactly say. All that’s clear is that the GOP hungers for a modern Watergate to embarrass President Obama and kill a 2016 Clinton candidacy in its infancy. Only in America.

 

Under Siege: “War again consumes the Holy Land, the latest chapter in one of the world’s most tragic and enduring conflicts. Frustrated by an inability to stem rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ last week against over 800 regional targets, including alleged rocket launching sites, weapons depots, and government facilities. French and Egyptian negotiators are racing to secure a ceasefire, but Israel may not be willing to back down; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has activated some 75,000 reservists in preparation for a “significant expansion” of the operation. If peace can’t be brokered soon, there may well be a ground war in Gaza.”

In review: Gaza is quiet, at least for now. Focus has shifted away from the coast to Iran, belligerent as always in its pursuit of nuclear technology, and Syria, ravaged by a devastating civil war. Israeli forces have already intervened in the latter country, leveling a military compound outside Damascus. The Jewish State has made clear that it will not tolerate any activity it views as support for radical factions in and around Israeli territory. What this means for the wider Syrian (and potentially Iranian) conflict remains unknown, and troubling.

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CULTURE

Occupy Gotham: “‘This is a stock exchange,’ cries the young broker, ‘there’s no money here for you to steal!’ Bane merely chuckles, asking, ‘Then what are you people doing here?’ Director Christopher Nolan pulls no political punches in his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Premiering amidst the worse economic slowdown in nearly a century, Nolan crafts a cast of characters who’d find themselves right at home in a time of Tea Partiers and Occupiers (particularly the latter; besides the scuffle at the Gotham Stock Exchange, Rises features a literal citywide occupation). Social commentary abounds, as one might expect in a film following a billionaire’s crusade to save a downtrodden world from its wealthy, powerful, and corrupt masters.”

In review: DC Comics has struggled for years to adapt a coherent vision for its cinematic universe. They stand in stark contrast to Disney-owned Marvel, which launched Iron Man to stardom before blockbuster success in The Avengers. But Superman’s last outing flopped while Green Lantern tanked, leaving the Dark Knight to carry the standard. Nolan’s third and final Batman film holds up as thought-provoking superpowered entertainment, and we’ll be waiting to see if he salvage DC from cinematic irrelevance with this summer’s Man of Steel.

 

Welcome to Republic City: “Television has long challenged Americans with heavy themes and difficult questions. Political drama The West Wing showcased the challenges faced by policymakers as distrust of government mounted. 24 raised the issue of domestic terrorism in a world still scarred by the events of September 11, 2001. Such topics, however, have never been the province of animation. Shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons may occasionally turn political or engage in social commentary, but few have dared raise the issues of traditional dramas. A young girl from the South Pole is changing that.”

In review: A year out, The Legend of Korra still stands as truly groundbreaking animated television. There’s unfortunately little else to say, as its second season hasn’t yet aired. Bet that when it does, it will again set the cartoon world on fire. Just what you’d expecting from our firebending Avatar.

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SPECIAL COMMENT

Never Forget: “September 11, 2001. The American Century. The End of History. Ten years after the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, many foresee an era of peace and prosperity with the United States as its steward. Inheriting domestic tranquility and a booming economy, newly-elected President George W. Bush promises a smaller government, lower taxes, and continued peace. Nothing seems out of reach for Americans or the world. It’s all gone in an instant.”

In review: My first visit to the National September 11 Memorial was difficult, to say the least; even now, I’m unable to watch footage of the attack without a surge of debilitating emotion. Victims’ names etched in the twin towers’ footprints, all that remain of innocent people and an iconic landmark. Lives lost, a city shattered, America besieged. The next generation may not understand, but ours should never forget.

 

Four More Years (*): “…Then-Senator Barack Obama won the White House on the hope of change never fully realized. But he also promised to restore fractured alliances, end the nation’s wars, and jumpstart the long and difficult process of repairing an economy in shambles. On these and other measures he’s succeeded far more than he’s failed despite unprecedented partisan opposition. While a capable businessman, Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s record and policies ill suit the Oval Office or America’s future challenges. Outside(r)LookingIn confidently endorses Barack Obama for reelection as President of the United States.”

In review: The Second Hundred Days have passed with little to show for the billions spent keeping Barack Obama in Washington. No grand bargain, no sweeping reform, not even watered-down gun control legislation. Then again, economic recovery has proceeded at a frustratingly slow but very steady pace for five years now. Barring a surprise Democratic coup in 2014, Republican obstructionism will likely limit the President’s end of term ambitions. But in this case, “more of the same” may not be the worst thing in the world.

 

11/6/12 (*): “After countless campaign events and untold billions of dollars, it’s all down to this. Whatever the outcome, voters should remember that the nation and world will go on come November 7th. A party shift in Congress will not destroy the federal government, nor will Barack Obama or Mitt Romney forever end American greatness. Election Day is more than a political victory or defeat, it’s living proof that the republic established over 200 years ago survives today. So cast your vote, make your voice heard, and may the best men (or women) win.”

In review: What’s to review? The votes have been cast and tallied and (we can only hope) the best men and women won. What’s next? Get ready, the fight’s already begun for 11/4/14.

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