24 October 2010

Rome Temple Groundbreaking

Three years ago this month, I published a post on this blog (one of my first) comparing my impressions of visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City with my first visit to the Vatican in Rome.  A year later, in the October 2008 General Conference, President Monson announced that the LDS Church would be building a temple in Rome, Italy.  At that time, I updated my original post with some thoughts about my aspirations (and fears) about this project.  Curiously, I still receive a new comment on that post about every six months.  As I checked my Google Analytics stats a couple of weeks ago, that post is by several orders of magnitude my most viewed.  Needless to say, I find this puzzling (if not a little disappointing).  The only explanation that I can find is that one of the pictures I used comes up early in a Google Images search for the Vatican, and that my post is one of the first links in a search for "LDS Rome temple" or some variation thereof.  I never imagined that the post would get the kind of readership it did; if I had, I might have done a more thoughtful and nuanced job of it.

The main thrust of the original post was my own preference for the human warmth of Temple Square vs. the stony opulence of the Vatican.   Some might say that I am biased, since I am Mormon and not Catholic, to which I would reply, "Well, duh."  I think that some took the post to be too combative and too critical of the Vatican, especially given a history of anti-Catholic sentiment among Mormons.  Maybe the "vs." in the post's title set it up to be too much of a competition.  Such was not my intention.  The point was never to put the two tourist attractions up against one another as proof of either institution's value or truth claims.  That would have been silly.  But, as I stated towards the beginning of my original post, no Mormon who visits the Vatican can escape the comparison, even if only in his own head.  In all frankness, while I retain my own preference (for reasons that are personal and biased), I am not entirely convinced that, for a more objective observer, Temple Square comes off favorably at all in the comparison.  More on that below.  At the very least, I was allowed to tour the Vatican and enjoy all of the sights without being molested by missionaries asking for people who might want to talk to them about becoming Catholic.

Many of the comments to the updated post fell into two categories: an overenthusiastic defense of Catholicism or an overenthusiastic defense of Mormonism.  (Note: While the post currently shows only seven comments, several others were deleted for content and tone).  One (Catholic) commenter accused me of having a "holy envy" towards the Roman Catholic Church, and chiding me for comparing the two where the LDS Church's contributions to Western civilization are so much slighter than those of the Roman Catholic Church's.  The two points are linked.  I will concede the holy envy point.  To equate what Mormons have historically created in the world of art, architecture, music, and thought on par with what Catholics (or those influenced by the Catholic tradition) have created would be a fool's errand.  That is not to say that all of those contributions have been unequivocally positive (ditto Mormonism).  But it remains an apples-to-oranges comparison.  The LDS Church is currently less than 200 years old, when compared with a history of nearly 2000 years for the Catholic Church.  The LDS Church has never had the level of political power or patronage that the Catholic Church has wielded over the centuries.  Nevertheless, the Catholic Church at only 200 years old had not produced any of its most enduring and beautiful patrimony.  One could argue that most, if not all, of what is most awe-inspiring about the Vatican (and by extension, the Catholic Church) mostly originates in its second millennium of existence.  I hope that Mormonism has a brighter future as it ages and matures.  Anyone who knows me would never mistake me for a proponent for the shallow kitsch that passes as Mormon culture in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The other set of commenters (primarily writing in response to the comment I referenced above) fall into the predictable pattern of far too many Mormons, that of a nearly congenital inability to see anything good outside of their own faith tradition.  Several LDS commenters wanted to compare the Vatican to the temple itself, and not to Temple Square.  While some of the fault lies with the comparison that I first proposed, there is a fundamental way in which the Vatican and the temple differ so as to render any such comparison of little utility.  St. Peter's Basilica (and the attached buildings) is a house of worship, but for nearly all 365 days each year, it is open to the public as a tourist attraction.  While Temple Square is a tourist attraction, the Temple itself (or at least its interior) is off limits to the public-- it is used purely for worship.  This is not meant as a value judgment on either, but merely to point out their differences.  Some of these commenters were too harsh in their critique of the value that the Catholic Church places on the ornamentation of the Vatican buildings.  That critique is off base first because it ignores that these buildings simply serve a different purpose from LDS temples, but also because it ignores that others' definition of what constitutes "worship" may be significantly broader than our own.

So now the LDS Church has finally broken ground on the Rome temple.  An architectural rendering is found at the top of this post.  I am pleased that the temple is not one of the cookie-cutter mini-temples.  As far as I can tell, the design of this temple is original, as I have not see any other temple with these particular features.  One cannot know what the interior may look like without attending the temple once completed (or at least the open house), but I am hopefully that there will be some originality there as well.  Despite what many of co-religionists will be tempted to argue ("The ordinances are what matter, no what the building looks like"), the image that the temple presents does matter.  If not, we could just do the ordinances in a barn.  To the contrary, the LDS Church spends millions of dollars on each of its temples (far more than the Catholic Church spends on its buildings abroad, I might add), precisely because we do care what kind of image these edifices project.  I am also heartened by the fact that the temple grounds appear to indicate plans for a visitor's center and an arts/cultural center (those would be the buildings to the left and top of the temple itself.  The building to the right is likely an ordinary meetinghouse).  I am hopeful that the Church will avail itself of the opportunity to feature art and LDS history that is local to Europe, and not put up the same ten or twelve paintings that we have in every building and temple elsewhere in the Church.

Overall, I am encouraged by the plans that have been put forth.  It remains to be seen how they will be implemented, but what I have seen leaves me more sanguine about what the Rome Temple could become.

