Friday, September 29, 2006

The Governor's Plan is WRONG!

Governor Huntsman is pushing strongly for Utah to get its deserved fourth congressional seat six years earlier than would otherwise occur. In exchange for six years of having one more seat, it is proposed that Washington, D.C. receive a true representative seat in Congress, which I believe is a clear violation of the language of the Constitution.

It is my view (see here) that the plan to give Washington, D.C. a representative seat in Congress runs counter to the language of Article I, Section 2, which clearly limits membership in the House of Representatives to representatives of actual “States.” Washington, D.C. has not and probably will never be awarded statehood, so it fails the most basic requirement established by the Constitution for having a voting member in Congress.

Clearly, this seems to unduly leave the citizens of Washington, D.C. without representation in the House of Representatives. If this is an injustice, then it should be remedied. But it should occur through the process outlined in the Constitution itself—in Article V. That is, the Constitution should be amended.

Unfortunately for those that want Congressional representation for DC, successfully passing a proposed amendment by the votes of two-thirds of the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and two-thirds of state legislatures, is extraordinarily difficult. Our Founders intended it to be such. But that does not mean that we should circumvent the constitutional requirement using an unconstitutional scheme that would exchange permanent representation for DC for six additional years of one more seat for Utah.

The most obvious solution to the problem is to return the residential areas of DC to Maryland and Virginia. Presto, the residents would suddenly have representation in both the House and the Senate. Of course, this would likely be a hard sell to those two states, as they would likely see it as a net liability rather than a net asset. Congress would likely have to do much to sweeten the pot.

The point is that it is wrong to violate the Constitution, simply because we think a particular provision is too difficult. Governor Huntsman’s plan would violate the Constitution for a little bit of short term political power. Let me say it bluntly: THIS IS WRONG!

I have heard some that suggest that the unconstitutionality of the provision has already been factored in by its promoters. They surmise that some court would eventually rule against DC having a seat in the House, thus, eliminating DC’s seat while leaving Utah’s 4th seat in place. If the promoters actually think this way, they are among the most cynical and scurrilous political dirt bags to be found.

The initial deal Governor Huntsman was seeking would have made Utah’s fourth seat an at-large seat until after the next census. That is, the fourth seat would represent the entire state, much as does a U.S. Senate seat, but only until after the next census. But some in Congress were opposed to this, and said that the only way the deal could move forward would be to provide a proportionate geographic district for the new seat.

Knowing that time was short to keep this issue on the table in Congress, Governor Huntsman worked quickly with his staff and majority (GOP) leaders in the state legislature to come up with a redistricting plan. The plan appears to provide a safe Democratic haven for the 2nd Congressional District, while providing fairly safe Republican strongholds for the other three districts (see here).

Part of the reason for the 3-1 safe district split is the political reality of the way the plan has been sold in Congress. Everyone knows that the new DC seat would be solidly Democratic. That’s why Democrats in Congress are willing to go along with it. But Republicans in Congress aren’t likely to vote for it unless they get a solidly Republican seat in return, thus maintaining the status quo on partisan power in Congress.

Democrat Congressman Jim Matheson of the 2nd Congressional District, who has fought in favor of the fourth seat plan, dislikes the governor’s redistricting plan (see here). Matheson is fairly conservative for his party, causing some of the party faithful to consider him a DINO (Democrat in name only). If his district were to become solidly Democratic and more liberal, he could be in trouble. Also, as astutely noted by LaVar Webb in today’s Utah Policy Daily, representing a more liberal district could hurt Matheson’s future chances for statewide office, which look fairly favorable today.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I oppose any unconstitutional plan to expand congressional representation. However, even if the governor’s unconstitutional plan fails, Utah will get a fourth congressional seat following the 2010 census. Since redistricting will occur sooner or later, it’s not bad to think about how it should be done.

One of the greatest banes to good government in our nation today is a House of Representatives that is full of members that have no competition. Hardly a congressional district exists that is not gerrymandered to favor one party or the other. While this might be good for the status quo, it is bad for the people and it does not lead to good government. Instead, it leads to congressional representatives that do the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

Ethan at SLCSpin has run a series of posts that have advocated the creation of as many competitive congressional districts as possible. If our politicians were truly concerned about good government, they would follow Ethan’s advice. In the great marketplace of ideas, we should seek to create representative situations where all ideas have as level of a playing field as possible.

The reality of politics is that it is filled with—surprise—politics. There is a constant tendency for politicians to take actions intended to increase political power. This is nothing new. However, we occasionally need to return to altruism and lay aside pure political concerns to achieve a higher good. This is what our Founders did. When it comes to drawing congressional districts, we should lay aside politics, and altruistically seek to create as many competitive districts as possible so that the people might be more properly represented.

Doing this will change the political landscape. Representatives will behave differently. They will have different motivations. Representative offices will attract different kinds of people than they do today. Citizens will become less cynical about our political process. It would be painful for some politicians to go this way, but the payoff would be grand indeed. I wish I could say that I felt that there was some hope of this happening.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

As Liberty Slips Safely Away

A couple of weeks ago I reminisced with a couple of friends about how our mothers used to pack us lunches and let us go hiking around in the hills north of town unsupervised for hours at a time when we were just seven or eight years old. Each of us said that we could never even imagine doing the same thing with our own kids today.

