Of the Law and Star Trek

How can you possibly relate Star Trek to bankruptcy law?

Okay, I’m the only person I know who wasn’t completely blown-away-thrilled by the new Star Trek movie.  I actually enjoyed it as a pure Sci-Fi, but as a life-long Trekkie (or Trekker, if you must), some things bothered me.

You see, Star Trek had forty-three years of building its canon.  This was the set history of Star Trek that all writers had to follow, because fans like me remembered every detail of creator Gene Roddenberry’s now-dated, often campy and poorly funded science fiction program that was canceled almost 12 years before my birth.  The canon was the set of precedent lore about the show that had to be followed.  The first several episodes set out this lore, with some necessary early alterations.  The “United Earth Space Probe Agency,” or “UESPA,” became “Starfleet,” for example.  The Bon Homme Richard-class Enterprise became Constitution-class.  In essence, however, the show stayed consistent: What happened in previous episodes influenced what was allowed to happen in later episodes.  When those rules were violated, one of two things was offered: A reasonable explanation was offered (as far as sci-fi is concerned), or the change of events was caused by some force that the Enterprise and crew had to fight.

So why am I regaling you with my utterly useless and inane understanding of an often-parodied science fiction franchise that frequently made its high school-aged fans social pariahs?

I used a word earlier to describe Star Trek canon: “Precedent.”  If it had been written in a previous Trek episode or movie, anything produced after had to follow.  Even the short-lived Animated series from the early 1970s, despite Gene Roddenberry’s statements to the contrary, was considered canon by both fans and writers.  Video games and books, however, were not.  So in the TV series, James Tiberius Kirk had an older brother, George Samuel Kirk.  23rd Century starships didn’t carry families (the 24th Century Enterprise from The Next Generation was the first).  Kirk didn’t meet Christopher Pike until he took over the Enterprise.  Cadets didn’t move directly from graduation to command of a Starship.  The Enterprise was already 20 years old when we join the original Star Trek series.  Each of these canon items was violated in the new Trek film.

Again, I’m not saying the film was bad.  As a pure Sci Fi, the movie was actually quite good.  I was wary, however, of J.J. Abrams’ production long before it was released.  This was because Abrams has a history with adaptations of television programs to movies:  He takes the framework, but changes the details to “update” the franchise, even if it violates some of the original context.

I understand the studio’s reasoning behind allowing Abrams to “reboot” the franchise:  The last two movies did poorly (I argue they were poorly done).  Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled after only four seasons (the first to be canceled so early since the original Trek). Other indicators were that the franchise was rapidly losing its die-hard fan base.  As a Trekkie I argue the reason was that, since Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the franchise was steadily losing much of what made it so popular and memorable.

You’re still wondering where I’m going with this, aren’t you?  I could go on for days.

I’m going on and on about Star Trek canon because what has happened to Trekis a good allegory to what has happened in our law.

Like Abrams, liberals have a tendency to keep the basic framework, but reject the details in favor of what is more popular, more en vogue, until what is left is only a shadow; a ghost image of what came before.

The United States operates under what is called Common Law, where the precedent laws and legal decisions affect what is permissible in the law and legal procedings in the future.  This principle of Common Law is very similar to Trek’s canon.

We even follow that Common Law rulings from before the United States was established are legitimate legal precedents.  If a court of English Common Law ruled in 1692 that a man could steal a loaf of bread to feed his family, that legal precedent could be used in later rulings, potentially even today, if no other ruling countered it.

This is a gross oversimplification of common law, of course, but it is basically true.

A few weeks ago, the Obama Administration changed the bankruptcy laws.  It seems that the President wanted to protect the interests United Auto Workers Union over the secured creditors of Chrysler.  These secured creditors get “first bite” when divying up the assets of a bankrupt corporation, and bankruptcy laws and legal decisions in the past have upheld this idea of “senior” debt to “junior” debt.  The unsecured creditors get whatever is left over.

The Obama Administration put politics first when it made the decision that the unions got first bite.  It did so without Congress passing a bill.  It did so without an executive order.  It did so without any legal decisions by a court.  Rather, it simply intimidated the senior creditors (many of whom owe their financial security to the Federal Government) into going along with the idea.

This is by no means the only place that the Obama Administration has violated the principles of common law, but it is one of the more illustrative examples.

Now three creditors have balked.  These creditors (ironically, all government pension funds for the state of Indiana), want previous legal precedent followed.  They want their debt to be recognized as senior, according to previous legal precedents.  Like Trekkies upset with J.J. Abrams’ change to Star Trek canon, these creditors are upset that the Obama Administration’s ignoring legal precedent with regard to bankruptcy law.  Sure, it seems popular to put the interests of blue-collar workers ahead of rich bankers and fund managers, just as the new Trek has proved more popular with a much wider audience.

Abrams took a huge risk: If the “reboot” was rejected by Trekkies and unpopular with new audiences, the Star Trek franchise would die, or at least continue on life support, and the movie would flop.

Obama is taking a similarly huge risk:  If existing credit lenders find this new politicized lending environment unacceptable, they will simply stop lending.  If new credit lenders cannot be found, our economy will grind to a halt.  Credit lenders are a major requirement for a liquid capital market.  Without that liquid market, businesses cannot find the resources they need to invest in new equipment or hire new workers.

Abrams succeeded:  Audiences made Star Trek a blockbuster.  Even Trekkies like me enjoyed the film.

Obama has a long way to go before he can claim success, and we won’t know if his politicized lending market is truly successful for many years.

We will, however, know very quickly if it is a failure.