Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The GOP on the Ropes

“Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside.” —Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

In 675 words, Sen. Tom Coburn does a smack down on Bushian “compassionate conservatism” in this WSJ op-ed piece. Coburn’s concise choice of wording makes for a brief article that is so full of quotable commentary that the whole thing bears reading.

It seems that everyone nowadays is acknowledging that the GOP brand has been badly damaged. Coburn derides some of the proposed solutions as more or less putting makeup on a pig. “What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.”

Coburn writes that “conservatives are conservatives because our policies promote deliverance from poverty rather than dependence on government.” The Oklahoma senator is also not afraid of mixing religion into his commentary, ostensibly because that was the vehicle for selling compassionate conservatism in the first place.

“Compassionate conservatism's … implicit claim that charity or compassion translates into a particular style of activist government involving massive spending increases and entitlement expansion – was its undoing. Common sense and the Scriptures show that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver. This is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor's possessions. Spending other people's money is not compassionate.”
Coburn’s proposed solutions are sure to evoke squeamishness among the ranks of congressional Republicans. Most of them probably can’t even imagine “[refusing] to accept any new spending whatsoever, including for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, until Congress does its job of eliminating wasteful spending.” Coburn’s office “has identified $300 billion in annual waste.”

Of course, one man’s waste is another man’s necessity. And congressional Republicans will say that they are afraid of being rejected by voters for such a tough spending stance. I guess they think that the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections and their current dismal prospects for this November are just peachy. Their real fear is being cut off from K-Street money.

The trade of small government principles for the goal of a governing majority has produced a Democrat-Lite party that the majority of voters have rejected. The majority is gone, and Coburn says there’s no chance of getting it back until the party behaves “like Republicans.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) sounds like a somewhat more cautious version of Coburn in this WSJ interview. He basically says that he’s having a lot of difficulty getting House Republicans to line up behind the small government banner.

After reading the interview, it’s easy to understand the frustration of commenter Joe Dantone, who writes (here), “Your article clearly makes the point that John Boehner is a good man, but not the right man. There is a visible need for leadership in the upper reaches of the party and Congressman Boehner is not a leader.”

Look, it took years for the GOP to get itself into its current mess. The party actively recruited non-conservatives in many districts for years. Now they are stuck with most of those people. The voters are doing the favor of rejecting some of them (in favor of conservative Democrats), but the party has a stand-by-your-man policy that makes it support incumbents regardless of how far they have strayed from Republican principles. This means that the party could end up being hitched up with some very un-conservative GOP senators and representatives for many years to come.

The quest for party ideological purity has had only marginal success in American politics. But the GOP has strayed so far from its core principles that the party no longer knows what it stands for. There is no general understanding of why the party exists other than simply not to be called Democrats. Why should voters trust such a party with their votes?

Rep. Boehner is correct when he says that hoping to win by waiting for Democrats to falter is a lousy strategy. He stresses that the GOP must “earn back the majority.” But that takes two things: a clear message from the top and a lot of work by the party at the ground level to elect real conservatives. I’m not sure that either of these things is presently happening.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Enduring to the End

My Dad suffered a stroke about a year and a half ago. Life was not good for him during the first few months after the stroke. The drugs they had him on made him mentally unstable. Doctors insisted that he was suffering from dementia. They wanted to give him more drugs to combat that problem.

Then Dad nearly died after being given a routine antibiotic for dental work. The drug interaction wasn’t supposed to be as bad as it was, but he ended up in intensive care. Then after he was out of intensive care, a nurse “following standard procedures” nearly killed Dad again. He probably would have died had not my Mom been in his hospital room.

Fortunately, Dad rebelled against the drug therapy. At first he surreptitiously washed the drugs down the drain instead of taking them. But eventually he just refused to take them. He went through withdrawal symptoms, but he emerged much better. After scaling back to drugs he felt were absolutely essential, his quality of life and his mental status improved dramatically.

When Dad was first diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF), his heart was pumping at about 30% of normal. This causes all kinds of problems, including lack of energy, fluid retention (which can make you feel like you’re suffocating), and starvation of blood supply to vital organs. Dad’s last EKG had his heart pumping at about 60% of normal.

Over the past few weeks Dad has been feeling progressively worse. He’s had less energy. He has lost significant muscle mass. He can’t sleep well. And more recently he’s been feeling much more congested. When he went for a coronary checkup, they noted that all of his CHF markers were up, so they sent him for a new EKG.

They don’t give you the EKG results at the testing center. You have to see your cardiologist for that. When Dad & Mom consulted with the cardiologist the other day, he said that the EKG showed Dad's heart pumping at about 10% of normal. A person simply can’t survive long in that condition. Eventually the vital organs shut down from blood starvation. They asked the doctor what they should do about it, and he said, “Get your affairs in order.”

Actually, the doctor did order an increase in Dad’s diuretic medications, but that’s a temporary treatment that is only marginally effective. There comes a point in everyone’s life when their body can no longer sustain life. Modern medicine cannot forever halt the inevitable. Dad, for his part, has the attitude, “Bring it on.” Death holds no fears for him. Right now he feels just awful. Just getting dressed takes almost an entire day’s allotment of energy. And he can’t get comfortable no matter what he does.

Mom is doing her best to cope with the situation. Being the primary caregiver in an end-of-life situation where a lot of care and attention is required is extremely draining. It’s frustrating not knowing how to better help your loved one. It’s difficult to take time away because you’re worried what might happen while you’re gone. It seems disloyal. The heavy demands fatigue you. You feel guilty for somewhat looking forward to the end. I take my hat off to anyone that valiantly works through such a difficult role. I watched my Mom-In-Law do this with my Dad-In-Law, and I have great respect for her.

You think you’re in love when you’re courting your spouse and when you’re beginning your marriage. But I have seen true love demonstrated by my Mom and my Mom-In-Law, each caring for a dying spouse after five decades of marriage. Now that, Huey Lewis, is the power of love.

