Thursday, April 27, 2006

Are You Ready For a Nuclear Dump Next Door?

Utah Policy Daily put out a call to Utah bloggers to create what they termed a “blogswarm” to coincide with “No Way Day” on April 28 in opposition to making Utah the nation’s nuclear waste dumping ground. The idea is to have as many bloggers as possible write about Private Fuel Storage’s (PFS) plan to store 44,000 tons of nuclear waste on the Goshute Reservation just 50 miles from Salt Lake City, which is populated more densely than New York.

Quite honestly, I had mixed emotions about being asked to participate. I usually write about what I want to write about when I want to write about it. Amateur writers can do that kind of thing. There are no deadlines or imposed topics. (Of course, there’s no money for most of us either.) I usually just put material out for readers to chew on. I don’t often call for action. So part of me feels like I’m being manipulated. On the other hand, this seems like a very worthwhile effort.

To the average Utahn the idea of transporting large amounts of nuclear waste across the country to store it in a concentrated fashion close to our state’s largest population center seems like the most absurd idea anyone could imagine. It’s more than simply a not-in-my-backyard attitude. The average American outside of Utah, on the other hand, thinks, “Utah—where’s that? Isn’t it one of those big squarish states out west somewhere? Better there than here.”

Goshutes and PFS make a libertarian appeal, asking why they shouldn’t be allowed to do what they want to do with their own property. Besides, the Goshutes desperately need the jobs, they say. The fact of the matter is that while private property is an essential principle in our country, we all have to be good neighbors.

A couple of years ago a handful of very vocal libertarian-minded individuals in my community gathered enough signatures for a ballot initiative that would have repealed zoning laws and property use regulations in our city. They argued that zoning was actually unconstitutional and has often been used abusively. They argued that disputes should be resolved between neighbors and argued in the courts if necessary.

This plan sounded good to some people on paper, but when they actually thought about what would happen, the excitement dissipated. Most of the people in my city are good neighbors. But a few that are otherwise. 72% of the voters ultimately didn’t like the idea of anybody being able to put anything on any piece of property. What if your neighbor decided to turn his lot into a landfill?

Well, that’s precisely what the Goshutes and PFS are proposing to do. Only it would be a nuclear landfill. There goes the neighborhood — maybe quite literally! Since this waste would be stored in large metal casks above ground, can you imagine what kind of sweet target that would make for aspiring Osama wannabes?

Currently the waste is stored at disparate locations close to where the waste was created. Some of these are near population centers. But the concentration at each site is relatively low. The risk of keeping the waste in its current locations is lower than transporting it across the nation on trucks or trains to store it all together in one big dump. But the citizens and politicians near those locations simply want it out of their areas, and there’s a lot more of them than there are people and politicians in Utah, so they carry a lot more clout.

Utah’s politicians and bureaucrats have done everything possible to stop this storage facility, but they have repeatedly met with disappointment. The Goshutes and PFS anticipate only one final hurdle before their dream of a nuclear wasteland can be fulfilled. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must grant approval for PFS to build a transfer facility adjacent to I-80 in Tooele.

The BLM is currently accepting public comment on the issue through May 8. All Utah citizens are invited to contact the BLM with their opinions on the approval of the transfer facility. You can let the BLM know how you feel about the issue by writing to them using one of the following methods:

Contact: Pam Schuller
E-mail address:
Fax number: (801) 977-4397

Snail mail:
Bureau of Land Management
Salt Lake Field Office
2370 South 2300 West
Salt Lake City, UT 84119

If you can’t think of what to write, you can refer to this sample letter put together by Utah Policy Daily. Let’s not have another downwinders situation.

Keryn of Hot Blava has a somewhat different view of the matter here as she grew up in Nevada and was originally opposed to Yucca Mountain. She doesn’t take issue with transporting or permanently storing the waste, but has significant problems with the likelihood of Skull Valley ending up becoming a permanent storage site. The above ground storage would be vastly different than the plans for Yucca Mountain.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where Have All the Fiscal Conservatives Gone?

The GOP went four decades of the 20th century without simultaneously controlling of both chambers of Congress and the White House. During the first couple of decades it seemed like Republicans stumbled around vainly searching for a vision of what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were always fiscal conservatives in the party ranks, but Ronald Reagan made fiscal conservatism an article of faith for the party.

During the 80s and 90s Congressional Republicans stood squarely against government expansion and increased spending. They didn’t always get their way, but they influenced the debate. After taking control of Congress in 1994, Congressional Republicans consistently approved budgets smaller than requested by President Clinton. They still didn’t always get their way and the President reduced military capacity, but they held domestic spending increases to roughly 3% annually.

Then came President G.W. Bush, bringing a whole new spirit into the GOP. It was the spirit of spend and then spend more. The annual rate of increase in domestic spending since W came to office has been 7.6%. I first grumbled about this last spring here. Last fall I wrote a series of gripes about this here, here, here, and here. I also cited Dick Armey’s plainspoken disgust with the situation here.

