Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Real Reason for the Degeneration of Marriage

The institution of marriage is in a strange state. Traditionalists are fighting against strong odds to preserve its classical formulation while progressives actively work to redefine what they consider to be an outdated definition. No matter where you look it's hard to find anyone that is happy with the establishment marriage as it now stands.

Over the space of three generations marriage has gone from a broadly accepted well-defined establishment—indeed, the only socially legitimate way to organize a family—to an optional arrangement that can easily be dissolved and that many now accept as being open to just about any two consenting adults regardless of gender. While most adults still think that it's unacceptable for first cousins or siblings to marry, many other marital taboos are evaporating.

How did this transition occur? Divorce was once rare. People shunned its possibility even when marital relationships were rocky. Now people dump their spouses with nary a thought. Out of wedlock births that were once minimized due to social stigma are now more common than in-marriage births. The idea that two people of the same sex could marry each other seemed ludicrous at the beginning of this century. Now it is broadly accepted among the younger generation. It is quite possible that opposition to this altered definition of marriage will literally die out over time.

Is there a way to re-enthrone traditional marriage in broader society? Wall Street Journal Editor James Taranto doesn't think so. But any road to that destination, he says in this article, requires challenging the main cause of the decline of traditional marriage. What is that main cause? Taranto answers with profound political incorrectness that "The institution of marriage has been a casualty of contemporary feminism--specifically of the idea of sexual equality."

It used to be that "a husband and a wife" writes Taranto, "each brought something distinctive to the marriage." The long-term push to raise the status of "women relative to men has blurred these sex roles." The redefinition of marriage is a natural result of the redefinition of sex roles.

Taranto explains, "If men and women are at the deepest level interchangeable, then there's nothing to distinguish a "husband" from a "wife" and no reason that a "marriage" has to consist of one of each rather than two of one or the other." It becomes simply a matter of preference. Thus, the feminist goal of redefining sex roles naturally reduces the need for marriage to exist only as the union of a man and a woman.

The problem for traditionalists, writes Taranto, is that "the fundamental assumptions of contemporary feminism ... are very deeply ingrained in both elite and popular culture." Feminism has been tremendously successful in broadly instilling the concept of sexual equality in society—so successful, in fact, that many have difficulty drawing any distinct line delimiting the interchangeability of the sexes. Those that insist on clear boundaries are regarded as retrograde bigots.

Is Taranto wrong about this? Think of your own perceptions, how they have evolved, and about what you are willing to say on the matter in the company of those that don't share your views. Taranto can't see how we're ever going to get the traditional marriage genie back in the bottle.

Taranto believes that gays are mainly interested in same-sex marriage as a tool for achieving moral and social equivalence with heterosexuals. A great deal of research backs him up on this. He also seems to believe that this goal will ultimately be achieved.

Unlike Taranto, I believe that polygamy could become legal not long after same-sex marriage becomes widely legal. It is true that gays currently show little interest in polygamy and that polling shows strong opposition to polygamy among the general population. But gays are not the only party interested in redefining marriage.

Once marriage is no longer bound by a pattern of biological reproductivity, arguments against alternative marital arrangements will quickly melt away. On what logical basis could multi-partner unions be opposed? Nor does the current general animosity toward polygamy present any long-term bulwark against its future acceptance. Note how rapidly attitudes regarding same-sex marriage have changed.

Some argue that allowing same-sex marriage and even polygamous marriage will strengthen the faltering institution of marriage, not further weaken it. Evidence is contrary on this. Gay unions tend to be far less monogamous than heterosexual unions. Where same-sex marriage is legal gays divorce at substantially higher rates than heterosexuals.

Marriage rates have dropped precipitously in countries that permit various marital arrangements. Marriage is now widely considered by those populations to be separated from childbearing. Thus, the traditional primary purpose of marriage—to provide stable family environments likely to enable children to become productive members of society—has been replaced with an organization focused mainly on adult fulfillment. Evidence shows that this shift has ill served children and has created a greater drain on public resources.

There are some bright spots. Marriage is still quite strong among the more educated and higher earning segments of the U.S. population. And even while cohabitation and divorce rates have skyrocketed among the less educated and lower earning segments, most still view a good marriage as the ideal and a goal that they want to achieve. More than 95% of American adults marry at some point during their lifetimes. But there's no telling how long these patterns will hold.

Traditionalists see the decline of traditional marriage leading to broader social decay, which in turn will lead to greater economic dysfunction and cause a host of serious national problems. They know that their children and grandchildren are likely to follow national trends and to end up in relationships that research convincingly shows are less fulfilling and less healthy than traditional marriage.

What are traditionalists to do about the decay of traditional marriage? Are they fighting a losing battle? If so, is it a battle worth fighting anyway? If the battle can be won, how is it to be done?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Can Students be Forced to Learn?

