Monday, December 10, 2018

"What Is Heaven Like?"


In the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional earlier this month, President Nelson told of meeting Lydia Terry (no relation that I’m aware of), who is suffering from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. In his words, “As we talked about her life and what lies ahead, she was calm and at peace. When I asked if she had any questions, she quickly replied, ‘What is heaven like?’”
Nothing like a child to get directly to the heart of things. Isn’t this the question we all would ask if we were in her shoes? If we had the honesty and candor of children. According to President Nelson, this question “led to ‘a heart-to-heart discussion about the purpose of life’ and the blessings that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ ‘have offered to those who honor and follow Them.’” In other words, he didn’t answer Lydia’s question.
I’m not faulting him for this. We Latter-day Saints, even our prophet and apostles, assume we know a lot more about the hereafter than we really do. Even Joseph Smith’s grand Vision, recorded in D&C 76, does not really say much about what heaven is like. It is more a description of the characteristics of people who end up in the four divisions of the LDS afterlife. Perhaps the best description of the spirit world (the temporary way station between death and resurrection) is Heber Hale’s account of his visit to the spirit world, which is not scriptural but is nevertheless a fascinating and somewhat detailed narrative.
But in terms of the three kingdoms of glory that most of the human race will inhabit in the eternities, we know next to nothing. Let me try to explain what I mean.
1. For a Dialogue article I wrote a couple of years ago, I did a fairly rigorous estimate of how many of God’s children would be born on this earth between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden and the end of the Millennium. I used LDS assumptions (such as a 7,000-year span in
which God’s children could be born on this planet, including a 1,000-year Millennium). My estimate was conservative in several respects, but it still resulted in more than 200 billion of God’s children being born on this earth. Because of the high mortality rate among children under eight years of age during most of our mortal history, and because of statements by prophets indicating that most people will accept the gospel in the spirit world, we must assume that the celestial kingdom will be the most populous of the three. And it will be on this earth.
Can you imagine more than 100 billion people inhabiting this planet for an eternity? The logistics of such a world are mind-boggling. Will we eat? If so, how will we grow food? Or will we replicate it like people on Star Trek? What will we wear? How will we produce the fabrics? What will we do with our time? What will the economy of heaven be like? Will we be “free” to do what we want, or will we live under a command economy in which we are each assigned a specific task so that everything runs smoothly? I can’t imagine the celestial kingdom employing a capitalist market system, but a command economy is also a disappointing idea.
Based on various speculative statements from Church leaders over the years, we assume that the organs of the mortal body will be perfected and useful after the resurrection. So we will indeed eat. And we will produce bodily waste. How will we deal with that for over 100 billion inhabitants? We will also, I presume, produce offspring. And it only makes sense that celestial bodies will procreate after their kind. Yes, I know we believe that celestial bodies produce spirit children, but that doesn’t make sense biologically. All creatures reproduce after their own kind. Why wouldn’t two celestial beings produce celestial (perfected physical) offspring? If true, this creates obvious problems.
Okay, so we don’t really know anything about this. But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume celestial beings somehow can produce only spirit children. With over 100 billion inhabitants, there won’t be room for each couple (or are there polygamous marriages in heaven?) to beget billions of spirit children. No problem, Mormon folk theology tells us. We will all just get our own world to live on, where we can produce bodies for billions of spirit children. That’s a whole galaxy of worlds just for the celestial candidates from this one earth. The universe is a big place, and it’s expanding. Still, the implications of such rapid expansion of human population is a bit perplexing.
We have a couple of competing ideas about what happens to celestial inhabitants. One is that they will live forever in family relationships in the celestial kingdom. Two problems with that. First, although we speak as if we’ll live with our children in the hereafter, they will be adults, mostly married. So the celestial kingdom, if it is a long-term abode, will be a couples’ paradise. Extended family relationships will be largely irrelevant. Sure, we’ll associate with each other. But the parent-child relationships we experience here for a few short years will be nonexistent in the celestial world.
The second idea is that we will all go off into an empty corner of the universe and start creating and populating worlds with our spirit children. These competing ideas are incompatible. We can’t live forever on this celestialized earth and also go off into the void and create our own galaxy.
Even if we do accept the second of these competing visions of the hereafter, we must accept the notion that it’s going to take each of us a while to achieve godhood. Take, for instance, two country bumpkins from Dingle, Idaho. Salt-of-the-earth people. The sort we assume will be celestialized. They’ve never offended anyone. They love everyone. They wouldn’t dream of breaking a commandment. But they’re also in many ways simpletons. They can barely find their way around a smart phone, let alone understand the physics and chemistry and biology necessary to create an inhabitable planet. It is obviously going to take a long time to get these folks from Dingle to a stage where someone would be tempted to worship them.
So, what do they do during this long divine tutorial? They have perfect bodies that function perfectly. Do they just practice abstinence for millions of years while they learn enough to create a world and manage it? When and how do celestial inhabitants get their license to practice godhood in the full sense of the word? So what’s heaven really like? We have no idea.
2. We often speak of the celestial kingdom in terms of living with our Heavenly Father for eternity. But both Joseph Smith’s teachings and the numbers I mentioned above preclude this possibility. According to the book of Abraham, God the Father lives on a planet near a star called Kolob. He is not going to come and live on this earth after it receives its celestial glory. This is just one of his numberless worlds. He is apparently elsewhere, constantly creating new worlds and populating them with his children.
And even if he did relocate to our celestialized earth, with over 100 billion fellow inhabitants, we would have very little chance of having any face time with him. So, any notions about living in God’s presence and running around Father’s heavenly mansion are probably metaphorical at best.
In a Sunstone essay titled “The Tongue of Angels or the Mind of the Borg,” I explore the implications of our belief that God knows the most intimate thoughts of our hearts. After describing an experience I had as a missionary, where I was allowed to see what the people I was teaching were thinking, I make the following observations:
I have read several accounts of near-death experiences in which the near-dead person has moved on to a spiritual existence where communication is completely nonverbal. This type of communication is exactly what Orson Pratt predicted for the afterlife: “For instance; how do you suppose that spirits after they leave these bodies, communicate one with another? Do they communicate their ideas by the actual vibrations of the atmosphere the same as we do? I think not.”1 Pratt proposed an advanced form of communication in which a spirit could impart not just one train of thought but numerous ideas directly to other spirits. If the NDE accounts and Pratt are right, then spiritual communication is perfectly telepathic; spirits are able to share each other’s thoughts. But other experiences people have had with the dearly departed suggest that they do indeed speak in audible voices. So the evidence, what little there is, is ambiguous. After contemplating the conduit that opened between my mind and [my investigators’], however, I am inclined to believe that telepathy is indeed possible. . . . What this means, of course, is that God also knew what they were thinking—what I am thinking. But what I learned that evening was how intimately God knows each of us. He can judge us only because he knows everything about us, even the innermost thoughts of our hearts.
Which brings up several questions about the premortal existence, and the postmortal eternity to come. If our spirits are really able to communicate directly, without words, was our premortal existence, then, something similar to the Borg collective from Star Trek (without all the cybernetic hardware of course)? Were we connected to some sort of group consciousness through the Spirit? If so, then I can understand why we would need to come here to earth, where the veil of the flesh interferes with most spiritual communication, so that we could truly be tested. We know that we had free will in the premortal world—Lucifer is proof of that—but was our agency complete? If we were spiritually linked to God—a part of the collective divine mind, as it were—were we really free to choose? Were we really able to be individuals? Or were we like the Borg? Did we have to come to earth in order to be severed from the collective, to experience true individuality, to have unfettered agency, to experience pain and anguish, to be tested and tried in isolation, to show God and ourselves who we really are? . . .
If in the premortal world we were part of some sort of collective spiritual consciousness, what will the postmortal eternity be like? Will purified resurrected bodies not only provide no interference to spiritual communication, but perhaps even amplify it? Will we be Borg again, but on a much higher level, elated and enthralled by the spiritual connection that links us to the collective spiritual mind? I remember the spiritual high I experienced at [our investigators’] house and how it faded as we walked to the subway. And it was a high. Which brings up other questions. Is the Spirit a sort of mind-altering metaphysical drug that will fill us with joy and happiness and contentment and keep us on a constant high if we make it to the celestial kingdom? Or even if we land in one of the two lower kingdoms? Is the Spirit an eternally ubiquitous soma akin to Huxley’s serenity-inducing drug from Brave New World? Is our postmortal future one void of any sort of inner turmoil, disappointment, or frustration, as well as any interpersonal friction? If so, what are the implications of an existence without conflict?
3. One thing President Nelson discussed with Lydia is eternal life: “When the Father offers us everlasting life, He is saying in essence, ‘If you choose to follow My Son—if your desire is really to become more like Him—then in time you may live as We live, and preside over worlds and kingdoms as We do.’”
But what does this really mean? In order to become gods, we would have to become omniscient. Do we understand the implications? We would have to know everything. We believe, for instance, that God knows what we are thinking, every second of every day of our lives. That’s a tall order for just one person. But multiply that by over 200 billion, and that’s just for this one earth, which is just one of God’s numberless creations. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To be omniscient, God doesn’t just know everything we are thinking. He has to know what we will think tomorrow, and every tomorrow for an eternity. He has to know where every atom in his kingdom is at any given time and every instant after that for an eternity. Jesus describes himself in D&C 38 as “the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes.” What sort of existence is this? But if we are to qualify as gods, as beings who can be the object of faith, who are never surprised by anything, we have to have this sort of knowledge. We have to be able to “hear” and “answer” billions of prayers in millions of languages, and all at one time. So one-dimensional time is no longer our element. Every instant must be filled with an eternity of thought. And we would never get a vacation, never be able to “get away from it all,” because all of it needs our constant attention.
I’m sure the rewards are magnificent, but we really cannot understand what God’s life must be like. We cannot understand what it means to be omniscient, and that is just one characteristic of God. One implication of omniscience is that we would never “need” to communicate with others of our kind. What could we possibly say to each other when we already know what the other person is thinking and what he or she will say? Why even communicate telepathically, when we already know what the other person is thinking and will be thinking, forever?
4. Let’s explore one final question about the hereafter, again quoting my Sunstone essay:
I have pondered the question of how God would maintain peace and harmony in his kingdoms while still permitting individuality and free will. In fact, I’ve explored this very scenario in the story “Eternal Misfit,” published a few years ago in Dialogue. In a world filled with imperfect inhabitants, such as, say, the terrestrial kingdom, how would God prevent imperfect people from behaving as imperfect people and creating just the sort of chaos and contention and confusion that prevail on earth today? Is it even possible to keep perfect amity and tranquility without depriving people of the ability to be disagreeable or the capacity to create conflict? I see only two options. Either the hereafter is not quite so tranquil as we presume, or Heavenly Father maintains peace through external control. Is such peace managed through the Spirit, which acts not only as a medium of hypercommunication but perhaps also as a heavenly palliative or sedative? It will be fascinating to find out. Maybe.
Other troubling questions sprout from these. For instance, assuming heaven is as peaceful and perfect as we often assume, how are we to practice Christian virtues in the absence of evil and trouble and imperfection? How can we be forgiving if no one ever offends us? How can we be peacemakers if there is never conflict? How can we exercise patience if no one ever annoys us or delays us? The list is nearly endless. Indeed it is very hard for us to imagine what the hereafter will be like. From our limited perspective, any vision of the afterlife is fraught with logical impossibilities.
So, what is heaven like? We have many questions and not very many answers. Even the prophets can’t answer most of the specific questions. For some reason, God has chosen to keep this knowledge from us in any meaningful detail. We hope that the hereafter will be a wonderful, peaceful, glorious existence. But what is the cost of such an existence?
______________
1. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 3:100 (October 22, 1854).

