Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Did You Expect Them Not to Increase Taxes?

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) — a tax initially intended to stick it to a very few wealthy taxpayers — is now coming around to stick it to millions of middle class taxpayers. The good thing is that many politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize that the AMT is a problem. The bad news is that the main plan being pushed to correct the AMT problem would create more problems that it resolves.

Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) has a plan that would simultaneously “fix” the AMT and lower corporate income tax rates by significantly raising taxes on investors, along with a host of other tax-raising tweaks. In this WSJ op-ed article, Rangel defends his plan as reflecting the “reality” and “painful choices” that must be made to effect tax reform.

Rangel argues that his bill is not a tax increase because the Joint Committee on Taxation has certified it as being revenue neutral. This is a favorite tactic of politicians — to claim that a tax increase is not a tax increase because it is anticipated to raise no more revenue than the current plan.

Rep. Rangel also says that his bill provides tax cuts “to some 90 million Americans.” This is laughable, because the bill only cuts a tax that these people should never have been subjected to in the first place. Most of these people are currently blissfully unaware that unless Congress acts to repeal the problem it created in 1969 and allowed to fester since then, the IRS will soon be expecting them to cough up taxes they should never owe.

In this light, economist Don Boudreaux’s comments are appropriate. Boudreaux writes:

“So, given that the current operation of the AMT is a mistake, why do Rep. Charles Rangel and so many others talk of the need to "pay for" fixing the AMT? A merchant who mistakenly overcharges customers is obliged to refund the money and stop overcharging, period. This obligation kicks in whether or not the merchant devises some way of replacing the revenue that he loses by correcting his mistake.”

The AMT reduction must be “paid for,” according to Rangel and his fellow travelers, with tax increases. He derides those that suggest that tax increases are not needed, challenging them to “to lay out a precise plan for how they will pay for the ongoing war in Iraq, the commitments to our veterans, much-needed improvements in our infrastructure. [sic] and investments in our health-care and education systems.” That’s a flowery way of saying that federal spending must necessarily increase.

Former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont replies to Rangel’s challenge in this WSJ article. Du Pont notes that tax cuts have brought in more revenue than tax increases. (The GOP likes to note this. It’s too bad that they didn’t figure out when they controlled Congress that increased revenues don’t play as well with voters as does actual spending reduction.)

Du Pont does the math and concludes that simply dumping the AMT for middle class taxpayers won’t result in revenue decreases. Although Rangel’s bill would be revenue-neutral, du Pont notes that it includes a $3.5 billion tax increase that would actually result in reduced revenues. The problem, suggests du Pont, is an ideological one. Politicians on the left believe in increasing taxes and exerting more control over taxpayers, even if it results in reduced revenues.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) thinks Americans ought to have a choice of how they are taxed. He has introduced a bill that would allow taxpayers to choose between two plans. Either be taxed under the current system as it is, or choose his proposed flatter tax plan. Under the plan, those with incomes under $100K pay 10%, and those with higher incomes pay 25%. There is a $25K standard deduction and a $3500 per person exemption. But that’s it. While there are no other add-ons, like AMT, there are also no other credits or deductions.

Critics of Ryan’s plan say that it would force people to figure their taxes under both plans in order to make a choice. This is a rather silly objection. Once taxes are figured under the existing system, anyone with a cheap calculator could also figure their taxes under Ryan’s flat tax plan in less than 60 seconds. OK, it might take two minutes if you’re math challenged.

For those that want to get rid of the IRS completely, the Ryan choice might seem like an offer to choose whether you want to be shot at sunrise or at sunset. But it probably offers the most reasonable way to actually get to a flat tax situation. Politicians have been saying for years that people won’t abide a flat tax because they will never give up their mortgage deduction (or child tax credit, or whatever). Here is a chance to let people decide for themselves.

Ryan’s bill faces a nearly impossible challenge in the current congress. He will be lucky to get any kind of committee hearing on it, let alone an actual committee vote, a floor vote, or consideration in the Senate. Rangel’s bill, on the other hand, has the backing of the House majority leadership. It is possible that it could make it through the House. It is somewhat less likely that it could survive the Senate in the form favored by House leadership. And even if it gets to that point, Pres. Bush will no doubt veto it.

That would be OK by congressional Democrats, who would then argue that the evil president refused to provide needed relief to middle class taxpayers. Many voters are not so dumb that they can’t see a tax increase through political smoke and mirrors, so this strategy could backfire. Du Pont suggests that “the 2008 elections could lead to a very different outcome, for the Rangel bill shows in which direction tax policy will proceed if there is a Democratic president and Congress in 2009.”

Here's an interesting idea. Why not drop the AMT and cut federal spending? If politicians like Rep. Rangel refuse to admit that cutting taxes increases revenues and that cutting the AMT must be “paid for,” why not cut spending to “pay for” the cut? Or are the Democrats as bad as former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), who insisted that there was just no more waste to cut out of the federal budget?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Where Have All the Hunters Gone?

I’m not a hunter, although, I have been hunting and I do own firearms. I seldom fire my weapons. I seldom have ammunition on hand. I’ve been through formal training, but frankly, I’m a lousy shot. When I hit a target I’m aiming at, it’s a fluke. Consequently I’ve never shot an animal in my life. In fact, I don’t recall that I’ve ever even aimed at an animal.

But I have been on hunts where others have bagged their prey. I’ve participated in the work of gutting, skinning, and butchering wild animals that have been taken down by hunters. I’ve been involved in tanning animal hides. I’ve sampled my share of wild meat; some good, and some not so good. There’s nothing quite like a good elk steak, but I doubt I’ll ever be tempted to sample bear meat again as long as I live.

I’ve been surrounded by avid hunters throughout my life, but for some reason, it has never rubbed off on me. I enjoy hiking and camping in the back country. I enjoy seeing wildlife. But I harbor no yen for seriously stalking them or for killing them.

Hunting runs deep on my maternal side. My grandparents had a dozen children over a 20-year span. My mom was one of the youngest children, so I have cousins that are close to her age. After a horrific struggle with cancer, my grandfather died just a few months prior to my birth. Since we didn’t live close to extended family members, I didn’t hear about Grandpa from my cousins. I grew up knowing almost nothing about him.

A few years ago my mother’s extended family held a reunion. Some of my older cousins got up and talked about Grandpa and Grandma. And I’ve been reading a book a cousin recently published of letters between Grandma and Grandpa. It turns out that my grandpa was an extremely avid hunter. That explains the love my uncles and some of my cousins have for hunting. Apparently hunting was quite a ritual for Grandpa and his male descendants until he became incapacitated.

Although my dad grew up with access to firearms, his family apparently were not hunters. His father ran an electricity plant. When we got old enough, dad helped us obtain firearms and helped us learn how to shoot them. But dad never took us hunting. So, although Mom came from a hunting family, Dad did not. Three of my brothers were more serious about hunting than me, but as far as I know, none of us has been hunting for years. It seems that this is something that is passed from fathers to sons, and that didn’t happen for me. (I’m not saying that I regret it.)

Apparently this pattern is quite common in the US. November’s edition of National Geographic Magazine includes a very fine article about hunting. Its author, Robert M. Poole, is himself a lifelong hunter, so the article avoids some of the common environmentalist disgust for hunting in general.

Poole admits that there are plenty of irresponsible hunters out and about. (It chaps my hide whenever I see bullet holes in signs.) But one of the article’s main points is that hunters have become an essential part of maintaining wildlife populations. Besides the $1.86 billion they put into licenses and taxes annually, they contribute about $280 million through hunters’ organizations for wildlife rehabilitation and maintenance. On top of that, they put in many hours of volunteer time.

Hunters’ organizations “sponsor scientific research,” “maintain important habitat,” and work to expand wildlife habitat. They also sponsor public information campaigns about conservation. Poole quotes a man involved in these projects as saying, “It’s the hunters who keep most of these species going. They put in the money, and they put in the hours. Hunters really care about what happens.”

In his article, Poole explores the various reasons for the steady decline in the number of hunters to its current level of about 5% of the adult population. Land ownership patterns — and therefore land usage and accessibility patterns — have changed in recent decades. It’s harder to go hunting. Good hunting grounds are now often enclosed in private reserves, where it costs a chunk of change to hunt. An expanding population has people living where hunters roamed freely only a few years ago.