Our society has become obsessed with risk avoidance. And we’re not satisfied with simply managing our own risk; we are continually reaching out to force our well intentioned risk reduction measures onto everyone else. We have a whole industry of safety fascists that continually nag and harangue us about our bad choices. These folks have taken over where Puritanical finger waggers left off. And we’ve all gone along for the ride.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” (see here, scroll down to 1820)

But, unsatisfied with simply educating the people and then letting them live with the consequences of their actions, we continually legislate or judicially mandate new controls that steal liberty. It has become such a regular practice that there is rarely any consideration in the legislative chambers or the courts about the liberties that might be impinged by the measures under consideration.

Who would even think about defending the rights of restaurant goers in New York City to eat foods laden with trans fats? Or who would assert that people should have the right to buy a car that lacks seatbelts, electronic stabilization controls, and side-curtain airbags? It is certainly in the public’s best interest to require these things, isn’t it? And that makes it right, doesn’t it?

Jefferson puts freedom on a scale with education. At the one end is freedom and education. On the other end are compulsion and reduced freedoms. The elitist belief that the general public is too stupid, too greedy, too selfish, too [insert adjective describing your favorite moral failing] to respond to education moves us toward the compulsion end of the scale.

When we shift into our elitist mode of thinking, we can’t trust the people. And, by George, we have lots of evidence to show that they are untrustworthy when it comes to our view of moral behavior. We are simply too compassionate to allow them to suffer the consequences of their inappropriate actions, so we impose constraints to ensure that they don’t exceed the boundaries of our superior judgment.

But for all the good our enforcement of risk reduction does, we rob people of growth opportunities that can be found in no other way than in allowing them to make their own choices. My friends and I didn’t start our childhood forays away from home by wandering around the hills for hours. Our mothers first let us wander around our yards as toddlers, and then around our neighborhoods, and then around adjoining fields and neighborhoods.

We gained knowledge and experience from our activities—and yes, scrapes, bumps, and scary experiences—that provided us with a foundation that helped keep us safe as we wandered around the hills in our early years. The friends I mentioned earlier all agreed with me that our kids lack that kind of foundation today, and that this is largely why we cannot trust them to handle the dangers that exist in the hills around town.

What have we robbed our kids of in exchange for immediate peace of mind? And what are we robbing society of every time we mandate some new safety requirement instead of educating and allowing the natural consequences to follow?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Of SUVs and Hot Road Treads

I am not in the camp that believes that all SUVs are inherently evil and that all hybrids are inherently good. Arrogant judgments based on a vehicle’s average mileage are fatuous, because the basis of judgment is very broad. Such judgments are based on a number of assumptions which may or may not be true, and they ignore other factors that may be more significant than average mileage.

For example, families making vehicle purchasing decisions need to consider per person miles per gallon. An SUV with six people in it often gets better mileage per person than does a hybrid with one or two people in it. Supporters of public transportation make this same kind of argument all of the time. Why should it not extend to private transportation?

Depending on the trip being made, a single person driving a personal vehicle may provide the best per person mileage for that trip. Time is also a valuable commodity that must go into personal transportation decisions. Most people make transportation decisions based on overall transportation needs, rather than needs for a specific trip.

Few people are well enough off to buy a fleet of vehicles that will provide them with enough options to always drive the optimal vehicle for any given transportation need. So people get a vehicle that attempts to strike a balance, with the effect that a single person occasionally ends up driving a seven-passenger SUV. Does that make the person’s choice evil?

While I appreciate beauty, I am kind of a utilitarian person. An innate sense makes me believe that something generally needs to serve a functional purpose to have worth. I find, however, that there are all kinds of exceptions to this basic rule. But when something violates this basic rule to the point of exceeding the boundaries of common sense, I often need someone or something to help me overcome the perceived dissonance. Unless and until that happens, I necessarily conclude that the element in question embodies absurdity.

Today’s question comes as I have noted a proliferation of four-wheel-drive SUVs (built on truck chassis) running around town that have fancy street rims and high performance street (or even racing) tires. In my mind, a 4WD SUV with fancy street tires violates the principles of common sense. If you need me to explain why this is so, you should quit reading this and go back to reading your latest edition of People Magazine.

Is there anyone out there that can explain the phenomenon of 4WD truck-base vehicles with street rims and tires (especially in northern Utah, which has an environment that seems particularly unfriendly to such vehicle gear)? To me, this seems to contradict reason.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rotten to the Core

What a magnanimous country we are. We invite our enemies and villainous despots to visit our shores so that they can attend lavish parties, be treated like royalty, be interviewed by our media, and have a worldwide forum for openly ridiculing us and our policies.

This week’s sessions at the U.N. have exposed the corrupt organization for what it is: a club of despots that hate the U.S. and its allies. Unfortunately, President Bush’s patronizing attempt to play nice with the Despot’s Club comes across as a far cry from his resolute speech about fighting terrorism to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, or even his U.N. speech last year where he demanded specific U.N. reforms (none of which have happened).

