Thursday, March 30, 2006

Turning Immigrants Into Americans

A couple of years ago my parents returned from an extended tour doing volunteer work in my father’s native country. After walking into their home, my dad sat down on his couch and said, “It’s good to be back home in America.” I remarked that I thought he had just returned from his ‘home.’ He replied that me might have been born and raised elsewhere, but that he was an American and that America was his home.

Peggy Noonan cuts through all of the economic and policy debate to strike directly at the roots of our country’s immigration problems in this insightful essay. I wish every American adult would read it. Noonan causes the reader to ponder what it means to be an American, and indeed, what the United States of America means.

Noonan asserts that our methodology of assimilating immigrants has changed since the Ellis Island days. Back then immigrants became Americans in their hearts. That is, they subscribed to and internalized the principles that make our country great. Of course, you have to believe in American exceptionalism for this to be meaningful. You have to believe that this country is a special place because of our heritage of liberty. Noonan explores this. She says that we do fine assimilating immigrants culturally and even economically, but that nowadays we do lousy at assimilating immigrants patriotically.
“Because we do not communicate to our immigrants, legal and illegal, that they have joined something special, some of them, understandably, get the impression they've joined not a great enterprise but a big box store. A big box store on the highway where you can get anything cheap. It's a good place. But it has no legends, no meaning, and it imparts no spirit.”
My father was already an American in his heart when I was born. How many of our more recent immigrants (legal or illegal) are Americans on the inside? What would we need to do to do this the right way? Do any of the immigration reform plans being presented today even address this issue? This is really deeper and more important than what I hear coming out of the halls of Congress.

Faulty Immigration Assumptions

The debate over immigration reform is underway. Bob Lonsberry believes that ultimately nothing will change (see here). Luther at HazZzMat is upset that many of the arguments on the issue are based on faulty assumptions. He wants to debunk the assertion that illegals work jobs that Americans refuse to take. He cites this study that shows that illegal immigration is actually hurting the least educated of our country’s natives (and the children that depend on them) the most.

I am fully in favor of having a rigorous debate on the best way to handle immigration issues. But I agree with Luther that the debate should be based on true facts rather than faulty assumptions.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Restoring Meaning and Satisfaction to Life

Many philosophies exist as to the purpose of government. Most of us believe in a mix of ideas extracted variously from four schools of thought. There is a constant struggle to enthrone the mix we believe to be the most correct. Charles Murray asserts in this WSJ op-ed piece that the purpose of government is to help “human existence [acquire] weight and consequence.”

Murray argues in his new book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State that our modern welfare state robs vitality from “some of our sources of life's most important satisfactions.” He postulates that human nature makes us more than happy to allow the state to remove many individual burdens, but he says that many of these burdens are what actually make life meaningful.

Murray also takes an economical approach to the welfare state, showing that it will collapse on itself during this century. He argues that, although our affluent society has plenty of resources to care for all, our current redistribution system is incredibly wasteful and ineffective. Murray offers a counter proposal that he calls (here) simply, “the Plan, a radical new approach to social policy that defies any partisan label.”

Murray’s plan seems incredibly utopian, and he admits as much in this National Review interview. It would provide an annual stipend of $10,000 to every adult U.S. citizen. $3000 would have to be spent on an approved health insurance plan, thereby, making the entire country a single insurance pool. He suggests that $2000 be put into retirement savings. The rest could be spent as desired. But the last $5000 would phase out on a sliding scale starting at incomes over $25,000 down to $0 for incomes over $50,000.

A major hitch in Murray’s plan is that it would require the complete dismantling of all government transfer payments—welfare, food stamps, student loans, everything (not including earned payments such as military and government pensions). That would require “a constitutional [amendment], written in language that even Supreme Court justices can’t ignore.” He worries that this might not be possible. I’d agree with him there.

Murray says that the result of this plan will be to return raw materials to individuals, re-enshrine individual responsibility, promote marriage and strong families (particularly among the lower classes), reduce government involvement in individuals’ lives, and restore meaningful value to life. He has thought of almost every argument that could be employed against his plan and disarmingly addresses each one throughout his book, making the plan sound practical and desirable. The law of unintended consequenses suggests that Murray has not thought of every possible outcome of his plan.

When challenged that the plan seems wildly unfeasible politically, Murray retorts that people said that about his 1984 book Losing Ground that called for welfare reform. Yet, welfare reform came about 12 years later. He also claims that plans to reform our welfare bureaucracies are far less practical that his plan, as the bureaucracies are not fixable. He defends his writing by saying, “All you can do, if you’re in my line of work, is write books and hope that something happens. If I were forced to write about politically practical reforms, I’d be face down on my keyboard, fast asleep.”

I think it is unlikely that Murray’s plan or anything remotely resembling it will become reality. (I could be wrong.) However, I believe that getting these ideas into the public arena is a good thing. Who knows? Perhaps they can help shape future policy.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

National Security: Wilsonianism vs. Jacksonianism

In my last post I alluded to an ongoing debate in conservative circles about US foreign policy. Here I will address this topic more directly.

