Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fleeing Babylon (Parts I–V)

This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” This is the first of four segments.

Grandpa is a CPA. Dad is a CPA. Uncle Reed is a former accounting professor and a big-shot CPA—a senior technical advisor for the Federal Accounting Standards Board (or FASB for all you professional bean counters out there). Before my mission, I swore I’d never be an accountant. But when I returned from Germany last summer, I had no clue what I wanted to be. My freshman year at Utah State I tried premed and then prelaw, but I hated biology, and in Germany I met too many lawyers. Now I’m at BYU, with no declared major. It’s April 1978, and after a year of taking this, that, and the other, I get the bright idea that maybe being an accountant wouldn’t be so bad.

Winter semester 1979. I’m lying on my bed, wondering why life is so lousy. The broken engagement was no fun, but I’m pretty well over it now. Teaching at the MTC is cool. What’s got me down is school. I hate accounting, and it hates me. I have four accounting classes this semester and one finance class. I feel like I’m being turned into a calculator.
My roommate, Don, has somehow finagled an internship for spring term with a mineral water company in Switzerland. He and I served together in Hamburg. He wants me to fly over and join him when he’s finished interning. I’d love to, but how can I justify such a frivolous expenditure? I know this is the accounting in my brain speaking. It tells me the whole idea is irresponsible, but the thought won’t leave me alone. Finally, I pray about it. I’m accustomed to having God tell me no, or tell me nothing. I’ve always just assumed that if I want something, it’s not good for me. But I ask anyway. The answer is yes.

It is 10 p.m., June 20, 1979. I have just finished my last accounting final. I feel light as a feather as I walk through campus. I fly to Germany in the morning, exactly four years from the day I entered the Mission Home in Salt Lake City. When I return, I will be a German major. The trip to Europe is more than just a vacation. It is symbolic in my mind—the closing of one door and the opening of another. I feel free, as if my spirit has been let out of a cage.
I meet Don in Berlin. It is morning, and I am jetlagged to the max. He picks me up at the airport, and we drive to the stake center. Two years ago, I was a missionary in Berlin. By coincidence, our mission president is holding his last zone conference here today. Don has asked if we can attend. We both teach at the MTC. Don was an assistant to President Roylance. Of course the answer is yes. The zone conference is splendid. It takes me back to better days. But by the time it is over, I am holding my eyelids open with my fingers.
Don and I travel for ten days. We see the picturesque southern regions of Germany. Our mission in the north was beautiful but flat. Someone once told me that in northern Germany you can stand on a tuna can and see the back of your head. Don and I wander the English Gardens in Munich, take a cruise on K√∂nigsee, climb the mountain behind Neuschwannstein, drive over an Alpine pass into Switzerland, and buy cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest. We spend a night in old Heidelberg, drive the Rhine Valley from Koblenz to Bingen, then head north to Hamburg. Don and I have been getting on each other’s nerves the past few days, and he’s antsy to go waterskiing. I’m antsy to have some time alone to think and wander and try to put my life back together. So Don flies home, and I go visit Schwester Mangels, an elderly woman I baptized and who believes I’m the grandson she never had.
For the next eleven days, I wander northern Germany, trying to find myself. I search in all five cities where I served. In my searching I do find every single person I visit, even though I mostly show up unannounced. I find the Roggows, who take me out for spaghetti ice cream. I find Frau Niemack, who was told in a dream that we were telling the truth, and her husband, the tobacco salesman who wanted nothing to do with Mormonism. Oddly, he is genuinely happy to see me. I find Kathrin, who was fourteen but looked twenty when we taught her. She is now seventeen and looks like a hippie. She never joined the Church, but I can tell she is still sweet on me. She leans across my borrowed bike and gives me a kiss as we part. I find Margret, my German mother, who lost her husband a half year after I was transferred from their city. And there in her house, listening to her story and holding her three-year-old daughter on my lap, a daughter who never knew her father and who has started calling me “Papa,” I find myself, the self that the sterile accounting curriculum has wiped away. I’m alive again. So I fly home.

I love my German classes, especially Dr. Kelling’s nineteenth-century literature course. The sun shines the whole year. No dark clouds. But I don’t want to teach German. It doesn’t feel right. What else can I do with a degree in German? International business? It feels right, or at least as right as anything else. I take the GMAT and score well. BYU accepts me into its MBA program. The MBA program certainly can’t be as bad as accounting.

