Friday, May 31, 2013

Scouting Lives

I have been involved with the Boy Scout movement since age eight. I currently serve as our scout district Order of the Arrow adviser. In my local unit I serve only as a merit badge counselor and a dad.

At our troop's first meeting following the BSA's recent vote to change its rules regarding youth membership (see my 5/24/13 post), the ranking youth stood and conducted the opening. There was a prayer. The boys recited the Scout Oath and Law. A few items of business were discussed. Then I began teaching the classroom portion of the swimming merit badge.

We had a lot of discussion, engaged in some activities, did some assignments, and had some fun. I wrapped up my part. The ranking youth closed the meeting. There was a prayer. Then we all went home. Clearly, from the perspective of the young men in attendance, nothing had changed.

Bestselling author Jason Wright puts it this way in this article:
"The controversy surrounding this new policy isn't likely to be fueled by the young men learning to tie knots, fold flags and be good citizens. If negativity and distrust catches fire and spreads, it will come from adult leaders and parents who perhaps lose sight that it's not about press conferences, boycotts and bullying. It's about the boys."
It seems to me that the BSA's policy change cannot help but invite challenges to its membership policy for adult leaders. (See Boston Globe article.) Only time will tell where this ends up leading. But that night at our troop meeting, none of that seemed to matter. There were only boys learning scouting skills as usual.

A friend that is a well seasoned Scouter is fond of saying that there is a difference between Scouting and the business of Scouting. Scouting is made up of the unchangeable principles, values, and virtues that form the basis of the program. Of necessity Scouting has a business arm that administers the movement's organizational and commercial elements.

Most of the youth and adults involved in the BSA program care mainly (and swear to uphold) Scouting principles rather than the business of Scouting. In fact, some feel, as does former Scouter Terry Howerton (in this Forbes article) that "the corporation that administers Scouting in America lost its moral compass a long time ago."

Howerton believes that excluding gays in the first place was immoral, while others feel that the recent BSA decision to allow openly gay (but chaste) youth members demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the business arm of Scouting (see previously referenced Boston Globe article).

Howerton apparently would have preferred to let some of the BSA's largest sponsors quit the organization in 2000, essentially ensuring the demise of the BSA, rather than allow the policy of excluding gays to continue. Like minded people have concluded that the recent decision to permit openly gay youth members demonstrates that the longstanding ban on such members was not based on a firm moral footing, as had long been claimed.

Leaders of some conservative churches are advocating withdrawal from the BSA in the face of the new policy. Some believe that being openly gay is unacceptable, even if the person remains chaste. At any rate, being forced to accept such individuals into Scouting units sponsored by their churches is a bridge too far.

At least one activist is considering forming an alternative Scouting organization for churches in this boat. It could end up being the male counterpart to the American Heritage Girls, an organization that was formed as an alternative to the increasingly liberal Girl Scouts of America.

It seems ironic that some that have suggested that gays should form their own Scouting organization could end up forming their own sectarian Scouting organization instead. That may not be a bad thing. A monopoly on U.S. Scouting may not be the best thing for the movement. More choice may be better.

No, the controversy regarding the BSA and gays will not be going away anytime soon. The path forward is not clear. Still, week after week in Scouting units across the country, adult volunteers will continue to help youth learn and live Scouting principles.

Even if the business of Scouting dies or makes decisions incompatible with Scouting principles, the Scouting movement will continue because of the timeless values upon which it is built.

Update 6/3/13: See in-depth relatively balanced Washington Post article on this topic

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing a Parent's Biography

Several months ago I related some events from my father's life at a family gathering. A sister-in-law was fascinated and requested that I write and share what I knew about Dad's life. It took awhile to get started, but I have recently undertaken to write my father's biography.

I am about 30 pages into the document, which somehow averages about one page per year of life. So far the experience has been interesting. The first 25 years of Dad's life sprang from my fingers almost effortlessly. As Dad got older he more frequently talked about his childhood and early adulthood. I eagerly gathered these stories and recorded them. So they are fairly firm in my mind.

Writing any kind of history is an exercise in trade-offs. The writer necessarily operates with limited information and perspective. Even the most objective writers cannot prevent their biases from bleeding into the text. Writers pick and choose what to include and what to emphasize.

Biographies are rarely compelling if the writer has little affinity for the subject. One experienced biographer opined that biographers must assemble more than just facts. Biographers must at least admire some aspects of their subject and must help the reader understand what makes the subject the person he is/was.

Dad was opposed to writing a personal history. He said that every autobiography he had ever seen was incredibly self serving. Real people, he said, are complex individuals that are a bundle of goods and bads. It is extremely difficult to explore one's own imperfections and stupidities in an autobiography, so these histories invariably end up lionizing the subject.

Dad also opined that untold generations of his forebears had passed on without leaving much in the way of personal history. It is the lot of almost all humans to fade away into near anonymity within a couple of generations after passing away. Dad wondered why he should be any different.

I am not sure who might end up reading my biography. I expect some push back from my mother and my brothers, since they are apt to recall some elements differently than me. A few years ago I wrote a much briefer sketch of the early part of Dad's life. Mom claimed that there were some inaccuracies in my text. I repeatedly offered to fix them, but she was never forthcoming with the precise nature of the supposed errors. I wonder if perhaps she simply disagreed with my tone and choices of emphasis.