One side of the debate roughly agrees with President Bush’s Wilsonian approach of tightly linking democracy with US national security. This branch argues that democratic societies are more transparent and more stable than other types of societies. There is an understanding that the US may not always agree with the policies espoused by other democratic governments, it can deal with them on a more stable, low-risk basis. Therefore, it is imperative that democratic reforms be loudly championed around the world.

The other side of the debate does not disagree with the concept that democratic societies are generally more desirable both economically and security-wise than other governing forms. There seems to be general agreement that the development of democratic societies is a worthy and desirable goal that should be pursued. However, there is general disagreement on how imperative this pursuit is to US security. This more Jacksonian approach suggests that national security is a more immediate concern that should take priority over long-term nation building. Many in this camp also disagree with the Bush administration’s methods of pursuing worldwide democracy.

The Wilsonian corps have a lot going for their argument. In the aftermath of the Danish Cartoon kerfuffle, even Danish-based toy maker Lego has found itself targeted by jihadists. Henrik Bering states the case here that autocratic leaders have collaborated with radical Islamists to inflate the cartoon crisis and work it to their ends. They have different motives, but both are served by inciting the radical elements of their populations. Under the Wilsonian creed, this type of thing would be less possible or less dangerous if democratic governments replaced the autocratic ones.

It’s difficult to understand how this argument can be made with a straight face in light of the Hamas landslide victory in Palestine (see here) and the recent case upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty for the crime of apostasy from Islam in Afghanistan (see here). These are “democratic” societies, but it is clear that at least in the case of the Palestinians, their threat to our national security is as great as ever. It is also clear that, as noted by Andrew McCarthy, the Afghan constitution would not restrain full reign by the Taliban.

The Jacksonians are more pragmatic. While there are isolated pockets of conservatives reporting good news from Iraq (see here), many erstwhile supporters (even notable ones, like Peggy Noonan) are wondering what we are accomplishing (see here). The Jacksonians argue that the two goals of national security and spreading democracy should be decoupled because both are important, but only one—national security—is urgent. Conservative luminaries Francis Fukuyama and Adam Garfinkle expertly argue this case here. They also take issue with the narrow methodology currently applied to democracy promotion.

There is no evidence that anyone in the Bush administration is paying any attention to the Jacksonians. The President has recently waxed very evangelical in support of his Wilsonian vision (see here). That is the prerogative of the person holding that office. But at least the debate is underway. However, those that live in the lunacy of seething hatred are excluded from this reasoned debate. As noted in my last post, for the good of our country they need to abandon their jihad and join in the debate in a rational manner. This issue is too important to exclude major groups from the discussion.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Success In Iraq Requires Jettison of Myths

It is time to put away the ideological and rhetorical cudgels and begin to reason again about the best course to choose. – Frederick W. Kagan

Military and war expert Frederick W. Kagan criticizes the myths that prevent us from formulating a coherent policy on our country’s involvement in Iraq (here). WSJ’s Daniel Henninger notes here that Kagan is no water carrier for the Bush administration. Indeed, Kagan invites a robust debate about Iraq and the war on terror, but he says, “this debate can only help the formulation of sound policies if it is based on reality and focuses on the issues at hand.”

In his essay, Kagan takes on six specific myths that he feels are hobbling real progress:
  • The Bush administration intends to keep substantial U.S. forces in Iraq for a long time and must be pressured to bring them home quickly.

  • The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is the major source of the conflict there. Peace will return to Iraq as Americans leave.

  • The war in Iraq is a distraction from the war on terrorism.

  • The wisdom of invading Iraq in 2003 should be an important part of the discussion about what to do in Iraq today.

  • Most Iraqis “want us out,” and we have lost the battle for “hearts and minds.” Therefore, we cannot succeed.

  • Setting a timetable for withdrawal will “incentivize” the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country.
All of Kagan’s myths are favorite points of the President’s critics. Kagan argues that these ideas are not based in the reality of what really matters. He says that all of them must be discarded if we are to have a healthy debate about what we should do now. For example, on myth #4 about the motives for going into Iraq, Kagan says, “It does not matter now why we went into Iraq, only what will happen if we do not succeed there.”

And that is where it lies. It is time to put the good of the country ahead of politics. We need to ask in a clearheaded way what will happen if we fail in Iraq. If we conclude that success is important (indeed, many would argue that it is essential), then we need to figure out the best way to achieve that success. Those who argue that we can afford to fail must do more than put up ideological fluff.

Substantive debate can be useful. There has recently been a debate about Iraq going on between two conservative factions. One side stands with the President’s Wilsonianism (democracy in the Middle East will make us safer – see here), while the other side argues for a more Jacksonian approach (stop the threat and then get out – see here and here).

Kagan notes that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq. For that matter, so does the President. While all of that may be useful historical information, it does little good to move the debate forward about what we should do now. And that debate is essential for the long-term wellbeing and security of our nation.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Most Utah Mormons Will Remain Republican

Even as Utah Democrats exult over mild wording in a recent LDS Church First Presidency statement that can be interpreted to mean that official sanction has been granted for Mormons to be Democrats, there is widespread recognition that most Utah Mormons will continue to vote Republican—at least for the time being.

