Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Give Thanks

Societies throughout time have held some form of harvest festival. The first actual Thanksgiving celebrations seem to have emanated from this practice. America saw autumn Thanksgiving celebrations off and on among various European settler groups, probably beginning in 1565 (see Wikipedia article).

In 1941, Congress permanently set the fourth Thursday in November as a formal Thanksgiving Day holiday. Prior to that time, the executive and/or legislative branch regularly declared such holidays on various days in October, November, or December.

The first formal declaration of a Day of Thanksgiving by the United States government came in 1777. The months prior to this declaration are described by Ira Stoll as “so bleak that there was not much to give thanks for.”

The Revolutionary War was going very badly for the Americans. Battle after battle had been lost. Major cities, including Philadelphia (the national Capital at that time) had fallen to the British, as had New York. The Americans had lost forts, fortifications, weaponry, ammunition, critical supplies, and men (both as casualties and as prisoners). Burgoyne’s Army continued its southward advance, planning to link up with Howe’s Army in New York City, which would cut off New England from the remaining states. Prospects seemed bleak indeed.

Then came the 18-day Battle of Saratoga, where the ragtag Americans succeeded in capturing Burgoyne’s entire army, including weaponry and supplies, much thanks to the heroic efforts of Benedict Arnold, who would later betray the American cause.

Victory at Saratoga so inspired the Americans that they set aside Thursday, December 18 as a day of Thanksgiving to God. The stated purpose was that “with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor.”

Some of those words came from Samuel Adams. Adams supported many subsequent similar declarations. As governor of Massachusetts, he proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 19, 1795 “a day of Public Thanksgiving to God.” He recommended that prayer be offered that God "would graciously be pleased to put an end to all Tyranny and Usurpation, that the People who are under the Yoke of Oppression, may be made free; and that the Nations who are contending for freedom may still be secured by His Almighty Aid.”

Although some derided Adams’ sentiments, this still seems like a very worthy pursuit on Thanksgiving Day this year.

America has always had flaws and will continue to have them. We should actively work to help mend her every flaw. But I believe that what Ronald Reagan said in 1974 is still true, that the USA is today “the last best hope of man on earth.” Despite my gripes about creeping socialism, the USA offers the greatest chance for liberty and opportunity of any nation on the face of the earth today.

One of my greatest blessings is that I was born a citizen of the United States of America. I am grateful to have been raised in this country. Despite my nation’s flaws, I stand proudly and gratefully each time I have an opportunity to salute our nation’s flag.

I have been blessed to live much of my life in a very beautiful area surrounded by inspiring mountains and with easy access to nature. I am grateful to the many throughout time that have sacrificed so that I might enjoy the blessings I enjoy today.

I think my list of blessings could go on nearly infinitely, but I must mention my gratitude for my family. I’m not sure that life would hold much meaning for me without them.

Although there is plenty of bad news around (especially economically) right now, my heart brims with gratitude to God this Thanksgiving season. I pray that I might remember this gratitude throughout the year and demonstrate it in word and action.

Monday, November 24, 2008

First the Mormons, Then the Rest

The Editors of the National Review today posted a commentary that should strike home for most Utahns, entitled Legislating Immorality. The final line in the editorial is rather chilling. It simply will not do to quote snippets, so the entire article is reproduced below:
Last week in a Denver suburb, someone lit a Book of Mormon on fire and dropped it on the doorstep of a Mormon temple, presumably as a statement about the church’s support of Proposition 8 in California, an initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In a move that may make gay-rights supporters’ heads spin, the incident is being investigated as a hate crime.

The outbreak of attacks on the Mormon church since the passage of Proposition 8 has been chilling: envelopes full of suspicious white powder were sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City; protesters showed up en masse to intimidate Mormon small-business owners who supported the measure; a website was created to identify and shame members of the church who backed it; activists are targeting the relatives of prominent Mormons who gave money to pass it, as well as other Mormons who are only tangentially associated with the cause; some have even called for a boycott of the entire state of Utah.

The wisdom of hate-crimes legislation aside, there is no doubt that a lot of hate is being directed at Mormons as a group. But why single out Mormons? And why now?

Dozens of church bodies — including the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian bishops of California, and a wide variety of evangelicals — supported the proposition. It’s also worth considering that, while gay-rights advocates cannot discuss same-sex marriage for more than 30 seconds without making faulty analogies to Jim Crow-era anti-miscegenation laws, some 70 percent of blacks voted for Proposition 8. While there have been a few ugly racist statements by gay-rights supporters, such vile sentiment has been restricted. Not so the hatred directed at Mormons, who are convenient targets.

To date, 30 states have voted on initiatives addressing same-sex marriage, and in every state traditional marriage has come out on top. But somehow the fact that Mormons got involved during the latest statewide referendum constitutes a bridge too far? In truth, Mormons are a target of convenience in the opening salvo of what is sure to be a full-scale assault on much of America’s religious infrastructure, which gay activists perceive as a barrier to their aspirations. Among religious groups, Mormons are not the biggest obstacle to same-sex marriage — not by a long shot. But they are an easy target. Anti-Mormon bigotry is unfortunately common, and gay-rights activists are cynically exploiting that fact.

There are no websites dedicated to “outing” Catholics who supported Proposition 8, even though Catholic voters heavily outnumber Mormons. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not remarkably strident in its beliefs on the subject. So far, no gay-rights activist has had the brass to burn a Qu’ran on the doorstep of a militant mosque where — forget marriage! — imams advocate the stoning of homosexuals.

Churches oppose same-sex marriage in part because it represents an implicit threat to freedom of conscience and belief. California already had one of the broadest civil-unions laws in the country. There was little in the way of government-sanctioned privileges that a state-issued marriage license would confer. But the drive for same-sex marriage is in practice about legislating moral conformity — demanding that everybody recognize homosexual relationships in the same way, regardless of their own beliefs. Freedom of conscience, or diversity of belief, is the last thing the homosexual lobby will tolerate: In New Mexico, a state civil-rights commission fined an evangelical wedding photographer $6,637 for politely declining to photograph a gay commitment ceremony. In California, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously against two San Diego fertility doctors who refused to give in-vitro fertilization to a lesbian owing to their religious beliefs, even though they had referred her to another doctor. And just this week, evangelical dating site eHarmony, which hadn’t previously provided same-sex matchmaking services, announced it had been browbeaten into doing so by New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights and the threat of litigation. The first 10,000 same-sex eHarmony registrants will receive a free six-month subscription. “That’s one of the things I asked for,” crowed Eric McKinley, who brought the charges against eHarmony.

Where do they go from here? Gay activists are already using the legal system to try to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Mormon church. If you believe that churches and synagogues, priests and rabbis won’t eventually be sued for their statements on sexuality, you’re kidding yourself. Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and gay activist who helps draft federal legislation related to sexual orientation, says that, when religious liberty conflicts with gay rights, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.” A National Public Radio report on the conflict noted that if previous cases are any guide, “the outlook is grim for religious groups.”

Given their cavalier disregard for the freedom of conscience, it’s little surprise that the gay lobby is equally disdainful of democracy: They began pursuing legal challenges to Proposition 8 practically before they were done tallying the votes. Lamentably, the state attorney general defending the will of the people will be former Jerry Brown, the liberal former governor who was an open opponent of the measure and tried to sabotage it. The legal challenges will be heard by the same state Supreme Court that overturned California’s previous law forbidding gay marriage back in May. There’s a real possibility the will of the people will be spurned a second time, democracy be damned. They’ve already burned the Book of Mormon. The First Amendment is next.

Keeping Christmas Special

I used to enjoy the Christmas season much more than I now do. However, I still enjoy Christmastime. I am all for celebrating Christmas per my desires and allowing others to follow their own proclivities. But I cannot bring myself to adopt some of the Christmas activities that are becoming more popular.