It’s also getting a lot more expensive to hunt, apart from the cost of accessing private property. For most people, the days are long past when a guy could leave work, drive a few minutes, and hop out of his truck with a rifle slung over his shoulder to go hunting. It costs a pretty penny to get properly outfitted with firearms, ammo, safety gear, and good outdoor wear.

Poole has anthropologist Wade Davis elevating hunting to a mystical religion that binds humans to wildlife. Indeed, he calls hunting “the basis of religion.” Reminiscent of the new age religion fad, Davis comes across as evangelizing for a return to this mysticism so that we can bond with and understand nature. I can understand Davis’ argument, but as an outdoorsman that doesn’t hunt, I don’t quite buy it.

Still, the declining number of hunters has a real impact. Wildlife managers know that many species rely upon hunters to survive. What happens to wildlife habitat and populations as the dollars and the work that sustain them dry up? The number of wildlife watchers is on the rise, but Poole notes that it is too soon to tell whether they will contribute enough to make up for the loss of hunting and fishing revenues.

I have no problem with people hunting responsibly and legally. Poole’s article reminds me of my lifelong sympathy for this avocation. He makes me want to do more to help sustain wildlife habitats and populations. But he does not make me want to get my rifle and go hunting. The passion for that seems to have been lost between my grandfather’s generation and mine.

Friday, October 26, 2007

An Interesting but Scary Game

The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger hails Rudy Giuliani’s address to last weekend’s Values Voter Summit as an example of “adult politics” in this article. Giuliani told social conservatives that he’s not going to pretend he’s something he’s not, but that he will offer them respect and a fair shake for their ideas.

That’s got to sound pretty good. Rudy’s clearly not one of them, but values voters have been regularly dismissed and ridiculed, as if their concerns mean nothing. Giuliani is saying that, although he doesn’t share their concerns, he can work with them and help them advance their agenda. What more could they want?

Henninger, however, basically accuses the values voters of being far less than mature. He notes, “A straw poll taken after the candidates' speeches put Mr. Giuliani next to dead last, before John McCain but well behind the attendees' top choice, former Baptist minister and future talk-show star Mike Huckabee.” (Note to Henninger: dissing these people’s opinions is not going to endear them to your segment of the GOP.)

Political science professor Paul Kengor (Grove City College) has a completely different view than Henninger. And it basically points out the significant split between the GOP’s social conservatives and other GOP players (including fiscal conservatives and business).

Kengor argues for a litmus test on abortion and right-to-life issues for the GOP’s nominee. “The president is the leader of his party. With a President Giuliani, neither of the two party leaderships would be pro-life. That would be devastating to the cause of life,” writes Kengor.

Henninger, representing the more economically motivated arm of the party, fails to comprehend exactly how important life issues are to many values voters. They are willing to die on this hill, as the saying goes. Kengor puts it rather succinctly. He writes that “the principled pro-life evangelicals and Catholics threatening to stay home or bolt to a third party if Rudy wins the nomination” fully understand that this would result in “electing Hillary Clinton.”

But Kengor explains that hard line values voters find this scenario more acceptable than “a pro-choice Republican president.” The threat to let Hillary win, he says, is an attempt “to stop a train wreck before it happens.” Kengor means that this threat is no bluff; it’s a promise.

If values voters can’t strong-arm the rest of the GOP into nominating a clearly pro-life candidate, enough of them will not vote GOP to throw the election to the Democrats. They believe that this will serve a higher good than having a GOP president that could help their cause but that isn’t pro-life.

Social conservatives know they have no home in the Democratic Party, regardless of the rhetoric coming from some corners of the party. Now they feel that they are on the verge of being marginalized in the GOP as well, despite all the sacrifices they have made for the party. The alliance between social conservatives and the other factions of the GOP has been rather uneasy from the start. This is another skirmish in the ongoing battle. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Democrats find themselves in a difficult position. While they can smile with schadenfreude at the GOP’s internal struggles, they can only hope that the party tears itself asunder if Giuliani wins the nomination. But then they must live with the fear that Giuliani would then prove to be a formidable opponent that could draw significant numbers of independents and even registered party members after him — maybe even enough to make up for the loss of social conservative hardliners.

If that were to happen, it would prove bad for both Democrats and social conservatives. Democrats because they would lose the White House yet again. Social conservatives because it would prove that the GOP doesn’t really need them, so they would be further marginalized. Still, there’s no way of knowing at this point what course events will run.

Politics can be an interesting game to watch. Except that the spectator must live with the horror that the game’s outcome will likely have a significant impact on her/his own life and the lives of many others. The horror wouldn’t be so bad if government played a much smaller role in our lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pawns In Putin's Dangerous Game

The Don Corleone of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is playing a game intended to simultaneously injure two major opponents without costing him much at all. For an explanation of why I refer to Putin as a mob boss, see this excellent July 2007 article by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
Kasparov sounded alarming enough in July, but in light of Putin’s subsequent positioning to be the de facto boss of Russia for at least the next dozen years (a run of two decades), Kasparov is probably a little mild.

Now Michael Ledeen has a cleverly worded article that describes what the sly Putin is up to on the international scene. Whether one agrees with Ledeen or not, his article is pleasurable enough to read that I almost don’t want to give away his conclusions. But the gist of it is that Putin is using sleight of hand to dupe the U.S. (or Israel if that fails) into bombing Iran.

Putin’s plan, maintains Ledeen, is to get “the Americans to face the choice so elegantly stated by Sarkozy and Kouchner: Iran with the bomb, or bomb Iran.” Ledeen says that the “complicated stratagem can easily derail.” But what exactly does Putin have to lose if it does fail? Although he won’t have succeeded in destroying the Iranian regime while appearing to have stayed above the fray, he won’t be worse off than he is today. He’ll just have to try a different strategy.

The eerie thing is that it looks like the game is currently going the way Putin wants it to go. The Iranians are working hard (with Russia’s help) to assert their obnoxious dangerousness. The U.S. and its allies are growing increasingly restless with this situation. If they act militarily, Iran will be humbled, but the U.S. will face harsh international and domestic criticism for its actions.

Nobody will blame Russia. In fact, Russia will appear to be standing on the sidelines as the situation spirals downward, sounding like the voice of reason. The cost to Putin if it works out this way will have been relatively minor. And with Iran out of the way, Putin will be able to extend and tighten his grasp in the region.

Why is the U.S. playing so easily into Putin’s hand? Why are we acting like a playing piece on Putin’s chessboard? Shouldn’t we act like a player and turn this dangerous game around before it goes any further?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's #1?

Various lawn signs around town proclaim, “I’m For 1,” “Vote No On 1,” “Vote Yes On 1,” etc, in a variety of colors and designs. One of my kids asked the other day what the signs were all about. I explained that they are actually about two separate issues. I briefly explained the two issues, but my son still seemed confused.

Not only are kids confused about this; it seems that many voters are confused as well. Part of this is because both issues are called something-or-other 1.

Referendum No. 1 is the statewide school voucher referendum that has been making big headlines and getting into everybody’s faces.

If you live in Davis, Weber, or the southern end of Box Elder County, you will also see Opinion Question 1 on your ballot. This would authorize a .25% sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. Most of the money raised would go to fund light rail and commuter rail, while the remainder would go to “a myriad of road projects in Weber and Davis counties,” according to Stephen G. Handy of the Northern Utah Transportation Alliance (see SE article).

Some cities are not excited about yet another sales tax increase to fund UTA projects (see D-News article). Voters already approved a similar increase for the same projects just a few years ago. However, most cities along the Wasatch Front have endorsed increasing your taxes. Does anyone find it surprising that most government entities favor increasing your taxes?

So, here’s the scoop:

Vote yes on Referendum No. 1 if you want parents to have more choice in their kids’ education. Vote no on it if you want government to retain a stranglehold monopoly on education. I mean, government schools do such a fine job that test scores have been steadily declining over the past four decades even as per-student expenditures in real dollars have more than doubled.

Vote yes on Opinion Question 1 if you think you and your neighbors don’t pay enough taxes; if you’re not satisfied with only giving more of your money to government, but also think your neighbors (even the poorest among us) should cough up more of their hard-earned dollars to government. Vote no on Opinion Question 1 if you think sales taxes are regressive and you think government already gets more than enough of your cash as it is.

