Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Lost Camper Found! Use the Buddy System

I am very relieved that Brennan Hawkins was found alive and in good condition (see here, here and here). It could have turned out otherwise had the weather not been so mild. A strict buddy system could have prevented this problem. Let’s hope youth leaders will employ this system rigidly during this summer. I know we will.

How Do We Keep Youth Campers Safe?

OK, I’m officially freaked out right now. I’m leaving in the morning for the first of three (maybe four) major youth group camps that I will attend this summer. I’ll be headed to Southern Utah in the morning with Varsity Scouts, and will be headed to the Tetons next week with Boy Scouts. I may end up going to Cub Scout camp the week after that. Later in July I will be going to youth conference with mixed group of 14-18-year-olds. Then there are more camps in the fall: Order of the Arrow, Camp-O-Ree, etc.

I have been involved in the Scouting program since age 8 and have volunteered as an adult leader in many different positions for over two decades. Over the years I have been in charge of literally hundreds of youth for a variety of camping experiences, both at organized camps and on wilderness treks. My groups have dealt with temporarily lost subgroups, injuries, illnesses, and even helping another group that had an adult die in the Wind Rivers back country. But I have never lost an individual camper.

I was very concerned last year when Garrett Bardsley disappeared in the High Uintas. But I am just heartsick about the disappearance of Brennan Hawkins at an organized scout camp in the Uintas this past weekend. Cripes! A boy disappearing from an organized scout camp surrounded by 1400 other people! Whoever heard of such a thing?

I have boys of my own around the same ages as these two boys. Despite the fact that my boys (as kids will do) sometimes give me problems, I would be absolutely devastated if any of them were to go missing. From the point of view of a scout leader, I would be crushed if our group lost a child. I can sense the utter loss that everyone involved with the Hawkins situation must feel right now. My deepest sympathies go out to them.

A friend of mine that is on the Weber County Search and Rescue team has participated in both the Bardsley and Hawkins searches. He has been on hundreds of searches, but says that these two are unusual. Usually they turn up something related to the lost person – some kind of clue – but in these cases there has simply been nothing. Though he doesn’t want to think about it, he wonders if something sinister is afoot.

Both boys went missing in the same area. The locations are about 15 miles apart, although, Garrett Bardsley was lost in rougher terrain at a much higher altitude. The boys look similar and are of a smaller build. Both boys were quiet, shy types that had some academic and social problems. Both boys were individually separated from their groups. Is there a pedophile predator hanging around those parts? A scout camp would look like a smorgasbord to a creep like that.

Of course, I have heard plenty of knee-jerk reactions from people about this situation. Many seem willing to implement more government oversight. I’m afraid that we end up with some of our more restrictive public policies due to emotional responses to emotional issues. Some want to require $300 beacons to be attached to each camper. Some want to require more extensive and expensive training. Mind you, we already do a heck of a lot of training. Some want to discontinue youth camping programs altogether. While one lost camper is too many, along the Wasatch Front we send literally tens of thousands of youth into the back country every year without major incident. Shall we punish them all due to these two high profile situations?

The adult leaders of our scout troop got together over the weekend to discuss how we will ensure the safety of our boys. Each boy will be required to wear a color coded bandana in plain sight and will be required to have a safety whistle around his neck 24x7. But in the end, we decided that the old-time BSA rules will be the mainstay of our plan.

#1: We will strictly apply the buddy system. No one goes anywhere, not even to the latrine, without a buddy. It’s more difficult for two to run into problems or to be grabbed by a creep than one. One of our volunteers that is a retired parole officer threatens that he will handcuff violators of this policy to each other. #2: If a boy gets lost he is to stay put and blow three blasts on his whistle every minute until someone finds him.

