Friday, August 29, 2008

Presidential (In)Experience

In November we will elect a sitting US Senator as the next President of the United States. This will buck our usual trend. We tend to elect people that have been president (re-election or election after assuming office), vice president, governor, and/or a war hero general — people that have had high-level political or military executive experience. We tend not to elect people whose highest elective position has been legislative. Still, there are exceptions to this rule.

John Quincy Adams had served a term in the US Senate and had spent more than seven years as US Secretary of State prior to running for the presidency in 1824. In the aftermath of a four-way election, Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives over US Senator (and war hero General) Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality (but not a majority) of the popular and the electoral votes. (The Speaker of the House hated Jackson.) Jackson came back to beat Adams in the 1828 election by a landslide. Adams subsequently served 17 years in the US House of Representatives, something that would be unthinkable today for a former senator, let alone a former president.

James Buchanan had served two terms as a US Senator before serving for four years as US Secretary of State. He benefited from the breakup of the Whig Party. The newly formed Republican Party offered its first presidential candidate in 1856, but the Republicans split the majority vote with the nativist Know Nothing Party, allowing Buchanan to win with only 45.3% of the popular vote. Like Adams, Buchanan was a one-term president. His great legacy was to preside over a nation that was breaking apart in the run up to the Civil War. His policy was to do nothing about it, and he was more than happy when his presidential term concluded.

Abraham Lincoln had served one term in the US House of Representatives and had run for other offices prior to running for the presidency in 1860. Lincoln won with only 39.8% of the popular vote under a set of circumstances that will likely never be paralleled. Many in the South boycotted the election, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern candidates, and the Know Nothings and Whigs offered a candidate. Still, with much of the South abstaining, Lincoln would have garnered sufficient electoral votes even if all of the other votes cast had been for a single candidate. While Lincoln won re-election in 1864, he was assassinated just weeks after his second term began.

Warren G. Harding was a sitting US Senator (from Ohio) at the time of his election to the presidency in 1920. He convincingly beat Ohio Governor James M Cox, whose running mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and later New York Governor and then US President) Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Harding had served as Ohio’s Lt. Governor, but unlike most of our other presidents, had neither held a higher level elected executive office nor had been a popular war general. Harding ‘looked’ presidential, but he was an awful speech maker. This was not much of a liability in the days before widespread media broadcasts. Harding was popular with the people, although, his administration was rife with corruption. It was a relief to many political insiders when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1923, allowing Vice President (and former Massachusetts Governor) Calvin Coolidge to become president.

It is arguable that since Harding had been a lieutenant governor — the second highest elected state executive position — that he should not be on this list at all. Still, I wanted to include him because the case can also be made that lieutenant governor may or may not provide much real executive experience, depending on the nature of the job in a given state at a given time.

Finally, US Senator John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960. What is more interesting is that Kennedy’s running mate was another sitting US Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was serving as Senate Majority Leader. Nixon’s running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a former US Senator that was serving as US Ambassador to the UN. We had two senators running against a VP/former senator and an ambassador/former senator. It was a senator’s club election. Due to assassination, Kennedy did not complete his presidential term.

Of the list above, Adams and Buchanan didn’t really have vice presidential running mates, since the first runner up in the popular vote used to become the VP. The 12th Amendment altered this state of affairs and our system has evolved so that today the VP runs on the same ticket with the president.

Americans have also elected as president two men that never held high level elected office and had no military experience: William Howard Taft in 1908 and Herbert Hoover in 1928. I don’t put James Madison on the list because he was widely known as one of the Founding Fathers and had served as Speaker of the House and as Secretary of State, which was at that time second in line to succeed to the presidency.

A couple of notes are interesting. Adams, Buchanan, Taft, Harding, Hoover, and Kennedy each served only one or fewer terms as president and Lincoln served only a few weeks of his second term. Thus, historically, presidents elected with no high-level executive elective or military experience are one-term presidents. Over the next few years this pattern will either be affirmed or broken.

This year Americans will again buck the normal presidential election trend. We will elect one of two sitting US Senators, neither of whom have high-level executive experience. Senator Barack Obama’s executive experience consists only of running a skillful presidential campaign. He has selected as his running mate another sitting US Senator, Joe Biden, who likewise lacks any serious executive experience. Obama had a tricky choice to make because he couldn’t select a running mate that would show him up, but he needed someone with some experience.

Senator John McCain’s executive experience comes down to running the largest Naval squadron following the Vietnam War. While McCain is widely considered to be a war hero, having survived 5½ years as a prisoner of war, his highest Naval rank was captain (the same grade as colonel in the Army, Air Force, or Marines), which is unlike being a war general/admiral. McCain has selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. At least he didn’t pick another US Senator so we avoid having another senator’s club election. While the young and vivacious Palin has only been governor for less than two years, she has more high-level executive experience than McCain, Obama, and Biden combined.

Michael Barone has said that about every four election cycles, as a new generation of voters hits the mainstream, Americans become more likely to toss experience aside when selecting a president. They are disgusted with politics as usual and are ready for something different. That’s what we’re seeing this year.

Peggy Noonan says (sorry, can’t find link) that looking over the past century, our political system has produced chief executives that are actually rather odd people. Is she right? If so, maybe the nature of the position tends to cause odd people to seek it. Or maybe the nature of the office makes them strange once they get there. Or maybe we Americans are weirder than we think and the president is only a reflection of us as a whole.

