Thursday, April 26, 2007

Actually Useful Statistical Tests

I always get a kick out of any dire analysis that includes words similar to, “If these trends continue …,” or “Trends indicate …,” because they are usually based on very short term views of the issue at stake. Of course, it doesn’t have to be couched in these precise phrases. It’s coined many different ways, including, “Conservative estimates show …,” “This means that in X number of years …,” etc. I’ve learned to take almost all such material with a grain of salt, knowing that I need a lot more information before I can determine whether the material is useful or not.

There was a great deal of religious growth in former Soviet bloc countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Along with other religions, the LDS Church experienced an increased rate of growth in those heady years, leading some to ‘conservatively estimate’ that membership would reach into the hundreds of millions within a couple of decades based on that trend. LDS hobbyist researcher David G. Stewart, Jr., MD explains the actual reality of the matter in this lengthy report (released this year), which explains that “Annual LDS growth has progressively declined from over 5 percent in the late 1980s to less than 3 percent from 2000 to 2005.” Guess what? Trends didn’t continue, so the ‘conservative estimates’ were wildly off base.

This same tactic is employed in the field of finances. The entire basis of the broadly subscribed to Morningstar Report is to insinuate that investments should be piled into funds that are currently performing well — because if current trends continue, you will make a heck of a lot of money over the next X number of years. Of course, short term trends rarely do continue. A one-year (or even five-year or ten-year) look at a fund’s performance means something about how the fund is managed. But it does not necessarily mean that such performance will continue. In fact, every single prospectus includes a disclaimer to that effect.

Media organizations just love to report fantastical prognostications based on extrapolations of short term trends. They do it with respect to crime, environmental issues, economics, and just about everything else. And it doesn’t matter if they’re wildly off base because nobody ever calls them on it. The forecast time is usually far enough down the road that nobody will remember by then. (They customarily work in multiples of five or ten years.) And even if somebody does remember, it is a simple matter to ride roughshod over that information with whatever is the latest sensational forecast.

Organizations that raise funds commonly use the trends tactic to stir up enough emotional response to get someone to send cash. Our political debates are constantly infused with this tactic. In other words, the use of this deceptive tactic is widespread.

My four-year-old has experienced a phenomenal growth rate since birth. If these trends continue she will be over 27 feet tall by age 50. In this case, the data included in drawing the conclusion were insufficient and were based on the faulty assumption that growth rates remain constant over her first 50 years of life.

Whenever I am exposed to some forecast, I realize that I need a lot more information before I can determine how useful the forecast is to me. I need to understand the relevance, the breadth, and the depth of the data, as well as how the data were derived and what assumptions were applied.

I found in my college statistics course that a common tactic is to work backwards. That is, the conclusion is developed and then data are selected that support that conclusion. But it is also common for incorrect conclusions to be developed when going the correct direction because relevant data are often excluded. Another common practice is to put blinders on, thereby, ignoring other possible conclusions that could be equally valid.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned in my college statistics courses was given as advice from my professor. He suggested that almost every statistic that could be cited in a sound bite was riddled with inaccuracies. Why? Because news delivery organizations understand how they make money. If they are not sufficiently brief, people tend to tune it out. The brevity required to sustain ratings does not permit for a discussion of the complexities involved in almost every study. But brevity alone does not increase ratings. You need sensationalism for that. So media organizations tend to pull out one or two factors that are likely to get people to pay attention. Or they rewrite the conclusion to give it a more sensational appeal.

My professor once gave an example of what he was talking about. On the way to work years ago, he heard a report that Utah and Hawaii had the slimmest populations in the U.S. Having lived in both places (as well as a handful of other locations), he couldn’t see how this could possibly be true. Being in the statistics business, he was able to get the whole study. It turned out to be a telephone survey of a small number of people in each state. The research did not validate any of the information provided over the phone. It could easily have been concluded that the study merely showed that Utahns and Hawaiians are more likely to lie about their weight than people in other states. Several other possible conclusions exist. The breadth and depth of the data were insufficient to support the conclusion. The collection method was faulty.

Unfortunately, we usually don’t have time to research all of the findings we are constantly bombarded with. There are many different statistical test methods. I remember only a few of them from college statistics (like the Student’s T-Test). However, I do remember the Sixth Grade Test and the Smell Test.

The Sixth Grade Test basically states that if an average sixth grader could easily tell you the answer, it doesn’t need to be studied. A study was undertaken to determine if college students moving between buildings in a rainstorm got wetter if they walked or if they ran. Ask an average sixth grader if they would run or walk in such a situation. Most would run. Of course, the study concluded that the students that ran were drier that the students that walked. This study didn’t pass the Sixth Grade Test. It didn’t need to be done.

The Smell Test isn’t as simple. It requires experience and personal research. Over time, one can begin to get a feel for the level of accuracy of a reported statistic. The colloquial version is that you begin to be able to tell whether it “smells” bad or not. The weight by state study just smelled bad. Anything that smells bad warrants skepticism. Of course, you have to be willing to be honest with yourself. Did a reported statistic smell OK simply because it supported your personal philosophy? Are you fooling yourself that something rotten smells OK?

We should be interested in getting at the actual truth of matters. This means using painful objectivity in considering information. Very often, information presented to us is incomplete, inaccurate, or even deliberately skewed. We need to learn to blow off a lot of this junk. And when something is really important, we should make an effort to validate it before we catalog it as truth.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

When Boomers Go Senior

Our society has an obsession with longevity and youthfulness. That’s not all bad. But the fact of the matter is that every day that you live is another day that your body ages.

