Friday, June 29, 2007

Is More Government the Answer to Our Health Care Problems?

A year and a half ago I wrote two posts (part 1, part 2) that discussed then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s statewide universal health coverage plan. In the first part I derided Romney’s proposal as being akin to Hillary-care. In the second part, I discussed a rebuttal that claimed that Romney’s plan worked within the realities of Massachusetts politics to bring about a health care clearing house that would simply offer residents a broad variety of health care products without regulating the products themselves.

Supporters claim that this is very similar to car insurance. We require all vehicles operated on public roads to be insured. In Massachusetts, they are simply requiring all human bodies operated in the state to be covered by medical insurance. Now that Romney’s health insurance plan has actually been in place for a while, we can take a look to see how like car insurance it really is. And from my analysis, it isn’t like car insurance.

Why do we require all vehicles operated on public roads to be insured? We don’t require you to buy auto insurance to protect your car; we require you to buy auto insurance to protect the property of others who might be impacted by your use of your car. If you fully own your vehicle, we do not require you to buy collision coverage. That’s optional. If you have a loan on your vehicle, your agreement with the lender requires you to buy collision coverage. But that’s to protect the lender’s interests, not yours.

By law we require that you buy only liability coverage to cover others’ potential property loss should you be negligent in causing such. We also require a certain level of injury coverage. You can buy more than the minimum coverage and you can buy a variety of other options as well. And you can buy your policy from any licensed insurer. If you have a claim, that’s between you and your insurer.

But automobile insurance does not pay for your oil changes, registration fees, new tires, or maintenance repairs. However, Massachusetts’ health care insurance does require coverage for the human equivalents of these things.

The underlying premise behind a requirement that each person have medical insurance is that your physical condition is public business. Why is your physical condition government’s concern? Only due to socialism. Since the public pays for a portion of your health care, your health issues impact the public’s pocketbook, so the public can tell you what you must do to minimize their costs.

Do you see the basic problem here? Car insurance does not assume that the government holds any ownership in your car; only that government has an interest in protecting public and private property. Government mandated health care, on the other hand, assumes a certain level of public ownership of your physical body. Or else why would government have any purpose in mandating health care coverage?

You can say that it is because government cares that everyone has access to needed care — that the unfortunate are cared for. OK. Is there a way that can be accomplished without forcing all citizens to participate in a centrally planned system? Perhaps through a voucher system for the underprivileged? And what about people that don’t want the care? A recent study found that 62% of America’s uninsured can afford health insurance but have opted not to buy it. Most of these folks are young adults. In Massachusetts, these people are coerced by law into paying for a product they feel they do not currently need. And they can’t even buy a minimal package. You can’t buy a policy with a high deductible. You can’t buy a policy that doesn’t cover prescriptions.

Whenever we employ government to accomplish something, we are in essence employing coercive power over our neighbors. Sometimes that makes sense. But we ought to be extremely careful about what we choose to force our neighbors to do or not to do.

Romney’s health care plan is a big government program. As Michael Tanner argues in this article, the GOP must decide in the upcoming primary which philosophy will guide the party for the next few years. Is it going to be small government or big government? The big government crowd had their turn at the helm. It cost the party big time in the recent elections. When Republicans came to look like Democrats, middle of the road voters had little reason to let them remain in control. Tanner notes that “on election night 2006, 55 percent of voters said that they thought the Republican Party was the party of big government.”

So, what is the small government approach to health care? A significant move would be to change tax law to decouple health insurance from employment. Although Romney’s plan did that, it created other significant problems that should have been avoided. Another step is to deregulate the overregulated health insurance industry. Despite claims that it would not do so, Romney’s plan increased government regulation of the industry.

Michael Cannon says in this article that good public health policy must include a focus on “creating a vibrant, competitive medical marketplace that puts constant downward pressure on prices while striving to improve quality.” He says, “Such a marketplace would be a better guarantor of quality, affordable health care (and coverage) than anything likely to emerge from focusing solely on expanding coverage.” Cannon says that two assumptions that thwart good health policy are that everyone must have coverage and that government must grow for markets to work.

As we struggle to discover how to deal with increasing health care costs, perhaps we should properly assess the underlying problems. How can we expect to develop a proper solution if we don’t understand why the problems exist? The authors of Healthy, Wealthy & Wise say that the real problem is “not that market forces cannot work in health care. Rather, public policies have prevented health-care markets from functioning properly.” So the solution is to get government out of health care and health care insurance. Romney’s plan did the opposite.

Since Massachusetts’ universal coverage plan went into effect, Romney has quietly distanced himself from it. He found that it didn’t play well on the campaign trail. But unlike his stance on the abortion issue, Romney hasn’t announced a complete abandonment of big government ideology. When Romney is asked about Massachusetts’ universal health coverage plan, he responds that it was the best that could be accomplished given the state’s heavily Democratic political landscape. And while he isn’t very forthcoming about what he plans to do about health care as president quite yet, the things he has said don’t sound at all like a small government approach. With the daily clamor for the government to do something about health care, Romney seems to be holding his big government ideas back for after the primary election.

Look at President Bush, and then ask yourself whether we need another big government ‘compassionate conservative’ in the White House.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Making E Pluribus Unum

“We must all learn--those who are born here, and those who come here by choice--what it means to be an American.” –Peter W. Schramm

Peter Schramm was 10 years old when he fled with his family from Hungary after the revolution against the Soviets failed. To his question about where they were headed, his father replied, “America.” Peter asked, “Why America.” “Because, son,” his father replied, “We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”

Since then Mr. Schramm has become a professor of history and political science at Ashland University. He spends his days teaching people what it means to be an American. Schramm contends (here) that “being an American citizen is different than being the citizen of any other country on earth.”

Explaining this, Schramm writes, “We Americans do not look to the ties of common blood and history for connection as people the way the citizens of other countries do. Rather, our common bond is a shared principle.” Since we are bound together by an ideal, he echoes Lincoln’s claim that Americans are “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence].”

Schramm asserts, “American citizens are made and not born.” Each generation must learn and buy into the ideal that is America. Our problem today, he complains, is that “we are doing a poor job of passing this knowledge on to future generations.” And the problem is severe. 72% of eighth graders cannot “explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.” Schramm notes that our immigration debate has been largely devoid of “discussion about what it means to be an American--about what is necessary to make Americans.”

We can expect immigrants to have a long learning curve on what it means to be Americans, but today native citizens are deficient as well. Schramm describes the situation. “Some do not know the basic principles of this country, and still others have embraced the ideology of multiculturalism and self-loathing to such a degree that they can no longer recognize, let alone proclaim, that ours is a great nation built on lasting principles.”

Why is this bad? Schramm says, “If we no longer understand or believe in that which makes us Americans, then there is nothing substantive to assimilate into. We become many and diverse people who share a common place, rather than E Pluribus Unum.”

Schramm writes, “We cannot forget who we are. We are Americans. This is a great nation.” If America is to continue to aspire to its founding ideals, citizens must become Americans. We will only continue to enjoy the rights we enjoy if we continue to demonstrate that we deserve them.

It seems that we Americans are not only failing our kids in language, math, and science; we are failing them in civics as well. This can be remedied. We have experience and know how to do it successfully. Let's get to it.

What to Do With Immigration

Immigration. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a very hot topic right now. And the battle lines aren’t exactly split along party lines or along liberal-conservative lines.

A lot has to do with the definition of the term “immigration.” One view has national borders being essentially immoral. From this perspective, there is no substantial difference between legal and illegal immigration. It’s not naturally illegal like murder or stealing, they argue. It’s only illegal because somebody arbitrarily says it’s illegal, kind of like speed limits. It is immoral, they argue, to prevent people from seeking a better life for themselves and their family members. Why punish people who are worse off than us simply due to where they happened to be born?

Another view holds the sovereignty of the United States to be highly valuable. They note that we are a nation of laws. Thus, adherence to settled laws is essential to the survival of our type of governance. It seems to me that this view is highly reliant on the concept of American exceptionalism, which sees the U.S. as an exceptional force for good in the world. Without a sovereign U.S., how will anyone be able to effectively stand against the evils of fascism, militarism, despotism, and communism? Many of these people have no problem with legal immigration, but are diametrically opposed to illegal immigration.

Yet another group has no problems with national borders, but feels that immigration of any kind will ultimately strengthen our nation socially, politically, and economically. They note that we are a nation of immigrants. They suggest that cutting off immigration is the wrong way to go and that we need robust immigration to survive and thrive as a nation.

And there are still other views represented that include elements of those listed above as well as other thought.