I have no idea how long Dad will be around. The doctor says that few people in Dad’s condition make it a year. I’m surprised that anyone in Dad’s condition could make it even a month. He might surprise the doctor by hanging around for a while. But I don’t expect that will be the case.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Don't Pull a Massachusetts

“The real problem in health care is the way the tax code and third-party payment system distort incentives.” —The Wall Street Journal Editors

I have often asserted that Mitt Romney’s plan for universal health insurance coverage in Massachusetts was exactly the wrong way to go about reforming health care. I have noted that costs have turned out to be dramatically higher than projected. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that over “the coming decade, the expected overruns float in as much as $4 billion over budget.” Yes, that’s billion with a “B.”

“One lesson here,” write the WSJ Editors “is that while pledging "universal" coverage is easy, the harder problem is paying for it.” This is something that we should pay attention to as we debate government involvement in health care in Utah (and nationally as well).

Achieving universal coverage is a wonderful feel-good issue. It violates our sense of fairness to think that some might be excluded from what many have come to consider to be a basic human right. But the Massachusetts plan has proven not to achieve universal coverage. And instead of controlling costs, as was promised, costs have soared at many times the national rate of increase.

How do MA lawmakers plan to deal with these cost overruns? Schemes include “reductions in state payments to doctors and hospitals, enlarged business penalties, an increase in the state tobacco tax, and more restrictions on drug companies and insurers.” Cutting payments to health care providers and creating new restrictions will result in shortages, reduced quality, and (ironically) still higher costs.

Tobacco use increases some health care costs, but some studies show that tobacco use actually lowers lifetime medical costs due to reduced lifespan. Using increased tobacco taxes to fund health care necessarily means making health care reliant on people smoking. If fewer people smoke — which would be a good thing — health care funding decreases. Besides, states with high tobacco taxes have spawned a black market tobacco industry that avoids paying those taxes, meaning that revenues are never as high as projected.

“Mr. Romney's fundamental mistake,” claim the WSJ Editors “was focusing on making health insurance "universal" without first reforming the private insurance market.” The entire third-party payment system needs to be examined. While many hail it as a way of making costly procedures affordable, it has resulted in significantly higher costs overall and treatments that don’t meet patients’ needs.

High quality, cost effective health care does not require heavy government involvement or massive third-party payment structures. Indeed, these represent the antithesis of such goals. Instead, government and third parties need to quit distorting system incentives.

The Utah Association of Health Underwriters recommends moving to health care consumerism one procedure at a time. There will, of course, be a handful of procedures that are not conducive to consumerism. But for the most part, patients and providers will be far better off under consumerism. They will spend less and will get much better quality. Patients will get treatment better suited to their needs. Check out all of the links on the UAHU website under the heading “Consumerism: Market Based Reform” for more information.

The WSJ Editors say that the Bay State has at least provided a public service to the rest of the nation: “showing everyone how not to reform health care.” So, as we debate reforming health care in Utah and at the national level, let’s make sure we don’t pull a Massachusetts.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Workplace Discrimination Strikes Home

When I was 17, I got a job at McDonald’s. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t care for that kind of work, so after about two months I sought other opportunities.

A few months ago my oldest son got a job at McDonald’s. This weekend, he was canned. In his mind, he is certain that his firing comes down to three shortcomings: he is the wrong sex, his skin is too light, and he doesn’t speak the proper primary or secondary language. The same is apparently true of all others that have been canned at this restaurant over the past six months.

My wife, who has more knowledge of the inner functioning of the workplace at the restaurant where my son worked, claims that there is at least some validity to my son’s viewpoint. Other workers that are no more serviceable than my son are not fired and receive no disciplinary action. But they are female, Hispanic, or both.

My son has never been a rapid worker, which is a problem for a business that focuses on speed. One of my son’s former managers – the one that is Caucasian – confirmed that my son is not speedy, but said that he does good quality work. She did not support his firing, but was overruled by other managers with different cultural backgrounds.

It seems that my son has been the target of discrimination. He is angry about it. His anger stems from the perception that he was fired for factors that he is powerless to overcome — that he was illegally treated unequally.

This kind of thing provides fodder for those that oppose the immigration of people that are not like “us.” Every wave of immigration has produced its own anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s nothing new for descendants of former immigrants to openly worry that newer immigrants threaten American values.

I do not agree with workplace discrimination. But it’s very difficult to prove. And when the target is a white male, nobody wants to touch it. And anyway, how much do you really want to fight for a burger flipping job? Businesses that engage in discrimination actually end up hurting themselves and disadvantaging themselves against their competitors.

For that reason, I advise my son to forget it and move ahead. There are plenty of other entry-level jobs in the world. My son has complained that working at McDonald’s “sucks.” I have explained that pretty much all entry level jobs “suck.” This provides motivation to strive for something better. And for most of us, there’s no way to get to the higher rungs on the ladder without first traversing the lower rungs.

Right now my son is licking his wounds because his firing seems like a commentary on his personal worth. Fortunately, I am confident that someday he will be able to look back at this experience and laugh about it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Teaching Financial Literacy

The other night I noticed that my wife had a magazine open to an article about what young adults need to know about finances. If my oldest manages to actually apply the brain power God gave him, he will graduate high school next year and be thrust into the adult world. Thus, the article.

This got me thinking about how I learned about finances. I can think of five formative elements off the top of my head.

#1 is the example of my parents. I grew up in a home where my parents were careful about financial matters. They were careful about what they acquired and they always paid every bill on time or early. They were meticulous about how they wrote checks and they always balanced their checkbook.

#2 is the newspaper route I had from age 11 until I was almost 17. Back in those days I had to spend several evenings each month collecting the monthly subscription fee from customers. I learned a lot about people’s attitudes about money. Even as a 12-year-old kid, it was obvious which kinds of attitudes I liked — which ones denoted success and which ones signified the opposite.

#3 is having a checking account since age 12. I got the checking account so that I could receipt money from news subscribers and pay the news company for publications and supplies. But having a checking account forced me to learn how to manage it. As I learned, I sometimes caused my parents frustration, but the result was worth it.

#4 is managing my finances on a very tight budget while serving a mission for my church. This was mostly funded by my parents. Back then they sent me a check each month. I exchanged it for Norwegian Crowns at the bank. Then I had to pay for rent, utilities, transportation, food, and anything else I needed until the next check arrived.