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Trouble with Tax Cuts


Everybody likes tax cuts. What’s not to like? But there is a proper time for tax cuts, and they cause serious problems if they come at the wrong time or go to the wrong people. The recent Republican tax cut was a mess, on multiple levels. In an effort to reward their major donors and show that they could accomplish something, anything, legislatively, the GOP squeaked through a tax cut that went primarily to the wealthy and to corporations, and they did it at a time of economic expansion. This time they didn’t even pretend that the purpose of the tax cut was to trickle down to the lower levels of the economy. Supply-side economics is totally discredited anyway, so the pretense would have been an empty gesture. But to push through a tax cut during a time of economic expansion has two effects: it balloons the debt, and it likely overheats the economy and drives interest rates up.
Tax cuts have been used as a political tool (not an economic tool) by the GOP for nearly forty years now, and the Republican addiction to tax cuts is so extreme that this tool has become their only answer to every economic question. Tax cuts are a cure-all. Of course, this is nonsense. Ronald Reagan started the modern GOP on the supply-side path to massive deficits with his tax cuts. George W. Bush paid for two wars and an expansion of Medicare with tax cuts. And now Trump has given himself and his ilk a tax cut for no economic reason at all.
Tax cuts do serve a very limited purpose. If the economy is in recession, tax cuts can induce consumer spending, which can serve as a brake on the downward economic spiral. But once the economy turns around, those tax cuts should be repealed so that we can pay off any debt accumulated during the recession and possibly build a surplus. With the debt totally out of control now, and with the economy expanding, the last thing we need is low taxes, especially on those who have made off like bandits during the past forty years. Largely because of the Republican tax cuts, we are seeing a level of inequality that is dangerous to our long-term well-being. And anyone who tells you otherwise is either filthy rich or has sold his or her brain to those who are filthy rich.
Because one political party has been lying about the effects of tax cuts for decades now, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. First, let’s be clear about one thing. Tax cuts never pay for themselves. But the Republicans have been making this claim since Reagan. Second, because the GOP has been successful in spreading this politically expedient lie, the Democrats get punished politically for trying to do the responsible thing: increase taxes to pay for what we expect government to do for us. And this is a primary problem with tax cuts. They are easy to enact, but devilishly difficult to repeal. And increasing taxes is political suicide, even though all politicians should be making a case for higher taxes.
Another lie that Republicans have been spreading is that Americans are overtaxed. The numbers show how dishonest this claim is. Among the 35 OECD countries, only four have lower tax revenue as a percentage of GDP than the U.S.: Chile, Ireland, Mexico, and Turkey. Total U.S. taxes (for all levels of government) are 26.0 percent of GDP. The percentages for a sampling of other countries are: Austria, 42.7; Canada, 31.7; France, 45.3; Germany, 37.6; Netherlands, 38.8; Norway, 38.0; Sweden, 44.1; United Kingdom, 33.2. The average for all 35 OECD countries is 34.3 percent. We are more than 8 percent below the average. Of course, part of the difference is that these other countries provide health care for all citizens and a far more extensive safety net than we provide. And anyone who claims that these other countries’ taxes are inefficient needs to recognize that they pay sometimes only half of what we do for health care as a percentage of GDP. So their taxes are actually being used far more wisely than our pirated health-care dollars.
Perhaps the most significant problem with tax cuts is that they render us incapable of paying for the things we need and want government to do for us. The Republican answer to the debt created by their tax cuts is to slash “entitlements.” What that means is cutting benefits to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the poor. Yes, we need to do some means testing. Some retirees do not need Social Security, for instance, and they should probably pay premiums for Medicare. But this represents a small percentage of the gap between what we bring in as revenue and what we need to pay out for these programs. Because businesses have kept wages low and have cut pension plans, a frightening portion of retirees are leaving the workforce without any savings at all. They will rely totally on Social Security. And Baby Boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 per day. What this means is that we will not be able to cut Social Security and Medicare for decades. The only solution to this dilemma is to increase taxes to where they were before the great Republican tax cut fetish began.
It’s interesting to look at the top marginal tax rate over time. In 1944 and 1945, at the end of World War II, the top rate was 94 percent. In 1963, it was still 91 percent. It dropped to 70 percent in 1965, and stayed there until 1982, when Reagan pushed through his tax cut that dropped the top rate to 50 percent. Then, in 1988, it dropped to 28 percent. Under Clinton, the top rate rose to 39.6 percent. Bush dropped it to 35 percent, but Obama let that cut expire, so the top rate went back up to 39.6 percent. The Trump tax cuts will drop the rate this year to 37 percent. (Yes, I do understand that it is Congress that passes tax legislation, but the president in office has to sign the bill, and he always gets the credit or blame.)
Of course, the tax revenue picture is more complicated than the simple top rate percentage. You have to look at the brackets, tax credits, the presence or absence of personal exemptions, the increase in the standard deduction, and other features to compare one year with another. But overall, the Trump tax cuts have added $116 billion to the deficit just this year. And most of that money went to the wealthy. I am middle class, but my taxes will go up under the new Republican tax “relief.” This is why Republican candidates could not run on their sole legislative “victory” in the 2018 elections. It’s hard to buy votes with a tax cut when most people receive a few dollars and the wealthy get thousands or millions in savings.
What I am hoping for is a political movement that recognizes reality, that insists on raising taxes until we can pay for the government services we expect and demand, and that will pay down our massive debt. This will not be painless, but it will be responsible.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Moral Obligation of Latter-day Saint Voters