Referendum No. 1 would reduce government power over individuals, while Opinion Question 1 would increase government power. So, while the names of the two issues offer confusion, they’re really quite simple.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fixing Health Care - American Style

“Health care is a tough issue for conservatives only because they have strayed from their free-market principles.” —Michael F. Cannon

Conservatives have been taking a beating lately over their opposition to the massive expansion of SCHIP, the government run socialized health insurance program for the “children” of the “working poor.” Of course, the bill would have spent billions to cover adults and to raise the definition of working poor to an income level that is considered wealthy for purposes of the Alternative Minimum Tax. This could only appear rational in the machinations of politics.

So why are conservatives getting such a bad rap for opposing such obviously bad policy? Because the bill includes the word children in its title. Why, if you’re not for this bill, you are an evil, child hating snob that wants the poor to die and blow away. At least, that’s the rhetoric from the bill’s supporters.

But conservatives deserve part of their bad reputation on health care. Why? As explained by the Cato Institute’s health policy expert Michael F. Cannon in this article, conservatives have allowed our health care system to become a quasi-private “quasi-socialized mess” by standing on the sidelines of this issue for way too long.

Cannon’s prescription for conservatives includes:

  • “Think freedom, not universal coverage.”

  • “Health-savings accounts are not enough.”

  • “Don’t “improve” welfare programs — cut them.”

  • “The lefties aren’t always wrong.”

  • “We’ve already got socialized medicine.”

  • “The health-care industry does not want free markets.”

  • “Fight health with health.”

I was intrigued by Cannon’s contention that conservatives sometimes incorrectly reflexively oppose thoughts from the Left simply because they come from the Left.

“HSAs don’t do enough to contain medical spending. Medical errors do kill thousands of patients every year. Health outcomes aren’t noticeably worse in (fully) socialized medical systems. Private Medicare plans do cost taxpayers more than traditional Medicare.”

But Cannon also says that acknowledging these facts does not mean that conservatives must agree with the Left’s proposed solutions to these problems. Quite the contrary. Cannon scatters a host of remedies for the ills of our current health system throughout his article. Many of them are aimed at drastically reducing government involvement in health care and transferring responsibility directly to consumers.

Cannon says, “Reforms that don’t give consumers ownership of that money or don’t tear down government barriers to consumer choice (including the choice to spend that money on things other than medical care) should be suspect.”

Before you trash this statement, look at what Cannon has actually written and look at his reference material. He actually has proposals that would infuse our current lethargic system with incentives to improve rather than incentives to make the status quo worse. While not everyone would be covered up front, Cannon says the proposals aim “to make health care of ever-increasing quality available to an ever-increasing number of people.”

But what about the poor? Cannon suggests “eliminat[ing] all federal entitlements and return[ing] the money to states as flexible, fixed-dollar block grants” as we successfully did with welfare.

Reading between the lines, it is obvious that part of the reason conservatives have gone socialistic on health care is that they have accepted lobbying money and favors from “the industry’s entrenched interests” that benefit from our current under-competitive system. Cannon notes, “It’s no accident that the health-care industry has spent more money lobbying Congress than has any other industry for the past ten years.”

Cannon says that free market principles can still carry the day in the health care debate. He says that “conservatives should challenge the lefties to explain how — contrary to all experience — more government would serve patients rather than special interests.” He says they should point out “that there is no evidence that expanding health insurance, such as through SCHIP, is a cost-effective way of promoting health,” and that “SCHIP also discourages families from increasing their incomes (lest they become ineligible).”

Right now the Left is on the offensive with a plan to bring more of your life — your health — under the control of the Big Brother — the federal bureaucracy. And many are hearkening to the siren song of increased access and lower costs. They are thinking that surrendering a significant portion of their liberty will not be too high of a cost to pay for this impossible promise. Cannon is saying that conservatives need to return to their basic free market principles and go on the offensive.

“When conservatives return to those principles,” Cannon writes, “health care will again become a tough issue for the Left.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mediocre LDS Scouting

I have served in a number of positions at a variety of levels both in the LDS Church and in the Boy Scouts of America. I currently serve in the BSA as chairman of the district camping and outdoor promotion committee; although, I have served in unit, council, district, and regional positions. I think I have sufficient experience with both the LDS Church and the BSA to offer an informed and experienced opinion on the interaction of the two organizations.

The BSA was founded in 1910 and the LDS Church jumped into sponsoring BSA units in a big way in 1913. Since that time, the BSA program has officially been the activity arm of LDS young men in the United States. Over the decades following those early days, Scouting flourished throughout the United States.

But things have changed for both the BSA and the LDS Church over the past four decades. Scouting is still a very strong movement in the U.S., but the percentage of American young men that participate has been trending downward for some time. And while the LDS Church promotes the BSA program as the activity arm of the church’s young men, most LDS sponsored units approach the program in a mediocre way at best.

As I attend leadership meetings of adult BSA volunteers, it seems that the average age of this corps has grown over the past few decades. In fact, we are frequently bringing men and women back into the same positions in which they served well 20 years ago. Although I have been an adult volunteer for two and a half decades, I’m one of the young bucks in many of these meetings.

As I live in an area where most units are sponsored by the LDS Church, one of the constant laments bandied about is the low level of commitment local LDS leaders have with respect to the BSA program. Many people seem genuinely mystified by this. But having been on many sides of the issue, I think I understand.

Perhaps the major factor at play here is the general decline in civic engagement throughout our nation that I noted in this post. It’s not just the Boy Scouts that are experiencing declining participation trends. This is general in civic groups of all types. In my post I took a quick look at the complex reasons behind this trend, which include an increasingly mobile society, decline in acceptability of single-sex organizations, TV, the Internet, expanding entertainment and athletic opportunities, and even societal diversity. I mentioned that people born after 1945 are far less civic minded than those born in the generation before them.

Frankly, these are factors that churches and civic organizations can only marginally slow down. They cannot stop them, so they must ultimately learn to deal with them if they are to remain viable.

Some of the research to which I referred in that post found that people today are far less willing to dawn special uniforms that denote their involvement in civic organizations. Up through the 50s and even into the 60s, boys craved to wear Scout uniforms. Today? Not so much. It is now an uphill struggle to get boys into uniforms, although, uniforms are actually more affordable than they used to be in real terms.

I can say from experience that local LDS Church leaders have a lot of responsibilities. Sometimes they can feel like the guy they used to have on the Ed Sullivan Show that would spin plates atop long sticks. He’d get four or five plates spinning, and then he’d have to go back and spin the first few before he could put up another one. He was constantly running around keeping plates spinning so that none would crash to the floor. With so many responsibilities, many of which are classed as top priority, it can frankly be difficult to give the Scouting program the focus it needs to function properly.

It is deucedly difficult to call and retain great Scout leaders at the local level. It is hard to find men and women that can develop a good rapport with the boys and that are willing to spend the time it takes to provide a decent program for the boys. (LDS leaders for boys under 12 can be female, but must be male for boys 12 and older.)

For Scouts, Varsity Scouts, and Ventures, I have found that even if you manage to get a guy that will spend the time, you usually get a guy that is good at advancement and organization, or you get a guy that has good outdoor skills. Often you get a guy that is good at neither. But very rarely do you get a man that has both qualities. Failure to fit well into the position results in a high leader turnover rate. A similar situation exists for Cub Scouts.

If you ever do get a guy that can do both the program and the outdoor portions well, and that also works well with youth, you’ve found a rare gem. Most of the time, this man will soon be called to other leadership responsibilities, or else he will get burned out because he is doing far more than just his job. It is nearly impossible to build and retain a properly functioning unit committee that is the support system a Scout leader needs to properly do his job, so the leader often ends up doing the support functions as well.

In fact, properly running a Scouting program is enough work that many leaders accept mediocrity because they just don’t want to do the work. A friend of mine was called to be a Venture adviser (for 16-18-year-olds). He was required to attend the leader basic training. He returned to the next unit meeting and said, “None of you guys are interested in doing this program, are you?” You can imagine how the youth responded. He went back to the bishop and said, “None of these guys are interested in Venturing, so we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing.” In my own unit, the Venture Adviser position has turned over twice in the past 16 months.