In the foreword of my biography, I have made it clear that it is my story about Dad, written according to my own understanding. If others present information that changes my understanding, I will happily make revisions. When differences amount to little more than questions of style, I will ask those that differ to either write their own biography or else to write something that I can properly attribute and include in my biography.

I have reached the point in my writing where my parents have married and started their family. I feel that I need to gather some details from Mom to cover the next decade and a half. This kind of thing is becoming increasingly difficult as Mom ages. She tends to focus heavily on more pressing matters and would rather put off thinking about those days of yore until some nonexistent future time when it will be more convenient. I also find that Mom's memory of certain distant details isn't as clear as it used to be.

Asking my brothers for help is another potential avenue, but one fraught with other challenges. I have discovered that discussions about family history are quite difficult to bring up deliberately. People can't find the time for it. They change the subject. You never get what you're looking for

It seems like good family history discussions only happen almost by accident when people are together in a relaxed setting. I am reaching the stage with my brothers that we don't do much of that kind of thing anymore. Each brother is now the patriarch of his own clan. Each is struggling to find opportunities to get his own dynamic posterity together, rendering extended family gatherings increasingly difficult.

I feel fairly confident about covering Dad's life from the time I was in my mid-teens without too much help. But I feel like I've hit a stopping point for the moment. If I move forward with only my own knowledge and records I risk leaving the record of those years devoid of much richness. Maybe I should forge ahead and consider it a first draft. Knowing how things go in real life, it would likely end up being an inadequate final draft.

Another issue that is bothering me is the sense that I don't want to leave my Mom shortchanged. Once I have written Dad's biography, I feel that I am obligated to write Mom's biography. Although I can't really say why, I feel much less confident about making that effort. Part of me doesn't want to finish Dad's biography because I will then feel like I have to start writing Mom's biography.

I am no great writer. I violate too many rules of good writing, even when I know that I am doing so. I can't seem to help myself. But I am the only one among my siblings that engages in much writing. So the biographies are up to me. I have no deadline other than what I impose on myself. I only hope that the finished works are something in which I feel I can take some pride.

Friday, May 24, 2013

LDS Church Approves of BSA's Vote to Drop Ban on Gay Youth, But All Is Not Well

The Boy Scouts of America's 1,400-member National Council voted yesterday (61-38%) to drop the BSA's ban on openly gay youth members. (See actual text of resolutionBenjamin Wood article, David Crary and Nomaan Merchant article.)

The policy change officially begins on January 1, 2014, but most consider it immediately effective. Under the new policy, sponsoring organizations are required to accept openly gay but chaste youth into their BSA units. Gay adults are still prohibited; although, this operates on more of a 'don't ask, don't tell' arrangement. Technically, adulterers and fornicators are also excluded from BSA membership.

In a USA Today op-ed Wayne Perry, current president of the BSA strongly backed the new policy, calling it "the right decision for Boy Scouts." He also emphasized that the new policy "reaffirms our core belief in doing one's duty to God," condemns any kind of sexual activity (heterosexual or homosexual) by Scouting youth, and "prohibits the use of the organization to promote or advance any social or political positions or agendas."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the largest sponsor of BSA units and members, issued a statement approving of the new BSA membership policy for youth. Quoting from the church's Handbook 2, the statement notes that the new policy more closely aligns with the church's policy that "young men … who agree to abide by Church standards" are "welcomed warmly and encouraged to participate." In a comment that may seem surprising to some, the statement further asserts that "Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops."

The church's website notes that "A letter signed by the First Presidency of the Church is being sent to all Latter-day Saint congregation leaders throughout the United States. The letter will include the reaffirmation of Church policies and standards referenced in today's public statement." I suppose that those that attend LDS Sacrament meetings in the U.S. can expect to hear this statement read from the pulpit on a Sunday in the near future.

But rank-and-file members of organizations don't necessarily easily accept everything that comes from the organization's head office. "I withheld my fairly generous annual donation to Friends of Scouting this year," one LDS businessman recently told me. "I decided to wait to see what the BSA does with this proposed policy change. I have nothing against gays, but I don't want to give to an organization that backs down on its principles."

He's not the only one. I have heard this same thing from more people than I can count. Many of them have probably been giving only a few bucks each year, but lots of people times a few bucks adds up to a lot of money. BSA councils in conservative regions may find themselves struggling for donations.

A Scouting buddy that has been an extremely dedicated volunteer feels demoralized. "It seems like evil wins over and over again," he glumly stated. "What I see going forward with the BSA is more steeply declining rates of involvement."

Again, he's not the only one. I have looked into the faces of many longtime Scouters in recent weeks. Their enthusiasm is way down. They are still doing their jobs, but with far less energy and zeal than in the past. Some have gone into the mode of just filling the spot for now, looking forward to the time that they will be replaced. I surprisingly heard from some serious Scouters sayings like, "Maybe it's time to hang it all up."

