Monday, February 27, 2006

The Magic of the Marketplace In Education

My wife volunteers with the PTA organization at our elementary school. Her position gets her on some emailing lists, including that of the state’s largest educator union, the Utah Education Association. During the legislative session the UEA’s highly charged emails arrive at an extreme rate, making it difficult to digest them all.

A couple of weeks ago my wife felt that a bill in which she had taken particular interest had been mischaracterized in a UEA email. She sent an email expressing her concern about this and stating her understanding of the actual facts. She received a response that was filled with more mischaracterization, blatant falsehoods, and straw man arguments. That simply burned her toast.

This morning I asked her to read LaVarr Webb’s excellent opinion piece about public education (here – scroll down to Publisher’s Opinion). She responded with three cheers for LaVarr’s clear-headed position. Speaking from personal experience, Webb says, “While I love public schools, I don’t love public school unions. They have killed meaningful school reform over and over again. It doesn’t matter how reasonable the program.”

But Webb’s article is far from a mere criticism of educator unions. He says, “I want to improve public schools, pay teachers more, and increase overall funding for public schools.” He is tired of three decades of reform efforts that “do nothing of substance.” He strongly advocates a voucher system like the one proposed by Rep. Stuart Adams.

Why vouchers? Citing the “the magic of the marketplace,” Webb says, “Giving parents control of education spending would drive improvements faster than anything else.” Of course, the UEA argues that the whole world will come to an end if vouchers become law. Never mind the successful programs that are in place in several parts of the country, some of which are being destroyed by educator unions (see here).

Why are educator unions so opposed to meaningful education reform? Terry I. Moe cogently explains this here. He argues that educator unions are not trying to behave badly, but that by their nature they simply are not designed nor equipped to do what’s best for the children they claim to be so concerned about. The unions’ “behavior is driven by fundamental interests [that] have to do with the jobs, working conditions, and material well-being of teachers.”

This is not to say that educator unions are all bad or that they don’t have a role to play in our education system. But our public policy has inappropriately made them nearly the sole party of interest in regulating the education of our children. We have failed to recognize them for what they really are.

Unions, by their very nature, will oppose any reform that reduces their power. (Yes, this is all about power). They have a near monopoly, and they’re not going to give up even the minutest portion of it easily. Moe forecasts that the unions’ monopoly will be broken “when the public speaks out [giving] politicians … the courage--and the electoral incentive--to do the right thing.” Webb sees that day coming. He says, “the union eventually will lose. The tide is turning and they can’t hold back destiny.”

I don’t think educator unions should be crushed. But for the sake of our children and grandchildren these unions need to be relegated to their appropriate role. I hope that the future envisioned by LaVarr Webb is not too distant.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Utah Mormons Like Food

I’m a Utah Mormon. And I like food. Is this common among my fellow Utah Mormons? A long-term BYU study suggests that it is (see here and here). For the last decade Mormons in Utah have carried an average of 4½ to 6 pounds more than the average non-Mormons in Utah. But it appears that the rate of obesity among Utah Mormons is dropping in relation to Utah non-Mormons. Maybe non-Mormons are merely catching up.

The study’s authors suggest that the extra weight is due to differences in food attitudes. However, they offer little more than casual links to validate this assertion. Citing the LDS Church’s prohibition on alcohol and tobacco, they suggest that Mormons tend to indulge in food instead of other culturally inappropriate escapes. They also cite the strong role of food in Mormon culture as support for this hypothesis.

This seems intuitive and it may be correct, but the study does not necessarily prove this linkage. Additional research would have to be done to validate it.

Yes, we Mormons always find reasons to serve refreshments. We teach about food in Relief Society and in Scouting. We hold dinner gatherings and have pot luck dinners where we showcase our culinary abilities. Utah consumes more ice cream than any other state. You can enjoy the state’s most wonderfully decadent gourmet buffet at the Roof Restaurant, which is owned by the LDS Church.

I have to wonder how many Utah Mormons suffer from some kind of eating disorder. I personally have struggled with food attitude issues for much of my life. I started fighting the battle of the bulge at age 16. Although I doubt anyone would call me overweight today, my current physique is the result of two decades of dedicated daily exercise and dietary discipline.

Human nature seems to dictate that we sometimes work to barely clear the bar. For example, you can’t get a Temple recommend if you indulge in alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, or drug abuse. Although the Word of Wisdom and other scriptures (like D&C 59) prescribe healthful eating and proscribe excess, you can still get a Temple recommend even if you ignore this counsel. Consequently, many of us do ignore it.