I offered my opinion here as to some of the reasons that Utah Mormons largely identify with the GOP. Paul Rolly says here that Democratic anti-Mormon sentiments are party to blame for the dearth of Mormon Democrats. Allan Carlson of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society offers more information here that I believe shines additional light on this topic.

Let’s stipulate that all major political parties are coalitions of various groups that band together for political power. Intra-party politics have all of the elements of inter-party politics plus some. It takes a lot of wrangling (and sometimes bludgeoning) for a party to offer a cohesive message on any given issue.

Let’s also stipulate that groups with political power come and go. Their influence waxes and wanes. Groups can also shift political parties. Carlson says that this is what happened in the early 60s through the early 80s. The Democratic Party was once the haven of family friendly policies. They appealed to union members and wage-level workers primarily due to policies that promoted single-income families.

The Republican Party was the abode of business, and interestingly, feminists. In the first six decades of the 20th Century, feminists and business had an alliance. Both wanted to get women into the workforce, but for different reasons. Feminists wanted equality while business viewed stay-at-home mothers as a waste of human resources.

As leftists increased their power in the Democratic Party in the 60s and 70s, pro-family groups lost power in the party. Feminists began aligning more with leftists and began moving to the Democratic Party during the turbulent culture wars. For many, the Democrats came to look like the party of immorality, decadence, anti-Americanism, and high taxes. Pushed out of the Democratic Party, pro-family groups and pro-defense groups aligned with the Republican Party.

This same time period saw Utah Mormons defect from the Democrats to the Republicans in droves. This was more than coincidence. The LDS Church is extremely pro-family. The realignment of pro-family groups to the GOP brought Mormons in tow. This dynamic allowed the upstart Republican Orrin Hatch to unseat 3-term Democratic Senator Frank Moss in 1976.

Carlson argues, however, that the partnership with big business has almost always left pro-family Republicans with the short end of the stick. Republicans have supported policy after policy designed to create more personal debt and to get mothers out of their homes and into the workforce. This fuels business and economic growth, but at the cost of creating a populace indentured to business by debt (creating a permanent cash flow to business) and relegating child rearing to the level of menial and unimportant. K-Street Republicans view pro-family Republicans like nutty relatives in the attic. Carlson says that every time pro-family desires come into conflict with business interests, business comes out on top.

It appears that pro-family interests find a poor fit in the Republican Party, but find absolutely no fit at all in a Democratic Party that is increasingly controlled by the far left (see herescroll down to Publisher’s Opinion). Pro-family groups are not strong enough to create a viable third party. For the time being I believe they will continue to dwell uneasily in the GOP, constantly drubbed by their senior partner. It appears that Wasatch Front Mormons will largely follow this lead and will remain largely Republican. But the day may come when this changes, just as it did when dynamics changed just a few decades ago.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Conservative Disenchantment

Conservative and Republican pundits (not necessarily synonymous terms) are lining up to whack the Bush pi├▒ata in the time-honored tradition of kicking ‘em when they’re down. There appears to be a broad understanding that the president is weak. Analyst after analyst tries to forecast the outcome of November’s midterm elections based on what we know today (see here, here and here). Authors pen books ascribing historical significance (both pro and con) to the Bush presidency with almost three years yet to go (see here and here). People that write and/or talk for a living endlessly pelt elected officials with advice on how to do their jobs (see here).

Of course, this is America, where we are the government. Not only do we have a right to tell our politicians how to do their jobs, we have a duty to do so. But as is the nature of advice, much is useless blather. Some of it, like Fred Barnes’ suggestion that the President deny the loyalty that is a core part of his personality in favor of a complete administration overhaul, borders on insanity.

Most of all, I think a lot of these people are disappointed. Everyone assumed Bush would be a weak president in the aftermath of the 2000 elections, but he surprised us all by governing with a strong hand. Then 9/11 changed everything. After gaining decisive control of both houses of Congress in the 2002 elections, Republicans (especially conservatives) figured that they were finally poised to achieve their greatest aspirations. They looked forward to a golden era where all of the goals that had been impossible for so long would soon become reality.

Less than four years later, many of these people are asking what happened. Americans have grown weary of the war. They question whether democracy can be achieved in the Middle East and whether it will make us more secure if it is achieved (see here). On the domestic front, President Bush has turned out to be far from a Reagan conservative. He’s not even a Rockefeller Republican, but spends more like a Lyndon B. Johnson on steroids (see here). The pay-to-play spendthrift Republicans in Congress that have exposed the way politics has always worked there haven’t helped matters much either. They are casting about for some strategy that will look good to constituents, at least until November 8. Uncomfortable supporters are abandoning ship (see here).

Jonah Goldberg says here not to make too much of the current level of dissatisfaction. He chalks it up to an internecine power struggle resulting from Republican conservatives feeling like they’re being taken for granted. Goldberg notes that conservatives didn't squawk much about the President's agenda when the President was more popular. He echoes the common sentiment among Republicans looking ahead to November that at least they’re not as bad off as Democrats, who lack any kind of coherent agenda beyond hating President Bush.

