Friday, October 14, 2011

The perils of scripture and politics

Read this and tell me what you think it means:

4 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.

5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.

6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;

7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.

[D&C 98:4-7]

Do you think that

a.) This means the Lord supports the U.S. Constitution as the only law of the land, and that anything more or less than the Constitution "cometh of evil", or

b.) This means the Lord supports his followers in upholding the law, and that he generally approves of the Constitution (but doesn't explicitly rule out other forms of government) because it allows his followers the freedom to follow Him, or

c.) None of the above?

Operators are standing by...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Scriptural Basis For Mormon Environmentalism

As a Mormon and an environmentalist I believe that ensuring healthy air, water, and ecosystems is our moral and religious duty.  My own Mormon environmentalism is based on three important principles found in the scriptures.

First, all of creation is imbued with a soul, and thus has value.  We are taught that all things, both animate and inanimate, were created “spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5), therefore they all have a “living soul” (Moses 3:9), and the “worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).  We are even taught that our mother earth herself has a soul and is conscious of our “filthiness”  (Moses 7:48).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pro-Death Bona Fides

In a strange twist, Republican candidates now must seemingly prove their pro-death bona fides to the Tea Party extremist base.  In the last two Republican debates the crowd has made it clear that death is preferable to life, eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth is preferable to love thy neighbor and blessed-are-the-peacemakers and good-samaritanism and so forth.  (Videos below)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Social Justice in Book of Mormon-Era Governments

I recently came across the following verse in the Book of Mormon, Helaman 6:39:
And thus they did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God.
At this time in the history of the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are righteous and the Nephites are not, so much so that the Nephites have allowed the Gadianton robbers to take control of the government.  Upon taking control the Gadianton folks immediately started harassing and making life miserable for the poor.
There are various ways to interpret this verse, we don't really know for sure exactly what was going on, but it struck me that this verse may be evidence of social justice in Book of Mormon-era government.  The assumption of the verse seems to me to be that previous to the robbers taking over the government, the government was in the business, to some unknown degree, of helping the poor.  Following the take-over the policy is reversed and the robbers used the government as described.  Why else would the author describe of the oppression of the poor and meek in the same sentence he states that the Gadianton's took over the government if not to draw that contrast?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Down With the Two-Party System

. . . kind of.
As it stands now, there are two major political parties that are supposed to somehow represent the infinitely more complex political views of hundreds of millions of Americans.  It's a political duopoly.  Our two political parties, meanwhile, are failing us spectacularly.

Not only are the two parties failing us, but the two-party system itself, regardless of which parties are in control, is failing us.  It is a system which actively suppresses diverse ideas and candidates and thinking-outside-the-box, which results is less choice and less democratic representation for Americans.

The 2000 presidential election is an apt illustration of this problem.  More people voted for Al Gore than George W. Bush, but Bush became president of the United States.  So you have a situation where the president of the United States did not garner a majority vote of Americans.  This might be attributed to two major factors.  First, the electoral college and, second, the presence of Ralph Nader.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Huntsman the Environmentalist

I think Jon Huntsman might be campaigning for my specific vote.  I'm not sure he even cares if he becomes president, as long as I vote for him.  Because, really, I can't see who his constituency might otherwise be.

Huntsman recently had dinner with a bunch of environmentalists and declared that "conservation is conservative."  Add this to a list of other moderate-to-liberal stances, and I'm not sure Huntsman has a firm grasp on today's Republican Party.  This is not a party of moderation, generally, and certainly not a party hospitable to even inklings of environmentalism.

I've already expressed a little political crush on him, so if he keeps reaching out to me personally like this I'm in trouble because my steamy new political partner is the Green Party and I don't want them getting jealous.  But a moderate Mormon environmentalist as President of the United States?  That's hot.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Two More Debt Ceiling Facepalms

1.  If one didn't know any better, one might conclude that our elected officials don't care whatsoever about the American people.  I know it may sound shocking, but I have this sneaking suspicion.  As evidence, I give you this Washington Post-ABC poll which asked people, among other things, if they would oppose or support certain items in an effort to reduce the national debt.  Here's a summary:

Cut spending on Medicaid:  26% support, 72% oppose

Cut military spending:  43% support, 56% oppose

Raising taxes on Americans earning over $250,000 a year:  72% support, 27% oppose

Gradually raising Medicare age from 65 to 67:  46% support, 54% oppose

Changing the way SS benefits are calculated so they increase slower:  42% support, 53% oppose

Raising taxes on oil and gas companies:  59% support, 39% oppose

Means testing Medicare:  61% support, 36% oppose

Removing SS tax income cap currently at $107,000:  66% support, 33% oppose

Raising taxes on hedge fund managers (essentially changing capital gains taxes to income taxes):  64% support, 25% oppose

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Drama Makes Everyone Look Incompetent

The debt ceiling stuff makes me sick to my stomach.  Despite the fact that the warnings about default are clear and dire, our elected leaders seem to be only interested in political showmanship and not actually solving the problem.