The baby boomer generation has redefined every facet of life into which they have been thrust. They were the first kids to be raised with a focus on advice from intellectuals. They were the first generation of teens whose rebellion against societal norms succeeded. Thus, many of them never really grew up and transitioned to the adult role. And they have raised wildly overindulged kids without self discipline. (If you thought the boomer motto was, “It’s all about me,” check out their offspring.)

Baby boomers have bucked the traditional middle age model and now they are on the brink of redefining retirement and what it means to be elderly. If you have any question about that, just check out a recent picture of the Rolling Stones or any surviving member of the Beatles (McCarney, Starr). Or for that matter, just check the mirror.

As boomers have aged the market has worked hard to meet their demands. Boomers have been the most affluent generation to ever live. McDonald’s came along to give fast food to young boomers. Starbucks is strictly a boomer phenomenon. When boomers aged enough to become aware of a need to eat healthier, Subway came along. But it goes far beyond commercial prepared food vendors. The job market, media, medicine, infrastructure, and even worship have evolved to cater to the boomer generation.

(By the way, on the media thing, I’d like whichever of you boomers out there that are creating demand for Rod Stewart music to cut it out. I mean, it’s no wonder so many boomers have switched to talk radio when that kind of stuff keeps blaring from FM radio stations. Isn’t four decades of that guy enough? At age 62, do you still think he’s sexy and want his body?)

You can expect to see the trend of catering to boomers to continue with respect to elder care over the next several decades as well. Elder care infrastructure has started to change as more seniors have ended up living far past retirement, many of them eventually developing some level of disability. Service facilities such as those offered by the Emeritus chain have sprung up around the nation to provide multiple levels of assisted living.

But we still have plenty of classical nursing homes. It would seem from news reports that a number of these facilities are understaffed or are staffed with underqualified people. They are firmly ensconced in the minds of most Americans as a desperate last resort. I mean no disrespect for the people that work hard in these facilities to properly care for patients, but there is a question as to whether they are overloaded.

As the most affluent generation to ever live reaches the advanced stages of life, you can expect to see changes to more flexible and more upscale elder care models that include many frills beyond absolute necessities. Some of this change will be welcome. But the cost is a concern. As we redefine the basic level of care upward, the cost will increase. Although competition may help contain costs, this is one of those areas where efficiencies based on economies of scale can only go so far.

Much of the work of caring for disabled individuals (among whose number you may someday be) requires physical labor and/or direct personal attention. Wages for caregivers can only be driven down to a certain point before quality declines to unacceptable levels. No, this is going to cost real money.

I am getting a private view of what it takes to care for people with disabilities as my father descends into stroke-induced dementia (multi-infarct or vascular dementia). As Dad’s needs increase, we work as a family to do what we can to care for him. Mom does her level best, but she’s no longer a spring chicken. The physical, mental, and emotional toll on her is quite steep.

My four brothers, my wife, and my sisters-in-law all pitch in to do what we can. Even my teenage sons help care for their grandpa. Dad can often hold coherent discussions, but he separates from reality and he can’t be left alone even for a few minutes. He can move around on his own and does not require lifting. We have made arrangements for the future, should Dad’s needs exceed what we as a family can personally supply. Boomers statistically have fewer children than did their parents. Will their families be able to provide the care they need as they move to that stage of life?

Over the next several decades, our elder care system will experience a bigger wave of clients than ever before. It will be interesting to see how the market fluctuates to deal with it. Hopefully we won’t move toward the knock-‘em-off-when-they’re-too-much-trouble model.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Do You Like Me?

The Washington Post’s most recent glance at the 2008 presidential race seems to bear out what has been known for months. More Democrats are satisfied with their party’s current field of candidates (80%) than are Republicans with their field of candidates (65%).

Although Democrats might be happy, Senator Clinton’s high (and climbing) negative ratings among Americans in general make her less viable as a general election candidate. Senator McCain, on the other hand, has become more viable as a general election candidate, going from 28% a year ago to 47% today. Rudy Giuliani is still the Republican front runner, but his support is on the decline just as most political watchers have expected would happen as voters got to know more about him.

Senator Obama’s momentum appears to have leveled off somewhat, although, he seems to be doing great at fundraising. Senator Edwards’ support seems to be holding steady for now. Governor Romney currently commands only 9% of GOP and Independent support. That leaves him tied with Senator Thompson, who hasn’t even formally announced a bid for the presidency yet.

Governor Romney has proven himself a formidable fundraiser. But his problem courting voters goes very deep. For starters, he still has a significant recognition problem among likely voters. That is, most voters simply have formed no opinion about the governor one way or another.

But Governor Romney’s real problem lies with those that do have an opinion about him. Only 7% would currently vote for him, but a full 54% would not. That means that at least one of his negative indicators exceeds even Senator Clinton’s. Although this includes the governor’s much discussed “Mormon problem,” it goes far deeper than that.

The history of presidential races since the advent of modern media reveals that voters want a candidate that is likable. President Nixon was able to buck this trend due to some highly unusual events. (The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, who was the favored Democratic candidate, coupled with George Wallace running as an Independent resulted in Hubert Humphrey’s fairly narrow loss in 1968. The Democrats disastrously nominated George McGovern in 1972. McGovern was possibly the only major candidate that could possibly have been less likable than Nixon.)

