Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Marriage, Demographic Winter, and Immigration

I have recently written separate posts about immigration, marriage, and declining birthrates. Imagine my surprise to see this article by Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School linking all three issues. Glendon’s main focus is immigration. She makes some very salient points, but I must admit to having a strong reaction to some of her suggestions.

Glendon asserts that our declining birthrate is a direct result of the increasing focus on the individual over the past half a century or so. She says that declining birthrates “are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in beliefs and attitudes--a crisis involving changes in the meanings and values that people attribute to aging and mortality, sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, relations among the generations, and life itself.”

The result, Glendon asserts, is one of the largest demographic shifts in history, where “over a mere 20 years, major demographic indicators in the United States and northern Europe rose or fell by a magnitude of 50% or more.” Glendon says that while some social innovations were positive, some have been detrimental.
“For example, the notion gained wide acceptance that behavior in the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no concern to anyone other than the "consenting adults" involved. With the passage of time, however, it has become obvious that the actions of private individuals in the aggregate exert a profound influence on other individuals and on society as a whole. In fact, when enough individuals behave primarily with regard to their own self-fulfillment, the entire culture is transformed. Affluent Western nations have been engaged in a massive social experiment--an experiment that brought new opportunities and liberties to many adults but that has put mothers, children, and dependents generally at considerable risk.”
In other words, Glendon seems to be saying that our focus on individualism has turned into simple selfishness. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the manifold and omnipresent manifestations of self-worship in our society. Glendon says that this focus has weakened family structure and social fabric. “The family breakdown has had ripple effects on all the social structures that traditionally depended on families for their support and that in turn served as resources for families in times of stress from schools, neighborhoods, and religious groups to local governments and workplace associations.”

Another casualty of self-idolization, of course, is the desire to produce offspring. Coupled with increasing life spans, Glendon says, this will inevitably lead to “demographic winter.” She cites the declining number of active workers supporting each retiree, and suggests that this is at the heart of the push to “normalize[e] the extermination of persons who become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life's frail beginnings and endings.”

Glendon’s solution? Immigration. Lot’s of it. I referred to a couple of articles by conservatives (here and here) that also call for dramatically increasing immigration in this post.

But Glendon isn’t happy with our current immigration debate. She rips on both sides of the debate for being willfully myopic. One side ignores the legal factors and the real economic and social costs of immigration, while the other side “ignore[s] both our need for replacement migration and the human situations of the men and women who seek opportunities in the United States.”

Glendon contends, “If the United States is to develop realistic, wise, and humane immigration policies, it will need a much fuller and better-informed public discussion.” She says that due to diversity, our nation has been more bound together by laws than other nations that have a stronger shared tribal culture. So soft pedaling immigration lawbreaking is a non-starter. While she advocates expansive immigration, she admits that it carries significant costs, and says that we all need to be fully aware of those costs. She hints that these costs include Americanizing our immigrants (one of my pet issues). But Glendon says that we also need to be fully aware of the costs of failing to loosen up legal immigration.

Glendon advocates five immigration principles that were outlined in a 2003 letter issued jointly by Mexican and US Catholic bishops. I think the Christian in me could go along with most of these principles, but the sovereign US citizen in me chokes on some of them.
  • Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.

  • When opportunities are not available at home, persons have the right to migrate to find work to support themselves and their families.

  • Sovereign nations have the right to control their boundaries, but economically stronger nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

  • Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars and persecutions should be protected.

  • The human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
Let’s look at each of these principles in order.
  • Number 1 sounds OK.

  • Number 2 sounds compassionate to the individual, but seems to promote bad government in source countries. Doesn’t anyone have a responsibility to build up his/her native country and to work to create opportunity?

  • Number 3 basically says that Mexico and other “poor” nations have a right to control their borders, but the US doesn’t. Hey, what happened to all of that pro-law talk? Again, maybe individually compassionate, but reeking of very bad policy, although; it has been our de-facto immigration policy for the past three decades.

  • Number 4 has long been policy. I don’t see anyone arguing against this.

  • Number 5 sounds fine, but it comes down to the interpretation of the words, “human dignity and rights.” I think the recent immigration protests show that some people have a much more expansive view of those terms than do most Americans. Besides, as I understand it, if I choose to illegally cross the border of another nation, I essentially have the human right to be shot and to die with as much dignity as that situation affords me.
In short, these principles might be acceptable for a religious organization, but are perhaps less than satisfactory as the basis for national policy. They seem quite generous on the rights of migrants and source nations, and awful skimpy on the rights of the receiving nation.

Glendon has some solid reasoning behind her criticisms of current cultural and family issues. She makes a good pitch in favor of legal immigration. She makes a good point about the need to recognize and appreciate all of the factors in the debate. But her proposed solution comes across as overly idealistic fluff that itself ignores important realities, including the matter of law, of which she makes such a strong point earlier in the article.

To be sure, our immigration situation poses some difficult problems that defy simple solutions. I agree with Glendon that we need clear debate that considers all of the factors involved in this issue. I like Glendon’s suggestion that we should have a set of principles to help guide the debate. But her suggested principles are woefully inadequate.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Protecting Traditional Monogamy = Protecting Democracy

Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a strong advocate of traditional marriage, argues here that monogamous marriage is the only social family structure that truly supports democratic societies. Kurtz drills down on this issue in great detail to support his contention that polygamy, polyamory, and other non-monogamous and non-heterosexual relationships inherently directly conflict with the principles of democracy.

Kurtz spends significant time defending the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1878 Reynolds decision that outlawed polygamy in the U.S. and that was aimed specifically at the Mormon practice of polygamy. “Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one's partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that's not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive.”

Kurtz studies and discusses the current practice of polygamy in the Middle East, Africa, and Western Europe. But he studies the 19th Century practice of Polygamy by Mormons in greater detail. Kurtz acknowledges that some of the problems inherent in polygamy are no worse than some of the problems inherent in monogamy. But he says that polygamy only works well in highly structured societal situations with many rules and a high degree of (ostensibly patriarchal) control, where people subscribe to a group identity and individual desires are largely subordinated to the needs of the group. Modern monogamous marriage, on the other hand, survives on love freely given. Kurtz argues that monogamy is, therefore, the family structure that is most compatible with principles of democracy, where responsibility is accepted and duty is freely rendered.

Unlike some polygamy critics, Kurtz does not argue that polygamy is inherently dysfunctional. Polygamous relationships can be quite stable, although; Kurtz notes that divorce rates were high among 19th Century Mormons practicing polygamy. Kurtz is simply saying that polygamy cannot coexist well with democratic principles. He thinks Brigham Young would agree with him. Indeed, Mormon scholar Richard Lyman Bushman discusses in his book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling how LDS Church founder Joseph Smith taught that a theocratic society with a patriarchal order was the order of heavenly government, and that it should be sought after on earth.

Kurtz agrees with Mormon apologists that have contended that the American campaign against Mormon polygamy was primarily meant to overthrow Mormon theocratic government and to implement American democratic republicanism. Of course, Brigham Young and his followers thought they were leaving the United States when they fled to what is now Utah, hoping that they would be free to practice religion and government as they wished. By the time they arrived in Utah, however, the territory had become part of the US. Once this development was realized, the church steadily appealed to libertarian sentiments to allow them to practice their religion as they wished.

Americans tried to break up the Mormon theocratic government by sending the railroad and by giving women the right to vote, but these measures were insufficient. They finally had to resort to extreme measures, which Kurtz likens to the War on Terror, to break the social and economic structures that allowed the theocracy to continue. While the war on Mormon theocracy was ongoing, there was a certain degree of sympathy throughout the nation for the Mormons’ plight. However, popular sentiment focused on the Western taboo against polygamy, thereby, allowing the campaign to go forward. Some have, therefore, argued that polygamy was merely a red herring used to stir sentiment to support a different issue. But Kurtz argues that polygamy was central to the issue because polygamy was the main structure that prevented Utah’s assimilation into American democratic society.

It was only after the church’s hold on political and economic power was shattered that democracy could flourish among Mormons and Utah was allowed to become a state. The church began the process of becoming an outsider looking in on public government rather than being in charge of it. While vestiges of polygamy continued for a while in the mainstream LDS Church, and splinter groups no longer affiliated with the church continue to practice polygamy today, the mainstream LDS Church has become an ardent supporter of monogamous marriage.

