Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Will Conservatism be When It Grows Up?

Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Charles R. Kesler writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that it is ridiculous for conservatives to blame Republicans “for the drubbing they took at the polls” in November. The real problem, he suggests, is that there is no broad agreement on what conservatism means today.

Kesler outlines the recent history of the conservative movement. His basic thesis is that conservatism has fallen victim to its own success. He doesn’t put it that way. He writes, “After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost the urgent motivation provided by anti-Communism.” Since that time, he posits, conservatism has come to mean different things to different people. It’s like a teenager trying to find itself.

George W. Bush was able to cobble together a vision of conservatism that was at least somewhat acceptable to most conservatives. But his “compassionate conservatism eviscerated the GOP's reform ambitions,” Kesler writes. “By abandoning the public case for limited government, Bush's spiritless conservatism left the administration, and especially Congress, adrift and spendthrift.”

I think that it’s pretty clear that many that more or less hew to conservative principles are quite disappointed in the Republicans’ general lack of fiscal restraint over the last half decade. But I doubt that many of them would see themselves as part of the problem, as Kesler asserts.

But all is not lost. Kesler says that “there are verities to which the wise and good may always repair, and conservatism is distinguished by its reverence for them.” But he says that it is a necessary and exhilarating challenge to relearn them “in every generation, restated in the idiom of life, and applied to new circumstances.”

Striking a note of hope, Kesler concludes that “conservatism's perplexities may contribute to making this the most illuminating political season in 30 years.” It might, but I’m not holding my breath. None of the major candidates I have seen come across as a cogent spokesman for revering the “verities” to which Kesler refers. Conservatives will surely eventually unite behind someone, but it is likely to be a coalition of convenience rather than a band of converts.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Klondike Derby

Over the weekend I ran my Boy Scout district’s annual Klondike Derby. We had 270 participants (besides staff), which was better than we anticipated. Historically we have had remarkably low turnout in years when there has been little snow on the ground.

We scheduled the venue months ago and obviously had no control over how much snow we would have. With the low snowfall so far this year and the sunny days, by Friday afternoon our venue had perhaps six inches of snow in the very deepest spots.

Thankfully, many people came together to make this event a success. Our district webmaster did a wonderful job of making promotion over the Internet available. Many assistant district commissioners plied the units in their zones to get commitments to attend. The Order of the Arrow chapter provided older boys to help staff the event. Numerous adult staff members came out and helped with administrative and organizational affairs. Assistant district commissioners ran the various Scoutcraft events. And, of course, the unit leaders and boys, not to mention the dads that accompanied troops, were really the ones that made this event work.

Every year when I attend Klondike Derby I grouse about it to my wife. It takes as much work to run a 20-hour winter campout (including planning, packing, setup, execution, breakdown, and cleanup) as it does to run a week-long summer camp. But year after year we do it anyway. Why? I think it comes down to three reasons.

Number one is adventure. Adventure is an indispensable part of the Boy Scout program. While many good things have been achieved through our emphasis on risk reduction over the past couple of decades, sometimes we have gone too far and have killed the critical adventure factor. We need to eliminate superfluous risk, but psychologists that understand how boys’ minds work understand that boys crave adventure. If they can’t get it constructively they get it destructively. Hence, the problems we have with trying to make boys always behave nice at school. Camping out in the snow is, for most boys, quite an adventure.

The second reason we do Klondike Derby is to teach winter survival skills. I don’t have any statistics on how many boys and men can attribute survival in cold weather conditions to skills they learned in Boy Scouts, but it worked for me. At age 17 I became lost when my snowmobile broke down on a trip in a mountainous area. I was able to survive partially due to the winter survival skills I learned as a Boy Scout.

The third reason we have Klondike Derby is to develop camaraderie and develop citizenship skills. When you put a couple of hundred Boy Scouts together for an event, they learn to depend on one another and they learn how to interface with the nearby troops. Sometimes they deal with camp boundary disputes or manage whose turn it is on the sled slope. Hopefully this provides some good citizenship lessons.

One of the problems we have at the venue we have traditionally used is that the parking area is suitable for perhaps 18-20 vehicles. When you bring nearly 300 people from a sizable geographic area to a place like that, they come in a lot of vehicles. We have always tried to keep the parking area for loading and unloading only and have asked people to park only on one side of the road leading to the area. That means that we have cars parked down the road for almost a mile. This year one zone managed the loading/unloading area very effectively. One volunteer drove up and down the road for several hours shuttling people to and from their vehicles. This helped a lot.

I’m sure that the low snow and the clear weather, which was warm during the day and quite crisp during the night (about 11°), lent to the manageability of the parking situation. The loading zone was mud instead of ice, and there was no massive snow bank surrounding the loading zone as there usually is during the winter months.

But the area we use has become a popular cross-country ski venue. A volunteer group grooms the trails there throughout the winter. The regular skiing patrons were less than pleased to have our large group there. Some of them were quite unhappy about having to park nearly a mile away from the trailhead. Although this venue is public property and we pay to use it, we might have to seek out another venue next year in the name of good public relations. The trouble is that the next best venue we can think of would add about an hour round trip to the travel time.

For this year I am glad that this event is complete. I’m very grateful to all those that worked to make it successful. My committee will work on implementing some of the lessons we learned from this year to make the event more successful next year. Now, it’s on to planning the district’s spring and fall campouts.

Monday, January 29, 2007

When Illegals Go To College

My state representative, Glenn Donnelson (R-North Ogden) was featured in Sunday’s Standard Examiner. Glenn is in his fourth term in the state legislature and I’ve known him personally for many years. I can say this about Glenn: he’s honest, he’s hard working, he’s conservative, and he’s very strong-minded.

I’ve always fancied myself to be a conservative. But Glenn makes me look rather liberal in some ways. I respect Glenn, but we don’t see eye to eye on some issues. I remember driving behind Glenn’s old orange pickup truck one day. On the back bumper was a sticker proclaiming, “God, Guns, and Guts made and keep America great!”

Glenn has a great love for and a devotion to the U.S. Constitution. I understand that Glenn’s sticker was expressing his support for his understanding of First Amendment and Second Amendment rights. But the religionist in me (note that Glenn and I attended the same congregation for years) kind of thought that God might find this little glib phrase coupling Him with guns to be somewhat offensive. I realize that many have no problem with this kind of coupling.

I think one thing that kind of sticks in my craw is Glenn’s support of extremist nutcake Bo Gritz in the 1992 presidential campaign. Glenn dismisses criticism of his support by saying that he couldn’t support anyone else that was running. But Glenn’s support was not a passive thing. It was very enthusiastic. While Colonel Gritz has some admirable qualities, the man is unstable and is arguably certifiable. I haven’t often found a major party national candidate whom I felt tremendously enthusiastic about, but just about any of them in 1992 would probably have been a better choice than Gritz.

The reason Glenn is in the news right now is his sponsorship of HB224, which would repeal the law that permits illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates (see Utah Politicopia discussion). Some openly label Donnelson as racist for simply raising the point. Some say that since illegals are here, we have a responsibility to help them get the best education and jobs that they can get.

For example, Politicopia commentator Steve Petersen writes, “While it does cost money to educate illegal immigrants, I wonder how much more an uneducated and unskilled resident would cost the state. The more education and skills anyone in Utah has, the less likely that they will rely upon the government for assistance for day-to-day living.”

Donnelson says that the whole concept of allowing illegals to pay in-state tuition is disingenuous. Not only does it send the wrong message that breaking the law to enter the country is OK, but it gives false hope because these people can’t work here legally. “Employers who hire anyone who is here illegally can be fined thousands of dollars under federal law.” A counter argument is noted by Utah Politicopia commentator jseelig, who writes that illegals applying to pay in-state tuition rates are required to show that they have applied for legal status.