But consider who seems more likeable out of the other races. Kennedy-Nixon: Kennedy (famously so). Johnson-Goldwater: Johnson (especially after the highly successful Daisy ad that painted Goldwater as a nuclear warmonger). Ford-Carter: Carter. Carter-Reagan: Reagan. Reagan-Mondale: Reagan (by a long shot). Bush-Dukakis: Bush (especially after Dukakis’ stupid tank ride and the Willie Horton debacle). Bush-Clinton: Clinton (Mr. Charm himself). Clinton-Dole: Clinton (Duh! Dole came across more like the corpse at a funeral). Bush-Gore: Bush (Gore has his assets, but he’s not very likeable). Bush-Kerry: Bush (Kerry was another corpse).

Multiple factors (that are difficult to quantify) go into a candidate’s likeability quotient (let’s call it LQ). One factor that destroys LQ is obvious avarice for power. This can sometimes be overcome if other LQ factors are high enough (such as charm, charisma, personal warmth, or being a sympathetic character). Senator Clinton faces serious challenges because nearly half of all voters see her raw avarice, while she fares poorly in any of the pleasant characteristics that could temper that drawback.

Senator Obama scores well in all of the factors where Senator Clinton is lacking, but this may be insufficient to win him the Democratic nomination, just as candidates with higher LQ were unable to beat out Bob Dole for the GOP nomination in 1996. And for the same reason: the ability to call in long-owed favors and lock up party resources.

Another part of LQ is perceived genuineness. Reagan probably did better in this category than any of those discussed, but Carter did well in this area as well. Unfortunately Carter’s sincerity was not enough to combat all of the negative factors that he managed to develop during his first term.

Mayor Giuliani also scores well in coming across as genuine. Senator McCain's quirkiness raises his genuineness with some but lowers it with others. However, Governor Romney has serious problems here. He certainly has supporters that sense his sincerity, but most voters that know about him aren’t buying it. And because of that, his candidacy comes across as being done mostly for personal glory. Some politicians can get away with posturing and changing positions because they have other LQ assets that compensate.

Governor Romney is quite charismatic, but it feels contrived, not natural. He’s got the family values thing down in spades, but people are always wondering what is behind the fa├žade. Too much of the governor’s persona comes across as a front for something. It’s possible that behind that polished wall is a candidate that most Americans would love to vote for. But somehow, the governor seems unable to let that man break through the meticulous barrier that hides him. And the harder he tries, the more contrived it all seems. It’s an odd paradox. But the governor’s overall LQ isn’t very high right now.

LQ is not the only factor in presidential politics, nor is it always the overriding factor. No one can accurately predict what will happen between now and the primaries next year and on through the following November. It would seem at present that some Republican nominee will end up going head-to-head with Senator Clinton, who has a seemingly irredeemably low LQ. The GOP might end up nominating someone with a worse LQ, just as the Democrats did with George McGovern in 1972, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It will be interesting to see how LQ plays in this race.

Things can change. But given the way things stand today, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that Governor Romney won’t be the one directly opposing Senator Clinton. Perhaps he will manage to let the real Mitt Romney out of his fancy prison before then, but I doubt it. Maybe his name will be in the ticket’s #2 position, but don’t look for it to be in the #1 slot.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Class Warfare Taxation Hurts Middle Class Pawns

I once had a career as a federal tax professional. I was initially hired for a project that refigured taxes for people that had failed to take known deductions. It felt good to be generating refunds for people.

Eventually I worked up the ladder and went to tax auditor school. I learned to read the Internal Revenue Code, which is the compilation of actual tax laws that Congress has passed and the President has signed. If you pop open your handy-dandy IRC for some light reading, you will quickly realize that few legislators could possibly have actually read through the arcane language they put into place.

Not surprisingly, tax professionals (and even judges) can’t read it very well either. And ingenious taxpayers are forever coming up with ways to apply the code that nobody ever thought of before. So the Department of the Treasury issues Treasury Regulations, which include advisories from the IRS, rulings by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, rulings by lesser authorities, and rulings by tax courts. While the IRC itself comprises thousands of pages, the Regs are roughly four times as thick.

Again, it should surprise no one that even the addition of this multi-tome set fails to adequately clarify matters. Often it serves to murkify. But thankfully the private sector has come to the aid of both taxpayers and tax officials swimming in a seemingly boundless sea of laws and regulations by offering a variety of guides aimed at the professional level. These voluminous guides dissect each minute subsection of the code, cross reference pertinent Regs and court cases, and gingerly explain how issues are applied in real life. I supply no link to these because they are available only by spending considerable money.

During my tenure as a tax professional, our federal politicians succeeded in “simplifying” the tax code so much that it doubled its required shelf space. The regs and guides, of course, did the same. That is why I’m always skeptical when I hear a politician talking about tax simplification.

Utah Policy’s LaVarr Webb is fond of saying that Congress is only capable of two things: nothing and overreacting. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the tax code. It is a collection of 94 years of overreactions and failure to act where action should have been undertaken.

Politicians regularly gripe about the complexity of filing a tax return. Some give lip service to the idea that taxes should be simplified to the point that they could be filed on a postcard. But they cannot bring themselves to go this route. Why not? For two reasons, which are actually two variations of the same reason: 1) Tax law is frequently used to pay political favors, and 2) tax law is often employed as a tool of social engineering.