Or perhaps people that excel in politics, like many that stand out in the performing arts or in other pursuits, tend to be unbalanced in the other portions of their lives. The same anomalies that cause them to excel in one area cause bizarreness in other areas.

Musings aside, our next chief executive — the person we entrust with running the largest organization on earth — will be one of two sitting US Senators that have little executive experience. Maybe experience isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I think about Lincoln, for example (although I’m not suggesting that either McCain or Obama could parallel Lincoln). I think we’ll have some clue about this by the mid-term 2010 elections.

In the meantime, I’m afraid that I’ve grown a bit cynical about the current presidential election. I’m not quite as sour about it as is John Derbyshire, but I think he makes some valid points.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Should Utah Require State Employee Drug Testing?

I submitted to a full drug screening to obtain my current job. Ditto with my previous job. Moreover, to keep my present job, I agree to drug screening at any time during work hours.

It works like this. I will be sitting at my desk working away. My boss will show up in the doorway of my cubicle and tell me that I have two hours to appear at the infirmary and provide a urine sample. We affectionately call it the wizz quiz.

I know how the computer application works that determines who gets sent to testing. It is based on a random process. However, employees in sensitive positions and employees that work with hazardous materials require more frequent testing. Also, employees with known risk factors are sent for testing on a routine basis.

I get up from my desk, saunter over to medical services, and register with the attendant. I provide verification that I am who I purport to be. I read a paper that explains the process, how privacy is ensured, how quality is ensured, and the appeal process. I am given a container sealed in a sterile plastic bag. I am instructed to cleanse my hands at a wash station outside of the restroom, which has no sink inside.

I am sent into the austere restroom (it has only a door, a toilet, and a light switch) to open the bag and fill the sample container to the marked line. If I have more to expel than the cup is designed to hold, I can use the toilet. However, I am instructed not to flush. The nurse has put a chemical in the toilet to make sure that I don’t use toilet water to fill the cup. Afterward, I again get to wash at the wash station.

Once I fill the cup, it never leaves my presence until it is sealed and shipped. I get to watch as the nurse checks the temperature, the ph balance, and runs a couple of other tests designed to detect a fraudulent sample. A coded piece of paper tape is sealed across the lid and sides. I initial across the seal and so does the nurse. The container is placed in a shipping bag along with a computerized code. None of my personal information is supplied to the lab. I get to seal the shipping bag and initial across the seal. The nurse also initials the seal. The bag is then placed in a locked container that goes to the lab. The local people don’t have the ability to unlock the container.

I get to return to my desk and get back to work. A few weeks later I get a printout that doesn’t say much, other than the fact that no unauthorized substances were detected in my sample.

While the entire process is designed to protect both the employee and the company, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t at least somewhat intimidating. I have absolutely nothing to hide with respect to the substances in my body. But the “Big Brother” factor and the outside chance that the lab could mess up lurk in my psyche.

Still, I accept the process as a condition of my employment. It surprises me when I hear of working people that are not subject to drug testing (other than those working for small employers).

It is with this in mind that I consider the Huntsman administration’s recent push for drug testing of some employees of the State of Utah (see D-News article). I understand the civil liberty concerns of some employees (see SL-Trib editorial). But I also understand the administration’s contention that the testing would provide benefits to Utah’s citizens. Frankly, I am surprised that this kind of testing is not already in place.

Strict libertarians will argue that the state never has a legitimate purpose in regulating or knowing what its citizens put into their bodies. I cannot wholeheartedly agree with this concept. A friend of mine that is a bailiff claims that over 90% of the unfortunate cases he sees in court directly or indirectly involve substance abuse. This includes everything from domestic violence to divorce to gang issues to embezzlement to fraud.

Even if the state has no right to regulate its citizens’ drug choices, I do not believe the same can be said of those the state employs. Employers have legitimate reasons — with limitations — for regulating drug abuse by employees. The citizens of Utah are the government, so they are effectively the employer of state employees. The citizens have a right to limit liability and improve productivity by screening out employees with drug abuse problems from sensitive positions.

The debate, I believe, should revolve around what limitations should apply rather than around whether the state should be able to require employee drug testing. I suppose that strict civil libertarians will disagree with me, arguing that this violates the employees’ privacy rights. But no one is forcing people to work for the state. They are free to find other jobs, and there will be plenty of people without drug testing concerns that will be willing to fill their former positions.

Wall Street Journal editorialist L. Gordon Crovitz writes here that Americans have largely given up on privacy concerns. We say that we would never give out our personal information, but in fact, almost all of us do so quite willingly in the information age.

Crovitz goes so far as to say that most of our privacy exists only in our imaginations anyway, and that “concealing information about ourselves of legitimate value to others” may actually be a greater vice than lack of privacy.

Some may consider this antithetical, since the Huntsman administration is using citizen privacy to bolster its argument in favor of employee drug testing. The key here is authorization. I disclose personal information about myself all of the time. But I authorize those disclosures. The state is seeking to prevent unauthorized disclosures.

Frankly, I’m not sure this is the best argument in favor of employee drug testing. A good auditor could quickly point out several control systems the state should have in place that would limit unauthorized information disclosures better than drug testing. I believe that liability and productivity concerns are likely more valid reasons to cite, but maybe these don’t sell as well.

