Things To Act
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Some Sort of Conservation Law, Perhaps?
Washington DC: Lots and lots of Starbuckses; I can't recall seeing any taco shops.

Utah Valley: No Starbuckses; you can barely throw a rock without hitting a taco shop.

Thursday, March 31, 2005
House races to watch
Courtesy of National Journal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005
The Idles of March
Between hoopla over over some sort of madness induced by some sort of ball game (and not to mention the hoopla induced over House Government Reform's hearings into some other ball game), productivity in Congressional offices seems to have taken a hit of late. The fact that Congress is now in recess means that most people don't mind, though. Blogging at work--no pajamas, though, alas.

This article suggests it's a good thing I decided not to bother voting in BYUSA "elections."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Organic Processes vs. Static Endpoints
This is a line of thought I've been developing for a while, which is hopefully coherent enough to go somewhere by now. As good a starting point as any is last summer, when I was assigned to clean out the office I was working in, which had accumulated the standard debris that accumulates in an office in which student employees come and go. Organizing everything and throwing out the junk was a very satisfying experience. Somewhere in so doing I realized that I sometimes approach spirituality with a similar mindset or wish--if I can just throw out the bad things and organize the good, then everything will be in a nice order. Identify sins, get rid of them, and everything will fall into place.

I suspect it's not that simple, though. A better metaphor was inspired, in part, by this post. Many things relating to spirituality seem more like organic growth--we put in inputs, but we can't quite predict how they'll react, and powers we don't understand and can't control do a lot of the real work. We hope to get good fruits for our efforts, but recognize our contribution is much messier than in the previous metaphor, in which diligent work steadily approaches perfection.

This line of thought dovetailed with another one which I was playing with at the same time, in which I started thinking of goals in terms of "process goals" and "endpoint goals." A process goal involves doing a process with no defined outcome in mind, while an endpoint goal has a defined outcome in mind. Endpoint goals are things like visiting all of your home teachees once each month and delivering the 1P message, or reading scriptures for a set number of chapters or for a set amount of time. Process goals are harder to define, perhaps because of their nature.

The reason I invented this nomenclature was because I was trying to understand why I tend to struggle sometimes with routine spiritual tasks. I suspect it comes, in part, from focusing on the endpoint over the process. If I'm praying only to check it off my list, or going to church because Righteous People Are In The Church Building For Three Hours Every Sabbath, it naturally tends to become less than productive. However, my alternate strategy of ceasing to do these sorts of things is not necessarily much better.

I've found, to a degree, that thinking of these things in terms of processes rather than endpoints helps. We don't necessarily know and can't predict exactly what we may be getting from them, and probably don't even understand the real significance most of the time. However, we're not doing it to check it off a list. We're doing it because we're preparing the soil for the Gardner to do His part of the work.

Saturday, February 26, 2005
The passing of Hugh Nibley, at age 94, was hardly unexpected. It's difficult to know what to say about him--his life being the source of inspiration and argumentation to so many, and his works being so prolific. I am not academically competent (and few are) to judge his scholarship, but his works are still notable in many ways.

Saturday, February 19, 2005
Book Review
Thoughts on God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley

The book’s first six chapters profile one school each: Brigham Young University, Bob Jones, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas College, Yeshiva, Baylor. Later chapters look at feminism, race, student life, minority religious groups, the integration of faith and learning, and political activism at these and other religious schools.

The author declined to include interviews with graduates who had “since left the faith or decided that their education was a failure.” Two reasons are given: first, that such students will not affect culture much differently than graduates of secular schools, and second, that the book’s purpose is to explain why people do attend such schools to readers who likely can find their own reasons not to do so. This was a good choice, and I think it keeps the work from being seen as a criticism instead of a search for understanding, especially to those who have attended these schools.

It is definitely possible to read the chapter on BYU, which describes the author’s interviews and experiences with the students she met, and come away thinking that BYU students are strange or overly sheltered. But, as anyone who attended BYU will tell you, some of the students definitely are. Some of the author’s generalizations didn’t seem quite right (BYU students often keep bags of mini candy bars in their backpacks?), but the BYU she describes is, by and large, pretty close to the BYU I attended. I wouldn’t always choose the same anecdotes she does as examples of generic students, but that’s more a matter of opinion than anything else. There are students there who don’t obey the Honor Code and who don’t have the same vision of what BYU is supposed to accomplish as the administration, and pretending there aren't in a non-recruiting-poster portrayal of BYU usually doesn't work.