The church has usually kept its distance from other religions, but it recently joined with a number of others religious leaders to support amending the US Constitution to define marriage in the US as only the legal union of one man and one woman (see here). The church rarely makes political statements beyond its annual admonition to members to be politically active, but most congregations in the US had a letter read to them from the pulpit this past Sunday urging members to contact their senators regarding the scheduled June 6 vote on the amendment (see letter).

Weekly Standard editor, Fred Barnes, says here that the amendment will not pass by the 2/3rd margin required, although, it might pick up as many as 58 votes. Even if it did pick up that many votes, it would still be nine votes shy of the needed margin. Barnes notes that not many GOP leaders really want to deal with this issue. In the past legislators could contend to be conservative and yet vote against the amendment by arguing (as does John McCain) that it should be handled by the states. But with the number of legal rulings showing that courts are willing to treat state marriage protection laws lightly, this position is no longer realistic. 37 states now have some kind of law protecting marriage. Where rank and file voters have voted, those laws have passed by large margins, even in liberal strongholds.

While Barnes does not see the amendment passing this year, he thinks it is going to play a huge role in the next presidential election. Barnes thinks the issue has reached the same level with Republicans that defending abortion rights is with Democrats. It has become a litmus test for candidates for national office. Barnes sees John McCain as highly vulnerable on this issue. He doesn’t think it matters that polls show McCain as the Republican front runner today.

One might argue that making the amendment a litmus test might marginalize Republicans, much as Democrats have limited their appeal by their religious pro-abortion zeal. But unlike abortion rights, marriage protection has broad appeal among voters of all ages and stripes. I don’t see Republicans paying the same price for supporting the amendment that Democrats pay for supporting abortion.

Will the amendment ever pass? Who knows? If it does someday pass both houses of Congress by 2/3 majorities, 37 state legislatures would have to approve it. Those legislatures might have felt comfortable approving a state law, but would they feel that same level of comfort when considering whether to amend the US Constitution? If it were left to the public, it seems pretty clear that the amendment would be upheld. However, we have a representative democracy that is intended to balance the desires of both minorities and majorities, so it’s hard to say what will eventually happen.

Utah's 3rd Congressional District May Determine National Immigration Policy on June 27

As strange as it may seem to those of us living in Utah, most Americans don’t have much of an opinion about Utah at all, except that it’s one of those big, sort of squarish states in the west. So it can only seem more than a little weird to most Americans that the fate of our nation’s immigration policy rests in the hands of voters in Utah’s 3rd congressional district, which many assume is sparsely populated by a handful of hicks.

As WSJ editorial columnist John Fund explains here, Utah’s June 27 primary election coincides with the conference committee meetings that will try to reconcile the radically different U.S. Senate and House immigration bills. Utah’s 3rd district Congressman, Chris Cannon, has been taking certain political risks with his rather pro-immigration stance. Cannon has repeatedly come across as not only pro-immigration, but very lax on illegal immigration.

The trouble is that the 3rd district is, per John Fund’s assessment, “the country's most conservative congressional district.” Cannon has been aware that his stance on immigration has riled some of his constituents, but he was probably caught a little off guard by the level and intensity of this sentiment at the state Republican convention earlier this month, where Cannon ended up being forced into a primary, coming in second behind challenger John Jacob by a couple of percentage points (see here).

The House’s immigration bill is pretty much all enforcement, while the Senate’s immigration bill is pretty much all amnesty. That’s a tremendous oversimplification of the matter. As I read it, the House is generally not opposed to more open immigration (although some representatives definitely are opposed to it), but there is a very strong sentiment that enforcement must come first. Many feel that proper immigration policy cannot happen until we fix our porous southern border. While visiting Utah earlier this month, Senator John McCain (though not a member of the House) captured this sentiment when he likened our illegal immigration problem to a bathtub overflowing. He said that when your bathtub overflows you first turn off the water before you try to clean up the mess.

It’s obvious that many senators don’t agree with Senator McCain on the nature of the threat posed by illegal immigration or on the methodology for cleaning it up. The Senate bill largely seeks to confer legal status on immigrants in our country illegally, and to provide a continued flow of low-wage workers for American businesses. The bill includes just enough enforcement provisions to snare enough conservative-leaning senators for passage. Senator Bob Bennett voted for the bill, while Senator Orrin Hatch voted against the bill. Note that Hatch is up for election this year, while Bennett has four years to go and my not run for a fourth term. Nobody really believes that the enforcement provisions of the Senate bill will end up being implemented in any meaningful way, and many are just fine with that.

Neither the House nor Senate bills adequately provide remedies for the cumbersome nature of our current legal immigration system. Neither bill addresses my primary concern with assimilating immigrants, making them Americans in their hearts.

Back to the original issue: why is Utah’s 3rd congressional district the tail wagging the dog on national immigration policy? House Republicans are looking to this race as a bellwether for immigration policy sentiment among the GOP conservative base nationwide. All House seats are up for election this year. Cannon is an entrenched Republican member of the House. There is little fear that he could lose in November, but there is real fear that he could lose in June. If that happens, representatives in a number of congressional districts will suddenly see the prospect of their own political demise. House Republicans would see Cannon's fall as an incursion into what they previously thought was unassailable “Incumbistan” (hat tip Mark Steyn).

The Republican leadership in the House already fears that the loss of a few key seats could cost them control of that chamber of Congress this fall. They already know that a significant chunk of their base is upset with them for accomplishing little more than increasing the national debt. They are walking on eggshells in an attempt to avoid upsetting the folks that could punish them the most in November. So, if Cannon goes down in flames over this one issue, watch for House Republicans to circle the wagons and hold the line against lax immigration policy in the conference committee meetings.

House Republicans are over a barrel on this issue. They know that their trust level among voters is low and that “it is vital that Republicans pass some immigration bill this year to prove they can govern.” Senators also sense this need, but since they represent larger populations, they are not quite as vulnerable on the issue as are House representatives in certain key districts. The House needs a bill this year more than the Senate does, although, both chambers are heavily invested. If the house digs in its spurs in the conference committee, some senators may be willing to walk away from immigration reform this year. The House can’t let that happen, but since they fear conservative backlash they also can’t let something pass that appears lax on illegal immigration. It’s a difficult position.

There is no guarantee that Cannon is down the tube next month. It is difficult to gauge the level of enthusiasm for John Jacob. From a politician’s point of view, any support in your favor is good, but support for you simply as a default outlet for opposition to your opponent is fickle and less secure than enthusiastic support for you and your policies. Winning among convention delegates that are very politically active tends to be much easier than winning a primary election.

The late June election date weeds out many voters due to summer apathy. People are busy with other things and are not thinking about elections. The date gives candidates more time to prepare for November, but it’s not good for election turnout. While the 3rd district is one of the most Republican districts in the nation, it’s difficult to know how many registered voters will turn out to vote and how many of them are energized on the immigration issue. Outside of this issue, the average 3rd district Republican voter (non-political junkie) would be hard pressed to give you any concrete reason for not supporting their sitting Congressman. Many people will consider themselves insufficiently informed to vote on the matter. Many will vote for the devil they know rather than take a chance on something unfamiliar.

The House Republican leadership understands how difficult primary elections of this nature are to predict, and that’s why they’re biting their nails. They’re not worried about the district remaining Republican. But they are concerned that the demise of an incumbent, given all of the systems that have been put in place to protect incumbents, will signal that enough GOP incumbents in other districts are at risk over the immigration issue as to cause them to question their ability to retain control of the House in November. Maybe these guys should have been thinking about this over the past couple of years as they have repeatedly blown it on legislation important to conservatives.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Get a Cash Bonus for Breaking the Law

It appears we’re finally on our way to Social Security reform. Only it’s not the kind of reform I was hoping for. It seems that the Senate’s immigration bill (as of last Thursday) now includes a provision for “illegal aliens to collect Social Security benefits based on past illegal employment.” (Washington Times article, also John O'Sullivan gives a blow-by-blow of the Senate bill here -- and it's not pretty.)

Hmmm. We’ve got a social program that is on its way to bankruptcy, and the way to fix it is to award benefits to another 12 million people that have illegally paid only small amounts into the system? I guess you have to spend lots of time inside the D.C. beltway to understand this type of logic.