Although there are homes in the area that have been enthusiastically displaying their holiday decorations since the day after Halloween, I have explained to my kids that I refuse to budge from our longstanding policy of decorating the first weekend in December and then cleaning up our decorations between Christmas and New Years (usually on a weekend).

While I find exterior lighting quite festive, we have never put up outdoor holiday lighting. I’m just not willing to do the work involved. I think our decorations are significantly elaborate, but they are simple compared to some. It does require at least half a day of work to put everything up and then again to take everything down.

We have two artificial Christmas trees. (Although Jim Gaffigan’s take on Christmas decorating does raise some interesting questions about this practice. I promise that you’ll laugh.) Our living room is not very big, but it has high ceilings. So years ago we obtained a tall narrow tree. It looks grand. But we discovered early on that the narrow living room is a lousy place to open gifts. So we have a little (much less grand) tree in our family room for that purpose.

We decorate the two trees, put out a variety of Christmas knickknacks that have come our way over the years, put up our Nativity set in the curio cabinet, and are done decorating. I don’t like to have the decorations up so long that they can gather much dust.

My wife and I have a tradition that we began when we were engaged. Each year we find an ornament that has a heart somewhere on it as a symbol of our continuing love for one another. We label the ornament with the year and put it up on the tree. We store these ornaments carefully at the end of the season. Our children note the importance of this tradition.

One of the reasons I enjoy Christmas less than I once did is that the season begins earlier and earlier. Some stores have holiday decorations and displays long before Halloween nowadays. I love Christmas music. But I don’t particularly care to listen to it in November, let alone October.

It is as if the Christmas season has changed from being a unique week to lasting a quarter of the year. The extension of the celebration makes the season increasingly common, robbing it of its specialness. We go to greater and greater lengths to decorate, hold more and more special events, and spend increasing sums on increasingly grand gifts to try to recapture the significance that we inadvertently diminish through these precise actions.

I’m not muttering humbug under my breath about Christmas. While I appreciate the complaints of many Christians about Christ being diminished by Santa, I really see no reason why a family can’t have fun with Santa while also appropriately celebrating and worshipping Christ. I don’t see it as an either-or proposition. But I think that’s up to each family to figure out on its own.

Speaking of Santa, we have never misled our children about Santa. While we have fun with the tradition, we have always answered our kids honestly and forthrightly whenever they have asked about it. I do not intentionally lie to my kids.

Having lived in Norway, I find some interesting differences between our Christmas celebrations and theirs. We start celebrating Christmas weeks (months) prior to the event. Then once New Years passes, it’s immediately over and done. Norwegians don’t really get into Christmas until just before the event. All of their church, school, work, and other social Christmas gatherings occur in the few weeks following Christmas.  The season gradually fades out. There seems to be less stress this way.

I enjoy the Christmas season, but I prefer to celebrate it in a way that makes it special. And for me that means keeping it relatively brief.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Forcing Everyone to Buy Health Insurance Is Not the Answer; More Freedom Is

Following up on my post listing some of my previous health care posts, I found this AP article interesting (a more informed article on this topic can be found here). It is reported:
“The health insurance industry said Wednesday it will support a national health care overhaul that requires them to accept all customers, regardless of pre-existing medical conditions - but in return it wants lawmakers to mandate that everyone buy coverage.”
The reporter goes on in a rather weird vein to suggest in essence that the insurance industry’s stance is oxymoronic. Actually, this viewpoint is just plain moronic.

This is not rocket science. Let’s think about it for a moment. Exactly what would be the downside of getting government to force every American not covered by Medicare to buy your wares? You get a government mandated revenue stream. You don’t have to worry about those that want to opt out because government will coercively enforce participation.

One downside to this would be that government would then dictate precisely what kinds of products you have to offer and what kinds of prices you can charge for those products. But as the WSJ Editors explain here, this has long been the case anyway. “Because of its huge purchasing power, and because many private plans adopt its reimbursement rates, Medicare significantly shapes all health-care financing and delivery.”

More radical than the “individual mandate” — that is, forcing everyone to buy government designed health insurance whether they want it or not — say the WSJ Editors is the “public option.” This would be “a program managed by the government and modeled after Medicare” with which insurance companies would compete.

This ‘competition’ would be insidious because, unlike private insurance companies, the government would be able to offer coverage without having to make a profit or even break even. It would “be extraordinarily expensive as it slowly but relentlessly grew the government's share of health spending,” likely costing around $150 billion annually for starters.

By the time the costs increased and really started to sink in, most of the private insurance companies would already be out of the business, leaving one huge universal health care system, arrived at incrementally instead of in one fell swoop, as was the goal of the 1993 HillaryCare plan.

The individual mandate would immediately and sharply reduce individual liberty, while the public option would gradually diminish our liberty even more.

The insurance companies won’t take this lying down. The fact that they now say they will support radical health care reform simply means that they can see the writing on the wall. They will lobby like the devil to make sure that they come out OK. Maybe this will mean that we don’t end up with debt financed government competition — or at least as much of it as left leaning politicians want.

A good example?
Another odd thing about the AP article is its comment that “Analysts say Massachusetts is an example where the coverage guarantee has worked well….” Has worked well for whom?

Certainly not the taxpayers of Massachusetts, since the cost of the program has turned out to be orders of magnitude greater than originally anticipated. Not those seeking medical services that have coverage but find themselves waiting much longer, receiving lower quality care, and traveling farther because clinics and hospitals have had to close down. Not primary care physicians who have seen their patient rolls expand while seeing their profits decrease. Not young adults that are forced to buy coverage they don’t need to help subsidize others, making it difficult to start a family and make ends meet. On the other hand, the state’s insurance industry is enjoying revenues that the state’s citizens are forced to pay whether they like it or not.

The Massachusetts plan has helped resolve very little of what it aimed to resolve, all while costing hundreds of millions of dollars, invading the most personal details of peoples’ lives, treating people that can’t afford premiums as criminals, and significantly reducing individual liberty. But to some unnamed analysts cited in the AP article, this represents success. I can hardly wait to see ‘success’ of that nature implemented on a national scale.

The trouble is that once you do something like this, there is no turning back. The population becomes addicted and there’s no way to back out, as we can see with Social Security and Medicare. Even when the programs are going bankrupt we can’t rein them in. We would rather drive them into the ground, or in this case, expand the failing program to cover increasing numbers of people. We’re like junkies needing another hit.

As Ben Howell writes here, “Ceding more personal responsibility and choices to the government does not solve the problem because this decreases competition, removes incentives to stay healthy and eventually would lead to lower quality of care.” In other words, universal health care is a recipe for making matters worse than they are today.

Exactly what are the big selling points to universal health care? A popular one is that the nation’s 46 million uninsured will then be covered. William Snyder points out that this is mostly based on myth rather than fact. There are better ways to help “those who have truly fallen through the cracks” than radically messing with the health care system for everyone.

As our politicians gear up to play health care hero, we should be especially wary. There are no ‘solutions’ in matters like this; only tradeoffs. In this case, we would be trading individual liberty for a false sense of security and a promise that everyone will have access to the same lousy health care services as everyone else.

Free market answers
OK, so now that I’ve slammed the various politically motivated health care options, what would I suggest instead? I would recommend changing the incentives in the health care system. I think this article by Paul Howard succinctly explains the elements necessary to make that happen. He writes, “To unleash a new wave of entrepreneurial energy in health care, policymakers should focus on a four-point plan of action:”
  • ”A tax deduction or tax credit for everyone who purchases their own health plans …. A risk-adjusted voucher for our poorest, sickest patients ….”
  • Allow people to purchase health insurance from anywhere they want in the nation.
  • Stop prohibiting retail and ‘nurse-in-a-box’ clinics. “Rather than stifling innovation and competition to protect existing providers (like nonprofit hospitals), policymakers should throw out their old assumptions and find new ways to encourage choice and competition in health-care markets.”
  • Implement consumer choice and competitive bidding in Medicare.
What other roles should government play in health care? Howard writes, “The best thing that government can do to “fix” health care is to make it more like other, more competitive sectors of the economy by setting the basic rules for competition and transparency, policing fraud and corruption, and then getting out of the way and letting markets and consumers decide what works.”