What I see in these (former) donors and despondent Scouters is a sense that their side is losing the culture wars. Some longtime LDS Scouters are very disappointed in the Church's handling of this issue. They're not sure what to make of reassurances from church headquarters on the matter

Some think (actually, some have been thinking for two decades) that it's only a matter of time before the LDS Church drops the BSA program and institutes its own program. In anticipation of this imaginary moment they fail to magnify their present callings.

Statements from the BSA and the LDS Church read as if the matter of gays having membership in the BSA has been resolved for the long term. But it's difficult to see how that can be. Many gay activists have made it clear that, having gotten part of what they wanted from the BSA, they are ready to double down to get full involvement for gay adult leaders. They have made it clear that they will not stop pressuring the BSA.

Many have opined that the moment a young man with same-sex attraction that has been an outstanding scout turns 18 and wishes to register with the BSA as an adult leader, there will be fireworks that will give activists a powerful human interest story to bolster their campaign to drop the ban on homosexual adult leaders.

When traditionalists admonish gays to start their own youth programs instead of trying to change the BSA, they have a comeback that strongly resonates with people. They note that this smacks of the whole "separate but equal" clause that applied to segregation of blacks and whites for decades. It was legal, but it was not moral.

On the one hand, the BSA president's op-ed says, "The BSA makes no connection between sexual abuse and homosexuality." Other official BSA statements have supported the idea that having gay leaders would not lead to more abuse problems.

On the other hand, 70% of BSA units and members are sponsored by religious institutions. Many of these churches view homosexual activity as sin. It is one thing to experience same-sex attraction. Everyone experiences all kinds of temptations. All people give into temptation on a fairly regular basis. But embracing or seeking to normalize what churches teach that God has proclaimed as sin is another matter altogether.

BSA leadership may feel like kowtowing to political correctness, but it is difficult to see how conservative churches could accept sexually active homosexuals as Scouting leaders. BSA officials have said that this would simply be a bridge too far.

Yesterday's action by the BSA will not put this controversy to rest. If anything, it will simply fan the flames. The BSA may wish to step back from this front of the culture wars, but it can't. A twist on an old proverb goes, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."

If activists cannot get the BSA to change according to their desires, they will be satisfied to destroy the organization. Demoralizing devoted volunteers may be just the ticket to that destination.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Farewell to the Good Doctor?

"The problem with our education system" my doctor friend opined, "is that we have turned our teachers into data gatherers. We don't pay them to teach; we pay them to gather data on their students. When the geniuses at the top of the bureaucracy don't like the data they see, they merely tweak the data or gather different data. It never occurs to them that their data collection is harming the educational process."

"We don't have students anymore; we just have data points. They're not people; they're just numbers to be manipulated" concluded the doctor.

My exercised friend was certainly on his soapbox. "That's where the medical industry is headed too," he said. "Everyone is being turned into a set a numbers. Numbers can be important, but they are no replacement for the individual."

The doctor explained that the availability of all kinds of health data to individuals and health care professionals can be very useful, if taken as part of a much bigger picture. But focusing too closely on the details can result in a great deal of harm.

"I am trying to treat individuals here, not diseases or symptoms," said my friend. "But the bureaucracy is making this increasingly difficult. I'm not sure how much longer I can put up with it," my friend said as he reflected ominously on his future. "And Obamacare will make it much worse," he added.

"We will all simply be a bunch of numbers for an endless army of number crunchers to crunch," said the good doctor. "We will be coerced into trying to make all of the numbers look good, regardless of how it affects the patient." He further opined that non-compliant patients and health care professionals will be punished.

Another health care professional glumly noted, "It's the law of the land."

I don't particularly care for that statement. It is certainly the policy of the government and its cronies. But there is a difference between law and mere policy. Natural laws exist irrespective of what arrogant humans say is law. It is up to us to discover these laws. We do not create them. We can obey them or not, but there will always be negative natural consequences for violation of natural laws.

For example, it is naturally wrong to deliberately kill another human that has not proven himself to present an unacceptable threat to the lives of others. Even if this law were not codified as public policy it would still be a natural law that carries its own set of consequences.

Policy, on the other hand, is subject to the whims of humans that wield sufficient power (or that think they do) to get others to obey their pronouncements. The demand that certain forms be submitted to the government is an example of policy. While disobedience to the policy can bring nasty consequences, it carries no more natural weight of law than the rules children establish for playing a game of hide-and-seek.

The most respected and broadly obeyed public policies are those that closely approximate current (admittedly imperfect) composite understanding of natural laws. While policy makers (I disagree with the term 'lawmakers') may codify these laws, they did not invent them; they merely codified their discovery.

So I disagree with the health care professional that suggested that our current national health care policy is law. It is policy and nothing more. Citizens have a moral duty to disobey those portions of the policy that are immoral. (I do not say that all portions are naturally immoral.) Such disobedience will certainly bring down the wrath of an ever expanding and increasingly thuggish almighty government unless so many disobey that the policy is rendered moot. It is a natural law that standing for the right can prove unpopular.

Some have opined that current health care policy is driving good doctors out of practice. My friend is a good doctor. The bureaucrats may eventually succeed in replacing him with someone that is more to the number crunchers' liking but that is not necessarily a good doctor.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Running Up Debt to Death

I worked at a bank when I was a young adult. One day an older woman came in and spoke with our branch's customer service representative. The woman, who had been a widow for a little more than a year, was embarrassed and confused about a series of expensive bounced check charges.