Unfortunately for the author’s perceptions of LDS sacrament meetings, the one she attended happened to be at the beginning of a semester in a BYU singles’ ward. She is assured that “This does not usually happen,” but probably most of us will agree that we’d rather that someone’s first impression of our church meetings did not include canceling Sunday School and RS/PH meetings for two hours of “a combination bachelor auction—beauty pageant” where everyone comes up and tells his name, major, hometown, mission, etc. She also attended a CES fireside where President Hinckley spoke, and noted how most in attendance were taking notes, but contrasted another school’s prohibition on public displays of affection with the handholding, arm-around-shoulder, etc. she saw around her in the audience at BYU. (It’s unclear whether she connected this incident with her earlier citation of 45% of the women and 55% of the men married by graduation.)

BYU’s students come off appearing motivated and hardworking, at least in the classes the author attended. This wasn’t always my experience when I taught courses as a graduate student—but I suppose that since it was the beginning of the semester when the author was there, students were still taking every class seriously, and the whining for points and not studying unless an exam was imminent hadn’t begun yet for that small but noticeable (for the instructor) group of students who engage in such things.

The author was in Provo on September 11, 2001, and attended the prayer service that replaced the usual devotional that day. I was at that meeting; everyone was trying to make sense of events, and still in shock, and it was strengthening, somehow, to sing and pray with fellow Saints, in a way that's hard to put into words. I’m glad the author was there, to balance out her experience with what should have been Sunday School and RS meeting.

In the section on proselytizing and converting others, the author’s observations are that few students “are involved in missionary work while they are enrolled in school” and that “Mormons never do their mission work in the community where they’re from”. I’m sure there are some ward mission leaders in Provo who will agree with these sentiments. She contrasts this with other religious schools, whose students do more of this and must face the possibility that they’ll “alienate the other members of the community by trying to explicitly convert them.” It's interesting to read an outsider's view, which can point out contradictions between what we say we believe, or what we're taught, and what we actually do in practice.

Interesting details picked out of the book:

Newsnet story on the book here. Deseret News here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005
It's Good to Be In DC!
A few observations:

Working in a Congressional Office:

*It can be pretty overwhelming to be working within sight of (and occasionally within) the Capitol. Yet as with anything else one does on a daily basis, one gets used to it.

*The Capitol is an entertaining study in contrasts. Most of the public spaces have high ceilings, ornate decorations, and statuary and such everywhere. When you go down to the basement, you get exposed plumbing and a cramped catacomb feel. (You have to go to the basement to go through the Secret Tunnels back to the office buildings).

*Walking through metal detectors to get to work (and through more if going to the Capitol) is another thing one gets used to, to the point where it feels weird going to a public building without them. Not frightening, just weird--as if something is missing.

*A more paranoia-inspiring experience is opening the mail. Fortunately, it's irradiated and opened in a lab somewhere long before we see it. Unfortunately, this means physical mail is delayed for an unspecified period of time.

*Adding a sense of excitement to otherwise dull days are the periodic buzzers/bells going off indicating quorum calls/roll-call votes, etc. Even though routine staff are not particularly affected by what's going on on the floor, it still makes one feel connected to the rhythms of Congress (as well as meaning certain elevators are off-limits).

Living in DC:

*DC is a lot more urban than Provo. High population density and tall buildings give a very different feel to an area. Peak-hour metro rides make even crowded UTA busses seem spacious. However, DC-ites seem to handle themselves in pedestrian traffic much better than the average BYU-ite (the lack of impromtu mission reunions in the middle of a crowded sidewalk is not considered a Bad Thing here).

*DC also has a lot more homeless than Provo. This raises troubling theological problems, given BYU's discouragement of giving money to panhandlers near the Barlow Center.

*Speaking of the Barlow Center, the wall of the Great Room has several pictures on it, including a prominent one of the Savior and the rich young man. That seems especially fitting, in a city where so many come seeking fame, power, riches, and the things of the world.