More government is not the answer to our health care system woes. More freedom is.

High Stock Market Volatility for the Next Few Months

Andy Kessler presents five reasons in this WSJ article why the average person should simply ignore the stock market until at least February. He makes it clear that the market is going to be extremely volatile until then — not mainly due to market fundamentals, but more due to cyclical events, which he lists as follows:
  • Tax-loss selling
  • Mutual-fund redemptions
  • Mutual fund cap-gain distributions
  • Hedge-fund redemptions
  • Margin calls
I would add to that list a new Treasury Secretary, for reasons that I mentioned in this post.

What Kessler is saying is that due to these events, nothing the market does over the next few months is to be trusted. When it has its biggest one-day gain or its biggest one-day loss, it’s not necessarily a reflection of investor confidence.

What Kessler is NOT saying is that the stock market will suddenly turn rosy in February after cyclical fluctuations. Rather, he is saying that after all these shenanigans wrap up the market will more accurately reflect investor confidence and the economy. And those might still be in the toilet.

Kessler makes some good and valuable points. I believe, however, that until the stock market gets a firm reading on how a Chief Executive Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress will impact the economy, market volatility will continue to rule the day. Although some things are already becoming clear, it will take a while for the new administration to get its bearings. I suspect that this will be reflected in the market with extraordinary instability for many months after February.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nobody knows what it takes to move the economy forward right now

The title of this post is a quote from this Forbes article by GMU economist Russell Roberts. While politicians run around promising to do “whatever it takes” to get the economy going again, the sad fact is that nobody knows how to do that. Many know what things need to happen to fire up the economy, but no single person can provide the tactical steps for accomplishing those things.

Roberts asks:
“What if markets are spooked by the specter of government spending without any constraints? What if doing whatever it takes means doing less, rather than more?”
He goes on to argue that an additional $100 billion ‘stimulus package’ won’t help any more than did last spring’s $165 billion stimulus package. Roberts asks:
“What's the argument for spending $100 billion to revive a $14 trillion economy? A $14 trillion economy where the government has just spent a few hundred billion and counting on financial bailouts and capital injections. To no avail. Does anyone really think that we haven't spent enough?”
Apparently many Americans think we have spent enough, otherwise the auto company bailout would have succeeded this week. Besides, argues Roberts, “many of [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson's relentless efforts to move markets forward have made the situation worse.” He goes on to opine:
“Somehow, I don't think an extra $100 billion or even $300 billion is going to get the job done, even if it goes toward infrastructure as some are suggesting.”
We now know some things we shouldn’t do to revive the economy, but knowing what not to do isn’t enough to get the job done. If we want investor and consumer confidence to rebound, one of the things we shouldn’t do is insert more uncertainty into the system, yet that is precisely what government has been doing — all in the name of ‘doing something about the crisis,’ of course.

Perhaps Roberts is right. Maybe, just maybe, government should focus on stable principles instead of running around like chickens with their heads cut off. People aren’t going to start taking risks until there is more stability. Increasing liquidity, as the Fed has been doing and is threatening to do more of, isn’t going to inspire the kind of confidence that will encourage healthy risk taking.

Frankly, this current approach just isn’t right. Americans should not be looking to some appointed bureaucrat to get the economy going. They should be looking to each other — to the real producers. Under most conditions, very few people even know who the Secretary of the Treasury is. That’s the way it should be. Now, team Obama knows that this will probably be the most important appointment it will make during this next term.

Maybe, just maybe, the free thinkers are right on this point: that the markets must heal themselves and that the more quickly government quits creating additional uncertainty, the more rapidly healing will happen. Would this mean pain? Absolutely. But likely much less pain than prolonged agony caused by politicians trying to play hero.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Free the Health Care System: a Review

In response to my recent post about overmedication, Bekkieann asked what ideas I have for improving our current medical system. Having written about this many times, I thought that rather than rehash the matter, I would put up a list of some of my posts about our medical system.
Many of these posts are critical of third-party payer systems. But there are some positive suggestions about how to reform our current quasi-socialized public/private health care system. And there are some good links in these stories to various suggestions and resources.

The overriding theme that should be driven home is that we need more freedom in our system than we have today. Patients need to be freer to seek the kind of care they really want. Medical practitioners need to be freer to provide the kind of care and services that are in demand. We still need ways to help people that truly cannot afford necessary care.

Coupled with more freedom is more responsibility for the consequences of our own physical and health care decisions. Perhaps this comes across as harsh. I’m not suggesting that this would produce a perfect system by any stretch. But it will be a far less harsh system than a cold bureaucracy that follows procedures and pretends to contain costs, but still produces lousy medical outcomes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Most of Our Medicare Money Is Spent on Cases We Don't Know How to Treat

Medicare spending is increasing at a rate the will bankrupt the system in very few years. Yet many are intent on expanding Medicare (or something like it) to cover an increasing percentage of the population as well as an increasing number of treatments. This trend is unsustainable.

Where do all those Medicare dollars get spent? Siri Carpenter reports, “Seniors with five or more chronic health problems account for two-thirds of Medicare spending….” Nearly all doctors (outside of pediatricians) treat patients in this category, but no clear guidelines exist for treating them.

Part of the reason for this is that patients with multiple conditions are excluded from medical treatment studies. Studies work well when variables are limited. Introducing multiple conditions complicates studies and can produce ambiguous results. With so many variables, how can you accurately derive the cause(s) of a given outcome?

So we are spending the vast majority of our Medicare dollars on cases for which doctors have no training or proven treatment strategies. Does this strike anyone as odd?

To make matters worse, Carpenter suggests that some of the conditions this group of people are experiencing result from the medications they are taking. Carpenter tells a horrific tale of how her once sharp mother slowly became mentally clouded and physically less able by age 61. She was taking 21 medications prescribed by five different physicians for a number of conditions.

I saw something similar with my Dad during the last two years of his life. I built a spreadsheet to help my Mom keep track of all of Dad’s meds following his stroke, but meds and dosages changed so frequently that it was a nightmare. Every doctor wanted a detailed list of everything Dad was taking. We did our homework and listed all possible side effects and drug interactions.

Every specialist insisted that Dad take the drugs they prescribed. When we pointed out potential drug interactions, our concerns were usually pooh-poohed. If you asked about anything another specialist was prescribing, the doctor would get this deer-in-the-headlights look and would clam up, out of professional courtesy. Each of these highly skilled and highly paid physicians knew about the drugs they dealt with every day, but didn’t know much about the multitudes of other drugs they were licensed to prescribe.

When we brought up specific questions about drugs, almost every specialist Dad saw told us to consult with Dad’s primary care physician. I liked Dad’s primary care doctor. He’s smart and dedicated. But he also rarely provided satisfactory answers about the horrendous drug cocktail Dad was consuming.

A couple of weeks after Dad was released from intensive care following a drug interaction that nearly killed him, he started getting seriously goofy. It was bizarre to see this man that had prized his sharp analytical mind acting in mindless ways. We were referred to a psychologist that specialized in treatment of seniors. After a very thorough examination, the doctor said that Dad was getting senile and that we simply needed to adjust to that fact. He strongly downplayed any possibility of drug induced mental problems.

A few weeks later, Dad went on strike. He simply refused to take any more drugs. Mom was beside herself. She argued that he simply had to take the drugs. He said he didn’t care if he died or had another stroke. If Mom gave the meds to him, he would just wash them down the sink.

Life was pretty harsh for Dad and Mom for about three weeks. Then Dad’s mental fog cleared and he became a rational person once again. I realized that he had been going through withdrawal symptoms during those weeks. Once it was clear that the drugs had caused Dad’s mental issues, I was pretty upset with the psychologist.