#5 is the 2½ years that I worked for a bank. I learned a lot as a teller. But I learned a heck of a lot more as an installment loan collector. There’s nothing that builds respect for proper financial management quite like having to repossess collateral from people and take people to court. You see the consequences of poor choices up close and personal. It stiffens one’s resolve.

I didn’t work the credit card collections, but I worked with the people that did so. I saw the horrendous results of people’s poor management of what are essentially easy immediate loans. Consequently, we never use a credit card for anything for which we couldn’t immediately pay cash instead. When we swipe a card, that money is put aside. We consider it gone. When the monthly bill comes, there is never any problem paying the entire amount.

Working jobs, buying cars, making payments, getting married, buying a house, and all of the rest of it has definitely played into my financial education. But the foundation for all of this was chiefly laid through the five experiences listed above. I hope for similar experiences for each of my children.

Gay Marriage Reprise

With yesterday’s news that the California Supreme Court has ruled that the state is required to allow and support the marriage of same-sex partners (see AP article), I thought it might to be good to reprise my June 6, 2006 post.

One of the main arguments by gay marriage proponents is that gay marriage couldn’t possibly harm heterosexual marriage. This is a glib argument, but as I discuss in my post, it is wrong. People can live in denial, but that does not change reality.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thinking “outside- the-box” = Tax Increases

Last night, the guys on KSL Radio’s Nightside Project took Sen. Sheldon Killpack (R-Syracuse) to task for his suggestion on the Doug Wright Show that Utah’s gas taxes may require a 40-cent per gallon increase to meet road construction and maintenance demands. You can listen to the Nightside segment here. (See KSL story, Standard Examiner story. The Standard erroneously calls Killpack the “Assistant Senate Minority Whip.” It’s been a long time since a Republican in Utah has been in the legislative minority.)

Alex and Ethan repeatedly played a couple of sound bites from Doug Wright’s interview with Killpack. And quite honestly, if that’s all you heard, you’d think this guy was into big time tax and spend policies. He said that they were considering “outside-the-box solutions.” He also said that meeting all of the needs with only gas tax increases would require a 40-cent per gallon jump, up from the current state take of 24.5 cents per gallon.

The Nightside guys made it sound as if Killpack’s outside-the-box solution meant increasing the amount of state tax you pay at the pump 163 percent. But if you get the entire context of Killpack’s commentary, you will discover, as the Standard reports, that “Killpack said he's not proposing to increase the gas tax, but wanted to demonstrate that that's what it would take to meet the state's transportation needs.”

In fact, Killpack said that they are considering many different approaches, including congestion pricing on busy highway segments. This would mean toll roads, or at least toll lanes, where users pay higher prices as demand increases. The price goes up during heavy traffic and goes down during lower traffic. Alex and Ethan basically lampooned this idea, presenting a caricature of what Killpack actually said.

For a better understanding of congestion pricing and other market based approaches to traffic congestion, you can listen to Cato’s Randal O’Toole speaking to the Utah Taxpayer Association. For an even more expressive understanding of this, watch the video clip below from the Drew Carey Project on Reason.TV. Solutions can come from private enterprise, but government has to allow that to happen.

Ethan did make a very good point when he said that Utah does not have a conservative legislature that champions small government. We have a legislature that seeks to codify conservative morality, but we do not have a fiscally conservative legislature, regardless of what kind of fiscal ranking it receives compared to other states.

The Nightside Project can be fun to listen to. But these guys damage their credibility when they obscure the facts, twist what people say, and lampoon ideas that are worthy of consideration. While they might not like the concept of congestion pricing, I think if you will watch the Drew Carey clip, you might think otherwise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Idol Worship

Cato’s Gene Healy has penned a book titled The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. In it, Healy discusses how executive power has grown substantially throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. He contrasts this state with the Founders’ vision for the office of chief executive and with how the office was executed through the end of the 19th Century.

To get a sampling of what can be found in the book you can check out this Reason Magazine article. The article is over 4,700 words long, so it’s not a quick read. But it is provocative and interesting.

Having just escaped the grasp of what they viewed as tyrannical monarchy, the Founders abhorred the idea of a president that would appear imperial. The president was to steer clear of influencing legislation, but was obligated to run the government per legislation. The office was to be similar to that of a prime minister stripped of legislative powers and responsibilities.

Healy suggests that from the nation’s inception and on through the 19th Century, the presidency’s powers were quite benign compared to the expansive powers wielded by today’s chief executive, even when taking Lincoln into account. How did we get from Washington’s refusal to even broach the topic of legislative matters to where we are today?

It began, asserts Healy, with Theodore Roosevelt (the first “celebrity president”), was enhanced by Wilson, and was finally cemented firmly into place by FDR. By the mid 1960s, says Healy, the presidency had taken on an aura of divinity on the order of the old monarchies. Expansion of executive power and persona suffered a setback in the Vietnam/Watergate era, but it has since made a roaring comeback.

Many of the men that have served as president, along with movers and shakers in their administrations, have deliberately sought to grow executive power. But this is a two-way street, claims Healy. The fact is that a large majority of American voters have bought into the “delusion” of a good, wise, and powerful near deity as our chief executive — a demigod that is “our national father or mother, responsible for our economic well-being, our physical safety, and even our sense of belonging.” Politicians are trying to respond to our demands.

Think about it. After a couple of decades of implementing some checks on executive power, Americans demanded in the face of 9/11 a president that has sufficient power to make us safe and to destroy our enemies. Hurricane Katrina was another turning point in expansion of executive power. Healy writes, “To be sure, the administration deserved plenty of blame for bungling the disaster relief tasks it had the power to carry out. But it soon became clear that the public held the Bush team responsible for performing feats above and beyond its legal authority.”

This process necessarily centralizes power. It has grown the size and power of the federal government, while the business world has significantly decentralized power. The recent wrangling over various checks on executive power has been about requirements are essentially minimal and mostly feckless. President Bush has repeatedly requested and gotten increased powers, including “enhanced authority for domestic use of the military.” Congress has, for the most part, not only acquiesced, but enthusiastically granted expanded executive powers.