(Although, this article and this article claim that we need tens of millions of immigrants (presumably legal) over the next couple of decades to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent, keep our economy thriving, and strengthen our nation’s social fabric.)

Columnist Mark Steyn isn’t happy about this either. (Chicago Sun Times article) He seems exasperated with the offer of amnesty while politicians (including the President) jump all over themselves to proclaim that it’s not amnesty. But, given the Social Security kicker, Steyn in the end admits that they’re right.
“Technically, an "amnesty" only involves pardoning a person for a crime rather than, as this moderate compromise legislation does, pardoning him for a crime and also giving him a cash bonus for committing it. In fact, having skimmed my Webster's, I can't seem to find a word that does cover what the Senate is proposing, it having never previously occurred to any other society in the course of human history.”
Steyn pins part of the illegal immigrant problem on overregulation of U.S. business that has created an environment where employing illegals has become profitable for some business segments. As a result, he says, “In essence, a chunk of the American economy has seceded from the Union.”

Steyn is quite opposed to any kind of guest worker program. He notes problems with these kinds of programs around the globe, including the whirlwind that Europe is currently reaping by “sow[ing] the seeds of massive social upheaval for the most short-sighted of reasons.”
“[A] "worker class" drawn overwhelmingly from a neighboring jurisdiction with another language and ancient claims on your territory and whose people now send so much money back home in the form of "remittances" that it's Mexico's largest source of foreign income (bigger than oil or tourism) is not "immigration" at all, but a vast experiment in societal transformation. Indeed, given the international track record of bilingual societies and neighboring jurisdictions with territorial claims, it's not much of an experiment so much as a safe bet on political instability.”
On the other hand, our current Fed chief, Ben Bernanke gave a speech a couple of years ago touting remittances by our (legal or otherwise) guest workers as one of the most effective forms of foreign aid. But William F. Buckley, Jr. takes issue with these remittances here, noting that they prevent “... better housing, better education, and moves to places where work opportunities are greater.” Buckley also warns of these immigrants becoming the next cause celeb for promoters of affirmative action.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editors are disgusted with conservative nativist restrictionists. They note here that conservative saint Ronald Reagan was very pro-immigration, and that he enthusiastically signed a bill in 1986 granting amnesty to millions of illegals then in the country. The editors say, “…we feel confident in asserting that Mr. Bush and those who support more open immigration are far closer to Reagan's views than today's restrictionists are.”

I have stated before (here) that we need an effective immigration system that turns immigrants into Americans in their hearts. I’m not anti-immigration. I’m for reasonable immigration policy. I’m just not sure that giving Social Security handouts to illegals is the way to achieve this.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Can You Fuel Your Car With Water?

Wouldn’t it be great to run our cars, airplanes, trains, trucks, and industry on a fuel source that is cheap, plentiful, clean, and renewable? That appears to be the claim made in this video clip, which comes from a broadcast earlier this month by Fox News’ Houston affiliate. You have probably already seen the clip, as it has proliferated via the email circuit.

The clip features Denny Klein and his company, Hydrogen Technology Applications, Inc. Klein is shown with his 1994 Ford Escort that runs either on gasoline or something he calls “HHO gas,” which is derived from common water. Part of the segment has Klein saying, “On a 100 mile trip, we use about four ounces of water.”

The report gives the impression that Klein can perform miracles, by pouring common tap water into a car to make its engine run. But if you watch the clip carefully, you will discover that this is not actually what is being said. The news people have pulled a little stage magic, making you think one thing while actually saying something else.

If you go to Klein’s website, you will discover that he is not marketing a car that runs on water, nor a conversion kit to make your car run on water (a scam that pops up every few years like clockwork). He is marketing an electrolysis device that he claims turns water (H2O) into a hydrogenised gas that he calls HHO, or Klein’s gas. Other promoters have called it Brown’s gas or brown gas. The claim is that the process “…separates the water into hydrogen and oxygen and then recombines them into a new mixture of stoichometric (or perfect) proportion,” which does not explode, but implodes. Another promoter claims to be able to do something similar with waste liquids here. (There are more links than you’d care to look at PESWiki.)

The news segment does not actually claim that Klein’s car runs on water any more than your car runs on crude oil. It claims that Klein’s car is a duel-fuel vehicle that runs on either gasoline or HHO gas, much as duel-fuel propane-gasoline cars have been around for decades. Nor does it claim that Klein is actually converting water to HHO gas in the vehicle itself. They conveniently gloss over that what Klein is claiming is that he puts HHO gas that has been converted from water into an onboard tank (I guess it’s something like a propane cylinder) that feeds to the engine. So there’s already less magic here than you thought at first blanch.

So the question is whether this hydrogenation process actually creates a stable gas that burns clean. It is deucedly difficult to find any real scientific information about this process. Apparently jeweler and welding torches that work on this basis have been available for years (see here). Many commentators are saying that this HHO gas thing is nothing new, but that it’s not viable as an alternative fuel for most applications, including vehicles.

WND News quotes several individuals here that claim, among other things, that gasses of this nature are difficult to store and compress, that they cannot be temporarily stored efficiently, and that the water-to-HHO conversion process consumes massive amounts of energy in relation to the energy produced. Meanwhile, some promoters claim that the process can generate “2,000 liters of gas using about 8 kwh of electricity.”

Clearly, there are many skeptics and the onus is on Klein and his company to demonstrate that they have overcome the problems of stability, storage, safety, and efficiency. One commentator said that if the process were efficient (that it produces at least as much energy as it consumes), “you could plug [the conversion machine] into itself and have yourself a perpetual motion machine.” He makes a point. And even if this works for one car, what will it take to achieve broad-based implementation?

Over the weekend, some of my kids were watching Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. A character named Doc Terminus is a colorful traditional snake oil salesman. (Incidentally, wonderfully played by Jim Dale who narrates the audio versions of the Harry Potter books.) I sensed a lot of similarities between Doc Terminus' sales show and the Fox News segment on Denny Klein. Call me one of the skeptics.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Is Bush Disaffected With His Base?

A couple of weeks ago I opined here about the reasons conservatives are increasingly disaffected with President Bush. Peggy Noonan takes a different tack on this issue here. The first half of Noonan’s article is an analysis of the President’s immigration speech, which I wrote about here. Noonan spent part of her career as a speechwriter for President Reagan, so she comes at this issue from that unique angle.

Although Noonan’s critique of the President’s speech has merit, it was this comment that I found especially interesting: “I continue to believe the administration's problem is not that the base lately doesn't like it, but that the White House has decided it actually doesn't like the base.”

In effect, Noonan is arguing that the President and his advisors have grown tired of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and are pretty much willing to jettison conservative support. After postulating that the President might be casting himself on his own sword to save the GOP or else simply suffering an elitist disconnection with reality, she says of the President dumping his own base, “That's a worse problem. It's hard to fire a base. Hard to get a new one.”

Lifelong Democrat Hans Moleman, on the other hand, has an article drawing comparisons between Harry Truman and President Bush. He compares Truman’s Korean War with Bush’s Iraq War and notes similarities in polling trends. He seems to be suggesting that, like Truman, Bush is sacrificing himself for what he truly believes to be in the best interest of the country and of the people in whose country we are fighting.

Moleman merely suggests that this might be the case. He does not come across as an ardent Bush defender. He concludes, “Despite the endless shelves of books devoted to professional hatred of George W. Bush, the ultimate history books are yet to be written. You never know what they might say. History gets the last laugh.”

While I’m sure that many people (especially the folks that froth at the mouth at the mere mention of Bush) think they already know what history will say about W, none of us really know at this point.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What Is the Cause of Our Declining Birthrate?

Earlier this year I wrote here about Mark Steyn’s landmark article about Europe’s baby bust. I was reminded of this when I read Mormon Wasp’s post about declining birthrates among members of the LDS Church. It seems that LDS women still have more children than the broader culture, but the LDS birthrate has declined at approximately the same rate as the broader culture as well.

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame and Donald Sensing have both written articles (here and here respectively) exploring the reasons behind the declining birthrate. They are attempting to look beyond the symptoms. Here is a (combined) list of what they (and some of their readers) suggest are the reasons behind our declining birthrate:

  • Movement of people from rural to urban settings, where children offer no economic benefit.

