Monday, September 28, 2009

Piano to the Fifth Power

I wasn’t sure what to think when my wife handed me music for two pieces a couple of months ago and announced that she had signed me up with my two sons to be part of a piano quintet that would compete at the end of September. I sing and I play several instruments with varying degrees of expertise. But I think I was 17 the last time I actually competed.

My sons were nonplussed, but I began practicing. Eventually, the son that is still taking lessons was required by his teacher to begin practicing. His older brother finally started practicing under duress. The younger boy soon learned to really enjoy playing his part of John Philip Sousa’s Semper Fidelis. He wasn’t as thrilled about Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood, but I convinced him that it was part of his Norwegian heritage.

Practicing for a piano team is different than practicing for a solo or a duet. You have to imagine what the other parts sound like. There are precious few venues where you can actually practice with five pianos. We have an upright piano and a good keyboard that has weighted keys, so two of us were able to practice together. We had all five parts together for the first time about two weeks ago and we only had four combined practices. (It is difficult to manage people’s schedules too.)

This particular competition was held at Baldassin Pianos in Salt Lake City. The store is filled with magnificent pianos, many of them world class. Each has been expertly voiced by Rick Baldassin. It is a pleasure for a pianist to play a high quality instrument. (Some of the pianos in the store cost more than all of my vehicles put together.) Baldassin Pianos has a small concert hall that is designed for great sound.

The other members of our team were a mother and son that live near us. I was very pleased with our team’s performances. Our team was among those that won highest honors for outstanding performance. It ended up being a lot of fun. Some of the teams had less experienced players. I really enjoyed one team’s performance of In the Hall of the Mountain King.

A special pleasure was hearing five of the piano instructors play two numbers. I was enthralled by their rendition of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of The Tumblers. The complexity of this piece and its active upbeat theme make it a thrill to hear.

When the instructors played Franz Schubert’s Serenade, my Mom’s heart just melted. This piece has long been one of her favorite pieces of classical music. She tells me that it is the only piece of music to which she ever prevailed on my Dad to dance with her. That occurred during a trip to Germany many years ago. As the instructors performed, Mom said she felt as if Dad were sitting next to her.

Attending the competition required a big commitment. Not only did it require a lot of practice and coordination, but it consumed most of a Saturday. But I’m very grateful to my wife for insisting that we compete. Perhaps this will be a memorable experience for my sons.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Is Your Master?

To whom do you belong? I mean literally. Who physically owns you? Don’t give me any claptrap about your boss owning you. You continue at your current employment by your own choice (as long as your boss lets you). The fact that you must earn a living (just like the vast majority of people) does not mean that anyone actually owns you.

You may have a valid point if you answered that your spouse owns you. In most states your spouse has legal claim on certain of your property and performances. But even this relationship could be terminated if you desired. It might be messy, but it can be done legally.

Did you answer that you belong to ‘the collective’ or to the government? The American Revolution challenged this notion. After much debate in 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which includes this revolutionary founding doctrine:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It is true that many of the men that signed that document did not think that the term “all men” included all men, women, and children of all economic, social, and ethnic classes. Nearly two centuries of struggles, including bloodshed was required to arrive at that interpretation. Although some among us have still not come to such an understanding, something close to it is currently the broadest accepted interpretation.

One line of thinking is that all rights are necessarily derived from the government and that the governed thus owe the government pretty much whatever the government requires. (The word ‘government’ in that sentence is interchangeable with the word ‘society’ and any of its equivalents.) The CATO Institute’s Tom Palmer poked holes in this theory in this article five years ago by employing a medical corollary.
“If a doctor were to save my life, then, since the doctor would be responsible for my existence, and therefore for all of the liberty and wealth that I might enjoy or create henceforth, the doctor would have the right to decide what should happen with that liberty and that wealth, since without the doctor neither I, nor the liberty, nor the wealth would exist.”
Besides, as Palmer notes, the argument that people only have what they have due to the government is an absurd reduction that ignores all other inputs. It simplistically disregards the marginal revolution in economics. Palmer calls such ignorance “remarkably primitive.”
“It is now recognized that we make choices across a great many margins, and that value is not created by a single necessary factor. If that were not so, we could say that farmers produce all value, since without food none of the rest of us would produce anything else; likewise, for other groups and factors of production.”
So the government is only one of the many inputs to our personal liberty and wealth. It is not the only or even the most important factor. Outside of government, our relationships with all of these other inputs are based on willing interactions rooted in an acceptance of several property.

Government works somewhat differently. Some interactions are based on willingness. For example, you choose whether or not to access a national park. If you choose to do so, you pay a fee. You willingly exchange your resources for an opportunity to enjoy a public resource. Nobody forces you to visit a national park.

Many other interactions with government, however, are rooted in coercion. A good friend that is a top notch high school teacher recently quipped that he wanted security so he chose a profession where the public was forced to pay his salary under threat of imprisonment. We laughed, but there was truth in his words.

Most of us want enough government to ensure a civil society. Of course, exactly how much government that means and what a civil society means are open questions. Our Founders issued any number of warnings about allowing government to grow to the point that it usurped liberty.

We seem to have profound disagreements in this nation as to the definitions of liberty and slavery. Many have an expansive view of government’s role in securing a certain interpretation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This view is often so broad as to equate liberty with wealth. After all, how can one be free if one has not enough to live decently?

