Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In Praise of the Bicameral System

I like the word bicameral. And bipartisan, which usually means nothing and accomplishes even less. But yesterday's vote on the bailout got me to thinking (Warning: The following contains praise of Republican congressional representatives! If that is too much for you to take from me, stop reading now!) about how much the lower house in the US Congress is worth. A large body of politicians, all of whom are constantly thinking about reelection, has made me livid over the years. The impetuous nature of the House drives me crazy. But on Monday, we saw the wisdom of having that body balance out the Senate.

I am very pleased the the House defeated this bill. It gave too much protection to investors who made bad decisions, took much too much from taxpayers, increased an already outrageous debt, and gave virtually no independent oversight to an obscene amount of money. House Republicans who fought their own administration and congressional leadership showed some real spine (millions of outraged taxpayers and a national sense of distrust for an incompetent president helped too...).

I'm not sure how much of the House Republican opposition to the bailout derived from principle and how much came from political expediency (have we ever seen a big, unpopular piece of legislation being pushed by an unpopular lame-duck president 6 weeks before an election?), but all I know is that a cushy deal for Wall Street failed. I'm even less sure how many Democrats voted against it to avoid criticism from their opponents, but I like to think that our Senate race embodies this situation.

We have two congressmen running for Pete Domenici's Senate seat in New Mexico: Republican Steve Pearce and Democrat Tom Udall (disclosure: I support Udall, both because I think he's smarter and more honest and because I like LDS Democrats; there, I said it). Both voted against the deal, possibly to negate any chance that the other would benefit from the unpopular nature of the bill. (Lame duck Republican Heather Wilson, who lost a primary race against Pearce for the Senate seat, voted for the bill.)

Electoral-Vote.org has a good analysis of the vote; read it here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

That’s Debatable

Just some quick thoughts on last night's debate. I watching ~half of the proceedings, so I welcome comments from those of you who saw the whole ordeal. Actually, this was the least terrible presidential debate I've seen in a while (ever?). No one looked awkward or uneven, and both candidates made a good case for themselves. In a lot of ways, this seems to validate a general sense of what political debates do today: reiterate talking points and energize a candidate's own supporters.

What interested me the most was the exchange over Iraq, which in my mind is the single most important issue, even more pressing than the current economic train wreck. Having opposed the war since it began (and earlier), I feel very strongly that the invasion of Iraq has been the greatest foreign policy mistake of my lifetime, and that the best option at this point is to change course. Even if this is a slight and gradual pullout, it needs to happen, and I'm convinced that a McCain presidency would not be able to accomplish that.

The comments regarding the surge were especially telling. McCain seems to believe that because violence has decreased since the escalation last year, a reduction in combat forces in Iraq will result in more violence. Here's how I see it. The war began without enough planning, thought, or resources. For several years, troops operated in insufficient numbers with an insufficient objective. Petraeus, who for all his faults is a thoughtful and intelligent military leader, was given the authority to make significant changes, not only with the number of forces, but also with the scope of the operations, and it made a difference.

But for McCain (or Bush) to say the surge worked and needs to continue is mistaken. The surge was a correction of a mistake made at the onset of a mistaken war. With violence down and order increasing--and with chaos on the upswing in Afghanistan--it is time to change the focus of the military efforts back to where they should have been all along.

None of this, however, is as important as this fact: Obama will represent a significant change in American foreign policy, from unilateral and impetuous engagement to thoughtful diplomacy and measured military action. McCain will continue the "Bush doctrine" (I love that phrase now); Obama will see it for what it is (fatally flawed) and replace it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ownership Vs. Debt

One of the most annoying aspects of the housing crunch and the negotiations over the proposed Wall street bailout has been the language used when discussing how foreclosure affects the average citizen. The phrase "people losing their homes" gets a lot of play, but no one seems to question what that means. If I am paying a mortgage that I cannot afford and subsequently go into foreclosure, I am not losing my home, I am defaulting on a loan I entered into. But the home was never mine to lose. I have simply lost my investment toward owning that home over the period of several decades.