This year is an important year for Latter-day Saint voters, the large majority of whom have been solid Republicans for decades. But the Republican Party is not the party it was even three years ago. It has become the Party of Trump, and the Republican Congress has prostrated itself before this disturbing human being. Some Church members may rationalize that putting up with Trump’s offensive words and behavior is simply the price you have to pay to get conservative judges and tax cuts. But voting for Republican House and Senate candidates is a vote for individuals who will enable Trump rather than hold him accountable. It is a vote for everything Latter-day Saints should be morally opposed to.
Consider these words from Peter Wehner, a conservative who served as an adviser to President George W. Bush: “I think the fundamental interpretative fact of the Trump presidency—and I think that this Saudi example [Trump’s support of the Saudi regime in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi] is only one manifestation of it—is this is a person (Trump) who is fundamentally amoral and immoral. He is a man without human empathy or without human sympathy, and in many respects a man without conscience; and I think what you’ve seen over the last several days is a person who’s reacting that way.”
Wehner continued, “And I think that we’ve seen that lack of human empathy and conscience in almost every arena of the Trump presidency. It explains the cruelty, it explains the policy at the border, separating kids from (parents), it explains the pathological lies, it explains the fact that he’s a man without loyalty—and I think this is just the latest arena in which we’re seeing this ugly drama play itself out.”
If any Democratic president had enriched himself through the office of the presidency, had offended our allies while cozying up to brutal dictators, had called the press the enemy of the people, had lied constantly to promote a political agenda, had been credibly accused of both sexual assault and adultery, had refused to release his tax returns, had been accused in an in-depth news investigation of tax evasion and fraud, or any of a hundred other Trump offenses, the Republican Congress would have been launching dozens of investigations. And Latter-day Saint voters would have demanded action from their elected representatives. But what do we hear from Congress? Silence. And what do we hear from LDS Republicans? Excuses and rationalization. Morality has been replaced by an ethic of winning at all costs.
But let’s look at what the Party of Trump has become. It is now the party of hate. It is the party of manufactured anger. It is the party of lies. It is the party of bigotry and racism and misogyny. It is the party that defends accused sexual predators and dismisses victims. It is the party of voter suppression. It is the party of polluters and shameless corruption. It is the party of empty ideology and vacant values. If you vote for Republican Senate and House candidates, you are voting for a party that has no answers for our troubled health-care system, that offers tax cuts to the wealthy in the midst an economic expansion, that threatens to cut benefits to the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the disabled. You are voting for a party that will not investigate even the most egregious offenses of the most corrupt president this country has ever seen, a party that has tried to undermine the legitimate independent investigation of Robert Mueller, a fellow Republican. In short, the GOP has become a moral quagmire.
If you are disgusted with the Party of Trump, you cannot just sit this election out. Turning your head and trying to ignore the corruption is the same as voting for it to continue. In this election, if you are a moral Latter-day Saint, you have an obligation to vote for Democratic candidates. The only way to wrench the Republican Party away from Trump and his loyalists is to deal them such a complete and embarrassing defeat that it destroys the Cult of Trump. This is a problem you cannot solve by being loyal to the GOP. The Republican Party cannot cure itself of this horrific malady, this cancer at its core.
Conservative Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who has left the Republican Party because of what I just outlined, described Republicans who refuse to see what their party has become: “They act, these political ostriches, as if this were still the party of Ronald Reagan and John McCain rather than of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller—and therefore they cling to the illusion that supporting Republican candidates will advance their avowed views. Wrong. The current GOP still has a few resemblances to the party of old—it still cuts taxes and supports conservative judges. But a vote for the GOP in November is also a vote for egregious obstruction of justice, rampant conflicts of interest, the demonization of minorities, the debasement of political discourse, the alienation of America’s allies, the end of free trade and the appeasement of dictators.”
Boot concluded: “That is why I join [George] Will and other principled conservatives, both current and former Republicans, in rooting for a Democratic takeover of both houses in November. Like postwar Germany and Japan, the Republican Party must first be destroyed before it can be rebuilt.”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

“Too Frequent Repetition of His Name”


In the ongoing discussion regarding President Nelson’s instruction to use the full name of the Church and avoid abbreviated versions or nicknames, one scripture I haven’t seen mentioned is D&C 107:1–4:
“There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood.
“Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest.
“Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.
“But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.”
Setting aside for the moment the anachronisms in this section, such as the term church being used for pre-Melchizedek times or the assumption that the modern LDS definition of the word priesthood existed in ancient days, I have to wonder which approach to using the Lord’s name is correct. Is it somehow offensive to Jesus to use his name too frequently, as indicated in D&C 107? Or is it offensive to him to not use his name every time we refer to the Church? Do we show respect for his name by not using it too frequently or by using it as frequently as possible? This is confusing.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

“What Boy Hasn’t Done This in High School?” Brett Kavanaugh and the Rotten Goose Egg Party at Oaklawn Park