I tolerated school as a child. It was filled with drudgery, stupidity, social awkwardness, enemies, a few friends, and occasional moments of enlightenment. Being lousy at both sports and academics, I rarely distinguished myself in any way. I was neither at the top nor the bottom of the heap. I was among the faceless hoard that made up much of the student body. School wasn't evil; it was just something to be endured.

As a parent I have viewed school from a contrasting perspective. Each of my children has fit into the system differently. One has excelled. The other four have all grappled with various challenges. Like their father, each child has struggled more or less with math. Like most Americans, I hated math. It seemed so inane. I always seemed to be missing critical bits of basic understanding required to comprehend concepts.

In school I usually tried to slide by with as little effort as possible in pretty much every subject, except for the rare situations where something captured my imagination. I lacked perspective to sense much payoff from serious educational engagement and effort. I see this to some degree in each of my children.

Tests have always been ubiquitous in the school system. But during my children's lifetimes standardized testing has become all the rage. The current Common Core push aims to increase standardized testing quality and rigidity. The CC website says that this will "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

That sounds reasonable on the surface. But Common Core has been strongly criticized by both educators and conservative groups as further usurping parents and educators (see 5/8/2012 WSJ article). Conservatives assert that it is simply part of a larger social agenda with which they do not agree. Educators argue that CC prevents teachers from actually educating students.

Retired educator and author of Educating for Human Greatness Lynn Stoddard dresses down CC in this Standard Examiner op-ed. Stoddard says that CC "curriculum standardizes students — it tries to make them all alike in predetermined knowledge and skills at grade-level check points — and tests to make sure it is happening." (The phrase "check points" can bring to mind images of Nazis or TSA agents.)

In Stoddard's view, CC destroys individuality. It aims to create an army of automatons that can successfully regurgitate the facts that some shadowy group of bureaucrats deems to be essential. This flies in the face of human experience. Stoddard notes that "imposed learning is shallow and temporary compared to self-chosen learning that is deep and enduring." He writes:
"Human development is individual development. Students cannot be mass-produced like products on an assembly line. Students will learn basic skills when the time is right for each one, not according to an artificial schedule."
Coupling Stoddard's article with his previous (3/13/2012) op-ed, we get an idea of what Stoddard suggests instead of our current public education methodology. Educating for human greatness includes focusing on identity, inquiry, interaction, initiative, imagination, intuition, and integrity.

Stoddard explains what this system would look like. Frankly the list reads like a fantasy novel. Each child will have an individualized study system that draws on an "unlimited set of subjects." Compulsory attendance will be eliminated, so no one will be present that doesn't want to learn. Graduation will be determined by "a student showing the ways in which s/he is ready to be a valuable contributor to society" instead of by getting grades in narrowly defined courses.

There are a few problems with Stoddard's vision. There is no way it could be successfully implemented within the scope of public education. All large government systems only function on the basis of coercion and standardization. For Stoddard's system to work at all, education would have to be removed from the purview of government. That includes funding.

Many people are already doing this. It's called home schooling. For the rest of the students, as long as funding—and therefore direction—continues to come through government we can expect more of the "We have ways to make you get good math scores" methodology. 'Nonstandard' students (along with their parents and teachers) will be punished.

It would also be interesting to discover what Stoddard plans for those students that take full advantage of the lack of a compulsory attendance requirement. Some of the not insignificant purposes of public schools (whether we agree or not) are to provide child care services and to minimize idle time when kids would be more likely to cause trouble, until most of them are old enough to learn the value of staying out of trouble.

Compulsory education is not without merit. Many students have discovered enduring interests only after being exposed to them as part of an imposed curriculum. Students have to know that something exists before they can choose to study it. But compulsory education can also obviously have detrimental effects.

Some might argue that Stoddard's model would necessarily require far more teachers than we have today so that it would be horrendously expensive. Maybe. Others might point out that such a system could be effectively administered with far fewer members of the education administratosphere than we have at present. It might actually cost less than our current bloated system.

The whole purpose of standardized testing was supposedly to improve educational outcomes. We've been doing this for some years now, yet any improvement due to standardized testing, if it exists at all, could only be seen under a microscope. So color me skeptical that even more inflexible standardized testing will improve educational outcomes.

The underlying problems in our education system are structural and cultural. We have made minor efforts to reform structure while undertaking major efforts to reform methods. We have focused intently on the 10% while giving far less attention to the 90%. And yet we wonder why we continue to get unacceptable results. Maybe that's because those we trust to make the decisions tend to be products of public education themselves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Throughout my life I have raised my hand countless times to sustain those that have accepted callings to serve in various church positions. For the uninitiated, Latter-Day Saints hold to the practice of common consent. Each person being called to a church position of any nature is presented before the church body to be served. Members of the body are then asked to raise their hands to indicate that they either will or won't sustain the individual in that calling.