Under auspices of diplomatic immunity we allowed the notorious Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come here this week and lecture us in the U.N. General Assembly about how awful we are (see the full text of his speech). This guy thumbs his nose at the U.N. Security Council with respect to nuclear proliferation, and the U.N. bizarrely responds by having him speak to its General Assembly. Ahmadinejad’s speech is chiefly a religious sermon with some politics mixed in. He openly presents himself as God’s representative. He goes on and on about living together in love, peace and tranquility. It all sounds so 60s.

Anne Bayefsky of says here that Ahmadinejad “outdid himself in the pathological-liar category.” This is a man that has boasted of being directly involved in the atrocities of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran. This is a man that supplied Hezbollah with over 1300 missiles to fire at Israeli citizens and sent trainers and technicians to help fire them. This is a man that funds and trains our enemies in Iraq. In other words, while we are not directly at war with the country this man leads, we are indirectly at war with them today through their surrogates. This is a man that regularly attends rallies in Iran where he leads thousands of people in chants of, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” This is a man that has openly talked about the need to annihilate Israel to achieve peace. This is a man that affirms his belief in the 12th Mahdi, a type of Islamic messiah that is supposed to come after all infidels (including us) have been successfully eliminated from the globe.

Much of Ahmadinejad’s carefully worded speech sounds like something you might hear from a Christian pulpit. But it is filled with all kinds of anti-American and anti-Semitic code phrases. If you view it from the aspect of his apocalyptic perception of the world, you will understand that the tranquility of which he speaks so lovingly is to be achieved by eliminating the infidels through whatever means are necessary. He even closes the speech in the form of a prayer, requesting doomsday to come as soon as possible. The MSM thinks this guy is all warm and cuddly (and he effectively presents himself that way), but inside he is more like Hitler than any other major national political leader on the globe other than Kim Jong il of North Korea (now that Saddam is simply a defendant).

The next day, Ahmadinejad’s buddy, Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan Thug in Chief, stood up at the same microphone and ripped on our country. Echoing the angry left here at home, Chavez called President Bush “the devil” after crossing himself, rolling his eyes, and looking heavenward (click here to listen to full speech). Making it clear he was talking about President Bush, Chavez said, “The devil is right at home, the devil, the devil himself is right in the house.” How did his listeners at the Despot’s Club respond? Applause. That made news, but the rest of his nasty diatribe about the U.S. and its people did not.

Of course, many have suggested that it is a symbol of our nation’s strength to allow these anti-Americans to come here and ridicule us in our own front yard. It is said that it shows that we are not afraid of these punks. Unfortunately, few of the punks’ constituents see it that way. They see this as a symbol of our weakness and decadence. They think that we are too beguiled to know that we have good reason to be afraid of them. Perhaps they have a point.

When the Clinton administration reversed the policy of the Bush I administration to allow terrorist leader cum Palestinian National Authority President Yassir Arafat to come to the U.S. and visit the U.N., conservatives were outraged. They called Clinton and his cronies traitors. Now the Bush II administration has allowed the president of one third of the Axis of Evil and his chief South American admirer to do the same thing. Where is the conservative outrage?

Can anyone tell me what good the political arm of the U.N. is? I have long maintained that we must remain part of the U.N. to provide as much positive leadership and influence there as is possible. The humanitarian arm of the U.N. does some good things. Of course, it does some very shoddy things as well. But overall, we provide some good service to the world by funding the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts.

But how is the political and military arm of the U.N. helping the world or any part of it in a positive way today? It is corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, and completely opposed to America’s interests. It is filled with representatives of despotic regimes that sit around and constantly devise ways to criticize the U.S. And it does much of its ‘work’ using our taxpayer’s Dollars. What’s up with that?

Some have suggested that we quit the U.N. and kick their offices out of our country. The U.N. garners legitimacy simply by having its offices here, so some question why we provide the Despot’s Club a forum within our borders. Of course, can you imagine the shrieks from the international community and from certain groups in our country if we actually did quit the U.N.? The ensuing hurricane of criticism at home and abroad would make cries about unilateralism in Iraq seem like a calm breeze by comparison.

I haven’t seen any U.N. reform plan that would actually be helpful because the U.N. is rotten to the core. President Bush’s 2005 reform demands (had they not been ignored) would do almost nothing to solve the U.N.’s root problems. Even the most aggressive reform plans would fail to turn the U.N. into something worthwhile. Heck, they wouldn’t even raise the U.N. to become worthless, something that seems like a high and glorious pinnacle to which to aspire for an organization that is in such a deep dark hole. You can run a skunk through a carwash, but it will still be a skunk.

Unfortunately, the U.N. presence in the U.S. is like having a very dangerous and exotic pet tiger that has only grown more vicious and costly with age. You can’t just turn it loose, for then it would be even more dangerous. It would be considered inhumane to starve it to death. At this point, perhaps euthanization is the best option.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Tiny Victory for Fiscal Restraint

The state legislature finally did it. Yesterday they accomplished in five hours what they failed to accomplish during the entire legislative session earlier this year. They reformed state income taxes and provided the taxpayers with a teensy-weensy $78 million tax cut (see SL Trib article).

