Thursday, March 29, 2012

Over $1,600 for One Teen Date?

Would you pay $807 for your teenager to spend one evening at a high school prom? No? According to this WSJ article, that’s the amount the average American “family with a high-school student spent … on prom last year, including clothing, transportation, tickets and pictures.”

I wonder if this price tag includes the costs of asking someone to the dance and responding to the invitation. In the area where I live, these simple courtesies have evolved into elaborate and often expensive rituals where teens seek to be more creative and exotic than anyone else.

I also wonder if the cost of the day date was included. Many youth in my area make an entire day out of going to the prom. They start by going out for breakfast in the morning. Then they engage in a variety of activities, which, like the invitation routines, seem designed to compete to be the most extravagant. Some youth go on to have all-night video and gaming parties (and even parent-sponsored drinking parties) after the dance so that the date consumes a full 24 hours.

Even if these extra-prom costs are included, $807 is a lot of money. That’s $1,614 per couple. We’re talking about 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds. For one evening. We didn’t spend that much on our entire wedding celebration, including the wedding breakfast for two dozen people, flowers, formals, cake, and the reception for several hundred people.

Some parents have no problem shelling out beaucoup bucks for their little mister or little miss to enjoy a luxurious evening with their high school pals. But each new pretentious enhancement to this annual American rite raises the bar for other participants or would-be participants. This can’t help but price an increasing number of students out of the celebration.

The parents of students at one high school in our area rebelled against the tendency for prom to become ever more grandiose. For a number of years that school has prohibited tuxedoes, formal gowns, limousines, and the like at prom. And it hasn’t caused the world to end.

The WSJ article cited mainly focuses on the modesty of the girls’ gowns. The author discusses some schools’ attempts to stanch the tide of revealing and risqué evening wear that more than a few parents encourage and support. Some parents apparently believe that their daughter ought to show as much skin as possible when attending prom.

I’ve always thought it odd that most young men attending prom wear a tuxedo. They end up putting on more clothing than they’ve ever worn to a school event, while some young women put on less clothing than they’ve ever worn to a school event (including gym classes and swim meets). Moreover, they dress to enhance sex appeal, looking like they’re about to put on a show at a high-end strip club.

Some in my area chalk up the concern about immodest prom gowns to Utah prudishness. But the WSJ article demonstrates that this is a nationwide concern. A few schools have given up on trying to maintain a basic level of propriety at prom and have simply stopped sponsoring the event altogether.

I have no problem with high school students holding formal dances. The idea is to have a shared somewhat refined experience before leaving the odd microculture that exists in high school. But if I had my way, these dances would be far less extravagant than they have become. Refinement is ennobling. Gaudy decadence is not.

To be blunt, $1,614 for one date for a pair of teenagers is bizarrely profligate. And that’s just the average. Some people spent a lot more than that last year.

Maybe this is just a symptom of a deeper societal issue: the idea that we can make ourselves happy by living bigger and spending more. We’ve done it broadly on the individual and public levels. We continue racking up debt to have what we want. But more is never enough. Flaunting what we’ve got never satisfies. Meanwhile we keep trying to ignore the impending consequences of our mounting debt.

Come to think of it, what are we actually teaching our high schoolers through glitzy proms?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's Time to Recognize That Nature Isn't Static

“I’m an environmentalist,” I told my son as we discussed some propaganda to which he had been subjected at school, “but I don’t have an anti-human agenda and I understand that nature continuously evolves.”

I’m in favor of preserving natural lands and waters and preventing undue pollution, but unlike some environmentalists, I don’t think these resources should be frozen in time or returned to some mythical edenic state. “If some environmentalists had been around when the dinosaurs were dying out, they’d want to preserve the T-Rex,” I told my son.

The historic preservation/restoration approach to environmental resources has long mystified me. If natural selection is nature’s way of managing itself, why are so many environmental policies based on preventing this from happening? Why are so many environmental approaches based on a static view of a resource’s natural state?

I felt vindicated in my views as I read this review of Emma Marris’ book The Rambunctious Garden. She says that it takes a lot of human work and intervention to keep an ecosystem looking “pristine.” Ecologists are fighting a battle to keep ecosystems static. In the name of keeping something natural, they are trying to keep nature from doing what nature naturally does.

The reviewer explains, “In the first half of the 20th century, ecologists came to believe in equilibrium—that natural systems tended toward a steady state.” I remember being taught about succession as a child. Ponds would become marshes, and later meadows, then softwood forests, and finally hardwood forests. This climax was thought to be the natural state. “Conservation, therefore, was a matter of restoring this climax.”

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that nature never achieves any kind of static state. It is in a constant state of change as it responds to multiple affecting variables. This is the very essence of nature. Academic ecologists now largely accept this fact. Yet the obsolete static approach “still dominates practical conservation management.”

Marris complains that while ecologists recognize that nature changes, they largely seem incapable of designing any policy that does anything other than attempt to restore some static condition: “preserve this rare species, maintain this habitat structure, freeze in time this ecological moment, return this degraded land to a particular state, whatever the weather and whatever the novel arrivals of exotic species.”

Moreover, Marris notes that some alien species end up improving ecosystems. This is heresy to the environmentalist orthodoxy, which aims to eradicate all such species.

So how should ecosystems be managed? Ms. Marris says, “In a nutshell: Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development and try just about everything.”

The trouble with this advice is that people and organizations have developed power structures based on the static view of nature. They drill it into school children so that they can have willing supporters in the future. Whole government agencies owe their very existence to the static “balanced” view of nature. Activist organizations rely on this view for fundraising. None of these people are about to relinquish their power over such a small thing as truth.