As people buy this line, it enables government to expand. The ruling class (often in the name of the majority or “what’s good for the people”) is empowered to implement its interpretations of life, liberty, and happiness by force of law. Liberty becomes providing for all. Such an implementation is indistinguishable from slavery. It calls to mind the doublespeak phrase from Orwell’s novel 1984, “Freedom is slavery.”

Research has found that (at least some) of Washington’s slaves at his Mount Vernon estate lived quite well. Some were certainly economically far better off than the free rabble that inhabited Spartan dwellings in the countryside. But it is impossible to argue that these slaves enjoyed more liberty than the impoverished freemen that were their contemporaries.

Liberty and substance are not equivalents. Liberty is freedom from external coercion. It does not come from a government program, although, the government should protect and enable it. It does not come from an employer, although, institutions such as this can do much to further the cause of freedom.

The proper function of government certainly must be funded. And most Americans are willing to pay their “fair share” of the burden. Unfortunately, the average American’s concept of their fair share of the current expansive government is far smaller than their proportionate share of its expenditures. Hence, the deficit.

But do not try to tell me that an expansive government is morally proper. The greater the scope of government, the greater the coercion it exercises in the lives of individuals. This is particularly true as government and big business become deeply intertwined, implementing government coercion in the disguise of free enterprise.

Patrick Henry is most famous today for crying out, “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” Do we even know what liberty means anymore?

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Generous Neighbor

Part of me is still a child. I will meet someone or find myself in a place from my childhood, and suddenly a mixture of thoughts and emotions from a point in the past will arise in such a powerful way as to temporarily conquer all of my subsequent years of growth and experience.

Sometimes this can be a pleasant occurrence, like the time a scent took me to a late night in my Mom’s kitchen when I was eight or nine. It was the night before Thanksgiving. We kids had already been in bed for some time when I awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I could hear Mom working out there. Even in my bedroom I was ensconced in a web of delectable smells.

Unable to restrain myself, I slipped out of bed and sheepishly wandered into the kitchen. Mom was busy preparing for the next day’s festivities. She still had a lot of work she wanted to finish before collapsing into bed. I’m sure that the last thing she wanted to do was to deal with a child that should be asleep.

Mom had a habit of mixing up a little extra dough when she made pies. She wanted to make sure she had sufficient. If she ended up with leftover dough after making pie shells, she would roll it out, cover it with cinnamon and sugar, roll it up, and cut the rolled dough into what looked like tiny cinnamon rolls, which she baked along with the pies.

I came into the kitchen that night after Mom had just removed a batch of pies, including a few little pie crust cinnamon rolls. She took pity on me and allowed me the guilty pleasure of enjoying a couple of these delightful treats. As I snacked, she talked to me in a more grown up way than was usual. I don’t remember anything we talked about, but I felt important and trusted as I went back to bed.

Sometimes these attacks of childhood memories are less pleasant. I will run into someone I haven’t seen for decades with whom I had an unfortunate childhood experience. Although years have passed and we have both become different people, the poignancy of the distant event will invade my mind.

Something like this happened when I encountered a man that had bullied me around back when we were kids. It was only by sheer force of will that I forced down the fight or flight response and was able to chat amicably.

The other day a man passed away that played a very important role in my family’s life during my formative years. He was a large, gregarious man that has been bald on top ever since I could remember. He wasn’t always good at protocol, but his love of people was palpable. This man and my Dad served together in church positions. Some of the children in both families were close in age, so we occasionally did things together.

I will never forget how this man made possible a very important event for our family. My parents had scrimped and saved for years hoping to put aside enough money to visit my Dad’s family in Germany, none of whom my parents had seen since before they married.

My folks saved enough for the two of them to go to Germany on a tight budget. They had wanted to take the kids, but the financial realities of our family’s working class income meant that there wouldn’t be enough savings to pull that off for another eight to ten years. While Mom and Dad could afford to go by themselves, what were they to do with the kids?

This man and his wife went to three other neighbors that had kids with whom we kids often played. These four sets of neighbors then came to my parents and explained the plan. My parents would go to Europe for a month while these neighbors cared for the kids.

It was kind of strange only seeing my brothers at school and/or at church. But the month passed well. The day before my parents were to return, these four families took their own money and went shopping. They cleaned our home and filled the cupboards and refrigerator with food. My parents were overwhelmed with this outpouring of generosity.

But generosity was simply this man’s basic nature. I watched as he gave countless hours to good causes, both publicly and privately. He was always helping people. He served twice as the president of the local Boy Scout council. He and his wife volunteered for years at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Yet they constantly found ways to serve others privately and without fanfare.

Hardship comes even to the best of people. Almost all of this man’s children have chosen paths that have brought challenges and sorrow. Encounters with these people, my contemporaries, trigger some recalls of childhood memories — some sweet and some less so. Regardless of their choices, I wish each one all the best. I hope that each realizes that their father was a great man.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Don't Forget to Talk Like a Pirate

Avast, me hearties! Tomorrow, September 19, be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Besides walking around and spouting fake pirate speech, ye may want to set yer crew down and watch yer favorite pirate movie. Of course, there’s Captain Jack Sparrow. If you’ve got young-uns, ye might check out Muppet Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson. Arrrr!

More Free Speech Restrictions Dumped

The incumbency protection racket known as campaign finance reform took another major hit today when a three-judge Washington DC Court of Appeals panel ruled that nonprofit organizations cannot be barred from spending any amount of money they want for candidate specific advocacy. (See AP article)

Since the passage of McCain-Feingold and subsequent regulations by the Federal Election Commission, courts have been steadily whittling away at these policies’ blatant infringements on First Amendment assurances of free (political) speech.

