07 August 2011

Gambling Away Their Future

In the basement of the building where my office is located, there is a small convenience store.  I go down there at least once a week for a mid-afternoon snack if the day seems to be dragging on too long.  Without fail, every single time I am in the shop, at least one other person in the shop is buying a Texas state lottery ticket.  From what I can tell, there appear to be about 20 "games" or variations on the lottery going on in this state at any given time, as the store has a counter to ceiling display of the various tickets, scratch-offs, etc.

I have always lived in places, and associated with people a majority of whom find the idea of a lottery (and by extension, gambling) morally objectionable.  Though I am certain that there is some individual variation, the most common explanation for this opinion is that gambling or a lottery is trying to get something ($) for no honest labor.  I follow that reasoning, and I can understand why it makes sense to some people as a principle on which to object to gambling.  On the other hand, it goes too far.  You could use the same criterion to reject a great many other things that these same people find totally unobjectionable, including: the stock market* (explained below), multi-level marketing, and large estate-tax-free inheritances.

The lottery, and the numerous participants that I see on an almost daily basis, bother me for another reason-- lotteries exploit the poor.  My observations, which I am reasonably certain could be backed up by more rigorous statistical evidence, are that the people I see buying into the lottery are not the other well-compensated professionals that inhabit my building.  Rather, they are the secretaries, the other support staff, security guards, etc.  The existence of lotteries are evidence that the broader economic system is broken, that so-called "honest" labor is not deemed to pay well enough, and that resort to other, less-certain means is desirable.  Lotteries naturally prey on the human inability to appropriately account for risk, reward and probability.  We are born optimists.  But worse, they prey on desperation, status/class anxiety resulting from inequality, and greed born of deprivation.

*Except for people who are granted stock options in their employer, most investors hold equity positions in companies that they do not work for.  In addition, some employees who are granted stock options are not in any personal position to affect the performance of those investments.  To those two groups, a stock's price would fluctuate, and generate gains or losses, solely on chance and the efforts of other people.  Thus, there is arguably no moral difference (there is certainly an economic difference) between gambling and investing.  One could argue that investment gains, like interest on a bond, are the price investors charge for the use of their money as capital in an enterprise, but that same logic would purify lotteries and gambling that are directed towards education or other socially salutary purposes (e.g. NC and TX)

26 July 2011

The Debt Ceiling and Collective Punishment

There is a strong (and growing) chance that, barring an epidemic of reasonableness breaking out in the nation's capital, the US will default on its debts sometime in early August, perhaps as early as a week from today.  At that point, the government will not be able to meet all of its financial obligations, including interest payments on the debt, Social Security payments, Medicare reimbursement, etc.  However, it will continue to be able to meet some of those obligations.  Therefore, one effect would be that the President and his administration would have to prioritize certain kinds of payments that would be made first, while other types of payments may not be made at all.

As long as priorities have to be set, I would like to see the following: instead of cutting of Medicare, Social Security, military salaries, etc. entirely, let's cut them only in those states whose Senators will not support a clean debt limit hike.  Every state has two Senators (that makes assigning responsibility easier than by representation in the House of Representatives, which varies widely by state), so if both your Senators support, or reject, a debt ceiling hike, you get 100%, or 0%, respectively, of whatever money the federal government is able to set aside for those purposes.  If your state is split, you get 50%.  (Using Senators instead of Representatives also makes the math easier)  Its pretty well-established that many, if not most, of the states whose Senators will likely reject a clean debt ceiling hike are government spending mooches, so they have even more to lose.1

Its a form of collective punishment.  Likely nothing will persuade citizens to move their Senators (and Representatives) to support debt ceiling increases, or moving said leaders out of office, than depriving them of  their increasingly invisible government benefits.  Someone might argue that what this proposal really does is hurt the poor and the vulnerable who are dependent on these benefits, a charge to which I am particularly sensitive.  However, when the choice is between depriving all of the poor, or depriving only a portion of the poor (and a disproportionate number of the white rural poor who voted Republican at that), I would almost always choose the latter.  But, as the cliche goes, elections have consequences, and they ought not to just have consequences for the ruling class, but for those that elect them.