It is disingenuous to apply the labels of pro-immigration and anti-immigration to these groups. As far as I can tell, only a small group of people opposes immigration outright. Another relatively small group wants to limit immigration to a trickle. The vast majority, it seems, actually favor relatively robust immigration. The splits seem to occur along the lines of legal/illegal and strong borders/no borders (or weak borders).

It is easy for those in different camps to apply ugly labels to those in other camps. Strong border proponents are often derided as protectionists, nativists, xenophobes, racists, etc. Open borders folks are called globalists, America haters, One World Government supporters, “Big Business,” etc. These labels do little to facilitate a solution to our current dilemma.

Let’s clarify the real significant issues. We have millions of people (estimates range from 12 to 20 million) in the U.S. that have come here without going through the proper legal channels. This same problem existed on a smaller scale 21 years ago. A Democratic Congress and a Republican president (Reagan) worked together to extend amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. The compromise was that immigration laws were reworked and enforcement provisions were strengthened. But, as many had warned at the time, the new immigration law was not very workable and denied realities.

The Bush I and Clinton administrations struggled with implementing the laws. Demand existed for low wage workers in the U.S. and supply existed south of the border. While trying to enforce provisions that applied to the above board side of the equation, neither administration was able to mount an effective interdiction of the black market side. When George W. Bush’s administration came along, attempts to enforce provisions on the immigration black market were essentially scrapped. Enforcement of the border became largely a show. Only when vocal conservatives inconveniently focused attention on this issue did the administration try to make the show look more real.

Some will argue that all four presidents listed were simply acting as pawns of Big Business. And business has certainly had sway in the matter. But I think that these men have also felt that a more open border ultimately benefits the U.S.

Today we debate a bill that is wending its way through the U.S. Senate that would again reform the nation’s immigration system. Many proponents of strong borders are very upset with provisions of this bill that tend effectively toward an open border policy. Many that consider themselves realists or that see the issue primarily from an economic viewpoint honestly believe that the strong border elements of this bill effectively shoots our nation in the foot. The issue is far more complex than the labels I have applied here. There are some that believe that this bill is so flawed that it will create a worse situation rather than an improvement.

It is no secret that immigration imposes significant burdens on the communities that experience the greatest impact. We can look back through history to see this occurring time after time. Our nation is filled with districts, towns, and whole regions that originated as ethnic enclaves. Many of these places now struggle to hang onto their roots. They go to great lengths to celebrate those roots. But it has often taken generations for these enclaves to emerge from the problems inherent in immigrant communities.

You may say that this sounds rather xenophobic, but John Leo points out in this article that empirical evidence now demonstrates “that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities.” Did you get that? Devastating. Not unfortunate. Not negative. Devastating. That word was not chosen lightly. And this applies to legal as well as illegal immigration.

Leo notes that Robert Putnam’s five-year study “reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer.” This is true regardless of the size of the community. It’s not a matter of bad race relations. It’s a matter of overall reduction of trust and social optimism.

Putnam’s study also shows, however, that “in the long run, increased immigration and diversity are inevitable and desirable, and successful immigrant societies “dampen the negative effects of diversity” by constructing new identities.” And that can be a very long run — several generations long.

We constantly tell each other that increasing contacts with people unlike us increases tolerance, but this is not supported by empirical studies. Instead, studies “find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own, and the less they trust others.”

Leo notes that Putnam has been reticent to release his findings because they show that at a community level immigration causes decades of social problems and social deterioration that impacts natives as well as immigrants. He is concerned that this knowledge will cause us to make policies that will minimize the short- and mid-term impacts at the cost of long-term benefits.

I think that what Putnam has discovered is already at the heart of the immigration debate today. Some are focused on the undeniably significant and negative impacts caused by immigration, while others are focused on the long-term benefits. Neither side seems to be willing to accept the validity of the issues that concern the other side, although, both sides are at least partially right.

If Putnam’s findings are correct, immigration will eventually strengthen the communities that make up our nation; thus, creating a stronger and better nation. But my great grandkids will be raising families by the time that happens. And there will be significant pain along the way that will be borne by the generations in between.

The matter we ought to be considering, it seems to me, is how we can mitigate the most significant problems caused by immigration without substantially diminishing the long-term benefits of immigration. That is the puzzle we should be solving today.

Update (6/28/07): The Senate bill was killed today, but that does not mean that the immigration debate is going away any time soon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Voters Swat Down Swimming Pool Tax

I’m gratified that 71% of my fellow citizens who chose to vote in North Ogden’s bond election yesterday agreed with me to defeat the bond initiative (see my previous post on this issue). Only 25.6% of registered voters turned out for the vote. Even that low participation rate is considered very high for a summertime bond election. Fewer than 12% of registered voters have turned out for other recent off season bond elections.

This Standard Examiner article reports that “members of the swim team, pool employees and city council members sat in stunned silence” when the results of the election were announced. Almost everyone on the political inside of this issue expected the initiative to pass. Almost all of these people were surprised that it didn’t. I was less surprised. Here’s why.

Part of the reason for supporters’ surprise is their reliance on the Dan Jones survey the city funded to discover the level of support for a bond initiative to cover the pool. My household was among those surveyed. The survey was poorly designed, in that it seemed skewed toward support of the bond and really included too little information to develop an informed opinion. The council relied on the survey’s 60% favorable result when it decided to hold the bond election. With a survey of this nature, you can never be sure how many respondents will actually vote.

When a special initiative election is held, only those that strongly care about the issue show up to vote. Only those that are polarized on the issue determine the result. But when an initiative is included on a general election ballot, those that care enough to vote on other matters, but are more ambivalent about the initiative, also vote; thus, generating a much broader based result. So the city council’s decision to hold a special summertime bond election pretty much guaranteed that only strong supporters and strong opponents of the bond would vote.

There is also what I call the proxy sentiment. In any election, there are some that assume that the impending outcome is obvious. If they agree with that supposed result they feel no obligation to vote, assuming that their neighbors will carry out their wishes for them. From their viewpoint, abstaining from voting is the same as voting yes. For that reason, many special initiative elections get only 11% of voters to turn out, with very few of them being opponents.

Yet another factor is cynicism. Those that disagree with an initiative are more prone to staying away if they believe the initiative will pass by a wide margin. They believe their vote won’t matter anyway, so they stay away. This explains the low turnout of dissenting votes in many initiative elections. But if the disagreement side has somewhat of a chance of winning, or of even making a statement, these people are less cynical about their vote and are more likely to turn out.

Both the proxy sentiment and cynicism factor played into this election. Supporters assumed the bond would easily pass, so they felt less compelled to turn out than opponents. As grassroots sentiment built against the bond, the cynicism factor decreased, bringing out opponents that otherwise might have stayed away.

Also, it was less than four years ago that voters overwhelmingly squelched a bond initiative to build a new pool. Many that were not opposed to the pool did not favor of bonding for it. The city later found other ways to fund the pool. It is a mystery as to why the city council thought another bond initiative related to the pool would pass now.

Dave Nordquist, the director of the city’s pool, blamed seniors and a last minute push by grassroots opponents for the bond initiative’s demise. Let’s look at each of these issues individually.

It is well known that people tend to become more politically active with age. In the run up to every general election there is a huge push to enroll young voters. But every election, young people vote in only small numbers. As people get more life experience and come to understand how policies affect their lives, they tend to become more involved in the process. This pretty much guarantees that in most elections, a higher percentage of older people than younger people will actually vote. That being said, Nordquist offers no empirical evidence for his "feeling." We don’t really know without combing the election files who actually voted. Although he doesn’t explicity say so, Nordquist comes across as whining about stingy old people.

The initiative’s proponents were foolish if they thought that no effective opposition to their campaign would be mounted. They were even more foolish if they assumed that opponents would refrain from heavy last-minute campaigning. The members of the city council are all seasoned politicians who have run election campaigns. They know how this stuff works. If they thought this election would be different, they shortchanged their position by failing to prepare for the inevitable backlash against the initiative.

Pool cover supporters now look very foolish. The pool cover committee had raised only a fraction of the funds needed from private donations, despite a lot of hard work. But they pretty much blew all of the donations by funding the special bond election. This will make fundraising much more difficult for the committee. Potential donors can see that when the going got tough, the committee irresponsibly squandered donations on a wild goose chase.

City council members may want to look at this in a broader light as well. They have recently passed some unpopular tax and fee increases. They have seemingly turned a blind eye to displeased residents and to suggestions for improving efficiencies. (Mind you, I am personally acquainted with and respect a number of city council members.) To some North Ogden residents, it seems like the council has been awfully loose fiscally. The council’s support of this bond was simply icing on the cake. Disgruntled residents finally had a forum to express their displeasure. So the council may profit from seeing this election result as a repudiation of their fiscal actions, because that’s how a fair number that voted against the bond see it.