10 October 2010

The Federal Budget Game

Recently this article by scholars at Harvard Business School and Duke University has been getting a lot of attention.  Its not a long article, so by all means, read it in its entirety.  The gist of the article is that, based on a survey of a representative sample of over 5,000 Americans, Americans have no clue about the present state of wealth (not income) inequality in this country, but also that their desired distribution of wealth differs vastly from reality (in fact, Americans would find the distribution of wealth in Sweden to be most agreeable).  While the first conclusion is worrying, the second is generally heartening.  The fact that more people approve of a more equal distribution of wealth ought to be celebrated.  However, survey results cannot confer on any distribution of wealth the status of "true," "fair," or "right."  More robust ethical reflection is necessary to determine such things.  Nevertheless, studies like these are not without utility.  They show us what people believe, but more helpfully, suggest why they may act in certain ways or promote certain policies.  This is particularly interesting when a group's erroneous views may contribute to a lack of support for rational policymaking.

I thought that it might be a useful experiment to apply similar techniques to government spending, and in particular the U.S. budget.  What I have laid out below are two quizzes, or rather one quiz and one survey.  The quiz asks how much of the federal budget is allocated to specific programs.  The survey asks, if you had total budgetary discretion, how much of the federal budget you would allocate to those same programs.  Please take both but follow the instructions carefully and complete both the quiz and the survey before looking at the answers to the quiz itself.  The effect is ruined if you see the answers before taking the survey.

First, the basics.  President Obama's requested federal budget for Fiscal Year 2011 is estimated to be $1.415 trillion dollars.  This includes only discretionary spending, meaning that the President and/or Congress can change the amount allocated for each program or department from year to year.  That figure does not include mandatory spending, or programs which must be paid out (i.e. entitlements), which consists primarily of Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, other income security programs (unemployment, food stamps), interest on the national debt, etc.  Many of these mandatory programs are not paid for through general income taxes, but through other forms of taxation.  With those categories included, the federal budget is $3.69 trillion.  The estimated deficit appears to be nearly the size of the entire discretionary budget; or about $1.3 trillion dollars.  I have not included every category of discretionary spending, so you should not expect the numbers to add up to 100%.  Please don't cheat by looking these numbers up elsewhere.  The point is not to test what you know, but to see what you think.

The answers to the quiz are embedded in the post itself.  However, the text is blacked out so you have to highlight it in order to see it.  Obviously, this is not a real research study.  It is mostly for fun, but also to make a point, which will be discussed below.  If you want to share, feel free to leave your answers in a comment below. 

1.  What percentage of the federal discretionary budget do you believe is spent in the following discretionary categories?

a.  Defense/national security (Overseas operations, soldiers, equipment, etc.)- 63%
b.  Foreign aid - <1%
c.  Housing/Urban Development- 4.5%
d.  Education (includes grants to states) - 9.9%
e.  Federally funded research and development* - 10.4%
f.  Transportation (highways, rail)- 7%
g.  Governmental salaries- 1.4%

* This number includes some defense-related research; therefore, there may be some overlap between this category and the defense/national security category.

2.  What percentage of the overall federal (discretionary and mandatory) budget do you believe is spent in the following mandatory categories?

a.  Medicare- 13.5%
b.  Medicaid grants to states 7%
c.  Unemployment - 2%
d.  Food stamps- 2%
e.  Social Security retirement/disability - 20%

3.  What percentage of the discretionary federal budget do you believe should be allocated to the following priorities?

a.  Defense/homeland security
b.  Foreign aid
c.  Housing/Community Development
d.  Education
e.  R&D
f.  Transportation
g.  Government salaries

4.  What percentage of the overall federal budget do you believe should be allocated to the following priorities?

a.  Medicare
b.  Medicaid grants to states
c.  Unemployment
d.  Food stamps
e.  Social Security retirement/disability
Please leave your answers before reading below.
Simply put, the point of this post is that anybody who tells you that they want to eliminate or significantly reduce the deficit by cutting non-defense discretionary spending is a know-nothing hack.  Nearly 60% of the overall federal budget comes from four areas: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and defense-related programs.  Of course, the reason that these budget line items were allowed to get so big in the first place is because there are interested parties and lobbyists pushing for more spending in these areas.  And so cutting them is more difficult than budget cuts in many other areas which are not quite so large.  Nevertheless, it is plainly foolhardy to believe that we can eliminate a deficit of the size of nearly the entire discretionary budget (more than 33% of the overall budget) by attacking only 40% of the overall budget.  (And at the same time when we maintain a military that spends more than all of the other militaries of the world combined.)

Also, Americans' favorite choice for significantly reducing federal spending? Foreign aid.  Of course, it is hard to see how we could spend less on this, and even have it show up in the budget.  The Economist survey to which I linked does not list government salaries (particularly those of the legislative branch) as an option for spending cuts, though I am certain that if it were, it would come in a close second, if not first.

As I pointed out in my initial paragraph, none of this information, nor your answers to the above questions, can tell us what is the "right" or "perfect" federal budget.  It is likely that many fair allocations exist.  Nevertheless, it is even more likely, if not practically certain, that the current allocation is suboptimal, and not simply for the fact of spending too much on everything.  My greater purpose here was to see if people could imagine more useful and prudent spending if they were provided with sufficiently complete and objective information about how our money is currently spent.

Some links- Death and Taxes; NYT Budget Graph
Note: I gathered budget data from several different sources.  If there are problems in the way I have calculated percentages, I will gladly correct them if pointed to a better source.  It is not easy to get simply, straight-forward information about this subject, which of course, is part of the problem in the first place.  One of the chief problems is that different sources define spending categories differently, and some calculate percentages based on overall budget, while a few look at the discretionary budget.  I have tried at the very least to be internally consistent, but I cannot claim infallibility.