The bank rep carefully went over the charges and showed where the customer had exceeded her checking account balance on a number of occasions. None of this made sense to the woman. She explained that her husband had always handled the finances and that they had never bounced a check before.

After much kindly and painstaking work, our rep succeeded in helping the customer understand how little money she had in her account. "How can I have no money left in my account?" the woman asked. "I still have checks in my book!" she exclaimed.

I initially thought this situation to be humorous. But the more I thought about it, the sadder it seemed. This lady had been tossed into a financial world in which she had no basis. Moreover, her ability to comprehend her situation may have diminished due to normal aging processes.

Over my lifetime I have watched as people have become increasingly comfortable with debt. The manager at my bank branch said that they once had a sign in the window that said, "Come in and get a loan to pay off all your debts." This was commonly understood as a joke for many years. But eventually people actually did start coming in and asking about such loans, so they ended up taking the sign down. Now debt consolidation loans are big business. (This article cautions about common scams targeting those seeking such loans.)

Not only have younger generations become lax about debt, increasing numbers of people are entering retirement with debt—even student loans! (See Business Insider article) I was surprised a few years ago to hear from a friend that works in the home mortgage industry of the hefty increase in the number of retirees and people within a few years of retirement getting large 30-year mortgages on new homes.

This Washington Post article discusses steadily decreasing financial retirement preparedness among Americans. Financial planners advise retiring with the ability to replace 70% of your pre-retirement income to maintain your standard of living. But the typical baby boomer will be able to enter retirement with only 60% and the typical Gen-Xer will start retirement with only 50%.

Those are huge differences that cannot be easily offset. One of the major factors involved is increasing debt load (see WSJ article). Home values and investment performance also play major roles. As explained in my 3/20 post, the current Federal Reserve policy of extremely low interest rates is killing senior investors' traditional investment returns and causing them to opt for more risky instruments that will eventually rob them of much of the value they think they are now earning.

While there is no shortage of those that assume they can safely cross the bridge of retirement funding when they get there, many Americans can read the writing on the wall. It is increasingly common for those that have crossed the traditional line of retirement age to work longer. Younger generations expect to work even longer. They are planning for a shorter retirement to ensure a stable standard of living.

This isn't necessarily a bad way to go, as long as your health holds out. Health issues that reduce or eliminate employment opportunities necessarily impact retirement cash flow. For that matter, so does anything that reduces employ-ability, including skill obsolescence.

As noted above, the trend is toward decreasing retirement preparation. Our culture seems bent on enjoying perks today at the expense of how we will be able to live in retirement.

Lest you console yourself with how well prepared you are, it might be well to consider how your neighbors' preparedness (or lack thereof) can impact you. Has it not been obvious of late how easily politicians can use envy to develop public policies designed to relieve those that have prudently prepared from their 'excess' savings? If you have prepared you will soon be maligned as being a rich hoarder.

So don't tell yourself that this isn't your problem. The question is how to go about dealing with it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Runners In the Springtime OR Spreading Guilt for Fun

I'm seeing more of them. They're all over the place. The weather gets warm and suddenly they're swarming the roadsides. It's as if the hard winter and cool spring have kept them in hibernation until now.

I'm talking about runners and cyclists, of course.

They're out there with their high-tech athletic clothing highlighting their lean and sculpted forms, working their craft along the sides of the busiest roads where they have the greatest chance of making as many passing couch potatoes as possible feel guilty about their own sedentary lifestyles.

Cycling I understand to a certain extent. I have a good mountain bike that I ride from time to time. I can get to many good trails within a mile of my house. Unlike one of my die-hard friends that likes to ride all day, I usually ride for half an hour to an hour. My main purpose is exercise. The cycling experience offers some variety to my regular indoor workouts.

I try to avoid busy streets as much as possible. A man I knew was killed several years ago while biking on a narrow but fairly busy road not far from my home. But don't worry too much. Knowing his personality he was likely joking about it as soon as he got to the other side.

Some cyclists I see are very serious about their hobby. They have top notch equipment and clothing. Some are very casual. And there's everything in between. They're all out there riding along the busiest roads, sucking in all of that vehicle exhaust and putting their lives at risk. It's got to be exhilarating.

Then there are the runners. What can I say about this? I have never understood the penchant for running.

There is a scene in Back to the Future III where Doc Brown is in an old west saloon regaling the hard bitten cowboys in the establishment with tales of what the future will be like. After telling them about modern transportation, one asks if anyone in the future walks or runs. Brown responds, "Of course we run. But for recreation. For fun." The old timer (played by Pat Butram) responds, "Run for fun? What the h*** kind of fun is that?"

That about sums up how I feel about running. I do it when I must. But the idea of actually choosing to run for leisure boggles my mind. Especially when I hear people talking about their 10-, 15-, or 20-mile runs. (Or 100-mile runs, as one of my former assistant scoutmasters undertakes on a regular basis.) What in the world are they thinking? Do they really enjoy the incessant injuries, the stresses on their bodies, the dogs, the gravel, the cars, etc?