On the one hand you have the Republicans who are the party much more responsible for our unwieldy debt, refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless all of their suddenly austere measures are met without any inkling of desire to compromise on any issue.  They are the major cause of the problem, are completely hypocritical about government debt and size now that they believe it is politically advantageous, and are unwilling to negotiate like responsible adults to avoid the catastrophe they precipitated.  They are more interested, it seems, in pleasing their corporate overlords than doing what is right for the American people.  Here is one graph, among many many many, that illustrates the level to which Republicans are at fault for the debt:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Good News Everyone: Corporations Are Doing Great

The economic recovery isn't going so well for Americans.  The unemployment rate is still over nine percent and hiring is actually slowing down again.  Home foreclosures are still occurring at an alarmingly high rate.  Regular people are not doing well.  In short, as the Wall Street Journal notes: "Across a wide range of measures—employment growth, unemployment levels, bank lending, economic output, income growth, home prices and household expectations for financial well-being—the economy's improvement since the recession's end in June 2009 has been the worst, or one of the worst, since the government started tracking these trends after World War II."

In contrast--stark, ugly contrast--corporations are doing great.  Corporate profits are at an all-time high.  Corporations are holding onto a record amount of cash, around $2 trillion.  The GDP is higher now than it was pre-recession, but virtually all increased income was captured as profits by corporations.  Stocks are the highest they've been since the recession began.  Taxes on the wealthiest Americans are at all-time lows.  The Wall Street Journal astutely noted that there is a "dichotomy between corporate performance and the overall health of the economy."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mormon and Green

It seems to me that every instinct that the current American political class has is wrong.  The economy is faltering badly after banks and insurance firms drove it to disaster with too many risks and bad investments?  Let's deregulate, cut programs to the poor and those most vulnerable, and lower taxes on the rich.  The western forests are unhealthy and in bad shape because of decades of mismanagement?  Let's manage them with an even heavier hand.  The debt ceiling is about to be reached, and default by the government could have dire consequences for an already weak economy?  Let's play political games with it.  Climate change problem?  Scientists are communists.  No one seems to have the gumption or desire to stand up for something better.

As I looked over and contemplated my glib list of problems, politically, with America, it became glaringly clear that the Democrats and Republicans don't have the solutions.  They are too entrenched and powerful to come up with big, new ideas to fix big, new problems.  I've known this for quite a while, of course, on some level I think we all do, but the idea is continually sharpening in my mind.  As a Mormon with the political convictions that I have, I feel more and more compelled to cast my lot with the Green Party.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What's Wrong With Us? Some ideas.

Perhaps I'm just in a bad mood, politically, but I made a list of what's wrong with America right now.  Enjoy:
  1. Pointless, horrible wars that we won't end.
  2. An assault on our civil liberties, mostly due to the Patriot Act.
  3. A complete lack of initiative and desire to do something about climate change and out-of-control consumption of fossil fuels.
  4. The deterioration of our public school system.
  5. The ever-growing income disparity chasm between the rich and poor.
  6. A broken health care system and no universal health care on the horizon to fix it.
  7. Underregulated crony corporatism.
  8. Insulated, unaccountable politicians.
  9. Incivility and bigotry.
  10. The New York Yankees.
To sum it up: we have a bipartisan assault on peace, liberty, niceness, the poor, and the environment.  Am I missing anything?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

So long Medicaid and thanks for all the CHIPs

As part of the economic recovery/stimulus package of 2009, Congress approved in increase in federal funding levels for Medicaid. Unlike Medicare, which is funded entirely by the federal government, Medicaid is jointly funded by the federal and state governments. The increased levels provided bumped the federal portion of payments up to ~65% of the total burden. It's hard to pinpoint the numbers because it varies from state to state with wealthy states receiving less support and poor states receiving more.

These increased levels drop back down to the pre-stimulus levels at the end of the June forcing states to adjust. The extra aid was originally scheduled to end last December, but Congress extended it for six months after being petitioned by both the White house and state officials. Now that the extra ~10% is ending thanks to political posturing and focus on national debt, individual state's must now find a way to compensate.

One method for California is to cut payments to recipients and physicians. Of course, these beneficiaries took the American way and sued the state to block the cuts. The case made it to the Supreme Court, but the Justices sided with the state. The 10% nibble might just be the beginning with enormous deficits (and incumbents' seats) causing turmoil. The long-term implications from such cuts are much more frightening. More physicians will likely refuse service to medicaid patients, forcing the latter to visit the ER as a sole means of care. By law, an ER can't refuse a patient even if they have no insurance or means to pay. Likely the shift from visiting general practitioners to showing up at the hospital means a couple of things: longer lines in the ER and in increase in hospital premiums to compensate for the costs (losses) associated with an overrun ER.