What? $78 million teensy-weensy? That’s real money, you say. You’re darn tootin’ it’s real money. But it’s less than 8% of the amount the state overcharged you and your neighbors. They conveniently found places to spend the other 92+% of that overcharge, because government has so many “needs.” And for this we are supposed to be grateful.

And I am grateful. I am grateful that the Governor worked very hard on this issue and worked with legislators to iron out all of the bugs so that it could finally be passed. I’m less happy that it took six months and a special session to do it. And I’m even less happy that the tax cut was only a measly portion of the surplus.

Some have derided this measure as election year pandering. Well, yeah! Our Founders designed the system with regular elections so that the politicians will occasionally do what their constituents want them to do. In this case the system worked. Thank goodness for election year pandering.

And even with this teensy-weensy tax cut we have loads of commentators that shriek at the top of their lungs about the poor schoolchildren being robbed to give unworthy taxpayers a measly $50 (on average) tax cut (see Deseret News article). For these people, not only is government entitled to all of your money that it has already succeeded in overcharging, but government should spend all of that and then charge you more.

Representative Steve Urquhart (R-St. George) points out here that the new tax plan will actually allow taxpayers to choose whether to give the state more money or to keep more of their own money themselves. Some of the comments on Steve’s site make it clear that those that oppose taxpayer choice do so because they fear that people will choose poorly. They are afraid of what people will choose to legally do with their own money.

You’ll excuse me, but this paternal image of government as my parent in a bizarre rerun of Father Knows Best is a hard sell for me. While there is plenty of evidence of individual fiscal irresponsibility, I place far more faith in the ability of individuals to properly decide how to manage their own funds than I am with government deciding how to manage taxpayers’ funds.

Meanwhile, Representative Craig Frank (R-Pleasant Grove) notes here that the state actually has an additional surplus of about $300 million for FY06. He suggests that there will be many competing ideas for what should happen with this surplus. Gee, no kidding. Rep. Frank says that some want to refund it to taxpayers, while others want to find creative ways to circumvent the state’s spending limits. Thank goodness for the wisdom that put those spending caps in place.

So, come January, we’ll be in for another round of the same kind of fun we’ve had this year. I have little hope that much fiscal restraint will be exercised. That pattern has been strangely subdued in our state in recent years. As I’ve said before, boom times do not last forever. We should be preparing now for the inevitable hard times. We should learn from the classic fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant.

That means improving tax structure and resisting the temptation to fatten state programs during prosperous times. Do we really want to have layoffs of state employees or mandatory state employee salary reductions like we have had in the past? I urge our legislators to be wise. But I’m frankly not very confident in widespread legislative application of fiscal restraint in the state legislature. In a few years when the economy goes south, will we be the ant—or the grasshopper?

Utah's High Gas Prices Respond to What We Do

This Deseret News article explains that some Utah gasoline retailers have at least one explanation for why gas prices in Utah are failing to fall along the lines of gas prices nationwide, making Utah one of the most costly places in the nation to purchase gas. Are you ready for this? Here it is. “[P]rices haven't fallen because stations are still using up gasoline purchased weeks ago at higher prices.”

Let me put it bluntly. This is bunk.

I once worked for a company in the petroleum industry that had operations that included almost every phase from exploration and extraction to refining to retail. The price they charge at the pump is only very loosely tied to the actual price paid for the product being delivered at any given moment. Rather, it is more closely tied to replacement cost of that product.

Let’s try a little thought experiment. You need gas, but you’re late for work. You figure that you’ve got enough to get you there and back, so you plan to fill up on your way home. You look at the gas retailer marquees on your way to work and notice that gas is about $2.10 per gallon. During the day news comes that a nasty hurricane is ripping through part of the Gulf Coast region, possibly shutting down a number of oil refineries. In the afternoon you leave work and notice that gas retailers are now charging $2.85 per gallon.

This is no fairy tale. It’s the actual scenario that we experienced just a year ago as Hurricane Katrina was doing her worst. What happened while you were at work? Did the product purchased weeks earlier by the retailers suddenly retroactively shoot up 36% in cost? Of course not. Instead, retailers were now basing prices on what they believed it would cost to replace their inventory given reduced availability.

If retailers now argue that they won’t drop their prices because the inventory on hand costs more than the replacement cost of that inventory, they are either (take your choice): a) lying, b) stupid, c) greedy, d) some combination of a, b, and c.

Look folks, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re arguing that prices are based on original cost, why doesn’t it work that way when costs increase? What we really have here are petroleum industry representatives that either think we’re stupid enough to believe this tripe or are stupid enough to believe it themselves. That’s unlikely.

Let’s get down to what is really going on. Retail gasoline prices work like you learned back in Econ 101. Oh, there are a few twists and turns on the old supply-demand curves, but it’s not radically different from the basic model. Retailers continually attempt to set the price to maximize their profits. It’s a continual balancing act that attempts to find the highest price at which demand does not decrease. Of course, it’s based on inventory costs (mostly inventory replacement costs) as well as operational costs, but the margin is established by what the market will bear.

What this means is that while Utahns whine about high gas prices, they continue to fill up at a pretty brisk rate and to shell out the price at the pump. The high cost is not causing us to cut back on driving. In essence, it doesn’t matter one bit what we say; it only matters what we do. There are a whole variety of factors that go into the base cost of the retailers’ inventory, but the moment demand falls, gas prices will fall to try to hit that magic point at which the highest margin can be maintained without reducing demand.