But is food the whole story? Could our busyness as a people have something to do with it? We Mormons are a busy people. Sure, there are “active” Mormons that get their religious fill by attending the Sunday three-hour block meetings. But many practicing Mormons are extremely busy people, spending many hours each week doing volunteer work and fulfilling church callings. We’re supposed to get to the Temple regularly, hold family home evening weekly, have family prayer twice daily, have family scripture study daily, attend multitudinous meetings, volunteer at school, help our neighbors, do our welfare assignments, have daily personal prayer and scripture study, do our home and visiting teaching, prepare our lessons, be exemplary employees, go camping with the youth, be politically active, read our church magazines, and get outside of our element and do missionary work. Add to this the busy lives of children with their own schedules, homework, sporting and cultural pursuits, and how are we possibly supposed to find time to exercise, let alone hold a regular family sit-down meal?

Whew! It makes me hungry and anxious just thinking about it. Maybe I’ll go down a half gallon of ice cream to calm me down.

I’m sure the researchers are at least somewhat correct in suggesting that food attitudes among Utah Mormons lends to their weight problem. But I think that more extensive studies would likely find other significant factors as well.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Do Mormons Really Love Pres. Bush?

Platforming off articles like this one that cite recent polls showing that President Bush’s approval rating is higher in Utah than anywhere else, many people (including bloggers) have been asking why this is so. They are puzzled as to why Utahns are such a political outlier.

The late-January Washington Post-ABC News poll discussed in the offensive article cited above pegged the President’s approval rating nationwide at 42%, but at 61% in Utah. However, the poll’s margin of error makes Utah statistically even with Idaho and Nebraska. A number of other blue states aren’t far behind. The red states really pull the President’s numbers down, but his approval rating has stayed pretty level in those states. It’s the blue states that have moved to bring his numbers to new lows.

Being a political outlier has very real consequences. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal has repeatedly noted the problem this creates for the Black community. Political outliers make a statement, but diminish their political power, since they can be consistently counted on to vote a particular way regardless of what happens. It must be recognized, however, that some communities willingly accept the cost of making their statements.

The slant that I find interesting promoted by some here in Utah is the insinuation that the President’s higher approval rating in Utah is caused by the LDS Church. The reasoning goes like this. Most people in Utah are Mormons. Everyone intuitively knows that Mormons vote Republican and that it’s against their religion to associate with progressives. Therefore, Utah’s blueness is due to the LDS Church, and Mormons are completely incapable of seeing the President’s flaws.

While all of this links together in an intuitive manner, particularly from certain perspectives, we need to ask whether there is any empirical evidence to back it up. I went searching for reliable numbers that show how Mormons in Utah vote. This site has a number of interesting demographics relative to the LDS Church and to Utah, but nothing about voting trends. The SL Trib made waves last summer with a suite of articles (links to all from here) that set LDS Church membership in Utah at 62.4%, coupled with a projection that Mormons will be in the minority in Utah by 2030.

Just for the record, Utah Mormons do tend to vote quite Republican, but there is a significant corps of Democrat voting Mormons as well. SL Trib research shows that Republican and Democrat voting percentages of non-Mormons in Utah is very similar to that of their Mormon neighbors, somewhat refuting the idea that Mormons vote Republican while non-Mormons vote Democrat.

Then we come to the issue of practicing vs. non-practicing Mormons. How do they vote? It appears that non-practicing Mormons in Utah tend to vote only somewhat less Republican than practicing Mormons.

However, I could find clear indicators of how Mormons view President Bush. Inferences can be made, but they cannot be corroborated with hard evidence. It would seem that a lot of non-Mormons helped attribute to the President’s 61% approval rating, but this cannot be said for certain either.

I suspect that what puzzles most of the puzzlers is culturally based. Most people looking at a culture from the outside simply cannot comprehend some of the actions they observe. It’s unlikely that the cultural divide in Utah between Mormons and non-Mormons will go away anytime soon. Ditto for the cultural divide between Utah’s Republicans and Democrats.

It will be interesting to see how the voting demographic changes as LDS Church membership diminishes in relation to Utah’s overall population. It will also be interesting to see how Utah’s worldview will change relative to that of the nation as a whole.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What Is True Conservatism?

As one who considers himself mostly conservative but who has some problems with the unabashed worship of the free market that resounds from the right, I found this review of Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons quite interesting. Dreher rejects spiritually damaging consumerism on both sides of the political aisle and calls for true conservatives to live a more fulfilling “sacramental” life.

Specifically, Dreher calls for a return to a simpler lifestyle and a focus on that which is wholesome spiritually, physically, economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically. He calls for people to buck the current system for a counterculture lifestyle that he says represents true conservative principles. He says that true conservatives, which he calls crunchy conservatives, live more by principles than by policies. I can buy that.

While Dreher “reports on the amazing depth and scope of this phenomenon,” Publisher’s Weekly says, “the book fails to offer any empirical evidence to connect [featured] individuals to a wider "movement."” Dreher wants crunchy cons to become a major cultural and political force, but presents only anecdotal evidence of such a groundswell.

