Monday, January 31, 2005

Mormons, Conservatives, Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans

It seems rather odd to have a Mormon as the most powerful elected Democrat in Washington, D.C. – Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) – especially given that the majority of Latter-Day Saints in the U.S. cannot even fathom identifying with the Democratic Party. It’s not just Mormons, either. Recent studies show that most church-going folks in the U.S. are non-Democrats.

Why is it that so many regular church attending people are not only non-Democrats, but anti-Democrats? I don’t think I can answer that any better than Salt Lake City resident Tracy Booth did in a recent letter printed in the Deseret News. This reader states that yesterday’s Democratic Party was about “poverty, bad education, pollution, labor abuse, civil liberties, etc.,” but that today it “is all about abortion, same-sex marriage, gay rights and all-around extreme tree hugging.” While this statement is a little blunt, probably most regular church attending folks would agree with it.

Let’s face it; no political party closely aligns with LDS or other Christian teachings. However, since the 1960s the Democratic Party has come to be so controlled by its socially strident left wing that, with few exceptions, social conservatives cannot be part of it regardless of how they feel on fiscal issues.

It boggles the mind that Senator Reid has risen to such a prominent position in the party despite the fact that he is pro-life (or as the liberal media would say: anti-pro-choice – now, isn’t that a sweet way to put it?) Usually Democratic officials that don’t consent to the sacrament of abortion rights are excommunicated from the party.

The Democratic party does not understand religious people and cannot even speak coherently to issues important to them. The ridiculousness of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton condescendingly intoning religious sounding statements grates on the ears like fingernails on a chalkboard to both religious and non-religious people alike. It is akin to an engineering research assistant lecturing a group of English Lit. grads about the finer points of traditional prose.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, at least offers a home to social conservatives where they can have a voice. They rarely get their way when it comes down to actual policy, but their voice helps hold the line. They often feel ignored, but they actually do help shape policy. While liberal Republicans don’t always appreciate the religious arm of the party, at least the party doesn’t treat religious folks like they’ve got a third hand growing out of their foreheads.

Interestingly, social conservatives are not uniformly fiscal conservatives. So while the Republican Party talks about smaller government, it does not really hold to it in the way that Libertarians do. And while Libertarians are outspoken, their official fiscally conservative and socially liberal party platform does not appeal to most Utahans.

As the Democrats have waned in Utah to near third-party status, the Republicans have become both the majority and minority parties. While there is a solid core of our state Republican politicians that stand shoulder to shoulder on social issues, the same is not true on fiscal issues. So, as reported in the SL Trib, the Republicans in Utah are both responsible for the biggest tax increases and the biggest tax cuts.

The Democratic Party is in search of a new soul right now. It’s wonderful that we have prominent people like Senator Reid that can help influence that search. But I have the feeling that it will be a long time before most religious people feel at home with the party – if that day ever comes.

In the meantime, social and religious conservatives will default to the Republican Party, which means that at the national level they risk being taken for granted and marginalized, with the party paying them only lip service. Ditto for fiscal conservatives at the state level.

The Work and the Glory Movie: We Liked It

If you enjoyed the historical novel series the Work and the Glory, you will probably enjoy the movie by the same name. In fact, I’m sure many people that have never read the books would enjoy the film. However, if you don’t like this genre of movie, which includes a number of emotional scenes, you might want to save your money. While the movie has been in Utah cinemas for months, my wife and I were only able to see it this past weekend.

I am no professional movie reviewer and I haven’t been tainted by reading any professional reviews of the film. I have found that film critics cater to an audience that generally doesn’t include people like me that rarely get out to the movies and derive entertainment value differently than people that watch movies for a living or as a hobby.

My wife and I felt that several things were done very well. The story remained quite true to the book. The sets were wonderful. The casting was excellent. All of the actors played their parts very well. I particularly enjoyed actor Sam Hennings as Benjamin Steed and the actress that played Lydia McBride’s aunt (I couldn’t discover her name by searching the web; she's only a minor character). We enjoyed the cinematography. The backlit scenes were my favorite. My wife loved the panoramic scenes.

The only complaint I have didn’t detract much from my appreciation of the movie. Most of the characters speak a rough-hewn form of American frontier English liberally sprinkled with the likes of “we was” and other poor grammar. The villainous characters have the worst grammar. However, Joseph and Hyrum Smith always seem to use proper grammar. To me this doesn’t seem realistic. No major issue here, just a minor complaint. My wife had no problem with this.