President Bush has repeatedly proposed stunning increases in spending only to be outdone by his own party in Congress, which has piled spending requests on top of those proposals with the help of only-too-willing Democrats. So far, our chief executive has yet to see one of these fat-laden bills he can’t sign. Hey, there’s still plenty of ink in the ol’ bill signing pen. The President’s recent wimpy warnings about a veto ring very hollow, as the veto stamp seems to have been lost or thrown out completely.

For those that need a refresher course on the budget process, the Constitution stipulates that all revenue bills originate in the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House must approve the final version before the bill is sent to the President. The President can either sign or veto the bill. The veto may be a crude tool, but it is a very strong tool in sending messages to the legislature about what the executive will accept and what he/she will not accept. By failing to veto any bill (not just bloated spending bills), President Bush has sent a clear message to the legislature that the sky’s the limit when it comes to spending and government expansion.

The things that all of us find most egregious about government today are more or less tied to its unwieldy size. No one can get their arms around the beast. We have created a sprawling organization that is simply too massive to be effectively managed by a single executive. In two and a half years we’ll have a new executive in the White House. Regardless of his/her moxie or party, he/she will still govern ineffectively. The only argument will be the degree of lousiness. Like, hey, it’s only a –5 instead of a –10.

The only way to reign in government to a manageable size is to reduce the amount it spends. Former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont says here that the GOP rank and file “are neither moderate nor liberal but believe in conservative economic values: lower tax rates, controlled spending, and a market- as opposed to government-oriented economy.” He says, “it is the current Republican government that is fiscally liberal and the biggest budget-busting federal spenders since the 1960s.” Hence, the disillusionment among GOP voters.

Du Pont presents a four-point plan for returning the GOP to spending consciousness. The plan must be intended to be a long-term project, because it certainly won’t happen under this president, as it relies on the president to exercise a lot of fiscal discipline with rescissions, vetoes, and a wishfully included line-item veto. Let’s face it, it’s not in W’s blood to do any of this. The fourth point calls for reform of the earmark process. That’s one thing that might have a ghost of a chance of actually happening.

Du Pont then calls for the hard medicine of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. I’m not sure how possible it is to get this through both chambers of Congress with at least two-thirds of each chamber voting in favor of it. But let’s just play like it’s possible. The only way 34 state legislatures would vote for it is if serious earmark reform were successful. Right now they’re addicted to the chits they get through the earmarking process. They would only vote to limit federal spending if they were sober and couldn’t get any more stuff from their pushers in D.C.

Du Pont specifically touts Delaware’s successful state constitutional amendment requiring “a three-fifths vote of the Legislature to approve spending more than 98% of revenue.” He also likes Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights. But please note that spending hungry politicians were able to convince Colorado voters to approve a totally unnecessary tax hike last year under that plan. Du Pont goes on to push for a national flat tax and repeal of free-speech inhibiting campaign rules that are chiefly designed to protect incumbents.

I think we ought to amend Utah’s constitution with something similar to the Delaware amendment. The only trouble is that I have this sinking feeling in my gut that it would be no problem to get three-fifths of the legislature to happily vote to spend more than 98% of revenues.

I like some of du Pont’s ideas, but I do not think they’re all workable. Moreover, I doubt we’re going to see any movement on limiting government until some consequential elected officials demonstrate strong leadership on the issue. Some of the voters are hungry for this message. But right now nobody with clout believes in it. Voters have the power to change that if it’s important enough to them.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The LDS Church Supports Marriage Protection Amendment

Since the days when Utah was trying to achieve statehood (finally awarded in 1896), the LDS Church has been quite circumspect in taking specific political stances in a public fashion, particularly on national issues. (To be sure, some Utah locals that either disagree with or don’t affiliate with the church feel that the church’s influence in Utah politics —whether overt or not—is too great.) It’s not that the church never dabbles in national politics; it just prefers to do so discretely. The church sticks largely to policy issues that its leaders feel are germane to the church’s mission. They actively work to steer clear of party and candidate politics.

In 2004 the church issued a public statement saying that it favored amending the Utah Constitution to define marriage as being between man and woman. The church’s statement did not favor any particular wording of the amendment, and no further public statements were made. An amendment had been passed by the legislature, and Utahns voted in favor of that amendment.

Church leaders declared in a 1995 statement called, The Family: A Proclamation To The World that marriage should be only between man and woman. The proclamation further called “upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family [as defined in the proclamation] as the fundamental unit of society.” So the church’s public political stance in favor of protecting traditional marriage falls within church doctrine.

Now the LDS Church has officially joined a movement that promotes amending the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as the “exclusive union of one man and one woman.” (See SLTrib, Dnews, Religious Coalition for Marriage) Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, along with 49 other religious leaders that include 16 Catholic bishops signed a statement calling for the amendment. The group doesn’t just call for an amendment; it proposes the actual text for the amendment (here).