In addition to, or instead of, reducing Medicaid payments to providers, some states are finding other options. New York is imposing a cap on Medicaid spending. Connecticut is proposing more precise cuts and is only setting limits on vision and dental coverage. The rest of the states are reporting some combination of truncating payments to providers, reducing beneficiaries services while increasing co-payments, and shifting funds from other state-funding programs (like education) to offset the changes.

As a result of political impotence, combined with the alleged public outcry, there is no universal health care, nor is there any legitimate replacement for Medicaid anywhere on the horizon. Like Senator Rockefeller IV said about the beneficiaries, "Seniors vote. But if you are poor or disabled, you might not vote, and if you are a child, you do not vote - that's a lot of Medicaid's population. They don't have money to do lobbying." I'm concerned that this is the beginning of the end for Medicaid. My advice? Don't get born, don't get poor, and don't get old.

That, or you can go rob $1 from a bank to get a better life.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Don't You Make This Difficult For Me, Jon Huntsman

It's early, and my feelings are confused right now, but I think I'm starting to really like Jon Huntsman.  I mean, I liked him a lot when he was governor because we just never had governors like him in Utah.  He supported cap-and-trade legislation, he moved us forward on civil rights by supporting gay rights and civil unions, he supported immigrant rights, he called out those ridiculous congressional Republicans for being useless (his word was "inconsequential"), and he generally talked and acted like a moderate in a state where Republican politicians are almost universally crazies.  I even started to like that weird thing he does with his eyebrows.  He wasn't perfect, but he was pretty good.

Then he praised Obama and Clinton and went to work as the ambassador to China in the Obama administration, even when everyone knew he had national aspirations.

Now it is clear that he's running for president and he continues to talk like a moderate, reasonable conservative and, frankly, it's jarring.  Take a look at this article by the Deseret News and in particular the transcript of the interview he did with CNN's John King.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Liberal States' Rights

My visceral opposition to strong states' rights comes from a variety of sources.  First, I don't like the way my state generally does things.  Utah is a drag.  This is an intellectually shallow argument against states' rights, but its real for many people.

Second, I think the constitutional arguments behind it are pretty weak, or have become weaker in a changing world that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have foreseen.  I went into detail about this here.

Third, I think there are certain basic privileges and protections that the federal government should ensure that many states are hostile to, such as health care, which we'll discuss more below.  I support the federal government setting minimum standards for health care, the financial sector, etc. that are binding on states and put all Americans on a more equal footing.  As long as we are the United States of America, what's bad for one of us is bad for all of us.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Second Greatest Mormon Baseball Player (Pitcher Division)

Our quest to identify the second greatest Mormon baseball player brings us to the pitchers.  I'm proud to say that this is a pretty good crop.  There seem to be more very good Mormon pitchers than Mormon position players, and if anyone has a theory as to why I'd like to hear it.  But this analysis comes down to five pitchers: Roy Halladay, Jack Morris, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Hurst, and Vernon Law.

I'll just note here that my search for the second greatest Mormon baseball players is not contingent on church activity or faithfulness.  First, I have no way of knowing and second it's not my place to make those judgment calls anyway.  Eckersley, for instance, is only known to have been active for a few years as a youth and has had some well publicized trials and struggles and as far as I can tell does not identify as a Mormon, but he was baptized and so we consider him.  I'm not sure if this is the best way to do it or not, but I'm a big-tent Mormon kind of guy and so we push on.

This is going to get a little long so let me just dispense with the suspense right now for those that don't want to read the whole thing: Roy Halladay, with even a partially completed career, is the greatest Mormon pitcher of all time and by the time it's all said and done it won't even be close.  There, you know how it ends, now lets enjoy the journey, in alphabetical order.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Second Greatest Mormon Baseball Player (Non-Pitcher Division)

If Harmon Killebrew is the obvious greatest Mormon baseball player of all time, and I think he is, then it behooves us to identify the second greatest Mormon baseball player of all time.  This is a bit of a closer call, so we'll break it down into two posts with this first one focusing on everyday players and the next one on pitchers.

This really comes down to Dale Murphy and Jeff Kent, though we'll throw Wally Joyner in there because he was pretty good, as well.  We'll start with a couple WAR chart comparisons from Fangraphs and then break 'em down individually.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Harmon Killebrew, Greatest Mormon Baseball Player, Dies

Harmon Killebrew died of esophageal cancer yesterday.  He is the greatest Mormon baseball player to ever live.  Let's explore.

