Monday, March 30, 2009

An Amateur's Partial Comparison of Health Care Systems: Canda and England v. America

The following are some, certainly not all, relevant facts related to the discussion of America current health care coverage crisis.

The average family doctor in America earns about $190,000 per year. The average for all doctors comes out to around the mid-$250,000's.

The average family doctor in Canada earns about $202,000 per year. Specialists, like in America, earn closer to $300,000 per year.

The average general practitioner in England earns somewhere around $160,000-$200,000 per year.

The average student loan debt for doctors coming out of medical school in America is about $140,000.

The average student loan debt for doctors coming out of medical school in Canada is around $80,000 - $100,000.

The average student loan debt for doctors coming out of medical school in England is around $30,000. The lower student loan debts are due, in part, to the fact that the government provides much greater aid to medical students, and university students in general.

The average emergency room wait time in America is about an hour. That is just to get in to see the doctor. Treatment likely takes another one to two hours.

The average time it takes to register in an emergency room and be completely treated in England is four hours.

Canada has begun implementing England's four hour program.

You'll see from this link that the average monthly cost of cancer treatment in America is in the $3,000 to $8,000 range, while the total cost is in the $20,000 to $50,000 range.

In Canada and England the total cost of cancer treatment, as well as any treatment for any other illness or disease, as well as the cost of prescription medications, is $0.

In America, there are around 1.4 million new cases of cancer each year. Practically every family will, at some point, have to deal with cancer.

The median income in America is about $45,000. Personal income tax on that salary is about $6,000, leaving the median American with about $39,000. The average annual insurance premiums for a family of four is about $12,700. Lets assume that the employer covers about half that, which is generous, and the family pays, out of pocket, about $7,000 annually for insurance premiums, leaving about $33,000. This premiums only. If there were a serious medically problem the family would likely have an additional few thousand dollars in deductibles.

In England, that median American family making $45,000 would be taxed at a 22 percent. Leaving $35,100. There are no insurance premiums or deductibles.

Once the income starts to rise it is difficult to compare. In England the tax rate goes up to 40% at a fairly lowly income level (around $50,000), which would not be the case in the United States even with a universal health care system as England has socialized many more programs than the United States. But I would imagine, again, that the costs of health care under our current system would roughly equal the increased tax burden under a single-payer system.

What you see, then, is that in a system where every person has access to free medical care, the doctors are paid about the same, but with a lighter student loan debt load, and with slightly longer waits in emergency rooms. There would actually be more financial incentive for young people to become doctors than there is in America.

The majority of American families would spend less on health coverage while those with higher incomes would likely spend about the same or slightly more than they do now, factoring in all the variables.

Families would be free to go to any doctor or hospital for the care they need. The increased simplicity and universality of those systems would lessen the emotional and mental burden on families that are suffering medical or financial problems. People would be more likely to seek preventative help and treat early symptoms instead of waiting until the problem becomes more dire and more expensive.

England and Canada, and every other industrialized nation for that matter (we're the only one without a single-payer system), have certainly not created perfect systems. Polls show that no country is happy with their health care system, but that Americans are the least happy. I'm not sure a perfect system exists, but we should at least start with one that covers everyone and go from there.

The Mormon liberal argument for government intervention in certain cases is that there are serious systemic problems in our society and in some cases the government is best equipped to be used as a tool to combat those problems. The opposing argument, an argument I can understand and do not just dismiss blithely, is that each individual taxpayer should be able to choose how her money is spent on charities and social betterment.

The problem, though, is that this argument does not work for the health care crisis. You cannot give some pocket health care to the panhandler. You cannot go down to the health insurance kitchen and distribute health care to the poor. You cannot anonymously drop off a basket of health care coverage to your struggling neighbor. If we want everyone covered, and I think that should be our goal, then we have to look to institutions who can guarantee health care coverage for all by spreading the risk over the entire population, not just the most healthy people that the insurance companies will accept.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Deseret News' Overt Bias

John McCain won Utah 62-34%. This is not good for Democrats, but as noted earlier, it is an improvement. So about one third of Utahns chose Pres. Obama. About four months later, and about two months after he took office, 51% of Utahns now approve of the job Pres. Obama is doing. They are not apples to apples, but that is 17% increase for Obama in Utah.

I would have guessed, in a state that has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, and it has never really been close in that time, that Pres. Obama would be happy with a 34% approval rating in Utah. It would have really seemed greedy to ask for much more than 40%. But here is a poll that shows over half of Utahns approve the job he is doing.

In contrast, Pres. Obama garnered 53% of the popular vote nationwide and has an approval rating hovering around 60%, which is about a 7% increase. So his rise in approval in Utah outpaces the country as a whole, which of course has a lot to do with how low he started in Utah.