Although GW Bush appointee Janice Rogers Brown criticized the other two justices (another GWB appointee and a Reagan appointee) for their “sweeping interpretation of First Amendment issues,” she ultimately agreed with their conclusion.

Many observers expect the Supreme Court to strike down even more of McCain-Feingold’s provisions when it rules on a case heard last week. (See WSJ article)

Two Cases
The two cases mentioned here enjoy both similarities and dissimilarities. The DC case involved a nonprofit pro-abortion group, while the SCOTUS case addressed the question of free speech rights exercised by corporations and unions.

Both courts seem to show a preference for treating nonprofits as if they enjoy free speech rights similar to those of individuals. After all, what is a nonprofit besides a group of individuals banding together in a common cause? How can we say that individuals acting as a group allows the government to infringe on their rights?

The amendment says nothing about individuals anyway. It simply says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” That’s it. No law abridging free speech. Period. It doesn’t say “individual free speech.” It just says “free speech.”

While many suppose that SCOTUS will weaken restrictions on corporations and unions, there is a serious question about whether it is appropriate to treat such organizations as analogous to individuals with respect to free speech rights. (See CS Monitor article) They too are organizations of individuals bound together, but many see basic motivational differences between them and nonprofits.

Regardless of how SCOTUS rules on this case, it will not take long before corporations and unions figure out how to work through nonprofits to skirt current campaign finance laws. Of course, the DC case could also be appealed to the appeals court’s full panel and to the Supreme Court. So that story isn’t over yet.

While some whine about the decline of campaign finance laws, it must be understood that one of the main reasons such laws exist is to protect incumbents. The laws do nothing to limit spending by candidates. They mainly limit spending by those opposed to incumbents. These laws create a false sense of security among the public, which is led to believe in the bizarre distortion that the laws keep the bad guys out of politics.

There is no shortage of people that tell us that the solution to all of this is public funding of campaigns. In a country where free speech is guaranteed, this simply won’t work. The courts have repeatedly recognized that the ability to spend money to get a message out is equivalent to free speech. Restrictions on campaign spending violate the First Amendment. In short, public funding would require a constitutional amendment, and that’s simply not going to happen.

Some tell us that the best answer in a political system like ours is transparency. Let anyone give any amount of money they want to any candidate or political cause, but require immediate and complete disclosure of each donation.

This sounds good, but what about privacy rights? A number of people that gave money in support of California’s Proposition 8 last year found themselves the targets of terroristic threats and activities after the proposition passed, thanks to California’s campaign transparency laws. (See NY Times article) Of course, this kind of thing can backfire. Public support tends to wane once it becomes known that some have threatened the safety and livelihood of those with differing political opinions.

What we ultimately want is a healthy republic with healthy underlying democratic institutions. This requires a balancing act between rights and responsibilities. And that requires constant adjustment.

Unlimited Congress

“As every civics class once taught, the federal government is a government of limited, enumerated powers, with the states retaining broad regulatory authority.” —David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Are there any “limits on Congress's power to regulate individual Americans?” David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey, two conservative lawyers that often join forces, say in this WSJ op-ed that this is the pressing question that will have to be answered if the plan to ‘mandate’ that individuals buy health insurance coverage is to be seriously considered.

If such a mandate becomes law, the courts will certainly weigh in on this question. Messrs. Rivkin and Casey conclude that “The Supreme Court has never accepted such a proposition, and it is unlikely to accept it now, even in an area as important as health care.”

The Clean Energy Farce

We use a lot of energy from multiple sources. Some energy sources suffer from the stigma of political incorrectness, while others are promoted as divinely eco-friendly. Except for those on the bizarre fringe, nobody wants us to stop consuming energy. But many want us to do it smarter and more efficiently. (Cue the politicians …)

It is at this point that politicians come on the scene promising to deliver clean, renewable energy that will make us “energy independent,” whatever that means. (I’m not sure how it can be argued that protectionism has ever produced salutary results.) But many of the plans offered by these political saviors would kill the very environment they purport to be fighting to save, while simultaneously harming the economy. Hey, it takes talent to pull off a feat like that.

Some that tout the incredible marvel of expensive electric automobiles (that still need a secondary energy source to go more than a few miles, require long hours of recharging between uses, and would produce masses of solid toxic pollution upon disposal) seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that vast quantities of our electricity comes from coal fired plants. It’s “clean coal,” of course. But even the cleanest coal exacts serious environmental costs. Apparently, moving environmental impacts to more remote locations (out of sight and out of mind) is a saving grace.

Yet another marvelous plan is to achieve ‘energy independence’ by forcing a shift from petroleum to natural gas in many applications. After all, natural gas “burns clean,” as the story goes. Oddly, many of the eco worshippers seem unperturbed about the fact that natural gas is, as Wikipedia puts it, “a potent greenhouse gas.” Can you imagine who is spending money to try to make this coercive shift happen and where that money is going?

It’s very reminiscent of the law passed in 2007 to ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Never mind that this will produce inadequate lighting for many situations and introduce a lot of mercury into homes and the environment, while significantly raising costs for consumers. Many industry giants, like GE, heavily lobbied for this top-down solution that is supposed to save the environment while killing it at the same time. One might question the purity of their motives.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) complains in this WSJ op-ed that the Obama administration’s solar power initiatives would cover over a thousand square miles of this nation with solar panels that require vast amounts of water (in locations where water is scarce) for monthly cleaning. The administration’s wind power plans would build “186,000 50-story wind turbines that would cover an area the size of West Virginia.” All of this would require “19,000 new miles of high-voltage transmission lines.”