I truly don’t understand this type of self-delusion. Republicans with this kind of attitude don’t ignore conservative dissatisfaction, but they seem to discount it, assuming that conservatives have nowhere else to go. Some are quick to note that President Bush gave them two Supreme Court justices, cut taxes (at least temporarily), and deposed Saddam. What more can they expect?

Despite the strident calls by some for third party activism, most conservatives that see the Republican Party looking less and less like themselves will simply express their disenchantment by abstaining from the political process. Echoing Peggy Noonan’s disappointment, many conservatives wonder if it could be any worse with a Democrat controlled Congress and/or White House. If Democrats by default gain control of one or both chambers of Congress, it will not be due to their superior ideas, but because they seem like the least bad alternative to the people that actually vote.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Whackyland

Just when you think national politics can’t get any worse, it does. The Bush administration seems to have been working hard since the 2004 election to ingratiate itself with pretty much everyone. But, apparently dissatisfied with low positive polling numbers, it seems to be executing a secret plan to achieve record-high negative polling numbers as well. (You know, the “evil genius” Karl Rove at work).

Congressional Republicans have been running away from the 1994 revolution at breakneck speeds. Some still give lip service to the revolution, while others openly diss it as just so much old baggage. Then comes the whole Abramoff thing, which in turn highlights other abuses. Congressional Republicans look up at us like the kid whose mom catches him with his hand in the cookie jar and his mouth full of cookies, saying (while spraying cookie crumbs), “Ifft wuffn’t me!” They spend a few weeks posturing and talking about the problem, ultimately coming up with a plan to move the cookie jar three inches to the right.

Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have been so busy pandering to their angry left base (see here) that they have departed from the world of reality for some kind of nihilist Never Land (although the WSJ argues here that this loony landscape could become reality). They have been working hard since the 2004 elections to make it sound like they heartily support another 9/11-like expression from the poor and oppressed practitioners of the religion of pieces (this term stolen from Mark Steyn here).

Then comes the Dubai Ports fiasco. Salivating anti-war politicians suddenly discover their missing backbones and take up a duplicitous stance to the right of the President. They fool enough of the people for a short time that they start having pipe dreams (non-inhaling, of course) of taking over Congress in the upcoming November elections. In the midst of their hallucinating, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) comes along with a plan to remind everyone just how opposed to national security the Democrats really are. This appears to be a serious effort by Feingold to bolster Bush’s flagging numbers (see here).

Weakness = bad government
The trouble with all of this is that the American public is poorly served by it. We are better served when we have two strong political parties on the national scene, keeping each other sharp and efficient. One party always works to be just a little stronger than the other one. (Or as one observer put it, two strong groups of thugs keep each other in line). Strength doesn’t necessarily translate into the actual number of representatives elected to Congress from a particular party, but it does seem to translate into a measure of good government.

Since the stronger party only needs to be slightly stronger than the weaker party, when the weaker party becomes weaker the stronger party becomes sloppy and fails to work for good government. This is what we are seeing on the national scene today.

The Democrats, for all of their opportunities, seem intent on self destruction (see this satirical article that hits the mark). 'At-least-we're-not-as-bad-as-the-Democrats' Republicans seem only too happy to lower themselves to stay just a hair stronger than Democrats, even morphing to look more and more like Democrats on many issues. An argument can even be made that the Democrats have moved left because Republicans have successfully co-opted so many traditionally Democratic stances (although some argue that the cause and effect are reversed – see here).

Third-party solution?
At this point, my third party friends will chime in and say that this is exactly why we need a third party. I believe third parties have their place in our system of government. But our two-party system has such strong barriers to entry into the system that third parties can rarely hope to achieve meaningful electoral victories, although, they can influence elections and policy. Major elections won by third-party candidates usually turn out to be Pyrrhic victories. Only when a major party completely implodes can a third party hope to be thrust into the big leagues as it picks up the tattered remnants of the dying party, such as when the Republican Party rose to prominence following the demise of the Whigs.

Third parties tend to thrive only briefly, often only held together by a strong personality or a strong issue, such as when Ross Perot ran for the presidency under the auspices of the Reform Party. The party did remarkably well for a third party in the 1992 election (getting about 18.9% of the presidential vote), but it then joined the remainder of third parties that together garnered less than 2% of the vote in 2004. Political analyst Michael Barone explains here why coalition parties never survive long.

I do not wish to discourage anyone from joining a third party. I’m merely trying to point out the reality that there is little chance that any third party will become a long-term major player in national politics unless one of the major parties succeeds in destroying itself. That could happen, but I’m not sure that there are presently any issues that divide either of the two major parties quite the way slavery divided the Whigs.

Getting to good government
The Founders knew that government was an ugly beast, but also knew that its existence was necessary to prevent anarchy. They designed a system that they hoped would prevent even uglier systems from taking hold. I recently heard a person argue that even with all of its flaws, the U.S. has the least screwed up system of government on the face of the earth. Even if you don’t believe in American exceptionalism, each of us must not give up trying to improve our system of government.