Regardless of whether the Huntsman administration succeeds in implementing employee drug testing this year or not, it will happen at some point. As a citizen of Utah, I just want to make sure that the state uses a secure system when it does so. This will help protect both the employers (Utah’s citizens) and the employees.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Earn, Pay, Get - In That Order

A couple of years ago I was in the market for a new cell phone. It was great to shop online and to read all kinds of reviews. But even with all of that information, nothing quite beats holding a phone in your hand and giving it a whirl. There are some things that require actually trying something out before you know whether it will work for you. For example, I never buy footwear online because I really don’t know whether it will fit right and my feet are pretty unforgiving.

After narrowing my phone choices through online shopping, I wanted to have a hands-on experience with several models. It was Saturday evening. The only place I could accomplish my goal was at the mall. I hate going to the mall. Rarely is there anything at a mall that I want that I can’t get at a better price elsewhere.

Visiting the mall on any Saturday evening makes me feel like they just opened the gates of the asylum and all of its residents came to the mall. Among the masses of humanity the flow up and down the concourses are more examples of bizarreness than you can find at a Marilyn Manson concert.

As we stood at the booth for the cell phone provider considering our options, a young couple in their mid 20s walked up along with their toddler son. Their cherubic faced little bundle of activity had earrings that matched his father’s, just not gauged as large. At least the tot didn’t have tattoos matching those of his parents. The apparel this trio wore was pricey, as were their various jewelry accoutrements.

The tot’s mom stepped up to the counter and showed a great deal of interest in a particular phone model. She and the salesman eventually began discussing calling plans. She then dropped a question that the salesman almost seemed to be anticipating. “What kind of financing options are available if you have filed bankruptcy?”

At that point, the salesman became rather blunt. “There are no financing options available. The only thing you can do is pay full price for the phone up front and use a prepaid calling plan.” The woman spent a few more minutes trying to schmooze the guy and wrangle some other kind of arrangement from him. It was clear that she had had some practice at this. He said he’d like to help, but that the company simply no longer provided any other options.

It pained me to see a family that young that had already gotten into such dire financial straits that they had filed bankruptcy. Of course, I have no clue as to the reasons behind their bankruptcy. For all I know, they could have encountered severe and unexpected medical expenses. But the cost of their personal effects and their behavior at the phone counter belied some habits that commonly lead to financial problems. It was clear that they hadn’t learned their lesson yet, which means that they will likely suffer financially for many, many years.

Some of the best lessons we can teach our children are that it doesn’t matter how much you want or think you deserve something; it only matters that you can afford to pay for it. If you can’t afford it but still want it, find a way to honestly earn the means to buy it. And then don’t buy it until you have the means in hand to do so. Avoid debt. And finally, don’t spend everything you have. Put something aside in savings.

Following these principles necessarily means that there will be missed opportunities. But it also means that you will consistently have financial peace of mind. Hopefully if severe problems arise, your discipline will have led you to take steps to mitigate the financial impact. But if that is insufficient, there are thankfully some avenues available.

Years ago, I was working as a loan collector at a bank when a man walked in and said that he wanted to pay his debt. I checked his account and found no debt. He explained that he was involved in construction and had ended up filing bankruptcy three years earlier when the client on a major job failed to pay him. He he ended up defaulting on some debts. But now he had just closed on a major project and wanted to repay all of his former debts.

We researched the bank’s records and found that the bank had charged off the account due to the bankruptcy. We had to get our boss involved, but eventually they found a way that the man could repay his debt with interest. That, my friends, is integrity. The bank never expected to see this money and was doing nothing to collect it. But this man still felt obliged to make good on his debt.

So if you ever find yourself unexpectedly in financial default, I’d suggest that you find a way to demonstrate your integrity as did this man. Even if it does nothing for your creditors, it will do loads for your character. The money you spend to do this will be a comparative bargain.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The BSA Brand

As I sat at a Boy Scout court of honor a couple of nights ago with three of my sons, I was pleased with the way the awards were presented.

First there were some non-official certificates awarded for various things. One Scout was always cheerful during summer camp. Another had excelled at climbing. One had discovered that he could do some things he had thought were too hard. And so on. This was followed by the awarding of merit badges.

The Scoutmaster then discussed the Tenderfoot rank, what it meant, and what went into earning it. He then called the boys that had earned that rank to come forward. He continued in this pattern through the Life rank. (We had no Eagles that night.)

After coming home, I reflected on the court of honor. It suddenly dawned on me that one of the great strengths of the Boy Scout program is its well defined system of requirements and awards. Another important element is the BSA’s firm stance on character and moral issues. These are among the elements that make up the BSA brand.

This brand is broadly recognized by people of all stripes, whether they agree or disagree with BSA policies or are indifferent. Almost everyone understands what the BSA purports to stand for. Even if they know nothing specific about what it takes to become an Eagle Scout, people generally understand that it is an important and significant achievement.

This does not mean that all Scouts live up to the BSA’s ideals, or even that all Eagle Scouts remain true to Scouting principles. (While there is a good list of famous Eagle Scouts ranging from Hank Aaron to Michael Dukakis to Neil Armstrong to Ross Perot, there are also some that have become infamous criminals.)