This raising of the hand does not demonstrate democracy. Church members are simply indicating whether they support the calling that has come through proper channels. As explained by Joseph Fielding Smith in his book series Doctrines of Salvation (vol. 3, p. 124), we are only justified in voting against an individual if we are aware of some wrong doing or transgression that would disqualify that person from serving. We are not free to vote against them simply due to some type of personal disagreement.

Throughout the years I have occasionally seen church members refrain from voting either way, perhaps in silent dissent. (Or maybe they were just distracted at the moment.) Only twice have I seen members vote against sustaining someone. Both times it was the same church members voting against the same church leaders.

Years ago I was attending a ward conference. As is customary at such gatherings, the stake clerk went through the sustaining of general and stake officers. He then moved on to sustaining the ward (congregation) bishopric. As usual, most of the congregation voted to sustain. When the clerk asked if there were any opposed, he was shocked to see several hands raised high.

The confused clerk turned to look at the stake president, who was seated behind him on the stand. The stake president was a man with a very calm temperament. He beckoned to the clerk and whispered in his ear. Then the clerk asked the dissenting individuals to step into a room outside of the chapel with the stake president.

This was such a rare occurrence that it was obvious that nobody really knew how to handle the situation. The entire congregation sat in an awkward silence for the next several minutes. Those minutes passed very slowly. Nobody stepped to the pulpit to speak. The organist played no music. No person that was old enough to understand what was going on was comfortable.

Finally the stake president and the individuals returned. The stake president went to the pulpit and explained that several members had expressed some disagreement with certain administrative decisions made by the bishopric, but that none of these members cited any evidence of unworthiness among the bishopric.

The stake president then briefly explained that the members of the bishopric had been called of God through proper priesthood channels. It was his duty as their priesthood leader to handle any worthiness issues, but he stated that he knew of no such problems. If members of the congregation likewise knew of no unworthiness, he explained, they had no basis in church doctrine for opposing these men. The clerk returned to the pulpit and the sustainings continued as normal.

When ward conference rolled around the following year, the stake and ward leaders were ready. They had studied the handbook to know how to handle dissent during the sustaining of officers. When some of the same individuals again voted against sustaining the bishopric, the clerk noted the dissenting votes. He explained that the stake executive secretary would make appointments for the individuals to meet with the stake president about their concerns and said that stake leaders would subsequently report to the congregation. The clerk then continued with the sustaining of officers.

Several weeks later the stake president visited the ward. He reminded the congregation that some members had voted not to sustain the bishopric at the recent ward conference (as if anyone needed reminding). He explained that he had met with each of these members about their concerns, had conducted an investigation, which revolved around possible misuse of church funds, and had found no improprieties. He said that he had reported the findings to the concerned parties and that most of them now felt to sustain the bishopric.

One of the accusers said nothing during the meeting. But over the ensuing weeks he took every possible opportunity to corner members of the ward and air his gripe. Money had been set aside in the budget for the three members of the bishopric to attend an intensive Boy Scout training course. But the three men ended up not attending due to other commitments. The money intended for the course "disappeared," according to the accuser. The stake president, this man charged, was obviously in cahoots with them because he had "whitewashed" the matter.

I served in a calling that had some insight into church finances and I was aware that the money had simply been shifted to another budget category where need existed. This is a fairly regular and accepted practice. The supporting paperwork had been properly completed. The men had not "pocketed" the money (about $100 each), as was contended.

When the accuser found few sympathetic listeners, he asserted that pretty much the whole congregation was dishonest and/or deluded. He purposefully chose a job assignment that would keep him out of town most weekends for a few years until the leaders then serving had been released.

After those years had passed, however, the man had only become more bitter and rancorous. As he regaled others with his supposed concern about church funds, his rantings came across as increasingly ridiculous and vindictive.

In reality, this brother felt that the bishopric had offended him when they had once counseled with him about ways he could better fulfill the calling he had. The unfounded finance complaint was just a surrogate tool for getting back at the bishopric. Instead it made this bright and talented man increasingly seem like an angry toddler pitching a fit.

Moreover, the man's years away from church worship had changed him. He had let his personal religious practices lapse. He felt like an outsider and could no longer find the spiritual fulfillment he had once felt. He stayed away from church and created a great deal of unnecessary animosity among his own family members. It was a sad and pathetic thing to watch.

A fair number of people—both church members and others—have misconceptions about the law of common consent. According to Article of Faith #5, Mormons believe that church callings come from God through earthly priesthood leaders. While those leaders are imperfect and make mistakes, church members are obligated to sustain others in their callings unless they are aware of disqualifying behavior. Then they are obligated to make proper priesthood leaders aware of such behavior.