And guess who will be doing the environmental impact statements on all this environmentally messy expansion? Ah yes, the classic example of the fox guarding the henhouse. What a wonderful system of checks and balances we have.

Land is also a scarce commodity. We all rely on it. Indeed, it is a vital habitat for a significant portion of this planet’s flora and fauna. Yet (except for where it is reclaimed from the sea) it does not vary with population. So, land must also be considered when discussing energy sources.

Alexander lays out the amount of land needed to produce one million megawatt-hours per year from different sources. Some might quibble with Alexander’s numbers, but they are quite interesting.
  • Nuclear: 1 sq mi
  • Geothermal: 3 sq mi
  • Coal: 4 sq mi
  • Solar thermal: 6 sq mi
  • Natural gas: 8 sq mi
  • Petroleum: 18 sq mi
  • Wind farms: 30 sq mi
  • Biofuels: up to 500 sq mi
Alexander brings up the inconvenient truth that there are significant environmental costs to all energy sources, even those that fall under the politically correct eco friendliness rubric. There is no truly ‘clean’ energy. There are only tradeoffs. Didn’t we learn anything from the corn ethanol debacle that continues to persist, although, the market for it would evaporate without government meddling?

There is a one-size-fits-all political solution to all energy issues: more government intervention. While that interference may come in the form of subsidies, regulation, prevention, protectionism, mandates, etc, the answer is always more government. This is true regardless of party persuasion. I mean, what else are politicians for if not to insinuate more political ‘solutions’ into the fabric of daily American life?

Many are quick to say that such intervention is necessary to break into the market currently dominated by petroleum. Few even consider the possibility of getting rid of the subsidies and regulations that kill opportunities to compete with petroleum. Why, that would be unthinkable! Perhaps we should change the wording on our coinage to read, “In politicians we trust”?

Many studies have been produced that show that most of our public policy aimed at improving the environment actually harms the environment. Indeed, the only examples of where public environmental policy has not caused harm are where we have merely codified what has already been freely implemented.

It has repeatedly been shown that environmental improvements occur naturally as the standard of living improves. The inverse of this is also true. But the enviro-political class does a mighty fine job of spreading propaganda that makes people feel good about policies that create the appearance of helping the environment. It plays very well for the religion of environment crowd.

I hear people on both the left and the right whine about a lack of a coherent national energy policy. It was the combination of people like that on the left and right that brought the wonders of centralized planning to the USSR and to Germany in the 1930s-40s. Given how centralized planning works in real life, the best national energy policy would be for the politicians to admit that they aren’t as smart as the combined knowledge of millions of people working freely in their own spheres.

GMU economist Don Boudreaux has a series of blog posts titled Cleaned by Capitalism that tout a number of environmental improvements brought about by the free market. He deliberately focuses on smaller matters that have actual impact on our individual lives rather than on big celebrity causes. He argues that these factors combined have improved the environment infinitely more than the big causes that receive a lot of political attention.

Part of me wants people like Boudreaux to keep quiet. The politicians have already figured out how to regulate our toilets, light bulbs, and air conditioners. We don’t want to give them any more ideas.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Voting Local

My town’s population is about 17,000. About 10,500 of those people are registered voters. In yesterday’s nonpartisan municipal primary election, fewer than 1,800 of those people voted. The results show that each vote cast in this type of election carries more value than a vote cast in just about any other election in which I can participate.

As I mentioned in this post, the incumbent two-term mayor was running for re-election. He was being opposed by two men. One has served a couple of terms on the city council. The other is a well known libertarian that has long posed quite publicly as a contrarian to many city policies.

Let me say up front that I am personally acquainted with all three of these men. The incumbent mayor is a former neighbor and personal friend. I have worked with the council member in Scouting and am on a first name basis with him. The libertarian fellow used to be one of my church leaders and I know one of his sons pretty well. I think admirably of each of these men, each in his own way.

The outcome of this three-way race was tight. The libertarian garnered 36% of the vote. The city council member got 34%. And the incumbent mayor pulled about 30%.

Although the vote was close (the libertarian got only 114 more votes than the incumbent mayor), the incumbent mayor is out of the running. The outcome of the race might have been different had the turnout of registered voters been nominally higher. But the fact is that 70% of those that voted opposed the incumbent.

I’m not sure how much of this is due to specific opposition to this mayor and how much is due to general anti-incumbent sentiment. If it is due to such a general outlook, why did so many voters favor the city council member? Doesn’t his service on the council make him sort of an incumbent too? After all, his record does not imply that he would act much differently than the incumbent mayor on most things.

Many political observers have noted that voters often apply their dissatisfaction with their national government to politicians at the local level, even while they continue to support their own congressional representative and senators. It’s an odd phenomenon that seems to reflect some cognitive dissonance. Malcontent with national level profligacy is running very high in my area right now, and I wonder how much this impacted my city’s mayoral race.

In the post referenced above I mainly discussed the municipal swimming pool. I am certain that this influenced the mayoral race, but issues are so deeply intertwined that I’m not sure that it can be treated as a unique factor in the race. Perhaps a larger correlated issue is the fact that the mayor has supported tax increases in each year of his current term. While he assures citizens that he has worked to minimize the size of those increases, I sense that many of the most active voters simply don’t buy this line.