It turns out that this kind of thing is quite common. Like Siri Carptenter’s mother and my Dad, many seniors are seriously overmedicated. There is no competent coordination of all of the different prescriptions these people are taking. Each doctor knows little of the drugs prescribed by other doctors and each is afraid of saying anything for fear of offending another doctor. They’d rather see patients suffer than embarrass a colleague.

As Carpenter notes, doctors also tend to misdiagnose the problem of overmedication, assuming that the patients are naturally getting sicker. This leads to prescription of even more meds, causing a nasty spiral of diminishing life quality.

In our medical system, the patients are generally not the customers. In most cases, the actual customers are the government and/or the insurance companies. The patients are the products and system engenders extremely shoddy quality control. Cost control is pretty poor as well, although, the main role played by the actual customers is supposedly to contain costs.

What is lacking in this system is a concerned advocate for the patient. For most other products and services in our society the customers act as advocates for themselves. But in medicine, when the patient is not the customer, nobody adequately plays the role of the patient advocate, especially when a patient’s judgment becomes clouded.

Players in the system act to satisfy their own goals according to the incentives in the system. This is not to say that they are bad or uncaring people. In fact, most of them mean quite well and want to help people the best they can. But the system provides inadequate incentives and information for accomplishing that. And no matter how concerned a player might be, he/she simply cannot adequately replace the quality of concern that comes from proper customership.

We have screwed up incentives in our medical system today. More Medicare is not going to solve this problem.

Tell Us Why We Should Become Moderate Republicans

In the face of significant losses nationwide, members of the Republican Party are rightly debating the party’s future. Each major political party is a conglomeration of diverse groups, and each group has a right to champion its views.

GOP conservatives argue that the party has lost favor because it has not been true to its conservative principles. GOP moderates say that conservatives have steered the party away from mainstream America.

An example of this second viewpoint is Free the GOP by Christine Todd Whitman and Robert M. Bostock, where the authors acerbically take on “social fundamentalists” that have “taken [the GOP] hostage.”

They write, “On Nov. 4, the American people very clearly rejected the politics of demonization and division.” Oddly, the Whitman and Bostock article is little more than a stunning example of ideological divisiveness and demonization of social conservatives. They offer not even one clue as to what moderate Republicans positively propose.

Like it or not, the GOP includes both conservatives and moderates. Attempts to excommunicate either faction from the party will not produce a winning result. Each faction should engage in honest discussion and debate by putting forward its ideas and respectfully considering the ideas of others.

If moderates like Whitman and Bostock want to help shape the future of the GOP, they should explain the value of their own views and abandon “the politics of demonization and division.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Being a Parent

I’m usually the first one up in our house. I get up in the dark and go to the room where I exercise. On the way, I pass my daughter’s room. I carefully close her bedroom door because I know that before long the house will be bustling with family members getting ready to head out to their various destinations, and I’d like her to have as much tranquility as possible.

Some mornings when I see my little girl sleeping peacefully, I feel such an incredibly powerful surge of fatherly love that it nearly overwhelms me. It is an emotion that seems to exceed earthly realms. It pervades every fiber of my soul. If I’m not careful, tears spring to the corners of my eyes.

In that moment, I don’t think about my daughter drawing with permanent marker on the dining table, the watercolor paint on the carpet, or the handprints that constantly reappear on the screen of the family room TV. In that sacred and transformational moment, I want nothing more than to be the kind of dad that I should be.

I can’t help but feel sorry for those that never have an opportunity to have a similar experience. I pity those that have such opportunities but never have the experience. I don’t know if anyone other than a parent can experience this kind of thing.

It reminds me of the scene in the Disney movie The Incredibles, where Mrs. Incredible finds herself and her two oldest children on an airplane in a life threatening situation. She’s yelling at her teen daughter to employ her super abilities to save the three while mom is furiously focused on doing what she must do. But the daughter is so freaked out that she can’t muster up her powers.

At the very last moment, Mrs. Incredible leaps out of the pilot seat and sacrifices herself to shield her frightened children from fatal harm. If you’re a functioning parent, you can feel that moment viscerally. Probably more so if you’re a mom. It’s only a cartoon, yet you feel it intensely.

Back when we first watched the movie as a family, our kids were doing the ‘wow’ thing during that scene. They couldn’t quite understand the tears my wife and I had in our eyes. But if you’re a parent, you understand.

Raising children changes you, hopefully in good ways. You develop a deep understanding of things of which you only previously had an academic comprehension. You grow dimensionally in ways that cannot happen without the parenting experience.

I think it works that way for most functional parents, but there are certainly exceptions. It utterly blows my mind that there are parents that could abuse their children to satisfy their own lusts.

Lest you think only little girls can cause the kinds of feelings I discussed above, I have had similar experiences with each of my sons. The teenagers provide new dimensions, both positive and negative. But there are times I marvel at the good people my kids are becoming. When I see my own shortcomings, such thoughts are sometimes quite humbling.

It seems that our society has moved a long way over the past generation toward devaluing parenthood, painting it mainly as a burden. The personal development and rewards of good parenting are discounted. You can put up statistics that prove the value of good parenting. But I’m here to tell you that I know it in the depth of my soul in ways that no cold facts can communicate. Every good parent knows the same thing. It’s part of them.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Governments Can Diversify Risk Too

A basic economic rule of income taxation is that revenues are relative to the overall economy. When the economy is good, so are income tax receipts. When the economy contracts so do income tax revenues.

There is no big mystery in this rule. Logically, it is in government’s interest to work for a robust economy. The better the economy does, in essence, the more the government has to spend. Or at least it would work that way if the amount our politicians allocate had more than just a passing connection to government revenues.

I noted a few months ago that the amount of taxes actually paid by Americans has in effect become much more progressive during the Bush years. The rates haven’t become more progressive, but actual payments have. Nearly half of all “taxpayers” pay no federal income tax at all.

This creates a perverse incentive for the half that pays little or nothing to clamor for expansion of government services at the expense of the other half. In effect, they vote themselves benefits from their neighbors’ bank accounts. Although they pay disguised taxes in the form of reduced opportunity and productivity, the lack of a direct cost causes them to want more of what they don’t expressly pay for.

The effectual progressive tax has yet another problem; a problem that is exacerbated when heavier taxes are levied on specific sectors or when an economy relies too much on a given sector. Government revenues become increasingly dependent on the performance of a decreasing number of taxpayers. Any economic effect that more strongly impacts those that pay a higher percentage of the taxes has an outsized impact on government revenues.

This works in general. If those that typically pay capital gains taxes — usually the wealthier people — suddenly have no capital gains (as in our current downturn), the capital gains revenues government has been used to receiving go away also. If capital gains have made up a hefty portion of tax revenues, government revenues will be disproportionately impacted.

The principle also works in relation to specific sectors. An economy that is heavily skewed to a given sector puts government at excessive risk should that sector go south. Both New York City and the State of New York are discovering this problem right now, as explained by the WSJ Editors.

Financial sector income increased from 2% to 20% of total income in New York over a 30-year period. Government revenues became tightly tied to this source. Now that the sector has fallen flat, both the city and state are scrambling trying to figure out how to deal with the massive decrease in tax revenues.

States like Michigan and Ohio that spent decades courting, developing, and kowtowing to specific industries now find their fates inseparably tied to those industries. So tightly linked are they that they are incapable of breaking out of policies that doom them even decades after it has become clear that the heyday of those industries is permanently gone. Instead of adjusting, they’d rather look to federal taxpayers to help fund their rut.

When it comes to income taxation, it is best to follow the advice mutual fund brokers have repeatedly pushed (often to deaf ears) over the years. Diversify your portfolio to reduce risk. Instead of relying on a steadily decreasing number of “rich” taxpayers, governments can hedge against hard times with flatter tax systems that more evenly spread the burden throughout the economy.

Of course, this creates a situation politicians wish to avoid. It is in the blood of Americans (one of our nation’s founding principles) to stand against general tax increases. Americans don’t get too upset about tax increases on the other guy — the guy that supposedly “can afford to pay more.” But they get downright testy when their own taxes are directly increased. Politicians that raise taxes in flatter tax systems end up enduring the wrath of the taxpayers.