Failed Florida congressional candidate Gina Sosa is probably looking for a rock to hide under about now. Her question doesn’t even deserve an answer. The more appropriate question is, “What kind of high school boy has done this?” What sort of person abuses other people? And why?
I’m not rendering judgment on Brett Kavanaugh. The accusations are serious and should be taken so. In fact, they should be investigated by the FBI. Which makes one wonder why the GOP is so reluctant to allow this logical and reasonable solution to the he said/she said dilemma they are facing. And the attempts by many Republican defenders of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, including Utah’s own Orrin Hatch, to either dismiss the accusations or try to explain them away, shine a bright light on the reason why so many assaulted women never go public with their stories. They are afraid they will not be believed. These attempts to minimize the seriousness of the accusations make one wonder what the response would be if the shoe were on the other foot. What if the nominee were a liberal and the accusers were conservative? I’d like to hear Orrin Hatch’s answer to that question.
But if the accusations are true, we do need to ask ourselves what sort of person would engage in this sort of behavior? Obviously, such a person would view other individuals as objects, not as people, not as human beings with feelings, a sense of dignity, and free will. We call this dehumanization. Can such a person simply “grow up,” become a very different type of individual, and be trusted implicitly with great power over the lives of others? Or do some aspects of this malignancy linger?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But the question of what is “normal” for high school boys took me back many years to my own high school experience. If you knew me in high school, you wouldn’t think of me as the type of student who would likely be the victim of abusive behavior. For starters, I am male and white. (Not that white males can’t be abused.) But I was also senior class president, starting guard on the basketball team, and class co-valedictorian with my good friend Tad. I had lots of friends and didn’t ever feel picked on. Except for one evening near the end of my junior year.
Sometime after the student body and class officer elections, the graduating senior class officers hosted a party for the new senior class officers. We had dinner at Oaklawn Park, as I recall. The idea was to give the new officers some training and help us understand some of our responsibilities. I don’t really remember much about the evening. It’s been 45 years, after all. I couldn’t tell you what we ate or what sorts of things we talked about. I don’t recall who exactly was there, besides the two class presidencies. If I had to guess, I would say the student council for each of the two classes also attended.
What I do remember, very vividly, was what happened at the end of the party. For some reason, the graduating senior class officers decided that we needed to be “initiated.” That’s one term for what is now generally called hazing. For our initiation as new class officers, our predecessors had procured a fire extinguisher and filled it with beer. They thought it would be funny if they sprayed us with beer. This was Utah, so none of us drank the beer. We just got showered with it. Mildly annoying, but nothing more than a prank, I thought.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the initiation. They had also procured some rotten goose eggs. These were large and extremely smelly, and these high school seniors thought it would be fun to smash those eggs all over us juniors. But their plan had one flaw in it. As I mentioned above, I was a starting guard on the basketball team, and I was lightning quick. With a large field of grass at my disposal, no five of them could lay a hand on me. I ran circles around them until they got tired. Then they played their trump card. “If you don’t let us catch you tonight, we’ll get you at school tomorrow.” Understanding exactly how embarrassing and awkward that would be, I allowed them to catch me. They proceeded to stuff rotten goose eggs down my pants and smash them. It was gross, to put it in 1970s terms. And cleaning up was disgusting.
Now, I don’t want to draw any sort of equivalence between this hazing incident and sexual assault. They are not even in the same area code. But there are some similarities. Both hazing and sexual assault are forms of abuse. They are humiliating, dehumanizing experiences. The perpetrators of both have no concern for the dignity or free will of the victims. The intent is to harm the victim emotionally, if not physically, or to gratify some internal craving for power over others.
I don’t think I suffered any long-term damage from the incident. But, as you can see, I have never forgotten what happened that evening, even though I don't recall ever really talking about it. It was something I probably just wanted to forget. But I haven't. I’ve forgotten a lot of things about high school, both pleasant and unpleasant, but I doubt I’ll ever forget this experience. And this is probably common with all victims of abuse. There are psychological explanations for this. But I wonder if those graduating senior class officers, the perpetrators, remember the incident. I would bet they don’t. And they were sober. But I do wonder what sort of people they are now. I haven’t kept in touch. After that experience, I had no interest in ever seeing them again. I hope the best for them, but still I have to wonder.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth


By now, Rudy Giuliani’s infamous declaration to NBC’s Chuck Todd (“Truth isn’t truth”) is being touted as a strong candidate for the epitaph to the Trump presidency. Probably too early, but it is indicative of the importance of truth in the Trump administration, that bastion of alternative facts.
According to the Washington Post’s fact-checking service, “In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims. Now, just six months later, he has almost doubled that total.” In his first 558 days in office, Trump made 4,229 false or misleading statements. I’ll do the math for you. That’s 7.58 lies per day. But that statistic is misleading. As the Post points out, during his first 365 days, Trump lied at a rate of 5.86 per day. Over the next 193 days, Trump upped his average to a whopping 10.82 lies per day. There are several explanations for the rapid increase—his growing insecurity over the Mueller investigation, his firing or chasing away of advisors who attempted to rein in his fibbing, his expanding belief that his true devotees don’t care whether he is truthful or not—but whatever combination of factors has produced this blatant assault on truth, it is not healthy for our democratic republic. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.
Personally, I have always had a strong attachment to the truth. I don’t like being lied to, by anyone. As an editor, I have a professional interest in truth. In fact, as I have stated on this blog before, some time ago I came to the conclusion that it is not my responsibility to defend Joseph Smith or the Church. It is my responsibility to defend the truth, even though truth is sometimes very difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, we try. We must. At BYU Studies, we try to get double-blind peer reviews of all articles to make sure the material passes scholarly muster, and we send our student interns to the library or the internet to source check these articles. I am sometimes disappointed in what they discover. I will never forget an article that somehow made it through our review process but nevertheless demonstrated why source checking is so important. When our intern handed me her copy of the article, I found the following comment in the margins in eighteen different places: “The source doesn’t say this.” Argh. The article ended up being published, but it was vastly different from the article the author had submitted. Playing fast and loose with sources gets under my skin.
Another article troubled me from the moment I read it. It was an examination of the legal cases surrounding the ultimate demise of Joseph Smith. Central to this article, of course, was the Nauvoo Expositor episode. But not once in this long article was the word polygamy ever mentioned. I came as close to going ballistic over this article as I have ever come. It represented the type of one-sided, apologetic history that has gotten the Church in a lot of hot water and has caused faith crises in numerous Church members. In the end, the article was published, and although I was not completely pleased with the result, at least it contained some of the necessary context surrounding Joseph Smith’s death.
This last example raises an important point regarding truth. It is possible to make only factual statements and still mislead. If you cherry-pick evidence so that you’re telling only half the story, you can come to totally unwarranted conclusions. Now, I realize it is impossible to give all evidence, and objectivity is always an unreachable goal, but the closer we come to giving a balanced, complete, and objective accounting of the facts, the better the result will be.
Truth can be a tricky thing. Sometimes all we have to go on is sketchy evidence or carefully crafted arguments employing logic and deduction. As Mormons, we sometimes think revelation solves all problems regarding religious truth. But revelation has not produced a theology that is without contradictions or gaping holes. LDS theology has morphed and shifted over time. Some of the “truths” we now accept disagree with earlier LDS teachings or with Book of Mormon theology. In fact, the deeper I dig, the less I feel certain of. Everything is more complicated than a superficial treatment will indicate.
In Mormondom, we have become so dependent on certainty that we no longer ask difficult theological questions or expect our leaders to seek theological revelations. Most of the revelations our leaders receive nowadays are purely administrative in nature, not theological. Perhaps this is due to the mistaken assumption that our theology is settled, that there are no more questions to answer. But our theology is far from complete. Some of the most basic questions remain unanswered.
I’ve wondered if this laziness among Mormons in seeking truth (or in assuming we already possess it) has any connection to the fact that we, as a demographic group, vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates. Over the past thirty years or so, the whole conservative project has moved steadily away from rigorous policy debate and has embraced governance by sloganeering. The anti-intellectual climate in the GOP is so strong now that anyone who actually knows anything is considered suspect and branded as an “elite.” Expertise is a dirty word, especially among Trumpettes. The Donald has enshrined ignorance and intellectual laziness as hallmarks of his faux-populist movement.
 I am disappointed that so many Mormons still support Trump and turn a blind eye to the moral vacuum this man has brought to politics. I believe this says something about us as a people, and what it says is not complimentary. Truth is important. Without a fundamental commitment to truth by political leaders, regular citizens like you and me lose the ability to trust what our elected representatives say. We lose confidence in their motives, their intentions, and their policies. If they say one thing and the results prove that they have been playing us for suckers, we simply cannot trust them, unless we are so gullible that we will believe anything.
The Trump presidency is a disaster on so many fronts that it is a full-time job just staying abreast of the latest outrages and ethical lapses. The events of the past few days give almost irrefutable evidence to what should have obvious all along. Trump appears to be completely amoral. In marriage, in business, and in politics, he has shown that he believes no rule, no law applies to him. And he has surrounded himself with individuals who are as corrupt as he is. Some would excuse Trump with the truism that all politicians are corrupt, all politicians lie. But that is a weak argument.
I was disappointed in my fellow Mormon Mitt Romney in his run for the presidency. In 2012, fact checkers routinely found that Romney was significantly more untruthful than President Obama. Hilary Clinton, by the way, was untruthful about as frequently as Obama. Romney’s trouble with the truth likely has much to do with his Republican roots. You simply cannot espouse some Republican positions without being disingenuous. It has been said before that facts tend to have a liberal bias. This is becoming more and more true as the Republican Party follows its recent trajectory and now fully embraces Trumpism. Supply-side economics and human-caused climate change are two obvious examples of how Republican talking points are simply “alternative facts.”
But I would take Romney in a heartbeat over the current president. I believe Romney is a decent human being with good intentions (and some faulty reasoning). Despite my disagreement with some of his positions on issues, I don’t believe a Romney presidency would have damaged our democracy. Trump, on the other hand, is a danger to everything good about America. He has no acquaintance at all with truth. Giuliani’s brazen claim that “truth isn’t truth” illustrates the moral cesspool you end up in if you do not even know what truth is. If you assume that whatever you say is truth, you end up making ridiculous claims and always having to engage in mental and verbal gymnastics just to try to explain away what you have said.
Truth is indeed truth, and although it can sometimes be difficult to discern, pathological liars like Trump never even concern themselves with the search for it. If it is your goal, however, you will never mislead intentionally, and people will know they can trust you. What we need in this country is a greater commitment to truth, regardless of partisan politics.