When the bond initiative is considered from the perspective of the average North Ogden resident, it simply makes no fiscal sense. The cost of putting a cover on a six-lane lap pool was prohibitive, especially in light of how few would actually benefit. This should have been obvious to council members. The fact that the council is so out of touch with the community probably portends future re-election challenges for some members.

Separate from the election's issues is my experience with voting. This is not the first time we have voted on electronic voting machines. There was an election judge hovering around the voting booths ‘helping’ people to vote. I frankly found it annoying and invasive. I’m sure that some technologically challenged voters needed help. But the guy stood there and watched me vote. If my hand hesitated even a moment when a new screen popped up, he was right there telling me how to touch the touch screen. I’m certain he felt that he was performing a civic service, but I found his actions totally unacceptable. I will see if my city council members are sufficiently in touch to help resolve this issue in the future.

I’m grateful that Utah law requires voter approval of municipal bonds. I am also grateful that a number of people got actively involved in this issue and became informed. North Ogden residents will not have a year-round lap pool, but they will have a more fiscally responsible municipal government.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How to Improve Church Speeches

If you’re an active member of the LDS Church, you have sat through many speeches in church meetings and you have likely given speeches yourself. For those that are unfamiliar with Mormon worship services, the nature of the services differ from those of many other denominations due to the church’s lay ministry. Congregational leaders are called from among the members of the congregation. They serve voluntarily without pay.

Mormon congregational leaders concern themselves with administering church programs, managing congregational finances, seeing to members’ spiritual needs, and caring temporally for members in need. Each willing and capable member is asked to serve in one or more volunteer positions. In the LDS Church, every member ministers at some level. Callings generally change and are rotated every few years.

Given the church’s lay ministry, the weekly Mormon congregational worship service (known as Sacrament meeting) does not include a sermon or homily by a pastor. Rather, following the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a program that lasts about 40-45 minutes that consists of speeches and musical numbers presented by members as assigned by congregational leaders. While children as young as three learn to give speeches in Primary (the children’s auxiliary organization), usually (but not always) only members 12 or older participate in Sacrament meeting programs.

These meetings are not the only time church members deliver speeches to each other. Momons have many meetings where public speaking occurs. This is to fulfill the scriptural commandment to edify one another. All members are expected to take their turn, regardless of public speaking abilities or interest in public speaking. Speaking in church is considered to be a sacred responsibility, so Mormons tend to view it differently than general public speaking.

Regardless of speaking ability, desire, or comfort level, there are a few things we can do to enhance church speaking assignments.

It begins with the person extending the calling to speak. I have found that much of the end quality of a speech has to do with how the leader handles asking the member to speak. Each such calling is a sacred opportunity that should be handled as such. The assignee should be approached in a proper setting and with reverence (not in a busy hallway). The assignment should be given three or more weeks (two weeks at the least) in advance. The leader should give the assignee very specific instructions that include the topic (or choice of topics), the date, the time frame (i.e. 8-12 minutes), and instruction to seek inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It is also nice to provide information such as placement on the program, ideas for resources to use, and how to get help preparing. I like to present the assignee with a slip of paper that includes all of this information.

It is also important for leaders to schedule the appropriate number of speakers and musical numbers for the program. The average meeting can include one or two youth speakers (with a max of 5 minutes each), a musical number, and two adult speakers (with a max of about 12 minutes each). If you schedule more than this, you can expect the meeting to go long. And frankly, people just hate it when meetings go overtime. When a higher dignitary speaks, make sure he/she lets you know how long they expect to speak, and then tailor the rest of the program to fit.

When you have a calling to speak, it is important to seek to properly fulfill the assignment. Law professor Craig Johnson has a great article that is forbiddingly titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Sacrament Meeting Talks. It includes some essential points that all church speakers ought to understand. Let me try to rephrase his points as positives.

1. Properly prepare to speak. Preparation differs for each person given the person’s abilities. Some need to have each word printed to read. Others can have a few ideas jotted on a card. Regardless, use the most appropriate resources (scriptures, church magazines, books by church leaders, your journal) and avoid less appropriate resources (forwarded emails). Rehearse your talk. Rehearsing need not prevent you from changing things during delivery as directed by the Spirit.

2. Make sure the meeting ends on time. This mainly applies to the final speaker of the meeting. About five minutes are needed for the closing hymn and benediction. Almost the very moment a speaker begins encroaching on that five-minute closing time, the congregation’s listening mechanisms shut down, regardless of how great the speech is or how important the message is. If you are the final speaker, you should prepare a flexible speech that has elements you can easily drop if necessary. If your unit has Sacrament meeting first in the 3-hour block, you must not end more than five minutes early or you will cause problems for leaders and teachers. If your unit has Sacrament meeting last, never feel bad about ending early (even substantially early). The youth in my ward call that a high-five Sunday, since they give each other high fives on the way out of the chapel. The adults don’t mind either.

3. Limit your speech to the assigned time limit. Johnson says that the last speaker often goes overtime “because [a] preceding speaker committed a brazen theft of time.” Regardless of the value of your message, if you go overtime on your speech, you are stealing time from someone else that has also prayed, agonized, and prepared. Or you are at least stealing time from the congregation. I have found it very useful to actually rehearse and time speeches at home. My wife has often helped me eliminate extraneous material so that I can hit the important points in a shorter amount of time.

4. Keep your sources pure. We have so many good and validated sources to draw from today, that use of urban legends is entirely inappropriate and unnecessary. Many feel-good stories that circulate are of dubious credibility. These may send tingles up the spine, but they do not convey truth and cannot edify. If you want the Holy Spirit to confirm what you are saying, make sure it’s true.

5. Use appropriate material. It’s great to employ appropriate humor in your speech. President Hinckley does this frequently. But please avoid inappropriate humor. You might get a laugh, but you will not get approval from the Holy Spirit. A good friend of mine once used a reference to a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean to make a point in a church speech. It wasn’t appropriate. I’ve heard references to Star Wars, graphic depictions of the violence of the French Revolution, and stories about boys going skinny dipping. Not appropriate. Again, why go there when there is so much available that will help bring the Holy Spirit into the meeting?

Some people will tell you that it is inappropriate to talk about yourself in a speech. I respectfully disagree with this up to a point. Some of the most powerful teaching occurs when a person simply and honestly recounts personal experiences that demonstrate what the gospel means to them and/or how the gospel has worked in their own life. A first person account beats a third person account hands down almost every time. But to employ personal anecdotes appropriately, it is vitally important to remember that the purpose of the speech is to glorify and worship God, not to extol oneself.

6. Employ the appropriate scope. Consider the demographics of your audience. Get your point across with the least possible amount of information. It is not necessary or helpful to give extraneous information that is often included simply for shock value. A friend of mine once spoke about his teenage daughter’s rebellion problems. But he included many details that should have been extremely private. 98% of the people in the room had no business knowing this stuff. Some of these details were not appropriate to mention in the presence of children. My friend’s points could have been made quite effectively without this information.

My parents, brothers, and I still laugh about an instance many years ago where a woman in our ward (congregation) said during a speech to the congregation, “I have never knowingly enticed any man.” Noting the physical appearance of this sister, one of my brothers then whispered under his breath, “Never unknowingly either!” An assignment to speak is not a license to be a loose cannon at an open microphone. It is a sacred assignment to help people live the gospel, and the information we employ should work toward that end.

7. Be grateful for the calling to speak. Even if you hate public speaking, if you accept the concept that you have received a calling from the Lord’s representative as if it had come from the Lord himself, you can be grateful for the opportunity. When people get up and either jokingly or unhumorously chasten the leader responsible for the assignment, they drive away the Spirit and they invite listeners to treat their speech lightly. Likewise, using self depreciation, ridiculing one’s own speaking abilities, or deriding one’s preparation place a negative light on whatever might be said. If you minimize the value of what you have to say, the audience will do so as well. You don’t need to tell the congregation what a poor speaker you are or how scared you are. Those things are readily apparent. When we are appropriately grateful to the Lord for a calling to speak, we will avoid these pitfalls. We will do our best and then some (with help from the other side).

One more element is needed to make a church speech valuable: the listener. Since all church members will listen to far more speeches than they will give, it is important that we develop habits that will help us get the most out of each speech. Members of the church have various levels of speaking abilities and various levels of spirituality. The blunt truth is that some that are called to speak are ill equipped to be organized, speak well, or provide enlightenment. But each listener can strive to appeal to the Spirit as they listen. Each of us can be diligent in our assignment to listen to both audible and spiritual messages. We can pray in our hearts for the speakers. Not all speeches will be good speeches. Some will be downright lousy. (One time I ended up praying that one longwinded rambling speaker would just sit down and shut up. That was truly out of a feeling of charity for the congregation.) But with effort, we can get the maximum best possible out of each speech we hear.