While the current environmental power structure marshals against a truly natural view of nature, my hope is that over time the wisdom offered by those like Marris will gradually take hold. This would allow the power structure to eventually morph so that the interests of the environmentally powerful would more closely align with good ecological practices.

The Technology of Patriarchal Blessings

My Dad actively served as a stake patriarch for nearly two decades, giving more than 700 blessings. Mom typed most of these blessings, but I typed a few, and I often assisted because I was the family computer geek.

At first the blessings were typed on a typewriter. (At least this was an improvement over the days when blessings were written by hand.) My folks soon acquired their first PC. It took a while, but I eventually figured out how to set up a template so that Mom could type up the blessings using WordPerfect (which came on a series of 5¼” floppy disks).

It took Mom some time to adjust to using the word processor. At first she frequently returned to the typewriter. But the abilities to save, cut, paste, change font size, etc. soon became indispensible and the typewriter was relegated to the closet. Over the years I kept upgrading the blessing template as new hardware and software were acquired.

During Dad’s service, I learned a lot about his approach to giving patriarchal blessings. While much had to do with his ability to be in touch with the Spirit, the spiritual preparedness and maturity of the recipient was also important.

Dad said that it was a great pleasure to bless some valiant recipients because the words flowed from above smoothly and beautifully. A few recipients, on the other hand, were so spiritually disconnected that Dad said it was like pulling every word out of heaven with a pair of pliers. It was real work for him.

Dad had a voice tape recorder into which he spoke as he delivered each blessing. Mom later put on headphones and typed up the blessing. She had a foot pedal that operated the playback device. Dad would review the blessing and make changes with pen. Mom would make the changes on the word processor.

When Dad was satisfied, the blessing was printed and signed. One copy went to the recipient and one copy went to church headquarters. This process usually took about two weeks. (Dad and Mom would be working on multiple blessings at any given time.)

Dad gave his final blessing about eight years ago. Since I work in information technology, I have been quite aware of technological developments since that time. But I was still surprised by the technology in use when I went with one of my sons to his patriarchal blessing a couple of months ago.

I expected to see a digital voice recorder. The patriarch had one of those, but he also had an iPad that recorded his voice (better, he said, than the voice recorder). The voice recorder was just a backup. The patriarch had learned to always have two recording devices at each blessing as a failover mechanism.

The technology was somewhat interesting because the patriarch and his wife live in his ancestral home, which has been carefully restored to look very much like it did in the early 20th Century when it was first built. Beautiful woodwork and antique furnishings were on display, but not much technology was visible in the home’s living room and den. The iPad, which sat on a small antique side table, was small enough to detract little from the décor, but it still looked somewhat out of place.

The patriarch explained that he would sit down at his PC the following day, turn on voice recognition software, plug his headphones into his iPad, and replay the blessing. As he did so, he would clearly repeat the words of the blessing into the PC’s microphone. The words he spoke would appear on the screen and he would make any needed corrections manually. The reason he did not directly feed the original recording into the voice recognition software was to ensure clarity, eliminate pause words like “uh” and “er,” and improve grammar.

Less than 24 hours after the patriarch laid his hands on my son’s head, he dropped off a printed copy of the blessing at our home. Having seen the process my parents went through to produce a final version of a patriarchal blessing, I was quite impressed with his speed.

As each of our children has received a patriarchal blessing, I have transcribed the blessing into our computer (which is regularly backed up). I have then printed a full-size copy and a smaller copy made to fit in a set of scriptures. We have stored the original in a safe place. We plan to give the originals to the children when they are sufficiently responsible. In the meantime, we can print up new copies whenever necessary.

Some years ago I grew tired of pulling out a copy of my own patriarchal blessing every time I wanted to review it. So I made a project of memorizing my blessing. In 10-point font it fills a single sheet of paper, so the memorization wasn’t too terrible. Doing this might be more challenging for those that have multi-page blessings.

To maintain my memory I repeat my blessing to myself about weekly. While it may seem odd, I often do this in the shower. Showering is kind of an automatic task that doesn’t take much active thought.  It also takes about the amount of time needed to review my blessing.

I figure that I might as well do something productive with my mind (and spirit) while in the shower. I also frequently recite scriptures and poetry to myself while showering. Why not?

While the technology behind recording patriarchal blessings has changed over time, the important factors involved have remained the same. It will always be so.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Our Evolving Language

Language is an interesting subject on which I often reflect. Some of this reflection is prompted by my kids’ questions on the topic. I have been asked, for example, why there are so many diverse languages in the world, why languages change over time, and why the English language has so many odd idiosyncrasies. (Why is dead pronounced \ˈded\ while bead is pronounced \ˈbēd\?)

Although there are many that would play the role of language cop, no one, in fact, controls language. A language’s proper usage is determined by how it is employed by the population that uses it. People try to coin new words all of the time, but nobody can make anybody else use a new word. It is something that sort of happens spontaneously, much in the same way some YouTube videos go viral while others languish.

Words and grammar continuously evolve. Thus, dictionaries and grammar books also evolve. While these try to play a role in setting rules, it would be more correct to say that they are reactionary. That is, they report the evolved rules rather than creating them.

This fact seems to be understood by the accomplished David Gelerntner, at least as I read his 3/25/2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Gelerntner comments on how the English language is evolving in the digital era. He finds digital abbreviations “sharp-edged” but “refreshing.” Although these abbreviations “work harder, [carry] more meaning, and [become] more interesting and important,” they are “no good for poetry or novels.”

