Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Little House On the Prairie's Message on Taxes

As part of our Sunday evening family ritual, we are working our way through the 1970's Little House and the Prairie episodes. We're almost through season two and tonight we just saw the episode entitled Centennial, where the community of Walnut Grove prepares for the 100th year since the Declaration of Independence. Their plans is to have a picnic with fireworks and to make a new American flag to celebrate the event.

The episode begins hopeful. The government just announced the expansion of roads - a massive investment in the nation's infrastructure, with the accommodating promise to ease trade allowing more opportunities for the farmers to sell their crops.

The good cheer turns sour when significant tax increases are also announced. Charles Ingalls' savings is wiped out paying by the tax increase. More poignantly, a Russian immigrant family who had just moved into town a few months earlier, received notice that no property taxes had been collected on the property they purchased in the past seven years, and he was responsible for the entire seven or he'd lose his property.

The entire town was feeling mighty depressed about this turn of events and the entire July 4th celebration was in jeopardy. Everyone was feeling pretty miserable about their politicians and pretty miserable about America. They complained about how well paid their politicians were despite the fact they were doing nothing but robbing from the pockets of hard working Americans. One farmer had the audacity to suggest that an income tax was coming next.

As the episode progresses, the Russian immigrant does lose his land. Homeless, they are camping out until they are able to figure out what to do next. Charles walks over to offer his condolences and to provide the family a listening ear, but all the while feeling this anger at the direction of our government. The Russian immigrant instantly rejects the sympathy and says that it was his own foolishness for buying the property without understanding the terms. And he was hopeful. Knowing he could get more land and rebuild as a homesteader. He suggested that it was a privilege to pay taxes because those taxes were used to make investments for everyone. His own son was getting an education and that through his education, the son was teaching the father to read English. No other country on the globe made education accessible to everyone. Everywhere else only the well off had such access.

In Russia, by contrast, taxes were used to line the pockets of its czars and not to build schools and roads like in America. In a dictatorship, taxes enrich the dictator who is not accountable to the people. In a representative democracy, the taxes are used to build up the country for the benefit of all. America, he says, is the greatest country in the world for its freedoms and for its opportunities.

I think we lost this point, along the way. Taxes, in and of themselves, are not the problem, the problem is how we use those taxes. It is a privilege to pay taxes. Every time I drive around my city, its wide roads, its beautiful parks, I feel like I own a piece of it. The parks are partially mine. Quite literally, this is my community. And our family takes advantage. We attend the parks; we make use of the public pools; we visit the national parks; we drive on the roads; we drink the water. Given how much we are blessed, I say it's a privilege to pay taxes.

Not that our tax code isn't broken, it is, severely. We need a tax system that's both fair and broad. Far too many people with means are not paying their fair share. There are simply far too many ways to get out of paying taxes, largely for pretty dubious reasons. Business owners and investors have too many opportunities to make their income look like business or capital investments, shielding the money from the higher tax rates. This makes no sense.

I'm not sure why we think money made by a business owner should be more protected from the tax code than the money made by the laborer. Every single one of us has a role to play in this economy. The more productive we all are, the more rich this country becomes. The smart investor is no more valuable than the efficient and innovative worker. Why tax the two at different rates?

The problem in our country is not that we are necessarily spending too much either. The problem is that we have gotten into this mentality that we can get a lot from our government without having to pay for it. We need to take stock in what we want to pay for, then we need to figure out how we're going to raise enough tax revenue to do just that.

How big of a military do we want? What kind of global presence do we want to preserve? How big of a safety net do we want to provide and for who? Do we care about clean air and water? Sanitation? Do we want a responsive government in the face of natural disasters? Do we want to collectively ensure our elderly, those who cannot work at the end of their years, a life of dignity and a guarantee against painful poverty?

How much government do we want? Whatever the answer is, we have to be willing to pay for it. No other country in the history of this globe has ever amassed as much wealth as this one has. We have the capacity to accomplish beyond what we realize. And much of this has come because of our freedoms and our way of government.

We didn't declare our independence from England because of taxes. We did it because they were taxing us without representation. We didn't have a say back then in how those taxes were being used, but we have that say today. We only have to couple our desires for government service with a willingness to pay for it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Mormon's Sin

Not too long ago I listened to this podcast which is a recording of a presentation by Dr. David Christian, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Utah, and thus pretty well versed in treating Mormons. Incidentally, he is also no longer an active, practicing Mormon. In this podcast, at least, he criticizes the church on the way it tends to deal with those who sin - basically all of us.