Although the LDS Church has a hierarchical structure, it is in many ways a populist organization. Members are expected to work in various assignments throughout their lives to edify one another. Part of this includes delivering public speeches to each other in church meetings. I’ve tried to list a few hints here that can help everyone involved in this process, from the leader giving the assignment, to the speaker, to the listener. I would like to hope that something that is written here will help somebody. At the very least, I hope it helps me.

Monday, June 25, 2007

To Tax or Not to Tax

North Ogden is not simply the north part of Ogden; it is an actual municipality that is separated from Ogden by Harrisville. In the last census it had a population of 15,026, but there has been a lot of growth since then. North Ogden’s home town atmosphere remains intact; although, growth has introduced significant strain.

As with most small communities in Utah, North Ogden started out rural. After WWII, the city began its transition to suburbia. Since that time there has been a deliberate effort to maintain a mostly suburban residential atmosphere and to minimize business impact. The city’s businesses are mostly oriented toward citizens as consumers rather than toward citizens as workers. Few of the city’s residents work in the city.

Less business = lower sales tax revenue = higher property taxes. In fact, North Ogden’s property tax rate is the highest rate in Weber County and is among the highest rates in Utah. Although business has expanded over the past decade as city officials have actively courted certain types of businesses, the sales tax base remains low and property taxes remain high.

Although I am a native of Colorado, North Ogden has been my home for most of my life. My family has always placed a relatively high value on swimming and related water recreation. My dad enjoyed swimming while growing up northwest Germany. When I was a kid, North Ogden had a municipal swimming pool that was about a mile from our house. It was an outdoor pool adjacent to one of the city’s elementary schools. Each summer we acquired a season pass for the family. My brothers and I took swimming lessons and spent countless hours at the pool throughout the summer. We’d walk down there to swim almost daily.

A few years ago, it became clear that the municipal pool was in sore need of substantial repair and/or upgrade. A couple of other northern Utah towns built new water recreation pools that offered far more activities than simply swimming. Forward looking residents pushed for North Ogden to do something similar. But water recreation facilities are expensive to build and maintain. Town officials said that the recreation budget simply couldn’t be stretched that far, so a bond was suggested. Many residents wanted a new pool, but a strong majority did not want to bond for it, so the bond failed.

The next season, the municipal pool developed a leak so bad (thousands of gallons of water daily) that it ended up being infeasible to repair. Town officials found that enough one-time funds could be obtained through a government grant that, combined with budgetary juggling, permitted the city to build the new swimming facility. Some of the strongest opponents of the failed bond were very angry about this move. In their minds, the voters had decided against building a new pool, but many voters had simply voted against a bond and not against a pool per se. Still, the city didn’t know how it was going to fund maintenance and operation costs.

The water recreation facility opened halfway through the 2005 season (due to construction delays caused by wet spring weather). In its first full season last year it made more money than anyone had hoped it would. Good management was certainly part of this, but weather patterns and the quality and proximity of competing facilities also played a role.

Almost as soon as the new facility was announced, some residents saw the potential benefit of having the pool enclosed for year-round recreation and for the Weber High Swim Team, which currently has to practice at a high school pool in a neighboring school district. A group of citizens formed a committee that worked to raise sufficient funds from private donations for the enclosure. The proposed glass enclosure would have a convertible roof that could be retracted during good weather.

Despite the group’s valiant efforts, they collected only a small fraction of the funds necessary for the enclosure. So city officials determined that the best answer was to bond $2.5 million for the enclosure. Opponents of the bond are upset that the city has called a special election for tomorrow, June 26 rather than waiting until the general election in November. Off season bond elections tend to have very low turnout. But officials say that it is no more likely that this special election will favor bond proponents than opponents.

If the bond is approved, property taxes on the average North Ogden home will go up about $31 per year for the next 20 years, meaning that the average homeowner will pay about $620 additional property taxes for the pool enclosure over the next 20 years. It is also important to note that the enclosure will only cover the six-lane lap pool, which also has diving boards. The main recreation area, water play gym, water slide, lazy river, splash area, and toddler pool will still be closed three-fourths of the year.

Bond opponents label the bond “the swimming tax,” saying that swimming is a luxury that should be paid for by those that choose to engage in the activity. They assert that swimming pools should actually be provided by private business rather than by government. Most city residents, they contend, will derive no benefit from the pool and will never use the pool. The non-residents that use the pool will not help pay for the cover because they will not be subject to the property tax paid by residents. Opponents ask why voters would want to increase their already very high property tax rate. They question how a six-lane lap pool could possibly generate sufficient revenue in the off season to even cover operation costs, let alone maintenance costs. There is also a question about whether all other funding avenues have been explored.

Proponents say that enclosing the lap pool will help keep kids out of trouble by offering constructive wintertime activities. Residents will be able to engage in water fitness programs year round. They cite the value of Scouts being able to use the pool for developing swimming and life saving skills. And finally the local high school will have a local pool for its swim team.

Although I have never been involved in competitive swimming, I have been a lifelong swimming enthusiast. I have counseled the Swimming and Life Saving merit badges for the past 2½ decades. All of my children have taken swimming lessons, and the younger ones will continue to do so. I want my kids to be good swimmers and to enjoy swimming. I would love to have a local swimming pool available for regular year round use. I will be one of the first to assert that the public has a valid interest in ensuring that people learn how to be safe in the water.

But I am less certain that forcing all of my neighbors to pay increased property taxes to fulfill this desire is appropriate, especially when there are facilities with the same capacities a few miles down the road. We the people are the government. But government implies coercive powers — the power to force our neighbors to do something or refrain from doing something. For that reason, we need to be very careful with what we instruct government to do. We always need to be cognizant of what we are coercing our neighbors to do via government.

I would love to have the proposed cover as part of our city’s swimming facility. But I will be voting against the bond tomorrow.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Is Fred Thompson the Next Great Conservative Hope?

Am I the only conservative around that wonders why some conservatives have a love fest going on for Fred Thompson? I read and hear conservative after conservative pine for Senator Thompson to jump into the presidential race. I think that the most likely reason for this is that they (like me) scan the field of 10 currently vying for the GOP nomination and don’t see anyone that they can strongly support.

Thompson has formed an exploratory committee, which allows him to raise funds and pretend that he’s still undecided about whether he will run for president or not. He has said that he is angling for, but is not committed to an announcement around July 4.

The former Senator from Tennessee certainly has some strong qualifications. But like all candidates, there are things to like and things to dislike about him. Despite what some conservatives seem to think, I can’t bring myself to see Thompson as the next great savior of the Republican Party.

On the asset side, Thompson has actually been an elected U.S. Senator (1994-2003: 2 years of Vice President Al Gore’s unexpired term plus a full term). Perhaps his greatest asset is his acting career. This gives him broad recognition far beyond Tennessee and Washington political circles. Thompson has had experience from several different angles in Washington. His early fame came when he served as co-council for the Senate Watergate Committee. He spent two decades lobbying for various interests before and after serving in the Senate.

Perhaps what draws conservatives to Thompson is his work in radio. For the past year or so he has frequently stood in for Paul Harvey. He also does a folksy sounding daily brief radio commentary that resounds with conservatives. It makes everything sound straightforward and simple — like it’s all just common sense. Being a deep Washington insider, Thompson himself knows how complex the issues he discusses really are.

Although Thompson has been a U.S. Senator, and has movie, TV and radio appeal, he has some undesirable baggage as well. Many conservatives will not be happy at all to learn that he voted in favor of McCain-Feingold and that he still staunchly supports that legislation. Like Mitt Romney, Thompson has flip-flopped on the abortion issue. Once Thompson announces his candidacy, a number of other unfavorable tidbits from his voting record and his political past will surprise a number of his erstwhile supporters.

Running for president is not like running for senator. Image matters a lot. And frankly, the image of Thompson’s current marriage will turn off a lot of voters, especially conservatives whose support Thompson will need if he hopes to win the GOP nomination. You might argue that this shouldn’t be the case, but let’s focus on reality.

Thompson and his high school sweetheart divorced after 25 years of marriage. 18 years later, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, another Washington attorney. But here’s the ringer. She’s 24 years his junior. She was still in high school when the Senator’s first 25-year marriage ended. A lot of people simply won’t be able to stomach the idea of having a first lady that is young enough to be the president’s daughter.

While attitudes regarding marriage have changed in the past generation, most Americans still carry in their hearts an ideal of what marriage should be like. We can see from recent elections that Americans still want their chief executive and first spouse to have a marriage that at least bears some resemblance to that ideal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to seem normal. Even the Clintons’ marriage seems normal enough for most Americans.