Sustaining others is more than just raising one's hand in a public meeting. It means doing everything we reasonably can to help them properly fulfill their callings. This can include doing things we'd rather not (perhaps like public speaking or helping someone move) when asked.

Since everyone that holds a church calling is imperfect, it's exceptionally easy to find fault with their service. Sniping and holding grudges is no way to sustain someone. That's the path to greater pain and less peace.

Everyone that holds a calling can only properly fulfill it when sustained by others. We all need others to lift our hands and strengthen our knees (D&C 81:5). Moreover, for our own good as well as that of others, we need to help lift the hands and strengthen then knees of others in their church callings. Imperfect people helping each other as we try to fulfill divinely issued callings brings mutual strength and peace.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Cabin at Camp Loll Gets a New Floor

I got up in the wee hours on Friday morning to take a trip with my brother to Camp Loll. We drove to Ashton, Idaho, where we picked up supplies from Stronks and Sons Hardware. It's a smaller, older place, but the people were great to deal with. That kept us from hauling plywood from a greater distance.

The Ashton-Flagg Road still had a sign saying that it was closed for the season. It hadn't been graded recently. Yet it was in pretty good shape. We made good time. Along the way we passed the food service truck that was bringing provisions to the camp. At the speed it was going we figured the truck would arrive about an hour after our arrival. That estimate turned out to be fairly accurate.

It was overcast when we arrived at camp. It still felt quite cool. Despite it being a lower than average snow year, there was plenty of snow throughout the camp. The staff plans to start shoveling out critical areas tomorrow so that they can be mostly dry for the arrival of troops next Monday. The mosquitoes were about as thick as I expected they'd be, given the ample breeding grounds. 100% DEET repellent kept bites to a minimum.

Staff members were soon helping us clear out the cabin that is closest to the lake. Back when I worked on staff that building was the office, so we call it the old office. When my kids worked on staff they called it the guest cabin. We had a project over Labor Day weekend in 2010 to replace the roof on this cabin. The volunteer crew did a fine job.

This is one of three cabins at camp that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s to support the construction of the Grassy Lake Dam, which is just a few miles from Camp Loll. The scout council made a deal with the forest service back in the early 1960s to allow the scouts to deconstruct the cabins and reassemble them at Camp Loll.

The three cabins have been put to various uses over the years. The one that was the mess hall when I worked on staff is now the dormitory for the girls that work on camp staff. The roof of this cabin was replaced a few years ago, but it already needs some work. The middle cabin is presently known as the Danger Lodge. It is home to some of the ranger staff.

I really went along on this trip just to provide labor. My brother Lynn is an architect by trade. He is also currently the head of the scout council's Camp Loll committee. Not only is Lynn an architect, he's a very handy guy. Lynn likes doing projects, much as did our Dad. Lynn's good at it too. That talent bypassed me. So the best I can hope for when doing construction projects is to follow instructions with marginal effectiveness. Lynn measured out the project last season and figured out how it would go down.

As soon as the cabin was cleared out, we started working to tear out the floor. The floor had been put down by Jed Stringham, who was always thorough. So each sheet of plywood had many nails. It took us half an hour to rip up the first sheet. Then the ranger staff arrived. Eight strapping young men in their late teens and early 20s ripped, heaved, grunted, yelled, and heartily tore out the rest of the floor in about 45 minutes.

Lynn was surprised at the good quality of the floor joists. Still, there were some spacing problems. So we spent the next couple of hours fixing that issue. We finally got to laying the first sheet of plywood. This is ¾" thick high quality stuff. We decided to lay all of the whole sheets first and to lay the cut sheets after that.

The faux wall that was built atop of the flooring presented a problem. It was only held in place by a few nails, so we were able to get it to float free with a little work. But we still wanted to use the wall. So we continually had to jack it, move it, slide material under it, etc. But in the end it worked out OK. By the time the sun was setting we had all but the last course of plywood down.

We spent the evening in the lodge enjoying some of the staff training. It brought back old memories. Delose capped off the evening by reading the Oscar Wilde story of the Selfish Giant to the glow of a candle and a fire in the hearth.

Lynn and I took a quick tour of camp early in the morning. We were disappointed to discover that the foot bridge that we had constructed in the fall of 2010 had again sunk. We repaired it over last Labor Day weekend. But it has again sunk about 5-6" on the one side at both supports. We didn't have time to work on it, so that is a project that still needs doing. The swamp isn't as swampy in the area where we built the other bridge in 2009. That one is still quite solid.

We went back to work and got a couple of sheets of plywood laid before breakfast. We soon had most of the floor covered. But then we had to deal with spaces around the edges. Few log cabins are exactly square, so gaps are to be expected. We restored the wall (better than before) then cleaned everything up. Lynn worked on coating the floor with a protective varnish while I worked on putting away tools and excess materials.