Losing this brand recognition would be devastating to the BSA. For that reason, they take significant steps to protect the brand. This has occasionally caused controversy. But it has also produced a system that has caused several generations of boys to aspire to something higher and to serve their fellowmen.

Is Boy Scouting a perfect institution? Not by a long shot. Do I have some issues with the BSA? I have my criticisms of the organization. But they are the sentiments of a loving son that works within the outfit to effect improvements where possible.

This summer marks 33 years that I have been working to fulfill the oath I took when I became an Eagle Scout, to give back more to Scouting than it has given to me. I suspect that it will require a lifetime to accomplish this pledge.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's 1969 All Over Again

Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust Advisors says that inflation is a big problem and that today we’re about where we were back in 1969.

Back in those days of flower children, the Beatles studio years, the first man on the moon, and the Vietnam War at the close of the 60s, inflation was just starting to rear its ugly head. The inflation tide didn’t crest until a decade later, after a recession (73-75) and years of “eroding living standards.”

Even after Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s tight money policies began to tame the inflation dragon, there were two more “damaging recessions” in 80 and in 81-82. Most people under 50 today have little understanding of just how severe of a blow inflation was to the US economy and to the American psyche.

Wesbury asserts that our nation is in a state of denial about the seriousness of our current situation. He takes on each argument put forth by various deniers and shows how the problem they claim isn’t a problem is actually worse than we realize.

The culprit for rising inflation — including most of the recent rise in the cost of fuel — is the Fed’s loose money policy that began back in the 1990s. Wesbury writes, “We hear over and over that the Fed cannot tighten because the housing market and the economy are vulnerable. This was the same argument made in the pre-Volcker 1970s, when the U.S. bounced from one economic crisis to the next.”

Once Volcker raised interest rates to painful levels, there was indeed a lot of pain. But it was relatively short lived, and it produced an economy in the 80s and 90s that was far healthier than the economy of the 60s and 70s — or the economy of this decade, for that matter.

Imagine what the 70s might have been like had the money supply been tightened in 1969. Yes, there would have been some problems in 70-71, but those problems would have been minor compared to the cost that had to be paid when the rates were finally raised in 79-82. The result would have been a longer term, more sound economy much sooner.

Wesbury doesn’t sound hopeful, however. He says that we are following the same pattern of denial and counterproductive arguments that was followed in the 60s and 70s. If we continue along this path, we will see real decline in general standards of living over the next decade until the pain becomes so severe that we acquiesce and do a repeat of Volcker’s policies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get that out of the way right now without having to endure a decade of inflation?

I fault Wesbury for not taking on the core problem: centralized banking. While we have developed a mythology around the notion of the Fed providing needed economic stability, objective consideration of the history of our centralized government banking system reveals an endless series of corruption, bad behavior, and poor results.

We should privatize money. Many people will think this idea is nutty, but bear in mind that this criticism comes ostensibly from people that think they can’t live without the biggest monopoly on the face of the earth; the Federal Reserve. When you think about it, you will realize that money existed long before any government entity controlled it. There is no rule that says that government control of money is necessary or even desirable. Governments are involved in the money supply because it is a plentiful source of wealth and power.

Private money holders should be allowed to issue their own currencies denominated as they wish. Of course they should be subject to rules and laws that require them to actually have assets to back up their currencies. But competition would take care of much of this. A bank that issues too much currency would see its value drop with respect to currencies from competing institutions.

Wouldn’t such a system create a financial wild-wild-West, where different merchants accept only certain currencies? Wouldn’t I have to carry around 14 credit cards denominated in different currencies? That’s inside-the-box thinking. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I am confident that the market would soon provide a satisfactory solution that would simplify life for consumers. This kind of thing is already working in many border communities throughout the world. Moreover, ubiquitous computers (and even cell phone applications) allow for quick exchanges to different currencies.

Markets tend to produce order rather than chaos. The banking runs from the days where private banks did produce their own currencies were actually less severe than the problems the Fed has caused throughout its existence. Many of the “principles” that the Fed has operated under over the years have ultimately proven to be false or misunderstood, causing them to be discarded one by one. Today the Fed has no clue what principles it is following. How is a roomful of “smart” and powerful financial people that don’t have a clue what they are doing with our national money supply other than by gut instinct better than allowing the market to work things out?

If the Fed continues on its 1970s back-to-the-future tour, I wonder if competing currencies might not spring up on their own. They’re illegal, of course. The government hates competition. But clever business people have already found some ways to exploit loopholes in the laws. Some competing currencies already exist.

While it’s scary — thanks to indoctrination — for many people to think about it, life without the Fed would likely be much better than life with the Fed, much in the same way that life is better without the mob’s protection racket.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Speaking in the Common Tongue

Have you ever been privy to a conversation among members of a clique or even a profession of which you were not a part? You could understand most of the words, but you didn’t really understand the conversation because there were references to people, things, and concepts with which you were unfamiliar.

That’s what Ryan T. Anderson of The Phillips Foundation says that some religious social conservatives have been doing when it comes to political issues. In this WSJ op-ed, Anderson accuses religious conservatives of couching public arguments in religious terms.