I found a number of principles that I can agree with in his Crunchy Con Manifesto (included here among several editorial reviews and a book excerpt). The rejection of the culture of greed and accumulation, a call to exercise a good stewardship over our blessings, proper recognition of beauty and wisdom, and a conviction of the family as the most essential institution of society all resonate with me.

On the other hand, if the mass market is such a bad thing, why is Mr. Dreher marketing his book through all of the major mass market outlets? And is a hippie lifestyle with a conservative bent really as beneficial to individuals, families, and society as he claims?

I will put the book on my to-read list. It obviously has some provocative arguments. I engage in primitive camping with some frequency, but it’s going to take a lot of persuasion to make me want to give up the modern conveniences that the free market has brought us. Is it impossible to live a fulfilling sacramental life while living in the modern world? If so, how far back in history does one have to go to get to the ideal lifestyle?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Will There be a Tax Refund?

LaVarr Webb has a reprise here (scroll down to Publishers Opinion) of his call for a modest tax cut (see my previous post). Webb cites polls as well as State Senator Tom Hatch of Panguich (from the right wing of the conservative wing of the Utah Republican Party) to bolster his position in favor of a tax cut “around $100 million,” which would still rival any previous cut. I wish to express three concerns.

My primary concern is that in our exuberance to give every state agency everything on its wish list, we may be setting ourselves up for future California-style financial problems. It is irrational to put all of this money into ongoing funding, because we can be relatively certain that our current revenue level will not be sustained over the long run. Therefore, it makes sense to put a significant chunk of the surplus into one-time expenditures. California has discovered that it is nearly impossible to cut spending once agencies are used to bigger budgets. Can you say, “tax increase,” children?

My next concern is whether a tax cut will be forthcoming in any amount this year. Rep. Steve Urquhart’s post here doesn’t sound very promising. I believe that it’s still likely that the House and Senate will eventually hammer out some kind of tax cut, probably in line with LaVarr’s suggestion. At least I hope so. Although polls don’t show much clamoring for a tax cut, I guarantee that a lot of the grass roots Republicans (that comprise a significant force in state politics prior to Election Day in November) will be looking to extract a pound of flesh if the Legislature can’t figure out a way to enact a meaningful tax cut when they’ve got the largest budget surplus in state history.

My final concern is what will happen next year. LaVarr suggests doing the food tax cut over two years. Maybe that will happen. Given our economy, it’s possible that our revenue next year will be at least as much as this year. Will we then find ourselves still wanting to grow government rather than giving the money back to those that have been overcharged? There will always be lots of reasons for government to spend every dime it can get its paws on. That's the nature of the beast. It's the job of citizens and their representatives to keep that beast on a short leash.

Tax Refund vs. "Investment" (re-post)

This is a re-post of my Feb. 9, 2006 post, because the server lost the link.

LaVarr Webb cogently takes the middle ground here (scroll down to Publisher’s Opinion) in the battle for Utah’s historic budget surplus. (I have posted my opinions about the surplus here and here). Without specifically addressing the extreme arguments on both sides – the state should spend it all vs. the state should give it all back – Webb argues for a highly responsible approach.

Citing numerous sources, Webb says, “there is no great clamor for a large tax cut.” He argues that a real need exists to shore up and enhance infrastructure (specifically citing transportation and water), saying that it’s a pay now or pay a lot more later situation. He seems to suggest that while we think we’ve got a population boom now, the real boom is coming over the next few decades and we’d better prepare for it.

Webb uses business terms that liberals like to use in reference to government programs, but almost never use in reference to business. (I’m not calling LaVarr a liberal, I’m merely pointing out a parallel).
“We love the fact that our economy is booming, producing more revenue, which allows money to be invested in transportation and economic development that will pay long-term dividends.”
The Libertarian view, of course, is that all things would be better if the money were spent by individual taxpayers than by the government. Obviously, not a lot of voters actually believe that. The liberal view is that all things would be better if the money were spent by the government. There seem to be a lot more people in this boat, but given government’s track record in effectively spending money, many are somewhat skeptical about this as well.

Webb’s argument for a reasonable tax cut while investing the remainder of the surplus in infrastructure will resonate well with most Utah voters. Webb predicts that this will be what we see when the dust of the current legislative session settles.

People that run businesses know that good infrastructure makes for better business. It is as much of a draw as a favorable business tax climate. Business people also understand how balance sheets and long-range planning work. That, argues Webb, is why it makes sense to invest in infrastructure now. We have only to look at the continually escalating cost of the Legacy Highway to understand how infrastructure investments become more expensive with time.

As part of long-range planning, however, we need to wrestle with future state finances. I have argued that a tax refund is fiscally responsible because it means the government won’t become addicted to a funding level that will not be sustained. California is the classic addiction case. LaVarr has argued that an excessive refund right now will leave infrastructure under funded. The needs will not go away and will only become more costly with time.