After the second coat was put on the floor, we realized that it would need a third coat. But we lacked adequate materials. Delose promised that the crew that was in town would return with the needed stuff and that one of the two experienced painters on staff would paint the floor. Jody also promised to get some material that could be used for floor boards.

We were on the road back home by lunchtime, sore and bruised here and there. But we were happy with what we had been able to accomplish.

Lynn tells me that we will eventually need to repeat this project in the other two cabins and that the middle cabin will also need its roof replaced. So there is still plenty of work to be done. Any former staffers or others that may wish to help with these projects would be welcome to do so. Contact me and I will put you in touch with Lynn, who will help nail down specifics.

I have thought from time to time about why I keep going back to Camp Loll in my spare time to do volunteer work on the facilities. I guess it's because I remember going to camp there as a 12-year-old boy and then spending two summers working there in my older teen years. A lot of people I never met did a whole lot of work so that I could enjoy those summers at camp. Those summers changed my life for the better. Since I can't repay those workers, I guess I just want to pay it forward and give others the same kinds of opportunities I had as a kid.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

In a (Young Adult) People House

We still have most of the children's books that we got when our kids were young. We read many of these books to the kids over and over. Some books became such favorites that I can still recite large portions of them.

In a People House was one of my less favorite Dr. Seuss books. It doesn't rank anywhere near Green Eggs and Ham or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. But I got to thinking about it recently as I observed the changes that have taken place in our 'people house' over the years.

We no longer have toddlers. Our kids are spread from elementary school to college. So it's been a while since we read beginner books. Most of the kids have turned into strong readers that can devour novels almost as fast as can their mother.

We no longer have to get up at night with crying babies. Schedules now vary broadly. I roll out a little after 4 AM on workdays. It is not uncommon for some of the young adults in the house to hit the sack only a couple of hours before I get up. That can present a bit of a challenge, especially when one of those young adults loves making (mostly musical) noise.

My kids have grown up with me exercising in the wee hours of the morning. I guess they're so used to it that the noise doesn't bother them that much. We have a room that is dedicated to exercise equipment, but that doesn't stop sound from traveling through the house, even with the door closed.

Many young adults are in a transitional state. They have technically achieved adulthood and expect many of the benefits that go along with that status. But they also expect many of the benefits of being a child. Moving from total dependence to total independence is a tricky dance that is sometimes confusing and awkward for parents and young adults. Not only are the dance steps not well defined, it's not clear when the music will end.

One of our young adults spent the last school year living out of town while attending a university. It wasn't so far out of town that we never saw him. Sometimes he'd be home two weekends in a row. Other times we didn't see him for a month. He has been living at home and doing online courses this summer. So we've had our whole gang at home for the past few weeks.

Before long, one of the young adults will be leaving to serve as a missionary overseas. We expect him to be gone for two years. It is looking like his brother will follow only a few months later, leaving us with just the younger three kids for quite a while.

By the time the older boys return the younger kids won't be so young any more, but they will all still be in school—three different schools. And there's no telling what the older boys will do at that time. We may be coming to the end of the time when all of our kids will live with us under the same roof.

Or maybe not. I didn't move out of my parents' house until I was in my mid-20s. But then I bought a house. Most of my brothers were out of the house at a younger age, but they weren't as well situated financially when they moved out.

We don't want to foster unnecessary dependency. But each child presents a unique case. It's not really possible to treat them exactly the same.

So it's hard to see very far into the future from this vantage point. We will just have to do as we've always done: make the best of the situations as they come along. I suspect that, like clumsy dancers on a dark dance floor, we will occasionally step on each others' feet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Solution to Every Problem

I was recently discussing Utah's upcoming June 26 primary election with my adult son. (By the way, early voting starts today.) Due to my deeply entrenched political cynicism I remarked that all of the candidates (even those purporting to be libertarian-ish) effectively seek greater government control over our lives.

Some politicians give lip service to preserving and perhaps even expanding personal liberty, but none of them really believe it. At any rate, none of them will ultimately undertake actions that produce this result except as part of a gambit that achieves yet greater control. (Some even use a twisted definition of liberty that is indistinguishable from tyranny, albeit, with a 'benevolent' lilt.) Almost all political candidates believe in expanding the coercive powers of government in some way, although, they may disagree on exactly how the public should be coerced.

I suggested to my son that it is the nature of nearly all members of the political class (and wannabe members of this class) to view government as the natural tool for achieving social solutions, regardless of the nature of the problem. A significant portion of the population agrees, thereby, giving the political class license to pursue this course.

Should it not bother us that the solution to every problem or perceived problem is more government?