So how does the Deseret News report this fairly astonishing news?
Maybe it's the sign of the times, or just greater partisanship today than in 2001, but Democratic President Barack Obama starts his presidency with a much lower job approval rating among Utahns than did Republican George W. Bush eight years ago.
Okay. Comparing the favorability of a conservative president to a liberal president in arguably the most conservative state in the country seems ridiculous, especially the numbers of the conservative president before he became the most unpopular president since Truman (that includes Nixon!) because of his disastrous policies which knee-capped the economy and our foreign policy. But, okay, let's see where they're going with this.
A new poll for the Deseret News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates finds that only 51 percent of Utahns approve of the job Obama is doing.
Only? A liberal democrat has over 50% approval in ultra-conservative Utah and DNews says only? This is crazy.
And half of all Utahns don't like the Obama/Congress measures to stimulate the economy, Jones found.
But half do! That is amazing, why report it so negatively? And this isn't just some throw-away issue, this is the defining issue of his presidency and by far the most important issue to the nation. After some down-played caveats that can't be that important to the analysis like, Utah is ultra-conservative, Obama did do better than Kerry, and other unimportant things:
Even so, only 60 percent of Salt Lake County residents approve of the job Obama is doing, Jones found in a survey conducted last week of 400 adults statewide.
ONLY?! Salt Lake County barely, just barely, went for Pres. Obama over McCain. The suburbs, which make up the large majority of the county, are still conservative. Pres. Obama's job approval rating in Utah's most populous and influential county are affirmatively extremely impressive, particularly given the dynamics, and the DNews trips all over itself to make sure to down-play it as much as possible. This is not journalism.
Of course, Obama is facing tougher economic times than did Bush eight years ago — a recession the worst since the Great Depression with rising unemployment, business failures and home foreclosures.
But that doesn't really matter, does it?
Obama's 51 percent approval rating in Utah is about 10 percentage points below his approval ratings found in national surveys conducted over the last several weeks, according to
That's more like it. Let's make absolute sure to cast this in the most negative light possible. How about Congress?
And Utah's 34 percent approval rating for Congress also is a lower number than measured nationally. reports a 39 percent congressional approval rating recorded nationally in a March 5 Gallup poll, and a 36 percent approval rating in a National Public Radio survey earlier this month.
Gasp! A full 2% lower number? From the most conservative state in the country? Shouldn't we, instead of touting how low these numbers are, actually show surprise at how high they are? This is bush league reporting that does not reflect the realities of Utah at all. It shows no critically thinking. It is clearly just written to further the DNews' conservative agenda and it is pathetic.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Optimism from the Left in Utah

Mormons are not simply sheep following an unquestioned authority, and I refuse to believe that Utahns are either. I also refuse to believe that Republicans unerringly satisfy every political urge of Utahns. Despite my optimism, Utah is devastatingly one-party dominated.

In the 2009 legislative session, the Deseret News reports that Republicans sponsored ten out of every eleven bills passed in both houses. Democratic bills were almost universally rejected, and typically in committee without a chance for even a vote. The trend is getting worse and worse every year. For all intents and purposes, it is a Republican-only state legislature. Republicans outnumber Democrats in both houses 74-30.

The D-News also reports that the legislature has a 64% approval rating. That is a great number, to be sure, but does not square with the 90%+ domination of bills passed this session. What's more, Gov. Huntsman has a historically high approval rating of 84%. The governor and the legislature have some serious disagreements, however, and the governor seems to be winning the public relations war.

The governor has Utah involved in the Western Climate Initiative with other western states and Canadian provinces in order to combat global warming. He also is being aggressive with state resources in preserving energy. Republican legislators continue to deny that global warming even exists and are doing everything they can to get Utah out of the WCI. The governor supports gay rights and civil unions, the legislature rejected the very mild Common Ground Initiative bills that sought basic civil protections for gays. The governor supports the stimulus and will take the money offered from the Obama administration to create jobs, while the legislature opposes it and would reject that money. The governor recently made a very public point of claiming that the Republicans in the U.S. Congress were inconsequential and out of ideas. He is distinctly more left than any Republican politician in Utah, than any recent governor, and arguably just as far left than Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson.

John McCain won Utah 62-34%, in contrast to 2004 where Pres. Bush beat Kerry 72-26%. That is an 18 percent shift to the left.

Now, given all of that, and given that Gov. Huntsman has the highest approval ratings of any governor in the history of the state, a much higher rating that the legislature, I have a lot of optimism that Utah will soon start to even out. That the more centrist and left-leaning Utahns will start to have a more prominent voice in Utah politics. That this trend of complete and total control of the legislature which is at odds with the underlying sentiment of Utahns will start to reverse course. That an "R" next to a name will not mean near automatic election. That Utahns will start to demand a legislature that more closely represents their views.

This is a little ways away still, I admit. I would wager that if John Huntsman held his exact same views but was a Democrat (and he honestly isn't that far off from being a centrist democrat like Utah needs), he would be soundly defeated. He would not stand a chance. So there needs to be a significant mindset shift in Utah.

So the Democratic party has to start running candidates who are more centrist for statewide office, more like Jim Matheson, Peter Corroon, and even John Huntsman than Rocky Anderson. If they do that, then they will find that Utah democrats, independents, and disenfranchised republicans will view it as a breath of fresh air, an appealing alternative to the same old ultra-conservative Republicans they are used to voting in, feelings that Gov. Huntsman is arousing right now. We can take advantage of the shift to the left in Utah by offering candidates that appeal to their more moderate views. Ironically, Gov. Huntsman is leading the way.

There is a lot to be optimistic about in Utah politics from the left, despite the rut we seem to be in recently. It is time to dig in.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Six Years of War

Today marks the six year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. The arguments for and against this war are scratched all over the internet (including this site), newspapers, magazines, and any other media of expression. So I will not go over them again. I did go back and read some talks and articles written by our church leaders about war, however, and wanted to make sure to make them available to anyone who is interested.