Unlike when I was a kid, you can’t just find one guy for each age group, either. You need at least one other man that will be reliable enough to be there all of the time (or you can use two women for Cub dens). All adult leaders must submit social security and driver license numbers for a background check before they can begin working in their assigned Scouting positions. This two-deep leadership method is meant to provide protection from abuse and to improve general safety. The BSA has endured many lawsuits (mostly over the past 2½ decades) regarding alleged child abuse. Documents submitted in a recent lawsuit show that the BSA has expelled about one leader every other day for the past 15 years for abuse allegations.

Risk mitigation has become a major focus for youth organizations like the BSA. Some of this arguably reduces the adventure that many experts say young males naturally crave. Boys will find adventure through less favorable means if they cannot find it through positive programs. But when you have organizations of pedophiles that promote to their members ways they can successfully infiltrate youth programs, somewhat extreme measures may be necessary. However, this level of scrutiny and risk of personal legal problems is a disincentive to some good people that would otherwise be willing to serve.

Another factor in Scouting mediocrity from an LDS perspective is the increasing cosmopolitan nature of the church. Until a few decades ago, church membership was concentrated mostly in North America. And most of that was in one swath running from Idaho, through Utah, and into Arizona. Today more than half of church members reside outside of the U.S., where available Scouting programs often do not support LDS standards. Consequently the church does not sponsor many Scouting units outside of North America.

While LDS Church President George Albert Smith once prominently carried the flag at a national BSA jamboree and worked for years to get Scouting properly organized in the LDS Church, top leaders today are required to have a more global focus. Consequently, local leaders and members do not get Scouting promoted to them from the highest levels of the church like they used to. Accordingly, local leaders focus more on those messages they do get from the top level.

Despite the common perception that today’s youth are far lazier than their parents, research shows that the lives of today’s youth are far more structured and programmed than were their parents’ lives. Unstructured free time of our nation’s young people has declined by half in the last 30 years. There are so many more options clamoring for our time and attention that programs like Scouting simply fall by the wayside for many people. They’re just too busy.

Another issue that drives toward mediocre Scouting in LDS sponsored units is the fact that all of the church’s boys in the U.S. are automatically enrolled in the age appropriate Scouting program. BSA membership is not optional for these boys, as it is in units sponsored by other organizations. Let’s face it; regardless of how strongly local church leaders preach about the merits of Scouting, there will be a broad range of interest and enthusiasm about the program among boys, their parents, and their leaders when enrollment is mandatory.

It’s hard to run an effective program when you get a lot of pushback from those you are trying to serve. When you bust your tail to put on a great program only to have most of the boys not show up or to have them and their parents act disinterested, you don’t feel much like putting your whole heart and soul into it. Still, the few LDS sponsored units I have seen that do the Scouting program to the hilt have no problem with attendance or enthusiasm. They often draw boys from other units as well. But building a program like that requires a lot of committed leadership from the organization head and from every adult called into the program. That level of commitment to the Scouting program in an LDS unit is very rare indeed.

It’s really no mystery why most LDS sponsored BSA units approach the program in a mediocre and haphazard way. The broader American society has far less civic commitment than once was the case and this is reflected among church members as well. Kids and families are busier than ever, so they choose not to commit the time needed. Leaders don’t want to do the work required to run an effective Scouting program and they are not thrilled about the personal risks involved. There isn’t as much obvious leadership from top church leaders on the Scouting program as there used to be, mainly because their focus has changed from regional to global.

So why do I continue to spend my free time working in the Scouting program? Because this program played a huge role in my life and in the development of my character. It took me from my Cub Scout den, where I was one of the less popular kids, to my first completely miserable overnight hiking experience, to my first homesick week at camp, to youth leadership positions, to learning to love to serve others through the Order of the Arrow, to spending summers working at the rustic Camp Loll high in the Tetons, to becoming an outdoorsman, to serving for years as an adult Scouting leader.

I will be forever grateful to the men who were my mentors in the Scouting program over the years. I owe a particular debt to Delose Conner that I believe cannot possibly be repaid. In the past few years, the Scouting program has provided a welding link between me and my two oldest sons, both of whom worked at Camp Loll this past summer. I have seen the lives of thousands of young men improved through the Scouting program.

And so, despite the challenges, I continue to serve. I do not delude myself into thinking that the Scouting program will ever be more than mediocre in all but a handful of LDS sponsored units. I guess I’ll accept the concept that for the most part, some is better than none.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Does It Make Sense to Support a Third Party Candidate?

The recent flap over the threat of some Christian conservatives to vote for a third party candidate should Rudy Giuliani gain the GOP presidential nomination has given rise to discussion of an old but interesting dilemma. Does voting for a third party candidate achieve the desired results?

Michael Medved regularly says on his radio show that third party candidates always draw most of their votes from the major party with which they are most closely ideologically identified; thereby, giving the opposing party an advantage. The effect in the current race would presumably be that in their distrust of Giuliani, Christian conservatives could end up throwing the election to Hillary Clinton, whom they purportedly detest. Bill Bennett has echoed this sentiment, as have many others.

Supporters of this theory point to relatively recent history where Gore would have gained sufficient votes to win decisively had he received the votes that went to Nader in 2000. And Bush I would have beat Clinton I had he received the votes that went to Perot in 1992. While what they say is true, there is also the possibility that enough Nader voters in ’00 and Perot voters in ’92 would have declined to vote at all, would have voted for another third party candidate, or would have voted for the winner, that the ultimate outcomes of the races would not have been different. Researchers have tried to answer these questions, but there is, in truth, no way of knowing for sure.

Of course, there are less recent examples that can be considered of third party presidential candidates, as well as a much larger number of non-presidential races where third party candidates have run. Looking at these races certainly gives the impression that Medved’s contention is correct in most races; that most votes that go to a third party candidate would otherwise go to the candidate representing the party with which the third party candidate is most closely aligned ideologically.

But I have heard several interesting debates about this view lately. Some have claimed that even allowing a candidate from the opposing party to win can be more productive in the long run. When one caller suggested this to Medved, he incredulously asked whether the caller thought eight years of Bill Clinton was better than four more years of George H.W. Bush. While the answer to that question might seem obvious from the viewpoint of a conservative, I heard someone else articulate an answer that might seem counterintuitive.

This man claimed that Bill Clinton’s presidency actually produced some very desirable conservative outcomes, despite the level of vitriol conservatives regularly leveled at Clinton. A fully GOP congress was achieved, as was welfare reform. An unfriendly congress regularly passed spending bills that allowed far less spending and government growth than the White House requested. And a number of advances were achieved on issues important to social conservatives.

Another man presented an opposing view, saying that while all of that was good, much more could have been achieved with a Republican president. This fellow also retorted that all of these gains together would not compensate for the court appointments made during the Clinton years.

The first man replied that while Democrats almost always get judges and justices that turn out to be to their liking, Republican appointments have been much more of a mixed bag. There are the Roberts and Alitos, of course, but there are also the John Paul Stevens types. Besides, he countered, we should look what a GOP White House and congress actually delivered on conservative issues from 2001 through 2006. There have been some gains on social conservative issues (see this NRO article), but social conservatives are mostly disappointed with the results. (They likely had their sights set too high.) And, of course, there has been runaway spending, substantial growth of the federal leviathan, and scandals of all types.

This it-took-Nixon-to-go-to-China viewpoint is interesting. Perhaps this says more about the value of divided government than it does about election losses. But let’s put the shoe on the other foot. While Democrats today harbor even more hatred for Bush II than Republicans did for Clinton I, I wonder what an objective look at the Bush years will seem like a decade from now. Very few Democrats would suggest today that anything good has come out of these years from a liberal-progressive viewpoint, but what will it look like when the fires of acrimony have cooled for a season?

Another guy argued that a loss due to the intervention of a third party candidate is actually good for a party’s soul. He said that it helps refocus the party on its core values so that they can regroup and come back stronger in the next round. I’m not sure I buy that argument. The Kerry candidacy in ‘04 did not resemble anything like refocusing on core party principles. Neither did the Dole candidacy in ’96. The Democrats’ congressional gains in ’06 resulted more from organization and voter dissatisfaction with the GOP than from a refocus on core principles.

The two opposing views on the issue of voting for a third party candidate when you are unhappy with the main parties and their candidates, then, are: 1) that it is bad because it gives those you definitely oppose an advantage in the election, and 2) that it is good because it produces more desirable results in the long run.