Then again, if tax increases are the issue, why did so many voters support the council member, given that he has voted in favor of the same increases that the mayor pushed? 64% of the voters in this race voted for a candidate that actively supported tax increases in each of the last four years.

I will be watching the November general election with extreme interest. General elections tend to attract a different mix of voters than do primary elections. General election voters tend to be more moderate and less ideological than primary voters.

For that reason, I believe that it will be difficult for the libertarian fellow to gain a majority in November. His supporters were highly motivated in the primary election. This means that a larger percentage of his supporters voted in the primary, which would leave a smaller percentage of supporters in the general.

Moreover, I believe that the vast majority of the primary voters that supported the incumbent mayor will switch their votes to the council member rather than to the libertarian in November. Many moderate voters dislike stridency in politics. It would seem reasonable to assume that many moderates will find the polemic libertarian “change” message too strong for their tastes. A lot of voters are kind of freaked out about change right now. The status quo doesn’t sound too bad to them.

My town will see more voters turn out in November, but I’d be surprised if we doubled the 17% of registered voters that turned out for the primary election. Although municipal elections impact voters much more directly than state or national elections, many voters strangely tune out local elections because no president, governor, senator, or representative is on the ballot. If anything, it would seem to make more sense for voters to ignore these higher level races where each vote count for very little, while making sure to vote in the local races where individual votes are much more meaningful.

Perhaps this odd state of affairs exists because of heavy media support and the celebrification of higher level races. Maybe we have succeeded in conveying the message through our education, civic, and media institutions that one qualifies as a good citizen by voting in higher level races, while local races are left out of this loop. Maybe these local races just seem mundane (except for the occasional big conflict) in comparison to the more glamorous races.

Besides the mayoral race, five were running for two city council seats in my city. None of these were incumbents. I was unsurprised to see that the fellow with the greatest name recognition as a popular seminary teacher polled the highest, and that the man that put up no signs polled the lowest. The man that received the second highest number of votes is young, but he did a better job of campaigning than all of the other four candidates combined. He had good literature and a clear message, and he came across as competent.

Of the four candidates that seriously campaigned for the two council seats, two campaigned chiefly on fiscal responsibility, while the other two focused on their qualifications for managing future growth. The growth managers polled significantly lower than the two promoters of fiscal responsibility. While popularity and campaign quality certainly impacted these races, I believe that the message is quite clear as to which matters are of greater concern to the average primary voter in my city.

The general election may bring different results, but my gut instinct tells me that the two guys that came out on top in the primary election will also carry the general election. This would pit the two council newbies against the three established council members that think that they’re being fiscally responsible by raising taxes. I wonder how long it will take the fiscal hawks to turn into tax-and-spenders.

While state and national level races enjoy a higher profile, I wish voters would recognize that they have far more power at the local level. Not only do their votes actually count for something at this echelon, local policies have a much more direct impact on their daily lives than do higher level policies.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Being a Spouse

We hurried the family out of the house last night for a family activity right after dinner. Upon leaving the activity, I took the kids home while my wife went to assist another family member. I was tired when we got home. I wanted to sit down and relax at the computer. I had about 20 minutes before I needed to begin the family bedtime routine.

Then I saw the kitchen. We had left in such a hurry after dinner that the dinner dishes remained to be done. I felt the draw of the computer. After all, I had had a busy and full day at work and had enjoyed very little down time. I reasoned that my wife would have more time later on or even the next day to deal with the kitchen than I had.

I sensed the lure of the computer, but my shoulder angel whispered that I should clean up the kitchen. My shoulder devil responded that my wife didn’t really expect me to do the chore. Besides, she might not even recognize that the kitchen had been cleaned. She might not even remember that we had left it in a mess if she returned and found it clean.

It was almost as if I heard words in my mind saying, “She might not know, but you will know.” I was reminded that the real reason for doing the chore was not to impress my wife or to prove anything to her at all, but simply because I loved her. It would not matter whether she recognized this act of service or not. It only mattered that I do the chore in the spirit of love.

I relented and made the right choice. I cleaned the kitchen and had the younger kids in bed by the time my wife returned home.

You can go to the movies to see glamorous depictions of romance. And romance is an important element in a marriage. But true love occurs in the mundane moments of life year after year, even after the beauty of youth fades. I wish I could say that I regularly do well at this sort of thing, but at least I am learning. And I am grateful to my loving wife for her patience in this process.
Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
Ill be in love with you.
(Longer by Dan Fogelberg)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two-Party Tyranny

Norman Podhoretz provides one of the most apt descriptions of the differences between progressive and conservative thought that I have yet seen:
“[I]n speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.”
Some might understandably disagree with Podhoretz’s negative framing of ‘liberal’ (i.e. progressive) thinking. It is easy to caricature the opinions of those that think differently than us. But I think that Podhoretz gets the general concept right. One group tends to see mainly those things that they believe need changing while the other group sees mainly those things that they believe need to be defended against change.

There are probably many in each group that don’t necessarily disagree with some of the main concepts of the other group. They just set different priorities on those matters.

Although I suggested in my last post that the vast majority of Americans can be somewhat neatly divided between the two major political parties, each of these parties is actually a large coalition that includes a broad spectrum of viewpoints. I think that it is probably safe to say that in each party, the largest number of people that agree enough to create a power base represent one of the two views expressed above.