We need strong parties for good government. One of our major problems is that we have put too much of our society under the control of the national government. The system is so unwieldy that it cannot be governed well. Our major political parties have become sloppy. They ignore the truly important issues and focus on things that should be handled at a lower level. I believe that one of the best things we can do to strengthen our major political parties is to shrink the responsibilities of the central government to be more in line with what the Founders intended, shifting responsibilities to the most appropriate level of government, similar to the system suggested here by LaVarr Webb.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Legalized Polygamy Ahead?

120 years ago Americans considered the practice of polygamy in far-off, isolated Utah such a threat to American society that all three branches of the government colluded in an unprecedented fashion to quash the practice. In fact, as documented by Gregory Smith (here), the practice was so egregious that in an effort to stop it, the government had no trouble trampling on basic human rights and supporting constitutional misinterpretations that impact our laws and lives today.

The Mormon practitioners of polygamy at the time could not understand why Americans refused to take a libertarian view of the practice and why the practice was considered fundamentally immoral. They could not understand how Christians that accepted Biblical polygamous prophets could not accept the idea of modern-day polygamous Christians.

Maybe Mormons were just a century and half early. Fast-forward to an America where many cannot find anything inherently immoral about any kind of sexual partnering practice, and you’ll find that we’re on the road to legalized polygamy. But as Stanley Kurtz notes here, today polygamy is only being employed as a convenient tool in a larger social battle. It’s a whistle stop on the road that runs though gay marriage and ultimately arrives at “an infinitely flexible partnership system.”

Kurtz sounds alarmist on this issue, but if you follow the links (and associated linkage chains) in his article, he leads you through a long process to show quite clearly where this train is headed. Although some that are urging the train to speed up stubbornly refuse to admit its destination, it’s clear that the goal is the complete dissolution of marriage as we know it.

That begs the question, so what? What if traditional marriage goes by the wayside? We’ve actually been on this road for a long time: feminism, the sexual revolution, birth control, legalized abortion, you know the routine. It’s just that now the pace is hastening.

Kurtz argues elsewhere (see here and here) that there are very real costs to the destruction of traditional marriage. The biggest cost comes to our children. Adults have more freedom than before, but we are destroying our children. He also frequently applies the slippery slope argument. We cannot see the full impact of our choices today, but we will in a couple of generations. Of course, you can only destroy so many generations of children before the system breaks.

Marriage dissolution advocates will have none of this. While they do not argue that there are no consequences to our course, they do argue that the end result will be acceptable or even better than anything we’ve had in the past. Conservatives, by nature, are duty bound to try to hold the line. They have had some success with amending state constitutions to protect traditional marriage. But can they stop the train?

When the train finally pulls into the station at Legal Polygamy Gulch, don’t be looking for the LDS Church to climb on board. Following the 1904 Second Manifesto renouncing the practice of polygamy, the church became increasingly anti-polygamy (in practice, not in doctrine), even supporting legal raids on polygamist communities in the 1940s (after most practicing LDS polygamists had passed away).

This hard line stance has helped bolster the church’s public image. The church is not about to squander its hard-earned image, which is one of the keys to the success of its missionary program. Although there may be some public sympathy for polygamists, right now the public views the practice of polygamy as too weird. However, give the legalized practice a generation or two to germinate in the public mind, and who knows?

I’m not advocating that the LDS Church return to the practice of polygamy. (I’ve got my hands full with one wife and five kids. You know—a wife, a wife, I have a wife, and I need no more wives.) I’m simply postulating one scenario of what might be coming down the road.

Religion and Social Status

I wanted to rant about an experience I recently had, but try as I might, I cannot do it justice because I am bound by the necessity of maintaining confidences. I can only speak to it in the most general terms.

As much as we value diversity, the average person in our society rarely operates outside of his/her established social circle except in situations for which society has well defined interfaces. I might, for example, briefly interact with a maid at a hotel or a server at a restaurant, but I do not deal with the realities of those people’s lives.

Most of us live in neighborhoods surrounded by others that are similar to us in social standing. Occasionally we purposefully step outside of our comfort zone to benevolently help someone that we perceive to be of a lower social order. But I find that we often feel very uncomfortable when circumstances force us to deal with such a person on a close basis.

A couple of weeks ago I was a parent volunteer on a field trip for my son’s Kindergarten class. We put the kids through a lot of physical activities. One little girl told me she was so tuckered out that she wanted to go home and lie down, but said that she couldn’t because nobody was home—because her dad had gone to get her mom out of jail. I felt like somebody had punched me in the gut. No little kid should have to deal with that kind of baggage. I wondered what I should do, if anything.

I recently found myself in a gathering with people that purport to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Pretty much everyone present shared a similar social status. I was shocked at the attitudes this group displayed with regard to some people of a lower social status that have some serious problems. I was dismayed by some of my own thoughts on the matter.

There was a very libertarian air that these people deserved to lie in the beds they had made for themselves. We could piously pass by them on the road to Jericho. One person present, almost embarrassed to do so, made a quiet neutral-sounding one-sentence comment that caused everyone present to quickly reassess his/her feelings on the matter.

I should make it clear that this occurred in a volunteer group. I am generally opposed to government social programs that exacerbate the problems they are designed to solve, that create worse problems than the ones being addressed, or that absolve individuals of responsibility. But this was a group of Christians that have the ability to actually make a difference in the lives of others.