This used to be publicly acceptable. But Anderson notes that the Bible, while still respected, is no longer the coin of the realm that it once was. Many people today are relatively ignorant of the actual content of scriptures. Their values and opinions are less informed by biblical teachings and Christian tradition than were those of previous generations. Anderson says:
“Arguing that "God said so" won't persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with you. Even though Americans remain a remarkably religious people, the Bible doesn't carry the authority it once did. And many of those who generally hold the Bible in high regard consider it "dated" and "out of touch" on certain controversial moral questions.
I think religious conservatives are well aware of this fact, and are actually deeply bothered by it. This letter to the editor of the Standard Examiner reflects a theme that is frequently expressed by American Christians. “We are a nation founded upon Christian principles. We are a nation under God,” writes the author. She goes on to imply that our Founders created a special status for Christianity.

While Christian ideals and morals undoubtedly informed our founding documents, I think the letter writer goes too far. Our Founders were actually very careful to devise a system that aspired to treat individuals equally, regardless of their religious thoughts or affiliations. Anderson suggests that public expressions like those of the letter’s author hinder the religious conservatives’ cause rather than helping it.

While it’s fine for religious conservatives to talk among themselves in religious terms, they must learn to use the common language of reason when it comes to public issues. Not only does this show respect for their fellowmen; it is the only way they can hope to achieve their desires in such matters.

Anderson contends that religious people should have no problem with this, because “the moral truths revealed in the Bible are also consonant with reason.” He writes, “Rather than argue from God's commands down to human endeavors, social conservatives should place their emphasis on human flourishing and the moral principles that protect it.”

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Respecting people as our equals — as individuals with individual rights — rather than treating people as things to be used is a principle that most people grasp, regardless of their religious beliefs. Anderson says, “This is the precise argument that social conservatives should be making when it comes to abortion, human cloning, and embryo-destructive research.”

Anderson cites scientific studies with respect to child rearing outcomes that support the cause of marriage being defined as being between one man and one woman. Social conservatives should use such studies rather than simply claiming that their view of marriage is best because God says so.

Even the Ten Commandments have been discussed using reason — by Pope John Paul II — as being “the universal moral law, valid in every time and place….” Keeping the commandments is being “faithful to ourselves, to our true nature and our deepest aspirations.”

People overwhelmingly agree with the concept that there are certain natural principles that should govern our actions as individuals and as groups. Social conservatives should base their discussion of public issues in those principles if they want to win the minds of others. Failure to do so will result in the problem Mike Huckabee had of being able to attract strong support among evangelicals while alienating everyone else.

I think that religious conservatives would do well to take Anderson’s advice to heart. If you want to achieve your goals in the public arena, talk in the common language of the public arena — the language of reason.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Killing Us Softly With Safety

A couple of weeks ago my backyard was a safety Nazi’s nightmare and a personal injury lawyer’s dream. Against all modern rules of safe parenting, I had six kids on my trampoline simultaneously. SIX! Ralph Nader would have filled his breeches.

But that is not all, oh, no, that is not all. The kids were in swimwear. I had placed an oscillating sprinkler under the trampoline. Not only was I endangering the safety of six children, I was wasting water as well. As the streams of irrigation water jetted through the trampoline mat, a mixed-sex group of children ranging from five to ten years of age ran, jumped, dove, and wallowed on the slippery surface, bumping, jostling, and rolling over each other in the offing.

Then to top it off, I turned on the sprinkler system in the yard. Soon children were leaping from the trampoline onto the lawn, running across the slick turf, climbing up the wet swing set ladder, and sliding lickety-split down the slide, damaging the wet lawn at the bottom. They then leaped back onto the trampoline for more water wallowing before repeating the circuit. Next they were throwing balls at each other in some kind of dodge ball game.

Dangerous? You bet. Over the space of an hour there were three split lips, a nosebleed, and some newly sustained bruises. We escaped any serious injury. But there were also gales of laughter and cacophonies of gleeful screams. It was 98° when it started and the kids didn’t stop until the sun was low in the sky and shadows were advancing across the yard. I then shooed the visitors away and put my own kids into a warm bathtub.

Philip K. Howard, the chairman of Common Good, says in this WSJ op-ed that we’ve gone overboard in trying to ensure child safety — and mainly trying to keep from being sued. He’s not asking that we abandon worthy safety efforts; he is merely calling for “A little common sense ….”

Howard cites studies showing that risk and unstructured play are important physical and psychological elements of child development. Besides, he writes, “Risk is fun, at least the moderate risks that were common in prior generations.” But he also says we’re “headed in the wrong direction.”

“The harmful effects of our national safety obsession” Howard says, “ripple outward into society.” He cites climbing rates of childhood obesity. Part of the reason the average kid spends six hours in front of an electronic screen every day is that playgrounds are so safe that they have “nothing left … that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four.” Everything that has even moderate levels of risk is verboten!

“Scrapes and bruises” writes Howard “are how children learn their limits, and the need to take personal responsibility.” As we work to erode every activity that might produce physical boo-boos, we inadvertently encourage other types of high risk behavior that will produce far more undesirable outcomes than the occasional trip to the urgent care center.

Howard’s organization, Common Good, is dedicated to “developing practical solutions to restore reliability to our legal system and minimize the impact of legal fear in American life.” When you see the kind of kingly palaces some of our ambulance chasing lawyers live in (see Utah lawyer Keith Barton’s former abode) and you realize that these mansions have been built by suing and taking money from people and institutions in the name of safety, you know there’s something wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it’s important to take sensible actions to reduce risk of unnecessary injury. But I also believe that kids (and even adults) need opportunities to engage in physical activities that include risk appropriate to their age and ability. And believe me, I practice what I preach.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Equal Treatment Under the Law

A friend of mine retired from a career with the Utah Highway Patrol a couple of years ago. He has a number of interesting stories from his years with the Patrol. One of them occurred a number of years ago during the run up to a general election.