So, if you don’t like the high gasoline prices, you’ve got to demonstrate it by your behavior. Of course, this only works if lots of your neighbors follow suit. As I see it, we have little to complain about as long as we keep paying the high cost of filling up.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Phone Conversation With Congressman Rob Bishop

I was wrapping up a phone call when I heard the call waiting signal. The caller-ID read, “U S CAPITOL.” “What’s this? Probably somebody selling something,” I thought, assuming that the rest of the ID scrolled off the right side of the screen. “Hello,” I answered sternly. “May I please speak with Mr. Hinrichs?” a pleasant male voice asked. “May I ask who is calling?” I asked sternly. “Rob Bishop,” came the reply.

The pause that followed must have made it obvious to the congressman that I was doing a double-take. I quickly shifted to my courteous tone and lamely said, “Excuse me, I’m not used to receiving calls from a congressman.” Thus began a phone conversation that lasted about six minutes. “He’s working late,” I thought, as I checked the clock and noticed that it was nearly 10:00 PM in Washington, D.C.

I posted here about attending a town meeting last month hosted by Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah’s 1st Congressional District. I had some questions I wanted to ask, but decided against doing so at the meeting. Instead I opted for sending a letter. I have been told by several sources that congressional staffs pay more attention to snail mail than to email, but Congressman Bishop gave me to understand that this is no long necessarily true. It seems to depend on the particular representative, but regular mail has begun to diminish in importance in Congress because paper mail now has to go through irradiation and anti-terror checking before it makes it to the representative’s office.

My letter focused on fiscal restraint, which I find to be sorely lacking in our federal government. I particularly focused my ire on congressional Republicans, since they have been in control of Congress and yet promote themselves as the party of small government. I wrote:
“I understand the need for proper defense spending in a time of war, but during your two terms in office, our Republican controlled Congress has managed to increase domestic spending at a rate of about 8% annually. We haven’t consistently seen this rate of spending increase since the socialistic program push of the 1960s. When it comes to spending, it seems as if our Republican-led Congress is like a group of alcoholics that know they have a problem, but seem completely incapable of doing anything about it.”
In the letter, I then asked Congressman Bishop what he is doing about this problem and I asked him about his support of three specific measures: bills that would create searchable online databases of all federal government spending, including grants and contracts, like S. 2590; the Truth in Accounting Act – H.R. 5129; and the creation of an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy (see here) that would be charged with the specific mission of representing the interests of taxpayers in opposing unwise or unnecessary spending.

I had expected to receive some kind of pro-forma letter from a member of Congressman Bishop’s staff, but I certainly didn’t expect a personal phone call from the congressman himself. I was surprised that he even placed the call himself instead of having a staffer do it. Here is how Congressman Bishop addressed my questions:
  • “The main problem with the budget process isn’t lobbyists or earmarks, but the basic nature of the process itself.” Congressman Bishop strongly believes that the problem lies in the amount of money available at the beginning of the process, which is currently more or less unlimited at the federal level. Having served as speaker of the Utah House of Representatives for eight years, Congressman Bishop is stunned at Congress’s lack of a system that would force fiscal discipline. In Utah, leadership has power to allocate specific amounts to specific committees, but nothing like that exists in Congress today. In effect, there is no logical limit to the amount of spending each committee can seek to appropriate. He is also very supportive of the RSC budget, which seems to be gaining more support with each passing year.

    But Congressman Bishop is also pragmatic with respect to political realities. “The fact is that a sophomore representative simply doesn’t have sufficient clout to get what he wants very often.” He has had discussions with leadership that have been quite well received, but he currently lacks the ability to push any of his desired changes through. He has plans to achieve goals of encouraging fiscal restraint and more federalism, but they are long-term plans. He discussed the long-term work of building coalitions and relationships that will eventually yield fruit by way of legislation. He expressed the thought that sophomore representatives that make themselves obnoxious can get lots of press, but they rarely actually get support for their proposals.

  • Congressman Bishop is completely in favor of transparency in government spending. S. 2590 is a Senate bill, but he would be excited to support a House version of it.

  • Congressman Bishop is one of 55 cosponsors of the Truth in Accounting Act, but notes that its chief sponsor is Chris Chocola (R-IN), who is also a sophomore. “It’s a great bill, but it’s not going anywhere this Congress.” It will have to be brought up again in the next Congress, and probably in the Congress after that.

  • Congressman Bishop opposes the creation of any new oversight or advocacy offices or agencies, since the ones we have are classic examples of bad government. “They either become weak and highly partisan, or if they are independent they become monsters that exceed their mandate, create all kinds of problems, and become impossible to deal with.” The former simply eat up money, while the latter create problems and eat up many times more money. “It sounds like a good idea on the surface, but in practice it would not accomplish what is hoped.”
I queried the congressman about his thoughts on the chances of the GOP retaining control of Congress in the November elections, since this is a very hot topic among political junkies. He demurred, saying that he does not consider himself a good prognosticator. He said, however, that while public sentiment seemed to run very anti-Republican during the earlier part of this year, the tide seems to be shifting.