  • Economic structure “based on human capital that created by parents” offers proportionately greater benefits to those that avoid having children.

  • Society pressures us to provide a lot more stuff, entertainment, and opportunities for children than in the past.

  • “We've taken a lot of the fun out of parenting. …the "social costs" of parenting continue to rise, and, more significantly, perhaps, the "social returns" continue to decline.”

  • Policies promoted by parenting “experts” and “safety-fascist types” that both decrease benefits while increasing costs of raising children.

  • “[T]he pressure to take children for a seemingly endless array of after-school activities…”

  • Increased “amount of parental responsibility for things their children do wrong …”

  • “[S]teady legal diminution of parental authority …”

  • “[S]chools, anxious for parental "involvement," place far more demands on parents than [in the past].”

  • “[T]he decline in parental prestige over generations.”

  • Reynolds contends that today there are actual social penalties for being a parent. “This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them.”

  • “[M]ost adults have been brainwashed over the last forty years or so to think that the world is badly overpopulated and human beings are a blight upon the planet.”

  • “[T]he feminist movement has continuously and often rabidly devalued mothering as something successful women do.”

  • “The social pressure on young women to “succeed” at something before having children - even before getting married at all - is huge.”

  • Marriage age has increased.

  • Unmarried rate has increased.

  • Women begin bearing children much later in life than they used to, limiting the total number of children they can bear.

  • Due to the “sexual revolution,” men no longer find that marriage is the only sure way to ensure sex.

  • One poster on Donald Sensing’s site claims that the middle class has always limited family size, so he attributes the declining birthrate to the expansion of the middle class.

  • Several posters on Sensing’s site claim that the desire to bear children is strongly impacted by the weakened institution of marriage.

  • One of Sensing’s respondents claims the whole problem is due to Baby Boomer narcissism.

  • Movement from extended family living together to only nuclear family arrangements.

I know that my kids are far busier and have far more demands on them than my siblings and I did when we were kids. And I know that we were far busier and had far more demands on us than my parents did when they were kids. My life would be incomplete without each of my five children, yet I have often reflected on how much greater of a burden society places on parents for their children than was the case a generation ago.

Reynolds concludes, “…we need to look beyond subsidies and finances to culture. … [We] should look at ways of making parenting more rewarding, and less burdensome, in social as well as economic terms.” Adam Greenwood disagrees (here) with Reynolds' assertion that government can't help. He feels that government policy not only can help, but he asserts that employing public policy agrees with LDS doctrine outlined in the final paragraph of the Family Proclamation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Conservatives Growl About the President's Immigration Plan

President Bush finally outlined a coherent vision for immigration reform in a speech last night that was broadcast nationwide. The President acknowledged that our current immigration system is broken. He outlined five elements of his plan to fix it:
  • “[T]he United States must secure its borders.”

  • “[W]e must create a temporary worker program.”

  • “[W]e need to hold employers to account for the workers they hire.”

  • We must provide a meaningful path to citizenship for “illegal immigrants who have roots in our country…”

  • “[W]e must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one Nation out of many peoples.”
The President gave a few details about each of these points, asked for civility and reason in the immigration debate, and called on Congress to pass legislation (this month) to enable his goals to be realized. The first four bullet points are understandable, but the fifth point is a bit fuzzy. What the President had to say about that point would be hard to disagree with:
“The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society, and embrace our common identity as Americans. Americans are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly, and an ability to speak and write the English language. English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America. English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery … from cleaning offices to running offices … from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams ... they renew our spirit ... and they add to the unity of America.”
As Victor Davis Hanson said, “The president's comprehensive proposals include something for everyone.” That is, the plan seems to address concerns by people on all sides of the issue. But many conservatives are less than happy with the plan (see here, here, here and here). These people are not simply unhappy with the plan; they’re ticked off at George W. Bush. They don’t hate Bush viscerally like the angry Left, but they are sorely disappointed. Check out phrases like:
  • “President Bush has a huge disadvantage when talking about immigration reform: He is not credible.” –George Borjas

  • “The proposal has no teeth... There is nothing in it to force compliance or to penalize non-compliance.” –Bob Lonsberry

  • “Mr. Bush’s primetime televised speech Monday night amounted to more empty words.” –James R. Edwards, Jr.

  • “The president’s insistence on a “comprehensive” approach was code for "let’s water down anything by way of serious enforcement."” –James G. Gimpel

  • “[G]uest-workers will only perpetuate the problem by supplying a continual unassimilated, low-paid, and ultimately volatile underclass.” –Victor Davis Hanson
    · “Under the president’s plan, the more flagrantly you’ve broken the law, the bigger your reward.” –Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ)

  • “[T]he Bush team thinks that the American public will not be so quick to see through the bait-and-switch bromides.” –Heather Mac Donald

  • “I'm confused as to how the President can one day confidently call for ending tyranny in the world, and the next day say it is unrealistic to catch and deport those who have come to this country uninvited - some of whom are gang members and criminals.” –Tom Kilgannon

  • “President Bush has a bold new approach to immigration enforcement: He wants to police the Mexican border with symbolism.” –Rich Lowry
I suspect that if the President intended to shore up faltering conservative support, he only succeeded in further alienation. Of course, the President has a much broader constituency than strong conservatives. And not all conservatives are on the side of austere immigration policy. Indeed, many religious conservatives either have mixed emotions about immigration or favor open borders. (David Klinghoffer tries to win these people over by arguing here that the biblical precedent for naturalization of immigrants requires “serious, challenging, and difficult preconditions.”)

So, was the President merely pandering to conservatives last night? Was his speech mere political posturing? Or was it more insidious? Was he, as some on the Left argue (and some on the Right agree), simply purveying an evil plan to destroy our country (either by design or witlessness)? Or was he actually trying to do what he honestly thinks is best for the country?

I think the latter case is probably more likely. The President was putting forth a plan that he actually thinks is best for the country and is also politically viable. Of course, being a politician, he had to mix in some pandering and posturing for good measure.

Let’s look at the evidence. As governor of Texas, Bush had to deal with illegal immigration issues all of the time. He came to office intending to make immigration reform one of the legacies of his presidency. His administration started working this issue early in his presidency, but Bush’s plan was sidetracked by 9/11 and its subsequent repercussions. Now Bush is getting back to his original plan.

The President clearly doesn’t buy the standard conservative hard line on immigration. He doesn’t think it’s best for the country, but he realizes that he needs some support from conservatives, so he has thrown them a few bones. But they’re not blind to what is happening, and they’re not satisfied with dry bones, so they’re upset.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, not just with regard to immediate legislation, but also over the next couple of decades. Former Bush advisor Lawrence B. Lindsey (who is also father to three immigrants) worries here that we will miss our generational chance to get immigration right, since the issue seems to come up about once every 20 years. If you read Lindsey’s article, you might be interested to contemplate Andrew Natsios’ concern here that our embassies are becoming impenetrable fortresses that keep potential good immigrants out.

Lindsey notes that the INS is currently too understaffed and under funded to deal with our present legal immigrant load of less than 1 million people annually. The idea that we could additionally process 12 million people with our current apparatus is ludicrous. Lindsey worries that current legislation does nothing to address the service’s shortfalls. Massive expansion of the agency would be required, but that would create a whole new set of bureaucratic problems that would mean that it probably wouldn’t be ready to fully operate for half a decade or more.

I think the President is right to put the immigration issue on the table, even if it turns out differently than he hopes. The opportunity to even deal with this issue is only made possible by the fact that we have an upcoming election. Everyone clamors for the process to be free of “exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain.” –President Bush. But I think we all realize that the process is inherently political and will not escape standard political tactics.

I simply hope that the result will be something that will really work for the country. What we have today is a joke.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Our Superiority Complex

The concept of the nation-state has been in flux throughout history. It is really only since WWII that the entire globe has pretty much become divided into what we think of today as nation-states, which have defined geographic borders and centralized governmental control. Exceptions certainly exist, but they are considered violations of the norm. The United Nations was formed to provide a formalized venue for nation-states to interact with each other on a broad basis.