It is worse. Each semester in the first year is crammed with nineteen and a half hours of heavy business courses. I have all my classes with the same group of students, mostly male. There is so much work we have no chance of completing it all. We have to choose which class, or classes, we will let slide. “We,” meaning everyone except Dan Willis, who, I suspect, is an android. I choose to ignore finance. It is one Harvard case after another. I simply go to class unprepared. My whole grade, however, is dependent on a midterm exam and a final, both written case analyses. Fortunately, because I’m a decent writer, I bluff my way through the exams and get an above-average grade. But it is not the heavy workload I struggle with. It is something else.
Accounting was sterile and seemed to turn me into an unfeeling machine, but the MBA atmosphere is suffused with something I can’t quite put my pinky on. It’s in the curriculum, it’s in the way the professors teach, it’s in the way my classmates interact, and it’s trying to get into me. I feel an immense pressure to become something I’m not, something I don’t want to be. I can’t put a face on it or tell where it’s coming from, but I do know it has given me a marvelous distaste for anything corporate. My classmates interview for corporate internships. I can’t bring myself to do it. I hear a rumor that the operations management faculty needs someone to teach a couple of undergraduate summer-term courses. I inquire. They offer me the job.
During spring term, I land an “internship” taking care of the flower beds at the local doll museum. It’s not quite GE or GM or HP or IBM or some other corporate acronym, but it’s pleasant. Summer term rolls around, and I find that I enjoy teaching. Operations management was the one MBA class in which I didn’t feel the unnamed pressure. It is applied math. I can lose myself in the numbers and ignore what lies behind them. At least for now.
My classmates return triumphant from their summer internships, a corporate shine in their eyes and a corporate swagger in their step. If I didn’t fit in first year, I’m an even bigger misfit now. Thankfully, I am able to take a couple of “out of program” electives. I try to get permission to take Geography of the Soviet Union. From the MBA director’s reaction, I surmise that nobody has ever made this request before. “What does the geography of the Soviet Union have to do with anything?” he asks. I shrug. “Don’t you think a solid finance class would look better on your transcript?” “I’ve had enough finance classes,” I answer. He frowns. It appears he won’t budge, so I pull out my trump card. “But you offer the class in your international business emphasis. It’s here in the catalog.” His frown deepens, obviously regretting the window-dressing they put in the catalog to make the international emphasis look more international than it really is, but he signs the form. Geography of the Soviet Union turns out to be the best class in the MBA program. Thirty-five years later I can still tell you that Lake Baikal contains one-sixth of the fresh water on earth and that the low point and high point of the Great Russian Plain, a stretch of geography two-thirds the size of the continental United States, differ by only one hundred feet. I was also taught that Moscow happens to be closer to New York City than to Vladivostok. This happens to be untrue. Moscow to Vladivostok is 3,994 miles; Moscow to New York is 4,699. All this trivia, true or false, is irrelevant of course, but fascinating nonetheless.
In my business classes, however, the pressure is still there, subtle and slippery and insuperable. And by the time I finish the second year, I feel battered and bloodied. But I have survived. I didn’t give in. My classmates have lined up corporate jobs. I haven’t even looked. I feel that if I give in to the pressure in any way, I will lose myself. Shortly before graduation I hear another rumor that the operations faculty is looking for someone to teach full time next year. I check out the rumor and find it is true. This is 1982, and there are not enough LDS PhDs in operations management to fill six faculty slots. They hire me. I’m probably the only one who inquired, but that doesn’t bother me.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Short Thought on Political Correctness

I’ve been thinking about the ugliness of the recent presidential campaign and one of the underlying themes of the Trump crusade: the attack on what he and his followers referred to as political correctness. This has been a rallying cry for a certain faction in the Republican Party for some time now, but with the rise of Trump, this faction has become increasingly vocal. The complaint, as I understand it, is that it has become socially inappropriate to say certain things. This was attacked as a restriction on free speech. But what we have seen, as “political correctness” has been summarily dispatched, is simply that some people, including Donald Trump, have felt free to say demeaning and offensive things about certain groups of people.
The result is that what was formerly known as “hate speech” is now simply “free speech.” And as a society, we have taken several steps backward, in terms of what we understand to be common decency. It is now acceptable among a much larger portion of the population to speak openly and cruelly about certain ethnic groups, races, religions, and sexual orientations. We used to call this bigotry, but by labeling common decency “political correctness,” the bigots have opened the flood gates to a level of ugliness that we ought to have put behind us long ago. As a society, we have regressed in some unfortunate ways, and it is largely due to the man who has just been elected president. What Trump is discovering is that it’s awfully hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Heil Donald!