I'm fully aware of how politically infeasible this kind of proposal would be.  Collective punishment is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war, and after all, politics is war by other means (Joe Klein on Gingrich in the New Yorker).  Any President who tried it would be committing electoral suicide for him/herself and their party, since any swing state that was deprived would henceforth cease to be a swing state.  But one can dream...

1 I am presuming for the purpose of this post, and I think with good reason, that a "clean" debt ceiling vote would break down on predictably partisan lines, with Democrats voting for and Republicans voting against.  That means that NC (where I grew up) gets 50% of its payments, Texas (the state in which I currently reside) gets nothing (as does Utah, where many family members reside), while NY and CA would get 100%.

05 June 2011

The "Mammon of Unrighteousness" and the Means of Production

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to teach a Sunday School class that focused on Jesus' teachings on wealth and material goods as found in the New Testament.  Part of the assigned reading came from Luke 16 and the parable of the unjust steward.  I will confess that I have always thought this particular story and especially the moral that Jesus seems to draw from it incredibly puzzling.  Following the parable (which briefly is the story of a servant, who upon being notified that he is being fired, cheats his master by writing down the debts of his master's debtors), Jesus proclaims, "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when y fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." (Luke 16:9).  Like I said before, I find this advice puzzling.  Jesus (both through the parable and in his counsel afterwards) seems to applaud the actions of the dishonest steward, and encourage his followers to make friends of those who appreciate ill-gotten gains.  That feels strange to me, and not an entirely accurate reflection of the Savior's ethics.

As with many things, the problem is partially remedied by consulting a better translation of the Bible (KJV --> NRSV).  The NRSV renders the same verse "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."  The phrase "by means of" seems to entirely change the meaning of the passage, from one of seeking friends with questionable morals to using dishonest wealth to make the kind of friends that will be able to advance your spiritual progression.  Read in conjunction with the parable that follows, that of Lazarus and the rich man, this seems like a teaching that is much more consistent with the remainder of Jesus' sayings.

But what are we to do with "dishonest wealth" (or in the KJV, the "mammon of unrighteousness")?  As I read it, Jesus has completely glossed over the issue of teaching how wealth ought to be obtained and moved ahead to how we ought to use it.  In our time (not unlike Jesus' own), the systems and methods of wealth accumulation are morally suspect.  To a greater or lesser extent, the wealth and goods of this world and the economic systems that produce them necessitate the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of the environment, the tearing apart of the social fabric through inequality, and other assorted evils.  Even if we do not directly participate in these systems on the production side, our mass consumerism taints our wealth (if not necessarily our income) and possessions by association and makes us, at the very least, complicit in such injustices.  Thus, we all are proud owners of the model-year top-of-the-line mammon of unrighteousness and Satan controls the means of its production.

Again, I think that Jesus glosses over this step, not because it is not important, but because he assumes it.  Only those of us most committed to radically separating ourselves from the world's means of production and consumption (meaning a kind of "living off the grid") could hope to escape this guilt-by-association.  Rather, Jesus fruitfully turns to the question of what we can do to remedy the guilt.  His answer: "make friends."  What does that mean? I believe that it means to use the mammon of unrighteousness to cure those ills and harms that were caused through its production-- to feed and clothe the poor, to smooth the rough edges of the economy on the least fortunate, and to break down walls of class, privilege, and division.

This is not a call to renounce all money (though such an imperative is not difficult to find in the Gospels).  Money and wealth are necessary to provide for our families and to aid in building up our communities.  Out of this necessity, we make whatever psychological and spiritual accommodation we have to with the decidedly disinterested attitude that Jesus and the early Christians had towards wealth accumulation and a "middle-class" lifestyle, as contrasted with our contemporary dogged pursuit of both.  Absent the most radical kind of renunciation, we cannot avoid the mammon of unrighteousness.  What remains to be done is to use it in such a way that guarantees not only our present comfort, but our eternal happiness.

03 June 2011

Open Letter/Prayer of Thanksgiving to MTV and the Makers of "16 and Pregnant"

Dear MTV and the Directors/Producers of "16 and Pregnant":

I just saw this week's episode, featuring a young couple from Draper, Utah who found themselves pregnant during high school.  Thank you for the fact that she was not Mormon.  I know, its silly and naive to think that this same sort of thing does not happen to Mormons both in and outside of Utah; of course it does.  But you helped me avoid an unfortunate piece of my religious culture that I would rather ignore for the time being.  Also, thanks for the fact that she attended a Catholic high school and so was not surrounded by a bunch of judgmental Mormon youth and their parents.  That was helpful (for me) too.