Glenn says he’d like to see federal law changed so that it was easier for people to come to and work in this country legally. But he says, the state should not “be offering in-state tuition or driving-privilege cards to those who are here without proper documentation.” He sees it as a simple matter of right and wrong.

A number of people agree. Politicopia commentator RL writes, “I don't want my hard earned tax dollars going to pay for any illegal's education, healthcare, subsidised (sic) housing, etc. I will support anyone here legally. It is becoming too much of a strain on our country's infrastructure.”

Some of our national laws stem from attitudes and legislation in the various states; our laboratories of democracy. If states send the message that they are fed up with illegal immigration, we’re more likely to see federal legislation to fix it. On the other hand, if states send the message that they will accommodate illegal immigration, the federal level will have little incentive to do more than give the issue lip service.

I don’t know how HB224 will fare. But one thing is for sure; it has a tenacious sponsor that is convinced he’s doing the right thing.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

We're Number Four!

I grew up in a time and a place where we were proud to be living in the freest nation on the face of the earth. And the U.S.A. does enjoy a vast amount of freedom comparable to most other nations. Freedom can be measured in many ways, but Milton Friedman argued that economic freedom properly measured essentially embodies all forms of freedom.

Friedman and other like-minded economists concluded that the main points of economic freedom are:
  • Personal choice rather than collective choice.
  • Voluntary exchange coordinated by markets rather than allocation via the political process.
  • Freedom to enter and compete in markets.
  • Protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.
These economists developed the Index of Economic Freedom, which was first published in 1993. The index measures:

  • Size of Government: Expenditures, Taxes, and Enterprises

  • Legal Structure and Security of Property Rights

  • Access to Sound Money

  • Freedom to Trade Internationally

  • Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business
The 2007 index is out. You can get a glimpse of it at the link, but to get all of the nitty-gritty details, you’ve got to fork over $24.95 for the book. Hey, these guys are promoting the free market. They’re trying to turn a buck, just like everyone else. Alternatively, you can download the book by giving up some personal information.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, co-editor of the 2007 index, writes here:

Here's bad news for those who oppose global free trade: Not only did the world-wide trend toward greater economic liberty hold steady over the past year, but the incomes of poor individuals across the globe are rising as result. The world isn't only growing richer. The gap between the per-capita income of have-not populations and that of the developed world is narrowing.

O’Grady crows that despite all of the nasty stuff going on throughout the world and in our domestic politics, there has been a “global shift that reflects the basic human longing for individual liberty.” She adds, “While not all of mankind is participating in this advance, in those places where freedom has increased, people are becoming decidedly better off.” She notes that “economically free countries enjoy significantly greater prosperity than those burdened by heavy government intervention.”

All of this sounds very good. And then I checked out the nation rankings. We’re number 1, right? Wrong. Up there on top is Hong Kong, followed by Singapore, followed by Australia. The U.S. comes in at number 4, not even a bronze medal. What’s up with that? What are we doing wrong? Go back and check Friedman’s list and some problems should become readily apparent.

Of course, I think a lot of people would be quick to point out that the Chinese government in Hong Kong and the government in Singapore hardly come across as hotbeds of democracy. Both impose restrictions on political and individual freedoms that most Americans would think are quite oppressive. Australia offers a model with more cultural and political similarities to us, despite technically being a dominion ruled by a distant monarch.

I’m sure that some will say that these rankings only prove that the index fails to adequately measure freedom. And I believe there is some truth to that criticism. I noted here that economists have an unusual way of looking at things. Some will aptly argue that the restrictions that put us in fourth place produce other social positives that are either unmeasured or mismeasured by the index. There may be some truth to this as well, despite the fact that the index is broadly accepted and used as the basis for a great deal of research.

I guess we need to ask what we’re trying to achieve. Is the goal to improve the economic lot of individuals? If so, Johnny Munkhammer’s essay in the index on this topic offers a studied and interesting conclusion. He writes, “If the world wants to achieve both more jobs and better living standards, freedom is essential.”

I myself am no purist in this arena. I recently advocated heavier regulations on payday lenders. But I think the index is an important tool to use in shaping public policy. When it comes to economic freedom, the rule should be to tread lightly and cautiously, even erring on the side of freedom, lest we cause more ills than we cure with our well-intentioned actions. Of course, that may run counter to the economics of politics. Still, we ought to be #1, not #4, don’t you think?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Economic Realities of Politics

Economists are an interesting breed. Many of them approach every issue as if all matters can be fully explained via economics. And perhaps this would be true if it were possible to consider every macro and micro input, output, and element involved in every issue. It might work if you were omniscient.

In fact, many real life issues involve so many intricate complexities that they may seem to defy logic and/or economic theory. Sometimes it is impossible to determine what elements are significant among the seemingly endless minutia and facets surrounding a matter.

Still, economists offer some very keen insights into our world. For that reason, I enjoy occasionally perusing Café Hayek, a blog run by Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts, economics professors at George Mason University. Roberts has a pair of recent posts (here and here) where he either directly or indirectly discusses the economics of politics.

Roberts disagrees with the view that politicians are stupid. He asserts that they are quite smart within their arenas. But he suggests that we expect politicians to behave in ways that controvert economic laws. Contesting the view that government should essentially behave like a business, Roberts writes, “Public policy isn't run like a business because there's no gain to the players to run it that way.”

Roberts asks, “[W]hy do we expect politicians to do something other than to try and stay in office?” He explains, “That's what they do. Don't ask politicians to do something they aren't motivated to do.”

I think this is an example of economic oversimplification. In fact, politicians are involved in politics for a variety of reasons. If we reduce all of these reasons to economic values, perhaps remaining in office is a major motivator for many. But that hardly explains the whole ball of wax.

Some politicians love playing the political game. It turns their crank. Elections are only one facet of the whole game. We have a number of people that spend their entire careers serving in public positions. Sometimes they’re elected positions. Sometimes they’re appointed. They rotate through positions, but they are still playing the political game.

Another important consideration is that all of these politicians are themselves citizens. That is, they often have a bona fide interest in political outcomes beyond the game itself.

I suspect that we could sit around for months on end coming up with our politicians’ major and minor motivators. Then we could spend years tinkering around with a statistical model of how these factors affect political outcomes. We might even get a government grant to do this study. In the end, I doubt our understanding of the whole matter would be truly enriched. I think that with some information and a little common sense thinking, most of us could readily figure out the main things that make our politicians tick.

Roberts makes the interesting comment that the nature of politics is to centralize. He writes, “Politicians prefer complex policies that redistribute income to their friends and encourage friends and enemies to lobby for changes in the law, relative to decentralized solutions where it's hard to claim credit for the benefits.” In other words, he is arguing that politics works against principles of federalism. This observation would seem to explain NCLB and Medicare expansion, among many other things.

My charges of oversimplification are probably a bit over the top. Should I really expect an economist to delve into the complexities of political motivators in a blog post that merely points out that political motivators exist?

I think Roberts has hit on an important point. Many frustrations with politicians stem from unrealistic expectations. As I study the history of the founding of our nation, I do not believe that our Founders were misled about the basic nature of politics. Many Founders viewed politics as a problematic but necessary element of good government.

In the end, I think Roberts’ point is valid. Don’t expect politicians to behave in ways in which they are not motivated to behave. We should have some general clue about what motivates our politicians. That would lead to more realistic expectations. We still might be frequently disappointed, but perhaps we would be less frustrated about it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Go Ahead and Regulate Payday Lenders

Utah Politicopia has a discussion going regarding SB16, which would place some restrictions on payday lenders. I would admonish everyone to read through the comments on that discussion. Let’s be honest, folks. Payday lending is an unsavory practice that is intended to cause harm to a significant portion of its debtors. You can dispense with any pretensions of altruism when it comes to payday lending. I’m simply not going to buy it.