Throughout the conversation, Congressman Bishop came across as courteous, very respectful of me and my opinions, very even-tempered (perhaps even to a fault), pragmatic, principled, and reasoned. Throughout the conversation ran a theme of his underlying thoughts about what good government is all about, including federalism, small government, and fiscal restraint. He came across as calm and somewhat quiet with a rock-hard resolve below that surface, and with a willingness to look across the long-term with respect to political achievements.

I cannot say that I agree with Congressman Bishop on everything, but I can say that the more I get to know him and about him, the more I respect him.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How You Comprehend God Determines How You Vote

After reading in this article in yesterday’s Deseret News that researchers at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion postulate that political beliefs are simply an outgrowth of how one perceives God (see also here and here), I spent a day digesting the information before writing about it.

The data gathering method employed a 350-question survey that was used to class belief in the divine into one of four categories: authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. The first two philosophies have at their center a God that is actively involved in people’s lives, in world affairs, etc. They differ in that the first holds God to be meting out judgment and punishment, while the second holds God to be more merciful and less judgmental.

The latter two philosophies believe God to be less involved in personal lives and world affairs. The last of these sees God as largely disinterested in this world and its events, while the other sees God as judgmental, but not meting out judgment in this life.

Paul Froese, a survey researcher and Baylor assistant professor of sociology said, “If I know your type of God, I know all kinds of things about you.” For example, it appears that the more involved you believe God to be in your life and in world affairs, the more likely you are to hold more conservative political views. The inverse of this also appears to be true.

As with all thorough researchers these days, the Baylor researchers divide everything up demographically by age, race, gender, income, and geography. I found the following points interesting:
  • Almost nobody believes that God favors a particular political party.
  • Only 5.2% of Americans can be classed as actual atheists.
  • The more involved you believe God to be in your life, the more likely you are to pray and attend church regularly. (No surprise there).
  • The higher your income and the higher your education, the less you tend to believe in an involved God, and the more likely you are to tend toward atheism. It sounds like the more your circumstances impose humility, the more you tend to believe in an involved God.
  • “Paranormal beliefs (including astrology, communicating with the dead and UFOs) are more prevalent in Eastern states, least prevalent in the South.” This kind of goes against some prominent stereotypes.
  • Women tend to believe in an involved God, while men tend to believe in a distant God or in atheism.
  • “Easterners disproportionately seem to believe in a Critical God; Southerners tend toward the Authoritarian God; Midwesterners worship the Benevolent God; and West Coast residents contemplate the Distant God.”
  • “Catholics and mainline Protestants are more apt to see God as distant, as are Jews,” while “Evangelical and black Protestants lean toward the Authoritarian God.”
  • Religious people increasingly do not personally associate themselves with a particular religious denomination, although, their actual place of worship probably does.
  • God’s anger alone is not a big motivator for religious behavior. Indeed, “religion may most successfully motivate individuals through what it can offer them in spiritual intimacy and congregational connectivity rather than through demands backed by threats of divine punishment.”
  • “About 41 percent believe Atlantis existed; 37 percent believe places can be haunted; and 52 percent believe that dreams can foretell the future. About 12 percent believe in astrology and psychics, and about 25 percent believe in UFOs.” But none of what I read split these beliefs out demographically.
I have to admit that I have a little bit of difficulty with the four belief classifications. I haven’t seen the questionnaire used in the survey, so I don’t know how the researchers would rate me personally. But I have difficulty squishing my belief in God firmly into any of the four categories.

Given that all studies suffer from imperfections, and therefore, suffer from a certain amount of skewing, I have to wonder how skewed this study is. The survey had fewer than 1800 respondents. How well do the respondents represent the U.S. population? What type of person was most likely to participate in the survey? Is my belief system represented? Is that important? Perhaps my particular belief system has such a small representation in the U.S. that it does not matter whether it is represented in the study. What does this study mean for Utah? Or is Utah such an outlier that it would fall far outside of the study’s statistical model?

The researchers plan to do a follow-up study next year to firm up their findings. It will be interesting to see the outcome of that study. I would love to see the study repeated with far more participants, with specific results split out on a state-by-state basis. It would be interesting to see a study of this nature done just for Utah.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

"Scream"ing for Fame

Nearly everyone is familiar with the painting entitled The Scream, which is the most famous piece of artwork done by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch. Two years ago it was stolen along with Madonna, another Munch painting, in a daring daylight robbery from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. After an extensive investigation, six men were charged in connection with the crime, but it was feared that the paintings had perished.

A couple of weeks ago the paintings were recovered, although, few details have emerged about how this happened. Unfortunately, the paintings suffered some damage during their two years’ absence, but the Munch Museum has announced that it will, nevertheless, briefly exhibit the paintings (no dates announced) before the paintings undergo restoration (see here). Since the robbery, the museum has undergone an extensive security upgrade, so it is hoped that The Scream (which was also pilfered in 1994) will be safe.

I have been to the Munch Museum in Oslo and have viewed Munch’s works. Norwegians are intensely proud of Munch. I can’t say that I share much appreciation for Munch’s works. I don’t care for the unreal nature of his painting, which looks more like something an aspiring 10-year-old might create, but it’s the weird and dreadful emotions his works purposefully elicit that really turn me off.