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that a significant number of Americans — particularly conservatives — will find the Thompsons’ marriage outside of the realm of acceptable normalcy. Maybe the Thompsons will be able to change opinions enough to break new ground. The Reagans did this when Ronald Reagan became the first divorcee to become president. But they were so loving and devoted to each other that their marriage seemed to be a story book relationship. The Thompsons will have to pull off something like that to get Americans to support them as first couple. They will have to show Americans (especially conservatives) that they are not the epitome of Washington and Hollywood life mixed together.

Like it or not, when you run for president, it’s not just about you. It’s about your spouse and the relationship the two of you share. Americans still want a leader that has a somewhat normal family life. And I’m not sure that’s all bad.

Utahns are Not (Fiscally) Conservative

For all of the mouth-frothing over the “blind” and “stupid” conservatism of the “sheeple” in Utah, I must conclude that most Utahns are actually quite moderate. Let me put that another way. Utah leans strongly conservative on certain (not all) social issues but isn’t very conservative at all on many fiscal issues.

Despite being quite moderate (some would say liberal) fiscally, Governor Leavitt enjoyed a very high approval rating, except among serious conservatives — a group he pretty much ignored until they forced him into a primary election going into his third term. Of course, he trounced his opponents in the primary and general elections that year, showing the he could ignore conservatives with impunity.

Governor Huntsman enjoys even higher ratings than did Governor Leavitt. But fiscal conservatives have got to be scratching their heads as they try to figure out how the Governor can possibly be a Republican. His positioning on climate issues and government spending, among many other things, show that he is a fan of big government. Of course, the Governor is not devoid of throwing a bone or two to the folks on the conservative side. But he’s a long way from being aligned with them.

The Governor a moderate (arguably more liberal than Gov. Leavitt), at least fiscally. He is Republican out of convenience (as are many legislators). And that is perfectly all right with the vast majority of Utahns. The Governor is pushing the limits (of his constituency and the legislature) when it comes to his approach to climate policy. But most legislators and Utahns either agree or just shrug when the Governor says he knows what to do with the impending $260 million taxpayer overcharge (budget surplus): spend it.

That’s a play right out of the progressive handbook. Oh, I know all of the arguments. This or that is under funded. Government needs to solve this or that crisis. If we don’t ‘invest’ now, it will cost much more later. We’ve got to take care of the unfortunate among us. We’ve got to build a soccer stadium now. And so forth. The arguments for increasing government spending are never ending. It is always so impossible to find efficiencies in the current budget that spending increases are the only way to accomplish what “needs” to be done. None of these issues can ever be appropriately addressed outside of government.

And the arguments against returning overcharges to the taxpayers are just as ubiquitous. Look at the horrendous contortions our elected officials went through to accomplish what amounts to a paltry tax cut in 2006 and a relatively minor tax cut in 2007. And Utahns have yet to actually benefit from either of these cuts.

This follows the standard progressive agenda, which implements this rule of thumb: Once government has your money, it will only be returned to you under extreme duress. The underlying assumption is that the money belongs to the government, not to you. Many editoralists whine whenever the legislature considers cutting taxes that the politicians are merely pandering to their constituents because they fear a backlash at the next election. I’d like to point out that this is precisely the way it’s supposed to work. Our representatives are supposed to satisfactorily represent their constituents or get tossed out at the next election.

Bill Bennett notes in his book, America: The Last Best Hope, Vol. 2 that; although, FDR won the 1940 election by an electoral landslide, “It had not looked that way early on election night.” FDR sequestered himself in his Hyde Park residence “[g]rim-faced and sweating … until victory was assured.” Bennett concludes this vignette by asserting, “It’s a good thing for the leaders of this great republic to fear the people.”

Governor Huntsman, riding high in his approval rating, clearly does not fear his constituents. As long as he doesn’t commit adultery, grand larceny, abuse or murder, he could probably get away with just about anything politically short of instituting martial law and still be able to win his next election. Many legislators are also quite secure in their districts and have little fear of their constituents.

Still, the situation is markedly better than in national politics. The state must still balance its budget, while the federal government, not content to merely spend your tax Dollars, has found a way to spend those of your yet-to-be-born posterity as well. Although both houses of Congress switched party control in the last election, relatively few representative seats are competitive and McCain-Feingold further insulates incumbents from having to fear their constituents.

If I had my wishes (which I don’t because I have not sought to become an elected official), the upcoming $260 million overcharge would be partially returned to the taxpayers and partially invested in the rainy day fund. We have acted with the recent surpluses as if no economic downturn or budget shortfall will ever occur in the future. We’re acting like some Mormons that look at their leaders’ counsel to do food storage with a “What, me worry?” attitude. Our recent spending increases will come back to bite us in the long run. Booming economies are cyclical.

But then, I must remind myself that I am in the minority in Utah. Fiscal conservatism is clearly not a high priority among the voters of this state. If it were, we’d have different people running the executive and legislative branches of our state government.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Banning Dangerous Driving

The other day I had occasion to engage in a discussion with a fairly large group of people regarding cell phone usage while driving.

The event began with a moderator making the following statement: “We should implement laws that prohibit cell phone usage while driving.” We were then asked to physically move to locations in the room designated as strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. The moderator explained before the issue was presented that there would be no neutral position offered. Each participant was required to take one of the four positions offered.

Once we were in four groups, each group was tasked with discussing among themselves why they had that particular opinion. Each group then chose a spokesperson and each spokesperson was given an opportunity to briefly state the group’s thinking. People were then given an opportunity to move between groups and the floor was opened for anyone to speak as recognized by the moderator. The moderator exhibited no bias whatsoever and did an effective job of drawing out opinions.

After the statement was initially read, I moved to the position that started out being the least popular position. Only three of us stood in that lonely spot on the floor. The three of us discussed the issue and I ended up being selected as spokesperson. After each spokesperson spoke, our group’s numbers swelled substantially as people moved around. In the end the four groups were very nearly equally distributed.

The major drawback to the exercise was that no opportunity was given to do research. Only the knowledge people brought into the discussion was brought to bear. No resources were available to validate the claims made, so it was difficult to refute claims that may have been inaccurate. This format led to some emotionally charged moments that tended to distort clear thinking. Still, it was a valuable exercise.

As cell phone usage has proliferated over the past decade, so have numbers of drivers using cell phones. I imagine that just about everyone that drives has seen at least one instance of someone driving poorly while yakking on a cell phone.

One of the first comments made in the exercise in which I was involved was the oft-repeated claim that drivers using cell phones are as dangerous as drunk drivers. This claim is actually based on a very small 1997 Canadian study that failed to control for any other factors involved in the incidents studied. (The NHTSA recently published a 2005 study that makes the same claims, but the link to the study is broken and the study has been criticized for the same defects as the old Canadian study. The bad-as-drunk-driving claim in this study also is only made for teenage drivers.) A much more comprehensive University of North Carolina study (the link to the actual study is also broken right now — what’s up with that?) found that “cell-phone use was responsible for only 1.5 percent of distracted driving accidents.”

This study and other studies found that merely chatting with another occupant in the vehicle is often more distracting than chatting on a phone. One of the greatest distracted driving risks, in fact, is having people under 18 in the vehicle. Eating, drinking, or smoking while driving is far more dangerous than talking on a cell phone. Some studies have found that adjusting the stereo is at least as dangerous as talking on a cell phone. Even having an insect fly into your car is significantly more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.

Despite the relatively higher danger posed by these activities, nobody is talking about banning drivers from interacting with children or other vehicle occupants, or from eating food, drinking soft drinks or water, or touching stereos while driving. Nobody is talking about requiring that vehicle windows remain closed so that bugs can’t fly into vehicles. Some have proposed banning smoking in vehicles, but only because the smoke poses a health risk to other occupants of the vehicle.

It has been very popular to restrict drivers from using hand-held cell phones, but the communities that have done this have not seen any appreciable decrease in distracted driving. Some studies have found that the mind and the mouth are more important than the hand when it comes to distracted driving. Other studies have found that some folks are great at multitasking while driving, while others are not.

We don’t talk about banning behavior that is as dangerous as or more dangerous than hand-held cell phone usage. But we often talk about banning cell phone usage by drivers, or at least banning hand-held cell phone usage by drivers. Why? Mainly because it’s easy to spot.

When we see somebody driving badly that is talking on a cell phone, we immediately ascribe the poor driving to the phone conversation. And being a highly visible activity also makes it easier to enforce. It’s very difficult to enforce use of hands-free cell phones (which turns out to be just as dangerous as using a hand-held phone) because you can’t tell whether the person is talking on the phone, talking to someone in the vehicle, singing with the radio, or talking out loud back to some radio talk show host.