But there are enough varied intraparty viewpoints and interests represented that neither party can successfully push 100% for the views of its main faction. When a party rides roughshod over the interests of other significant party factions, it threatens to fracture the coalition, resulting in a diminution of that party’s power. This is part of what happened to the GOP during the Bush years.

Apologists for our two-party system assert that each party provides a winnowing process that excises the most extreme viewpoints, reducing mainline debate to a tug-o-war between center-left and center-right views. Note that the term ‘center’ is always phrased first to suggest generally moderate outcomes that are in the broadest general interests.

Additionally, our two-party system usually creates clear winners and losers. This, it is claimed, provides a clearer mandate and allows our political leaders to accomplish important things. A regular quip goes something like, “You wouldn’t want us to be like Italy, would you?” This implies that multi-party systems such as Italy’s leave the government too weak to “get things done” and create such ambivalence that leadership changes too rapidly to provide continuity.

But given Italy’s experience with its dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s-1940s, perhaps they can be excused for believing that ambivalence in political power is probably a worthwhile tradeoff for the horrors brought on by even a benevolent strong government.

Although our two-party system provides governmental strength, why is it that most Americans seem to be oblivious to the tyranny inherent in such a system? As power is traded between the two major parties, each party tries to outdo the other in accumulation of power. The effect is that power over the lives of the people is continuously expanded; regardless of which party is in power. It matters little that one party claims to stand for ‘limited government.’

I heard part of an interview with David Frum (a prominent Republican conservo-moderate pundit) on the radio yesterday. In response to a question, he said that our two-party system will be with us for a long time to come, and that if you want to accomplish anything politically, it will have to be within that system. I didn’t like Frum’s answer, but I sense that he is correct about this.

Still, I maintain that our two-party system ill serves us. As I mentioned yesterday, it tends to impose two-dimensional thinking that is poorly suited to the complex issues we face. Moreover, the main feature of the system is steady accumulation of power with corresponding reduction of liberty. Almost all of the conflict in this political system serves as nothing more than a tool for distracting the public from this central focus on power. Yet most of us are sheep that obediently play into this deceitful power play.

Do viable solutions to this tyranny exist?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Nation of Partisans

Last month Brian Schott reported at that the existence of a broad swath of independent voters is a myth. Citing studies by Alan I. Abramowitz, it is noted that only about 11% of voters are true independents. (I have seen other references claiming that truly independent voters make up only about 5% of voters.)

Most voters that identify themselves as independent actually show a clear preference for one of the major parties. They “are virtually indistinguishable from regular partisans in political outlook or behavior,” regardless of how they are registered. Moreover, those that are true independents vote at lower rates than their partisan leaning counterparts.

Abramowitz refers to a 1992 book titled The Myth of the Independent Voter, which asserts that four decades of data showed at that time that most Americans were psychologically attached to one of the major political parties. This is the case even for those that choose not to vote. Abramowitz writes, “What was true then is even truer today. Partisanship is not only alive and well in American elections, it is thriving.”

Independent voters, writes Schott, “for the most part, act like partisans and should be treated as such.” It can be convenient to be an “independent partisan,” because it relieves any pressure to be involved at the party level. There are no caucus meetings, county conventions, or state conventions to consider attending. Others take care of that winnowing process and you simply have to select among the resulting limited selection.

Given that nonvoters tend to functionally think similarly to ‘independent’ voters, presumably they too should be treated as partisans. But nonvoters are a special class because they are voting by choosing not to vote. Why do they ‘vote’ this way? For one thing, the average American doesn’t begin to become politically interested until they hit middle age. This means that larger numbers of young adults are nonvoters than are more seasoned Americans.

The conventional wisdom, particularly among those that feel politically disenfranchised, is that many nonvoters don’t vote because they are dissatisfied with their options. But studies show that most nonvoters are as satisfied with the outcomes of the races in which they don’t vote as are those that do vote in those elections.

Most nonvoters are happy to let their more politically active neighbors represent them at the voting booth. They tend to turn out in much greater numbers when there is a tight race and/or when they socially identify with a particular candidate. They seem to innately understand the marginal value of their individual vote.

While most people — voters and nonvoters alike — tend to identify with one of the major political parties, this does not mean that our two-party system always serves us well. Our political duopoly tends to enforce two-dimensional thinking, seeing everything in black and white. The system is well suited to creating fairly clear winners and losers, but it is ill suited to dealing with complex issues.

Still, it appears that most people are relatively content with our current political system, regardless of how they are registered or whether they vote. What this means for third parties and extra-party political movements is that the broad systemic malcontent that they intend to seize upon simply doesn’t exist.

Yes, people gripe about politics and about the government. It’s one of our great American pastimes. But it is an error to misconstrue this sentiment as the kind of frustration that leads to action that can cause a significant shift in power. We’re not there yet. I am doubtful that we will ever get to that stage in my lifetime. People will put up with an awful lot before they will revolt in earnest.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Building Bridges: A Camp Loll Adventure

I spent part of Labor Day weekend laboring. I told my kids that I had no interest in celebrating the labor movement, which promotes an entitlement mentality. But I was interested in promoting productive labor as something good for the soul. I explained that I felt that it was particularly useful to celebrate labor by working in some unselfish cause.

An opportunity for this kind of work presented itself when it was determined that a crew of volunteers would work to replace a 50’ footbridge at Camp Loll, a Boy Scout camp in a wilderness area just south of Yellowstone National Park. For those that are familiar with the camp, this is the footbridge down the trail from the showers.