I believe both sides of this equation are valid. The delicate job of the legislature, then, is to carefully determine the magic point that achieves the optimal result, and to match cuts and spending accordingly. LaVarr optimistically suggests that we fully trust the legislature. Ethan isn’t so sure that they’re trustworthy (see here, click on Show Original Post).

I would be happier with the legislature “investing” if I could be sure the spending will actually improve infrastructure in a meaningful way, if they cut programs that government shouldn’t be doing anyway, and if they actually had meaningful budget and revenue projections for 10-20 years.

LaVarr will have his wish, of course. We have no option other than to trust our elected representatives to make the right decision. If they mess up, we have the opportunity to do something about it in the next election cycle, although, Ethan argues, “I can't think of anything this legislature could do that would endanger their jobs.”

Friday, February 17, 2006

Why the GOP Has Moved Left

Last month I opined here about why Mormons tend to lean Republican. Jonah Goldberg writes here about why conservatives tend to vote Republican. Some of his points run parallel with some of my arguments, but his article is much more enjoyable to read as well as much more witty.

Goldberg also lends to another point I have made on many occasions, that a weak Democratic Party is bad both for the Republicans and for the nation. But Goldberg takes a different tack, arguing that it’s bad for the Republicans and the nation when the Democratic Party moves left. He says, “In American politics, when one party moves left or right, the political center of gravity moves that way too.” The result is that “when the Democrats move left, so do the Republicans.”

Speaking to liberals, he tells them that “some conservatives who criticize the Democrats or offer them advice do so not solely to salt wounds, but in the hope that someday we will have a real choice on Election Day — and not between the lesser of two evils.”

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is New Media That Bad?

Andrew Keen has a polemic article here about Web 2.0. Though a blogger himself, he argues against the democratization of media content. He discusses some of his critics’ arguments here.

Keen fiercely argues that the new media paradigm is leading us down a narcissistic path reminiscent of Marx’s writings. He asserts that big media appropriately erects barriers that ensure general access to the most elite forms of talent, and that it constantly pushes art forms to higher levels. He rages against new media pushing us toward mediocrity and toward personalized content that shows us nothing beyond ourselves and only reinforces what we already think we know.

In reading Keen’s article, I found myself agreeing with some points, but simultaneously fascinated and repelled by other points. For instance, I have seen excellent talent come out of the big media outlets. But much of the writing, art, TV shows, movies, and music promoted through mainstream outlets constantly push toward new levels of awfulness. It seems like there is an intense competition to constantly descend to new depths.

Years ago, a man that was a fine fiddler in Norway told me that he thought the best violin player in the world was probably some old man living some Podunk place that nobody knows about. Imagine if that old man in the middle of nowhere could get his music out to a wider audience. Big media completely ignores this possibility.

On the other hand, Keen makes a good point about the sheer volume of content available in new media. What is the possibility that, even if the great unknown violinist published podcasts of his works, anyone would find out about it or care if they did? Keen seems to ignore the fact that advertising of content happens very rapidly in the new media. The word spreads with a speed not possible in traditional media. People quickly key into excellence and quickly dump less excellent content. That is the miracle of democratization.

Yes, the new media channels are filled with a lot of mediocrity and noise. You have to find the diamonds in the mud. But exactly how does this differ from MSM channels? Is it simply the amount of money and organization behind them? We become our own gatekeepers instead of paying others to do it for us.

What about Keen’s argument that new media content is catering to narcissistic tendencies? I can see both sides of this coin. People are free to ignore voices that differ from their own, and many do. That is why we see examples of people that are shocked to discover that the cause they promote is actually less popular than they thought it was. They engage in cyber groupthink. People have the freedom to do that. But they also have the freedom to expose themselves to alternative thought. None of this is forced on anyone, and is open to everyone.

If Keen’s arguments of the pitfalls of personalization have some merit, it is obvious that pitfalls exist in big media controlling what we read, see, listen to, and think. Besides, this argument only becomes significant in a world where big media outlets go away completely. I don’t think anybody sees that happening. I think we see big media slowly morphing to respond to the challenges presented by new media. And vice versa.

I believe any new media content creator would benefit from reading Keen’s article. I find problems with many of Keen’s assertions. But his article is provocative and provides a different perspective than many of us are used to thinking about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A House Divided

James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University has a long and thoughtful essay about the political divide in our nation. He argues against the idea that a wide middle ground with homogenous political views exists in our country. He walks the reader through a lengthy analysis that he says proves that the political rift in the nation is very deep and extends to just about every level of society. His evidence is strong and he presents his argument well.

Noting that others once thought that stark political contrast would be a better state of affairs than two nearly indistinguishable parties, Wilson says that it is actually dangerous for the nation. He suggests that not only is our national security at stake, but global security as well.