Many twisted statistics are constantly chucked into this debate. If you follow the discussions about this issue in states and municipalities across the nation, you quickly find that much of what is going on is fuelled by emotionalism rather than rational thought. Seemingly lost in some of these debates is the fact that the localities that have proscribed cell phone usage by drivers are not safer today than they were before implementing their bans.

If you have read to this point, it will probably be no surprise to you that I stood in the ‘strongly disagree’ group during the exercise I mentioned. The statement read by the moderator was a proposal to severely limit a human freedom that turns out to be not nearly as dangerous as many activities we consider to be just fine. Such a ban might make us feel good, but does not ultimately make us any safer on the roads.

Rather than target a specific freedom, we should enforce current laws that prohibit distracted driving and reckless driving. Like so many other issues, we don’t need more laws; we simply need to enforce the laws that we have. Police can then ignore people that drive safely while talking on their cell phones and target people that are actually being traffic hazards, regardless of the reason for their recklessness. This mundane course of action may not make us feel as good, but it is designed to actually make the roads safer for us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How Do We Prevent Wild Animal Attacks?

My heart aches for the family whose son/grandson was killed by a bear Sunday night in American Fork Canyon (see here and here). Over the decades I have camped many times in serious bear country without any problem. But I have also been a stickler about taking appropriate precautions to reduce the chance of attracting bears.

This issue strikes particularly close to home, as my oldest son is currently spending 2½ months camping in a tent in major black bear and grizzly bear country.

Safe camping in bear country requires knowledge of the risks involved and knowledge of how to mitigate those risks. It also requires ability and commitment to implement mitigations. While we rely on the people who work in wilderness recreation and wildlife management to make our camping areas as safe as possible, it is ultimately up to campers themselves to know what they need to know and do what they need to do to stay safe.

In the case of Sunday night’s fatal bear attack, we now know that a bear attacked a camper sleeping in a tent at the same campground Sunday morning. The bear ripped through the side of the tent and swiped at the camper three times with some force; although, the camper was not seriously injured. The DWR then brought in a hunter with dogs. They tracked the bear for five hours before losing its trail.

Based on extensive knowledge of bear behavior, DWR personnel assumed that the bear was so far away from the campground where the attack occurred that the bear could not possibly return anytime soon. To be on the safe side, a DWR biologist remained at the campsite until 5:00 PM Sunday to warn potential campers. Unfortunately, the ill fated family arrived at the campsite sometime after the biologist left.

Why were no signs of the bear problem posted at that campsite? The DWR and Forest Service followed established procedures that have kept campers safe for years. It was assumed that the bear would not possibly return to the campsite — at least not very soon. The Forest Service, which has authority to post signs, seems to be claiming that the DWR misreported the Sunday morning bear attack as a “brush by,” which did not warrant posting signs.

I had to laugh at the news this morning as they reported that a USA Today reader poll had 90% of respondents saying that officials effectively acted negligently in the AF Canyon incident. Asking a bunch of minimally informed people to vote after reading a highly emotionally charged article is obviously the best way to determine how experts should have behaved, right? Somehow, this qualifies as news.

To truly understand this tragedy, we have to step back to the time prior to the first bear attack. More bear problems can occur early in the camping season when bear mothers send their two- or three-year-old cubs off to be on their own. These younger and less experienced bears can be less capable of foraging for themselves and more prone to causing human interaction problems. Reportedly, the light winter allowed more cubs to survive, but has resulted in dry conditions that has reduced food available for bears. Thus, we have more bears and less food for them; conditions that lend to increased bear problems.

From my knowledge of bear behavior, it seems obvious that someone ruined this bear. How? By providing some kind of food reward at that campsite. Almost all problems humans have with black bears stem from food reward issues. Once bears get easy food at a place, they are like Pavlov’s dogs. They return to that place in the hope of getting more food. Any bear that gets food left out by humans is pretty much permanently ruined. While your average bear will stay away from humans, ruined bears won’t fear humans. Thus, I would guess that past campers indirectly caused both attacks by leaving out or leaving behind food that the bear was able to obtain.

When you camp in bear country, it is important to store anything with scent, including food, clothes with food scent on them, soap, toothpaste, insect repellant, deodorant, dirty cooking grills, etc. in a bear proof container. Your truck’s camper shell and your cooler don’t count, because bears can rip right through those. Bears have very sensitive noses. They will rip open unopened pop cans that you think have no scent. Scented items can be stored inside a vehicle’s trunk or inside a heavy metal locker. Some campsites provide bear boxes or lockers for storing scented items and coolers. Then, even if a bear comes around, it won’t find anything to eat. Finding no food rewards makes it less likely that the bear will frequent that spot. Obeying these rules not only helps keep you safe; it helps keep future campers safe.

Why did the bear attack the camper on Sunday morning? Why did the bear attack the 11-year-old boy on Sunday night rather than attack other members of the family that were sleeping only a couple of feet away? There is insufficient information to draw a conclusion, but I would speculate that both of the campers that were attacked had some kind of scent on them that made the bear think food was available.

A number of years ago, a boy was pulled from his tent by a bear near Yellowstone because the bear was after the candy he had stashed in the bottom of his sleeping bag. In that instance, the boy received no injuries because the bear pulled the bag off of him and ran away with the bag. They later found the bag 50 yards away with the bottom torn out and the candy gone.

This SLTrib article is pretty good on explaining the issues surrounding camping in wild animal country. One quoted expert says, “We're fastidious about keeping our food from the bears, and we stay in groups of four or more, and if we're traveling through bear habitat, we're careful to make noise.”

This reminds me of how we used to hike through Yellowstone when I was a teenager. We always outfitted the group leader’s backpack with a jingling bell that we called a bear bell. One time a park ranger asked us if we knew how to tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat. We looked quizzically at each other. The ranger replied, “Grizzly bear scat has bear bells in it,” and then he laughed. He said that while black bears sometimes skirt around groups with bear bells, some grizzlies have been known to look at it more like a dinner bell because they know that backpacking groups carry food with them.

DWR personnel have a lot more experience with bears than I do. But it seems that they were remiss in this instance. Bears return to locations where they have obtained food. When DWR folks set out Sunday morning with a hunter an dogs, they intended to kill the bear, not just anesthetize and relocate it. They knew it was a ruined bear that had become a danger to humans. And even if they chased it some distance away, it should have been obvious that the bear would eventually return to the scene of the crime looking for more food. It seems that they improperly reported the nature of the first attack to the Forest Service. The Forest Service didn’t understand the seriousness of the first attack until after the fatal attack occurred.

I also have to question the current procedure for posting signs and closing campgrounds. The Forest Service official that has the authority to do this didn’t even know about either attack until he came to work on Monday morning. This gives the impression that the Forest Service is incapable of handling weekend problems, which just happens to be the time of the week when the national forest is most heavily used.

For all of the claims by officials that they would not handle anything differently now given a similar situation, it appears that they should conduct a serious review of information flows between the DWR and the Forest Service as well as the ability of the agencies to respond rapidly to problems that occur over weekends.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Human Applications for Swarm Mentality

Have you ever marveled at how a flock of birds can seem to act as a huge collective organism, wheeling, diving, climbing, and darting in a sky dance that seems impossible to choreograph? Have you ever noticed that these flocks have no particular leader?

This same kind of behavior is exhibited throughout the animal world in various diverse populations, including ant and bee colonies, wildebeest and antelope herds, and fish schools. Scientists have long studied what they call swarm mentality. They want to know how various populations, which individually are relatively unsophisticated and error prone, can somehow act cooperatively without strong leadership to consistently make complex decisions that turn out to be best for the population overall.

The July 2007 edition of the National Geographic Magazine includes a magnificent article on this topic (links will not become active until 7/1/07). The article discusses what scientists have discovered about swarm mentality and how this learning is being applied to address complex issues in the human world. As a computer programmer, this article was particularly fascinating to me because it addresses various computer and technology solutions that are based on swarm mentality.

I once worked for a firm that was in the gasoline and diesel fuel retail business. Although many people are upset at our current high gasoline prices, there is actually a very small margin in the retail end of this industry. The company was continually trying to achieve the lowest cost of product for sale. Sounds simple, right? It’s actually very complex when the multiple variables involved are considered.

The company had long managed its distribution with a small staff of highly knowledgeable experts that acted as much on instinct as they did on information. But with growth, the task was becoming unmanageable. And upper management knew that there were inherent inefficiencies in this centralized approach, regardless of how good the experts were. They knew that if they could cut product costs by even a fraction of a penny per gallon they would increase profits substantially.