They called him Killer because his name was Killebrew but his personality was the exact opposite.  There are hundreds of stories out there about how kind and gentle and approachable Killer was.  But at the plate the man lived up to the name.  As the incomparable Joe Posnanski points out, he was inhumanly strong and hit home runs at a pace greater than Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Sammy Sosa.  He was born to rake.

In his career he hit 573 home runs, including eight 40 homer seasons (and one 39 homer season), which is good for 11th all time.  Though the list is now polluted with steroid users, at the time he retired he was in the top five or six fifth all time.  His career slash stats are .256/.376/.509, which means that while he wasn't a high average guy, he did the things which are actually important really well, i.e. get on base and hit with power.  In his MVP year of 1969 he had a 1.011 OPS, led the league in on-base percentage, hit 49 home runs, and led the league in intentional walks.  He was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1984 (it inexplicably took four tries to get voted into the Hall, which is more evidence that the BBWAA should not be solely in charge of that process).  He did all this in an era of depressed offense, which is reflected in his career OPS+ of 143, which is about the same as A-Rod, Vlad Guerrero, Willy McCovey, and Mike Schmidt.

There has always been a rumor that Killer was the model for the MLB logo, though it is not entirely clear.  You can read up about it here.  Killebrew always maintained that it was him, and the man that supposedly designed it maintained that was just a composite of a lot of different batters.  In any case, he is an iconic figure in baseball, the face of Minnesota Twins, and, in my opinion, one of the mythical "inner circle" Hall of Famers.

Dale Murphy was a pretty great centerfielder and has a good case for the Hall of Fame, Jacoby Ellsbury is a Red Sox which automatically makes him capital-G Great, Jeff Kent is one of the great offensive second basemen of all time, Bryce Harper is quickly gaining legend as perhaps the greatest prospect ever, and when all is said and done, Roy Halladay may end up taking the title of greatest Mormon baseball player of all time from Killebrew and leave Killer just as the greatest Mormon hitter of all time, but for now Harmon Killebrew stands alone, and baseball and Mormons have lost a great one.

Friday, May 6, 2011

He's Dead

This is a follow up to Andrew's great picture earlier.  I laugh every time.

Also, if you that initial thrill has worn off the bin Laden situation and you want to think a little more about it, here are a couple good things to read.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden is dead

I think this image sums up the last couple of years quite nicely:

OBL's death may be largely symbolic, but the symbolism is powerful. The thugs that are Al-Qaeda have stolen the focus for too many years from the billions of peaceful Muslims in the world. If nothing else, I'm hoping his death will undo that supreme injustice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nearly Half of Americans Aren't Paying Income Taxes: Bad But Maybe Not in the Way You Suppose

It has recently exploded all over the internet that nearly half of American households do not pay income taxes.  There are enough deductions and credits for families making around $50,000 and less to avoid the income tax completely, though they still are paying federal payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and others.

While some see this as a broken tax system, I see it as a broken economy.  While some gripe that half of Americans aren't pulling their weight, I see it as nearly half of Americans are not making enough money to pay income taxes.  They live below the line where we have decided that a person is only making enough to cover basic expenses and should not bear the weight of income taxes on top of it.  Instead of trying to figure out how to get those people to start paying income taxes at their current salary, lets instead focus on how to get these people making enough money to be able to afford taxes after their basic needs are met.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day and Consumption

I think the most important thing we can do to be good stewards over the Earth is to consume less.  This year we hit the seven billion mark in world population and the numbers will grow to nine billion in the next few decades before leveling off.  This means overwhelming stress on our environments, which we can mitigate by being wise stewards over the Earth.  Here are some prophet warning against over-consumption:

Jacob 2: 11-13
And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.  And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Uh oh, here we go again...

...Who will be next to put forth a LDS political philosophy? This guy:

I will be straightforwards and call this bunk. I really don't care what sort of politics people propose; I fundamentally oppose any argument for/against any political system based on scripture and/or the Gospel. All of these arguments squeeze a subject as large as the universe itself into something the size of an elephant (or donkey, or eagle, or whatever). The Gospel is far larger, far more organic, and far more contradictory (if you only examine the surface, much like the rest of the natural world) than any one political theory can reasonably contain. All of them -- from Liberalism to Conservatism to Anarchy to Theocracy fail to really represent the Gospel in all of its power and glory.