That is all.  In the name of Lady Gaga, amen.

25 April 2011

Mi Patrimonio Mexicano (My Mexican Heritage) - now bilingual

Recently, a dear friend from my two years in Mexico contacted me and asked me to write more frequently in Spanish, so I thought that I would take that opportunity for this particular topic.  The English can be found in full below.

Hace unos días, un amigo querido que conocí durante mis dos años en Mexíco me escribió y me pidió que escribiera mas frecuentemente en el español, entonces pienso que este es el momento apropiado con este tema.  La traduccion plena se encuentra mas abajo.

Mi esposa y yo tenemos un hábito que, a lo mejor, parece muy extraño a nuestros amigos americanos.  Durante la Semana Santa y las fiestas navideñas, muy a menudo nos encontrarás sentado en la sofá o la cama, viendo programas de television en el idioma español que muestran ceremonias de el catolicismo.  Esta semana pasada, pasamos la noche de viernes viendo una emisión de La Pasión de Iztapalapa, una tradicion de casi 180 años.  Tambien vimos un poquito de las estaciones de la cruz por el papa Benedicto XVI desde Roma.  Y cada 12 de diciembre, nos puede encontrar viendo el espectáculo de las mañanitas a la Virgen de Guadalupe desde su basilica en la Ciudad de México.  Aunque no creemos en todas las cosas que estos acontecimientos simbolicen, y aunque estas ceremonias no pertenecen a nuestra nacionalidad o communidad religiosa, sentimos un respecto profundo y nostalgia por estas tradiciones porque los dos pasamos mucho tiempo entre el pueblo mexicano, y como resultado, desarrollamos un amor grande por esta gente.  (Yo era misionero en la Misión México Tampico por dos años y mi esposa vivia en Guadalajara por unos años cuando era joven, y despues servía como misionera en el estado de Washington entre los trabajadores inmigrantes, que eran mexicanos en mayor parte.)  Yo siento muy fuerte "de estar en casa" con estas tradiciones culturales, aun cuando no son mias, y este sentimiento va más alla de las casualidades de mi país natal.  Y porque pertenecemos a una iglesia que está tan pobre en liturgia, especialmente en cuanto a la Semana Santa, debemos agarrarlo dondequiera se encuentra.

My wife and I have a habit that likely seems strange to most of our American friends.  During Holy Week and the season of Christmas, you will not infrequently find us watching Spanish-language television broadcasts of Roman Catholic religious services.  Just this past week, we spent our Friday night viewing a broadcast of the Passion Play of Itztapalapa, a tradition nearly 180 years old.  We also watched a portion of Pope Benedict XVI's Stations of the Cross from the Colosseum in Rome.  On any December 12, you can probably catch us watching the birthday celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the basilica in Mexico City.  Even though we do not believe in all of the things that these events symbolize, and that these ceremonies do not belong to either our nationalities or our religious community, we both feel respect and nostalgia for these traditions because of time that we both spent among the Mexican people, and the deep love that we developed as a result.  (I was a missionary in the Tampico Mexico area for two years and my wife lived in Guadalajara for a time as a child, then served a mission in Washington state among migrant workers, many of who were Mexican).  I know that feel a deep sense of belonging in cultural traditions not technically my own which transcends the accidents of my place of birth.  And since we belong to a church that is poor in liturgy, particularly surrounding the Easter season, we will take it wherever we can get it.

18 April 2011

Two recent religion book reviews

My wife encouraged me to add more book reviews to my blogging habits, so I thought I would give that a try.

Just wanted to add two quick book reviews here-

The first is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by David Campbell and Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame).  So much has been written about this book elsewhere, that I do not have anything to add to the conversation-- other than that it has my unequivocal recommendation.  The authors do an incredible job of weaving sociological and statistical insights with detailed on-the-ground observations and vignettes that give the text a very complete scope.  For a book that relies heavily on statistics, it is remarkably easy to read.  I have neither seen nor heard of another such accessible text that gives such a good picture not just of where American religion is today, but where it is going.