I hurt inside for those affected by the Bardsley and Hawkins situations, but I feel strongly that we have a duty to provide wholesome camping activities for our youth so that they can experience and learn to respect the natural world around us. I sincerely hope that the groups with which I am involved come home without major incident. We are implementing a plan to try to ensure that this happens. I hope all youth camping groups this summer do something similar.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Public Campaign Financing Is Still a Bad Idea

LaVarr posted a rebuttal by Andy Wilson to my article (see here) opposing public campaign financing. Mr. Wilson’s rebuttal makes it obvious that he is educated, but that he has spelling and grammar issues. It is a lengthy and rambling diatribe that is tedious to read. However, Mr. Wilson makes some good points in support of public campaign financing. Here is a synopsis of his points as far as I can understand them.

  • Politics is about protecting natural rights and pursuing the common interest. It is not a business.

  • OK, politics is a business, but it shouldn’t be. It creates conflicts of interest.

  • Spent $10,000 running for office as a Democrat and lost, so money in politics is bad.

  • Third parties have insufficient opportunity under our current system.

  • We publicly fund many things in the public interest despite the economic value. The same should be true of political campaigns.

  • Groups and businesses currently have an unfair advantage over the public because they over-represent those with more money while under-representing those with less money.

  • The influence of groups and businesses only sometimes coincidentally benefit the public, but it’s bad anyway due to their motives.

  • The people should be able to pass any (I assume, constitutionally sound) law they want, even if it seems loopy.

  • Arizona recently passed fully publicly funded campaigns and that is why the people got a couple of important pieces of legislation passed.

  • Public campaign financing would return the power to the people and would take it away from groups and businesses, so the will of the people would be done.
I don’t fully disagree with Mr. Wilson, but I still don’t believe that public campaign financing is the right thing to do. Here’s my take.

  • The entire political system is not a business, but political campaigns are businesses and are subject to related economic laws. It requires resources to get the word out to gain support among the people. I think campaigns should be operate under a free enterprise model, while Mr. Wilson thinks they should be run under a government control model.

  • Steve Urquhart says, “taxpayers don't want to fund the Party for Niceness to 3-Legged Dogs.” In other words, third parties are free to compete in the marketplace of ideas. While they do influence public policy, they currently are unable to get enough interested supporters to gain many offices. Should I be required to fund my opponent’s campaign?

  • Groups are made up of citizens that have pooled their voices. Banding together to provide a common voice is one of the oldest traditions in our nation. Why should “special interest” groups be denied political access?

  • Businesses act like groups. Citizens support businesses with their dollars. Businesses use some of those dollars to influence public policy. No one is required to support a business that influences policy in ways with which they disagree.

  • I agree with the idea of letting the people pass any constitutionally sound law they want, even if I don’t like it.

  • Granted that under our current system those with more economic power have more ability to influence public policy than those with less economic power. The founders agreed that all men are created equal, but nothing says they stay that way. Our country is built upon providing equality in opportunity, not equality in outcome. Our free market of political ideas helps our give-and-take system of government in its continual struggle to achieve and maintain the proper balance.

  • I maintain that interfering with free enterprise in political campaigns would cause the kinds of problems I mentioned in my post. I also maintain that there is insufficient evidence that public campaign financing would resolve the problems in our current system.

  • I suggest that we wait and see which problems the Arizona system solves and which problems it creates and exacerbates. If the people are then satisfied that the trade-offs are worth it, they can decide to copy that system. I suspect that in the long run the Arizona system will introduce a different set of problems that will prove equally as untenable as our current set of problems.
Our current system of campaign financing is not without its flaws. We should work to correct those flaws. I argue that the free (fully disclosed) flow of money in our political system is the best way to do that. I believe that more government control will not portend to better government.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Campaign Finance Reform Only Makes Matters Worse

LaVarr included in today’s Utah Policy an article by Craig Axford and Laura Bonham, co-chairs of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus. In it they decry the high cost of running for public office and they issue a clarion call for public (government) funding of elections. I sent LaVarr the following response.

I strongly disagree with Mr. Axford and Ms. Bonham's article promoting public election funding. Politics is a business and the laws of economics that apply to business simply cannot be circumvented. As Adam Smith noted, government intervention in any free market causes shortages, black markets, and lower quality goods.