Until the time comes when Christ himself reigns, we are stuck with imperfect people making imperfect decisions. And that's just within the Church; outside of the Church we must deal with the cultural mishmash that is the modern world. Politics in such a world are, by definition and of necessity, boisterous and rowdy and messy. People are strikingly different, so finding common ground can be a difficult business. In America we've managed to eke out an uneasy but largely peaceful existence by sheer force of will to move forward despite huge differences. All reformers must come face-to-face with this reality if they get so lucky as to attain positions of leadership. The current "Tea Party" types are learning this the hard way, the survival of their movement will depend far more on their ability to pave roads and take out the trash than their quest to defund Planned Parenthood or forcing the U.S. to default on its financial obligations. They are a perfect example of the imperfect people with whom we have to work. And, because they've won elections, those of us who think they're crazy have to work with them. We have to put up with their birtherism and looniness because at some point in time they will vote on bills. With the current composition of the House, and the Republican primary climate (witness the meteorotic rise (and let me be the first to predict the fall) of Donald Trump's political ambitions), they wield undue leverage. I hate it. But I live with it because that's the price of admission for living in our Democracy. And I love our system; all its messiness notwithstanding we are somehow able to hold this crazy ship together and move forwards. That, to me, is a modern miracle that is every bit as complex and contradictory as nature (and the Gospel), and well worth our time to understand and appreciate.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Health Care and the Budget

On the one hand I tip my hat to Republican Paul Ryan for actually submitting a proposal for the federal budget which addresses some of the important issues that are looming.  On the other hand he did a really bad job.  So it's a mixed bag.

The fundamental problem is that he puts fiscal responsibility squarely on the backs of the poor and elderly, mostly by slashing Medicare and Medicaid and lowering taxes on the rich.  Nor does his plan address "defense" spending, which is a subject we've addressed before here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Speedy and Public Trial by Jury

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, from The Economist
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."  -- 6th Amendment

This seems pretty straightforward, right?  I believe the historical impetus for this addition to the Bill of Rights was the fact that kings and rulers were accusing the people of crimes and convicting them without a trial by jury, without witnesses, without due process of law, essentially without any safeguards or protections whatsoever against corruption and unchecked power.  The founders wisely ensured that if government has the ability to deprive a person of property, freedom, or life (which it does) then the Constitution should require that the government has to submit to certain safeguards against the abuse of that power.  I believe those on both the political right and left can feel good about that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

March Madness

March was a crazy month:

1) For the 3rd time in history, no number one ranked team made it to the Final Four, and my fourth favorite team from Utah played well. Props to Jimmer for the award.

2) Former lobbyists rush back to Washington to get jobs working for the people they used to proposition, and coincidentally work on legislation that benefits their former employers.

3) Wisconsin eliminated collective bargaining for public employees. New Jersey teachers' health benefits become the target of the latest anti-whatever campaign.

4) The rebellion in Libya escalated to a full on war.

5) Japan endured an earthquake, a tsunami, and nuclear fallout.

I didn't list the above in any particular order of significance or impact, and there are definitely a number of additional events that could be added to my short list. One of these items also squirms out of the frozen tundra of Michigan politics – an emergency manager bill. This one completely baffles me.

From what I understand, the bill (already passed by the state senate and house) gives the governor the power to declare "financial emergency" in a school district, or even in a town. In doing so he would then appoint an emergency manager empowered "to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, and eliminate services." Imagine that, an appointed henchman can walk into some district and go carte blanche on the place.

It gets better. Apparently the bill provides for no public oversight or input – not only was an amendment proposing monthly public updates voted down, but all action by the Manager is omitted from public overturn. Oh, and there is no cap on the financial compensation given to the Manager for his/her service. I find it ironic that an overseer, brought in for the express purpose of correcting financial misappropriation is exempt from personal budget.

Like Jacob S., every time I start to get on the State's rights train, something like this pops up and terrifies me. How can a state legislator pass a law like this without having a vote by the public?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Christian Pacifism, the Constitution, and War in Libya

The Libya situation is a classic rubber-hits-the-road situation for an evolving pacifist like myself.  On the one hand I believe strongly that the Gospel implores us to practice non-aggression, and practical experience shows that violence never begets less violence but only escalates it.  On the other hand you had peaceful protests from Libyans seeking to only secure democracy for themselves, but were met with violence from their government and it seems only right to send our military in to cripple their oppressive and aggressive government.  The world is, indeed, a complicated place.

But I can't support military action in Libya.  Not only do we have two wars of choice already being fought in the Middle East, not only is our military stretched thin, not only is our budget (and our military budget in particular) spinning out of control, not only does America tend to get bogged down in regime change messes, but I believe escalating the violence is the unethical response.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Which I Whine About Our Political Parties

Pres. Obama is certainly a better president that Pres. W. Bush was, and is certainly better than Sen. McCain would have been, not to mention the mediocre crop of hopefuls lining up to challenge him next year.  He's done some good things such as at least making an effort to end our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not starting any new wars (. . . yet, but we're keeping our eyes on you, Libya), making an effort to reform the health care and financial systems, and, importantly, changing the tone of discourse in the White House.  But it hasn't really been that great, overall.  Where he has tried to make some progress in areas of war and regulation reform, they have been meager and more or less disappointing.  I went over some of the failures before here.