The second book is The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat, a historian at Georgia State University.  While I also liked this book, I would add that it is mis-titled.  The title should have been A History of How Religious Persons Violated Other Americans' Freedom, which after all, is a pretty good title for a book, and could have been one quite a bit longer than this one, weighing in at a slim 294 pages.  The author sets for himself the purpose to explode myths of religious freedom on both the political left and the right-- first, that there is and has been a strict separation (or wall) between church and state and secondly, that religion is indispensable, both then and now, to the preservation of American freedom.  (Sehat also adds a third myth- the myth of religious decline, meaning that religion was once important to the American project, but has ceased to be so).  It strikes me that the first myth is an essentially historical question (Did the Founders establish a wall between church and state?), while the second represents a question of analysis that will necessarily evoke value judgments about the nature of "religion" and "freedom."  Though the two questions do not quite stand directly on par, the author gets credit for achieving the goals that he has set out for himself, though in a way that will undoubtedly be more pleasing to partisans of one side more than the other.

Sehat traces the history of American religious conduct since prior to the American Revolution up to the present time, purportedly by examining the stories of those who fell outside of the religious mainstream.  This is a kind of historical reading, though the eyes of dissenters, pioneered by Howard Zinn and others, and I thought more could have been done with it here, particularly with non-Christian Americans.  He manages to disprove the liberal myth of separation by identifying and examining the persistent influence of something he terms the "moral establishment," which is a loose group, changing in composition over time, but generally representing the mean of American religious life.  At the same time, the myth of religion's contribution to the progress of freedom is disproven by simply showing what a nasty piece of work the moral establishment was (and is), due to its reliance on, as the author terms it, "coercion" rather than more democratic means of "consensus."

The truth as Sehat recognizes it is that religion has consistently been tied into American history, politics, and society, but most frequently to the detriment of American freedom.  Here we miss what would have been a worthwhile leap out of the straight historical narrative of is (or was) and into the ethical framework of ought, a leap with which I understand some historians are predictably uncomfortable.  But the question remains worth asking: should a more solid separation of church and state been enforced? (which is to say nothing of who or how it would have been enforced, given that large portions of the most powerful institutions in American life either constituted or were heavily dominated by, the moral establishment)  Or likewise, what should have changed about American religious practice to make it a more positive contributor to American freedom?

Looking to this latter question, one area I would like to see further research and analysis is the capitalist-industrial-evangelical fusion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wherein large portions of the moral establishment acquiesced in and promoted the demands of capital over and against labor, and took the side of the mighty property owners against the working class.  Can we imagine an alternative form of the moral establishment which took the rights of labor and the welfare of the working class as a guiding principle?  Roman Catholicism did this, but at the time, as a minority under suspicion, it did not yet form part of the moral establishment.  Likewise, there are plenty of examples of religious communities operating under principles of religious socialism or collectivism (e.g. the Mormon United Order, the Oneida Community, the Amana colonies), but none achieved size or longevity of any kind and most were later subsumed by the capitalist hegemony.  What religious tenets or other accidents of history needed to change to create a group that could have served this purpose?

Despite feeling that Sehat could have gone farther (and that it was somewhat misleadingly titled), The Myth of American Religious Freedom is still a worthwhile read, particularly in an age such as our own, shot through with religious conflict, bad history, and Founder-worship.

12 April 2011

Extreme Advertising

On Monday, Amazon announced that it would begin selling its Kindle e-reader device at a $25 discount.  The new pricing comes with a catch-- the newly discounted device, given an Orwellian name like "Kindle with Special Offers" loads your Kindle with ads that replace the current author portrait screen savers and run in the Kindle home screen.  For now, Amazon promises that ads will not be placed within e-books, though one wonders for how long such a promise will be kept.

In the past two weeks, we have seen two other ad-related blowups-- first, the fight over the fifth season of Mad Men had at least something to do with the network's desire to see more produce placement in the show (a show about the 1960s no less) and second, the lawsuit over Time Warner Cable's allowing customers to stream their cable channels to an iPad tablet (which almost certainly has something to do with lost ad revenue for content providers).  For someone who loves books and loves reading, it is distressing to see the ad wars carry over into books.  When I read, I want as few distractions as possible and I specifically don't want a reminder that there is some other non-book thing which I should be wanting to buy at this very moment.