Let’s look at an example of the latter, which is also an excellent case study of Congress’ two default behaviors of both overreacting and doing nothing — just at different times. It started in 1969 when Congress overreacted to the news that 21 tycoons had escaped paying taxes by applying legal loopholes. In its fury, the Democratically controlled Congress imposed the Alternative Minimum Tax, which was designed to make sure that rich people that get out of paying regular income tax will still pay some taxes. President Nixon signed it as part of that year’s tax act.

Over minority objections, the AMT was not indexed for inflation. So over the years, the tax began to apply to increasing numbers of taxpayers. In 1993, Congress exacerbated the problem by raising the AMT rate from 24% to a combined 26%/28% rate. The upshot is that for the 2006 tax year, 3 million taxpayers had to pay AMT. But this number was only that small because of temporary measures included in the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire. In this case, Congress didn’t do nothing, but it failed to go far enough to reign in this unruly tax. While Congress now sits around doing nothing about the problem, the tax is set to impact 23 million taxpayers in the 2007 tax year.

So a tax that was meant to apply only to a small handful of Warren Buffett types will soon apply to 20% of the taxpaying public. If you’re sitting there thinking that at least you’re out of the woods, consider the fact that some people earning only $75,000 will be paying this tax when they file their taxes next year. You might find yourself among that number. Oddly enough, some of the tycoons for whom this tax was custom built have managed to find legal ways to avoid paying it. Go figure.

Why is Congress doing nothing about this? The simple answer is that they are addicted to spending. It is estimated that scrapping the tax would “cost” the government billions next year and $1 trillion over a decade. (Never mind what it will cost taxpayers if the tax isn’t scrapped.) These numbers ignore the revenue increases that would occur via regular income tax if the AMT were not collected, because Congress mandates that it live in a universe that ignores reality.

Why is Congress likely to at least make some attempt to do something about the AMT? Many of the taxpayers that will be paying the AMT for the first time come from states with the highest state tax rates. You see, state taxes that are deductible for regular income taxes are not deductible for purposes of the AMT. And unsurprisingly, congressional delegations from states with the highest tax rates consist overwhelmingly of Democrats, some of them quite powerful. Think California, New York, New Jersey, and Michigan, among others.

The Wall Street Journal editors note in this editorial that the “easiest exit from this box canyon would be for Democrats to cut the AMT rate back to its pre-Clinton levels….” But the most common schemes being floated around ply the old class warfare waters of sticking it to the rich. Um, you might note that sticking it to the rich was the entire goal of the AMT, and that this didn’t work out so well over the long haul. It’s a bad idea to try to fix the problem simply by creating another similar one.

The other night I spent half an hour running through Form 6251 to figure my retired (decidedly not rich) parents’ AMT. It only took half an hour because, as a former tax professional, I know how to do these things quickly. Fortunately they didn’t owe any AMT — for 2006. I don’t know what will happen to them in 2007. I wouldn’t be surprised if this 1969 get-the-rich scheme ends up getting my faltering parents in their twilight years instead.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Evil Is As Evil Does

A clergyman was quoted on the radio this morning claiming that the proliferation of massacres like yesterday’s horror at Virginia Tech are due to an increase in nihilism among the populace. Although he knew nothing about the South Korean student that went on a shooting spree, he did know about the Columbine High School murderers. He said that they were capable of committing such a crime because “they had neither a hope of heaven nor fear of hell.”

A quick glance at the 20th Century reveals that the century’s most horrific atrocities were committed under the banners of irreligious regimes. But you don’t have to look very far to find people that have heinously murdered and maimed innocents while holding in their hearts a firm belief of heaven and hell. Islamic radical suicide bombers regularly affirm their conviction that they are on their way to an unsurpassed eternal paradise. Early sponsors of the Crusades were surprised by how vociferously their troops engaged the cause when infused with religious zeal.

Religious belief will only deter one from engaging in bad behavior if that bad behavior is perceived as having negative eternal consequences. If one can be brought to believe that evil is actually a moral good that will garner rich eternal rewards, he/she can be convinced to perpetrate evil with a clear conscience.

Nihilism does not have a corner on the market on evil. Nor is there evidence to back up the clergyman’s claims. Americans' churchgoing habits have changed over the decades, but 95% still profess a faith in God. And roughly the same percentage of Americans say that their faith in God is a central facet of their life as did Americans of two generations ago. There is certainly a lot more garbage available in the entertainment world than ever before, but there is not much evidence that acceptance of nihilism is growing substantially among Americans.

We are still stinging from February’s Trolley Square massacre, but a review of this list of massacres reveals that events such as this are not generally on the rise, particularly when considered on a percentage basis. What we do have are far more efficient news mechanisms than anytime in the past. Instead of hearing about a horrific event on the radio or reading about it in the newspaper like former generations did, we see it live, up to the minute, in living color, and in your face. The magnification can seem like multiplication.

Society has its problems, but evil is in the hearts of its perpetrators. We have a responsibility to properly define evil and to root it out of our own hearts. We should encourage others to do the same for themselves. We have a responsibility to point out evil and to say that it is wrong, especially when it is carried out under the banner of a cause in which we believe. We have a responsibility to combat evil using appropriate means.