The thinking could be summed up like this:

  • In the event of a market failure (or perceived market failure) the answer is more government.
  • In the event of a government failure the answer is more government.
  • In the event of someone doing something you don't like the answer is more government.
  • In the event of someone thinking something you don't like the answer is more government.
  • In the event of someone having 'too much' the answer is more government.
  • In the event of someone having too little the answer is more government.
  • In the event of A the answer is B, where A = any perceived problem and B = more government.
This kind of thinking is the definition of tautology, "a formula which is true in every possible interpretation." All evidences are viewed through a lens that validates the proposition. Any evidence that seems to invalidate the proposition is obviously being viewed incorrectly. If the view cannot be successfully altered, the offending evidence must be discredited and destroyed, if possible, and the offending viewers must be re-educated.

Those that actually believe in expanding liberty generally do not become members of the political class. They have no interest in being part of that culture. Those that do venture into the political culture are either co-opted or spewed out.

When I go to the polls my choices are limited to those that will strive to expand government if given the chance. Some more and some less. I can only hope to make a marginal difference by voting for those that might lean toward the less side of this equation. Even this proposition is problematic. Except for those that have a well established record, it is exceptionally difficult to divine how candidates will act once in office.

We have been admonished to diligently seek for and uphold political actors that are good, honest, and wise (D&C 98:8-10). That's still a tall order. How many people that are good, honest, and wise end up on the ballot? Have you noticed what most successful (and even unsuccessful) political campaigns involve? And how wise can anyone be that espouses forms of tyranny? Sly, perhaps; but wise?

So, it is with frustration that I vote each time I go to the polls. I don't think the scripture cited above means that we can only vote for perfect people. But I don't think I'm demanding perfection of political candidates. It just seems that the selection is always limited to those that lean more or less toward tyranny rather than leaning more toward liberty. It seems like my votes come down to a question of how rapidly we will progress on the path toward tyranny.

Yes, I will vote. In fact, I will vote early. And I will be grateful that I live in a place and at a time where this is possible. But I will still be dissatisfied with the selection.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bullying Mormons

I'm not sure how often a Brigham Young University professor gets published in the New York Times. It's probably rare. But this week the Times published this op-ed by J. Spencer Fluhman, assistant professor of history at BYU, under the provocative title Why We Fear Mormons.

For some reason, Mormons constitute the one significant religious group that many find morally acceptable to mock and denigrate. Anti-Mormonism has been around pretty much since the founding of the church in 1830. Many of the charges put forth by anti-Mormons are based in truths but are also rife with distortions. And any religion can be made to look weird from the outside looking in.

Most anti-Mormon attacks, says Fluhman, come from the secular left and the Evangelical right. "For the left," he writes, "Mormonism often functions as a stand-in for discomfort over religion generally." All religion is bizarre to many secularists. Mormonism is generally unpopular and happens to offer some more peculiar practices, so it makes for a nice foil.

"Anti-Mormon attacks by evangelicals" writes Fluhman, "have betrayed anxiety over the divisions in their movement and their slipping cultural authority as arbiters of religious authenticity." A common response to internal conflict is to foster an obsession with perceived external enemies to force unity via distraction.

Despite differing reasons for attacking Mormons, Fluhman sees a deeper underlying American root to the issue. "Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good. By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian."

I suppose Fluhman should have written "moral" instead of "Christian" to include secularists.

In other words, people tend to lash out at unpopular Mormons to hide from their own inadequacies, just as bullies harass others in an attempt to elevate their own standing. Anti-Mormons foster a sense of 'other-ness' toward Mormons, viewing them as too unlike themselves to be considered fully accepted participants in society. This is not unlike the way established cultures have traditionally responded to recent immigrants.

Even if the next U.S. president ends up being a Mormon, Fluhman says that "until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon."

That's OK. Mormons know that it goes with the territory.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Is Not Voting OK?

I used to wonder why so few people voted on a consistent basis and why even fewer were politically active in determining who gets on the ballot in the first place. Don't people understand that our politicians' actions have an immense impact on our individual lives?

The answer to this conundrum is both complex and simple. For every action we can potentially take, there is a cost and a benefit. It may be more correct to say that inherent in each possible opportunity is a perceived package of costs and a perceived package of benefits.

At any given moment we weigh the perceived cost-benefit ratios of myriad potential activities against each other to decide how we will spend the next moment. All of these parts are moving: time, known opportunities, perceived costs, and perceived benefits. Past choices govern some of these factors. So our decisions can vary from situation to situation.

We also run cost-benefit analyses with respect to political activity. Despite the lifelong haranguing we get about the importance of doing our civic duty, the understood cost-benefit ratio of doing so often loses out to other opportunities for many people. How is it that these people place such a low net value on voting or more fundamental political activity?

We have all heard stories about how individuals have made big differences politically. Many of these tales amount to slick marketing by politicians, campaigns, and agenda-driven activists. But there is no denying that some individuals have achieved significant political results. These are the outliers—the rare few. Most can only hope to be part of a mass that produces some effect.