One of the arguments he makes I want to take on directly. He feels the church behaves in absolutist all or nothing teaching that gets some of its members into trouble. He refers to it as a virgin thinking, where committing a sin once is just as bad as doing it over and over again. You are no longer a virgin when you slip up and have sex with one person, so what's the difference if you have sex with nine more. Obviously there's a big difference between messing up one time and becoming entrenched in bad behavior, and it is unfair to claim that anyone in the church believes the two are equivalent. But I can see why, given the way that these messages are sometimes taught, someone may get caught up in this kind of thinking. Once you sin once, when the stakes are high, you feel terrible and ashamed, your feelings of self worth plummet and it's much easier to just to do it again and again, and perhaps fall into addiction.

And I'm sure this is a more of a problem for those within the church. He backs up his claims with plenty of statistics.

He uses an interesting analogy to illustrate the problem with this. When you apply vertical pressure on a credit card it bends pretty far one way, and the more pressure you apply the farther the card bends. Let's say bending the card one way is analogous to being righteous and sinful if bent the other. So, if at first your pressure forces the card over to the good side, things are great. But if something happens and the card is pushed against the vertical pressure toward the other side, not only are you switching from the good toward the bad, you are moving much further to the other side and it's much harder to move the card back. It's very hard, living under this kind of pressure, to mess up one time, someone who falters, tends to falter pretty dramatically.

Here are some of the statistics he sites. Once a Mormon partakes in alcohol, they are far more likely to become alcoholic than a non-Mormon. Utah has the highest rates of on-line pornography use in the country. I think it was Italians he said who have among the highest percentage of people who drink alcohol, but also have much lower rates of abuse.

All of this makes sense as far as it goes. If you engage in absolutist thinking, you increase the pressure, and if a slip is made, it has a far more significant consequence on your emotional state.

I can't disagree with this.

But is this the church's fault? I think where most critics of the Mormon church stumble is they fail to fundamentally understand what the church is all about. Admittedly, this is my understanding of the church they are misunderstanding, and my perspective is also flawed, but let me explain why I disagree with Dr. Christian. Let me also try to point out how I'm trying to raise my children as Mormons in a culture that gives them every opportunity for someone to commit sin.

I think the biggest difference between the Mormon church and many of the other churches out there is that we expect much more out of our members. I think this goes without saying, but let me dig deeper because it's fundamental to what our church is all about.

I think, in some ways, the Mormon church is a little bit like Google in the technology industry. The church has no paid clergy. Instead, we are all clergy. Every single position in the church is not only important, but vital. When someone joins our church, they are not only becoming a member, but essentially, they are its clergy as well.

I love the scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants that brings this point home:

D&C 18: 14-16

14 Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.

15 And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!

Not only is every soul precious, but every position in the church is important. My two year old is attending nursery every week during church and is being cared for by under-appreciated nursery workers who are introducing her to gospel principles. My older kids are listening to the testimonies of primary teachers helping them to develop the foundation for their faith in God. I know we as parents are important to their success, but so is the broader community they participate in and the church is there to help them with that. Their souls are important to us. I am thankful for those people who believe the same thing. And they show this by their sacrifice. They willingly volunteer their time to help our children grow in their faith.

I compare my church to Google because Google hires engineers who are committed to the industry and each employee is expected to produce at a high level at every level. The company strives to have a bottom up development approach. Every person matters and is important and has a voice. The company innovates because each of its employee's are allowed to innovate.

In the same way, all members of the Mormon church are asked to contribute at every level in the effort of bringing souls to Christ. The church is trying to do something difficult and members of this church are being asked to engage in that effort. The biggest difference between our church and Google, is that Google tries very hard to hire only highly qualified people by making it very hard to pass their interviews. The church's by contrast simply says that if you have a desire to serve God you are called to the work. If more companies hired based on desire, our unemployment rates would shrink and our recession would disappear, sigh.

But as members of the church, we are definitely called to work and to sacrifice. So, yes, there can be pretty intense vertical pressure and yes, it can cause problems.

But there is another way.