A nation-state is more than simply a geographic area. Various lists of common elements that define a nation-state frequently include common culture, common language, common mythos, etc. But every such list I have seen carries at least one element that is not universally applicable. I think it would not be terribly inaccurate to say that modern nation-states each have a defined geographic area and a belief in the nation by enough people to enforce its recognition. By this definition, nation-states have been around for a long time. But they have not always been the norm. Only when they became more general were institutions formed to aid with inter-national interaction.

I was born into a world of nation-states, so history sometimes seemed strange to me when it discussed instances where this concept was not common. It took me years to understand cities and regions that regularly shifted alliances, small localities that acted like semi-autonomous nations, and nomadic groups that were not tied to a particular chunk of real estate.

WWII showed the world that nationalism could be extremely evil, but the war paradoxically also strengthened the institution of the nation-state. Many nation-states developed in answer to the demise of European colonialism. But the evil of nationalistic fascism sewed the seeds of eventual weakening of the nation-state.

Feeling Guilty
Shelby Steele contends here that the demise of the once-widely-accepted thesis of white supremacy has so shocked Western culture that mostly-Caucasian nations equivocate about anything that could remotely be construed as appearing to demonstrate white supremacy. Everyone now recognizes the stunning immorality of racial supremacy, and the cultural heirs of those that once perpetrated it now act in everlasting penance for the sins of their fathers.

Mr. Steele argues that this self-flagellation prevents the U.S. from implementing a coherent immigration policy along its southern border, while having no problems creating an endless nightmare for Western European immigrants. He says that it prevents the West from effectively engaging in any military action with any less-white nation, for fear of appearing too superior.

I think Mr. Steele makes an interesting point. But I also think his theory could be extended to just about any cultural morĂ© that suggests superiority, justifiable or not. Let’s just call it superiority guilt. While there were dissenters in the U.S. during WWII, the country largely banded together in one long, glorious push of nationalism. We intended to be decisive, and we were. We made mistakes, oh so many costly mistakes, but these were all seen in the context of achieving a greater good. There was nothing we could not accomplish.

But the ugliness of the nationalism we saw in Germany and Italy gave us pause. Later, as we fought the Cold War, we saw the awfulness of imposed nationalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Privacy did not exist. Personal expression was not permitted. Only after the Soviet breakup and the re-emergence of Eastern Europe did we discover how horrid it all was.

Beating Ourselves Up
We have become so determined not to repeat the mistakes of nationalism gone awry that there has been a great anti-nationalism push. The idea is that nationalism of any kind is bad. And patriotism is considered part and parcel of nationalism, so it’s on the outs as well. Oh sure, there was a wild flare-up of nationalism and patriotism in the wake of 9/11, but that has all pretty much subsided, leaving us feeling somewhat vulnerable.

We know we need security, but we constantly shudder about the least thing that could in any way make our nation look remotely repressive to individual expression or disrespectful of personal privacy. So we now tolerate and celebrate the outlandish and the abnormal. Also, as Mark Steyn notes here, we demand better intelligence and allow invasive searches of airline passengers so that we don’t have another 9/11, but we schizophrenically rage about government computers looking at our phone bills cleansed of personal data.

If we were to fight WWII given our current culture, we would not win. Victor Davis Hanson notes here that we didn’t quibble much about the mistakes made in WWII that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. But now our daily dosage of self-humiliation about Iraq prevents us from pursuing a decisive course there. This ethos is evident in everything we do, including the leaders we elect.

Good Nationalism
When I was in 7th grade toward the end of the Vietnam War, my junior high school faculty became very concerned about the students’ apparent lack of adequate patriotism. They worked with a National Guard company to provide us a three-day experience living in the military totalitarian State of Triangula. The military took control of the school one morning. The commander issued a new set of rules that included imposed order, no talking whatsoever without direct permission, and no displays of American patriotism. All American Flags were replaced with State of Triangula flags.

You might call this tactic highly manipulative, but it had the desired effect. By the end of the third day many of us had become rebels. I was sentenced to hard labor in the library for a display of patriotism. Students smuggled American Flags into the school and secretly organized Pledge of Allegiance ceremonies. At the close of the third day, “U.S.” military troops came and retook control of the school and put the faculty back in charge. The soldiers hauled the Triangulite troops away while the student body cheered loudly. We were proud to be Americans that day.

The interesting thing is that I later discovered that the whole exercise had been designed by one of the teachers as part of her doctoral thesis. She later became a professor of anthropology. I had always considered her quite liberal and assumed she was anti-war, but it turned out that she wanted her students to be as proud of her country as she was.

Today it’s still easy to find people that are proud to be Americans, but a significant number of our citizens either do not feel this way, or only feel it in a sort of lukewarm way. Many feel guilty that we have so much compared with other nations. It seems we are obsessed with pointing out our nation’s flaws and with emphasizing anything we perceive that another nation might do better than us. I do not deny the flaws and the need to address them, but some of us look at a handful of bugs on the tree and see only bugs but no tree. Many of us are so overcome with superiority guilt that we can’t even stomach the idea of borders or national sovereignty. It’s not just the U.S.; Europe has gone so far as to create the European Union, which is meant to engulf its various nation members.

Toward One World
Is the nation-state on the decline? Has it hit the high point in its life cycle? Indeed, many would welcome its demise. They see a new border-free world community where all have equal opportunities. That’s a wonderful utopian idea. But how should it be pursued? One idea is to slowly dissolve borders, allowing cultures to blend. Some people behind this theory promote diversity as perhaps the highest virtue. However, this method seems to require the dilution of principles that give America its strength, and there are no examples I know of where unilaterally dissolving borders has worked well, so that the chances of achieving the desired utopian result are highly dubious.

Another theory is to demonstrate leadership and export to fundamentals of American ideals around the globe in any possible degree to any nation willing to accept and adopt them. Promoters of this theory suggest that reality dictates that while utopia is unlikely to ever be achieved, many elements of it can make life better for people around the globe. Of course, this theory requires the acceptance of American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. is actually superior to other nations in many ways. While this idea seems to be increasingly abhorrent to some Americans, many people around the world recognize it as fact, even if they are jealous of the U.S for it.

Of course there are other theories as well (including the theory of shoving our ideals down others’ throats), but that’s all I’ve got time for today.

What Should We Do?
In reality, even the most unabashed America-haters recognize American exceptionalism, even if they couch it in unflattering phrases. The question, I suppose, is should we feel guilty about it? Should we feel guilty that the U.S. offers the most freedom, peace, and opportunity of any country on the planet? Will that guilt help bring these virtues to others? And regardless of whether we feel guilty about it or not, how can we help those less fortunate receive the blessings we’ve got? I suspect the answer to that has little to do with beating up on ourselves or with relinquishing our sovereignty.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Note to Utah: Forget the Fourth House Seat for Now

I have never been a fan of the plan to give Utah a fourth seat in the House of Representatives in exchange for giving Washington, D.C. an actual voting seat in the House. This issue has reared its head before, sometimes with support from Utah’s politicians, and it’s back once again per this Washington Post article (hat tip: Utah Policy Daily).

Here’s the deal. The Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires seats in the House of Representatives to be apportioned according to population. The apportionment is reallocated every 10 years according to census numbers. The number of seats fluctuated until the Apportionment Act of 1911 set the total number of seats at 435. (This number was temporarily changed to 437 from 1959-1963.)

This means that every time we get new census numbers some readjustment takes place, with some states losing seats and some states gaining seats, depending on population shifts. Given that understanding, it is easy to see why census methodology is such a hot topic in Congress. States stand to lose or gain seats depending on methods used.

Following the 2000 Census, Utah was hoping to pick up a fourth seat in the House, but North Carolina edged Utah out by 856 people. Utah filed suit, claiming that the Census Bureau’s numbers were unfair, citing the fact that it counted North Carolina’s military members serving abroad while failing to count Mormon missionaries temporarily living outside of Utah. When that suit failed, Utah filed a second suit claiming that census takers in North Carolina had erroneously used statistical sampling methods. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Utah (see here).

Utah has had a craw in its jaw about its lost congressional seat ever since the whole 2000 Census imbroglio. Moreover, others in Congress have openly recognized the perception of injustice. It just seems so frightfully unfair to come so close, but then to fail due to a close call by the referees. But just as victimology ill suits anybody—indeed it is a nasty self-destructive attitude—it is a poor fit for Utahns, who tend to pride themselves on hardiness and self-sufficiency.