The poor man had a certain talent, but he was obviously tormented by serious mental issues. He experienced a fair amount of tragedy in his life, but he seems to have allowed that to become the central focus of everything he did. He dwelled on it to the point of glorying in it. A walk through the Munch Museum is somewhat akin to walking through a spook alley at Halloween. It’s strange and bizarre.

But the man did have talent—a talent to speak to the dark side of our psyches. The fact that The Scream is so well known throughout the world demonstrates Munch’s ability to elicit deep emotional/psychological reactions across a very broad cultural spectrum. Think about it. How do you feel when you look at the painting? This work is not just something known in elitist circles; it is known to people at all levels because something deep inside identifies with it. But it’s not something good.

When you come from a country with as small a population and with as rustic a culture as Norway, you tend to grasp at anything that might be considered to lend fame to your culture, even if it’s completely awful. Perhaps this phenomenon exists in all cultures to one degree or another.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today

I was dozing in my carpool on the commute to work. (No, I wasn’t driving.) It was a Tuesday morning in early September, one of my favorite times of year. The radio was droning KSL somewhere in the fuzziness of my brain. Suddenly they broke into the regular program with a kind of disorganized, frantic report about an airplane flying into the World Trade Center.

I roused myself enough to pay attention, simply because the report was so unordinary. The details were sketchy and reports from eyewitnesses were conflicting. At first I assumed it was something like a small, single-prop aircraft. “Nasty stuff,” I thought, as I tried to drift off into the haze again. “Those east coast folks in the big urban areas always think everything revolves around them. I’m glad I don’t work in a skyscraper.”

More details kept pouring in, but the confusing and disorganized messages made it impossible to tell what was really going on. It was just a commuter plane. No, it wasn’t. Somebody said it was a larger commercial passenger jet. They had a guy down on the street trying to do an on-the-spot newscast when he exclaimed that a second aircraft had just slammed into the WTC as he was speaking.

Suddenly everyone in the car was awake and alert. The driver turned up the radio and we tried to figure out through the mass of confusion what was going on. We switched around to all of the different news stations. It was pretty much the same. I thought to myself that one plane smashing into the WTC is bizarre, but two must mean terrorism. It seemed like the only plausible answer to the puzzle.

The reports were still a mass of confusion as we left the car and I made my way to my cubicle. Before long everyone in the department was glued to their Internet connections. Details continued to emerge. The Pentagon. The hole in the ground in Pennsylvania. And then the horror of the collapse of the twin towers.

I was in shock. Everyone around me was in shock. The world as we knew it was falling apart. Our homeland was under attack. Our citizens were under attack! Dismay. Questions and more questions. Who? Why? A sense of vulnerability. Outrage. A desire to help, only to find out later that there were few survivors to be helped.

Little work got done that day. In the carpool on the way home we sat with whitened faces, listening dumbly to the repetitious news coverage. A few questions had been answered by then, but there were still many questions left. I felt weary after a day of battling with a barrage of emotions.

I walked into the house to see the TV on, showing news coverage, something that is outside of my family’s normal viewing patterns. The President came on, making a statement I remember as kind of wooden, yet filled with resolve. I was more scared than reassured. I was inspired as political leaders from both sides of the aisle joined hands with tears in their eyes on the steps of the Capitol spontaneously and broke out singing, God Bless America.

The next morning, Wednesday, September 12, 2001, before leaving for work, I put our American Flag up on the front of the house.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Using Religion to Bash Social Conservatives

Centerville Citizen cites the book Jesus Is Not a Republican, and makes the argument that open minded Utahns will not vote a straight party line this November. The implied thought is that those that vote a straight party ticket are uninformed and/or closed minded. Presumably this stupidity assessment only applies to those that vote Republican and not to those enlightened folks that select the straight line option under the kicking mule.

The book CC cites is a collection of essays that together make the argument that “a true follower of Jesus is far more likely to vote for a liberal Democrat than for a conservative Republican.” Essay writers argue that “the social conservatives allied with the Republican Party, exploit the name of Jesus to support policies that lead to injustice, war and cruelty.” Centerville Citizen extends this argument to Utah Mormons that vote Republican.

While denouncing Christian social conservatives for using the name of Jesus to sell their own brand of politics, the book hypocritically (and absurdly) engages in exactly the same tactic. This book is clearly not intended to convert social conservatives to the liberal cause, as it is merely a browbeating harangue that paints Republicans as insidiously evil spawn of Satan, while putting a lovely whitewash patina on a pastoral image of liberal Democrats. In other words, it is merely preaching to the choir. It may be intended to pull unaffiliated and uncommitted voters toward liberalism, but the harangue tactic certainly isn’t calculated to win over religious conservatives.

None of this is to say that the book fails to make any valid points. But the good points it does make are placed in such a skewed context as to diminish their validity. An objective observer might readily agree with the book’s title that Jesus is not a Republican. But such a person would also have to quickly conclude that he is not a Democrat either. And religious social conservatives are not going to agree with scriptural interpretations that suggest that Jesus teaches that big government programs are the solution to humanity’s problems.