In a television interview some years ago, the then prophet and president of the church President Gordon Hinckley was asked about this. He was asked about how he avoids sin, and was it difficult. He said matter of factly that it's not difficult for him at all because he simply does not spend much time thinking about sin. He found a way to remove the vertical pressure on the credit card completely. He learned to change the game. Rather than applying pressure on himself to avoid sin, he spent his life anxiously engaged in improving the world around him. His focus wasn't on sin, his focus was on being engaged in goodness.

I think this shift is vital, especially in a world where it's increasingly easy to get hooked into alcohol, drugs, pornography, and other kinds of addictions. This is the approach I want for my childen. Let them find ways to engage in flow enhancing activities. The world has really opened up in this way. We live in a world filled with teachers, really we all should be teachers. It's becoming easier and easier to learn just about anything if we have the dedication and patience to do so. Learn a language, find a league in almost any kind of sport, or learn a musical instrument.

As my children reach high school, I hope they can find a passion that consumes a lot of their energy. I don't much care what it is, just something that gives them plenty of opportunities to experience flow, activities that are challenging and fulfilling, activities that will help them develop an expertise in something, something that brings them joy. If they can leverage this passion to benefit the community in some way? So be it, you don't have to be old to change the world.

And sure, they will be young, and their bodies will one day be surging with hormones, and temptations will be all around them and mistakes will be made. I hope as a parent I can be loving, understanding, open and forgiving. I hope they will be able to feel that deeply. I hope that no matter what happens they realize in a deep way they are valuable and valued and have an almost unlimited potential to do whatever they set their minds to do.

I think in all of those ways, the vertical pressure of the credit card is released. Instead of being worried about moving this way or that way across an imaginary line separating sin from righteousness, the entire card is shifted, their entire perspective about who they are and what they can achieve changes. This is probably a lifetime endeavor, but as Christians, this is what we are trying to do. We are trying to raise the bar. We are trying to be like Jesus and that is a high standard.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Can you be a liberal Mormon?

Well, I don't know, but some people think so, but only with a mighty struggle.

The problem, here, can go both ways. You have mainstream, traditional Mormon's who have conflated Mormon theology with the conservative wing (is there any other wing these days?) of the Republican party. When conservative views get sprinkled into church talks over the pulpit or gets used in Sunday lessons, this can make those with different political views uncomfortable. Because Mormon's tend to be almost uniformly conservative, this kind of thing can happen with some regularity. But obviously, it can go the other way. I tend to live in a more liberal than average part of the US and sometimes we get someone saying something more squishibly liberal over the pulpit.

Much of this is unavoidable. We are all human beings and it's hard to draw a hard line between our religious, political and all of our other points of view. These thoughts will blend together and sometimes inappropriate things will be said. Part of being a member of the Mormon church is recognizing this. We have no professional clergy - we are the clergy, and we need to be hyper-willing to look past other people's mistakes and flaws.

But the church is not a political party and religious faith and political beliefs are not the same thing. They both are important. We are members of our community and duty bound to make a contribution, to be informed when we vote, and to help solve the problems we face. We are also spiritual beings who are striving to be guided through a very difficult and uncertain world in hope of a better one. In Ether 12:4 it says:

"Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God."

This is the purpose of faith and religion. Look at the words used: "believeth, hope, faith". These words, in part, point toward something more emotional then mental, a connection to something big, too big to express succinctly, we just don't have the vocabulary to describe our faith. The closest we can get is through abstractions using poetry or music to brush up at it.

But politics and science and economics are all different. We are put on this earth to develop ourselves and to grow. Part of our growing is to try to make sense of the world around us, to solve the problems we face, and to do the best to get a long with others. Engaging in our communities, working within our governmental institutions, voting are all essential parts of this. Of course, we don't develop our political views in a vacuum. Our religion and our politics intersect and contradict all of the time.

But I believe one essential part about being a human being is to be able to deal with these contradictions and ambiguities. One essential tool to do so is to realize how limited we as human beings are in both the physical and spiritual worlds. We know nothing which is why we live by faith. We are striving to know more which is why we have an intellect. Both our important and inform one another.

In The Social Animal David Brooks says:

"Wisdom doesn't consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what's known."

And the vast spaces beyond what's known is unbelievably vast. But to do anything in this world, we have to proceed with "confidence but not too much confidence". It's a balancing act every single day of our lives.