My wife can tell you that I love A1 Steak Sauce.  Indeed, I put A1 on many things that are not steak or even meat, including french fries, tater tots, and even the occasional baked potato.  I sometimes joke with my wife that to me, these things are mere "A1 Delivery Vehicles."  The point is that I don't want my books, TV shows, movies, theater, etc. to merely become "Ad Delivery Vehicles."  But it looks like we are increasingly entering a world in which nothing is worth doing for itself, but only as a means for rabid capitalists to point us towards some other commodity, which practically makes Mad Men a vehicle for prophecy itself.

24 February 2011

Value of a Life-- Going Up?

Just a quickie set of thoughts here.  On February 16, the New York Times reported that several federal agencies had recently increased the value those agencies placed on human life.  For example, the NYT stated that the EPA was now using a value of $8.1 million per life, up from $6.8 during the previous administration, and that the FDA was using a value of $7.9 million, up by more than half from $5 million in 2008.  On first glance, it seems crude to even suggest that anyone or anything, much less the government, can place a value on "a" human life, not any particular human life, just "a" life.   To some degree, many of us subscribe to the more Romantic notion that the value of a life (and in particular our own lives and the lives of those that we care about) is infinite and incalculable.  Nevertheless, there are quite good reasons to allow the government to set these kinds of values-- governments typically use such values in calculating the relative costs and benefits of a particular policy or regulation, and courts and attorneys use these values or those similar to them in order to compensate those who have lost loved ones due to negligence, etc.

But rather than defending the practice of placing a monetary value on a human life, the question I want to ask is: why is it going up and why is it going up at this particular moment?  The technical answer is easy: the value of a life goes up because Americans are self-reporting greater risk aversion and increased self-evaluation.  But why ought the value of a life to go up?  Millions are unemployed (and many for increasingly lengthy periods of joblessness), entire cities are being swallowed by blight (e.g. Detroit), and contemporary governmental budget strains foresee a coming time when the government will take a greater portion of our personal wealth (in some form or another) but we will receive fewer benefits and services in return.  By simple supply-and-demand, our current economic predicament suggests that our lives ought to be valued more cheaply (i.e. the supply of persons has risen (through population growth) while the demand for persons (employment + other productive activities) has remained the same or fallen).  Nevertheless, the valuation has risen sharply precisely when the US has entered this prolonged recession.  I wish I had some kind of answer, but for now, I am just intrigued by the question.

31 January 2011

More Sunday School goodness

Last week, approximately a month too late, we finally had our Gospel Doctrine class on the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2; Luke 2).  I decided to pick up the story a little earlier and discuss Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (actually Joseph) in Matthew 1.  We discussed a number of issues related to this genealogy, and I wanted to end by discussing the women listed in that genealogy.  Women were not typically listed in Hebrew genealogies (see the Old Testament), so this makes Matthew's exceptional in that regard.  Matthew's genealogy lists four women (five if you count Mary)- Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.  On first glance, not a terribly auspicious group.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah,  Rahab was a prostitute who betrayed her own city of Jericho (to the benefit of the Israelites), and Bathsheba was an adulteress for whom David slew Uriah the Hittite, which leaves Ruth, who went by night and after uncovering his "feet," slept beside a strange man.  I remarked to the class that this was a group of "scandalous" women, and apparently, as a whole, not one dedicated to our contemporary ideals of modesty or chastity.  A member of the class took serious issue with my depiction of Ruth as being like the other "scandalous" women.  Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that, even if pure and virtuous, Ruth is "scandalous" by her inclusion in the lineage of David (and later Jesus), even though she was a "Moabitess," a non-Israelite by birth.  Moreover, as pointed out in a footnote to the NRSV, in ancient Hebrew literature, sometimes a "foot" is not just a foot.  I'll keep this PG-13 by not making that point more explicit.  Whether Ruth was or was not a virtuous woman is really completely beside the point I am trying to make, and was beside the larger point that I was making in discussing the inclusion of these women in Jesus' genealogy.

