Friday, November 24, 2006

Thou Shalt Not Covet – A New Perspective

Traditionally, we look at the Judeo-Christian commandment “Thou shalt not covet” as an injunction against wanting what other people have. But it can also apply to how what other people have affects the value of our possessions.

“Thou shalt not covet.” This basic part of the Ten Commandments means that we should not crave what other people have. In a day and age where some people have a lot more than we do, it is easy to consume our lives with wanting others’ possessions—the fast and beautiful automobile, the luxurious home, frequent nights out at the finest restaurants, cabins and condominiums in the mountains, and season tickets to professional sporting events are some of the items on my covet list.

But there is a different form of coveting that we don’t often recognize as such. This consists of not wanting other people to have what they have, because their possessions may detract from the value of ours. The problem is compounded in our eyes when our possessions are leveraged to the bursting point with our own mortgages.

It is very common for home owners to wish to limit the kinds of homes that can be built around them. This is often accomplished through zoning laws, which exclude others from building homes around us that would reduce the value of our home. It is fairly common for homeowners to complain to local government when someone plans to bring a mobile or prefabricated home onto the property next door or across the street.

We covet what we think we can change, while we ignore what we can’t. Government is involved in both.

Interestingly when government takes away the value of our homes, we either don’t understand that the process is occurring or we feel impotent to stop it. When government transforms a country lane into a thoroughfare, homes suddenly on the edge of dense traffic lose a great deal of resale value. When government takes homes and properties by eminent domain for non-public purposes or for less than fair-market value, most of its victims feel powerless in the face of the juggernaut. When government policies reduce the standard of living, a sudden glut of homes for sale reduces the value for which we can sell our homes.

When government ‘does it’ to us, we often feel powerless to complain, but when we feel slighted by our neighbors, not only do we covet what they have, we turn to government to ensure the short-term fruits of our coveting. Our coveting enshrines improper government practices, and we become much less neighborly in the process.

The recipe for general reduction and avoidance of coveting contains the following ingredients

  • Living within our means, both as relates to our purchasing power as well as to our real sustenance needs, sharing with others the means that we have left over.
  • Being satisfied with what we have relative to what other people have when they have come by it through lawful means, and pressing for legal remedies when others have acquired possessions illegally
  • Ensuring that government fulfills its proper role, both in the compensation for value lost through takings for public purposes, and in not taking properties for non-public uses
If we’re okay with what other people have acquired fairly, regardless if it is more or less than what we have, and if government contributes to the fairness and predictability of what everyone has, life is a lot more enjoyable among our new-found community of neighbors.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Banning Prayer in Public Schools

We have prayer in public places very frequently: the Supreme Court, Congress, athletic events, state legislature meetings, and meetings of city councils and county commissions for example. So why should we not have prayer in public school classrooms? Because such prayers might allow religion to exercise undue influence over our children.

Both houses of the Congress of the United States begin each session with prayer. Members of a variety of religions are called upon to provide those prayers. Something very similar occurs in the US Supreme Court.

Before being called to active duty military, I served for 5 1/2 years on the city council of the city in which I live. We began each meeting with a prayer. On every occasion we asked for a volunteer from the audience to give a prayer. On some of those occasions the mayor or a member of the council was the person who volunteered to give the prayer.

If we have prayers in these public venues, why should we not allow prayer in public schools? The answer is that the having of such prayers may unduly influence children in the public schools toward an acceptance of religion.

Lest by the tenor of this post so far you think that I oppose prayer in public school, let me set the record straight. Banning prayer in public school is bunk. Allowing prayer in public school is under no circumstances an undue influence of religion on children. Rather, the banning of prayer in public schools not only takes from children an excellent opportunity to be more aware and understanding of other people's beliefs and feelings, it also unwittingly encourages general intolerance among public school students.