These religious leaders are alarmed at “the growing trend of some courts to make marriage something it is not: an elastic concept able to accommodate almost any individual preference.” They contend that this “does not so much modify or even weaken marriage as abolish it.” They feel that a constitutional amendment “is the only measure that will adequately protect marriage from those who would circumvent the legislative process and force a redefinition of it on the whole of our society.”

An acquaintance of mine postulated that the group’s reasoning is somewhat similar to the reasoning used by abortion advocates in Roe v. Wade. I disagree. In Roe the Supreme Court abused its judicial mandate, creating new law that cannot reasonably be construed to exist in the text of the U.S. Constitution; thereby, creating a right to abortion that was far more liberal than any law then on the books of any state (or any other nation for that matter).

The Constitution, on the other hand, specifies the democratic process for amending the document. Roe usurped the democratic process, circumventing the will of the people and creating new legislation from the judicial bench. While a constitutional amendment supersedes federal, state and local laws, the process of amending the Constitution is inherently democratic. The will of the people can be heard through their elected representatives, first in Congress, and then in their respective state legislatures. If Roe proponents had wanted a democratic outcome, they would have sought the passage of a constitutional amendment rather than a court fiat.

The problem is that it is deucedly difficult to pass a constitutional amendment. You have to convince far more people to vote for it than you do if you run a court case up the ranks to the Supreme Court. Thousands of amendments have been proposed and Congress has voted on hundreds, but only 27 have passed muster to become part of our Constitution.

A proposed amendment must first pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote of each house (with no variation in wording). Then two thirds of the nation’s state legislatures must pass the proposed amendment before it becomes law. This can take a long time if it happens at all. The 27th Amendment took 203 years to finish that process (see here). There is no reason to believe that the marriage protection amendment stands a good chance of being passed by both houses of Congress, let alone being passed by 34 state legislatures.

Predictably, people indifferent to traditional marriage see this move as an intolerant and divisive assault on the civil rights of the minority. But amendment promoters provide 10 researched reasons (here) why they feel traditional marriage must be protected. (Researcher Stanley Kurtz has hundreds of articles supporting this view—see here.) In our political system both sides will be free to lobby politicians and voters. It is not at all clear how it will end up.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Realism and Iran

For several generations our foreign policy was largely controlled by realism (a.k.a. realpolitik), a philosophy purportedly based in practicality, with stability as its chief goal. In fact, much of our foreign policy is yet guided by this school of thought, howbeit, with a strong infusion of G.W. Bush’s brand of idealism (apparently newly minted since 9/11).

Decades of realism brought us into Faustian arrangements with despots of the likes of Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the House of Saud, etc. (just to mention a few in the Middle East). We knew they were tyrants, but they were our tyrants. Norman Podhoretz argues here that this policy did not buy us stability. Instead it brought us more than two dozen wars just in the Middle East since Israel’s inception in 1948. Podhoretz quotes President Bush as saying, “In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy.”

Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University asserts here that the soft brand of ‘realism’ we employed was a perversion of the term. (He has a point—it certainly doesn’t seem very ‘realistic.’) He says that the Kissinger and (Utah native Brent) Scowcroft style of realism detrimentally over emphasized preventing monsters from rearing their ugly heads at just about any cost. He contends that realism in truth means “understanding the dangers of hunting monsters--but also the dangers, to ourselves and others, of failing to do so.”

Charles Krauthammer says here that our soft version of realism was “not just the futility but the danger of a foreign policy centered on the illusion of stability and equilibrium.” Krauthammer’s essay is actually a more complete discussion of American foreign policies for the past seven plus decades. While he snipes at Scowcroft’s realism, he strongly pummels the Clinton administration’s “eight years of sleepwalking, of the absurd pursuit of one treaty more useless than the last, while the rising threat--Islamic terrorism--was treated as a problem of law enforcement.”

Cohen says that the U.S. today has a healthy contention between idealism and realism in its foreign policy. He says that it makes us appear cynical, inconsistent, and morally fatuous, but he seems to think that it’s the best approach. So we work with the likes of the House of Saud, Pakistan’s Musharraf, and many other less-than-democratic elements when it meets our needs, but since 9/11 we have increasingly been guided by an overall idealism that Natan Sharansky says here is mostly due to the personal belief and willpower of President Bush.

But Sharansky notes that President Bush is increasingly standing nearly alone on this issue. His efforts to create a democratic society in Iraq, top-down sans any of the liberal institutions and lower level elements that make democracy work is proving to be much more difficult than anyone expected. Peggy Noonan laments here with respect our current problems in Iraq about the fact that all leaders have blind spots.

If we thought Saddam Hussein with WMDs was bad, we now face a threat at least as ominous—a nuclear Iran. Like Saddam, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has (and other Iranian officials have) made increasingly bold and incendiary remarks about Iran’s nuclear program. Mark Steyn writes here and here about the nature of the threat (see also William Kristol’s take here). Whether Iran has achieved the ability to enrich nuclear materials to weapon grade or not, it wants the rest of the world to believe it has. Iranian officials have been very open about their desire to nuke Israel off the face of the earth. Steyn asserts that Iran has been the one country you can count on to walk its talk since the mullahs took over 27 years ago, so the threat of nuking Israel is very real.