I laughed when I read the following:
“Smiley-faces are another story. Painfully cute hieroglyphics (happy-face, sad-face) have littered email for years; they are the empty beer bottles in the literary flower garden. Anything that can't be pronounced stops the verbal music, makes the reader stumble and marks the writer as a nitwit. These pictograms are for sloppy and lazy writers: E.B. White never felt the need to draw little faces in the margin to make his meaning clear.”
So, be careful about using emoticons in your texting and tweeting, lest you demonstrate that you’re a nitwit, I guess.

Images, on the other hand, are something that Gelertner likes, although, they also “can’t be pronounced.” They’re not English, but they work more like the way our brains actually think—in concepts more akin images than words. “Images” writes Gelernter, “expand the range of thinking—and might yield new kinds of written expression once software makes it easier and more natural to work photos (or the writer's own sketches) into the text.”

Some have disparaged the current evolutionary trends in the English language, but Gelertner sees most of the developments in a positive light. His main exception is the ease with which digital material is effectively deleted, either deliberately or through obsolescence.

Obsolescence occurs at a frightening rate in the digital world. We got our first video camera more than two decades ago. Over the years I have struggled to keep our family movies in a current usable format. I began keeping my journal electronically nearly two decades ago. I have likewise struggled to keep the entire text safe and current. How will I keep this up throughout my life? What will happen to this content after I pass on? Who will keep it current? Will anyone even care?

But I think there is a legitimate case for deleting or ignoring digital content. The sheer volume of material with which we are bombarded necessarily requires us to filter out much of it simply to cope. We are sure to miss out on some important material by doing this, but what feasible alternative exists?

Still, Gelertner writes, “The English language is one of the toughest and most beautiful objects ever invented. It will rise to the occasion and come out stronger.”

I’m not sure if Gelertner is ascribing some undue level of permanence to the language by this statement. After all, he is admitting that the language is evolving. While English is currently the dominant global language, we cannot be certain that it will always remain so. Especially if the primary English speaking world insists on killing off its free trade advantage that is the main reason for the language’s dominance.

One of the things that I find interesting is the ease with which most of us change our writing and speaking habits as the language evolves. None of us insists on writing or speaking precisely as we did 30 years ago. Or even 10 years ago, for that matter. Even the elderly, who are thought to be less flexible, seem to move onto newly evolved language forms without much difficulty.

I suspect that English will continue to be the world’s dominant language for the rest of my life and that it will continue to evolve during that time. This evolution is inevitable. Rather than worrying about this, it is probably best to figure out how to deal with it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Stuff Wars

We built our home before we had any children. Each child in turn learned to eat meals while seated in a high chair. (That chair desperately needed to be retired after five children.) Each child in turn moved from the high chair to the counter.

In the early days we had four sturdy backed bar stools pulled up to the dining room side of the counter. We soon learned to hate these chairs. They were high enough that a young child could sit on a cushion atop the stool and still access the counter. But this made them top-heavy enough that tipping over was relatively frequent. We tired of our children getting injured by this mean.

When we did a little remodeling, we replaced our four sturdy bar stools with four legless swivel stools that were attached to the counter. The problem with tipping stools was forever over.

But this introduced a new problem that would only become apparent as the children aged. Due to compromises made with the original construction, the stools could only swivel out so far. Available leg space at these stools eventually proved too cramped for boys getting their teen growth spurt.

When our fifth child was ready to move from the high chair to the counter, it became necessary for our oldest child to move to the dining table to free up a spot at the counter. While this provided more physical comfort for his legs, it seemed like an exile of sorts. That is, until his brother hit his growth spurt and joined him at the table.

We still have two children occupying spots at the counter, where we fight a constant battle with stuff. From their early childhood each child has viewed the counter space in the proximity of his or her stool as an acceptable place for storing personal items. As our older children have migrated to the dining table, the younger children have gradually spread their stuff over a greater portion of the counter.

A few years ago when we added onto the home, my wife had lovely lockers built to hold the kids’ stuff. Not only did each child end up with her or his own bedroom, each now had a locker in which to store gear. My wife hoped that this arrangement would remedy some of our counter storage problems. But it hasn’t. The kids just have more stuff piled in more places.

We are constantly getting kids to move stuff off the counter. But this requires exceptional vigilance. Every few weeks we have some gathering or event that requires that the counter and the table be fully cleared.  It seems amazing to see the space empty of junk. But the moment the event is over stuff appears on these spaces and begins to multiply.

A childhood friend of mine once told me that the children in his family were not permitted to enter the family’s living room prior to reaching adulthood. I thought his whole home was immaculate, but its spotlessness paled in comparison to the living room.

One day as we stood in the yard, my friend carefully made sure he knew his parents were otherwise occupied before leading me to a large picture window. Beyond the window was the forbidden living room. Everything was white: walls, couches, chairs, carpet, tables, fixtures, piano, décor, etc.

The furniture was protected with fitted covers that were only removed when the room was used for entertaining. I had never before seen a living room that was separated from the remainder of the home by two locked doors. “This,” my friend exclaimed, “is what us kids call the celestial room.” I was stunned to find out that he had never even been inside the room.

Our home isn’t like that. While the family engages in weekly chores to tidy up, dust, vacuum, and clean bathrooms, we have plenty of unnecessary clutter. Most of the surfaces in our home could be cleaned better. We no longer have toddler toys strewn about; although, we do have some dog toys.

No, our home isn’t the cleanest place in the world. But it is a home. Years ago I saw in a kitchen a plaque that read, “Clean enough to be healthy; messy enough to be home.” That more or less describes our house.

I’m afraid that our kids are only following our examples when they store personal stuff on the counter and on the table. My wife and I have plenty of clutter stored on various horizontal surfaces in the home. So, in some distant future when we become empty nesters, we might simply find ourselves battling our own stuff instead of our kids’ clutter.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Judging the Unclean

I woke up feeling disoriented. Within a couple of seconds I realized that I was in my bedroom at home, having just spent the night in my own bed for the first time in two years. I looked at the nearby alarm clock and saw that it was nearly 10 am.