President Hinckley's talk called War and Peace, given about six months after the beginning of the Iraq War, is a must read. He seems to genuinely struggle with the Iraq War. He, of course, glories in peace and condemns war generally, but adds that is personal feelings tend towards the conclusion that the war is like the war that Captain Moroni fought to protect their families and liberties. He makes clear to note that those are his personal feelings and that the members, being worldwide and diverse, have a right to protest and oppose the war.

Elder Oaks gave a talk called World Peace in 1990. In it he proclaims that peace isn't the absence of war, it is the affirmative existance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While reducing war and the opportunity of war reduces its horrible costs (in terms of lives lost, the growth of hatred, money spent), true peace comes from living and spreading the gospel of peace.

President Marion G. Romney, in The Price of Peace, noting the first and second world wars, stated that we are failing miserably at peace because we are not paying the proper price. I love this quote and I think it sums up his message:
Now, while I feel that the many people of the earth today are so infected with the works of the flesh that they do not recognize them as such, and, therefore, many people are not possessed of the moral courage to pay the price of peace, still we should not, Jonah-like, sulk under a vine if some of them should turn to apply the principles of the Prince of Peace and find its joyful rewards. On the contrary, we should rejoice, for to proclaim peace is the sole purpose of our life’s mission. We should find no pleasure in the fact that men’s strivings for peace have proved ineffectual. I wage no war against their efforts. Many of them are doing the best they can in the light they have. Nevertheless, I can see no justification for us, who have the clear light of the revealed gospel of Christ, to spend our lives stumbling around through the mists following the uncertain glimmer of a flickering candle lighted by the wisdom of men. Rather, we should devote our energies to spreading the true light, and leave the mists to those who do not see that light.
If we leave the machinations of war and peace to our hope in human intelligence, we will fail. The only lasting peace comes from spreading the peace that the Savior proclaimed and personally living its precepts.

There are other pronouncements and talks given on the subject of war and peace that are easy to find. I think my thoughts are perhaps best summed up by this quote from President Joseph F. Smith, speaking during WWI:
For years it has been held that peace comes only by preparation for war; the present conflict should prove that peace comes only by preparing for peace, through training the people in righteousness and justice, and selecting rulers who respect the righteous will of the people.
Are we now a nation that is preparing for war or preparing for peace? What about us as individual members of the church, are we preparing ourselves and our children for war or peace? Are we a nation that rejoices in the gospel of peace or the hope that human ingenuity alone can bring peace? Is the Iraq War another example of "stumbling around through the mists" looking for peace where it was certain not to be found? I believe it was.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Role of Religion in Democracy

There are more atheists and non-practicing religious-types in the Democratic Party than in the Republican party. I attribute this mainly to the issues of homosexuality and abortion. That is my guess because I don't see anything of particular religious or spiritual appeal to typically conservative ideas such as less government regulation over the free market, states' rights (which is really only nominally an issue anymore, anyway), less welfare, more proactive military, less environmental protection, and a preference for management over labor.

I've said many times, and I will continue to beat that drum, there is a place for good religious people in both parties, or in neither party. But this whole idea of religion getting mixed up in politics concerns me. It reminds me of a scripture from the New Testament, Mark 12:14-17:
And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?

Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.

And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.

And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
Does this scripture imply that there should be a clear delineation between religion and politics? I think a reasonable interpretation of this passage is that there should. That the things of God are too important and sacred to mingle with politics and, therefore, should be held apart. The requirements for ruling a nation, state, or city are not aligned with the requirements for running a religion. The requirements for being a good citizen are not aligned with requirements for being a good member of one's faith. Civic duty and religious duty are not the same. That does not mean that good citizens and the religious do not share common attributes, they do, it means that at the most fundamental level there are serious differences that cannot be transplanted into the other.

While democracy does not have one universal definition nor a universal application, there are usually two shared characteristics. First, all citizens have equal access to power, typically by vote. The idea is, according to Aristotle, "equality according to number, not worth." Second, all citizens enjoy recognized rights and liberties. Religion is an organized worship of deity through a set of beliefs and practices.

Democracy and religion have different roots and different goals. Religion is typically hierarchical where members seek guidance and knowledge from a person in authority, such as a prophet, pope, or imam. Democracy is of the people and has typically been born in revolution from oppressive authority. Those with democratic authority are chosen by the people, while those with religious authority are chosen by God. In democracy the rules and laws are enacted by the people, in religion they come from God. Religions typically require its adherents to follow the civic law and then follow an additional, higher law.

So what is the role of religion in democracy? Is it to impose our belief system and our holding to a higher law on others as a matter of civic law? Is it to disqualify those seeking public office based on religion, or lack thereof? Polls show that Americans want a deeply religious person for president. They show that Americans are not ready for a Mormon president. They show that Americans would rather have a homosexual president than an atheist. There is only one member of Congress, that is 545 members, who is openly atheistic. If a person is willing to uphold and defend the Constitution, and represent our civic interests as our representative, why is it that we require the person to also adhere to the higher standards of our religions?

Last month I posted a long quote from Brigham Young about science. One of the key ideas was that science should play a central role in our government. One of the reasons for this is that government should never make arbitrary decisions. Arbitrary decisions are more likely to oppress in order to satisfy a prejudice. An example is the Black Codes which oppressed blacks for nearly one hundred years. Those laws were enacted arbitrarily, without any science, sociology, or studies to back them up.