P.S. In case you were wondering, no, I am not going to change the name of this blog because of the recent proclamation by President Nelson. While his hope is undoubtedly noble, this new emphasis is ultimately impractical (or possibly impossible) in the real world. It reminds me a great deal of the shift from home teaching to “ministering.” The ramifications don’t appear to have been thought through carefully before the change was announced. Consequently, I am no longer a home teacher. But I’m told I am also not a minister. This program was installed without even a name for what we ministering people are supposed to call ourselves. “Hi, Sister Jensen, Brother Holmes and I are your new, um, whatever home teachers are now supposed to be called.” It’s awkward, to say the least.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

$2,200 for a Screwdriver, and the Military Didn’t Buy It


Well, it has been an interesting summer, to say the least. On Memorial Day, I was playing basketball and injured my foot. Another player stepped on it while knocking me over. The combination of his weight on my foot and my body falling sideways created enough torque to cause what I will fondly call the “Taysom Hill injury.” The more technical term is a Lisfranc injury. According to the internet, “The Lisfranc joint is the point at which the metatarsal bones (long bones that lead up to the toes) and the tarsal bones (bones in the arch) connect. The Lisfranc ligament is a tough band of tissue that joins two of these bones. This is important for maintaining proper alignment and strength of the joint.”
There are all sorts of Lisfranc injuries, most caused by car accidents. Others are sports-related, some from contact, like mine, while others, like Taysom’s, are noncontact injuries. The severity can range from sprains to fractures and dislocations. In my case, the first two metatarsals were displaced, and the cuneiform bone was cracked. So it was pretty serious. It took a couple of weeks for me to find the right doctors and for them figure out how messed up my foot was, but on June 20 I had surgery. I now have a plate and six screws to hold all the pieces together. I was instructed to not put any weight on the foot for seven or eight weeks. Being both active and stubborn, I wasn’t about to spend almost two months on a scooter and crutches. So I bought a “pirate crutch” (officially named the iWalk 2.0, see photo). It’s not good for long distances, but for getting around the house or office (or even walking the dog), it’s great. Whenever I go to a store, I get comments and questions. Most people haven’t seen a contraption like this, but they think it’s cool. I do too, but I’m getting rather tired of it.

I’m five and a half weeks into the no-weight portion of my recovery and will get an x-ray next week to see how things are mending. On the surface, things seem to be progressing nicely, but I know I’m in for a long stretch of no basketball. The surgeon told me it would probably be a year before the foot feels “normal” again.
This encounter with the American health-care system leaves me both amazed and baffled. The knowledge and technology we have is impressive, and so is our messed-up, profit-oriented medical industry. I use that word intentionally, because it really is an industry. It’s not a sector of society aimed at providing a public good, like, say, education (although some would like to see education become an industry too). This week I received the itemized bill from Intermountain Health Care for my morning in the operating room. The doctor’s bill as actually quite reasonable, but let me share with you a few of the highlights from the hospital’s “Itemized Statement of Services.” The prices I will list are what IHC billed my insurance. What the insurance paid was, of course, much lower, since the hospital was in their network.
I was surprised, when I received the initial summary from the insurance company that the biggest item was “medical supplies.” The hospital billed the insurance about $25,460 for these medical supplies. The operating room, by contrast, was a mere $7,547.40. The total charges amounted to $35,542.13, 70 percent of which was for medical supplies. I wondered what on earth could be that expensive. Well, this week I found out.
The plate (Plate Ankle Lapidus CP 0 Offset) was billed at $5,332.32. I don’t know why the name includes “ankle,” because my ankle is fine, thank you. The plate is on my instep, right where you’d expect it, holding the metatarsals in place. One of the six screws was billed at $2,852.28. I have to wonder about the twenty-eight cents. Really? They couldn’t round it to $2,850? Three other screws were $907.39 each. The other two were only $653.86. The Home Depot apparently doesn’t carry these screws. The hospital also billed for a pin, three reamers, a K-wire, and other odds and ends. One of the reamers was billed at $2,219.32. And some sort of unthreaded guidewire came in at $2,935.68. I’d hate to see what a threaded guidewire costs. But the item on this itemized statement that has me scratching my head is the “Bit Screwdriver T8 AO Quick Coup.” Yes, my insurance got billed for a $2,201.76 screwdriver. I can’t help but wonder why. Don’t they do surgeries like this rather frequently? Don’t they have a screwdriver in the drawer from the last surgery like mine? Couldn’t they sterilize it and reuse it? If not, then I want the screwdriver from my surgery. I mean, they obviously don’t need it. I think I’ll ask for it when I see the doctor next week. I’m sure he’ll look at me like I’m nuts, but hey, that screwdriver is a testament to the insanity of the American health-care system. I’d bet even the military doesn’t pay that much for a screwdriver. And even if they did, they’d probably use it at least twice.
Oh, I almost forgot. By comparison, the iWalk 2.0, which can be purchased on Amazon, cost me $149, and the insurance wouldn’t cover it. Maybe if it had cost $10,000, they would have.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Economic Insanity: Chapter 8 (part 2)


Competition Restrained by a Higher Good (Part 2)