There are those that love to sing the praises of progressive taxation and there are those that like to listen to those songs. But the fact is that when it comes to government revenues, the path of progressive taxation is progressively risky.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


As a teenager I developed an interest in entertainment magic. There was a novelty shop in town where I would occasionally spend some of my newspaper route earnings to buy magic tricks. I still own a number of those tricks. For most of my adult life they have been stuffed away in storage. On rare occasions I have pulled out some of the tricks and performed them for my family, and even more rarely for other gatherings.

One of the better online magic shops is Magic Geek. Their tricks are categorized by price range, skill level, and performance style. You can get some great tricks for under $10, but you can also dump hundreds of dollars into serious tricks. Skill levels are easiest, easy, intermediate, and advanced. Performance styles include card, coin & money, stage magic, street magic, mentalism, kid show, and fire. Many tricks fit into more than one of these categories.

One of the cool things about the Magic Geek site is that for most tricks, you can click on and watch a brief video of a professional magician performing the trick.

My middle child recently developed a keen interest in magic. Last year for Christmas we gave him several simple magic tricks. A few weeks ago, my son spent some of his newspaper route earnings on a couple of new tricks from Magic Geek. A couple of weeks later his school held tryouts for a talent show. He practiced, entered his act, and was accepted.

When I attended the talent show, I was initially disappointed that my son had not entered to perform a piano piece. He is at least one order of magnitude better than the best piano performer at the show. A couple of singers had great voices. One guitarist was good. But my son’s act brought the house down. It was a huge departure from the other acts. He had the audience firmly in his grasp the moment he did his floating dollar bill trick.

Since then, my son has encouraged (nagged) me to haul out my old magic tricks so that he could learn them. I have some simple tricks, but most of them require some sleight of hand. Some of them are fairly difficult. The only advanced trick I have is the age-old linking ring trick. To really make this look right, you have to practice for many hours. It helps to practice in front of a mirror. Even after years of working at this trick, I am unable to achieve the smoothness required to make it seem amazing.

What my son does not yet understand is that to make any trick look good requires as much practice at performance as it does at technique. Everyone knows that there is some kind of gimmick to every trick. None of it is supernatural. But a good performer takes us to the point where we willingly suspend our disbelief long enough to be entertained by the seemingly supernatural.

To entertain, the magician needs to practice presentation, stage presence, body language, facial expressions, speaking, etc. The performer must temporarily take on the persona of a great magician. Beyond technique, what the magician most needs is strong confidence in his/her ability to deceive the audience. Such confidence masks imperfections and helps beguile the audience, keeping their attention diverted to prevent revealing of the physics behind the trick.

This is where my magical abilities break down, and the likely reason that my tricks sit in storage year after year. Deep within me it feels wrong to engage in deception, even for entertainment purposes. Even though the audience in effect allows itself to be deceived to achieve some entertainment value, it just doesn’t seem right to me to purposefully delude them. This prevents me from having the confidence necessary to perform magic well.

It’s not the same with other types of performance in which I have engaged, such as music. A musician does not rely on trickery to entertain, although a speechmaker might.

Imagine what life would be like if each of us had and heeded an internal passion that prevented us from deceiving others. What kind of difference would it make in politics, business, and personal relationships? I believe that such sensitivities actually do exist in each of us. But sometimes we find it acceptable to squelch these feelings.

Sometimes it is right to suppress such feelings to achieve a greater moral good. For example, dishonesty was good when Dutch and German people lied to authorities about hiding and keeping Jews safe during the Holocaust.

But most of the time our suppressions of truthfulness are driven by much baser motives. For example, we have developed and promoted an entire culture of deceit in our political systems. We have repeatedly demonstrated that we would never elect a candidate that insisted on being completely candid with voters. We don’t want that. Rather, we engage in willing gullibility, as many years of election results demonstrate.

Our representatives ‘represent’ so many people that they only way they can win is to appeal to large masses. To do this, they pander, obfuscate, and deceive. And we buy it. Nobody really expects a presidential candidate to make good on many of her/his promises. Candidates say one thing to one group and promise the opposite to another the same day. We expect deception, yet we elect these people anyway. It’s almost like paying to see a magic show, except that this is not mere entertainment. It has real consequences.

The splendor — and the unpleasantness — of a democratic republic is that we get the leaders we deserve. If we have dishonest politicians, what does that say about the culture that elects and supports them?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Future of the GOP, part 2

Last week I posited some post-election thoughts about the future of the GOP. I suggested that Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin had the potential to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Yesterday it was reported that Romney has said that it is unlikely he will run for office again. It was also reported that Palin is quite open to seeking the presidency in the future.

There are others that are now seeing potential opportunities. While Palin energized parts of the GOP base, she is nowhere near being an invincible figure. And while anyone out there might be in the ramp-up stages of running a four-year campaign, a lot can change in four years. There will likely be some fresh faces on the scene by then.

But there is a bigger issue to consider. As I have said previously, both major parties are large conglomerations of various groups. The GOP has long had its moderate and traditionalist divisions. Despite its serious troubles, the moderate wing — in charge since the 1964 Goldwater rout — successfully fought off a challenge by traditionalist Ronald Reagan in 1976. They were caught off guard when their guy, George H.W. Bush, lost the GOP nomination to Reagan in 1980.

Although the traditionalist conservative movement was ascendant at the time, Reagan still knew he needed the moderates’ support, so he ended up selecting Bush as his running mate. Traditionalist conservatives supported Bush when he sought to succeed Reagan eight years later. But many of them deserted him after one term of moderate policies.

Although the White House was lost in 1992, traditionalists continued to ascend, finally capturing Congress in 1994. But they made many compromises to maintain control of Congress and to bring George W. Bush to power in 2000, and then keep him there in 2004. Still, since the heady days of 1994 traditionalists have succeeded in driving many moderates from the party to the point that Republicans control almost nothing in the Northeast and very little on the West Coast.

Moderate Republican commentator David Brooks whines here that the mantra about the GOP being insufficiently conservative is going to win out in the near term. He cites three reasons for this: 1) Most of the moderate Congressional Republicans are already gone; 2) “Traditionalists have the institutions,” while moderates have none; and 3) “Traditionalists own the conservative mythology.” To explain this third point, Brooks writes:
“Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.”
Brooks says that this will lead to “crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity.” But he suggests that history is ultimately on the side of the moderates. He prophesies that after the GOP veers to the right and suffers more defeats, moderates “will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.”

Brooks has some valid points. Polling shows (see Politico report) that some demographic groups that once aligned with the GOP have strongly shifted to the Democrats. It is suggested that the changing face of the country indicates decreasing GOP appeal to the nation’s largest ascendant groups. Brooks says that the GOP must “pay attention to the way the country has changed.” He calls for “the old G.O.P. priorities … to be modernized for new conditions.”

Traditionalists would retort that this is what got the GOP in trouble in the first place. Although Brooks argues that “American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government,” when the GOP gave up on standing for limited government it lost its most important element of brand differentiation. Much of what Brooks calls “conservative” is in the same vein as G.W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which is code for big government with GOP support. Frankly, those that approve of big government policies will support Democrats over Republicans that want to act like Democrat-lites. Why go for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

To complicate matters further, there are vast differences between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Some social conservatives find moderate fiscal policies quite to their liking, while some fiscal conservatives find libertarian social concepts quite appealing. Thus, it is difficult to divide Republicans neatly into two groups.

Republicans should (and must at some point) discuss and debate what it means to be a Republican and how to attract others to those ideals. Brooks argues for a pragmatic approach. In his mind, it is the only rational way forward. He relegates those that sincerely believe in their conservative principles to the dustbin of history.