One of the basic tenets of religion is faith. We cannot prove that God exists, and we cannot prove that God expects us to live according to certain higher standards than our civil laws. There is no science or study that can show we are right. The only proof is the quality of our lives. So when religion attempts to dictate to society, I think it makes bad government. The standards with which we live a religion cannot be the same standards with which we run a democracy. The decisions made by a religion, based on faith, would seem too arbitrary to a person who does not belong to that religion or to no religion at all. That would open the door for laws against religion that were similarly based on arbitrary standards. If we instead only made laws based on objective facts we would assure equality and justice.

The influence of the religious qua religious should be through example and missionary work, not legislation and lobbying. If we have to resort to legislating our ideals and beliefs it probably means we are not being as effective as we should through the means that the Savior taught us to spread the Gospel.

No one is compelled to live by our higher standards. It is always a choice to make, which we as the religious can make more appealing by our quality of life. If we want true influence politically and culturally we will start really living up to our high standards. Treat other kindly (especially those with whom we disagree), forgive trespasses quickly, be fair in honest in our employment, accept each person has a child of God.

One final thing I think is imperative for the religious to do in order to be good citizens in a democracy is to be completely open with our beliefs and our history. No one expects us to be perfect, or to have an unblemished past, but they do expect us to be honest about it, and I think that is the least we can do. We should be completely comfortable discussing sensitive issues such as the role of women and minorities in our church's present and past, polygamy, and any other fact about our church. If we can be open and honest about ourselves, while not violating that which is sacred, it will be easier for us to have positive influences without feeling it necessary to legislate our beliefs.

Of course we cannot compartmentalize our religious beliefs. We cannot and should not leave them at home when we go to vote or run for public office. What we can do is make sure that we are not using the weight of our institution, as opposed to the weight of our individual commitment to our faith, to influence public policy. Only in very rare circumstances, such as laws that bear directly on our Constitutionally guaranteed right to practice our religion, should we do otherwise.

Monday, March 16, 2009

If it's Illegal, continued...

In the previous post, I outlined my belief that making a particular act illegal does not automatically invoke public adherence. Although the motivation for many laws are justifiable, too many of these laws are directed at the symptom rather than the illness.

To reiterate this point, look again at laws against phone usage will driving. The impetus behind such a law is to protect the fundamental right of life, as in the life of everybody put in danger by irresponsible drivers. Despite widespread agreement that such a law is adventitious in promoting safety, there will continue to be widespread disregard for this regulation, just as there has been for similar laws - drunk driving, drowsy driving, distracted driving, and delinquent driving. The symptom of reckless endangerment of others may be punished by stricter laws, but the illness of self centered concern remains untouched. To be ameliorated, there must be more oversight into the education of drivers. Teach them of societal responsibility, of potential consequences, and of unselfish concern. If people are inherently good, as many will argue, then they will make the right decision.

The same logic can be applied to abortion. The two conflicting political arguments for adjustment of current laws are that the mother has the right to choose a safe and legal abortion, and the sanctity and rights of an unborn child. The motivation behind both of these movements is actually very similar - freedom of choice. Amazingly, the two ideologies are not mutually exclusive. In other words, both arguments are correct. The mother does have the right to choose a safe and legal abortion, and the unborn child is a precious miracle that must be protected. The confounding difference is that the first puts the individual rights of the mother above all other virtue, while the second upholds the ambiguous definitions of "life."

The individual right of choice is just that, and individual right. Were the mother the only person involved in the decision of abortion, then she indeed has the right to choose what she does with her own body. What is overlooked is 1) the freedom of choice was already exercised when coitus was chosen, 2) the unborn child can not be ignored. Obviously there may be extenuating circumstances on a moral level that would result in a decision of abortion. These have been addressed according to LDS doctrine. Read more here, here, and here.

The ambiguous definition of what is alive, viable, or cognisant, must also be addressed. According to current medical technology and opinion, it is impossible for a fetus to remain alive and grow, if removed from the uterus during the first trimester. Hence, before this time the unborn child is not "alive" and is therefore not entitled to the same rights as other human beings. Others advocate that the moment of fertilization is when life begins.

I feel that both of these arguments are flawed. If 22 weeks is the benchmark of life, then why is it that a fetus has independent circulation, detectable brain function, and response to stimuli at much earlier time points? If fertilization is the only requirement for life, then why is it impossible to produce a completely extrauterine child? I've commented on conception before, but I would also like to add that if fertilization is truly the moment that life is viable, then several forms of birth control would need to be rethought.

Now that we've explored the two sides of the abortion debate, a point needs to be made. Arguing about the details of mother and child's rights, debating the moment of viability, and deliberating on the legality of abortion only serve to detract from the real issues: Life is precious and sacred. All individuals have the freedom of choice, but not the freedom from consequences.

Abortion itself is a minor symptom of a significantly greater social epidemic. Making abortion illegal will do little to ameliorate those fundamental problems; identically, making if easier to "empty life's creative chamber" is not a solution. If laws are to be made, these should be addressed at the cause that lead to contemplating abortion - "problems such as poverty, injustice, intolerance, ignorance, immorality, and selfishness."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

If It's Illegal, Then They'll Stop

I am extremely tired of the argument that making some activity illegal will automatically result in people terminating said behavior. Such an idea is fundamentally contradictory to free agency, and a completely asinine approach to effectively modifying an individuals conduct.