Rep. Steve Urquhardt (R-St. George) comments in favor of regulating these types of businesses. The opposing point of view comes with libertarian flair, suggesting that this type of regulation would interfere with the willing provider-willing consumer relationship. Phil Windley suggests that the free market will smooth out any real problems. He argues that if sharks are setting rates too high other lenders will see this as an opportunity and will soon create healthy competition, thereby, lowering rates.

Windley’s argument necessarily rests on the supposition that since demand exists, regulation will only cause loan seekers to find even riskier opportunities elsewhere. Hmmm. I remember parallel arguments being raised in debates about legalizing currently illegal drugs and allowing unrestricted abortion.

Anti-drug-war folks argue that since the demand exists, we’re never going to resolve the problem by disrupting supply. Unrestricted abortion proponents argue that since demand exists, restriction of abortion leads some girls and women seeking abortion to obtain it through dangerous methods.

It is quite apparent that most Americans think that our anti-drug policy falls within providing for the general welfare. A minority argues that this is simply an example of the tyranny of the majority over the minority, but this pretty much falls on deaf ears. (That does not mean it is not so.) There is much less agreement among Americans on abortion rights, but a minority of Americans favor completely unrestricted abortion.

Perhaps the payday lending debate is more closely aligned with the current war on tobacco use. Even proper use of the product harms its users. We do not make tobacco use illegal (except for those under a certain age), but we heavily regulate and levy heavy taxes on the industry. The libertarian argument is that this type of meddling is inappropriate.

We should ask whether our meddling with the tobacco industry actually has any salutary effect. I think most Americans probably think it does. But I have no empirical data to back this up, nor do I have any empirical data that shows whether tobacco regulation actually achieves its goals.

At any rate, I’m not sure how much all of this matters. We have a long history of passing laws to curb practices we believe to be harmful to society, as noted by commentator LPolacheck. Much debate has gone into each of these bits of legislation. And some issues obviously remain unresolved for many, since they come up again and again. That is how our form of government is designed to function.

I completely understand the libertarian side of the payday lending debate. However, Rep. Urquhardt says that the State of Utah should regulate this practice because it is a de facto partner in the payday lending business model. Urquhardt says, “Page one of the business plan is to get people to sign a ridiculous contract. The rest of the business plan is to use the State Courts to knuckle down on them.”

So our state courts are the enforcement arm of this loan shark racket. At the beginning of the 1976 film Rocky, the main character is working as a loan collector for a mobster loan shark. When people can’t pay, he inflicts physical pain. Urquhardt and other commentators note that for payday lenders, our courts simply take the place of the mobster’s loan collector. They don’t inflict physical pain, but they do inflict long-term financial pain. Read commentator Jeff Smith’s first hand account of how this works.

I am persuaded by arguments that regulation of payday lenders is the right thing to do. In America, the government is us — the citizens. Just as drug dealers have no right to force us to be their pushers, payday lenders have no right to force us to be their strong-arm collectors. If we are required to be a partner in this business, we have a right to place some limits on it.

Will this make desperate people resort to even worse practices (like coat hangers in back alleys)? I don’t know. Perhaps so. But we won’t be a party to it, just as we strive not to be a party to pushing drugs.

Monday, January 22, 2007

All-Day Kindergarten Is Not the Answer

Senator Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan) is sponsoring SB49 that would fund all-day Kindergarten. This is one of Governor Huntsman’s priority issues. Participation by individual students would be voluntary (at least for now). From the way this went down last year, supporters know that the only way this bill has a chance of passing is to include the phrase that schools “may not require a student to participate in extended-day kindergarten.”

But this is a foot-in-the-door tactic. Once the program is firmly entrenched, some future legislator will introduce a bill to strike that language from the law. By that time, most parents will have been strong-armed or forced by convenience factors to have their Kindergarteners attend full-time.

SB49 also says that schools “will ensure a majority of students enrolled in an extended-day kindergarten class under this part are students who have the greatest need for additional instruction, as determined by the kindergarten readiness assessment.” Right now most schools don’t know squat about their incoming Kindergarteners until they are already in school. Assessment occurs during the first month or so. Under SB49, a relatively extensive assessment would need to occur for each potential Kindergartener sometime prior to creating class schedules. That could prove problematic.

We know from other locations throughout the country that have voluntary all-day K that parental requests for their child to be enrolled rarely involve the child’s academic needs. Most parents that request for their kids to attend all-day K do so mostly for child care reasons. SB49 would have schools turn some of these people down if their kids are not disadvantaged and the program has failed to enroll sufficient disadvantaged students. I’d hate to have that job, because we also know from districts with voluntary all-day K that the kids that would benefit most are the ones that are most difficult to enroll.

But that’s not my major beef with this bill. At Utah Politicopia, I wrote something like the following. (I fixed some spelling and grammar issues in this post.)

All-day Kindergarten is strongly promoted by the education industrial complex for a variety of purposes. Among those purposes are to expand power, gain more funding, expand control over younger children, and provide child care services. This is only a step along the way to state-sponsored required preschool where government has more control of children than parents.

Much research has been done on all-day kindergarten, but it is deucedly difficult to find research that has been done by an objective source that is not deeply involved in the current education industrial complex. Most studies rely on very short-term results. However, some information can be gleaned from these studies. A summary of research can be found here.

Most research findings deliberately skew results by citing measurement against children with no Kindergarten and obliquely citing measurement against children with half-day Kindergarten. And most research focuses only on one-year gains. Weiss found in a 2002 study of 17,600 Philadelphia schoolchildren that almost all gains disappeared entirely by fourth grade (with the exception of science and attendance).

Almost all studies agree that children from low-income families benefit most from all-day Kindergarten. What is not mentioned much is that children outside of this demographic do not benefit much (if at all), and that a small percentage of these are actually harmed. One of the points most touted is that children that attended all-day K had a 70% greater chance than their half-day attending peers of reaching third grade on time. What is little mentioned, however, is that this number applies to an incredibly small number of students. Since the population to which this measure applies is so small, other unmeasured and uncontrolled factors likely contributed to skewing the numbers.

Mandating all-day Kindergarten for all students applies a mass salve to all children without any long-term benefit. It is yet another solution that implies that government knows better than parents how to manage the development of young children. While some children could benefit from all-day K, it is folly to mandate it for all students.

Substantially expanding the size and power of the education industrial complex over the past four decades has had little salutary effect on student outcomes. In fact, the result has been just the opposite by many measures. Enacting policies that expand the size and power of this establishment even more is not the road to success. Just doing more of what schools already do is obviously not the right answer.

I’m sure this will earn some hate-mail from big government types and educators. But let’s be honest with ourselves and realize that more government-run education is not necessarily the path to a good and productive life.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Educating the Elite

Policy, culture, and education expert Charles Murray is at it again. I commented on Murray’s infeasible plan to reform our welfare state in this post. I discussed Murray’s criticism of NCLB in this post. This week Murray ran a three-part series in the Wall Street Journal (part 1, part 2, part 3) that is critical of many of our efforts to improve education.

Murray’s entire thesis revolves around the politically incorrect but obvious fact that not all Americans share the same IQ level, and cannot, therefore, be expected to achieve the same academically. Murray admits that this rubs against the grain of the basic American concept that anyone can accomplish anything in this country. But he says that we have to deal with an immutable fact. “Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.”