My brother is an architect and is the chairman of the Scout council’s Camp Loll committee. Both he and I served on staff at the camp during our teen years. When he explained what needed to be accomplished in two days, I thought that the plan was somewhat ambitious.

Construction in a wilderness area presents a significant layer of challenges not faced in more settled areas. Yet another layer of challenges is added when you have to rely on volunteers for almost everything, including design, materials, equipment, and labor. Trying to get all of these factors to align well enough to complete a project is itself a daunting task.

Some volunteers headed up to camp on Thursday evening. Others of us headed up early Friday morning. (I took a day of vacation.) A few more arrived late Friday night. Volunteers ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. Many of them were Camp Loll Staff alumni.

A volunteer that has been a successful businessman and now owns a spread in Star Valley donated lumber cut from his property. He and his hired help used a portable sawmill to cut the beams and planks needed for the job. Two BSA professionals loaded these materials onto a trailer and a pickup truck and made the hard drive over miles of rugged road to camp. (Oddly, although the forest service had requested the construction of this bridge, they would not let us cut the lumber for it from the nearby woodcutting zone.)

By the time we arrived on Friday morning, a crew had already removed the old footbridge. I was afraid that this would take a long time. But since the bridge was decayed from years of sitting in a swampy area, the crew was able to rip it apart with their bare hands. Fortunately, the span had no standing water, although, it was quite wet when I was there a few weeks ago. (I’ve never previously seen it when it wasn’t covered with water.)

The crew had already made good progress on building the two supports for the new bridge by the time we arrived. We immediately pitched in and started hauling rocks that the earlier crew had loaded into trucks. Some of the rocks came from near camp, while others came from a forest service quarry at a near Grassy Lake. The rocks were piled into 5x5x5’ baskets made of steel wire. Threaded rods extended from the bottom of the baskets. Rail ties were bolted to the rods atop the rock laden baskets. Rail ties were also set at each end of the bridge for footings.

By the way, the best of the camp’s three wheelbarrows is in sorry shape. It wouldn’t hurt for people to donate some new wheelbarrows.

Next came the hardest part: moving the six 1x1x20’ beams from the trailer to the bridge. The only way to do this in a wilderness zone is by human power. Each beam weighed somewhere around 1,200 lbs. Fortunately, a group of men had called the Scout office a couple of days earlier asking permission to camp at Loll over the holiday weekend and offering to perform service. This is where their muscle came in handy. We were able to get about 14 of us on each beam. It was challenging, but we were able to move the beams over an uneven trail, across the swamp, and into place. The beams were then bolted to the rail ties.

A crew cut the planks into 5’ lengths in the parking area using a chainsaw. Some of us did the grunt work of hauling the planks down to the bridge. The following morning we laid out the planks on the bridge. Then we got busy putting stain on all of the bridge’s wood surfaces. We coated the beams and the narrow sides of each plank. The bottoms of the planks were coated in a single operation.

A crew then flipped each plank over and screwed each plank into place. Of course, throughout the whole process there was a lot of measuring and adjusting to make sure everything ended up right. I began coveting one man’s contractor grade Milwaukee cordless drill. It outperformed the corded drill that was hooked to a generator. The staining crew followed right behind the fastening crew, so that only a small number of planks remained to be coated when the last plank was screwed into place.

About that time, a few raindrops started dripping from dark clouds that had been building throughout the day. As the staining crew wrapped up, we gathered the tools and leftover supplies and headed toward the parking area. As we loaded stuff onto the trucks and the trailer, the rain began falling more briskly. Then I saw a flash of lightning. A massive clap of thunder followed almost immediately. We all scurried into the lodge as a gully-washer of a rainstorm burst loose on the camp for the next half hour or so. We had finished the project and gotten everything put away just in the nick of time.

One of the tremendously satisfying benefits of labor of this nature is seeing the results. The bridge is the best such structure Camp Loll has seen in its 50 years of service. Although it matches the rustic ambiance of the camp, it is sturdy and will last for many years to come. My brother hopes that it will last decades. Camp director Delose Conner and program director Jody Orme quipped that a bridge of this nature will no doubt attract trolls.

The bridge will not be complete until road base gravel is hauled in to create ramps for the approach on each end of the bridge. But that looks like a job that will be done by the camp staff next June. They need to get a whole load of road base up there first. New wheelbarrows would be useful for this job.

Now for part 2. The other 50’ footbridge that spans the swamp between the Crow and Piute campsites will need to be replaced next year. The current thinking is to shoot for Labor Day weekend 2010 and to build a similar structure. This will present some additional challenges. The materials will need to be hauled a few hundred more feet, the swamp there will still be quite wet, and we can’t rely on a group of strong campers that just happen to be willing to help.

This means that we will need more volunteers to help us. Camp Loll Staff alumni ought to mark their calendars now. Anyone that has enjoyed camping at Camp Loll should consider coming to help. You can be part of a legacy that will benefit many others for many years.