I feel like each of us that was there that day needs to really ponder the Savior’s teaching in Matthew 25:31-46.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Does Mormon Doctrine Contradict Evolution?

The recent public debate about Senator Chris Buttars’ failed anti-evolution bill has been very instructive. It has caused many members of the LDS Church to take sides and to question their personal beliefs on the issue. Senator Buttars bitterly remarked (here), “A number of Mormon legislators believe we evolved. I don't. I believe I'm a child of God.”

The Foundation for Apologetics In Research has posted a fascinating transcript (here) from its 2004 conference of a discussion on evolution and LDS theology. The speaker is Trent D. Stephens, a professor of biology at Idaho State University. He has some specialty in DNA analysis.

Stephens is very active in the LDS Church and is a staunch evolutionist. He holds that LDS scripture and official doctrine in no way contradict the theory of evolution. He notes that the church officially says that the Lord has not yet revealed how humans came to be, only that they did and are children of God. He addresses the common LDS anti-evolution arguments, taking them apart and showing that they are not based on firm doctrine or science. Stephens cannot comprehend why evolution would preclude humans being children of God.

Stephens challenges Mormons to review all scriptures about the creation with a fresh approach, cleansing their minds of any preconceived notions and reading only what is actually written. He says that they will soon discover that most of the creationist positions are based on a fallible interpretation of scripture rather than on actual scripture.

Stephens’ position is that most of the anti-evolution fervor among Mormons hearkens back to Christian tradition. He seems to be asking why Mormons would be beholden to creationist interpretations by 12th Century clerics in light of new information. The LDS Church has a deep history of tossing to the wind Christian traditions believed to be incorrect. In fact, this is the basis for much of the animosity between the LDS Church and many other Christian churches.

The LDS Church has made many overtures toward other churches and religions in recent decades, but there is no move toward ecumenism. Indeed, President Gordon B. Hinckley has repeatedly restated the church’s position that while the church reaches out to and works with other faiths and respects their beliefs, it will be absolutely unwavering in maintaining its unique doctrine.

When anti-Mormon Christians claim that Mormons aren’t Christian, they base this on the fact that Mormons refuse to define deity according to the First Council of Nicaea. Mormons are proud of their unique doctrine on deity, but see the definition of Christian as merely a semantic twist (see here and here). Similarly, Stephens questions where in LDS doctrine it states that Mormons must hew to old Christian dogmas about the creation.

At the close of his lecture Stephens takes a few questions from audience members. The topic of anti-evolution statements by LDS general authorities (including prophets) is brought up. (I thought of this 1984 general conference talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer). Stephens replies that none of these comments are considered official doctrine and that everyone, including prophets, are free to express their opinions on the matter. He says, “If the Lord speaks to the prophet that becomes scripture, we are held accountable to the scripture. We're not held accountable for people's opinions.”

One member of the audience is troubled by the fossil record showing that H. Sapiens lived on earth tens or hundreds of thousands of years before Adam and Eve. Stephens offers his opinion that just as the Savior’s Atonement affects all people before, during and after his mortal life, the Fall of Adam and Eve likewise affects all people before and after them. He does not go into how this squares with the scripture that calls Eve “the mother of all living.”

In addition to doctrinal points, Stephens discusses the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution, particularly the expanding fossil record and DNA analyses. While not ignoring data gaps that have been highlighted by promoters of Intelligent Design, he basically calls ID creationism with new makeup. (I have posted about this here and here).

Stephens departs from pure Darwinism. He argues that there is much evidence that a force of determinism constantly works counter to the law of entropy. He says that his research leads him to understand that there are so many developmental constraints that the ultimate form of any biological system is highly predictable. He argues that biologists have largely ignored these constraints because they have been looking exclusively for the randomness so strongly relied on by Darwin.

Some Mormons have felt that it has been their duty to stoically defend creationism to be loyal to their faith. Stephenson makes it clear that it is possible to be completely open to truth from scientific sources without denying one’s faith.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Living the Good Life

Carrie Lukas cites a variety of studies (here) that confirm that “the quality of life enjoyed by Americans is unprecedented in human history.” She contrasts this with the constant barrage of negative and anti-American news that pours from our media outlets.

The studies Lukas cites show that the United States of America is indeed the greatest country on God’s green earth. At least, the percentage of Americans that think America is great far exceeds the percentage of citizens of other countries that think their own countries are great.

Just how good is America? Lukas puts it this way: “a poor household today is far better off than the average household in 1950.” Most of this nation’s poor live better than vast majority of the rest of the world. “The typical American living below the poverty line owns a car; has air conditioning, a cell phone, and a microwave; and lives in a home that isn't overcrowded.”

Lukas doesn’t say so, but studies also show that most of our poor are not really poor, as it were. They are retirees that own their homes and have investments, but have little income. They are college students as well as workers in their same age range that have a greater percentage of disposable income than the average family. These groups soon move out of the poverty level, only to be replaced by other relatively affluent poor.