We demand that the president be responsible for all kinds of things for which the office was never designed. It only follows that the president must have power equal to the responsibility we demand of him. It is more than simple coincidence that our distrust of government has grown along with our demand for more executive responsibility. I think it is also more than coincidental that Americans’ faith in human political icons has grown as their faith in deity has declined.

What we don’t get is that when our president fails to fulfill our wild expectations, we only assume that he is doing a poor job. It never occurs to us that it is the job that is the problem. The system, we assume, would be just fine if it weren’t run by inept or evil people. Somehow, we can’t come to grips with the fact that our “system, with its unhealthy, unconstitutional concentration of power,” is destined to produce poor results.

So every few years we cast about for a new great savior to come in and rescue us. And both political parties make bargains with the devil in the name of political expediency, because the stakes are so high.

Can anyone objectively think that any of the three current major candidates for the presidency can satisfy what American voters have come to demand of their president? Unfortunately, it seems that we will not begin to return the presidency to its proper scope until some major scandal, policy error, or calamity shakes the faith Americans have in “the spellbinding cult of the presidency.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Some of the Scariest Stuff I See Is In the Mirror

Years ago there was a guy that taught lessons in a class I attended. He was a nice middle age guy. But there was one freaky thing about him.

I generally like to sit on the front row of classes. For one thing, there’s generally room there because, I guess most people prefer to avoid the front row. That is probably because sitting too close to the teacher sometimes carries certain hazards.

In this case, one of the hazards was that when the light was just right, you could see this long hair protruding from the teacher’s forehead above his left eyebrow. It was nearly clear and as slender as spider silk, but it was kind of kinked up. I swear the thing was nearly four inches long.

Whenever THE HAIR caught my attention, my mind inadvertently wandered from the lesson as my attention riveted on the bizarre hair. I’d wonder to myself whether the teacher didn’t know it was there or just didn’t care about it. I never had the guts to actually mention it to him.

This morning as I was shaving, the light caught just right in the mirror, and I saw a very slender, nearly clear hair protruding from my forehead above my left eyebrow. It was about an inch long. I wondered how it was possible that I had never noticed it before.

I’m just sayin’.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What are We Really Paying for?

Once in a conversation with a co-worker, I mentioned that I eat pretty much the same thing breakfast every day. She recoiled in horror and said that she went to great lengths to vary her breakfast meals from day to day. The reason, she explained, is that her grandfather ate the same thing for breakfast every day. His doctor told the family that this led directly to his heart-related death at age 62.

When I asked what her grandfather’s breakfast fare consisted of, she said that the memory of it was still crystal clear in her mind, including the scent. He had three eggs fried over easy, half a pound of bacon fried, a large plate of hash browns fried in the bacon grease, and two chunks of bread slathered with real butter. She claimed he rarely missed a day of eating this same breakfast for over 35 years. Criminy, with a meal like that every day for decades, it’s amazing that her grandpa’s ticker worked as long as it did!

I thought that my co-worker was pulling my leg with her idea that routine was the governing factor in her grandpa’s demise, as opposed to the nutritional value of his food choices. Certainly, I conjectured, a person could enjoy great health by eating a healthy breakfast daily, even if the meal content never varied. But she completely rejected this line of thought. She was so serious about it that she had built rituals to support it.

I was stunned. How could a reasonably bright and intelligent person draw such a wrong-headed conclusion from the data available? I have since learned that this happens all of the time. In fact, we even have highly educated people that invest tremendous energy and resources in defending flawed conclusions.

For example, many smart people look at the skyrocketing cost of medical care and the increasing cost of medical insurance and conclude that the answer is yet more insurance. But perhaps we should conclude that we’re focusing on the wrong things.

GMU economist Robin Hanson wrote (here):
“Car inspections and repairs take a small fraction of our total spending on cars, gas, roads, and parking. But imagine that we were so terrified of accidents due to faulty cars that we spent most of our automotive budget having our cars inspected and adjusted every week by Ph.D. car experts. Obsessed by the fear of not finding a defect that might cause an accident, imagine we made sure inspections were heavily regulated and subsidized by government. To feed this obsession, imagine we skimped on spending to make safer roads, cars, and driving patterns, and our constant disassembling and reassembling of cars introduced nearly as many defects as it eliminated. This is something like our relation to medicine today.”
Now, it is true that we can’t trade in our bodies for newer ones, like we do our automobiles. Today’s cars are far less polluting and more efficient than the cars of 30, 40, or 50 years ago. But, despite science fiction, science and technology haven’t made human bodies any more efficient than were human bodies back then.

That does not mean we’re spending our health care money well. Hanson says that “health policy experts know that we see at best only weak aggregate relations between health and medicine, in contrast to apparently strong aggregate relations between health and many other factors, such as exercise, diet, sleep, smoking, pollution, climate, and social status.”

Hanson argues that we could cut medical spending in half without seeing a significant decline in actual health outcomes. We should, he says, be focusing our resources on those factors that have much greater impact on health.

There are significant barriers to this kind of transition. Hanson asserts that our society is heavily indoctrinated in the myth of the benefits of medicine. “Heroic medicine,” he writes, “is just too central to our culture ….” Despite these myths, he claims that objective studies show that medicine has only slight positive impacts on health. Many studies show neutral or negative effects.

Few in the medical industry would believe that the services and products they provide don’t make much of a difference. But our massive medical industrial complex with all of its fellow travelers that draw power and income from the system represent yet another major barrier to focusing on positive health.

Given what we know from a large variety of studies, Hanson postulates that an aggregate health spending reduction would “reduce helpful and harmful medicine in roughly equal amounts. The claim is not that there would be no harmful health effects of such a policy, but rather that harmful effects would be roughly balanced by helpful effects.”

If you read through Hanson’s post, you can draw the conclusion that a 50% (or 100% or 1,000%) increase in our medical spending will have no appreciable impact on our overall health. Hanson postulates that a 50% reduction in overall medical spending would have an aggregate neutral effect on health outcomes. Given that we continue to rush headlong toward increased medical spending, cutting health spending by 50% not reality, and Hanson knows it.