Here is a simple solution that would encourage school children to have a healthy respect for others' religious beliefs (and such a solution could easily be given the force of law) It would not be an undue influence of religion over public school students but would have a healthy inculcation for general tolerance of others beliefs. Let's assume a simple example of a class of 30 students. In other states the ratios would be different, but in Utah, the religious population ratios might be something like this:
  • 20 of those students would be Latter-Day Saint
  • 3 would be Catholic
  • 3 would be Protestant
  • 1 would be Jehovah Witness
  • 1 would be Jewish
  • 1 would be Muslim
  • 1 would be Atheist
Based on this, for every 30 school days, there would be the potential for 20 LDS prayers, 3 Catholic prayers, 3 Protestant prayers, 1 Jehovah Witness prayer, 1 Jewish Prayer, 1 Muslim prayer, and 1 day of no prayer. Yet ultimately it would still be up to each student (and his or her parents) what sort of religious devotion (if any) would occur on his or her assigned day.

The societal ratio of religious population would not matter. Rather, the religious ratio in each class would be the determining factor. Students of any religion not wanting to participate would not have to participate. Students (or their parents) who do not support prayer in public schools (or for any other reason) could designate their assigned day as a day for no prayer.

Using this mechanism, the beliefs of all can be celebrated as having value, and tolerance for various people and points of view would become enshrined in the public square. As it stands now, the lack of tolerance for public devotion--especially in the public schools--engenders a tendency toward lack of tolerance for many other things.

Latter-Day Saint students in Utah usually make up a majority of each classroom's population, but this would not be the case in other States in the U.S. But the point is, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that every religion would be respected in the classroom regardless of its relative size with relationship to society.

Under such circumstances, would the religious (or non-religious) majority of children in a school or classroom have a tendency to tease their fellow students in the non-religious (or religious) minority? Would the members of the predominant religion tease their fellow students who belong to other religions? No. It is likely that there would be less teasing than there is--for other reasons--in public schools today. It is my expectation that carefully administered prayer in public schools (as outlined above) would have a tendency to reduce bullying and teasing of every kind.

Everyone believes something. Many individuals believe that there is a God, while some do not. But whatever we believe as to the existence or non-existence of God, and as to our relationship with other people is our religion. Yes, everyone believes something, and thus, everyone has religion. So the attempt to quash public expression of religion turns out to be a public elevation of the beliefs of those whose religion esteems there to be no God.

The very idea that we should not have prayer in public schools because it may exercise undue influence on children's minds is an undue influence on their minds by insinuating that religion is dangerous and undesirable. The greater danger is for children to be taught that religion is inappropriate and that intolerance for religion is appropriate.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Not Much Will Change

It doesn't matter which party gets a majority in the House or the Senate, not much is going to change in the way government runs. Will we stop unconstitutional programs? No. Will we cut wasteful spending? No. Why? Because our representatives do exactly what we want them to do.

I'm writing this post on election day, before the polls close, with breath baited beyond anything that has ever been baited before. Democrats pontificate that it's high time for a change, and so that's why they're going to take over the House and Senate. Republicans tout the recent improvement in poll numbers to prognosticate that they're going to win.

Maybe they will, maybe they won't. It's all very entertaining, the conservative pundits punding and the liberal news organizations editorializing--and we get vignettes about Mark Foley and John Kerry absolutely free(!), but you know what? It really doesn't matter. But this thought occurs to me as I think of the intelligence and alacrity of the
average American voter:
“Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom.” —Fredrich August von Hayek
We don't have a tyrant yet. But we do have dependence. And we vote ourselves into more and more of it.

Robert Samuelson captures the essence of why it doesn't matter in his editorial in the Washington Post. Synthesis: We get what we want when we vote. And we want things that, due to their contrast, shouldn't be wanted by the same person at the same time. Boiled down to its essence, our representatives do what we tell them to. We have met our representatives, and they are us. We get further and further toward nowhere because we haven't the ability to hold our representatives responsible to do their jobs well. We enjoy--and thus we have become a part of--the circus.

When asked if the government is wasteful when it comes to spending, nearly everyone says yes. But nearly no one can agree that the spending for some of the most wasteful programs should be cut.

It doesn't matter whether we are Republican or Democrat when it comes to most issues. We want Congress to reduce spending, but we must have our Community Development Block Grants, Educational Grants, Social Security, and Medicare. The two opinions are diametrically opposed.