Proponents of notion #1 say that you can’t ever get everything you want from politics, so you might as well settle for the best you can get, because you will otherwise give power to those whose ideas you oppose. Proponents of notion #2 say that it makes no sense to vote for someone you can’t support, even if someone you detest more wins the election. They say it makes more sense to vote your conscience and to be more ideologically pure, as this will be better in the long run. It is a way of getting a major party to hear your voice.

The question at present is whether enough traditional GOP voters will bolt to a third party candidate to produce an outcome-changing sway in the 2008 presidential election. That remains to be seen. Who would they field as their candidate? Who would they put forward as the face of their movement? It will be interesting to see how this develops.

But I am still interested in the broader question behind this conflict. Reality dictates that while a fair number of people may wish to vote for ideological purity, the vast majority of voters are far more pragmatic. They actually take into account a candidate’s chance of winning when deciding who to support. They are willing to compromise to enhance their chances of being on the winning side. Hey, our whole system of government is based in compromise. It’s the American way.

Still, I appreciate the concept that there comes a time when enough is enough, and that you may even have to influence the debate by supporting a candidate that has no chance of winning. I can see both sides of this issue.

Monday, October 15, 2007

How Wrong Is Usury?

Last week, the Standard Examiner published its own report on the payday loan business in Utah (here). The article attempts to present a balanced view, but it left me somewhat incredulous.

The SE article cites high customer satisfaction rates, saying, “According to a customer-satisfaction survey conducted by researchers from Syracuse University, 63 percent of payday borrowers are satisfied, compared to 28 percent with credit cards.”

One satisfied regular payday loan customer makes relatively good money in computer engineering. He travels frequently for business and his employer doesn’t reimburse him until a couple of weeks after each trip. He gets payday loans to fill the gap, paying around $80 for a two-week $500 loan.

This guy explains that he doesn’t have a credit card because he got in lots of trouble with credit cards when he was younger. So he actually “appreciates … the stiff fees” that help “keep him in line.” Although this guy makes good money, he is obviously bad at math. He says that he prefers a payday loan to a credit card because he doesn’t “want to pay that 18 percent interest.” This is a totally bizarre statement, because he avoids that high 18% rate only by paying a 416% rate on his payday loans.

Tellingly, the reporter writes that this man is now considering getting a credit card with a $500 limit because he realized, he says, “If I pay it back within a month, I won't pay any interest at all.” Ah, the light has turned on. Maybe this guy can work on your computer system, but don’t hire him to handle your finances.

This is the kind of fiscal ignorance upon which payday lenders prey. They rely on a steady stream of dupes that are mystified by simple finances. They need people that don’t understand the availability of more viable financing options or that have made enough bad decisions in the past that some of these options are now closed to them.

Other articles have cited the fact that part of the reason payday lending flourishes is that more respectable financial institutions do a poor job of servicing the people mentioned above. Actually, the real problem is that people don’t learn how to manage their finances early in life and they develop patterns early in life for expecting to get things they can’t afford. We have a huge credit industry that encourages this type of behavior and many people fall into their traps.

The article notes that payday lenders service people with “a high discount rate.” A university professor defines this, saying, “People with a high discount rate value present consumption more than future consumption. The pleasure they are getting today outweighs the costs they are going to have in the future.” In other words, payday lenders need a stream of customers that live for the moment and demand immediate gratification regardless of the consequences.

Reporter Marshall Thompson also notes that payday lending has exploded in Utah because it is one of the eight states in the nation that hardly regulate the business. Most states have usury laws that prohibit “lending money at exorbitant interest rates,” but Utah does not.

But don’t worry. An industry rep says that “the term usury doesn't apply to the payday industry since it only charges what the market will support.” Whew, that’s a relief. He also says that with “a high customer satisfaction rating and booming demand for services, the payday loan industry must be doing something right.”

When I read this, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m sure that the prostitution industry also charges only market rates, has plenty of demand, and has a high rate of customer satisfaction. But most people don’t think it should be legal.” I also noted that we have plenty of demand for gambling in Utah and plenty of satisfied gamblers that cross the border, but that most Utahns don’t think gambling should be legal in the state either.

Libertarian critics of regulating payday lending will correctly note that doing so will limit supply; thereby, driving costs even higher and creating a black market. But there are other matters to consider. Right now the state is complicit in the payday lending industry’s scheme to dupe people. The basic business plan is to get people to default on their loans, and then take them to court where the state rules against them so that the lender can get a revenue stream from garnishing wages, getting a much higher return on the lender’s investment. The state even helps collect revenue at this point. Since the people of this state are de facto partners to this business plan, state government has a right to have a say in how it is played out.

Critics of regulating payday lenders will also say that government has no right trying to keep people safe from their own bad choices and that the state has no business legislating morality. I both agree and disagree. This is like saying that we should never put up guard rails and concrete barriers along mountainous roads with steep drop offs because it would keep people that want to drive over the edge from doing so, or because it would keep people that veer off to the side from suffering the natural consequences of their actions. Of course we should take care of public safety, including public financial safety. This is a large part of what government does. It constantly attempts to achieve an optimal balance between public safety and individual liberty. The problem happens when we put up guard rails where none are needed.

This issue also involves considerations of natural law. Some hold that our laws should pretty much follow only natural law. There are two types of law: malum in se, which means that something is naturally wrong of itself, and malum prohibitum, which means something is wrong only because it is prohibited by authority. Murder, stealing, and lying, are wrong in and of themselves, for example. It doesn’t matter whether we have laws to prohibit them or not; they are still wrong. But driving 35 mph in a zone marked 30 mph is only wrong because it is prohibited by authority.

To be sure, there are disagreements as to what fits into the definition of malum in se. The classic modern example is abortion. One side sees abortion as malum in se, while the other side does not. Some would argue that usury falls into malum in se under the pretext that it is wrong to take advantage of someone even if that person agrees to the action. Usury is prohibited in both the Bible and the Koran. People in the payday lending industry would either argue that their 500%+ rates are not usury or that usury does not fall into malum in se.

Prostitution is prohibited in most places under the pretext that it falls into malum in se. It does not matter that consenting adults enter into an agreement to sell/purchase sexual favors for money. Society mostly believes that there are still victims in this type of transaction. Whenever anyone is harmed in a democratic society, all of society is harmed; thus, prostitution is illegal in most of the U.S.

Strict libertarians will argue that questions of this nature should not be regulated by government, and that the natural operation of the free market will sort out all such moral dilemmas. They will argue that the majority has no business imposing its moral will upon the minority, as this is simply tyranny of the majority, which our Founders sought to prevent by forming a republic.

When this point is made, someone frequently throws in an argument along these lines: “You want to enforce your view of morality at the point of a gun.” This takes the valid point that government has coercive powers and demagogues it by taking it to an extreme. Certainly there are times when a law might need to be enforced with violence, but for the most part, we’re talking about putting up guard rails rather than posting a guy on the side of the road with a bazooka ready to blast you if you veer too close to the edge.

Our democratic republic was created in a way that government should only play a role in certain enumerated areas. And for the most part, it should only play a role when there is fairly broad consensus on points. When this pattern is followed, government necessarily has a narrow focus, because such consensus can only be achieved on a few points. Other than that, government should stay out of the way.

Does payday lending fall into the categories specified above? The Standard Examiner published an editorial on Saturday arguing that does. I tend to agree. We ought to put limits on businesses whose main practice is to create victims, even if they’re willing victims. We especially ought to implement limits when a significant portion of the business’ operating plan involves the unwilling complicity of state government.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Proportionate Debate Time

The line item veto discussion (see here) between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani during the recent GOP debate was incident to an exchange about which of the two leaders have the best record on cutting taxes and spending. Romney touts his tax cutting record as Governor of Massachusetts, but critics contend that his record is not so pretty when you look at the fees he imposed in lieu of taxes. Yesterday morning on Bill Bennett’s radio show, John McCain said that “you can call them bananas or fees,” but no matter what you call them they’re taxes on the public.

The media seems to be working hard to make the GOP race look like a two-man race between Giuliani and Romney, despite the fact that most polls have Giuliani as the clear leader, with Fred Thompson coming in second, John McCain third, and Romney fourth. Part of the reason for this is that the Giuliani and Romney campaigns are well organized machines that perform very well, while the Thompson and McCain campaigns have money and organization problems.