Our nation does not like to veer too far away from the center. It may be center-left or center-right, but it is somewhere close to the center. Obama had to run to the center on economic and national security issues to win. McCain had to run to the center to garner as many votes as he did. Clinton discovered in 1994 that governing too far to the left of center had serious political ramifications. Still, voters expect some actual brand differentiation so that they have an actual choice.

However, if traditionalist conservatives believe they are right that the GOP needs to move more to the right, they need to ask themselves a few questions. Where are all those strong conservatives going to come from that will win and hold congressional seats in the coastal states and in the population centers? Will voters flock to them simply because they are conservative? (Heck, for that matter, where are the strong conservative Utah senators going to come from? Utahns obviously don’t want conservative US Senators.) The GOP hasn’t just shed moderate seats. Why have some strong GOP conservatives like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) lost during the past dozen years if moving to the right is the right way to go?

The Wall Street Journal posted a symposium of various thoughts on the future of the GOP. Danny Vargas says that the party must appeal to minorities. Richard Land reminds that Evangelicals that value life and family tend to vote for their values over their party, so the GOP must be strong on those values. Michael Steele calls for the party to positively redefine itself by what it is for rather than by what it is against. Henry Olsen asks the party to focus on its principles of freedom and responsibility rather than focusing on specific policies, citing Reagan as the model for this. Peter Robinson notes that Hispanics must be courted, since they align much more closely with Republican principles than with Democratic ideals.

Everyone seems to be in full agreement that the GOP needs to redefine itself in a way that appeals to voters. But there is a lot of disagreement about how to achieve this. There will be a lot of squabbling among factions. Efforts by factions to strong arm others will meet with resistance and perhaps defection. There is no clear leader on the horizon to lead the party out of the wilderness. The optimistic view is to say that the GOP has many opportunities available right now.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lost Opportunities

Fifteen years ago I was serving as a scoutmaster. It was a very busy time in my life. I was trying to advance in my career, I had two little kids, I was grappling with Multiple Sclerosis, and I had a very large troop of boys.

Like many new homeowners, I had been working steadily to improve our property. As summer drew to a close I began building a cedar fence around my backyard. I could only work on it in what little spare time I had, so the project took weeks and weeks. Autumn evenings often found me working outside with the benefit of artificial lighting. I was trying to get the fence finished before winter set in.

A boy in my troop named Jake was excited about his upcoming birthday. His family was going to hold a special gathering. He told the other boys all about it at troop meeting.

Jake lived close to my house, but I wasn’t any closer to him than any of the other boys. Since he didn’t attend our church meetings, I had less opportunity to interact with him than with some of the other youth. Jake acted like your average boy his age. Any that have interacted much with this age group of boys will know what I mean.

One night I was busily working on my fence. Down the street I saw various friends and family members arriving at Jake’s home, and then I remembered that it was his birthday. I knew his parents somewhat. They seemed like decent people.

Later as I was hurrying to get a certain part of my project finished before having to wrap up for the night, I saw Jake kind of lazily riding his bike in the road in front of our house. He came into the driveway and started talking with me. I talked with him, but I went on about my work. He was rattling on about something that seemed totally inane to me.

I wondered why the heck Jake was bothering me when his house was full of people that were there to celebrate his birthday. Having not been around alcohol much in my life, I didn’t understand the dynamic of the adults at the party drinking and acting like people do when they get oiled up, eventually making Jake want to get out of the house.

As Jake jabbered, I increasingly tried to give signals that I was too busy for idle chit-chat. His blathering seemed to be pointless. Eventually my messages were successful, and Jake wandered off into the neighborhood.

Later, as I wrapped up for the night, I was satisfied with what I had accomplished on the fence. I groused to my wife about Jake bothering me, taking precious time away from my project. I can’t remember the mild comment she said in response, but sometime later it sank in.

I was so intent on my work that I was oblivious to the fact that Jake was reaching out to me for help. He had come to one of the adults that he thought he could trust and that cared about him. Being an adolescent boy, he didn’t directly approach the issue. Perhaps he didn’t even understand why he was there himself. But I had spurned his appeal. I had showed Jake by my actions that I cared more about a fence than I did about him.

After I realized my error, I watched for an opportunity to redeem myself. That opportunity never came. Jake went on into the next age group of boys and I didn’t have much of an opportunity to interact with him after that. Nor, I’m sure, did he feel any urge to approach me about matters of importance to him.

I’m still a very task oriented person. I still find myself brushing off people that should be important in my life so that I can focus on getting a task done. The other evening my 11-year-old asked me to work with him to learn how to build fires without using matches. Although I wanted to do something else, I remembered Jake. I dropped what I was doing and spent time working with my son in the backyard.

Although Jake has grown up and become a man, in my mind’s eye, I still see him as a somewhat forlorn boy sitting on his bicycle in my driveway on a dark autumn evening. And I see an opportunity forever lost.

Friday, November 07, 2008

American Values are More Important than an Election

Tuesday night, a family in South Ogden that supported Barack Obama returned home after working the polls, thrilled by the news that their candidate was going to win the presidential election. In their enthusiasm and pride, they hung their American Flag outside of their home. Within an hour someone had torched that flag.

The burning of the family’s flag was a vile and repugnant act. Significantly, it was a direct attack on a family’s home that could possibly have resulted in physical harm. Thus it goes beyond simple vandalism to assault. It was also an attack on American values and ideals.

This is not how we as Americans express our opinions on political matters. You can be unhappy with the outcome of an election. You can have dramatic differences of opinion on matters of policy and values with the candidate that wins an election. The way you deal with that is to go to work to build support for your views so that they can influence political behavior in the near term and hopefully influence election outcomes in the future.

Committing vandalism and violence against people that supported candidates or issues differently than you is more than just petty and small minded; it is evil. The same holds true for stealing or defacing campaign signs, bumper stickers, etc. You should defend yourself appropriately if your life or liberty is in jeopardy. But a normal political campaign hardly rises to a level to justify the kinds of ugly actions I have discussed.

When our candidate or issue loses, we should behave toward those with whom we disagree as we would like them to behave toward us when our side comes out on top.

Fortunately, many in the community adhere to the principles I discussed in my post about acting nobly. As reported in the Standard Examiner, many have given flags to the family whose flag was burned. I have learned that a number of the flag donors were McCain supporters. Regardless of who they supported in the election, many have come forward to demonstrate that American values are more important than an election outcome. For that I am grateful.

I don’t know if authorities will catch those involved in this crime. But now that many have come forward to support this family, I hope that the criminals are ashamed of their despicable actions.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Post-Election Thoughts: Utah

Almost nothing has changed in Utah. The state’s top offices are still held by GOP officials, all elected by large margins. Governor Huntsman sees his landslide victory as a mandate for his big government agenda (see SL-Trib article). And you know what? He’s right. Utahns will get what they voted for. That doesn’t mean that I have to like it.

The biggest change is that Utah’s Speaker of the House, Greg Curtis (R-Sandy) lost to his three-time opponent Jay Seegmiller, who lost to Curtis two years ago by only 20 votes. Curtis’ comments quoted by the SL-Trib suggest that he became so involved in house leadership that he lost sight of his district’s constituents. Any lawmaker that does this deserves to lose.

This reminds me of four years ago when former Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens (R-Farr West) ran for the GOP governor nomination. He had a well funded and well organized campaign. But almost all of his campaign materials featured political insiders tooting his horn. He had many politicians and political wonks backing him up. Unsurprisingly, that message didn’t appeal much to most GOP voters.

While the balance of Republicans and Democrats in the state senate remains the same, Democrats lost their only senate seat outside of Salt Lake County (see D-News article). Democrats picked up two net seats in the Utah house, so they will lag Republicans by only 22-53 instead of 20-55. But they gained three seats in Salt Lake County and lost one seat in Weber County.

What this really looks like is that Salt Lake County has become more Democratic (especially on the East side) and the rest of the state has become more Republican. I’m afraid that fosters a very us-vs-them attitude. Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland’s comments comparing Salt Lake County favorably with Denver and Las Vegas might sound good to county Democrats, but talk like that will only alienate most of the rest of the state.