CC cites an unreferenced article by President James E. Faust, 2nd Counselor in the LDS Church First Presidency (the church’s top ruling body) that explains why he is a Democrat. It must be recognized, however, that today’s Democratic Party is vastly different than the one President Faust represented in the Utah State Legislature from 1949 to 1951. At that time, Utah Mormons voted more Democratic than Republican.

But Utah Mormons fled the Democratic Party in droves during the 70s and 80s. It was not so much that Mormon thought changed as that the chief principles of the party changed. Utah Mormons left because they discovered that they no longer belonged. President Faust himself has frequently preached against principles that seem highly cherished by the Democratic Party mainstream.

Still, many Utah Mormons respect people like Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson of Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. He often votes counter to his own party, much to the chagrin of the party faithful (see here). But it increasingly seems that his maverick stance within his party is an anomaly, and that his work is doing little to move the party in a direction social conservatives think is good.

I do not believe that bashing socially conservative Mormons over the head with the arguments presented in Jesus Is Not a Republican is going to convert them to the cause of liberalism or to the Democratic Party. Utah Democrats might have more success if they were to invite Mormons to come and help fix what they see wrong with the party. Mormons have a good track history in being willing to take on service projects.

But nobody out there is extending such an invitation. Instead, they are saying, “You are clearly wrong, so join us and become like us.” Sorry, but that approach has never worked well in any realm, and it’s clearly not going to win many converts now.

Besides, religious social conservatives are not totally blind to GOP's problems. Indeed, they are often openly quite critical of the party. But they think they at least have a chance of achieving some of their goals via an alliance with the GOP that could not be realized with the Democrats.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Maintreaming the FLDS Church

Since the capture of FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs last week, I have read numerous articles that express hope that the communities that he leads will now join the broader society and/or will quit following his autocratic leadership. I believe that many of these expressions are either optimistic, blind to some important facts, or both.

It seems clear that under Jeffs’ leadership the FLDS Church has experienced a substantial increase in the number of dissidents and excommunicated members than was common before his tenure began. Many of these former members feel very attached to the communities that have spurned them, and some of them are actively working to improve these communities.

A whole new demographic called “lost boys” has been created, as young men that would compete for brides have been pushed out of the tight-knit FLDS communities and into broader society with little preparation for dealing with that society. Many of these young men have become net consumers of government services (i.e. welfare services, law enforcement, corrections services, medical, substance abuse services, etc.)

The excommunicated members and “lost boys” are indicative of serious problems and malcontent within the FLDS culture. But no one should assume that this means more than it does. Those hoping that these problems and Jeffs’ incarceration signal the demise of general FLDS acceptance of Jeffs’ leadership are ignoring the power of the general FLDS belief that Jeffs is the spokesman of God.

A look back at mainstream LDS history should be instructive. From the time that the LDS Church moved its headquarters to Salt Lake City in the mid 1800s until the early part of the 20th Century, LDS culture became a very tight, closed society. Actions by the government to bring the church and its members into the broader culture were seen as religious persecutions. These actions did not initially cause the church to embrace mainstream culture, but instead intensified and strengthened the power of the church’s leadership structure over every facet of daily life.

To be sure, as persecution intensified, some members broke with their leaders and even assisted the government, but these people were very much seen as enemies by the church and most of its members. Leaders that were jailed for polygamy were honored as heroes. Does anyone think the general FLDS membership will see Jeffs’ incarceration any differently? The fact that Jeffs was captured dressed in a manner that violates principles he preached will only be seen by FLDS members as something Jeffs was required to do in an attempt to escape the evil society that seeks his demise.

It was only the most extreme government actions, validated by constitutional interpretations that would be considered bizarre by today’s standards—interpretations that still impact the private behavior of every American today—that brought sufficient pressure to bear to cause the church to relinquish its hold on political power, allowing the process of the mainstreaming of the church to begin (see here). Some would assert that the church’s growth beyond the Wasatch Front also helped this to occur, but it is unclear how much impact this had on the church’s mainstreaming, or how much impact mainstreaming had on church growth outside of the Intermountain West. Also, encroachment of non-LDS culture into the region following WWII introduced a new dynamic that further altered the relationship of the church to politics.

Still, the LDS Church’s half century outside of the mainstream helped create a cultural identity that resulted in a number of cultural peculiarities that persist to a certain degree. Some will argue that this is a positive thing, while others will argue otherwise. Many will also argue that the church still continues to exercise undue political power in areas of the West that its members originally settled, while others will suggest that this is partially a dividend of the peculiarities engendered by a half century outside of the cultural mainstream.

Undoubtedly FLDS Church members see themselves as persecuted by the government and under attack from an ungodly mainstream culture, much as did LDS Church members of over a century ago. FLDS communities are still quite remote, and it does not appear that there will be a lot of non-FLDS cultural encroachment in the near future. And unlike the LDS Church, the FLDS Church does not appear to be bent on increasing its numbers through evangelism, so influxes of outside thought are not as likely to occur.

Like the LDS Church of over a century ago, the FLDS Church will only be brought kicking and screaming into the cultural mainstream after many years of strong government intervention. But the transition is likely to be even less clear-cut and less certain unless outside cultural influences make their way into FLDS communities.