I am not an anarchist. In contrast, I strongly advocate a government, and social oversight. The basic difference I see between the "left" and the "right" is in the degree of individual freedom and personal responsibility. The left favors personal freedom, with the belief that individual accountability and social liability will guide a person to the "correct" choice. On the other hand, the "right" favors more societal order, with the belief that generalized mandates and social regulation will guide a person to the "correct" choice. I will definitely argue that a majority of the "correct" choices actually overlap, but I disagree that both methods are equally effective.

As I drove into work I was amazed by the selfishness of many drivers around me. The speed limit says 65, but only the far right lane adheres to it; the "texters" briefly checking the road in front of them every 2 or 3 minutes; and the multiple lane changes without prior notification. Although only 2 out of 3 of the above are explicitly illegal, the third is not far behind. More importantly, I can't help but wonder, if so many people have such blatant disregard for two laws, then why not the third?

I agree with a ban on text messaging while driving, because it is put in place to protect the lives of other people. I also imagine that it will decrease the persistent use of texting behind the wheel. However, just like laws against speeding and unsafe driving, I am absolutely positive that it will not have the overwhelming result of stopping even a majority of people from texting. The fatal flaw is that people can still choose not to obey. And these are the easy and obvious laws! It is not difficult to slow down, signal, and wait 10 minutes to type ROFL. We are asked to obey these laws so as to decrease the chance that we, or other drives become one of the 120K+ deaths per year. It is the same reason that, by law, you must wear a seat belt.

If you drive a car, get in an accident as a result of careless/distracted/drunk/unsafe driving, and someone dies, it is either murder or suicide.

Another thought came to me at the pharmacy as I picked up my doctor prescribed, personalized bottle of medicine. It had my name on it, my doctors name, and the name of the pharmacy on the bottle. My wife's name wasn't there, my dog's name wasn't there, and I'm positive that Jake's name wasn't there either. It is a Class A Misdemeanor for taking medicine prescribed to someone else. It is also a Class A misdemeanor to give or sell your own prescribed medicine to someone else. That's for first time offenders. The second time one gets caught, the offense jumps to a Class D felony. Amazingly, despite the substantial consequences and clear unlawfulness of prescription drug abuse, Utah ranks number 1 in the nation by percentage.

So where exactly is the evidence that suggests that making something illegal is that great of a deterrent?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Obama Budget - Ending Income Inequality

SO got the ball rolling on President Obama's budget below, and I'd like to take a look at another aspect. The gap between the rich and the poor in America is the largest it has ever been. The chart below from the Heritage Foundation begins to tell the story:

This may be hard to read (you can find it online here), but the top one-fifth of income earners in America own about one-half of the wealth. The bottom two-fifths combined own about one-eighth of the wealth. But it is even more extreme, as the following chart from Think Progress shows:

This may again be hard to read (and you can find it online here), but you will see that the top one percent of Americans own twenty percent of the wealth, those between the top five and one percent own about fifteen percent of the wealth, and those between the top ten and five percent own about twelve percent of the wealth. This is the classic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The powerful are consolidating their power and the powerless are losing power. We cannot seriously call this either freedom or democracy.

The budget that President Obama proposed recently is the first major step shrinking the gap and assuring equality, opportunity, true freedom, and the American dream for every American. As SO mentioned in his post, the budget cuts taxes for 95% of Americans and allows the Bush tax cuts to expire on those making over $250,000 a year, which essentially puts the tax scheme back to Reagan-era levels.

The budget makes it easier for people to get unemployment benefits. It also temporarily increases food stamps and offers assistance to low income families to pay utility bills. Remember, over four million people have lost their jobs in the past year. We cannot simply ignore the fact that America is the wealthiest nation on earth while all around us are good, hard-working people struggling to put food on the table and pay the heating bill.

As for education, the great equalizer in America, the budget offers a new $2,500 credit to make college more affordable and replaces the old college student loan program with a new program run through the Department of Education which makes more money available for cheaper, including more Pell Grant money. My wife and I would never have made it through college with two bachelors degrees and one graduate degree without government assistance, and we are more than happy now to contribute to a system that allows expanded reach for others that are in the same situation we were in.

A substantial amount of money also goes to preschool programs, raising academic standards and test scores, and performance-based pay for teachers.

One of the greatest forces driving the separation of the rich and poor is also addressed in the budget: health care reform. Not only are the rich more wealthy (clearly) and more powerful, they are more healthy. While the poor delay medical care because of the cost and lose more work hours because of illness, the rich have ample health care opportunities. The budget lays out over $630 billion over the next ten years for the health care overhaul while suggesting guiding principles for Congress.

America can only be great if we are all great together. Opposing unchecked free market principles that only reward the elitist wealthy at the expense of the remaining 95% of the population is not socialism, it is a way to ensure freedom to all Americans in reality, not just in principle. The budget proposed by President Obama begins our progress toward more equality for all our citizens.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Piece of Budget Pie

There are so many facets to President Obama's proposed budget that we will have to focus on each independently. First out of the gate is what common vernacular has deemed "cap and trade."