But even when we are vigilant, evil people will succeed in acting out their evil fantasies. This is not a reason to turn away and hide. It is a sign that we need to do more.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Teaching the Wrong Stuff

My friend’s son, one of the smallest male eighth graders in his school, earned a three-day suspension from school administrators. His crime? He had the audacity to be stuffed into a garbage can by a large ninth grader. All parties agreed that there was no provocation for this. He simply happened to be an easy target when the bully came by.

Welcome to the world of zero tolerance. With parents becoming increasingly belligerent about their overindulged children being punished for misbehavior, many school administrators have resorted to mandatory punishment for any violation of the code of conduct. This usually includes anything that could be construed to be bullying, hazing, or violence. It includes bringing a weapon to school or engaging in hate speech (whatever that might be construed to be).

Many schools’ implementation of zero tolerance includes provisions for any party to a code violation to be punished. When my friend’s son violated his school’s code of conduct by being so impertinent as to be stuffed into a garbage can by a bully, the school’s zero tolerance policy made his suspension mandatory — no questions asked. As this was the second such event during the year, he was in danger of being suspended for the remainder of the school year should he engage in such deplorable behavior a third time.

Last month we were surprised to learn that my son, who is regularly on the high honor roll, is a member of the National Academic League team, is on the chess club, represents the school at math competitions, etc. had received a three-day suspension for fighting. It seems that some verbal barbs were exchanged with a known bully during a gym class soccer game. At one point, however, the bully lunged and tackled my son (a football tackle, not a soccer tackle), jumped on top of him, and began punching him. My son defended himself, gouging the boy’s face. The entire scuffle lasted 15 seconds. All parties agreed that the bully was the aggressor. My son was suspended for being attacked. He would have been suspended even if he hadn’t attempted to defend himself.

Examples abound of children being treated harshly without the benefit of common sense due to inflexible school policies. A five-year-old boy was suspended for violating the school district’s sexual abuse policy. His crime? He placed his head against his female teacher’s breast when giving her a hug. A child was suspended for pointing his finger at a classmate during a game at recess and saying, “Bang, bang. You’re dead.” After camping with his Boy Scout troop over a weekend, a boy was suspended for forgetting to remove his pocketknife from his coat pocket before going to school on Monday. His problem was that he was honest about it and informed school personnel as soon as he discovered it. regularly documents outlandish outcomes of inflexible zero tolerance school policies, but it also reports news related to zero tolerance policies.

School districts often back down when they are confronted with a violation of common sense, but many times they stand by their policies. USA Today reported last year that zero tolerance “discipline policies that are enforced widely in U.S. schools are backfiring.” The American Psychological Association has said that zero tolerance policies actually promote misbehavior and cause anxiety. I mean, if you’re going to get into trouble for being attacked, you might as well make it worth your while and really beat the tar out of the attacker (promoting bad behavior). As for causing anxiety, just imagine how my friend’s son feels as he walks around school wondering if he will get kicked out today for becoming a bully’s victim.

While our kids are at school, the school acts in loco parentis, which is Latin for “In place of a parent.” As a parent, I must admit that there are times when I impose penalties on all parties to a problem. If I can’t really tell who is at fault when two children are quarrelling or both seem to be escalating the situation, I may send both to time out. If they’re arguing about a toy, I may put the toy on time out. But that is not my default behavior. I try to implement some level of justice.

Inflexible school policies that lack common sense — or policies that are implemented without flexibility or without common sense — do not teach justice. No decent parent would make this kind of policy their default behavior for managing child challenges. Schools should not be able to simply abdicate their responsibility to act like a decent parent when they have accepted the responsibility to act in place of the parent. Sometimes administering justice is hard work. But that’s part of the business of taking care of groups of kids for 7-8 hours a day.

There are rumblings of changes in inflexible policies throughout the edusphere. But I have to wonder how many more kids we’re going to damage before we get back to doing what’s best for the kids rather than what’s best for school employees. Perhaps this is the kind of issue school choice is intended to address. I don’t have much experience with private schools, so I cannot speak to whether their policies are any better. But it would seem that competition would beget policies more to the liking of parents, whatever their desires might be.

My son sat out his three-day suspension. Being an academician, he didn’t find it a reward like many other kids probably do. He chomped at the bit to get back to school. We’ll find out what it cost him in grades when midterms come out next week. But let me state for the record that my experience with zero tolerance left a sour taste in my mouth.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reflexive Forwarding

I enjoy a good email as much as the next guy. Good (clean) jokes and uniquely entertaining items are great. But I’m guessing that like me, most of you are continually assailed with a raft of emails that have been forwarded a dozen times and that prove to be somewhat less than enlightening. Very often this stuff comes from someone with whom we have a relationship that we value and who sometimes sends important emails, so we can’t simply screen out everything they send. Usually I simply blow these things off. But sometimes I am so intemperate as to respond with some facts.

Let me give a couple of examples. Every year as we make the shift to the driving season, gas prices go up. And soon thereafter I get a number of emails whining about how much money the oil companies are making and calling for some action that is based in extreme naivety of how the oil and gasoline economy functions. I discussed this at length in this May 2006 post. As we are now in a season of spiking gasoline prices, I expect that a number of these emails will soon proliferate. If you get one, don’t bother to forward it to me or I will feel obligated to hit the Reply to All button and expose your naivety.