Months ago when Mitt Romney bowed out of the presidential race, many Utahns vowed to never support rival John McCain’s presidency. I predicted then that most of these people would eventually vote for McCain and that some would do so enthusiastically. Well, Utah was McCain’s third most reliable state (with 63%), behind Oklahoma (66%) and Wyoming (65%). For an understanding of why Utah’s Romney supporters ended up shifting solidly to McCain, see the human nature discussion in my recent post on third parties.

Despite how virulently a vocal core rails against Utah being heavily GOP-controlled, most Utahns see no home in the Democratic Party for reasons I discussed two years ago. If anything has changed since that time, it is that Obama’s campaign went too far portraying him in a messianic role. Frankly, most strongly religious people don’t see a need for a fallible human savior, especially one with the kind of leftist leanings Obama has exhibited.

Being heavily Republican, however, Utah will now be given red-headed stepchild status by the Democratic power brokers inside the DC beltway. All the while, Utah will continue to be marginalized by the GOP because Republicans are required to do nothing to keep Utah faithful to the GOP.

Post-Election Thoughts: The Future of the GOP

Mitt Romney’s stock has substantially increased among the GOP. The GOP tends to nominate someone that has had significant presence on the national scene. Usually the party nominates someone that has previously vied for the nomination and has either won or come in second place. Sometimes they have nominated a former VP candidate. Only rarely have Republicans broken from this pattern. Thanks to this pattern they ended up with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain (whom some have said is Bob Dole II) this year.

Democrats tend to do just the opposite. They usually nominate new faces, as was the case this year when they favored a relatively inexperienced Senator Obama over Hillary Clinton, their second best nationally known personality, (her husband Bill being the first).

Romney also improved his lot with the GOP by seriously campaigning for McCain. Although a McCain victory would likely have killed Romney’s chances for the party’s nomination in the future, he stumped for McCain in a full-hearted manner. Let’s just say that he has made significant inroads with the people that make up the party machine.

The entry of Gov. Sarah Palin onto the national GOP stage as McCain’s VP pick somewhat complicates Romney’s ascendancy to the party’s nomination because she avoids the party’s religious rift. There is no question that such a strong anti-Mormon current exists among Evangelical Republicans that a significant part of the party opposes Romney based on religion alone. Palin, herself an Evangelical Christian, would strongly appeal to Evangelicals that cannot stomach Romney’s Mormon religion.

Of course, no one knows today whether Palin will even consider a run in 2012. She’s a relatively new governor. Events in her state over the next couple of years could improve or damage her stock. Like all politicians, she has been shown to be imperfect. But there are sure to be groups with money and clout that will solicit her candidacy. Time will tell if she follows their siren song.

But who is in charge of the party right now? That’s not exactly clear. When a party has a president in the White House (or a president-elect going there), that person is the party’s leader. When a party has no one in the White House (or on their way there), party leadership is less clear. The national committee provides structure but not necessarily leadership. Different people vie for leadership and it even shifts from moment to moment. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We’ll have to watch and see who emerges.

If politics is about winning, it should be clear to Republicans that they’re doing something wrong. They managed to hold onto enough senate seats to sustain a filibuster as long as no more than a couple of their senators defect (as has commonly been the case). But crowing about this is like being proud to be the owner of the wheel chocks instead of the owner of the airplane.

The GOP needs major retooling. Republicans need to offer something other than Democrat-lite. People that buy into the liberal-populist agenda will go for the genuine article every time over the wannabes. People need a real alternative, not just a different version of the same thing.

As Dick Armey has famously said, “When we act like us we win. When we act like them we lose.” Republicans need to figure out what they stand for and why they stand for it. They seem to have lost any sense of unifying principle other than to not be Democrats. When Republicans get this figured out they need to act accordingly.

I’m not holding my breath for this to happen. Too many in the GOP seem to be geared up to be in permanent minority status. They’re happy to fight the little squabbles rather than doing the hard lifting of redefining ideology.

Post-Election Thoughts: Third Party Failure

Less than 1 percent of all voters in this presidential election voted for a third party candidate. As I have often noted, third parties attract few actual voters except for extraordinary situations. And in those instances the movements are short lived. And don’t give me the tripe about how the GOP was once a third party. I’ve covered that ground many times previously.

The fact is that for most of the history of this nation, there have only been two major parties at any given time. The question is why this is so. While it is true that the two major parties work hard to disenfranchise any would-be competitors and to keep the public focused on issues of their choosing, this cannot be the most significant reason for paltry third party support.

Politics is unavoidably a game of power and everyone knows it. People tend to vote for the candidates that are most likely to win. Psychologists know that almost all voters will usually go for the most viable candidate that seems to be closer to his/her own value system over a ‘more principled’ stance of voting for an unserious candidate merely to send a message. People play the politics game to win. Being a sideline heckler in the game simply doesn’t appeal to most people.

Thus, third parties face the significant problem of having to fight against human nature. On very rare occasions, a third party has tapped into an unmet desire among the voting populace, and has offered a well organized, well financed candidate. Such candidates often influence the debate, but they rarely win. And when they do win they have no support system. They end up either becoming pariahs or becoming de facto members of one of the major parties.

So, as much as some would like to see more third party vibrancy to address the problems inherent in our two-party system, that’s a major uphill battle. I can’t say that this will never change, but historical precedent suggests that it is unlikely.

Post-Election Thoughts: Act Nobly

I have a few thoughts now that the election is finished. I will put them out in a series of posts.

First, act nobly. I aspire to what Lincoln said in his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all….”

I’m grateful that the presidential election was decisive. I’d hate to relive the 2000 post-election month. I’d advise conservatives to put aside sour grapes and to be magnanimous in congratulating Obama supporters, even if some gloat in an unseemly manner. They have achieved a great victory. Few Democrats in modern times have won the presidency with more than 50% of the popular vote in their first term. Let Team Obama and its supporters have their due. There will be plenty of time for challenging methodologies and ideologies over the next four years.

Speaking of that, I’d also advise conservatives to avoid turning their stance into an anti-Obama personality cult. The angry Left’s unhinged detestation of G.W. Bush has ill served the country. Liberals likely would have picked up even more votes had this element not been present. Conservatives should learn from the days of Clinton loathing that anti-personality cults harm the country and the movement that spawns such antipathy. If such sentiments draw people to the movement, they are invariably the kind of people you don’t want in the movement.

Moreover, regardless of what anyone admits right now, personal attacks on Obama will invariably be cast as racial bigotry, even if they are not intended in that light. This next statement will come across as very politically incorrect, but it is a fact. Racial bigotry — or even the mere perception of such — by conservatives (especially white conservatives) has become one of the ultra-sins in modern America. Any conservative that goes there will be trashed and this will detract from the conservative message.

There is no denying the fact that most minorities have fled the Republican Party. The Left will not hesitate to use this fact to cast the GOP as the party of racial bigotry. Anything that could be construed to confirm this view will be boldly paraded before the eyes of the nation, while any bigotry on the part of people aligned with the Democrats will be ignored, obfuscated, and excused.

For these reasons, it’s best to stick to the actual issues and avoid personality-based criticisms. Even in the absence of a racially charged environment, this is good policy. In short, acting nobly is good policy.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Where Does Tyranny Begin?

In my last post I discussed the philosophy of liberty and why government becomes tyrannical when it exceeds the bounds of individual rights delegated to it by the free individuals that make up society. I presented a video clip that explores these concepts. I suspect that most of those that viewed the video clip found some things with which they agree and some things with which they disagree.

The video clip begins with the statement that no one has a higher claim on your life than you do. It goes on from this to suggest that the only obligation an individual has to society is to play fair and to engage in no fraud at any level. Consequently, this means that government’s main duty is to ensure a level playing field and to ensure that everyone plays fair. Engineering the outcome of the play is entirely outside the scope of government’s role.