Aptly noting that the U.S. is currently the world’s sole superpower, Wilson asserts that it has special responsibilities both to our nation and to the entire world. But he argues that our sharp political polarization threatens the ability to carry out those responsibilities.

While offering no solutions to the problem he perceives, Wilson concludes with an ominous warning:
“What Gen. Giap of North Vietnam once said of us is even truer today: America cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but it can be defeated at home. Polarization is a force that can defeat us.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Keep the Legislative Session Short

LaVarr Webb praises the Utah Legislature (here – scroll down to Utah Legislature Gets the Job Done) for efficiently and effectively completing its work in 45 calendar days (33 working days). Calling the legislative session “an annual miracle,” Webb explains, “The Utah legislative system works only because of extensive planning, good interim committee work, excellent staff support, and a willingness by lawmakers to be disciplined and recognize time limitations.”

I have several acquaintances that were quite surprised upon being elected to the legislature to discover the amount of legislative work they needed to do outside of the regular sessions. It truly becomes a labor of love. Those that can’t stand the heat soon get out of the kitchen.

You might despise the results of the legislature’s work, but you cannot deny Webb’s assertion of how well it works. He suggests that Congress should use Utah’s legislature as a model for its own work. That’s not a bad idea. But Utah’s legislature is also a good model for other states.

California’s assembly, on the other hand, is a model for states to avoid. One can argue that California’s assembly deals with more complexity than Utah’s legislature due to the state’s large size and population, but that begs the point. Studies have shown that states with full-time legislatures have higher per-person cost of government, higher taxes, and more intrusive government than states with part-time legislatures.

Before Gov. Schwarznegger’s recent political problems, he was considering an attempt to make California’s assembly a part-time operation (see here). He argued that strange legislation resulted from lawmakers having too much time on their hands and spending too much time listening to lobbyists instead of their constituents.

Part-time legislators are generally not professional politicians. They are involved in their own businesses and communities. While they have input from lobbyists, they can somewhat escape political groupthink by spending so much time away from the legislature.

Of course, there are arguments against part-time legislatures as well. Only people that can afford to spend 45 days away from their regular jobs/businesses can think about running for office. That excludes a huge portion of our society. But it is another argument in favor of keeping the legislative session as short as possible. California had a 120-day session before it went full-time, making it a much more exclusive club than Utah’s.

In the days before high-speed travel and communication, Congress was also a part-time legislative body. Its members spent more time at home than inside the DC beltway. Today its members occasionally venture outside of the beltway to make trips to the states and districts they represent. Is it any surprise that national legislation is more impacted by the DC lobbying industry than by the people back home?

You can argue that you don’t like the (almost) single-party makeup of the Utah Legislature, but Webb is correct in noting the legislature’s efficiency. We should work to preserve our short legislative session and maintain the part-time status of our state representatives and senators. It makes for good government.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Will Middle Eastern Democracy Bring Security?

There is no question that George W. Bush’s much-maligned neoconservatism has drastically altered U.S. foreign policy. As much as Bush’s critics wish it were otherwise, there is simply no possibility of quickly returning to the pre-Bush policy of closing our eyes in the hope that all of the bad stuff in the rest of the world will either go away or at least stay away from us.

Regardless of what one might think of Bush’s pre-emption strategy, we are in Iraq and will be there for quite some time. The public might not like it, but people realize that pulling out at this point would be hazardous to our national security. We’re going to have to see this one through.

I have noted previously that the American public hasn’t totally bought into Bush’s argument that democracy in the Middle East will make for better national security than our previous unrealistic strategy of “realism.” Remember that the old strategy brought us 9/11, but we still have a long way to go before we get out of the business of propping up tyrants. Democracy=safety is certainly a long-long-range plan. With the Hamas landslide in Palestine, people are even less sure of this argument.

I have long wondered why we have been trying so hard to make the Middle Eastern world like us. We’ve been doing this for decades, and the effort has only intensified under the current administration. The people that promote this tactic simply do not understand the nature of the Islamic world’s differences with Western culture. Some of what we do actually exacerbates the problem.

Some of the greatest pro-American sentiment in the Middle East is in Iran, where they have some of the most despotic leadership (now that Saddam is merely a defendant). There is some genuine pro-Americanism in Iraq, mostly in gratitude for liberation from Saddam’s regime. But some of the strongest anti-Americanism comes from some of the more democratic parts of the region.

Reuel Marc Gerecht says here that anti-Americanism will only increase as democracy increases in the Middle East. But he argues that this is healthy. Gerecht expertly discusses some of the cultural schizophrenia that Islamic countries are grappling with. I guess I’m not the only one that thinks it’s strange that a culture would protest idiotic cartoons portraying it as violent by perpetrating violence.

Gerecht points out that Western culture assaults some of the basic Muslim beliefs about the structure of the home and family. He says that this, much more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, informs Muslim anti-American attitudes – since the U.S. is the strongest icon of Western culture; the biggest target, as it were.