Axford and Bonham suggest public funding for "qualified candidates able to demonstrate a reasonable level of public support." Who will control what constitutes a qualified candidate if not the electorate? What is a reasonable level of public support? How will prospective candidates achieve it without spending money?

The reason an average Congressional race costs nearly $1 Million is that the market demands it. This is Econ 101 stuff. Public funding will not change the math substantially. It will only make it go deeper underground and will actually end up further limiting who can run for office.

The idea that politics is not open to the middle class is a red herring. Multiple examples exist that defy that argument. For example, Rob Bishop was a high school teacher when he undertook his run for Congress, yet he amassed sufficient support to run a successful campaign. Our system demands candidates that actually have the fire and determination to run for office.

I am not saying that our political system is without flaws. We have built a huge bulwark to protect incumbents throughout the system. But campaign finance reform is not going to solve the problems. It is not likely that people in office will approve changes that will threaten themselves. McCain-Feingold passed because Congressional delegates knew that it wouldn't substantially harm them.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the state of our political affairs derives to the people. When they feel that problems in the system are sufficient to warrant real change they will exert their prerogative to force those changes. I favor the free market approach to this. More government meddling will create new problems and exacerbate existing ones rather than solving them. Give more power and responsibility to the electorate; not less.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Keep Urban Legends Out of Church

This is aimed at Latter-Day Saints, but elements of it apply universally.

Last Sunday at church one of the speakers read verbatim from the pulpit excerpts from a faith promoting story that he had pulled off the Internet about the service of the 1457th Engineering Battalion in Iraq. Some web sites (I will not provide links to them) and emails entitle it Our Modern Day Stripling Warriors. Immediately after the speaker started reading it I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach rather than the spiritual lift that was intended. Let me explain.

A basic trait of human nature is to latch onto information that validates our way of thinking while minimizing or ignoring information that might detract from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our views are often hard earned through years of testing information and piecing things together. Of course we give less credence to information that is similar to stuff we have already discarded through this process. But a problem arises when we accept information, either bolstering or refuting our views, without demanding veracity.

Some Mormons are very accepting of stories that support their faith regardless of whether the stories are true. Others are far too ready to believe anything that might cause them to question their faith. While these tendencies are not limited to Mormons, my comments are. In his book Following Christ, BYU professor Stephen E. Robinson says that for some people the spiritual worth of a tale is not whether it is true but whether it sends shivers up the spine. He calls these folks the Goose Pimple Gang. The Lord has a different standard.

Jesus said that he was the embodiment of truth (John 14:6). Jacob in the Book of Mormon said, “the Spirit speaketh truth and lieth not” (Jacob 4:13). In contrast, the devil is “the father of lies” (2 Nephi 2:18). There are hundreds of scriptures similar to these. The point is that if we assay to worship God we should love truth and hate falsehood regardless of the source of either.

Moroni tells us that “by the power of the Holy Ghost [we] may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). We can expect the Holy Ghost to witness of truth, but we cannot expect the Spirit to confirm stories that fall short of being true. I have to believe that representing a faulty story as true simply because it bolsters one’s faith is offensive to God. I believe that he wants to build faith in him, but he wants to do it through truthfulness.

When Jesus was on the earth he gave many parables and allegories to illustrate eternal truths. It was clear that these stories were merely devices. He did not represent them as factual events. Many remember the disgrace of Paul H. Dunn, a former LDS general authority, when parts of the stories he regularly represented as real events were exposed as being embellished or fabricated. Using an allegorical device to make a point is very different than passing off something as true simply because it causes a thrill inside.

A group of LDS people runs a website called SHIELDS (Scholarly & Historical Information Exchange for Latter-Day Saints). They have a page dedicated to debunking Mormon myths, folklore and urban legends. SHIELDS has done just that with the stripling warrior story mentioned earlier (see here). Not only do they post the entire original story, but they post several sources that refute or correct parts of that story.

BYU actually teaches classes on Mormon folklore and urban legends. They have a listing (here) of all of the stories in their database. Of course, Mormons aren’t the only ones to pass around urban legends. An extensive listing and set of links dedicated to debunking urban legends and myths is available at snopes.com. You might be surprised at what you find there that you always thought was factual.