My friend was patrolling in an area near the Salt Lake Airport when he saw a vehicle towing a rather large trailer. It was well after dark, but the trailer sported none of the lights that are required by law. The trailer had some kind of large sign on it. Given the nature of the traffic, the trailer presented a public hazard, so my friend pulled the driver over.

As he walked from his patrol car to the towing vehicle, my friend saw that the sign was a political sign for one of the candidates for governor. He greeted the driver and asked if he was aware that his trailer lacked the legally required lights. The well-dressed distinguished looking man in his mid 50s admitted that he was aware of this, but said he was in a pinch where he was unable to remedy the lighting problem prior to transporting the trailer.

My friend treated the man respectfully and took his license and registration back to his patrol car for normal checks. Everything checked out, so my friend wrote the man a ticket for his infraction. When he returned to the man’s vehicle, the fellow became rather upset about the ticket.

The driver looked at my friend and sputtered incredulously, “Why, don’t you know who I am?!” My friend looked at the man’s license. He honestly had no clue who the fellow was, other than from the information on his license. None of that rang a bell. But it seemed quite obvious that the fellow felt that he was someone of significant importance.

My friend was chagrined that this man would attempt to use his position of authority — whatever it may be — as leverage to prevent a police officer from performing his duty. Nevertheless, my friend worked to maintain a pleasant and calm demeanor. In answer to the man’s question, my friend honestly stated, “No, sir, I do not.”

The man’s mouth opened in astonishment. He started to say something, but then obviously thought better of it. He looked angrily at my friend and spat out the words, “Fine. Just give me the ticket then.” After my friend tore off the recipient copy and handed it to the man, the guy muttered, “I’ll get this taken care of myself.” He then drove off in a huff.

I contrast that event with an experience I had when I was 18 years old. I was riding in a car that was northbound on I-15 in the south part of the Salt Lake Valley. Our driver was an off-duty Utah Highway Patrol officer, who happened to have a little bit of a lead foot. Lights flashed in the rearview mirror and we were pulled over by a Highway Patrol officer. We were all surprised, because we were only exceeding the speed limit by about eight miles per hour.

I noticed that when our driver handed over his license and registration he was very careful to make sure that his law enforcement badge in his wallet remained concealed. After he received a warning and was on his way, one of the riders asked our driver why he was so careful about his badge in that instance. Couldn’t he have gotten off easier if he had allowed the officer to see his badge?

Our driver replied that if he got pulled over he should be treated just like any other citizen. He said that it would be an abuse of the public’s trust to attempt to use his position as a law enforcement officer to influence the outcome of a traffic stop or to get any personal favor.

I find it instructive that a lowly police officer had much more respect for the rule of law than did the politician. The former believed in equal treatment under the law. The latter did not. Perhaps this is simply because a significant characteristic of politics is the production and giving of special favors — purposefully treating people unequal, always in the name of doing good, of course.

I don’t know about you, but I felt that our driver in the second example demonstrated the kind of character to which we all should aspire, while the politician in the first story illustrates the ignoble elements of human nature that we would do well to shun.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Yard Care

I’m not a yard care guy. The fact is that I detest doing yard work. That’s no secret to anyone that has seen my yard. My yard is nowhere near the worst yard in the neighborhood. But it’s also nowhere near the best.

My yard is presentable, except for the dead Norwegian Maple in the front yard. I’m waiting until my son gets home from working at Scout camp to take it down. He says he wants to feel the testosterone pumping as he wields the chainsaw. Most of the weeds in my yard have been kept in check. The lawn is regularly mowed. But I can’t remember the last time it was edged.

There are lots of monocot weeds throughout our lawn, as well as some broadleaf junk. The broadleaf weeds are relatively easy to treat, but you’re supposed to wait until daytime highs are 85° or lower to put that stuff down. I’m not sure there’s a simple way to deal with grassy weeds in lawns.

There is something going on with my east side yard. The grass there was once lush and green. Now it is interspersed with dead spots. I put pesticide on it, but I’m not even sure it’s a pest problem. I can’t find grubs. The roots remain intact. My neighbor’s lawn is far worse. The problem in my yard is small enough that I haven’t gotten to where I care enough to actually figure out what is going on and how to treat it.

The ornamentals in our yard can best be described as eclectic and mostly self managed. Neither my wife nor I are completely happy with our yard situation, but neither of us really wants to do what is necessary to make it look nicer.

And I do know what a nicer yard looks like. I very much appreciate beautiful yards. When I go for bike rides, I often pass a home about a mile from my house that has a beautiful yard. It’s not gaudy. It’s just very well cared for and very tastefully done. But almost every time I ride by, the homeowner is out there working in his yard. He must get a lot of fulfillment from that kind of thing. I don’t.

Although I’m not much for mowing, we do manage to get that done on a regular basis. Nowadays I am usually able to get my yard mowed by my sons. I even pay them to do it. But they don’t do any better of a job than I do at general yard care. They are simply following the example that has been set for them.