Gerecht argues that the proliferation of dangerous fundamentalism is a byproduct of our strategy of supporting despotism. He says that only in democratic Muslim societies will the necessary and heated debates occur that will work out the culture’s “relation to modernity,” which Christendom has already had to deal with.

Gerecht suggests that this process will be nerve wracking for them and for us. The clash of ideas will necessarily give rise to more anti-Western and anti-American sentiments – at least in the short run. But Gerecht argues that the sooner the debates begin the better, especially “where our national interest stands to gain the most--in Egypt and Iran.” Let’s hope he’s right, because this appears to be the path we are pursuing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tax Refund vs. "Investment"

LaVarr Webb cogently takes the middle ground here (scroll down to Publisher’s Opinion) in the battle for Utah’s historic budget surplus. (I have posted my opinions about the surplus here and here). Without specifically addressing the extreme arguments on both sides – the state should spend it all vs. the state should give it all back – Webb argues for a highly responsible approach.

Citing numerous sources, Webb says, “there is no great clamor for a large tax cut.” He argues that a real need exists to shore up and enhance infrastructure (specifically citing transportation and water), saying that it’s a pay now or pay a lot more later situation. He seems to suggest that while we think we’ve got a population boom now, the real boom is coming over the next few decades and we’d better prepare for it.

Webb uses business terms that liberals like to use in reference to government programs, but almost never use in reference to business. (I’m not calling LaVarr a liberal, I’m merely pointing out a parallel).
“We love the fact that our economy is booming, producing more revenue, which allows money to be invested in transportation and economic development that will pay long-term dividends.”
The Libertarian view, of course, is that all things would be better if the money were spent by individual taxpayers than by the government. Obviously, not a lot of voters actually believe that. The liberal view is that all things would be better if the money were spent by the government. There seem to be a lot more people in this boat, but given government’s track record in effectively spending money, many are somewhat skeptical about this as well.

Webb’s argument for a reasonable tax cut while investing the remainder of the surplus in infrastructure will resonate well with most Utah voters. Webb predicts that this will be what we see when the dust of the current legislative session settles.

People that run businesses know that good infrastructure makes for better business. It is as much of a draw as a favorable business tax climate. Business people also understand how balance sheets and long-range planning work. That, argues Webb, is why it makes sense to invest in infrastructure now. We have only to look at the continually escalating cost of the Legacy Highway to understand how infrastructure investments become more expensive with time.

As part of long-range planning, however, we need to wrestle with future state finances. I have argued that a tax refund is fiscally responsible because it means the government won’t become addicted to a funding level that will not be sustained. California is the classic addiction case. LaVarr has argued that an excessive refund right now will leave infrastructure under funded. The needs will not go away and will only become more costly with time.

I believe both sides of this equation are valid. The delicate job of the legislature, then, is to carefully determine the magic point that achieves the optimal result, and to match cuts and spending accordingly. LaVarr optimistically suggests that we fully trust the legislature. Ethan isn’t so sure that they’re trustworthy (see here, click on Show Original Post).

I would be happier with the legislature “investing” if I could be sure the spending will actually improve infrastructure in a meaningful way, if they cut programs that government shouldn’t be doing anyway, and if they actually had meaningful budget and revenue projections for 10-20 years.

LaVarr will have his wish, of course. We have no option other than to trust our elected representatives to make the right decision. If they mess up, we have the opportunity to do something about it in the next election cycle, although, Ethan argues, “I can't think of anything this legislature could do that would endanger their jobs.”

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Is Mitt Romney's Religion Fatal to His Candidacy?

Mormon With An Opinion posted here about Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.’s interview with Neil Cavuto. The portion of the interview he cites revolves around Mitt Romney’s chances for becoming President, given the fact that he is Mormon. It’s an interesting exchange about Romney, which Huntsman concludes by saying, “I'm working hard for him.” It’s probably not a big surprise that Hunstman is campaigning for Romney.

Many bloggers have commented about Romney’s chances for becoming President. While some question whether he’s Republican or conservative enough, most are worried that his Mormonism might offend the GOP’s evangelical base. Many MSM commentators have discussed the topic as well (see Terry Eastland here, James Taranto here, Amy Sullivan here, among many others). (I posted about Romney’s semi-socialized Massachusetts health care plan here and here.)

Mormon With An Opinion expressed his wish here that Romney not run, saying, “The problem isn't that he's Mormon, it's that the evangelicals slander Mormonism in the worst way. If the evangelical reaction to Romney's religion as predicted in Sullivan's article comes true, I would rather he didn't run.” He’s worried that the LDS religion will be “demonized and treated like a piƱata.”