What Part of Voluntary Don't You Understand?
One of the dumbest arguments against Social Security reform that I've seen goes along the lines of "I don't want a personal account because I don't know how the stock market works/don't want to deal with another complex choice/etc." If vast majorities of Americans really feel this way, the opposition shouldn't bother trying to block reform--we could simply enact voluntary private accounts and watch as no one used them. One suspects, however, that the opponents of reform are so passionate because they realize exactly how many Americans (particularly young Americans) realize what a bad deal SS is, and how much some of us are willing to pay to even partially be able to get out and invest our retirement savings in a non-pyramid scheme.

Postblogging the BlogTalk
My wife and I decided to go to a physics department seminar on chaos and complex systems for our weekly date this week. This might sound even more atypical than our "do our taxes" date.

Fortunately, this wasn't a technical lecture; instead, Ann Althouse talked about blogging and the self-organizing aspects of millions of writers forming a community. It seemed like an interesting audience to prepare a talk for--there were obviously people there who read (and write) blogs, but the talk also had to cover enough basic material that people who don't know much about blogs could get an idea of what this is all about.

The talk itself was quite interesting; there were a lot of questions about everything from why people bother writing to how blogs gain readership to the possibility of isolating oneself in a sea of similar opinions. The answer to most of the questions was (as it is with most generalizing questions) "It depends," followed by a list of possible answers. There are enough people with enough different reasons for writing that giving short answers about "blogging in general" is difficult.

It was interesting to hear how her blog went from 40 readers a day or so to its current 4500, although wide readership is not always what people want in a blog. Even though I think my coblogger's suggestions about voting should be widely discussed, improved, and eventually enacted, some of the other posts here assume a knowledge of LDS culture and practice that a wider readership is not going to have. And, as Professor Althouse pointed out in her talk, playing the "increase readership" game can make you lose sight of why you started blogging in the first place.

Monday, February 14, 2005
Contradictions in an LDS view of politics
I find that I often have an emotional aversion to LDS politicians that makes it harder in some ways for me to like them compared to non-LDS politicians, all other things being equal. I think this may relate to the ecclesiastical anathema LDS feel toward campaigning for office. Seeking a Church calling is 'simply not done.' Today's candidate-centered politics, however, require office-seekers to thrust themselves forward. Given that we believe that the Gospel should affect all we do, it's hard not to bump up against contradictions. How can true humility exist in a person who considers himself the best choice for election?

This notion may explain some of the ambivalence I feel toward prominent LDS politicians such as Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, and even Michael Leavitt. I am uncomfortable with the notion that many people's primary source of information about the Church will come about because of or the prominence of these LDS politicians, rather than, say, LDS artists or even (shudder) businessmen.

Social Security Thoughts
The scope of the Social Security problem is partially masked by the government's accounting practices. Currently, the money that Social Security takes in goes into the "trust fund," which essentially means the government spends it, promising to pay back SS when it needs it. This means that the total federal budget deficit has, in recent years, looked much better than it actually is. The handful of surpluses, if I recall correctly, were actually deficits when SS is removed from the equation. This implies that as SS expenditures rise and receipts decline, the budget deficit will begin to get worse, all else being equal. It's not just a case of needing to start repaying the trust fund around 2018. The government is incapable of running a budget even close to balanced without relying on the Social Security receipts. This points to an ominous picture of significant tax increases or cuts in spending as the demographic crisis gets worse.

I also find it interesting that Social Security is one of the few programs at the federal level in which the revenue source is directly linked to the spending. I wonder how much more efficiently government might operate if all programs were directly linked to the taxes that funded them, making the tradeoffs in their creation and maintanence explicit. This connection suggests several interesting ideas about looking at the problem of Social Security in the context of broader tax reform.

UPDATE: "Link" changed to "connection." I should know better than to post while tired.

Sunday, February 13, 2005
More Clerkish Notes

Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Quick Links--Commentary Later
Dems won't offer a Social Security plan.

Condi '08?

Article on Romney's faith.

Disturbing follow-up letters.

Cut Social Security benefits?

Monday, February 07, 2005
Of Note
CSED: $85.69 per South Dakota voter.

John Fund on the Gubernator's anti-gerrymandering initiative.

The Nauvoo Forums dicuss priestcraft. The BYU religion department is mentioned.