While the international community (the U.S. included) sits around with serious faces warning of grave consequences, Steyn laments that “no matter how thoroughly the Iranians non-comply it's never quite non-compliant enough to rise to the level of grave consequences.” He says that Ahmadinejad’s thinking that Iran’s enemies are impotent to do anything about Iran’s aggression seems quite warranted. Steyn also quotes commentary by Iranian officials showing that they are quite willing to accept massive casualties to achieve their goals.

People are still arguing that we should have left Saddam in place, containing him in Iraq. Never mind the oppression and murder he perpetrated on his own people. Oddly enough, some of the same folks that argue that we were not morally responsible for that now argue that we have a moral responsibility to intervene in Darfur. But the Iran issue is not one of simple containment. We have open and credible threats of extranational attacks on American interests and allies.

Steyn tries to put this into perspective by saying that if you stood up on an airplane and announced that you had a bomb, you would not be treated as if your statement was “harmless rhetorical flourish.” He contends that neither should we dismiss Iran’s statements as “a rhetorical stylistic device that's part of the Persian oral narrative tradition.”

I take issue with experts that tell us that Iran is five to ten years away form having a credible nuclear weapon. Iran has demonstrated a willingness to put significant resources into this effort. Iran has roughly the same industrial capacity that the U.S. had in 1941 at the start of the A-bomb project. Back then nobody knew how to make a nuclear weapon, yet four years later we had one. Today the information for creating nukes is widely available. What in the world makes us think that it will take Iran five years to create a nuclear weapon? This is not realism, it’s delusion.

Leaving Iran’s threat against Israel aside, let’s ask how a nuclear Iran might impact the U.S. homeland. Iran has long been one of the chief supporters of anti-American terrorism (see here). Nuclear weapons are currently the holy grail of terrorists. Does any sane person believe that once Iran has nuclear weapons, there will not be a push to use those weapons to perpetrate terrorist acts in the U.S.?

Disdaining “the long diplomatic dance that brought us to this moment,” Steyn calls for immediate unilateral military action to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program. Ret. Gen. Thomas McInerney says here that a military strike is feasible. But we'd have to go it alone. Just about everyone agrees that it would be suicide for Israel to take the point in such an operation, as it would give any Middle Eastern country that could in any way call itself an ally of Iran (i.e. an enemy of Israel) an excuse to attack Israel.

Although I don’t doubt the seriousness of Iran’s nuclear threat, I believe Steyn’s call for an immediate U.S. led military strike on Iran is pure fantasy. Some argue that our military is too weak. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, but I believe that the will of the American people to pull off this kind of operation is not strong enough at this point in time. Hence, President Bush does not presently have the political strength to do it.

Many believe that the military option is not the best one, and that is a valid view. But I have yet to hear any alternative that sounds remotely feasible that would produce the desired outcome. Moreover, I would argue that the Bush Administration would be derelict in its duty if it did not at least make contingency plans to deal with the threat militarily. By definition, diplomacy can only be effective if a credible military threat exists to back it up. But it’s only credible if we have the will to carry it out, and we have little evidence that diplomacy works with terrorists.

Whatever our response to Iran, it must be based in the reality of our current situation. I don’t think any us want to wake up to another 9/11.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Calming Our Nerves Chemically

I know I’m not the only person around that wonders why there has been an astronomical jump in the prescription of psychotropic drugs over the past several decades. I remember as a kid hearing about people taking tranquilizers—you know, better living through legal chemicals—but the number of people on drugs for psychological conditions has skyrocketed since then (see Wash Post article). I remember people talking about stress and anxiety when I was young, but over the past 30 years the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has formally acknowledged an immense cadre of previously unknown psychological disorders.

I have to be careful about how I say this, but a friend of mine that is in a position to know informed me that there are a fair number (he/she quoted a specific range that stunned me) of adults in my very neighborhood that regularly take Prozac or some other mood altering drug. This person says that from his/her interactions with these people, the overall results are not good. Their low points dissipate, but so do their high points. Nothing’s good and nothing’s bad—it just is. They forget how to feel much emotionally.

Then we get to the politically sticky issue of schools and doctors pressuring parents to put their kids (especially boys—see Newsweek article) on psychiatric drugs. Although pediatric prescriptions of these drugs experienced a dramatic drop recently due to concerns about depression and suicide (see Wash Post article), the rate is still drastically higher than it was a few decades ago.

And don’t give me the tripe that parents are not pressured. Pressure was applied to us when our oldest son was in elementary school, but despite the school’s best efforts, he was never successfully diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Why do kids today have to be drugged up when the previous generation survived without these drugs? What is it about kids (especially boys) today that makes them so much more difficult for schools to handle than they were 30 years ago? (I don’t wish to be insensitive to those that are using these drugs. I know people that swear that Ritalin saved their children’s education.)