On the other side of the coin, the Constitution allows for representatives to be elected to Congress “by the People of the several States…” You get that? Only states. But why should U.S. citizens in Washington, D.C. and in the various U.S. territories be denied representation in Congress by accident of where they live? How incredibly unfair is that?

Well, the answer is that they do get to elect representatives, because Congress long ago recognized this disparity. But the problem is that those representatives have no real voting power. But this injustice has largely been a problem only for Democrats, because the district and the territories always vote for Democrats, so Republicans haven’t been very sympathetic. Let’s face it; national politics is all about power, so why would anyone in Washington, D.C. volunteer to relinquish power?

When Utah lost its bid for a fourth House seat, the Republicans felt the sting, because Utah is fairly reliable at sending Republicans to Congress, and when it doesn’t, it sends Democrats that vote like Republicans. So a fourth seat for Utah would most likely have meant an additional Republican seat.

With both sides sensing injustice, the time seemed right for a compromise. Here’s the plan: expand the number of seats in the House to 437 permanently, let Utah get its fourth seat, and let D.C. have its own actual voting member instead of a mere figurehead. Now doesn’t that sound like a fair plan? It intends to create fairness, but the deal is riddled with problems.

First, the plan is unconstitutional. The Constitution allows only states to have real voting representatives in Congress. It seems unfair to districts and territories, but it’s the law. No doubt the constitutionality of the seat deal would ultimately be challenged. Republicans might feel somewhat secure about this, because Utah would probably keep its seat while Washington, D.C. probably wouldn’t.

Past efforts to circumvent the Constitution have proven to carry unfortunate consequences. If our Constitution is unfair, let’s amend it through the appropriate avenues. Otherwise, let’s live with it. If the states-only provision is so horribly unfair, why has no serious effort been mounted to amend the Constitution to fix it?

My second problem with the deal is that it would require Utah’s fourth seat to be a statewide position rather than being assigned to a geographic division of Utah. Do we really want the equivalent of a third senator? Splitting Utah into four districts would allow citizens to have better representation. It would allow representatives to better focus on the needs of their individual districts. That is the purpose of the House. Do we want one representative that has overlapping representative responsibilities with three others?

We elect senators by statewide election because they are meant to represent the interests of the state equally with the other 49 states. Senators have to cover far more constituents than House members, so they have to diffuse their efforts and message. Doing this in both the House and the Senate partially defeats the purposes of the Founders to allow for more personal representation as well as representation of the state as a whole. I’m not going to get into the issue of gerrymandering districts here. That will have to wait for another day.

My third problem with the deal is that it’s a permanent fix to a temporary problem. In 2010 there will be another census. No one doubts that Utah will accordingly get its fourth House seat in the 2012 election, just six years from now. And Utah will then get to determine for itself how it should be represented, rather than having this determined by some cabal back east.

Yet another problem with the deal is that it would help only Washington, D.C., and it would only do a halfway job of that. Why does the District merit representation in the House, but not in the Senate? Why do Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and other territories not merit similar representation? Once again, if this is a flaw in our Constitution, let’s fix it the right way rather than doing something that in reality is only symbolic.

The Republicans in Congress that are pushing the plan have no clear sense of whether it will ultimately succeed. Unlike past efforts, House leadership has not come out in open opposition to it. I seriously hope that the bill fails and that it fails so miserably that no one will dare bring it up again. I wish this, not because I believe that some citizens are unworthy of congressional representation, but because I think the deal would actually be a raw deal for them, for Utah, and for the country.

Many still think Utah got the short end of the stick in 2000 despite the fact that the law says justice was served. OK, so write it up in the history books and move on. Utah should quit wallowing in victim status. Many think that Washington, D.C. has long had a rotten deal. OK, so quit with the whining already. Pull up your bootstraps and do what it takes to really fix the problem. The citizens of the District and of the nation will be better off for it.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Why are Some Mormons Afraid of an LDS Presidential Candidate?

I’m keeping my options open with an eye toward 2008. Many ideas exist about who will be the eventual Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, but all of these are merely guesses at this point. Eight years ago everyone knew that Al Gore would be the Democratic nominee in 2000, but nobody really had the remotest clue who would get the Republican nod. Four years ago it was not at all clear that John Kerry would finally get the Democratic nomination.

The future may look clear to some, but even the most astute observer cannot possibly comprehend the multitudinous variables between here and there. Even if it were possible to do so, nobody really knows how much weight to ascribe to each variable. Priorities don’t necessarily remain constant between election cycles, so even experts are only giving it their best guess. Who can tell when the lead runner will stumble over a pebble inadvertently dropped on the course that runs through New Hampshire and Iowa?

Conventional wisdom on the GOP side currently has Senator John McCain (R-AZ) heading the list of potential nominees. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has often been rated in one of the next three spots, depending on who is doing the rating and when it is done. Romney has ties to Utah, having successfully rescued the scandal tainted 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He is also a member of the LDS Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Ever since Romney began posturing for a presidential run there has been a lot of discussion about what kind of challenges his religion would pose for him. I wrote about this issue three months ago (here). A medical doctor in Iowa runs a pro-Romney blog. He links to an interesting blog called Article6Blog. Its name references the article in the U.S. Constitution containing the clause prohibiting a religious test for any political office. The site is run by an Evangelical Christian and a Mormon. It mainly discusses the challenges Romney faces as a presidential aspirant with respect to his religion.

When the Constitution prohibits a religious test, it means as a matter of government policy rather than as a matter of personal opinion. I strongly disagree with people that think Romney’s religion should disqualify him, but I think they have every right to hold their bigoted opinions and to vote accordingly. The Constitution in no way prohibits this.

Some of the commentary on the Article6Blog by Mormons posits that it would be better if Romney didn’t make it very far because of the potential for damage to their religion caused by negative public opinion. I suppose these folks would feel the same way if Harry Reid decided to run for the Democratic nomination, so my guess is that they are consistent. I simply do not understand this cowering-under-the-bed attitude.

People that believe in New Testament Christianity should feel a duty to live their religion openly and to share it with others. This mandate is constantly reiterated to Mormons by their leaders. Believers certainly can’t carry out this doctrine if they base their actions in the fear of people’s opinions. Would Romney or Reid be where they are today if they constantly lived their lives quailing at the prospect of religious misunderstanding or intolerance?

While Jesus called his followers to preach his gospel to everyone in the world (Mark 16:15), he also told them that they should be prepared to be persecuted for doing so (Matthew 22:22, John 16:1-4). Those that want to profess Christianity—especially the Mormon version of it—without arousing negative opinions remind me of Elder Marion G. Romney’s 1955 BYU speech where he said, “Now there are those among us who are trying to serve the Lord without offending the devil.”

I have to ask the fearful types, what’s the worst that could happen? This isn’t 1838 Missouri. Your opponents aren’t going to come after you with rifles, pitchforks and torches to drive you from your homes. This isn’t 1856 Utah. They aren’t going to call out the military and declare martial law. This isn’t the 1880s. You won’t have the legal goon squads raiding your homes at night.

So what are you afraid of? Are you afraid you’re going to hear someone on the evening news or a radio talk show malign or misrepesent your religion? Are you afraid that MSM outlets and bloggers will do so in print? Afraid a coworker will spew some anti-Mormon slur? Well, whoop-de-doo. What’s the big deal?

If people are going to be religious bigots, so be it. I suppose that’s what you call it when you generally agree with a candidate’s politics and morality, but refuse to vote for him/her based on his/her form of worship. If at some future point a Mormon becomes president and somebody blames some unfortunate national event (or even bad poll numbers) on his/her religion, so be it. It will only expose the nature of those carrying such opinions. I say, bring it on. Dish out your worst. Let’s get it out in the open and deal with it.

I understand the desire to avoid unpleasantries and to have genial relations. We all work to keep our lives as unruffled as is reasonable. But openly wishing for the misfortune of a fellow believer simply to secure comfort for ourselves strikes me as bizarre. If Romney wants to run, I wish him the best. Likewise in the unlikely event that Reid wants to run.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

How Not to Win Friends

The day after the pro immigration rallies this week, the Standard Examiner published a guest commentary by someone named Ana Ayala called “Sleeping giant Latinos' awakening inevitable, and here!” The article says that Ms. Ayala “is a first-generation American of Puerto Rican descent, and a second-generation American of Mexican descent.” I would have written about this earlier, but I had to let it sit and simmer so that I could approach the matter rationally.