Update: Delose Conner has photos of the bridge project here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My City's Municipal Swimming Pool Debate

There has been a debate running for about a decade in my city about the municipal swimming facility. Some residents recently expressed their chagrin with a tax increase that they nail on the pool (see St-Ex article). It seems to me that the issues at stake are usually muddled together. This lack of clarity limits the usefulness of the debate. I think that teasing the issues apart would help the debate. As I see it, the main issues are:
  • Some residents feel that city government has no business being involved in a water recreation facility. They feel that recreation of this nature should be handled privately rather than at the taxpayers’ expense. In their mind, no one has a right to force his neighbor to pay for his own recreation.
  • Some residents feel that the city can’t afford a swimming recreation facility. They want the city to be more fiscally responsible.
  • Some residents feel that city officials made an end run around the wishes of voters in constructing a new water recreation facility.
  • Some feel that the city’s recreational (Community Services) structure is mismanaged and uses its resources inefficiently.
There is definitely overlap among these groups, but the groups are not exactly the same. And I think that’s where some of the confusion comes in. Some that fall in the area where all the groups overlap tend to believe that there is really only one issue and that everyone in all the groups essentially agrees with them. These, I think, are the ones that are most vocal on the issue.

Perhaps a little history would be useful. Here is a rough outline:
  • 1965: The city builds a basic outdoor swimming pool.
  • About 10 years ago: Several northern Utah cities build modern water recreation facilities with lots of fancy features. At the same time it is noted that the city pool is getting old. Maintenance costs are increasing and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the rustic facility operational.
  • 2000: City officials propose bonding (requiring a tax increase) to construct a new outdoor swimming facility that will be on par with some of the other newer facilities in nearby municipalities. Proponents claim that the new pool will be financially self sustaining or even turn a profit. Voters oppose the measure by about a 6-4 margin.
  • 2001: City officials begin discussing ways to build the facility without needing voter approval. The mayor loses by four votes to a challenger that denounces the pursuit of a new swimming pool as a fiasco.
  • 2002-5: The city discovers that the old pool is leaking hundreds of gallons of water daily. Bids to repair the problem are cost prohibitive. The pool is eventually closed. City officials renew their efforts to find ways to fund the new swimming facility. Neighboring cities and the school district are approached for a possible joint venture, but this does not pan out. Pool proponents again claim that the new pool will more than pay for itself. City officials finally work a deal that does not require voter approval. Pool opponents cry that the new mayor has gone back on his word.
  • 2005: The previous mayor convincingly beats the new mayor in an election rematch. Pool plans move forward.
  • 2006: The new swimming facility opens more than a month late. It lacks some of the water play features that are installed later — some of them just in time for the 2007 season. When complete, the facility is very nice, but some youth group leaders complain that rates are so high that they can’t afford to bring youth groups to the facility.
  • 2007: City officials propose bonding (requiring a tax increase) to construct a $2 million building that would house the lap pool, which is only half the size of a competitive Olympic pool. Covering this small pool, it is argued, will allow the facility to function year round. Opponents argue that this is fiscally irresponsible. Voters reject the proposal by a 3-1 ratio.
  • 2007-9: The new swimming facility becomes fully operational. The city structures management of the pool to include three full-time year-round management positions. A new community services building is constructed to house the burgeoning staff structure.
I took swimming lessons at the old pool when I was a kid. My oldest children took some swimming lessons there. During my childhood, my family bought a season pass to the pool each year. Walking to the pool, swimming for an hour or two, and then walking home became a nearly daily ritual for us during those years. All of my children have taken lessons at the new pool. But we don’t generally swim there very often because it’s kind of expensive to take the whole family.

Some residents are upset that the pool is losing about $83,000 annually. They wonder what happened to claims that the pool would actually make money. City officials are now fond of saying that no municipal pool pays for itself, let alone makes a profit. City parks don’t pay for themselves, yet we build and maintain them anyway because they enhance the community. Why would a pool or another recreation facility be any different, they reason.

This makes sense, but it is a huge departure from the rhetoric tossed around before the pool was built. Besides, some note that this year’s tax increase would not have been necessary without the pool’s operational shortfall.

It is clear that there are some sharp differences of opinion when it comes to the municipal swimming pool. Many residents are pleased to have the facility. This includes some people that voted against both of the bonds mentioned above. It seems to me that most residents want the city to live within its means without jacking up taxes. But most of these people also don’t want to know the details. They just want their elected officials to take care of it.

The fact of the matter is that the city now has a swimming facility that it will need to operate and maintain for the long term. That’s just not going to change, no matter how much people carp about it. The city now has an obligation to make the pool as broadly appealing and useful as possible. I think, however, that it would be wise and possible to more prudently structure the pool’s management. Getting rid of just one of the three full-time management positions would have made this year’s tax increase unnecessary.

In the meantime, the mayor is running for a third term after raising taxes two years in a row. He is being opposed by a longtime city council member whose term is wrapping up. Given this man’s voting record, it is unclear how he would be much different than the current mayor. Unless people have a good reason to switch, most of them won’t, although, I am personally in favor of limiting a mayor’s terms to two. A third opponent in the race is well known in the community as a very staunch libertarian conservative. His campaign signs include the slogan, “Living within our means.” That sounds nice, but this man frankly scares a lot of people.

Two city council seats are up for election and both are being vacated by the incumbents. Five people are vying for these two seats. I know absolutely nothing about two of these candidates. I know two others personally. I know the quality of their character, but I am less clear on their politics. I am more clear on the politics of the last fellow, but I get the feeling that he is mainly running as a voice of opposition rather than out of a desire to actually win, since he has done little campaigning.

The swimming pool and the issues that surround it are not formally on the ballot. But the pool will be in the back of the minds of many voters as they go to the polls. As both races require a primary election, early voting is currently available at the city council chambers on Tuesday through Friday this week and next, from 1-5pm each of these days. Or you can wait in line on primary election day, Sept. 15.