Who Really Believes in Unfettered Competition?
Unfettered competition, most free-market advocates insist, is the most necessary component of a successful economic system. And the most convincing argument supporting this assertion just happens to be communism. Ask any capitalist if unrestricted competition is good, and the answer will be, “Of course competition is good. All you have to do to see this clearly is to look at communism, a system that removes competition from economic endeavor.”
      Any capitalist would tell you that competition is necessary in order to achieve quality, efficiency, and variety. Communism does not achieve these three desirable results, but is that because communism lacks the competitive forces of capitalism? Perhaps it lacks a great many other things too. Unfettered competition does indeed fuel the fires of quality, efficiency, and variety, but the reasons for achieving these ends are all wrong. Wouldn’t it be better to achieve them for the right reasons, for a higher purpose, such as the good of society and the full preservation of choice in the marketplace?
      The conservatives, in particular, talk a good game when it comes to unregulated competition. In fact, given the opposing view, their talk makes a good deal of sense. They pledge allegiance to the banner of laissez-faire capitalism, all in the name of freedom. But do they walk their talk? Do they really believe their own words? The evidence here, I’m afraid, is against them. As David Barash explains:
      We are supposed to believe that conservatives believe in the virtues of competition, tooth and nail, dog eat dog, and may the best man win. . . . But do they really believe in such a free-for-all? Consider the Lockheed and Savings and Loan bailouts, or the various and numerous forms of “corporate socialism” whereby government provides special benefits and tax breaks to large corporations, especially those engaged in military contracting. What conservatives really prefer is competition among the nonrich, the wage earners, the smaller and less well established . . . especially since out of this competitive fray generally come lower wages and a more docile workforce.1
      Many people claim to believe in unhindered competition, but when push comes to shove, we discover that they’d actually prefer to have the government step in and ensure their success and prosperity, rather than having to “earn” it (and possibly lose it) in the mercenary marketplace they extol. It is only certain classes of individuals, apparently, who should be unprotected from the hostile, predatory environment. So who really does believe in a totally free market? Perhaps no one.
      Both individuals and businesses usually believe in free competition only to the degree that they feel they can win. If I were scheduled to play Andre Agassi at tennis, for instance, I wouldn’t be so gung-ho about competition. Self-interest, as one might expect, lies at the heart of the competition issue. If unfettered competition is in our best interest, we’re for it; if, on the other hand, our competitors are in a position of strength, we immediately want the rules changed. Sure, I’ll take on Andre—if he wears leg chains, a straitjacket, and holds the racquet in his teeth.

A Better Metaphor
Three metaphors have often been used to define our win-lose competitive system: (1) the athletic contest or “game,” (2) war, which bears striking similarities to sports, and (3) the jungle. One major problem with these win-lose metaphors is that they all serve as excuses for not creating a system in which our unique American ideals can be practiced. They disavow any higher goal that should focus and mold our competitiveness.
      The game metaphor is inappropriate, for life is not a game. Food and shelter and health care and education should not be the prize for winning a contest. The war metaphor is also improper, for doing battle over the necessities of life, or even the luxuries, is barbarous. We are a society, we claim to be civilized, and we must either unite and thrive or splinter, decline, and die as a society. The jungle metaphor is perhaps most repulsive, for human beings are not simply members of the animal kingdom. Our intelligence, creativity, self-awareness, advanced communication skills, preservation of history, and capacity to rise above instinct and exercise reason and compassion set us apart from other animals. Why, then, should we be satisfied with economic relationships based on a metaphor that applies better to lions or sharks or raccoons? Why can’t we adopt a metaphor that places our economic interaction on a par with our social and political aspirations?
      What we need is a better metaphor to guide us in economic endeavors. Consider, perhaps, the orchestra metaphor. There is indeed competition between the violinists in an orchestra. They all desire to occupy the first chair. But this competition is not an unfettered, totally self-interested, win-lose type of competition. The last thing any serious violinist wants is for another violinist to play wrong notes, for this would reflect on the whole orchestra. A higher good governs the competition. Each violinist wants the orchestra—and, hence, all of its parts—to play superbly, flawlessly. But each violinist wants to be recognized as the best—not because others foul up, but because he or she is simply more excellent than the others. This healthy competition rests on the idea of being considered the best of the best. And it is all possible because a greater common good, a higher ideal governs the competition and binds the players together.
      The only way we can have this type of competition in our economic pursuits is for us as citizens to recognize a higher ideal. If we can learn to view the American Dream as something more than an economic game of grabs, perhaps we can experience a quality of life and social excellence that has eluded us.

Free Competition Leads to Authoritarianism
Unfortunately, however, we do not yet live in such a society. We live in a system that permits unlimited capital ownership, and we behave according to the win-lose metaphors. And it is not surprising that this type of mercenary competition carries its own inherent flaw: The freely competitive marketplace becomes less competitive over time, the inevitable result being an increase in inequality—in other words, a swift departure from a central goal of the American Dream.
      David Korten explains that “a competitive market is competitive only when there are enough buyers and sellers that each has many alternatives. However, by its nature, untempered competition creates winners and losers. Winners tend to grow in economic power while losers disappear. The bigger the winners, the more difficult it is for new entrants to gain a foothold. Market control tends to concentrate in a few firms, so that the conditions for competition are eroded.”2
      The longer the free market remains totally free, the less competitive it becomes. This is inevitable, but to say that it becomes less competitive does not mean that it becomes more cooperative. On the contrary, as power concentrates, only the most successful predators thrive, and the resulting imbalance fosters autocratic rather than democratic relationships. Unrestricted competitive economies tend quite naturally toward authoritarian systems.
      Because untempered competition destroys the competitive marketplace, there must be some sort of restraint placed on competition. And we have two choices. We can either change the structure of our system to make cooperation and fair play more attractive and then bridle our own behavior by following common sense and proven moral truth or we can pass laws and regulations to bind our hands. The latter, which we are now pursuing with a vengeance, is really no choice at all, for you can’t legislate morality. You can’t enforce it either. When internal moral checks and structural barriers to immoral behavior are nonexistent, no amount of enforcement on either Wall Street or Main Street will stop individuals and institutions from finding loopholes in the system, from behaving like predators. If we want a mercenary marketplace where competition is virtually nonexistent, then let’s make no changes in the status quo. But if we are even half serious about creating a moral, fair, cooperative marketplace, then we need both structural limits and internal moral barriers to protect us from the abuses that we’ve grown accustomed to.