The movie covers most of the story in the first book of the series. The book and the movie spend a lot of time developing the Nathan Steed and Lydia McBride characters as well as their blossoming relationship. The main story line focuses on interpersonal relationship challenges that result from some characters converting to the Mormon faith. The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the LDS Church are the main vehicle for the story, but are used as structural support rather than as the main story. The idea is to help viewers understand the experiences of average individuals that lived through this portion of church history.

We have already decided that we want to get the movie when it is released on DVD. While I’m not sure our children would have enjoyed the film in the theater, they might enjoy a family viewing experience at home. If you haven’t seen the film yet, take the opportunity to do so. My wife suggests that you bring some tissues.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Celebrating the Sacred Sabbath

In the memory of some among us Utah had “blue laws,” which required businesses to remain closed and prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Such laws were once common throughout the U.S. and some states and counties still have remnants of those laws. But at one time there was a tremendous push to abolish these “prudish” and “old fashioned relics of an oppressive religious past.” Sadly, Utah was one of the early states to revoke these laws, many years prior to even New York doing so.

Blue laws prevented certain behavior not consistent with God's commandment to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8). One might argue that while nobody was out shopping or getting soused on Sunday, saints were somewhat weak in this area because they did not face the kinds of temptations we face today. However, blue laws did little to write the law in the hearts of the people (2 Corinthians 3:3).

Today each of us has a clear choice. We can go to the house of prayer and offer up our sacraments (D&C 59:9), serve our God and our fellowmen while confessing our sins (D&C 59:12), and “do none other thing” that our “joy may be full” (D&C 59:13), or we may choose to follow the ways of the world.

Today our choice in Sabbath observance doesn’t even need to come to the attention of anyone. We can choose to follow the ways of the world without going shopping; thereby, avoiding the possible embarrassment of being spied by another ward member who is also out and about. We can stay home and shop on the Internet, engage in entertainment that is not in keeping with the Lord’s holy day, or just fail to use the day as the Lord has commanded.

Quite honestly, I have to wonder why so many Latter-Day Saints were shocked to have their children exposed to the half time show of the 2004 Super Bowl. Although the Super Bowl is a widespread American cultural event, how do we as Saints reconcile watching it or attending a Super Bowl party with what the Lord and the Brethren have said about Sabbath observance? Are we averse to having our joy made full, or are we just allowing ourselves to be lulled away by the enticing carnal whisperings of the adversary?

I have an honest desire to preserve the Sabbath for the Lord’s purposes. He commands us to rest from our labors (D&C 59:10), but not from his on the Sabbath. Sometimes my wife and I grouse about me having a calling that requires me to be away from home for about eight hours on an average Sunday, but we always find joy when we work together so that this calling can be fulfilled. With five children under 14, sometimes our best efforts to have a worshipful experience on the Sabbath are less than fully successful. Still, we work very hard at keeping worldly influences out of our Sundays. I always have a better experience when I approach the day as a worshipful celebration.

Nobody is going to force us to keep the Sabbath day holy. Today there are no civil laws that would keep us in the narrow way. Unlike saints of long ago, we won’t be excommunicated if we break the Sabbath. In fact, our bishops and stake presidents don’t even directly question us about it when we interview for a temple recommend. It is only included in a broader question about whether we keep the commandments. The only way to have our joy made full through proper Sabbath observance is to freely choose it ourselves.

Do you want a joyful experience? This Sunday try earnestly approaching the Sabbath as a joyful celebration of the Lord’s sacred day. You may discover that the joy you receive will far outweigh any sacrifice you make.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Taming the Education Beast, Part 2

In my last article I explained how some of the problems in our public school system are caused or exacerbated by educator unions. I concluded by explaining that the unions are not the entire problem. The interesting thing is that we already know how to fix many of the problems, but we consistently focus on some of the wrong things.

In 1986 the Department of Education published a book entitled “What Works - Research About Teaching and Learning.” You can order this book for $3 by writing to What Works, Pueblo, Colorado, 81009, calling (202)-783-3238. I went to the website at, but found it so “governmentized” that I lost any hope of being able to find the book through that medium. However, you can buy it for $6.90 from Wal-Mart. Many good resources can be found simply by going to Google and typing in “What Works” “Research About Teaching and Learning.” Many resources show us what is truly important in education.

Some factors widely accepted as being most important by our education complex are actually not highly important. Research shows that other factors that are relatively low priority are actually the most important. We focus rabidly on class size, but some researchers state that, while significant, it is not one of the five leading factors in educational quality. We dogmatically pound the pulpit on funding, but spending alone has little correlation with educational quality. Spending more on what we are currently doing is only going to produce more expensive failures.

So what does work?

  • More challenging subject matter.

  • Higher standards.

  • More time in “core” subjects (reading, writing, arithmetic, science), and less time in soft subjects employed in the name of producing well rounded students.