I think MWAO has a valid concern. On the other hand, I think we Mormons sometimes suffer from a persecution complex. We have a deep history of being persecuted, and all you have to do to see it in action today is visit Temple Square in Salt Lake City during the LDS Church general conference. But noisy anti-Mormons don’t necessarily represent the broader evangelical community. I think we fall into the trap of making overly broad generalizations when we make sweeping statements about evangelical attitudes.

The MSM folks all cite the same 1999 poll where 17% of Americans said they could never vote for a Mormon, as opposed to 6% saying the same about a Jew and 4% about a Catholic. I couldn’t find polling numbers specifically for evangelicals in this regard. But most of the commentary I have read actually says a lot more about what people think about evangelicals than what people think about Mormons. The assumption seems to be that Mitt will suffer for his religion because a lot of evangelicals are religious bigots.

Once again, I’m not sure the equation presented achieves that answer. The suggestion is that evangelical theological differences with Mormonism + 300% to 450% more people that would refuse to vote for a Mormon than would refuse to vote for a Jew or a Catholic = enough bigoted evangelicals to cause a Mormon to lose the election. While it’s possible that this equation is true, it’s also possible that it’s false. It has not been tested in a national race.

I agree with Taranto when he says that the Romney ticket will actually “test the proposition that the religious right is an issues-based movement as opposed to a sectarian one.” He notes that Romney’s “views put him well within the mainstream of GOP conservatism,” and are “largely in tune with the Christian right.” If the religious right refuses to support Romney (who aligns with them politically, but not religiously), it would expose the movement as being riddled with sectarian bigotry. I believe that would cause long-term damage to the movement’s credibility, which has been carefully built for two to three decades. The political community simply wouldn’t take them seriously any longer. The media would have a heyday, lumping them into the same boat as the extremist Muslims shouting, “Death to the infidels!” in the current cartoon flap.

Unlike MWAO, I welcome a Romney candidacy. Will my religion get beat up? Probably. Will my religion come out better in the long run, even if Mitt loses? I believe the answer to this is yes, as long as Mitt turns out to behave respectably and admirably. He will be held to a much higher standard than other candidates. I hope he is up to it. I believe that as the campaign progresses, more and more people will moderate their stance on religion in politics, which would be good for the country.

Would I support Mitt? Maybe. Just as I would hope that evangelicals and other voters would not refuse to support a candidate based on the candidate’s religion, I would hope that voters (including Mormons) would not automatically support a candidate based on the candidate’s religion. We should ask whether the candidate is an honorable person (see here), is well suited to the job, and would promote policies with which we agree. If it turns out that Mitt meets these criteria, I will have no problem supporting him. But whether I end up supporting him or not, I believe that his candidacy will be good for the Mormons, the evangelicals, and the country in general.

Monday, February 06, 2006

How Can a Mormon Oppose Polygamy With a Straight Face?

Stanley Kurtz is a researcher and commentator on cultural issues. As a strong advocate of the traditional family (he has the numbers to back it up), he has often been derided by his critics as an alarmist right-winger opposed to equal rights for those with non-mainstream lifestyles. The alarmist title is probably accurate, but his prognostications have been unstintingly on target.

Charley linked to a very interesting article Kurtz has about the real reason for the recent push to abolish anti-polygamy laws in Canada. Why is this important to us? “The … Canadian polygamy studies are a time-capsule from the future, a preview of the argument we’ll be having … here in the United States.”

The entire article is about the slippery slope of gradually redefining marriage out of existence. Critics shredded Kurtz when he said that legal recognition of gay marriage would lead to arguments in favor of legal recognition of polygamous marriage. But that is precisely what is happening now that gay marriage is the law of the land in Canada. The next step is redefinition of adultery laws, followed by legal recognition of polyamory – the union of any number of people of any sex – which is already underway (unsurprisingly) in the Netherlands (see here).

The ultimate goal in the chasm at the bottom of the slippery slope is the complete abolition of marriage, which critics (particularly militant feminists) see as a nasty paternalistic throwback to the dark ages. These folks don’t let the fact that research shows that significant societal benefits accrue through the traditional family structure that can be achieved in no other way get in the way of their anti-male, anti-family agenda. (Try saying that sentence in a single breath).

The arguments in favor of gay marriage, polygamous marriage, polyamory, and unrestricted sex come across as ostensibly Libertarian. Hey, live and let live. You let me do my thing and I’ll let you do your thing. But this view totally ignores the good of society as a whole. The entire history of our nation is one big tug-of-war between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. All sides regularly resort to arguments on both ends of the rope depending on what helps their case.

The arguments in favor of protecting the special role of monogamous marriage come across as trampling the rights of the individual. This is nothing new. The Constitution allows the abrogation of individual rights when society has a compelling reason for doing so. The debate is whether society has a compelling reason to provide special protection for monogamy. Kurtz argues that it does (with evidence – see here for a list of some of his articles), while others argue (with emotion) that it does not.