The previous evening had brought a joyous reunion with my family after a long flight, the last leg of which was very stormy. It was dark as we headed home, but I could tell that parts of town had changed. When I walked into the house, everything seemed the same but different. The colors were much more vivid than I remembered. I was suffering from a nasty cold, which had made flying unpleasant. But I was glad to be home.

After rolling out of bed, I went upstairs and found the house eerily quiet. Nobody else was home. It was the first time I had been by myself in two years. I found something to eat for breakfast. As I was finishing up, the phone rang. I answered and heard the voice of an old friend asking about my plans.

Having arrived home a few weeks after the start of the school term, it would be a couple of months before I could return to college. Since I had nothing lined up for that time, my friend asked if I would consider working with him delivering waterbeds in the meantime. Waterbeds were all the rage at the time. Any honest work is good work, so I accepted. It felt good to be employed only hours after returning home.

The next morning I met my friend at the waterbed store and began a few weeks of interesting education. The store owner had been a minor league baseball star. He had a De Tomaso Pantera sports car. He loved the fast life, but it eventually caught up with him. Less than a year after I returned to school, the owner was arrested for dealing cocaine. He ended up losing everything.

I quickly learned the waterbed delivery trade. Going into people's homes and setting up beds was an educational experience. I remember setting up a huge king size bed in a tiny apartment near an air force base. When we were done, you could truly call the room a bedroom, because nothing else could fit.

We delivered beds at the homes of wealthy people. One family that bought new beds for every child in the family had a real pipe organ built into their living room. They let me play a couple of songs on the organ. Some of these well heeled folks were gracious; others were snobby.

Most of the homes we visited were middle class homes, but we also set up beds in homes that probably should have been condemned. It bothered me that most of these people bought the beds on high interest rate credit. Some of these people were just getting started in life. Others seemed to lack the capacity to properly manage a household.

I recall going into one small home that was built of cinder block. Tidiness was clearly not these people's forte. There was ample evidence scattered about of their familiarity with adult beverages. The master bedroom was decorated in blacks and dark reds with mirrors on the ceiling. The mirrors may have been the most valuable part of the home prior to the bed being installed.

We made a little small talk with the lady of the house, who looked very much like an aging street walker. Then we went to work setting up the bed on deep shag carpet that had not seen a vacuum cleaner in years. I wondered what the woman's shirtless husband was doing at home at that time of day. Without our asking, she volunteered that he was out of work. I wondered where they got the money for the bed.

As we were packing up our gear, I noticed a garish painting of Jesus on black velvet above a faux fireplace mantle. The framed picture was sandwiched between two spent tequila bottles. The dissonance of this ensemble was pretty shocking to me. In my mind I wondered why these people would bother to hang a picture of Jesus, while they seemed to be making no effort to follow him.

During my two-month stint delivering waterbeds, I helped set up beds in all kinds of homes. Most of them left no lasting memory. But I still occasionally find myself returning in my mind to the little cinder block dump and the painting on black velvet background.

I now realize that I judged these people rather harshly. I knew so little about them. While I would not have wanted to live as they did, I really have no idea how or why they got to that point or what they might have been doing to improve themselves. Perhaps having a picture of Jesus displayed in their home was part of their effort at self improvement. I'll never know. At any rate, it was not my place to pompously judge them.

Maybe I return to this spot in my memory because I am still far from being free of the sin of unrighteously judging my fellow men. Being a sinner myself, perhaps my heart is like that nasty little hovel with a picture of the Savior hung on the wall.

Any good Christian will tell you that only Christ can cleanse us and build a mansion for himself in our hearts. But we have to let him do that. He will never force his way into anyone's heart. I believe that he is willing to cleanse anyone that will let him in.

Since each that lets the Savior into his life begins his journey from a unique place, it is pointless to compare our location with anyone else that is on this path. Instead, we should be ready to help others progress on their journey. I think that focusing on doing this will likely render condemnation of others unnecessary.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Going Independent?

By the time I turned 18, I had already formed fairly strong political positions. Like others my age, I was idealistic and inexperienced. But I was not nearly as uninformed as the electorate at large. Being rather certain of my political leanings, it was an easy decision to register to vote as a Republican.

In 1980 I voted from Europe by absentee ballot. Given the European media coverage of the presidential campaign, I fully expected the Carter administration to continue for another four years.

While walking through a neighborhood on a chilly November morning just hours after the polls had closed in the states, we were stopped by a news delivery boy. He asked if we had heard the news about the U.S. election. When we replied that we had not, he excitedly pulled a newspaper from his bag and held it up.

I felt an incredible surge of hope as I saw the words “PRESIDENT REAGAN” emblazoned on the newsprint in the largest headline font I have ever seen in any newspaper. The newsboy handed me that copy and told me that I could keep it. I still have it stashed away among my mementos.

Throughout the years I have been politically active. I first volunteered on a political campaign when I was in my early 20s. I have attended my neighborhood caucus meetings and have served as an election judge. I have attended party conventions and I have held precinct leadership positions. And I have worked to be well informed politically.

But a funny thing has happened as I have become more experienced in political matters and in our political system. I have gained greater awareness of and appreciation for the varied and contrasting opinions that span the political landscape (even if I cannot bring myself to adopt many of these positions). The “we’re always right and they’re always wrong” mentality makes little sense to me nowadays.