(As an aside, this is why most demographic surveys bother me. They ask if you own your home or rent. I don't rent, but I also don't own my home; I owe a bank the balance of the mortgage we entered into several years ago. The bank owns the home, and I make a monthly payment--which is still largely interest--as part of a 30-year process of paying off that loan.)

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward those affected by foreclosure, which harms both the lender and the borrower, but I feel that this inaccurate language is at the heart of the current financial mess. We mistake physical possession with ownership, debt with asset. This seems to be the core reason for the failure of big financial institutions--they take on risky investments, overvalue those investments, and rack up impractical debt.

The same seems to be the case at the federal level. The big financial debate of the 2000 race was what to do with the budget surplus (can you imagine, a budget surplus?): saving for big future expenditures like Social Security and pay down the debt or make reckless tax cuts that favor the wealthy? In hindsight, the correct decision is obvious, no?

Along these lines, Scott, in a recent comment, argued that presidential policy has little effect on the economy, and, while I agree that blaming or crediting a particular president for the overall economy is fallacious, I think the administration does affect the economy. Fiscal issues like taxes are an obvious part of that, but so too is the general attitude toward the budget. Spending money on a war of choice without appropriating for those funds is an example. So too are smaller unfunded mandate issues like NCLB. In each of these cases, the administration has played fast and loose with fiscal responsibility, which has in turn created a culture of financial recklessness that has permeated both Wall Street and individual consumers.

I think we need to change our cultural mindset away from possessions and toward value, both in terms of material goods and our spiritual well-being. Summer and I are talking about Xmas gifts for the kids, and we both feel that they don't need more stuff (and we don't really have room for more stuff--maybe we should have gotten a bigger mortgage and bigger house when the debt was flowing like honey), so we're thinking about gifts that carry more meaning, like the hand-made books Pat has made for her children's families the last few years. That's the sort of thing with real value.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Hypocrisy

I've been thinking about this idea ever since Palin was announced as McCain's running mate and made her utterly transparent stab for disaffected Hillary supporters. The ensuing "respect" for Senator Clinton from the right was unabashedly insincere, as was much of the following week's RNC, with its odd calls for "change." But the last two weeks have pushed this rant to the breaking point.

Here's the big one--last week's Wall Street debacle and the proposed bailout. $700 billion to prop up financial institutions that had made incredibly bad business decisions, paid obscene CEO bonuses (to what does obscene apply more readily in that phrase--the bonuses or the CEOs?), and in essence reaped what they had sown over the past 20+ years with rampant deregulation and the Bush II administration's gradual undoing of the major advancements of the New Deal?!

When I first heard about this proposal I thought, "wow, that's a serious move by the federal government." As I've thought about it over the past few days (and read pieces like this one in Slate and some insights from my favorite ESPN writer), I've become convinced that this is the apex of the current administration's reckless approach to spending, the sort of thing stereotypical "tax & spend" liberals would do, only here the philosophy is "tax cuts & spend," a disgusting approach to fiscal policy.

If Obama or any other Democrat were to suggest nearly one trillion dollars in spending for the poor, "conservatives" (Can they really be called conservative if they favor this kind of radical approach to government intervention in the free market? Could it be that conservatism has finally died, and is taking Wall Street with it? Who would have thought that I'd miss it?) would call for their old standby, impeachment (apparently fooling around with an intern is the greatest misdeed of all time, but completely undermining both the Constitution with abuses of executive privilege and the market-based economic system of capitalism is okay?).

I am convinced that this sort of favoring of the rich is not only financially inequitable but also spiritually iniquitous, and that this sin is far greater than most of the things social conservatives care about so much.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Old is Just a State of Mind

No, this is not a dig at McCain. In fact, this rant isn't even political.

I've decided that Summer and I are the oldest people our age out there. Here's why.