As a practicing Mormon, I can see how this whole thing can put Mormons in an awkward position. While the LDS Church hasn’t permitted the practice of polygamy for over a century, “The plural marriage revelation still describes the modern Mormon view of marriage and family…” at least in the eternities (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 443).

I have written previously about the history of polygamy in the LDS Church. Many of the arguments in favor of legalizing polygamy today are the same ones that were put forward by the church and its members during the last half of the 19th Century. How can a practicing Mormon suggest that those arguments were valid then, but are not valid today?

For me, the answer lies in the fact that circumstances today are different than they were during the era of persecution of Mormon polygamy. Like monogamy, polygamy was a respected marriage tradition for millennia. While its modern practice is fraught with problems and societal costs, this is often due to its exclusivity and its tight regulation by authoritarian figures, rather than its inherent nature.

Polygamy actually falls within the definition of the "traditional" family structure. But today, legalization of polygamy is being pushed as a tool to destroy the pre-eminent role of the traditional family rather than protecting that role.

Mormons also believe in living prophets and continuing revelation – the idea that new commandments are given to meet current conditions. Take for example the 1995 proclamation on the family. After defining the traditional family, it says, “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Given that framework, it is quite understandable how modern Mormons can oppose the legalization of polygamous marriage without dishonoring the Church’s history and doctrine.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Bane of a Budget Surplus

As I have noted previously, there is no end to government “need” for taxpayer money. At the moment, Utah is swimming in an unprecedented excess of that commodity. The huge problem seems to be what to do with it.

Conventional wisdom on one hand says that since taxpayers have been grossly overcharged, the right thing to do is to return the excess. Conventional wisdom on the other hand says that since there are so many “under funded” government programs, if we can’t afford to properly fund them now, we never will.

Utah is one of the many states that are grappling with stunning budget surpluses. The roaring economy has resulted in nationwide average state tax revenue increases of 8.7% and 8% in 2004 and 2005 respectively. This provides some evidence that the best way to increase revenue is to improve the economy.

We all know, however, that revenue booms like this don’t last. Chris Edwards suggests here that we take a lesson from the last boom cycle.
“During the revenue boom of the 1990s, states allowed their budgets to bloat as they expanded programs such as Medicaid to unsustainable levels. When the recession hit in 2001 and revenues stagnated, state officials moaned that they were innocent victims of a fiscal crisis. They responded by hiking taxes and clamoring for more aid from Washington.”
Are we really so unwise as to repeat this debacle? Apparently we are because we have a strong track record of repeating it. Every time we have an excess of revenue, it seems that many people can only see the endless possibilities for feeding it to an endlessly hungry bureaucracy. Our legislators and lobbyists are drawn to spend it like moths are fatally drawn to a light.

Proponents of spending the overcharge demagogue tax refund advocates as Santa Clauses that want to give away “government” money to the unworthy taxpayers when much greater “needs” exist. Never mind the fact that they only want to return the excess to its rightful owners. We would all freak out if a business refused to return even $1 they overcharged us, even if we were shareholders in the business. Why do we have such a different attitude when it comes to government? Chris Edwards discusses why this makes for bad policy.
“Otherwise sensible policymakers … apparently think that there is no harm in allowing spending to rise rapidly during booms, as long as tax rates aren’t increased. That is not correct: Every dollar used for budget expansion is a dollar sucked out of the private economy and not available for investment and job creation.”
Edwards decries using surpluses to fund tax decrease gimmicks that target special interest groups rather than actually reducing tax rates, which spurs economic growth. Then he mentions Utah. “Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah is an exception: He is calling for a cut to the state’s top income-tax rate to "send a signal about our commitment to long-term competitiveness."”

Bully for Gov. Huntsman. But is his suggested policy being carried forward on Capitol Hill? There is a lot of squabbling over this at the moment. And there is a lot of disagreement about how stingy government should be when it comes to cutting taxes.

Edwards argues that one of the best ways to cut taxes is to decrease or repeal anti-competitive taxes that have a punitive effect on growth, produce little revenue, and are costly to administer. This message surely won’t set well with the anti-“big business” and anti-globalization crowd.

Finally, Edwards forecasts the economic futures of states that spend their budget surpluses and those that enact meaningful tax cuts. “If states continue using today’s surpluses to expand budgets they will set themselves up for a California-style budget crisis when the economy slows.” In contrast, states that reduce tax rates “will increase competitiveness, spur growth, and keep their budgets in the black when the next slowdown hits.”

This all reminds me of Aesop’s fable, the Ant and the Grassopper. Which will Utah be this year? Will we be the prudent ant and properly prepare for the bust at the end of the boom, or will we be the spendthrift grasshopper and spend the surplus without regard for the inevitable bust? Many of our legislators are trying to straddle the fence and do both things at once. Keep your eyes on the legislature to see which path we end up taking.