  • Doing, not just viewing.

  • Proper discipline.

  • A teaching methodology called direct instruction produces almost amazing results, but it costs no more than traditional methods.

  • School choice. Our public school system fears competition because it fears making the changes that will be required in order to compete. However, some New Mexico school districts have found that these changes have produced an all around better education, and weren’t that painful to implement.
Some of these problems are difficult to fix politically, but are not any more expensive than what we are doing today. Take curriculum, for example.

Diane Ravitch has meticulously documented how the politically correct witch hunters have worked with educators and textbook publishers to cleanse our children’s curriculum to the point of severely “dumbing down” their learning. One joke asks why students like to put on headphones and listen to hip hop instead of reading their textbooks. Answer: the rappers use bigger words. “Smart” textbooks aren’t going to cost any more than “dumb” ones. How do we get good books? Texas recently showed that one state standing up and setting standards can impact textbooks throughout the nation.

If we are going to resolve the problems we have with public education we are going to have to take on the education industrial complex and force positive change that really works. We cannot continue to merely spend more money on what we already know doesn't work.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Taming the Education Beast

The Jones-Mascaro Bill (HR197) that would govern acceptable family size in Utah actually aims to resolve education underfunding.

It has become standard practice throughout the US to attempt to resolve education problems by adding funding. We hear the continual whine that Utah is at or near the bottom in per-student education funding. However, Utah rates above average in educational achievement.

While it pains me to see some teachers earning a low salary (especially the ones that have a positive impact on the lives of my children), I am stunned that many of us buy into the continual haranguing by educator unions and the news media that we aren’t paying enough for education. Where else do we as consumers complain that something is too inexpensive and that we are getting too much for our money? Study after study has proved that there is almost no correlation between education funding and educational quality.

The problem is that a lot of our education dollars aren’t getting to the teachers. An inordinate amount is spent in the bureaucracy that exists above the school principal level – the overhead services. My cousin was the State School Superintendent until spring 2004. He went to great lengths to show that Utah’s overhead is lower than the national average, but that does not excuse the vast amount of overhead spent on things that do not actually improve the education of the children.

While there are many reasons for problems in education, a major reason was eloquently outlined by Terry Moe in the Wall Street Journal (registration required) on Jan. 13 and reprinted on Jan. 22, 2005. The basic thesis is that educator unions are the root of some insidious problems in our education system.

For all their lofty rhetoric, educator unions do not exist to serve the children; they exist to serve their members. And as you can learn in any collegiate organizational behavior course, all organizations, including unions, take on a life of their own and seek to expand and propagate themselves. Today’s educator unions have departed from even serving their rank-and-file members to merely serving themselves. They have become powerful lobbying groups that promote bleeding-edge leftist policies and that serve their officers and staff.

Educators should not be denied group representation; however, their unions have become so powerful that citizens have been cut out of the loop. The PTA isn’t much better. The national organization has become increasingly liberal and many local organizations are so controlled by educators (that are also members of the big unions) that it should probably drop the “P” for Parent from its name, and become merely the TA.

Thanks to educator overrepresentation in our education system (and probably due to a lot of parental apathy), schools have become increasingly bureaucratic and are hamstrung by policies that prevent implementation of improved teaching methods. Teachers are just as much hostages to this system as are students and parents. They are often not even able to consider better teaching methods due to heavy-handed union contracts. Everyone knows who the lousy teachers are, but administrators are powerless to get rid of them.

Educators are overrepresented in our legislature when compared with the population at large, so UEA and NEA positions are promoted with abandon in Utah policy. Our lawmakers continually sit down and look at trying to figure out how to get more money into our education system.

Unions need a counterbalance. Some of this is occurring as people are pursuing home schooling and private schools for their children. But that’s not enough. Citizens need to band together and develop an organization that will represent their interests. Only then will we be able to have open analysis and debate about changes that will actually improve our children’s education -- changes which would be considered heretical in the current environment.

Educator unions aren’t the only problem faced by our education system, but they certainly are one of the major problems. Only an involved citizenry can help.

Should Government Limit How Many Children You Can Have?

For three decades China’s “One China” policy, which permits each woman to bear only one child (with some exceptions in rural areas), has resulted in forced abortions and sterilization. While Chinese officials congratulate themselves on reducing population growth, China has become a country full of spoiled brats with no cousins, aunts, or uncles. Each precious only-child rules his or her household.

Moreover, since cultural tradition establishes a desire for at least one son, couples have used abortion for sex selection to the point that the country has 17% more eligible bachelors than potential brides. One Chinese professor publicly wondered (probably an unwise thing to do in China) why people see the birth of a cow as an asset, but the birth of a human being as a liability.