  1. We recently subscribed to the local newspaper. I can't think of anyone under the age of 40 who gets a paper delivered to their home. Actually, I only know a few people who get the paper, and no one under the age of 50. Most people our age get all their news from the Internet. New-fangled contraption...
  2. We don't have cell phones. Do you know anyone who's not a) in prison, b) Amish, or c) over the age of 70 who doesn't have a cell phone? Summer's lobbying for one after her most recent trip (short version: she got bumped from her Seattle-to-SL-to-ABQ flight and went through Denver, getting in at 11 pm instead of 9. Had I a phone, she could have informed me.), but I'm being stubborn.
So, here's the challenge. Do you know anyone under the age of 40 who subscribes to a newspaper and does not have a cell phone? Betcha can't find anyone...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Job & Other Interviews

Last year I had an interview at my current place of employment for an administrative position for which I was woefully underqualified. When I got a question about my experience administering budgets, I replied, “I don’t really have any.” It was kind of a relief, and the rest of the interview was quite relaxed, as everyone in the room knew I was not the right person for the job and wouldn’t be getting it. And I think they appreciated my honesty.

Having served on several hiring teams and being on the interviewer side of the table, I believe that frankness and directness in answering questions like that one are invaluable. I loathe the applicant who tries to fake an answer and insults my intelligence in the process. It is better, I think, to say honestly, “I don’t know” than to try to fake it.

I say this because my first thought after watching part of Palin’s interview on Thursday night was, “Wow, she’s immensely underqualified and she thinks she can bluff her way out of it.” The repetition of non-answers, the constant use of her talking points with no elaboration, the stalling tactics (how many times did she say, “You see, Charlie”?)—it was all painful to watch. It was like the worst job interview performance ever. I just hope the American people are as good at hiring as that interview team a year ago was, because I could do a better job as Associate Dean than she could as vice president. And I have no budget experience…

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Local Piece

This semester I am back teaching some classes at UNM, which I greatly enjoy. This also means that I am reading the campus paper, the Daily Lobo, regularly again. This article on the front page yesterday caught my eye. Here's the skinny. A UNM student saw a booth for a campus-based Christian fraternity and asked about joining. Easy enough. But no good, as the student in question is LDS. To quote Summer, "really?!?"

Now, as a BYU alum, I don't know much about fraternities, and I work under the assumption that they can invite/accept who they want, but this seems like pretty overt discrimination. But that's not the interesting part. To me, what's fascinating is the theological issue: what does "Christianity" mean?

My take is this. To be a Christian is to profess faith in and seek to live by the teachings of Christ. Doctrinal differences have marked the (often ugly and violent) history of Christianity, but that's the basic definition as I understand it. Even in the midst of 19th-century anti-Mormon persecution, the claim was not, "They are not Christian," but "They practice a weird form of Christianity."

But in the past few generations we have seen a gradual narrowing of that definition based on a very limited interpretation of both Biblical texts and the history of Christianity. I find that immensely troubling, especially in light of the marriage of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and the politically extreme right. It seems that theology exists for many only as a means of excluding others, not to seek a deep, meaningful relationship with deity.

It's this sense of exclusion that bothers me the most, on both a theoretical level and a practical one. Let's start with the latter. Imagine if visitors at an LDS service or social event were told that they were not welcome. That would make missionary work grind to a halt, wouldn't it? And in terms of what that sort of approach would mean philosophically, how pretentious do you have to be to claim the right to determine what another can call him/herself?

I'm interested to hear what others have to say about both the specific event and the larger implications, especially in terms of an exclusionary ethos. What does it mean to define someone else for him/herself?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Big One

There are a million reasons why I am glad I don’t live in California: the traffic, real estate costs, Santa Ana winds, Disneyland, Californians, etc. But the number one has to be the bizarre role of voter initiatives and proposals, which exist in many states (not much in NM, though) but seem to have their roots in the most populous state in the union. To me, voting on laws is, to use a term that gets too much play by the right, un-American. In a three-branch government, we elect legislators to enact laws, an executive branch to enforce them, and a judiciary to ensure the constitutionality of laws. Skipping the whole process seems narcissistic of voters and an abdication of the duties of the legislature. It just bugs me.