Listening to the poscasts on Mormon Stories or Mormon Matters, you get the point of view of liberals struggling being Mormon.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Poetry and High School

Why isn't poetry more popular? My sister recently sent me this poem and I loved it. Here it is:

Craig Arnold's “Why I skip my high school reunions” (1999)

[From: Arnold, Craig. Shells. New Haven, Yale University Press: 1999.]

Because the geeks and jocks were set in stone, 

I, ground between.
Because the girls I ate 

lunch with are married now, most out of spite 

--because the ones I spurned are still alone. 

Because I took up smoking at nineteen, late, 

and just now quit--because, since then, I've grown 

into and out of something they've never known. 

Because at the play, backstage, on opening night 

she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress 
an avocado and a razorblade, 

slit the one open with the other, flayed 

the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice

--because I thought that one day I'd say yes, 

and I was wrong, and I am still afraid.

I like this poem because I recently missed my 20 year reunion and still feel some regret over it. I didn't miss my 10 year reunion. I went to it with a lot of expectations and left with a lot of those expectations unmet.

I also like it because those four years of my high school life, which is really a tiny sliver of my overall existence, still mean so much to me and seem to have an outsized importance of how my life seems to have gone since.

I like it because I'm still afraid that I am the same basic person I was then, and in fact, I still am....

I like poetry because you can capture so much emotion with so few words. Can someone tell me why poetry is not more popular?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I've been reading some books lately. And in one way or another, sexuality is at the core of each.

In "Little Bee", a sexual encounter, is at the crux of every plot twist in the novel, and in most every case, these events lead the characters down a path toward tragedy - a rape and murder of a Nigerian girl, an offer of sex to get out of an immigrant prison, an adulterous affair that leads a couple to vacation in a Nigerian beach resort in an attempt to recover their marriage.

In "A Thousand Splendid Sons", the story is about two Afghanistan women who are each forced into a marriage with the same pretty despicable man. One is forced into marriage at like age 14, the other is added as a second wife much later but is also young when it happens, 16? The man is at first enamored, but quickly becomes abusive.

Finally, "House of Cards" is a memoir by Dave Dickerson who is this brilliant wordsmith who lands a job at Halmark. He's a great writer and the book is brutally honest - he exposes everything there is about himself. He's young, in his late 20's, but despite his natural intelligence and his obvious passion and skill, he lacks maturity and depth. He's self absorbed throughout which is what, in my opinion, causes him to sabotage a relationship with his fiance. I care about these kinds of things. At the first hint that his relationship might fracture, I google'd him hoping to see him happily married with a woman that from his accounts sounded perfect for him. But, no such luck. He blows it. He thinks he ends it because of her problems and their broken sex life, but the reality is that he seems to actually devolve as the book progresses.

His book ends when he quits Hallmark to pursue a PhD at a college in Florida. Let me quote him:

"I pulled out early the next morning with Dwight Yoakam in my car's CD player, and when I hit the highway, I felt like I was flying. The Life of Dave, 2.0, was going to start today. I planned the whole thing in an invisible chart on my windscreen. I would become a cultural studies scholar, specializing in something cool. Figure that out later. I would learn how to teach, and maybe I'd even like it. I would live in warm weather again, and I'd have a lot of free time. No more nine-to-fiving! Who cares about an eighty percent pay cut if you're getting years of your life back?

I would go to parties. Maybe drink. I'd have a favorite alcohol, even, and feel cool ordering it. I'd smoke a little pot without any fear at all. And there would be girls. Beautiful girls. Don't they sometimes sleep with their TAs? College! Why does anyone ever leave?"

And that basically sums him up by the end of it. He was raised an Evangelical Christian in Tucson. Has some very good reasons for leaving that church. He becomes a Catholic, for some really, truly profound reasons, not least of which it's the church his fiance belongs to. By the end of it, he leaves his faith completely and becomes an atheist.

I admit I'm being judgmental and maybe harsh and there are some poignant moments in the book that I want to blog about later (maybe). Let me find another person to kind of second my point of view. Here's one from an amazon review of the book :

This is a well-written, cleverly observed, and very funny book. I also found it mildly disturbing, because I think Dickerson sometimes reveals more about himself than he realizes. It's still not clear to me, for instance, that he understands how deep the divide was between his own 'romantic' but essentially self-centered fantasies about his relationship and his fiancee's actual needs and desires. And it takes the poor guy forever to figure out that some of his perfectly innocent habits are annoying the crap out of his patient but uncommunicative coworkers. At many points in the book, I felt simultaneously sympathetic and incredibly irritated with him.