The motivation behind "cap and trade" is to reduce US emissions from carbon to well below the level set in 2005. To be precise, the goal is to drop the pollutions to 14% below former levels. As altruism is to often only the stuff of fairy tales, a more effective means of motivating businesses to reduce carbon emissions is by a system of taxation. Essentially, the government will auction off the chance to pollute. A business can purchase pollution access for some dollar amount per ton of CO2 to be released into our atmosphere. The government will limit the amount of pollution allowed (the cap part), and in the event that a company has leftover, unused pollution units, then can sell these to another company (the trade part).

The first, and most obvious, upside is the limit of CO2 pumped into Mother Nature. I don't honestly know how much of a difference this is going to make on her at this point, but everything we can do to ameliorate the disease, we must do. The second upside is what happens to the revenue. Conservative (as in cautious, not Republican) estimates suggest that the system will bring in 645 billion dollars over the next 10 years. A significant portion of this money will be used to fund research in alternative sources of energy, while some of the money will be given back to the consumer in the form of tax credits and refunds for transitioning to energy efficiency.

Oops. You caught me. I said it - "given back" to the consumer. The reality of the situation is that it is very likely that electricity, gas, and other utility costs will increase to offset the taxation of pollution. One report claims that the energy bills will jump by as much as 7%, and that the average tax will jump from 1,100 to 1,437 by 2015.

While I do concede that there will be an increase in the price of energy in the future, I want to break down these numbers to show just how dramatic they really are.

7% increase on energy bills. If you pay $50 per month throughout the year, then the bill will increase by $3.50 each month for a grand total of $42 per year.

Average tax to jump to $1,437 in 2015. Considering that inflation is hovering around 3% and will get the "average" up to $1,313, the additional $124 doesn't seem as significant. The other confounding factor that dramatic effect always omits from these kind of statements, is the definition of "average." Mathematically speaking, one takes all of the numbers in a set, adds the value together, and then divides it by the total number in the set. This analysis is great when the values are distributed equally above and below the average. For example, let's say that 10 different people pay taxes. Seven of them pay $20, one pays nothing, one pays $45 dollars, and one pays $2000. The average of the set is $218.50, but the majority of people pay $20.

The same it is with averages so often cited in reporting (by both factions). In the case of the increase in the average amount of tax is that there will be a return to the pre-Bush tax rate for the most wealthy from 33% to 36%. More later, but this return to 36% was decided on by the people that initially came up with the break. It was meant to be temporary, and thankfully it will be.

So back to the main issue. You will pay more for coal derived power in the future. Your money will be invested in developing alternative forms of energy production, and more efficient consumption of energy. The increase in rates is therefore a transient event - as alternative sources of energy become available, and as our ridiculously inefficient machines become more efficient, the cost of energy will come down. Minimal sacrifice now, maximum return later.

The alternative is to not have a cap and trade, not to invest in alternative energy, not to stop polluting, not to become more efficient, and not to save anything.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Save Your Energy

This article from the most recent National Geographic has probably sent me down the path of action, instead of just scheming, in terms of energy conservation. Any headway I've made in energy conservation up until now has always been within my comfort zone. I believe it is time, though, to start conservation tactics that take us out of our comfort zone.

For instance, we have a very nice gas dryer, excepting the fact that I recently broke the selector knob and now we have to use a pair of pliers on it. I know that natural gas emits far less greenhouse gas (GHG, for the environmentally cool) than coal or oil, but I can't help but think that air-drying our clothes outside during the hot, dry Utah summers would be the better approach. Not necessarily an easier approach, in fact it may be a pain in butt, but the upside in terms of saving emissions and money in the form of lower bills could be tremendous.

I have perhaps the world's crappiest gas lawnmower. My goal was to upgrade this spring to a new one, but I have recently become aware of a rising tide of reel, or push, mowers. Yes, the old push mower, as seen here . . .

. . . is now hip again, as seen here:

He's happy because it cuts just about was well (unless you are trying to pulverize twigs and leaves), it emits zero GHG (as opposed to gas-powered mowers which emit 11 times more per hour than your average car), it is way more quiet (you can now listen to your iPod whilst mowing), and he happens to be getting in shape because it is powered by human muscle.

A huge amount of energy is wasted by appliances, no kidding, but specifically appliances that are turned off but still plugged in, or in standby mode. This is called Vampire Energy and is costing you hundreds of dollars a year and emitting, on a national level, millions of tons of GHG into the atmosphere. So the first step, of course, is to turn off those unused appliances like computers, TV's, lamps, DVD players, and Wii's. The next step is to start unplugging. This has the potential to become extremely annoying, I imagine, and I'm not sure I want my little kids to have to start plugging in the TV to watch it in the morning (though the TV is the most blood-thirsty vampire of them all), but the positives once again outweigh the negatives.

My dream, by the way, is to install a solar panel on the garage roof. There is significant headway that needs to be made first in terms of marital relations in my particular case, but this has the potential to be a big deal. There are significant tax credits on both the state and federal levels for renewable energy purchases, including solar panels. This is one that probably won't save you a ton of money, though, in the short term. Even over the long term, say 5-10 years, it may be a wash. But think of the satisfaction of not relying on the grid that is powered, depending on where you live, almost exclusively by dirty coal-fired power plants. Think of the tons and tons of GHG that you won't be emitting, instead relying on the energy provided by the great Giver of Clean and Renewable and Free to Everyone Energy, the sun. Think of being able to turn on your lamp when everyone else on the block has lost their power because some teenager threw his shoes on the powerline down the street. You probably wouldn't even have to worry about unplugging your TV at night. I can picture a time in the not-so-distant future where most houses have a solar panel for their personal use.