The good folks in the Golden State seem to have taken this to the extreme by making constitutional amendments a matter of electoral politics, and the new big issue is this year’s Proposition 8. (I’m on the outside looking in, but will a simple majority make this part of the state’s constitution? Is it that easy to amend the constitution of California? Doesn’t this freak everyone else out?) Here’s why I oppose the proposition, and why, if fate had me in California, I would be torn on what to do in November.

I believe in the separation of church and state written into the Bill of Rights and espoused by the founders of this nation. The tyranny of state religion in Europe, as well as the early history of what would become the first 13 states in this nation, convinced Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al that there could be no freedom without freedom of religion. That initially was meant to permit a narrow band of orthodox Protestant faiths (and in some places tolerance of Catholicism), but, being what it is, America soon invited new religious expressions.

Even with the constitutional protection afforded to religious expression, the early founders of my faith were the objects of immense and indefensible hate and violence. Brigham Young is rightfully acknowledged with having created one of the most religiously tolerant political atmospheres of the late-19th century, in part, I believe, because he and his contemporaries had seen too much of religious intolerance to permit it in the Salt Lake Valley.

But I also believe that both church and state—when operating ethically—must permit both expression of faith and expression of doubt, that the non-religious (and even the irreligious) must have the same rights to conscience as the ardent believer. To act otherwise is to invite hypocrisy and scorn, the polar opposites of faith and love.

In our day this also translates to an acknowledging of diversity regarding sexual orientation. The leap may seem big, but here’s how it goes, in my mind. I believe that marriage between a man and a woman, solemnized by the authority of God’s priesthood in a House of the Lord, binds husband and wife together through the eternities. Most people on the earth do not believe this, and, as such, do not live the lifestyle I have chosen to follow. I have no legal right to deny them the right to marry simply because they do not marry the way I do or live the way I do. And to pretend to have such a right would make a mockery of the faith I profess.

Among those who believe differently from me are those who believe that a consensual sexual relationship between two adults of the same gender is moral and acceptable. To deny them the legal rights I enjoy as a married man is, to me, no different than denying that right to a non-Mormon couple, or a non-sealed Mormon couple. My belief is different than theirs, but in a political sense, no more or less valid.

Recently, the church published a document explaining why it supports—and asks it members to support—Proposition 8 in California. (Full disclosure--I have thought about this issue for years, and this is the first piece that made me consider the argument against same-sex marriage to be more than blatant homophobia--my first read was a profound experience.) The document makes some solid claims and presents some true concerns with the widespread legal recognition of same-sex marriage. It largely amounts to a slippery-slope argument: if same-sex marriage is legally recognized, then institutions that do not recognize those unions face government prosecution and the repeal of tax exempt status. To me, this is a fallacious argument. That is not to say that such efforts would not happen, but they seem separate from the immediate issue; to me, marriage and religious freedom (which must be protected, and if threatened, must be defended), while related, are not inseparable issues.

As an aside, I am very disturbed by language such as this, from the Protect Marriage website: “earlier this year, four activist judges based in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people's vote, legalizing same-sex marriage.” This issue, like many, seems to rely entirely on demonizing one branch of the government. Judges should be activists; their job is to ensure that laws are enforced equitably and that such laws do not violate the higher law of the constitution. That’s activism by nature

The right seems convinced that the only way to fight a ruling they don’t like is to call out, intimidate, and threaten judges. Or, ala Bush administration, ignore and disobey the courts of the land. It’s a dangerous mentality, one that I hear too often in church. For example, at a recent Stake Conference, a visiting Area Authority—with no background in law—spoke on this issue and referred to the 5-4 decision in California permitting same-sex marriage as judicial activism against the will of the vast (61%) majority of California voters from the 200 initiative. In the judiciary, a 5-4 decision is as valid as a unanimous one, at least in legal terms. To denigrate the judiciary, rather than fighting for intelligent legislation and the sane crafting of legal positions, is a real threat to American democracy.