Eventually some people started wondering some of the same things I have been wondering. Where have all of these new psychiatric conditions come from? Why have prescriptions of psychiatric drugs skyrocketed? Some people asked so many questions that they decided to study the issue. Lisa Cosgrove of the University of Massachusetts in Boston has found that there are some very shady financial ties between psychiatric experts that develop new psychological diagnoses and drug companies that develop drugs to treat those maladies (see Wash Post article).

Among other findings, Cosgrove and her colleagues found that “100 percent of the experts who served on work groups on mood disorders and psychotic disorders” had “egregious financial ties” with psychiatric drug companies. Some in the psychology field say that this “should not undermine public confidence in the conclusions of its experts.” Oh, really? Even the president of the APA expressed concerns last year that if psychologists “are seen as mere pill pushers and employees of the pharmaceutical industry, our credibility as a profession is compromised.”

To be fair, some psychologists have called Cosgrove’s study “very flawed.” Of course, these same critics have been beneficiaries of drug company money. Sheldon Krimsky who helped author the study retorts that the criticisms do not reduce the ethical concerns raised by the study. The APA says that it has already implemented plans to require more transparency in the future, but some question whether these efforts are sufficient to protect the public.

Drug companies have a right (perhaps even a responsibility) to do research and development to improve the lot of mankind as well as to improve their profits. They require medical professionals to do much of that R&D. We expect doctors to have altruistic motives, although; many doctors see their Hippocratic Oath as quite irrelevant (see here). We expect doctors to “do no harm,” but many of them see this as no more noble a virtue than making a buck. Some insurance companies and health care companies have practices that don't help matters much either.

Since we cannot trust drug companies or medical professionals to always do what is best for patients, we must require full disclosure and full transparency. And let’s be skeptical the next time somebody shouts, “Eureka! I’ve discovered a new psychological disorder.” Especially if they have also discovered a drug to treat it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Does Tithing Cause Bankruptcy?

Here we go again perpetuating the myth that the tithing required of LDS Church members contributes to Utah’s high bankruptcy rate. Dave Anderton writes in an article in yesterday’s Deseret News, “…the reasons [for Utah’s high bankruptcy rate] extend to larger family size, higher charitable contributions and lower-than-average per-capita income levels.”

Utah has actually dropped from the highest bankruptcy rate in the nation to third place. Big deal. It looks more like this is due to Indiana’s and Ohio’s economic difficulties (manufacturing downturns) and Utah’s booming economy than due to a sudden surge in our citizens’ fiscal responsibility. 2005 bankruptcy numbers were somewhat skewed, since many filed to take advantage of old consumer friendly laws before new laws went into effect. Still, it’s clear that Utah still has a major problem.

Last year I wrote about this issue here. The unnamed economists cited in Anderton’s article (although I have heard local economists—even ones from BYU—repeat these things with my own ears) appear to be making faulty connections when they claim that higher than average charitable donations are a significant factor in Utah’s higher than average bankruptcy rate. The implication is that people get into financial trouble partially because they are LDS and pay tithing.

Let’s make this quite clear. No one can cite any empirical evidence to back this up. While Mormons certainly do file bankruptcies, it’s not the full tithepayers (people that pay 10% of their income annually to the church) that are filing. After studying the numbers, I concluded in last year’s post that the following things are known about Utah’s high bankruptcy rate:
  • Utah’s high bankruptcy rate is artificially inflated somewhat by those that first attempt to take responsibility for their problems before giving up.

  • Most bankruptcies in Utah are filed by people that choose not to fully participate in the LDS Church.

  • Some members of the LDS Church have some strange financial ideas based on Mormon folklore rather than on actual LDS doctrine. Perhaps this is more common among those that don’t fully participate.

  • Given the below average household income, larger than average family size may stretch some families to the point of default on obligations when unusual financial events occur.
The idea that the higher than average charitable donation rate contributes to Utah’s high bankruptcy rate is one of those conventional wisdom things that is not borne out by the facts. If anything, people that generously go beyond tithing to pay fast offerings help some church members that are on the edge to avoid bankruptcy. In fact, I think an argument could be made that paying a full tithing can help protect people from bankruptcy, as this practice has a tendency to instill a certain level of responsibility in financial decision making. (Of course, I am only making these claims based on anecdotal experiences rather than empirical evidence—using the same method that I am criticizing.)

The Standard Examiner editors have it right when they explain here how to avoid bankruptcy:
“Don't be tempted into using high-interest-rate credit cards for anything but an absolute emergency, live in a home or apartment you can afford, drive a car that's economical to own and operate, and generally live within your means -- which means spending on a level that allows you to save money from month to month, as well.”
Now, if we can just get Utah citizens to go along with that.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Immigration Reality: It Ain't Pretty

When it comes to immigration, I believe most Americans want an equitable system that works both for the interests of the nation as well as for the interests of immigrants. As I mentioned in a previous post, however, we need to base our discussions and debates in truth. I believe it is also important to infuse the debate with the whole truth, or as much of it as is humanly possible to obtain.