The whopper, though, is your car. Americans are driving less recently, but we still have some major progress to make. The average American drives around 33 miles a day, which is staggering. Most of that comes from the commute to and from work. The culprit is the desire to live farther and farther out in the suburbs and exurbs, resulting in sprawl. Factor in that a gallon of gas creates over 19 pounds of CO2, and you will find that the average vehicle (and how many vehicles do you own?) will emit somewhere around 12,000 pounds of CO2 per year.

Small changes in driving habits can save thousands of pounds of GHG every year. Driving slower, inflating tires properly, planning ahead and making mulitple errands at once, taking the train or bus, carpooling to work and school, and actually walking places (like to church!) are some ways to save gas. I know I'm not alone in considering this the most difficult area of improvement. We love the mobility and freedom that come with driving and it is nearly impossible to give it up. But if we are going to make a difference for our children, this is an area way outside our comfort zone where we can make the largest improvements.

If the proper way to understand our relationship with earth is one of stewardship, which I believe is true, then we are going to have to make sacrifices and change our lifestyles in order to be good stewards. And just like in the parable of the talents in the New Testament, I truly believe the Lord will reward our willingness to improve upon our stewardships by making the earth beautiful and healthy through our living a sustainable lifestyle.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Morality in Politics

The question is, how do we determine which political party is more moral? If you are a Mormon trying to decide which party best fits your moral code, or any other person who considers himself of high moral caliber, how do you choose? Let's look at a few studies and statistics as a starting point.

A new nationwide study by Harvard showed that Utah, by a large margin, leads the nation in online pornography subscriptions and that eight out of the top ten states in this study voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. The other top ten in order are: Alaska, Mississippi, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Florida, West Virginia. The ten lowest are: Montana, Idaho, Tennessee, Ohio, Oregon, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Wyoming, Michigan.

There is a similar trend in divorce rates by state, with eight of the top ten being states that voted for McCain and are typically conservative: Nevada, Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi. Utah is about right in the middle at number 23. The ten lowest divorce rates are: Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Washington D.C. (obviously not a state, but I included it).

Top ten states for marijuana: Alaska, Colorado, D.C., Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, making eight of ten that went for Obama. Bottom ten: Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, Utah.

Top ten states for illicit drug use: Alaska, Colorado, D.C., Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, making eight of ten that went for Obama. Bottom ten: Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin.

Top ten states for alcohol consumption: Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, making eight of ten that went for Obama. Bottom ten: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia.

Top ten states for teen pregnancies: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, California, North Carolina, Georgia, Hawaii, about half considered conservative states and half liberal. Bottom ten: North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine, Utah, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska.

So what can we learn from these facts that bears on which political ideology is more moral? Absolutely nothing. We can learn nothing at all about whether liberals or conservatives are more or less moral than the other. There is no correlation between political party or ideology and moral integrity.

This is why it makes me so upset when people imply that conservatives are more moral than liberals and why I try to point out inconsistencies, by way of examples of immorality in conservatives and liberals alike, in this way of thinking. You will find morally upstanding and morally degrading people along the entire political spectrum. But I absolutely believe that conservatives are much more derogatory towards liberal morality than the other way around.

The heart of the problem, of course, is gays and abortion. Liberals are more likely to support gay rights and even gay marriage. I do not believe that this reflects on the morality of the person. If you have two couples who are married and one set of couples supports civil unions for their gay neighbors and the other does not, does that make the first couple less moral? What if the husband of the latter couple is addicted to drugs or pornography? What if the latter couple gets a divorce because the wife committed adultery? How exactly does the support of gay rights bear on the morality of the couples? Not to mention that the percentage of gays in the nation is small, less than one in ten, making this issue so far down on the list of things that affect our morality as a nation, behind such undiscussed issues such as divorce, infidelity, pornography, drug and alcohol addiction, etc., that it is merely a wedge issue and nothing more.

As for abortion, yes I agree that it is completely immoral. I will state again that I follow the Church doctrine on this issue. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that liberals do not like abortions. You will never hear a Democratic leader state that we need more abortions, they always say that we need fewer. So this is not the case of pro-abortion v. anti-abortion, it is the case of safe and legal and rare abortions v. illegal abortions in most cases.

But if you chalk up abortion in the "immoral" category for liberals, you have to chalk up the Iraq War, torture, lack of available health care to the poor, and other issues in the "immoral" category for conservatives. Those are issues that are specifically supported by conservative leaders in America and reflect poorly on the moral standards of conservatives. But just as I am free to be a liberal and not completely support the Democratic party line on abortion, conservatives are free to not support torture and unprovoked war and the like. And this gets back to the main issue again, namely that political ideology is not a gauge for moral rectitude. There is virtue and vice in each.

Another issue that seems to define the argument that liberals are inherently less moral than conservatives is that liberalism, by definition, challenges existing institutions and emphasizes individual freedom of choice. See SO's excellent take on that here. This is used by conservatives to attack liberals as wanting to destroy traditional institutions such as marriage, religion, and the free market. While I admit that those types of people exist in the extreme minority, this is another classic example of the straw-man argument.

Instead, most use liberalism to challenge institutions which positively create harm to society. Examples of this might be the abolition of slavery, racist policies and attitudes including "Separate but Equal," the complex and broken health care system, the tyranny of monarchs and despots, and the exclusive right to vote for land-owning white males. Is there something inherently immoral about breaking those bonds?