“Yes, I know, these are not politically realistic proposals. But at least health policy experts should publicly contradict those who overemphasize medicine, including politicians whose “health policy” is mainly medical policy, and newspapers whose “health” news is mainly medical news. Furthermore, health policy experts should not themselves mainly research and teach medicine.”
Hanson admits that categories such as “immunization, infant care, and emergency care” might warrant larger benefits.

Hanson’s suggestion that medicine harms as much as it helps once a certain threshold is reached caused one man observing his elderly father languishing in the hospital to call the treatment “Hansonian medicine.” I have seen this with my own father. Once the crisis was dealt with, much of the remaining treatment my father has received has caused at least as many problems as it has helped. His overall quality of life certainly isn’t any better for all of it. And piles of cash have been consumed.

If we were to insert more consumerism and free market principles into medicine, we would see a shift away from treatments that don’t really help toward prevention and treatments that do actually help. This would restore the “private clues about the health effectiveness” upon which we would base how we spend our health care dollars.

Maybe we can’t achieve a wholesale 50% cut in medical spending, but we can work to implement consumerism bit by bit. Over time this could naturally achieve Hanson’s desired 50% cut while actually improving real health.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Authentic Conservatives vs. Political Conservatives

Yesterday I introduced the Sutherland Institute’s position regarding illegal immigration. The institute recently released a statement and an essay on this issue.

Sutherland’s essay spans 21 pages. On page 2, the institute complains that many Utahns that brand themselves as conservative “wear their brands of conservatism as an unquestioned free-pass to conduct all sorts of political and legislative business,” much of which, they later contend, is antithetical to conservative principles.

The paper details the conflict among conservative ranks regarding both immigration and the larger picture of conservative principle. Sutherland discusses two main camps of conservative immigration thought: the enforcers and the assimilators. When I look at the big names in both camps, generally speaking the assimilators seem to lean a bit more libertarian while the enforcers seem to lean a bit more toward big government.

Sutherland argues that that last legislative session’s SB 81 that sought to codify the enforcer approach, was “an uncharacteristically piecemeal, intrusive, government-first approach.” They go on to say that such a “black-and-white approach seems to be ineffective, needlessly divisive, government-driven and, unfortunately, often irrational.” Moreover, enforcers are “political conservatives,” while assimilators are “authentic conservatives.” So much for diplomacy.

Sutherland contends that assimilation is the only reasonable approach to illegal immigration. Conservative icon Bill Buckley Jr. is quoted as saying, “Laws attempting to seal the border were in the tradition of King Canute or­dering the tide to stop.” Since immigrants will come regardless of what we do and which laws we pass, we might as well work to assimilate them and turn them into freedom loving Americans rather than creating barriers to assimilation, and keeping them second class citizens, as are Middle Easterners in much of Western Europe.

The real problem, Sutherland asserts, is not immigration but our expansive welfare state. We are too concerned about newcomers consuming more than their share of public resources. “If given the choice between banishing our fellow human beings from our communities and dismantling the welfare state,” they ask, “wouldn’t every sensible conservative choose the latter policy?” The institute frames the debate this way:

“Herein lies the crux of the disagreement between authen­tic conservatives and anti-immigration activists: authentic conservatives view new immigrants (preferably legal but necessarily including illegal) as an opportunity to reclaim and renew vital American institutions, while anti-immigra­tion activists view new immigrants (always illegal but, for some, surprisingly including legal) as an onus, an insur­mountable burden, and an ill-intentioned threat to destroy our American way of life.”
There is tension between the rule of law and the actual human experience surrounding immigration. “Authentic conservatives cherish the rule of law,” Sutherland asserts. “On the other hand, we eschew a police state.” Immigration laws are regulatory rather than moral. We frequently violate regulatory laws when they fail to reflect our actual human experience without considering ourselves criminals or bad citizens. Sutherland draws a parallel with speed limit laws.

Sutherland calls on conservatives to abandon the government-centric approach of co-opting all citizens to become enforcers of poorly designed law. They suggest that this is the truly moral path. Instead, they invite conservatives to devise solutions that fall within the institute’s founding principles:
  • Personal Responsibility as the basis of self-govern­ment

  • Family as the fundamental unit of society

  • Private Property as the cornerstone of economic freedom

  • Religion as the moral compass of human progress

  • Charity as the wellspring of a caring community

  • Free Markets as the engine of economic prosperity

  • Limited Government as the essence of good gov­ernment
While Sutherland says they “are rightly concerned about following federal laws,” they also say they “are rightly outraged that the federal government has allowed these new neighbors to come to us under these unfortunate and trying circum­stances.”

Pages 15-18 of Sutherland’s essay detail its seven-point plan to deal with illegal immigration.
  • Request a federal waiver permitting Utahns to explicitly address illegal immigration in a manner that preserves families, builds communities, and creates productive citizens.

  • Create an in-state work permit.

  • Focus public education on our most needy students.

  • Establish a broad network of authentic charity care clinics.

  • Coordinate private outreach to strengthen faith and family relationships.

  • Coordinate public/private efforts to teach the full scope of citizenship.

  • Lobby our state’s congressional delegation to support more humane legal immigration policies.
Sutherland directly addresses religious people who are concerned about their church’s immigrant outreach programs. They say that chiding “Hispanic and il­legal immigrant families for any shortcomings or failures” is not the answer. Rather, “helping these families privately (without government in­trusions) will move them in the right direction. The answer is not to point a finger, but to extend a helping hand.”

They also ask Utahns to recall the state’s history. “The problem of illegal immigration is an opportunity for Utahns to return to our roots where outcasts among us are welcomed and encouraged to become a constructive part of our society.”

Finally, Sutherland says that we need to do more than simply live peaceably with our non-citizen neighbors. We need to help them become real American citizens and to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy.

I frankly don’t see that this agenda has much of a chance of moving forward in the current political climate. Many self-identified conservatives are firmly in the enforcement camp. And they believe they have very good reasons for their positions. They are vehemently opposed to the types of suggestions Sutherland is making. They feel that this would only encourage and validate illegal behavior. As I have already mentioned, Sutherland derides these people as fake conservatives. These people earnestly feel otherwise.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that Sutherland’s bold position will change the minds of just enough legislators that anti-immigrant policies will fail to pass by larger margins than they have failed previously. It is also likely that Sutherland’s statements will earn a lot of hate mail. People have very strong feelings about illegal immigration. But it wouldn’t hurt to think about ways to productively move forward on this issue with compassion and respect for reality.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What Should We Do About Illegal Immigration?