Thank goodness we live in the USA where we are free to make the intensely personal and sacred choice of determining family sizes ourselves. Or can we?

In some of the more liberal urban areas families with more than one or two children are looked upon with disgust. Some, who consider themselves liberally open-minded, derisively refer to parents with more children as “breeders.” Organizations like Zero Population Growth openly seek laws similar to those of China.

Of course, nothing like this could ever happen in family-friendly Utah. Or could it?

Two of our state representatives, Patricia Jones (D-SLC) and Steve Mascaro (R-WVC), have once again introduced a bill that would establish an official government policy limiting the maximum acceptable number of children a family may have. Promoted as an education funding bill, HB197 eliminates dependent exemptions in excess of three. That’s right. If this bill is signed into law you will be penalized if you are so irresponsible as to have more than three children.

I haven’t been concerned about this bill in the past because it has always been a tax increase bill, so by Republican legislative leaders and the Utah Taxpayers Association opposed it. However, this year the sponsors have made it a revenue neutral bill. It increases taxes in one area while decreasing taxes in another. The Utah Taxpayers Association has now taken a neutral stance on it and some Republican legislative leaders have suggested that it has a chance of passing.

Bill sponsors contend that the bill simply attempts to force those using more education services than others to pay for them. This is a canard. While we regularly expect those using more of certain government services to pay for them, we address this by collecting fees at point of service (i.e. licensing, admission to state parks and arts, etc.)

Income tax, on the other hand, is a collectivist system that funds general services and infrastructure from which we all benefit. We all pay for education because we recognize that each educated child benefits our entire society regardless of whether we currently have children in the system. In fact, the investment in a child’s education pays off handsome for society in the long run.

Income tax is strongly correlated to ability to pay, but has almost no correlation to use of services. Otherwise we would tax Medicare and Medicaid recipients at a higher rate. We would increase taxes on unemployed people applying to Workforce Services. We would have higher rates for anyone using our court system. Instead, we all pay a percentage of our income into the purse from which all of these things are funded.

If bill sponsors are serious about having families of students pay a larger portion of the cost of their education, they should collect those additional fees at point of service, not by taking away income tax dependent exemptions.

Dependent exemptions exist because our society recognizes the value that each individual brings to the whole. These exemptions exist to help parents raise the children that will become our next generation of workers, leaders, and thinkers. All dependent exemptions should be of equal value. Eliminating exemptions in excess of three sends the message that fourth, fifth, and sixth children are of no value to our society. It suggests that they are only a drain. It would effectively establish a government policy stating how many children you should have.

If our society has become so selfish and shortsighted that we can no longer see the value of a child in terms of a long-term societal investment, then maybe we should get rid of dependent exemptions completely and start charging parents more for their children’s education at school registration. Heck, the societal consequences wouldn’t show up for 15 years or so, and even then nobody would attribute them to this policy. On the other hand, maybe what we have isn’t such a bad idea.

At any rate, the Jones-Mascaro bill is a bad idea that should be voted down.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

We Must Act Now to Save Social Security

The powerful, left-leaning AARP has suggested that the Social Security system would become solvent within the lifetimes of baby boomers if we simply discontinued Congress’ practice of using FICA revenues to fund current expenditures. This idea is absolutely preposterous, even using new math.

Our current Social Security debt is enormous. The fund trustees’ 2004 report shows that the present system deficit is $10.4 Trillion. Even if Congress immediately stopped using FICA revenues for current expenditures, we would have to dump $10.4 Trillion into the fund to make it solvent. That’s in today dollars, not down the road sometime.

No tax increase can accomplish this.

The suggestion that Social Security isn’t broken is valid only if you look at it through a limited 10-20-year window. When viewed over an unlimited timeframe, which considers the needs of our great grandchildren and beyond, the system is undeniably broken.

Each year that we delay fixing the system adds $600 Billion to its deficit. We must act now to stanch the flow of red ink. We made a choice many years ago to socialize retirement, but we have funded it like an enormous Ponzi pyramid scheme. We will soon be faced with scrapping the system entirely or making it work in reality. We do not have the luxury of doing nothing.

Privatization may not answer every problem, and it will certainly introduce some new ones, but it has the prospect of actually making the system solvent. Privatization is working on a smaller scale in several other countries. It creates private ownership of retirement funds rather than an IOU from the government. Our country must engage in healthy debate followed by decisive action to resolve our impending Social Security disaster now.

Good Intentions – Paving the Road to …

Solving the problems with surrogate parenthood
A couple grieves over their inability to biologically produce their own offspring. After years of desperately exploring every medical possibility, and perhaps even adoption, they decide to hire a surrogate mother to carry reproductive cells from the couple to generate a child of their own flesh.