Ms. Ayala is obviously very proud of her heritage. She quotes some statistics from a University of Utah study about the value of Latinos to the economy in Utah. If you read the study you will discover that the statistics cited were cherry picked to support Ayala’s position. While the study is generally positive, there are some negatives as well. Since the study was designed to improve trade between Utah and Mexico, it goes out of its way to avoid the most negative aspects of the immigration issue in Utah.

But it is not the statistics Ayala cites with which I take exception; it is the overall tone of her commentary. It comes across like the Borg from Star Trek Next Generation. Ayala’s message seems to be, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” She says, “Relax. There's nothing anyone can do about Latinos becoming this country's majority population.” She continues, “Obviously, this train is non-stop and on its way to Latino nirvana! For those of you non-Latinos who like and appreciate us, we welcome you on our train ride.”

Ayala predicts a Latino majority in the U.S. as soon as 2010. While the Latino presence in the U.S. is growing, Ayala’s prediction is beyond preposterous (unless you twist numbers by how you define Latino).

Ayala next runs up the racism flag, claiming that being opposed to illegal immigration is simply a mask for good old-fashioned racism. She claims that “Latinos are constantly being told "go home!"” Then she trots out the argument that Latinos were in this country long before most of the rest of our ancestors, so they somehow have a right to be here, presumably regardless of citizenship status.

She next takes on the English language. To those that want immigrants to speak English she flippantly barks, “Enough already! The future in this country is Spanish, like it or not. If you spout, "Speak English!" I say: "Learn to speak Spanish!" It's the wave of the future, and you're a fool if you don't!"”

Next she sides with President Bush, asserting that Americans ought to be glad that Latinos take American jobs. Like our president, Ayala makes it sound as if every Latino in this country is as honest and hard working as the day is long. Like the president, she makes no mention of the gangsters, drug pushers, smugglers, and sundry other criminals that somehow are so casually included in this fine upstanding population.

Ayala takes on those that argue against illegals using our country’s social services, making the completely unsupportable claim that they do not use these services because that would be illegal.

Finally, Ayala once again touts Latino superiority, saying, “You would do well to do right by Latinos. We will one day be the boss to your sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.”

I believe Ayala makes two serious errors in her thesis. First, she comes across as strikingly arrogant. This is not simply cultural pride—standing up and shaking your fist at your trials. Rather, it is a claim of superiority based on race. This ugly adornment is just as unbecoming of Latinos as it is of others that have worn it. No one can fault Ayala for her heritage. Indeed, we should all probably hold a special place in our hearts for our individual heritage. But we have discovered by sad experience that serious problems arise when that sentiment leads to a sense of superiority.

Ayala claims that her race and culture will consume all others in the U.S. But she doesn’t merely cite this proposition as a cold statistical possibility; she sticks it in the face of non-Latinos and rubs their noses in it. This is simply not a good way to engender neighborly relations. She comes across like Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his desk at the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 and yelling in reference to capitalism, “We will bury you!” Today we can see how silly and spurious his prediction was.

Ayala’s second major mistake is that she makes no differentiation between Latinos in general and Latinos in this country illegally. Indeed, she seems to go to great effort to equate the two. This does a great disservice to Ayala’s main point that Latinos play a significant role in this country. It does a greater disservice to immigrants that have done what it takes to be here legally. In one fell swoop she lightly tosses aside the legitimacy of our country’s sovereignty. I do not get the impression that she would so carelessly dismiss the sovereignty of Mexico.

Strangely, Ayala, who seems to have a decent command of the English language, rejects that language in favor of Spanish. In reality, if you want to be successful in this country you must be conversant in English. Many people that want laws requiring English to be our country's only official language want those that are currenly not proficient in English to become proficient so that they can become successful. Bill Cosby got into hot water with some people for boldly proclaiming this doctrine with reference to African-Americans.

Ayala’s commentary has some valid points and in it she tries to address an issue that is very important to Utah and to the nation. However, her in-your-face approach is destined to leave a bad taste in the mouths of non-Latinos. If she intended to engender empathy for Latinos, she has only succeeded in doing the opposite. If her intent was to cause ill feelings toward Latinos, she hit the mark.

I would like everyone, regardless of where they were born or what they look like, to have opportunities similar to what I have been blessed with in life. I would like to be a good neighbor to everyone regardless of surface differences. But neighborliness is a two-way street. Those desiring acceptance should refrain from sticking their fists in their neighbors’ faces and telling them that they’re about to be crushed.

The Feasibility of Alternative Fuels

Every time fuel prices spike there is renewed public interest in alternative fuels. Popular Mechanics has a very interesting article that explores the various potentially feasible automobile fuel replacements. (Hat tip: Tyler at the Wasatch Front) The article also discusses diesel trucks a little bit, but it doesn’t deal at all with energy used by facilities, airplanes, trains, boats, etc. So you won’t see anything about wind, solar, or nuclear power.

PM joins most every other expert I know of in the belief that there is no single solution that can replace oil. The article goes beyond mere laboratory tests to discuss how the various featured fuels work and have the potential of working in real life.

I was glad to see PM consider the issues of money, distribution, and environmental costs. So many times, those that are excited about an alternative fuel gloss over money and distribution, which are the elephants in the living room. I was disappointed to see the issues of replacement and disposal of batteries and fuel cells completely ignored.

The article has a PDF comparison chart that attempts to show the cost and feasibility of driving across the country using the various fuels discussed. I have been watching my electrical bill go up, so I was surprised to see that a fully electric vehicle would be by far the least expensive in fuel cost alone. Of course, since you have to recharge overnight every 100 miles, it could take you months to make the trip. I was also a little shocked to see that it would take a ton of coal to generate the fuel for the trip. No wonder we still have so many coal-fired electrical plants. Coal is cheap.

The article also brought up an interesting point in its discussion of natural gas. It said that the cost of natural gas “is a bargain compared to gasoline,” mainly because of the taxes added to gasoline. Does anyone really think that government would not find a way to get its share of any alternative fuel that comes into broad use? We have to fund the roads we drive on somehow. Politicians aren’t simply going to sit around and watch funding dry up.

One thing is clear from reading this article. Even with high gas prices, we’re not going to experience a massive shift to alternative fuels any time soon.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why Conservatives are Not Enthusiastic About Bush

It’s no news that President Bush’s poll numbers are in the tank. But it’s not because liberals hate him. They have pretty much always given him very low approval and very high disapproval ratings since before he took office (with the exception of a brief period following 9/11). The only difference there is that a fair number have gone from simply loathing him to hating him more than any other person on the planet.

Rather, Bush’s numbers are low because conservatives are finding increasingly less to approve of and increasingly more to disapprove of. The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg takes issue with the left’s comparison of Bush to Nixon because the elements to which they draw similarities are actually quite dissimilar. Goldberg asserts here, however, that Bush does have other more striking similarities to Nixon, whom he classes as “the last of the New Deal-era liberal presidents.”
“… at the philosophical level, he [Bush] shares the Nixonians' supreme confidence in the power of the state. Bush rejects limited government and many of the philosophical assumptions that underlie that position. He favors instead strong government. He believes, as he said in 2003, that when "somebody hurts, government has got to move." His compassionate conservatism shares with Nixon's moderate Republicanism a core faith that not only can the government love you, but it should spend money to prove its love. Beyond that, there seems to be no core set of principles that define Bush's approach, and therefore, much like Nixon, no clearly communicable message that explains why he does things other than political calculation and expediency.”
Goldberg argues that Bush’s tactics run contrary to most of the GOP’s base. “Today, Reaganite conservatives make up a majority of the Republican party.” Goldberg opines, “If Bush held the Reaganite line on liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad, he'd be in a lot better shape.”

That’s wishful thinking. Bush is what he is. The zebra’s not going to change his stripes at this point. Unless he has an epiphany similar to the conversion that caused him to give up booze, he’s not going to suddenly become a small government activist.

Liberals count the days to the end of Bush’s second term and dream about impeachment. Interestingly, many conservatives look forward to the end of bush’s second term as well, but wonder what will come next and what will be left of the GOP by 2008. Conservatives put up with Bush because he at least has some semblance of toughness with regard to national security. The Democrats simply have no credibility on this issue whatever.