From this thought, I want to pivot to this book I read some time back about Flow.

He has a section on sex that's worth quoting in detail:

At first it is very easy to obtain pleasure from sex, and even to enjoy it. Any fool can fall in love when young. The first date, the first kiss, the first intercourse all present heady new challenges that keep the young person in flow for weeks on end. But for many this ecstatic state occurs only once; after the 'first love' all later relationships are no longer as exciting. It is especially difficult to keep enjoying sex with the same partner over a period of years. It is probably true that humans, like the majority of mammalian species, are not monogamous by nature. It is impossible for partners not to grow bored unless they work to discover new challenges in each other's company, and learn appropriate skills for enriching the relationship. Initially physical challenges alone are enough to sustain flow, but unless romance and genuine care also develop, the relationship will grow stale.

How to keep love fresh? The answer is the same as it is for any other activity. To be enjoyable, a relationship must become more complex. To become more complex, the partners must discover new potentialities in themselves and in each other. To discover these, they must invest attention in each other - so that they can learn what thoughts and feelings, what dreams reside in their partner's mind. This in itself is a never-ending process, a lifetime's task. After one begins to really know another person, then many joint adventures become possible: traveling together, reading the same books, raising children, making and realizing plans all become more enjoyable and more meaningful. The specific details are unimportant. Each person must find out which ones are relevant to his or her own situation. What is important is the general principal: that sexuality, like any other aspect of life, can be made enjoyable if we are willing to take control of it, and cultivate it in the direction of greater complexity."

I think this is where some critics of my faith miss the boat when they claim that our church is too restrictive and that we place too many boundaries.

What our church does do is raise the bar for those who seek to join. I mean, it's a journey, nobody expects perfection. We're only asked to constantly strive for this growth and though it's not stated in this exact way, we are striving to find  this kind of growing complexity. And it's within marriage, within a family that this possibility for real growth is most profound. This complete devotion to your spouse is a challenge, but it's also worth it. And those who don't strive for it, will have no idea what they're missing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Come and See

My wife recently returned home from an extended weekend in Salt Lake and brought back with her a packet prepared by the Relief Society designed to be used as a study guide over 40 days. The theme of the packet is "A Journey with Christ" and it guides the reader basically through the New Testament. We decided to go through this as a couple and we had our first session tonight.

In it, there's a talk from Ezra Taft Benson with this rather profound quote:

"We are meeting the adversary every day. The challenges of this ear will rival any of the past, and these challenges will increase both spiritually and temporally. We must be close to Christ, we must daily take His name upon us, always remember Him, and keep His commandments."

When I read the word "challenges", my radar picked up because for me that word has some depth. Let me explain. If you didn't know, I currently work in the software industry, and one of the constant themes as I talk with my colleagues at work is the need to seek new "challenges" and opportunities to grow. We want interesting "problems" to solve. Engineering is fundamentally a career where you seek out problems and find new cool and exciting ways to solve them. We want to solve puzzles essentially, we want to get better, we want to hone our craft.

So, when I see the word challenge, it triggers something positive in me where others might see a negative. I feel compelled to offer an alternative interpretation of this passage different from the more common default one.

In so many ways, the world has shifted drastically. It used to be that we could be content finding a factory job working with the same company for thirty years, retire with a pension and be taking care of all of our lives. Most of the time, these jobs were somewhat deadend, with few opportunities to really grow, but we had security. That world, for many reasons is gone.

Instead, we have many, many more opportunities. For a programmer in between jobs, they can now bid for work over the intenert. Not to mention the many, many businesses being run out of someone's home using ebay, amazon, or etsy.

I'm not saying any of this is easy. It's a harder world, it requires a certain amount of fearlessness and engagement that they don't teach you in school. But it's also a more exciting world, a more empowering world, and yes, a more challenging world.

I love Seth Godin's blog because in it, he acts like a cheerleader encouraging you to embrace this new reality. I'm a Mormon. I'm a software developer. We home school. And of course, I love politics. I strive to remain a political independent, but I find I have most in common with those on the left side of the political spectrum, at least for now. On this blog you'll find mostly political posts, but a variety of other stuff as well. Thanks for coming.