Without opining on Joseph Smith's potential political affiliation in today's world, could there have been a more liberal religious figure than him? He challenged the very foundation of the oppressive contemporary Christian establishment by stating that God was knowable, communicated with man (as in mankind) on earth, and that man could become like him through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. He wanted nothing less than to turn the Christian institutions on their ear and reform the very way man considered his relationship with God.

So I never again want to hear the phrase "Good Mormon Republican." I don't want Mormons to be stereotyped as voting for whoever has the "R" next to their name. I don't want to overhear people in Church imply that the Republican party is the Mormon party or the moral party. I also don't want the opposite to be true. There is no predominantly moral ideology in America today. There are only political parties that contain both moral and immoral. It is time for Mormon conservatives and liberals to identify the good and bad in their ideologies and embrace the good, and I believe if they do they will find that there is still plenty to disagree and argue about.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sorry, More Utah Politics

The Senate recently voted to expand the members of the House of Representatives from 435 seats to 437, giving one seat to the District of Columbia and another to Utah. The reason for Utah's inclusion is because it was 80 human beings short of getting a new district from the 2000 census, was the fastest growing state since then, and will likely vote a Republican to fill the seat to counter the forgone conclusion that D.C. will vote in a Democrat.

There is this tantalizing possibility, though, that this could all backfire and Utah would end up voting for a Democrat, as well. The Utah legislature drew up the four districts back in 2000 when it seemed likely Utah was going to get the seat the good old fashion way. You can see the map here.

District 1 in Northern Utah is solidly conservative, and so is District 3 because even though it has Grand County and some of Summit County, both of which went for Obama, and San Juan County, which nearly went to Obama, it also contains Utah County which is big and hugely conservative. So that puts District 1, likely for Bishop, and District 3, likely for Chaffetz, solidly Republican. District 2 is a slam dunk for Democrats. It contains the north half of Salt Lake County, a little bit of Davis County (Woods Cross), a little bit of Utah County (Alta) and the real liberal part of Summit County, Park City. Then there's District 4. This little gem is the southern half of Salt Lake County and then the western counties down to Washington County.

The backfire comes where in the last ten years the southern half of Salt Lake County is more and more liberal, especially along the east bench. Republicans have lost some state seats in that area to Democrats, most notably Senate president Greg Curtis from Sandy. Also making this intriguing is that Matheson has the highest approval ratings outside of the Huntsman juggernaut and is from Iron County, which is within that District 4. So Matheson could run in that 4th District and win, with the only challenge being picking up some votes from big-ish and conservative Washington County. He also has experience running in conservative districts and a record of being a moderate. If he did that, then District 2 could run any viable Democrat and win and suddenly Utah has 2 Democrats in the House. I'm not sure if Matheson is that big a risk-taker with District 2 seemingly in the bag, but this is not that far fetched.

Which leads to another interesting little bit of politcal time-wasting. The National Journal Online (warning, slow loading) recently ranked all Congresspeople along the ideological spectrum. You will notice such things as Jim Matheson being predictably moderate, fellow Mormon Harry Reid not as liberal as conservatives think, and Bob Bennett and Orin Hatch are suprisingly moderate. These rankings are not official, by any means, and there is some criticism of it methodology, but it is probably more or less the starting point to some arguments.

The juiciest tidbit, for me, is seeing Chris Cannon, former Representative from Utah, as the 16th most conservative in the 435-seat House. This is not surprising, and Rob Bishop is just barely behind. Chris Cannon, however, lost to Jason Chaffetz in the last election, from the right. Chris Cannon, the 16th most conservative Rep in the nation, was too liberal for the good folks of Utah County, at a time when the entire rest of the nation shifted to the left.

Now I'm not saying that Utah Republicans that don't fall in line with shockingly moderate Governor Huntsman are already irrelevant, but it is quickly approaching that point. The problem with the Republican Party over the past five years is not that it is too liberal, or that it got away from it conservative roots, or that it is not listening intently enough to Rush Limbaugh, it is that the American people have moved to the left. The American people now favor more liberal policies. So either the Republican Party can gravitate toward leaders like Huntsman, or it can fade to obscurity.

And just to be clear, more liberal does not mean less moral. Is it more or less moral to torture? How about being responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians as the result of an unprovoked war? How about letting millions go without proper medical care in the name of self-sufficiency and the free market? And so on.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Suck It Up

Another set of local bills that stifle the transition from coal to clean energy sources recently surfaced in the Utah State Legislature. Sponsered by Roger E. Barrus (R - District 18), these three bills are focused mainly on the dissemination of power to the state legislature and the Air Quality Board in regards to pollution. Although a restructuring of the responsibility and oversight of these government agencies may seem like a good idea, the proverbial fine print speaks otherwise.

HB 190:
HB 191:
HB 412:

The Air Quality Board will be limited in entering interstate agreements, preventing the Governor to work in cooperation with other States to improve air quality. Instead of the Air Quality Board having oversight in regulating pollution, the state legislature will have control to dictate who and how pollution will be monitored. My favorite line is that the legislature will be allowed to "accept, receive, and administer grants or other funds or gifts from public and private agencies.." So unless you have the money to convince the legislature otherwise, big business (i.e. big desecrating business), will have a chance to spew more filth into the air. Take a deep breath Utah!