A doctor acquaintance of mine tells me that he runs to escape from the stresses of life. When he's running he gets to disconnect from the office and focus on something entirely different. Others tell me that they run for their health. I wonder what they tell their bunged up feet, inflamed shins, and aching joints.

Recent research is calling into question how healthy running really is (see WSJ article, London Mail article). It would seem that people that run more than an average of eight mph or that run more than about 20 miles per week erase any longevity benefits that might have been gained by exercise.

One physician and exercise advocate says, "If you are running more than 15 miles a week, you are doing it for some reason other than health." Hmmm.... I question whether you're doing it for some reason other than health if you're running more than 200 yards a week.

If running a marathon does about the same thing for your heart as smoking a daily pack of cigarettes for a year, you have to question why in the name of Gondor (to borrow a Tolkien phrase) you are doing it. If it's just for escapism, as it seems to be for my doctor friend, maybe recreational chemicals would be safer.

If you are running so that you can feel superior to others, well, I'm sure there are at least 50 other ways to fulfill that vanity.

Of course, I am writing all of this mainly to assuage my own non-runner's guilt. On occasion I have entertained the idea of doing some grand feat like running a marathon to spite my increasingly obvious mortality. (Isn't that why all middle-aged and older people run?) Fortunately for me, sanity has so far always kicked in.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Impending Violence On the Soccer Field

He was a big burly dad that looked forbidding. She was a skinny 14-year-old that had been assigned to referee a soccer game for 9- and 10-year-old boys. I was there to watch my son's soccer game.

I knew this guy from our school days. He was a year younger than me, but even in elementary school he was taller and beefier than most boys that were two or three years his senior. He had a reputation as someone you didn't want to mess with. The way his brow was formed gave him a naturally menacing appearance.

Then our kids started playing on the same soccer team. I discovered that he had mellowed significantly from days of yore. He was a caring dad that doted on his children.

I can't remember what upset him about the referee's call. But it was clear that he felt that his son had been unfairly treated. I can remember thinking that this kind of thing happens dozens of times every Saturday morning on soccer fields around the area. People might blow off a little steam, but then the game (and life) goes on.

This fellow, however, began engaging in the kind of unsportsmanlike behavior that gives parent spectators a bad reputation. Parents occasionally get so emotionally involved in a game that they make a scene and ruin the game for the kids and for the other spectators. It was clear that this man had crossed that line.

The referee stopped the game and told the dad that he was ejected from the game and had to leave the field. The dad sat back down in his lawn chair and refused to leave, acting as if his behavior had been warranted. She said that the game would not resume until he completely left the park. He refused to budge.

The referee called both coaches over and showed them a page in a small booklet. She then announced to everyone that if the offending parent did not leave the field within three minutes the game would be cancelled and the team to which the offending parent's child belonged would forfeit the game. Parents around the man began to encourage him to accept the ruling.

Pressure was building as the man sat there while the referee watched her wristwatch. Finally he stood up, but instead of moving off the field he began stalking toward the referee. The closer he came the more she looked like a skinny little kid. It truly looked like a Davis vs. Goliath setting.

Some of the other dads jumped up and ran onto the field to prevent what appeared to be an impending assault. When they tried to stop the man, he insisted that he just wanted to talk to referee. The look on his face appeared to say something else. So the dads stayed right with him, ready to intervene.

The big man stopped short of the referee. He appeared to be weighing his options. Despite how quiet the field had become under the tense situation, the man said something to the referee so quietly that I could not hear him. But the other dads that were standing nearby appeared to relax somewhat.

Then man then called his son over. He got down on one knee so that he was eye level. He spoke briefly with his son. Then he stalked back to his lawn chair, quickly folded it, and carried it over the hill to the parking lot.

As the dads returned to their seats and the referee called for the game to resume, one of the dads explained to us that the man had first apologized to the referee for his behavior. He had then apologized to his son for behaving badly, before obeying the referee's order to leave.

I marveled at the courage of a young teen girl to stand up to a man that appeared large, intimidating, and dangerous. When I later spoke with the girl's father, he said that she told him that she had been quaking in her shoes and feeling almost ready to faint. But she had stood her ground and had done her duty admirably.

I also wondered at the courage of a man that had earlier in life had a habit of using his looks and size to intimidate others. He had realized his mistake and he loved his son enough that he didn't want his son to think that such behavior was ever the best way to accomplish anything positive. He was a big man. He had acted like a jerk. But he never stood taller in my eyes than when he quietly slunk off the soccer field that day.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Scriptures: Paper or Plastic?

I pulled out my phone as I waited for my wife in the entry hall of the Brigham City Temple and began reading a talk from the recent general conference. One of the temple workers nearby said, "You be careful about what you access on that thing in the temple, won't you?"

That wasn't a problem because I had no cellular or WiFi coverage in there anyway. I could only peruse downloaded content. I explained what I was reading and then returned to the task. The man began chatting with another worker about electronic versions of the scriptures.

"When I was high priest group instructor 20 years ago," he said, "there were two brethren in the group that still brought their old scriptures; although, the new version had been out for a decade." The two workers discussed seeing increasing numbers of people using various electronic versions of the scriptures. They mentioned some of the pros and cons of going electronic.

