Monday, October 27, 2014

A few thoughts on the LD26 debate

I wish I had more time this election season to carefully watch and blog about each debate in detail. As it stands, I'm having to watch debates sporadically usually while doing something else pieces at a time. And I'm only going to be able to post quick thoughts about them here.

Here's the LD26 debate for the benefit of those living as I do in that district:

A few quick points:
Nothing against those running against the Democrats in this district but it seems like the Republican party has given up on it. I say that because it just doesn't seem like the Republican party candidates are getting the same kind of backing and support as the Democrats. The Democratic candidates have more experience. Obviously because all of them are incumbents, but they all just seem to understand politics deeply. All three have an obvious and deep passion for it and seem to be it in for the long haul.

The two Republican candidates (well the Senate candidate, Dale Eames is really running as an independent), are just citizens of the community, to use their words, who had to be talked into running largely because no one else would.  Eames literally decided to run at the very last minute and scrambled to get the necessary signatures. Neither have much in the way of political experience. The Democrats, by contrast, have a stronger grasp of the technicalities of each issue.

In the debate, of the Republicans,  James Roy did make one really good point that I wish would have gotten vetted better, that increased access costs are squeezing funding for schools. We can't fund everything, keep tax rates low and close are coming deficits - a few brief mentions on the looming deficits were mentioned, but mostly only by Andrew Sherwood.

I'm not one to enjoy a fight (ok, maybe a little), but I want the candidates to go at each other a little bit, I want views to be challenged and defended, but very little of that went on in this debate. There was a lot of agreement around more laws to prosecute animal cruelty (I wish there would have been more representation to the idea that we tend to over-punish reflexively).

Andrew Sherwood come off a little arrogant to me. Very knowledgeable and passionate. I'm not sure how he behaves with his colleagues and there's a place for a bull dog, but an ounce of humility wouldn't hurt. I'm not sure if that was more of a performance?

Juan Mendez showed the most humility of three democrats which is good. He made some really good points about lobbyists and legislative pay. He's young and I doubt he's making much on the side, so he's really trying to squeak by on the legislative salary which is tiny.

Ed Ableser apparently has no campaign website? I guess he doesn't need one this go around. He was easily the most experienced and knowledgeable. Has strong command of the issues and seemed the most comfortable with the debate. He has impressive credentials, but he misses a lot of time in the Senate, though this likely has a lot to do with the Senate salary requiring an active professional life, his family obligations, and the fact that Democrats don't have much of a voice in the legislature currently.

I expect the Democrats to win easily. I know James Roy personally. He used to be a member of my church congregation. He admitted nerves, early in the debate, but I think he did well all things considering. He says that immigration is his most important issue and I disagree pretty strongly with his position. I'm likely to vote democrat for this race. Sorry James.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Getting Along With Others

I just finished reading remarkable book co-written by a remarkable LDS couple, Terryl and Fiona Givens. The book challenges me to approach my Mormonism in a different way. Each week is my opportunity to offer up my personal gifts in the spirit of true worship and it's my obligation to find my own watering holes outside of church, especially when the church service itself fails to do so.

There are two qualities of Mormonism that make it remarkable and unique: 1) The church is run in large part by a local congregation of unpaid volunteers. 2) These local congregations are organized purely geographically and its members are strongly encouraged to attend the congregation they happen to live. From this membership, the leaders are called, so quality and personalities vary.

This provides a unique opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and it forces global regions to self-bootstrap and to learn how to take care of themselves. A couple of quotes from the book illustrate the power of this approach:
Although not all family relations are idyllic, most are remarkably strong and a primary source for the individual's identity. Surely that is, in part, a function of the cost of individuals pay to make a relationship work. Love is a product of what we put into a relationship. We love our families because of how much we have invested in them, how many times we fought, argued, simmered, and stewed but were forced back to the negotiating table by an unavoidable proximity and by a connection that transcended personal choice. We love that irritating brother and that infuriating sister because we couldn't simply walk away in a moment of frustration. We had to submit to the hard schooling of love because we couldn't transfer to another class with siblings more to our taste.
Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, Mormons implicitly recognize that any resource they need to employ for the building of Zion must be found within themselves or their immediate environs, not among more congenial fellow Saints or under the tutelage of more inspiring leaders the next block over. These wards and stakes thus function as laboratories and practicums where we discover that we love God by learning to love each other.
and finally
Certainly it is in the nature of institutions to homogenize disparities, to stifle individualism. But the Creator God of Genesis is a Being who revels in distinctions, difference, and variation, an Artificer who separated man from woman as surely as He severed earth from sky. And love is the spark that fires across the chasm of difference, not the plane of sameness. This is as true of Zion as it is of marriage. The poet Coventry Patmore wrote that the bonds that unite us in community consist 'not in similarity, but in dissimilarity; the happiness of love, in which alone happiness resid[es]...not in unison, but conjunction, which can only be between spiritual dissimilar.'
This got me thinking about how I've fallen short in my church membership over the years.  I've always had an internal drive to live up to my church callings, to really feel like I am a strong contributor in my congregation and to really feel like I could be there to help and uplift. I've always wanted to feel like I was in a congregation that could use me, that appreciated my family, where I felt useful and needed.