Illegal immigration is a complex issue. No one is happy about the large number of illegals that fill our prisons for committing other crimes. Border communities struggle to provide public services to burgeoning immigrant populations. The email circuit is filled with dire estimations of the public cost illegals place on the system. People are frustrated with evidence that we are being forced to become a bilingual nation.

And yet there is more to the story, especially when you put a human face to it. Most of the immigrants that are here illegally were once legal residents whose visas have expired. Our immigration policy is so bizarre, outdated, and poorly administered that honest people often find themselves victims of government ineptitude.

In Ogden’s inner city we have Spanish speaking Boy Scout units. The adults and youth that participate in these programs wear the American Flag on their uniforms. Each week they salute the American Flag and pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. And we want to kick these people out of the country?

Last year, angry Americans shut down the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. It went too far and made too many compromises. Politicians that are used to being above the rabble of the citizenry were both shocked and angry to be called on the carpet.

One of the buzz words that make average Americans angry is amnesty. Studies show that Americans largely oppose amnesty for illegal aliens. This cuts across party lines and is especially strong among those that consider themselves to be somewhat or strongly conservative. We don’t like it when people cheat the system.

But one pundit recently questioned why entering or staying in this country illegally should be the only legal violation for which there is no remedy. For every other legal violation (short of permanent imprisonment and death penalty cases), violators can pay their debt to society and move on. Are immigration violations to be the only case besides extremely violent crime where reconciliation is impossible?

The Sutherland Institute, which has taken a lot of heat over its advocacy of conservative issues in Utah, has developed this position statement about immigration issues. This much longer essay provides more detail and argues the institute’s position.

The institute begins by recognizing that immigration is ostensibly a federal issue. Since the feds aren’t fixing the system’s problems, state and local governments are left to deal with the results. The Sutherland position states:

“We draw a distinction between the illegalities surrounding the broad experience of well-meaning and otherwise law-abiding people who have violated federal immigration laws and malicious criminals intent on harming our citizens. Violation of these laws is a public transgression, not a moral sin.”
That statement is sure to rile some people right there. My father and many other immigrants that went through the process to come here legally feel that those that are here illegally ought to be packed up and shipped home pronto. But the statement above actually recognizes realities on the ground.

Sutherland presents four statements to describe its beliefs about immigration:
  • We should welcome all people of good will to our state.

  • We should not serve as proxy law enforcement officials for the federal government regarding our neighbors in violation of federal immigration laws

  • We should seek economic transparency and personal accountability for all Utah residents.

  • We should encourage our neighbors in violation of federal immigration laws to become thoroughly assimilated, literate and productive members of our community.
Many people I know will take exception with the second point. They view requiring employers to clear prospective employees’ social security numbers through a national database before engaging them in employment as a minimal cost. Those that are here illegally, and especially those that are engaging in identification theft, would be shut out of job opportunities. Thus, their incentive for being here would evaporate. Sutherland claims this view is over simplistic.

Employers also have concerns about becoming the nation’s unfunded immigration cops. This 1/27/08 Dallas Morning News article details at length some of the arguments on both sides of this issue. Beside the fact that the verification process is error prone, officials think that an employer simply telling the applicant that they can’t have a job isn’t enough. They want employers to actually take enforcement action. Employers feel that this is unreasonable. It smacks of the old Soviet Union.

If you look at Sutherland’s third and fourth points, however, you will see that these are intended to mitigate the need for turning citizens into immigration enforcers. Instead of driving immigrants away, Sutherland proposes that we invite immigrants to become fully functional members of American society, both economically and culturally. Of its fourth point, the Sutherland statement says:

“This includes mastery of the English language, study of the texts of the United States and Utah Constitutions and other source documents associated with this nation’s and state’s founding, an understanding of and commitment to the essential features of personal responsibility, free markets, and limited government, and preparing for citizenship.”
I have long felt that it is essential for all Americans, including immigrants, to buy into the American ideals around which our nation was founded. This will make our nation strong and will protect our liberties.

In the end, Sutherland reminds us that “illegal immigrants are real people with real families in search of America’s fullest privileges.” The paper implores us to respect their humanity. While making it clear that criminal activity cannot be tolerated, the institute says:

“We believe people are not the problem; people are always the solution. Immigration policy should focus on fixing broken systems and failed policies, not on punishing people of good will simply seeking a better life in the face of its harsh realities.”
The obvious retort to the Sutherland position is that the institute is merely echoing the positions of big business, which seeks to cut costs by exploiting illegals with low wages and no benefits. Sutherland President Paul Mero claims in the preface to the Sutherland essay, “… we view this issue morally as much as we view it socially, culturally, and eco­nomically.” Mero also writes that the Sutherland position, while certain to be controversial, “strives to reflect an authentic conserva­tism.”

Tomorrow: Authentic Conservatives vs. Political Conservatives

Monday, May 05, 2008

Why the BSA Is Valuable

Over the weekend I finished reading Texas Governor Rick Perry’s book, On My Honor. The book discusses what the Boy Scouts of America means to him and to other men that he knows. Some of these men were boys in the troop of which Perry was a member during his boyhood in rural Texas. Others are notable figures, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott Jr., and Capt. James Lovell of Apollo 13 fame, all of whom are Eagle Scouts.

A number of the men mentioned by Perry (not all are listed above) are not strangers to controversy. Perry himself should bear some scrutiny over his handling of the FLDS situation in his state.

As one of my parent’s five Eagle Scout sons, and having two Eagle Scout sons myself (and hopefully two more on the way), I was interested in reading this book. Perry discusses the history of the Scouting movement and of the BSA in particular in chapter 4. He also discusses how the 4-million member BSA functions and is organized. Chapter 9, which delves into accounts of Scouting heroism, is worth reading on its own.