Ron Paul supporters argue that the polls ranking GOP candidates are improperly skewed because they survey only people identified as likely Republican voters, while many of Paul’s supporters come from outside those ranks and are registering as Republicans to vote for him. I don’t know how accurate that view is, but there is clearly some truth to it. Paul will still have to convince a whole lot of traditional GOP voters that he’s their guy to become viable.

The establishment clearly wants to ignore Paul’s surging popularity. USA Election Polls says that their “statistical analysis of the [GOP] debate transcript proves that Ron Paul was censored beyond expectations.” They posit, “A candidate raising $5 million dollars, winning 14 straw polls, and at or above the margin of error in 8 states only had 5.8% of the time to speak?” (See here for more info.)

Paul isn’t the only candidate that the media is trying to shunt aside. USA Election Polls has a more detailed report written a month and a half ago that considers candidates on both sides of the aisle. They conclude that the media is more or less anointing the top tier candidates in both parties.

The biggest problem candidates like Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee have is recognition. Gallup’s recent polling indicates that very high percentages of likely GOP voters have never heard of these guys (65% for Huckabee and 71% for Paul). Even upper tier candidates have this problem. 13% and 15% don’t know who Giuliani and McCain are respectively. I realize that most voters really don’t follow politics much, but if you don’t know who these guys are you must be living in a cave. Thompson and Romney have more of a problem, with 37% and 40% respectively that don’t know anything about them.

Everyone watches positive polling numbers, but negative polling numbers are also very important. These are people that know about the candidate, but that have an overall negative opinion of the candidate. Pollsters know that these people are unlikely to be persuaded to vote for the candidate. Of the likely GOP voters that have formed an opinion, 15% don’t like Giuliani and 15% don’t like Romney. Only 10% don’t like Thompson, but 24% don’t like McCain. McCain’s a great guy and a bona fide hero, but some find his politics wrong headed. Only 9% don’t like Huckabee, but only 26% do like him. 14% don’t like Paul, which is equivalent to the number the do like him.

Due to the changing election cycle, some of the traditional rules of primary elections no longer apply. The trouble is that nobody knows for sure how the rules apply and to what degree they apply. Some feel that if you’re not in the top tier by now you have no chance of taking the nomination. Others aren’t so sure about that. Some Al Gore advisers floated a rumor just the other day that he might still get in on the Democratic side, particularly now that he has won a Nobel Prize. That would shake things up.

There is no question that the MSM and the political establishment are working to push out candidates that they don’t want to see coming to the final round. I’m in favor of keeping as many candidates in play as possible. It broadens debate and expands choice, even if it’s difficult to manage a large number of candidates in a single debate forum. And I think expanding choice is a good thing. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit into the plans of the MSM and the political establishment.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dueling Law Professors

During the GOP debate the other night (which I, like most other Americans, did not watch), there was a spirited interchange between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney about the presidential line item veto.

For some quick history, ever since Ronald Reagan repeatedly called for it, conservatives have wanted the president to have the authority to veto individual provisions of bills passed by Congress, mainly to control runaway spending. Governors in 43 states have this authority and use it frequently to great effect.

The GOP controlled Congress finally succeeded in passing legislation granting the president such power, and Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1996. In 1997, Clinton vetoed a spending provision in a budget bill that would have sent a chunk of money to New York City. Giuliani, who was mayor of New York at the time, sued to get the funding restored under the premise that the line item veto was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that it was indeed unconstitutional.

During the debate (see transcript), Romney said that Giuliani’s suit was a mistake. Giuliani responded, “The line item veto was unconstitutional. I took Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court and beat Bill Clinton. It's unconstitutional. What the heck can you do about that, if you're a strict constructionist?”

When pressed on the issue, Romney said that the veto was “not properly structured,” but he argued that a statutory line item veto could be formulated that would pass constitutional muster. He said that President Bush put forward such a proposal last year.

Giuliani responded (in a rather saucy way) by saying that he was in favor of a legal line item veto. He continued that segment by saying, “And as the mayor of New York, if I had let President Clinton take $250 million away from the people of my city illegally and unconstitutionally, I wouldn't have been much of a mayor.” He then bragged that it wasn’t “a bad idea to have a Republican presidential candidate who actually has beat President Clinton at something.”

Today, the National Review Online has opposing articles by two respected law professors that are recognized for their prowess in constitutional matters. Douglas W. Kmiec of Pepperdine University takes Romney’s side of the argument in this article. (Disclosure: Kmiec is a Romney adviser.) Steven G. Calabresi of Northwestern University takes Giuliani’s side.

Both lawyers know their stuff and make persuasive arguments. Read both articles and decide for yourself who is right. I will merely make the following observations.

Romney essentially argues that Giuliani shouldn’t have challenged the line item veto law, although, he agrees that it was unconstitutional. He seems to lament that since the illusion of constitutionality has been dispelled, it is now necessary to find some other statutory way to accomplish the desired outcome. So, it’s OK to support an unconstitutional law if it achieves something you believe to be desirable? That kind of reasoning just doesn’t sit well with me. And why can’t we just bite the bullet and try to get a constitutional amendment approved if this is such a good and necessary thing?

But Giuliani’s argument that to be a good mayor he had to fight to have a quarter billion American taxpayer dollars funneled to his city is equally unimpressive. It always bothers me when people are free with other people’s money. But it bothers me even more when people selfishly feel entitled to other people’s money. This kind of thing has been a problem in our world at least since Cain.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's a Court; Not a Supreme Council of Ayatollahs

Steven G. Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern University and co-founder of the Federalist Society, argues in this WSJ op-ed article in favor of a strict originalist interpretation of the Constitution. That is, he contends that the only sure way to interpret the Constitution is to apply “the original public meaning that [it] had when [it was] enacted into law.”

“The belief that judges and justices should decide constitutional cases” based on original intent, laments Calabresi, “may seem so obvious that it should hardly need a name, let alone a defense.” He notes that people would go nuts if any court were to interpret “statutes, contracts, wills and even old Supreme Court opinions” based on any standard other than their original public meaning. He wonders how these documents are somehow held to a higher standard than the Constitution itself; the basic law upon which all of these others merit any standing at all.

Calabresi is not ignorant of arguments that modern interpretations of the Constitution should flex to reflect “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” However, he contends that doing so destroys the very authority upon which these interpretations are based. He writes, “Non-originalist judicial review severely distorts the allocation of powers that is central to the Constitution.”

Citing a great deal of whining that the Supreme Court failed to follow some earlier court precedents in recent rulings, Calabresi argues that the Constitution itself should always take precedent. He cites the clearly erroneous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that upheld racial segregation. He says the court plainly ruled correctly in 1954 to overturn this long-standing precedent, despite the fact that no constitutional amendment to correct the ruling could have passed at that time.

Speaking of those that agree with originalist interpretation of the Constitution, Calabresi states, “We think the Constitution is enforced by the Madisonian system of checks and balances, of separation of powers, and of federalism. We do not think that the Supreme Court is some kind of Supreme Council of Ayatollahs that can do anything it wants to do on a 5-4 vote.”

If you don’t use original intent as the basis for interpreting a document or a law, what valid basis can be applied? All that is left is the personal philosophies of the judges and justices. Although they may cite various sources as pseudo backup, you end up with rulings where they create new law out of thin air. Why should anyone believe this tiny group’s personal philosophies to be superior to those of the citizenry and their elected representatives?

Relying on “an unelected, unaccountable, life-tenured, elite group of judges” to determine “the most sensitive issues of morality and religion” according to their own philosophies (or erroneous precedent) instead of according to the Constitution’s original intent, argues Calabresi, “concentrates absolute power in one place, when the whole thrust of the U.S. Constitution was to disperse and balance power through the system of checks and balances.”

The courts have their appropriate role, of course. But it is important to keep them strictly within the boundaries of that role. Of this, Calabresi writes, “It is legitimate for courts to decide such [sensitive] issues only when they are enforcing the Constitution as originally understood and ratified by the people--and not enforcing the justices' own views as to what is good public policy.”

Any other standard is no standard at all.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Using the Wrong Tool for the Job

People have long known that government agencies perform poorly when compared with the private sector. Despite the abundant examples of people being poorly served by the private sector, empirical studies show that government agencies perform far worse. Not only do government agencies operate in a cold and emotionless manner, but their productivity and efficiency levels are deplorable in comparison with the private sector.