Voting exacts a cost. Unless voting in total ignorance is internally acceptable, time and effort must be spent to become somewhat informed. Some time and effort are required to cast a ballot.

And the benefit? Ah, there's the rub. Except at the most local level, an individual vote seldom has more value to the individual voter other than to produce a feeling. That is, the outcome of the race would likely have been no different if a given voter had failed to cast a ballot.

But even if the candidate the voter supports wins, how likely is it that the winner's activities in office will produce results that the voter wants? Elected officials respond to the incentives inherent in the political culture in which they operate. They act chiefly in their own interests within that culture. Their interests occasionally happen to coincide with those of the voter. As one observer put it, the lines of politics and morality run parallel and never intersect.

Moreover, many newly elected officials are shocked to discover the limits of their capacities to accomplish what they had hoped. Over the years we have built at every level of government a massive bureaucracy of unelected agents that usually goes on its merry way working to expand its reach and power, nearly heedless of the pesky politicians that go to the trouble of campaigning for office.

When potential voters run the cost-benefit ratio of voting vs. competing opportunities, it should not be surprising when some of them choose to do something else instead. They sense their own powerlessness and find little reason to undertake an exercise that will simply increase their frustration. It may be more appropriate to be astonished at how many people vote rather than how few people vote.

The low net individual value of a vote means that few voters put much effort into becoming truly informed of the issues. They understand that knowing about the issues will make little difference in the long run. The low vote benefit means that outside of political junkies few put the kind of effort into researching candidates and issues that the average person would put into the purchase of something like a car.

Given the low chances of a voter getting much of what she wants from a vote, most voters are likely to put less effort into political research than into what kind of shampoo to buy at the supermarket.

Members of the political class understand this all too well. Consequently, campaigns are not designed to inform voters, but to work on voters' emotions and tribal tendencies. They know that more people will vote if they feel like they are doing something for their 'team,' even if, in the long run, government mostly continues its current course regardless of which team wins. Style may differ—all part of the show, you understand—but form differs only slightly.

Although voters can't explain it themselves, many end up voting for the same reason that they cheer for a sports team. And their votes have about as much impact on the total scope of how government affects their lives as cheering at the TV has on the outcome of a sports game.

Political powerlessness is not lost on average Americans. Not voting is a perfectly rational response to this. It is at least as rational as voting on a tribal basis.

I used to think that non-voters had no right to complain about the state of our political systems. I now believe that my thinking on this point was wrong. For many non-voters the decision not to vote is their way of expressing frustration with their lack of power in the political system. They see voting as akin to banging their head against a wall. Suggesting that they have no right to comment on the system because the refuse to bang their head against a wall strikes me as narrow minded.

I have consistently voted since age 18, although, I often vote for candidates that do not win. I have been politically involved at the grass roots level. I used to deride those that didn't vote. But I now see this as an understandable political response and I am much less likely to be critical of non-voters.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Our Economy Is Failing Due to Diminishing Human Capital

A few months ago I posted about how demographic decline will affect Baby Boomers' retirements. I noted that Baby Boomers had fewer children per person than did their parents. Funds (both public and private) invested for retirement rely upon the producers in the economy. Smaller numbers of producers per retiree translate to less growth of those funds. This means retiring later and living more frugally in retirement than many had hoped.

This really doesn't sound so bad, especially when contrasted with the longer term outlook. Mark Steyn paints a dismal picture of the economic future of the Western world in this article. Steyn refutes the argument that the West's current economic woes are cyclical and of a shorter term. Rather, due to demographic shift, these problems are structural and long-term.

Among Americans that are not blissfully unaware of Europe's current economic crisis there seems to be an 'aren't you glad we're not Europe' attitude. Steyn challenges this notion, saying, "In the twilight of the West, America and Europe are still different but only to this extent: They’ve wound up taking separate paths to the same destination." All Western countries have created unsustainable situations.

I found this passage of Steyn's particularly poignant: "[T]he unsustainable “bubble” is not student debt or subprime mortgages or anything else. The bubble is us, and the assumptions of entitlement. Too many citizens of advanced Western democracies live a life they have not earned, and are not willing to earn."

Steyn complains that we have reduced productive working years by increasing the length of childhood and retirement. The trouble is that those reduced working years are supposed to pay for everything else. When they don't, we have little compunction about "running up debt that will have to be repaid by our shrunken progeny."

To provide some perspective, Steyn notes that 100 Greek grandparents today have only 42 grandchildren. He asks, "Is it likely that 42 Greeks can repay the debts run up by 100 Greeks?" The Greeks plan to push their debt onto "the thriftier Germans." But the Germans are no better off demographically. How likely it is that 42 Germans will be able to shoulder the debt that 100 Germans currently struggle to manage?