In chapters 2, 3, and 8 Perry writes both generally and specifically about Scouting values. It is here that he presents why he believes the BSA is such an important and valuable organization. The BSA doesn’t create perfect citizens. While there are many great men among the 1.7 million that have earned the Eagle Scout rank, there are also a number that are infamous (see list). But the BSA does create leaders, and it engenders a culture of service, respect, accomplishment, and self-reliance.

Lawyer Wars
The remaining chapters (1, 4-7, 11, and 12) are devoted to the central thesis of Perry’s book: the culture wars, and especially the specific attacks by the Left on the BSA. Perry documents the various legal challenges that have been repeatedly brought against the BSA and notes how the Left is pursuing its agenda of forcing the BSA to accept the Left’s view of morality.

First came challenges to the BSA’s policy of only admitting young men to its programs for 7-14-year-olds. Each of these was rebuffed by the courts. (The BSA has long allowed young women ages 14-21 to participate in its Explorer and Venture programs.) Then came challenges to the BSA’s requirement that members believe in and reverence God. These were likewise turned back.

Next came objections to the BSA’s policy against admitting homosexual activists to its ranks. Perry explains that the BSA policy is akin to the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. The Boy Scouts is not designed to be about sexuality. It doesn’t want adults bringing sexuality of any kind into troop meetings. But when someone creates their identity around sexual activism, such cannot be avoided. Thus, sexual orientation activists are not permitted to join. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the BSA was within its rights to exclude homosexual activists from its ranks.

While the BSA does not go out of its way to find out about any member’s sexual orientation, it does go out of its way to exclude known abusers from its ranks. To become an adult volunteer, you must give the BSA your social security number, your driver license number, and permission to do a background check. If you have a record of any kind of abuse (or of other serious problems), you will not be permitted to join.

Even with these kinds of precautions, abusers still manage to get into the ranks of the BSA. A few years ago, the BSA became aware that the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which “advocates the legalization of sexual relations between adult males and under-aged boys,” was distributing information about how to infiltrate the BSA (plus little league and other youth programs) undetected, as well as specific instructions about how to get away with raping boys.

Unable to beat the BSA legally after decades of assaults, the Left has now turned to trying to get governmental entities to deny the BSA access to various public venues, from military bases to buildings to campgrounds. The results have been a mixed bag, with the Left winning some and the BSA winning some. All of this legal wrangling has been very expensive for the BSA. If the Leftists can’t beat them legally, at least they can make them bleed money through continual legal challenges, regardless of their merit.

Perry wonders why the Leftists are so opposed to allowing the BSA to operate according to its own desires. Why try to remake the BSA in their own image? Why not simply start their own youth organization that has all of the features they so much desire?

Scouting Values
In chapter 10, Perry goes through studies done in 1995 and 2005 that compare various values among people that have been members of the BSA under five years, those that have been members over four years, and those that have never been members. The results are about what might be expected between the three groups. While the long-time Scouters almost always come out on top, there has been some overall decline in all groups over the decade. Still, the vast majority of Americans, even those that have never had anything to do with the BSA, align themselves with the values espoused by the BSA.

In chapters 11 and 12, Perry gives his personal interpretation of what all of this means. He includes political as well as religious interpretations. He worries that the U.S. has been tranquilized by its affluence, and that this will have both moral and economic impacts.

“If we believe our technology, firepower, and educational attainment will save us from licentiousness, godlessness, and undisciplined living, we bet on a losing proposition according to the history of civilization (Rome, Greece, Babylon, to name a few). Sure, prior empires did not have access to weapons that could annihilate mankind from the face of the earth. But it won’t take a military invasion to remove us from our perch atop the world: only our wandering into a moral wilderness of indifference.”
Since he is governor of our largest border state, it was not surprising to see Perry soft peddle immigration issues. Of Hispanic immigrants, he writes, “I see a population that is largely law-abiding, aspiring to be upwardly mobile, and hungry … for an opportunity to provide a good life for their family. … We are better off for what they bring to the table.” While we do need immigrants that become real Americans, I can only assume that Perry doesn’t see the disproportionately large number of illegal immigrants that make up our prison population.

I was surprised that Perry never mentioned in his book that Learning for Life is a subsidiary of the BSA. This 1.8 million member organization “utilizes programs designed for schools and community-based organizations ... to prepare youth ... for the complexities of contemporary society and to enhance their self-confidence, motivation, and self-esteem.” This program works with many inner city youth. It doesn’t have the structure, uniforms, and insignia of regular BSA programs, nor does it have religious belief or sexual orientation requirements.

Having been a member of the BSA since age eight, I appreciated Perry’s discussion of Scouting values. In chapter 8 he addresses the 12 points of the Scout Law. However, I was disappointed in his brief take on reverence. Of this point, the Scout Handbook says, “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.” Although Perry makes his Christian belief clear throughout his book, when he writes about reverence, he writes only about respecting “people in positions of authority.” I’m sorry, but saying, “Yes sir, Mr. Governor” is very unlike praying, “Help me to know and do thy will, O God.”

Perry does make a significant point about respecting the beliefs of others. Not only does he point out the Left’s intolerance for those whose opinions differ from theirs, but he claims society benefits by protecting the BSA’s right to espouse its values.

“I do not advocate state-sponsored morality in the most general sense, but I do argue for the protection of organizations and entities whose influence on American values have been profoundly positive. And I do argue that we continue to make the case to our fellow citizens about the virtue of making right choices, while recognizing in a free society people must ultimately have the prerogative to make wrong choices.”
Finally, Perry expresses faith in the values held by the American middle class. He writes, “I believe Scouting will survive as long as it sticks to the virtues and values of the great middle class.” He qualifies this by adding, “… if those values are not replaced by a culture of licentiousness.”

I appreciate the fact that Gov. Perry wrote this book. It explains the whys and hows of Scouting. It especially explains why Scouting values are worth fighting for. Given that some of the Left see the BSA as the enemy, the BSA can expect to continue to have to fight for those values.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

To Everything There Is a Season

Many people throughout the world are familiar with LDS Church missionaries. To begin their service, Mormon missionaries receive brief training at one of the church’s Missionary Training Centers around the globe. Those that already know the language of their assigned areas spend less than three weeks at the MTC. Those that are learning languages usually receive about eight weeks of MTC training.

