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.
- Approaching Zion's themes of antimaterialism and consecration are life-changing. A must-read.
- Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass is an excellent antidote to anti in all kinds. When I first read it, reading some of the charges he discussed was somewhat uncomfortable. Coming back to it having seem much more anti, I was struck by how much anti is simply the same tired charges, strung together over and over. It's hard to be unprepared for it if you've read TCSB.
- Virtually all of the works on the Book of Mormon are interesting and give fresh perspective on familiar scripture.
- Finally, virtually all of his work gives a sense of enthusiasm and intellectual joy in the gospel that I much appreciate.
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:
- The author pointing out that a girl’s long skirt and silk blouse are both tight enough to violate the Honor Code. Of course, this part of the HC is one that gets ignored a lot more than the facial hair part, I think.
- Temple Square missionaries overusing the word “grateful”. Do we really, as a people, do that? I hadn't noticed.
- Noting, post-church on Sunday, that “every conversation in the room is about marriage”.
- "[W]hat is most conspicuously absent at BYU are protests." And, without having them, we get the same results as most of the protests that actually occur!
- When discussing the "parallel spectra" of different sizes of religious and secular colleges (large university/liberal arts college/etc.), the examples given are "Harvard versus Brigham Young, Williams versus Wheaton, Claremont versus Thomas Aquinas". Those at BYU who like comparing BYU to Harvard will be happy to see that someone outside of Provo actually made this comparison.
- "Students seem to invest the administration with something approaching a sense of divine mystery." I've been there. Some of them do.
- The author states that the idea of “integration of faith and learning” “has become enormously popular at evangelical schools and has spread to the Mormon… institutions”. I think the idea has a different source, myself.
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.
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.
More Clerkish Notes
- This is a rather interesting unofficial MLS FAQ.
- MLS (the new Church computer financial and membership system) now requires each user of the ward's computer to have a username and password. This means that the ward clerk (me, for example) has to set up accounts for each person who will be using the computer. Most people do not want another unique username and password to remember. Especially people (like, for example, the Young Men's president in a ward with only five young men) who will, realistically, use the system once every few months, if that, but who need access just in case. And some level of security is necessary, since some membership (temple recommend expiration dates, for example, if said dates are in the past) and most financial (tithing) information is obviously sensitive. So telling someone his username is "YM1Counselor" and his password is "YM1Counselor" is not a good idea, especially since he can see that your username is "15thWardClerk".
- This brings up the wider problem, noticed by many who spend time online, of how to choose usernames and passwords for the many websites or email accounts that require them. The weakest part of any security system is almost always the people using it (in the cryptography talks I've attended, "almost" is omitted), since it's a rare soul who does well at coming up with multiple passwords that are eight characters long, contain at least one number, and are easily rememberable. And even if you do, you then have to register for a site where your favorite username is already taken, or where the passwords have to contain punctuation or have to be even longer. So you have to remember which username goes with which password. And you can't just write them all down on a sticky note on your monitor at work. And if you always use the same password, guessing it once will let someone access your life in too many places. If there's a good way to deal with all of this, then whoever thought of it is probably keeping his mouth shut, since talking about it would make it that much easier to guess his passwords.
- Once the new system was up and running, I gave the Relief Society a new ward list. Three days later, I was given a list of fifteen or twenty changes to make in membership information. I felt like they had done more to clean up the ward list in a weekend than I had done in a month.
Quick Links--Commentary Later
Dems won't offer a Social Security plan.
Article on Romney's faith.
Disturbing follow-up letters.
Cut Social Security benefits?
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Introductions to speeches don't have same impact when read silently that they do when heard. If I were reading Nephi with this attitude, I wouldn't be acting the part of a good reader. But, as hopefully much more than half the country would tell me (and I'd agree with them), this isn't scripture we're dealing with here, nor is it close to scripture, nor is it necessary to read/listen by the Spirit in the same way. In fact, being a skeptical listener/reader is probably desirable here.
- Talk of cutting government programs is nice; we'll see how many actually disappear, once Congress goes over the budget. The same goes for talk of reducing spending. Let's see some actual reductions before we get excited. If none happen, it's probably a good sign that there won't be very many for the next four years.
- Increasing Pell grants seems to challenge the spin that has been flying about how updating a 17-year-old formula with more recent information in calculations is obviously those Evil Republicans cutting education funding again, because someone's grant might be reduced, and we can't have that! (If someone is getting more than he should, isn't it fair to reduce his grant and give that money to someone who needs it more?)
- Again, speaking of curtailing "needless regulation" and "irresponsible class-actions" needs to be backed up by action before I'll be very optimistic.
- "Association health plans for small businesses" that actually worked would be nice. I'm sure my parents and in-laws would agree, having dealt with extremely high health insurance costs for their small businesses. How such plans would work, though, has not been explained adequately to me.
- Some would argue that there's no such thing as "safe, clean nuclear energy." If their explanations contradict the principles of physics I learned in my college physics courses and my leisure reading (Hawking, Feynman et al.), I'm not going to listen very hard.
- I've heard claims that the Clear Skies legislation will do the opposite of what its name implies. I have not heard coherent explanations of these claims, but I am interested in hearing such before jumping on any bandwagons. (Edit: Link.)
- A bipartisan panel recommending changes to the tax code won't make it "easy to understand" unless they decrease, not increase, the length of the code. This does not seem likely without drastic overhauls or complete redesigns. (Note: Linkage does not necessarily imply approval or support.)
- I'm not sure what to think on immigration. A policy that "permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists" seems like it might have self-contradictory goals.
- Telling workers 55 and over that the Social Security system will not change in any way for them is a promise that had better not be broken, if the Republican Party wants to continue its recent success.
- I think I agree with the basic principles President Bush outlined for SS reform; again, persuasive reasoning may convince me otherwise.
- Are personal accounts a good idea? Can the government do a better job at administering such a program than they do at administering some other programs? I'm not sure yet, but the guidelines mentioned seem like a good start. Enron seems to get brought up at this point rather often when discussing personal accounts, and what the executives there did was wrong, but this doesn't change the fact that it seems foolish to have your entire retirement account (or any disproportionately large portion thereof) tied to the future of one company. Somehow I think the government wouldn't let you do that with these accounts.
- Government should never undermine the values needed to "bring up responsible, moral children." I agree.
- Talk of how marriage should not be redefined by "activist judges", and nominating those who will "not legislate from the bench". This should make a lot of his supporters happy, if talk translates into action.
- Harsh words for Syria and Iran. Non-harsh words for Saudi Arabia. Interesting.
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.
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 "superEZworldsbesttaxreturns.com" 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?