Many of the myopic solutions being bandied about today are not based in reality. It is beyond ridiculous to think that the country will expel all of the illegal immigrants currently within its borders. It would be the largest forced migration in the history of the world. Would we establish a department of brown shirts to carry this out at gunpoint? At what rate could these people be deported given the efficiency of our government? A quarter million a year? At that rate we’d still end up with a net inflow. Let’s face the music on this one—we’re not going to deport any significant portion of the illegals currently living here.

On the other hand, the just-leave-it-alone idea is viewed by many as not workable. It’s bad for the country as well as for the illegals. It creates a subclass that is vulnerable to exploitation. Even if it’s willing exploitation, it’s not a good thing. We should want our immigrants to have the same opportunities as all American citizens. Didn’t we already discover after a century of Jim Crow that creating a subservient class is a bad thing? We’re still dealing with some of the effects of that bad policy. Where is the morality in this kind of thing? I have expressed my concerns here that we are doing a poor job of turning immigrants into Americans in their hearts. That bodes ill for future generations.

The make-‘em-all-citizens idea fails to consider the long-term impacts that would result as well. We also have to ask how the INS would manage the legalization of illegals in any kind of efficient manner. Mark Steyn outlines his frustration with the rosy-sounding rhetoric on this viewpoint here. He offers his immigration “compromise,” saying, “We need to regularize the situation of the 298 million non-undocumented residents of the United States.” He notes that some of the 9/11 hijackers obtained the state-issued documentation they used to board the aircraft they flew into the Pentagon via the illegal immigrant network.

As a naturalized American citizen, Steyn is highly frustrated with how difficult and unwieldy our current system is for legal immigrants, while illegals operate in our society relatively uninhibited. He recounts the case of the British subject in the U.S. legally whose American husband was killed in the twin towers, only to be ordered by INS a few days later to take her two American-born children and get out of the country. Steyn notes that none of the solid proposals that Congress has considered would in any way improve the situation for this poor woman or for millions of other legal immigrants. He asks why some immigrants should be given preferential treatment.

To be sure, we have largely brought this problem upon ourselves by refusing to enforce our own laws. But Heather McDonald asks here what will become of our nation if we give in to the immigration protesters and make them legal simply because they want it to be so. Although she ignores the idea that our current laws (or failure to enforce them) might lack morality, she argues that protests of past issues have been based on an actual legal standing of some sort, while the recent protests are based only in the concept that “existing laws are void — simply because the illegal aliens and their supporters do not like them…”

Brendan Miniter asserts here that the real basis for concerns about immigration are culturally based—that our nation is “unsure of the power of its own culture to assimilate millions of new arrivals.” He says, “In a nation where the definition of marriage is open for debate, where the Pledge of Allegiance can be ruled unconstitutional, and where we can't even agree that human liberty is a universal value, hiring more border agents isn't going to quell anxiety over the country being culturally adrift.” He argues that economic incentives are probably the best tool we have for dealing with illegal immigration—that we should make it more economically favorable to be legal than to be illegal.

Look, we’ve made this mess and now we have to deal with it. We can’t actually deport all of the illegals (or even a lot of them). We can’t leave things as they are. We can’t simply grant all the illegals amnesty while leaving our dysfunctional system for legal immigrants broken. There are no sound-bite-simple solutions that will actually work that will also produce a lot of feel-good in time for Election Day this year. This is going to take some very hard work with sleeves rolled up. With a majority party in Congress that governs like a minority party and a President that favors a particular group of immigrants over other groups, I’m not sure we currently have the stuff that it takes to get the job done.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bye-Bye, Tax Cut

In the face of the largest budget surplus in the history of the state, our ‘conservative’ legislature chose to push income tax cuts to one of the rearmost burners of the legislative stove, with the result that they were unable to arrive at a compromise on how to get it done during the regular session. The only thing they did agree on was that it would amount to a paltry 7% of the budget surplus. Everyone agreed that they would get together and hammer it out in a special session this spring.

Now, due to an “unfortunate oversight,” as Governor Huntsman phrases it (here), half of that amount has evaporated. The upshot is that there will be no special session to reduce the amount Utah taxpayers are being overcharged.

I fully accept the premise that wisely investing much of the budget surplus to address significant infrastructure needs was important and necessary, although; I am dubious about how well this money will be spent. Government does not have the best track record in this area. However, I was chagrined that our legislators gave cutting income tax such a low priority. In my opinion, this should have been the top priority with other funding issues being managed out of the remainder.

There is a fundamental problem here. Our legislators had the wrong focus. I was highly disappointed in the number of ‘conservative’ legislators that found it necessary to fund all kinds of governmental “needs” that have been “under funded” for so long. One legislator stood in a meeting I attended and told us how many budget requests went unfulfilled. I wanted to scream, “Don’t you get it, man? Government bureaucracies have unlimited desires. The two things they know how to do better than anything else are to spend their budgets and to prepare budget requests.”