I can remember how angry I was in junior high school with a teacher’s policy that each class be graded on the Bell Curve. Regardless of statistics, this seemed terribly unfair. This teacher insisted on applying the curve at the end of the term with the result that nobody knew what was required to get an A, other than to be perfect. The difference between an A and a B could be 0.1%. What I later realized was that this teacher was stupidly applying a broad statistical standard to a very small population without allowing for the skew of that population. I felt much better about teachers that clearly outlined what kind of performance would result in a given grade without worrying about how it fit into a statistical model.

Murray says that many schools can and should be improved, but that “even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.” He says that “even a perfect education system is not going to make much difference in the performance of children in the lower half of the distribution…,” and he claims he has the empirical evidence to back it up.

Murray says that ignoring the fact that real base IQ does exist in each person “has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.” Moreover, he says the “problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind.”

One of the lines that caught my attention was, “A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.” We can see others’ limitations, but are sometimes (honestly and physically) incapable of realizing our own.

Murray thinks we have too many people attending college. He asserts that a four-year college degree is really only useful for certain professions where it effectively constitutes certification. Murray holds that “a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing.” It shows persistence but does not specifically certify the graduate for a career. I think some would heartily disagree. Murray believes, “There are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers.”

Moreover, Murray argues that college is ill suited to those with IQs less than 110. He thinks it makes sense for only 15-25% of the population. He notes that 45% of high school graduates enroll in college, but he doesn’t provide statistics about how many actually graduate. People go to college to fulfill social purposes and to improve economic prospects. But studies show a higher correlation between IQ and earnings than between a college degree and earnings. Murray thinks it’s just fine for higher IQ individuals that aren’t interested in college to do something else, but not for lower IQ individuals to go to college.

Murray argues that IQ dilution at colleges causes our higher education institutions to offer less useful courses suited to lower IQ levels. He says that government programs exacerbate the problem “by making college scholarships and loans too easy to get….”

Murray’s final piece criticizes the way we deal with our most gifted students. Because it is elitist to note inequality of abilities, we try to treat all students the same. But the gifted ones are smart enough to know that they are smarter than average. They regularly outperform their peers without grappling with the intellectual limitations their peers face every day. Their performance is rewarded in a variety of ways. The result is a class of elitist snobs that believe themselves to be superior humans.

This is a great disservice to everyone. Murray says that they need to be told “explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that … they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones.” He says that the gifted need to understand that due to their abilities, they have special responsibilities. They need to know what it means to be good. They need to develop wisdom. And they need humility. They need to have some classes only with other gifted students so that they can be challenged and can learn what it is like to hit an intellectual wall.

Murray is “calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.” He claims that all of this is assiduously neglected and “antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today's schools at every level.” He admits that it is antithetical to our modern culture to promote this kind of distinction, but he seems to argue that the cost of not doing so is costing our society plenty. He asserts, “Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.

Lest anyone misconstrue Murray’s reliance on IQ, he says, “I am among the most emphatic of those who think that the importance of IQ in living a good life is vastly overrated. My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence.”

Murray makes some provocative points. But there are plenty of people that would argue (see here) “that IQ is a social construct invented by the privileged classes used to maintain their privilege.” Others will admit that IQ is real enough, but that it is a poor measure of an individual or of an individual’s ability to achieve. Perhaps so, but IQ is a very good predictor of academic capability, and we are talking about our education system here.

I do not know my IQ or that of anyone else with whom I am personally acquainted. I have two kids that I think it’s pretty safe to say are gifted. The school district wanted us to send them to a magnate school for gifted kids. We weighed the need for them to be challenged against their social needs and opted to keep them at their regular school. Besides, it didn’t make logistical sense for my family.

I would like my gifted kids to be challenged. That doesn’t often happen during the regular course of the school day. So we work to involve our kids in extracurricular and outside activities that provide these kinds of challenges. For example, I wrote here and here about NAL, I have kids currently involved in the USFIRST Robotics Competition, and I have kids enrolled in a variety of music courses (piano, violin, guitar).

But what about families that can’t pull off these kinds of things? Murray claims that the vast majority of gifted kids get help somewhere along the line, but he maintains that we are still shortchanging them on teaching them about their responsibilities.

I also have a son that has a type of learning disability. Oh, he seems bright enough, but he struggles with speech and reading. In the first four months of his first grade year, the school’s specialists have worked wonders with him. What if his IQ is in the bottom 49%? Should we simply give up? Although I’m sure Murray would say that he never said such a thing, the tone of his series seems to come across to me that way.

My kids go to good schools, but the kind of intervention my first grader is having wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen five years ago before NCLB. We need to continue to pursue educational innovation. Every child deserves to be helped to achieve his/her best regardless of IQ. My guess is that Murray would say he agrees with me but would say that we’re falling short on helping our gifted kids do their best.

Murray wraps up his series by saying, “The aim here is not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education.” Right now nobody is even talking about this, so maybe getting a discussion about it started is the right thing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Science and Religion In Peaceful Co-existence

As I have stated many times, the National Geographic Magazine is ostensibly a snooty liberal activist publication. But it is well written, well laid out, and includes some of the best photographic essays in print. I have written a couple of posts about NGM’s column Voices, which each month features an interview with some eminent personality in the realm of things deemed important by the National Geographic Society.

The February edition is not online yet, so I cannot link to it. But the edition includes an interview with Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Collins, who was once described as an atheist and says he was long an agnostic, became an Evangelical Christian in 1978. Last year he released a book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which challenges the view that science and religion are mutually exclusive.

Collins’ interviewer, John Horgan, considers himself a well studied agnostic. He has dabbled in a variety of religions. If you peruse Horgan’s writings, it seems that this very bright fellow is still trying to find himself. In keeping with NGM’s deep and long held bias against good old American religion (NGM regularly celebrates religion, but only when it significantly departs from American cultural norms), the interview takes a sustained antagonistic tone. In many ways, Horgan’s questioning seems like little more than anti-religious sniping.

Collins, however, acquits himself quite well and comes across as amicable and reasonable. He says, for example, that while he has no problem with rare miracles “at moments of great significance,” as a scientist he sets his “standards for miracles very high.” No faith healing at the tent revival for Dr. Collins. Horgan says that miracles “make God seem too capricious.” Collins says that as a physician he’s never seen a miraculous healing and doesn’t expect to, but doesn’t deny the existence of rare miracles.

As a believer myself, I wonder if Collins has set his standard for miracles too high. I believe that God’s most common pattern is to weave his miracles into life in such a way that they seem almost imperceptible. It is up to us to open our eyes and express appreciation. Perhaps only stunning events can be miracles to Collins. Collins later suggests that he believes God works through normal scientifically proven processes, so perhaps he and I actually agree. Maybe I’m just stuck on semantics here.

Discussing his acceptance of Christ, Collins says that like many others in the scientific community he used to be “a casual agnostic.” I take that to mean that he accepted agnosticism out of lassitude. He says that this type of lazy approach “has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” In other words, Collins is saying that he believes that a careful study of the evidence leads to leads to the conclusion that God exists.

Collins takes a dim view of what he thinks is the manipulative nature of some prayers. He says, “Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into doing rather than telling Almighty God what he should be doing. Look at the Lord’s Prayer. It says, “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t, “Our Father who art in heaven, please get me a parking space.””

I think Collins both hits the nail on the head and somewhat misses the boat at the same time. Prayer is all about the supplicant’s relationship with God and learning how to comply with God’s will. But many scriptures command us to pray for what we need and want. We are also taught that we should try to conform our prayers to that which God desires for us. We get better at this as we develop our relationship with God. But being imperfect, we can sometimes ask for blessings without knowing whether they fit into God’s will or not. In that case, the faithful person accepts that God will answer the prayer in the way that an all-knowing and all-loving God knows is best. Through a lifetime of prayer, one can graduate from the selfish and childish prayer to the enduring and divine.