"Maybe I'm becoming like those two old duffers from my old high priest group by sticking to my hard copies," the man thought out loud. I couldn't help but add my two cents. I explained how I liked using my scriptures on my phone and computer, where everything I do is automatically synchronized. "But," I added, "I have never had the battery run out on my paper copies." That elicited a chuckle.

A recent Deseret News article explored "the pros and cons of using digital scriptures and the traditional print scriptures." After perusing the various opinions featured in the article, I surmise that it really comes down to individual taste.

Technology offers some great features. My notes and highlights are there no matter which device I use. I can easily carry my scriptures and all of my church materials in my pocket. I can keep my daughter quiet by handing her my phone so that she can read the Friend magazine during church meetings. I can rapidly switch my scriptures and some other content to other languages that I know. I can increase font size on the fly as my eyes age instead of buying a new set of larger font scriptures. And I can read all of this content in the dark. How cool is that?

But technology isn't perfect. My number one gripe is battery life. Failing to keep your devices charged can leave you scrambling. Many complain of being distracted by all of the other things their devices can do. Electronic distraction is simply a matter of self discipline and I can be a very disciplined guy. I don't have a tablet, but I sometimes wish I did. It's not easy to take notes on a phone. But you know what? It's easier than writing in the margins of my paper scriptures.

Some people mentioned in the article just like the feel of a book. I appreciate this sentiment. I will never have an old love note from my wife flutter out of my electronic scriptures and land in my lap. Still, I can't help but wonder if clinging to paper books isn't strikingly similar to those that preferred handwritten scrolls after the advent of printed bound books. I suppose that we will have printed books around for a long time to come. But can't we all see where this is headed?

My brothers insisted on giving my elderly mother an iPad for her last birthday. "If my four-year-old grandson can learn to use it," said one brother, "so can my mother." Mom keeps her iPad charged up, but after nearly a year of owning it she still hardly ever uses it. She is more likely to hand it to someone younger and ask them to use it for her. "I need to learn how to use this," she will say, not realizing that everyone else learns the iPad simply by messing around with it. She acts like she's afraid of it.

Mom's scriptures and lessons are on her iPad, but every week she takes copies of the lessons printed from her computer along with her bulky large font scriptures to church while her iPad sits at home. This generational digital divide will obviously go away over time due to population turnover.

As for me, I suspect that I will continue to sometimes use hard copies of the scriptures while using electronic versions at other times, according to what suits my whims. I also suspect that technology will continue to improve until I find myself using hard copies less and less. Probably someday I will realize that it has been a long time since I cracked open a hard copy of the scriptures.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why Do Monarchies Still Exist?

I once heard a political observer and historian explain how rapidly social structures across the globe changed following the American Revolution.

It had been generally accepted for millennia that some people were naturally born to be better than others. Although not intended at the outset, the revolution firmly established the concepts of human equality and individual value. (Quite imperfectly, of course.) Within a very short time, institutions that were dependent on the established Western caste system, such as deference to nobility and indentured servitude fell off sharply. First in the U.S., then in other Western nations, and later across many parts of the globe.

Having been raised in the U.S., I was surprised when I lived in Norway to discover that the nation's modern monarchy had been established in 1905 by popular vote. I wondered to myself why in the world Norwegians would choose a sovereign (whose position held little political power) at a time when monarchies were generally in decline. Countries that were keeping their monarchies were stripping them of power.

It turns out that on a continent that still boasts a dozen monarchies many Europeans still love monarchies. Slate writer Brian Palmer provides several reasons that some European countries have not jettisoned their monarchies while all the rest have:
  • Getting rid of a monarchy is an act of revolution, and few Western European nations have much stomach for that kind of thing at present.
  • "Royal families are apolitical symbols of national unity and, in ideal circumstances, sources of pride."
  • On rare occasions monarchs have intervened when the political process has gone too far afield.
  • Many Europeans have what Palmer calls "genuine affection" for their royals.
  • "Monarchs can be lucrative," especially when it comes to bringing in tourist money. 
  • Royals often act as goodwill ambassadors both domestically and in foreign affairs.
  • Some monarchies are not terribly expensive to maintain. "The British royal family ... costs the average taxpayer less than $1 per year...."
After nearly 400 years of being ruled as a vassal state, Norwegians likely chose a monarch in 1905 mainly for purposes of national unity. Still, it has always struck me as odd that they chose for king a Danish prince whose British wife (his first cousin) never learned to speak anything resembling Norwegian.

Although some monarchies do not cost each taxpayer much, the Wall Street Journal reports that the operation of royal households is not cheap. While different kingdoms calculate royal costs differently, the WSJ says that Norway (population 4.952 million) spends the most; a whopping €42.7 million ($55.9 million) annually. The U.K. (population 62.64 million) by contrast spends only €38 million ($49.7 million). Norway's neighbor Sweden (population 9.453 million) spends just over a third of what Norway spends (€15.1 million, $19.8 million).

The WSJ notes that "Republican governments aren't always cheaper. ... the office of the French president spends more than €110 million [$143.9 million] annually...." This may be true, but supposedly the French president has the job of running his nation's federal government, while most European monarchs are blissfully free of the burdens of actually governing.