Then the legal nightmare begins. Since surrogate childbearing is not legally recognized in Utah, no contract between the parents and the surrogate mother is valid and the birth certificate carries the name of the childbearing mother, not the cell donor mother. The parents that initiated the whole arrangement end up essentially with no legal right to their child. The surrogate mother might decide to keep the child. This is no hypothetical possibility; it has actually happened.

Enter the hero, Senator Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan) with SB14 to save the day. On January 26, 2005 the Senate passed the bill 25-0 (4 absent). The bill would allow binding surrogacy contracts and would allow the donor parents to be listed on the birth certificate.

This is all very good, right? Well, maybe. Every bill that is signed into law has unintended side effects. Sometimes they are easy to predict, while other times they seem to blindside us. But it seems that we tend to be blinded more easily when a new law involves a heartrending emotional issue.

Six states have laws expressly permitting surrogate childbearing. Most of these are liberal states that implemented these laws under the gay rights banner. 11 states have laws specifically prohibiting surrogate childbearing. In Michigan it is a criminal offense that can result in jail time.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to ask why conservative Utah (which had one of the highest percentages of Bush voters) is eager to climb into bed with the likes of Washington, D.C. (which had the highest percentage of Kerry voters). What is it that Michigan lawmakers see that ours do not?

Almost everyone focuses entirely on the circumstances of the adults involved. Almost no one pays attention to the children. They are treated like a manufacturing product created to satisfy the whims of people rich enough to buy them.

Surrogacy raises a number of serious ethical and legal concerns as noted in the SL Trib by Brooke Adams and Elizabeth Neff.

Adams notes that there can be long-term emotional side effects for everyone involved. Neff points out that people willing to pursue surrogacy are willing to skirt the law. This has already been going on in Utah for some time, with surrogate mothers going out of state to give birth so that the birth certificate can reflect the contracting parents’ names. Neff develops the idea that it is better for the children if the state will codify surrogate arrangements so that the children are not left in legal limbo.

To be honest, it always grates on me when I hear the argument that we need to legalize or allow something because it is happening in the real world anyway. This same kind of reasoning gave us legalized abortion, government sponsored needle distribution to addicts, and condom distribution at schools. While illegalizing a behavior may not stop it, legalizing it amounts to governmental approval, which results in more of it than if it remained illegal. For example, despite all of the nifty arguments in favor of legalization of narcotics, nobody really believes that it will result in a reduction of drug abuse. On the contrary, it’s obvious that abuse would skyrocket. All of this smacks of solutions C.S. Lewis said were like using fire extinguishers in times of flood. Besides, we don’t always approve of this type of logic; otherwise we would never have passed Amendment 3 protecting traditional marriage.

My guess is that most people do not see surrogacy as a threat to their way of life. They might not participate in it themselves, but it doesn’t seem entirely bizarre, and it certainly allows barren couples to achieve something other couples can do without any special help or government involvement. To most people it would probably seem callous to vote the bill down at this point.

What about the liberal agenda and other problems with surrogacy? SB14 avoids the gay agenda, which is definitely unpopular in Utah, by making it available only for legally married Utah parents (as defined by Amendment 3). SB14 only applies to test tube babies, not to children conceived via sexual intercourse, so it does not legalize a form of prostitution. Moreover, the surrogate mother must be a Utah resident that has had at least one prior successful pregnancy. Also, the her right to make certain choices are protected. The contracting parents cannot, for example, require the surrogate to abort the baby if an ultrasound reveals birth defects.

I have great sympathy for childless couples that wish for a child of their own. My wife and I went through more than four years of a variety of fertility tests and treatments before we were able to achieve pregnancy. Due to my health issues we were not candidates for standard adoption. Private adoption is usually expensive and was far beyond our means. We explored every possibility because we instinctively knew that parenthood would help us develop in ways that no other experience could. We felt incomplete.

While I know what childless couples go through, I’m not sure that surrogacy is an acceptable answer. I can’t fully explain why, but something inside makes me feel that it is inherently wrong. Although no sex act is involved, a woman renting out her body is only a slight step removed from prostitution. I’m also certain that there are many that would disagree with me. I’m not sure that society should be endorsing this behavior or making it easier. I just wish that there had been more debate on the matter.

Usually when a bill passes with no dissenting votes there has been very little debate. The House has yet to consider its version of the bill, but I doubt you will see much debate there either. Bills altering basic public moral values should be vigorously vetted and debated before they are brought to a vote. There will be little chance of going back and fixing this matter once it becomes law.