Those that are called to teach or speak in LDS church settings have a responsibility to ensure that they are teaching and speaking truth. They need to rise to a higher standard than the Goose Pimple Gang. They need to have more than simply good intentions. They need to show their love of God (and accordingly their love of truth) by verifying the information they relate.

One of the ways to do this is by using sources that have a track record of accuracy and avoiding sources that have a track record of inaccuracies, like an email telling about something that happened to somebody in somebody else’s sister-in-law’s second cousin’s friend's ward. The truth might seem mundane compared to some of the urban legends available, but at least you can know that it pleases God.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Quality Health Care Requires Competition

Back when Hillary-care was the big topic of the day in the first half of Bill Clinton’s first term, experts warned that government run health care wouldn’t work unless private health care was illegal. This was the absolute last straw for many, and it helped to hasten the demise of the Clinton health plan.

Proponents of government sponsored health care are forever flogging the rest of us with their cheery depictions of how marvelous it is up in the Great White North. Now we can see how well the Canadian experiment is working.

The (very liberal) Supreme Court of Canada last week struck down the law prohibiting private health insurance (see Guardian article). Why? In the face of an average 17.9-week wait for surgery and interminable lines at clinics, the court found that “Access to a waiting list is not access to health care” (see WSJ article). WSJ editors note that these long waits are only as short as they are because medical facilities in the U.S. and illegal private clinics in Canada provide a safety valve.

WSJ Opinion Journal editor James Taranto on his blog lampoons the referenced Guardian article because it says that Canada’s system is one of the fairest in the world, but that it is plagued with multiple shortage and long-wait problems and that people use illegal private clinics to jump to the head of the line. Taranto says, “Other than that, though, it's really fair!”

WSJ editors state:
There are only two ways to allocate any good or service: through prices, as is done in a market economy, or lines dictated by government, as in Canada's system. The socialist claim is that a single-payer system is more equal than one based on prices, but last week's court decision reveals that as an illusion. Or, to put it another way, Canadian health care is equal only in its shared scarcity.

That is something worth considering as the U.S. incrementally slides toward socialized health care.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Maybe Fat Ain't So Bad

Noted author Orson Scott Card takes on scientists and journalists on both sides of the issue with this article that suggests that the whole conundrum about obesity is overblown. I found it interesting from the point of view of a pseudo journalist and a formerly overweight person (I’ve kept those 50 lbs. off for 16 years).

It seems that Card is getting quite testy as of late. He recently wrote a rather negative piece about Star Trek that got a lot of people (are Trekkies of the people species?) in an uproar (see here and here for samples). Still, he has a flair for making his points in an interesting manner.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

You Think U.S. Heath Care Has Problems? Try the European Model

When I lived in Norway I experienced the deplorable state of the government run health system there. I watched as the system literally killed a woman due to its inefficiencies and antiquated state. Of course, there are plenty of horror stories about the U.S. health care system as well, but the general state of the whole system in Norway could aptly be described as decrepit.

Norwegians recoiled with horror at the thought of a medical system (in the U.S.) that would fail to offer equal coverage to everyone, but I could never understand how they rationalized away the lousy level of care they received. Sure, they could go to the doctor anytime they wanted, but the care they got was like going to a military field hospital in a war zone. Norwegians are not alone. Government run health care systems worldwide are in the same class as Norway’s.

Fox News anchor David Asman has published an insightful WSJ article that discusses the faults and advantages of both the British and U.S. health care systems from a very interesting point of view. His wife, though relatively young, had a stroke while they were in London. Over the next two months they experienced three health care systems: the British public system, the British private system, and the U.S. system.

Asman paraphrases Thomas Sowell in saying, “there are no solutions to modern health care problems, only trade-offs.” He makes a strong point that there are some things that are definitely out of whack with the U.S. system. But I think he also leaves you with the feeling that the general state of the U.S. system is far superior. I wholeheartedly concur.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

We Will All Die

News outlets spew a constant stream of medical stories about efforts to increase longevity. Indeed, it seems from our scientific studies over the past century that we are positively obsessed with exceeding our obvious mortal limits. Every day we have stories that make increasing life span the holy grail of scientific pursuits.