Perhaps more importantly, I have reached a much more pragmatic understanding of the political system as a whole. I understand that actors in the system respond to incentives inherent in political culture. Thus, politicians may differ significantly on style but they generally differ little in what they substantively do. The best constituents can hope for is for their interests and the interests of political actors to occasionally coincide.

The media and the political class love to portray politics as being a battle between differing ideologies and viewpoints. While this does exist, I have come to view it as a distraction from the system’s main feature.

It’s not really about right vs. left, but about the political class vs. the citizens, who end up as mere pawns in the game being played by the political class. The object of the game is to gain as much power over the lives of other people as possible, thus, limiting their liberty. The citizens are easier to control and use when they are distracted by competing opinions.

Besides, it seems to me that when you observe what the political system actually DOES as opposed to what it claims it does or will do, most of the hopes we pin on achieving positive outcomes via politics should be seen as self deception. It should come as a shock to no one that politicians almost always end up acting like … politicians.

But political opinions are not wholly unimportant. They define which part of the political class gains temporary power. (I say temporary because almost all political power is temporary.) It is here that I find myself in a bit of a quandary.

Political parties exist for a reason. Any party in the U.S. that is large enough to regularly win elections necessarily consists of a broad coalition of various factions. The party can’t stray too far from the center line without losing voter support. But neither can it stray too far from its core identity without alienating its base or changing the political landscape. Too much movement in any direction can easily upset the party’s position.

The U.S. has had and will continue to have two major political parties, mainly due to the way electoral votes are currently allotted by the Constitution and the states. These parties set the agenda and control who can get elected. Third parties arise, but their success is generally limited to pulling support away from the major party to which they are most closely aligned.

When a major political party dies, a third party (mostly made up of people leaving the dying party) arises to take its place. This is what happened in the 1850s-60s when the GOP arose as the Whigs died out. But this very is rare, and neither major party is currently in danger of expiring, regardless of what some pundits say on the matter.

In heavily GOP areas of Utah, the Republican candidate almost always wins the final ballot. Since that ballot is often a mere formality, all real power in selecting who will hold political office in these areas happens at neighborhood caucus meetings, at county and state conventions, and in primary elections. The only way to have any real say in these matters is to be active in the party at these levels.

And herein lies my problem. It has become increasingly apparent to me that I often (probably usually) differ with the majority of the Utah GOP on issues and candidates. I have gotten used to rarely seeing any candidate win that I support. It is obvious as I attend neighborhood caucus meetings and party conventions that I am pretty far out of step with the party’s majority.

For some time I have felt that it was my duty to represent my (apparently quite eclectic) viewpoint by remaining active in the party. But I have come to wonder how useful this tactic is. The main reason for being active in party politics is to influence outcomes. But my abject ineffectiveness with this approach begs the question of whether I belong in the party at all.

A somewhat comical sidelight to all of this is that I have been approached several times to run for political office. When I ask people why they would want me to run, I usually get responses along the lines of being a level-headed guy that seems to know a lot about politics. I chuckle to myself because these people would likely consider me unfit for public office if they really understood my political opinions.

At what point do I formalize my independent thinking and declare my independence from the party? This can easily be done online. Yet I dither.

Part of me wonders whether I can appropriately do my duty to my country outside of a major political party. Almost all political office holders come from one of the major parties. If I remove myself from party affiliation, I am in essence giving up any real ability to influence the outcome of partisan elections. Still, it would seem that I’m there already. So what difference would going independent make?

I will not be joining another party if I leave the GOP. If I am out of step with the GOP, I am much further out of alignment with the Democratic Party.

Third parties offer the opportunity for a principled but ultimately futile opposition vote. Since I feel like I already do that, I see little value in joining a third party—all of which have enough uncomfortable idiosyncrasies to ward me off. Besides, one reason for disassociating from a political party would be to reduce my frustration level. I doubt that joining a third party would achieve that goal.

I feel that I presently have little if any political power as a member of the Republican Party. I am generally ruled over by people that I did not support and that implement policies with which I do not agree. Leaving the GOP would not change this. But I would no longer feel required to uselessly voice my opinions through the party.

Admittedly, part of the problem may revolve around my own fecklessness in gaining support for the issues and candidates that I like. But if one rarely finds others in a group that already share similar sentiments, even a good salesman will likely have difficulty persuading many group members to his way of thinking.

One national GOP mover and shaker recently left the party, claiming that the party had changed over the years. While all organizations evolve, it appears to me that this man is not so much concerned about any change in party ideology as he is upset that his own political power has diminished.

In my view, it’s not that the GOP has undergone significant change; it’s that my own political opinions have evolved to the point that I no longer feel that the GOP is a comfortable fit for me.

I want to be prudent as I weigh whether to register as an independent voter. I am looking for compelling reasons against doing so. But my search so far has been fruitless.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Doctors are Not Magicians

The nurse, who was in her late 40s noticed the surprise that registered on my face when she said that she would be getting a tattoo for her 50th birthday. I assumed that most people of her social stature would be comfortable enough in their own skin by that age to avoid using that skin as an ink canvas.

The tattoo, she explained, would be placed directly above her left breast and would consist of three large block letters: DNR. From her name tag I could see that these were not her initials, so I asked about the significance of those letters. She said rather matter-of-factly, "Do not resuscitate." Having spent her career as an emergency room nurse and having participated in many resuscitations, she had no desire to be the "victim" of such an effort.

I thought about this nurse as I read Dr. Ken Murray's article titled Why Doctors Die Differently. Most of those that perform heroic medicine, it turns out, opt out of being on the receiving end of that type of treatment. Dr. Murray explains:
"Doctors don't want to die any more than anyone else does. But they usually have talked about the limits of modern medicine with their families. They want to make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic measures are taken. During their last moments, they know, for instance, that they don't want someone breaking their ribs by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (which is what happens when CPR is done right)."
Perhaps those of us that don't work in medicine are so steeped in unrealistic myths that we overestimate the power of our medical system to bring us back to a decent quality of life. Dr. Murray notes that medical outcomes depicted in entertainment media differ dramatically from reality.