Horgan lumps all religion into one basket with the Islamic radical nut jobs, a common practice among anti-religionists. Collins adroitly responds that “we shouldn’t judge pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage. … We shouldn’t blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.” Some would take exception with that, suggesting that the application of the belief demonstrates the its true nature. Still, Collins has a point. Taking his analogy, just as it’s ridiculous to suggest that marital love cannot exist simply because some abusive marriages exist, it’s also ridiculous to say God can’t exist simply because some religionists are evil and/or misguided.

Collins agrees with Horgan that the problem with a God that permits evil to occur “is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with.” But Collins says that “if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, and discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there.” He firmly believes that God gave us the gift of free will as an integral part of that process. He opines, “If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world.” He holds that God cannot be blamed for bad choices people make. In other words, people are ultimately responsible for their own choices. Some philosophers partially or fully reject this concept.

But human evil is not the major issue to Collins. He says that people harmed by natural events, such as a tornado or tsunami, are harder to explain. Horgan quotes two people that think that reason should, therefore, dictate that God is incompetent. Collins responds, “An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. … There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.”

Scientists’ whole job is to figure out the unknown, so it is difficult for some of them to accept the idea that some things might never be knowable to us. A dose of humility might help that. If we accept our perspective limitations, it is apparent that the logic flow that seemingly unearned misfortune necessarily leads to the conclusion that God can’t exist only works when combined with arrogance.

When asked whether his work in genetics might undermine his belief in free will, Collins seems to almost laugh. He says that we are not “helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices.” He notes that twins with identical DNA “often don’t behave alike or think alike.” This shows “the importance of the learning experience—and free will.”

Collins thinks that the Darwinian explanations of altruism fall short of explaining how it works in real life, where “some people sacrificially give of themselves to those that are outside of their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common.” But he adds that he’s not hanging his faith on this single point.

In light of Collins’ involvement in human genetics, Horgan raises the specter of the brave new world of genetic meddling that would create super humans. Collins says, “That outcome would bother me.” But he then goes on to say that “we’re so far away from that reality that it’s hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it, when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term.”

In response to Horgan’s suggestion that the need for religion would disappear if science eliminated suffering, Collins says that regardless of what medical and scientific advances occur, “we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other….” He doesn’t believe “we’ll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other.” In other words, Collins seems to agree with Horgan that religion exists only as a counterpoint to human suffering. This will seem familiar to those that hold that God’s plan requires “opposition in all things.”

I found this interview interesting and refreshing. In the face of trial-lawyer-like anti-religious questioning, Francis Collins demonstrates that a person can reasonably accept and be deeply involved with both God and science. Indeed, it would seem that science can only be used as the great anti-religion by those with a specific anti-religious agenda. Rather than being a cudgel with which to beat religionists, science is a tool that can fit together quite nicely with religious faith.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Poor Management Costs Our Kids

This boils my blood. It appears the Weber School Foundation is missing some cash — maybe a lot. (My kids attend schools in the Weber County School District.) Some radio stations are reporting that as much as $800,000 could be missing. The above referenced article says that the Sherriff’s Department has an embezzlement investigation underway and will have results in about three weeks.

The school foundation is a non-profit organization that exists solely to promote the aims of the school district. It would be disingenuous to claim that it is autonomous from the school district. Its offices are co-located with the school district. It essentially exists to provide the school district with an arm to raise funds outside of regular state funding. The foundation does some wonderful things. It helps fund science fairs, devices for special needs students, scientific equipment, band equipment, field trips, etc.

Right now I have two kids deeply involved in a high school robotics club that is in the thick of developing an entry for the U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition that will be held in Las Vegas in March. The competition gives students with a variety of skills the opportunity to use math, science, technical, and even artistic skills together in a simulation of a real world project so that they can appreciate why they need these skills in life. “The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of young people and their mentors to solve a common problem in a six-week timeframe using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules.”

“In this year’s game, “Rack ‘N’ Roll,” students’ robots are designed to hang inflated colored tubes on pegs configured in rows and columns on a 10-foot high center “rack” structure. Extra points are scored by robots being in their home zone and lifted more than 4” off the floor by another robot before the end of the 2 minute and 15 second match.”

But it’s expensive. It costs about $15,000 to completely fund a team in the competition from start to finish. While a number of donors (including engineering societies, government programs, and tech companies) have stepped up, my sons’ team still needs more cash. They would love to get some funding from the Weber School Foundation, but that will not happen, thanks to some greedy jerk.

This all comes down to failure to develop financial systems with proper checks and balances. I had a career as an auditor once upon a time, so I understand the auditor mentality. Auditors want separation of duties. They want levels of approval for financial transactions. They want rules that prevent skimming. The rules auditors want often seem like a pain in the tail. It seems like they don’t want anyone to trust anyone else. Some of the rules auditors want seem severe, but they are designed to keep the honest person honest and to keep the dishonest person from stealing.

$800K doesn’t just get up and walk away. What we have here is a case of sloppy administration. And apparently this is not a rarity for Northern Utah school districts. A Layton couple is currently under a grand jury indictment for bilking the Davis County School District out of $4.2 million. This was all made possible by deplorable administration of public funds.

Due to Utah’s demographics, public educators will be able to constantly cry about being under funded for at least the next century (and probably beyond that). But this educational poverty wailing comes across as a little crass when educators lose hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars due to slipshod administrative practices. And all this while one of the greatest growth areas of Utah’s school districts over the past four decades has been at the district administration level. Bureaucratic growth often causes focus to shift to the wrong things.

The ironic thing about these kinds of losses is that educators will likely point to them as examples of need for even more administrative funding. “This wouldn’t have happened if we had enough money to do proper oversight,” they will say. The fact is that effective financial oversight doesn’t have to be expensive. It just requires administrators that are sticklers about the rules. In the long run, this is far less expensive than shoddy oversight.

But having been an auditor, I also have to wonder where the state auditors were in both of these cases. It seems like they were asleep at the wheel as well. Come on, folks. We pay enough for government already. We must demand that our government entities handle their finances properly.

None of this is rocket science. I learned most of these rules in the first few weeks that I worked at a bank when I was 21-years-old. Surely the highly educated administrators of our educational industrial complex can learn these basic rules with a little training. Oy!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Joke of MSM Objectivity

On January 7, the Standard Examiner Editors published their 2007 editorial agenda. The agenda stresses the following points:
  • Affordable health care

  • Balanced state funding

  • Diversity

  • Economic development

  • Better government

  • Education

  • Quality growth and planning

  • Rails and highways

  • Water resources

  • Taxes

  • Open government

  • Immigration
A quick perusal of the paragraphs under each topic heading reveals that the editors are strongly in favor of expanded government control, increased taxes, and liberal social agendas coupled with a general rejection of conservative social concepts. As is standard practice for the SE editors, the article includes swipes at “religion” and “morality” that are aimed at social conservatives, especially those belonging to the predominant religion. Oh, it’s not all bad. At least they’ve hit on some topics that are hot issues at present.

A fellow I know has written a critique of the SE’s editorial agenda. It was published in today’s edition. His wit is somewhat scathing.

"Regarding the Jan. 7 editorial "Our 2007 editorial agenda": Regarding the topic "affordable health care," I can only assume your "morality" or "religion" says it's blasphemy for private industries (see drug companies) to have record profits, but a sign of "righteousness" for governments to have them (see taxes)? Where in the Utah or U.S. constitutions does it say anything about "affordable" health care?

"Diversity: What offerings of diversity will your God accept?

"Economic development: Let's see, your "religion" doesn't allow too much economic development, so tell us how much economic development the wicked private sector can have.