We regularly get emails that have the look and feel of an urban hoax. Yesterday I got an email that purported to contain a monologue Andy Rooney gave on a 60 Minutes broadcast. After reading the first paragraph I knew that the words were not those of Andy Rooney. Rooney often talks bluntly, but not that bluntly. And much of what was written was simply out of character for Rooney’s known political views. (Rooney forthrightly says, “I am consistently liberal in my opinions,” while the obnoxiously-toned email was anything but liberal.) It took me less than 20 seconds to find evidence that the message was a hoax (see here).

I’m no Andy Rooney fan (or sympathizer), but I felt impelled to reply to the sender and everyone on the recipient list with my insights. The gist of my impertinent response was that, while I don’t mind a good entertaining email, we ought to be people that are interested in truth. It has something to do with my views on the ninth commandment, which I believe is not a relic of a past age. Passing on lies that are represented as truth (even if done in the name of entertainment) is in my view a violation of the commandment to not bear false witness against one’s neighbor. (If you need instruction on who your neighbor is, check out the parable of the Good Samaritan.)

The Rooney email hoax has been around since 2003. Rooney denied that he originated it back then. He spoke directly about it on the October 23, 2005 broadcast of 60 Minutes, where he said, “If I could find the person who did write it using my name I would sue him.” It is clear that this lie has caused injury to Rooney. According to Jesus, Rooney is my neighbor and I ought to love him as I love myself, even if I strongly disagree with him and find his demeanor occasionally offensive.

I’m only using the Rooney email hoax because it’s the latest one to get my dander up. There have been many others. In fact, there has been a relatively continuous stream of them. Sometimes it has to do with drugs distributed to little kids as candy or tattoos (here), fake photos or videos (here), carcinogens in plastic water bottles (here), the dangers of flashing your headlights (here), kids getting stuck by syringes in the ball pit at McDonald’s (here), an LDS Sacrament meeting in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces (here), Coke dissolving teeth overnight (here), John Hanson being the actual first U.S. President (here), misstated or misattributed quotes (here), atheists banning religious broadcasting on TV (here), generating corporate donations to a cause by forwarding an email (here), or any number of other piles of crap.

One of the categories that really bothers me is faith promoting stories that are not true or that have been somewhat manipulated to make events seem more miraculous than they really were. I am not at all ashamed of my religious faith. But I believe the scriptures when they equate God with truth in hundreds of references. Untrue emotionally inspiring stories may send tingles up our spines. But I assert that if they are not true, not only are they not of God, but they are antithetical to the nature of God. The Spirit cannot bear record of a falsehood.

By forwarding inspiring falsehoods we can damage the actual faith of others. Think of the harm caused by Paul Dunn. I believe that God’s truth is so good that it does not require embellishment to make it more palatable. Of all people, those that purport to be religious ought to be most interested in truth and in avoiding the perpetuation of falsehoods.

I don’t believe you need a particularly high level of intelligence to notice that a given email has the stench of rottenness. Anything that sounds too good to be true, that is out of character, that is designed to elicit an emotional response, that requests some kind of action, or that suggests that you must forward it to other people ought to be checked out. Checking out something you are considering forwarding should be default behavior.

How do you check something out? Simple. Go to Snopes for most stuff. There is a box for typing in search terms, or you can click on a category and drill down. Snopes posts research on various urban legends. They try to track down the origin of the legend and determine its veracity. Some are actually true. Some are half truths. Some are still being researched. But the bulk of the legends have been proven false. If you’re looking for something specifically related to the LDS Church, check out Shields. There are a variety of other hoax busting sites available (see here — some links are broken).

Not everything you receive that demands it be forwarded is readily researchable. But if anything in it meets the criteria of a hoax or is the least bit questionable, I think it would be best not to forward it. If you discover something you received is false, don’t feel badly about responding to the sender and saying so. A true friend will provide gentle correction when a friend is out of line rather than letting the friend continue in error under the guise of loyalty and/or peace.

There is a lot of crap floating around in the world of email. I am simply asking that each of us take a moment to reflect (and research if necessary) before we reflexively hit the forward button. It shouldn’t take too long. And then we will at least not be party to the legion of lies polluting cyberspace.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Buying Local Saves?

We all know that fulfilling our needs and wants through the most local means is a moral good, right? Working close enough to home to walk or cycle is better than driving (which pollutes and wastefully expends resources), right? Buying products produced locally is better than buying mass produced and/or foreign produced products, right?

Not according to Russell Roberts of the George Mason University Economics Department. Roberts blogs here about this article, which describes Drexel University design instructor Kelly Cobb’s effort to make a suit of clothes using only resources available within a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia. “The suit took a team of 20 artisans [eighteen] months to produce -- 500 man-hours of work in total.” And the results are quite comical (see here). One reader shows math acumen by pointing out that at $10/hour, the suit would cost $5000 wholesale. At $5.25/hour, it would be $2575. And think of the retail markup.

Roberts’ conclusion that “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty” is a piece with many of his works, which claim that free market economies of scale are the only road to widespread prosperity. Roberts has also frequently claimed that the free market is by far the best tool for achieving the optimum balance of environmental good and human prosperity. He argues (here) that some in the environmental camp have a world view where “humans are a poison on the earth and the reason we should put on a carbon tax or discourage fossil fuels is that our use of the earth's resources is somehow immoral.” Some of Roberts’ readers severely take him to task on that post.