On an interesting side note, American scholar Shelby Steele offers his very politically incorrect proposition of why the U.S. (and the West in general) finds itself incapable of actually prosecuting the War on Terror in a decisive manner. He also links this to our inability to control immigration along our southern border.

Peggy Noonan contends here that the institution of the presidency is in trouble. The job has gotten “too big, too complicated, too crucial, too many-fronted, too . . . impossible.” If her thesis is correct, “that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and … that there is nothing [we] can do about it,” then it won’t matter so much who the next president is. And that’s a scary thought.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why Gas Station Boycotts Don't Work

Every spring gas prices go up. They hike even more in the run-up to the Memorial Day weekend and remain high until after Labor Day. Every year we grumble about price gouging and ruthless profiteering just as the higher travel season of summer comes on. Those stinking oil companies have us over a barrel, right? This year it’s far worse. $3/gallon gas with record oil industry profits! What’s up with that?

And every year like clockwork I receive an email from somebody with some grand plan to punish those filthy rich oil companies. It usually boils down to some kind of targeted boycott. One year the plan was to boycott all Exxon stations. Another year it was to not buy gas on a given day of the week. Another year it was to boycott both Exxon and Shell stations.

The whole idea behind these efforts is to create some kind of collective bargaining power—to show consumer muscle in order to ultimately force lower gasoline prices. While it is natural to want to do something to attack the perceived injustice, all of the efforts I have seen suggested suffer from shocking ignorance of how the free market works coupled with childish ignorance of the oil industry.

Econ 101
Let’s start with an Econ 101 look at the free market. Pricing of any commodity comes down to the interplay between supply and demand. If demand goes up while supply remains static (i.e. we start driving more and using more gas as the weather warms up), there is more competition for the same resource, so the price goes up. If supply decreases (as it does temporarily each spring when refineries retool to switch from heating oil production to more gasoline production) there is the same demand for fewer resources, so the price goes up. If demand decreases (i.e. we start driving less as colder months return), there is less competition for the same resource, so the price goes down. If we have a glut of supply (as we did for a brief period in the late 90s) there is the same demand for more resources, so the price goes down.

But all of this is extremely myopic, looking mainly at the tail end of the oil operation from the refinery to your car. When you look back up the chain from the refinery you will find a number of other factors that apply varying degrees of pressure on the market.

The biggest factor is the cost of crude oil. What does it cost to get the stuff out of the ground and ready to ship? This varies greatly depending on a variety of factors. For many years it has been cheaper to get oil out of the ground in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. However, many are now realizing that these countries’ reserves are not limitless. Many are actively working to make their supplies last as long as possible by limiting production. You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs in one fell swoop.

Since oil is a global commodity, political issues in all oil producing countries are a major factor in oil price. All industries have to hedge their bets and make plans for the future. When things are stable, it’s easy to look into the crystal ball and make appropriate plans. But when unrest occurs that ball becomes cloudy. Then the industry has to invest in a variety of strategies that might pan out instead of simply putting almost everything into one basket accompanied by a few contingency plans. The possibility of Iran going nuts and cutting off its supply to spite its face, terrorists attacking oil pipelines and stations throughout the Middle East, the election of a socialist dictator in Venezuela, the war in Iraq, and other similar issues add to the complexity and cost of oil production.

Econ 201
Now for Econ 201. The market is bigger than just you and your neighbors. Other countries compete for crude oil as well. In the last half-decade the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, have experienced economic booms. Societies in these countries are transforming from third world backwaters to modern industrial (even post-industrial) societies. Just as it requires a lot of oil to run the U.S. economy, the demand for oil in these vast developing countries has increased enormously. The global supply of oil is not increasing, but the global demand is. As we learned above, that means that the price of crude oil goes up.

Then we have the government. Federal and state governments levy heavy taxes on petroleum products, particularly gasoline. They’ve got to maintain those roads that we all travel on, and they’ve got to get money to do that from somewhere. Why not levy it on gasoline? It’s kind of like a use fee. These taxes are the second largest factor in the cost of a gallon of gas. The taxes on each gallon of gas are as much as 1000% more than the amount of oil company profit on each gallon. In other words, the government gets more—a lot more—of your gas dollar than the oil companies.

Refining of crude oil eats up another portion of your gas dollar. Refining doesn’t happen for free. Due to environmental concerns, we have not added a new refinery in the U.S. for thirty years (although, one is under construction). We have, however, dramatically increased the capacity and cleanliness of existing refineries. But if we had more refineries we could refine more oil.

Now let’s understand how distribution works from that point until you have the gas in your car. Refineries have distribution centers where tanker trucks pull up to fill their tanks, kind of like a gas station on a larger scale. People directing the tanker trucks that supply your local gas station make decisions on filling those trucks somewhat akin to the way you decide where you will buy gas. They assiduously check the prices. They weigh factors such as distance from the drop point, available supply at the refinery, how urgently the retailers need the product, etc.

A lot of you think that if a truck has a particular oil company’s logo on the side, the gas in the tank came from that company’s refinery. This is not always the case. Most companies buy from any refinery that offers the best value based on the various factors I mentioned above. Federal rules require all gasoline to meet the same standards for each octane grade. Federal law permits oil companies to add ‘additives.’ This usually occurs at the retail station. Oil companies do not have to disclose (except to regulators) what is in its additives (it’s a big secret), but federal law basically requires additives to be inert. The additives leave a chemical signature that can be useful for some needs, such as crime solving. In other words, the additives generally add little or no value to the consumer.

The upshot is that the gasoline you buy at station A and its competitor, station B across the street is pretty much the same stuff. So you might as well get the least expensive gas, unless you make your decision based on other factors (i.e. restroom cleanliness, selection of junk food, etc.) Also, the fact that refineries will generally sell gas to any supplier that is willing to pay for it means that they will sell their gas even if their own outlets do not sell it.

Finally we come to the retail point. Gasoline retail stores are often franchises that are not directly owned by the oil companies. Of all the major factors in the cost of a gallon of gasoline, these guys are one of the least. They keep less than 2% of the sales price. They operate on a very slim margin.

That’s why they work so hard to remain competitive with nearby retailers. They are constantly playing a game of trying to make 1.23% instead of 1.21%. If they price too high, they lose customers. If they price too low, they sell high volumes but still don’t make enough money. And if they sell more than a few cents too low, state regulators will investigate them for selling below cost (which is illegal under most conditions).

They make huge margins on everything inside the store. One store operator reported pulling in $10,000 monthly just on corn dogs and potato wedges. You can bet that they make a lot more on a gallon of slush drink than they do on a gallon of gas.

Silly Boycotts
So, what would happen if everybody boycotted Exxon retailers this summer? We’d hurt a lot of small business owners that run the Exxon franchises, but we’d have just about zero impact on the oil company itself. What if we all refused to buy gas each Wednesday? This would only have an impact if we in truth reduced our usage by 1/7th. We most likely would simply make up for it by buying more gas the other six days of the week.

For a boycott to work, it has to have a staggering impact. None of the boycott efforts that have been flown by me would do that. The number one reason is that they suffer from poor design. The number two reason is that you simply won’t get enough people to go along with it. How many people do you think would actually take the kind of action suggested in an email campaign? If it were highly successful you’d get maybe 1% of the drivers in the nation to go along with it. Would the oil companies even notice? Most likely they would come up with marketing campaigns that would more than counteract any negative impact. Also, while personal drivers are important, unless you get a significant number of businesses involved, the impact will remain low. How many businesses that rely on vehicle transportation to make money would be willing to go along?

I am not saying that people upset over high gasoline prices should do nothing. What I am saying is that the boycott campaigns suggested by emails I have received are the wrong thing to do. It might give you a sense of smug self-justice, but the overall effect on the market will be unnoticeable. If you want to stick it to the oil companies, you need to first educate yourself about how the market functions and how the oil industry works. Then you have to devise a market method that will have the ultimate outcome of lowering gasoline prices.

That’s a tall order. Many have tried it, but nobody has really succeeded. The point is that simple, juvenile boycotts won’t work. In other words, stop sending me ridiculous emails about boycotting gas stations.