I think, however, that most people don’t fully buy into this concept. All of us are who we are and have what we have partially due to the efforts of others, including many that have long since passed on. Moreover, some of our property is derived from accessing common resources, such as air, water, and roads. So, do individuals have other societal obligations? If so, what are those obligations?

This is a topic upon which a variety of viewpoints exist, seemingly along a sliding scale with pure individual liberty (the individual owes the group only fairness) at one end and total collectivism (the group owns the individual) at the other. Relatively few people think matters rest fully at one end or the other. Most people think that a balance exists at some point on the scale. But where is that point? It is about this that most of our political, legislative, and judicial contests are fought.

Most people agree that individuals have rights that the collective cannot infringe upon. But there are vast disagreements about what those rights are. Most people agree that individuals have certain obligations to the collective, but there are many disagreements about what those obligations are.

Is the individual required to sacrifice his life should the collective determine that a draft is required to conscript soldiers for war? Or must it be a “just war”? And who is the arbiter of whether a war is just or not?

Is the individual required to sacrifice personal property to subsidize other less propertied members of society? Who gets to say what benefits are subsidized, who is considered worthy of the subsidy, and how much the subsidizing individual is required to pay? The reverse side of this applies as well. Do I have a right to be generous enough to vote benefits for the less fortunate from my neighbor’s bank account?

Hearkening back to my Nov. 1 post, do I have a right to require that my neighbors help cover my expenses? What if I get more than half of my neighbors to say that the top earners in my neighborhood must help cover my expenses? What if I get a judge to require my higher-earning neighbors to help cover my expenses? Does that make it right?

Do I have a right to require my neighbors to enter into a collective insurance pool so that I and others can more easily afford medical care? What if 51% of the people in the neighborhood so vote? Does this make it right to force the other 49% to join us in this insurance pool?

What if I want a sports stadium? Is it morally right for me to force my neighbors to help pay for it, even if they never use it? I can argue that it’s good for the community. So, what if I can get more than half of my neighbors to vote that everyone must support such a stadium? Does that make it morally right? If this is OK for a sports stadium, is there anything that the majority cannot morally require the minority to do? Where does the line get drawn?

Since structure fires threaten surrounding properties, can 51% of the people in the community require everyone to minimize fire hazards? To what extent? Specification of storage methods of hazardous fluids? Requiring the installation and maintenance of ceiling sprinklers? Outlawing smoking in even privately owned buildings, since many house fires result from smoking products being dropped on furnishings?

As collective funding of medical treatments becomes more pervasive, does the collective have a right to proscribe certain higher risk behaviors? If so, which ones? Where does the line get drawn?

As you can see, when you start getting into real life issues, matters become far less clear. Moreover, the slippery slope argument becomes more apparent. If individuals can virtuously be coerced by the masses or even by the minority, is there any point on the scale that must never be crossed? If so, where is that point? At what point does collective coercion stop being virtuous and begin to be oppression?

As we slide through the gray areas, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where tyranny begins. It is so easy to look at what we assume to be unfair outcomes and then force behaviors we assume will produce more fair outcomes. In our support of such coercion, we work so hard to clothe our arguments in facades of virtue that we become oblivious to our own tyranny. We deny that tyranny exists. Like all tyrants throughout time, we claim that we are only doing what is in the best interest of all and we minimize the sacrifices we require.

Unfortunately, tyranny changes those that wield it, no matter how virtuous may be their cause. They unavoidably become oppressors, even if they have the best of intentions. And as such, they act like tyrants.

It is one thing for people to be required to abide by agreements into which they freely enter. It is quite another thing to force behaviors based upon an ill-defined, constantly shifting social contract to which the parties have never fully agreed. The difference between free choice and tyranny is vast. But in my conversations with people, it seems that few can clearly draw this distinction, or else they do it selectively to support their views.

If we do not fully subscribe to the viewpoint presented in the video clip linked in my last post — if we feel that individuals have obligations to society beyond just playing fair — where is the line that collective obligations become tyranny? To deny that such a line exists is to admit that you have TDS (tyrant denial syndrome). How do we keep from crossing this line?

Why Government Must Be Limited

In my last post, I explored the topic of tyranny of the masses. This has often been the downfall to democratic societies throughout history. It is due to this that some anticipated the eventual failure of the American experiment at its outset.

In a society where you have “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (see Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), the government possesses no rights except those that are delegated to it by the free individuals that make up the society. Any right the individual does not possess cannot be delegated to the collective government.

This means that government — us collectively as a society — has two strict limitations. First, it has no rights beyond those of the individuals in the society. Second, those rights are limited to those that the individuals in the society have actually delegated to the collective government.

Government simply has no legitimacy beyond these two limitations. Whenever government exceeds these limitations, it engages in tyranny.

For example, the individual does not have the right to murder, but an individual does have a right to protect life and property, even to the extent of taking the life of another in certain situations. An individual does not have a right to rob or steal, but an individual does have a right to require that contract obligations be met. An individual has no right to require that others submit to his/her demands, except as specified under agreements freely entered into.

Likewise, a government does not have a right to murder, but does have a right to protect life and property, extending in some instances to the taking of life. A government does not have a right to rob or steal, but it does have a right to enforce contract obligations. But does government have a right to require others to submit to its demands outside of freewill agreements?

The following 8-minute video clip entitled the Philosophy of Liberty explains the basis and limitations of our individual and group rights.

In my next post I will discuss various disagreements that exist with the world view of the creators of this video.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Masses of Tyrants

A free society cannot exist on majority rule alone. There must be factors that counter the unbridled will of the majority — the majority must be held in check — or else tyranny will reign.

Whether tyranny is wielded by few or by many, those that live under its yoke are oppressed and held in bondage to some extent. In fact, there is an advantage to having a single great tyrant at the helm. For, if he can be deposed, the system of tyranny will fall with him. The situation is similar when tyranny is wielded by a small group. But when masses themselves exercise undue control over others, the oppressed have little recourse.

Consider the slaves in the antebellum South. Though their population in some states eventually exceeded the number of non-slaves, the power of the free masses in slave states sustained the system of human bondage. Even the Supreme Court went along. This system proved so difficult to overcome that a war was waged, followed by a century of official oppression.

Consider the Americans that were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during WWII. The Supreme Court later ruled the exclusion process constitutional. Due to fear induced by Japan’s attack on the U.S., most Americans in 1942 were generally supportive of the policy. But none of this mitigates the immorality of the action.

In both of these cases, the number of people that supported the oppression did not change the fact that tyranny and injustice were being exercised. In both cases, Supreme Court rulings supporting the policies did not alter the fact that these policies were despotic and immoral. In both cases, the masses supported despotism.

The tyranny of the masses is so difficult to overcome because no single person considers himself or herself a tyrant. Many are merely supportive of a despotic system. Often they have very good reasons for such support, sometimes even couched in altruistic terms. Even when the individual questions such policies, they usually feel powerless to do much about it in the face of massive support.

The following scripture (D&C 121:39) applies just as much to groups and masses as it does to individuals:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
For a free society to flourish, it is important that strict limits be placed on what those in power can impose upon other members of the society. In other words, the majority (or even just the majority of those that wield power) do not have a right to do anything they have a mind to do. They do not have a right to oppress others.

Democratic societies where the masses become de facto despots ultimately fail. They often begin with noble aims in mind. While they appeal to the individual senses of altruism, loyalty, and patriotism, they eventually come to find that coercion is required due to a lack of sufficient willingness or enthusiasm on the part of some. The noncompliant are labeled enemies of the state and are punished.

By and by, increasing levels of coercion are required to ensure compliance and to co-opt the masses. The result is that gradually, increasingly ruthless elements are drawn into leadership and enforcement positions. This trajectory eventually leads to a dictatorship, whether it takes a few years or many decades. Even if the masses willingly fawn over and worship the dictator and his court, it does not mean that they have a free society.

I have often expressed my gratitude for living in a free country. But what does freedom mean? How can the majority in a free and democratic society become tyrants? I’ll explore these topics in future posts.