The distressing tendency of female Biblical figures to fall into the Madonna/whore dichotomy (and disproportionately on the latter side of the division) is well known, and its too disturbing to elaborate on here. My purpose is to point out that we have an inability to appreciate and find meaning in the stories and lives of characters in the scriptures, unless they can be simply categorized as a paragon of virtue or a cautionary tale.  Ruth, in the LDS Church, has been cast in the virtuous role, and there is a cultural blind spot to those parts of her tale that do not seem to conform with this preconceived notion.  There are likewise figures on the other side, whose virtues are too easily ignored because of the role in which they are cast.  We ought to have greater appreciation for the fact that these facile categories obscure more about human nature than their elucidate, particularly given that the space between triumphant virtue and abject moral failure is one that most of us occupy every day of our lives.

17 January 2011

The Pre-Reformation Spirit of Correlation

I just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch's excellent book The Reformation: A History.  It's dense and long, but I highly recommend it as a one-volume history of the whole sweep of that period (see the link to Amazon in my left sidebar).  There was a particular part of the story of the Reformation that stuck out to me as it relates to an experience I recently had teaching Sunday School in our ward.

Prior to and during the period of the Reformation (if not also after), the Roman Catholic Church vigorously suppressed the reading of the Bible in the vernacular languages of Europe by its laity.  Pope Paul V, in 1606, said "Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?"  In Italy, those wishing to read such a Bible had to obtain the permission of their local bishop.  Given that access to the Bible was a support, if not a direct impetus, to the evangelism of Protestant and Reformed movements, the Catholic Church's concern has the benefit of having been practically prophetic.  In response to a priest who warned him against publishing scriptures for the common man, William Tyndale said "before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!"  (This quote was cited by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the April 2010 General Conference, and has been cited in numerous other conference talks and Church publications, primarily because of its appeal as a kind of ironic quasi-prophecy regarding Joseph Smith).  Particularly given the generally poor state of education among priests at the time, this prediction has unquestionably come true in our own age.

Now to my experience.  I have been teaching Gospel Doctrine in our ward for the past 14 months or so.  As part of the first lesson of this year's New Testament curriculum, which has the purpose of introducing the New Testament and trying to get class members motivated to read and keep up with each week's lessons, I prepared a short handout.  The handout contained a list of extracurricular resources, including alternative translations of the Bible, textbooks, recorded lectures, and study aids, that class members could use as part of their personal study.  In explaining the handout, I emphasized at least twice that the handout was in no sense a syllabus for the class and that these resources were purely for personal use as an enrichment to one's own study of the scriptures.  I made such a handout because I have generally found that Church members are interested in knowing more about the scriptures, but do not know where to find good material.  I tried to be judicious in creating that list of resources, and chose materials that could be appreciated by non-academics, and that generally reflected whatever scholarly consensus exists regarding the New Testament.  As a corollary to this point, with one exception, I did not list materials either published by the Church or by Deseret Book, solely since I assume that most members are familiar with the range of materials available from those sources.  At first, there appeared to be no problem.  However, immediately following the end of that class, I was pulled aside by the Sunday School President who informed me, citing and pointing to a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions, that we were to only teach from Church-published or -approved materials, and that he would issue such a clarification to the class the following Sunday.

It may not be readily apparent what this experience has to do with the Reformation, so let me explain-- I see a similar idea at work in both.  The goal is to achieve total message control.  There is no way that the Correlation Committee (the primary drivers behind the emphasis of "only-use-Church-approved-materials") could ban the use of the scriptures by regular members of the LDS Church, even if they wanted to (which I am not arguing that they do).  It is one thing to pull such a feat off in the nascent age of mass printing; it is quite another to do it in the age of the Internet.  But the Bible, like any text, does not speak for itself.  It must be interpreted.  Controlling the interpretation of the text is just as good as controlling the dissemination of the text itself.  For Reformation-era Catholics, removing the possibility of direct access to the Bible was a means of preventing the rise of a diversity of opinions or interpretations regarding the meaning of Scripture, or under a still more sinister interpretation of events, to prevent the laity from realizing the weaknesses or errors of their teaching.  Modern Mormons are, by contrast, allowed (even strongly encouraged) to read frequently from a personal copy of the scriptures.  Nevertheless, there are strong social and institutional norms that pull one's gaze away from "outside" resources and toward Correlation's One True Interpretation of the Scriptures (TM). Not least among these norms is an explicit prohibition on using non-approved materials in lessons, which is published not only in the CHI but in every manual produced by Correlation.  That the list of approved materials is extremely short and is entirely populated by products of Correlation can render the system a perfect echo chamber.  However, my experience emphasized not just the norm that the teachers were not to use or cite from non-approved resources in lessons (I made it clear that I did not), but that regular class members should not be given suggestions as to resources that they could, in their own discretion, choose to utilize as part of their personal scripture study.  This is total message control, not just in the chapel, but in the home, just the way the pre-Reformation Catholic hierarchy liked it.