So, what would I do if I lived in California? I’m not sure, which may sound odd, given the rhetoric of the preceding paragraphs. I believe strongly what I have said, but at the end of the day, would I vote against the proposition? I can’t say for sure. I also believe that prophets and apostles lead this church for a reason—namely, that they have wisdom and inspiration that I lack. It would be a much harder decision in practice than in theory. So, for the time being, I’ll rant, link to sites such as this, and be thankful I live here, not there.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Thinking Conservative

After my last post, it's easy to read me as more liberal than I am (although the unexpected agreement from the in-laws is nice), so here's another voice. My wife's former roommate's husband, a die-hard conservative, blogs about his concerns about Palin. Good stuff. Note too Becky's comment--among the best stuff I've read online in some time.

Here's my beef with Palin. It's easy to dismiss the VP candidate as irrelevant, but haven't we had 8 eight years of an angry, far-right, ideological, stubborn, gun-toting, hard-headed, stiffnecked #2? I'm just sayin'...

Another time I'll explore in more detail the hypocrisy of this past week in the McCain camp (here's a preview--the Hillary love-in that was last Friday's announcement of Palin on the ticket--what was that?!?).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My First Purely Partisan Piece! (Here, at Least...)

I've tried to make this blog pretty neutral so far, but it's time to pull out my bias. I'm voting for Obama (no big surprise, right?). What is surprising is how many other people are too. We are a traditionally conservative people, but a lot of members of the church are at least considering voting for the Democratic nominee. Some are doing this because they don't like McCain, either because he's not conservative enough (they call themselves "suicide voters," which is awfully macabre) or because of how the anti-Mormon mess of the GOP primary went down, or because of growing anti-Bush sentiments across the board. But here's my thinking.

To me, Obama represents a real chance to move beyond some of the most divisive issues of our day. Some see this as simply a reinvention of Clinton-style triangulation, but it seems to me that we have a sincere sense of rethinking the big issues, from government spending to abortion to foreign policy. This transcends simply opposing the Iraq war and speaks to a deeper desire to address the things that haunt this country. How do we cope with a history of racism? How do we best combat threats to national security? What is the relationship between government and individuals?

I also like the thoughtfulness embodied in what Obama is doing. When he speaks, I don't hear the sharp barbs of much contemporary political discourse, nor do I hear the lofty but empty rhetoric ascribed to Obama by both the right and some disaffected Hillary supporters. Instead I hear a level of intelligence that, to be blunt, has been decidedly absent from the executive branch (and I don't mean that simply as a jab at Bush; I feel that the entire administration has been defined by recklessness, from tax cuts to foreign policy). I happen to like my politicians smart; I like when they weigh issues and seek solutions.

This definitely seems to be missing from McCain. His maverick persona is fine, but he says and does too many reckless things to earn my trust. From the infamous "Bomb Iran" karaoke number to his stuporous look when asked to define "middle-class" to the erupting mess that is Palin, I get very nervous when I imagine someone of McCain's temperament with his finger on the button. The "experience" angle notwithstanding, I find McCain unnerving.

There's one last issue: my faith. I believe in the power that resides in all of us to change, and I believe that this message is at the core of the life I seek to lead. Mormonism itself is based on the doctrine that we can, through the grace of God, become better, but only by acknowledging the need to abandon what doesn't work and to then adopt what does work, to repent and change. And I believe this applies not only to individuals, but to families, communities, and nations. If a war is unjust, you end it. If economic disparity leaves millions poor while a few live in wasteful wealth, you seek reform. If a great nation is viewed by both its allies and enemies as reckless and short-sighted, you reconsider your vision of the world and your place in it. I don't expect that 20 January 2009 will be the end of these woes (I'm still jaded enough to be a bit cynical), but I believe that it can be a step in the right direction, and I believe that is worth my meager vote.

Along those lines, I recently found a piece that, while several months old, is compelling, and captures many of my own thoughts about the junior Senator from Illinois.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Slow Day, But a Great Site

I'm back to work today, so I will blog briefly to pass along this site, called Electoral Vote, which provides statewide poll results and aggregates that with electoral data to give a red/blue national overview. Really interesting; according to the most recent statewide polls, Obama wins the electoral vote, picking up Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. And Virginia's a dead tie. There's also a run-down of the Senate and interesting house races. Some of the polling data is old, but on the whole this is good enough that I've subscribed to the RSS feed...