When it comes to CPR as shown on TV, for example, 75% of cases were successful and 67% of patients went home afterward. In real life only 8% of CPR patients survive at least a month, and only 3% of these survivors can go on to lead a normal life.

A beloved uncle was diagnosed with the early stages of lung cancer some time ago. He opted for the chemo and radiation therapies that had a good chance of killing the cancer. He survived, recovered, and was found to be cancer free for a number of months.

But the cancer recently returned with a vengeance. Over a relatively short period of time he went from having no detectable cancer to having it spread throughout his body. Instead of opting for heroic treatment that might extend his life a few months, he chose to be as comfortable as possible and to spend as much time with his loved ones as he could during his remaining days.

There is something to be said in favor of living one's final days and passing gracefully.

Dr. Murray advocates executing an advanced health care directive "specifying what steps should and should not be taken to save [your life] should [you] become incapacitated." You should also inform anyone that might end up in a decision making role in such a situation of your wishes. This gives them a framework for resisting heroic efforts that might have more to do with improving the practitioner's financial, legal, or self esteem situation than enhancing the patient's quality of life.

The limits of medical reality are also behind Dick Teresi's article on why he refuses to sign up for organ donation. It turns out that you pretty much give up all your rights once you sign up, should you ever become a "beating-heart cadaver."

Teresi details the simple tests used to certify that someone is brain dead. "Most people" he writes, "are surprised to learn that many people who are declared brain dead are never actually tested for higher-brain activity."

In the interest of saving precious time, some perverse incentives have been built into the transplant system that can cause practitioners to inadequately consider the prospective donor's best interests.

Teresi recounts a doctor's tale of how a donor had his organs removed even after he began spontaneously breathing on his own. He explains how supposedly brain dead people respond negatively to pain they are not supposed to be able to feel during the removal process.

Refusing to sign up for organ donation doesn't mean that your survivors can't decide that your organs can be donated. But it can give them bargaining power that they will lack if you do sign up. Teresi suggests, for example, that your family members could require that practitioners test you for higher brain activity and that they give you adequate anesthesia.

Our modern medical system is built on the shoulders of the mystical healing guilds of ancient cultures. Great efforts have been made to maintain the public perception of the medical profession as having nearly magical or supernatural powers. Those that work in the system know better.

When it comes to the practice of medicine, members of the general public will be better served by the system if they gain and maintain a better understanding of reality. Realistic expectations will likely lead to better outcomes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why People Avoid Neighborhood Caucus Meetings

I attended my first neighborhood political caucus meeting when I was 18 years old. I didn't understand many of the issues, I knew little about the candidates, and I didn't understand much of what was going on.

I did, however, comprehend that the meeting progressed according to parliamentary rules. My relative ignorance apparently decreased the likelihood of bias enough to qualify me to help count votes for county and state delegates.

Since that day of long ago, I have attended many neighborhood caucus meetings. I have held precinct leadership positions and I have attended party conventions.

But frankly, I detest going to neighborhood caucus meetings. I'm not alone. I yawned when I saw the headline for this KSL article, which reads, "Most Utahns won't attend party caucuses," because this statement has a pretty high "duh" factor. In other words, it's not really news. It's been this way for decades.

I opened the article anyway and could tell right away that it was more of the standard bashing of the caucus system that has been promoted by the media and the political elite establishment for some time.

While I think political lawyer Kirk Jowers is pretty sharp and has some interesting ideas, some of his professorial reasoning cited in the article deserves derision. As Jowers tells it, the problem with Utah's caucus system is not how many people attend, but how few delegate positions are available to attendees—fewer than 4,000.

Perhaps Dr. Jowers is unaware that we live in a constitutional republic. At each level of government a relative handful of representatives wield the power to vote on behalf of their numerous constituents.

Why is it OK for 29 politicians to represent all Utahns in the state senate and for 75 politicians to represent all Utahns in the state House of Representatives, but it is bad for about 4,000 Utahns to represent their neighbors at political party conventions? Dr. Jowers doesn't say.

According to the article, Jowers and other critics of Utah's caucus system essentially gripe that too few people control who can get on the ballot. As opposed to what?

A close reading of the article reveals that caucus critics are not really concerned about the number of people that have a say in who gets on the ballot, but rather who those people are. The caucuses—or at least the Republican caucuses, they complain, are controlled by "extremist elements." That's how the media and members of the political elite establishment describe those unenlightened troglodytes that dare to hold differing views.

The real problem with the caucus system to Dr. Jowers and his ilk is that people that don't think like him are likely to get a greater say in selecting who gets on the ballot than do members of their smartypants club. It doesn't matter that all viewpoints within the GOP have equal opportunity for representation at neighborhood caucus meetings. It's just that Jowers' viewpoint wins far fewer delegate positions than do those he contemptuously labels extremists.

Jowers would prefer "more primaries" and he has pretty much made it clear that he would like to scrap the caucus system completely.

Let's explore how that would work. Lacking a caucus system, party bosses would essentially control who gets on the ballot for primary elections. Only candidates with lots of money could then hope to compete in a primary. The system would naturally favor incumbents far more than the current system. And anyone that gets on the ballot would have to be cut in the mold of the party's establishment leaders.

So, candidates would have to kiss the party boss' butts to vie in a party primary election. I'm having difficulty seeing how this would be an improvement over candidates having to appeal to a majority of some 4,000 delegates.