Saturday, February 05, 2005
The sight of Iraqi voters celebrating their new freedom a week ago was inspiring and moving. I wonder if we would not do better to follow their example. American voting has followed trends toward absentee balloting, early balloting, easier registration, and generally making it easier and easier to vote, even as fewer eligible voters bother (2004 being an exception to this trend). The reasons for declining turnout are varied, and declining turnout in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, I suspect our political culture would be strengthened if voting itself held more significance, and I suspect that actually going to the polls provides a more meaningful connection to the process, especially now that we've seen brave citizens of other nations risk their lives to excercise a right we take for granted.

Of course, American voting also faces significant problems with fraud. The Washington gubernatorial election had significant problems (Democrats also claim significant problems in Ohio, though they have considerably less evidence). Reports circulated before the 2004 election of high numbers of voters double-registered in two states, with no mechanism to catch cheaters. Regardless of how rarely election outcomes are actually changed by fraud, if voters see the system as easy to manipulate, confidence will decline.

I have a few suggestions:
*Require the ink. It's a quite simple method of making sure no one can vote more than once. One complaint is that this will make absentee balloting impossible, which brings me to:
*Require a physical appearance at the polls. You could still request an absentee ballot--but on Election Day, you'd have to find a polling place to drop it off at (and get your finger inked). This still enables out-of-state voters like myself to conveniently vote absentee, while ensuring that the person whose ballot it is actually filled it out. This may delay results in close elections, but that already happens anyway. Any voter in the U.S. should have little trouble finding a precinct at which to drop off an absentee ballot, and voters overseas could use embassies or military bases. States should be able to come up with an easy and secure way to ship all of the ballots dropped off to the appropriate states for counting.

Both of these suggestions would eliminate many problems, and not be too difficult to implement. We could even add same-day registration, since it would be impossible to vote twice. Democrats traditionally like same-day, but Republicans mistrust it because of the potential for easy fraud.

Eliminating gerrymandering and lifting limits on political speech would also invigorate the electoral process, but these would be more complicated to implement. Making voting more secure and more meaningful shouldn't be.

Social Security Notes
To the best I can recall, I have not ever heard anyone of my age cohort say confidently that Social Security is certain to provide for his or her retirement needs. On the other hand, I've lost count of how many times someone about my age has doubted that the system would be there for him in forty years. To the best of my observation (which is admittedly biased toward the upper-middle-class and more-educated), the implications of the demographic time bomb are taken for granted among young adults--and I suspect that the open disdain most of us have toward Social Security's role in our retirement is in large part the responsibility of the Democratic party.

After all, Democrats have been campaigning on themes of fear with respect to Social Security for longer than I've been alive. I don't think my generation thinks some evil Republicans (or Democrats, or anyone) is out to gut the program--I think we just assume that the program is obviously unsustainable in its current form, and thus don't count on it. And we're also d*mn resentful that the most popular "solution" involves raising taxes on us to subsidize fat monthly checks for seniors who probably don't need them.

I thus find it ironic that many of the same Democrats who for years argued that the system must be strengthened are now passionately arguing against any changes whatsoever. It is interesting to look at where we've been. For instance, Clinton mentioned social security in his SOTUs:


Now if we balance the budget for next year, it is projected that we'll then have a sizable surplus in the years that immediately follow. What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, four-word answer: Save Social Security first.
Thank you.
Tonight I propose that we reserve 100 percent of the surplus, that's every penny of any surplus, until we have taken all the necessary measures to strengthen the Social Security system for the 21st century.
CLINTON: Let us say -- let us say to all Americans watching tonight -- whether you're 70 or 50 or whether you just started paying into the system -- Social Security will be there when you need it.
Let us make this commitment... ... Social Security first. Let's do that -- together.
I also want to say that all the American people who are watching us tonight should be invited to join in this discussion. In facing these issues squarely. In forming a true consensus on how we should proceed. We'll start by conducting nonpartisan forums in every region of the country. And I hope that lawmakers of both parties will participate. We'll hold the White House conference on Social Security in December. And one year from now, I will convene the leaders of Congress to craft historic, bipartisan legislation to achieve a landmark for our generation: A Social Security system that is strong in the 21st century.