None of this is to say that people working for government agencies are bad, lazy, or uncaring people. That’s not it at all. However, they are stuck in an environment where all of the caring and hard work in the world simply cannot overcome the organizational culture. All of this has been studied and well documented by organizational behavioralists.

MehRan Rastakhiz, PhD has a short paper that discusses the shortcomings of the bureaucratic structure. Dr. Rastakhiz cites a number of studies to support his discussion. He notes that private sector organizations used to be similar to public sector organizations. But the private sector has evolved away from the bureaucratic structure to “fluid networks reinforced by core values of empowerment and learning.”

Consequently, private sector organizations are becoming more “holistic,” “environmentally aware,” and “publicly conscious.” Government agencies, on the other hand, are “steeped in historical tradition” and “continue to operate in isolated, mechanistic, and emotionless ways.”

Dr. Rastakhiz includes a brief, but decent discussion of the important role that government organizations play.

“Governments … maintain control, make the rules by which organizations operate, and retain the monopoly of legitimate coercive power. Often, they are the stable guarantors of open and fair dealing …. Governments facilitate the establishment and enforcement of the fundamental understandings necessary for action: who is entitled to what uses (use rights); who may legitimately sell products, land, and equipment (ownership rights); and what actions are acceptable (contract law).”

So now we know that governments are important and that government agencies are stifling bureaucracies. Dr. Rastakhiz encourages government agencies to make actual cultural changes and break out of the bureaucracy mold to gain the advantages found in private sector organizations. He mentions a number of initiatives (“incentive programs”) underway that aim to accomplish this by “select[ing], recruit[ing], and train[ing] a new generation of managers and leaders.”

In other words, Dr. Rastakhiz feels that government agencies are capable of changing from the bureaucratic style of organization to a more dynamic style. All they need are incentives. I mean, why shouldn’t they be able to make the shift to become more like the private sector? The private sector was once bureaucratic, and it has made the jump. Why can’t government?

The answer to these questions lies in Dr. Rastakhiz’s discussion of the role of government. The private sector and the government play dramatically different roles. Government is the maker and maintainer of the rules — the laws that govern society. Bureaucracy is a hierarchical system based on laws, written rules, and clearly defined career paths, among other things. It is the type of organization that is best suited for implementing and administering laws. Flexible, dynamic organizations are well suited to meeting customer needs, but are ill suited for implementing and administering laws.

Dr. Rastakhiz wants to make a dog out of a cat. He’s not alone. People argue all of the time that you can make government more productive, efficient, and customer friendly if only you have the right elected and appointed officials. If you have this nirvana cadre of individuals, you can certainly improve government, but you can never make it something it is not. You can hire the best trainers in the world and get your cat to do some of the things a dog does, but you will never turn your cat into a dog.

While promoting incentive programs, our good PhD conveniently failed to mention research, such as this 2002 University of Albany study that found no evidence that these programs (some of which have been going for more than 20 years) produce any desirable results or even have the potential to do so. This is because they are fighting a losing battle. Government agencies can be improved, but you cannot make them into something they are not. The primary role of government simply precludes this possibility.

Today, many people are clamoring for government to do more than it ever has in the past. Many people, for example, seem willing to entrust government with our health care because they are fed up with the problems in the current system (many of which stem from current government intervention). Unfortunately, confidence in government to adequately manage these types of programs is ill placed. We are asking a system whose main purpose is laws and rules to step in and provide services that in no way fall into its designed roles or competencies.

This kind of thing begins with the best of intentions, but the goals that are sought simply cannot be achieved through the tool of government. You may be frustrated with the performance of your screwdriver, but dumping the screwdriver in favor of a hammer is going to produce a worse result. The same is true when we assay to use government for purposes for which it is not suited.

This is why I favor limited government, as did our Founders. Government should stick to the business for which it is suited and should keep out of endeavors for which it is poorly suited. When we use government for the wrong purposes, it results in coercion, oppression, and limitations on liberties that each of us should regard as precious.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Coronation Cycle

Do we like political dynasties in this country? Are political dynasties good for the country? Peggy Noonan discusses in this article the very real possibility that we could go Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. She says that on the Democratic side, people seem to be in a trance that causes them to ignore great candidates and focus only on Sen. Clinton (D-NY). But Noonan also seems to think that this is precisely the same kind of trance the GOP was in back in the 2000 race when it focused on then-Gov. Bush.

Why the trance? Noonan explains that it is because in modern politics, “A political family gains allies--retainers, supporters, hangers-on, admirers, associates, in-house Machiavellis.” She continues her analysis of this modern day royal court, writing, “The bigger the government, the more ways allies can be awarded, which binds them more closely. Your destiny is theirs. Members of the court recruit others. Money lines spread person to person, company to company, board to board, mover to mover.”

These political support systems become somewhat self-sustaining. They are “machines” that are “up and ready and good to go every election cycle.” Some of the people in these mechanisms are good people. Some are bad people. And some are just useful idiots.

Noonan asks, “Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability?” She then adds, “It would be understandable if they were families of a most extraordinary natural distinction and self-sacrifice. But these are not the Adamses of Massachusetts we're talking about.”

I think Noonan buries the lead on this issue, only briefly alluding to the role of expanding government in all of this. Actually, bigger government is THE problem. These powerful political family dynasties exist BECAUSE of the expanding size and role of the federal government. Noonan strikes true when she says that as government grows, so too do the number of people who owe their destinies to the politically powerful.

Even if you think that the central government should be providing all kinds of services and does a good job of administering its massive bloat, this is a reason to consider the case for limited government. We have discovered through sad experience that campaign finance reform does nothing to fix this problem. Even publicly financed elections would not fix this problem. The money lines Noonan talks about would not evaporate under such a system, but would only be obfuscated and made less transparent.

I agree with LaVarr Webb that due to the growth of the federal bureaucracy, the job of president has become too difficult for one person. We will likely never have another president that we consider to be competent unless we not only stop this growth, but substantially scale back our current system. This would involve farming activities out from the federal government to their most appropriate level of government, and getting rid of activities in which government has no business being involved.

And what happens four or eight years down the road? Another Bush? If you want to break this cycle, limiting the federal government is the solution.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Honest, Good, Wise, and Constitutional

I still haven’t nailed down precisely who I will vote for next month in the city council races for my little town. And I personally know almost everyone that is running. So don’t be surprised that I can’t bring myself to commit to any presidential candidate 13 months ahead of the 2008 election. I don’t personally know any of these people. I only see them through their media filters.

There has been a lot of campaigning and the presidential race has been at the top of the national news for months. I know plenty of people that enthusiastically support a candidate and feel that they have very good reasons for doing so. But I’m a long way from getting to that point. I’ve taken a good look at all of the candidates and I find things I like and things I dislike about each of them.

Someone once said that the only time you’ll find the perfect candidate is if you run for office yourself. Even that is not completely true, because I even disagree with myself or find my performance wanting at times.

Plenty of people are running around saying that they would never vote for a given candidate under any circumstances. I have gotten to that point with only a few. But I’m still quite open to considering most of them.

It’s just that no single candidate currently appeals to me enough to make me ready to choose them and dump all the others. Perhaps I am suffering from the problem grocery retailers have long known about: that given too many choices in a given category, people will often buy none of the products in that category. I’m waiting for the winnowing process to reduce the field of available choices.

The other night as I was contemplating various candidates, a scripture kept running through the back of my mind. Finally, I looked it up. I realize that for the non-religious, it can seem weird (or even scary) that someone would refer to religious texts for guidance on voting. But bear with me here. The scripture is found in a modern book of LDS scripture known as the Doctrine and Covenants, in section 98, verses 5-10:

5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;
7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.
8 I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.
9 Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.
10 Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.

The way I interpret this scripture, we are admonished to apply four criteria to candidates: 1) they must be honest, 2) they must be wise, 3) they must be good, and 4) they must support laws that are constitutional. We could quibble and say that this fourth criterion actually is directed to the reader rather than to public servants, but if the reader is required to support constitutional laws, it would seem that this extends as well to the reader’s support of public servants.

I find it interesting that when it comes to the laws of man, any that are “more or less” than constitutional come “of evil.” When discussing seeking for rulers, the scripture requires candidates that are honest, wise, and good. Any that are “less than these cometh of evil.” It’s OK if candidates are better than this. But it’s not OK to support a law that is extra-constitutional.