But there are times, in this striving, where I mess up, when my personality comes across a bit too strong, or anxious, or annoying. I can certainly relate to the comedian Nathan Fielder who uses a socially awkward personality as a tool for laughs:

The point, here, though is that there will always be people who you will anger or annoy, or people you dread seeing in the hallway because of some past unresolved conflict. This is normal and human. When it's a member of a family, you are forced to deal with it. You just can't pick another family to belong to. Mormon congregations have to a lesser extent, the same dynamic. You can pick up your family and move to another area, but that's not always possible and certainly not easy. Better to learn the art of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. Better to face those awkward and difficult moments head-on. Here lies opportunity for growth.

I had this experience recently. Two of my oldest children are in a community children's choir and the director is amazing, pushing the kids, working hard and striving for high musical quality. She also provides some interesting opportunities. Last spring, they had the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at an ASU basketball game. I love basketball, so I took the kids and my other 5 year old daughter to the game. After the anthem was sung, the kids met me so we could watch the game together.

We had to arrive early and I misunderstood my seat number, so we sat in the wrong section. The true owners of our seats arrived late, so we didn't realize our mistake until after the game had begun. They were nice and there were plenty of open seats so they just sat elsewhere. Well, being a little obsessed about correcting my mistakes, at halftime, we got some food and returned to our real seats. Well, of course, someone else was sitting in them, so we took seats nearby those which happened to be directly behind an older couple.

So I had my five year old sit next to me, then my two other children next to her. This put me and my daughter directly behind an older couple. My five year old is short and her legs stick out a bit, precariously close to the man in front's back. I was aware of this fact and sensitive to it, but was hopeful she could constrain herself enough. Besides college stadium seating is packed, I didn't think too much of it. And of course I quickly got absorbed into the game.

After about 10 minutes of this, the man in front just lost it. Here's the exchange as best as I can remember:

  • The man, turned around angrily, exclaiming "Look, I just about had enough of this".
  • Me to the man: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry". Me to my daughter: "Please be careful with your feet".
  • My older daughter to me: "What's going on?"
  • Me to my older daughter: "I wasn't totally aware, and my daughter was poking his back".
  • The man to me even angrier and louder: "Man, I'm about ready to pop you one."
  • Me to the man: "Take it easy, she's only 5."
  • The man to me: "Well, how old are you!"
  • Me to the man: "Sorry, sorry". We finally move to another seat far away.
Unfortunately for me, the man and his wife also happen to be connected to the choir. After the game, we walked to the parking garage and I noticed he was parked close to where we were parked. And it was packed and busy, so I took the kids to a grassy area far away to play for a long while.

Worse still, we had three more concerts that year, and yes he was at every single one. I would look for him, inevitably find him and try to keep myself situated as far from him as possible. I have effectively banished a stranger from my life.

The new year has arrived and he may or may not be at future concerts (I will never forget his face). But why is it my job to avoid him? Perhaps a better strategy is to engage fully in the choir. And if I run into him again in the future, maybe I don't say hi, but I certainly don't walk in the opposite direction.

Maybe he was having a bad day, perhaps he was dealing with a personal tragedy and just didn't have the patience. It doesn't matter. Dealing with people, day in and day out as we do, there are times when tempers are triggered. It's our job to work through them the best we can and to keep striving for more goodness. And in the future, I will try to be more sensitive to those around me so that my young children are not inadvertently poking my neighbor in the back.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

On Liberty

In my Mormon congregation last week, a member of our stake high council spoke on the subject of liberty which is one of those principles that intersects politics with religion. To be honest, I can't say I was able to absorb his talk completely. It was long and meaty and we have four children that have a hard time sitting still through church meetings. But I did want to summarize bits of it I was able to get and to also add a few extra thoughts of my own.

Many politicians act as if freedom can only be granted or taken away by the government. Our founding documents act as a rebuttal to this, describing the unalienable rights of each person granted to them by their Creator. Government can attempt to take away these rights and have throughout history, but oppressive government is not the only way to limit one's liberty.