The problem with these kinds of poverty measures is that they fail to delineate between those in our society that truly are poor and those that have little income but are not actually poor. Of course, having a higher number of people classified as poor is in the interest of those in the poverty advocacy industry. Intellectual honesty would apparently hurt that industry, but it would actually help us to focus on the needs of those that truly live in poverty.

I feel truly blessed to be an American. Indeed, life here is good.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

To Exercise or Not to Exercise

Why do some people exercise? Why don’t most people exercise? I have long contemplated these questions because I’ve been on both sides of the issue.

My Sojourn to Fitness
I spent my childhood actively trying to become the poster child for couch potato syndrome. I started dabbling in exercise as an overweight teen. In my early 20s I had some fairly long stints where I was relatively dedicated to exercising. After ballooning to epic proportions during my first year of marriage (well, I got up to over 30% body fat), I began exercising in earnest. For the past 18+ years I have rarely missed a day in my six-day-per-week routine.

My routine has taken different variations over the years. I spent over a decade doing 45-60 minutes of daily aerobic cardio training. I started out by doing fitness walking (basically, walking at a good clip). Eventually I transitioned to using a Nordic Track cross-country ski machine. I woreout one of those tough pieces of equipment. Then I was introduced to strength training. I have spent over six years doing strength training three times weekly and high-intensity cardio interval training on offsetting days. I change my strength training routine every two weeks and take various approaches to my cardio training.

What Kind of Exercise to Do
I’m not a fitness guru. I find something that I can live with and then stick with it. Jack LaLanne, now over 90 years old, advocates 2-3-hour daily routines as well as a complete makeover of your exercise routine every two months, because the body adapts to any routine. I suppose that’s fine if you can spend 100% of your time paying attention to your personal fitness. Can you say narcissism, children?

There has been a lot of discussion over the past several years regarding several studies showing that long aerobic routines actually weaken the heart. It’s not the 5K runs that cause the damage; it’s the ones in excess of 10K. Marathon runners are particularly susceptible. Our society has come to believe that marathon runners are incredibly healthy. Studies are showing that avid marathoners’ hearts are weaker than those of couch potatoes.

Other studies have revealed that low to moderate aerobic routines of 30-60-minute duration lower the body’s fatigue point, cause grumpiness, and coupled with a low calorie diet actually make it harder to lose fat. Bodybuilding advocates like touting the studies that show that strength training and shorter high-intensity cardio workouts optimally strengthen the heart and enhance lean body mass (see here and here for examples).

Why Do People Exercise?
But the major question I have is why some work out while most do not. Haven’t we all been told for years that we need regular exercise? This article suggests something that I have come to believe over the past several years; that any exercise routine must be something that the individual can live with. I do not believe that there is any one-size-fits-all routine.

Experts have told me that you’re headed for total failure if you don’t work out at a commercial gym. I hate going to commercial gyms. Exercise is a very personal experience for me, not a social one. Other people I know need to have the camaraderie of others to maintain any kind of regular routine.

The article I cited also suggests looking at exercise like a normal health routine, kind of like brushing your teeth. Nice analogy, except that tooth brushing is not nearly as onerous to most people as is exercising. I think that to make exercising work, you have to derive some kind of enjoyment from it. Exercise has become such a routine part of my life that I really feel strange if I miss a workout. I also believe I’m somewhat hooked to the release of endorphins I get when I work out. Still, there’s a Mr. Hyde part of me that sometimes makes me hate the idea of working out. But I never regret the workout when I’m finished.

I enjoy elements of strength training, but I hate the idea of running. If I have to think about running I get the same feeling most children get when thinking about eating Brussels sprouts. But I have friends who love running daily. Some of the most enjoyable workouts I have had were when I used to go fitness walking with my kids in our double jogger stroller through the roads in our local cemetery. (Yeah, I know that sounds weird, but there are some really cool headstones up there).

Why Don’t People Work Out?
But why don’t most people work out? Well, it’s a pain in the tail. It’s not seen as tremendously enjoyable. It takes time—preparation, working out, cleaning up, and maybe travel time as well. Many of us don’t know how to start or what to do. Most of the time, however, I think we’re not going to upset the status quo of our life unless something comes along and whacks us between the eyes. That is, I think we lack sufficient motivation.

I started working out because I gained a lot of weight over a short period of time, and the trend didn’t appear to be slowing down. I remained dedicated to working out, partially because of the endorphin fix I get from it, and partially because I developed Multiple Sclerosis. My theory is that being in better shape will diminish the deleterious effects of the disease. It’s great motivation. It’s amazing how the diagnosis of a serious disease can reorient your priorities.

I think that the medical industrial complex hasn’t helped either. The promotions of medical vendors and the medical technological advances of the last few decades make us feel that there will be some drug or miracle treatment available when some inactivity related malady eventually hits us. Never mind the cost or effectiveness of these treatments. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. No need to worry about it now.

Are Fitness Freaks Better Than Others?
Another odd thing is that despite my dedication to exercise, I don’t feel particularly superior to those that do not exercise. I see pros and cons to both ways of life. Sometimes I’m like a slave to my exercise routine, sacrificing important life moments to the god of physical health. The drive to focus on one’s individual health can prevent focusing on things that probably matter more. Sometimes the pursuit seems absurd. I’m reminded of the line in The Princess Bride where the evil Count Tyrone Rugen tells the murderous Prince Humperdinck, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” Maybe I’ll have better ‘quality of life’ in my old age, but at what cost?