I went to bed late on election night, and then I lay in bed and couldn’t fall asleep. After a couple of fitful hours, I woke up in what felt like a different country than the one I had woken up in the day before.
I served my mission in 1975 in northern Germany. It had been thirty years since Germany had lost the war, but most of the people I knew still bore a burden of guilt, especially those who were old enough to have lived through the Third Reich. I often wondered how such a civilized and decent people had ever allowed someone like Adolf Hitler to come to power. After the past year and a half, though, and especially after Tuesday night, I have a better idea. It has been sobering to see people who are frustrated over the economic realities of a changing world embrace an utterly odious man who has cynically played on their fears, their ignorance, and their baser instincts. What amazes me is that so many convinced themselves that the lies he was telling were true. But, as Joseph Goebbels could tell us, propaganda is a powerful tool.
Donald Trump won the election for a variety of reasons. Sure, FBI Director Comey’s untimely and totally uncalled-for announcement played a role. But there are other more fundamental reasons. The CNN map showing voting patterns county by county revealed a country divided starkly between rural and urban voters. Rural areas voted heavily for Trump, while urban areas weighed in for Clinton. Rural areas are largely white. Urban areas tend to be more ethnically diverse. Exit polls revealed other dividing lines. White males without a college education voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Somewhat surprisingly, white women without a college education also voted for Trump, although not as lopsidedly as their male counterparts. Many of them were Evangelicals, who tend to live in a more authoritarian, male-dominated world than other women. Call this the last revolt of the undereducated class. The evolving modern economy has left them behind, and they are angry. They blame Washington, although it is not Washington that is primarily at fault. Trump came along and told them that their jobs had been stolen by Mexicans or Asians and promised to bring those jobs back. But this, like everything else Trump said, was a lie. Those jobs were not taken by foreigners. Manufacturing has actually grown in America under Obama, but manufacturing jobs have not. Why? Because of technology. And those jobs are not coming back, no matter what Trump does. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in five years, truckers start being replaced by self-driving semis. More and more of us are going to be replaced by machines.
The relentless economic evolution that has left white, blue-collar, undereducated Americans behind is something that neither Democrats nor Republicans were prepared to address in a meaningful or realistic way, except for Bernie Sanders. Clinton had no better answers than Trump. She won the popular vote. He won the electoral vote. But he won in states where the disenfranchised showed up to express their frustration.
But this is not why Hillary lost. In spite of his claims of growing the Republican Party, Donald Trump received fewer votes than either John McCain or Mitt Romney. Hillary lost because many of the voters who showed up for Barack Obama stayed home Tuesday. Maybe they really were, like Bernie, tired of hearing about her “damn emails.” But I don’t think so. I think they were not convinced that she had any answers for their circumstances. She was too tied to Wall Street, to special interests. Whatever the reason, they stayed home. They probably watched on TV as America selected the most flawed and unqualified candidate ever to represent a major political party.
So the Democrats have work to do. And they have already started. An editorial on spelled out just why the Democratic Party needs to cleanse itself of the Clinton apparatus with all its ties and limitations and start afresh with the message that Bernie Sanders promoted. It was a message that rang true to millions of Americans, especially the young, and created a passionate wave of activism. He said things that needed to be said. And he stayed on message. Tonight, by chance, I received an email from Bernie, inviting me to sign a petition to support one of his young like-minded colleagues, Rep. Keith Ellison, as the new chair of the Democratic National Committee. I was happy to do so. I’m about 150 percent certain that if Bernie had indeed won the nomination, he would have easily won this election. But as we now know, the party was stacked against him with Clinton loyalists. I guess we don’t have to worry about that anymore.
The Republicans are claiming a massive victory, but they lost the popular vote, again. That’s six of the last seven elections. And the national demographics will continue to shift away from them. They have a rough road ahead. They actually have to govern now, but they lack a set of coherent policies that will work in the real 21st-century economy. They won’t be able to run again on hatred of government and demonizing minorities and offering vague policy statements. Their party is deeply divided. And worse, now not only do they have to own Donald Trump and all of his negatives (which are yuuuuge), but he owns them. The party is his. And it will bend to his will, whatever that might be, and it might be very distasteful to both pure conservative ideologues like Paul Ryan and longtime party power brokers like Orrin Hatch and Mitch McConnell. I don’t envy them this victory.
They will push through more supply-side tax cuts for the wealthy, accelerate the growing inequality, and plunge the country further into debt. They will repeal Obamacare, but they don’t have a credible plan to replace it with. In the end, they may have to embrace it, since they are too ideologically handcuffed to be able to do the right thing and implement a single-payer system. And Obamacare is, after all, the offspring of conservative think tanks. No, they will lose the health-care war they have doggedly fought for so long. They will talk about a market-based system, but they won’t be able to figure out the details without depriving millions of people the health care they need, because that’s what the market does. It creates winners and losers. It doesn’t create all winners. We know this. It’s where we were before Obamacare. And it’s where the Republicans will have to go if they remain true to their rigid ideology. And then they will face the inevitable results of reversing Obama’s efforts to combat global warming. The numbers will absolutely destroy the Republican Party.
Unless they come to their senses. But what are the chances of that happening? Especially with Trump at the helm and the right-wing media bubble screening out salient facts.
One final sad comment on this election. As the numbers came in, I was of course surprised at how wrong the pollsters were. But this was especially true in Utah. The polls totally missed the wide margin by which Trump won the state. When I checked the numbers in the Deseret News the next morning, Trump had 333,197 votes (46.7 percent), Clinton 204,613 (28.7 percent), McMullin only 151,755 (21.3 percent), and Johnson 23,156 (3.2 percent). When I saw the margin, I was ashamed of my church. It was obvious that it was the Mormon vote that gave Trump the huge margin in Utah. In Salt Lake County, where there are more non-LDS voters, the totals were: Clinton 105,753, Trump 71,933, and McMullin 40,018. The numbers were similar in Summit County, which is also less Mormon. It was in the more LDS counties where Trump scored his big victories. In my county, Utah County, which is overwhelmingly LDS, the totals were: Trump 84,863, McMullin 48,684, and Clinton 22,934. Davis County was very similar, on a smaller scale, as was Cache County. Trump won Weber County easily, although Clinton came in second there. Worst was Washington County (Utah’s Dixie), where Trump took a whopping 68.6 percent of the vote, with Clinton at 18.8 percent, and McMullin at a measly 10.4 percent. So, Utah Mormons overwhelmingly voted for a man who is a moral cesspool. So much for family values. I’ve said before that I think many Latter-day Saints are more Republican than they are Mormon. This election proves my point. I don’t know quite what to think about this, but I find it depressing. All I have to say to those who voted for Trump is that you’re getting what you deserve. Good luck.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