Now we learn that Pres. Obama will not be shutting down Guantanamo Bay any time soon, like he promised, will reinstate military tribunals and not use our world-class criminal justice system, and will continue indefinite detentions without hearings.  He also fired the State Dept. spokesperson for criticizing the brutal detention of Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks leaker.  His record on civil liberties is no better than Bush's, which make me sick.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Utah HB477 and Government Transparency

The Utah legislature passed, and Gov. Herbert signed, HB477 which is an attempt to destroy government transparency.  It is a bill that excludes cell phones and emails from GRAMA laws, imposes extremely high fees for information requests, and requires proof by preponderance of the evidence of wrongdoing before granting requests for communications that are suspected of being illegal.

It is an absolute assault on good governance and the proposition that government is for the people, of the people, and by the people.  The public response is universal outcry, but the legislators and governor don't care because there is basically no threat that they will be voted out of office in Utah's one-party system.  So they can pass laws which hide what they do and say from the public and assault the very contract between the governing and the governed and know that no matter how upset people get, it won't translate to the ballot box.

Please read the excellent and surprisingly combative editorial by the Salt Lake Tribune, visit for information on the referendum process that is already under way to get the law repealed, and contact your state representatives and let them know how undemocratic this is.  Just when I start to get the bug to be more states' rights oriented something like this happens and I remember that I live in Utah.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Divide and Conquer, Religious Style
Rep. Peter King is using his position as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security to terrorize Muslims.  He is instituting hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims based on vague accusations that ordinary Muslims and their leaders have not done enough to speak out against terrorism.  He has yet to produce, of course, any proof of any of his claims that American Muslims are becoming more radicalized and that they are not adequately assisting the police and counter-terrorism officials.

The impetus for these hearings likely has nothing to do with the radicalization of Muslims, and everything to do with politics.  By turning Americans against each other politicians can pursue the old divide and conquer technique.  Anyone who knows American Muslims knows that they are just like everyone else.  They are mostly good, hardworking, honest people who value their freedoms and abhor oppression.  They are serious about their religion and embrace their cultural and familial roots.  While most are good, some are not.  The same could be said about nearly every group of Americans, no matter how you dissect them.  You could say the same about Catholics, Mormons, atheists, middle class, lower class, New Yorkers, Utahns, blacks, whites, and on and on. It is cliche but still basically true that the things that tie us together are both more numerous and more important than the things that differentiate us.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Military Industrial Complex or a balanced budget?

A recent conversation amongst friends and total strangers recently revealed a couple of interesting points in terms of budget deficit reduction.

Here are the generic, stereotype laden talking points (generally dependent on political leanings):

1) We need to cut spending from the military, the evil empire spends well over every other country in the world combined!

Okay so not everyone is so hyperbolic with their wrongly cited numbers but you get the idea.

2) We need to cut the welfare programs that are a burden to society and doing nothing more than spreading around hard earned wealth and enslaving the working class.

Everyone else talking about budget cuts is really just noise right? I mean, sure, we can cut the endowment for the Arts because they offer little value and promote divisive materials, sometimes. Sure we can cut the Department of Education, because honestly, I dare you to go read their website and tell me in concrete terms what they actually provide. I have read it, and personally I don't get it. As a person that has been formally enrolled in some sort of school for 24 of the last 27 years of my life I get it. Education is important and all that jazz but really how much value does the Dept. of Education really bring to the table when a huge amount of our spending is being done at "for profit" educational institutions?

To be succinct, the current budget of our fine government qualifies about 30 % of our spending as "non-mandatory", or discretionary. To include the FBI and the Army......yes something is wrong with this picture.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Let's imagine a worst-case scenario where the United States, through internal factors, disintegrates and splinters.  As a result, different states and regions band together to form new nations.  One natural fit would be for the people of the "Mormon Belt" to form an alliance and create a new nation, let's call it Deseret.

Now imagine a choice between creating a democracy, similar to the one established in the Constitution, and a theocracy where the prophet was the head of state, similar to the institutions created by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  Which would you choose?  I'm not sure that is such an easy choice for Mormons.