Or perhaps caucus critics would prefer an open primary followed by a run-off, like they have in some other states. This creates an incredibly expensive multi-tier system that would eliminate all but the wealthiest campaigns. To top it off, run-off elections tend to attract so few voters as to leave a rational person wondering how this could possibly be an improvement over the caucus system.

Of course, if you are a lawyer specializing in election law (as is Dr. Jowers), you naturally want more elections and fewer grass roots efforts. More elections means more clients. Perhaps Dr. Jowers' intentions aren't nearly as pure as portrayed in the many articles in which the media glowingly holds this lawyer up as a paragon of political virtue and a voice for the underrepresented 'reasonable' Republicans.

Let's put it bluntly. The caucus system is unwieldy and difficult for members of the political establishment to control because, in their view, political decisions come down to the whims of a mass of extremist rednecks. This lack of control irks the elitists to no end. They are still angry that Sen. Bob Bennett was turned out by those unwashed ruffians in the last go-around.

Let's get back to the original question of why people don't attend their neighborhood caucus meeting. While the poll cited in the KSL article suggests no single clear reason for this, I believe that the real number one reason is that people feel uncomfortable doing so. They don't feel like they belong.

One of the reasons for this discomfort is that many people don't like to discuss politics with their neighbors. Exposing one's political leanings to be different from one's neighbors can make for less congenial neighborly interactions. Moreover, most are not deeply political animals and they feel out of place among a gathering of those that are.

While many people have strong feelings about political currents, much of this rides at a relatively shallow level of consciousness. The vast majority of people simply don't have enough interest in politics to deeply explore such issues. They aren't about to go to a meeting and expose their relative political ignorance. Thus, they are quite content to allow their more politically informed neighbors to handle this for them.

Then there are people like me. I go to the caucus meetings and listen to people speak their mind. Some are deeply informed on one or two issues but are quite ignorant of the rest of the political spectrum. Some 'feel' strongly about some things (they've read lots of nasty chain emails), but they haven't really backed this up with much reason. Some come with an ax to grind. Some come singing the praises of some politician without recognizing that he's just another politician.

Very few seem to comprehend the basic rules of all politics:

  1. Politicians act in their own personal interest, even if they claim to be acting on behalf of their constituents, and even if they refuse to admit to themselves that they are acting in their own interest.
  2. No politician can successfully represent the interests of all of his constituents. Thus, they are required to pander to different groups to remain in office. All successful politicians are masters of chameleon-like behavior.
  3. Politicians respond to the incentives inherent in the political system. Thus, the politician's behavior is mostly determined by the political culture than by the person's personality. Candidates mostly differ on style rather than on what they substantively do while in office. Frequent change can circumvent deep entrenchment in the political culture.
  4. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The politician responds to those that get in her face with persistence, whether it be constituents, lobbyists, fellow politicians, activists, etc.
  5. The best a voter can hope for is for the politician's interests to occasionally intersect with his own, hopefully on issues that matter most to the voter.
Too many people—even those classing themselves as conservatives—expect far too much from our political system, when a reasoned look at history should engender the greatest caution in granting any politician the tiniest bit more power than is absolutely essential to protect individual liberty. Expectations of the political system should be minimal. And so should the system's power.

But to convey these thoughts to one's neighbors in a coherent fashion in a 90-minute meeting dominated chiefly by competing emotions is a task for someone with much greater talent than me. Thus, I dislike attending political caucus meetings. My greatest hope is to escape without being given too much responsibility. I know that rule #1 above applies to me just as much as anyone else. Knowing the rule does not render one immune to it.

Sill, I am not nearly as dour about Utah's caucus system as are Dr. Jowers and the system's critics that the media continues to parade around at every opportunity. While it is true that the system is deeply flawed, so is any system that critics have suggested should replace it. There is no clear evidence that these systems, which can be seen in other states, produce superior outcomes.

Only those filled with hubris would claim to be able to remedy the current system's flaws without producing other equally nasty problems. While those that wield unjust power under the current system should be appropriately regarded with disgust, those that present themselves as political saviors should be regarded as highly dangerous.

Either they are too conceited to recognize their own faults or they are disingenuously hiding those faults because they expect to increase their own power. Either way, they should be regarded with the highest levels of suspicion.

Keep that in mind every time the media does another caucus system critic parade.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

It's the Demographics

Baby boomers headed for retirement face a tough scenario. So says financial scholar and businessman Robert D. Arnott in this Wall Street Journal interview. The reason for this challenge, he says, is not due to recent economic difficulties, but rather to changing demographics.

The parents of baby boomers were able to retire (sometimes compelled to retire) at a relatively young age because so many new workers (i.e. boomers) were expanding into the work force. "The surge in that population [in the U.S.] in the '80s and '90s," says Mr. Arnott, "helped to fuel the U.S. stock market boom in the '80s and '90s;" a period that he says was "extraordinary."

But the average baby boomer has produced fewer offspring than did the average member of her/his parents' generation. This means that the supply of workers entering the work force as baby boomers retire is much smaller in comparison to the cohort entering retirement than in the previous generation.

Mr. Arnott says that less than 10 years ago "we had 10 new additions to the working-age cadre for each one new senior citizen." Today we are almost at even par, with about one new worker for each new senior citizen. During 2012 that scale will tip toward the older demographic. In 10 years there "will be 10 new senior citizens for each new working-age citizen."

Why is this important? After all, weren't boomers the ones that thought that having smaller families was a mark of enlightenment? It turns out that retirees can't support themselves on their own. Retirement is built on the economic and financial foundation created by the younger working generation. Boomers simply didn't create enough of that younger generation to supply the kind of abundance many retiring boomers expect.