"Education: I noticed your "religion" gives all the freedom and choice to the government.

"Open government: Your "good book" must state: "You shall live by the sweat of other people's brows," and "Thou shalt not steal unless it's for a 'good' cause -- especially for children."

"Government cannot give to someone without first taking by force from another.

"You do not want government to be "open," otherwise you would never get the plunder that they take to carry out your "religious" agenda!"

Bear in mind that by national MSM standards, the SE’s editors are quite ‘conservative.’ But by actual conservative standards, the SE editors lean rather liberal. This little episode demonstrates why people increasingly deprecate MSM output. While pretending to be objective, liberal bias screams from between the lines of almost all MSM productions. This dissonance naturally results in a reduction of credibility.

Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt spoke at a journalism symposium last year (see discussion). He argued that the MSM’s arch enemy, conservative talk radio pioneer Rush Limbaugh, is actually the most trusted media personality in America. Why? Because his agenda is totally transparent. His modus operandi very closely matches his purported nature.

The MSM, on the other hand, likes to promote itself as objective and unbiased, while it is quite obvious to almost everyone that this claim does not align well with the facts. Hewitt says that the way for the MSM to regain credibility is embrace transparency — they should go ahead and be honest about their agenda. When their actions line up with their purported nature, credibility will return. People will use their own judgment to sift out the opinion angle.

I think Hewitt has a point. But I think he really misses what the MSM is all about. The MSM is not about truth. With very few exceptions, the MSM is about power. For years the MSM had a corner on the information market. They had almost unilateral power to make people think what they wanted. For many MSM people, that is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

But that power has been waning. Oh, they still have a great deal of power, but a variety of channels have cut in and diminished it. They are trying to morph to make up, not just for lost market share, but for loss of power over the lives of individuals. But most of their changes are simply window dressing. The evening news and the morning newspaper aren’t going to completely disappear anytime soon, but their power is far less than what it was when I was delivering the SE as a kid.

This is apparent in my sons’ experience as news carriers for the SE. When I spent almost six years delivering the SE there were only five or six homes on my 75-customer route that didn’t subscribe. There was only one delivery option: yes or no. Now, my sons’ routes cover more than double the number of homes that were in my route, but their total number of customers is about the same. In other words, many people don’t take the newspaper. And of the customers my sons have, some only get the paper on weekends or even just on Sundays.

Don’t look to the MSM to take Hewitt’s advice. For one thing, Hewitt is the enemy. But for another, many people on the inside of MSM organizations truly believe that they are objective and unbiased. The people they hang out with all think the same as they do. They have difficulty comprehending how any intelligent person could have opinions that strongly differ from them. And even if idiots out there do have differing opinions, MSM people are so elite in their abilities that they are capable of filtering out their own opinions while developing media output. They are incapable of realizing how silly some of their stuff sounds.

Competition is healthy for the MSM, but it causes them fits. I’m not one of those prognosticators that pretend to accurately predict what the future of media is. Who knows what the next big change to impact media will be? 15 years ago, almost nobody knew anything about the Internet. How will the market change over the next 15 years? It’s almost impossible to say.

But I think it’s safe to say that the basic nature of the MSM will not change. They will continue to pretend they are unbiased while constantly spewing bias, even if this course of action continues to reduce market share. The leopard will not change its spots.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Success On Accident?

With Americans seeing Iraq as a serious crisis, comes this rather off-the-wall take on American interests in the Middle East by military and international relations expert Edward Luttwak. Luttwak’s view seems rather Machiavellian to me, but he does bring up some interesting points.

Indeed, provoking thought and discussion seems to be Luttwak’s specialty. It appears that he’s often regarded as a sort of respected crackpot. As a consultant, he’s paid for his views, maybe more for encouraging thinking outside of the box than for being right.

Luttwak’s thesis with regard to the current matter of Iraq is that President Bush has unwittingly reformed the entire Middle East, not the way he intended, but nonetheless in a way that is beneficial to American interests. Endless concourses of pols, commentators, and ‘experts’ are blathering nonstop that the U.S. should not be so arrogant as to think that it could ever resolve the deep-seated, centuries-old, tribalistic animosity between the Sunni and the Shia (a la the President’s plan).

But it is precisely this rift, according to Luttwak, that the President has accidentally leveraged to America’s advantage. For years the Sunni-Shia split was held in status quo. That status quo was bad for the U.S. because Arab Sunnis had little compulsion to work with the U.S. We did work with some Shiites in the region, but Iran and Iraq were our sworn enemies.

That all changed when the balance of power changed in Iraq. The majority Shia are in charge while the minority Sunnis that were used to being in charge aren’t any longer. That has upset the balance of power throughout the entire region. Now America has parties from both sides pandering for help against their opponents (even while other parties from both sides actively oppose the U.S.)

Mr. Luttwak sees the day coming quickly when the U.S. can simply sit back and manage the Sunni-Shia conflict in the region with a fraction of the troops we currently have in Iraq. Even if this view is accurate, it leaves me with an unsettled feeling. It seems rather diabolical. What about the quality of life for the people living there? Perhaps Luttwak’s Middle East isn’t any worse than the current situation.

Luttwak concludes on a somewhat more positive note, suggesting that we have finally achieved what we have been trying to accomplish in the Middle East for decades. He says, “What past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism, the Bush administration has brought about accidentally. But the result is exactly the same.”

If Luttwak is right — and that’s a huge if — we will eventually have the troop draw downs for which many are clamoring (but not full withdrawal). But we will end up with a better situation than we have ever had in the Middle East. Part of me wants to believe it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

When It Comes to Iraq, Everyone Comes Up Short

I was driving home from the store as I listened to President Bush’s speech Wednesday evening. The President was grim and serious. For the first time I can remember, he bluntly stated that mistakes had been made and that they were his fault. But he also asserted that failure in Iraq is not an option.

The way I heard it, the President seemed to assert that things had been on track in Iraq (despite mistakes) until sectarian violence caused the plan to unravel. He accepted blame for failing to properly manage the problem of escalating sectarian violence, and he also laid part of the blame at the feet of the Iraqi government. He didn’t seem to acknowledge that his administration could largely have averted the problem had they heeded others that could see what was coming. Bush had blinders on that only permitted him to see the goal he sought. To him the problem of sectarian violence was an annoying distraction from that goal rather than a central issue.

During his speech, the president outlined a new plan for going forward. He provided specific reasons why it differed from past plans and why this new plan was likely to achieve success where past plans had failed. Some of it sounded good to me, but in many ways it seemed like too little too late.

The plan requires the Iraqi government to step up to the plate and do some things they have never done before (although they’ve talked about doing them). The question is whether Iraqis will — or are even capable of — doing those things. The President said what many (especially Democrats) have been pressuring him to say; that our commitment in Iraq is not open ended. He didn’t go so far as to set a clear deadline, which is desired by hardliners.

As I was driving, I incredulously sputtered out loud to the radio, “If failure is not an option, what the heck will we do if the Iraqis do not deliver?” I think that is a question that deserves to be answered. Will we simply close up shop and leave with the last of our people climbing into a helicopter on the roof of the embassy, or will we crack down and assert complete control of the country? A threat without a credible consequence is worse than saying nothing. Parents with lousy discipline habits try this tactic all of the time, but it never achieves the desired result. All it does is demonstrate the weakness of the position of the threatening party.

At the end of the speech, I thought the President had scored some points. He had covered some ground that desperately needed to be covered. However, the whole thing left me rather flat. Despite the President’s resoluteness, his plan did not come across with any serious degree of certainty as a recipe for success. Too much of it depends on the Iraqis. And it would be a major miracle if they were to actually deliver what is needed for the plan to succeed.