Obviously I believe that exercise is worth it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But would I do it if I weren’t dealing with a serious chronic illness? I’m not sure. I do believe that we all ought to make reasonable efforts to take care of physical health, but does that require regular workouts? If you’re among the great non-exercising hoard, there are ways to break into the ranks of the physically fit—if you want. But if you don’t want to, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

Dubai Ports Frustration

I have taken a wait and see approach with regard to the Dubai Ports fiasco. I realize that this is just so much yesterday’s news for many, but I have found the way that this thing has played out to be absolutely maddening in many different respects.

I have mulled this issue over for some time, vainly attempting to formulate a cogent post. Fortunately, Irwin Stelzer has written an article here that does an adequate job of both echoing my exasperation with almost everyone involved in this mess as well as presenting the Hobbesian choice now left to us.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Meaningful Tax Reform a Casualty of Politics

The 2006 legislative session is thankfully over. (See here for an adequate report on the outcome). I must admit that I feel rather jaded because the legislature fell apart on one of my hot button issues: tax reform. A few days ago, Rep. Steve Urquhart sounded triumphal about finally cobbling together an agreement between the House and the Senate on tax reform (see here). But when push came to shove, politics won and taxpayers lost.

Although the legislators can say that they cut taxes, dabbling in some business tax cuts and achieving a hard-fought marginal tax cut on food items, the achievements are insignificant. Rep. Steve Urquhart blogged here about the earlier demise of an understanding between the House and Senate to completely scrap the sales tax on food. When the marginal decrease that finally passed goes into effect next year, we will have the confusing situation of paying slightly different tax rates on food items and non-food items.

I realize that the people that worked hard on this are happy to have gotten any decrease at all (perhaps seeing it as a foot-in-the-door achievement), but the ultimate impact on taxpayers is weird. Either the sales tax on food is good or it is not. Why tax food at a marginally lower rate than other items? If the tax is bad, get rid of it altogether. I realize that there are arguments against dropping the tax, but to only sort of drop it creates a strange situation.

My biggest beef is that even with the largest revenue surplus in state history, legislators were unable to figure out a way to enact meaningful income tax reform. I have blogged here, here, and here about this issue. Governor Huntsman is set to call the legislators back for a special session to work this out. It appears that the legislature managed to squander the time of the regular session focusing on things they deemed more important than tax reform. It’s not that they didn’t have sufficient time (see my post favoring a short session). They simply failed to use it effectively.

But seriously, the $65 million prospective tax cut they are talking about is only a small fraction of the overall surplus (around 7%). Although LaVarr Webb would call this a moderate tax cut (see here and here), it’s chickenfeed compared to what was available. It seems bizarre that legislators were unable to come to a consensus on returning even this nominal amount to the overcharged taxpayers. This really sticks in the craw of small government types.

So who were the big winners of this session? The biggest winner is the beast of the bureaucracy. We chose to feed the beast unprecedented amounts rather than having it go on a diet. Transportation is a big winner. Done properly, this can mean that all Utahns are winners as well. LaVarr Webb eloquently discussed this in his posts that I cited above (especially the first one). Education took the lion’s share of the surplus, garnering a 10.6% increase that includes a 6% increase to the Weighted Pupil Unit. The USTAR initiative passed, aiming to develop new technologies in Utah and then keep the resulting businesses here. We’ll have to see how it works in application.

And the losers? Being a believer in small government, I have to say that the taxpayers are the biggest losers. We have established a budget precedent that may come back to bite us when the size of the revenue stream inevitably diminishes. Since it seems impossible to put the bureaucracy on a starvation diet in lean times, overfeeding it in times of surplus instead of controlling its growth often translates into future tax increases. We’re also going to waste taxpayer money again to hold an early presidential primary in a vain attempt to get more respect for our state in national politics. The creationism crowd’s anti-evolution bill went to the junk heap.

Education is another loser. What, education?! I thought I just said it was a winner. Yes, it won a lot of funding, but it’s a loser—in two ways. First we are dumping more money into education without any significant reform (see my post about real education reform). As with all money-throwing efforts that fail to enact effective reform, we will ultimately get nothing of value (or worse) for our additional spending. Second, the public education industrial complex will still howl that it is yet hungry and has been inadequately fed. As it is presently constituted, we will *never* be able to satisfactorily fund public education. We will never have enough revenue to assuage the beast. There is no logical limit to the system’s perceived need. The only answer is very real, painful reform. We do not yet have the public or political will to pull that off, but the day that we do may be coming.

All in all, the results of this legislative session are mixed. Some good stuff, some bad stuff. I believe it is unconscionable that the legislature failed to achieve meaningful tax reform. I think it shows an inappropriate focus and bodes future problems. Still, I thank all of those that worked to make our representative form of government work, especially our elected officials. Some of you may have to face the ire of grassroots conservatives in the months ahead.