Like many cultures of the past we seem to live in great fear of our impending mortality. Think, for example, how effective the symbol of the skull is in our culture. Think of the skeleton scene in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While most experts on aging accept 115 to 120 years as the logical limit of a human life (some researchers say 124 years), multiple websites attempt to refute this theory (this website debunks those myths). You can see here documented instances of people that have lived the longest. The oldest, Jeanne Clement, died at the age of 122 in 1997.

I caught a piece of a TV program about longevity a couple of days ago where one doctor that is an expert in the field stated that your life span is programmed in your genes at birth. He said that although we can do things that reduce our life span from its programmed limit (dangerous or unhealthy activities and habits), there is literally nothing we can do to live beyond our genetic limit.

People that live beyond 100 are simply born with different programming than most of us. When you hit your programmed limit you will experience one or more events that will result in your demise despite any efforts to circumvent it. But since none of us knows for certain what our genetic limit is we generally try to overcome health issues as they arise. You never know what will turn out to be fatal and what will be survivable.

I think that most people would like to live as long as they can with as good of quality of life as possible. Much of the religious right political movement in the U.S. focuses on a “culture of life,” as stated by President Bush. While many Mormons resonate with this message, you will actually find a broad variety of opinions on issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research among active Mormons.

Part of the reason for varying opinions is a certain vagueness with regard to official doctrine about when mortal life begins. More importantly, the idea of stewardship has always had a very strong presence in Mormon doctrine and strongly influences nearly all of the church’s teachings.

In the Mormon view, everything we have belongs to God, including our stuff, our money, our time, our abilities, and indeed our very lives. As we receive blessings from God, he makes us stewards of those blessings while retaining ownership of them. We are tasked with exercising a good stewardship over those blessings within our abilities and we will eventually report on our performance to God (or his representative).

In this view, we have a responsibility to care for the life that God has given us – to manage our resources as well as we can. Before you start screaming “hypocrisy,” let’s all acknowledge that many Mormons that won’t smoke or drink have difficulty living a healthy lifestyle. We all fall short of doing everything we know we ideally should. The point is that Mormons believe that God has made them stewards over their lives and that their lives belong to God rather than to themselves.

With this in mind, Mormons should try to take care of their bodies as best they can while in this life. The proper exercise of stewardship would preclude taking steps to end life before God (the actual owner) wills it. However, since Mormon doctrine includes expansive information about life after this life, inordinate efforts to briefly sustain a dying mortal body are out of line with our stewardship as well.

So reasonable efforts to improve life span and life quality are good, while extreme efforts to stop the inevitable are less so. Once again, this creates a broad grey area. Mormons believe that every person can receive revelation from God about how to properly fulfill their own stewardships, including coming to know when life is complete. However, no one is authorized to do harm, to break the law, or to fail to give needed sustenance and aid, even when it is difficult and burdensome.

In the Mormon view, a righteous stewardship means doing your best given your circumstances. A life that is of low quality such as that of someone severely disabled is still worth living. The irreclaimable failure of life sustaining body systems, on the other hand, signals the end of a stewardship and a time to report to its owner. For those that believe this life is all there is, a disabled or unhappy life is no longer worth living, while every effort, regardless of futility and expense, must be made to extend other lives as long as possible.

While longevity rates have increased over the last century, this has largely been due to prevention of premature death rather than extension of maximum life span. I believe that reasonable efforts to increase life span and life quality are admirable, but that our society has an unhealthy obsession with trying to be immortal in this life. In the Mormon view we will all be immortal at some future day, but unlike Tithonus of Greek mythology, we will be eternally whole and healthy. In the meantime, we should do the best we can with what we have.