For America's Sake, Do Not Vote for Trump

With the polls tightening and anti-Clinton sentiment running high, we need to step back and look at what is happening. What on earth are almost half of American voters thinking? Do they understand what is at stake here? I’ll be the last person to suggest that Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate for president, but I’ll also be the first to come to her defense against what has to be the most overblown snow job in the history of American politics. She has been investigated almost constantly for a number of different issues, and never has an investigation determined that she is guilty of anything even close to criminal activity.
Take Benghazi as an example. There have been, to date, thirty-three hearings held in at least seven different investigations. Utah’s own Spanish Inquisitor, Jason Chaffetz, has wasted millions of dollars and thousands of hours on this partisan witch hunt. And what have all these investigations found? No evidence of wrongdoing by either Clinton or any of her colleagues in the State Department.
If anyone has ever been convicted of corruption and crime by hearsay and innuendo, it is Hillary Clinton. On the other side of the election ballot, though, is Donald Trump, who doesn’t need to be convicted by hearsay and innuendo. All you have to do is tally up the hundreds of statements he himself has made and the actions he has taken that disqualify him to become president of the United States. And yet many people hate Hillary Clinton so much (probably fueled by what they hear on Fox News and right-wing radio and what they read on social media) that they are determined to vote for a self-proclaimed sexual predator and serial adulterer, a pathological liar, a narcissistic megalomaniac, a business fraud, an authoritarian, a foul-mouthed bully, a racist, a misogynist, an ignorant man who does not understand the issues and shows little inclination to learn.
One difference between the two candidates that I have not really heard anyone talk about is simply the causes they have embraced. Whereas Clinton has spent decades working to improve the lives of children, women, and the disadvantaged, Trump’s only cause other than himself has been the ill-begotten Birther movement.
What amazes me is how many Americans do not understand the issues well enough to see that Trump simply cannot make good on any of the major campaign promises he keeps repeating. He is selling snake oil.
But decision day is upon us. God help America. If anyone out there is even remotely entertaining the idea of voting for Donald Trump, do me one favor first. Please read this editorial by three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Thomas Friedman. Hopefully he can put this choice in perspective for you. And I invited everyone who reads this post to share Friedman’s editorial with all your friends and acquaintances.
Please vote, and please vote for the only person who can stop Trump: Hillary Clinton.