Our team of Information System specialists was called in and tasked with studying the feasibility of creating a computer system that would achieve maximum efficiencies in product distribution. Once we understood everything involved, it became clear that we were talking about an artificial intelligence system that would rely on inputs that were virtually impossible to consistently obtain at that point in time. Worse yet, it would require a system that could consistently make good guesses about thousands of daily tanker truck runs.

The NGM swarm article discusses how Houston based “American Air Liquide has been using an ant-based strategy to manage [the] complex business problem” of highly efficient product distribution. The complexities of AAL’s distribution system mimic very closely those of a retail gasoline distribution business. AAL contracted NuTech Solutions, which developed a program that sends out billions of software “ants” daily to delve into various aspects of the complex issues involved. None of the ants is very smart, but each is given a specific type of task and each leaves a software “pheromone trail.” Each day, the program finds the strongest pheromone trails for truck routes. The routes are not always intuitive for drivers, but the savings for the company have been “huge.”

(Contrary to what is portrayed in cartoons, insect colonies do not have strong central leadership. Queens perform a function, but leadership is not a large part of that function. Rather, colonies of simple creatures act collectively to address complex issues.)

The discussion in the article of how bee colonies work through open thought, trials, idea sharing, consensus building, and voting is also quite interesting. Tests repeatedly showed that using these methods allowed bee colonies to consistently select the best site for establishing a new nest. Experts cited in the article tout the effectiveness of this methodology “in boardrooms, church committees, … town meetings,” and faculty meetings.

When it comes to flocks of birds and schools of fish, it turns out that each individual does its own thing while obeying a few very simple rules of thumb.

As I read through the NGM article, I thought that it sounded very libertarian. Libertarian thought contends that maximization of individual political and economic liberty results in the greatest well-being for society. It is asserted, for example, that a mass of individuals acting out of self interest on only local knowledge will invariably act collectively to produce a better overall outcome for society than any kind of centralized approach could ever hope to achieve. But there was very little discussion of political or economic philosophy in the article. It did mention how the futures market and horse race gambling effectively mimic swarm mentality.

The NGM article did include a warning; however, that swarm mentality can break down and produce inferior results. “Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it’s made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.”

And that is the flaw in pure libertarianism. It requires responsible individuals that each performs his/her part, and it requires individuals that think and act individually rather than engaging in Groupthink. From a purist perspective, those that do not pull their weight would be treated as are unproductive individuals in ant or bee colonies: they would be killed or otherwise removed from society. Although some claim that we do this today through our justice system and other social structures, I would argue that we generally bend over backward to be merciful to those that make mistakes or that have diminished capacities.

At any rate, we have a significant number in our society that cannot be counted on to act individually and to perform their necessary duties. Thus, pure libertarianism (like pure communism on the other side) is a utopian ideal that cannot exist with imperfect people. This is the reason for many of our current governmental and social structures.

I do believe that swarm mentality offers some good insights into how we can approach solutions to complex issues. But I do not believe that it is the be all and end all of everything. It certainly offers some very interesting prospects from a computer programmer’s point of view.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Oh, Beautiful For Patriot Dream That Sees Beyond the Years

I spent the last week out of technology range at Camp Loll, a rustic Boy Scout camp near Yellowstone National Park. This was not your normal troop summer camp. Rather, I volunteered my time to do a lot of manual labor to help prepare the camp for its summer operations. Of course, the main reason for my involvement is that I have two sons that are working on staff there this summer. But I also have a special place in my heart for Camp Loll, having worked on staff there the summers I was 17 and 18.

Camp Loll is situated in the Targhee National Forest. You can hike from there into the nearby Jedediah Smith Wilderness, Grand Teton National Park, and of course Yellowstone National Park. Although they built a new lodge at the camp several summers ago, the camp remains one of the most rustic and rugged Scout camps in America. It is in the back country and requires roughly an hour of driving over rugged roads from the nearest outposts of civilization regardless of whether you come from the Idaho or Wyoming side.

The Camp Loll property is leased from the National Forest Service. Compared with some other Scout camps, improvements have been scarce. Part of the reason for this is that depending on who is in charge of the NFS, the camp’s lease could easily be revoked each time its renewal comes due. Any improvements would be relinquished with no compensation. So the Scout council often chooses to spend its limited resources elsewhere.

I first visited Camp Loll in 1973 as a young Boy Scout, and as I mentioned, subsequently spent a couple of summers working there. I am amazed both at how much the camp has changed as well as how much it has remained the same. The biggest change I have noted is a stronger devotion to conservation. Decades ago when I worked on staff we knew how to prevent wildfires and such. But now there is a much stronger emphasis on leave-no-trace camping skills. Limiting human impact on the wilderness has become a central part of pretty much everything that occurs with respect to the camp.

This is a difficult task, because most Scout leaders are unit-level volunteers. Camp Loll staffers nowadays get leave-no-trace skills coded into their DNA. But the boys in the troops only get this only if their unit’s leaders make it a priority. Some units are good at conservation. Some aren’t. Although the BSA has been working on implementing better environmental skills and awareness for over two decades, many boys still go through the Scouting program without ever developing such knowledge and skills. Such is the nature of a volunteer organization.

Some that consider themselves protectors of the environment claim that Boy Scouts are so bad at environmental skills that they should not be permitted in our nation’s wilderness areas. Fortunately, our national parks and forests belong not to some elitist group, but to We The People. And a 12-year-old from northern Utah has just as much right as a Vermont yuppie to trek through the Yellowstone back country. If you’d like a list of what some of these dirty little Scouts have grown up to contribute to our nation, I can put you in touch with Camp Loll’s director, who has some knowledge of this.

I stood in a clearing at Camp Loll the other night gazing up through towering spruce trees at the star-filled heavens, seeing stars not visible in more populated areas with heavy light pollution. I marveled at the wisdom and foresight of those that worked to develop a system of national forests and parks over the past 135 years. I also marveled at the century of Scouts and Scout leaders that have worked to further Scouting values and to make places like Camp Loll a reality today.

I also marveled at the quality of the young men and young women that are spending their summer working at the camp. (Yes, there are a few young women on staff.) Many of these people are the cream of the crop and have bright future prospects. A job on camp staff frankly pays little. Each of these young people could be earning more (often much more) by finding a job near home. To be honest, my sons will spend more for the opportunity of working on staff (in uniforms, equipment, and transportation costs) than they will get paid.

And yet they come, sleep in tents for 2½ months in the back country, and work 16-hour days in all kinds of weather among the fiercest mosquito hoards around. Why? For an ideal. To provide boys with opportunities they simply can’t get elsewhere. How grateful I am to the people that made and make this possible.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Discussion About Mormons and American Politics

Jeremy Manning linked to a Pew Foundation transcript of a panel discussion titled Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible? The panel features eminent Mormon scholar Richard Bushman and a host of journalists from across the spectrum. If you are interested in going to the transcript link, you need to be aware that it is a very lengthy discussion. It’s not a quick read, but (in my estimation) it is worth reading.

The whole premise of the discussion is that we now have a Mormon (Mitt Romney) running for the highest political office in the nation. And let’s face it; for most Americans, Mormons are little more than a strange enigma. Everyone knows that Mormons used to practice polygamy and that the church’s headquarters are in Utah. Most people know what Mormon missionaries look like. But that’s about the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of the faith.

Some people know that Utah Mormon culture in the last half of the 19th Century was seen as autocratic. A very few people might know that the Supreme Court once held that the Mormon practice of polygamy was inconsistent with democracy. So the question as to whether Mormonism and democratic politics are compatible is a fair question that ought to be addressed.

Fortunately, the event organizers could hardly have done better than pulling in Richard Bushman for the event. Bushman is a very faithful practicing Mormon. He is recognized both in the church and in the academic community as one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things Mormon. As a historian, Bushman has had no problem delving into and openly discussing events that the church may consider controversial. But Bushman is also very conversant in and does a fine job of discussing current affairs.

The discussion begins with Bushman giving a lengthy monologue about the history of the LDS Church, including its relationships with and attitudes toward politics. He particularly discusses how Mormon thought evolved from highly radical in the 19th Century to highly conservative by the 1920s. After reading this, I tend to agree with Bushman that this provides a good platform for understanding why Mormons approach politics the way they do today.

Then begins a question and answer period where the journalists take turns both making comments and asking questions of Bushman. The question topics are quite broad and the tone of the questions varies from congenial to polemical. Bushman also doesn’t mind asking questions of the journalists.

Throughout the discussion Bushman comes across as knowledgeable, congenial and open. He doesn’t seem to get too stirred up by any question. He doesn’t seem to have problems addressing sticky issues. And he generally seems to be enjoying himself. Bushman does not purposefully evade any question as far as I can tell, but there are a couple of times he takes a roundabout way to answer, but only in order to focus on current Mormon thinking.