Hacking Says Murder Was an Act of Love

Euthanasia proponents frequently claim that they are motivated by love and concern for people that are suffering. Michael Schiavo echoed these sentiments while having his disabled wife Terri dehydrated to death. Now attorney Gil Athay claims that Mark Hacking rationalized shooting his pregnant wife Lori to death using similar logic.

As far as I can understand the suggested line of reasoning, Mark felt sorry for Lori because she was tormented by the realization that she was married to a rotten liar. He “loved” her so much that he wanted to end her pain, which he did by putting a bullet in her brain.

You will forgive me if I fail to comprehend how anyone could construe such a course of thought and action to represent love in any form. Selfishness and hate, yes. Love, no.

Hacking now goes to prison, hopefully for many decades, while others that employ official forms of euthanasia are unshackled from their burdens so that they can pursue their lives more freely. Ah, the foibles of a society that codifies the legal killing of the innocent.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Teaching Requires Good Judgment

Schoolteachers are sometimes tasked with teaching approved curriculum material about which they have a strong opinion or with which they disagree. Is it appropriate for teachers to editorialize or to present an opposing point of view? If we say yes, how far should it go? If we say no, are we demanding classroom situations where children are not taught to think critically?

Recently parents of a fourth grade student at Lomond View Elementary in Pleasant View, Utah complained that during a Utah history lesson a teacher inappropriately denigrated Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church. The school’s principal conducted an investigation and satisfied the concerned parents.

While the full results of the investigation were not made public, comments made in the press seem to suggest that while the teacher’s remarks may have been poorly chosen they were no cause for discipline. However, the teacher did issue an apology to class members and to parents who cared to attend a meeting.

That would probably have been the end of the story, but some parents were not fully satisfied with the outcome and brought their concerns to the local newspaper (the Standard Examiner). The paper investigated and published the previously reference story. That precipitated an outpouring of letters to the editor that were mostly of the anti-Mormon ilk (see here and here for samples).

Today Jim Burton, a sports writer for the paper put forward his thoughts on the matter, mostly putting the anti-Mormons in their place. I agree with Mr. Burton that most of the commentary on the matter has been particularly unenlightening. It has also been quite ignorant of the total volume of facts.

I have friends whose daughter has attended the class in question. They say that the offending teacher, Karla DuVall has made numerous anti-Mormon editorial comments to students throughout the school year, and that this latest incident, while not that bad, was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. My friends have had frequent discussions with their daughter, who has been frustrated with what she perceives is an oppressive atmosphere created by the teacher.

Principal Brad Larsen (a man I trust who currently serves as an LDS bishop) said that his investigation revealed that Ms. DuVall merely noted that some people considered Joseph Smith to be a criminal in the 1830s and 1840s. If that is all that was said, the teacher was merely stating a fact. Many religious leaders throughout time have been considered to be criminals by the establishment.

However, my friends’ daughter suggests that Ms. DuVall editorialized on that fact and suggested that it would be better for the students to follow someone that teaches them to smoke and drink (practices antithetical to LDS teachings) than to follow a criminal. The implication was a judgment on beliefs of students that revere Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.

Principal Larsen says that no parent has ever complained about Ms. DuVall on a religious basis before. If what my friends say is true, then I think that students’ parents have been far too lax in their duty. If this has been an ongoing problem parents should have complained long ago.

Some of Ms. DuVall’s defenders suggest that she has simply been endeavoring to teach critical thinking and respect for others. Critical thinking is wonderful, but when a fourth grader feels that a person in authority is attacking her personal religious beliefs, that somehow seems far from teaching love and appreciation for others.

We all want children to grow up to be critical thinkers and good citizens that contribute to society in a substantive way. We don’t expect teachers to parrot propaganda and enforce mind-numbing sameness a la old Soviet schools. We don’t want teachers to walk on eggshells all the time worrying about what they can and can’t say, but we do expect them to exercise good judgment. We expect them to know the difference between teaching college level critical thinking and helping fourth graders understand that different points of view exist.

By most reports, Ms. DuVall is a decent teacher. My impression is that she needs to use better judgment on what level of cultural challenge is appropriate for the age of students she is assigned to teach. We expect the same of all schoolteachers.