I would like a beautiful yard. But not enough to actually do or pay someone else to do the work required to make that happen. As it is, the yard is a pleasant enough place for the kids to play. It meets our needs. I don’t see myself transforming into a yard care enthusiast anytime in the foreseeable future.

As far as gardening, I am not ignorant of my church’s counsel on that matter. But I hate doing it. Almost every foray into gardening over the past couple of decades has met with somewhere between lousy and dismal failure. This year my wife has successfully grown a few cherry tomatoes. This is probably because I have kept my fingers off the project.

When it comes to indoor plants, we have a consistent track record in killing them, despite our best efforts to follow appropriate light/water/nutrient guidelines. We seem to have the opposite of natural green thumbs.

Everyone has their own set of talents. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work at those things where we have little talent. We might be surprised to find ourselves developing skills we assumed we’d never have. But I think I have enough experience with yard care and plant care to know that these will never be my strong suits in this lifetime.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Do Accomplishments Matter to Voters?

Huntsman's popular, but no one can tell you why.” —Bob Springmeyer, Democratic candidate for Utah Governor

The Standard Examiner (briefly) reports today on its August 7 editorial board meeting with Bob Springmeyer, the Democratic candidate that is vying to unseat Republican Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.

When discussing Huntsman, Springmeyer sounds like Republicans that criticize Obama supporters for being unable to name any significant accomplishment by the candidate other than to win office. “They can never give you anything he's done other than look nice, smile well and have a pretty wife, have an attractive family.”

The St-Ex obviously asked the Governor’s office for a rebuttal. The Gov’s rep cited “(securing) record funding for education, focusing on economic development that has made that funding possible, as well as creating a more competitive business environment and historical reform of our tax code” among the Gov’s accomplishments.

But Springmeyer is right. If you ask the average Utah voter (meaning a Huntsman supporter) what the Governor has accomplished, few of them will be able to name even one single thing. But like Obama supporters, they still like their guy.

I can name a number of things the Governor has accomplished and is planning to accomplish, but I’m not much pleased about most of the things on my list. Don’t count me as a Huntsman supporter.

But from a dispassionate analysis of the facts on the ground, I see no way that Huntsman could fail to win re-election this November in a massive landslide. Utahns might be obliged to dump him if he were to have an extramarital affair or commit murder. But short of that, he’ll still be our governor next year.

Springmeyer essentially told the St-Ex editorial board that if he wins Weber County, he will win the state. To put it politely, this is either political grandstanding or pure delusion. Although Springmeyer was born in Utah County, he apparently seems unaware that it holds most of Utah’s political cards nowadays.

Whether you like it or not, the fact is that the first time most Utah voters will even pay attention to Springmeyer’s name is when they see it on the ballot, if they even bother to look. Two minutes later they won’t be able to tell you what the name of the guy was that was running against Huntsman. For most Utah voters, that race will simply be an exercise in affirmation.

Maybe that seems a little harsh. I’m not saying that I like it. I’m just saying that it is reality.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

We Liked Wall-E

We recently took our younger kids to see the Disney-Pixar movie Wall-E. I have been exposed to no actual reviews for this movie. I had heard by word of mouth that it had a somewhat environmentalist slant to it, but I had also heard that it was a fun movie.

First, let me say that I found the Pixar short Presto that is the opener for Wall-E to be immensely entertaining. If you are going to see Wall-E, don’t arrive late, because you won’t want to miss Presto. Second, let me say that you don’t want to read the rest of this if you don’t want to know some of the significant story elements before you see the movie.

Wall-E is an extremely endearing character. He is like the wooden boy Pinocchio that longs to be human. Still, Pixar imbues him with many of the noblest human characteristics from the start. (Wall-E might be just a robot, but he is definitely male.) We are not told how Wall-E became sentient while others of his kind did not.

The decayed city in which Wall-E lives is scattered with remnants of human life — remnants of the consumption culture. There’s garbage everywhere. The omnipresent electronic ads still function. Everything had apparently been run by a huge conglomerate known as Buy-N-Large (BNL). Wall-E regularly passes a structure that looks like a mega-super-size Sam’s Club or IKEA store.

Wall-E is an ugly little robot that is alone on earth except for his pet cockroach. Like most men, he pines for a counterpart. A female robot named Eve is sent to Wall-E’s area on a mission to search for plant life. In an analogy that many men will find apt, she is extraordinarily beautiful but she is also extremely dangerous. She has her own focus and seems devoid of the emotions Wall-E experiences, so she gives him the cold shoulder. So, this movie is a love story, and it celebrates all the good parts of love, including self sacrifice.

Despite the danger, Wall-E persists in pursuing Eve. Just as they are making some relationship headway, Eve finds a plant, puts it inside her abdomen, and goes into stasis. Wall-E isn’t sure what is wrong with her, but he devotes himself to taking care of her. Even my younger kids grasped the symbolism involved. When a spaceship comes to take Eve away, Wall-E tags along.

The craft arrives at a massive spaceship that is inhabited by the descendants of earth’s former inhabitants, who had left 700 years earlier to escape cataclysmic pollution. All of the work on the ship is done by robots. The humans have all become lard-ridden couch potatoes that spend their whole days floating around on moving couches. They continuously travel by moving couch on highways in an environment that is constantly kept perfect. They are all so absorbed in their electronic social networks that they don’t know what is going on around them.