One of the principles taught in the talk is why obedience to God's law is the way to find both personal happiness and somewhat paradoxically, preserve liberty. This principle can, in some ways, be a rebuttal to the more libertarian view that society is free insomuch as we are able to reduce government's role to an enforcer of contracts. Rather it's a recognition that in our choices we can limit our own and another's freedom in ways that may not be obvious at first glance. One example of this is when we fall into an addiction. It's hard to feel free when we are compelled to behave in ways that cause us personal shame, embarrassment or worse.

But another less obvious way that sin inhibits our freedom is that it blunts our ability to experience the kind of growth we would otherwise have. This will limit our ability to develop talents and improve our capacity. And in the end, our life's experience will become muted and our choices limited.

But our country has in some ways done a poor job in ensuring liberty, especially for the poor and the non-white.

Unjust Sentencing
In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are so many examples of how we limit liberty by coming down far too harshly on crime. Much of this was an overreaction to the get tough on crime movement of the 1980's that still plague us today.

Three Strikes Laws

Matt Tabbai:
"Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose 'third strike' is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine."

"Like wars, forest fires and bad marriages, really stupid laws are much easier to begin than they are to end. As the years passed and word of great masses of nonviolent inmates serving insanely disproportionate terms began to spread in the legal community, it became clear that any attempt to repair the damage done by Three Strikes would be a painstaking, ungainly process at best. The fear of being tabbed 'soft on crime' left politicians and prosecutors everywhere reluctant to lift their foot off the gas pedal for even a moment, and before long the Three Strikes punishment machine evolved into something that hurtled forward at light speed, but moved backward only with great effort, fractions of a millimeter at a time."
The War on Drugs

This is an interesting one because drug addiction can cause enormous damage to an individual afflicted, but to think the solution is to lock up people, primarily poor people of color, for minor drug offenses is not the way to stop it... Well, it's like trying to protect liberty by limiting it. And it has had devastating affects. After spending $1 trillion fighting the war, we are left with this:
About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people -- yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.
Our Juvenile Detention Center

Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down The House:
"'The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn't gang involvement, wasn't family issues, wasn't delinquency itself,' Bernstein says. 'The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.'"
Our Sex Offender Registery

Sexual offense is a crime that's really tough to write about because it has such a high level of stigma in our country today. But the laws around sex offenders is getting irrational:
"American policies regarding sex offenders mark them as a special category of criminals for whom no stigma is too crippling, no regulations are too restrictive, and no penalty is too severe. This attitude, driven by fear and outrage, is fundamentally irrational, and so are its results, which make little sense in terms of justice or public safety. Like the lustful predators of their nightmares, Americans pondering the right way to deal with sex offenders seem captive to their passions."
I encourage you to read the article in its entirety but I will quote the conclusion:
"In a 2004 Criminal Law Bulletin article, William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus argued that 'sexual predator laws provide a model for undercutting…constitutional protections.' The process, Janus said, starts with a universally despised group of people who, like suspected terrorists, attract no public sympathy. He warned that 'we are at risk of becoming a ‘preventive state,’ in which the paradigm of governmental social control has shifted from solving and punishing crimes that have been committed to identifying ‘dangerous’ people and depriving them of their liberty before they can do harm.' To most Americans, I fear, this prospect is not nearly as scary as the possibility that a sex offender lives down the street.'"
 Development As Freedom

The nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, makes the compelling case in this book that the government should be proactive not just eliminating unjust imprisonment, but also in enhancing freedom and equality among it's citizenry. Sen summarizes this position here:
"On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we have individually is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us. There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements. It is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. This is the basic approach that this work tries to explore and examine."
Similarly, social opportunities of education and health care, which may require public action, complement individual opportunities of economic and political participation and also help to foster our own initiatives in overcoming our respective deprivations. If the point of departure of the approach lies in the identification of freedom as the main object of development, the reach of the policy analysis lies in establishing the empirical linkages that make the viewpoint of freedom coherent and cogent as the guiding perspective of the process of development. 
I wholehartedly agree with my high councilor who taught us why obedience to God's law is essential for personal liberty. But often times this is not enough. For one, none of us is perfectly obedient, and it's why the doctrine of grace runs hand in hand with obedience. Personal liberty requires a climate of compassion when we make sincere efforts to overcome past mistakes. A world where someone is locked up 25 years to life for stealing a pair of socks is a world where one's liberty has been unjustly taken away. Rather we need to live in a society where punishment truly fits the crime. Where there is a pathway for people to overcome their past mistakes so that they can live good, productive lives. This requires compassion and sympathy and a degree of sophistication.

But also, I might add, personal liberty comes hand-in-hand with social justice. We are free or we are bound together. A world where some of our population is deprived access to basic health care or adequate education is a world that is not free. Freedom requires a functioning community, society and government. Where resources are sustainable, the environment is protected, where basic infrastructure is developed and adequately maintained, and where everyone has the opportunity for self-development and personal growth.

No one is truly free individually.