Now, how does this effect your views on the revolutions taking place in the Middle East?  There is considerable hand-wringing by conservatives, given voice by Fox News, and hilariously parodied by Glenn Beck, that the revolutions are distinctly bad because Islamists may take power.  After all, Palestinians elected Hamas and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has some amount of popularity and political organization.  It is certainly not a perfect analogy, but how critical can we be of Muslims choosing to create a theocracy when we, as Mormons, would likely be inclined to do the same?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Utah State Legislature Fails Constitutional Interpretation

I got a really nice laugh this morning on the way to work.  KUER, the local NPR radio station, ran a story about the Utah legislature defining rules for how it sues the federal government.  One of the sections of this legislation is a list of powers given to the federal government.  Rep. Ivory explained the need for this list by stating:
I thought it was fascinating. There oughta be a list out there that just lists the enumerated powers. There's just not. There's just not, and we talk so often about the government being one of enumerated powers, but there's no list anywhere.
There oughta be a list?  Uh, I believe that "list" is the United States Constitution itself.  In fact, within the Constitution there is an actual section known as the Enumerated Powers.  Is Rep. Ivory too lazy to read the Constitution and therefore needs a nice, simplistic list for him to understand?  Or is it possible that Rep. Ivory doesn't like how the Constitution is written and would like to re-write it in a way a bit more pleasing to himself?  Is there something wrong with the Constitution that he believes needs fixing or clarifying?

The bill also requires the state to "judge federal action against that list, using the meaning of the provision at the time it was drafted - as far back as 1789."  So the touchstone for all Constitutional interpretation by the Utah state legislature is now not the Constitution itself, but a hackneyed, superficial, and biased list of enumerated powers as interpreted by Rep. Ivory?  Sounds like a real logical step forward.

And I've laid out before why it is inane to try to interpret the Constitution based on "original intent" -- because there was no single original intent and because it doesn't make sense to try to overlay 18th century understanding on an infinitely more complex 21st century world and because the Constitution was intentionally written broadly to adapt to changing circumstances -- but now the Utah legislature has made state law.

We now have further evidence that the Tea Party extremists who profess such love and fealty to the Constitution neither understand it nor respect it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Elder Oaks and Preserving Religious Freedom

There is considerable discussion out there about Elder Oak's talk given at Chapman University about religious freedom.  It is the sort of message that leaves me torn and restless.  As a deeply religious person I agree completely with the general sentiment expressed in his conclusion:
We must never see the day when the public square is not open to religious ideas and religious persons. The religious community must unite to be sure we are not coerced or deterred into silence by the kinds of intimidation or threatening rhetoric that are being experienced. Whether or not such actions are anti-religious, they are surely anti-democratic and should be condemned by all who are interested in democratic government. There should be room for all good-faith views in the public square, be they secular, religious, or a mixture of the two. When expressed sincerely and without sanctimoniousness, the religious voice adds much to the text and tenor of public debate.
No one should ever feel embarrassed or intimidated for expressing strong religious beliefs in the public square, and I agree that religions have much good to offer public policy on a more abstract level.  But at the same time, I disagree with Elder Oaks that religious expression should be given a special, elevated status in such discussions:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democracy in Egypt and the Middle East

What you are hearing from Washington insiders regarding the uprising, or revolution, in Egypt is that Pres. Obama is in a very tough spot.  Republicans are surprisingly supportive of this view and are standing behind the president as he tries to figure out what to do.  It's tricky because we've been supporting, through billions of dollars in aid, Mubarak for decades, this despite the fact that he is an undemocratic autocrat who excludes his people from legitimate public debate and involvement.  But the US is okay with that because he has been friendly with Israel, he has been moderate in keeping fundamentalism at bay in Egypt, and the country has been stable under his rule.

This is the classic foreign policy realism point of view.  Realism is not concerned with right or wrong, moral or immoral, and the like.  Realism is concerned with who has power and how does that effect me?  The paramount concern for a foreign policy realist is one's own security and self-interest.  From the realist's point of view, Mubarak has been perfectly acceptable.  The idea of a revolution in Egypt, with the possibility of chaos or fundamentalism taking hold as a counter-weight to the possibility of real democracy taking hold, is a risk probably not worth taking.  So the establishment is treading very carefully, not really sure what to do about it.  Of course a stable democracy is the very best thing for America's self-interest, but the cost/benefit analysis is tricky.  This is why the Obama administration is making wishy-washy statements and being blamed for being one step behind the situation, and why Republicans are supportive.

And it's all wrong.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Senate Tea Party Caucus: "We Hate Transparency and Efficiency"

The Senate used to have a process where one senator could place an anonymous secret "hold" on any nomination or bill to prevent it from coming to a vote.  It represented all that was wrong with the Senate.  It was undemocratic, anti-transparent, and cowardly.  The Senate voted to end secret holds by a 92-4 vote.  Who were the four opposed?  The Senate Tea Party Caucus, of course, with Utah's own baby-faced tea-party senator, Mike Lee, included.

Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Jim DeMint (all founding members of the TPC), and John Ensign voted against ending secret holds.  They voted against democratic procedures, against transparency in our legislative process, and for cowardliness.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union Highlights

I was at scouts last night and couldn't watch the State of the Union Address, but as I've browsed through it there are several items that I believe are worth highlighting.  The theme was Win the Future, which I guess is the new Hope and Change.  In both cases, President Obama wants to exude optimism, which is something, as I've said before, we dearly lack around here.  So with optimism in mind, here are a few things worth looking at.