Although close to 80% of Britons favor their queen, nearly as many think that the monarchy will be gone within the next quarter century. Palmer writes, "This suggests that Europeans envision a future without kings and queens but don't personally want to undertake the national convulsion that might accompany the change."

I have long thought that Europe's monarchies will eventually go by the wayside, despite the people's odd romantic attachment to these remnants of a bygone caste system. I suppose that just as Norway was the last one to the party in establishing a monarchy, it will hang onto its outmoded system after other royal houses are little more than past memories.

While I can academically understand the arguments in favor of maintaining monarchies, I'm afraid my American upbringing has rendered me incapable of valuing them in the way that some do. I have never understood the near worship of glitzy mortals, whether they hail from the Hollywood glamour set, are elected to their position, or happen to be born as members of royal houses.

Europeans living in monarchies appear to be slowly coming to agree that their royals must eventually go. Get your royal souvenirs while you still can.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

It's Not Just Running Out of Other People's Money; It's the Debauching of Society

I found this NYTimes article about Denmark interesting. Having lived in Scandinavia and having relatives living in and near Denmark, I pay some attention to news from that part of the world, even to the point of regularly perusing the largest Norwegian newspaper. (I read and speak Norwegian.)

Danes, it seems, are starting to realize that their cherished social welfare system is resulting in the debauchery of the nation's citizens. Less than a year and a half ago, a member of parliament that wanted to moderately rein in social spending was challenged to visit a single mother to find out how hard life was for her.
"It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16."
Then the story about "Lazy Robert" hit the news. The able bodied man admitted to spending the last dozen years on welfare instead "of taking a demeaning job, like working at a fast-food restaurant." He is quoted as saying, "Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life."

It never seems to dawn on these idlers that the money they get from "the government" comes their neighbors that work for a living. They only get this money because they don't have to directly steal from their neighbors. The political apparatus gets producers to support the likes of Carina and Lazy Robert via taxation under threat of imprisonment.

For the idlers the system works like magic. Insert the all powerful state between the workers and the idlers, and the stigma of being a thieving scoundrel magically disappears.

Economist David Friedman explains how this works in this post:
"Start with a society in which individuals are mostly reliant on themselves—if you don't find some way to earn an income you are likely to go hungry, or at least have to rely on charity and lead a much harder life than if you had a job. In that society, someone on charity will be seen as a failure, by himself and others, which is a strong reason to avoid being in that situation.
"Add a reasonably generous welfare state. For a while, perhaps a generation or so, the old attitudes persist. As time passes, it becomes clearer and clearer that going on welfare is not evidence of failure, hence not something to be ashamed of. It may not pay as well as a  job, but it leaves you a lot more leisure and a lot more control over your own life; if you want to go off to Prague or Barcelona for a week or two you are free to  do so, provided you don't mind doing it on the cheap.  As more and more people see welfare as a reasonable choice, attitudes change. Once the old attitudes are entirely gone, you have a society where anyone who prefers a life of leisure with a moderately restricted income takes it, leaving fewer and fewer people to pay the taxes to support that life."
Working Danes have been stunned to discover just how many of their fellow citizens are opting to live on the public dole indefinitely. The NYT article notes that in a dramatic shift from a couple of decades ago, "only 3 of Denmark’s 98 municipalities will have a majority of residents working in 2013."

Danes are also realizing that their ability to afford their system of public benefits is eroding. With steadily fewer people working, the employed working fewer hours, and the population aging, the balance of producers to beneficiaries is swiftly tilting to the point of being unsustainable. Danes are realizing that under socialism you eventually really do run out of other people's money (see Margaret Thatcher quote).

The Danes aren't scrapping their social welfare system, but since the Carina episode came to light they have been trimming programs and developing policies designed to move more people from welfare to work. One legislator says that the social welfare system "has done a lot of good, but we have been unwilling to talk about the negative side. For a very long time it has been taboo to talk about the Carinas."

What is funny is that in the U.S. we are going exactly the opposite direction, expanding our unsustainable social network even as the Danes and others scale back. Or, it would be funny if the eventual results didn't promise so many problems.

We Americans have come to worship the democratic system rather than the liberty that it is supposed to support. We often fall under a spell where we romantically think that people tend to vote according to their highest ideals rather than operating under the same self-interested motivations that pervade most of their other decisions.

In reality, we shouldn't be surprised when people that are beneficiaries of government largess vote according to their own interests, especially when the donors are a mass of faceless others or when the beneficiaries themselves have been forced to pay into the system. You see, we owe it to them. They are entitled to these benefits, regardless of the imbalance of payments to receipts.

A quick look at all of the democratic systems around the globe that are tyrannical should disabuse us of the notion that democracy brings liberty. Rather, democracy can be one symptom of systems that have higher liberty. But since it can obviously also coexist with tyranny, we should not assume that democracy leads to liberty.

As more people become government beneficiaries, more people vote to create and expand government benefits. When the number of beneficiaries voting themselves benefits from others exceeds the number of those whose interests run counter, the system is on its way to collapse. The fact that this is accomplished democratically and without warfare does not mean that it is not tyrannical.