On the blog about the rustic suit, one of Roberts’ readers suggests that an econ professor should assign students to make something simple, such as a pencil, using only local resources. In response to that suggestion, another reader posts a link to this provocative 1958 essay by Leonard E. Read (founder of the Foundation for Economic Education) that delves into the making of a pencil in great detail. It’s also cleverly written from the pencil’s perspective. Milton Friedman thought Read’s essay was the best work ever produced to explain both the importance of the invisible hand of dispersed knowledge and the importance of the freedom to act in one’s own best interests.

Read’s essay suggests that government is involved in some ventures that would more effectively be handled by the free market. He concludes with a passionate plea that laws and society be organized in such a way as to “Leave all creative energies uninhibited” (ellipsis original). He pleads and asserts, “Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed.”

For me, this essay was far more important than Dr. Roberts’ post. Read’s example of the pencil is easy to comprehend and is loaded with obvious truths. Extrapolating Read’s main point a little further, it can be said that many governmental control systems exist due to lack of trust of free people. Of course, history is replete with examples of some free people making bad choices. But it seems that government’s default behavior is to overreact to those instances, thereby, imposing more control on those that are not culpable.

By the way, some (not all) of the comments on Roberts’ suit post are quite astute. A professional clothing pattern maker chimes in, noting that the suit was junk because Cobb had a bad pattern and sourced the wrong people to do the job. She suggests that it would be difficult to find a better U.S. location for this project than Philadelphia, but that Cobb squandered excellent resources in favor of amateurs so that she could exert complete control over the entire process. In other words, the project was simply handled badly.

It would be interesting to see a project such as this undertaken in a professional manner. But I think you’d have to go back to the hunter-gatherer mentality to be a purist about it. To see why, let’s do a thought experiment on just one minor aspect of the project. Did the garment makers use crochet hooks manufactured locally from locally mined ore? Were the machines that manufactured the crochet hooks developed using only local materials? Perhaps artisans carved wood crochet hooks from a local tree. Where did the knife to do that come from?

I have been involved in mountain man reenactment. I have tried my hand at brain tanning leather from locally harvested deer hides. I have sewn my own leather clothing. But even when people were doing this in the early 1800s, some of the resources were not locally derived. In fact, non-local items obtained through trade were among the most prized. Where did the lead for the shot come from? The black powder? The rifle? The tub in which to soak the hides? The steel for the drawing knife? The needle used in stitching?

Sure, you could use a locally built bow with locally built arrows. And you could use a bone knife and a bone needle. But people (including Native Americans) gave these rustic tools up as soon as better tools presented themselves. There are good reasons for that. People tend to use the tools that are the most advantageous and obtainable.

I’d have to say that most efforts to operate in local purity for its own sake (believing it to be a higher moral good) are illusions of reality. They are like Ghandi’s poverty, which was actually very expensive to maintain. In other words, the illusion of local purity can be maintained only by using many non-local resources. The end result is that some consumers feel smug and some shrewd business people (that may not even be local) have profited from the sale of high margin products. But if you're willing to pay for it, go right ahead.

Thus, buying local for morality's sake is kind of like a religion in which one achieves redemption by appearing to do all of the right things. The mantra could be, “Save your soul by buying local.” (Or, at least feel superior to your mass consuming neighbors.) I’m not arguing for wasteful consumerism, but buying local does not necessarily mean you are contributing less to non-local sources, and it is often more expensive. Smugness has a cost.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Political Constants

It’s comical to see the shoe on the other foot. Politics is a funny game where each side uses the same tactics commonly employed by their opponents when their opponents whenever possible. When various tactics are employed by either side, the other side pitches an absolute fit, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they have supported (and will support) their side in doing the same thing. Of course, they always have excuses about why it is different this time around.

For example, the situation in Washington today is almost exactly reversed from where it was eight years ago. Back then, President Clinton (D) was a lame duck, serving out the final two years of his presidency. At the other end of the Mall, both houses of Congress were held by Republicans. The President was the object of a right-wing hate-a-thon. Congressional Republicans spent those two years gnashing their teeth and doing everything possible to discredit the President and thwart his agenda. Seeking the good of the nation seemed to be a secondary concern. Apparently lost on some in the GOP was the fact that if they actually succeeded in ousting the President following impeachment, President (rather than VP) Al Gore would likely win the 2000 election hands down.

Today, President Bush (R) is a lame duck, serving out the last two years of his presidency. Both houses of Congress are now controlled by Democrats (thanks in no small part to the President himself). The President is at the center of a frenzied left-wing hate fest. Congressional Democrats are doing everything possible to discredit the President and thwart his agenda. Seeking the good of the nation seems to be a secondary concern. But unlike 1999, in the unlikely event that the left succeeds in ousting President Bush, President Cheney will not be running in the next election.

Today, Senate Democrats are howling (see here) about President Bush’s recess appointment of Sam Fox as ambassador to Belgium. They have their knickers in a knot because Senator John Kerry (D-MA) successfully lobbied other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reject Fox’s nomination due to Fox’s donation of cash to Swift Boat Veterans that campaigned against Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Some of them claim that the President’s recess appointment is illegal.

Pish-posh. Presidents have been using the recess appointment provision of Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution to circumvent the will of Congress since George Washington did so in 1795. Senate Democrats had no problem with President Clinton using this procedure to achieve some very controversial appointments. Of course, Republicans howled just as loudly then as Democrats are howling today.