As some of you know, I'm a proud and moralistic environmentalist, so I appreciated the renewed emphasis on renewable energy:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Update: Expanding the House of Representatives Just Got Cooler

My post a few weeks ago about the need for our House of Representatives to be expanded just got some support from people smarter than me with slightly more conspicuous platforms.

A couple of PhDs, Jacqueline Stevens from Northwestern and Dalton Conley from NYU, wrote an op-ed for the NY Times touting the need for a dramatic expansion of the House of Representatives and the attendant benefits it would create.  Ms. Stevens also appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation to discuss the issue.  Thanks for picking up where I left off, professors.

Now is the time to jump on the expansion bandwagon if you want to seem cool in a couple of years when this gets big.  You'll want to hear yourself saying, "I was back reading the Mormon Left about expansion when you were still in diapers."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Constitutional Over-Correction: Extreme States' Rights

Utah's very own baby-faced tea-party senator, and self-styled Constitutional scholar, Mike Lee, recently held forth that, of all things, child labor laws are unconstitutional.  I guess I'm more sad than anything.  Sad because we have completely stopped thinking through issues and ideas carefully.  Rhetoric rules.

The best way I can describe what is going on is with a car analogy, which I understand is worn and cliche but I am nothing if not worn and cliche.  So, you are driving along on a road trip and you are eating a Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich and you look down for a second to rearrange the wrapping for your next bite and when you look up you are drifting into oncoming traffic.  The natural reaction is to jerk the wheel back.  But this is how rollovers happen, by over-correction.  The proper response is to course-correct more smoothly.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Too Much Air in the War We Breath

War has become the single most pervasive theme in modern society. We wage War on Terror, sports arenas are battlefields, and any significant level of destruction is deemed a war zone. Even positive efforts fall prey to the theme - the War on Cancer, War on Drugs, and the Battle Against Hunger. It's become so common that we are desensitized to the violence conveyed with such a theme. Is the recent political rhetoric just a result of the common vernacular? Or is it the cause?

Violent, war-laced imagery exists on all sides of the aisle, and has been present for generations. Consider Lincoln's "House Divided" - , Roosevelt's "Man with the Muckrake" - , or more modern examples like McCain's 2008 GOP Convention Speech "Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what's right for your country", and even Obama last year in Ohio "I'll never stop fighting to give every American a fair shake.".

While the last two references seem relatively mild, the frequency and amplitude of the imagery has increased dramatically as of late; with phrases like "kill the bill", "battleground states", and the now infamous crosshairs from Sarah Palin. Current debate has arisen over the relationship between the political jargon and the horrible events in Arizona.

I personally haven't decided if there is a quantifiable dependence on the actions of psychopaths and the violent allusions of politicians, media, and society. Nevertheless, I do feel strongly that action needs to be taken against the perpetuation of violence. Joseph Smith had it right when he said, "Let us conquer ourselves, and then go to and conquer all the evil that we see around us, as far as we possibly can. And we will do it without using violence; we will do it without interfering with the agency of men or of women. We will do it by persuasion, by long-suffering, by patience, and by forgiveness and love unfeigned, by which we will win the hearts, the affections and the souls of the children of men to the truth as God has revealed it to us."

Thankfully modern commentators and politicians echo this same idea:

There is no need for violence. It has no place in our society, nor in our hearts.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Worst News Story Ever

Apparently a washed up old rocker is not yet ready to endorse a half term governor and reality TV star as President of the United States of America.  We'll keep you updated as the story evolves.

Everyone please say a prayer for the future of our country, because if this is news we've got some serious issues.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Progressive Taxation

A recent poll showed that over 60 percent of Americans think that the government should tax the rich in an effort to reduce the budget deficit.  Polls also consistently found that a majority of Americans wanted the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.  Conservatives, inexplicably, won that battle in their larger war against progressive taxation.

So with all the recent talk about taxes, I wanted to try to explain why liberals, and a majority of Americans generally, support a progressive tax scheme.  A progressive tax is one where the tax rate increases with taxable income.  So a person making a smaller salary pays a smaller percentage in taxes than a person making a larger salary.  Currently in the US, we have a progressive federal income tax that ranges from 10% for the lowest income earners to 35% for the highest marginal rates.

Mainstream conservatives typically oppose a progressive tax for moral reasons.  They argue that it is unfair to tax the wealthy at higher rates just because they have a lot of money, that it is a form of class welfare, that the poor are getting off easy, and that it disincentivizes hard work.  These arguments miss the point.