Benevolence
In a significant paper titled “The Sympathetic Organization,” David K. Hart points to a philosophically sound path that would lead us to the type of economic relationships we need. He argues convincingly that “human nature [has] not one, but two, primordial aspects: the need to love self (self-love) and the need to love others (benevolence).”3 A major problem with modern capitalism is that it has enthroned self-love (“What’s in it for me?”) and abandoned benevolence. Hart insists that this organizational neglect of a fundamental human need has created a society in which individuals are alienated not only from one another, but from themselves and their work. “Alienation results when an individual is separated from something essential to the development of his or her full human potential. It is not, then, just a minor psychological dyspepsia, but rather the spiritual sickness that comes with the ruination of one’s life possibilities. Our modern age experiences it through the soul-destroying entanglements of modern organizational life.”4
      Organizations, in essence, dehumanize individuals by treating them as functions. “In modern organizations, individuals are linked to other individuals in artificial relationships defined solely by the organizational mission.”5 Friendship and benevolence are not only unnecessary in such an environment, but often harmful to organizational objectives.
      “The management orthodoxy,” Hart concludes, “is not only incorrect but unendurable. Based upon a mutilated version of the whole self, the orthodoxy reduces individuals to their organizational functions and estranges them from the rewards of their work. Work is devalued into an instrumental activity valuable only for what it contributes to organizational goals. It has no intrinsic meaning. The individual’s labor is a commodity and this makes the individual a commodity also.”6 Human beings who are treated as commodities cannot reach their full human potential, nor can they become truly happy.
      What I wish to establish by inserting a portion of Hart’s argument at this point is not merely that the absence of benevolence and the abundance of alienation in modern society are negatives that we should correct. In the context of this book, the relevant point is that self-interest’s domination in modern capitalism is not mere coincidence. Self-interest and unlimited ownership are products of each other. Self-interest, of course, lies behind the desire to accumulate unlimited capital, but unlimited capital ownership also begets greater self-interest.
      What I have proposed thus far is that we abolish unlimited capital ownership. This is a structural change. But if we change the structure without also correcting the moral and behavioral flaw it promotes, then the untempered self-interest rampant in society will pervert and perhaps destroy the new structure we attempt to introduce.
      What we must undertake is not just an economic reformation; we must attack the very roots of our un-American economic system. We will be unsuccessful in this venture, however, unless we can embrace a higher goal than “What’s in it for me?” and unless we can restore that part of our nature that unrestricted capitalism has taught us to ignore: benevolence.

Restrained Competition
The reason for both restructuring the parameters of capital ownership and encouraging individuals to adopt benevolence as a guiding star in their economic dealings is to curb the competitive nature of our economy. As discussed earlier, the most compelling argument for a highly competitive economy is that competition is responsible for all the things that make our lives comfortable, secure, and healthy. Without competition, we are told, people are not motivated to succeed, and there is little impetus behind technological advancement. Competition, because it pits one individual or company against another in a struggle for survival, yields a never-ending stream of new products, each intended to give its producer an advantage over “the competition.”
      While I admit that competition does spur technological growth, and that the by-products of corporate warfare have benefitted society in many ways, I have come to two other beliefs: first, that competition has also brought us the waste and inefficiency of planned obsolescence, the curse of a decimated environment, artificial growth that is becoming a straitjacket rather than a liberating force, and an economy based on adversarial relationships rather than cooperative ones; and second, that competition is not the only impetus for improving the human condition.
      Indeed, I submit that a noncompetitive environment would actually free people to be more innovative, more creative, and more directly motivated to make life better for one another. Regardless of the competitive or noncompetitive nature of their environment, human beings have an innate desire to improve their individual and collective condition. And in a noncompetitive environment the risks of failure that deter all but the most daring innovators would be gone. In short, if we removed the rewards for self-interested innovation, I believe more people would be inclined to share Ben Franklin’s attitude and motives for bettering the lives of their neighbors:
      To avoid or overcome the perpetual problems caused by miscalculations of self-interest, Benjamin Franklin chose the course of modesty and disinterestedness as a means for progressing. True, Franklin wanted to succeed in his business and he worked hard to do so. . . . But in all his endeavors, his objectives were to do good and to be useful as opposed to getting rich or gathering honors. His emphasis was on contributing rather than obtaining; on giving rather than receiving. Strange as it may seem, it was Franklin’s “indifference to the things of this world” that unleashed his full creative powers. . . .
      Benjamin Franklin was one of those rare individuals who had it within his power to become immensely wealthy, but who declined the opportunity to do so. To his mother he had written that he would rather have it said of him that he had lived usefully than that he had died rich. When his business attained a level to assure him of financial independence he turned his interests to science and government. Believing “That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously,” he made no effort to patent or profit from any of his inventions. The Franklin stove alone could have made him a fortune, but he chose not to patent it, and printed the plans for it in his own newspaper.7
      A noncompetitive system based on limited capital ownership and benevolent behavior would breed this sort of outlook on life. It is our current system and its rewards that work to prevent this sympathetic way of living, which to varying degrees lies dormant in the hearts of men and women everywhere. A noncompetitive system, in which people didn’t have to fight and scratch for their “just due,” would unlock many of these latent qualities and put them into action. Large authoritarian organizations, on the other hand, must manipulate or force creativity and innovation to the surface.
      If people were freed from the desperate craving to secure their future and the perceived necessity of acquiring more than they actually need, they might be surprisingly inclined, even eager, to focus their energies on assisting their fellow men and women—and find great happiness in doing so. In such a society, “What’s in it for me?” would become obsolete thinking.
_________________
1. David P. Barash, The L Word: An Unapologetic, Thoroughly Biased, Long-Overdue Explication and Defense of Liberalism (New York: Morrow, 1992), 176.
2. David C. Korten, “A Deeper Look at ‘Sustainable Development,’” World Business Academy Perspectives 6, no. 2 (1992): 26–27, adapted by Willis Harman from “Sustainable Development,” World Policy Journal (Winter 1991–92).
3. David K. Hart, “The Sympathetic Organization,” in Papers on the Ethics of Administration, ed. N. Dale Wright (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1988), 68.
4. Hart, “Sympathetic Organization,” 71.
5. Hart, “Sympathetic Organization,” 77.
6. Hart, “Sympathetic Organization,” 87.
7. George L. Rogers, ed., Benjamin Franklin’s The Art of Virtue (Eden Prairie, Minn.: Acorn Publishing, 1990), 115, 158–59.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Economic Insanity: Chapter 8 (part 1)


Competition Restrained By a Higher Good (Part 1)

The fundamental question of management theory is: What links
individuals together in cooperative endeavor? The answer, according to the
contemporary management orthodoxy, is self-interest—the raw egoism of Hobbes
and Mandeville, refurbished in chic, modern, linguistic garb. . . . All organizational
behavior is summarized in the inelegant phrase, “What’s in it for me?”

—David K. Hart,
“The Sympathetic Organization”

The suggested changes to our ownership tradition discussed in the preceding chapter are entirely structural in nature. And although structural changes are necessary both to prevent economic suicide and to bring our economy into harmony with our political and social patterns, structural changes alone are not sufficient. Altering the structure of our economy without somehow modifying the habitual patterns of human thought and interaction would be similar to buying new computer hardware, but running the same old virus-infected software. In essence, as individuals we have been operating within the structures and patterns of unbridled capitalism for so long that even if we suddenly found ourselves on a completely different playing field, most of us would go right on behaving as the system has always rewarded us for behaving.
There is a moral aspect to this question of economics that we must deal with on an individual, rather than a structural, level. Implementing a new economic structure with new rules and restrictions would of course reward individuals for behaving in new ways, but some behavioral patterns are quite hard to break—and you can’t legislate everything, morality in particular. Consequently, we must develop a new economic rationale, a moral argument, if you will, to support the types of behavior that must accompany the necessary structural changes. This moral argument must address two related issues: self-interest and competition.