There is no quick fix to the root problem. Human capital is the ultimate asset, but we've bought into the lie that it is a liability. Even if we recognize this fact, it takes a long time to ramp up and produce more children that become productive adults, if you can even get people to do the hard work of child rearing. Steyn puts it more bluntly when he says, "Look around you. The late-20th-century Western lifestyle isn’t going to be around much longer."

To illustrate what to expect, Steyn writes, "In a few years’ time, our children will look at old TV commercials showing retirees dancing, golfing, cruising away their sixties and seventies, and wonder what alternative universe that came from." The following generation "will be amazed to discover that in the early 21st century the Western world thought it entirely normal that vast swathes of the citizenry should while away their youth enjoying" lives of luxury that were available only to the wealthiest elites "a mere hundred years earlier."

Steyn goes on to say, "In the world after Western prosperity, we will work till we’re older and we will start younger — and we will despise those who thought they could defy not just the rules of economic gravity but the basic human life cycle."

Given human nature, I expect that most of us will choose to take the three monkeys approach to this problem. We will simply ignore it. We will cast about for leaders that promise to address the various symptoms of the base issue, all the while continuing to insist that we are entitled to what we think we deserve.

In the end, future generations will end up getting what we really deserve. They will be right to despise the self absorbed, self indulgent generations that preceded them.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Here I Raise My Eben-Ezer

I have attended monthly LDS fast and testimony meetings since my earliest days. Over the years I have witnessed a variety of situations at these gatherings that cover the range from comical to bizarre to mundane to pure, sweet, and touching.

A cherished memory for our family occurred on a chilly December Sunday when our furnace went on the fritz. Our failure to adequately prepare meant that we had no alternate heat source. I ended up staying home while an emergency repair technician worked through the problem. My wife took our three young children to church.

My wife retreated to the mother's lounge during testimony meeting to nurse the baby, leaving our six- and four-year-old seated on the bench in the chapel. To my wife's astonishment, she heard our six-year-old's voice come over the speaker in the mother's lounge. This was unusual because this child has never liked the limelight nor cared for public speaking.

Our son started off with the usual things kids say when they get up to share their testimonies. He then launched into a long, rambling monologue that covered many spiritually unrelated points, some of which were punctuated by the congregation's laughter. My wife was in the middle of breast feeding the baby and was in no position to do anything about our long winded son.

As minute after agonizing minute ticked by, my wife hoped in vain that a member of the bishopric would put an end to our son's discourse. The child finally decided he was done talking after more than seven seemingly endless minutes at the microphone. My embarrassed wife tried to be inconspicuous as she slipped back into the chapel a few minutes later.

After the meeting, various ward members good naturedly complemented my wife on our son's 'testimony.' They thought it was one of the funniest things they had ever experienced at church. The humor was enhanced by the fact that they understood my wife's predicament and perceived her discomfort.

One February when I was serving in the bishopric, we started off testimony meeting with the customary bishopric member, followed by the usual handful of children. And then ... silence. For the next 20+ minutes. It was one of the more uncomfortable public situations I experienced while serving in that position.

Finally, a brother who was a fairly recent convert and had recently moved to the area got up. He said that he wasn't sure what they called this kind of thing in Utah, but that in the branch from which he had moved it was called a branch president's nightmare. He bore a beautiful witness, but he also gently chided the members of the congregation for their unwillingness to publicly testify of Christ.

That was better than my response, which was to stew in my seat and judge my fellow congregants, assuming that their thoughts and hearts were dwelling on the Super Bowl being broadcast instead of on their Savior and his gospel. Perhaps some of them were simply enjoying the reverent atmosphere in a worshipful spirit.

One of my sons tried walking a more worldly path for a few years. My phone ringtone for him was a clip from the Kansas song, Carry On My Wayward Son. This young man has made immense spiritual strides over the past year. His theme song has become Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. (His favorite line is, "Let thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to thee.")

My wife was unfortunately out of town the Sunday this son got up and bore a brief, heartfelt testimony for the first time in years. I listened to my son with a sense of awe, tenderness, and gratitude. His words may have sounded awkward to many in the congregation, but to me they were like "some melodious sonnet Sung by flaming tongues above."

LDS testimony meetings are not perfect. Indeed, our faults as a people may be more visibly on display here than in any other public setting. It's easy to think snide thoughts and to make cynical comments about these meetings. But such scoffing fails to explain why Mormon people worldwide attend these meetings month after month. Such harshness also interferes with the gentle workings of the Holy Spirit, preventing one from enjoying the spiritual feast that is readily available in these settings.

I suspect that future testimony meetings will bring many additional funny, strange, and banal testimonies. But I hope these meetings will bring many deeply joyful and spiritual experiences as well. How I experience these gatherings will depend greatly on my personal disposition. Lord, please "Tune my heart to sing Thy grace."