Democrats, fresh from their success at the polls in November, are stepping up to … well, to snipe at the President’s proposals. They will try to prevent funding of the President’s plan for a troop increase (that is probably insufficient for getting the job done anyway). As an alternative, they offer — nothing. They had no coherent plan for our involvement in the Middle East during the campaigns. Circumstances conspired to allow them to win by simply being non-Republicans. And today, when the country sorely needs their leadership, they still offer no coherent plan. They have no serious proposals that offer any hope of resolving the issue of Iraq for the good of our country or for the good of Iraqis. Peggy Noonan (along with her criticism of the President’s plan) eloquently discusses this here.

Some Democrats have boldly said that developing such plans are the job of the executive branch rather than the legislative branch. I don’t know what it’s like where you work, but the that’s-not-my-job routine does little to resolve issues or win people to your cause where I work. With our nation experiencing crisis in Iraq and in the Middle East, simply saying, “That’s not my job” doesn’t cut it. At least Bush is offering something that has some chance for success. If you’re going to criticize it and say that it’s not good enough, you have a responsibility to propose something better. To do less than this is extremely irresponsible. The Bush-is-bad mantra does nothing to actually improve matters.

And so what we have with Iraq is a situation where everyone comes up short. The President comes up short because his plan is probably inadequate and requires a miracle to succeed. The Iraqis come up short because they likely will nor or cannot do what they have said they will do and what we need them to do for the plan to work. The President’s domestic adversaries come up short because they simply snipe without considering the good of the nation and without offering any substantive alternative.

This, my good people, is not a hopeful way to move forward toward success. Rather, it is a recipe for disaster. It’s possible that we could sort of stumble our way to success here. Something like that has happened in a few other conflicts. But betting on that is also a long shot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Mitt By Any Other Name

If a person’s name has anything to do with it, Mitt Romney may have an uphill battle in his bid for the presidency. Most of our presidents have had fairly common first names. Most of them have gone by their first name or a derivative of that name. A few have gone by nicknames.

Alphabetically, we’ve had one Abraham, two Andrews, one Benjamin, one Calvin, one Chester, one Dwight, two Franklins, three Georges, one Grover (twice), one Harry, one Herbert, six Jameses, four Johns, one Lyndon, one Martin, one Millard, one Richard, one Ronald, one Rutherford, one Theodore, one Thomas, one Ulysses, one Warren, four Williams, one Woodrow, and one Zachary.

Not all of these are common names; however, almost all of them have been shared with at least a small percentage of contemporaries. Lyndon, Millard, Rutherford, and Woodrow are quite uncommon, but are not totally obscure. Ulysses, of course, is an historic name.

But Mitt? Who else out there is named Mitt? What the heck were George and Lenore Romney thinking when they gave their son the middle name of Mitt? By the way, Mitt’s first name is Willard. According to Wikipedia, the Romneys chose the name Willard in honor of their close friend, hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott. The middle name of Mitt was apparently in honor of Milton Romney, “a relative who played football for the Chicago Bears.” Mitt was Milton’s nickname.

Usually there is little problem with giving your kid a strange middle name. Heck, most people in your child’s life will never know his/her middle name. But what happens when you decide to use that middle name as your child’s moniker? Both my mother and my mother-in-law have been called by their middle names since birth. I have no idea why their families did that, but their middle names are quite common.

I can see how it happens, though. It’s cute to call your little tyke by a cute name. I have a brother that has been called by his first and middle initials since he was about three months old. But what happens when your child grows up? In some cases they can move beyond the cute name to something more mature. In other cases, the cute name actually works.

But Mitt? Man, that sounds strange. President Mitt? Yeah, it sounds weird. Just imagine what a heyday the political cartoonists would have with that.

All of this is written tongue in cheek. A person’s name has very little to do with that person’s qualifications for political office. However, in the real world of political elections, a candidate’s name provides a certain level of ‘curb appeal’ to the average voter. It will be interesting to see how this impacts Mr. Romney’s candidacy.

And if Romney wins and ends up being rather popular, will that spawn a generation of parents naming their sons Mitt?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Having Fun With Winter Camping (part II)

In Part 1 I wrote about how to keep yourself warm while engaged in outdoor winter activities. In this second installment I will discuss how to sleep out in the winter. I will also cover some important facts about avalanche danger.

OK, you know how to stay dry and warm in a winter wonderland. How do you deal with sleeping? I already mentioned that it is vitally important to go to bed dry. Always bring a fresh change of clothes to sleep in. Even if you will freeze your tail off while changing, make sure to change into dry clothes before finally bedding down.

Oh, and make sure you relieve yourself before bedding down. The cold seems to make the bladder more sensitive, so emptying it will help you have more uninterrupted time inside your warm sleeping bag. If you usually have to get up at night anyway, it’s a good idea to bring something you can use right in your shelter so that you don’t have to spend too much time freezing.

And speaking of sleeping bags, make sure you’ve got a good one. I have a nice mummy bag that is rated to 0°. If it’s going to be quite cold out, I will often bring a summer weight bag and will use it as a cocoon around my winter bag for extra insulation. Also, it’s good to keep your knit beanie handy. If you get cold, put it on.

Since you’re going to be sleeping on snow, ice, or frozen ground, you need plenty of insulation between you and that frozen surface. A good foam pad (dense foam pads are good) is a start. But even that is not enough. You need some kind of moisture barrier as well because the frozen stuff beneath you will melt during the night from contact with your warm body. So bring a tarp.

But you also need to realize that your body will put off quite a bit of moisture of its own, even in the cold. Most modern sleeping bags are constructed to allow the moisture to move away from your warm body and even out of the bag. But if the bag is right next to the tarp, the moisture can settle there and can still make you wet. So put your insulation between you and the tarp.

In addition to a foam pad, you need more insulation. If you are in an emergency situation, you can cut tree boughs. But don’t try that otherwise. Bring a couple of layers of cardboard or several thick newspapers. These things will conform to your body and have some insulation factor. I don’t advise sleeping on a cot. The cold air that passes between the underside of the cot and the frozen earth will not keep you warm.

Now for shelters. If you have properly prepared and there isn’t much of a breeze, you can make do without a shelter. Simply find a somewhat protected area (perhaps at the base of a large tree or in a natural hollow), lay out your bedding, put a tarp over the top, and go to bed.

But if you want to have some fun, try building an igloo, a snow cave, a snow mound, or a snow trench. All of these require work. One of the best resources that discusses these various shelters is the Field Manual of the U.S. Antarctic Program, Chapter 11. Some other good resources include:

My personal favorite is a snow trench with a tarp roof. I was once trapped in the cave-in of a snow shelter. Thankfully, I was rescued within the critical two-minute mortality timeframe by fellow campers. (Only 1 out of 3 victims survive a snow burial.) But as a result of that experience, I have some problems climbing into shelters with a snow roof. A snow trench is relatively quick to build, and with a tarp for a roof, I’m not in danger of a cave-in. However, I give up the insulation factor of having a snow roof overhead.

It is important to understand avalanche danger even if you are not going near a slope. My snow shelter cave-in occurred on a level surface, but was due to my lack of knowledge about snow conditions. When any layer of snow is loose and crystalline it means that it won’t pack well and the snow above it can easily slide. If you dig a trench, you can easily spot loose layers of snow. Without digging, you can tell from cracks across the surface, small snow slabs shearing off, or hollow or “whumping” sounds while walking across the snow. If any of these conditions exist, don’t try to build a natural snow cave. It’s OK to build a mound, but the roof of a natural cave under these conditions cannot be considered safe.