With the number of elderly Americans set to double by 2030, the baby boom will become a "senior boom." So first and above all, we must save Social Security for the 21st century. (Applause.)
Early in this century, being old meant being poor. When President Roosevelt created Social Security, thousands wrote to thank him for eliminating what one woman called the "stark terror of penniless, helpless old age." Even today, without Social Security, half our nation's elderly would be forced into poverty. Today, Social Security is strong. But by 2013, payroll taxes will no longer be sufficient to cover monthly payments. And by 2032, the trust fund will be exhausted, and Social Security will be unable to pay out the full benefits older Americans have been promised.
The best way to keep Social Security a rock-solid guarantee is not to make drastic cuts in benefits; not to raise payroll tax rates; and not to drain resources from Social Security in the name of saving it. Instead, I propose that we make the historic decision to invest the surplus to save Social Security. Specifically, I propose that we commit 60 percent of the budget surplus for the next 15 years to Social Security, investing a small portion in the private sector just as any private or state government pension would do. This will earn a higher return and keep Social Security sound for 55 years. But we must aim higher. We should put Social Security on a sound footing for the next 75 years. We should reduce poverty among elderly women, who are nearly twice as likely to be poor as our other seniors -- and we should eliminate the limits on what seniors on Social Security can earn. Now, these changes will require difficult but fully achievable choices over and above the dedication of the surplus. They must be made on a bipartisan basis. They should be made this year. So let me say to you tonight, I reach out my hand to all of you in both houses and both parties and ask that we join together in saying to the American people: We will save Social Security now. Now, last year, we wisely reserved all of the surplus until we knew what it would take to save Social Security. Again, I say, we shouldn't spend any of it, not any of it, until after Social Security is truly saved. First things first.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005
By posting what's written below, I have probably labeled myself in (a few? lots of? how many readers do we have anymore?) minds as a Conservative, because of my attitude toward our president, my choice of sites to link, my reactions to the speech, etc. There are also probably places where I may have thought I was being neutral, but readers will not interpret me as being such, since my words almost certainly reveal more about me than I think. As most people probably do, I hope that I tend more toward the "think critically before forming opinions" camp than the "follow the leader blindly" camp in political matters. Hopefully the evidence will not prove otherwise.

My choice of reading material has definitely been skewed rightward, but I suspect that many of my opinions would be more moderate (or even more liberal) if I were exposed to the right authors making the right persuasive arguments. ("Right" here means "correct", not "conservative".) Orson Scott Card's essays (the comparatively rare non-foreign policy ones) have helped me reconsider some of my views on economic issues, as has exposure to other LDS bloggers in the last few years who have spoken passionately about causes that are more often seen as the realm of the Democratic Party. And, of course, more experience in the world (including more experiences with people of differing beliefs, both LDS and not) seems to generally moderate the sometimes extreme opinions of youth, as those opinions are forced to account for one's experiences in the real world. Fortunately for us all, the misguided foolishness sometimes included as part of youth's idealistic zeal (often encountered at the MTC?) does not usually last.

I suppose my political leanings might be described, then, as "aspiring to the openness of mind of a true independent, and currently fairly conservative."

Not live-blogging, since I was putting a two-year-old to bed and then doing ward clerk stuff at the church, but thoughts as I read the transcript:

My overall impression is that a lot of good things were said, and if the hoped-for results actually happen, then I'll be glad. But I'm also pretty sure that we'll be far from a 100% success rate here.

Now I shall go look at others' commentary, and see whether any of my opinions get revised.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005
One of Life's Constants
(No, not e or pi or gamma, nor G nor mu-sub-nought.)

We filed our federal tax return the other day, and were impressed with the free options available for online filing. It seems intelligent for the government not to attempt to write its own software, but to let firms fight for the privilege of letting us use their software for free in return for the chance to try to sell us extra services (which we, of course, declined.) We used TurboTax, since I had heard people talk about being satisfied with it and because I don't trust sites with names like "" as much as sites with more sensible names. We were satisfied, since the numbers we ended up with matched the numbers my wife had already figured out. (Except for rounding to the nearest dollar; our refund is 25 cents less now, but we save at least that much on stamps.) The direct deposit option for refunds/EICs is nice, as well.

Is having our date night be "filing our tax return" to be expected when we both have graduate degrees in math and have accountants as fathers?

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