This raises the bar pretty high for candidates. I mean, the first criterion of being honest precludes many candidates right off the bat. You could probably fit all the names of politicians in history that have been renowned for their honesty on a 3x5 card, even using a 20-point font. We are not sanctioned in supporting candidates that are less than honest.

Now, we’re unlikely to find anyone that is perfectly honest 100% of the time. We are talking about humans with faults. However, we all probably know people that we consider to be sufficiently honest to be considered generally honest. In an imperfect world, this is probably the best we can hope for in a candidate.

How do you rank wisdom? It’s a sliding scale. Once again, this is a judgment call that the Lord leaves up to us. It’s easy to spot the fools when the national media make people look foolish. Wisdom is more difficult to judge than foolishness.

Like these other traits, goodness is a judgment call left to us. Jesus said in Matthew 19:17 that “there is none good but one, that is, God….” By that measure, we won’t find a single candidate that is good. The only way to gauge goodness is to take the full measure of the person and decide whether she/he is generally good.

Finally, how do we decide whether a candidate supports only constitutional laws? Do we go by what the Supreme Court has ruled? This is perhaps a decent rule of thumb, but it must be tempered by the fact that the court has pronounced blatantly immoral rulings from time to time. Consider the Dred Scott case, in which the court ruled that black people could never be U.S. citizens and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. This evil became the constitutional law of the land for a while until it was rendered moot by amendments to the Constitution.

So constitutionality presents a bit of a sticky wicket as well. I’m afraid that the only way to determine what is constitutional is to study the document and related writings yourself. In my mind, some candidates support legislation that should be clearly unconstitutional, although, the courts may rule otherwise.

All of this is to say that all of the criteria we are called upon to apply to candidates is highly subjective and/or runs on a sliding scale. It requires a fair amount of personal effort to find out about each candidate and determine how well each measures up to the criteria. We should avoid a knee-jerk reaction to any candidate. Sometimes we just assume that a person is or is not good because we either like or dislike them, or because we support some of the same issues they support. We are called to apply a higher standard than this.

It seems that we can also be prone to supporting or not supporting a candidate based on a single incident or a single utterance. Occasionally a single event can reveal a candidate’s unworthiness or prove a candidate’s value. However, this is generally not the case. Most often, we should form an opinion based on the weight of a representative balance of evidence. This cannot be done if we only look at the good or bad of any candidate.

As I look at the six individuals running for city council seats in my town, I will do my best to support ones that are honest, wise, and good, and who will uphold the Constitution. As I get serious about considering my support for presidential candidates, I will do my best to apply this same standard. In the end, I think I will feel good about my choice even if it differs from the choices of my friends, neighbors, and family.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Will Social Conservatives Leave the GOP?

Per this AP report, some influential conservative Christians are considering breaking the GOP alliance to field a third party. Both major political parties in the U.S. are effectively alliances of groups with enough common interests to unite them on significant issues. However, both parties have a lot of internal disagreements because groups that make up the alliances have disparate and often conflicting interests. The alliances function to the point that the competing groups agree to set aside their disagreements and focus on areas where more agreement exists.

Intra-party competition is a safety valve that limits party power and narrows party focus. It is a sifting mechanism that winnows out less popular ideas in favor of those ideas where some consensus can be achieved. However, in a large party, this can mean that issues that are highly important to even good-sized blocs can fall by the wayside. This can leave fairly powerful groups feeling disenfranchised and underappreciated. This phenomenon occurs in both parties.

Party leaders are constantly working to maintain a satisfactory balance. That’s why they often speak and act inconsistently: they are pandering to groups in their alliances in order to keep the alliance intact. Both parties often ignore their own leaders’ inconsistencies, while loudly criticizing the inconsistencies of the other party’s leaders.

Four decades ago, the South was reliably Democrat. The South was filled with Democrats that were social conservatives. But things began to change in the late 60s and early 70s. The civil rights era resulted in a slow change of the political power structure in the South. When social liberals seized control of the Democratic Party, social conservatives felt sufficiently disenfranchised that they began moving to the Republican side. During this time, long-time alliances in both parties broke and there was a major realignment. Feminists that had been aligned with big business in the GOP moved to the Democrats, for example. Many groups changed parties as party ideologies shifted.

As is always the case whenever changes occur, some were able to take advantage of this shift, while others got the short end of the stick. I have often mentioned that political novice Orrin Hatch (R-UT) benefited from this shift in 1976 when was able to unseat unsuspecting three-term Senator Frank Moss (D-UT), whose power base evaporated before he realized what was happening.

The GOP alliance between social conservatives and the other major players in the GOP has always been a marriage of convenience. Social conservatives came from decades of simply having power and being naturally consulted on issues, to having to get into the filthy trenches of politics and fight for their causes. It has been a rude awakening for them as well as for competing groups. Instead of being able to stay above the fray, they have had to act like common politicians, which many competitors and some of their own have decried as unbecoming of the ideals they claim to uphold.

But what is happening today? The statement by Richard A. Viguerie, quoted in the AP article says it all when he says that social conservatives “have been treated like a mistress as long as any of us can remember.” Presumably speaking of the GOP powerful, he says, “They'll have lots of private meetings with us, tell us how much they appreciate it and how much they value us, but if you see me on the street please don't speak with me.” Viguerie is saying that social conservatives are tired of putting out for the party without getting respect for their issues.

I have previously discussed the infeasibility of the emergence of a viable third party in U.S. politics (see here and here). Social conservative leaders aren’t stupid. They know that splitting from the GOP to form a third party would not produce a viable party. But they also know that it would cripple the GOP. What these people are doing is threatening to take their ball and go home in the hope that the rest of the GOP will wake up and realize how much they need the social conservatives. They want some bones thrown in their direction. They want more than the lip service they have received over the past three decades; they want actual results on some of their hot-button issues.

Social conservatives may be asking for more than the GOP is capable of delivering. For one thing, there simply isn’t consensus among other groups in the GOP on many of the social conservatives’ major issues. For another thing, granting this group more power in the party necessarily means diminishing the power of one or more other groups in the alliance. None of these competing groups are going to willingly acquiesce on this.

Other groups in the GOP alliance are also not very happy with the party’s recent strong focus on the South. They note that GOP popularity in the more liberal Northeast has been rapidly disappearing as the party has ignored this area, perhaps figuring that it is a lost cause.

The fact is that the South cannot get much more Republican than it is today. A stronger focus on the South isn’t going to yield a whole lot more votes. To be viable, the GOP needs much more vigor in the liberal Northeast, in the labor-minded growing population centers of the Midwest, in the burgeoning multi-ethnic centers of the Southwest, and in the libertarian West. The GOP ignores or offends these people at its own peril. Besides, many GOP insiders wonder (even out loud) where else social conservatives could go. Certainly not to the Democratic Party, in which social liberals still have very strong sway.

It appears that at least some social conservatives are saying that they might be willing to leave the GOP to prove their value to the party. Other social conservatives are not ready to jump. They know that this is like the underappreciated spouse that gets a divorce to prove his/her worth to the other partner: it would leave everyone worse off in the long run.

It seems to me that rather than try to force their political will on other members of the GOP alliance, social conservatives would do better to get out and convert people in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West to their cause. To be sure, this would be a very long-term project. But I’m not sure it would require any more resources than they have been willing to put into politics over the past couple of decades. If enough people in the essential voting areas of the nation adopt socially conservative ideals, corresponding political power will grow naturally.

Researchers already know that the strongest and most diverse community structures in the nation are found in mega-churches, which are a fairly recent phenomenon. This would suggest that social conservatives need to expand the popularity of the mega-church beyond its current confines.

Now for a quick disclaimer. For those who seethe with unpleasant sentiments toward the Christian Right (and those who regularly point out that most members of the Christian Right detest my religion), I am merely analyzing what I see happening and suggesting what I think is a reasonable course. I am not making any judgments about the Christian Conservative movement or about those that politically promote socially conservative ideals. You can do that on your own time.

I understand that many social conservatives are frustrated with their lack of definable political successes. But threatening to form a third party is going to create more enemies than friends. I know that the course I have suggested is a long-term project that will only yield desirable political outcomes after years of work. But it is the only reasonable path, since social conservatives simply do not currently have sufficient political capital to get their way. Think about it. What is more likely to get you what you really want: bullying or reaching out to others?