To underscore the importance of this demographic shift, Mr. Arnott says, "If that's not a political, economic and capital-markets game changer, I don't know what is."

The article explains how this will apply to boomers' retirement nest eggs:
"As retirees sell stocks and then bonds to support themselves, there will be fewer younger investors to buy those securities, keeping a lid on prices. Meanwhile, strong demand from boomers and a limited supply of workers will boost the prices of goods and services the boomers need."
Many people are expecting investments to perform the same way they did in the '80s and '90s, says Mr. Arnott. But the demographic shift makes this impossible. Instead of 8-10% annual pre-inflation growth, we are more likely to see a 5.5-6% rate.

The double-whammy described above means that boomer retirees will have less money to pay for higher priced goods and services. Many will live far more modestly in retirement than they had hoped.

Still, says Mr. Arnott, the U.S. isn't in as harsh a situation as Japan, which experienced a similar demographic scenario a decade ago. Japan's ratio of retirees to young workers is more severe than the U.S.'s. Some observers have suggested that immigration of workers (a factor that is minimal in Japan) will help to blunt the current demographic trend in the U.S.

Mr. Arnott also notes that the boomers' situation isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds. They can improve their lot by investing "in economies that aren't afflicted by the 3-D hurricane of deficit, debt and demography." (The U.S. is obviously included in that hurricane.)

Sensible investors, says Mr. Arnott, should be able to retire perhaps a year or two later than originally planned. Those that invest "conventionally" can expect to work a couple of years beyond that. Those that rely mostly on entitlements, however, will "work until they're 80."

The advice then, is to invest offshore in economies that are more vibrant and not demographically constrained. It would also seem that the U.S. is in for many years of relatively lackluster economic performance, thanks to the demographic trend. Maybe reducing family size isn't as smart as some have made it out to be.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Training the Trainer

2½ months ago I wrote about our family's acquisition of a new puppy. Our pup is now 4½ months old. Our 10-lb bundle of white fluff has grown to a robust and muscular 31-lb powerhouse. Our research says that this breed can reach 35 lbs. He's well on his way.

Our dog is still quite fond of snuggling, being petted and scratched, etc. But only on his terms. He's got to be in a mellow mood (which is relatively often). He also has his extremely frisky moods. Sometimes (particularly after coming home from a walk) he likes doing what the kids call "the puppy dash." During these episodes he will run at tremendous speed for up to two minutes, making incredibly tight cornering maneuvers (except on tile). Then he will run to his bowl and lap up lots of water.

Having spent plenty on buying and outfitting the pup, I was somewhat dismayed when my wife announced that we'd be spending more money for a six-week puppy training course. I was flabbergasted when I was told that all family members needed to attend the class. But I dutifully went along.

It became clear within the first few minutes of the first class period that the purpose of the course was more to train the puppy's trainers than it was to train the puppy. We did the training during the week at home. By the time we completed the course, I was well convinced of its value. We and our dog had learned some important basic skills that have already made life with our dog far smoother than would otherwise have been the case.

Our pup is a pretty smart critter. He catches on quite easily. We have learned the importance of consistency in handling him. We're far from perfect, but I'm relatively pleased with our progress.

One problem occurred because I had to miss one week of the puppy training class due to another commitment. The other family members brought me up to speed, and I figured that was good enough. But it turned out that I missed out on some critically important instruction that led to weeks of frustration.

The way I understood leash training was that we were all going to work on having the dog walk on our right side. The importance of getting the dog to walk directly to the right of the walker's right leg was emphasized. Since then I have taken our dog on many walks. I implemented my understanding of how this was to work, thinking that walks would become increasingly easy with time.

But Friday afternoon I was frustrated. Rather than getting better, walks seemed to be getting worse. My strong pup was regularly straining at the leash. While I am strong enough to hold him back, the same is not true of our younger children.

So I finally resorted to our society's most significant source of enlightenment—the Internet. (Yes, it is also our society's greatest source of misinformation, lies, and mental filth. Hence the need to develop strong internal filters.)

I read through a variety of pages and watched a few videos about dog walking. They all made it sound and look so easy. Finally it got through my thick skull that I had been keeping the leash looped around the wrong wrist and had been delivering food treats with the wrong hand.

I thought the leash should be around my right wrist when it needed to be around my left wrist. I was to hold the treats in my right hand rather than my left hand. I was also supposed to let the leash drape over my right hand when necessary and I was only to deliver each treat at the outside seam of my right pant leg.

I was also to stop and refuse to move if the dog was about to make the leash taut. I was to reward the dog and begin to walk again as soon as he relaxed the tension on the leash, but he could only get his treat if he got it by the side of my right leg.

In other words, my dog wasn't misbehaving. He simply had a lousy trainer. I had been inadvertently teaching him to strain at the leash and to walk ahead of me.

Some of the websites said that consistently using the correct walking method with even a seasoned dog will produce positive results within days. Consequently I set out on Saturday's walk determined to try the walking techniques I had learned from the Internet the previous evening.

The first block was a little rough. But things improved after that. Yesterday morning I took the dog out again between church duties. It didn't take him long to recognize that pulling at the leash didn't get him where he wanted to go and that treats came only when he was walking in the right spot.

I am looking forward to walking the dog again this evening so that we can continue our progress together. In fact, I am going to insist that the whole family go on a walk this evening so that each can be trained to properly walk the dog. Leash training, like all dog training, works best when everyone in the dog's 'pack' does it the same way.

While humans are far more psychologically complex than dogs, I wonder how often what I perceive to be the misbehavior of my children can simply be chalked up to the fact that I have trained them to respond in such a manner. Maybe being a better 'trainer' can make family life smoother too.