We have become so enamored with a two-party system that we perceive only two options: (1) if the Democrats are in power, let's throw the bums out and put the republicans in, and (2) if the Republicans are in power, let's throw the bums out and put the Democrats in.

Do we ever stop to think that it doesn't make much difference at all? There's not even 8 cents worth of difference between the two major parties, yet we campaign and debate and argue like it makes all the difference in the world.

The problem is not them. It is us. Our problem has the potential of becoming a never-ending cycle of (1) Claiming that the current bums in office have failed, and (2) voting in a new set of bums with the chimerical hope that something will change, until finally (1) happens all over again. Until we decide that we want government to limit itself to its proper role, not much will change. Government is what we make of it and nothing else. We deserve nothing better.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Utah Proposition 3 is a Waste of Money

Transportation funding initiatives known as Proposition 3 in Salt Lake County and the Opinion Question in Utah County are fraught with unknowns. They stand to be colossal wastes of money. Mixing automobile transportation funding and public transportation funding in one initiative is a mistake, because each mode of transportation is so different from the other.

It seems like just about everyone in Utah is in favor of the transportation funding initiatives that are on the ballot in Utah. I'm not.

It's interesting to note that the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) transit district was formed as a result of the pending energy crisis in the early 1970's. It didn't pay its way then, and it never has since. In 2000, Utahns subsidized every Trax rider to the tune of $6.60 per ride, and every bus rider got a gift of $2.20 every time he rode. According to some, we have a new transportation crisis.

In 2000, UTA requested additional subsidies in the form of a .25% increase in the sales tax. An entity that continues to request additional funding while providing a service that raises revenue is not worthy of any funding. It is easily seen that such a service is something people do not want. Private transportation systems could provide a much more efficient service than UTA currently provides.

Utah's public transportation receives the most subsidization of any state in the country. In 2000, UTA claimed that freeway congestion would be significantly minimized because many more people would ride public transportation if light rail were available. Trax was installed, but UTA's dreams didn't materialize. Their most current claim is that a commuter rail system will draw huge crowds, but based on previous behavior, this won't happen either.

Utahns' traveling behavior is not conducive to public transportation. We love to have our own automobile at our disposal. Private transportation is generally much more convenient than public transportation, and Utahns are all about convenience and efficiency. There is nothing wrong with this. The only way to get us out of our cars would be to create a prohibitive sales tax on gasoline that made it cheaper to ride public transportation. But therein lies the problem--the prohibitive gas tax would become an effective subsidy for public transportation. Government should not subsidize what people do not want.

A gasoline tax is one of the best taxes that can be levied on a society, because revenues generated from the tax go toward the maintenance of the use for which the tax is levied. If you use public roads, you probably buy gasoline. If you buy gasoline, you are (currently, in addition to federal gas taxes) paying a 24.5-cent-per-gallon state tax . You are thereby contributing to the upkeep of the public roads that you use. The amount collected from the Utah gas tax and other fees such as driver licenses has generally been thought as paying for the roads that we need.

But suddenly into the fray jumps Utahns for Proposition 3. In much the same way that UTA was founded 35 years ago, VoteFor3 is holding aloft again the specter of a new transportation crisis. If we add another .25% to our sales tax, so they claim, we can solve that crisis in only 9 years instead of 24. I'm not sure where they got this statistic from, but it is surely faulty if ANY of the money goes toward public transportation, because historically money thrown at public bus and rail transportation has had much less effect on traffic congestion than has money invested in public roads.

Instead of voting for proposition 3, if we really need more roads than the current gasoline tax can fund, let's increase the gasoline tax! Let's even peg it to inflation! But goodness gracious, let's not throw our money down the bus-and-rail rathole. It has never been effective, and it never will be.

If you don't use public roads, then you don't pay taxes for them. Conversely, even if you've never used public transportation and never will, you still pay for it. This is what is wrong with public transportation. This is what is wrong with Proposition 3 in Salt Lake County and The Opinion Question in Utah County.