Avoid areas where avalanches and slides have occurred. Most avalanches occur on 30°-45° slopes, but they can occur on even a 10° slope. Slopes outside of managed recreation areas are rarely sufficiently controlled for avalanche danger for you to spend time on them. Slopes where there is little vegetation or that are shaped like chutes likely experience avalanches frequently.

You can learn more about avalanche safety at and Before going into the back country, check local snow conditions. You can find current Utah snow conditions at

Once again, you can have lots of fun camping and playing in the snow. All it takes is knowledge and preparation. Have a safe and fun time in the snow this winter.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Having Fun With Winter Camping (part I)

Call me crazy, but I actually do camp out in the snow. I didn’t enjoy camping or hiking as a kid, but it has kind of grown on me throughout the years, especially as I work with Scout groups. For the boys, it’s a great adventure. And it doesn’t have to be unpleasant either. All it takes is knowledge and preparation.

The main things you have to know are how to keep warm and how to stay safe. The first principle of staying warm is staying dry. In the summer we go swimming to cool down. Our bodies sweat as part of an efficient natural cooling system. Water cools skin much faster than air of the same temperature. Get wet and you will get cooler. Get dry and you will get warmer.

But it’s not always easy to stay dry when playing in the snow. If it’s snowing or you’re wallowing around in the snow, you can get wet from the outside in. If you’re working at building a snow shelter, or tromping around (or skiing) on a sunny winter day, you can get wet from the inside out. Either way, getting wet is bad because it begins to cool you down. When outdoor temperatures are cool enough to cause hypothermia, you need to stay dry.

One of the keys here is understanding how different fabrics handle moisture. Rule #1: cotton kills. Cotton towels are great because they absorb and retain water, but that’s not what you want your clothes to do when doing cold weather camping. Blue jeans, T-shirts, and jersey socks are the worst things to wear when winter camping. They’re made of 100% cotton. They absorb moisture readily, and then hold it against your body. Wool can get wet, and yet keep you warm, but it can be uncomfortable and itchy.

Synthetic fabrics are the best thing to be wearing when doing outdoor winter activities. Polypropylene is probably the best, but it’s expensive. Polyester clothing is plentiful and can be cost efficient. Acrylic is good. A variety of other synthetics are useful as well. Consider this when selecting the layer closest to your skin; your underwear and socks. In fact, consider it in every layer.

Speaking of layers, layering clothing is another essential key to staying dry and warm. Multiple thin layers are better than one super thick snowmobile suit. If you get warm, you simply peal off a layer or two. If you get cool, you add layers. If you’re too hot in a snowmobile suit, you’re out of luck, because if you take it off, you’re going to be too cool. Of course, your exterior layer should be something that repels moisture.

Good boots that keep external moisture out but don’t hold internal moisture against the skin are a must. Also, your boots need to work with your snow pants to keep snow from falling in around your legs. Even with very good boots and socks, your feet can still get cold just from standing around on ice and snow. If you’re going to be standing or sitting, it’s good to have some kind of insulation buffer to stand or sit on. A chunk of wood or styrofoam can work.

And to top off this discussion, bring good headgear. A knit beanie cap (made of synthetic yarn) will keep you surprisingly warm. The saying goes that if your fingers are cold, put on your hat. A vast amount of your body’s heat is expelled through your head and the back of your neck. As your body starts to get too cold it draws blood away from the extremities in order to keep the core and vital organs warm. Putting on your hat will keep a lot of heat in. Of course, if you’re too warm, you may want to take your hat off.

Bring extra clothing. Don’t worry about bringing too much unless you have to pack it on your back. If you’re going to be sleeping outside, bring a dry set of clothing to sleep in. Make sure you change into dry clothes before bedding down. There is little that is more miserable than freezing in a sleeping bag in the snow.

Now that you know how to deal with the outside of your body, let’s discuss the inside. Your body needs plenty of fuel to generate sufficient heat for winter camping. It is also vitally important to be adequately hydrated. You may not be sweating like you do in the summer, but you need to continually drink plenty of water to help regulate your body temperature.

Eat foods that are high in complex carbohydrates for maximum heat generation. Think hard beans, like the kind commonly found in chili. Avoid alcohol and sugary stuff. Outdoor cooking and food preparation takes much longer in cold weather (even two or three times longer), so consider doing most of your food preparation at home.

Some good links for finding out more about this stuff are:

In the next part, I will discuss snow shelters and why it is important to understand different snow conditions. Winter camping can be lots of fun. But it takes lots of work. I sometimes complain to my wife that an overnight winter campout takes as much work as a whole week of summer camp. But it’s an adventure that shouldn’t be missed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Our Republic Lives

On Tuesday I spent a lot of time (quantity, not quality time) with my wife and five children in three airports, thanks to an equipment snafu at a small regional airport that caused us to miss our connecting flight. Although we all finally arrived home at 1:30 AM on Wednesday rather than 1:30 PM on Tuesday, we were all safe (if quite bored and tired), and none of our luggage was lost.

As a side note, it’s pretty easy to get one or two people onto another flight, but when you start talking seven people, that’s another story. We ended up splitting into two groups (a group of three and a group of four) to fly back on two different flights.

Throughout the day, the TVs in the various airports in which we sat blared an endless and repetitive stream of coverage of the nation mourning for the passing of President Ford. I mused about the dichotomy of the less auspicious passing (via execution) of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. The timing of the deaths of these two national leaders present two very different experiences.

One of my sons asked why our nation was making such a big hullabaloo about President Ford’s funeral. He noted that Ford had never been elected to be Vice President or President, and that Ford had served as President for less than 2½ years. To top it off, that was all ancient history to my son, since Ford’s presidency wrapped up many years before my son’s birth.

I puzzled about it for a moment, and then I concluded that what we were really doing was celebrating was the fact that our republic really does work. Our method of governance is imperfect. It is continually fraught with problems and conflict. Its leadership ranks are filled with imperfect people. But it is designed to weather the inevitable storms well.

Our nation faced dark days as it became clear that President Nixon had overstepped the boundaries of tolerable behavior and that he was, in fact, what he said he was not (i.e. “I am not a crook.”). Despite declining popularity, the man had twice been elected to the presidency by Americans. He still had supporters. Some felt that he had accomplished much good and could continue to do so, despite his problems.

Throughout world history, the most common method of replacing an unacceptable national leader has been violence and bloodshed. Although the times were dark, that didn’t happen in modern America. Gerald Ford was the man tapped to step up and fill the vacuum. Peggy Noonan says (here) that Ford “was a decent man, and that was just what the country needed.” She says he brought dignity and normalcy to the presidency. I wonder if she remembers how much the MSM and pop culture harangued Ford for his inarticulate gaffes and occasional clumsiness.

Noonan notes that Ford’s most unpopular move was the pardon of Richard Nixon. With hindsight, she now says that “he threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame, from going too far.” Noonan says the left should be grateful that Ford kept them from exposing their sadism.

But Noonan is critical of Ford’s lack of vision. She says that Ford’s presidency proved that a leader must be more than simply good. A leader must provide a vision. Ford was a decent caretaker, but he lacked the quintessential ingredient of forward vision. His decision to seek the GOP nomination in 1976 was a significant factor in allowing Jimmy Carter to become the worst President and ex-President in modern history.

As I stared at images of phalanxes of shiny black vehicles cruising down the streets of Washington, D.C., a flag-draped casket, once-important white-haired men in suits, and articulate news babes with extreme makeup on their faces talking about events they knew little about, I realized that we were doing much more than honoring a man that had served as our President for a brief period. I realized that we were honoring our republic. In a way, we were honoring our nation’s Founders and the vision they successfully implemented.

I am reminded of the closing lines of the second verse of the song, America the Beautiful:

America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

Rest in peace, President Ford. Long live the Republic!