I wish that, as a people, we were trusted more.  I wish that there was less fear about what was "non-approved sources" and less simple trust in the contents of the approved ones.  I wish that this incident did not feel like a compromise of my personal integrity.  Mostly, I wish that questions, disagreements, and doubts could be faced with boldness and hard-won knowledge, instead of shame and fear.

02 January 2011

Recalculating Eisenhower

In April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech entitled "The Chance for Peace" before a group of journalists and newspaper editors.  In that speech, he said the following: 

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Coming across this quotation several days ago, and thinking back to my previous post on the federal budget, I wondered how Ike's comparisons would hold up in 2010.  As I alluded to in that post, American defense spending sums to more than half of all the defense spending worldwide.  That means that the United States alone spends more on its defense and military than all the other nations of the world...combined.  Let's take a look at the numbers:

  • "One modern heavy bomber"- Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit (the "stealth bomber")- total program cost (avg./aircraft) - $2.87 billion in 2010 dollars.
  • "Modern brick school"- average cost to build a high school in 2008- ~$20 million.  Furnishing and staffing the school would cost about half this again, so we'll work with a figure of $30 million.  That works out to 95.67 modern high schools for each stealth bomber, of which the United States has 20 in active service.  That works out to nearly 2,000 brand new schools merely for those bombers currently in active service.
  • "Electric power plants"- recent estimates from different parts of the country put the cost of a new coal power plant generating sufficient energy to power 150,000 homes would cost $1 billion.  So instead of 120,000 homes in Ike's day, two modern coal plants would power over 300,000 (per plane).  It should be said that nuclear plants cost considerably more, equivalent to 3 or 4 such bombers.
  • "Fully equipped hospitals"- a recently constructed modern hospital in Waco, Texas cost approximately $32 million to build.  Staffing and equipping a modern hospital obviously costs a great deal more than the school, but even assuming a total cost of $100 million, a single B-2 bomber would buy nearly 30 such hospitals.
  • "Concrete highway"- to build a six-lane Interstate freeway costs between $7-$12 million per mile (less extensive roads can cost less than $1 million per mile in some states).  Even taking the high estimate, you could build almost 240 miles of interstate highway.  Perhaps more importantly, the average cost to construct a mile of light rail in the United states is $35 million.  That's 80 miles of light rail, or the length of my daily commute to and from Houston twice over.
  • "Fighter plane"- the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs approximately $89 million.
  • "Bushels of wheat"- worldwide, wheat prices are about $6 per bushel.  That works out to about $3 million for Eisenhower's half million bushels.  For $6, that gets us about 500 million bushels of wheat.  To make this a more useful figure, for each F-35, of which the military plans to buy more than 2,000, we could buy every man, woman, and child in America one and a half Big Mac extra value meals.
  • "Destroyer"- each of the Navy's new Zumwalt-class destroyers is estimated to cost about $3.3 billion.
  • "New home"- For the price of the average new home sold in the United States in October 2010 (cost $248,000), that means we could build over 13,000 such new homes.  For an average family, that means housing nearly 40,000 people, a fivefold increase from Eisenhower's day.

Obviously, none of the above makes the United States' amount of military spending self-evidently excessive, nor establishes that the alternative expenditure is more worthwhile.  But, as President Eisenhower pointed out,  every penny that we dedicate to building something for the military could have been spent in other ways.   Over the next few years as we hear the inevitable back-and-forth of deficit reduction, I expect that we will hear the words "non-defense discretionary spending."  The implicit assertion behind this concept is that we spend Monopoly money on the military, but real dollars on everything else.  Nobody actually believes that, but it is not until we attempt to lay out the opportunity costs of all those planes, ships, and guns, that it becomes more clear what a "theft" it represents.