Journalist Sally Quinn comes across as rather hostile in her questioning, admittedly basing her understanding of Mormons entirely on Martha Beck’s books Expecting Adam and Leaving the Saints. (Beck’s brother-in-law Boyd Petersen counters many of Beck’s claims in this presentation.) Quinn is supposed to be a highly astute journalist, so I was stunned by her admission of ignorance and lack of preparedness for participating on the panel.

Regarding Beck’s assertions, Quinn said, “I don't know whether every word she wrote was true or not. It sounded pretty true.” That, folks, is not the mark of a good journalist. Before Bushman could answer, another journalist jumped in and derided the veracity of true sounding memoir publications in general and raised specific problems with Beck’s writings. With no action on Bushman’s part, Quinn came across as a fool.

I found Bushman’s discussion of how Mormon politics went from radical in 1890 to quite conservative by 1910 to be quite informative. Bushman explains what happened when polygamy was ended, saying, “It wasn't just polygamy that Mormons gave up; they dismantled the whole theocratic structure.”

Why did the church give up on radicalism? Bushman says, “… because the United States government beat it out of them. They were forced to the point of extinction and then realized it all had to be abandoned to preserve their existence as Mormons. As a result, everything became secular.”

This caused a significant shift in Mormon political thought over a couple of decades. Bushman explains, “Mormons, in reaction to this treatment, turned to laissez faire liberalism, having no confidence in the government. Their history gave them no reason to trust the United States government as an agency of the people.”

And yet Mormons have been taught in their canonized scriptures that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document (see D&C 101:77, 80). It’s just that their experience throughout the 19th Century gave them little confidence that the federal government could be trusted to fulfill the aims of that document. And that sentiment continues to influence Mormon political thought to this day. Mormons follow the counsel of their leaders to be civically active. They are well represented in the armed forces. There are disproportionate number of Mormons serving in Congress. Mormons tend to be very law abiding. But they still harbor a level of skepticism when it comes to the government.

Bushman found the question of whether a Mormon president would be required to bow to the church president’s wishes on political matters almost humorous. Unlike the situation with Catholics, no church leader, Bushman says, “would threaten to excommunicate a Mormon because he took a position contrary to church positions on abortion or gay marriage or anything of that sort.”

Some of the panelists had difficulty wrapping their minds around this assertion. In addressing the concerns raised, Bushman says, “Yeah, it's one of the mysteries of how it works in that Mormons, both individually and as an official church, have always rebuffed attempts to systematize ideas. There is no creed.” Bushman tries to explain that while the church leaders are believed to receive revelation and teach doctrine and practices for the whole church, each member has a right to personal revelation and personal interpretation regarding those directives.

Bushman says, “There is great respect. The leaders are followed; they are honored. People wouldn't try to contradict them, but "binding" isn't a word Mormons use. We talk about the "counsel" of the brethren. This is what we advise you to do, and this has great weight, but it isn't like it straps down your conscience.”

When a discussion about people being ostracized from the church ensued, Bushman doubted that the kinds of examples being discussed actually occur in this day and age. He alluded, rather, to what I have seen occur. People feel some type of separation, perhaps due to a doctrinal doubt or a personal difference with another member, and then those individuals work to separate themselves. Perhaps they view the situation in their own minds as ostracism, but I know from personal experience that church members and leaders constantly try to reach out to these people as much as the people will allow. They will do so for years. Often they are rebuffed.

When a discussion about Mormon temples ensues, Bushman tries to explain how Mormons work to make their temples a very holy and sacred space. He talks about obtaining a recommend to enter the temple, and how Mormons wear white clothes and speak in whispers in the temple. “And then outside the temple you don't talk about it at all.” I think the following statement makes Bushman’s point very well:

“Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It's all there. So it's not like it's hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don't talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.”

When differences with other Christians are brought up, Bushman minimizes these and discusses how close Mormons are to other Christians on many of the issues commonly used to drive wedges between the groups.

The panel eventually gets into a discussion about Christian and Mormon bashing that seems to have become a socially acceptable practice. It is noted, for example, that Mitt Romney’s father was a candidate for the presidency, but that his religion was seemingly a non-issue, while Mitt is being held to the fire for his religious beliefs. One panelist said that it’s a good thing that we have become more able to discuss religions and religious matters in various venues and from various angles. One panelist opines that all religions have to go under the public microscope at some point, and that now it’s simply the Mormons’ turn.

One panelist says, “I would say that whatever happens with Romney in this election, I think there has been a profound [and positive] change in just one generation in how evangelicals relate to Mormons and vice versa. I think the change has been from both directions …. I think that's just going to continue, regardless of what happens in the Romney campaign.”

There are many other marvelous tidbits scattered throughout the discussion. Occasionally panelists ask questions that seem to be generated by sheer curiosity rather than any kind of agenda. And Bushman’s answers to some of these questions are quite refreshing.

As interesting as this panel discussion regarding Mormons and politics is, I think similar panel discussions targeted at other faiths would be equally enlightening and valuable. While Bushman’s performance was superb, I wonder what the discussion might have been like had it included one or more other well educated LDS authorities (perhaps including women and/or people from different age groups or demographics). But even in its current format, it’s a great discussion.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Let the People Have Their Say

There are some good things about the current immigration debate. 1) It seems that a debate is actually occurring (despite the administration and the Senate’s attempt to prevent it). 2) The public is making themselves heard on the matter, at least to some extent.

Culture researcher Stanley Kurtz uses his review of Walter Laqueur’s book The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent to make an argument for getting the public’s view on the issue before the U.S. goes any further down the immigration trail. Kurtz cites Laqueur as asserting that it should not be surprising that native Europeans, who are increasingly finding themselves strangers in their own countries, are lashing out against the liberal immigration policies that the elites have maintained for four decades.

“Instead of putting the matter up for debate,” writes Kurtz, “government and corporations quietly and unilaterally set policy.” They relaxed immigration limits and ignored enforcement of immigration laws. After all, it was claimed that there were jobs that needed to be done that Europeans refused to do themselves. Does any of this sound familiar?

Those that sponsored this stealth immigration policy had their motivations for doing so. Business had the obvious motivator of cheap labor. Guilt ridden multicultural elites sought to do penance for sins such as refusing refugees from Nazi Germany and having a much higher standard of living than most of the of the rest of the world. Both camps were deluded, claims Kurtz, by the idea that immigrants would naturally accept and adopt “liberal modernism’s superiority,” which is based on “exemplary justice alone,” without force.

Kurtz draws a parallel sure to stun many on both the right and the left in America. This “soft superpower” concept, which Kurtz labels as a “leftist fantasy of a pacifist, rule-bound world” is not much different from “the Bush administration’s own overconfidence in the power of exemplary democracy.” While the latter employs force that is much loathed by the former, both are based in the delusion of the universal appeal and impending contagious spread of democracy throughout the benighted portions of the globe.

I admire the motto of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff: “Free people and free markets.” Along with WSJ editors, many promote a purely economic view of the immigration issue, as does GMU economist Don Boudreaux. In this post concerning illegal immigrants, he challenges, “Imagine how much higher still their earnings and their rates of employment, homeownership, and education would be if no employer had to fear prosecution for the "crime" of hiring any willing worker.”

Taking exception with this view, Kurtz writes, “Laqueur rejects the cultural blindness of economic elites who see immigration in strictly market terms. He rejects racism and xenophobia as explanations of failed Muslim integration, in favor of a cultural account. He rejects economic explanations for the decline of Europe itself, insisting instead that the erosion of strong families, relativism, and a loss of faith in the future are at the root of Europe’s problems.”

To put it bluntly, Kurtz says, “Culture counts.” He cites Heather MacDonald’s recent article entitled Hispanic Family Values? as evidence that today’s class of illegal immigrants bring problems far different and far more severe than did the Irish and Italian immigrants of a century ago. Kurtz is suggesting that just as European democracy will probably not ultimately survive the immigration that has occurred over the past four decades, American democracy is threatened by our current influx of Hispanic immigrants.

Of course, the easy thing to do is to label this kind of rhetoric racist, nativist, ethnophobic, or whatever other debate-stopping label you want to apply. But the fact is that many Americans have legitimate and serious concerns about unrestricted immigration. And for many of these people it goes far beyond xenophobia. They believe democracy is in peril and that national security is at risk. And there are more than just a handful of people on the fringe that think this way. Many Americans want serious enforcement of our nation’s borders. And they want it now.

We need a healthy public debate on the immigration issue in America. It is unwise to continue a de facto open border policy without first having an honest debate about it. We need to engage in this debate without the unhelpful practice of hurling epithets at people that think differently about the issue. More than anything, we need to arrive at sound public policy that has the goal of doing what is ultimately best for our nation.