Life on the vessel is ‘perfect,’ but boring. The people serve no meaningful purpose other than to survive. Through a series of adventures, Wall-E and Eve change all of that. Along with the captain, they eventually challenge a controlling robot that means well but serves to stifle the human spirit. At one point, when the robot tells the captain that the prime goal is survival, the captain replies, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!”

The movie ends with the ship returning to earth and the humans beginning to rework the environment. Wall-E and Eve become a not-so-subtle allusion to Adam and Eve. I don’t know if you could walk out of that movie without feeling great. It is very emotionally engaging and there is some great symbolism.

Like all movies, there are some quirks and problems. The movie suggests that the one big spaceship that departed from Wall-E’s city held all of earth’s former inhabitants. Wouldn’t there have been many cities like the one in which Wall-E lived? What happened to all of those people? The ship wasn’t big enough to hold six or seven billion people.

While robots did all of the work on the ship, I couldn’t help but wonder where all of the resources came from for them to produce all of the goods consumed on the ship. Where did the food come from? While the ship disgorged oodles of garbage, there was no suggestion about where the resources to produce those byproducts came from.

The only non-adult humans depicted on the spaceship were babies and toddlers. Where were all of the other juveniles? Did people go from being toddlers to adults in one swift jump? And who produced the kids? Were they test tube babies? People were apparently too busy with their Facebook pages to form familial bonds.

The film is a commentary on our hyper-connected, sedentary, consumption culture. It also lionizes the subsistence lifestyle. The end of the film relives a utopian fantasy that has been common among all modern societies since the dawn of industrialization of getting back to nature and living off the land like our forefathers of yore. There is even a gospel choir singing at the end to emphasize the evangelizing that is occurring during that segment.

Another message is that running away from society’s problems merely produces more problems. But confidence is expressed that humans have the capacity in their nature to overcome societal problems.

Fear of being overcome by technology has long been depicted in our arts. While this film is no exception to that, it seeks to balance it by also having machines be heroes.

Although I find some bothersome issues with the film, I think all of these problems can be more than forgiven by the wonderful elements. I go to a movie to be entertained. I like to walk out feeling uplifted. Wall-E exceeded my expectations in that regard. My kids are already clamoring to get the movie when it comes to DVD. I’m sure that we will oblige.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Backs Out!

One of the numerous silly songs that have been popular at some of the Boy Scout camps I have attended is called Ahtudata. I’m not sure there is a proper spelling for this word. I’ve seen it spelled variously. The song consists of little more than rhythmically repeating this word and adding increasingly silly actions at the leader’s direction.

The leader gets the crowd to chant:
Ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta-tu
Ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta, ah-tu-da-ta-tu

Then the leader calls out, “Thumbs up!” The crowd responds, “Thumbs up!” They then put up both thumbs and repeat the chant. The next time, the leader calls out, “Thumbs up! Elbows in!” The next time, “Thumbs up! Elbows in! Knees together!”

Next comes the controversial part of the song. The leader adds, “Buns out!”

A number of years ago, one BSA professional that was overseeing one of our council’s camps disapproved of this phrase as being less than morally acceptable. In his view, it failed to rise to the high standards of the Boy Scout program. He insisted that the staff substitute the phrase, “Backs out.” This sounded like they needed to visit a chiropractor.

Being obedient Scouts, the staff begrudgingly complied, although; they covertly did the song with the normal “Buns out” phrase when the professional wasn’t around. Over time, they came to celebrate the phrase by increasing its volume. This continued until that particular professional was no longer involved.

While the professional was obviously simply trying to do what he thought was right, most saw it as an attempt to intrusively force others to implement his personal brand of prudishness. Most saw the silly phrase as quite harmless. The result of this man’s actions has been that thousands of young Boy Scouts over the years have been exposed to the supposedly offensive phrase at a strident volume when it might have just been another funny phrase in a silly song.

The culture left behind by this episode was reinforced recently when I attended a reunion of Camp Loll staffers. With a few hundred people in attendance, including former staffers and their families, we gathered at the flag pole for the traditional singing of a few songs along with a flag ceremony.

One of the staff members came forward and led the group in the song Ahtudata. It was really quite humorous to see all of these middle-aged former staffers acting completely silly. You could tell that some of their kids were really getting a kick out of it. When the song leader called, “Buns out,” the crowd responded, “Buns out!” with a deafening roar. I laughed, but I was impressed by how deeply this had become ingrained in people that had become responsible adults.

A moral edict works in a group when the group senses the value of the rule. Broad disrespect of a decree means that the group has not bought into it. Broad rebellious defiance of a command (especially if sustained over time) means that the group has not only failed to buy into it, but that they believe that the rule violates their sensibilities.

There have been many such rules throughout time, and there will be many more. Sometimes we even try to implement them as national policy. Prohibition and the mandatory 55-mph speed limit come to mind. While some bought into these rules, most did not. Some studies show that more than 80% of drivers regularly disobeyed the 55 mph speed limit, making it of little use as a moral tool.

I am not saying that people that have strong moral beliefs should give up on those beliefs simply because some (or even most) disagree with them. But we should be careful about implementing such beliefs as public policy, especially if most find such restrictions ridiculous. The backlash will probably make things worse than we think they are at present. We could easily end up with the public equivalent of “Buns out!”