I have strong memories of my two months at the Provo MTC. Those that have spent time there know that the campus has a series of identical four-floor dormitory buildings. Each floor is identical. (Sometimes this produces confusion.) Effectively managing the schedules of several hundred missionaries is not an easy task. Groups are given fairly rigid schedules to make it all work.

During my tenure at the MTC, I lived on the third floor of our dormitory in a room with three other missionaries that were also slated to serve in Norway. My best friend resided on the second floor of the same building. Due to our differing schedules, we almost never saw each other.

The entire third floor of our building was slated to attend gym class first thing in the morning. Upon returning from gym class, we had just enough time to get washed, groomed, and dressed before we were scheduled to be at the cafeteria for breakfast. This proved to be problematic, because there was a limited number of shower heads, meaning that we often waited in line to get showered.

One day as I was walking back into the dorm room with my hair wet and with my towel wrapped around my waist, I saw one of the other missionaries just putting on his suit coat. I asked how it was possible that he had been able to get ready so quickly. He swore the rest of us in the room to secrecy, and then revealed that he had discovered that the entire fourth floor was gone to breakfast at the time we were scheduled to shower. Their shower rooms were completely vacant during that time. The next morning, our group showered in luxuriant privacy on the fourth floor. This continued for weeks.

One of our group was a good singer. He would often begin singing a hymn, and the rest of us would join in and try to sing four-part harmony while we were showering. After being in the MTC for about seven weeks, we were getting a little antsy. We had been very good about the structured environment. I had worked very hard studying. And, of course, we were still 19-year-old boys. All of these factors combined to foment what happened next.

The MTC is, understandably, a somewhat cloistered environment. Missionaries are encouraged to lay aside the things of this world and focus on matters of a spiritual plane. The media with which we had inundated ourselves throughout our young lives was shut off. If there was music, it was ostensibly hymns. We were continually encouraged to maintain the high spiritual standards of the desired MTC environment.

One morning after we finished a hymn in the shower, one of our number said, “I’m tired of singing just hymns. I think it would be healthy to break out of that routine at least once in a while.” Another one asked rather incredulously, “Well, what do you suggest we sing?” The first one got a mischievous look in his eye, and then burst out singing, “Flintstones Meet the Flintstones. They’re a modern stone age family!”

For a moment, we were all shocked. Then the rest of us spontaneously joined in at the top of our lungs, “From the town of Bedrock, They’re a page right out of history.” When we finished the song, it felt so good blowing off a little steam, that we sang it again, but with better quality and volume.

We were on our third rousing chorus of having a yabba dabba doo time, when a cross missionary walked in and excoriated us for our frivolity. He revealed that he had stayed back in the dormitory fasting that morning, expecting solitude and silence to ponder a serious spiritual matter. He chastised us for destroying his solitude.

After the missionary stomped out of the shower room, I felt ashamed. I looked around to see how the others were taking it. Suddenly one of our group intoned, “Flintstones …,” and the rest of us joined in even louder than before, “Meet the Flintstones. They’re a modern stone age family!” We had a good laugh.

I wonder if it ever dawned on this young devoted missionary that his severe manner of calling us to repentance for blowing off a little steam was quite a bit more unchristian than our singing.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Should We Blame Congress, Rather than the Fed for High Gas and Grocery Prices?

A couple of days ago I posted criticisms of the Federal Reserve, specifically aiming barbs at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The gist of my post was that the Fed’s record of irresponsibly lowering the short-term interest rate is the source of a significant portion of the inflation that is hitting Americans’ pocketbooks hard right now.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) says in this WSJ op-ed that Bernanke has been dealt a bad hand. The Fed, claims Ryan, is only doing its best to fulfill its congressionally mandated responsibility — a mandate that has two requirements that often directly oppose each other.

From its inception in 1913 until 1978, the Fed’s “principal role was to maintain a sound currency with stable prices.” But in its typical fashion of creating long-term problems by solving short-term issues, Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, which added to the Fed the responsibility to ensure “short-term economic growth.”

This explains the Fed’s schizophrenic behavior. Rep. Ryan says that “in its efforts to accomplish both” long-term price stability and short-term economic growth, “the Fed could end up satisfying neither.” While the Fed and Chairman Bernanke have earned scorn for Fed policies that have created a boom-bust cycle, the real culprit is Congress.

Rep. Ryan believes that the solution is to return the Fed to its pre-1978 single-purpose mandate of ensuring price stability. To that end, he says he has introduced the Price Stability Act of 2008. As of posting time, I cannot find a listing for this bill on Thomas. Ryan suggests that this bill should earn bipartisan support.

Such a bill might be welcome. But is it necessary? Economist Brian Wesbury asserts in this WSJ op-ed that our economy has been in the same position before, and that the solution is known. We simply need to do what Fed Chairman Paul Volcker did in 1980 when he “lifted the fed funds rate significantly above GDP growth and held it there long enough to end inflation.” Although this pushed up the interest rate temporarily, it “instigated a steep decline in oil prices, and drove a stake through the heart of stagflation.”

Presumably, Mr. Volcker was operating under the same 1978 law by which Mr. Bernanke is constrained today. Yet Volcker was somehow able to do what was necessary to tame the inflation monster. What was different back then from today? Are the people at the Fed today ignorant of 1980s financial and economic history? Were the people at the Fed in 1980 smarter than the people that are there today? I doubt that either of these things is true.

The most plausible explanation, it seems to me, is a lack of leadership — an unwillingness to take the heat from both Washington and Wall Street that would inevitably come from taking the unpopular but necessary steps to correct the economy. As the old saying goes, if you can’t take the heat ….

I would hope that Rep Ryan would be aware that our parallel economic woes of nearly two decades ago were resolved without additional legislation aimed at the Fed. Perhaps he is simply hoping to remove any excuse Bernanke and the Fed Governors might have for refusing to take the steps necessary to return us to price stability. But, since Bernanke’s term does not expire until Feb. 1, 2010 and since most Fed Governors seem to lack the fortitude to do what is needed, perhaps Ryan sees his legislation as the best way to get the job done.

Be careful. As stated above, Congress has a penchant for creating long-term problems in an effort to resolve near-term issues.