Danes have seen the writing on the wall and are now working to stave off the impending collapse of the social welfare system. The U.S., not so much.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The LDS Church Is Non-Committal Regarding BSA's Proposed Policy Change

Having written a series of posts about potential changes in the Boy Scouts current policy against allowing gay members, I felt a need to address the LDS Church's recent announcement regarding the proposal that will come before the BSA National Council later this month.

The LDS Church is the BSA's largest sponsor. Thus, everyone paying attention to this issue has keenly watched for the church's response to both the original executive board proposal and the current proposal.

The church, for its part, has kept itself aloof from the matter. When the original proposal was made (see AP article) the church made little comment other than to make it clear that it was not seeking to influence the issue and that no one should assume that they knew how the church would respond.

Some were frustrated by the church's detachment on this issue. Those charged with formulating future BSA policy, other sponsoring organizations, and local volunteers were all looking to the church for leadership. More than a few scouting volunteers I know were absolutely certain that the church was firmly opposed to any change in the BSA's membership policy.

I was far less certain of that supposition. As I noted in my January post, the church has developed a new understanding regarding homosexuality and has made it clear that those dealing with same-sex attraction are welcome to fully participate in the church, as long as they remain chaste. (Which to the church means abstaining from all sexual relations outside of the legal marriage of a man and a woman.)

The current BSA policy poses particular challenges for the church's present stance. How can a bishop, I wonder, tell a worthy boy that deals with same-sex attraction that he is welcome to attend priesthood meeting on Sunday, but also tell him that he cannot participate in scouting activities, which constitute the activity arm of the Aaronic Priesthood?

The BSA recently proposed to drop its membership ban on gay youth under 18, but to retain the ban for adult leaders that "are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA."

The proposal emphasizes that "any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting," and that all BSA members must recognize their obligation to God. The members of the organization's national council will vote on this proposal during the council's annual meeting that begins on May 20.

Following the announcement of the proposal, the LDS Church promised only to consider the matter. Late last week the church issued the statement linked above. Many media outlets reported that the statement meant that the church supports the proposed change.

I think that exuberant media representatives failed to pay close attention to the church's carefully worded statement. It praises the process and some of the elements of the proposal. It notes that the church took pains to avoid influencing the process. But the statement offers no clear approval of the new policy; only some vague hint that the church will likely not dump scouting if the proposal is adopted. The statement doesn't sound like any kind of disapproval, so it is easy to see how media reps interpreted it as an approval.

It seems that the church has felt that the best way to deal with the current controversy has been to distance itself and to allow others to make the determination by which it will be required to abide as a BSA sponsor. This leaves members of the national council free to vote their consciences without any hint of coercion by the BSA's largest sponsor.

While others have called the proposal incoherent because it treats gay youth and gay adults differently (see my 4/23 post), the church praises this feature, which recognizes "that Scouting exists to serve and benefit youth rather than Scout leaders." The proposal's renewed emphasis on abstinence from any kind of sexual activity for BSA youth members provides "a single standard of moral purity for youth in the program."

These two parts of the statement comport to a certain degree with the church's current policy regarding members with homosexual tendencies. The church now teaches that experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction is not a sin, but that engaging in homosexual activity is (see LDS Church website about gays).

The church addresses the issue of BSA membership for gay adults by noting that scouting is a youth program rather than a venue for asserting the rights of adults. But this does little to address the observant and chaste LDS adult that happens to be gay.

It will be interesting to see how the national council votes later this month. I still cannot envision a rosy future if the proposal is adopted. As I noted, as soon as a gay young man that has been an outstanding scout turns 18 and wishes to apply to become a scouting leader there will be fireworks. Activist groups will have a test case and it will be the perfect appeal to emotion. This could bring down the ban on gay adults.

In the meantime, activists on both sides of the issue will have a heyday with the bifurcated policy. Many, both inside and outside of scouting, will have difficulty understanding the church's behavior-based stance on the issue. They will not comprehend how same-sex attraction and sexual behavior can be neatly separated.

Gay rights activists have already proven that they can cause the BSA financial and social pain. Having obtained part of what they want, they will likely step up activities designed to bring even greater pressure to bear on the Scouts.

On the plus side, LDS bishops won't have to kick boys that experience feelings of same-sex attraction out of their scouting units. But they will have to make sure that they don't call any overtly gay adults to scouting leadership positions.

But the future still doesn't look rosy if the proposal fails. The current policy will remain the unchanged, but the BSA and its sponsors will not. Having raised this issue has already wrought changes in both the BSA and public attitudes regarding the BSA that cannot now be undone.

Gay activists are likely to employ their proven tools to inflict even greater pain on the BSA. If they cannot get the organization to change, they will seek its destruction. Regardless of how the vote goes, this is the beginning of more, not fewer problems for the BSA and its sponsors.

I can't really say why the LDS Church chose to take such a hands-off approach on an issue of such great importance. Was it an attempt to maintain long-term alliances with other scouting sponsors without harming more recent outreach efforts? Or maybe it is simply a Catch-22 situation where any potential result is onerous and where maintaining distance probably offers the least worst outcome. Perhaps this will become clear over time.

In any case, the next episode in this story begins when the BSA National Council makes its decision in a few weeks. Like all other BSA sponsors, the LDS Church will be affected by any decision that is made at that meeting. It will take years to fully understand the impact of whatever is decided.