Some have argued that the recess appointment statute is out of date. Indeed, it was created in an era before modern communication and travel had developed — in an era when Congress met only seasonally. So it’s primary purpose was to ensure posts were filled temporarily even if Congress was unable to take up the business. In today’s era of immediate communication, rapid travel, and year-round Congressional sessions, that primary purpose has evaporated. Still, it would require a constitutional amendment to eliminate a president’s power to make recess appointments, and I don’t see any possibility of such an amendment happening anytime soon.

To the average American, this is all a bunch of political blather. Most of them couldn’t care less who our ambassador to Belgium is, or even if we have one. Most Americans that pay any attention to this kerfuffle at all probably wonder what the heck an ambassador to Belgium spends his time doing.

But it’s not just recess appointments. When one side decries the other side’s tactics as dirty politics, you usually don’t have to look very far to see bold examples of when the other side used the same tactics. Republicans disgusted with Nancy Pelosi’s purchasing votes to get the Surrender Now In Iraq bill passed didn’t seem to have much problem with the GOP pulling the same tricks during the years they controlled the House of Representatives (until some went just a bit too far).

And let’s not even get started on pork barrel spending. Each successive congress (regardless of who is in charge) seems intent on outdoing all past congresses in this arena (regardless of what they tell the press). Other examples of the pot calling the kettle black are so readily abundant in politics that it seems to merely go with the territory.

I’m not defending any particular tactic. I’m simply telling it the way it is. If a political tactic can be construed in a negative light, the one side loudly denounces the other side’s use of it as a way of scoring momentary points. However, they are just as quick to employ the tactic when the chance arises, while the other side predictably responds with cries of incredulity. Nobody is pure in this.

I don’t mean to be cynical about politics and I’m not calling all politicians crooks. But there are certain games that seem to unavoidably exist in politics. Our Founders were not ignorant of what the underbelly of the political beast looked like, but they also understood that the political process was necessary to a free republic. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve it. Still, you can clip its toenails and put makeup on its face, but you will not change the basic nature of the political beast. It is both friend and foe and must be regarded cautiously.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Finality With an Open End

In the sunlight of Saturday’s early spring morning cool, we carefully set the casket on supports that suspended it above the open grave, and then stepped back into the congregation.

A group of grizzled veterans stood at attention. Their commander read a brief tribute to my father-in-law, their fallen comrade in arms. Reciting a short prayer, the chaplain concluded with words from John 11:25, “Jesus said …, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

In the calm following the dying echoes of the old soldiers’ precision rifle volleys, my uniformed Eagle Scout son solemnly brought his trumpet to his lips and sounded the clearest tones I have ever heard from his instrument. As the haunting melody of Taps slowly floated through the morning air, the gnarled commander raised his arm with measured deliberation to a salute. The ear could detect only sniffles and stifled sobs beyond my son’s self-taught bugle call.

With quiet exactness, three soldiers reverently removed the flag that draped the casket and folded it into a tight triangle showing only a blue field covered with embroidered white stars. One of the veterans knelt before my mother-in-law and presented her with this magnificent symbol on behalf of a grateful nation, along with a handful of spent rifle shells.

The old soldiers finally saluted, quickly gathered their gear, and were soon gone. Their presentation lasted perhaps five minutes. But the feelings it left will endure a lifetime. It seemed that the sanctity of human life was comprehended far deeper by these common men of war than by the most erudite philosopher.

We said our words, sang our songs, and prayed our prayers. The sun warmed the cool air. A light but chill breeze reminded me simultaneously of the hope of spring and of a bleak thread weaving through my soul. The entire affair was concise and simple, just as Dad wanted. In finality, my oldest sons and I stepped forward and placed our white pall bearers’ carnations on the casket. A final prayer of dedication, and then it was over.

As the crowd dispersed, my family lingered at the insistence of my children, even as workmen came forth from their discrete places to complete the physical task of burial. An odd mixture of feelings jumbled in my heart as we finally left the cemetery, the last of our group to do so.

Gathering at a church, where loving sisters had prepared a simple meal, the mood gave way from solemn contemplation to conversation, smiles, and laughter. Lives that had Dad as a common connecting point briefly intersected pleasantly. Within an hour, we combined our efforts to quickly clean up, leaving little trace of what had transpired. We arrived at home feeling spent, though the day had not been physically strenuous.

Yesterday evening my family returned to Dad’s grave. The ground has been compacted and the sod has been replaced. No marker has yet been set. But a mound of beautiful, yet dying flowers clearly marks the spot. Sounds are dampened in the grassy rolling surrounds. Magnificent mountains rise to the east.

As we gaze at the grave, no one else is at the cemetery besides us. It is beautiful, but is propounded by a sense of loneliness. Though I have come to honor my father-in-law, in the deepest recesses of my soul I know he is not there. I am reminded of a poem I wrote for Dad last Friday and that I recited at his funeral. I call it Leaving.

In joy I’ve lived upon this earth
And seen a million glorious things.
And found such love, even from my birth;
To the heavens my full heart sings.

Yet time has come for me to leave
And return to courts on high—
To the God who humbly for us lived
And came to earth to die.

Mourn our parting, but know ye this:
Together one day we’ll stand
Bound in perfect love and peace
In God’s most glorious land.