It seems interesting to me that perpetually “under funded” programs continue to survive without significant negative impact. Perhaps the reason for this is that the services provided are less than worthwhile or else are ill placed in government. I don’t subscribe to the wait-until-it’s-broken-to-fix-it theory, but we should have an honest discussion about whether the state has any business providing some of the services it provides.

I discussed here my disappointment that we threw more money at the education bureaucracy without exacting any kind of meaningful reform. As noted in this WSJ article, “You don't make a bureaucracy better by throwing money at it; you make it compete.” Perhaps someday the rising tide in favor of educational competition will overcome the bureaucrats’ and unions’ efforts to thwart it.

I can’t say that I’m surprised that our politicians found no real money in the $1 billion surplus to reduce the amount we pay in income taxes, but I am disappointed. However, I have to wonder if many of my fellow citizens are similarly disappointed, or even care about it. Many of those I have spoken with simply shrug it off. I have to wonder if any of our politicians will pay a price at their conventions or at the polls. If not, we can expect more of the same.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The LDS Church, Civility, and Immigration

A week and a half ago, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke to the church’s priesthood holders on the topic of kindness and civility (here). He called on church members to turn from the carping, criticizing, negative ways of the world in both private and public behavior to the ways of kindness and love taught by Jesus Christ.

President Hinckley briefly discussed the sin of racial hatred and called on any involved in it to repent. Some have opined (see here) as to what degree President Hinckley was referring to the current immigration debate. Others have called his comments disingenuous given the church’s one-time policy of denying its priesthood to blacks as well as racially insensitive remarks made by past church leaders.

While history can be instructive, I think it’s more important to realize that the principles President Hinckley discussed in regard to racism are proper and just. I didn’t read his statement to refer directly to immigration. Furthermore, I believe it is inappropriate to cast a blanket of racism over every secure borders argument. I believe that is exactly the opposite of what President Hinckley intended.

The day following this speech, Elder Robert S. Wood of the LDS Church’s Quorums of the Seventy spoke more directly on the topic of the prevasive “spirit of mockery and cynicism” in dealing with those with views that differ from our own (here). His speech seemed to refer more strongly to public and political attitudes and discussions, but he also alluded to private behavior.

Elder Wood spoke directly about our current political climate, and said, “Political differences never justify hatred or ill will.” He called for avoidance of demagoguery, saying, “We should avoid caricaturing the positions of others, constructing "straw men," if you will, and casting unwarranted aspersions on their motivations and character.” He called on church members to have a higher standard than that of the world.

In other words, church members are not excused for engaging in the same behavior as everyone else. I know I can make improvements in this area.

On the topic of immigration, I find myself agreeing with California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger (with whom I often disagree politically). He said (here), “Yes, immigration reform is a difficult issue. But it must be guided by a simple goal: compassion for the immigrant, control of the borders. Congress should not rest until it achieves both.”

Monday, April 10, 2006

Theocons: Gaining Power or Not?

Atlantic Monthly Associate Editor Ross Douthat writes here about the emergence of the “Theocon” political movement. Douthat would class himself as a conservative pundit. I wrote here about an article cowritten by Douthat that promoted ‘conservative’ social engineering policies that I said were “breathtakingly socialistic.” Nevertheless, Douthat’s Theocon observations are cogent.

The moniker Theocon merely puts a name to the religious right—the movement based on conservative principles mingled with religious morality in general and Christian morality in specific. Douthat says that this movement is the successor to “America's long line of Christ-haunted reform movements--the abolitionists and the populists, the progressives and the suffragettes, the civil-rights crusaders and even the antiwar activist of the middle 1960s …”

Douthat asserts that two other significant conservative movements currently find themselves at weak points, leaving Theocons in an uneasy alliance with business interests with which they have historically been at odds. “"National greatness conservatism" has foundered, at least temporarily, on the rocks of Iraq, while the starve-the-beast right looks in the mirror and finds the beast staring back, wearing Jack Abramoff's fedora.”

Douthat’s commentary about the uneasy partnership between business and Theocons struck a cord with me. I think this helps define some of the issues I discussed here and here. This may be overly generalized, but business interests have economic efficiency as their ultimate goal. The stance as I understand it is that economic efficiency in its ideal state will produce the greatest amount of personal liberty as well as the greatest amount of wealth, and that all virtues will be maximized by it.

Theocons, on the other hand, believe that the pure business approach cannot adequately address the needs of the human soul. They feel on a very deep level that a certain amount of social engineering is requisite to achieve the greatest good. There is a wide diversity of opinion among Theocon ranks as to how much social engineering is needful.

Theocons have had some successes and some failures, but the main reason for the failures is that they have “failed, thus far, to capture the winnable political middle, either through compromise or through persuasion.” Douthat says this is in part due to the fickleness of public opinion. The result is that the business side of the conservative partnership largely rides roughshod over the Theocon side, occasionally tossing a bone to what they view as their somewhat loony junior partner.