Why We Need a Guiding Philosophy
In The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner explains in some detail why we have had political, moral, and social philosophers for millennia, but economists (or worldly philosophers) only in the past few hundred years. There are, he says, three basic approaches to ensuring the survival of the human race. First, society can organize itself by tradition. In essence, people serve particular functions in society because their fathers did, or because they are limited by their class or caste to certain types of labor. Second, authoritarian government can ensure that tasks get done by assigning people to do them, whether they want to or not. Neither of these approaches to ensuring survival required any kind of economic philosophy. Only the third alternative demanded an accompanying rationale. And this third alternative was “an astonishing arrangement in which society assured its own continuance by allowing each individual to do exactly as he saw fit—provided he followed a central guiding rule. The arrangement was called the ‘market system,’ and the rule was deceptively simple: each should do what was to his best monetary advantage.”1
This third arrangement was not unrelated to the social and political philosophies of classical liberalism, suggesting that individuals were more important than the traditionally authoritarian institutions to which they belonged. Liberty, self-rule, justice, equality, private property, happiness—all these ideas added momentum to the great change from traditional or command systems to a free-market economy. “No mistake about it,” says Heilbroner, “the travail was over and the market system had been born. The problem of survival was henceforth to be solved neither by custom nor by command, but by the free action of profit-seeking men bound together only by the market itself. . . . The idea [however] needed a philosophy.”2 And philosophies abounded. Starting with Adam Smith and continuing on to the present day, great and not so great thinkers have put forward their ideas on how to best order and justify this new system. “Out of the mêlée of contradictory rationalizations one thing alone stood clear: man insisted on some sort of intellectual ordering to help him understand the world in which he lived. The harsh and disconcerting economic world loomed ever more important.”3
Indeed, economic matters loom more and more important as time passes, for the simple reason that our economic system must continually rationalize its very existence. That third alternative requires a philosophy, a justification, because when push comes to shove it is in conflict with the political, social, and moral philosophies of classical liberalism, the foundation of our Western way of life. This third arrangement for ensuring the continuance of human society is based solely upon the principle of self-interest, a principle that, when isolated, is at odds with the political theories, social ideals, and moral principles that have shaped our Western world.
Self-interest, however, is too problematic as a sole motivator of people in a community. When made the guiding rule, when unchecked by social constraints, political intervention, or moral concerns, monetary self-interest leads inevitably to centralized power, authoritarian structures, and command systems. In other words, without a motive higher than self-interest to guide or at least temper it, the third alternative inevitably collapses back into some form of the second alternative, and the individual ends up again at the mercy of arbitrary authority. For a while our political system, our social objectives, and our good moral sense held this contrarious economic motivator at bay, but in the end the strain was too great. Something had to give, and self-interested economics had too much momentum, too much appeal. What we need desperately today is a fourth approach, an approach that goes beyond custom, command, and self-interest, an approach consistent with our political, social, and moral heritage.

Republican Disinterest
Self-interest is actually a moral question, not just a value-neutral economic motor that is supposed to drive the mindless machinery of the free market. Indeed, self-interest is a very troubling moral question, for an economic system based on this principle creates almost irresistible incentives for people to behave in patently immoral ways.
Who would argue that we must be a moral people in order for self-government to work? This is what some would call a “no-brainer.” The freer we are, the greater a burden we as individual citizens must bear in creating a society of order and justice. Republicanism, succeeding monarchy as the dominant political system, “put an enormous burden on individuals,” says Gordon Wood. “They were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop disinterestedness—the term the eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue. . . . Dr. Johnson defined disinterest as being ‘superior to regard of private advantage; not influenced by private profit.’ We today have lost most of this older meaning. Even some educated people now use ‘disinterested’ as a synonym for ‘uninterested,’ meaning indifferent or unconcerned.” Disinterest, however, is actually the exact opposite of self-interest.
“Republics,” Wood continues, “demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force.” In republics, the only effective restraint on self-interest and private gratification is the sense among citizens that they must often sacrifice personal advantage for the public welfare. It is indeed ironic that self-interest—the one force that Wood identifies as needing to be restrained if a republic is to hold together—is the only force that traditional economic theory proposes as a social adhesive. This is not only a highly illogical thesis; it is also a disturbingly immoral philosophy.
What we have in modern America, then, is a form of government that requires a disinterested citizenry and an economic system founded on the principle of self-interest—a perfect mismatch. And, unfortunately, the economy is in control. To correct this problem, as I have already suggested, we cannot merely tell people to become disinterested. All the incentives in the present system encourage the exact opposite behavior. What we need is a fundamental change in the structure of the economy, so that our economic system actually encourages disinterested action. But we also need a higher ideal than self-interest to bind us together, for self-interest, even though it does cause us to “do business” with one another, also creates too many impediments to true economic and societal health.

Lip Service
The escalating height and frequency of the hurdles economic America requires companies to jump if they want to stay in the race puts immense pressure on them to increase their productivity and develop innovative new technologies. A very natural consequence of this pressure, within a system that enshrines self-interest, is for companies to become, over time, increasingly and hostilely competitive. American companies have always felt the need for, even thrived on, fierce competition, but as the growth spiral steepens and accelerates, making it harder for companies to climb to the next level, their perceived need to compete will intensify dramatically. In our twentieth-century mercenary marketplace you either eat or get eaten. Consequently, most companies nowadays focus primarily on beating their competitors and enlarging their bottom lines, rather than providing a service to society.
I used to ask the students in my management classes at the university, just to keep a finger on the pulse of their attitudes and misconceptions, what the purpose of a business is. I always asked this out of the blue, without any sort of preamble to bias their replies. And without exception, their first answer was, “To make a profit.” Rarely, even when I dug a little deeper, did they bring up the radical notion that businesses exist to provide a service to society. These were juniors and seniors in the business curriculum, and they had learned their lessons well. They were prepared for life in corporate America, or, as they called it, “the real world.” This “real world,” however, is anything but real. It is both inconsistent with the values of the American Dream and inherently illogical.
I remember reading the account of one business consultant who asked a group of high-level executives the same question. Their answer was identical to that of my students. They said their businesses existed to make a profit. This wise consultant then asked them how their drug and prostitution operations were doing. The executives were, of course, astonished at this request. “I just assumed,” he answered, “if you were in business to make money, that you’d be involved in the most profitable kind of business.” To bypass the best opportunities would be both inefficient and contrary to the stated purpose of their companies. These executives suddenly understood that their business activities were restricted by deeper purposes that they had perhaps not yet fathomed. And so it is with almost all companies.
Businesses today, for the most part, are so caught up in beating the competition, expanding their operations, and making a profit that they are either oblivious to or, at best, pay lip service to the idea of serving society. They are anything but disinterested. Corporate mission statements and hordes of management gurus notwithstanding, businesses have become ends unto themselves rather than instruments for achieving a greater societal good. And their recruits from the business schools already know which side their bread’s buttered on.
The problem with this acute management myopia is that on the practical, everyday side of the ledger the larger question of economics is ignored, thus focusing all the attention and resources of corporate America on the grand ideal of making a buck. The direct consequences of corporate America’s shortsightedness and misdirected energies are not trivial.
Because businesses and other institutions are not knit together in common purpose by an openly acknowledged concern for the greater good of society, but operate primarily on the principles of self-interest and self-perpetuation, the competitive climate in America has become one of hostility and aggression rather than cooperation and fair play. Because of this prevailing climate, modern businesses and business people are necessarily caught up in a brutal fight for survival. They must not only survive the inherent illogic of the system, but they must also survive head-on confrontations with competitors who wouldn’t blink an eye at putting them in their economic grave.
Survival is what twentieth-century American capitalism is all about, not service, not quality, not human development. Companies focus on quality, not for quality’s sake, but in order to survive. They emphasize service, not for the customer’s sake, but to increase market share. They create more humane workplaces, not because of their belief that workers in a free society deserve to more fully develop and express their talents and ingenuity, but because they can no longer compete in today’s demanding marketplace without intelligent, motivated, highly trained workers. At the bottom of American capitalism is the competition for survival—survival of the fittest. And as Abraham Maslow points out, when our survival is threatened, we are simply incapable of paying attention to higher needs and concerns.
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1. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 6th ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 20–21.
2. Heilbroner, Worldly Philosophers, 38.
3. Heilbroner, Worldly Philosophers, 41.
4. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991), 104–5.