The question posed is whether the Theocon movement will ultimately thrive, merely survive, or follow the path of many other noteworthy movements to history’s dustbin. Obviously the only way for them to thrive is to co-opt the great American middle. Douthat says Theocons must “[temper] their own bigotries and bad habits” while getting their message out.

My question is whether Theocons will be able to make that message palatable to middle America. A significant core seems to feel that this would require the abandonment of some principles deemed elemental to the movement. Basic Christian theology seeks willing converts to established principles, but rejects adopting worldly ways merely to win converts (although, Christians have not always followed these principles).

While Christians are willing to make friends with the world, many want to stay sufficiently aloof to remain unsullied. If getting ahead politically requires what they view as wallowing in the mire, this group will accept remaining a junior partner in politics. And there may be enough in this group to impact the entire Theocon movement.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Shut Up and Go Change Your Armor

Many of us are fed up with Iraq’s failure to form a government over the past five months since the country’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister al-Jaafari appears to be incredibly inept. But the WSJ’s James Taranto takes issue with the strategy suggested by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) for dealing with the problem (here under the heading French-Looking, Ennui-Sounding).

Senator Kerry says, “Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military.” Taranto taunts Kerry, saying, “So Kerry's idea of getting tough is to threaten to run away.”

This reminds me of Scene 33 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur and his less-than-valiant knights retreat from a vicious man-killing bunny rabbit. As they try to formulate a strategy, Sir Robin the Chicken Hearted, who has already soiled his armor in fear, suggests, “Would it help to confuse it if we run away more?” Arthur replies by telling him, “Oh, shut up and go and change your armor.”

This seems like an apt response to Senator Kerry’s suggestion as well.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I Want My TV Free

For years I lived without caller-ID because I felt the cost far outweighed the value. I thought Qwest’s prices for this and other ‘extras’ to be ridiculous. Then an opportunity came to get local phone service through AT&T Broadband (which later became Comcast through mergers and acquisitions). Suddenly I received caller-ID and several other features included in the basic line cost, which was no higher than Qwest’s basic line cost (sans the features). I’ve never looked back since then.

I quickly came to love caller-ID, which allowed us to effectively screen out many solicitations. Then came the no-call list, which mostly did away with the need to screen out solicitations. But the no-call list legislation has this nasty hole that allows anyone of whom you have been a customer to solicit you at will.

A few weeks ago we started to get phone calls from a toll-free number four to six times daily. There was never any name listed, just the number, so we didn’t answer. The number was not listed in the Internet 800 number lookup service. The incessant calls got annoying. A couple of times I picked up the phone and immediately hung up. After days of repeated calls I realized that these people weren’t going away, so I picked up the phone and responded very curtly to the caller.

It turned out to be a Comcast solicitation for cable TV. They had a great offer to get cable for $30/month. After a year it goes up to the regular $55/month.

My family lives in the Stone Age when it comes to TV. We have four TVs in the house, but we get only broadcast channels via the old antenna in the attic. We have never had cable or satellite TV. It’s not that we haven’t been exposed to it; it’s simply that we don’t think there is sufficient value in it for us. When we have been able to watch cable or satellite while on vacation or while visiting homes that have it, we discover that there are simply more options of nothing worth spending time to watch.

We frankly don’t watch much TV except for the likes of Arthur and Caillou, and that’s only for the little kids. My older boys seem to like Nova, and one of my sons enjoys Antiques Roadshow, although; I can’t seem to get into it. I’m one of those weird guys that gets nothing (or less) out of TV sports. I think I’d rather watch an opera than watch a sporting event. And since my desire to watch opera ranks somewhere below my desire to clean the toilet, I have little desire to pay to watch sports.

My family is busy, especially when school is in session. With five kids’ schedules that include school, music practice, family responsibilities, church events, sports practice and games, etc. there just isn’t much time left to watch TV. I rarely sit down at home unless I’m working on the computer. My wife wanted to buy me a recliner chair a few years ago, but I laughed at her because I knew I’d never sit in it. Finally she said she wanted one for herself, so we bought one. But she doesn’t sit in it that much either.

We have a fairly broad collection of DVDs and some old VHS tapes. If kids want to recreate in front of the TV, they often pick one of the DVDs or else play the GameCube. We’re also terribly Puritanical when it comes to video games. We don’t allow any game with a rating above E10+ in our home. (We even screen out many of those.) We’re not trying to let some industry group set our standards, but our TVs and gaming devices are in public areas and we want our little kids to be able to wander in and out of public areas without being exposed to something that is inappropriate for them.

The upshot is that I told the Comcast representative that not only could I not imagine paying $55/month to watch the junk they broadcast on TV, I can’t imagine paying $30/month for the service either. Heck, I doubt I’d be willing to pay $5/month for it. The cable and satellite companies aren’t going to go out of business because of people like me. Some of their best customers are the people in our society that can least afford the service. But until they improve the fare or improve the cost-benefit ratio from my perspective, my family will likely remain in the TV Stone Age.